Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson


In Maurice Guest, it might be said that the smouldering unrest of two generations burst into flame. As a young man, his father, then a poor teacher in a small provincial town, had been a prey to certain dreams and wishes, which harmonised ill with the conditions of his life. When, for example, on a mild night, he watched the moon scudding a silvery, cloud-flaked sky; when white clouds sailed swiftly, and soft spring breezes were hastening past; when, in a word, all things seemed to be making for some place, unknown, afar-off, where he was not, then he, too, was seized with a desire to be moving, to strap on a knapsack and be gone, to wander through foreign countries, to see strange cities and hear strange tongues, was unconsciously filled with the desire to taste, lighthearted, irresponsible, the joys and experiences of the WANDERJAHRE, before settling down to face the matter-of-factnesss of life. And as the present continually pushed the realisation of his dreams into the future, he satisfied the immediate thirst of his soul by playing the flute, and by breathing into the thin, reedy tones he drew from it, all that he dreamed of, but would never know. For he presently came to a place in his life where two paths diverged, and he was forced to make a choice between them. It was characteristic of the man that he chose the way of least resistance, and having married, more or less improvidently, he turned his back on the visions that had haunted his youth: afterwards, the cares, great and small, that came in the train of the years, drove them ever further into the background. Want of sympathy in his home-life blunted the finer edges of his nature; of a gentle and yielding disposition, he took on the commonplace colour of his surroundings. After years of unhesitating toil, it is true, the most pressing material needs died down, but the dreams and ambitions had died, too, never to come again. And as it is in the nature of things that no one is less lenient towards romantic longings than he who has suffered disappointment in them, who has failed to transmute them into reality, so, in this case, the son’s first tentative leanings to a wider life, met with a more deeply-rooted, though less decisive, opposition, on the part of the father than of the mother.

But Maurice Guest had a more tenacious hold on life.

The home in which he grew up, was one of those cheerless, middle-class homes, across which never passes a breath of the great gladness, the ideal beauty of life; where thought never swings itself above the material interests of the day gone, the day to come, and existence grows as timid and trivial as the petty griefs and pleasures that intersperse it. The days drip past, one by one, like water from a spout after a rain-shower; and the dull monotony of them benumbs all wholesome temerity at its core. Maurice Guest had known days of this kind. For before the irksomeness of the school-bench was well behind him, he had begun his training as a teacher, and as soon as he had learnt how to instil his own half-digested knowledge into the minds of others, he received a small post in the school at which his father taught. The latter had, for some time, secretly cherished a wish to send the boy to study at the neighbouring university, to make a scholar of his eldest son; but the longer he waited, the more unfavourable did circumstances seem, and the idea finally died before it was born.

Maurice Guest looked back on the four years he had just come through, with bitterness; and it was only later, when he was engrossed heart and soul in congenial work, that he began to recognise, and be vaguely grateful for, the spirit of order with which they had familiarised him. At first, he could not recall them without an aversion that was almost physical: this machine-like regularity, which, in its disregard of mood and feeling, had something of a divine callousness to human stirrings; the jarring contact with automaton-like people; his inadequacy and distaste for a task that grew day by day more painful. His own knowledge was so hesitating, so uncertain, too slight for self-confidence, just too much and too fresh to allow him to generalise with the unthinking assurance that was demanded of him. Yet had anyone, he asked himself, more obstacles to overcome than he, in his efforts to set himself free? This silent, undemonstrative father, who surrounded himself with an unscalable wall of indifference; this hard-faced, careworn mother, about whose mouth the years had traced deep lines, and for whom, in the course of a single-handed battle with life, the true reality had come to be success or failure in the struggle for bread. What was art to them but an empty name, a pastime for the drones and idlers of existence? How could he set up his ambitions before them, to be bowled over like so many ninepins? When, at length, after much heartburning and conscientious scrupling, he was mastered by a healthier spirit of self-assertion, which made him rebel against the uselessness of the conflict, and doggedly resolve to put an end to it, he was only enabled to stand firm by summoning to his aid all the strengthening egoism, which is latent in every more or less artistic nature. To the mother, in her honest narrowness, the son’s choice of a calling which she held to be unfitting, was something of a tragedy. She allowed no item of her duty to escape her, and moved about the house as usual, sternly observant of her daily task, but her lips were compressed to a thin line, and her face reflected the anger that burnt in her heart, too deep for speech. In the months that followed, Maurice learnt that the censure hardest to meet is that which is never put into words, which refuses to argue or discuss: he chafed inwardly against the unspoken opposition that will not come out to be grappled with, and overthrown. And, as he was only too keenly aware, there was more to be faced than a mere determined aversion to the independence with which he had struck out: there was, in the first place, a pardonably human sense of aggrievedness that the eldest-born should cross their plans and wishes; that, after the year-long care and thought they had bestowed on him, he should demand fresh efforts from them; and, again, most harassing of all and most invulnerable, such an entire want of faith in the powers he was yearning to test — the prophet’s lot in the mean blindness of the family — that, at times, it threatened to shake his hard-won faith in himself. — But before the winter drew to a close he was away.

Away! — to go out into the world and be a musican — that was his longing and his dream. And he never came to quite an honest understanding with himself on this point, for desire and dream were interwoven in his mind; he could not separate the one from the other. But when he weighed them, and allowed them to rise up and take shape before him, it was invariably in this order that they did so. In reality, although he himself was but vaguely conscious of the fact, it was to some extent as means to an end, that, when his eyes had been opened to its presence, he clutched — like a drowning man who seizes upon a spar — clutched and held fast to his talent. But the necessary insight into his powers had first to be gained, for it was not one of those talents which, from the beginning, strut their little world with the assurance of the peacock. He was, it is true, gifted with an instinctive feeling for the value and significance of tones — as a child he sang by ear in a small, sweet voice, which gained him the only notice he received at school, and he easily picked out his notes, and taught himself little pieces, on the old-fashioned, silk-faced piano, which had belonged to his mother as a girl, and at which, in the early days of her marriage, she had sung in a high, shrill voice, the sentimental songs of her youth. But here, for want of incentive, matters remained; Maurice was kept close at his school-books, and, boylike, he had no ambition to distinguish himself in a field so different from that in which his comrades won their spurs. It was only when, with the end of his schooldays in sight, he was putting away childish things, that he seriously turned his attention to the piano and his hands. They were those of the pianist, broad, strong and supple, and the new occupation soon engrossed him deeply; he gave up all his spare time to it, and, in a few months, attained so creditable a proficiency, that he went through a course of instruction with a local teacher of music, who, scenting talent, dismissed preliminaries with the assurance of his kind, and initiated his pupil into all that is false and meretricious in the literature of the piano — the cheaply pathetic, the tinsel of transcription, the titillating melancholy of Slavonic dance-music — to leave him, but for an increased agility of finger, not a whit further forward than he had found him. Then followed months when the phantom of discontent stalked large through Maurice’s life, grew, indeed, day by day more tangible, more easily defined; for there came the long, restless summer evenings, when it seemed as if a tranquil darkness would never fall and bar off the distant, the unattainable; and as he followed some flat, white country road, that was lost to sight on the horizon as a tapering line, or looked out across a stretch of low, luxuriant meadows, the very placidity of which made heart and blood throb quicker, in a sense of opposition: then the desire to have finished with the life he knew, grew almost intolerable, and only a spark was needed to set his resolve ablaze.

It was one evening when the summer had already dragged itself to a close, that Maurice walked through a drizzling rain to the neighbouring cathedral town, to attend a performance of ELIJAH. It was the first important musical experience of his life, and, carried away by the volumes of sound, he repressed his agitation so ill, that it became apparent to his neighbour, a small, wizened, old man, who was leaning forward, his hands hanging between his knees and his eyes fixed on the floor, alternately shaking and nodding his head. In the interval between the parts, they exchanged a few words, halting, excited on Maurice’s part, interrogative on his companion’s; when the performance was over, they walked a part of the way together, and found so much to say, that often, after this, when his week’s work was behind him, Maurice would cover the intervening miles for the pleasure of a few hours’ conversation with this new friend. In a small, dark room, the air of which was saturated with tobacco-smoke, he learned, by degrees, the story of the old musician’s life: how, some thirty years previously, he had drifted into the midst of this provincial population, where he found it easy to earn enough for his needs, and where his position was below that of a dancing-master; but how, long ago, in his youth — that youth of which he spoke with a far-away tone in his voice, and at which he seemed to be looking out as at a fading shore — it had been his intention to perfect himself as a pianist. Life had been against him; when, the resolve was strongest, poverty and ill-heath kept him down, and since then, with the years that passed, he had come to see that his place would only have been among the multitude of little talents, whose destiny it is to imitate and vulgarise the strivings of genius, to swell the over-huge mass of mediocrity. And so, he had chosen that his life should he a failure — a failure, that is, in the eyes of the world; for himself, he judged otherwise. The truth that could be extracted from words was such a fluctuating, relative truth. Failure! success! — what WAS success, but a clinging fast, unabashed by smile or neglect, to that better part in art, in one’s self, that cannot be taken away? — never for a thought’s space being untrue to the ideal each one of us bears in his breast; never yielding jot or tittle to the world’s opinion. That was what it meant, and he who was proudly conscious of having succeeded thus, could well afford to regard the lives of others as half-finished and imperfect; he alone was at one with himself, his life alone was a harmonious whole.

To Maurice Guest, all this mattered little or not at all; it was merely the unavoidable introduction. The chief thing was that the old man had known the world which Maurice so desired to know; he had seen life, had lived much of his youth in foreign lands, and had the conversation been skilfully set agoing in this direction, he would lay a wrinkled hand on his listener’s shoulder, and tell him of this shadowy past, with short hoarse chuckles of pleasure and reminiscence, which invariably ended in a cough. He painted it in vivid colours, and with the unconscious heightening of effect that comes natural to one who looks back upon a happy past, from which the countless pricks and stings that make up reality have faded, leaving in their place a sense of dreamy, unreal brightness, like that of sunset upon distant hills. He told him of Germany, and the gay, careless years he had spent there, working at his art, years of inspiriting, untrammelled progress; told him of famous musicians he had seen and known, of great theatre performances at which he had assisted, of stirring PREMIERES, long since forgotten, of burning youthful enthusiasms, of nights sleepless with holy excitement, and days of fruitful, meditative idleness. Under the spell of these reminiscences, he seemed to come into touch again with life, and his eyes lit with a spark of the old fire. At moments, he forgot his companion altogether, and gazed long and silently before him, nodding and smiling to himself at the memories he had stirred up in his brain, memories of things that had long ceased to be, of people who had long been quiet and unassertive beneath their handful of earth, but for whom alone, the brave, fair world had once seemed to exist. Then he would lose himself among strange names, in vague histories of those who had borne these names, and of what they had become in their subsequent journeyings towards the light, for which they had set out, side by side, with so much ardour (and oftenest what he had to tell was a modest mediocrity); but the greater number of them had lost sight one of the other; the most inseparable friends had, once parted, soon forgotten. And the bluish smoke sent upwards as he talked, in clouds and spirals that mounted rapidly and vanished, seemed to Maurice symbolic of the brief and shadowy lives that were unrolled before him. But, after all this, when the lights came, the piano was opened, and then, for an hour or two, the world was forgotten in a different way. It was here that the chief landmarks of music emerged from the mists in which, for Maurice, they had hitherto been enveloped; here he learned that Bach and Beethoven were giants, and made uncertain efforts at appreciation; learnt that Gluck was a great composer, Mozart a genius of many parts, Mendelssohn the direct successor in this line of kings. Sonatas, symphonies, operas, were hammered out with tremendous force and precision on the harsh, scrupulously tuned piano; and all were dominated alike by the hoarse voice of the old man, who never wavered, never faltered, but sang from beginning to end with all his might. Each one of the pleasant hours spent in this new world helped to deepen Maurice’s resolution to free himself while there was yet time; each one gave more clearness and precision to his somewhat formless desires; for, in all that concerned his art, the nameless old musician hated his native land, with the hatred of the bigot for those who are hostile or indifferent to his faith.

With a long and hot-chased goal in sight, a goal towards which our hearts, in joyous eagerness, have already leapt out, it is astonishing how easy it becomes to make light of the last, monotonous stretch of road that remains to be travelled. Is there not, just beyond, a resting-place? — and cool, green shadows? Events and circumstances which had hitherto loomed forth gigantic, threatening to crush, now appeared to Maurice trivial and of little moment; he saw them in other proportions now, for it seemed to him that he was no longer in their midst: he stood above them and overlooked them, and, with his eyes fixed upon a starry future, he joyfully prepared himself for his new life. What is more, those around him helped him to this altered view of things. For as the present marched steadily upon the future, devouring as it went; as the departure this future contained took on the shape of a fact, the countless details of which called for attention, it began to be accepted as even the most unpalatable facts in the long run usually are, with an ungracious resignation in face of the inevitable. Thus, with all his ardour to be gone, Maurice Guest came to see the last stage of his home-life almost in a bright light, and even with a touch of melancholy, as something that was fast slipping from him, never to be there in all its entirety, exactly as it now was, again: the last calm hour of respite before he plunged into the triumphs, but also into the tossings and agitations of the future.

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