Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

XIII.

He wakened, the next morning, to strange surroundings. Half opening his eyes, he saw a strip of drab wall-paper, besprinkled with crude pink roses, and the black and gilt frame of an oblong mirror. He shut them again immediately, preferring to believe that he was still dreaming. Somewhere in the back of his head, a machine was working, with slow, steady throbs, which made his body vibrate as a screw does a steamer. He lay enduring it, and trying to sleep again, to its accompaniment. But just as he was on the point of dozing off, a noise in the room startled him, and made him wide awake. He was not alone. Something had fallen to the floor, and a voice exclaimed impatiently. Peering through his lids, he looked out beyond the will which had first chained his attention. His eyes fell on the back of a woman, who was sitting in front of one of the windows, doing her hair. In her hand she held a pair of curlingtongs, and, before her, on the foot-end of the sofa, a hand-glass was propped up. Her hair was thick and blond. She wore a black silk chemise, which had slipped low on her plump shoulders; a shabby striped petticoat was bound round her waist, and her naked feet were thrust into down-trodden, felt shoes. Maurice lay still, in order that she should not suspect his being awake. For a few minutes, there was silence; then he was forced to sneeze, and at the sound the woman muttered something, and came to the side of the bed. A curl was imprisoned between the blades of the tongs, which she continued to hold aloft, in front of her forehead.

“NA, KLEINER! . . . had your sleep out?” she asked in a raucous voice. As Maurice did not reply, but closed his eyes again, blinded by the sunshine that poured into the room, she laughed, and made a sound like that with which one urges on a horse. “Don’t feel up to much this morning . . . eh? HERRJE, KLEINER, but you were tight!” and, at some remembrance of the preceding night, she chuckled to herself. “And now, I bet you, you feel as if you’d never be able to lift your head again. Just wait a jiffy! I’ll get you something that’ll revive you.”

She waddled to the door and he heard her call: “JOHANN, EINEN SCHNAPS!”

Feet shuffled in the passage; she handed Maurice a glass of brandy.

“There you are! — that’ll pull you together. Swallow it down,” she said, as he hesitated. “You’ll feel another man after it. — And now I’ll do what I wouldn’t do for every one — make you a coffee to wash down the nasty physic.”

She laughed loudly at her own joke, and laid the curlingtongs aside. He watched her move about the room in search of spirit-lamp and coffee-mill. Beneath the drooping black chemise, her loose breasts swayed.

“Not that I’ve much time,” she went on, as she ground the coffee. “It’s gone a quarter to twelve already, and I like fresh air. I don’t miss a minute of it. — So up you get! Here, dowse your head in this water.”

Leaning against the table, Maurice drank the cup of black coffee, and considered his companion. No longer young, she was as coarsely haggard as are the generality of women of her class, scanned by cruel daylight. And while she could never have been numbered among the handsome ones of her profession, there was yet a certain kindliness in the smallish blue eyes, and in her jocose manner of treating him.

She, too, eyed him as he drank.

“SAG’‘MAL KLEINER— will you come again?” she broke the silence.

“What’s your name?” he asked evasively, and put the cup down on the table.

“Oh . . . just ask for Luise,” she said. On her tongue, the name had three long-drawn syllables, and there was a v before the i.

She was nettled by his laugh.

“What’s wrong with it?” she asked. “GEH’, KLEINER, SEI NETT! — won’t you come again?”

“Perhaps.”

“Well, ask for Luise, if you do. That’s enough.”

He turned to put on his coat. As he did so, a disagreeable thought crossed his mind; he coloured, and ran his hand through his pockets.

“I’ve no money.”

“What? — rooked, are you? Well, it wasn’t here, then. I’m an honest girl, I am!”

She came over to him, not exactly suspicious, still with a slight diminution of friendliness in eyes and tone; and, as, if there were room for a mistake on his part, herself went through the likely pockets in turn.

“Not a heller!”

Her sharp little eyes travelled over him.

“That’d do.”

She laid her hand on his scarf-pin. He took it out and gave it to her. She stood on tip-toe, for she was dumpy, put her arms round his neck, and gave him a hearty kiss.

“DU GEFALLST MIR!” she said. “I like you. Kiss me, too, can’t you?”

He looked down on the plump, ungainly figure, and, without feeling either satisfaction or repugnance, stooped and kissed the befringed forehead.

“ADIEU, KLEINER! Come again.”

“ADIEU, LUISE!”

He was eyed — he felt it — from various rooms, the doors of which stood ajar. The front door was wide open, and he left it so. He descended the stairs with a sagging step. Half-way down, he stopped short. He had spoken the truth when he said that he was without money; every pfennig he possessed, had been in his pocket the night before. Under these circumstances, he could undertake nothing. But, even while he thought it, his hand sought his watch, which he carried chainless in a pocket of his vest. It was there, and as his fingers closed on it, he proceeded on his way.

The day had again set in brilliantly; the shadows on roads and pavements had real depth, and the outlines of the houses were hard against a cloudless sky. He kept his eyes fixed on the ground; for the crudeness of the light made them ache.

His feet bore him along the road they knew better than any other. And until he had been in the BRUDERSTRASSE, he could not decide what was to come next. He dragged along, with bowed head, and the distance seemed unending. Even when he had turned the corner and was in the street itself, he kept his head down, and only when he was opposite the house, did he throw a quick glance upwards. His heart gave a terrifying leap, then ceased to beat: when it began again, it was at a mad gallop, which prevented him drawing breath. All three windows stood wide open; the white window-curtains hung out over the sills, and flapped languidly in the breeze.

He crossed the road with small steps, like a convalescent. He pushed back the heavy house-door, and entered the vestibule, which was cold and shadowy. Step by step, he climbed to the first landing. The door of the flat was shut, but the little door in the wall stood ajar, and he could see right into the room.

He leaned against the banisters, where the shadow was deepest. Inside the room that had been his world, two charwomen rubbed and scoured, talking as they worked in strident tones. The heavy furniture had been pulled into the middle of the floor, and shrouded in white coverings; chairs were laid on the bed, with their legs in the air. There was no trace of anything that had belonged to Louise; all familiar objects had vanished. It was a strange, unnatural scene: he felt as one might feel who, by means of some mysterious agency, found it possible to be present at his own burial, while he was still alive.

One of the women began to beat the sofa; under cover of the blows, which reverberated through the house, he slunk away. But he did not get far: when he was recalled to himself by a new noise in one of the upper storeys, he found that he was standing on the bottom step of the stairs, holding fast to the round gilt ball that surmounted the last post of the banisters. He moved from there to the warmth of the house-door, and, for some time before going out, stood sunning himself, a forlorn figure, with eyes that blinked at the light. He felt very cold, and weak to the point of faintness. This sensation reminded him that he had had no solid food since noon the day before. His first business was obviously to eat a meal. Fighting a growing dizziness, he trudged into the town, and, having pawned his watch, went to a restaurant, and forced himself to swallow the meal that was set before him — though there were moments when it seemed incredible that it was actually he who plied knife and fork. He would have been glad to linger for a time, after eating, but the restaurant was crowded, and the waiter openly impatient for him to be gone. As he rose, he saw the man flicking the crumbs off the cloth, and setting the table anew; some one was waiting to take his place.

When he emerged again into the thronged and slightly dusty streets, his previous strong impression of the unreality of things was upon him again. Now, however, it seemed as though some submerged consciousness were at work in him. For, though he was not aware of having reviewed his position, or of having cast a plan of action, he knew at once what was to be done; and, as before, his feet bore him, without bidding, where he had to go.

He retraced his steps, and half-way down the KLOSTERGASSE, entered a gunsmith’s shop. The owner, an elderly man in a velvet cap and gold-rimmed spectacles, looked at him over the tops of these, then said curtly, he could not oblige him. What was more, he came out after him, and, standing in the shop-door, watched him go down the street. At his refusal, Maurice had hurriedly withdrawn: now, as he went, he wa’s troubled by the fact that the man’s face was vaguely familiar to him. For the length of a street-block, he endeavoured to recollect where he had seen the face before. And suddenly he knew: it was this very shop he had once been in to inquire after Krafft, and this was the same man who had then been so uncivil to him. But as soon as he remembered, the knowledge ceased to interest him.

Rendered cautious by his first experience, he went to another neighbourhood, and having sought for some time, found a smaller shop, in a side street. He had ready this time the fiction of a friend and a commission. But a woman regretted wordily that her husband had just stepped out; he would no doubt be back again immediately; if the Herr would take a chair and wait a little? — But the thought of waiting made him turn on his heel. Finally, at his third attempt, a young lad gave him what he desired, without demur; and, after he had known a quick fear lest he should not have sufficient money for the purchase, the matter was satisfactorily settled.

On returning to his room, he found a letter lying on the table. He pounced upon it with a desperate hope. But it was only the monthly bill for the hire of the piano.

In entering, he had made some noise, and Frau Krause was in the room before he knew it. She was primed for an angry scene. But he made short work of her complaints and accusations.

“To-morrow! I’ll have time for all that to-morrow.”

He turned the key in the door, and sitting down before the writing-table, commenced to go through drawers and pigeonholes. It had not been a habit of his to keep letters; but nevertheless a certain number had accumulated, and these he was averse to let fall into the hands of strangers. He performed his work coolly, with a pedantic thoroughness. He had no sympathy with those people, who, doing what he was about to do, left ragged ends behind them. His mind had always inclined to law and order. And so, having written a note authorising Frau Krause to keep his books and clothes, in place of the outstanding rent, he put a match to the fire which was laid in the stove, and, on his knees before it, burnt all such personal trifles as had value for himself alone. He postponed, to the last, even handling the small packet made up of the letters he had had from Louise. Then their turn came, too. Kneeling before the stovedoor, he dropped them, one by one, into the flames. The last to burn was the first he had received — a mere hastily scrawled line, a twisted note, which opened as it blackened. I MUST SPEAK TO YOU. WILL YOU COME TO ME THIS EVENING? As he watched it shrivel, he had a vivid recollection of that long past day. He remembered how he had tried to shave, and how he had dressed himself in his best, only to fling back again into his working-clothes, annoyed with himself for even harbouring the thought. Yes; but that had always been his way: he had expended consideration and delicacy where none was necessary; he had seen her only as he wished to see her. — After this, the photographs. They were harder to burn; he was forced to tear them across, in two, three pieces. Even then, the flames licked slowly; he watched them creep up — over her dress, her hands, her face.

Afternoon had turned to evening. When, at length, everything was in order, he lay down on the sofa to wait for it to grow quite dark. But almost at once, as if his back had been eased of a load, he fell asleep. When he opened his eyes again, the lamp had burned low, and filled the room with a poisonous vapour. It was two o’clock. This was the time to go. But a boisterous wind had risen, and was blustering round the house. He said to himself that he would wait still a little longer, to see if it did not subside. In waiting, he slept again, heavily, as he had not done for many a night, and when he wakened next, a clock was striking four. He rose at once, and with his boots in his hand, crept out of the house.

Day was breaking; as he walked, a thin streak of grey in the east widened with extreme rapidity, and became a bank of pale grey light. He met an army of street-sweepers, indistinguishably male and female, returning from their work, their long brooms over their shoulders. It had rained a little, and the pavements were damp and shining. The wind had dropped to a mere morning breeze, which met him at street-corners. Before his mind’s eye rose a vision of the coming day. He saw one of those early spring days of illimitable blue highness and white, woofy clouds, which stand stationary where the earth meets the sky; the brightness of the sun makes the roads seem whiter and the grass greener, bringing out new tints and colours in everything it touches. Over it all would run this light, swift wind, bending the buds, and even, towards afternoon, throwing up a fine white dust. — And it was to the thought of the dust that his mind clung most tenaciously, as to some homely and familiar thing which he would never see again.

He had made straight for the well-known seat with the bosky background. Arrived at it, he went a few steps aside, into an open space among the undergrowth, which was now generously sprinkled with buds. The leaves that had fallen during the previous autumn made a carpet under his feet. Somewhere, in the distance, a band was playing: a body of soldiers was being marched out to exercise. He opened the case he was carrying, and laid it on the seat. He was not conscious of feeling afraid; if he had a fear, it was only lest, in his inexperience, he should do what he had to do, clumsily. In loosening the clothes at his neck, however, he perceived that his hand was shaking, and this made him aware that his heart also was beating unevenly. He stood and fumbled with his collar-stud, which he could not unfasten at once, and, while he was busied thus, the mists that blinded him fell away. He ceased, abruptly, to be the mere automaton that had moved and acted, without will of its own, for the past four-and-twenty hours. Standing there, with his fingers at his neck, he was pierced by a sudden lucid perception of what had happened. An intolerable spasm of remembrance gripped him. With a rush of bitterness, which was undiluted agony, all the shame and suffering of the past months swept over him once more, concentrated in a last supreme moment. And, as though this were not enough, while he still wrenched at his neck, tearing his shirt-collar in his desperation, her face rose before him — but not the face he had known and loved. He saw it as he had seen it for the last time, disfigured by hatred of him, horribly vindictive, as it had been when she spat on the ground at his feet. This vision gave him an unlooked-for jerk of courage. Without allowing himself another second in which to reason or reflect, he caught up the revolver from the seat, and pressed the cold little nozzle to his chest. Simultaneously he received a sharp blow, and heard the crack of a report — but far away . . . in the distance. He was on his back, without knowing how he had got there; straight overhead waved the bare branches of a tree; behind them, a grey morning cloud was sailing. For still the fraction of a second, he heard the familiar melody, to which the soldiers marched; and the branch swayed . . . swayed . . .

Then, as suddenly as the flame of a candle is puffed out by the wind, his life went from him. His right hand twitched, made as if to open, closed again, and stiffened round the iron of the handle. His jaw fell, and, like an inner lid, a glazed film rose over his eyes, which for hours afterwards continued to stare, with an expression of horror and amaze, at the naked branches of the tree.

* * * * *

One midday, a couple of years later, a number of those who had formed the audience at one of the last rehearsals of the season, were gathered round the back entrance to the Gewandhaus. It was a fresh spring day, gusty and sunny by turns: sometimes, there came a puff of wind that drove every one’s hand to his hat; at others, the broad square basked in an almost motionless sunshine. The small crowd lingered in order to see, at close quarters, the violinist who had played there that morning. Only a few of those present had known Schilsky personally; but one and all were curious to catch a glimpse of the quondam Leipzig student, who, it was whispered, would soon return to the town to take up a leading position in the orchestra. Schilsky was now KONZERTMEISTER in a large South German town; but it was rather as a composer that his name had begun to burn on people’s tongues. His new symphonic poem, UBER DIE LETZTEN DINGE, had drawn down on his head that mixture of extravagant laudation and abusive derision which constitutes fame.

“Take a look at his wife, if she’s there,” said one American to another, who was standing beside him. “She studied here same time he did, and is said to have been very handsome. An English chap shot himself on her account.”

“You don’t say!” drawled his companion. “It’s a queer thing, how common suicide’s getting to be. You can’t pick up a noospaper, nowadays, without finding some fool or other has blown his brains out.”

“Look out! — here they come.”

Behind the thick glass doors, Schilsky became visible. He was talking volubly to a Jewish-looking stranger in a fur-lined coat. His hat was pushed far back on his forehead; his face was flushed with elation; and, consciously unconscious of the waiting crowd, he gesticulated as he walked, throwing out the palms of his loosely dangling hands, and emphasising his words with restless movements of the head. He was respectfully greeted by those who had known him. A minute or two later came Louise. At her side was a pianist with whom Schilsky had given a concert earlier in the week — a shabbily dressed young man, with a world of enthusiasm in his candid blue eyes. He, too, was talking with animation. But Louise had no attention for anyone but her husband.

“Well, not my taste . . . I must confess,” laughed the man who had been severe on suicide. “Fine eyes, if you like — but give me something fresher.”

She was wearing a long cloak. The door, in swinging to, caught an end of this, and hindered her progress. Both she and her companion stooped to free it; their hands met; and the bystanders saw the young man colour darkly over face and neck.

The others had got into one of the droschkes that waited in line beside the building. The dark stranger put an impatient head out of the window. The two behind quickened their steps; the young man helped Louise in, mounted himself, and slammed the door.

The driver gathered up the reins, cracked his whip, and the big-bodied droschke went swerving round the corner, clattering gutturally on the cobbled stone pavement.

The group of loiterers at the door dispersed.

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