Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

X.

One morning towards the end of January, Krafft disappeared from Leipzig, and some days later, the body of Avery Hill was found in a secluded reach of the Pleisse, just below Connewitz. Some workmen, tramping townwards soon after dawn, noticed a strip of light stuff twisted round a snag, which projected slightly above the surface of the water. It proved to be the skirt of her dress, which had been caught and held fast. Ambulance and police were summoned, and the body was recovered and taken to the police-station.

The last of his friends to see Krafft was Madeleine, and the number of those interested in his departure, and in Avery’s quick suicide, was so large that she several times had to repeat her lively account of the last visit he paid her. He had come in, one afternoon, and settling himself on the sofa, refused to be dislodged. As he was in one of his most ambiguous moods, she left him to himself, and went on with her work.

On rising to go, he had stood for a moment with his hands on her shoulders.

“Well, Mada, whatever happens, remember I was sorry you wouldn’t have me.”

“Oh, come now, Heinz, you never really asked me!”

It was snowing hard that night, a moist, soft snow that melted as it touched the ground, and Krafft borrowed her umbrella. As usual, however, he returned before he could have got half-way down the stairs, to say that he had changed his mind and would not take it.

“But you’ll get wet through.”

“I don’t want your umbrella, I tell you. — Or have you two?”

“No; but I’m not going out. — Oh, well, leave it then. And may you reap a frightful rheumatism!”

As he went down, for the second time, he whistled the ROSE OF SHARON: she listened to it grow fainter in the distance: and that was the last she or anyone had heard of Krafft. The following morning, his landlady found a note on her kitchen-table, instructing her to keep his belongings for four weeks. If, by that time, they had not been claimed, she might sell them, and take the money obtained for herself. Only a few personal articles were missing, such as would be necessary for a hurried journey. — Of course, so Madeleine wound up the story, she had never expected Heinz to behave like a normal mortal, and to take leave of his friends in the ordinary way, and she was also grateful to him for not pilfering her umbrella, which was silvertopped. All the same, there was something indecent about his behaviour. It showed how little he had, at heart, cared for any of them. Only a person who thoroughly despised others, would treat them in this way, playing with them up to the last minute, as one plays with dolls or fools.

Avery Hill was laid out in a small room adjoining the policestation. It was evening before the business of identification was over. Various members of the American colony had to give evidence, and the services of the consul were called into play, for there were countless difficulties, formalities and ceremonies attached to this death by one’s own hand in a foreign country. Before all the technical details were concluded, there were those who thought — and openly said so — that an intending suicide might cast a merciful thought on the survivors. Only Dove made no complaint. He had been one of the first to learn what had happened, and, in the days that followed, he ran to and fro, from one BUREAU to another, receiving signatures, and witnessing them, bearing the whole brunt of surly Saxon officialdom on his own shoulders.

Twenty-four hours later, it had been arranged that the body should be buried on the JOHANNISFRIEDHOF, and the consul was advised by cablegram to lay out the money for the funeral. Under the eyes of a police-officer and a young clerk from the consul’s office, Madeleine, assisted by Miss Jensen, went through the dead girl’s belongings, and packed them together.

Miss Jensen kept up, in a low voice, a running commentary on the falsity of men and the foolishness of women. But, at times, her natural kindness of heart asserted itself, to the confusion of her theories.

“Poor thing, poor young thing!” she murmured, gazing at a pair of well-patched boots which she held in her hand. “If only she had come to us! — and let us help her!”

“Help her?” echoed Madeleine in a testy way; she was one of those who thought that the dead girl might have shown more consideration for her friends, standing, as they did, immediately before their PRUFUNGEN. “Could one help her ever having set eyes on that attractive scoundrel? — And besides, it’s easy enough thinking afterwards, one might have been able to help, to do this and that. It’s a mistake. People don’t want help; and they don’t give you a thank-you for offering it. All they ask is to be let alone, to muddle and bungle their lives as they like.”

As they walked home together, Miss Jensen returned once more to the subject of Krafft’s failings.

“I’ve known many men,” she said, “one more credulously vain and stupid than another; for unless a man is engaged in satisfying his brute instincts, he can be twisted round the finger of ANY woman. But Mr. Krafft was the only one I’ve met, who didn’t appear to me to have a single good impulse.”

The big woman’s high-pitched voice grated on Madeleine.

“You’re quite wrong there,” she said more snappily than before. “Heinz had as many good impulses as anyone else. But he had reduced the concealing of them to a fine art. He was never happier than when he had succeeded in giving a totally false impression of himself. Take me for this, for that! — just what I choose. Often it was as if he flung a bone to a dog: there! that’s good enough for you. No one knew Heinz: each of us knew a little bit of him, and thought it was all there was to know. — He never showed a good impulse: that is as much as saying that he swarmed with them. And no doubt he would have considered that, with regard to you, he had been entirely successful. You have the idea of him he meant you to have.”

“He was never her lover,” said Louise with a studied carelessness.

Maurice, to whom nothing was more offensive than the tone of bravado in which she flaunted subjects of this nature, was stung to retaliation.

“How do YOU know?”

“Well, if you wish to hear — from his own lips.”

“Do you mean to say you’ve spoken to Heinz about things of that kind? — discussed his relations with other women?”

“Do you need reminding that I knew Heinz before I had ever heard of you?”

He turned away, too dispirited to cross words with her. The events of the past week had closed over his head as two waves Close over a swimmer, cutting off light and air. Since the night on which he had left his whilom friend the mark of his spread fingers as a parting gift, he had ceased to care greatly about anything.

Compared with his pessimistic absorption in himself, Avery’s suicide and Krafft’s departure touched him lightly. For the girl, he had never cared. As soon, though, as he heard that Krafft had disappeared, he turned out his pockets for the scrap of paper Heinz had given him that evening in the cafe. But it threw no light on what had happened. It was merely an address, and, twist it as he would, Maurice could make no more of it than the words: KLOSTERGASSE 12. He resolved to go through the street of that name in the afternoon; but, when the time came, he forgot about it, and it was not till next morning that he carried out his intention. There was, however, nothing to be learned; number twelve was a gunsmith’s shop, and at his hesitating inquiry, if anything were known there of a music-student called Krafft, the owner of the shop looked at him as if he were a lunatic, and answered rudely: was the Herr under the impression that the shop was an information BUREAU?

Louise was dressed to go out. Pressed as to her destination, she said that she was going to see the body. Maurice sought in vain to dissuade her.

“It’s a perverse thing to do,” he cried. “You didn’t care a fig for the girl when she was alive. But now she can’t forbid it, you go and stare at her, out of nothing but curiosity.”

“How do you know whether I cared for her or not?” Louise threw at him: she was tying on her’ veil before the glass. “Do you think I tell you everything? — And as for your ‘perverse,’ it’s the same with all I ever do. You have made it your business always to find my wishes absurd.” She took up her gloves and, holding them together, hit her muff with them. “In this case, it doesn’t concern you in the least. I don’t ask you to come. I want to go alone.”

The more shattered and unsure he grew, the more self-assertive was she. There was an air of bravado in all she did, at this time — as in the matter of her determination to go to the dead-house — and she hurt him, with reckless cruelty, whenever a chance offered. Her pale mouth seemed only to open to say unkind things, and her eyes weighed him with an ironic contempt. To his jarred ears, her very laugh sounded less fine. At moments, she began almost to look ugly to him; but it was a dangerous ugliness, more seductive than her beauty had ever been. Then, he knew that she was not too good for him, nor he for her, nor either of them for the world they lived in.

They walked side by side to the mortuary. It was a very cold day, and Louise wore heavy furs, from which her face rose enticingly. The attention she attracted was to Maurice like gall to a wound.

There was not much difficulty in gaining admittance to the dead. A small coin changed hands, and a man in uniform opened the door.

The post-mortem examination had been held that day, and the body was swathed from head to foot in a white sheet. It lay on a long, projecting shelf, and a ticket was pinned on the wall at its head. On the opposite side of the room, on a similar shelf, was another shrouded figure — the body of a workingman, found that morning on the outskirts of the town, with an empty bottle which had contained carbolic acid by its side. The LEICHENFRAU, the public layer — out of the dead, told them this; it was she, too, who drew back the sheet from Avery’s face in order that they might see it. She was a rosy, apple-cheeked woman, and her vivid colouring was thrown into relief by the long black cloak and the close-fitting, black poke-bonnet that she wore. Maurice, for whom the dead as such had no attraction, turned from his contemplation of the stark-stretched figure on the shelf, to watch the living woman. The exuberance of her vitality had something almost insultant in the presence of these two rigid forms, from whose faces the colour had fled for ever. Her eyes were alert like those of a bird; her voice and movements were loud and bustling. In thought he compared her to a carrion-crow. It was this woman’s calling to live on the dead; she hastened from house to house to cleanse poor, inanimate bodies, whose dignity had departed from them. He wondered idly whether she gloated over the announcements of fresh deaths, and mentally sped the dying. Did she talk of good seasons and of slack seasons, and look forward to the spread of contagious disease? — Well, at least, she throve on her trade, as a butcher thrives by continually handling meat.

Louise had eyes only for the face of the dead girl. She stood gazing at it, with a curious absorption, but without a spark of feeling. The LEICHENFRAU, having finished tying up a basket, crossed the room and joined her.

“EINE SCHONE LEICHE!” she said, and nodded, appreciating the fact that a stranger should admire what was partly her own handiwork.

It was true; Avery’s face looked as though it were modelled in wax. She had not been in the water for more than half an hour, had said the doctor, not long enough to be disfigured in any way. Only her hair remained dank and matted, and, although it was laid straight out over the bolster, it would probably never be quite dry again. No matter, continued the woman; on. the morrow would come the barber, a good friend of hers, to dress it for the tomb; he would bring tongs and irons, and other heating-apparatus with him, and, for certain, would make a good job of it, so skilled was he: he had all the latest fashions in hair-dressing at his finger-ends. The face itself was as placid as it had been in life; the lids were firmly closed — no peeping or squinting here — and the lips met and rested on each other round and full. Seen like this, it now became evident that his face was one of those which are, all along, intended for death — intended, that is, to lie waxen and immobile, to show to best advantage. In life, there had been too marked a discrepancy between the extreme warmth of the girl’s colouring and the extreme immobility of her expression. Now that the blood had, as it were, been drained away to the last drop, now that temples and nostrils had attained transparency, the fine texture of the skin and the beauty of the curves of lips and chin were visible to every eye. Only one hand, so the LEICHENFRAU babbled on, was convulsively closed, and could not be undone; and, as she spoke, she drew the sheet further down, and displayed the naked arm and hand: the long, fine fingers were clenched, the thumb inside the rest. Otherwise, Avery appeared to sleep, to sleep profoundly, with an intensity such as living sleep never attains to — the very epitome of repose. It seemed as if her eyelids were pressed down by some unseen force; and, in her presence, the feeling gained ground in one, that it was worth enduring much, to arrive at a rest of this kind at last.

“JA, JA,” said the woman, and rearranged the covering. “It’s a pleasure to handle such a pretty corpse. That one there, now,”— with her chin she pointed to the other figure, and made a face of disgust. “EIN EKLIGER KERL! There was nothing to be done with him.”

“Let me see what he’s like,” begged Louise.

“It’s an ugly sight,” said the woman. However, she pulled the sheet down, and so far that not only the face, but also a part of the hairy black breast was visible.

Louise shuddered, yet the very horror of the thing fascinated her, and she plied the woman with questions about the workings of the agonising poison that had been swallowed. After one hasty glance, Maurice had turned away, and now stood staring out of the high, barred window into a gloomy little courtyard, For him, the air of the room was hard to breathe, owing to the faint, yet unmistakable odour, which even the waxen figure of the girl had begun to exhale; and he marvelled how Louise, who was so sensitive, could endure it.

Outside, both drew long breaths of the cold, evening air, and Louise bought a bunch of violets, which she pressed to nose and mouth.

“Horrible, horrible!” she said, at the same time raising her shoulders in their heavy cape. “Oh, that man! — I shall never forget his face.”

“What do you go to such places for? You have only yourself to thank for it.” He, too, was aware that a needless and repellent memory had been added to their lives.

“Oh, everything’s my own fault — I know that. You are never to blame for anything!”

“Did I ask you to go there? — did I?”

But she only laughed in reply, through and through hostile to him; and they walked for some distance in silence.

“Why are you going this way?” he asked suspiciously, when she turned into a street that led in the opposite direction to that which they should have taken.

“I’m not going home. I couldn’t sit alone in the dark with that . . that thing before my eyes.”

“Who asked you to sit alone? — Where are you going?”

“I don’t know . . . where I like.”

“That’s no answer.”

“And if I don’t choose to answer? — I don’t want you. I want to be alone. I’m sick of your perpetual bad-temper, and your eternal slf-righteousness.”

He laughed, just as she had done. The sound enraged her.

“Oh, the dead at least are at peace!” she cried.

“Yes! . . . why don’t you say it? You wish you were lying there — at peace from me!”

“Why should I say what you know so well?”

“Go and do it then! — who’s hindering you?”

“For you? — kill myself for you?”

One word gave another; they pressed forward, in the falling dusk, like two distraught creatures, heedless of the notice they attracted, or of who should hear their bitter words. And because their gestures were, to some extent, regulated by the conventions of the street, because they could not face each other with flaming eyes, and throw out hands and arms to emphasise what they said, their words were all the more cruel. Louise made straight for home now; she escaped into the house, banging the door. Maurice strode down the street, in a tumult of resentment, vowing never to return.

Avery Hill was buried the following afternoon. Maurice went to the funeral, becaug, since he had seen the dead girl’s body at the mortuary, he had been invaded by a kind of pity for her, lying alone at the mercy of barber and LEICHENFRAU. And so, towards three o’clock, he fought his way against a cutting wind to the JOHANNISFRIEDHOF.

A mere handful of people stood round the grave. In addition to the English chaplain, and a couple of diggers, there were present Dove, two Americans, and a young clerk from the consul’s office, who was happy to be associated, in any fashion, with the English residents. It was the coldest day of that winter. Over the earth swept a harsh, dry wind, which cut like the blade of a knife, and forced stinging tears from the eyes. This wind had dried the frozen surface of the ground to the impenetrability of iron; loose earth crumbled before it like powder. Grass and shrubs had shrivelled, blighted by its breath; the bare trees were sooty-black against the sky. So intense was the prevailing sensation of icy dryness that it seemed as if the earth would never again know moisture. People’s faces grew as wizened as the skins of old apples; throats and lungs were choked by the grey dust, which whirled through the streets, and made breathing an effort.

In the outlying cemetery it was still bleaker than in the shelter of the houses. Over this stretch of ground the wind swept as over the surface of a sea. The grave-diggers related the extraordinary difficulty they had had in digging the grave; the earth that had been thrown up lay cracked into huge, frozen lumps. These two men stood in the background while the service was going on, and stamped their feet and beat their hands, encased in monstrous woollen gloves, to keep the blood flowing. The English chaplain, a tall, cadaverous man, with sunken cheeks and a straw-coloured beard, had wound a red and white comforter over his surplice; the five young men pulled down the ear-flaps of their caps, and stood, with high-drawn shoulders. burrowing their hands in their pockets. The chaplain gabbled the few necessary prayers: they were inaudible to his hearers; for the rushing wind carried them straight over his shoulder into space. He was not more than a bare ten minutes over the service. Then the diggers came forward to lower the coffin. Owing to the stiffness of their hands, the ropes slid from their grasp, and the coffin fell forward into the hard yellow grave with a bump. The young men took the obligatory handfuls of earth, and struck the side of the coffin with them as gently as possible. With the last word still on his lips, the chaplain shut his book and fled; and the rest hastily dispersed. Maurice shook off the young clerk, who was murmuring unintelligible words of sympathy, and left the cemetery in the wake of the two Americans, for whom a droschke was in waiting to take them back to the town.

“Waal, I’m sort o’ relieved that wasn’t MY funeral,” he heard one of them say.

He walked at full speed to restore his famished circulation. When he was in the heart of the town again, he entered a cafe; and there he remained, with his elbows on the little marble table, letting the scene he had just come through pass once more before his mind. There had been something grotesquely indecent about the haste of every one concerned: the chaplain, gabbling like a parrot, out of regard for the safety of his own lungs; the hurry-skurry of the diggers, whose thoughts were no doubt running on the size of their gratuities; the openly expressed satisfaction of the few mourners, when they were free to hurry off again, as in hurry they had arrived. Not one present but had counted the minutes, at the expiry of which the dead girl would be consigned to her appointed hole. What an ending! All the talent, the incipient genius, that had been in her, thrust away with the greatest possible despatch, buried out of sight in the hideously hard, cold earth. Snuffed out like a candle, and with as little ceremony, was all the warm, complex life that had made up this one, throbbing bit of humanity: for what it had been, not a soul alive now cared. And what a night, too, for one’s first night underground! Brr! — At the thought of it, he drank another cup of coffee, and a fiery, stirring liqueur. But the sense of depression clung to him, and, as he walked home, he regretted the impulse that had led him to attend the funeral. For all the melancholy of valediction was his. The dead girl was free — and he had a sudden vision of her, as she had lain in the mortuary, with the look of superhuman peace on her face. Over the head of this, he was sarcastic at his own expense. For though she WERE being treated like a piece of lumber, what did it matter to her? Beneath the screening lid, she continued to sleep, tranquil, undisturbed. On the other hand, how absurd it was that he, who had cared little for her in life, should in this wise constitute himself her only mourner! And, mentally and physically, he now jerked himself to rights, and even began to whistle, as he went, in an attempt to seem at harmony with himself. But the tune that rose to his lips was Krafft’s song, THE ROSE OF SHARON, and he straightway broke off, in disgust and confusion.

In his room, as soon as he had struck a match to light the lamp, he saw that a letter was lying on the table. By the gradual spread of the light, he made out that it bore an Austrian stamp, and directly he took it in his hand, he recognised the writing. Heinz! — it was from Heinz! He tore open the envelope with unsteady fingers; what could Heinz have to write to him about? Instinctively, he connected it in some way with the events of the afternoon. But it was a very brief note, covering hardly a page of the paper. Standing beside the lamp, Maurice held the sheet in the circle of light, and ran his eye over the few lines. He took them in, in a flash, that is to say, he read them automatically; but their sense did not penetrate his brain. He tried again, and still he could not grasp what they meant; still again, and slowly, word by word, till he could have repeated them by heart; but always without getting at their inner meaning. Then, however, and all of a sudden, as if some inner consciousness had understood them, and now gave bodily warning of it; suddenly, his knees began to shake, and he was forced to sit down. Sitting, he continued to stare at the page of writing before him, with contracted pupils. He commenced to read again, and even said the first line or two of the letter aloud, as if that might aid him. But the paper fell from his hand, and he gazed, instead, into the flame of the lamp, right into the inmost flame, till he was blind with it. His head fell forward, and lay on his hands, and on the rustling sheet of paper.

“God in Heaven!”

He heard himself say it, and was even conscious of the fact that, like every mortal in the throes of a strong emotion, he, too, called on God.

A long and profound silence ensued. It went on and on, persisted, was about to become eternal, when it was rudely broken by the sound of a child’s cry. He raised his head. The walls swam round him: in spite of the coldness of the night and the fact that the room was unheated, he was clammy with perspiration. The skin of his face, too, had a peculiar, drawn feeling, as if it were a mask that was too tight for it. He shivered. Then his eye fell on the letter lying open on the table. Without a moment’s hesitation, without waiting even to put the lamp out, he seized it, and went headlong from the house.

But he was strangely unequal to exertion. He felt a craving for stimulant, and entering a wine-shop, drank a couple of cognacs. His strength came back to him; people moved out of his way; he had energy enough to climb the stair, and to go through the business of unlocking the door.

At his abrupt entrance, Louise concealed something in a drawer, and turned the key on it. But Maurice was too self-absorbed to heed her action, or consciously to hear her exclamation at his haggard appearance. He shut the door, crossed to where she was standing, and, without speaking, pulled her nearer to the lamp. By its light, he scanned her face with a desperate eagerness.

“What is it? What’s the matter?”

At the sound of her voice, the tension of the past hour relaxed. He let his head fall on her shoulder, and shut his eyes, swaying as she swayed beneath his weight.

“Forgive me! . . . forgive me!”

“You’ve been drinking, I think.” But she held still under his grasp.

“Yes, I have. Louise! . . . tell me it’s a horrible mistake. Help me, you MUST help me!”

“How can I help you, if you won’t tell me what the matter is?” She believed him to be half drunk, and spoke as to a drunken person, without meaning much.

“Yes, yes . . . I will. Only give me time.”

But he postponed beginning. Leaning more heavily on her, he pressed his lips to the stuff of her dress. He would have liked to sleep, just where he was; indeed, he was invaded by the desire to sleep, never again to unclose his eyes. But she grew restless, and tried to draw her shoulder away. Then he looked at her, and a feverish stream of words, half self-recriminative, half in self-defence, burst from his lips. But they had little to do with the matter in hand, and were incomprehensible to her. “It has been a terrible nightmare. And only you can drive it away.” As he spoke, he looked, with a sudden suspicion, right into her eyes. But they neither faltered nor grew uneasy.

“It will turn out to be nothing, I know,” she said coldly. “You’re always devising some new way of tormenting me.”

Her words roused him. Fumbling in his pocket, he drew from it Krafft’s letter. “Is that nothing? Read it and tell me. I found it at home on my table.”

Louise took it with unmoved indifference. But directly she saw whose handwriting it was, her face grew grave and attentive. She looked back from the envelope to him, to see what he was thinking, to learn how much he knew. In spite of his roughness there was a hungry, imploring look in his eyes, an appeal to her to put him out of misery, and in the way he desired. And, as always, before such a look, her own face hardened.

“Read it! What he dares to write to me!”

Slowly, as if it were impossible for her to hurry, she drew the sheet from the crumpled envelope and smoothed it out. As she did so, she half turned away. But not so far that he could not see the dark, disfiguring blood stain her neck and blotch her cheek — even her ear grew crimson. She read deliberately, lingering over each word, but the instant she had finished, she crushed the paper to a ball, and threw it to the other end of the room.

“The scoundrel!” she cried. “Oh, the scoundrel!” Clenching her two hands, she pressed them to her face.

Maurice did not say a word; he hardly dared to draw breath, for fear some sign of her guilt might escape him. Leaning against the table, he marked each tell-tale quiver of lip or eyelid.

“The blackguard!” she cried again, shaken by rage. “If I had him here, I’d strangle him with my own hands!”

He gloated over her anger. “Yes,” he said in a low voice. “I, too . . . could kill him.”

There was a pause, in which each followed out a possible means of revenge.

“Now you see,” he said. “When I got home — when I found that — I thought I should go mad.”

Reminded thus, of his share in the matter, Louise turned her head, and considered him. Her face was tense.

“Forgive me!” said Maurice, and held out his hands to her.

She gave him another look of the same kind. “I forgive YOU. What for?”

“Because . . . since I got it, I’ve been thinking vile things.”

“Oh, that!” She moved away, and gave a curt laugh, which met him like a stab. But she had no consideration for him: she had only room in her mind for Krafft’s treachery. “I could kill him,” she said again. “Don’t. . . . Leave me alone!”— this to Maurice, who was trying to take her hand. “Don’t touch me!”

“Not touch you! — why not?” In an instant his softness passed over into suspicion: it was like a dry pile that had waited for the match. “I not touch you?” he repeated. “Do you want to make me believe that what he says there is true?”

“Believe what you like.”

“But that’s just what I won’t do. Turn here! Look me in the face! Now tell me it’s a lie.”

She struggled to free her hands. “You hurt me, Maurice! Let me go!”

“Be careful! — or I shall hurt you more than this. Now answer me!”

“You! — with your ridiculous heroics! Be careful yourself!”

His grip of her grew tighter.

“For your precious peace of mind then — that you may not be kept in suspense: what Heinz says there is — true!”

He did not at once grasp what she meant. He stood staring stupidly at her, still clutching her hands. With a determined effort, Louise wrenched them away.

“Don’t you hear what I say? It’s true — all true — every word of it!”

At the cruel repetition, he went pale, and after that, seemed to go on growing paler, until his face was like a sheet of paper. A horrible silence ensued; neither dared to let go of the other’s eyes.

“My God!” he said at last. “My God!”

He sat down at the table, and buried his face in his arms. Louise did not move; she stood waiting, her hands, which were red and sore, pressed against her sides. And as minutes passed, and he did not stir, she began in a vacant way to count the ticks of the clock. If he did not speak soon, did not go on with what had to come, and get it over, she would be forced to scream. A scream was mounting in her throat.

“When was it? . . . How? . . . Why?”

She made no answer.

He straightened himself, holding on to the table. “And if that letter hadn’t come, you wouldn’t have told me?”

Again she did not reply. He sprang to his feet, interpreting her inability to bring forth a sound as mere contemptuous defiance.

“WHY did you tell me? Did I need to know?” he cried, loudly, and, in the confines of the room, ‘ his voice had the force of a shout. As she still remained dumb, he leaned across the table and actually shouted at her. “Any more? — are there any more? He won’t have been the only one. Tell me, I say! Good God! Don’t you hear me?” The arteries in his temples were beating like two separate hearts. As nothing he said would make her open her lips, he snatched up her hands again, and dragged her a few steps forward — this, to prove to himself that he had at least bodily power over her. “How dare you stand there and say it’s true! You brazen, shameless ——!”

She thought he was going to strike her, and moved her head quickly to one side. The movement did not escape him; he was amazed at it, and horrified by it. “You’re afraid of me, are you? You expect to be beaten, when you make a confession of that sort?” And as she kept her head bent, in suspense, he shouted: “Very well, you shall have something to be afraid of . . . you —!” and lifting his hand, he struck her a blow on the shoulder. It was given with force, and she sank to the floor, where she lay in a heap, screening her face with her arm. The first taste of his greater strength was like the flavour of blood to a beast of prey. In her mind, she might defy him, physically he was her master; and he struck her, again and again. But he did not wring any sound from her. She lay face downwards, and let the blows fall.

When his first onslaught of rage had spent itself, a glimmering of reason returned to him. He staggered to his feet, and looked down with horror at the prostrate figure. “My God, what am I doing? — what have I done?” A sudden fear swept through him that he had killed her.

But now, for the first time, she spoke. “It’s true!” he heard her say.

At these words, the desire actually to kill her was so overwhelming that he rnoved precipitately away, and, in order not to see her, pressed his smarting hand to his eyes. But in the greater clearness of thought this shutting off of externals brought with it, the ultimate meaning of what she had done was revealed to him; he saw red through his closed lids, and, going back to her, he struck her anew. The knowledge that, under her dressing-gown, she had nothing on but a thin nightgown, gave him pleasure; he felt each of the blows fall full and hard on her firm flesh.

From time to time, she turned her face to cry: “It’s true . . . it is true!” deliberately inciting him to continue.

But the moment came when his arm sank powerless to his side, when, if his life had depended on it, he could not have struck another blow. With difficulty, he rose to his feet; and such was the apathy that came over him, that it was all he could do to drag himself to the sofa. Once there, he leaned back and closed his eyes.

For half an hour or more, neither of them stirred. Then, when she understood that he had done, that he was not coming back to her, Louise pulled herself into a sitting position, and from there to her feet. She could hardly stand; her head swam; not an inch of her body but ached and stung. Her exaltation had left her now; she began to feel sick, and, going over to the bed, she fell heavily upon it.

Maurice heard her movements; but so incapable did he feel of further effort that lie remained sitting, with his eyes shut. A new sound roused him: she was shivering, and with such violence that the bedstead was shaken. After a crucial struggle with himself, he rose, and crossed the room. She was lying outside the bedclothes. He pulled off an eider-down quilt, and spread it over her. As he did this, his arms were round her, all the beloved body was in his grasp. When he had finished, he did not remove them, but, kneeling down beside the bed, pressed his face to the quilt, and to the warm body below.

And so the night wore away.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/richardson/henry_handel/r52mg/chapter37.html

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