Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

XII.

It was a hot evening in June: the perfume of the lilac, now in fullest bloom, lay over squares and gardens like a suspended wave. The sun had gone down in a cloudless sky; an hour afterwards, the pavements were still warm to the touch, and the walls of the buildings radiated the heat they had absorbed. The high old houses in the inner town had all windows set open, and the occupants leaned out on their window-cushions, with continental nonchalance. The big garden-cafes were filled to the last scat. In the woods, the midges buzzed round people’s heads in accompanying clouds; and streaks of treacherous white mist trailed, like fixed smoke, over the low-lying meadow-land.

Maurice and Louise had rowed to Connewitz; but so late in the evening that most of the variously shaped boats, with coloured lanterns at their bows, were returning when they started.

Louise herself had proposed it. When he went to her that afternoon, he found her stretched on the sofa. A theatre-ticket lay on the table — for she had taken him at his word, and shown him that she could do without him. But to-night she had no fancy for the theatre: it was too hot. She looked very slight and young in her white dress; but was moody and out of spirits.

On the way to Connewitz, they spoke no more than was necessary. Coming back, however, they had the river to themselves; and she no longer needed to steer. He placed cushions for her at the bottom of the boat; and there she lay, with her hands clasped under her neck, watching the starry strip of sky, which followed them, between the tops of the trees above, like a complement of the river below.

The solitude was unbroken; they might have gone down in the murky water, and no one would ever know how it had happened: a snag caught unawares; a clumsy movement in the light boat; half a minute, and all would be over. — Or, for the first and the last time in his life, he would take her in his arms, hold her to him, feel her cheek on his; he would kiss her, with kisses that were at once an initiation and a farewell; then, covering her eyes with his hands, he would gently, very gently, tilt the boat. A moment’s hesitation; it sought to right itself; rocked violently, and overturned: and beneath it, locked in each other’s arms, they found a common grave . . . .

In fancy, he saw it all. Meanwhile, he rowed on, with long, leisurely strokes; and the lapping of the water round the oars was the only sound to be heard.

At home, on the lid of his piano, lay the prospectuses of music-schools in other towns. They were still arriving, in answer to the impulsive letters he had written off, the night after the theatre. But the last to come had remained unopened. — He was well aware of it: his lingering on had all the appearance of a weak reluctance to face the inevitable. For he could never make mortal understand what he had come through, in the course of the past week. He could no more put into words the isolated spasms of ecstasy he had experienced — when nothing under the sun seemed impossible — than he could describe the slough of misery and uncertainty, which, on occasion, he had been forced to wade through. For the most part, he believed that the words of contempt Louise had spoken, came straight from her heart; but he had also known the faint stir ring of a new hope, and particularly was this the case when he had not seen Louise for some time. Then, at night, as he lay staring before him, this feeling became a sudden refulgence, which lighted him through all the dark hours, only to be reorselessly extinguished by daylight. Most frequently, however, it was so slender a hope as to be a mere distracting flutter at his heart. Whence it sprang, he could not tell — he knew Louise too well to believe, for a moment, that she would make use of pique to hide her feelings. But there was a something in her manner, which was strained; in the fact that she, who had never cared, should at length be moved by words of his; in a certain way she had looked at him, once or twice in these days; or in a certain way she had avoided looking at him. No, he did not know what it was. But nevertheless it was there — a faint, inarticulate existence — and, compared with it, the tangible facts of life were the shadows of a shadow.

Surely she had fallen asleep. He said her name aloud, to try her. “Louise!” She did not stir, and the word floated out into the night — became an expression of the night itself.

They had passed the weir and its foaming, and now glided under the bridges that spanned the narrower windings of the river. The wooden bathing-house looked awesome enough to harbour mysteries. Another sharp turn, among sedge and rushes, and the outlying streets of the town were on their right. The boat-sheds were in darkness, when they drew up alongside the narrow landing-place. Maurice got out with the chain in his hand, and secured the boat. Louise did not follow immediately. her hair had come down, and she was stiff from the cramped position in which she had been lying. When she did rise to her feet, she could hardly stand. He put out his hand, and steadied her by the arm.

“A heavy dew must be falling. Your sleeve is wet.”

She made a movement to draw her arm away; at the same moment, she tangled her foot in her skirt, tripped, and, if he had not caught her, would have fallen forward.

“Take care what you’re doing! Do you want to drown yourself?”

“I don’t know. I shouldn’t mind, I think,” she answered tonelessly.

His own balance had been endangered. Directly he had righted himself, he set her from him. But it could not be undone: he had had her in his arms, had felt all her weight on him. The sensation seemed to take his strength away: after the long, black, silent evening, her body was doubly warm, doubly real. He walked her back, along the deserted streets, at a pace she could not keep up with. She lagged behind. She was very pale, and her face wore an expression of almost physical suffering. She looked resolutely away from Maurice; but when her eyes did chance to rest on him, she was swept by such a sense of nervous irritation that she hated the sight of him, as he walked before her.

Upstairs, in her room, when he had laid the cushions on the sofa; when the lamp was lighted and set on the table; when he still stood there, pale, and wretched, and undecided, Louise came to an abrupt decision. Advancing to the table, she leaned her hands on it, and bending forward, raised her white face to his.

“You told me you were going away; why do you not go? Why have you not already gone?” she asked, and her mouth was hard. “I am waiting . . . expecting to hear.”

His answer was so hasty that it was all but simultaneous.

“Louise! — can’t you forgive me? — for what I said the other night?”

“I have nothing to forgive,” she replied, coldly in spite of herself. “You said you must go. I can’t keep you here against your will.”

“It has made you angry with me. I have made you unhappy.”

“You are making us both unhappy,” she said in a low voice. “Now, it is I who say, things can’t go on like this.”

“I know it.” He drew a deep breath. “Louise! . . . if only you could care a little!”

There was silence after these words, but not a silence of conclusion; both knew now that more must follow. He raised his head, and looked into her eyes.

“Can you not see how I love you — and how I suffer?”

It was a statement rather than a question, but he was not aware of this: he was only amazed that, after all, he should be able to speak so quietly, in such an even tone of voice.

There was another pause of suspense; his words seemed like balls of down that he had tossed into the still air: they sank, lingeringly, without haste; and she stood, and let them descend on her. His haggard eyes hung on her face; and, as he watched, he saw a change come over it: the enmity that had been in it, a few seconds back, died out; the lips softened and relaxed; and when the eyes were raised to his again, they were kind, full of pity.

“I’m sorry. Poor boy . . . poor Maurice.”

She seemed to hesitate; then, with one of her frankest gestures, held out her hand. At its touch, soft and living, he forgot everything: plans and resolutions, hopes and despairs, happiness and unhappiness no longer existed for him; he knew only that she was sorry for him, that some swift change in her had made her sympathise and understand. He looked down, with dim eyes, at the sweet, pale face, now alight with compassion then, with disarming abruptness, he took her head between his hands, and kissed her, repeatedly, whereever his lips chanced to fall — on the warm mouth, the closed eyes, temples, and hair.

He was gone before she recovered from her surprise. She had instinctively stemmed her hands against his shoulders; but, when she was alone, she stood just as he left her, her eyes still shut, letting the sensation subside, of rough, unexpected kisses. She had been taken unawares; her heart was beating. For a moment or two, she remained in the same attitude; then she passed her hand over her face. “That was foolish of him . . . very,” she said. She looked down at herself and saw her hands. She stretched them out before her, with a sudden sense of emptiness.

“If I could care! Yes — if I could only care!”

At two o’clock that morning, Maurice wrote:

FORGIVE ME— I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT I WAS DOING. FOR I LOVE YOU, LOUISE— NO WOMAN HAS EVER BEEN LOVED AS YOU ARE. I KNOW IT IS FOLLY ON MY PART. I HAVE NOTHING TO OFFER YOU. BUT BE MY WIFE, AND I WILL WORK MY FINGERS TO THE BONE FOR YOU.

He went out into the summer night, and posted the letter. Returning to his room, he threw himself on the sofa, and fell into a heavy sleep, from which he did not wake till the morning was well advanced.

Work was out of the question that day, when he waited as if for a sentence of death. He paced his narrow room, incessantly, afraid to go out, for fear of missing her reply. The hours dragged themselves by, as it is their special province to do in crises of life; and with each one that passed, he grew more convinced what her answer to his letter would be.

It was late in the afternoon when the little boy she employed as a messenger, put a note into his hands.

COME TO ME THIS EVENING.

It was all but evening now; he went, just as he was, on the heels of the child.

The windows of her room were open. She sprang up to meet him, then paused. He looked desperately yet stealthily at her. The commiseration of the previous night was still in her face; but she was now quite sure of herself: she drew him to the sofa and made him sit down beside her. Then, however, for a few seconds, in which he waited with hammering pulses, she did not speak. The dull fear at his heart became a certainty; and, unable to bear the suspense any longer, he took one of her hands and laid it on his forehead.

Then she said: “Maurice — poor, foolish Maurice! — it is not possible. You see that yourself, I’m sure.”

“Yes. I know quite well: it is presumption.”

“Oh, I don’t mean that. But there are so many reasons. And you, too, Maurice . . . Look at me, and tell me if what you wrote was not just an attempt to make up for what happened last night.” And as he did not reply, she added: “You mustn’t make yourself reproaches. I, too, was to blame.”

“It was nothing of the sort. I’ve been trying for weeks now to tell you. I love you — have loved you since the first time I saw you.”

He let go of her hand, and she sat forward, with her arms along her knees. Her eyes were troubled; but she did not lose her calm manner of speaking. “I’m sorry, Maurice, very sorry — you believe me’ don’t you, when I say so? But believe me, too, it’s not so serious as you think. You are young. You will get over it, and forget — if not soon, at least in time. You must forget me, and some day you will meet the nice, good woman, who is to be your wife. And when that happens, you will look back on your fancy for me as something foolish, and unreal. You won’t be able to understand it then, and you will be grateful to me, for not having taken you at your word.”

Maurice laughed. All the same, he tried to take his dismissal well: he rose, wrung her hand, and left her.

In the seclusion of his own room, he went through the blackest hour of his life.

He began to make final preparations for his departure. His choice had fallen on Stuttgart: it was far distant from Leipzig; he would be well out of temptation’s way — the temptation suddenly to return. He wrote a letter home, apprising his relatives of his intention: by the time they received the letter, it would be too late for them to interfere. Otherwise, he took no one into his confidence. He would greatly have liked to wait until the present term was over; another month, and the summer vacation would have begun, and he would have been able to leave without making himself conspicuous. But every day it grew more impossible to be there and not to see her — for four days now he had kept away, fighting down his unreasoning desire to know what she was doing. He intended only to see her once more, to bid her good-bye.

The afternoon before his interview with Schwarz — he had arranged this with himself for the morning, at the master’s private house — he sat at his writing-table, destroying papers and old letters. There was a heap of ashes in the cold stove by the time he took out, tied up in a separate packet, the few odd scraps of writing he had received from Louise. He balanced the bundle in his hand, hesitating what to do with it. Finally, he untied the string, to glance through the letters once again.

At the sight of the bold, black, familiar writing, in which each word — two or three to a line — seemed to have a life of its own; at the well-conned pages, each of which he knew by heart; at the characteristic, almost masculine signature, and the faint perfume that still clung to the paper: at the sight of these things all — that he had been thinking and planning since seeing her last, was effaced from his mind. As often before, where she was concerned, a wild impulse, surging up in him, took entire possession of him; and hours of patient and laborious reasoning were by one swift stroke blotted out.

He rose, locked the letters up again, rested his arm on the lid of the piano, his head on his arm. The more he toyed with his inclination to go to her, the more absorbent it became, and straightway it was an ungovernable longing: it came over him with a dizzy force, which made him close his eyes; and he was as helpless before it as the drunkard before his craving to drink. Standing thus, he saw with a flash of insight that, though he went away as far as steam could carry him, he would never, as long as he lived, be safe from overthrows of this kind. It was something elemental, which he could no more control than the flow of his blood. And he did not even stay to excuse himself to himself: he went headlong to her, with burning words on his lips.

“My poor boy,” she said, when he ceased to speak. “Yes, I know what it is — that sudden rage that comes over one, to rush back, at all costs, no matter what happens afterwards. — I’m so sorry for you, Maurice. It is making me unhappy.”

“You are not to be unhappy. It shall not happen again, I promise you. — Besides, I shall soon be gone now.” But at his own words, the thought of his coming desolation pierced him anew. “Give me just one straw to cling to! Tell me you won’t forget me all at once; that you will miss me and think of me — if ever so little.”

“You asked me that the other night. Was what I said then, not answer enough? — And besides, in these last four days, since I have been alone, I’ve learnt just how much I shall miss you, Maurice. It’s my punishment, I suppose, for growing so dependent on anyone.”

“You must go away, too. You can’t stay here by yourself. We must both go, in opposite directions, and begin afresh.”

She did not reply at once. “I shouldn’t know where to go,” she said, after a time. “Will nothing else do, Maurice? Is there no other way? — Oh, why can’t we go on being friends, as we were!”

He shook his head. “I’ve struggled against it so long — you don’t know. I’ve never really been your friend — only I couldn’t hurt you before, by telling you. And it has worn me out; I’m good for nothing. Louise! — think, just once more — ask yourself, once more, if it’s quite impossible, before you send me into the outer darkness.”

She was silent.

“I don’t ask you to love me,” he went on, in a low voice. “I’ve come down from that, in these wretched days. I would be content with less, much less. I only ask you to let yourself be loved — as I could love you. If only you could say you liked me a little, all the rest would come, I’m confident of it. In time, I should make you love me. For I would take, oh, such care of you! I want to make you happy, only to make you happy. I’ve no other wish than to show you what happiness is.”

“It sounds so good . . . you are good, Maurice. But the future — tell me, have thought of the future?”

“I should think I have. — Do you suppose it means nothing to me to be so despicably poor as I am? To have absolutely nothing to offer you?”

She took his hand. “That’s not what I mean. And you know it. Come, let us talk sensibly this afternoon, and look things straight in the face. — You want to marry me, you say, and let the rest come? That is very, very good of you, and I shall never forget it. — But what does it mean, Maurice? You have been here a little over a year now, haven’t you? — and still have about a year to stay. When that’s over, you will go back to England. You will settle in some small place, and spend your life, or the best part of your life, there — oh, Maurice, you are my kind friend, but I tell you frankly, I couldn’t face life in an English provincial town. I’m not brave enough for that.”

He gleaned a ray of hope from her words. “We could live here — anywhere you liked. I would make it possible. I swear I would.”

She shook her head, and went on, with the same reasonable sweetness. “And then, there’s another thing. If I married you, sooner or later you would have to take me home to your people. Have you really thought of that, and how you would feel about it, when it came to the point? — No, no, it’s impossible for me to marry you.”

“But that — that American! — you would have married him?”

“That was different,” she said, and her voice grew thinner. “It’s the knowing that tells, Maurice. You would have that still to learn. You don’t realise it yet, but afterwards, it would come home to you. — Listen! You have always been kind to me, I owe you such a debt of gratitude, that I’m going to be frank, brutally frank with you. I’ve told you often that I shall never really care for anyone again. You know that, don’t you? Well, I want to tell you, too — I want you to understand quite, quite clearly that . . . that I belonged to him altogether — entirely — that I . . . Oh, you know what I mean!”

Maurice covered his face with his hands. “The past is the past. It should never be mentioned between us. It doesn’t matter — nothing matters now.”

“You say that — every one says that — beforehand,” she answered; and not only her words, but also her way of saying them, seemed to set her down miles away from him, on a lonely pinnacle of experience. “Afterwards, you would think differently.”

“Louise, if you really cared, it would be different. You wouldn’t say such things, then — you would be only too glad not to say them.”

In her heart she knew that he was right, and did not contradict him. The busy little clock on the writing-table ticked away a few seconds. With a jerk, Maurice rose to his feet. Louise remained sitting, and he looked down on her black head. His gaze was so insistent that she felt it, and raised her eyes. His forlorn face moved her.

“Why is it — what is the matter with me? — that I must upset your life like this? I can’t bear to see you so unhappy. — And yet I haven’t done anything, have I? I have always been honest with you; I’ve never made myself out to be better than I am. There must be something wrong with me, I think, that no one can ever be satisfied to be just my friend. — Yet with you I thought it was different. I thought things could go on as they were. Maurice, isn’t it possible? Say it is! Show me just one little spark of good in myself!”

“I’m not different from other men, Louise. I deluded myself long enough, God knows!”

She made a despondent gesture, and turned away. “Well, then, if either of us should go, I’m the one. You have your work. I do nothing; I have no ties, no friends — I never even seem to have been able to make acquaintances. And if I went, you could stay quietly on. In time, you would forget me. — If I only knew where to go! I am so alone, and it is all so hard. I shall never know what it is to be happy myself, or to make anyone else happy — never!” and she burst into tears.

It was his turn now to play the comforter. Drawing a. chair up before her, he took her hand, and said all he could think of to console her. He could bear anything, he told her, but to see her unhappy. All would yet turn out to be for the best. And, on one point, she was to set her mind at rest: her going away would not benefit him in the least. He would never consent to stay on alone, where they had been so much together.

“I’ve nothing to look forward to, nothing,” she sobbed. “There’s nothing I care to live for.”

As soon as she was quieter, he left her.

For an hour or more Louise lay huddled up on the sofa, with her face pressed to her arm.

When she sat up again, she pushed back her heavy hair, and, clasping her hands loosely round her knees, stared before her with vacant eyes. But not for long; tired though she was, and though her head ached from crying, there was still a deep residue of excitement in her. The level beams of the sun were pouring blindly into the room; the air was dense and oppressive. She rose to her feet and moved about. She did not know what to do with herself: she would have liked to go out and walk; but the dusty, jarring light of the summer streets frightened her. She thought of music, of the theatre, as a remedy for the long evening that yawned before her: then dismissed the idea from her mind. She was in such a condition of restlessness, this night, that the fact of being forced to sit still between two other human beings, would make her want to scream.

The sun was getting low; the foliage of the trees in the opposite gardens was black, with copper edges, against the refulgence of the sky. She leaned her hands on the sill, and gazed fixedly at the stretch of red and gold, which, like the afterglow of a fire, flamed behind the trees. Her eyes were filled with it. She did not think or feel: she became one, by looking, with the sight before her. As she stood there, nothing of her existed but her two widely opened eyes; she was a miracle wrought by the sunset; she WAS the sunset — in one of those vacancies of mind, which all intense gazers know.

How long she had remained thus she could not have told, when a strange thing happened to her. From some sub-conscious layer of her brain, which started into activity because the rest of it was so passive, a small, still thought glided in, and took possession of her mind. At first, it was so faint that she hardly grasped it; but, once established there, it became so vivid that, with one sweep, it blotted out trees and sunset; so real that it seemed always to have been present to her. Without conscious effort on her part, the solution to her difficulties had been found; a decision had been arrived at, but not by her; it was the work of some force outside herself.

She turned from the window, and pressed her hands to her blinded eyes. Good God! it was so simple. To think that this had not occurred to her before! — that, throughout the troubled afternoon, the idea had never once suggested itself! There was no need of loneliness and suffering for either of them. He might stay; they both might stay; she could make him happy, and ward off the change she so dreaded. — Who was she to stick at it?

But she remained dazed, doubtful as it were of this peaceful ending; her hand still covered her eyes. Then, with one of the swift movements by which it was her custom to turn thought into action, she went to the writing-table, and scrawled a few, big words.

MAURICE, I HAVE FOUND A WAY. COME BACK TO-MORROW EVENING.

She hesitated only over the last two words, and, before writing them, sat with her chin in her hand, and deliberately considered. Then she addressed the envelope, and stamped it: it would be soon enough if he got it through the post, the following morning.

But, with her, to resolve was to act; she was ill at ease under enforced procrastination; and had often to fight against a burning impatience, when circumstances delayed the immediate carrying out of her will. In this case, however, she had voluntarily postponed Maurice’s return for twenty-four hours, when he might have been with her in less than one: for, in her mind, there lurked the seductive thought of a long, summer day, with an emotion at its close to which she could look forward.

In the meantime, she was puzzled how to fill up the evening. After all, she decided to go to the theatre, where she arrived in time to hear the last two acts of AIDA. From a seat in the PARQUET, close to the orchestra, she let the showy music play round her. Afterwards, she walked home through the lilachaunted night, went to bed, and at once fell asleep.

Next morning, she wakened early — that was the sole token of disturbance, she could detect in herself. It was very still; there was a faint twittering of birds, but the noises of the street had not yet begun. She lay in the subdued yellow light of her room, with one arm across her eyes.

Fresh from sleep, she understood certain things as never before. She saw all that had happened of late — her slow recovery, her striving and seeking, her growing friendship with Maurice — in a different light. On this morning, too, she was able to answer one of the questions that had puzzled her the night before. She saw that the relations in which they had stood to each other, during the bygone months, would have been impossible, had she really cared for him. She liked him, yes, had always liked him; and, in addition, his patience and kindness had made her deeply grateful to him. But that was all. Neither his hands, nor his voice, nor his eyes, nor anything he did, had had the power to touch her — SO to touch her, that her own hands and eyes would have met his half-way; that the old familiar craving, which was partly fear and partly attraction, would have made her callous to his welfare. Had there been a breath of this, things would have come to a climax long ago. Hot and eager as she was, she could not have lived on coolly at his side — and, at this moment, she found it difficult to make up her mind whether she admired Maurice or the reverse, for having been able to carry his part through.

And yet, though no particle of personal feeling drew her to him, she, too, had suffered, in her own way, during these weeks of morbid tension, when he had been incapable either of advancing or retreating. How great the strain had been, she recognised only in the instant when he had spanned the breach, in clear, unmistakable words. If he had not done it, she would have been forced to; for she could never find herself to rights, for long, in half circumstances: if she were not to grow bewildered, she had to see her road simple and straight before her. His words to her after they had been on the river together — more, perhaps, his bold yet timid kisses — had given her back strength and assurance. She was no longer the miserable instrument on which he tried his changes of mood; she was again the giver and the bestower, since she held a heart and a heart’s happiness in the hollow of her hand.

What people would think and say was a matter of indifference to her: besides, they practically believed the worst of her already. No; she had nothing to lose and, it might be, much to gain. And after all, it meant so little! The first time, perhaps; or if one cared too much. But in this case, where she had herself well in hand, and where there was no chance of the blind desire to kill self arising, which had been her previous undoing; where the chief end aimed at was the retention of a friend — here, it meant nothing at all.

The thought that she might possibly have scruples on his part to combat, crossed her mind. She stretched her arm straight above her head, then laid it across her eyes again. She would like him none the less for these scruples, did they exist: now, she believed that, at heart, she had really appreciated his reserve, his holding back, where others would have been so ready to pounce in. For the first time, she considered him in the light of a lover, and she saw him differently. As if the mere contemplation of such a change brought her nearer to him, she was stirred by a new sensation, which had him as its object. And under the influence of this feeling, she told herself that perhaps just in this gentler, kindlier love, which only sought her welfare, true happiness lay. She strained to read the future. There would be storms neither of joy nor of pain; but watchful sympathy, and the fine, manly tenderness that shields and protects. Oh, what if after all her passionate craving for happiness, it was here at her feet, having come to her as good things often do, unexpected and unsought!

She could lie still no longer; she sprang up, with an alacrity that had been wanting in her movements of late. And throughout the long day, this impression, which was half a hope and half a belief was present to her mind, making everything she did seem strangely festive. She almost feared the moment when she would see him again, lest anything he said should dissipate her hope.

When he came, her eyes followed him searchingly. With an instinct that was now morbidly sharpened, Maurice was aware of the change in her, even before he saw her eyes. His own were one devouring question.

She made him sit down beside her.

“What is it, Louise? Tell me — quickly. Remember, I’ve been all day in suspense,” he said, as seconds passed and she did not speak.

“You got my note then?”

“What is it? — what did you mean?”

“Just a little patience, Maurice. You take one’s breath away. You want to know everything at once. I sent for you because — oh, because . . . I want you to let us go on being friends.”

“Is that all?” he cried, and his face fell. “When I have told you again and again that’s just what I can’t do?”

She smiled. “I wish I had known you as a boy, Maurice — oh, but as quite a young boy!” she said in such a changed voice that he glanced up in surprise. Whether it was the look she bent on him, or her voice, or her words, he did not know; but something emboldened him to do what he had often done in fancy: he slid to his knees before her, and laid his head on her lap. She began to smooth back his hair, and each time her hand came forward, she let it rest for a moment. — She wondered how he would look when he knew.

“You can’t care for me, I know. But I would give my life to make you happy.”

“Why do you love me?” She experienced a new pleasure in postponing his knowing, postponing it indefinitely.

“How can I say? All I know is how I love you — and how I have suffered.”

“My poor Maurice,” she said, in the same caressing way. “Yes, I shall always call you poor. — For the love I could give you would be worthless compared with yours.”

“To me it would be everything. — If you only knew how I have longed for you, and how I have struggled!”

He took enough of her dress to bury his face in. She sat back, and looked over him into the growing dusk of the room: and, in the alabaster of her face, nothing seemed to live except her black eyes, with the half-rings of shadow.

Suddenly, with the unexpectedness that marked her movements when she was very intent, she leant forward again, and, with her elbow on her knee, her chin on her hand, said in a low voice: “Is it for ever?”

“For ever and ever.”

“Say it’s for ever.” She still looked past him, but her lips had parted, and her face wore the expression of a child’s listening to fairy-tales. At her own words, a vista seemed to open up before her, and, at the other end, in blue haze, shone the great good that had hitherto eluded her.

“I shall always love you,” said the young man. “Nothing can make any difference.”

“For ever,” she repeated. “They are pretty words.”

Then her expression changed; she took his head between her hands.

“Maurice . . . I’m older than you, and I know better than you, what all this means. Believe me, I’m not worth your love. I’m only the shadow of my old self. And you are still so young and so . . . so untried. There’s still time to turn back, and be wise.”

He raised his head.

“What do you mean? Why are you saying these things? I shall always love you. Life itself is nothing to me, without you. I want you . . . only you.”

He put his arms round her, and tried to draw her to him. But she held back. At the expression of her face, he had a moment of acute uncertainty, and would have loosened his hold. But now it was she who knotted her hands round his neck, and gave him a long, penetrating look. He was bewildered; he did not understand what it meant; but it was something so strange that, again, he had the impulse to let her go. She bent her head, and laid her face against his; cheek rested on cheek. He took her face between his hands, and stared into her eyes, as if to tear from them what was passing in her brain. Over both, in the same breath, swept the warm, irresistible wave of self-surrender. He caught her to him, roughly and awkwardly, in a desperate embrace, which the kindly dusk veiled and redeemed.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/richardson/henry_handel/r52mg/chapter26.html

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