Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

V.

A few weeks later, a great variety of cabin-trunks and saratogas blocked the corridor of the PENSION. The addresses they bore were in Johanna’s small, pointed handwriting.

On this, the last afternoon of the Cayhills’ stay in Leipzig, Maurice saw Johanna again for the first time. She had had her hands full. In the woods, on that damp October night, and on her subsequent wanderings, Ephie had caught a severe cold; and the doctor had feared an inflammation of the lungs. This had been staved off; but there was also, it seemed, a latent weakness of the chest, hitherto unsuspected, which kept them anxious. Ephie still had a dry, grating cough, which was troublesome at night, and left her tired and fretful by day. They were travelling direct to the South of France, where they intended to remain until she had quite recovered her strength.

Maurice sat beside Johanna on the deep sofa where he and Ephie had worked at harmony together. But the windows of the room were shut now, and the room itself looked unfamiliar; for it had been stripped of all the trifles and fancy things that had given it such a comfortable, home-like air, and was only the bare, lodging-house room once more. Johanna was as self-possessed as of old, a trifle paler, a trifle thinner of lip.

She told him that they intended leaving quietly the next morning, without partings or farewells. Ephie was still weak and the less excitement she had to undergo, the better it would be for her.

“Then I shall not see Ephie again?” queried Maurice in surprise.

Johanna thought not: it would only recall the unhappy night to her memory; besides, she had not asked to see him, as she no doubt would have done, had she wished it. — At this, the eleventh hour, Johanna did not think it worth while to tell Maurice that Ephie bore him an unalterable grudge.

“I never want to see him again.”

That was all she said to Johanna; but, during her illness, she had brooded long over his treachery. And even if things had come all right in the end, she would never have been able to forgive his speaking to her of Schilsky in the way he had done. No, she was finished with Maurice Guest; he was too double-faced, too deceitful for her. — And she cried bitterly, with her face turned to the wall.

The young man could not but somewhat lamely agree with Johanna that it was better to let the matter end thus: for he felt that towards the Cayhills he had been guilty of a breach of trust such as it is difficult to forgive. At the same time, he was humanly hurt that Ephie would not even say good-bye to him.

He asked their further plans, and learnt that as soon as Ephie was well again, they would sail for New York.

“My father has cabled twice for us.”

Johanna’s manner was uncompromisingly dry and short. After her last words, there was a long pause, and Maurice made a movement to rise. But she put out her hand and detained him.

“There is something I should like to say to you.” And thereupon, with the abruptness of a nervous person: “When I have seen my sister and mother safe back, I intend leaving home myself. I am going to Harvard.”

Maurice realised that the girl was telling him a fact of considerable importance to herself, and did his best to look interested.

“Really? That’s always been a wish of yours, hasn’t it?”

“Yes.” Johanna coloured, hesitated as he had never known her to do, then burst out: “And now there is nothing in the way of it.” She drew her thumb across the leaf-corners of a book that was lying on the table. “Oh, I know what you will say: how, now that Ephie has turned out to be weak and untrustworthy, there is all the more reason for me to remain with her, to look after her. But that is not possible.” She faced him sharply, as though he had contradicted her. “I am incapable of pretending to be the same when my feelings have changed; and, as I told you — as I knew that night — I shall never be able to feel for Ephie as I did before. I am ready, as I said, to take all the blame for what has happened; I was blind and careless. But if the care and affection of years count for nothing; if I have been so little able to win her confidence; if, indeed, I have only succeeded in making her dislike me, by my care of her, so that when she is in trouble, she turns from me, instead of to me — why, then I have failed lamentably in what I had made the chief duty of my life.”

“Besides,” she continued more quietly, “there is another reason: Ephie is going to fall a victim to her nerves. I see that; and my poor, foolish mother is doing her best to foster it. — You smile? Only because you do not understand what it means. It is no laughing matter. If an American woman once becomes conscious of her nerves, then Heaven help her! — Now I am not of a disinterested enough nature to devote myself to sick-nursing where there is no real sickness. And then, too, my mother intends taking a French maid back with her, and a person of that class will perform such duties much more competently than I.”

She spoke with bitterness. Maurice mumbled some words of sympathy, wondering why she should choose to say these things to him.

“Even at home my place is filled,” continued Johanna. “The housekeeper who was appointed during our absence has been found so satisfactory that she will continue in the post after our return. Everywhere, you see, I have proved superfluous. There, as here.”

“I’m sure you’re mistaken,” said Maurice with more warmth. “And, Miss Joan, there’s something I should like to say, if I may. Don’t you think you take what has happened here a little too seriously? No doubt Ephie behaved foolishly. But was it after all any more than a girlish escapade?”

“Too seriously?”

Johanna turned her shortsighted eyes on the young man, and gazed at him almost pityingly. How little, oh, how little, she said to herself, one mortal knew and could know of another, in spite of the medium of speech, in spite of common experiences! Some of the nights at the beginning of Ephie’s illness returned vividly to her mind, nights, when she, Johanna, had paced her room by the hour, filled with a terrible dread, a numbing uncertainty, which she would sooner have died than have let cross her lips. She had borne it quite alone, this horrible fear; her mother had been told of the whole affair only what it was absolutely necessary for her to know. And, naturally enough, the young man who now sat at her side, being a man, could not be expected to understand. But the consciousness of her isolation made Johanna speak with renewed harshness.

“Too seriously?” she repeated. “Oh, I think not. The girlish escapade, as you call it, was the least of it. If that had been all, if it had only been her infatuation for some one who was unworthy of her, I could have forgiven Ephie till seventy times seven. But, after all these years, after the way I have loved her — no, idolised her! — for her to treat me as she did — do you think it possible to take that too seriously? There was no reason she should not have had her little secrets. If she had let me see that something was going on, which she did not want to tell me about, do you think I should have forced her?” — and Johanna spoke in all good faith, forgetful of how she had been used to clip and doctor Ephie’s sentiments. “But that she could deceive me wilfully, and lie so lightly, with a smile, when, all the time, she was living a double life, one to my face and one behind my back — that I cannot forgive. Something has died in me that I used to feel for her. I could never trust her again, and where there is no trust there can be no real love.”

“She didn’t understand what she was doing. She is so young.”

“Just for that reason. So young, and so skilled in deceit. That is hardest of all, even to think of: that she could wear her dear innocent face, while behind it, in her brain, were cold, calculating thoughts how she could best deceive me! If there had been but a single sign to waken my suspicions, then, yes, then I could have forgiven her,” said Johanna, and again forgot how often of late she had been puzzled by the subtle change in Ephie. “If I could just know that, in spite of her efforts, she had been too candid to succeed!”

She had unburdened herself and it had been a relief to her, but nothing could be helped or mended. Both knew this, and after a few polite questions about her future plans and studies, Maurice rose to take his leave.

“Say good-bye to them both for me, and give Ephie my love.”

“I will. I think she will be sorry afterwards that she did not see you. She has always liked you.”

“Good-bye then. Or perhaps it is only AUF WIEDERSEHEN?”

“I hardly think so.” Johanna had returned to her usual sedate manner. “If I do visit Europe again, it will not be for five or six years at least.”

“And that’s a long time. Who knows where I may be, by then!”

He held Johanna’s hand in his, and saw her gauntly slim figure outlined against the bare sitting-room. It was not likely that they would ever meet again. But he could not summon up any very lively feelings of regret. Johanna had not touched him deeply; she had left him as cool as he had no doubt left her; neither had found the key to the other. Her chief attraction for him had been her devotion to Ephie; and now, having been put to the test, this was found wanting. She had been wounded in her own pride and self-love, and could not forgive. At heart she was no more generous and unselfish than the rest.

He repeated farewell messages as he stood in the passage. Johanna held the front door open for him, and, as he went down the stairs, he heard it close behind him, with that extreme noiselessness that was characteristic of Johanna’s treatment of it.

The following morning, shortly after ten o’clock, a train steamed out of the THURINGER BAHNHOF, carrying the Cayhills with it. The day was misty and cheerless, and none of the three travellers turned her head to give the town a parting glance. They left unattended, without flowers or other souvenirs, without any of the demonstratively pathetic farewells, the waving of hats, and crowding about the carriage-door, which one of the family, at least, had connected inseverably with their departure. And thus Ephie’s musical studies came to an abrupt and untimely end.

* * * * *

“My faith in women is shattered. I shall never believe in a woman again.”

Dove paced the floor of Maurice’s room with long and steady strides, beneath which a particular board creaked at intervals. His voice was husky, and the ruddiness of his cheeks had paled.

At the outset of Ephie’s illness, Dove had called every morning at the PENSION, to make inquiries and to leave his regards. But when the story leaked out, as it soon did, in an exaggerated and distorted form, he straightway ceased his visits. Thus he was wholly unprepared for the family’s hurried departure, the news of which was broken to him by Maurice. Dove was dumbfounded. Not a single sententious phrase crossed his lips; and he remained unashamed of the moisture that dimmed his eyes. But he maintained his bearing commendably; and it was impossible not to admire the upright, manly air with which he walked down the street.

The next day, however, he returned, and was silent no longer. He made no secret of having been hard hit; just as previously he had let his friends into his hopes and intentions, so now every one heard of his reverses. He felt a tremendous need of unbosoming himself; he had been so sure of success, or, at least, so unthinking of failure, and the blow to his selfesteem was a rude one.

Maurice sat with his hands in his pockets, and tried to urge reason. But Dove would not admit even the possibility of his having been mistaken. He had received innumerable proofs of Ephie’s regard for him.

“Remember how young she was! Girls of that age never know their own minds,” said Maurice. But Dove was inclined to take Johanna’s sterner view, and to cry: “So young and so untender!” for which he, too, substituted “untrue”; and, just on this score, to deduce unfavourable inferences for Ephie’s whole moral character. As Maurice listened to him, he could not help thinking that Johanna’s affection had been of the same nature as Dove’s, in other words, had had a touch of the masculine about it: it had existed only as long as it could guide and subordinate; it denied to its object any midget attempt at individual life; it set up lofty moral standards, and was implacable when a smaller, frailer being found it impossible to live up to them.

At the same time, he was sorry for Dove, who, in his blindness, had laid himself open to receive this snubbing; and he listened patiently, even a thought flattered by his confidence, until he learnt from Madeleine that Dove was making the round of his acquaintances, and behaving in the same way to anyone who would let him. Then he found that the openness with which Dove related his past hopes, and the marks of affection Ephie had given him, bordered on indecency. He said so, with a wrathful frankness; but Dove could not see it in that light, and was not offended.

As the personal smart weakened, the more serious question that Dove had to face was, what he was going to tell his relatives at home. For it now came out that he had represented the affair to them as settled; in his perfectly sincere optimism, he had regarded himself as an all but engaged man. And the point that disturbed him was, how to back out with dignity, yet without violating the truth, on which he set great store.

“I’m sure he needn’t let that trouble him,” said Madeleine, on hearing of his dilemma. “He has only to say that HE has changed his mind, which is true enough.”

This was the conclusion Dove eventually came to himself — though not with such unseemly haste as Madeleine. Having approached the matter from all sides, he argued that it would be more considerate to Ephie to put it in this light than to tell the story in detail. And consequently, two elderly people in Peterborough nodded to each other one morning over the breakfast-table, and agreed that Edward had done well. They had not been much in favour of the American match, but they had trusted implicitly in their son’s good sense, and now, as ever, he had acted in the most becoming way. He had never given them an hour’s uneasiness since his birth.

Dove wrote:

CIRCUMSTANCES HAVE ARISEN, MY DEAR PARENTS, WHICH MAKE IT INCONTROVERTIBLY CLEAR TO ME THAT THE YOUNG LADY TO WHOM I WAS PAYING MY ADDRESSES WHEN I CONSULTED YOU IN SUMMER AND MYSELF WOULD NOT HAVE KNOWN TRUE HAPPINESS IN OUR UNION. ON MORE INTIMATE ACQUAINTANCE IT TRANSPIRED THAT OUR CHARACTERS WERE TOTALLY UNSUITED. I HAVE THEREFORE FOUND IT ADVISABLE TO BANISH THE AFFAIR FROM MY MIND AND TO DEVOTE MYSELF WHOLLY TO MY STUDIES.

As time passed, and Dove was able to view what had happened more objectively, he began to feel and even to hint that, all things considered, he had had a rather lucky escape; and from this, it was not very far to believing that if he had not just seen through the whole affair from the beginning, he had at any rate had some inkling of it; and now, instead of giving proofs of Ephie’s affection, he narrated the gradual growth of his suspicions, and how these had ultimately been verified. In conclusion, he congratulated himself on having drawn back, with open eyes, while there was still time.

“Like his cheek!” said Madeleine. “But he could imagine himself into being the Shah of Persia, if he sat down and gave his mind to it. I don’t believe the snub is going to do him a bit of good. He bobs up again like a cork, irrepressible. HAVE you heard him quote: ‘Frailty thy name is woman!’ or: ‘If women could be fair and yet not fond’? — It’s as good as a play.”

But altogether, Madeleine was very sharp of tongue since she learnt the part Maurice had played in what, for a day, was the scandal of the English-speaking colony. She had taken him to task at once, for his “lamentable interference.”

“Haven’t I warned you, Maurice, not to mix yourself up in Louise’s affairs? No good can come of it. She breeds mischief. And if that absurd child had really drowned herself”— in the version of the story that had reached Madeleine’s ears, Maurice was represented fishing Ephie bodily from the river —“you would have had to bear the whole brunt of the blame. It ought to teach you a lesson. For you’re just the kind of boy women will always take advantage of, a mean advantage, you know. Consider how you were treated in this case — by both of them! They were not a scrap grateful to you for what you did — women never are. They only look down on you for letting them have their own way. Kindness and complaisance don’t move them. A well-developed biceps and a cruel mouth — that’s what they want, and that’s all!” she wound up with a flourish, in an extreme bad temper.

She sat, one dull November afternoon, at her piano, and continued to run her fingers over the keys. Maurice leant on the lid, and listened to her. But they had barely exchanged a word, when there was a light tap at the door, and Krafft entered. Both started at his unexpected appearance, and Madeleine cried: “You come in like a ghost, to frighten people out of their wits.”

Krafft was buttoned to the chin in a travelling-ulster, and looked pale and thin.

“What news from St. Petersburg?” queried Madeleine with a certain asperity.

But Maurice recalled an errand he had to do in town; and, on hearing this, Krafft, who was lolling aimlessly, declared that he would accompany him.

“But you’ve only just come!” expostulated Madeleine. “What in the name of goodness did you climb the stairs for?”

He patted her cheek, without replying.

The young men went away together, Maurice puffing somewhat ostentatiously at a cigarette. The wind was cold, and Krafft seemed to shrink into his ulster before it, keeping his hands deep in his pockets. But from time to time, he threw a side-glance at his friend, and at length asked, in the tone of appeal which Maurice found it hard to withstand: “What’s the matter, LIEBSTER? Why are you so different? — so changed?”

“The matter? Nothing — that I’m aware of,” said Maurice, and considered the tip of his cigarette.

“Oh, yes, there is,” and Krafft laid a caressing hand on his companion’s arm. “You are changed. You’re not frank with me. I feel such things at once.”

“Well, how on earth am I to know when to be frank with you, and when not? Before you . . . not very long ago, you behaved as if you didn’t want to have anything more to do with me.”

“You are changed, and, if I’m not mistaken, I know why,” said Krafft, ignoring his answer. “You have been listening to gossip — to what my enemies say of me.”

“I don’t listen to gossip. And I didn’t know you had enemies, as you call them.”

“I? — and not have enemies?” He flared up as though Maurice had affronted him. “My good fellow, did you ever bear of a man worth his salt, who didn’t have enemies? It’s the penalty one pays: only the dolts and the ‘all-too-many’ are friends with the whole world. No one who has work to do that’s worth doing, can avoid making enemies. And who knows what a friend is, who hasn’t an enemy to match him? It’s a question of light and shade, theme and counter-theme, of artistic proportion.” He laughed, in his superior way. But directly afterwards, he dropped back into his former humble tone. “But that you, my friend, are so ready to let yourself be influenced — I should not have believed it of you.”

“What I heard, I heard from Furst; and I have no reason to suspect him of falsehood. — Of course, if you assure me it was not true, that’s a different thing.” He turned so sharply that he sent a beautiful flush over Krafft’s face. “Come, give me your word, Heirtz, and things will be straight again.”

But Krafft merely shrugged his shoulders, and his colour subsided as rapidly as it had risen.

“Are you still such an outsider,” he asked, “after all this time — in my society — as to attach importance to a word? What is ‘giving a word’? Do you really think it is of any value? May I not give it tonight, and take it back to-morrow, according to the mood I am in, according to whether I believe it myself or not, at the moment? — You think a thing must either be true or not true? You are wrong. Do you believe, when you answer a question in the affirmative or the negative, that you are actually telling the truth? No, my friend, to be perfectly truthful one would need to lose oneself in a maze of explanation, such as no questioner would have the patience to listen to. One would need to take into account the innumerable threads that have gone to making the statement what it is. Do you think, for instance, if I answered yes or no, in the present case, it would be true? If I deny what you heard — does that tell you that I have longed with all my heart for it to come to pass? Or say I admit it — I should need to unroll my life before you to make you understand. No, there’s no such thing as absolute truth. If there were, the finest subtleties of existence would be lost. There is neither positive truth nor positive untruth; life is not so coarse-fibred as that. And only the grossest natures can be satisfied with a blunt yes or no. Truth? — it is one of the many miserable conventions the human brain has tortured itself with, and its first principle is an utter lack of the imaginative faculties. — A DIEU!”

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