Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

III.

Since her return to Leipzig, Ephie’s spirits had gone up and down like a barometer in spring. In this short time, she passed through more changes of mood than in all her previous life. She learned what uncertainty meant, and suspense, and helplessness; she caught at any straw of hope, and, for a day on end, would be almost comforted; she invented numberless excuses for Schilsky, and rejected them, one and all. For she was quite in the dark about his movements; she had not seen him since her return, and could hear nothing of him. Only the first of the letters she had written to him from Switzerland had elicited a reply, and he had left all the notes she had sent him, since getting back, unanswered.

Her fellow-boarder, Mrs. Tully, was her only confidant; and that, only in so far as this lady, knowing that what she called “a little romance” was going on, had undertaken to enclose any letters that might arrive during Ephie’s absence. Johanna had no suspicions, or rather she had hitherto had none. In the course of the past week, however, it had become plain even to her blind, sisterly eyes that something was the matter with Ephie. She could still be lively when she liked, almost unnaturally lively, and especially in the company of Mrs. Tully and her circle; but with these high spirits alternated fits of depression, and once Johanna had come upon her in tears. Driven into a corner, Ephie declared that Herr Becker had scolded her at her lesson; but Johanna was not satisfied with this explanation; for formerly, the master’s blame or praise had left no impression on her little sister’s mind. Even worse than this, Ephie could now, on slight provocation, be thoroughly peevish — a thing so new in her that it worried Johanna most of all. The long walks of the summer had been given up; but Ephie had adopted a way of going in and out of the house, just as it pleased her, without a word to her sister. Johanna scrutinised her keenly, and the result was so disturbing that she resolved to broach the subject to her mother.

On the morning after Maurice’s visit, therefore, she appeared in the sitting-room, with a heap of undarned stockings in one hand, her work-basket in the other, and with a very determined expression on her face. But the moment was not a happy one: Mrs. Cayhill was deep in WHY PAUL FERROL KILLED HIS WIFE; and would be lost to her surroundings until the end of the book was reached. Had Johanna been of an observant turn of mind, she would have waited a little; for, finding the intermediate portion of the novel dry reading, Mrs. Cayhill was getting over the pages at the rate of three or four a minute, and would soon have been finished.

But Johanna sat down at the table and opened fire.

“I wish to speak to you, mother,” she said firmly.

Mrs. Cayhill did not even blink. Johanna drew several threads across a hole she was darning, before she repeated, in the same decided tone: “Do you hear me, mother? There is something I wish to speak to you about.”

“Hm,” said Mrs. Cayhill, without raising her eyes from the page. She heard Johanna, and was even vaguely distracted by her from the web of circumstance that was enveloping her hero; but she believed, from experience, that if she took no notice of her, Johanna would not persist. What the latter had to say would only be a reminder that it was mail-day, and no letters were ready; or that if she did not put on her bonnet and go out for a walk, she would be obliged to take another of her nerve-powders that night: and Mrs. Cayhill hated moral persuasion with all her heart.

“Put down your book, mother, please, and listen to me,” continued Johanna, without any outward sign of impatience, and as she spoke, she drew another stocking over her hand.

“What IS the matter, Joan? I wish you would let me be,” answered Mrs. Cayhill querulously, still without looking up.

“It’s about Ephie, mother. But you can’t hear me if you go on reading.”

“I can hear well enough,” said Mrs. Cayhill, and turning a page, she lost herself, to all appearance, in the next one. Johanna did not reply, and for some minutes there was silence, broken only by the turning of the leaves. Then, compelled by something that was stronger than herself, Mrs. Cayhill laid her book on her knee, gave a loud sigh, and glanced at Johanna’s grave face.

“You are a nuisance, Joan. Well, make haste now — what is it?”

“It’s Ephie, mother. I am not easy about her lately. I don’t think she can be well. She is so unlike herself.”

“Really, Joan,” said Mrs. Cayhill, laughing with an exaggerated carelessness. “I think I should be the first to notice if she were sick. But you like to make yourself important, that’s what it is, and to have a finger in every pie. There is nothing whatever the matter with the child.”

“She’s not well, I’m sure,” persisted Johanna, without haste. “I have noticed it for some time now. I think the air here is not agreeing with her. I constantly hear it said that this is an enervating place. I believe it would be better for her if we went somewhere else for the winter — even if we returned home. Nothing binds us, and health is the first and chief ——”

“Go home?” cried Mrs. Cayhill, and turned her book over on its face. “Really, Joan, you are absurd! Because Ephie finds it hard to settle down again, after such a long vacation — and that’s all it is — you want to rush off to a fresh place, when . . . when we are just so comfortably fixed here for the winter, and where we have at last gotten us a few friends. As for going home, why, every one would suppose we’d gone crazy. We haven’t been away six months yet — and when Mr. Cayhill is coming over to fetch us back — and . . . and everything.”

She spoke with heat; for she knew from experience that what her elder daughter resolved on, was likely to be carried through.

“That is all very well, mother,” continued Johanna unmoved. “But I don’t think your arguments are sound if we find that Ephie is really sick, and needs a change.”

“Arguments not sound! What big words you love to use, Joan! You let Ephie be. She grows prettier every day, and she’s a favourite wherever she goes.”

“That’s another thing. Her head is being turned, and she will soon be quite spoilt. She begins to like the fuss and attention so well that ——”

“You had your chances too, Joan. You needn’t be jealous.”

Johanna had heard this remark too often to be sensitive to it.

“When it comes to serious ‘chances,’ as you call them, no one will be more pleased for Ephie or more interested than I. But this is something different. You see that yourself, mother, I am sure. These young men who come about the house are so foolish, and immature, and they have such different ideas of things from ourselves. They think so . . . so”— Johanna hesitated for a word —“so laxly on earnest subjects. And it is telling on Ephie — Look, for instance, at Mr. Dove! I don’t want to say anything against him, in particular. He is really more serious than the rest. But for some time now, he has been making himself ridiculous,”— Johanna had blushed for Dove on the occasion of his last visit. “No one could be more in earnest than he is; but Ephie only makes fun of him, in a heartless way. She won’t see what a grave matter it is to him.”

Mrs. Cayhill laughed, not at all displeased. “Young people will be young people. You can’t put old heads on young shoulders, Joan, or shut them up in separate houses. Ephie is an extremely pretty girl, and it will be the same wherever we go. — As for young Dove, he knows well enough that nothing can come of it, and if he chooses to continue his attentions, why, he must take the consequences — that’s all. Absurd! — a boy and girl flirtation, and to make so much of it! A mountain of a molehill, as usual. And half the time, you only imagine things, and don’t see what is going on under your very nose. Anyone but you, I’m sure, would find more to object to in the way young Guest behaves than Dove.”

“Maurice Guest?” said Johanna, and laid her hands with stocking and needle on the table.

“Yes, Maurice Guest,” repeated Mrs. Cayhill, with complacent mockery. “Do you think no one has eyes but yourself? — No, Joan, you’re not sharp enough. Just look at the way he went on last night! Every one but you could see what was the matter with him. Mrs. Tully told me about it afterwards. Why, he never took his eyes off her.”

“Oh, I’m sure you are mistaken,” said Johanna earnestly, and was silent from sheer surprise. “He has been here so seldom of late,” she added after a pause, thinking aloud.

“Just for that very reason,” replied Mrs. Cayhill, with the same air of wisdom. “A nice-minded young man stays away, if he sees that his feelings are not returned, or if he has no position to offer. — And another thing I’ll tell you, Joan, though you do think yourself so clever. You don’t need to worry if Ephie is odd and fidgety sometimes just now. At her age, it’s only to be expected. You know very well what I mean. All girls go through the same thing. You did yourself.”

After this, she took up her book again, having, she knew, successfully silenced her daughter, who, on matters of this nature, was extremely sensitive.

Johanna went methodically on with her darning; but the new idea which her mother had dropped into her mind, took root and grew. Strange that it had not occurred to her before! Dove’s state of mind had been patent from the first; but she had had no suspicions of Maurice Guest. His manner with Ephie had hitherto been that of a brother: he had never behaved like the rest. Yet, when she looked back on his visit of the previous evening, she could not but be struck by the strangeness of his demeanour: his distracted silence, his efforts to speak to Ephie alone, and the expression with which he had watched her. And Ephie? — what of her? Now that Johanna thought of it, a change had also come over Ephie’s mode of treating Maurice; the gay insouciance of the early days had given place to the pert flippancy which, only the night before, had so pained her sister. What had brought about this change? Was it pique? Was Ephie chafing, in secret, at his prolonged absences, and was she, girl-like, anxious to conceal it from him?

Johanna gathered up her work to go to her own room and think the matter out in private. In the passage, she ran into the arms of Mrs. Tully, whom she disliked; for, ever since coming to the PENSION, this lady had carried on a kind of cult with Ephie, which was distasteful in the extreme to Johanna.

“Oh, Miss Cayhill!” she now exclaimed. “I was just groping my way — it is indeed groping, is it not? — to your sitting-room. WHERE is your sister? I want SO much to ask her if she will have tea with me this afternoon. I am expecting a few friends, and should be so glad if she would join us.”

“Ephie is practising, Mrs. Tully,” said Johanna in her coolest tone. “And I cannot have her disturbed.”

“She is so very, very diligent,” said Mrs. Tully with enthusiasm. “I always remark to myself on hearing her, how very idle a life like mine is in comparison. I am able to do SO little; just a mere trifle here and there, a little atom of good, one might say. I have no talents. — And you, too, dear Miss Cayhill. So studious, so clever! I hear of you on every side,” and, letting her eyes rest on Johanna’s head, she wondered why the girl wore her hair so unbecomingly.

Johanna did not respond.

“If only you would let your hair grow, it would make such a difference to your appearance,” said Mrs. Tully suddenly, with disconcerting outspokenness.

Johanna drew herself up.

“Thanks,” she said. “I have always worn my hair like this, and at my age, have no intention of altering it,” and leaving Mrs. Tully protesting vehemently at such false modesty, she went past her, into her own room, and shut the door.

She sat down by the window to sew. But her hands soon fell to her lap, and with her eyes on the backs of the neighbouring houses, she continued her interrupted reflections. First, though, she threw a quick, sarcastic side-glance on her mother and herself. As so often before, when she had wanted to pin her mother’s attention to a subject, the centre of interest had shifted in spite of her efforts, and they had ended far from where they had begun: further, she, Johanna, had a way, when it came to the point, not of asking advice or of faithfully discussing a question, but of emphatically giving her opinion, or of stating what she considered to be the facts of the case.

From an odd mixture of experience and self-distrust, Johanna had, however, acquired a certain faith in her mother’s opinions — these blind, instinctive hits and guesses, which often proved right where Johanna’s carefully drawn conclusions failed. Here, once more, her mother’s idea had broken in upon her like a flash of light, even though she could not immediately bring herself to accept it. Maurice and Ephie! She could not reconcile the one with the other. Yet what if the child were fretting? What if he did not care? A pang shot through her at the thought that any outsider should have the power to make Ephie suffer. Oh, she would make him care! — she would talk to him as he had never been talked to in his life before.

The sisters’ rooms were connected by a door; and, gradually, in spite of her preoccupation, Johanna could not but become aware how brokenly Ephie was practising. Coaxing, encouragement, and sometimes even severity, were all, it is true, necessary to pilot Ephie through the two hours that were her daily task; but as idle as to-day, she had never been. What could she be doing? Johanna listened intently, but not a sound came from the room; and impelled by a curiosity to observe her sister in a new light, she rose and opened the door.

Ephie was standing with her back to it, staring out of the window, and supporting herself on the table by her violin, which she held by the neck. At Johanna’s entrance, she started, grew very red, and hastily raised the instrument to her shoulder.

“What are you doing, Ephie? You are wasting a great deal of time,” said Johanna in the tone of mild reproof that came natural to her, in speaking to her little sister. “Is anything the matter to-day? If you don’t practice better than this, you won’t have the ETUDE ready by Friday, and Herr Becker will make you take it again — for the third time.”

“He can if he likes. I guess I don’t care,” said Ephie nonchantly, and, seizing the opportunity offered for a break, she sat down, and laid bow and fiddle on the table.

“Have you remembered everything he pointed out to you at your last lesson?” asked Johanna, going over to the music-stand, and peering at the pages with her shortsighted eyes. “Let me see — what was it now? Something about this double-stopping here, and the fingering in this position.”

Ephie laughed. “Old Joan, what do you know about it?”

“Not much, dear, I admit,” said Johanna pleasantly. “But try and master it, like a good girl. So you can get rid of it, and go on to something else.”

Ephie sat back, clasped her hands behind her head, and gave a long sigh. “Yes, to the next one,” she said. “Oh, if you only knew how sick I am of them, Joan! The next won’t be a bit better than this. They are all alike — a whole book of them.”

Johanna looked down at the little figure with the plump, white arms, and discontented expression; and she tried to find in the childish face something she had previously not seen there.

“Are you tired of studying, Ephie?” she asked. “Would you like to leave off and go away?”

“Go away from Leipzig? Where to?” Ephie did not unclasp her hands, but her eyes grew vigilant.

“Oh, there are plenty of other places, child. Dresden — or Weimar — or Stuttgart — where you could take lessons just as well. Or if you are tired of studying altogether, there is no need for you to go on with it. We can return home, any day. Sometimes, I think it would be better if we did. You have not been yourself lately, dear. I don’t think you are very well.”

“I not myself? — not well? What rubbish you talk, Joan! I am quite well, and wish you wouldn’t tease me. I guess you want to go away yourself. You are tired of being here. But nothing shall induce me to go. I love old Leipzig. And I still have heaps to learn before I leave off studying. — I don’t even know whether I shall be ready by spring. It all depends. And now, Joan, go away.” She took up her violin and put it on her shoulder. “Now it’s you who are wasting time. How can I practise when you stand there talking?”

Johanna was silent. But after this, she did not venture to mention Maurice’s name; and she had turned to leave the room when she remembered her meeting with Mrs. Tully.

“I would rather you did not go to tea, Ephie,” she ended, and then regretted having said it.

“That’s another of your silly prejudices, Joan. I want to know why you feel so about Mrs. Tully. I think she’s lovely. Not that I’d have gone anyway. I promised Maurice to go for a walk with him at five. I know what her ‘few friends’ means, too — just Boehmer, and she asks me along so people will think he comes to see me, and not her. He sits there, and twirls his moustache, and makes eyes at her, and she makes them back. I’m only for show. No, I shouldn’t have gone. I can’t bear Boehmer. He’s such a goat.”

“You didn’t think that as long as he came to see us,” expostulated Johanna.

“No, of course not. But so he only comes to see her, I do. — And sometimes, Joan, why it’s just embarrassing. The last afternoon, why, he had a headache or something, and she made him lie on the sofa, with a rug over him, so she could bathe his head with eau-de-cologne. I guess she’s going to marry him. And I’m not the only one. The other day I heard Frau Walter and Frau von Baerle talking in the dining-room after dinner, and they said the little English widow was very HEIRATSLUSTIG.”

“Ephie, I don’t like to hear you repeat such foolish gossip,” said Johanna in real distress. “And if you can understand and remember a word like that, you might really take more pains with your German. It is not impossible for you to learn, you see.”

“Joan the preacher, and Joan the teacher, and Joan the wise old bird,” sang Ephie, and laughed. “I think Mrs. Tully is real kind. She’s going to show me a new way to do my hair. This style is quite out in London, she says.”

“Don’t let her touch your hair. It couldn’t be better than it is,” said Johanna quickly. But Ephie turned her head this way and that, and considered herself in the looking-glass.

Now that she knew Maurice was expected that afternoon, Johanna awaited his arrival with impatience. Meanwhile, she believed she was not wrong in thinking Ephie unusually excited. At dinner, where, as always, the elderly boarders made a great fuss over her, her laughter was so loud as to grate on Johanna’s ear; but afterwards, in their own sitting-room, a trifle sufficed to put her out of temper. A new hat had been sent home, a hat which Johanna had not yet seen. Now that it had come, Ephie was not sure whether she liked it or not; and all the cries of admiration her mother and Mrs. Tully uttered, when she put it on, were necessary to reassure her. Johanna was silent, and this unspoken disapproval irritated Ephie.

“Why don’t you say something, Joan?” she cried crossly. “I suppose you think it’s homely?”

“Frankly, I don’t care for it much, dear. To my mind, it’s overtrimmed.”

This was so precisely Ephie’s own feeling that she was more annoyed than ever; she taunted Johanna with old-fashioned, countrified tastes; and, in spite of her mother’s comforting assurances, retired in a pet to her own room.

That afternoon, as they sat together at tea, Mrs. Cayhill, who for some time had considered Ephie fondly, said: “I can’t understand you thinking she isn’t well, Joan. I never saw her look better.”

Ephie went crimson. “Now what has Joan been saying about me?” she asked angrily.

Johanna had left the table, and was reading on the sofa.

“I only said what I repeated to yourself, Ephie. That I didn’t think you were looking well.”

“Just fancy,” said Mrs. Cayhill, laughing good-humouredly, “she was saying we ought to leave Leipzig and go to some strange place. Even back home to America. You don’t want to go away, darling, do you?”

“No, really, Joan is too bad,” cried Ephie, with a voice in which tears and exasperation struggled for the mastery. “She always has some new fad in her head. She can’t leave us alone — never! Let her go away, so she wants to. I won’t. I’m happy here. I love being here. Even if you both go away, I shall stop.”

She got up from the table, and went to a window, where she stood biting her lips, and paying small attention to her mother’s elaborate protests that she, too, had no intention of being moved.

Johanna did not raise her eyes from her book. She could have wept: not only at the spirit of rebellious dislike, which was beginning to show more and more clearly in everything Ephie said. But was no one but herself awake to the change that was taking place in the child, day by day? She would write to her father, without delay, and make him insist on their returning to America.

From the moment Maurice entered the room, she did not take her eyes off him; and, under her scrutiny, the young man soon grew nervous. He sat and fidgeted, and found nothing to say.

Ephie was wayward: she did not think she wanted to go out; it looked like rain. Johanna refrained from interfering; but Maurice was most persistent: he begged Ephie not to disappoint him, and, when this failed, said angrily that she had no business to bring him there for such capricious whims. This treatment cowed Ephie; and she went at once to put on her hat and jacket.

“He wants to speak to her; and she knows it; and is trying to avoid it,” said Johanna to herself; and her heart beat fast for both of them. But she was alone with Maurice; she must not lose the chance of sounding him a little.

“Where do you think of going for a walk?” she asked, and her voice had an odd tone to her ears.

“Where? Oh, to the ROSENTAL— or the SCHEIBENHOLZ— or along the river. Anywhere. I don’t know.”

She coughed. “Have you noticed anything strange about Ephie lately? She is not herself. I’m afraid she is not well.”

He had noticed nothing. But he did not face Johanna; and he held the photograph he was looking at upside down.

She leaned out of the window to watch them walk along the street. At this moment, she was fully convinced of the correctness of her mother’s assumption; and by the thought of what might take place within the next hour, she was much disturbed. During the rest of the afternoon, she found it impossible to settle to anything; and she wandered from one room to another, unable even to read. But it struck six, seven, eight o’clock; it was supper-time; and still Ephie had not come home. Mrs. Cayhill grew anxious, too, and Johanna strained her eyes, watching the dark street. At nine and at ten, she was pacing the room, and at eleven, after a messenger had been sent to Maurice’s lodging and had found no one there she buttoned on her rain-cloak, to accompany one of the servants to the police-station.

“Why did I let her go? — Oh, why did I let her go!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/richardson/henry_handel/r52mg/chapter17.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33