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(xii)

THE dinner that night was neither better nor other than usual. Flusky's wife was not present; the two men found little to talk about. Adare had ridden in to Sydney on one of his host's excellent horses, he had visited the Club and acquired some small change of gossip which he was willing to distribute; but Flusky's dead weight pulled the conversation down, time and again, to silence. He listened, he answered, but it was with questions of the kind which show the questioner to be indifferent. Is that so, now? Did he indeed? Adare, as the walnuts came on, made a last effort.

“Do you see there's an order out forbidding those heads from New Zealand? Who the devil ever thought of importing the nasty things? Human heads tattooed, in pickle. You have queer notions out here of the beaux-arts.”

“It does them no harm,” Flusky answered, sipping water, “the blacks. They're dead enough.”




  ― 71 ―

“Well, but,” Adare persisted, glad to have struck even this spark, “you wouldn't care for one yourself, would you, as a paper-weight?”

“Not as a paper-weight.”

“D'you mean you've got one of the things?”

“Why not?”

Adare hesitated, laughed.

“Well—I don't know exactly why not. I shouldn't care for it.”

“You might,” said Flusky.

He got up with his usual deliberation, fumbling in one of his wide pockets for keys; opened a cupboard of dark wood that must, in the old country, have held china dogs, shepherdesses and cups; thence took out, sans ceremony, an object which he set down casually by the side of his guest's plate. It was a head, somewhat shrivelled and dwindled by the process of preserving, which had turned the longish lank hair a streaky yellow. On the skin geometrical patterns of tattooing stood out, enclosing the mouth, circling upon the cheeks and forehead, dark indigo blue weals upon brown. The eyes, mercifully, were shut.

Adare stared at it. The thing had a kind of helpless and horrid nobility; the individual was undoubtedly dead, the practice of embalming one approved by the ancients. For all that, the young man hurriedly emptied his glass of wine and pushed his chair back. As he did so, he saw Flusky looking at the head, nodding appreciation while he searched for a cigar. This he lit; in the act


  ― 72 ―
paused uneasily, and blew out his spill with the guilty expression of a child, offering an explanation that was an apology.

“I forgot. The port's on the table.”

And that troubles you, thought Adare. Pick out a human creature's skull and dump it down among the biscuits and raisins; but don't smoke with the port on any account. He was touched by the anomaly of this behaviour. Trying to change himself, thought Adare for her sake, the poor devil. Will she do as much for him? With this in his mind he spoke:

“Her ladyship doesn't honour us to-night.”

Flusky looked at him in wonder, mildly.

“Oh, I know she don't as a rule. But to-night I thought possibly—where is she, Mr. Flusky? Let's find her and make her sit down with us.”

“I don't know about that.”

“Why not? Put that thing away, she sees horrors enough, and I'll fetch her out from wherever she's hiding.”

“I don't think so.”

“Why not?”

Flusky's eyes, lifted from contemplation of the blue whorls upon the dead man's cheeks, met the live man's eyes for a moment with a stubborn absence of expression. Adare nodded.

“But she was all right this morning. Seemed better. I thought she might keep so. What's been the trouble, I wonder?”




  ― 73 ―

Flusky would not answer. Both stood for an instant quite still, then the young man flung his napkin to cover the Maori head, and went out on to the verandah, quickly down stone steps to the garden. There was a moon coming up. It seemed caught in the thin net of the pepper-trees' foliage, so slowly did it move; on the harbour water, here and there where a gust of air was dying, a star or two danced. Adare looked back into the room he had just quitted, and saw the heavy man, his host, looking down at that dark object from which he had twitched the covering away, the unlighted cigar still in one hand. He had a feeling of hopelessness, of meddling in affairs too big for him, travelling with a poor provision of wits and goodwill through unknown country. Sadness of youth took hold of him, the sadness compact of self-pity, which seeks a listener to whom golden lads and lasses may complain of time's cruelty, secure in the knowledge that the gold is with them still. He looked up at the window which William Winter that morning had preferred to the litter of the bedroom; and, though it was dark, smoothed the set of his curls (barbered that morning by an indifferent and homesick felon) before he called to the square of light:

“Heyo!”

A shadow moved within the room, but no figure showed against the light. He called again:

“Are you there? What's your ladyship doing indoors a night like this?”

She did not answer. He saw Flusky move to open the


  ― 74 ―
French window of the dining-room, obscuring the direct light of the candles with his heavy shoulders, and threw a word back to him, confidently:

“I'll have her out of there.” He spoke upwards again, hand on heart, burlesquing: “Your promise, your promise——

‘Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame,
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame——'

“D'you hear me? What are you at, Lady Hattie? Never mind, come down here, I'm waiting, I've got things to tell you. Come o'er the moonlit sea. That's it! A boat—will you? There is a moon, I've seen to that. Don't miss the moon.”

The shadow in the upper room stirred sideways, heaving itself wildly about after the manner of shadows candle-cast, and he saw her come to the window. Her hair was on her shoulders and she was huddling some sort of garment over her breast. She swayed against the window's side, caught the curtain with one hand, and so stood. She did not speak.

“Are you listening? What's the good of roaring to a statue up in a niche? Come down, come down——”

She answered, then. Her voice now hurried, now checked; words were for a moment almost shouted, then smothered; it had the confused quality of shallow water running over stones; the voice of a gentlewoman drunk.




  ― 75 ―

“Didn't order dinner.”

“Who's talking about dinner? Who gives a damn for dinner? I won't excuse you. What's become of your promise?”

She muttered something. Couldn't help, Not reasonable, Milly——”

“I can't hear what you say. Come into the garden, it will cool you down. Bring a veil if you like, the mosquitoes are troublesome. I've something to say to you.”

He saw her shake her head. Suddenly his eye caught the trick of the shadows behind her. There was one, square-shouldered like a man, which he now perceived to be that of a bottle standing on the table near her candle. A little breeze, shifting the flame, caused the bottle's shadowy shoulders to heave like those of a man laughing, and Adare was enraged by that shrug precisely as though a man had mocked him.

“You won't, do you say? I won't take that. You can't diddle me that way.”

Her dark outline changed its position, she was moving away from the window. On the ceiling the bottle-shoulders jerked to the death of an insect in flame.

“Are you dressed? Put something on. I'll give you two minutes, and then I'm coming up the wall.”

A tree stood against that side of the house, dark, thickly-leaved. Here and there closed white flowers showed upon it; the scent was heady. Adare took out his watch—no mere gesture, for the moon now rode clear, and he could read the numerals—and with this in his


  ― 76 ―
hand considered the possibilities of the tree. It was sturdy enough; it was nailed to the wall and would bear him. While the two minutes lagged by he became aware that Flusky still eyed him. He made a gay little sign with the right hand—Up I go, I must deal with this situation—and spoke towards him in a half-voice:

“Better stand by with the pistol again.”

The two minutes were ended. Adare dropped his watch in his pocket, sprang into the first branch of the tree, and made his way up it, rapidly all things considered, to the window under which its main trunk parted. Flusky moved. He went to the cupboard, his illegal trophy's coffin, and took out of it the small pistol which Adare had left behind him on the evening of the interrupted dinner. It was clean, as he discovered by squinting down the barrel. He, however, made no move to load it, but stood with it in his hands, listening to the cracks and ejaculations that accompanied his guest's progress up the tree.

“Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear—you can't wonder at it. If my tailor could see me now! Ah! Half-way. Why do I risk my neck? That's it, I'm with you. Up and over. And now, madame, if you please——

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