Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

IV.

Maurice and Ephie walked along the LESSINGSTRASSE without speaking — it was a dull, mild day, threatening to rain, as it had rained the whole of the preceding night. But Ephie was not accustomed to be silent; she found the stillness disconcerting, and before they had gone far, shot a furtive look at her companion. She did not intend him to see it; but he did, and turned to her. He cleared his throat, and seemed about to speak, then changed his mind. Something in his face, as she observed it more nearly, made Ephie change colour and give an awkward laugh.

“I asked you before how you liked my hat,” she said, with another attempt at the airiness which, to-day, she could not command. “And you didn’t say. I guess you haven’t looked at it. You’re in such a hurry.”

Maurice turned his head; but he did not see the hat. Instead, he mentally answered a question Louise had put to him the day before, and which he had then not known how to meet. Yes, Ephie was pretty, radiantly pretty, with the fresh, unsullied charm of a flower just blown.

“Joan was so stupid about it,” she went on at random; her face still wore its uncertain smile. “She said it was overtrimmed, and top-heavy, and didn’t become me. As if she ever wore anything that suited her! But Joan is an old maid. She hasn’t a scrap of taste. And as for you, Maurice, why I just don’t believe you know one hat from another. Men are so stupid.”

Again they went forward in silence.

“You are tiresome to-day,” she said at length, and looked at him with a touch of defiance, as a schoolgirl looks at the master with whom she ventures to remonstrate.

“Yes, I’m a dull companion.”

“Knowing it doesn’t make it any better.”

But she was not really cross; all other feelings were swallowed up by the uneasiness she felt at his manner of treating her.

“Where are we going?” she suddenly demanded of him, with a little quick upward note in her voice. “This is not the way to the SCHEIBENHOLZ.”

“No.” He had been waiting for the question. “Ephie,”— he cleared his throat anew. “I am taking you to see a friend — of mine.”

“Is that what you brought me out for? Then you didn’t want to speak to me, as you said? Then we’re not going for a walk?”

“Afterwards, perhaps. It’s like this. Some one I know has been very ill. Now that she is getting better, she needs rousing and cheering up, and that kind of thing; and I said I would bring you to call on her. She knows you by sight — and would like to know you personally,” he added, with a lame effort at explanation.

“Is that so?” said Ephie with sudden indifference; and her heart, which had begun to thump at the mention of a friend, quieted down at once. In fancy, she saw an elderly lady with shawls and a footstool, who had been attracted by her fresh young face; the same thing had happened to her before.

Now, however, that she knew the object of their walk, she was greatly relieved, as if a near danger had been averted; but she had not taken many steps forward before she was telling herself that another hope was gone. The only thing to do was to take the matter into her own hands; it was now or never; and simply a question of courage.

“Maurice, say, do many people go away from here in the fall? — leave the Con., I would say?” she asked abruptly. “I mean is this a time more people leave than in spring?”

Maurice started; he had been lost in his own thoughts, which all centred round this meeting he had weakly agreed to arrange. Again and again he had tried to imagine how it would fall out. But he did not know Louise well enough to foresee how she would act; and the nearer the time came, the stronger grew his presentiment of trouble. His chief remaining hope was that there would be no open speaking, that Schilsky’s name would not be mentioned; and plump into the midst of this hope fell Ephie’s question. He turned on her; she coloured furiously, and walked into a pool of water; and, at this moment, everything was as clear to Maurice as though she had said: “Where is be? Why has he gone?”

“Why do you ask?” he queried with unconscious sharpness. “No, Easter is the general time for leaving. But people who play in the PRUFUNGEN then, sometimes stay for the summer term. Why do you ask?”

“Gracious, Maurice, how tiresome you are! Must one always say why? I only wanted to know. I missed people I used to see about, that’s all.”

“Yes, a number have not come back.”

He was so occupied with what they were saying that he, in his turn, stepped into a puddle, splashing the water up over her shoe. Ephie was extremely annoyed.

“Look! — look what you’ve done!” she cried, showing him her spikey little shoe. “Why don’t you look where you’re going? How clumsy you are!” and, in a sudden burst of illhumour: “I don’t know why you’re bringing me here. It’s a horrid part of the city anyway. I didn’t have any desire to come. I guess I’ll turn back and go home.”

“We’re almost there now.”

“I don’t care. I don’t want to go.”

“But you shall, all the same. What’s the matter with you to-day that you don’t know your own mind for two minutes together?”

“You didn’t inquire if I wanted to come. You’re just horrid, Maurice.”

“And you’re a capricious child.”

He quickened his pace, afraid she might still escape him; and Ephie had hard work to keep up with him. As she trotted along, a few steps behind, there arose in her a strong feeling of resentment against Maurice, which was all the stronger because she suspected that she was on the brink of hearing her worst suspicions confirmed. But she could not afford to yield to the feeling, when the last chance she had of getting definite information was passing from her. Knitting both hands firmly inside her muff, she asked, with an earnestness which, to one who knew, was fatally tale-telling: “Did anyone you were acquainted with leave, Maurice?”

“Yes,” said the young man at her side, with brusque determination. He remained untouched by the tone of appeal in which Ephie put the question; for he himself suffered under her continued hedging. “Yes,” he said, “some one did, and that was a man called Schilsky — a tall, red-haired fellow, a violinist. But he has only just gone. He came back after the vacation to settle his affairs, and say good-bye to his friends. Is there anything else you want to know?”

He regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. After all, Ephie was such a child. He could not see her face, which was hidden by the brim of the big hat, but there was something pathetic in the line of her chin, and the droop of her arms and shoulders. She seemed to shrink under his words — to grow smaller. As he stood aside to let her pass before him, through the house-door in the BRUDERSTRASSE, he had a quick revulsion of feeling. Instead of being rough and cruel to her, he should have tried to win her confidence with brotherly kindness. But he had had room in his mind for nothing but the meeting with Louise, and now there was no more time; they were going up the stairs. All he could do was to say gently: “I ought to tell you, Ephie, that the person we are going to see has been very, very ill — and needs treating with the utmost consideration. I rely on your tact and good-feeling.”

But Ephie did not reply; the colour had left her face, and for once, the short upper-lip closed firmly on the lower one. For some minutes amazed anger with Maurice was all she felt. Then, however, came the knowledge of what his words meant: he knew — Maurice knew; he had seen through her fictions; he would tell on her; there would be dreadful scenes with Joan; there would be reproaches and recriminations; she would be locked up, or taken away. As for what lay beyond, his assertion that Schilsky had been there — had been and gone, without a word to her — that was a sickening possibility, which, at present, her mind could not grasp. She grew dizzy under these blows that rained down on her, one after the other. And meanwhile, she had to keep up appearances, to go on as though nothing had happened, when it seemed impossible even to drag herself to the top of the winding flight of stairs. She held her head down; there was a peculiar clicking in her throat, which she could not master; she felt at every step as if she would have to burst out crying.

At the glass of the door, and at the wizened old face that appeared behind it, she looked with unseeing eyes; and she followed Maurice mechanically along the passage to a door at the end.

In his agitation the young man forgot to knock; and as they entered, a figure sprang up from the sofa-corner, and made a few impulsive steps towards them.

Maurice went over to Louise and took her hand.

“I’ve brought her,” he said in a low tone, and with a kind of appeal in voice and eyes, which he was not himself aware of. Louise answered the look, and went on looking at him, as if she were fearful of letting her eyes stray. Both turned at an exclamation from Ephie. She was still standing where Maurice had left her, close beside the door; but her face was flaming, and her right hand fumbled with the doorhandle.

“Ephie!” said Maurice warningly. He was afraid she would turn the handle, and, going over to her, took her by the arm.

“Say, Maurice, I’m going home,” she said under her breath. “I can’t stop here. Oh, why did you bring me?”

“Ssh! — be a good girl, Ephie,” he replied as though speaking to a child. “Come with me.”

An inborn politeness struggled with Ephie’s dread. “I can’t. I don’t know her name,” she whispered. But she let him draw her forward to where Louise was standing; and she held out her hand.

“Miss —?” she said in a small voice, and waited for the name to be filled in.

Louise had watched them whispering, with a stony fare, but, at Ephie’s gesture, life came into it. Her eyes opened wide; and drawing back from the girl’s outstretched hand, yet without seeming to see it, she turned with a hasty movement, and went over to the window, where she stood with her back to them.

This was the last straw; Ephie dropped on a chair, and hiding her face in her hands, burst into the tears she had hitherto restrained. Her previous trouble was increased a hundredfold. For she had recognised Louise at once; she felt that she was in a trap; and the person who had entrapped her was Maurice. Holding a tiny lace handkerchief to her eyes, she sobbed as though her heart would break.

“Don’t cry, dear, don’t cry,” said the young man. “It’s all right.” But his thoughts were with Louise. He was apprehensive of what she might do next.

As if in answer to his fear, she crossed the room.

“Ask her to take her hands down. I want to see her face.”

Maurice bent over Ephie, and touched her shoulder.

“Ephie, dear, do you hear? Look up, like a good girl, and speak to Miss Dufrayer.”

But Ephie shook off his hand.

Over her bowed head, their eyes met; and the look Louise gave the young man was cold and questioning. He shrugged his shoulders: he could do nothing; and retreating behind the writing-table, he left the two girls to themselves.

“Stand up, please,” said Louise in an unfriendly voice; and as Ephie did not obey, she made a movement to take her by the wrists.

“No, no! — don’t touch me,” cried Ephie, and rose in spite of herself. “What right have you to speak to me like this?”

She could say no more, for, with a quick, unforeseen movement, Louise took the young girl’s face in both hands, and turned it up. And after her first instinctive effort to draw back, Ephie kept still, like a fascinated rabbit, her eyes fixed on the dark face that looked down at her.

Seconds passed into minutes; and the minutes seemed hours. Maurice watched, on the alert to intervene, if necessary.

At the entrance of her visitors, Louise had been unable to see distinctly, so stupefied was she by the thought that the person on whom her thoughts had run, with a kind of madness, for more than forty-eight hours, was actually in the room beside her — it was just as though a nightmare phantom had taken bodily form. And then, too, though she had spent each of these hours in picturing to herself what this girl would be like, the reality was so opposed to her imagining that, at first, she could not reconcile the differences.

Now she forced herself to see every line of the face. Nothing escaped her. She saw how loosened tendrils of hair on neck and forehead became little curls; saw the finely marked brows, and the dark blue veins at the temples; the pink and white colouring of the cheeks; the small nose, modelled as if in wax; the fascinating baby mouth, with its short upper-lip. Like most dark, sallow women, whose own brief freshness is past, the elder girl passionately admired such may-blossom beauty, as something belonging to a different race from herself. And this was not all: as she continued to look into Ephie’s face, she ceased to be herself; she became the man whose tastes she knew better than her own; she saw with his eyes, felt with his senses. She pictured Ephie’s face, arch and smiling, lifted to his; and she understood and excused his weakness. He had not been able to help what had happened: this was the prettiness that drew him in, the kind he had invariably turned to look back at, in the street — something fair and round, adorably small and young, something to be petted and protected, that clung, and was childishly subordinate. For her dark sallowness, for her wilful mastery, he had only had a passing fancy. She was not his type, and she knew it. But to have known it vaguely, when it did not matter, and to know it at a moment like the present, were two different things.

In a burst of despair she let her arms fall to her sides; but her insatiable eyes gazed on; and Ephie, though she was now free, did not stir, but remained standing, with her face raised, in a silly fascination. And the eyes, having taken in the curves of cheeks and chin, and the soft white throat, passed to the rounded, drooping shoulders, to the plumpness of the girlish figure, embracing the whole body in their devouring gaze. Ephie went hot and cold beneath them; she felt as if her clothes were being stripped from her, and she left standing naked. Louise saw the changing colour, and interpreted it in her own way. His — all his! He was not the mortal — she knew it only too well — to have this flower within his reach, and not clutch at it, instinctively, as a child clutches at sunbeams. It would riot have been in nature for him to do otherwise than take, greedily, without reflection. At the thought of it, a spasm of jealousy caught her by the throat; her hanging hands trembled to hurt this infantile prettiness, to spoil these lips that had been kissed by his.

Maurice was at her side. “Don’t hurt her,” he said, and did not know how the words came to his lips.

The spell was broken. The unnatural expression died out of her face; she was tired and apathetic.

“Hurt her?” she repeated faintly. “No, don’t be afraid. I shall not hurt her. But if I beat her with ropes till all my strength was gone, I couldn’t hurt her as she has hurt me.”

“Hush! Don’t say such things.”

“I? I hurt you?” said Ephie, and began to cry afresh. “How could I? I don’t even know you.”

“No, you don’t know me; and yet you have done me the cruellest wrong.”

“Oh, no, no,” sobbed Ephic. “No, indeed!”

“He was all I had — all I cared for. And you plotted, and planned, and stole him from me — with your silly baby face.”

“It’s not true,” wept Ephie. “How could I? I didn’t know anything about you. He . . . he never spoke of you.”

Louise laughed. “Oh, I can believe that! And you thought, didn’t you, you poor little fool, that he only cared for you? That was why my name was never mentioned. He didn’t need to scheme, and contrive, and lie, lie abominably, for fear I should come to hear what he was doing!”

“No, indeed,” sobbed Ephie. “Never! And you’ve no right to say such things of him.”

“I no right?” Louise drew herself up. “No right to say what I like of him? Are you going to tell me what I shall say and what I shan’t of the man I loved? — yes, and who loved me, too, but in a way you couldn’t understandyou who think all you have to do is to smile your silly smile, and spoil another person’s life. You didn’t know, no, of course not! — didn’t know this was his room as well as mine. Look, his music is still lying on the piano; that’s the chair he sat in, not many days ago; here,” she took Ephie by the shoulder and drew her behind the screen, where a small door, papered like the wall, gave, direct from the stair-head, a second entrance to the room —” here’s the door he came in at. — For he came as he liked, whenever he chose.”

“It’s not true; it can’t be true,” said Ephie, and raised her tear-stained face defiantly. “We are engaged — since the summer. He’s coming back to marry me soon.”

“He’s coming back to marry you!” echoed Louise in a blank voice. “He’s coming back to marry you!”

She moved a few steps away, and stood by the writing-table, looking dazed, as if she did not understand. Then she laughed.

Ephie cried with renewed bitterness. “I want to go home.”

But Maurice did not pay any attention to her. He was watching Louise, with a growing dismay. For she continued to laugh, in a breathless way, with a catch in the throat, which made the laughter sound like sobbing. On his approaching her, she tried to check herself, but without success. She wiped her lips, and pressed her handkerchief to them, then took the handkerchief between her teeth and bit it. She crossed to the window, and stood with her back to the others; but she could not stop laughing. She went behind the low, broad screen that divided the room, and sat down on the edge of the bed; but still she had to laugh on. She came out again into the other part of the room, and saw Maurice pale and concerned, and Ephie’s tears dried through pure fear; but the sight of these two made her laugh more violently than before. She held her face in her hands, and pressed her jaws together as though she would break them; for they shook with a nervous convulsion. Her whole body began to shake, with the efforts she made at repression.

Ephie cowered in her seat. “Oh, Maurice, let us go. I’m so afraid,” she implored him.

“Don’t be frightened! It’s all right.” But he was following Louise about the room, entreating her to regain the mastery of herself. When he did happen to notice Ephie more closely, he said: “Go downstairs, and wait for me there. I’ll come soon.”

Ephie did not need twice telling: she turned and fled. He heard the hall-door bang behind her.

“Do try to control yourself. Miss Dufrayer — Louise! Every one in the house will hear you.”

But she only laughed the more. And now the merest trifles helped to increase the paroxysm — the way Maurice worked his hands, Ephie’s muff lying forgotten on a chair, the landlady’s inquisitive face peering in at the door. The laugh continued, though it had become a kind of cackle — a sound without tone. Maurice could bear it no longer. He went up to her and tried to take her hands. She repulsed him, but he was too strong for her. He took both her hands in his, and pressed her down on a chair. He was not clear himself what to do next; but, the moment he touched her, the laughter ceased. She gasped for breath; he thought she would choke, and let her hands go again. She pressed them to her throat; her breath came more and more quickly; her eyes closed; and falling forward on her knees, she hid her face in the cushioned seat of the sofa.

Then the tears came, and what tears! In all his life, Maurice had never heard crying like this. He moved as far away from her as he could, stood at the window, staring out and biting his lips, while she sobbed, regardless of his presence, with the utter abandon of a child. Like a child, too, she wept rebelliously, unchastenedly, as he could not have believed it possible for a grown person to cry. Such grief as this, so absolute a despair, had nothing to do with reason or the reasoning faculties; and the words were not invented that would be able to soothe it.

But, little by little, a change came over her crying. The rebellion died out of it; it grew duller, and more blunted, hopeless, without life. Her strength was almost gone. Now, however, there was another note of childishness in it, that of complete exhaustion, which it is so hard to hear. The tears rose to his own eyes; he would have liked to go to her, to lay his hand on her head, and treat her tenderly, to make her cease and be happy once more; but he did not dare. Had he done so, she might not have repelled him; for, in all intensely passionate grief, there comes a moment of subsidence, when the grief and its origin are forgotten, and the one overruling desire is the desire to be comforted, no matter who the comforter and what his means, so long as they are masterful and strong.

She grew calmer; and soon she was only shaken at widening intervals by a sob. Then these, too, ceased, and Maurice held his breath. But as, after a considerable time had elapsed, she still lay without making sound or movement, he crossed the room to look at her. She was fast asleep, half sitting, half lying, with her head on the cushions, and the tears wet on her cheeks. He hesitated between a wish to see her in a more comfortable position, and an unwillingness to disturb her. Finally, he took an eider-down quilt from the bed, and wrapped it round her; then slipped noiselessly from the room.

It was past eight o’clock.

* * * * *

Ephie ran down the stairs as if a spectre were at her heels, and even when in the street, did not venture to slacken her speed. Although the dusk was rapidly passing into dark, a good deal of notice was attracted by the sight of a well-dressed young girl running along, holding a handkerchief to her face, and every now and then emitting a loud sob. People stood and stared after her, and some little boys ran with her. Instead of dropping her pace when she saw this, Ephie grew confused, and ran more quickly than before. She had turned at random, on coming out of the house; and she was in a part of the town she did not know. In her eagerness to get away from people, she took any turn that offered; and after a time she found that she had crossed the river, and was on what was almost a country road. A little further off, she knew, lay the woods; if once she were in their shelter, she would be safe; and, without stopping to consider that night was falling, she ran towards them at full speed. On the first seat she came to she sank breathless and exhausted.

Her first sensation was one of relief at being alone. She unpinned and took off the big, heavy hat, and laid it on the seat beside her, in order to be more at her case; and then she cried, heartily, and without precautions, enjoying to the full the luxury of being unwatched and unheard. Since teatime, she seemed to have been fighting her tears, exercising a self-restraint that was new to her and very hard; and not to-day alone — oh, no, for weeks past, she had been obliged to act a part. Not even in her bed at night had she been free to indulge her grief; for, if she cried then, it made her pale and heavy-eyed next day, and exposed her to Joan’s comments. And there were so many things to cry about: all the emotional excitement of the summer, with its ups and downs of hope and fear; the never-ceasing need of dissimulation; the gnawing uncertainty caused by Schilsky’s silence; the growing sense of blankness and disappointment; Joan’s suspicions; Maurice’s discovery; the knowledge that Schilsky had gone away without a word to her; and, worst of all, and most inexplicable, the terrible visit of the afternoon — at the remembrance of the madwoman she had escaped from, Ephie’s tears flowed with renewed vigour. Her handkerchief was soaked and useless; she held her fur tippet across her eyes to receive the tears as they fell; and when this grew too wet, she raised the skirt of her dress to her face. Not a sound was to be heard but her sobbing; she was absolutely alone; and she wept on till those who cared for her, whose chief wish was to keep grief from her, would hardly have recognized in her the child they loved.

How long she had been there she did not know, when she was startled to her feet by a loud rustling in the bushes behind her. Then, of a sudden, she became aware that it was pitch-dark, and that she was all by herself in the woods. She took to her heels, in a panic of fear, and did not stop running till the street-lamps came into sight. When she was under their friendly shine, and could see people walking on the other side of the river, she remembered that she had left her hat lying on the seat. At this fresh misfortune, she began to cry anew. But not for anything in the world would she have ventured back to fetch it.

She crossed the Pleisse and came to a dark, quiet street, where few people were; and here she wandered up and down. It was late; at home they would be sitting at supper now, exhausting themselves in conjectures where she could be. Ephie was very hungry, and at the thought of the warmth and light of the supper-table, a lump rose in her throat. If it had been only her mother, she might have faced her — but Joan! Home in this plight, at this hour, hatless, and with swollen face, to meet Joan’s eyes and questions! — she shivered at the idea. Moreover, the whole PENSION would get to know what had happened to her; she would need to bear inquisitive. looks and words; she would have to explain, or, still worse, to invent and tell stories again; and of what use were they now, when all was over? A feeling of lassitude overcame her — an inability to begin fresh. All over: he would never put his arm round her again, never come towards her, careless and smiling, and call her his “little, little girl.”

She sobbed to herself as she walked. Everything was bleak, and black, and cheerless. She would perhaps die of the cold, and then all of them, Joan in particular, would be filled with remorse. She stood and looked at the inky water of the river between its stone walls. She had read of people drowning themselves; what if she went down the steps and threw herself in? — and she feebly fingered at the gate. But it was locked and chained; and at the idea of her warm, soft body touching the icy water; at the picture of herself lying drowned, with dank hair, or, like the Christian Martyr, floating away on the surface; at the thought of their grief, of HIM wringing his hands over her corpse, she was so moved that she wept aloud again, and amost ran to be out of temptation’s way.

It had begun to drizzle. Oh, how tired she was! And she was obliged constantly to dodge impertinently staring men. In a long, wide street, she entered a door-way that was not quite so dark as the others, and sat down on the bottom step of the stairs. Here she must have dozed, for she was roused by angry voices on the floor above. It sounded like some one who was drunk; and she fled trembling back to the street.

A neighbouring clock struck ten. At this time of night, she could not go home, even though she wished to. She was wandering the streets like any outcast, late at night, without a hat — and her condition of hatlessness she felt to be the chief stigma. But she was starving with hunger, and so tired that she could scarcely drag one foot after the other. Oh, what would they say if they knew what their poor little Ephie was enduring! Her mother — Joan —-Maurice!

Maurice! The thought of him came to her like a ray of light. It was to Maurice she would turn. He would be good to her, and help her; he had always been kind to her, till this afternoon. And he knew what had happened; it would not be necessary to explain. — Oh, Maurice, Maurice!

She knew his address, if she could but find the street. A droschke passed, and she tried to hail it; but she did not like to advance too far out of the shadow, on account of her bare head. Finally, plucking up courage, she inquired the way of a feather-hatted woman, who had eyed her with an inquisitive stare.

It turned out that the BRAUSTRASSE was just round the corner; she had perhaps been in the street already, without knowing it; and now she found it, and the house, without difficulty. The street-door was still open; or she would never have been bold enough to ring.

The stair was poorly lighted, and full of unsavoury smells. In her agitation, Ephie rang on a wrong floor, and a strange man answered her timid inquiry. She climbed a flight higher, and rang again. There was a long and ominous pause, in which her heart beat fast; if Maurice did not live here either, she would drop where she stood. She was about to ring a second time, when felt slippers and an oil lamp moved along the passage, the glass window was opened, and a woman’s face peered out at her. Yes, Herr Guest lived there, certainly, said Frau Krause, divided between curiosity and indignation at having to rise from bed; and she held the lamp above her head, in order to see Ephie better. But he was not at home, and, even if he were, at this hour of night . . . The heavy words shuffled along, giving the voracious eyes time to devour.

At the thought that her request might be denied her, Ephie’s courage took its last leap.

“Why, I must see him. I have something important to tell him. Could I not wait?” she urged in her broken German, feeling unspeakably small and forlorn. And yielding to a desire to examine more nearly the bare, damp head and costly furs, Frau Krause allowed the girl to pass before her into Maurice’s room.

She loitered as long as she could over lighting the lamp that stood on the table; and meanwhile threw repeated glances at Ephie, who, having given one look round the shabby room, sank into a corner of the sofa and hid her face: the coarse browed woman, in petticoat and night-jacket, seemed to her capable of robbery or murder. And so Frau Krause unwillingly withdrew, to await further developments outside: the holy, smooth-faced Herr Guest was a deep one, after all.

When Maurice entered, shortly before eleven, Ephie started up from a broken sleep. He came in pale and disturbed, for Frau Krause had met him in the passage with angry mutterings about a FRAUENZIMMER in his room; and his thoughts had at once leaped fearfully to Louise. When he saw Ephie, he uttered a loud exclamation of surprise.

“Good Lord, Ephie! What on earth are you doing here?”

She sprang at his hands, and caught her breath hysterically.

“Oh, Morry, you’ve come at last. Oh, I thought you would never come. Where have you been? Oh, Morry, help me — help me, or I shall die!”

“Whatever is the matter? What are you doing here?”

At his perturbed amazement, she burst into tears, still clinging fast to his hands. He led her back to the sofa, from which she had sprung.

“Hush, hush! Don’t cry like that. What’s the matter, child? Tell me what it is — at once — and let me help you.”

“Oh, yes, Morry, help me, help me! There’s no one else. I didn’t know where to go. Oh, what shall I do!”

Her own words sounded so pathetic that she sobbed piteously. Maurice stroked her hand, and waited for her to grow quieter. But now that she had laid the responsibility of herself on other shoulders, Ephie was quite unnerved: after the dark and fearful wanderings of the evening, to be beside some one who knew, who would take care of her, who would tell her what to do!

She sobbed and sobbed. Only with perseverance did Maurice draw from her, word by word, an account of where she had been that evening, broken by such cries as: “Oh, what shall I do! I can’t ever go home again — ever! . . . and I lost my hat. Oh, Morry, Morry! And I didn’t know he had gone away — and it wasn’t true what I said, that he was coming back to marry me soon.. I only said it to spite her, because she said such dreadful things to me. But we were engaged, all the same; he said he would come to New York to marry me. And now . . . oh, dear, oh, Morry! . . .”

“Then he really promised to marry you, did he?”

“Yes, oh, yes. Everything was fixed. The last day I was there,” she wept. “But I didn’t know he was going away; he never said a word about it. Oh, what shall I do! Go after him, and bring him back, Morry. He must come back. He can’t leave me like this, he can’t — oh, no, indeed!”

“You don’t mean to say you went to see him, Ephie? — alone? — at his room?” queried Maurice slowly, and he did not know how sternly. “When? How often? Tell me everything. This is no time for fibbing.”

But he could make little of Ephie’s sobbed and hazy version of the story; she herself could not remember clearly now; the impressions of the last few hours had been so intense as to obliterate much of what had gone before. “I thought I would drown myself . . . but the water was so black. Oh, why did you take me to that dreadful woman? Did you hear what she said? It wasn’t true, was it? Oh, it can’t be!”

“It was quite true, Ephie. What he told YOU wasn’t true. He never really cared for anyone but her. They were — were engaged for years.”

At this, she wept so heart-rendingly that he was afraid Frau Krause would come in and interfere.

“You MUST control yourself. Crying won’t alter things now. If you had been frank and candid with us, it would never have happened.” This was the only reproach he could make her; what came after was Johanna’s business, not his. “And now I’m going to take you home. It’s nearly twelve o’clock. Think of the state your mother and sister will be in about you.”

But at the mention of Johanna, Ephie flung herself on the sofa again and beat the cushions with her hands.

“Not Joan, not Joan!” she wailed. “No, I won’t go home. What will she say to me? Oh, I am so frightened! She’ll kill me, I know she will.” And at Maurice’s confident assurance that Johanna would have nothing but love and sympathy for her, she shook her head. “I know Joan. She’ll never forgive me. Morry, let me stay with you. You’ve always been kind to me. Oh, don’t send me away!”

“Don’t be a silly child, Ephie. You know yourself you can’t stay here.”

But he gave up urging her, coaxed her to lie down, and sat beside her, stroking her hair. As he said no more, she gradually ceased to sob, and in what seemed to the young man an incredibly short time, he heard from her breathing that she was asleep. He covered her up, and stood a sheet of music before the lamp, to shade her eyes. In the passage he ran up against Frau Krause, whom he charged to prevent Ephie in the event of her attempting to leave the house.

Buttoning up his coat-collar, he hastened through the mistlike rain to fetch Johanna.

There was a light in every window of the PENSION in the LESSINGSTRASSE; the street-door and both doors of the flat stood open. As he mounted the stairs a confused sound of voices struck his car; and when he entered the passage, he heard Mrs. Cayhill crying noisily. Johanna came out to him at once; she was in hat and cloak. She listened stonily to his statement that Ephie was safe at his lodgings, and put no questions; but, on her returning to the sitting-room, Mrs. Cayhill’s sobs stopped abruptly, and several women spoke at once.

Johanna preserved her uncompromising attitude as they walked the midnight streets. But as Maurice made no mien to explain matters further, she so far conquered her aversion as to ask: “What have you done to her?”

The young man’s consternation at this view of the case was so evident that even she felt the need of wording her question differently.

“Answer me. What is Ephie doing at your rooms?”

Maurice cleared his throat. “It’s a long and unpleasant story, Miss Cayhill. And I’m afraid I must tell it from the beginning. — You didn’t suspect, I fear, that . . . well, that Ephie had a fancy for some one here?”

At these words, which were very different from those she had expected, Johanna eyed him in astonishment.

“A fancy!” she repeated incredulously. “What do you mean?”

“Even more — an infatuation,” said Maurice with deliberation. “And for some one I daresay you have never even heard of — a . . . a man here, a violinist, called Schilsky.”

The elaborate fabric she had that day reared, fell together about Johanna’s ears. She stared at Maurice as if she doubted his sanity; and she continued to listen, with the same icy air of disbelief, to his stammered and ineffectual narrative, until he said that he believed “it” had been “going on since summer.”

At this Johanna laughed aloud. “That is quite impossible,” she said. “I knew everything Ephie did, and everywhere she went.”

“She met him nearly every day. They exchanged letters, and ——-”

“It is impossible,” repeated Johanna with vehemence, but less surely.

“—— and a sort of engagement seems to have existed between them.”

“And you knew this and never said a word to me?”

“I didn’t know — not till to-night. I only suspected something — once . . . long ago. And l couldn’t — I mean — one can’t say a thing like that without being quite sure ——”

But here he broke down, conscious, as never before, of the negligence he had been guilty of towards Ephie. And Johanna was not likely to spare him: there was, indeed, a bitter antagonism to his half-hearted conduct in the tone in which she said: “I stood to Ephie in a mother’s place. You might have warned me — oh, you might, indeed!”

They walked on in silence — a hard, resentful silence. Then Johanna put the question he was expecting to hear.

“And what has all this to do with to-night?”

Maurice took up the thread of his narrative again, telling how Ephie had waited vainly for news since returning from Switzerland, and how she had only learnt that afternoon that Schilsky had been in Leipzig, and had gone away again, without seeing her, or letting her know that he did not intend to return.

“And how did she hear it?”

“At a friend’s house.”

“What friend?”

“A friend of mine, a — No; I had better be frank with you: the girl this fellow was engaged to for a year or more.”

“And Ephie did not know that?”

He shook his head.

“But you knew, and yet took her there?”

It was a hopeless job to try to exonerate himself. “Yes, there were reasons — I couldn’t help it, in fact. But I’m afraid I should not be able to make you understand.”

“No, never!” retorted Johanna, and squared her shoulders.

But there was more to be said — she had worse to learn before Ephie was handed over to her care.

“And Ephie has been very foolish,” he began anew, without looking at her. “It seems — from what she has told me tonight — that she has been to see this man . . . been at his rooms . . . more than once.”

At first, he was certain, Johanna did not grasp the meaning of what he said; she turned a blank face curiously to him. But, a moment later, she gave a low cry, and hardly able to form the words for excitement, asked: “Who . . . what . . . what kind of a man was he — this . . . Schilsky?”

“Rotten,” said Maurice; and she did not press him further. He heard her breath coming quickly, and saw the kind of stiffening that went through her body; but she kept silence, and did not speak again till they were almost at his house-door. Then she said, in a voice that was hoarse with feeling: “It has been all my fault. I did not take proper care of her. I was blind and foolish. And I shall never be able to forgive myself for it — never. But that Ephic — my little Ephie — the child I— that Ephie could . . . could do a thing like this . . .” Her voice tailed off in a sob.

Maurice struck matches, to light her up the dark staircase; and the condition of the stairs, the disagreeable smells, the poverty of wall and door revealed, made Johanna’s heart sink still further: to surroundings such as these had Ephie accustomed herself. They entered without noise; everything was just as Maurice had left it, except that the lamp had burned too high and filled the room with its fumes. As Johanna paused, undecided what to do, Ephie started up, and, at the sight of her sister, burst into loud cries of fear. Hiding her face, she sobbed so alarmingly that Johanna did not venture to approach her. She remained standing beside the table, one thin, ungloved hand resting on it, while Maurice bent over Ephie and tried to soothe her.

“Please fetch a droschke,” Johanna said grimly, as Ephie’s sobs showed no signs of abating; and when, after a lengthy search in the night, Maurice returned, she was standing in the same position, staring with drawn, unblinking eyes at the smoky lamp, which no one had thought of lowering. Ephie was still crying, and only Maurice might go near her. He coaxed her to rise, wrapped his rug round her, and carried her, more than he led her, down the stairs.

“Be good enough to drive home with us,” said Johanna. And so he sat with his arm round Ephie, who pressed her face against his shoulder, while the droschke jolted over the cobbled streets, and Johanna held herself pale and erect on the opposite seat. She mounted the stairs in front of them. Ephie was limp and heavy going up; but no sooner did she catch sight of Mrs. Cayhill than, with a cry, she rushed from the young man’s side, and threw herself into her mother’s arms.

“Oh, mummy, mummy!”

Downstairs, in the rain-soaked street, Maurice found the droschke-driver waiting for his fare. It only amounted to a couple of marks, and it was no doubt a just retribution for what had happened that he should be obliged to lay it out; but, none the less, it seemed like the last straw — the last dismal touch — in a day of forlorn discomfort.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/richardson/henry_handel/r52mg/chapter18.html

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