"I wonder, Lena," Heyst said, with a return to his urbane playfulness, "whether you are just a little child, or whether you represent something as old as the world."
She surprised Heyst by saying dreamily:
"Well — and what about you?"
"I? I date later — much later. I can't call myself a child, but I am so recent that I may call myself a man of the last hour — or is it the hour before last? I have been out of it so long that I am not certain how far the hands of the clock have moved since — since — "
He glanced at the portrait of his father, exactly above the head of the girl, as if it were ignoring her in its painted austerity of feeling. He did not finish the sentence; but he did not remain silent for long.
"Only what must be avoided are fallacious inferences, my dear Lena — especially at this hour."
"Now you are making fun of me again," she said without looking up.
"Am I?" he cried. "Making fun? No, giving warning. Hang it all, whatever truth people told you in the old days, there is also this one — that sparrows do fall to the ground, that they are brought to the ground. This is no vain assertion, but a fact. That's why" — again his tone changed, while he picked up the table knife and let it fall disdainfully — "that's why I wish these wretched round knives had some edge on them. Absolute rubbish — neither edge, point, nor substance. I believe one of these forks would make a better weapon at a pinch. But can I go about with a fork in my pocket?" He gnashed his teeth with a rage very real, and yet comic.
"There used to be a carver here, but it was broken and thrown away a long time ago. Nothing much to carve here. It would have made a noble weapon, no doubt; but — "
He stopped. The girl sat very quiet, with downcast eyes. As he kept silence for some time, she looked up and said thoughtfully:
"Yes, a knife — it's a knife that you would want, wouldn't you, in case, in case — "
He shrugged his shoulders.
"There must be a crowbar or two in the sheds; but I have given up all the keys together. And then, do you see me walking about with a crowbar in my hand? Ha, ha! And besides, that edifying sight alone might start the trouble for all I know. In truth, why has it not started yet?"
"Perhaps they are afraid of you," she whispered, looking down again.
"By Jove, it looks like it," he assented meditatively. "They do seem to hang back for some reason. Is that reason prudence, or downright fear, or perhaps the leisurely method of certitude?"
Out in the black night, not very far from the bungalow, resounded a loud and prolonged whistle. Lena's hands grasped the sides of the chair, but she made no movement. Heyst started, and turned his face away from the door.
The startling sound had died away.
"Whistles, yells, omens, signals, portents — what do they matter?" he said. "But what about the crowbar? Suppose I had it! Could I stand in ambush at the side of the door — this door — and smash the first protruding head, scatter blood and brains over the floor, over these walls, and then run stealthily to the other door to do the same thing — and repeat the performance for a third time, perhaps? Could I? On suspicion, without compunction, with a calm and determined purpose? No, it is not in me. I date too late. Would you like to see me attempt this thing while that mysterious prestige of mine lasts — or their not less mysterious hesitation?"
"No, no!" she whispered ardently, as if compelled to speak by his eyes fixed on her face. "No, it's a knife you want to defend yourself with — to defend — there will be time — "
"And who knows if it isn't really my duty?" he began again, as if he had not heard her disjointed words at all. "It may be — my duty to you, to myself. For why should I put up with the humiliation of their secret menaces? Do you know what the world would say?"
He emitted a low laugh, which struck her with terror. She would have got up, but he stooped so low over her that she could not move without first pushing him away.
"It would say, Lena, that I — the Swede — after luring my friend and partner to his death from mere greed of money, have murdered these unoffending shipwrecked strangers from sheer funk. That would be the story whispered — perhaps shouted — certainly spread out, and believed — and believed, my dear Lena!"
"Who would believe such awful things?"
"Perhaps you wouldn't — not at first, at any rate; but the power of calumny grows with time. It's insidious and penetrating. It can even destroy one's faith in oneself — dry-rot the soul."
All at once her eyes leaped to the door and remained fixed, stony, a little enlarged. Turning his head, Heyst beheld the figure of Ricardo framed in the doorway. For a moment none of the three moved, then, looking from the newcomer to the girl in the chair, Heyst formulated a sardonic introduction.
"Mr Ricardo, my dear."
Her head drooped a little. Ricardo's hand went up to his moustache. His voice exploded in the room.