Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

III.

Shaking all disagreeable impressions from him, he sped through the fading light of the September afternoon.

This was the time — it was six o’clock — at which he could rejoin Louise with a free mind. It was the exception for him to go earlier, or at other hours; but, did he chance to go, no matter when, she met him in the same way — sprang towards him from the window, where she had been sitting or standing, with her eyes on the street.

“I believe you watch for me all day long,” he said to her once.

On this particular afternoon, when he had used much the same words to her, she put back her head and looked up at him, with a pale, unsmiling face.

“Not quite,” she answered slowly. “But I have a fancy, Maurice — a foolish, fancy — that once you will come early — in the morning — and we shall have the whole day together again. Perhaps even go away somewhere . . . before summer is quite over.”

“And I promise you, dearest, we will. Just let me get through the next fortnight, and then I shall be freer. We’ll take the train, and go back to Rochlitz, or anywhere you like. In the meantime, take more care of yourself. You are far too pale. You will go out tomorrow, yes? — to please me?”

But this was a request he had often made, and generally in vain.

Since the afternoon of their return, Louise had made no further attempt to stem or alter circumstance. She accepted Maurice’s absences without demur. But one result was, that her feelings were hoarded up for the few hours he passed with her: these were then a working-off of emotion; and it seemed impossible to cram enough into them, to make good the starved remainder of the day.

Maurice was vaguely troubled. He was himself so busy at this time, and so full of revived energy, that he could not imagine her happy, living as she did, entirely without occupation. At first he had tried to persuade her to take up her music again; but she would not even consider it. To all his arguments, she made the same reply.

“I have no real talent. With me, it was only an excuse — to get away from home.”

Nor could he induce her to renew her acquaintance with people she had known.

“Do you know, I once thought you didn’t care a jot what people said of you?” It was not a very kind thing to say; it slipped out unawares.

But she did not take it amiss. “I used not to,” she answered with her invincible frankness. “But now — it seems — I do.”

“Why, dearest? Aren’t you happy enough not to care?”

For answer, she took his face between her hands, and looked at him with such an ill-suppressed fire in her eyes that all he could do was to draw her into his arms.

His pains for her good came to nothing. He took her his favourite books, but — with the exception of an occasional novel — Louise was no reader. In those he brought her, she seldom advanced further than the first few pages; and she could sit for an hour without turning a leaf. He had never seen her with a piece of sewing or any such feminine employment in her hands. Nor did she spend time on her person; as a rule, he found her in her dressing-gown. He had to give up trying to influence her, and to become reconciled to the fact that she chose to live only for him. But on this September day, after the unpleasant episode with Schwarz, he had a fancy to go for a walk; Louise was unwilling; and he felt anew how preposterous it was for her to spend these fine autumn days, in this half-dark room.

“You are burying yourself alive — just as you did last winter.”

She laid her hand on his lips. “No, no! — don’t say that. Now I am happy.”

“But are you really? Sometimes I’m not sure.” He was tired himself this evening, and found it difficult to be convinced. “It troubles me when I think how dull it must be for you. Dearest, are you — can you really be happy like this?”

“I have you, Maurice.”

“But only for an hour or two in the twenty-four. Tell me, what do you think of?”

“Of you.”

“All that time? Of poor, plain, ordinary me?”

“You are mine,” she said with vehemence, and looked at him with what he called her “hungry-beast” eyes.

“You would like to eat me, I think.”

“Yes. And I should begin here; this is the bit of you I love best”— and before he knew what she was going to do, she had stooped, and he felt her teeth in the skin of his neck.

“That’s a strange way of showing your love,” he said, and involuntarily put his hand to the spot, where two bluish-red marks had appeared.

“It’s my way. I want you — I WANT you. I want to feel that you’re mine — to make you more mine than you’ve ever been. I wish I had a hundred arms. I would hold you with them all, and never let you go.”

“But, dearest, one would think I wanted to go. Do you really believe if I had my own way, I should be anywhere but here with you?”

“No. — I don’t know. — How should I know?”

“Doubts? — beloved!”

“No, no, not doubts. It’s only — oh, I don’t know what it is. If you could always be with me, Maurice, they wouldn’t come. For what I never meant to happen HAS happened. I have grown to care too much — far too much. I want you, I need you, at every moment of the day. I want you never to be out of my sight.”

Maurice held her at arm’s length, and looked at her. “You can say that — at last!” And drawing her to him: “Patience, darling. Just a little patience. Some day you will never be alone again.”

“I do have patience, Maurice. But let me be patient in my own way. For I’m not like you. I have no room in me now for other things. I can’t think of anything else. If I had my way, we should shut ourselves up alone, and live only for each other. Not share it, not make it just a part of what we do.”

“But man can’t live on nectar and honey alone. It wouldn’t be life.”

“It wouldn’t be life, no. It would be more than life.”

Some of the evening shadows seemed to invade her face. Her expression was childishly pathetic. He drew her to his knee.

“I should like to see you happier, Louise — yes, yes, I know! — but I mean perfectly happy, as you were sometimes at Rochlitz. Since we came back, it has never been just the right thing — say what you like.”

“If only we had never come back!”

“If you still think so, darling, when I’ve finished here, we’ll go away at once. In the meantime, patience.”

“Oh, I don’t mean to be unreasonable!” But her head was on his shoulder, his arms were round her; and in this position, nothing mattered greatly to her.

Patience? — yes, there was need for him to exhort her to patience. It ate already into her soul as iron bands eat into flesh. The greater part of her life was now spent in practising it. And for sheer loathing of it, she turned over, on waking, and kept her eyes closed, in an attempt to prolong the night. For the day stretched empty before her; the hours passed, one by one, like grey-veiled ghosts. Yet not for a moment had she harboured his idea of regular occupation; she knew herself too well for that. In the fever into which her blood had worked itself she could settle to nothing: her attention was centred wholly in herself; and all her senses were preternaturally acute. But she suffered, too, under the stress of her feeling; it blunted her, and made her, on the one hand, regardless of everything outside it, on the other, morbidly sensitive to trifles. She waited for him, hour after hour, crouched in a corner of the sofa, or stretched at full length, with closed eyes.

Long before it was time for him to come, she was stationed at the window. She learned to know the people who appeared in the street between the hours of four and six so accurately that she could have described them blindfold. There was the oldfaced little girl who delivered milk; there was the postman who emptied into his canvas receptacle, the blue letter-box affixed to the opposite wall; the student with the gashed face and red cap, who lived a couple of doors further down, and always whistled the same tune; the big Newfoundland dog that stalked majestically at his side, and answered to the name of Tasso — she knew them all. These two last hours were weighted with lead. He came, sometimes a poor half-hour too soon, but usually not till past six o’clock. Never, in her life, had she waited for anyone like this, and, towards the end of the time, a sense of injury, of more than mortal endurance, would steal through her and dull her heart towards him, in a way that frightened her.

When, at length, she saw him turn the corner, when she had caught and answered his swift upward glance, she drew back into the shadow of the room, and hid her face in her hands.

Then she listened.

He had the key of the little papered door in the wall. Between the sound of his step on the stair, and the turning of the key in the lock, there was time for her to undergo a moment of suspense that drove her hand to her throat. What if, after the tension of the afternoon, her heart, her nerves — parts of her over which she had no control — should not take their customary bound towards him? What if her pulses should not answer his? But before she could think her thought to the end, he was there; and when she saw his kind eyes alight, his eager hands outstretched, her nervous fears were vanquished. Maurice hardly gave himself time to shut the door, before catching her to him in a long embrace. And yet, though she did not suspect it, he, too, had a twinge of uncertainty on entering. Her bodily presence still affected him with a sense of strangeness — it took him a moment to get used to her again, as it were — and he was forced to reassure himself that nothing had changed during his absence, that she was still all his own.

When the agitation of these first, few, speechless minutes had subsided, a great tenderness seized Louise; freeing one hand, she smoothed back his hair from his forehead, with movements each of which was a caress. As for him, his first impetuous rush of feeling was invariably followed by an almost morbid pity for her, which, in this form, was a new note in their relation to each other, or a harking back to the oldest note of all. When he considered how dependent she was on him, how her one desire was to have him with her, he felt that he could never repay her or do enough for her: and, whatever his own state of mind previous to coming, when once he was there, he exerted himself to the utmost, to cheer her. It was always she who needed consolation; and, by means of his endearments, she was petted back to happiness like a tired child.

In his efforts to take her out of herself, Maurice told her how he had spent the day: where he had been, and whom he had met — every detail that he thought might interest her. She listened, in grateful silence, but she never put a question. This at an end, he returned once more, in a kind of eternal circle, to the one subject of which she never wearied. He might repeat, for the thousandth time, how dear she was to him, without the least fear that the story would grow stale in the telling.

And once here, amidst the deep tenderness of his words, he felt her slowly come to life again, and unfold like a flower. After the long, dead day, Louise was consumed by a desire to drain such moments as these to the dregs. She did not let a word of his pass unchallenged, and all that she herself said, was an attempt to discover some spasm of mental ecstasy, which they had not yet experienced. Sometimes, the feeling grew so strong that it forced her to give an outward sign. Slipping to her knees, she gazed at him with the eyes of a faithful animal. “What have I done to make you look at me like that?” asked Maurice, amazed.

“What can I do to show you how I love you? Tell me what I can do.”

“Do? — what do you want to do? Be your own dear self — that’s all, and more than enough.”

But she continued to look beseechingly at him, waiting for the word that might be the word of her salvation.

“Haven’t you done enough already, in giving yourself to me?” he asked, seeing how she hung on his lips.

But she repeated: “What can I do? Let me do something. Oh, I wish you would hurt me, or be unkind to me!”

He tried to make her understand that he wished for no such humble adoration, that, indeed, he could not be happy under it. If either was to serve the other, it was he; he asked nothing better than to put his hands under her feet. But he could neither coax her nor laugh her out of her absorption: she had the will to self-abasement; and she remained unsatisfied, waiting for the word he would not speak.

Once or twice, during these weeks, they went out in the evening, and, in the corner of some quiet restaurant, took a festive little meal. But, for the most part, she preferred to stay at home. She was not dressed, she said, or she was tired, or it was too hot, or it had rained. And Maurice did not urge her; for, on the last occasion, the evening had been spoiled for him by the conduct of some people at a neighbouring table; they had stared at Louise, and whispered remarks about her. At home, she herself prepared the supper, moving indolently about the room, her dressing-gown dragging after her, from table to cupboard, and back again, often with a pause at his side, in which she forgot what she had set out for. Maurice disputed each trifling service with her; he could only think of Louise as made to be waited on, slow to serve herself.

“Let me do it, dearest.”

She had risen anew to fetch something. Now she stood beside him, and put her arms round his neck.

“What can I do for you? Tell me what I can do,” she said, and crushed his head against her breast.

He loosened her fingers, and drew her to his knee. “What do you want me to say, dear discontent? Do? — you were never meant to do anything in this world. Your hands were made to lie one on top of the other . . . so! Look at them! Most white and most useless!”

“There are things not made with hands,” she answered obscurely. She let him do what he liked; but she kept her face turned away; and over her eyes passed a faint shadow of resignation.

But this mood also was a transient one; hours followed, when she no longer sought and questioned, but when she gave, recklessly, in a wild endeavour to lose the sense of twofold being. And before these outbreaks, the young man was helpless. His past life, and such experience as he had gathered in it, grew fantastic and unreal, might all have belonged to some one else: the sole reality in a world of shadows was this soft human body that he held in his arms.

Point by point, however, each of which wounded, consciousness fought itself free again. Such violent extremes of emotion were, in truth, contrary to his nature. They made him unsure. And, as the pendulum swung back, something vital in him made protest.

“Sometimes, it seems as if there were something else . . . something that’s not love at all . . . more like hate — yes, as if you hated me . . . would like to kill me.”

Her whole body was moved by the sigh she drew.

“If I only could! Then I should know that you were mine indeed.”

“Is it possible for me to be more yours than I am?”

“Part of you would never be mine, though we spent all our lives together.”

He roused himself from his lethargy. “How can you say that? — And yet I think I know what you mean. It’s like a kind of rage that comes over one — Yes, I’ve felt it, too. Listen, darling! — there are things one can’t say in daylight. I, too, have felt . . . sometimes . . . that in spite of all my love for you — I mean our love for each other — yet there was still something, a part of you, I had no power over. The real you is something — some one I don’t really know in spite of all the kisses. Yes”— and the more he tried to find words for what he meant, the more convinced he grew of its truth. “Nothing keeps us apart; you love me, are here in my arms, and yet . . .yet there’s a bit of you I can’t influence — that is still strange to me. How often I have to ask you why you look at me in a certain way, or what you are thinking of! I never know your thoughts; I’ve never once been able to read them; you always keep something back. — Why is it, dear? Is it my fault? If I could just once get at your real self — if I knew that once, only once, in all these weeks, you had been mine — every bit of you — then . . . yes, then, I believe I would be satisfied to . . . to — I don’t know what!”

He had spoken in an even, monotonous voice, almost more to himself than to her. Now, however, he was forced to the opposite extreme of anxious solicitude. “No, no, I didn’t really mean it. Darling! . . . hush! — don’t cry like that. I didn’t know what I was saying; it isn ‘t true, not a word of it.”

She had flung herself across him; her own elemental weeping shook her from head to foot. He realised, for the first time, the depth and strength of it, now that it, as it were, went through him, too. Gathering her to him, he made wild and foolish promises. But nothing soothed her: she wept on, until the dawn crept in, thinly grey, round the windows. But when it grew so light that the objects in the room were recovering their form, she fell asleep, and he hardly dared to breathe, for fear of disturbing her.

By day, the sensations he had tried to express to her seemed the figments of the night. He needed only to be absent from her to feel the old restlessness tug at his heart-strings. At such moments, it seemed to him ridiculous to torment himself about an infinitesimal flaw in their love, and one which perhaps existed only in his imagination. To be with her again was his sole desire; and to feel her cheek on his, to be free to run his hands through her exciting hair, belonged, when he was separated from her, to that small category of things for which he would have bartered his soul.

One evening, towards the end of September, Louise watched for him at the window. It had been a warm autumn day, rich in varying lights and shades. Now it was late, nearly half-past six, and still he had not come: her eyes were tired with staring down the street.

When at last he appeared, she saw that that he was carrying flowers. Her heart, which, at the sight of him, had set up a glad and violent beating, settled down again at once, to its normal course. She knew what the flowers meant: in a spirit of candour, which had something disarming in it, he invariably brought them when he could not stay long with her; and she had learned to dread seeing them in his hand.

In very truth, he was barely inside the room before he told her that he could only stay for an hour. He was to play his trio the following evening, and now, at the last moment, the ‘cellist had been taken ill. He had spent the greater part of the afternoon looking for a substitute, and having found one, had still to interview him again, to let him know the time at which Schwarz had appointed an extra rehearsal for the next day.

Maurice had mentioned more than once the date of his playing; but it had never seemed more to Louise than a disturbing outside fact, to be put out of mind or kissed away. She had forgotten all about it, and the knowledge of this overcame her disappointment; she tried to atone, by being reasonable. Maurice had steeled himself against pleadings and despondency, and was grateful to her for making things easy. He wished to outdo himself in tender encouragement; but she remained evasive: and since, in spite of himself, he could not hinder his thoughts from slipping forward to the coming evening, he, too, had moments of preoccupied silence.

When the clock struck eight, he rose to go. In saying goodnight, he turned her face up, and asked her had she decided if she were coming to hear him play.

It was on her direct lips to reply that she had not thought anything about it. A glance at his face checked her. He was waiting anxiously for her answer: it was a matter of importance to him. Her previous sense of remissness was still with her, hampering her, making her unfree; and for a minute she did not know what to say.

“Would you mind much if I asked you not to come?” he said as she hesitated.

“No, of course not,” she hastened to respond, glad to be relieved of the decision. “If you would rather I didn’t.”

“It’s a fancy of mine, dearest — foolish, I know — that I shall get on better if you’re not there.”

“It’s all right. I understand.”

When he had gone, she returned to her place at the window. It was a fine night: there was no moon; but the stars glittered furiously in the inky-blue sky, a stretch of which was visible above the gardens. The vastness of the night, the distance of sky and stars, made her shiver. Leaning her wrists on the cold, moist sill, she looked down into the street; it was not very far; but a jump from where she was, to the pavement, would suffice to put an end to every feeling. She was very lonely; no one wanted her. Here she might stand, at this forlorn post, for hours, for the whole night; no one would either know or care. — And her feeling of error, of unfreedom and desolation grew so hard to bear that, for fear she should actually throw herself down, she banged the window to, with a crash that resounded through the street.

But there was something else at work in her to-night, which she could not understand. She struggled with it, as one struggles with a forgotten melody, which hovers behind the consciousness, and will not emerge.

Except for the light thrown by a small lamp, the room was in shadow. She went slowly back to the sofa. On the way she trod on the roses; they had been knocked down and forgotten. She picked them up, and laid them on the cushioned seat beside her. They were dark crimson, and gave out a strong scent: Maurice had seldom brought her such beautiful roses. She sat with her elbows on her knees, her hands closed and pressed to her cheeks, as though she could only think with her muscles at a strain. In memory, she went over what he had said, reflected on what his words meant, and strove, honestly, to project herself into that part of his life, of which she knew nothing. But it was not easy; for one thing, the smell of the roses was too strong; it seemed to hinder her imagination. They had the scent that only deep red roses have — one which seems to come from a distance, from the very heart of cool, pure things — and more and more, she felt as if something within her were trying to find vent in it, something that swelled up, subsided, and mounted again, with what was almost a physical effort. It had been the truth when she told him that she understood; but it had touched her strangely all the same: for it had let her see into an unsuspected corner of his nature. He, too, then, had a cranny in his brain, where such fancies lodged — such an eccentric, artist fancy, or whim, or superstition — as that, out of several hundred people, a single individual could distract and disturb. He . . . too!

The little word had done it. Now she knew — knew what the roses had been trying to tell her. And as if invisible hands had touched a spring in her brain, thereby opening some secret place, the memory of a certain hour returned to her, returned with such force that she fell on her knees, and pressed her face to the seat of the sofa. On the floor beside her lay the roses. Why, oh why, had he needed to bring them to her, on this night of all others?

On the day she remembered, they had been lavished over the room-one June evening, two years ago. And ever afterwards, the scent of blood-red roses had been associated for her with one of the sweet, leading themes in Beethoven’s violin concerto. There was a special concert that night at the Conservatorium; the hall was filled to the last place. She waited with him in the green-room, until his turn came to play. Then she went into the hall, and stood at the back, under the gallery. Once more, she was aware of the stir that ran through the audience, as Schilsky walked down the platform. Hardly, however, had he drawn his bow across the strings, when she felt a touch on her arm, and a Russian, who was an intimate friend of his, beckoned her outside. There, he told her that he had been sent to ask her to leave the hall; and they smiled at each other, in understanding of the whim. Afterwards, she learned how, just about to step on to the platform, Schilsky had had a presentiment that things would go wrong if she remained inside. In his gratitude, and in the boyish exultation with which success filled him, he had collected all the roses, and wantonly pulled them to pieces. Red petals fell like flakes of red snow; and, crushed and bruised, the fragile leaves had yielded a scent, tenfold increased.

While it lasted, the vision was painfully intense: on returning to herself, she was obliged to look round and think where she was. The lamp burned steadily; the dull room was just as she had left it. With a cry, she buried her face in the cushions again, and held her hands to her ears.

More, more, and more again! She was as hungry for these memories as a child for dainties. She was starved for them. And now, dead to the present, she relived the past happy hours of triumph and excitement, not one of which had hung heavy, in each of which her craving for sensation had been stilled. She saw herself as she had then been, proud, secure, unspeakably content. Forgotten words rang in her ears, words of love and of anger, words that were like ointment and like knives. Then, not a day had been empty or tedious; life was always highly coloured, and there was neither pleasure nor pain that she had not tasted to the full. Even the suffering she had gone through, for his sake, was no longer hateful to her. Anything — anything rather than this dead level of monotony on which she had fallen.

When, finally, she raised her head, she might, for all she knew, have been absent for days. Things had lost their familiar aspect; she had once more lived right through the great experience of her life. Putting her hands to her forehead, she tried to force her thoughts back to reality. Then, stiffly, she rose from her knees. In doing so, she touched the roses. With a gesture that was her real awakening, she caught them up and pressed them to her face. It was a satisfaction to her that fingers and cheeks were pricked by their thorns. She was conscious of wishing to hurt herself. With her lips on the cool buds, she stammered broken words: “Maurice — my poor Maurice!” and kissed the flowers, feeling as if, in some occult way, he would be aware of her kisses, of the love she was thus expending on him.

For, in a sudden revulsion of feeling, she was sensible of a great compassion for him; and with each pressure of her lips to the roses, she implored his forgiveness for her unpremeditated desertion. She called to mind his tenderness, his unceasing care of her, and, closing her eyes, stretched out her arms to him, in the empty room. Already she began to live for the following evening, when he would come again. Now, only to sleep through as many as she could of the hours that separated them! She would be to him the next night, what she had never yet been: his own rival in fondness. And as a beginning, she crossed the room, and put the fading roses in a pitcher of water.

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