Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

XI.

One day, some few weeks later, Madeleine sat at her writingtable, biting the end of her pen. A sheet of note-paper lay before her; but she had not yet written a word. She frowned to herself, as she sat.

Hard at work that morning, she had heard a ring at the door-bell, and, a minute after, her landlady ushered in a visitor, in the shape of Miss Martin. Madeleine rose from the piano with ill-concealed annoyance, and having seated Miss Martin on the sofa, waited impatiently for the gist of her visit; for she was sure that the lively American would not come to see her without an object. And she was right: she knew to a nicety when the important moment arrived. Most of the visit was preamble; Miss Martin talked at length of her own affairs, assuming, with disarming candour, that they interested other people as much as herself. She went into particulars about her increasing dissatisfaction with Schwarz, and retailed the glowing accounts she heard on all sides of a teacher called Schrievers. He was not on the staff of the Conservatorium; but he had been a favourite of Liszt’s, and was attracting many pupils. From this, Miss Martin passed to more general topics, such as the blow Dove had recently received over the head of his attachment to pretty Susie Fay. “Why, Sue, she feels perfectly DREADFUL about it. She can’t understand Mr. Dove thinking they were anything but real good friends. Most every one here knew right away that Sue had her own boy down home in Illinois. Yes, indeed.”

Madeleine displayed her want of interest in Dove’s concerns so plainly, that Miss Martin could not do otherwise than cease discussing them. She rose to end her call. As, however, she stood for the momentary exchange of courtesies that preceded the hand-shake, she said, in an off-hand way: “Miss Wade, I presume I needn’t inquire if you’re acquainted with the latest about Louise Dufrayer? I say, I guess I needn’t inquire, seeing you’re so well acquainted with Mr. Guest. I presume, though, you don’t see so much of him now. No, indeed. I hear he’s thrown over all his friends. I feel real disappointed about him. I thought he was a most agreeable young man. But, as momma says, you never can tell. An’ I reckon Louise is most to blame. Seems like she simply CAN’T exist without a beau. But I wonder she don’t feel ashamed to show herself, the way she’s talked of. Why, the stories I hear about her! . . . an’ they’re always together. She’s gotten her a heap of new things, too — a millionaire asked her to marry him, when she was in Dresden, but he wasn’t good enough for her, no ma’am, an’ all on account of Mr. Guest. — Yes, indeed. But I must say I feel kind of sorry for him, anyway. He was a real pleasant young man.”

“Maurice Guest is quite able to look after. himself,” said Madeleine drily.

“Is that so? Well, I presume you ought to know, you were once so well acquainted with him — if I may say, Miss Wade, we all thought it was you was his fancy. Yes, indeed.”

“Oh, I always knew he liked Louise.”

But this was the chief grudge she, too, bore him: that he had been so little open with her. His seeming frankness had been merely a feint; he had gone his own way, and had never really let her know what he was thinking and planning. She now recalled the fact that Louise had only once been mentioned between them, since the time of her illness, over six months ago; and she, Madeleine, had foolishly believed his reticence to be the result of a growing indifference.

Since the night of the ball, they had shunned each other, by tacit consent. But, though she could avoid him in person, Madeleine could not close her cars to the gossipy tales that circulated. In the last few weeks, too, the rumours had become more clamatory: these two misguided creatures had obviously no regard for public opinion; and several times, Madeleine had been obliged to go out of her own way, to escape meeting them face to face. On these occasions, she told herself that she had done with Maurice Guest; and this decision was the more easy as, since the beginning of the year, she had moved almost entirely in German circles. But now the distasteful tattle was thrust under her very nose. It seemed to put things in a different light to hear Maurice pitied and discussed in this very room. In listening to her visitor, she had felt once more how strong her right of possession was in him; she was his oldest friend in Leipzig. Now she was ready to blame herself for having let her umbrage stand in the way of them continuing friends: had he been dropping in as he had formerly done, she might have prevented things from going so far, and certainly have been of use in hindering them from growing worse; for, with Louise, one was never sure. And so she determined to write to him, without delay. In this, though, she was piqued as well by a violent curiosity. Louise said to have given up a good match for his sake! xxx she could not believe it. It was incredible that she could care for him as he cared for her. Madeleine knew them both too well; Maurice was not the type of man by whom Louise was attracted.

She wrote in a guarded way.

IT SEEMS ABSURD THAT OLD FRIENDS SHOULD BEHAVE AS WE ARE DOING. IF ANYTHING THAT HAPPENED WAS MY FAULT, FORGIVE IT, AND SHOW ME YOU DON’T BEAR ME A GRUDGE, BY COMING TO SEE ME TO-MORROW AFTERNOON.

They had not met for close on four months, and, for the first few minutes after his arrival, Madeleine was confused by the change that had taken place in Maurice. It was not only that he was paler and thinner than of old: his boyish manner had deserted him; and, when he forgot himself, his eyes had a strange, brooding expression.

“Other-worldly . . . almost,” thought Madeleine; and, in order to surmount an awkwardness she had been resolved not to feel, she talked glibly. Maurice said he could not stay long, and wished to keep his hat in his hand; but before he knew it, he was sitting in his accustomed place on the sofa.

As they stirred their tea, she told him how annoyed she had felt at having recently had a performance postponed in favour of Avery Hill: and how the latter was said to be going crazy, with belief in her own genius. Maurice seemed to be in the dark about what was happening, and made no attempt to hide his ignorance. She could see, too, that he was not interested in these things; he played with a tassel of the sofa, and did not notice when she stopped speaking.

It is his turn now, she said to herself, and left the silence that followed unbroken. Before it had lasted long, however, he looked up from his employment of twisting the tassel as far round as it would go, and then letting it fly back. “I say, Madeleine, now I’m here, there’s something I should like to ask you. I hope, though, you won’t think it impertinence on my part.” He cleared his throat. “Once or twice lately I’ve heard a report about you — several times, indeed. I didn’t pay any attention to it — not till a few days back, that is — when I saw it — or thought I saw it — confirmed with my own eyes. I was at Bonorand’s on Monday evening; I was behind you.”

In an instant Madeleine had grasped what he was driving at. “Well, and what of that, pray?” she asked. “Do you think I should have been there, if I had been ashamed of it?”

“I saw whom you were with,” he went on, and treated the tassel so roughly that it came away in his hand. “I say, Madeleine, it can’t be true, what they say — that you are thinking of . . . of marrying that old German?”

Madeleine coloured, but continued to meet his eyes. “And why not?” she asked again. —“Don’t destroy my furniture, please.”

“Why not?” he echoed, and laid the tassel on the table. “Well, if you can ask that, I should say you don’t know the facts of the case. If I had a sister, Madeleine, I shouldn’t care to see her going about with that man. He’s an old???? — don’t you know he has had two wives, and is divorced from both?”

“Fiddle-dee-dee! You and your sister! Do you think a man is going to come to nearly fifty without knowing something of life? That he hasn’t been happy in his matrimonial relations is his misfortune, not his fault.”

“Then it’s true?”

“Why not?” she asked for the third time.

“Then, of course, I’ve nothing more to say. I’ve no right to interfere in your private affairs. I hoped I should still be in time — that’s all.”

“No, you can’t go yet, sit still,” she said peremptorily. “I too, have something to say. — But will you first tell me, please, what it can possibly matter to you, whether you are in time, as you call it, or not?”

“Why, of course, it matters. — We haven’t seen much of each other lately; but you were my first friend here, and I don’t forget it. Particularly in a case like this, where everything is against the idea of you marrying this man: your age — your character — all common sense.”

“Those are only words, Maurice. With regard to my age, I am over twenty-seven, as you know. I need no boy of eighteen for a husband. Then I am plain: I shall never attract anyone by my personal appearance, nor will a man ever be led to do foolish things for my sake. I have worked hard all my life, and have never known what it is to let to-morrow take care of itself. — Now here, at last, comes a man of an age not wholly unsuitable to mine, whatever you may say. What though he has enjoyed life? He offers me, not only a certain social standing, but material comfort for the rest of my days. Whereas, otherwise, I may slave on to the end, and die eventually in a governesses’ home.”

“YOU would never do that. You are not one of that kind. But do you think, for a moment, you’d be happy in such a position of dependence?”

“That’s my own affair. There would certainly be nothing extraordinary in it, if I were.”

“As you put it, perhaps not. But ——— If it were even some one of your own race! But these foreigners think so queerly. And then, too, Madeleine, you’ll laugh, I daresay, but I’ve always thought of you as different from other women — strong and independent, and quite sure of yourself. The kind of girl that makes others seem little and stupid. No one here was good enough for you.”

Madeleine’s amazement was so great that she did not reply immediately. Then she laughed. “You have far too high an opinion of me. Do you really think I like standing alone? That I do it by preference? — You were never more mistaken, if you do. It has always been a case of necessity with me, no one ever having asked me to try the other way. I suppose like you, they thought I enjoyed it. However, set your mind at rest. Your kind intervention has not come too late. There is still nothing definite.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“I don’t say there mayn’t be,” she added. “Herr Lohse and I are excellent friends, and it won’t occur to me not to accept the theatre-tickets and other amusements he is able to give me. — But it is also possible that for the sake of ‘your ideals, I may die a solitary old maid.”

Here she was overcome by the comical side of the matter, and burst out laughing.

“What a ridiculous boy you are! If you only knew how you have turned the tables on me. I sent for you, this afternoon, to give you a sound talking-to, and instead of that, here you sit and lecture me.”

“Well, if I have achieved something ——”

“It’s too absurd,” she repeated more tartly. “For you to come here in this way to care for my character, when you yourself are the talk of the place.”

His face changed, as she had meant it to do. He choked back a sharp rejoinder. “I’d be obliged, if you’d leave my affairs out of the question.”

“I daresay you would. But that’s just what I don’t intend to do. For if there are rumours going the round about me, what on earth is one to say of you? I needn’t go into details. You know quite well what I mean. Let me tell you that your name is in everybody’s mouth, and that you are being made to appear not only contemptible, but ridiculous.”

“The place is a hot-bed of scandal. I’ve told you that before,” he cried, angry enough now. “These dirty-minded MUSIKER think it outside the bounds of possibility for two people to be friends.” But his tone was unsure, and he was conscious of it.

“Yes — when one of the two is Louise.”

“Kindly leave Miss Dufrayer out of the question.”

“Oh, Maurice, don’t Miss Dufrayer me! — I knew Louise before you even knew that she existed. — But answer me one question, and I’m done. Are you engaged to Louise?”

“Most certainly not.”

“Well, then, you ought to be. — For though you don’t care what people say about yourself, your conscience will surely prick you when you hear that you’re destroying the last shred of reputation Louise had left. — I should be sorry to repeat to you what is being said of her.”

But after he had gone, she reproached herself for having put such a question to him. At the pass things had reached, it was surely best for him to go through with his infatuation, and get over it. Whereas she, in a spasm of conventionality, had pointed him out the sure road to perdition; for the worst thing that could happen would be for him to bind himself to Louise, in any fashion. As if her reputation mattered! The more rapidly she got rid of what remained to her, the better it would be for every one, and particularly for Maurice Guest.

Had Maurice been in doubt as to Madeleine’s meaning, it would have been removed within a few minutes of his leaving the house. As he turned a corner of the Gewandhaus, he came face to face with Krafft. Though they had not met for weeks, Heinrich passed with no greeting but a disagreeable smile. Maurice was not half-way across the road, however, when Krafft came running back, and, taking the lappel of his friend’s coat, allowed his wit to play round the talent Maurice displayed for wearing dead men’s shoes.

CARMEN was given that night in the theatre; Maurice had fetched tickets from the box-office in the morning. An ardent liking for the theatre had sprung up in Louise of late; and they were there sometimes two or three evenings in succession. Besides this, CARMEN was her favourite opera, which she never missed. They heard it from the second-top gallery. Leaning back in his corner, Maurice could see little of the stage; but the bossy waves of his companion’s head were sharply outlined for him against the opposite tier.

Louise was engrossed in what was happening on the stage; her eyes were wide open, immovable. He had never known anyone surrender himself so utterly to the mimic life of the theatre. Under the influence of music or acting that gripped her, Louise lost all remembrance of her surroundings: she lived blindly into this unreal world, without the least attempt at criticism. Afterwards, she returned to herself tired and dispirited, and with a marked distaste for the dullness of real life. Here, since the first lively clash of the orchestra, since the curtain rose on gay Sevilla, she had been as far away from him as if she were on another planet. Not, he was obliged to confess to himself, that it made very much difference. Though he was now her constant companion, though his love for her was stronger than it had ever been, he knew less of her to-day than he had known six months ago, when one all-pervading emotion had made her life an open book.

Since that unhappy afternoon on which he learnt the contents of the letter from Dresden, they had spent a part of nearly every day in each other’s company. Louise had borne him no malice for what he had said to her; indeed, with the generous forgetfulness of offence, which was one of the most astonishing traits in her character, she met him, the day after, as though nothing had passed between them. By common consent, they never referred to the matter again; Maurice did not know to this day, whether or how she had answered the letter. For, although she had forgiven him, she was not quite the same with him as before; a faint change had come over their relation to each other. It was something so elusive that he could not have defined it; yet nevertheless it existed, and he was often acutely conscious of it. It was not that she kept her thoughts to herself; but she did not say ALL she thought — that was it. And this shade of reserve, in her who had been so frank, ate into him sorely. He accepted it, though, as a chastisement, for he had been in a very contrite frame of mind on awakening to the knowledge that he had all but lost her. And so the days had slipped away. An outsider had first to open his eyes to the fact that it was impossible for things to go on any longer as they were doing; that, for her sake, he must make an end, and quickly.

And yet it had been so easy to drift, so hard to do otherwise, when Louise accepted all he did for her as a matter of course, in that high-handed way of hers which took no account of details. He felt sorry for her, too, for she was not happy. There was a gnawing discontent in her just now, and for this, in great measure, he held himself responsible: for a few weeks she had been buoyed up by the hope of a new life, and he had been the main agent in destroying this hope. In return, he had had nothing to offer her — nothing but a rigid living up to certain uncomfortable ideals, which brought neither change nor pleasure with them: and, despite his belief in the innate nobility of her nature, he could not but recognise that ideals were for her something colder and sterner than for other people.

She made countless demands on his indulgence, and he learnt to see, only too clearly, what a dependent creature she was. It was more than a boon, it was a necessity to her, to have some one at her side who would care for her comfort and well-being. He could not picture her alone; for no one had less talent than she for the trifles that compose life. Her thoughts seemed always to be set on something larger, vaguer, beyond.

He devoted as much time to her as he could spare from his work, and strove to meet her half-way in all she asked. But it was no slight matter; for her changes of mood had never been so abrupt as they were now. He did not know how to treat her. Sometimes, she was cold and unapproachable, so wrapped up in herself that he could not get near her; and perhaps only an hour later, her lips would curve upwards in the smile which made her look absurdly young, and her eyes, too, have all the questioning wonder of a child’s. Or she would be silent with him, not unkindly, but silent as a sphinx; and, on the same day, a fit of loquacity would seize her, when she was unable to speak quickly enough for the words that bubbled to her lips. He managed to please her seldomer than ever. But however she behaved, he never faltered. The right to be beside her was now his; and the times she was the hardest on him were the times he loved her best.

As spring, having reached and passed perfection, slipped over into summer, she was invaded by a restlessness that nothing could quell. It got into her hands and her voice, into all her movements, and worked upon her like a fever-like a crying need. So intense did it become that it communicated itself to him also. He, too, began to feel that rest and stillness were impossible for them both, and to be avoided at any cost.

“I have never really seen spring,” Louise said to him, one day, in excuse of some irrational impulse that had driven her out of the house. And the quick picture she drew, of how, in her native land, the brief winter passed almost without transi tion into the scathing summer; her suggestion of unchanging leaves, brown barrenness, and and dryness; of grass burnt to cinders, of dust, drought, and hot, sandy winds: all this helped him to understand something of what she was feeling. A remembrance of this parched heat was in her veins, making her eager not to miss any of the young, teeming beauty around her, or one of the new strange scents; eager to let the magic of this awakening permeate her and amaze her, like a primeval hap pening. But, though he thus grasped something of what was going on in her, he was none the less uneasy under it: just as her feverish unburdening of herself after hours of silence, so now her attitude towards this mere change of nature disquieted him; she over-enjoyed it, let herself go in its exuberance. And, as usual, when she lost hold of her nerves, he found himself retreating into his shell, practising self-control for two.

Often, how often he could not count, the words that had to be said had risen to his lips. But they had never crossed them — in spite of the wanton greenness of the woods, which should have been the very frame in which to tell a woman you loved her. But not one drop of her nervous exaltation was meant for him: she had never shown, by the least sign, that she cared a jot for him; and daily he became more convinced that he was chasing a shadow, that he was nothing to her but the STAFFAGE in the picture of her life. He was torn by doubts, and mortally afraid of the one little word that would put an end to them.

He recollected one occasion when he had nearly succeeded in telling her, and when, but for a trick of fate, he would have done so. They were on their way home from the NONNE, where the delicate undergrowth of the high old trees was most prodigal, and where Louise had closed her eyes, and drunk in the rich, earthy odours. They had paused on the suspension. bridge, and stood, she with one ungloved hand on the railing, to watch the moving water. Looking at her, it had seemed to him that just on this afternoon, she might listen to what he had to say with a merciful attentiveness; she was quiet, and her face was gentle. He gripped the rail with both hands. But, before he could open his lips, a third person turned from the wood-path on to the bridge, making it tremble with his steps — a jaunty cavalry officer, with a trim moustache and bright dancing eyes. He walked past them, but threw a searching look at Louise, and, a little further along the bridge, stood still, as if to watch something that was floating in the water, in reality to look covertly back at her. She had taken no notice of him as he passed, but when he paused, she raised her head; and then she looked at him — with a preoccupied air, it was true, but none the less steadily, and for several seconds on end. The words died on Maurice’s lips: and going home, he was as irresponsive as she herself . . .

“I love you, Louise — love you.” He said it now, sitting back in his dark corner in the theatre; but amid the buzz and hum of the music, and the shouting of the toreadors, he might have called the words aloud, and still she would not have heard them.

Strangely enough, however, at this moment, for the first time during the evening, she turned her head. His eyes were fixed on her, in a dark, exorbitant gaze. Her own face hardened.

“The opera-glass!”

Maurice opened the jeather case, and gave her the glass. Their fingers met, and hers groped for a moment round his hand. He withdrew it as though her touch had burnt him. Louise flashed a glance at him, and laid the opera-glass en the ledge in front of her, without making use of it.

Slowly the traitorous blood subsided. To the reverberating music, which held all ears, and left him sitting alone with his fate, Maurice had a moment of preternatural clearness. He realised that only one course was open to him, and that was to go away. BEI NACHT UND NEBEL, if it could not be managed otherwise, but, however it happened, he must go. More wholly for her sake than Madeleine had dreamed of: unless he wanted to be led into some preposterous folly that would embitter the rest of his life. Who could say how long the wall he had built up round her — of the knowledge he shared with her, of pity for what she had undergone — would stand against the onset of this morbid, overmastering desire?

To the gay, feelingless music, he thought out his departure in detail, sparing himself nothing.

But in the long interval after the second act, when they were downstairs on the LOGGIA, where it was still half daylight; where the lights of cafes and street-lamps were only beginning here and there to dart into existence; where every man they met seemed to notice Louise with a start of attention: here Maurice was irrevocably convinced that it would be madness to resign his hard-won post without a struggle. For that it would long remain empty, he did not for a moment delude himself.

They hardly exchanged a word during the remainder of the evening. His mouth was dry. Carmen, and her gaudy fate, drove past him like the phantasmagoria of a sleepless night.

When, the opera was over, and they stood waiting for the crowd to thin, he scanned his companion’s face with anxiety, to discover her mood. With her hand on the wire ledge, Louise watched the slow fall of the iron curtain. Her eyes were heavy; she still lived in what she had seen.

Her preoccupation continued as they crossed the square; her movements were listless. Maurice’s thoughts went back to a similar night, a year ago, when, for the first time, he had walked at her side: it had been just such a warm, lilac-scented night as this, and then, as now, he had braced himself up to speak. At that time he had known her but slightly; perhaps, for that very reason, he had been bolder in taking the plunge.

He turned and looked at her. Her face was averted: he could only see the side of her cheek, and the clear-cut line of her chin.

“Are you tired, Louise?” he asked, and, in the protective tenderness of his tone, her name sounded like a term of endearment.

She made a vague gesture, which might signify either yes or no.

“It was too hot for you up there, to-night,” he went on. “Next time, I shall take you a scat downstairs — as I’ve always wanted to.” As she still did not respond, he added, in a changed voice: “Altogether, though, it will be better for you to get accustomed to going alone to the theatre.”

She turned at this, with an indolent curiosity. “Why?”

“Because — why, because it will soon be necessary. I’m going away.”

He had made a beginning now, clumsily, and not as he had intended, but it was made, and he would stand fast.

“You are going away?”

She said each word distinctly, as if she doubted her ears.

“Yes.”

“Why, Maurice?”

“For several reasons. It’s not a new decision. I’ve been thinking about it for some time.”

“Indeed? Then why choose just to-night to tell me? — you’ve had plenty of other chances. And to-night I had enjoyed the theatre, and the music, and coming out into the air . . .”

“I’m sorry. But I’ve put it off too long as it is. I ought to have told you before. — Louise . . . you must see that things can’t go on like this any longer?”

His voice begged her for once to look at the matter as he did. But she heard only the imperative.

“Must?” she repeated. “I don’t see — not at all.”

“Yes. — For your sake, I must go.”

“Ah! — that makes it clearer. People have been talking, have they? Well, let them talk.”

“I can’t hear you spoken of in that way.”

“Oh, you’re very good. But if we, ourselves, know that what’s being said is not true, what can it matter?”

“I refuse to be the cause of it.”

“Do you, indeed?” She laughed. “You refuse? After doing all you can to make yourself indispensable, you now say: get on as best you can alone; I’ve had enough; I must go. — Don’t say it’s on my account — that the thought of yourself is not at the bottom of it — for I wouldn’t believe you though you did.”

“I give you my word, I have only thought of you. I meant it . . . I mean it, for the best.”

She quickened her steps, and he saw that she was nervously worked up.

“No man can want to injure the woman he respects — as I respect you.”

Her shoulders rose, in her own emotional way.

“But tell me one thing,” he begged, as she walked inexorable before him. “Say it will matter a little to you if I go — that you will miss me — if ever so little . . . Louise!”

“Miss you? What does it matter whether I miss you or not? It seems to me that counts least of all. You, at any rate, will have acted properly. You will have nothing to reproach yourself with. — Oh, I wouldn’t be a man for anything on earth! You are all — all alike. I hate you and despise you — every one of you!”

They were within a few steps of the house. She pressed on, and, without looking back at him, or wishing him good-night, disappeared in the doorway.

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