Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson


Easter fell early, and the Ninth Symphony had been performed in the Gewandhaus before March was fairly out. Now, both Conservatorium and Gewandhaus were closed, and the familiar haunts were empty.

Hitherto, Maurice had made shift to preserve appearances: at intervals, not too conspicuously far apart, he had gone backwards and forwards to his classes, keeping his head above water with a minimum of work. Now, however, there was no further need for deceiving people. Most of those who had been his fellow-students had left Leipzig; he could not put his finger on a single person remaining with whom he had had a nearer acquaintance. No one was left to comment on what he did and how he lived. And this knowledge withdrew the last prop from his sense of propriety. He ceased to face the trouble that care for his person implied, just as he gave up raising the lid of the piano and making a needless pretence of work. Openly now, he took up his abode in the BRUDERSTRASSE, where he spent the long, idle days stretched on the sofa, rolling cigarettes — in far greater numbers than he could smoke, and vacantly, yet with a kind of gusto, as if his fingers, so long accustomed to violent exercise, had a relish for the task. He was seldom free from headache; an iron ring, which it was impossible to loosen, bound his forehead. His disinclination to speech grew upon him, too; not only had he no thoughts that it was worth breaking the silence to express; the effort demanded by the forming of words was too great for him. His feeling of indifference-stupefying indifference — grew so strong that sometimes he felt it beyond his strength consciously to take in the shape of the objects about the room.

The days were eventless. He lay and watched her movements, which were spiritless and hurried, by turns, but now seldom marked by the gracious impulsiveness that had made up so large a part of her charm. He was content to live from hour to hour at her side; for that this was his last respite, he well knew. And the further the month advanced, the more tenaciously he clung. The one thought which now had force to rouse him was, that the day would come on which he would see her face for the last time. The fact that she had given herself to another, while yet belonging to him, ceased to affect him displeasurably, as did also his fixed idea that she was, at the present moment, deceiving him anew. His sole obsession was now a fear of the inevitable end. And it was this fear which, at rare intervals, broke the taciturn dejection in which he was sunk, by giving rise to appalling fits of violence. But after a scene of this kind, he would half suffocate her with remorse. And this, perhaps, worked destruction most surely of all: the knowledge that, despite the ungovernable aversion she felt for him, she could still tolerate his endearments. Not once, as long as they had been together, had she refused to be caressed.

But the impossibility of the life they were leading broke over Louise at times, with the shock of an ice-cold wave.

“If you have any feeling left in you — if you have ever cared for me in the least — go away now!” she wept. “Go to the ends of the earth — only leave me!”

He was giddy with headache that day. “To whom? Who is it you want now?”

One afternoon as he lay there, the landlady came in with a telegram for him, which she said had been brought round by one of Frau Krause’s children — she tossed it on the table, as she spoke, to express the contempt she felt for him. Several minutes elapsed before he put out his hand for it, and then he did so, because it required less energy to open it than to leave it unopened. When he had read it, he gave a short laugh, and threw it back on the table. Louise, who was in the other part of the room, came out, half-dressed, to see what the matter was. She, tool laughed at its contents in her insolent way, and, on passing the writing-table, pulled open the drawer where she kept her money.

“There’s enough for two. And you’re no prouder in this, I suppose, than in anything else.”

The peremptory summons home, and the announcement that no further allowance would be remitted, was not a surprise to him; he had known all along that, sooner or later, he would be thrown on his own resources. It had happened a little earlier than he had expected — that was all. A week had still to run till the end of the month. — That night, however, when Louise was out, he meditated, in a desultory fashion, over the likely and unlikely occupations to which he could turn his hand.

A few days later, she came home one evening in a different mood: for once, no cruel words crossed her lips. They sat side by side on the sofa; and of such stuff was happiness now made that he was content. Chancing to look up, he was dismayed to see that her eyes were full of tears, which, as he watched, ran over and down her cheeks. He slid to his knees, and laid his head in her lap.

She fell asleep early; for, no matter what happened, how uneventful or how tragically exciting her day was, her faculty for sleep remained unchanged. It was a brilliant night; in the sky was a great, round, yellow moon, and the room was lit up by it. The blind of the window facing the bed had not been lowered; and a square patch of light fell across the bed. He turned and looked at her, lying in it. Her face was towards him; one arm was flung up above her head; the hand lay with the palm exposed. Something in the look of the face, blanched by the unreal light, made him recall the first time he had seen it, and the impression it had then left on his mind. While she played in Schwarz’s room, she had turned and looked at him, and it had seemed to him then, that some occult force had gone out from the face, and struck home in him. And it had never lessened. Strange, that so small a thing, hardly bigger than one’s two closed fists, should be able to exert such an influence over one! For this face it was — the pale oval, in the dark setting, the exotic colouring, the heavy-lidded eyes — which held him; it was this face which drew him surely back with a vital nostalgia — a homesickness for the sight of her and the touch of her — if he were too long absent. It had not been any coincidence of temperament or sympathies — by rights, all the rights of their different natures, they had not belonged together — any more than it had been a mere blind uprush of sensual desire. And just as his feelings for her had had nothing to do with reason, or with the practical conduct of his life so they had outlasted tenderness, faithfulness, respect. What ever it was that held him, it lay deeper than these conventional ideas of virtue. The power her face had over him was undiminished, though he now found it neither beautiful nor good; though he knew the true meaning of each deeply graven line. — This then was love? — this morbid possession by a woman’s face.

He laid his arm across his tired eyes, and, without waiting to consider the question he had propounded, commenced to follow out a new train of thought. No doubt, for each individual, there existed in one other mortal some physical detail which he or she could find only in this particular person. It might be the veriest trifle. Some found it, it seemed, in the colour of an eye; some in the modulations of a voice, the curve of a lip, the shape of a hand, the lines of a body in motion. Whatever it chanced to be, it was, in most cases, an insignificant characteristic, which, for others, simply did not exist, but which, to the one affected by it, made instant appeal, and just to that corner of the soul which had hitherto suffered aimlessly for the want of it — a suffering which nothing but this intonation, this particular smile, could allay. He himself had long since learnt what it was, about her face, that made a like appeal to him. It was her eyes. Not their size, or their dark brilliancy, but the manner of their setting: the spacious lid that fell from the high, wavy eyebrow, first sloping deeply inwards, then curving out again, over the eyeball; this, and the clean sweep of the broad, white lid, which, when lowered, gave the face an infantine look — a look of marble. He knew it was this; for, on the strength of a mere hinted resemblance, he had been unable to take his eyes off the face of another woman; the likeness in this detail had met his gaze with a kind of shock. But what a meaningless thing was life, when the way a lid drooped, or an eyebrow grew on a forehead, could make such havoc of your nerves! And more especially when, in the brain or soul that lay behind, no spiritual trait answered to the physical. — Well, that was for others to puzzle over, not for him. The strong man tore himself away while there was still time, or saved himself in an engrossing pursuit. He, having had neither strength nor saving occupation, had bartered all he had, and knowingly, for the beauty of this face. And as long as it existed for him, his home was beside it.

He turned restlessly. Disturbed in her dreams, Louise flung over on her other side.

“Eugen!” she murmured. “Save me! — Here I am! Oh, don’t you see me?”

He shook her by the arm. “Wake up!”

She was startled and angry. “Won’t you even let me sleep?”

“Keep your dreams to yourself then!”

There was a savage hatred in her look. “Oh, if I only could! . . . if only my hands were strong enough! —!I’d kill you!”

“You’ve done your best.”

“Yes. And I’m glad! Remember that, afterwards. I was glad!”

It had been a radiant April morning of breeze and sunshine, but towards midday, clouds gathered, and the sunlight was constantly intercepted. Maurice had had occasion to fetch something from his lodgings and was on his way back. The streets were thronged with people: business men, shop-assistants and students, returning to work from the restaurants in which they had dined. At a corner of the ZEITZERSTRASSE, a hand-cart had been overturned, and a crowd had gathered; for, no matter how busy people were, they had time to gape and stare; and they were now as eager as children to observe this incident, in the development of which a stout policeman was wordily authoritative. Maurice found that he had loitered with the rest, to watch the gathering up of the spilt wares, and to hear the ensuing altercation between hawker and policeman. On turning to walk on again, his eye was caught and held by the tall figure of a man who was going in the same direction as he, but at a brisk pace, and several yards in front of him. This person must have passed the group round the cart. Now, intervening heads and shoulders divided them, obstructing Maurice’s view; still, signs were not wanting in him that his subliminal consciousness was beginning to recognise the man who walked ahead. There was something oddly familiar in the gait, in the droop of the shoulders, the nervous movement of the head, the aimless motion of the dangling hands and arms — briefly, in all the loosely hung body. And, besides this, the broad-brimmed felt hat . . . Good God! He stiffened, with a sudden start, and, in an instant, his entire attention was concentrated in an effort to see the colour of the hair under the hat. Was it red? He tried to strike out in lengthier steps, but the legs of the man in front were longer, and his own unruly. After a moment’s indecision, however, he mastered them, and then, so afraid was he of the other passing out of sight, that he all but ran, and kept this pace up till he was close behind the man he followed. There he fell into a walk again, but a weak and difficult walk, for his heart was leaping in his chest. He had not been mistaken. The person close before him, so close that he could almost have touched him, was no other than Schilsky — the Schilsky of old, with the insolent, short-sighted eyes, and the loose, easy walk.

Maurice followed him — followed warily and yet unreflectingly — right down the long, populous street. Sometimes blindly, too, for, when the street and all it contained swam before him, he was obliged to shut his eyes. People looked with attention at him; he caught a glimpse of himself in a barber’s mirror, and saw that his face had turned a greenish white. His mind was set on one point. Arrived at the corner where the street ran out into the KONIGSPLATZ, which turning would Schilsky take? Would he go to the right, where lay the BRUDERSTRASSE, or would he take the lower street to the left? Until this question was answered, it was impossible to decide what should be done next. But first, there came a lengthy pause: Schilsky entered a musicshop, and remained inside, leaning over the counter, for a quarter of an hour. Finally, however, the corner was reached. He appeared to hesitate: for a moment it seemed as if he were going straight on, which would mean fresh uncertainty. Then, with a sudden outward fling of the hands, he went off to the left, in the direction of the Gewandhaus.

Maurice did not follow him any further. He stood and watched, until he could no longer see the swaying head. After that he had a kind of collapse. He leaned up against the wall of a house, and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. Passers by believed him to be drunk, and were either amused, or horrified, or saddened. He discovered, in truth, that his legs were shaking as if with an ague, and, stumbling into a neighbouring wine-shop, he drank brandy — not enough to stupefy him, only to give back to his legs their missing strength.

To postpone her knowing! To hinder her from knowing at any cost! — his blurred thoughts got no further than this. He covered the ground at a mad pace, clinging fast to the belief that he would find her, as he had left her, in bed. But his first glimpse of her turned him cold. She was standing before the glass, dressed to go out. This in itself was bad enough. Worse, far worse, was it that she had put on, to-day, one of the light, thin dresses she had worn the previous spring, and never since. It was impossible to see her tricked out in this fashion, and doubt her knowledge of the damning fact. He held it for proved that she was dressed to leave him; and the sight of her, refreshed and rejuvenated, gave the last thrust to his tottering sense. He demanded with such savageness the meaning of her adornment, that the indignant amazement with which she turned on him was real, and not feigned.

“Take off that dress! You shan’t go out of the house in it! — Take it off!”

He raved, threatened, implored, always with icy fingers at his heart. He knew that she knew; he would have taken his oath on it; and he only had room in his brain for one thought: to prevent her knowing. His rage spent itself on the light, flowery dress. As nothing he said moved her, he set his foot on the skirt, and tore it down from the waist. She struck at him for this, then took another from the wardrobe — a still lighter and gaudier one. They had never yet gone through an hour such as that which followed. At its expiry, clothes and furniture lay strewn about the room.

When Louise saw that he was not to be shaken off, that, wherever she went on this day, he would go, too, she gave up any plan she might have had, and followed where he led. This was, as swiftly as possible, by the outlying road to the Connewitz woods. If he could but once get her there, they would be safe from surprise. Once out there, in solitude, among the screening trees, something, he did not yet know what, but something would — must — happen.

He dragged her relentlessly along. But until they got there! His eyes grew stiff and giddy with looking before him, behind him, on all sides. And never had she seemed to move so slowly; never had she stared so brazenly about her, as on this afternoon. With every step they took, certainty burned higher in him; the thin, fixed smile that disfigured her lips said: do your worst; do all you can; nothing will save you! He did not draw a full breath till they were far out on the SCHLEUSSIGER WEG. Then he dropped her arm, and wiped his face.

The road was heavy with mud, from rains of the preceding day. Louise, dragging at his side, was careless of it, and let her long skirt trail behind her. He called her attention to it, furiously, and this was the first time he had spoken since leaving the house. But she did not even look down: she picked out a part of the road that was still dirtier, where her feet sank and stuck.

They crossed the bridge, and joined the wood-path. On one of the first seats they came to, Louise sank exhausted. Filled with the idea of getting her into the heart of the woods, he was ahead of her, urging the pace; and he had taken a further step or two before he saw that she had remained behind. He was forced to return.

“What are you sitting there for?” He turned on her, with difficulty resisting the impulse to strike her full in her contemptuous white face.

She laughed — her terrible laugh, which made the very nerves twitch in his finger-tips. “Why does one usually sit down?”

“ONE? — You’re not one! You’re you!” Now he wished hundreds of listeners were in their neighbourhood, that the fierceness of his voice might carry to them.

“And you’re a madman!”

“Yes, treat me like the dirt under your feet! But you can’t deceive me. — Do you think I don’t know why you’re stopping here?”

She looked away from him, without replying.

“Do you think I don’t know why you’ve decked yourself out like this?”

“For God’s sake stop harping on my dress!”

“Why you’ve bedizened yourself? . . . why you were going out? . . . why you’ve spied and gaped eternally from one side of the street to the other?”

As she only continued to look away, the desire seized him to say something so incisive that the implacability of her face would have to change, no matter to what. “I’ll tell you then!” he shouted, and struck the palm of one hand with the back of the other, so that the bones in both bit and stung. “I’ll tell you. You’re waiting here . . . waiting, I say! But you’ll wait to no purpose! For you’ve reckoned without me.”

“Oh, very well, then, if it pleases you, I’m waiting! But you can at least say for what? For you perhaps? — for you to regain your senses?”

“Stop your damned sneering! Will you tell me you don’t know who’s — don’t know he’s here?”

Still she continued to overlook him. “He? — who? — what?” She flung the little words at him like stones. Yet, in the second that elapsed before his reply, a faint presentiment widened her eyes.

“You’ve got the audacity to ask that?” Flinging himself down on the seat, he put his hands in his pockets, and stretched out his legs. “Who but your precious Schilsky! — the man who knew how you ought to be treated . . . who gave you what you deserved!”

His first feeling was one of relief: the truth was out; there was an end to the torture of the past hour. But after this one flash of sensation, he ceased to consider himself. At his words Louise turned so white that he thought she was going to faint. She raised her hand to her throat, and held it there. She tried to say something, and could not utter a sound. Her voice had left her. She turned her head and looked at him, in a strange, apprehensive way, with the eyes of a trapped animal.

“Eugen! — Eugen is here?” she said at last. “Here? — Do you know what you’re saying?” Now that her voice had come, it was a little thin whisper, like the voice of a sick person. She pushed hat and hair, both suddenly become an intolerable weight, back from her forehead.

Still he was not warned. “Will you swear to me you didn’t know?”

“I know? I swear?” Her voice was still a mere echo of itself. But now she rose, and standing at the end of the seat furthest from him, held on to the back of it. “I know?” she repeated, as if to herself. Then she drew a long breath, which quivered through her, and, with it, voice and emotion and the power of expression returned. “I know?” she cried with a startling loudness. “Good God, you fool, do you think I’d be here with you, if I had known? — if I had known!”

A foreboding of what he had done came to Maurice. “Take care! — take care what you say!”

She burst into a peal of hysterical laughter, which echoed through the woods.

“Take care!” he said again, and trembled.

“Of what? — of you, perhaps? YOU!”

“I may kill you yet.”

“Oh, such as you don’t kill!”

She lowered her veil, and stooped for her gloves. He looked up at her swift movement. There was a blueness round his lips.

“What are you going to do?”

She laughed.

“You’re . . . you’re going to him! Louise! — you are NOT going to him?”

“Oh, you poor, crazy fool, what made you tell me?”

“Stay here!” He caught her by the sleeve. But she shook his hand off as though it were a poisonous insect. “For God’s sake, think what you’re doing! Have a little mercy on me!”

“Have you ever had mercy on me?”

She took a few, quick steps away from the seat, then with an equally impulsive resolve, came back and confronted him.

“You talk to me of mercy? — you! — when nothing I could wish you would be bad enough for you? — Oh, I never thought it would be possible to hate anyone as I hate you — you mean-souled, despicable dummy of a man! — Why couldn’t you have let me alone? I didn’t care that much for you — not THAT much! But you came, with your pretence of friendship, and your flattery, and your sympathy — it was all lies, every word of it! Do you think what has happened to us would ever have happened if you’d been a different kind of man? — But you have never had a clean thought of me — never! Do you suppose I haven’t known what you were thinking and believing about me in these last weeks? — those nights when I waited night after night to see a light come back in his windows? Yes, and I let you believe it; I wanted you to; I was glad you did — glad to see you suffer. I wish you were dead! — Do you see that river? Go and throw yourself into it. I’ll stand here and watch you sink, and laugh when I see you drowning. — Oh, I hate you — hate you! I shall hate you to my last hour!”

She spat on the ground at his feet. Before he could raise his head, she was gone.

He made an involuntary, but wholly uncertain, movement to follow her, did not, however, carry it out, and sank back into his former attitude. His cold hands were deep in his pockets, his shoulders drawn up; and his face, drained of its blood, was like the face of an old man. He had made no attempt to defend himself, had sat mute, letting her vindictive words go over him, inwardly admitting their truth. Now he closed his eyes, and kept them shut, until the thudding of his heart grew less forcible. When he looked up again, his gaze met the muddy, sluggish water, into which she had dared him to throw himself. But he did not even recall her taunt. He merely sat and stared at the river, amazed at the way in which it had, as it were, detached itself from other objects. All at once it had acquired a life of its own, and it was difficult to believe that it had ever been an integral part of the landscape.

He remained sitting till the mists were breast-high. But even when, after more than one start — for his legs were stiff and numbed — he rose to go home, he did not realise what had happened to him. He was only aware that night had fallen, and that it would be better to get back in the direction of the town.

The twinkling street-lamps did more than anything towards rousing him. But they also made him long, with a sudden vehemence, for some warm, brightly lighted interior, where it would be possible to forget the night — haunted river. He sought out an obscure cafe, and entering, called for brandy. On this night, he was under no necessity to limit himself; and he sat, glowering at the table, and emptying his glass, until he had died a temporary, and charitable, death. The delicious sensation of sipping the brandy was his chief remembrance of these hours; but, also, like far-off, incorporate happenings, he was conscious, as the night deepened, of women’s shrill and lively voices. and of the pressure of a woman’s arms.

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