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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Victory over Death
By Joseph Conrad (1857–1924)
 
        
From ‘Victory’
  
  Axel Heyst, acting upon an almost Quixotic impulse, has brought to his bungalow on the lonely island of Samburan a girl whom he calls Lena, saving her thus from the persecutions of a man named Schomberg, keeper of an hotel at Sourabaya at which the girl had been playing in a Ladies Orchestra. Heyst comes from a noble Swedish family. Partly because of his temperament, partly because of his training he has come to regard life with an almost perfect indifference and deeply to distrust all human emotion and human affairs. Outwardly he is invariably smiling and courteous. Lena cannot, of course, understand him, but she loves him entirely with a passionate devotion. Heyst finds her physically attractive, yet his fastidious mind never ceases to be amazed at the unwonted impulse which had brought them thus together and regards her not unkindly but curiously and critically. Meanwhile the thwarted and enraged Schomberg breathes to two unprincipled gamblers who have drifted to Sourabaya that a man named Heyst lives alone and quite unprotected on Samburan with a rich treasure he has stolen. He makes no mention of the girl, Lena. The two gamblers, Mr. Jones and his henchman, Martin Ricardo, set out with their brutish slave, Pedro, to murder and rob Heyst. They arrive at Samburan nearly dead with thirst. Heyst distrusts them at once, but gives them water and food, and houses them in one of the deserted buildings of the Tropical Belt Coal Company, of which, before the company failed, he had been treasurer. Wang, Heyst’s Chinese servant, scents misfortune impending and deserts his master, taking Heyst’s revolver with him and thus leaving Heyst and Lena utterly defenseless. The next evening Heyst, realizing the danger in which they are, instructs Lena to go into the tropical forest behind the bungalow and there wait for him while he has a parley with Mr. Jones. But Lena has that very morning had a terrible encounter with Ricardo. This she keeps secret from Heyst, overcoming her hideous fear, knowing that she can so work upon Ricardo that he will give his knife into her keeping. Armed with such a knife Heyst, she thinks, will be able to save himself. Almost senseless with fear, she yet succeeds in her purpose while Heyst is down at the wharf talking with Jones. Jones learns from Heyst that there is a woman on the island with him. The knowledge renders him furious, for he is obsessed by an insane hatred of women. He suspects at once that Ricardo is up at the house with Lena. Heyst and Jones go back there, and, peering through the door, discover Lena apparently accepting Ricardo’s lovemaking. Jones fires over Heyst’s shoulder at Ricardo, but Ricardo makes his escape unharmed. Heyst enters the room, not doubting that Lena had found Ricardo desirable.

MR. JONES, after firing his shot over Heyst’s shoulder, had thought it proper to dodge away. Like the spectre he was, he had noiselessly vanished from the veranda. Heyst stumbled into the room and looked around. All the objects in there—the books, the gleam of old silver familiar to him from boyhood, the very portrait on the wall—seemed shadowy, unsubstantial, the dumb accomplices of an amazing dream-plot ending in an illusory effect of awakening and the impossibility of ever closing his eyes again. With dread he forced himself to look at the girl. Still in the chair, she was leaning forward far over her knees, and had hidden her face in her hands. Heyst remembered Wang suddenly. How clear all this was—and how extremely amusing! Very.
  1
  She sat up a little, then leaned back, and, taking her hands from her face, pressed both of them to her breast, as if moved to the heart by seeing him there looking at her with a black, horror-struck curiosity. He would have pitied her, if the triumphant expression of her face had not given him a shock which destroyed the balance of his feelings. She spoke with an accent of wild joy:  2
  “I knew you would come back in time! You are safe now. I have done it! I would never, never have let him—” Her voice died out, while her eyes shone at him as when the sun breaks through a mist. “Never get it back. Oh, my beloved!”  3
  He bowed his head gravely, and said in his polite, Heystian tone:  4
  “No doubt you acted from instinct. Women have been provided with their own weapon. I was a disarmed man. I have been a disarmed man all my life as I see it now. You may glory in your resourcefulness and your profound knowledge of yourself? but I may say that the other attitude, suggestive of shame, had its charm. For you are full of charm!”  5
  The exultation vanished from her face.  6
  “You mustn’t make fun of me now. I know no shame. I was thanking God with all my sinful heart for having been able to do it—for giving you to me in that way—oh, my beloved—all my own at last!”  7
  He stared as if mad. Timidly she tried to excuse herself for disobeying his directions for her safety. Every modulation of her enchanting voice cut deep into his very breast, so that he could hardly understand the words for the sheer pain of it. He turned his back on her; but a sudden drop, an extraordinary faltering of her tone, made him spin round. On her white neck her pale head dropped as in a cruel drought a withered flower droops on its stalk. He caught his breath, looked at her closely, and seemed to read some awful intelligence in her eyes. At the moment when her eyelids fell as if smitten from above by an invisible power, he snatched her up bodily out of the chair, and disregarding an unexpected metallic clatter on the floor, carried her off into the other room. The limpness of her body frightened him. Laying her down on the bed, he ran out again, seized a four-branched candlestick on the table, and ran back, tearing down with a furious jerk the curtain that swung stupidly in his way; but after putting the candlestick on the table by the bed, he remained absolutely idle. There did not seem anything more for him to do. Holding his chin in his hand, he looked down intently at her still face.  8
  “Has she been stabbed with this thing?” asked Davidson, whom suddenly he saw standing by his side and holding up Ricardo’s dagger to his sight. Heyst uttered no word of recognition or surprise. He gave Davidson only a dumb look of unutterable awe; then, as if possessed with a sudden fury, started tearing open the front of the girl’s dress. She remained insensible under his hands, and Heyst let out a groan which made Davidson shudder inwardly—the heavy plaint of a man who falls clubbed in the dark.  9
  They stood side by side, looking mournfully at the little black hole made by Mr. Jones’s bullet under the swelling breast of a dazzling and as it were sacred whiteness. It rose and fell slightly—so slightly that only the eyes of the lover could detect the faint stir of life. Heyst, calm and utterly unlike himself in the face, moving about noiselessly, prepared a wet cloth, and laid it on the insignificant wound, round which there was hardly a trace of blood to mar the charm, the fascination, of that mortal flesh.  10
  Her eyelids fluttered. She looked drowsily about, serene, as if fatigued only by the exertions of her tremendous victory, capturing the very sting of death in the service of love. But her eyes became very wide awake when they caught sight of Ricardo’s dagger, the spoil of vanquished death, which Davidson was still holding unconsciously.  11
  “Give it to me!” she said. “It is mine.”  12
  Davidson put the symbol of her victory into her feeble hands extended to him with the innocent gesture of a child reaching eagerly for a toy.  13
  “For you,” she gasped, turning her eyes to Heyst. “Kill nobody.”  14
  “No,” said Heyst, taking the dagger and laying it gently on her breast, while her hands fell powerless by her side.  15
  The faint smile on her deep-cut lips waned, and her head sank deep into the pillow, taking on the majestic pallor and immobility of marble. But over the muscles, which seemed set in their transfigured beauty forever, passed a slight and awful tremor. With an amazing strength she asked loudly:  16
  “What’s the matter with me?”  17
  “You have been shot, dear Lena,” Heyst said in a steady voice, while Davidson, at the question, turned away and leaned his head against the post at the foot of the bed.  18
  “Shot? I did think, too, that something had struck me.”  19
  Over Samburan the thunder had ceased to growl at last, and the world of material forms shuddered no more under the emerging stars. The spirit of the girl which was passing away from under them clung to her triumph, convinced of the reality of her victory over death.  20
  “No more,” she muttered. “There will be no more! Oh, my beloved,” she cried weakly, “I’ve saved you! Why don’t you take me into your arms and carry me out of this lonely place?”  21
  Heyst bent low over her, cursing his fastidious soul, which even at that moment kept the true cry of love from his lips in its infernal mistrust of all life. He dared not touch her, and she had no longer the strength to throw her arms about his neck.  22
  “Who else could have done this for you?” she whispered gloriously.  23
  “No one in the world,” he answered her in a murmur of unconcealed despair.  24
  She tried to raise herself, but all she could do was to lift her head a little from the pillow. With a terrified and gentle movement, Heyst hastened to slip his arm under her neck. She felt relieved at once of an intolerable weight, and was content to surrender to him the infinite weariness of her tremendous achievement. Exulting, she saw herself extended on the bed, in a black dress, and profoundly at peace; while, stooping over her with a kindly, playful smile, he was ready to lift her up in his firm arms and take her into the sanctuary of his innermost heart—forever! The flush of rapture flooding her whole being broke out in a smile of innocent, girlish happiness; and with that divine radiance on her lips she breathed her last, triumphant, seeking for his glance in the shades of death.  25
 
 
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