During his master’s absence at Sourabaya, Wang had busied himself with the ground immediately in front of the principal bungalow. Emerging from the fringe of grass growing across the shore end of the coal-jetty, Heyst beheld a broad, clear space, black and level, with only one or two clumps of charred twigs, where the flame had swept from the front of his house to the nearest trees of the forest.
“You took the risk of firing the grass?” Heyst asked.
Wang nodded. Hanging on the arm of the white man before whom he stood was the girl called Alma; but neither from the Chinaman’s eyes nor from his expression could anyone have guessed that he was in the slightest degree aware of the fact.
“He has been tidying the place in his labour-saving way,” explained Heyst, without looking at the girl, whose hand rested on his forearm. “He’s the whole establishment, you see. I told you I hadn’t even a dog to keep me company here.”
Wang had marched off towards the wharf.
“He’s like those waiters in that place,” she said. That place was Schomberg’s hotel.
“One Chinaman looks very much like another,” Heyst remarked. “We shall find it useful to have him here. This is the house.”
They faced, at some distance, the six shallow steps leading up to the veranda. The girl had abandoned Heyst’s arm.
“This is the house,” he repeated.
She did not offer to budge away from his side, but stood staring fixedly at the steps, as if they had been something unique and impracticable. He waited a little, but she did not move.
“Don’t you want to go in?” he asked, without turning his head to look at her. “The sun’s too heavy to stand about here.” He tried to overcome a sort of fear, a sort of impatient faintness, and his voice sounded rough. “You had better go in,” he concluded.
They both moved then, but at the foot of the stairs Heyst stopped, while the girl went on rapidly, as if nothing could stop her now. She crossed the veranda swiftly, and entered the twilight of the big central room opening upon it, and then the deeper twilight of the room beyond. She stood still in the dusk, in which her dazzled eyes could scarcely make out the forms of objects, and sighed a sigh of relief. The impression of the sunlight, of sea and sky, remained with her like a memory of a painful trial gone through — done with at last!
Meanwhile Heyst had walked back slowly towards the jetty; but he did not get so far as that. The practical and automatic Wang had got hold of one of the little trucks that had been used for running baskets of coal alongside ships. He appeared pushing it before him, loaded lightly with Heyst’s bag and the bundle of the girl’s belongings, wrapped in Mrs. Schomberg’s shawl. Heyst turned about and walked by the side of the rusty rails on which the truck ran. Opposite the house Wang stopped, lifted the bag to his shoulder, balanced it carefully, and then took the bundle in his hand.
“Leave those things on the table in the big room — understand?”
“Me savee,” grunted Wang, moving off.
Heyst watched the Chinaman disappear from the veranda. It was not till he had seen Wang come out that he himself entered the twilight of the big room. By that time Wang was out of sight at the back of the house, but by no means out of hearing. The Chinaman could hear the voice of him who, when there were many people there, was generally referred to as “Number One.” Wang was not able to understand the words, but the tone interested him.
“Where are you?” cried Number One.
Then Wang heard, much more faint, a voice he had never heard before — a novel impression which he acknowledged by cocking his head slightly to one side.
“I am here — out of the sun.”
The new voice sounded remote and uncertain. Wang heard nothing more, though he waited for some time, very still, the top of his shaven poll exactly level with the floor of the back veranda. His face meanwhile preserved an inscrutable immobility. Suddenly he stooped to pick up the lid of a deal candle-box which was lying on the ground by his foot. Breaking it up with his fingers, he directed his steps towards the cook-shed, where, squatting on his heels, he proceeded to kindle a small fire under a very sooty kettle, possibly to make tea. Wang had some knowledge of the more superficial rites and ceremonies of white men’s existence, otherwise so enigmatically remote to his mind, and containing unexpected possibilities of good and evil, which had to be watched for with prudence and care.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06