Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

VI.

One cold, windy afternoon, when dust was stirring and rain seemed imminent, Maurice Guest walked with bent head and his hat pulled over his eyes. He was returning from the ZEITZERSTRASSE, where, in a photographer’s show-case, he had a few days earlier discovered a large photograph of Louise. This was a source of great pleasure to him. Here, no laws of breeding or delicacy hindered him from gazing at her as often as he chose.

On this particular day, whether he had looked too long, or whether the unrest of the weather, the sense of something impending, the dusty dryness that craved rain, had got into his blood and disquieted him: whatever it was, he felt restless and sick for news of her, and, at this very moment, was on his way to Madeleine, in the foolish hope of hearing her name.

But a little adventure befell him which made him forget his intention.

He was about to turn the corner of a street, when a sudden blast of wind swept round, bearing with it some half dozen single sheets of music. For a moment they whirled high, then sank fluttering to the ground, only to rise again and race one another along the road. Maurice instinctively gave chase, but it was not easy to catch them; no sooner had he secured one than the next was out of his reach.

Meanwhile their owner, a young and very pretty girl, looked on and laughed, without making any effort to help him; and the more he exerted himself, the more she laughed. In one hand she was carrying a violin-case, in the other a velvet muff, which now and again she raised to her lips, as if to conceal her mirth. It was a graceful movement, but an unnecessary one, for her laughter was of that charming kind, which never gives offence; and, besides that, although it was continuous, it was neither hearty enough nor frank enough to be unbecoming the face was well under control. She stood there, with her head slightly on one side, and the parted lips showed both rows of small, even teeth; but the smile was unvarying, and, in spite of her merriment, her eyes did not for an instant quit the young man’s face, as he darted to and fro.

Maurice could not help laughing himself, red and out of breath though he was.

“Now for the last one,” he said in German.

At these words she seemed more amused than ever. “I don’t speak German,” she answered in English, with a strong American accent.

Having captured all the sheets, Maurice tried to arrange them for her.

“It’s my Kayser,” she explained with a quick, upward glance, adding the next minute with a fresh ripple of laughter. “He’s all to pieces.”

“You have too much to carry,” said Maurice. “On such a windy day, too.”

“That’s what Joan said — Joan is my sister,” she continued. “But I guess it’s so cold this afternoon I had to bring a muff along. If my fingers are stiff I can’t play, and then Herr Becker is angry.” But she laughed again as she spoke, and it was plain that the master’s wrath did not exactly incite fear. “Joan always comes along, but to-day she’s sick.”

“Will you let me help you?” asked Maurice, and a moment later he was walking at her side.

She handed over music and violin to him without a trace of hesitation; and, as they went along the PROMENADE, she talked to him with as little embarrassment as though they were old acquaintances. It was so kind of him to help her, she thought; she couldn’t imagine how she would ever have got home without him, alone against the wind; and she was perfectly sure he must be American — no one but an American would be so nice. When Maurice denied this, she laughed very much indeed, and was not sure, this being the case, whether she could like him or not; as a rule, she didn’t like English people; they were stiff and horrid, and were always wanting either to be introduced or to shake hands. Here she carried her muff up to her lips again, and her eyes shone mischievously at him over the dark velvet. Maurice had never known anyone so easily moved to laughter; whenever she spoke she laughed, and she laughed at everything he said.

Off the PROMENADE, where the trees were of a marvellous Pale green, they turned into a street of high spacious houses, the dark lines of which were here and there broken by an arched gateway, or the delicate tints of a spring garden. To a window in one of the largest houses Maurice’s little friend looked up, and smiled and nodded.

“There’s my sister.”

The young man looked, too, and saw a dark, thin-faced girl, who, when she found four eyes fixed on her, abruptly drew in her head, and as abruptly put it out again, leaning her two hands on the sill.

“She’s wondering who it is,” said Maurice’s companion gleefully. Then, turning her face up, she made a speaking-trumpet of her hands, and cried: “It’s all right, Joan. — Now I must run right up and tell her about it,” she said to Maurice. “Perhaps she’ll scold; Joan is very particular. Good-bye. Thank you ever so much for being so good to me — oh, won’t you tell me your name?”

The very next morning brought him a small pink note, faintly scented. The pointed handwriting was still childish, but there was a coquettish flourish beneath the pretty signature: Ephie Cayhill. Besides a graceful word of thanks, she wrote: WE ARE AT HOME EVERY SUNDAY. MAMMA WOULD BE VERY PLEASED.

Maurice did not scruple to call the following week, and on doing so, found himself in the midst of one of those English-speaking coteries, which spring up in all large, continental towns. Foreigners were not excluded — Maurice discovered two or three of his German friends, awkwardly balancing their cups on their knees. In order, however, to gain access to the circle, it was necessary for them to have a smattering of English; they had also to be flint against any open or covert fun that might be made of them or their country; and above all, to be skilled in the art of looking amiable, while these visitors from other lands heatedly readjusted, to their own satisfaction, all that did not please them in the life and laws of this country that was temporarily their home.

Mrs. Cayhill was a handsome woman, who led a comfortable, vegetable existence, and found it a task to rise from the plump sofa-cushion. Her pleasant features were slack, and in those moments of life which called for a sudden decision, they wore the helpless bewilderment of a woman who has never been required to think for herself. Her grasp on practical matters was rendered the more lax, too, by her being an immoderate reader, who fed on novels from morning till night, and slept with a page turned down beside her bed. She was for ever lost in the joys or sorrows of some fictitious person, and, in consequence, remained for the most part completely ignorant of what was going on around her. When she did happen to become conscious of her surroundings, she was callous, or merely indifferent, to them; for, compared with romance, life was dull and diffuse; it lacked the wilful simplicity, the exaggerative omissions, and forcible perspectives, which make up art: in other words, life demanded that unceasing work of selection and rejection, which it is the story-teller’s duty to Perform for his readers. All novels were fish to Mrs. Cayhill’s net; she lived in a world of intrigue and excitement, and, seated in her easy-chair by the sitting-room window, was generally as remote from her family as though she were in Timbuctoo.

There was a difference of ten years in age between her daughters, and it was the younger of the two whose education was being completed. Johanna, the elder, had been a disappointment to her mother. Left to her own devices at an impressionable age, the girl had developed bookish tastes at the cost of her appearance: influenced by a free-thinking tutor of her brothers’, she had read Huxley and Haeckel, Goethe and Schopenhauer. Her wish had been for a university career, but she was not of a self-assertive nature, and when Mrs. Cayhill, who felt her world toppling about her ears at the mention of such a thing, said: “Not while I live!” she yielded, without a further word; and the fact that such an emphatic expression of opinion had been drawn from the mild-tempered mother, made it a matter of course that no other member of the family took Johanna’s part. So she buried her ambitions, and kept her mother’s house in an admirable, methodical way.

It was not the sacrifice it seemed, however, because Johanna adored her little sister, and would cheerfully have given up more than this for her sake. Ephie, who was at that time just emerging from childhood, was very pretty and precocious, and her mother had great hopes of her. She also tired early of her lesson-books, and, soon after she turned sixteen, declared her intention of leaving school. As at least a couple of years had still to elapse before she was old enough to be introduced in society, Mrs. Cayhill, taking the one decisive step of her life, determined that travel in Europe should put the final touches to Ephie’s education: a little German and French; some finishing lessons on the violin; a run through Italy and Switzerland, and then to Paris, whence they would carry back with them a complete and costly outfit. So, valiantly, Mrs. Cayhill had her trunks packed, and, together with Johanna, who would as soon have thought of denying her age as of letting these two helpless beings go out into the world alone, they crossed the Atlantic.

For some three months now, they had been established in Leipzig. A circulating library, rich in English novels, had been discovered; Mrs. Cayhill was content; and it began to be plain to Johanna that the greater part of their two years’ absence would be spent in this place. Ephie, too, had already had time to learn that, as far as music was concerned, her business was not so much with finishing as with beginning, and that the road to art, which she with all the rest must follow, was a steep one. She might have found it still more arduous, had Herr Becker, her master, not been a young man and very impressionable. And Ephie never looked more charming than when, with her rounded, dimpled arm raised in an exquisite curve, she leaned her cheek against the glossy brown wood of her violin.

She was pretty with that untouched, infantine prettiness, before which old and young go helplessly down. She was small and plump, with a full, white throat and neck, and soft, rounded hands and wrists, that were dimpled like a baby’s. Her brown hair was drawn back from the low forehead, but, both here and at the back of her neck, it broke into innumerable little curls, which were much lighter in colour than the rest. Her skin, faintly tinged, was as smooth as the skin of a cherry; it had that exquisite freshness which is only to be found in a very young girl, and is lovelier than the bloom on ripe fruit. Her dark blue eyes were well opened, but the black lashes were so long and so peculiarly straight that the eyes themselves were usually hidden, and this made it all the more effective did she suddenly look up. Moulded like wax, the small, upturned nose seemed to draw the top lip after it; anyhow, the upper lip was too short to meet the lower, and consequently, they were always slightly apart, in a kind of questioning amaze. This mouth was the real beauty of the face: bright red, full, yet delicate, arched like a bow, with corners that went in and upwards, it belonged, by right of its absolute innocence, to the face of a little child; and the thought was monstrous that nature and the years would eventually combine to destroy so perfect a thing.

She also had a charming laugh, with a liquid note in it, that made one think of water bubbling on a dry summer day.

It was this laugh that held the room on Sunday afternoon, and drew the handful of young men together, time after time.

Mrs. Cayhill, who, on these occasions, was wont to lay aside her book, was virtually a deeper echo of her little daughter, and Johanna only counted in so far as she made and distributed cups of tea at the end of the room. She did not look with favour on the young men who gathered there, and her manner to them was curt and unpleasing. Each of them in turn, as he went up to her for his cup, cudgelled his brain for something to say; but it was no easy matter to converse with Johanna. The ordinary small change and polite commonplace of conversation, she met with a silent contempt. In musical chit-chat, she took no interest whatever, and pretended to none, openly indeed “detested music,” and was unable to distinguish Mendelssohn from Wagner, “except by the noise;” while if a bolder man than the rest rashly ventured on the literary ground that was her special demesne, she either smiled at what he said, in a disagreeably sarcastic way, or flatly contradicted him. She was the thorn in the flesh of these young men; and after having dutifully spent a few awkward moments at her side, they stole back, one by one, to the opposite end of the room. Here Ephie, bewitchingly dressed in blue, swung to and fro in a big American rocking-chair — going backwards, it carried her feet right off the ground — and talked charming nonsense, to the accompaniment of her own light laugh, and her mother’s deeper notes, which went on like an organ-point, Mrs. Cayhill finding everything Ephic said, matchlessly amusing.

As Dove and Maurice walked there together for the first time — it now leaked out that Dove spent every Sunday afternoon in the LESSINGSTRASSE— he spoke to Maurice of Johanna. Not in a disparaging way; Dove had never been heard to mention a woman’s name otherwise than with respect. And, in this case, he deliberately showed up Johanna’s good qualities, in the hope that Maurice might feel attracted by her, and remain at her side; for Dove had fallen deeply in love with Ephie, and had, as it was, more rivals than he cared for, in the field.

“You should get on with her, I think, Guest,” he said slily. “You read these German writers she is so interested in. But don’t be discouraged by her manner. For though she’s one of the most unselfish women I ever met, her way of Speaking is sometimes abrupt. She reminds me, if it doesn’t sound unkind, of a faithful watch-dog, or something of the sort, which cannot express its devotion as it would like to.”

When, after a lively greeting from Ephie, and a few pleasant words from Mrs. Cayhill, Maurice found himself standing beside Johanna, the truth of Dove’s simile was obvious to him. This dark, unattractive girl had apparently no thought for anything but her tea-making; she moved the cups this way and that, filled the pot with water, blew out and lighted again the flame of the spirit-lamp, without paying the least heed to Maurice, making, indeed, such an ostentatious show of being occupied, that it would have needed a brave man to break in upon her duties with idle words. He remained standing, however, in a constrained silence, which lasted until she could not invent anything else to do, and was obliged to drink her own tea. Then he said abruptly, in a tone which he meant to be easy, but which was only jaunty: “And how do you like being in Germany, Miss Cayhill? Does it not seem very strange after America?”

Johanna lifted her shortsighted eyes to his face, and looked coolly and disconcertingly at him through her glasses, as if she had just become aware of his presence.

“Strange? Why should it?” she asked in an unfriendly tone.

“Why, what I mean is, everything must be so different here from what you are accustomed to — at least it is from what we are used to in England,” he corrected himself. “The ways and manners, and the language, and all that sort of thing, you know.”

“Excuse me, I do not know,” she answered in the same tone as before. “If a person takes the trouble to prepare himself for residence in a foreign country, nothing need seem either strange or surprising. But English people, as is well known, expect to find a replica of England in every country they go to.”

There was a pause, in which James, the pianist, who was a regular visitor, approached to have his cup refilled. All the circle knew, of course, that Johanna was “doing for a new man”; and it seemed to Maurice that James half closed one eye at him, and gave him a small, sympathetic nudge with his elbow.

So he held to his guns. When James had retired, he began anew, without preamble.

“My friend Dove tells me you are interested in German literature?” he said with a slight upward inflection in his voice.

Johanna did not reply, but she shot a quick glance at him, and colouring perceptibly, began to fidget with the tea-things.

“I’ve done a little in that line myself,” continued Maurice, as she made no move to answer him. “In a modest way, of course. Just lately I finished reading the JUNGFRAU VON ORLEANS.”

“Is that so?” said Johanna with an emphasis which made him colour also.

“It is very fine, is it not?” he asked less surely, and as she again acted as though he had not spoken, he lost his presence of mind. “I suppose you know it? You’re sure to.”

This time Johanna turned scarlet, as if he had touched her on a sore spot, and answered at once, sharply and rudely. “And I suppose,” she said, and her hands shook a little as they fussed about the tray, “that you have also read MARIA STUART, and TELL, and a page or two of Jean Paul. You have perhaps heard of Lessing and Goethe, and you consider Heine the one and only German poet.”

Maurice did not understand what she meant, but she had spoken so loudly and forbiddingly that several eyes were turned on them, making it incumbent on him not to take offence. He emptied his cup, and put it down, and tried to give the matter an airy turn.

“And why not?” he asked pleasantly. “Is there anything wrong in thinking so? Schiller and Goethe WERE great poets, weren’t they? And you will grant that Heine is the only German writer who has had anything approaching a style?”

Johanna’s face grew stony. “I have no intention of granting anything,” she said. “Like all English people — it flatters your national vanity, I presume — you think German literature began and ended with Heine. — A miserable Jew!”

“Yes, but I say, one can hardly make him responsible for being a Jew, can you? What has that got to do with it?” exclaimed Maurice, this being a point of view that had never presented itself to him. And as Johanna only murmured something that was inaudible, he added lamely: “Then you don’t think much of Heine?”

But she declined to be drawn into a discussion, even into an expression of opinion, and the young man continued, with apology in his tone: “It may be bad taste on my part, of course. But one hears it said on every side. If you could tell me what I ought to read . . . or, perhaps, advise me a little?” he ended tentatively.

“I don’t lend my books,” said Johanna more rudely than she had yet spoken. And that was all Maurice could get from her. A minute or two later, she rose and went out of the room.

It became much less restrained as soon as the door had closed behind her. Ephie laughed more roguishly, and Mrs. Cayhill allowed herself to find what her little daughter said, droller than before. With an appearance of unconcern, Maurice strolled back to the group by the window. Dove was also talking of literature.

“That reminds me, how did you like the book I lent you on Wednesday, Mrs. Cayhill?” he asked, at the same instant springing forward to pick up Ephie’s handkerchief, which had fallen to the ground.

“Oh, very much indeed, very interesting, very good of you,” answered Mrs. Cayhill. “Ephie, darling, the sun is shining right on your face.”

“What was it?” asked James, while Dove jumped up anew to lower the blind, and Ephie raised a bare, dimpled arm to shade her eyes.

Mrs. Cayhill could not recollect the title just at once she had a “wretched memory for names”— and went over what she had been reading.

“Let me see, it was . . . no, that was yesterday: SHADOWED BY THREE, a most delightful Book. On Friday, RICHARD ELSMERE, and — oh, yes, I know, it was about a farm, an Australian farm.”

“THE STORY OF AN AFRICAN FARM,” put in Dove mildly, returning to his seat.

“Australian or African, it doesn’t matter which,” said Mrs. Cayhill. “Yes, a nice book, but a little coarse in parts, and very foolish at the end — the disguising, and the dying out of doors, and the looking-glass, and all that.”

“I must say I think it a very powerful book,” said Dove solemnly. “That part, you know, where the boy listens to the clock ticking in the night, and thinks to himself that with every tick, a soul goes home to God. A very striking idea!”

“Why, I think it must be a horrid book,” cried Ephie. “All about dying. Fancy some one dying every minute. It couldn’t possibly be true. For then the world would soon be empty.”

“Always there are coming more into it,” said Furst, in his blunt, broken English.

A pause ensued. Dove flicked dust off his trouser-leg; and the American men present were suddenly fascinated by the bottoms of their cups. Ephie was the first to regain her composure.

“Now let us talk of something pleasant, something quite different — from dying.” She turned and, over her shoulder, laughed mischievously at Maurice, who was siting behind her. Then, leaning forward in her chair, with every eye upon her, she told how Maurice had saved her music from the wind, and, with an arch face, made him appear very ridiculous. By her prettily exaggerated description of a heated, perspiring young man, darting to and fro, and muttering to himself in German, her hearers, Maurice included, were highly diverted — and no one more than Mrs. Cayhill.

“You puss, you puss!” she cried, wiping her eyes and shaking a finger at the naughty girl.

The general amusement had hardly subsided when Furst rose to his feet, and, drawing his heels together, made a flowery little speech, the gist of which was, that he would have esteemed himself a most fortunate man, had he been in Maurice’s place. Ephie and her mother exchanged looks, and shook with ill-concealed mirth, so that Furst, who had spoken serioulsy and in good faith, sat down red and uncomfortable; and Boehmer, who was dressed in what he believed to be American fashion, smiled in a superior manner, to show he was aware that Furst was making himself ridiculous.

“Look here, Miss Ephie,” said James; “the next time you have to go out alone, just send for me, and I’ll take care of you.”

“Or me” said Dove. “You have only to let me know.”

“No, no, Mr. Dove!” cried Mrs. Cayhill. “You do far too much for her as it is. You’ll spoil her altogether.”

But at this, several of the young men exclaimed loudly: that would be impossible. And Ephie coloured becomingly, raised her lashes, and distributed winning smiles. Then quiet had been restored, she assured them that they all very kind, but she would never let anyone go with her but Joan — dear old Joan. They could not imagine how fond she was of Joan.

“She is worth more than all of you put together.” And at the cries of: “Oh, oh!” she was thrown into a new fit of merriment, and went still further. “I would not give Joan’s little finger for anyone in the world.”

And meanwhile, as all her hearers — all, that is to say, except Dove, who sat moody, fingering his slight moustache, and gazing at Ephie with fondly reproachful eyes — as all of them, with Mrs. Cayhill at their head, made vehement protest against this sweeping assertion, Johanna sat alone in her bedroom, at the back of the house. It was a dull room, looking on a courtyard, but she was always glad to escape to it from the flippant chatter in the sitting-room. Drawing a little table to the window, she sat down and began to read. But, on this day, her thoughts wandered; and, ultimately, propping her chin on her hand, she fell into reverie, which began with something like “the fool and his Schiller!” and ended with her rising, and going to the well-stocked book-shelves that stood at the foot of the bed.

She took out a couple of volumes and looked through them, then returned them to their places on the shelf. No, she said to herself, why should she? What she had told the young man was true: she never lent her books; he would soil them, or, worse still, not appreciate them as he ought — she could not give anyone who visited there on Sunday, credit for a nice taste.

Unknown to herself, however, something worked in her, for, the very next time Maurice was there, she met him in the passage, as he was leaving, and impulsively thrust a paper parcel into his hand.

“There is a book, if you care to take it.”

He did not express the surprise he felt, nor did he look at the title. But Ephie, who was accompanying him to the door, made a face of laughing stupefaction behind her sister’s back, and went out on the landing with him, to whisper: “What HAVE you been doing to Joan?”— at which remark, and at Maurice’s blank face, she laughed so immoderately that she was forced to go down the stairs with him, for fear Joan should hear her; and, in the house-door, she stood, a white-clad little figure, and waved her hand to him until he turned the corner.

Having read the first volume of HAMMER UND AMBOSS deep into two nights, Maurice returned it and carried away the second. But it was only after he had finished PROBLEMATISCHE NATUREN, and had expressed himself with due enthusiasm, that Johanna began to thaw a little. She did not discuss what he read with him; but, going on the assumption that a person who could relish her favourite author had some good in him, she gave the young man the following proof of her favour.

Between Ephie and him there had sprung up spontaneously a mutual liking, which it is hard to tell the cause of. For Ephie knew nothing of Maurice’s tastes, interests and ambitions, and he did not dream of asking her to share them. Yet, with the safe instincts of a young girl, she chose him for a brother from among all her other acquaintances; called him “Morry”; scarcely ever coquetted with him; and let him freely into her secrets. It is easier to see why Maurice was attracted to her; for not only was Ephie pretty and charming; she was also adorably equable — she did not know what it was to be out of humour. And she was always glad to see him, always in the best possible spirits. When he was dull or tired, it acted like a tonic on him, to sit and let her merry chatter run over him. And soon, he found plenty of makeshifts to see her; amongst other things, he arranged to help her twice a week with harmony, which was, to her, an unexplorable abyss; and he ransacked the rooms and shelves of his acquaintances to find old Tauchnitz volumes to lend to Mrs. Cayhill.

The latter paid even less attention to the sudden friendship of her daughter with this young man than the ordinary American mother would have done; but Johanna’s toleration of it was, for the most part, to be explained by the literary interests before mentioned. For Johanna was always in a tremble lest Ephie should become spoiled; and thoughtless Ephie could, at times, cause her a most subtle torture, by being prettily insincere, by assuming false coquettish airs, or by seeming to have private thoughts which she did not confide to her sister. This, and the knowledge that Ephie was now of an age when every day might be expected to widen the distance between them, sometimes made Johanna very gruff and short, even with Ephie herself. As her sister, she alone knew how much was good and true under the child’s light exterior; she admired in Ephie all that she herself had not — her fair prettiness, her blithe manner, her easy, graceful words — and, had it been necessary, she would have gone down on her knees to remove the stones from Ephie’s path.

Thus although on the casual observer, Johanna only made the impression of a dark, morose figure, which hovered round two childlike beings, intercepting the sunshine of their lives, yet Maurice had soon come often enough into contact with her to appreciate her unselfishness; and, for the care she took of Ephie, he could almost have liked her, had Johanna shown the least readiness to be liked. Naturally, he did not understand how highly he was favoured by her; he knew neither the depth of her affection for Ephie, nor the exact degree of contempt in which she held the young men who dangled there on a Sunday — poor fools who were growing fat on emotion and silly ideas, when they should have been taking plain, hard fare at college. To Dove, Johanna had a particular aversion; chiefly, and in a contradictory spirit, because it was evident to all that his intentions were serious. But she could not hinder wayward Ephie from making a shameless use of him, and then laughing at him behind his back — a laugh in which Mrs. Cayhill was not always able to refrain from joining, though it must be said that she was usually loud in her praises of Dove, at the expense of all visitors who were not American.

“From these Dutch you can’t expect much, one way or the other,” she declared. “And young Guest sometimes sits there with a face as long as my arm. But Dove is really a most sensible young fellow — why, he thinks just as I do about Arnerica.”

And as a special mark of favour, when Dove left the house on Sunday afternoon, his pockets bulged with NEW YORK HERALDS.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/richardson/henry_handel/r52mg/chapter6.html

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