Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

VI.

Their first business the next morning was to buy another clock. By daylight, Louise was full of remorse at what she had done, and in passing the writing-table, averted her eyes. They went out early to a shop in the GRIMMAISCHESTRASSE; and Maurice stood by and watched her make her choice.

She loved to buy, and entered into the purchase with leisurely enjoyment. The shopman and his assistant spared themselves no trouble in fetching and setting out their wares. Louise handled each clock as it was put before her, discussed the merits of different styles, and a faint colour mounted to her cheeks over the difficulty of deciding between two which she liked equally well. She had pushed up her veil; it swathed her forehead like an Eastern woman’s. Her eagerness, which was expressed in a slight unsteadiness of nostril and lip, would have had something childish in it, had it not been for her eyes. They remained heavy and unsmiling; and the disquieting half-rings below them were more bluely brown than ever. Leaning sideways. against the counter, Maurice looked away from them to her hands; her fingers were entirely without ornament, and he would have liked to load them with rings. As it was, he could not even pay for the clock she chose; it cost more than he had to spend in a month.

In the street again, she said she was hungry, and, glad to be able to add his mite to her pleasure, he took her by the arm and steered her to the CAFE FRANCAIS, where they had coffee and ices. The church-steeples were booming eleven when they emerged; it did not seem worth while going home and settling down to work. Instead, they went to the ROSENTAL.

It was a brilliant autumn day, rich in light and shade, and there was only a breath abroad of the racy freshness that meant subsequent decay. The leaves were turning red and orange, but had not begun to fall; the sky was deeply blue; outlines were sharp and precise. They were both in a mood this morning to be susceptible to their surroundings; they were even eager to be affected by them, and made happy. The disagreements of the two preceding nights were like bad dreams, which they were anxious to forget, or at least to avoid thinking of. Her painful, unreasonable treatment of him, the evening before, had not been touched on between them; after his incoherent attempts to justify himself, after his bitter self-reproaches, when she lay sobbing in his arms, they had both, with one accord, been silent. Neither of them felt any desire for open-hearted explanations; they were careful not to stir up the depths anew. Louise was very quiet; had it not been for her eyes, he might have believed her happy. But here, just as an hour before in the watchmaker’s shop, they brooded, unable to forget. And yet there was a pliancy about her this morning, a readiness to meet his wishes, which, as he walked at her side, made him almost content. The old, foolish dreams awoke in him again, and vistas opened, of a gentle comradeship, which might still come true, when the strenuous side of her love for him had worn itself out. If only an hour like the present could have lasted indefinitely!

It was a happy morning. They ended it with an improvised lunch at the KAISERPARK; and it remained imprinted on their minds as an unexpected patch of colour, in an unending row of grey days, given up to duty.

The next one, and the next again, Louise continued in the same yielding mood, which was wholly different from the emotional expansiveness of the past weeks. Maurice took a glad advantage of her willingness to please him, and they had several pleasant walks together: to Napoleon’s battlefields; along the GRUNE GASSE and the POETENWEG to Schiller’s house at Gohlis; and into the heart of the ROSENTAL— DAS WILDE ROSENTAL— where it was very solitary, and where the great trees seemed to stagger under their load of stained leaves.

A burst of almost July radiance occurred at this time; and one day, Louise expressed a wish to go to the country, in order that, by once more being together for a whole day on end, they might relive in fancy the happy weeks they had spent on the Rochlitzer Berg. It was never her way to urge over-much, which made it hard to refuse her; so it was arranged that they should set off betimes the following Saturday.

Maurice had his reward in the cry of pleasure she gave when he wakened her to tell her that it was a fine day.

“Get up, dear! It’s less than an hour till the train goes.”

For the first time for weeks, Louise was her impetuous self again. She threw things topsy-turvy in the room. It was he who drew her attention to an unfastened hook, and an unbound ribbon. She only pressed forward.

“Make haste! — oh, make haste! We shall be late.”

An overpowering smell of newly-baked rolls issued from the bakers’ shops, and the errand-boys were starting out with their baskets. Women and house-porters were coming out to wash pavements and entrances: the collective life of the town was waking up to another uneventful day; but they two were hastening off to long hours of sunlight and fresh air, unhampered by the passing of time, or by fallacious ideas of duty; were setting out for a new bit of world, to strange meals taken in strange places, reached by white roads, or sequestered wood-paths. In the train, they were crushed between the baskets of the marketwomen, who were journeying from one village to another. These sat with their wizened hands clasped on their high stomachs, or on the handles of their baskets, and stared, like stupid, placid animals, at the strange young foreign couple before them. Partly for the frolic of astonishing them, and also because he was happy at seeing Louise so happy, Maurice kissed her hand; but it was she who astonished them most. When she gave a cry, or used her hands with a sudden, vivid effect, or flashed her white teeth in a smile, every head in the carriage was turned towards her; and when, in addition, she was overtaken by a fit of loquacity, she was well-nigh devoured by eyes.

They did not travel as far as they had intended. From the carriage window, she saw a wayside place that took her fancy.

“Here, Maurice; let us get out here.”

Having breakfasted, and left their bags at an inn, they strayed at random along an inviting road lined with apple-trees. When Louise grew tired, they rested in the arbour of a primitive GASTHAUS, and ate their midday meal. Afterwards, in a wood, he spread a rug for her, and she lay in a nest of sun-spots. Only their own voices broke the silence. Then she fell asleep, and, until she opened her eyes again, and called to him in surprise, no sound was to be heard but the sudden, crisp rustling of some bird or insect. When evening fell, they returned to their lodging, ate their supper in the smoky public room — for, outside, mists had risen — and then before them stretched, undisturbed, the long evening and the longer night, to be spent in a strange room, of which they had hitherto not suspected the existence, but which, from now on, would be indissolubly bound up with their other memories.

The first day passed in such a manner was as flawless as any they had known in the height of summer — with all the added attractions of closer intimacy. In its course, the shadows lifted from her eyes; and Maurice ceased to remember that he had made a mess of his affairs. But the very next one failed — as far as Louise was concerned — to reach the same level: it was like a flower ever so slightly overblown. The lyric charms that had so pleased her — the dewy freshness of the morning, the solitude, the unbroken sunshine — were frail things, and, snatched with too eager a hand, crumbled beneath the touch. They were not made to stand the wear and tear of repetition. It was also impossible, she found, to live through again days such as they had spent at Rochlitz; time past was past irrevocably, with all that belonged to it. And it was further, a mistake to believe that a more intimate acquaintance meant a keener pleasure; it was just the stimulus of strangeness, the piquancy of feeling one’s way, that had made up half the fascination of the summer.

With sure instinct, Louise recognised this, even while she exclaimed with delight. And her heart sank: not until this moment had she known how high her hopes had been, how firmly she had pinned her faith upon the revival of passion which these days were to bring to pass. The knowledge that this had been a delusion, was hard to bear. In thought, she was merciless to herself, when, on waking, the second morning, she looked with unexpectant eyes over the day that lay before her. Could nothing satisfy her, she asked herself? Could she not be content for twenty-four hours on end? Was it eternally her lot to come to the end of things, before they had properly begun? It seemed, always, as if she alone must be pressing forward, without rest. Here, on the second of these days of love and sunshine, she saw, with absolute clearness, that neither this nor any other day had anything extraordinary to give her; and sitting silent at dinner, under an arbour of highly-coloured creeper, she was overcome by such a laming discouragement, that she laid her knife and fork down, and could eat no more.

Maurice, watching her across the table, believed that she was over-tired, and filled up her glass with wine.

But she did not yield without a struggle. And it was not merely rebellion against the defects of her own nature, which prompted her. The prospect of the coming months filled her with dismay. When this last brief spell of pleasure was over, there was nothing left, to which she could look forward. The approaching winter stretched before her like a starless night; she was afraid to let her mind dwell on it. What was she to do? — what was to become of her, when the short dark days came down again, and shut her in? The thought of it almost drove her mad. Desperate with fear, she shut her eyes and went blindly forward, determined to extract every particle of pleasure, or, at least, of oblivion, that the present offered.

Under these circumstances, the poor human element in their relations became once again, and more than ever before, the pivot on which their lives turned. Louise aimed deliberately at bringing this about. Further, she did what she had never yet done: she brought to bear on their intercourse all her own hardwon knowledge, and all her arts. She drew from her store of experience those trifling, yet weighty details, which, once she has learned them, a woman never forgets. And, in addition to this, she took advantage of the circumstances in which they found themselves, utilising to the full the stimulus of strange times and places: she fired the excitement that lurked in surreptitious embrace and surrender, under all the dangers of a possible surprise. She was perverse and capricious; she would turn away from him till she reduced him to despair; then to yield suddenly, with a completeness that threatened to undo them both. Her devices were never-ending. Not that they were necessary: for he was helpless in her hands when she assumed the mastery. But she could not afford to omit one of the means to her end, for she had herself to lash as well as him. And so, once more, as at the very beginning, hand grew to be a weight in hand, something alive, electric; and any chance contact might rouse a blast in them. She neither asked nor Showed mercy. Drop by drop, they drained each other of vitality, two sufferers, yet each thirsty for the other’s life-blood; for, with this new attitude on her part, an element of cruelty had entered into their love. When, with her hands on his shoulders, her insatiable lips apart, Louise put back her head and looked at him, Maurice was acutely aware of the hostile feeling in her. But he, too, knew what it was; for, when he tried to urge prudence on her, she only laughed at him; and this low, reckless laugh, her savage eyes, and morbid pallor, invariably took from him every jot of concern.

They returned to Leipzig towards the middle of the first week, in order not to make their absence too conspicuous. But they had arranged to go away again, on the following Saturday, and, in the present state of things, the few intervening days seemed endless. Louise shut herself up, and would see little of him.

The next week, and the next again, were spent in the same fashion. A fine and mild October ran its course. For the fourth journey, towards the end of the month, they had planned to return to Rochlitz. At the last moment, however, Maurice opposed the scheme, and they left the train at Grimma. It was Friday, and a superb autumn day. They put up, not in the town itself, but at an inn about a mile and a half distant from it. This stood on the edge of a wood, was a favourite summer resort, and had lately been enlarged by an additional wing. Now, it was empty of guests save themselves. They occupied a large room in the new part of the building, at the end of a long corridor, which was shut off by a door from the rest of the house. They were utterly alone; there was no need for them even to moderate their voices. In the early morning hours, and on the journey there, Maurice had thought he noticed something unusual about Louise, and, more than once, he had asked her if her head ached. But soon he forgot his solicitude.

Next morning, he felt an irresistible inclination to go out: opening the window, he leaned on the sill. A fresh, pleasant breeze was blowing; it bent the tops of the pines, and drove the white clouds smoothly over the sky. He suggested that they should walk to the ruined cloister of Nimbschen; but Louise responded very languidly, and he had to coax and persuade. By the time she was ready to leave the untidy room, the morning was more than half over, and the shifting clouds had balled themselves into masses. Before the two emerged from the wood, an even network of cloud had been drawn over the whole sky; it looked like rain.

They walked as usual in silence, little or nothing being left to say, that seemed worth the exertion of speech. Each step cost Louise a visible effort; her arms hung slack at her sides; her very hands felt heavy. The pallor of her face had a greyish tinge in it. Maurice began to regret having hurried her out against her will.

They were on a narrow path skirting a wood, when she suddenly expressed a wish for some tall bulrushes that grew beside a stream, some distance below. Maurice went down to the edge of the water and began to cut the rushes. But the ground was marshy, and the finest were beyond his reach.

On the path at the top of the bank, Louise stood and followed his movements. She watched his ineffectual efforts to seize the further reeds, saw how they slipped back from between his hands; she watched him take out his knife and open it, endeavour once more to reach those he wanted, and, still unsuccessful, choose a dry spot to sit down on; saw him take off his boots and stockings, then rise and go cautiously out on the soft ground. Ages seemed to pass while she watched him do these trivial things; she felt as if she were gradually turning to stone as she stood. How long he was about it! How deliberately he moved! And she had the odd sensation, too, that she knew beforehand everything he would and would not do, just as if she had experienced it already. His movements were of an impossible circumstantiality, out of all proportion to the trifling service she had asked of him; for, at heart, she cared as little about the rushes as about anything else. But it was an unfortunate habit of his, and one she noticed more and more as time went on, to make much of paltry details, which, properly, should have been dismissed without a second thought. It implied a certain tactlessness, to underline the obvious in this fashion. The very way, for instance, he stretched out his arm, unclasped his knife, leant forward, and then stooped back to lay the cut reeds on the bank. Oh, she was tired! — tired to exasperation! — of his ways and actions — as tired as she was of his words, and of the thousand and one occurrences, daily repeated, that made up their lives. She would have liked to creep away, to hide herself in an utter seclusion; while, instead, it was her lot to assist, hour after hour, at making much of what, in the depths of her soul, did not concern her at all. Nothing, she felt, would ever really concern her again. She gazed fixedly before her, at him, too, but without seeing him, till her sight was blurred; trees and sky, stream and rushes, swam together in a formless maze. And all of a sudden, while she was still blind, there ran through her such an intense feeling of aversion, such a complete satedness with all she had of late felt and known, that she involuntarily took a step backwards, and pressed her palms together, in order to hinder herself from screaming aloud. She could bear it no longer. In a flash, she grasped that she was unable, utterly unable, to face the day that was before her. She knew in advance every word, every look and embrace that it held for her: rather than undergo them afresh, she would throw herself into the water at her feet. Anywhere, anywhere! — only to get away, to be alone, to cover her face and see no more! Her hand went to her throat; her breath refused to come; she shivered so violently that she was afraid she would fall to the ground.

Maurice, all unsuspecting, sat with his back to her, and laced his boots.

But he was startled into an exclamation, when he climbed the bank and saw the state she was in.

“Louise! Good Heavens, what’s the matter? Are you ill?”

He took her by the arm, and shook her a little, to arrest her attention.

“Maurice! . . . no!” Her voice was hoarse. “Oh, let me go home!”

He repeated the words in amazed alarm. “But what is it, darling? Are you ill? Are you cold? — that you’re trembling like this?”

“No . . . yes. Oh, I want to go home! — back to Leipzig.”

“Why, of course, if you want to. At once.”

The rushes lay forgotten on the ground. Without further words, they hastened to the inn. There, Maurice helped her to throw her things into the bag she had not wholly unpacked, and, having paid the bill, led her, with the same feverish haste, through the woods and town to the railway-station. He was full of distressed concern for her, but hardly dared to show it. for, to all his questions, she only shook her head. Walking at his side, she dug her nails into her palms till she felt the blood come, in her effort to conceal and stifle the waves of almost physical repugnance that passed through her, making it impossible for her to bear even the touch of his hand. In the train, she leaned back in the corner, and, shutting her eyes, pretended to be asleep.

They took a droschke home; the driver whipped up his horse; the landlady was called in to make the first fire of the season. Louise went to bed at once. She wanted nothing, she said, but to lie still in the darkened room. He should go away; she preferred to be alone. No, she was not ill, only tired, but so tired that she could not keep her eyes open. She needed rest: tomorrow she would be all right again. He should please, please, leave her, and go away. And, turning her face to the wall, she drew the bedclothes over her head.

At his wits’ end to know what it all meant, Maurice complied. But at home in his room, he could settle to nothing; he trembled at every footstep on the stair. No message came, however, and when he had seen her again that evening, he felt more reassured.

“It’s nothing — really nothing. I’m only tired . . . yes, it was too much. just let me be, Maurice — till to-morrow.” And she shut her eyes again, and kept them shut, till she heard the door close behind him.

He was reassured, but still, for the greater part of the night, he lay sleepless. He was always agitated anew by the abrupt way in which Louise passed from mood to mood; but this was something different; he could not understand it. In the morning, however, he saw things in a less tragic light; and, on sitting down to the piano, he experienced almost a sense of satisfaction at the prospect of an undisturbed day’s work.

Meanwhile Louise shrank, even in memory, from the feverish weeks just past, as she had shrunk that day from his touch. And she struggled to keep her thoughts from dwelling on them. But it was the first time in her life that she felt a like shame and regret; and she could not rid her mind of the haunting images. She knew the reason, too; darkness brought the knowledge. She had believed, had wished to believe, that the failure was her fault, a result of her unstable nature; whereas the whole undertaking had been merely a futile attempt to bolster up the impossible, to stave off the inevitable, to postpone the end. And it had all been in vain. The end! It would come, as surely as day followed night — had perhaps indeed already come; for how else could the nervous aversion be explained, which had seized her that day? What, during the foregoing weeks, she had tried not to hear; what had sounded in her ears like the tone of a sunken bell, was there at last, horrible and deafening. She had ceased to care for him, and ceased, surfeited with abundance, with the same vehement abruptness as she had once begun. The swiftness with which things had swept to a conclusion, had, confessedly, been accelerated by her unhappy temperament; but, however gentle the gradient, the point for which they made would have remained the same. What she was now forced to recognise was, that the whole affair had been no more than an episode; and the fact of its having begun less brutally than others, had not made it a whit better able than these to withstand decay.

A bitter sense of humiliation came over her. What was she? Not a week ago — she could count the days on her fingers — the mere touch of his hand on her hair had made her thrill; and now the sole feeling she was conscious of was one of dislike. She looked back over the course of her relations with him, and many things, unclear before, became plain to her. She had gone into the intimacy deliberately, with open eyes, knowing that she cared for him only in a friendly way. She had believed, then, that the gift of herself would mean little to her, while it would secure her a friend and companion. And then, too — she might as well be quite honest with herself — she had nourished a romantic hope that a love which commenced as did this shy, adoring tenderness, would give her something finer and more enduring than she had hitherto known. Wrong, all wrong, from beginning to end! It had been no better than those loves which made no secret of their aim and did not strut about draped in false sentiment. The end of all was one and the same. But besides this, it had come to mean more to her than she had ever dreamt of allowing. You could not play with fire, it seemed, and not be burned. Or, at least, she could not. She was branded with wounds. The fierce demands in her, over which she had no control, had once more reared their heads and got the mastery of her, and of him, too. There had been no chance, beneath their scorching breath, for a pallid delicacy of feeling.

It did not cross her mind that she would conceal what she felt from him. Secrecy implied a mental ingenuity, a tiresome care of word and deed. His eyes must be opened; he, too, must learn to say the horrid word “end.” How infinitely thankful she had now reason to be that she had not yielded to his persuasions, and married him! No, she had never seriously considered the idea, even at the height of her folly. But then, she was never quite sure of herself; there was always a chance that some blind impulse would spring up in her and overthrow her resolutions. Now, he must suffer, too — and rightly. For, after all, he had also been to blame. If only he had not importuned her so persistently, if only he had let her alone, nothing of this would have happened, and there would be no reason for her to lie and taunt herself. But, in his silent, obstinate way, he had given her no peace; and you could not — she could not! — go on living unmoved, at the side of a person who was crazy with love for you.

For two nights, she slept little. On the third, worn out, she fell, soon after midnight, into a deep sleep, from which, the following morning, she wakened refreshed.

When Maurice came, about half-past twelve, her eyes followed him with a new curiosity, as he drew up a chair and sat down at her bedside. She wondered what he would say when he knew, and what change would come over his face. But she made no beginning to enlightening him. In his presence, she was seized by an ungovernable desire to be distracted, to be taken out of herself. Also, it was not, she began to grasp, a case of stating a simple fact, in simple words; it meant all the circumstantiality of complicated explanation; it meant a still more murderous tearing up of emotion. And besides this, there was another factor to be reckoned with, and that was the peculiar mood he was in. For, as soon as he entered the room, she felt that he was different from what he had been the day before.

She heard the irritation in his voice, as he tried to persuade her to come out to dinner with him. In fancy she saw it all: saw them walking together to the restaurant, at a brisk pace, in order to waste none of his valuable time; saw dinner taken quickly, for the same reason; saw them parting again at the house-door; then herself in the room alone, straying from sofa to window and back again, through the long hours of the long afternoon. A kind of mental nausea seized her at the thought that the old round was to begin afresh. She brought no answer over her lips. And after waiting some time in vain for her to speak, Maurice rose, and, still under the influence of his illhumour, drew up the three blinds, and opened a window. A cold, dusty sunlight poured into the room.

Louise gave a cry, and put her hands to her eyes.

“The room is so close, and you’re so pale,” he said in selfexcuse. “Do you know you’ve been shut up in here for three days now?”

“My head aches.”

“It will never be any better as long as you lie there. Dearest, what is it? WHAT’S the matter with you?”

“You’re unhappy about something,” he went on, a moment later. “What is it? Won’t you tell me?”

“Nothing,” she murmured. She lay and pressed her palms to her eyeballs, so firmly that when she removed them, the room was a blur. Maurice, standing at the window, beat a tattoo on the pane. Then, with his back to her, he began to speak. He blamed himself for what he called the folly of the past weeks. “I gave way when I should have been firm. And this is the result. You have got into a nervous, morbid state. But it’s nonsense to think it can go on.”

For the first time, she was conscious of a somewhat critical attitude on his part; he said “folly” and “nonsense.” But she made no comment; she lay and let his words go over her. They had so little import now. All the words that had ever been said could not alter a jot of what she felt — of her intense inward experience.

Her protracted silence, her heavy indifference infected him; and for some time the only sound to be heard was that of his fingers drumming on the glass. When he spoke again, he seemed to be concluding an argument with himself; and indeed, on this particular day, Maurice found it hard to detach his thoughts from himself, for any length of time.

“It’s no use, dear. Things can’t go on like this any longer. I’ve got to buckle down to work again. I’ve . . . I. . .I haven’t told you yet: Schwarz is letting me play the Mendelssohn.”

She thought she would have to cry aloud; here it was again: the chilling atmosphere of commonplace, which her nerves were expected to live and be well in; the well-worn phrases, the “must this,” and “must that,” the confident expectation of interest in doings that did not interest her at all. She could not — it would kill her to begin it anew! And, in spite of her efforts at repression, an exclamation forced its way through her lips.

At this, Maurice went quickly back to her.

“Forgive me . . . talking about myself, when you are not well.”

He knelt down beside the bed, and removed her hands from her face. She did not open her eyes, kept quite still. At this moment, she felt mainly curious: would the strange aversion to his touch return? He was kissing her palms, pressing them to his face. She drew a long, deep sigh: it did not come back. On the contrary, the touch of his hand was pleasant to her. He stroked her cheek, pushed back a loose piece of hair from her forehead; and, as he did this, she was aware of the old sense of well-being. Beneath his hand, irksome thoughts fell away. Backwards and forwards it travelled, as gently as though she were a sick person. And, little by little, so gradually that, at first, she herself was not conscious of them, other wishes came to life in her again. She began to desire more than mere peace. The craving came over her to forget her self-torturings, and to forget them in a dizzy whirl. Reaching up, she put her arms round his neck, and drew him down. He kissed her eyelids. At this she opened her eyes, enveloping him in a look he had learnt to know well. For a second he sustained it: his life was concentrated in the liquid fire of these eyes, in these eager parted lips. She pressed them to his, and he felt a smart, like a bee’s sting.

With a jerk, he thrust her arms away, and rose to his feet; to keep his balance he was obliged to grasp the back of a chair. Taking out his handkerchief, he pressed it to his lip.

“Maurice!”

“It’s late . . . I must go . . . I must work, I tell you.” He stood staring at the drop of blood on his handkerchief.

“Maurice!”

He looked round him in a confused way; he was strangely angry, and hasty to no purpose. “Won’t you . . . then you won’t come out with me?”

“Maurice!” The word was a cry.

“Oh, it’s foolish! You don’t know what you’re doing.” He had found his coat, and was putting it on, with unsure hands. “Then, if . . . this evening, then! As usual. I’ll come as usual.”

The door shut behind him; a minute later, the street-door banged. At the sound Louise seemed to waken. Starting up in bed, she threw a wild look round the empty room; then, turned on her face, and bit a hole in the linen of the pillow.

Maurice worked that afternoon as though his future was conditioned by the number of hours he could practise before evening. Throughout these three days, indeed, his zeal had been unabating. He would never have yielded so calmly to the morbid fashion in which she had cooped herself up, had not the knowledge that his time was his own again, been something of a relief to him. Yes, at first, relief was the word for what he felt. For, after making one good resolution on top of another, he had, when the time came, again been a willing defaulter. He had allowed the chance to slip of making good, by redoubled diligence, his foolish mistake with regard to Schwarz. Now it was too late; though the master had let him have his way in the choice of piece for the coming PRUFUNG, it had mainly been owing to indifference. If only he did not prove unequal to the choice now it was made! For that he was out of the rut of steady work, was clear to him as soon as he put his hands to the piano.

But he had never been so forlornly energetic as on this particular afternoon. Yet there was something mechanical, too, about his playing; neither heart nor brain was in it. Mendelssohn’s effective roulades ran thoughtlessly from his fingers: in the course of a single day, he had come to feel a deep contempt for the emptiness of these runs and flourishes. He pressed forward, however, hour after hour without a break, as though he were a machine wound up for the purpose. But with the entrance of dusk, his fictitious energy collapsed. He did not even trouble to light the lamp, but, throwing himself on the sofa, covered his eyes with his arm.

The twilight induced sensations like itself — vague, formless, intolerable. A sudden recognition of the uselessness of human striving grew up in him, with the rapidity of a fungus. Effort and work, ambition and success, alike led nowhere, were so many blind alleys: ambition ended in smoke; success was a fleeing phantom, which one sought in vain to grasp. To the great mass of mankind, it was more than immaterial whether one of its units toiled or no; not a single soul was benefited by it. Most certainly not the toiler himself. It was only given to a few to achieve anything; the rest might stand aside early in the day. Nothing of their labours would remain, except the scars they themselves bore.

He was unhappy; to-night he knew it with a painful clearness. The shock had been too rude. For him, change had to be prepared, to come gradually. Sooner or later, no doubt, he would right himself again; but in the meantime his plight was a sorry one. It was his duty to protect himself against another onslaught of the kind — to protect them both. For there was no blinking the fact: a few more weeks like the foregoing, and they would have been two of the wretchedest creatures on earth. They were miserable enough as it was, he in his, she in her own way. It must never happen again. She, too, had doubtless become sensible of this, in the course of the past three days. But had she? Could he say that? What had she thought? — what had she felt? And he told himself that was just what he would never know.

He saw her as she had lain that morning, her arms long and white on the coverlet. He recalled all he had said, and tried to piece things together; an inner meaning seemed to be eluding him. Again, in memory, he heard the half-stifled cry that had drawn him to her side, felt her hands in his, the springy resistance of her hair, the delicate skin of her eyelids. Then, he had not understood the sudden impulse that had made him spring to his feet. But now, as he lay in the dusk, and summed up these things, a new thought, or hardly a thought so much as an intuition, flashed through his mind, instantly to take entire possession of him — just as if it had all along been present, in waiting. Simultaneously, the colour mounted to his face: he refused to harbour such a thought, and put it from him, angry with himself. But it was not to be kept down; it rose again, in an inexplicable way — this suggestion, which was like a slur cast on her. Why, he demanded of himself, should it not have occurred to him before? — once, twenty, a hundred times? For the same thing had often happened: times without number, she had striven to keep him at her side. Was its presence to-day a result of his aimless irritation? Or was it because, after holding him at arm’s length for three whole days, she had asked, on returning to him, neither affection nor comradeship, only the blind gratification of sense?

He did not know. But forgotten hints and trifles — words, acts, looks — which he had never before considered consciously, now recurred to him as damning evidence. With his arm still across his eyes, he lay and let it work in him; let doubts and frightful uncertainties grow up in his brain; suffered the most horrible suffering of all — doubt of the one beloved. He seemed to be looking at things from a new point, seeing them in different proportions — all his own poor hopes and beliefs as well and, while the spasm of distrust lasted, he felt inclined to doubt whether she had ever really cared for him. He even questioned his own feeling for her, seeking to discover whether it, too, had not been based on a mere sensual fancy. He saw them satisfying an instinct, without reason and without nobility. And, by this light, he read a reason for the past months, which made him groan aloud.

He rose and paced the room. If what he was thinking of her were true, then it would be better for both their sakes if he never saw her again. But, even while he said this, he knew that he would have to see her, and without loss of time. What he needed was to stand face to face with her, to look into her eyes, which, whatever they might do, had never learned to hide the truth, and there gain the certainty that his imaginings were monstrous — the phantoms of a melancholy October twilight.

It was nearly nine o’clock, but there was no light in her room. He pictured her lying in the dark, and was filled with remorse. But he said her name in vain; the room was empty. Lighting the lamp, he saw that the bedclothes had been thrown back over the foot-end of the unmade bed, as though she had only just left it. The landlady said that she had gone out, two hours previously, without leaving any message. All he could do was to sit down and wait; and in the long half-hour that now went by, the black thoughts that had driven him there were forgotten. His only wish was to have her safe beside him again.

Towards ten o’clock he heard approaching sounds. A moment later Louise came in. She blinked at the light, and began to unfasten her veil before she was over the threshold.

He gave a sigh of relief. “At last! Thank goodness! Where have you been?”

“Did you think I was lost? Have you been here long?”

“For hours. Where else should I be? But you — where have you been?”

Standing before the table, she fumbled with the veil, which she had pulled into a knot. He did not offer to help her; he stood looking at her, and both voice and look were a little stern.

“Why did you go out?”

She did not look at him. “Oh, just for a breath of air. I felt I . . . I HAD to do something.”

From the moment of her entrance, even before she had spoken, Maurice was aware of that peculiar aloofness in her, which invariably made itself felt when she was engrossed by something in which he had no part.

“That’s hardly a reason,” he said nervously.

With the veil stretched between her two hands, she turned her head. “Do you want another? Well, after you left me to-day, I lay and thought and thought . . . till I felt I should go mad, if I lay there any longer.”

“Yes, but all of a sudden, like this! After being in bed for three days . . . to go out and . . .”

“But I have not been ill!”

“Go out and wander about the streets, at night.”

“I didn’t mean to be so late,” she said, and folded the veil with an exaggerated care. “But I was hindered; I had a little adventure.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, nothing much. A man followed me — and I couldn’t get rid of him.”

“Go on, please!” He was astonished at the severity of his own voice.

“Oh, don’t be so serious, Maurice!” She had folded the veil to a neat square, stuck three hatpins in it, and thrown it with her hat and jacket on the sofa. “No one has tried to murder me,” she said, and raised both her hands to her hair. “I was standing before Haase’s window — the big jeweller’s in the PETERSTRASSE, you know. I’ve always loved jewellers’ windows — especially at night, when they’re lighted up. As a child, I thought heaven must be like the glitter of diamonds on blue velvet — the Jasper Sea, you know, and the pearly floor.”

“Never mind that now!”

“Well, I was standing there, looking in, longer perhaps than I knew. I felt that some one was beside me, but I didn’t see who it was, till I heard a man’s voice say: ‘SCHONE SACHEN, FRAULEIN, WAS?’ Of course, I took no notice; but I didn’t run away, as if I were afraid of him. I went on looking into the window, till he said: ‘DARF ICH IHNEN ETWASS KAUFEN?‘and more nonsense of the same kind. Then I thought it was time to go. He followed me down the PETERSTRASSE, and when I came to the ROSSPLATZ, he was still behind me. So I determined to lead him a dance. I’ve been walking about, with him at my heels, for over an hour. In a quiet street where there was no one in sight, he spoke to me again, and refused to go away until I told him where I lived. I pretended to agree, and, on the condition that he didn’t follow me any further, I gave him a number in the QUERSTRASSE; and in case he broke his. word, I came home that way. I hope he’ll spend a pleasant evening looking for me.”

She laughed — her fitful, somewhat unreal laugh, which was always displeasing to him. To-night, taken in conjunction with her story, and her unconcerned way of telling it, it jarred on him as never before.

“Let me catch him here, and I’ll make it impossible for him to insult a woman again!” he cried. “For it is an insult though you don’t see it in that light. You laugh as you tell it, as if something amusing had happened to you. You are so strange sometimes. — Tell me, dearest, WHY did you go out? When I asked you, you wouldn’t come.”

“No. Then I wasn’t in the mood.” Her smile faded.

“No. But after dark — and quite alone — then the mood takes you.”

“But I’ve done it hundreds of times before. I can take care of myself.”

“You are never to do it again — do you hear? — Why didn’t you give the fellow in charge?” he asked a moment later, in a burst of distrust.

Again Louise laughed. “Oh, a German policeman would find that rather funny than otherwise. It’s the rule, you know, not the exception. And the same thing has happened to me before. So often that it’s literally not worth mentioning. I shouldn’t have spoken of it to-night if you hadn’t been so persistent. Besides,” she added as an afterthought — and, in the face of his grave displeasure, she found herself wilfully exaggerating the levity of her tone —“besides, this wasn’t the kind of man one gives in charge. Not the usual commercial-traveller type. A Graf, or Baron, at least.”

He was as nettled as she had intended him to be. “You talk just as if you had had experience in the class of man. — Do you really think it makes things any better? To my mind, it’s a great deal worse. — But the thing is — you don’t know how . . . You’re not to go out alone again at night. I forbid it. This is the first time for weeks; and see what happens! And it’s notyou may well say it has happened to you before. I don’t know what it is, but — The very cab-drivers look at you as they’ve no business to — as they don’t look at other women!”

“Well, can I help that? — how men look at me?” she asked indignantly. “Do you wish to say it’s my fault? That I do anything to make them?”

“No. Though it might be better if you did,” he answered gloomily. “The unpleasant thing is, though you do nothing . . . that it’s there all the same . . . something . . . I don’t know what.”

“No, I don’t think you do, and neither do I. But I do know that you are being very rude to me.” As he made no reply, she went on: “You will, however, at least give me credit for knowing how to keep men at a distance, though I can’t hinder them from looking at me. — And, for your own comfort, remember in future that I’m not an inexperienced child. There’s nothing I don’t know.”

“You needn’t throw that up at me.”

“— I at YOU?” she laughed hotly. “That’s surely reversing the order of things, isn’t it? It ought to be the other way about.”

“Unfortunately it isn’t.” The look he gave her was made up of mingled anger and entreaty; but as she took no notice of it, he turned away, and going to the window, leaned his forehead against the glass. What affected him so disagreeably was not the incident of the man following her, but her light way of regarding it. And as the knowledge of this came home to him, he was impelled to go on speaking. “It’s a trifle to make a fuss about, I know,” he said. “And I shouldn’t give it a second thought, if I could ONLY feel, Louise, that you looked at it as I do . . . and felt about it as I do. You seem so indifferent to what it really means — it’s almost as if you enjoyed it. Other women are different. They resent such a thing instinctively. While you don’t even take offence. And men feel that in you, somehow. That’s what makes them look at you and follow you about. That’s what attracts them and always has done — far too easily.”

“You among the rest!”

“For God’s sake, hold your tongue! You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Oh, I know well enough.” She put her hair back from her forehead, and passed her handkerchief over her lips. “Instead of lecturing me in this way, you might be grateful, I think, that I didn’t accept the man’s offer and go somewhere to supper with him. It’s dull enough here. You don’t make things very gay for me. To-day, altogether, you are treating me as if I were a criminal.”

He did not answer; the words “You among the rest!” went on sounding in his ears. Yes, there was truth in them, a horrible truth. Who was he to sit in judgment? — either on her, or on those others who yielded to the attraction that went out from her. Had not he himself been in love with her before he even knew her name. Had he then accused her? — laid the blame at her door?

She caught a moth that was fluttering round the lamp, and carried it to the window. When, a moment later, he turned and gave her another unhappy look, she felt a kind of pity for him, forced as he was, by his nature, to work himself into unhappiness over such a trivial matter.

“Don’t let us say unkind things to each other,” she said slowly. “I’m sorry. If I had known it would worry you so much, I shouldn’t have said a word about it. That would have been easy.”

He felt her touch on his arm. As it grew warm and close, he, too, was filled with the wish to be at one with her again — to be lulled into security. He pressed her hand.

“Forgive me! To-day I’ve been bothered — pestered with black thoughts. Or else I shouldn’t go on like this.”

Now she was silent; both stared out into the night. And then a strange thing happened. He began to speak again, and words rose to his lips, of which, a moment before, he had had no idea, but which he now knew for absolute truth. He said: “I don’t want to excuse myself; I’m jealous, I admit it. And yet there IS an excuse for me, Louise. For saying such things to you, I mean. To-night I— Have you ever thought, dear, what a difference it would make to us, if you had . . . I mean if I knew . . . that you had never cared for anyone . . . if you had never belonged to anyone but me? That’s what I wish now more than anything else in the world. If I could just say to myself: no one but me has ever held her in his arms; and no one ever will. Do you think then, darling, I could speak as I have to-night?”

A moment back, he had had no thought of such a thing; now, here it was, expressed, over his lips — another of those strange, inlying truths, which were existent in him, and only waited for a certain moment to come to light. Strangest of all, perhaps, was the manner in which it impressed itself on him. In it seemed to be summed up his trouble of the afternoon, his suspense and irritation of the later hours. It was as if he had suddenly found a formula for them, and, as he stated it, he was dumbfounded by its far-reaching significance.

A church-clock pealed a single stroke.

“Oh, yes, perhaps,” said Louise, in a low voice. She could not rouse herself to a very keen interest in his feelings.

“No, not perhaps. Yes — a thousand times yes! Everything would be changed by it. Then I couldn’t torment you. And our love would have a certainty such as it can now never have.”

“But you knew, Maurice! I told you — everything! You said it didn’t matter.”

“And it doesn’t, and never shall. But to make it undone, I would cheerfully give years of my life. You’re a woman — you can’t understand these things — or know what we miss. You mine only — life wouldn’t be the same.”

For a moment she did not answer. Then the same toneless voice came out of the darkness at his side. “But I AM yours only — now. And it’s a foolish thing to wish for the impossible.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/richardson/henry_handel/r52mg/chapter33.html

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