Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

VII.

When he had seen Madeleine home, Maurice returned to his room, and not feeling inclined to sleep, sat down to read. But his thoughts strayed; he forgot to turn the page; and sat staring over the book at the pattern of the tablecloth. Incidents of the evening flashed before him: Miss Jensen, in James’s hat, with her skirts pinned up; Madeleine earnest and decisive on the bank of snow; the maze and laughter of the FRANCAISE; Miss Martin’s slim, straight figure as he pushed her before him. He did not try to control these details, nor was he conscious of a mental effort; they stood out for an instant, as vivid sensations, then glided by, to make room for others. But, as he let them pass, he became aware that below them, in depths of his mind he had believed undisturbed, there was present a feeling of strange unhappiness, which he did not know the cause of: these sharp pictures resembled an attempt on the part of his mind, to deceive him as to what was really going on in him. But he did not want to know, and he allowed his thoughts to take wider flights: recalling the scheme Madeleine had proposed, he considered it with a clearness of view, which, at the time, had been impossible. From this, he turned to America itself, and reflected on the opportunities the country offered. He saw the two of them sweeping through vast tracts of uncultivated land, in a train that outdid all real trains in swiftness; saw unknown tropical places, where the yellow fruit hung low and heavy, and people walked shadeless, sandy roads, in white hats, under white umbrellas. He saw Madeleine and himself on the awning-spanned deck of an ocean steamer, anchoring in a harbour where the sea was the colour of turquoise, touched to sapphire where the mountains came down to the shore.

“Moping herself to death”: the phrase crystallised in his brain with such suddenness that he said it aloud. Now he knew what it was that was troubling him. He had not consciously recalled the words, nor had they even made a very incisive impression on him at the time; but they had evidently lain dormant, now to return and to strike him, as if no others had been said. He explained to himself what they meant. It was this: outside, in the crisp, stinging air, people lived and moved, busy with many matters, or sported, as he and his companions had done that evening: inside, she sat alone, mournful, forsaken. He saw her in the dark sofacorner, with her head on her hands. Day passed and night passed, but she was always in the same place; and her head was bowed so low that her white fingers were lost in the waves of her hair. He saw her thus with the distinctness of a vision, and except in this way could not see her at all.

He felt it little short of shameful that he should have carelessly amused himself; and, as always where she was concerned, a deep, unreasoning sense of his own unworthiness, filled him. He demanded of himself, with a new energy, what he could do to help her. Fantastic plans rose as usual in his mind, and as usual were dismissed. For the one thing he was determined not to do, was to thrust himself on her uncalled. Her solitude was of her own choosing, and no one had the right to break in upon it. It was perhaps her way of doing penance; and, at this thought, he felt a thrill of satisfaction.

At night, he consoled himself that things would seem different in the morning; but when he wakened from a restless sleep, crowded with dreams one more grotesque than another, he was still prone to be gloomy. He could think more clearly by daylight — that was all: his pitying sympathy for her had only increased. It interfered with everything he did; just as it had formerly done — just in the old way. And he had been on the brink of believing himself grown indifferent, and stronger in common sense. Fool that he was! Only a word was needed to bring his card-house down. The placidity of the past weeks had been a mere coating of thin ice, which had given way beneath the first test. A distrust of himself took him, a distrust so deep that it amounted to aversion; for in his present state of mind he discerned only a despicable weakness. But though he was thus bewildered at his own inconsistency, he was still assured that he would not approach Louise — not, that is, unless she sent for him. So much control he still had over his actions: and he went so far as to make his staying away a touchstone of his stability. This, too, although reason told him the end of it all would be, that Louise would actually leave Leipzig, without sending for him, or even remembering his existence.

He worked steadily enough. A skilled observer might have remarked a slight contraction of the corners of his mouth; none of his friends, however, noticed anything, with the exception of Madeleine, and all she said was: “You look so cross sometimes. Is anything the matter?”

Late one afternoon, they were on the ice as usual. While Madeleine talked to Dickensey, Maurice practised beside them. In making a particularly complicated gyration, he all but overbalanced himself, and his cap fell on the ice. As he was brushing the snow off it, he chanced to raise his eyes. A number of people were standing on the wooden bridge, watching the skaters; to the front, some children climbed and pushed on the wooden railing. His eye was ranging carelessly over them, when he started so violently that he again let his cap drop. He picked it up, threw another hasty look at the bridge, then turned and skated some distance away, where he could see without being seen. Yes, he had not been mistaken; it was Louise; he recognised her although a fur hat almost covered her hair. She was gazing down, with an intentness he knew in her; one hand rested on the parapet. And then, as he looked, his blood seemed to congeal: she was not alone; he saw her turn and speak to some one behind her. For a moment things swam before him. Then, a blind curiosity drove him forward to find out whom she spoke to. People moved on the bridge, obstructing his view, then several went away, and there was no further hindrance to his seeing: her companion was the shabby little Englishman, of doubtful reputation, with whom he had met her once or twice that summer. He felt himself grow cold. But now that he had certainty, his chief idea was to prevent the others from knowing, too; he grew sick at the thought of Madeleine’s sharp comments, and Dickensey’s cynicism. Rejoining them, he insisted — so imperiously that Madeleine showed surprise — on their skating with him on the further pond; and he kept them going round and round without a pause.

When the bridge was empty, and he had made sure that Louise was not standing anywhere about the edge of the ice, he left his companions, and, without explanation, crossed to the benches and took off his skates. He did not, however, go home; he went into the SCHEIBENHOLZ, and from there along outlying roads till he reached the river; and then, screwing on his skates again, he struck out with his face to the wind. Dusk was falling; at first he met some skaters making for home; but these were few, and he soon left them behind. When the state of the ice did not allow of his skating further, he plunged into the woods again, beyond Connewitz, tumbling in his haste, tripping over snow-bound roots, sinking kneedeep in the soft snow. His endeavour was to exhaust himself. If he sat at home now, before this fever was out of him, he might be tempted to knock his head against the wall of his room. Movement, space, air — plenty of air! — that was what he needed.

Hitherto, he had been surprised at his own conduct; now he was aghast: the hot rush of jealousy that had swept through him at the sight of the couple on the bridge, was a revelation even to himself. His previous feelings had been those of a child compared with this — a mere weak revolt against the inevitable. But what had now happened was not inevitable; that was the sting of it: it was a violent chance-effect. And his distress was so keen that, for the first time, she, too, had to bear her share of blame. He said jeeringly to himself, that, quixotic as ever, he had held aloof from her, leaving her in solitude to an atonement of his own imagining; and meanwhile, some one who was not troubled by foolish ideals stepped in and took his place. For it WAS his place; he could not rid himself of that belief. If anyone had a right to be at her side it was he, unless, indeed, all that he had undergone on her behalf during the past months counted for nothing.

Of course this Eggis was an unscrupulous fellow; but it was just such men as this — he might note that for future use — who won where others lost. At the same time, he shrank from the idea of imitating him; and even had he been bold enough, not a single errand could he devise to serve him as an excuse. He could not go to her and say: I come because I have seen you with some one else. And yet that would be the truth; and it would lurk beneath all he said.

The days of anxiety that followed were hard to bear. He dreaded every street-corner, for fear Louise and the other should turn it; dreaded raising his eyes to the bridges over the ice; and was so irritable in temper that Madeleine suggested he should go to Dresden in the Christmas holidays, for change of air.

For, over all this, Christmas had come down — the season of gift-making, and glittering Christmas trees, of BOWLE, STOLLEN, and HONIGKUCHEN. For a fortnight beforehand, the open squares and places were set out with fir-trees of all sizes — their pungent fragrance met one at every turn: the shops were ablaze till late evening, crowded with eagerly seeking purchasers; the streets were impassible for the masses of country people that thronged them. Every one carried brown paper parcels, and was in a hurry. As the time drew near, subordinates and officials grew noticeably polite; the very houseporter touched his cap at your approach. Bakers’ shops were piled high with WEIHNACHTSSTOLLEN, which were a special mark of the festival: cakes shaped like torpedoes, whose sugared, almonded coats brisked brown and tempting. But the spicy scent of the firs was the motive that recurred most persistently: it clung even to the stairways of the houses.

Maurice had assisted Madeleine with her circumstantial shopping; and, at dusk on Christmas Eve, he helped her to carry her parcels to the house of some German friends. He himself was invited to Miss Jensen’s, where a party of English and Americans would celebrate the evening in their own fashion; but not till eight o’clock. When he had picked out at a confectioner’s, a TORTE for the Fursts, he did not know how to kill time. He was in an unsettled mood, and the atmosphere of excitement, which had penetrated the familiar details of life, jarred on him. It seemed absurdly childish, the way in which even the grown-up part of the population surrendered itself to the sentimental pleasures of the season. But foreigners were only big children; or, at least, they could lay aside age and dignity at will. He felt misanthropic, and went for a long walk; and when he had passed the last tree-market, where poor buyers were bargaining for the poor trees that were left, he met only isolated stragglers. In some houses, the trees were already lighted.

On his return, he went to a flower-shop in the KONIGSPLATZ, and chose an azalea to take to Miss Jensen. While he was waiting for the pot to be swathed in crimped paper, his eye was caught by a large bunch of red and yellow roses, which stood in a vase at the back of the counter. He regarded them for a moment, without conscious thought; then, suddenly colouring, he streched out his hand.

“I’ll take those roses, too. What do they cost?”

The girl who served him — a very pretty girl, with plaits of straw-coloured hair, wound Madonna-like round her head — named a sum that seemed exorbitant to his inexperience, and told a wordy story of how they had been ordered, and then countermanded at the last moment.

“A pity. Such fine flowers!”

Her interest was awakened in the rather shabby young man who paid the price without flinching; and she threw inquisitive looks at him as she wrapped the roses in tissue-paper.

A moment later, Maurice was in the street with the flowers in his hand. He had acted so spontaneously that he now believed his mind to have been made up before he entered the shop; no, more, as if all that had happened during the past week had led straight up to his impulsive action. Or was it only that, at the sight of the flowers, a kind of refrain had begun to run through his head: she loves roses, loves roses?

But he did not give himself time for reflection; he hurried through the cold night air, sheltering the flowers under his coat. Soon he was once more in the BRUDERSTRASSE, on the stair, every step of which, though he had only climbed it some three or four times, he seemed to know by heart. As, however, he waited for the door to be opened, his heart misgave him; he was not sure how she would regard his gift, and, in a burst of cowardice, he resolved just to hand in the roses, without even leaving his name. But his first ring remained unanswered, and before he rang again, he had time to be afraid she would not be at home — a simple, but disappointing solution.

There was another pause. Then he heard sounds, steps came along the passage, and the door was opened by Louise herself.

He was so unprepared for this that he could not collect his wits; he thrust the flowers into her hand, with a few stammered words, and his foot was on the stair before she could make a movement to stop him.

Louise had peered out from the darkness of the passage to the dusk of the landing, with the air of one roused from sleep. She looked from him to the roses in her hand, and back at him. He tried to say something else, raised his hat, and was about to go. But, when she saw this, she impulsively stepped towards him.

“Are they for me?” she asked. And added: “Will you not come in? Please, come in.”

At the sound of her voice, Maurice came back from the stair-head. But it was not possible for him to stay: friends — engaged — a promise of long standing.

“Ah then . . . of course.” She retreated into the shadow of the doorway. “But I am quite alone. There is no one in but me.”

“Why, however does that happen?” Maurice asked quickly, and was ready at once to be wrath with all the world. He paused irresolute, with his hand on the banisters.

“I said I didn’t mind. But it is lonely.”

“I should think it was. — On this night of all others, too.”

He followed her down the passage. In the room there was no light except what played on the walls from the streetlamps, the blinds being still undrawn. She had been sitting in the dark. Now, she took the globe off the lamp, and would have lighted it, but she could not find matches.

“Let me do it,” said Maurice, taking out his own; and, over the head of this trifling service, he had a feeling of intense satisfaction. By the light that was cast on the table, he watched her free the roses from their paper, and raise them to her face. She did not mention them again, but it was ample thanks to see her touch several of them singly, as she put them in a jug of water.

But this done, they sat on opposite sides of the table, and had nothing to say to each other. After each banal observation he made came a heart-rending pause; she let a subject drop as soon as it was broached. It was over two months now since Maurice had seen her, and he was startled by the change that had taken place in her. Her face seemed to have grown longer; and there were hollows in the fine oval of the cheeks, in consequence of which the nose looked larger, and more pinched. The chin-lines were sharpened, the eyes more sunken, while the shadows beneath them were as dark as though they were plastered on with bistre. But it was chiefly the expression of the face that had altered: the lifelessness of the eyes was new to it, and the firm compression of the mouth: now, when she smiled, no thin line of white appeared, such as he had been used to watch for.

Even more marked than this, though, was the change that had taken place in her manner. He had known her as passionately self-assertive; and he could not now accustom himself to the condition of apathy in which he found her. “Moping to death” had been no exaggeration; help was needed here, and at once, if she were not to be irretrievably injured.

As he thought these things, he talked at random. There were not many topics, however, that could be touched on with impunity, and he returned more than once to the ice and the skating, as offering a kind of neutral ground, on which he was safe. And Louise listened, and sometimes assented; but her look was that of one who listens to the affairs of another world. Could she not be persuaded to join them on the JOHANNATEICH, he was asking her. What matter though she did not skate! It was easily learned. Madeleine had been a beginner that winter, and now seldom missed an afternoon.

“Oh, if Madeleine is there, I should not go,” she said with a touch of the old arrogance.

Then he told her of the frozen river, with its long, lonely, grey-white reaches. Her eyes kindled at this, he fancied, and in her answer was more of herself. “I have never trodden on ice in my life. Oh, I should be afraid — horribly afraid!”

For those who did not skate there were chairs, he urged — big, green-painted, sledge-like chairs, which ran smoothly. The ice was many inches thick; there was not the least need to be afraid.

But she only smiled, and did not answer.

“Then I can’t persuade you?” he asked, and was annoyed at his own powerlessness. She can go with Eggis, he told himself, and simultaneously spoke out the thought. “I saw you on the bridge the other day.”

But if he had imagined this would rouse her, he was wrong.

“Yes?” she said indifferently, and with that laming want of curiosity which prevents a subject from being followed up.

They sat in silence for some seconds. With her fingers, she pulled at the fringe of the tablecloth. Then, all of a sudden rising from her chair, she went over to the jug of roses, which she had placed on the writing-table, bent over the flowers with a kind of perceptible hesitation. and as suddenly came back to her seat.

“Suppose we went to-night.” she said, and for the first time looked hard at Maurice.

“To-night?” he had echoed, before he could check himself.

“Ah yes — I forgot. You are going out.”

“That’s the least of it,” he answered, and stood up, fearful lest she should sink back into her former listlessness. “But it’s Christmas Eve. There wouldn’t be a soul on the river but ourselves. Are you sure you would like it?”

“Just for that reason,” she replied, and wound her handkerchief in and out of her hands, so afraid was she now that he would refuse. “I could be ready in five minutes.”

With his brain in a whirl, Maurice went back to the flowershop, and, having written a few words of apology on a card, ordered this to be sent with his purchase to Miss Jensen. When he returned, Louise was ready. But he was not satisfied: she did not know how cold it would be: and he made her put on a heavy jacket under her fur cape, and take a silk shawl, in which, if necessary, she could muffle up her head. He himself carried a travelling-rug for her knees.

“As if we were going on a journey!” she said, as she obeyed him. Her eyes shone with a spark of their old light, in approval of the adventurous nature of their undertaking.

The hard-frozen streets, over which a cutting wind drove, were deserted. In many windows, the golden glory of the CHRISTBAUM was visible; the steep blackness of the houses was splashed with patches of light. At intervals, a belated holidaymaker was still to be met with hurrying townwards: only they two were leaving the town, and its innocent revels, behind them. Maurice had a somewhat guilty feeling about the whole affair: they also belonged by rights to the town to-night. He was aware, too, of a vague anxiety, which he could not repress; and these feelings successfully prevented him taking an undue pleasure in what was happening to him. He had swung his skates, fetched in passing, over his shoulder; and they walked as quickly as the slippery snow permitted. Louise had not spoken since leaving the house; she also stood mutely by, while the astonished boatman, knocked out in the middle of his festivities, unlocked the boat-shed where the ice-chairs were kept. The Christmas punch had made him merry; he multiplied words, and was even a little facetious at their expense. According to him, a snow-storm was imminent, and he warned them not to be late in returning.

Maurice helped Louise into the chair, and wrapped the rug round her. If she were really afraid, as she had asserted, she did not show it. Even after they had started, she remained as silent as before; indeed, on looking back, Maurice thought they had not exchanged a word all the way to Connewitz. He pushed in a kind of dream; the wind was with them, and it was comparatively easy work; but the ice was rough, and too hard, and there were seamy cracks to be avoided. The snow had drifted into huge piles at the sides; and, as they advanced, it lay unswept on their track. It was a hazily bright night, but rapid clouds were passing. Not a creature was to be seen: had a rift opened in the ice, and had they two gone through it, the mystery of their disappearance would never have been solved.

Slight, upright, unfathomable as the night, Louise sat before him. What her thoughts were on this fantastic journey, he never knew, nor just what secret nerve in her was satisfied by it. By leaning sideways, he could see that her eyes were fixed on the grey-white stretch to be travelled: her warm breath came back to him; and the coil of her hair, with its piquant odour, was so close that, by bending, he could have touched it with his lips. But he was still in too detached a mood to be happy; he felt, throughout, as if all this were happening to some one else, not to him.

At their journey’s end, he helped her, cold and stiff, along the snowy path to the WALDCAFE. In a corner of the big room, which was empty, they sat beside the stove, before cups of steaming coffee. The landlady served them herself, and looked with the same curious interest as the boatman at the forlorn pair.

Louise had laid her fur cap aside with her other wraps, and had drawn off her gloves; and now she sat with her hand propping her chin. She was still disinclined to speak; from the expression of her eyes, Maurice judged that her thought were very far away. Sitting opposite her, he shaded his own eyes with his hand, and scrutinised her closely. In the stronger light of this room, he could see more plainly than before the havoc trouble had made of her face. And yet, in spite of the shadows that had descended on it, it was still to him the most adorable face in the world. He could not analyse his feelings any better now than in the beginning; but this face had exactly the same effect upon him now as then. It seemed to be a matter of the nerves. Nor was it the face alone: it was also the lines of throat and chin, when she turned her head; it was the gesture with which she fingered the knot of hair on her neck; above all, her hands, whose every movement was full of meaning: yes, these things sent answering ripples through him, as sound does through air.

He had stared too openly: she felt his eyes, and raised her own. For a few seconds, they looked at each other. Then she held out her hand.

“You are my friend.”

He pressed it, without replying; he could not think of anything suitable to say; what rose to his lips was too emotional, too tell-tale. But he made a vow that, from this day on, she should never doubt the truth of what she said.

“You are my friend.”

He would take care of her as no one had ever yet tried to do. She might safely give herself into his charge. The unobtrusive aid that was mingled tenderness and respect, should always be hers.

“Are you warmer now?”

He could not altogether suppress the new note that had got into his voice. All strangeness seemed to have been swept away between them; he was wide-awake to the fact that he was sitting alone with her, apart from the rest of the world.

He looked at his watch: it was time to go; but she begged for a little longer, and so they sat on for another half-hour, in the warm and drowsy stillness.

Outside, they found a leaden sky; and they had not gone far before snow began to fall: great flakes came flying to them, smiting their faces, stinging their eyes, melting on their lips. The wind was against them; they were exposed to the full force of the blizzard. Maurice pushed till he panted; but their progress was slow. At intervals, he stopped, to shake the snow off the rug, and to enwrap Louise afresh; and each violent gust that met him when he turned a corner, smote him doubly; for he pictured to himself the fury with which it must hurl itself against her, sitting motionless before it.

It took them twice as long to return; and when Louise tried to get out of the chair, she found herself so paralysed with cold that she could hardly stand. Blinded by the snow, she clung to Maurice’s arm; he heard her teeth chatter, as they toiled their way along the ARNDTSTRASSE, through the thick, new snow-layer. Not a droschke was to be seen; and they were half-way home before they met one. The driver was drunk or asleep, and had first to be roused. Louise sank limply into a corner.

The cab slithered and slipped over the dangerous roads, jolting them from side to side. Maurice had laid the rug across her knees, and she had ceased to shiver. But, by the light of a street-lamp which they passed, he was dismayed to see that tears were running down her cheeks.

“What is it? Are you so cold? — Just a little patience. We shall soon be there.”

He took her hand, and chafed it. At this, she began to cry. He did not know how to comfort her, and looked out of the window, scanning each house they passed, to see if it were not the last. She was still crying when the cab drew up. The house-key had been forgotten; there was nothing for it but to ring for the landlady, and to stand in the wind till she came down. The old woman was not so astonished as Maurice had expected; but she was very wroth at the folly of the proceeding, and did not scruple to say so.

“SO ‘NE DUMMHEIT, SO ‘NE DUMMHEIT!” she mumbled, as, between them, they got Louise up the stairs; and she treated Maurice’s advice concerning cordials and hot drinks with scant courtesy.

“JA, JA— JAWOHL!” she sniffed. And, on the landing, the door was shut in his face.

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