Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

VIII.

What she needed, what she had always needed, was a friend, he said to himself. She had never had anyone to stand by her and advise her to wisdom, in the matter of impulsive acts and wishes. He would be that friend. He had not, it was true, made a very happy beginning, with the expedition that had ended so unfortunately; but he promised himself not to be led into an indiscretion of the kind again. It was a friend’s part to warn in due time, and to point out the possible consequences of a rash act. He only excused his behaviour because he had not seen her for over two months, and had felt too sorry for her to refuse the first thing she asked of him. But from now on, he would be firm. He would win her back to life — reawaken her interest in what was going on around her. He would devote himself to serving her: not selfishly, as others had done, with their own ends in view; the gentle, steady aid should be hers, which he had always longed to give her. He felt strong enough to face any contingency: it seemed, indeed, as if his love for her had all along been aiming at this issue; as if each of the unhappy hours he had spent, since first meeting her, was made up for by the words: “You are my friend.”

A deep sense of responsibility filled him. In obedience, however, to a puritanic streak in his nature, he hedged himself round with restrictions, lest he should believe he was setting out on all too primrose a path. He erected limiting boundaries, which were not to be overstepped. For example, on the two days that followed the memorable Christmas Eve, he only made inquiries at the door after Louise, and when he learned that the cold she had caught was better, did not return. For, on one point, his mind was made up: idle tongues should have no fresh cause for gossip.

At the expiry of a fortnight, however, he began to fear that if he remained away any longer, she would think him indifferent to her offer of friendship. So, late one afternoon, he called to see her. But when he was face to face with her, he doubted whether she had given him a thought in the interval: she seemed mildly surprised at his coming. It was even possible that she had forgotten, by now, what she had said to him; and he sought anew for a means of impressing himself on her consciousness.

She was crouched in the rocking-chair, close beside the stove, and was wrapped in a thick woollen shawl; but the hand she gave him was as cold as stone. She was trying to keep warm, she said; she had not been properly warm since the night on the ice.

“But there’s an easy remedy for that,” said Maurice, who came in ruddy from the sharp air. “You must go out and walk. Then you will soon get warm.”

But she shuddered at the suggestion, and also made an expressive gesture to indicate the general laxity of her dress — the soiled dressing-gown, her untidy hair. Then she leaned forward again, holding both hands, palms out, to the mica pane in the door of the stove, through which the red coals glowed.

“If only winter were over!”

He gazed at the expressive lines of hand and wrist, and was reminded of an adoring Madonna he had somewhere seen engraved: her hands were held back in the same way; the thumbs slightly thrown out, the three long fingers together, the little one apart: here as there, was the same supple, passionate indolence. But he could find no more to say than on the occasion of his former visit; she did not help him; and more and more did it seem to the young man as if the words he bad gone about hugging to him, had never been spoken. After a desperate quarter of an hour, he rose to take leave. But simultaneously, she, too, got up from the rocking-chair, and, standing pale and uncertain before him, asked him if she might trouble him to do something for her. A box had been sent to her from England, she told him, while she tumbled over the dusty letters and papers accumulated on the writing-table, and had been lying unclaimed at the custom-house for several weeks now — how many she did not know, and she spread out her fingers, with a funny little movement, to show her ignorance. She had only remembered it a day or two ago; the dues would no doubt be considerable. If it were not too much trouble . . . she would be so grateful; she would rather ask him than Mr. Eggis.

“I should be delighted,” said Maurice.

He went the next morning, at nine o’clock, spent a trying hour with uncivil officials, and, in the afternoon, called to report to Louise. As he was saying good-bye to her, he inquired if there were nothing else of a similar nature he could do for her; he was glad to be of use. Smiling, Louise admitted that there were other things, many of them, more than he would have patience for. She should try him and see, said Maurice, and laid his hat down again, to hear what they were.

As a consequence of this, the following days saw him on various commissions in different quarters of the town, scanning the names of shops, searching for streets he did not know. But matters did not always run smoothly; complications arose, for instance, over a paid bill that had been sent in a second time, and over an earlier one that had not been paid at all; and Maurice was forced to confess his ignorance of the circumstances. When this had happened more than once, he sat down, with her consent, at the writing-table, to work through the mass of papers, and the contents of a couple of drawers.

In doing this, he became acquainted with some of the more intimate details of her life — minute and troublesome details, for which she had no aptitude. From her scat at the stove, Louise watched him sorting and reckoning, and she was as grateful to him as it was possible for her to be, in her present mood. No one had ever done a thing of the kind for her before; and she was callous to the fact of its being a stranger, who had his hands thus in her private life. When, horrified beyond measure at the confusion that reigned in all belonging to her, Maurice asked her how she had ever succeeded in keeping order, she told him that, before her illness, there had, now and again, come a day of strength and purpose, on which she had had the “courage” to face these distasteful trifles and to end them. But she did not believe such a day would ever come again.

Bills, bills, bills: dozens of bills, of varying dates, sent in once, twice, three times, and invariably tossed aside and forgotten — a mode of proceeding incomprehensible to Maurice, who had never bought anything on credit in his life. And not because she was in want of money: there were plenty of gold pieces jingling loose in a drawer; but from an aversion, which was almost an inability, to take in what the figures meant. And the amounts added up to alarming totals; Maurice had no idea what a woman’s dress cost, and could only stand amazed; but the sum spent on fruit and flowers alone, in two months, represented to his eyes a small fortune. Then there was the Bluthner, the unused piano; the hire of it had not been paid since the previous summer. Three terms were owed at Klemm’s musical library, from which no music was now borrowed; fees were still being charged against her at the Conservatorium, where she had given no formal notice of leaving. It really did not matter, she said, with that carelessness concerning money, which was characteristic of her; but it went against the grain in Maurice to let several pounds be lost for want of an effort; and he spent a diplomatic half-hour with the secretaries in the BUREAU, getting her released from paying the whole of the term that had now begun. As, however, she would not appear personally, she was under the necessity of writing a letter, stating that she had left the Conservatorium; and when she had promised twice to do, it, and it was still unwritten, Maurice stood over her, and dictated the words into her pen. A day or two afterwards, he prevailed upon her to do the same for Schwarz, to inform him of her illness, and to say that, at Easter, if she were better, she would come to him for a course of private lessons. This was an idea of Maurice’s own, and Louise looked up at him before putting down the words.

“It’s not true. But if you think I should say so — it doesn’t matter.”

This was the burden of all she said: nothing mattered, nothing would ever matter again. There was not the least need for the half-jesting tone in which Maurice clothed his air of authority. She obeyed him blindly, doing what he bade her without question, glad to be subordinate to his will. As long as he did not ask her to think. or to feel, or to stir from her chair beside the stove.

But it was only with regard to small practical things; in matters of more importance she was not to be moved. And the day came, only too soon, when the positive help Maurice could give her was at an end; she did not owe a pfennig to anyone; her letters and accounts were filed and in order. Then she seemed to elude him again. He did what lay in his power: brought her books that she did not read, brought news and scraps of chit-chat, which he thought might interest her and which did not, and an endless store of sympathy. But to all he said and did, she made the same response: it did not matter.

Since the night on the river, she had not set foot across the threshold of her room; nervous fears beset her. Maurice was bent on her going out into the open air; he also wished her to mix with people again, and thus rid herself of the morbid fancies that were creeping on her. But she shrank as he spoke of it, and pressed both hands to her face: it was too cold, she murmured, and too cheerless; and then the streets! . . . the publicity of the streets, the noise, the people! This was what she said to him; to herself she added: and all the old familiar places, to each of which a memory was attached! He spent hours in urging her to take up some regular occupation; it would be her salvation, he believed, and, not allowing himself to be discouraged, he returned to the attack, day after day. But she only smiled the thin smile with which she defeated most of his proposals for her good. Work? — what had she to do with work? It had never been anything to her but a narcotic, enabling her to get through those hours of the day in which she was alone.

She let Maurice talk on, and hardly heard what he said. He meant well, but he did not understand. No one understood. No one but herself knew the weight of the burden she had borne since the day when her happiness was mercilessly destroyed. Now she could not raise a finger to help herself. On waking, in the morning, she turned with loathing from the new day. In the semi-darkness of the room, she lay mo tionless, half sleeping, or dreaming with open eyes. The clock ticked benumbingly the long hours away; the wind howled, or the wind was still; snow fell, or it was frostily clear; but nothing happened — nothing at all. The day was well ad vanced before she left her bed for the seat by the stove; there she brooded until she dragged herself back to bed. One day was the exact counterpart of another.

The only break in the deathlike monotony was Maurice’s visit. He came in, fresh, and eager to see her; he held her hand and said kind things to her; he talked persuasively, and she listened or not, as she felt disposed. But little though he was able to touch her, she unconsciously began to look to his visits; and one day, when he was detained and could not come, she was aware of a feeling of injury at his absence.

As time went by, however, Maurice felt more and more clearly that he was making no headway. His uneasiness increased; for her want of spirit had something about it that he could not understand. It began to look to him like a somewhat morbid indulgence in grief.

“This can’t go on,” he said sternly.

She was in one of her most pitiable moods; for there were gradations in her unhappiness, as he had learned to know.

“This can’t go on. You are killing yourself by inches — and I’m a party to it.”

For the first time, there was a hint of impatience in his manner. To his surprise, Louise raised her head, raised it quickly, as he had not seen her make a movement for weeks.

“By inches? Inches only? Oh, I am so strong . . . Nothing hurts me. Nothing is of any use.”

“If you look in the glass, you will see that you’re hurting yourself considerably.”

“You mean that I’m getting old? — and ugly?” she caught him up. “Do you think I care? — Oh, if I had only had the courage, that day! A few grains of something, and it would have been all over, long ago. But I wasn’t brave enough. And now I have no more courage in me than strength in my little finger.”

Maurice looked meditatively at her, without replying: this was the single occasion on which she had been roused to a retort of any kind; and, bitter though her words were, he could not prevent the spark of hope which, by their means, was lit in him.

And from this day on, things went forward of themselves. Again and again, some harmless observation on his part drew forth a caustic reply from her; it was as if, having once experienced it, she found an outcry of this kind a relief to her surcharged nerves. At first, what she said was directed chiefly against herself — this self for which she now nursed a fanatic hatred, since it had failed her in her need. But, little by little, he, too, was drawn within the circle of her bitterness; indeed, it sometimes seemed as if his very kindness incited her, by laying her under an obligation to him, which it was in her nature to resent: at others, again, as if she merely wished to try him, to see how far she might go.

“Do I really deserve that thrust?” he once could not help asking. He smiled, as he spoke, to take the edge off his words.

Louise threw a penitent glance at him, and, for all answer, held out her hand.

But, the very next day, after a similar incident, she crossed the room to him, with the swiftness of movement that was always disturbing in her, contrasting as it did with her customary indolence. “Forgive me. I ought not to. And you are the only friend I have. But there’s so much I must say to some one. If I don’t say it, I shall go mad.”

“Why, of course. That’s what I’m here for,” said Maurice.

And so it went on — a strange state of things, in which he never called her by her name, and seldom touched her hand. He had himself well under control — except for the moment immediately before he saw her, and the moment after. He could not yet meet her, after the briefest absence, unmoved.

For a week on end that penetrating rawness had been abroad, which precedes and accompanies a thaw; and one day, early in February, when, after the unequalled severity of the winter, the air seemed of an incredible mildness, the thaw was there in earnest; on the ice of more than three months’ standing, pools of water had formed overnight. By the JOHANNATEICH, Maurice and Madeleine stood looking dubiously across the bank of snow, which, here and there, had already collapsed, leaving miniature crater-rings, flecked with moisture. Several people who could not tear themselves away, were still flying about the ice, dexterously avoiding the watery places; and Dove and pretty Susie Fay called out to them that it was ‘ better than it looked. But Maurice was fastidious and Madeleine indifferent; she was really rather tired of skating, she admitted, as they walked home, and was ashamed to think of the time she had wasted on it. As, however, this particular afternoon was already broken into, she would have been glad to go for a walk; but Maurice did not take up her suggestion, and parted from her at her house-door.

“Spring is in the air,” he sought to tempt Louise, when, a few minutes later, he entered her room.

She, too, had been aware of the change; for it had aggravated her dejection. She raised her eyes to his like a tired child, and had not strength enough to make her usual stand against him. Oh, if he really wished it so much, she would go out, she said at last. And so he left her to dress, and ran to the Conservatorium, arriving just in time for a class.

Later on, a curious uneasiness drew him back to see how she had fared. It was almost dark, but she had not returned; and he waited for half an hour before he heard her step in the hall. Directly she came in, he knew that something was the matter.

In each of her movements was a concentrated, but noiseless energy: she shut the door after her as if it were never to open again; tore off rather than unpinned the thick black veil in which she had shrouded herself; threw her hat on the sofa, furs and jacket to the hat; then stood motionless, pressing her handkerchief to her lips. Her face had emerged from its wrappings with renewed pallor; her eyes shone as if with belladonna. She took no notice of the silent figure in the corner, did not even look in his direction.

“You’ve got back,” said Maurice, for the sake of saying something. “It’s too late.”

At his words, she dropped on a chair, put her arms on the table, and hid her face in them.

“What’s the matter? Has anything happened?” he asked, in quick alarm, as she burst into violent sobs. He should have been accustomed to her way of crying by this time — it sounded worse than it was, as he knew — but it invariably racked him anew. He stood over her; but the only comfort he ventured on was to lay his hand on her hair — this wild black hair, which met his fingers springily, with a will of its own.

“What is the matter?” he besought her. “Tell me, Louise — tell me what it is.”

He had to ask several times before he received an answer. Finally, she sobbed in a muffled voice, without raising her head: “How could you make me go out! Oh, how COULD you!”

“What do you mean? I don’t understand. What is it?” He had visions of her being annoyed or insulted.

But she only repeated: “How could you! Oh, it was cruel of you!” and wept afresh.

Word by word, Maurice drew her story from her. There was not very much to tell.

She had gone out, and had walked hurriedly along quiet by-streets to the ROSENTAL. But before she had advanced a hundred yards, her courage began to fail, and the further she went, the more her spirits sank. Her surroundings were indescribably depressing: the smirched, steadily retreating snow was leaving bare all the drab brownness it had concealed — all the dismal little gardens, and dirty corners. Houses, streets and people wore their most bedraggled air. Particularly the people: they were as ugly as the areas of roof and stone, off which the soft white coating had slid; their contours were as painful to see. And the mud — oh, God, the mud! It spread itself over every inch of the way; the roads were rivers of filth, which spattered and splashed; at the sides of the streets, the slush was being swept into beds. Before she had gone any distance, her boots and skirts were heavy with it; and she hated mud, she sobbed — hated it, loathed it, it affected her with a physical disgust — and this lie might have known when he sent her out. In the ROSENTAL, it was no better; the paths were so soaked that they squashed under her feet; on both sides, lay layers of rotten leaves from the autumn; the trees were only a net-work of blackened twigs, their trunks surrounded by an undergrowth that was as ragged as unkempt hair. And everything was mouldering: the smell of moist, earthy decay reminded her of open graves. Not a soul was visible but herself. She sat on a seat, the only living creature in the scene, and the past rose before her with resistless force: the intensity of her happiness; the base cruelty of his conduct; her misery, her unspeakable misery; her forlorn desolation, which was of a piece with the desolation around her, and which would never again be otherwise, though she lived to be an old woman. — How long she sat thinking things of this kind, she did not know. But all of a sudden she started up, frightened both by her wretched thoughts and by the loneliness of the wood; and she fled, not looking behind her, or pausing to take breath, till she reached the streets. Into the first empty droschke she met, she had sunk exhausted, and been driven home.

It was of no use trying to reason with her, or to console her.

“I can’t bear my life,” she sobbed. “It’s too hard . . . and there is no one to help me. If I had done anything to deserve it . . . then it would be different . . . then I shouldn’t complain. But I didn’t — didn’t do anything — unless it was that I cared too much. At least it was a mistake — a dreadful mistake. I should never have shown him how I cared: I should have made him believe he loved me best. But I was a fool. I flung it all at his feet. And it was only natural he should get tired of me. The wonder was that I held him so long. But, oh, how can one care as I did, and yet be able to plot and plan? I couldn’t. It isn’t in me to do it.”

She wept despairingly, with her head on her outstretched arms. When she raised it again, her tear-stained face looked out, Medusa-like, from its setting of ruffled hair. More to herself than to the young man, as if, on this day, secret springs had been touched in her, she continued with terse disconnectedness: “I couldn’t believe it; I wouldn’t — even when I heard it from his own lips. You thought, all of you, that I was ill; but I wasn’t; I was only trying to get used to the terrible thought — just as a suddenly blinded man has to get used to being always in the dark. And while I was still struggling came Madeleine, with her cruel tongue, and told me — you know what she told me. Oh, if his leaving me had been hard to bear, this stung like scorpions. I wonder I didn’t go mad. I should have, if you hadn’t come to help me. For a day and night, I did not move from the corner of that sofa there. I turned her words over till there was no sense left in them. My nails cut my palms.”

Her clasped hands were slightly stretched from her: her whole attitude betrayed the tension at which she was speaking. “Oh, my God, how I hated him . . . hated him . . . how I hate him still! If I live to be an old, old woman, I shall never forgive him. For, in time, I might have learnt to bear his leaving me, if it had only been his work that took him from me. It was always between us, as it was; but it was at least only a pale brain thing, not living flesh and blood. But that all the time he should have been deceiving me, taking pains to do it — that I cannot forgive. At first, I implored, I prayed there might be some mistake: you, too, told me there was. And I hoped against hope — till I saw her. Then, I knew it was true ——-as plainly as if it had been written on that wall.” She paused for breath, in this bitter pleasure of laying her heart bare. “For I wasn’t the person he could always have been satisfied with — I see it now. He liked a woman to be fair, and soft, and gentle — not dark, and hot-tempered. It was only a phase, a fancy, that brought him to me, and it couldn’t have lasted for ever. But all I asked of him was common honesty — to be open with me: it wasn’t much to ask, was it? Not more than we expect of a stranger in the street. But it was too much for him, all the same. And so . . . now . . . I have nothing left to remind me that I ever knew him. That night, when I had seen her, I burned everything — every photograph, every scrap of writing I had ever had from him . . . if only one could burn memories too! I had to tear my heart over it; I used to think I felt it bleeding, drop by drop. For all the suffering fell on me, who had done nothing. He went free.”

“Are you sure of that? It may have been hard for him, too — harder than you think.” Maurice was looking out of the window, and did not turn.

She shook her head. “The person who cares, can’t scheme and contrive. He didn’t care. He never really cared for me — only for himself; at heart, he was cold and selfish. No, I paid for it all — I who hate and shrink from pain, who would do anything to avoid it. I want to go through life knowing only what is bright and happy; and time and again, I am crushed and flung down. But, in all my life, I haven’t suffered like this. And now perhaps you understand, why I never want to hear his name again, and why I shall never — not if I live to be a hundred years old — never forgive him. It isn’t in me to do it. As a child, I ground my heel into a rose if it pricked me.”

There was a silence. Then she sighed, and pushed her hair back from forehead. “I don’t know why I should say all this to you,” she said contritely. “But often, just with you, I seem to forget what I am saying. It must be, I think, because you’re so quiet yourself.”

At this, Maurice turned and came over to her. “No, it’s for another reason. You need to say these things to some one. You have brooded over them to yourself till they are magnified out of all proportion. It’s the best thing in the world for you to say them aloud.” He drew up a chair, and sat down beside her. “Listen to me. You told me once, not very long ago, that I was your friend. Well, I want to speak to you to-night as that friend, and to play the doctor a little as well. Will you not go away from here, for a time? — go away and be with people who know nothing of . . . all this — people you don’t need to be afraid of? Let yourself be persuaded. You have such a healthy nature. Give it a chance.”

She looked at him with a listless forbearance. “Don’t go on. I know everything you are going to say. — That’s always the way with you calm, quiet people, who are not easily moved yourselves. You still but faith in these trite remedies; for you’ve never known the ills they’re supposed to cure.”

“Never mind me. It’s you we have to think of. And I want you to give my old-fashioned remedy a trial.”

But she did not answer, and again a few minutes went by, before she stretched out her hand to him. “Forget what I’ve said to-night. I shall never speak of it again. — But then you, too, must promise not to make me go out alone — to think and remember — in all the dirt and ugliness of the streets.”

And Maurice promised.

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