Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

XI.

Throughout February, and the greater part of March, the HAUPTPRUFUNGEN were held in the Conservatorium: twice a week, from six to eight o’clock in the evening, the concert hall was crammed with an eager crowd. To these concerts, the outside public was admitted, the critics were invited, and the performances received notices in the newspapers; in short, the outgoing student was, for the first time, treated like a real debutant. Concerted music was accompanied by the full orchestra; the large gallery that ran round the hall was opened up; and the girls, whose eager faces hung over its edge, were more brightly decked than usual, in ribbons and laces. Some of those who stepped down the platform seemed thoroughly to relish their first taste of publicity; others, on the contrary, were awkward and abashed, and did not venture to notice the encouragement that greeted their entrance. There were players as composed as the most hardened virtuosi; others, again, who were overcome by stage-fright to such an extent that they barely escaped a total fiasco.

The success of the year was Dove, in his performance of Chopin’s Concerto in E minor. Dove’s unshakable self-possession was here of immense value to him. Not a note was missed, not a turn slurred; the runs and brilliant passage-work of the concerto left his fingers like showers of pearls; his touch had the necessary delicacy, and, in addition to this, his reading was quite a revelation to his friends in the matter of TEMPERAMENT. It is true that Schwarz prohibited any undignified display of the emotional side of Chopin; the interpretation had to be on classical lines; but even the most determined opponents of Schwarz’s method were forced to acknowledge that Dove made no mean show of the poetic contents of the music. The master himself, in his imperturbable way — he chose to act as if, all along, he had had this surprise for people up his sleeve — the master was in transports. His stern face wore an almost genial expression; he smiled, and talked loudly, and, when the performance was over, hurried to and fro, full of importance, shaking hands and accepting congratulations, with a fine shade of reserve. Dove’s fellow-pupils were enraptured for Schwarz’s sake; for, undeniably, the master’s numbers this year were poor, compared with those of other teachers. It behoved the remainder to make the most of this isolated triumph; they did so, and were entertained by Schwarz at a special dinner, where many healths were drunk.

Those who had “made their PRUFUNG,” as the phrase ran, were, as a rule, glad to leave Leipzig when the ordeal was behind them. But Dove, who, on the day following his performance, when his name was to be read in the newspapers accompanied by various epithets of praise, had proposed and been accepted, and was this time returning to England a solemnly engaged man — Dove waited a week for his fiancee and her family, who had not been prepared for so sudden a move. He was the man of the hour. As a response to the flattering notices, he had called on all his critics, and been received by several; and he could hardly walk a street-length, without running the gauntlet of some belated congratulation. Schwarz had spoken seriously to him about prosecuting his studies for a further year, with the not impossible prospect of a performance in the Gewandhaus at the end of it; but Dove had laid before his master the reasons why this could not be: he was no longer a free man; there were now other wishes to be consulted in addition to his own. Besides, if the truth must be told, Dove had higher aims, and these led him imperatively back to England.

Madeleine was ready to leave a couple of days after her last performance. Her plans for the future were fixed and sure. She had long ago given up making adventurous schemes for storming America: that had merely been her contribution to the romance of the place. Now she was hastening away to spend the month of March in Paris; she was not due at the school to which she was returning till the end of April; and, in Paris, she intended to take a brief course of finishing lessons, to rub off what she called “German thoroughness.” She, too, had made a highly successful exit, though without creating a furore like Dove. Since all she did was well done, it was not possible for her to be a surprise to anyone.

And finally, the rush she had lived in for weeks past, was over, the last afternoon had come, and, in its course, she went to the railway station to make arrangements about her luggage. On her way home, she entered Klemm’s music-shop, where she stood, for a considerable time, taking leave of one and another. When she emerged again, the town had assumed that spectral look, which, towards evening, made the quaint old gabled streets so attractive.

For the first time, Madeleine felt something akin to regret at having to leave. She had enjoyed, and made the most of, her years of study; but she was now quite ready to advance, curious to attack the future, and to dominate that also. Still, the dusk on the familiar streets inclined her to feel sentimental. “This time tomorrow, I’ll be hundreds of miles away,” she said to herself, “and probably shall never see the old place again.” As she walked, she looked back upon her residence there — already somewhat in the light of a remembrance — weighing what it had been worth to her. Part of it was intimately associated with Maurice Guest, and thus she recalled him, too. Of late he had passed out of her life; she had been too busy to think of him. Now, however, that she was at the end of this period, the fancy seized her to see him again; and she took a resolution which had, perhaps, been dormant in her for some time.

“I don’t see why I shouldn’t,” she reasoned. “No one will know. And even if they do, I’m leaving, and it won’t matter.”

And so she pulled her hat further over her face, and brisked up her steps in the direction of the BRAUSTRASSE— a street which she disliked, and never entered if she could avoid it. If he had lived in a better neighbourhood, things might have gone better with him, she mused; for Madeleine was a staunch believer in the influence of surroundings, and could not, for instance, understand a person who lived in dirt and disorder having any but a dirty or disorderly mind. She went from door to door, scanning the numbers, with her head poked a little forward and to one side, like a bird’s. As she ascended the stair, she raised her skirts, and her nostrils twitched displeased.

Frau Krause held the door open by an inch, and looked at Madeleine with distrust.

“No, he’s not,” she replied. “And what’s more, I couldn’t say, if you were to pay me, when he will be.”

But Madeleine was not to be daunted by the arrogance of any landlady alive. “Why? Is he so irregular?” she asked. She had placed her foot in the opening of the door, and now, by a skilful movement, inserted herself bodily into the passage.

Frau Krause, baffled, could do no more than mumble a: “Well, if you like to wait!” and point out the room. She followed Madeleine over the threshold, drying her hands on her apron.

“Are you a friend of his, may I ask?” she inquired.

“Why? What do you want to know for? Do you think I’d be here if I weren’t?” said Madeleine, looking her up and down.

“Why I want to know?” repeated Frau Krause, and tossed her head. “Why, because I think if Herr Guest has any friends left, they ought to know how he’s going on — that’s why, Fraulein!”

“How going on?” queried Madeleine with undisturbed coolness, and looked round her for a chair.

Throwing a cautious glance over her shoulder, Frau Krause said behind her hand: “It’s my opinion there’s a woman in the case.”

“You don’t need to whisper; your opinion is an open secret,” answered Madeleine drily. “There is a woman, and there she sits, as you no doubt very well know.” As she spoke, she pointed to a photograph of Louise, which stood on the lid of the piano.

“I thought as much,” exclaimed the landlady. “I thought as much. And a bad, bold face it is, too.”

“Now explain, please, what you mean by his goings on. Is he in debt to you?” Madeleine continued her interrogatory.

“Well, I can’t just say that,” replied the woman, with what seemed a spice of regret. “He’s paid up pretty regular till now — though of course one never knows how long he’ll keep on doing it. But it goes against my heart to see a young man, who might be one’s own son, acting as he does. When he first came here, there wasn’t a decenter young man anywhere than Herr Guest — if I had a complaint, it was that he was too much of a steady-goer. I used to tell him he ought to take more heed for his health, not to mention the ears of the people that had to live with him. He sat at that piano there all the blessed day. And now there isn’t a lazier, more cantankerous fellow in the place. You can’t please him anyhow. He never gives you a civil word. He doesn’t work, he doesn’t cat, and he’s getting so thin that his clothes just hang on him.”

“Is he drinking?” interrupted Madeleine in the same matter-of-fact way, with her eye on the main points of probable offence.

“Well, I can’t just say that,” answered Frau Krause. “Not but what it mightn’t be better if he was. It’s the ones as don’t drink who are the hard ones to get on with, in my experience. Young gentlemen who like their liquor, are of the goodnatured, easy-going sort. Now I once had a young fellow here ——”

“But I don’t see in the least what you’ve got to complain of!” said Madeleine. “He pays you for the room, and you no doubt have free use of it. — A very good bargain!”

She sat back and stared about her, while Frau Krause, recognising that she had met her match in this sharp-tongued young lady, curbed her temper, and launched out into the history of a former lodger.

It was. a dingy room, long and narrow, with a single window. Against the door that led into an adjoining room, stood a high-backed, uninviting sofa, with a table in front of it. Between this and the window was the writing-bureau, a flat, man-high piece of furniture, with drawers and pigeon-holes, and a broad flap that let down for writing purposes. Against the opposite wall stood the neglected piano, and, towards the door, on both sides, were huddled bed, washstand, and the iron stove. Everything was of an extreme shabbiness: the stuffing was showing through holes in the sofa, the strips of carpet were worn threadbare. A couple of photographs and a few books were ranged in line on the bureau — that was all that had been done towards giving the place a homely air. It was like a room that had never properly been lived in.

While Madeleine sat thinking this, the sound of a key was heard in the front door, and Frau. Krause, interrupted in her story, had just time to tap Madeleine on the arm, exclaim: “Here he is!” and dart out of the room. Not so promptly, however, but what Maurice saw where she came from. Madeleine heard them bandying words in the passage.

The door of the room was flung open, and Maurice, entering hotly, threw his hat on the table. He did not perceive his visitor till it was too late.

“Madeleine! You here!” he exclaimed in surprise and embarrassment. “I beg your pardon. I didn’t see you,” and he made haste to recover his hat.

“Yes, don’t faint, it’s I, Maurice. — But what’s the matter? Why are you so angry with the person? Does she pry on you?”

“Pry!” he echoed, and his colour deepened. “Pry’s not the word for it. She ransacks everything I have. I never come home but what I find she has overhauled something, though I’ve forbidden her to enter the room.”

“Why don’t you — or rather, why didn’t you move? It’s not much of a place, I’m sure.”

“Move?” he repeated, in the same tone as before, and, as he spoke, he looked incredulously at Madeleine. He had hung his coat and hat on a peg, and now came forward to the table.” Move?” he said once again, and prolonged the word as though the channel of thought it opened up was new to him.

“Good gracious, yes! — If one’s not satisfied with one’s rooms, one moves, that’s all. There’s nothing strange about it.”

He murmured that the idea had never occurred to him, and was about to draw up a chair, when his eye caught a letter that was lying on the lowered flap of the bureau. In patent agitation, and without excusing himself, he seized it and tore it open. Madeleine saw his face darken. He read the letter through twice, from beginning to end, then tore it into a dozen pieces and scattered them on the shelf.

“No bad news, I hope?”

He turned his face to her; it was still contracted. “That depends on how you look at it, Madeleine,” he said, and laughed in an unpleasant manner.

After this, he seemed to forget her again; he stood staring at the scraps of paper with a frown. For some minutes, she waited. Then she saw herself forced to recall him to the fact of her presence.

“Could you spare me a little attention now?” she asked. At her words, he jumped, and, with evident confusion, brought his wandering thoughts home. “I can’t sit here for ever you know,” she added.

“I beg your pardon.” He came up to the table, and took the chair he had previously had his hand on. “The fact is I— Can I do anything for you, Madeleine?”

“For me? Oh, dear, no! — You are surprised to find me here, no doubt! But as I’m leaving to-morrow morning, I thought I’d run up and say good-bye to you — that’s all. A case of Mohammed and the mountain, you see.”

“Leaving? To-morrow?”

“Yes. — Goodness, there’s nothing wonderful in that, is there? Most people do leave some time or other, you know.” His reply was inaudible. “It was very good of you to look me up,” he threw in as an afterthought.

Madeleine, watching him, with a thin, sarcastic smile on her lips, had chanced to let her eyes stray to his hands, which he had laid on the table, and she continued to fix them, fascinated in spite of herself by the uncared-for condition of the nails. These were bitten, and broken, and dirty. Maurice, becoming aware of her intent gaze, looked down to see what it was at, hastily withdrew his hands ‘ and hid them in his pockets.

“This is the first time I’ve been in your den, you know,” she said abruptly. “Really, Maurice, you might have done better. I don’t know how you’ve managed to put up with it so long.”

“My dear Madeleine, do you think I could afford to live in a palace?”

“A palace? — absurd! You probably pay sixteen or seventeen marks for this hole. Well, I could have found you any number of better places for the same money — if you had come to me.”

“You’re very kind. But it has done me well enough.”

“So it appears.”

Sitting back, she looked round her, in the hope of picking up some neutral subject. “Are those your people?” she asked, and nodded at the photograph of a family-group, which stood on the top shelf of the bureau. “Three boys, are you not? You are like your mother,” and she stared, with unfeigned curiosity, at the provincial figures, dressed out in their best coats and silks, and in heavy gold jewellery.

“Good God, Madeleine!” Maurice burst out at this, his loosely kept patience escaping him. “You didn’t come here, I suppose, to remark on my family?”

“Well, I can’t congratulate you on an improvement in your manners, since I saw you last.”

“I am not aware of having changed.”

“As well for you, perhaps. However, I’ll tell you about myself, if it interests you.” She turned her cool, judicial gaze on him again; and now she set before him her projects for the future. But though he kept his eyes fastened on her face, she saw that he was not listening to what she said, or, at most, that he only half heard it; for, when she ceased to speak, he did not notice her silence.

She waited, curious to see what would come next, and presently he echoed, in his vague way: “Paris, did you say? — Really?”

“Yes — Paris: the capital of France. — I said that, and a good deal more, which I don’t think you heard. — And now I won’t take up your precious time any longer. — You’ve nothing new to tell me, I suppose? You still intend staying on here, and fighting out the problem of existence? Well, when you have starved satisfactorily in a garret, I hope some one will let me know. I’ll come over for the funeral.”

She rose, and began to button her jacket.

“And England has absolutely no chance? English music must continue to languish, without hope of reform?”

“How can you remember such rot! I was a terrible fool when I talked like that.”

“I liked you better as a fool than I do now, with your acquired wisdom. And I won’t go from here without offering you congratulations, hearty congratulations, on the muddle you’ve made of things.”

“That’s entirely my own affair.”

“You may be thankful it is! Do you think anyone else would want the responsibility of it?”

She went out without a further word. But on the landing at the bottom of the first flight of stairs, she stood irresolute. She felt annoyed with herself that she had allowed an unfriendly tone to dominate their brief interview. This was probably the last time she would see him; the last chance she would have of telling him just what she thought of him. And viewed in that light, it seemed ridiculous to let any artificial delicacy of feeling stand in her way. She blew her nose vigorously, and, not being used to indecision, turned as she did so, and began to ascend the stairs again. Brushing past Frau Krause, she reopened, without knocking, the door of Maurice’s room.

He had moved the lamp from the table to the bureau, and at her entrance was bending over something that lay there, so engrossed that he did not at once raise his head.

“Good gracious! What are you doing?” escaped her involuntarily.

At this, he spun round, and, leaning back against the writingtable, tried to screen it from her eyes.

She regretted her impulsive curiosity, and did not press him. “Yes, it’s me again,” she said with determination. “And I suppose you’ll want to accuse me of prying, too, like that female outside. — Look here: it’s ludicrous for us who have been friends so long to part in this fashion. And I, for one, don’t intend to do it. There’s something I want to say before I go — you may be angry and offended if you like; I don’t care”— for he frowned forbiddingly. “I’m no denser than other people; and I know just as well as every one else the wretched mess you’ve got yourself into — one would have to be blind and deaf, indeed, not to know. — Now, look here, Maurice! You once said to me, you may remember, that if you had a sister you’d like her to be something like me. Will you look on me as that sister for a little, and let me give you some sound advice? I told you I was going to Paris, and that I had a clear month there. Well, now, throw your things together and come with me. You haven’t had a decent holiday since you’ve been here. You need freshening up. — Or if not Paris — Paris isn’t a necessity — we’ll go down by Munich and the Brenner to Italy, and I’ll be cicerone. I’ll act as banker, too, and you can regard it as a loan in the meantime, and pay me back when you’re richer. — Now what do you say? Doesn’t the plan tempt you?”

“What I say?” he echoed, and looked round him a little helplessly. “Why, Madeleine . . . It seems you are determined to run off with me. Once it was America, and now it’s Italy or Paris.”

“Come, say you’ll consent, or at least consider it.”

“My dear Madeleine! You’re all that is good and kind. But you know you’re only talking nonsense.”

She did not answer him at once. “The thing is this,” she said with some hesitation. “I wasn’t quite honest in what I said to you a few minutes ago. I have the uncomfortable feeling that I am to a certain degree responsible, even to blame, for much of . . . what has happened here. And it isn’t a pleasant feeling, Maurice.”

“My dear girl!” he said again. “If it’s any consolation to you to know it, I owe you the biggest debt of my life.”

“Then you decline my proposal, do you?”

“You’re the same good friend you always were. But you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. What’s all this fuss about? Merely because I haven’t chosen to work my fingers to the bone, and wear my nerves to tatters over that old farce of a PRUFUNG. As for my choosing to stay here, instead of going home like the rest of you — well, that’s a matter of taste, too. Some people — like our friend Dove — want affluence, and a fixed position in the provinces. Frankly, I don’t. I’d rather scrape along here, as best I can. That’s the whole matter in a nutshell, and it’s nothing to make a to-do about. For though you think I’m a fool, and can’t help telling me so — that, too, is a matter of opinion.”

“Well, I don’t intend to apologise for myself at this date, be sure of that! And now I’ll go. For if you’re resolved to hold me at arm’s length, there’s nothing more to be said. — No, stop a minute, though. Here’s my address in England. If ever you should return to join us benighted ignorants, you might let me know. Or if you find you can’t get on here — I mean if it’s quite impossible — I have money, you know . . . and should be glad — at a proper percentage, of course,” she added ironically.

“That’s hardly likely to happen.”

She laid the card on the table. “You never can tell. — Well, good-bye, then, and in spite of your obstinacy, I’ll perhaps be able to do you a good turn yet, Maurice Guest.”

As soon as he heard the front door close, he returned to his occupation of piecing together the bits of the letter. Ever since he had torn it up — throughout her visit — his brain had been struggling to recall its exact contents, and without success; for, owing to Madeleine’s presence, he had read it hastily. Otherwise, what he had done to-day did not differ from his usual method of proceeding. This was not the first horrible unsigned letter he had received, and he could never prevail on himself to throw them in the fire, unopened. He read them through, two or three times, then, angered by their contents and by his own weakness, tore them to fragments. But the hints and aspersions they contained, remained imprinted on his mind. In this case, Madeleine’s distracting appearance had enfeebled his memory, and he worked long and patiently until the sheet lay fitted together again before him. When he knew its contents by heart, he struck some matches, and watched the pieces curl and blacken.

Then he left the house.

Her room was in darkness. He stretched himself on the sofa to wait for her return.

The words of the letter danced like a writing of fire before him; he lay there and re-read them; but without anger. What they stated might be true, also it might not; he would never know. For these letters, which he was ashamed of himself for opening, and still more for remembering, had not been mentioned between them, but were added to that category of things they now tacitly agreed to avoid. In his heart, he knew that he cherished the present state of uncertainty; it was a twilight state, without crudities or sharp outlines; and it was still possible to drift and dream in it. Whereas if another terrible certainty, like the last, descended on him, he would be forced to marshal his energies, and to suffer afresh. It was better not to know. As long as definite knowledge failed him, he could give her the benefit of the doubt. And whether what the letters affirmed was true or not, hours came when she still belonged wholly to him. Whatever happened on her absences from him, as soon as the four walls of the room shut them in again, she was his; and each time she returned, a burning gratitude for the reprieve filled him anew.

But there was also another reason why he did not breathe a word to her of his suspicions, and that was the slow dread that was laming him — the dread of her contempt. She made no further attempt to drape it; and he had learned to writhe before it, to cringe and go softly. Weeks had passed now, since the night on which he had made his last stand against herweeks of increasing torture. Just at first, incredible as it had seemed, his horrible treatment of her had brought about a slackening of the tension between them. The worst that could happen had happened, and he had survived it: he had not put an end either to himself or to her. On the contrary, he had accepted the fact — as he now saw that he would accept every fact concerning her, whether for good or evil. And matters having reached this point, a kind of lull ensued: for a few days they had even caught a glimpse again of the old happiness. But the pause was short-lived: it was like the ripples caused by a stone thrown into water, which continue just so long as the impetus lasts. Louise had been a little awed by his greater strength, when she had lain cowering on the ground before him. But not many days elapsed before her eyes were wide open with incredulous amazement. When she understood, as she soon did, that her shameless admission, and still more, his punishment of her for it, was not to be followed up by any new development; that, in place of subduing her mentally as well, he was going to be content to live on as they had been doing; that, in fact, he had already dropped back into the old state of things, before she was well aware of what was happening: then her passing mood of submission swept over into her old flamboyant contempt for him. The fact of his having beaten her became a weapon in her hands; and she used it unsparingly. To her taunts, he had no answer to make. For, the madness once passed, he could not conceive how he had been capable of such a thing; in his sane moments of dejection and self-distrust, he could not have raised his hand against her, though his life were at stake.

He had never been able to drag from her a single one of the reasons that had led to her mad betrayal of him. On this point she was inflexible. In the course of that long night which he had spent on his knees by her bed, he had persecuted her to disclose her motive. But he might as well have spoken to the wind; his questioning elicited no reply.. Again and again, he had upbraided her: “But you didn’t care for Heinz! He was nothing to you!” and she neither assented nor gainsaid him. Once, however, she had broken in on him: “You believed bad of me long before there was any to believe. Now you have something to go on!” And still again, when the sluggish dawn was creeping in, she had suddenly turned her head: “But now you can go away. You’re free to leave me. Nothing binds you to a woman like me — who can’t be content with one man.” Dizzy with fatigue, he had answered: “No — if you think that — if you did it just to be rid of me — you’re mistaken!”

From this night on, they had never reverted to the subject again — which is not to say that his brain did not work furiously at it; the search for a clue, for the hidden motive, was now his eternal occupation. But to her he was silent, sheerly from the dread of again receiving the answer: take me as I am, or leave me! In hours such as the present, or in the agony of sleepless nights, these thoughts rent his brain. The question was such an involved one, and he never seemed to come any nearer a solution of it. Sometimes, he was actually tempted to believe what her words implied: that it had been wilfully done, with a view to getting rid of him. But against this, his reason protested; for, if the letter from Krafft had not arrived, he would have known nothing. He did not believe she would have told him — would there, indeed, have been any need for her to do so? Nothing was changed between them; she lived at his side, just as before; and Krafft was out of the way. — At other times, though, he asked himself if he were not a fool to be surprised at what had occurred. Had not all roads led here? Had he not, as she most truly said, for long harboured the unworthiest suspicions of her? — suspicions which were tantamount to an admission on his part that his love was no longer enough for her. To have done this, and afterwards to behave as if she had been guilty of an unpardonable crime, was illogical and unjust. — And yet again, there came moments when, in a barbarous clearness of vision, he seemed to get nearest to the truth. Under certain circumstances, so he now told himself, he would gladly and straightway have forgiven her. If she had been drawn, irresistibly, to another, by one of those sudden outbursts of passion before which she was incapable of remaining steadfast; if she had been attracted, like this, more than half unwilling, wholly humiliated, penitent in advance, yet powerless — then, oh then, how willingly he would have made allowance for her weakness! But Krafft, of all people! — Krafft, of whom she had spoken to him with derisive contempt! — this cold and calculated deception of him with some one who made not the least appeal to her! — Cold and calculated, did he say? No, far from it! What COULD it have been but the sensual caprice of a moment? — but a fleeting, manlike desire for the piquancy of change?

These and similar thoughts ran their whirling circles behind his closed eyes, as he lay in the waning twilight of the March evening, which still struggled with the light of the lamp. But they were hard pressed by the contents of the letter: on this night he foresaw that his fixed idea threatened to divide up into two branches — and he did not know whether to be glad or to regret it. But he admitted to himself that one of these days he would be forced to take measures for preserving his sanity, by somehow dragging the truth from her; better still, by following her on one of her evening absences, to discover for himself where she went, and whether what the anonymous writer asserted was true. If he could only have controlled his brain! The perpetually repeated circles it drove in — if these could once have been brought to a stop, all the rest of him infinitely preferred not to know.

Meanwhile, the shadows deepened, and his subconsciousness never ceased to listen, with an intentness which no whirligigs of thought could distract, for the sound of her step in the passage. When, at length, some short time after darkness had set in, he heard her at the door, he drew a long, sighing breath of relief, as if — though this was unavowed even to himself — he had been afraid he might listen in vain. And, as always, when the suspense was over, and she was under the same roof with him again, he was freed from so intolerable a weight that he was ready to endure whatever she might choose to put upon him, and for his part to make no demands.

Louise entered languidly; and so skilled had he grown at interpreting her moods that he knew from her very walk which of them she was in. He looked surreptitiously at her, and saw that she was wan and tired. It had been a mild, enervating day; her hair was blown rough about her face. He watched her before the mirror take off hat and veil, with slow, yet impatient fingers; watched her hands in her hair, which she did not trouble to rearrange, but only smoothed back on either side.

She had not, even in entering, cast a glance at him, and, recognising the rasped state of her nerves, he had the intent to be cautious. But his resolutions, however good, were not long proof against her over-emphasised neglect of his ‘presence. Her wilful preoccupation with herself, and with inanimate objects, exasperated him. Everything was of more worth to her than he was’ and she delighted to show it.

“Haven’t you a word for me? Don’t you see I’m here?” he asked at length.

Even now she did not look towards him as she answered:

“Of course, I see you. But shall I speak next to the furniture of the room?”

“So! — That’s what I am, is it? — A piece of your furniture!”

“Yes. — No, worse. Furniture is silent.”

She was changing her walking-dress for the dressing-gown. This done, she dabbed powder on her face out of a small oval glass pot — a habit of hers to which he had never grown accustomed.

“Stop putting that stuff on your face! You know I hate it.”

Her only answer was to dab anew, and so thickly that the powder was strewn over the front of her dress and the floor. The clothes she had taken off were flung on a chair; as she brushed past them, they fell to the ground. She did not stoop to pick them up, but pushed them out of the way with her foot. Sitting down in the rocking-chair, she closed her eyes, and spread her arms out along the arms of the chair.

He could not see her from where he lay, but she was within reach of him, and, after a brief, unhappy silence, he put out his hand and drew the chair towards him, urging it forward, inch by inch, until it was beside the sofa. Then he pulled her head down, so that it also lay on the cushion, and he could feel her hair against his.

“How you hate me!” he said in a low voice, and as though he were speaking to himself. Laying her hand on his forehead, he made of it a screen for his eyes. “Who could have foreseen this!” he said again, in the same toneless way.

Louise lay still, and did not speak.

“Why do you stay with me?” he went on, looking out from under her hand. “I often ask myself that. For you’re free to come and go as you choose.”

Her eyes opened at this, though he did not see it. “And I choose to stay here! How often am I to tell you that? Why do you come back on it to-night? I’m tired — tired.”

“I know you are. I saw it as soon as you came in. It’s been a tiring day, and you probably . . . walked too far.”

With a jerk, she drew her hand out of his, and sat upright in her chair. Something, a mere tone, the slight pause, in his apparently harmless words, incensed her. “Too far, did I? — Oh, to-night at least, be honest! Why don’t you ask me straight out where I have been? — and what I have done? Can’t you, for once, be man enough to put an open question?”

“Nothing was further from my mind than to make implications. It’s you who’re so suspicious. Just as if you had a bad conscience — something really to conceal.”

“Take care! — or I shall tell you — where I’ve been! And you might regret it.”

“No. For God’s sake! — no more confessions!”

She laughed, and lay back. But a moment later, she cried out: “Why don’t you go away yourself? You know I loathe the sight of you; and yet you stick on here like like a leech. Go away, oh, why can’t you go away!”

“To-day, I might have taken you at your word.”

At the mention of Madeleine’s name, she pricked up her ears. “Oho!” she said, when lie had finished his story. “So Madeleine pays you visits, does she? — the sainted Madeleine! You have her there, and me here. — A pretty state of things!”

“Hold your tongue! I’m not in the mood to-night to stand your gibes.”

“But I’m in the mood to make them. And how is one to help it when one hears that that ineffable creature is no better than she ought to be?”

“Hold your tongue!” he cried again. “How dare you speak like that of the girl who has been such a good friend to me!”

“Friend!” she echoed. “What fools men are! She’s in love with you, that’s all, and always has been. But you were never man enough to know what it was she wanted — your friend!”

“Ah, you ——!” The nervous strain of the afternoon reached its climax. “You! Yes! — that’s you all over! In your eyes nothing is good or pure. And you make everything you touch dirty. You’re not fit to take a decent woman’s name on your lips!”

She sprang up from her chair. “And that’s my thanks! — for all I’ve done — all I’ve sacrificed for you! I’m not fit to take a decent woman’s name on my lips! For shame, for shame! For who has made me what I am but you! Oh, what a fool I was, ever to let you cross this door! You! — a man who is content with other men’s leavings!”

“It was the worst day’s work you ever did in your life. Everything bad has come from that. — Why couldn’t you have held back, and refused me? We might still have been decent, happy creatures, if you hadn’t let your vile nature get the better of you. You wouldn’t marry me — no, no! You prefer to take your pleasure in other ways. — A man at any cost, Madeleine said once, and God knows, I believe it was true!”

She struck him in the face. “Oh, you miserable scoundrel! You! — who never looked at me but with the one thought in your head! Oh, it’s too much! Never, never while I live I would rather die first. — shall you ever touch me again!”

She continued to weep, long after he had left her. Still crying, her handkerchief pressed to her eyes, her body shaken by her sobs, she moved blindly about the room, opening drawers and cupboards, and heaping up their contents on the bed. There was a limit to everything; she could bear her life with him no longer; and, with nerveless fingers, she strove to collect and pack her belongings, preparatory to going away.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/richardson/henry_handel/r52mg/chapter38.html

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