The Arrow of Gold by Joseph Conrad
Directly I had shut the door after the doctor I started shouting for Therese. “Come down at once, you wretched hypocrite,” I yelled at the foot of the stairs in a sort of frenzy as though I had been a second Ortega. Not even an echo answered me; but all of a sudden a small flame flickered descending from the upper darkness and Therese appeared on the first floor landing carrying a lighted candle in front of a livid, hard face, closed against remorse, compassion, or mercy by the meanness of her righteousness and of her rapacious instincts. She was fully dressed in that abominable brown stuff with motionless folds, and as I watched her coming down step by step she might have been made of wood. I stepped back and pointed my finger at the darkness of the passage leading to the studio. She passed within a foot of me, her pale eyes staring straight ahead, her face still with disappointment and fury. Yet it is only my surmise. She might have been made thus inhuman by the force of an invisible purpose. I waited a moment, then, stealthily, with extreme caution, I opened the door of the so-called Captain Blunt’s room.
The glow of embers was all but out. It was cold and dark in there; but before I closed the door behind me the dim light from the hall showed me Dońa Rita standing on the very same spot where I had left her, statuesque in her night-dress. Even after I shut the door she loomed up enormous, indistinctly rigid and inanimate. I picked up the candelabra, groped for a candle all over the carpet, found one, and lighted it. All that time Dońa Rita didn’t stir. When I turned towards her she seemed to be slowly awakening from a trance. She was deathly pale and by contrast the melted, sapphire-blue of her eyes looked black as coal. They moved a little in my direction, incurious, recognizing me slowly. But when they had recognized me completely she raised her hands and hid her face in them. A whole minute or more passed. Then I said in a low tone: “Look at me,” and she let them fall slowly as if accepting the inevitable.
“Shall I make up the fire?” . . . I waited. “Do you hear me?” She made no sound and with the tip of my finger I touched her bare shoulder. But for its elasticity it might have been frozen. At once I looked round for the fur coat; it seemed to me that there was not a moment to lose if she was to be saved, as though we had been lost on an Arctic plain. I had to put her arms into the sleeves, myself, one after another. They were cold, lifeless, but flexible. Then I moved in front of her and buttoned the thing close round her throat. To do that I had actually to raise her chin with my finger, and it sank slowly down again. I buttoned all the other buttons right down to the ground. It was a very long and splendid fur. Before rising from my kneeling position I felt her feet. Mere ice. The intimacy of this sort of attendance helped the growth of my authority. “Lie down,” I murmured, “I shall pile on you every blanket I can find here,” but she only shook her head.
Not even in the days when she ran “shrill as a cicada and thin as a match” through the chill mists of her native mountains could she ever have felt so cold, so wretched, and so desolate. Her very soul, her grave, indignant, and fantastic soul, seemed to drowse like an exhausted traveller surrendering himself to the sleep of death. But when I asked her again to lie down she managed to answer me, “Not in this room.” The dumb spell was broken. She turned her head from side to side, but oh! how cold she was! It seemed to come out of her, numbing me, too; and the very diamonds on the arrow of gold sparkled like hoar frost in the light of the one candle.
“Not in this room; not here,” she protested, with that peculiar suavity of tone which made her voice unforgettable, irresistible, no matter what she said. “Not after all this! I couldn’t close my eyes in this place. It’s full of corruption and ugliness all round, in me, too, everywhere except in your heart, which has nothing to do where I breathe. And here you may leave me. But wherever you go remember that I am not evil, I am not evil.”
I said: “I don’t intend to leave you here. There is my room upstairs. You have been in it before.”
“Oh, you have heard of that,” she whispered. The beginning of a wan smile vanished from her lips.
“I also think you can’t stay in this room; and, surely, you needn’t hesitate . . .”
“No. It doesn’t matter now. He has killed me. Rita is dead.”
While we exchanged these words I had retrieved the quilted, blue slippers and had put them on her feet. She was very tractable. Then taking her by the arm I led her towards the door.
“He has killed me,” she repeated in a sigh. “The little joy that was in me.”
“He has tried to kill himself out there in the hall,” I said. She put back like a frightened child but she couldn’t be dragged on as a child can be.
I assured her that the man was no longer there but she only repeated, “I can’t get through the hall. I can’t walk. I can’t . . .”
“Well,” I said, flinging the door open and seizing her suddenly in my arms, “if you can’t walk then you shall be carried,” and I lifted her from the ground so abruptly that she could not help catching me round the neck as any child almost will do instinctively when you pick it up.
I ought really to have put those blue slippers in my pocket. One dropped off at the bottom of the stairs as I was stepping over an unpleasant-looking mess on the marble pavement, and the other was lost a little way up the flight when, for some reason (perhaps from a sense of insecurity), she began to struggle. Though I had an odd sense of being engaged in a sort of nursery adventure she was no child to carry. I could just do it. But not if she chose to struggle. I set her down hastily and only supported her round the waist for the rest of the way. My room, of course, was perfectly dark but I led her straight to the sofa at once and let her fall on it. Then as if I had in sober truth rescued her from an Alpine height or an Arctic floe, I busied myself with nothing but lighting the gas and starting the fire. I didn’t even pause to lock my door. All the time I was aware of her presence behind me, nay, of something deeper and more my own—of her existence itself—of a small blue flame, blue like her eyes, flickering and clear within her frozen body. When I turned to her she was sitting very stiff and upright, with her feet posed, hieratically on the carpet and her head emerging out of the ample fur collar, such as a gem-like flower above the rim of a dark vase. I tore the blankets and the pillows off my bed and piled them up in readiness in a great heap on the floor near the couch. My reason for this was that the room was large, too large for the fireplace, and the couch was nearest to the fire. She gave no sign but one of her wistful attempts at a smile. In a most business-like way I took the arrow out of her hair and laid it on the centre table. The tawny mass fell loose at once about her shoulders and made her look even more desolate than before. But there was an invincible need of gaiety in her heart. She said funnily, looking at the arrow sparkling in the gas light:
“Ah! That poor philistinish ornament!”
An echo of our early days, not more innocent but so much more youthful, was in her tone; and we both, as if touched with poignant regret, looked at each other with enlightened eyes.
“Yes,” I said, “how far away all this is. And you wouldn’t leave even that object behind when you came last in here. Perhaps it is for that reason it haunted me—mostly at night. I dreamed of you sometimes as a huntress nymph gleaming white through the foliage and throwing this arrow like a dart straight at my heart. But it never reached it. It always fell at my feet as I woke up. The huntress never meant to strike down that particular quarry.”
“The huntress was wild but she was not evil. And she was no nymph, but only a goatherd girl. Dream of her no more, my dear.”
I had the strength of mind to make a sign of assent and busied myself arranging a couple of pillows at one end of the sofa. “Upon my soul, goatherd, you are not responsible,” I said. “You are not! Lay down that uneasy head,” I continued, forcing a half-playful note into my immense sadness, “that has even dreamed of a crown—but not for itself.”
She lay down quietly. I covered her up, looked once into her eyes and felt the restlessness of fatigue over-power me so that I wanted to stagger out, walk straight before me, stagger on and on till I dropped. In the end I lost myself in thought. I woke with a start to her voice saying positively:
“No. Not even in this room. I can’t close my eyes. Impossible. I have a horror of myself. That voice in my ears. All true. All true.”
She was sitting up, two masses of tawny hair fell on each side of her tense face. I threw away the pillows from which she had risen and sat down behind her on the couch. “Perhaps like this,” I suggested, drawing her head gently on my breast. She didn’t resist, she didn’t even sigh, she didn’t look at me or attempt to settle herself in any way. It was I who settled her after taking up a position which I thought I should be able to keep for hours—for ages. After a time I grew composed enough to become aware of the ticking of the clock, even to take pleasure in it. The beat recorded the moments of her rest, while I sat, keeping as still as if my life depended upon it with my eyes fixed idly on the arrow of gold gleaming and glittering dimly on the table under the lowered gas-jet. And presently my breathing fell into the quiet rhythm of the sleep which descended on her at last. My thought was that now nothing mattered in the world because I had the world safe resting in my arms—or was it in my heart?
Suddenly my heart seemed torn in two within my breast and half of my breath knocked out of me. It was a tumultuous awakening. The day had come. Dońa Rita had opened her eyes, found herself in my arms, and instantly had flung herself out of them with one sudden effort. I saw her already standing in the filtered sunshine of the closed shutters, with all the childlike horror and shame of that night vibrating afresh in the awakened body of the woman.
“Daylight,” she whispered in an appalled voice. “Don’t look at me, George. I can’t face daylight. No—not with you. Before we set eyes on each other all that past was like nothing. I had crushed it all in my new pride. Nothing could touch the Rita whose hand was kissed by you. But now! Never in daylight.”
I sat there stupid with surprise and grief. This was no longer the adventure of venturesome children in a nursery-book. A grown man’s bitterness, informed, suspicious, resembling hatred, welled out of my heart.
“All this means that you are going to desert me again?” I said with contempt. “All right. I won’t throw stones after you . . . Are you going, then?”
She lowered her head slowly with a backward gesture of her arm as if to keep me off, for I had sprung to my feet all at once as if mad.
“Then go quickly,” I said. “You are afraid of living flesh and blood. What are you running after? Honesty, as you say, or some distinguished carcass to feed your vanity on? I know how cold you can be—and yet live. What have I done to you? You go to sleep in my arms, wake up and go away. Is it to impress me? Charlatanism of character, my dear.”
She stepped forward on her bare feet as firm on that floor which seemed to heave up and down before my eyes as she had ever been—goatherd child leaping on the rocks of her native hills which she was never to see again. I snatched the arrow of gold from the table and threw it after her.
“Don’t forget this thing,” I cried, “you would never forgive yourself for leaving it behind.”
It struck the back of the fur coat and fell on the floor behind her. She never looked round. She walked to the door, opened it without haste, and on the landing in the diffused light from the ground-glass skylight there appeared, rigid, like an implacable and obscure fate, the awful Therese—waiting for her sister. The heavy ends of a big black shawl thrown over her head hung massively in biblical folds. With a faint cry of dismay Dońa Rita stopped just within my room.
The two women faced each other for a few moments silently. Therese spoke first. There was no austerity in her tone. Her voice was as usual, pertinacious, unfeeling, with a slight plaint in it; terrible in its unchanged purpose.
“I have been standing here before this door all night,” she said. “I don’t know how I lived through it. I thought I would die a hundred times for shame. So that’s how you are spending your time? You are worse than shameless. But God may still forgive you. You have a soul. You are my sister. I will never abandon you—till you die.”
“What is it?” Dońa Rita was heard wistfully, “my soul or this house that you won’t abandon.”
“Come out and bow your head in humiliation. I am your sister and I shall help you to pray to God and all the Saints. Come away from that poor young gentleman who like all the others can have nothing but contempt and disgust for you in his heart. Come and hide your head where no one will reproach you—but I, your sister. Come out and beat your breast: come, poor Sinner, and let me kiss you, for you are my sister!”
While Therese was speaking Dońa Rita stepped back a pace and as the other moved forward still extending the hand of sisterly love, she slammed the door in Therese’s face. “You abominable girl!” she cried fiercely. Then she turned about and walked towards me who had not moved. I felt hardly alive but for the cruel pain that possessed my whole being. On the way she stooped to pick up the arrow of gold and then moved on quicker, holding it out to me in her open palm.
“You thought I wouldn’t give it to you. Amigo, I wanted nothing so much as to give it to you. And now, perhaps—you will take it.”
“Not without the woman,” I said sombrely.
“Take it,” she said. “I haven’t the courage to deliver myself up to Therese. No. Not even for your sake. Don’t you think I have been miserable enough yet?”
I snatched the arrow out of her hand then and ridiculously pressed it to my breast; but as I opened my lips she who knew what was struggling for utterance in my heart cried in a ringing tone:
“Speak no words of love, George! Not yet. Not in this house of ill-luck and falsehood. Not within a hundred miles of this house, where they came clinging to me all profaned from the mouth of that man. Haven’t you heard them—the horrible things? And what can words have to do between you and me?”
Her hands were stretched out imploringly, I said, childishly disconcerted:
“But, Rita, how can I help using words of love to you? They come of themselves on my lips!”
“They come! Ah! But I shall seal your lips with the thing itself,” she said. “Like this. . . ”