"No reason to hurry, Lena," he said in his ordinary, serenely polite tones. "We return unsuccessful. I suppose you know, or at least can guess, what was my object in coming up there?"
"No, I can't guess, dear," she said, and smiled, noticing with emotion that his breast was heaving as if he had been out of breath. Nevertheless, he tried to command his speech, pausing only a little between the words.
"No? I went up to find Wang. I went up" — he gasped again here, but this was for the last time — "I made you come with me because I didn't like to leave you unprotected in the proximity of those fellows." Suddenly he snatched his cork helmet off his head and dashed it on the ground. "No!" he cried roughly. "All this is too unreal altogether. It isn't to be borne! I can't protect you! I haven't the power."
He glared at her for a moment, then hastened after his hat which had bounded away to some distance. He came back looking at her face, which was very white.
"I ought to beg your pardon for these antics," he said, adjusting his hat. "A movement of childish petulance! Indeed, I feel very much like a child in my ignorance, in my powerlessness, in my want of resource, in everything except in the dreadful consciousness of some evil hanging over your head — yours!"
"It's you they are after," she murmured.
"No doubt, but unfortunately — "
"Unfortunately — what?"
"Unfortunately, I have not succeeded with Wang," he said. "I failed to move his Celestial, heart — that is, if there is such a thing. He told me with horrible Chinese reasonableness that he could not let us pass the barrier, because we should be pursued. He doesn't like fights. He gave me to understand that he would shoot me with my own revolver without any sort of compunction, rather than risk a rude and distasteful contest with the strange barbarians for my sake. He has preached to the villagers. They respect him. He is the most remarkable man they have ever seen, and their kinsman by marriage. They understand his policy. And anyway only women and children and a few old fellows are left in the village. This is the season when the men are away in trading vessels. But it would have been all the same. None of them have a taste for fighting — and with white men too! They are peaceable, kindly folk and would have seen me shot with extreme satisfaction. Wang seemed to think my insistence — for I insisted, you know — very stupid and tactless. But a drowning man clutches at straws. We were talking in such Malay as we are both equal to.
"'Your fears are foolish,' I said to him.
"'Foolish? of course I am foolish,' he replied. 'If I were a wise man, I would be a merchant with a big hong in Singapore, instead of being a mine coolie turned houseboy. But if you don't go away in time, I will shoot you before it grows too dark to take aim. Not till then, Number One, but I will do it then. Now — finish!'
"'All right,' I said. 'Finish as far as I am concerned; but you can have no objections to the mem putih coming over to stay with the Orang Kaya's women for a few days. I will make a present in silver for it.' Orang Kaya, is the head man of the village, Lena," added Heyst.
She looked at him in astonishment.
"You wanted me to go to that village of savages?" she gasped. "You wanted me to leave you?"
"It would have given me a freer hand."
Heyst stretched out his hands and looked at them for a moment, then let them fall by his side. Indignation was expressed more in the curve of her lips than in her clear eyes, which never wavered.
"I believe Wang laughed," he went on. "He made a noise like a turkey-cock."
"'That would be worse than anything,' he told me.
"I was taken aback. I pointed out to him that he was talking nonsense. It could not make any difference to his security where you were, because the evil men, as he calls them, did not know of your existence. I did not lie exactly, Lena, though I did stretch the truth till it cracked; but the fellow seems to have an uncanny insight. He shook his head. He assured me they knew all about you. He made a horrible grimace at me."
"It doesn't matter," said the girl. "I didn't want — I would not have gone."
Heyst raised his eyes.
"Wonderful intuition! As I continued to press him, Wang made that very remark about you. When he smiles, his face looks like a conceited death's head. It was his very last remark that you wouldn't want to. I went away then."
She leaned back against a tree. Heyst faced her in the same attitude of leisure, as if they had done with time and all the other concerns of the earth. Suddenly, high above their heads the roof of leaves whispered at them tumultuously and then ceased.
"That was a strange notion of yours, to send me away," she said. "Send me away? What for? Yes, what for?"
"You seem indignant," he remarked listlessly.
"To these savages, too!" she pursued. "And you think I would have gone? You can do what you like with me — but not that, not that!"
Heyst looked into the dim aisles of the forest. Everything was so still now that the very ground on which they stood seemed to exhale silence into the shade.