Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson


Before leaving her bedroom the following morning, Ephie wrote on her scented pink paper a short letter, which began: “Dear Mr. Schilsky,” and ended with: “Your sincere friend, Euphemia Stokes Cayhill.” In this letter, she “failed to understand” his conduct of the previous evening, and asked him for an explanation. Not until she had closed the envelope, did she remember that she was ignorant of his address. She bit the end of her pen, thinking hard, and directly breakfast was over, put on her hat and slipped out of the house.

It was the first time Ephie had had occasion to enter the Bureau of the Conservatorium; and, when the heavy door had swung to behind her, and she was alone in the presence of the secretaries, each of whom was bent over a high desk, writing in a ledger, her courage almost failed her. The senior, an old, white-haired man, with a benevolent face, did not look up; but after she had stood hesitating for some minutes, an under-secretary solemnly laid down his pen, and coming to the counter, wished in English to know what he could do for her. Growing very red, Ephie asked him if he “would . . . could . . . would please tell her where Mr. Schilsky lived.”

Herr Kleefeld leaned both hands on the counter, and disconcerted her by staring at her over his spectacles.

“Mr. Schilsky? Is it very important?” he said with a leer, as if he were making a joke.

“Why, yes, indeed,” replied Ephie timidly.

He nodded his head, more to himself than to her, went back to his desk, opened another ledger, and ran his finger down a page, repeating aloud as he did so, to her extreme embarrassment: “Mr. Schilsky—let me see. Mr. Schilsky — let me see.”

After a pause, he handed her a slip of paper, on which he had painstakingly copied the address: “Talstrasse, 12 Iii.”

“Why, I thank you very much. I have to ask him about some music. Is there anything to pay?” stammered Ephie.

But Herr Kleefeld, leaning as before on the counter, shook his head from side to side, with a waggish air, which confused Ephie still more. She made her escape, and left him there, still wagging, like a china Mandarin.

Having addressed the letter in the nearest post office, she entered a confectioner’s and bought a pound of chocolate creams; so that when Johanna met her in the passage, anxious and angry at her leaving the house without a word, she was able to assert that her candy-box had been empty, and she felt she could not begin to practise till it was refilled. But Johanna was very cantankerous, and obliged her to study an hour overtime to atone for her escapade.

Then followed for Ephie several unhappy days, when all the feeling she seemed capable of concentrated itself on the visits of the postman. She remained standing at the window until she had seen him come up the street, and she was regularly the first to look through the mails as they lay on the lobby table. Two days brought no reply to her letter. On the third fell a lesson, which she was resolved not to take. But when the hour came, she dressed herself with care and went as usual. Schilsky was nowhere to be seen. Half a week later, the same thing was repeated, except that on this day, she made herself prettier than ever: she was like some gay, garden flower, in a big white hat, round the brim of which lay scarlet poppies, and a dress of a light blue, which heightened the colour of her cheeks, and, reflected in her eyes, made them bluer than a fjord in the sun. But her spirits were low; if she did not see him this time, despair would crush her.

But she did—saw him while she was still some distance off, standing near the portico of the Conservatorium; and at the sight of him, after the uncertainty she had gone through during the past week, she could hardly keep back her tears. He did not come to meet her; he stood and watched her approach, and only when she reached him, indolently held out his hand. As she refused to notice it, and went to the extreme edge of the pavement to avoid it, he made a barrier of his arms, and forced her to stand still. Holding her thus, with his hand on her elbow, he looked keenly at her; and, in spite of the obdurate way in which she kept her eyes turned from him, he saw that she was going to cry. For a moment he hesitated, afraid of the threatening scene, then, with a decisive movement, he took her violin-case out of her hand. Ephie made an ineffectual effort to get possession of it again, but he held it above her reach, and saying: “Wait a minute,” ran up the steps. He came back without it, and throwing a swift glance round him, took the young girl’s arm, and walked her off at a brisk pace to the woods. She made a few, faint protests. But he replied: “You and I have something to say to each other, little girl.”

A full hour had elapsed when Ephie appeared again. She was alone, and walked quickly, casting shy glances from side to side. On reaching the Conservatorium, she waited in a quiet corner of the vestibule for nearly a quarter of an hour, before Schilsky sauntered in, and released her violin from the keeping of the janitor, a good friend of his.

They had not gone far into the wood; Schilsky knew of a secluded seat, which was screened by a kind of boscage; and here they had remained. At first, Ephie had cried heartily, in happy relief, and he had not been able to console her. He had come to meet her with many good resolutions, determined not to let the little affair, so lightly begun, lead to serious issues; but Ephie’s tears, and the tale they told, and the sobbed confessions that slipped out unawares, made it hard for him to be wise. He put his arm round her, dried her tears with his own handkerchief, kissed the hand he held. And when he had in this way petted her back to composure, she suddenly looked up in his face, and, with a pretty, confiding movement, said:

“Then you do care for me a little?”

It would have need a stronger than he to answer otherwise. “Of course I do,” was easily said, and to avoid the necessity of more, he kissed the pink dimples at the base of her four fingers, as well as the baby crease that marked the wrist. The poppy-strewn hat lay on the seat beside them; the fluffy head and full white throat were bare; in the mellow light of the trees, the lashes looked jet-black on her cheeks; at each word, he saw her small, even teeth: and he was so unnerved by the nearness of all this fresh young beauty that, when Ephie with her accustomed frankness had told him everything he cared to know, he found himself saying, in place of what he had intended, that they must be very cautious. In the meantime, it would not do for them to be seen together: it might injure his prospects, be harmful to his future.

“Yes, but afterwards?” she asked him promptly.

He kissed her cheek. But she repeated the question, and he was obliged to reply: that would be a different matter. It was now her turn to be curious, and one of the first questions she put related to the dark girl he had been with at the theatre. Playing lightly with her fingers, Schilsky told her that this was one of his best friends, some one he had known for a long, long time, to whom he owed much, and whom he could under no circumstances offend. Ephie looked grave for a moment; and, in the desire of provoking a pretty confession, he asked her if she had minded very much seeing him with some one else. But she made him wince by responding with perfect candour: “With her? Oh, no! She’s quite old.”

Before parting, they arranged the date of the next meeting, and, a beginning once made, they saw each other as often as was feasible. Ephie grew wonderfully apt at excuses for going out at odd times, and for prolonged absences. Sound fictions were needed to satisfy Johanna, and even Maurice Guest was made to act as dummy: he had taken her for a walk, or they had been together to see Madeleine Wade; and by these means, and also by occasionally shirking a lesson, she gained a good deal of freedom. Johanna would as soon have thought of herself being untruthful as of doubting Ephie, whom she had never known to tell a lie; and if she did sometimes feel jealous of all the new claims made on her little sister’s attention, such a feeling was only temporary, and she was, for the most part, content to see Ephie content.

At night, in her own room, lying wakeful with hot cheeks and big eyes, Ephie went over in memory all that had taken place at their last meeting, or built high, top-heavy castles for the future. She was absurdly happy; and her mother and sister had never found her more charming and lovable, or richer in those trifling inspirations for brightening life, which happiness brings with it. She looked forward with secret triumph to the day when she would be able to announce her engagement to the celebrated young violinist, and the only shadow on her happiness was that she could not do this immediately. It did not once cross her mind to doubt the issue: she had always had her way, and, in her own mind, had long since arranged just how this matter was to fall out. She would return to America — where, of course, they would live—and get her clothes ready, and then he would come, and they would be married — a big wedding, with descriptions in the newspapers. They would have a big house, and he would play at concerts—as she had once heard Sarasate play in New York—and every one would stand on tiptoe to see him. She sat proud and conspicuous in the front row. “His wife. That is his wife!” people whispered, and they drew respectfully back to let her pass, as, in a very becoming dress, she swept into the little room behind the platform, which she alone was permitted to enter.

One day at this time there was a violent thunderstorm. Towards midday, the eastern sky grew black with clouds, which, for hours, had been ominously gathering; a sudden wind rose and swept the dust house-high through the streets; the thunder rumbled, and each roll came nearer. When, after a prolonged period of expectation, the storm finally burst, there was a universal sigh of relief.

The afternoon was damply refreshing. As soon as the rain ceased, Maurice shut his piano, and walked at a brisk pace to Connewitz, his head bared beneath the overhanging branches, which were still weighed down by their burden of drops. At the Waldcafe on the bank of the river, in a thickly grown arbour which he entered to drink a glass of beer, he found Philadelphia Jensen and the pale little American, Fauvre, taking coffee.

The lady welcomed him with a large, outstretched hand, in the effusively hearty manner with which she, as it were, took possession of people; and towards six o’clock, the three walked back through the woods together, Miss Jensen, resolute of bust as of voice, slightly ahead of her companions, carrying her hat in her hand, Fauvre dragging behind, hitting indolently at stones and shrubs, and singing scraps of melodies to himself in his deep baritone.

Miss Jensen, who had once been a journalist, was an earnest worker for woman’s emancipation, and having now successfully mounted her hobby, spoke with a thought-deadening eloquence. Maurice had never been called on to think about the matter, and listened to her words absent-mindedly, comparing her, as she swept along, to a ship in full sail. She was just asserting that the ordinary German woman was little more than means to an end, the end being the man-child, when his attention was arrested, and, in an instant, jerked far away from Miss Jensen’s theories. As they reached the bend of a path, a sound of voices came to them through the trees, and on turning a corner, Maurice caught a glimpse of two people who were going in the opposite direction, down a side-walk—a passing but vivid glimpse of a light, flowered dress, of a grey suit of clothes, and auburn hair. Ephie! He could have sworn to voice and dress; but to whom in all the world was she talking, so confidentially? At the name that rose to his lips, he almost stopped short, but the next moment he was afraid lest his companions should also have seen who it was, and, quickening his steps, he incited Miss Jensen to talk on. First, however, that lady said in a surprised tone: “Say, that was Mr. Schilsky, wasn’t it? Who was the lady? Did you perceive?” So there was no possible doubt of it.

After parting from his companions, he did an errand in the town, and from there went to the Cayhills’ Pension, determined to ascertain whether it had really been Ephie he had seen, and if so, what the meaning of it was.

Mrs. Cayhill and Johanna were in the sitting-room; Johanna looked very surprised to see him. They had this moment risen from the supper-table, she told him; Ephie had only just got home in time. Before anything further could be said, Ephie herself came into the room; her face was flushed, and she did not seem well-pleased at his unexpected visit. She hardly greeted him, and instead, commenced talking about the weather.

“Then you had a pleasant walk?” asked Johanna in a preoccupied fashion, without looking up from the letter she was writing; and before Maurice could speak, Ephie, fondling her sister’s neck, answered: “How could it be anything but sweet—after the rain?”

In the face of this frankness, it was on Maurice’s tongue to say: “Then it was you, I saw?” but again she did not give him time. Still standing behind Johanna’s chair, her eyes fixed on the young man’s face with a curious intentness, she continued: “We walked right to Connewitz and back without a rest.”

“I don’t think you should take her so far,” said Mrs. Cayhill, looking up from her book with her kindly smile. “She has never been used to walking and is easily tired — aren’t you, my pet?”

“Yes, and then she can’t get up the next morning,” said Johanna, mildly dogmatic, considering the following sentence of her letter.

Gradually it broke upon Maurice that Ephie had been making use of his name. His consternation at the discovery was such that he changed colour. The others, however, were both too engrossed to notice it. Ephie grew scarlet, but continued to rattle on, covering his silence.

“Well, perhaps to-day it was a little too far,” she admitted. “But mummy, I won’t have you say I’m not strong. Why, Herr Becker is always telling me how full my tone is getting. Yes indeed. And look at my muscle.”

She turned back the loose sleeve of her blouse, baring almost the whole of her rounded arm; then, folding it sharply to her, she invited one after another to test its firmness.

“Quite a prize-fighter, I declare!” laughed Mrs. Cayhill, at the same time drawing her little daughter to her, to kiss her. But Johanna frowned, and told Ephie to put down her sleeve at once; there was something in the childish action that offended the elder sister, she did not know why. But Maurice had first to lay two of his fingers on the soft skin, and then to help her to button the cuff.

When, soon after this, he took his leave, Ephie went out of the room with him. In the dark passage, she caught at his hand.

“Morry, you mustn’t tell tales on me,” she whispered; and added pettishly: “Why ever did you just come to-night?”

He tried to see her face. “What is it all about, Ephie?” he asked. “Then it Was you, I saw, in the Nonne— by the weir?”

“Me? In the Nonne!” She was genuinely surprised. “You saw me?”

He nodded. By the light that came from the stairs as she opened the hall-door, she noticed that he looked troubled, and an impulse rose in her to throw her arms round his neck and say: “Yes, yes, it was me. Oh, Morry, I am so happy!” But she remembered the reasons for secrecy that had been imposed on her, and, at the same time, felt somewhat defiantly inclined towards Maurice. After all, what business was it of his? Why should he take her to task for what she chose to do? And so she merely laughed, with assumed merriment, her own charming, assuaging laugh.

“In the wood?—you old goose! Listen, Morry, I told them I had been with you, because—why, because one of the girls in my class asked me to go to the Cafe francais with her, and we stayed too long, and ate too much ice-cream, and Joan doesn’t like it, and I knew she would be cross—that’s all! Don’t look so glum, you silly! It’s nothing,” and she laughed again.

As long as this laugh rang in his ears—to the bottom of the street, that is—he believed her. Then, the evidence of his senses reasserted itself, and he knew that what she had told him was false. He had heard her voice in the wood too distinctly to allow of any mistake, and she was still wearing the same dress. Besides, she had lied so artlessly to the others, without a tremor of her candid eyes—why should she not lie to him, too? She was less likely to be considerate of him than of Johanna. But his distress at her skill in deceit was so great that he said: “Ephie, little Ephie!” aloud to himself, just as he might have done had he heard that she was stricken down by a mortal illness.

On the top of this, however, came less selfish feelings. What was almost a sense of guilt took possession of him; he felt as if, in some way, he were to blame for what had happened; as if nature had intended him to stand in the place of a brother to this pretty, thoughtless child. And yet what could he have done? He did not now see Ephie as often as formerly, and hardly ever alone; on looking back, he began to suspect that she had purposely avoided him. The exercises in harmony, which had previously brought them together, had been discontinued. First, she had said that her teacher was satisfied with what she herself could do; then, that he had advised her to give up harmony altogether: she would never make anything of it. In the light of what had come to pass, Maurice saw that he had let himself be duped by her; she had lied then as now.

He puzzled his brains to imagine how she had learned to know Schilsky in the first instance, and when the affair had begun: what he had overheard that afternoon implied an advanced stage of intimacy; and he revolved measures by means of which a stop might be put to it. The only course he could think of was to lay the matter before Johanna; and yet what would the use of that be? Ephie would deny everything, make his story ludicrous, himself impossible, and never forgive him into the bargain. In the end, he might do more good by watching over her silently, at a distance. If it had only not been Schilsky who was concerned! Some of the ugly stories he had heard related of the young man rose up and took vivid shape before his eyes. If any harm came to Ephie, he alone would be to blame for it; not Johanna, only he knew the frivolous temptations the young girl was exposed to. Why, in Heaven’s name, had he not taken both her hands, as they stood in the passage, and insisted on her confessing to him? No, credulous as usual, he had once more allowed himself to be hoodwinked and put off.

Thus he fretted, without arriving at any clearer conclusion than this: that he had unwittingly been made accessory to an unpleasant secret. But where his mind baulked, and refused to work, was when he tried to understand what all this might mean to the third person involved. Did Louise know or suspect anything? Had she, perhaps, for weeks past been suffering under the knowledge?

He stood irresolute, at the crossing where the Mozartstrasse joined the Promenade. A lamp-lighter was beginning his rounds; he came up with his long pole to the lamp at the corner, and, with a mild explosion, the little flame sprang into life. Maurice turned on his heel and went to see Madeleine.

The latter was making her supper of tea, bread, and cold sausage, and when she heard that he had not eaten, she set a cup and plate before him, and was glad that she happened to be late. Propped open on the table was a Danish Grammar, which she conned as she ate; for, in the coming holidays, she was engaged to go to Norway, as guide and travelling-companion to a party of Englishwomen.

“I had a letter from London to-day,” she said, “with definite arrangements. So I at once bought this book. I intend to try and master at least the rudiments of the language—barbarous though it is—for I want to get some good from the journey. And if one has one’s wits about one, much can be learnt from cab-drivers and railway-porters.”

She traced on a map with her forefinger the route they proposed to follow, and laughed at the idea of the responsibility lying heavy on her. But when they had finished their supper, and she had talked informingly for a time of Norway, its people and customs, she looked at the young man, who sat irresponsive and preoccupied, and considered him attentively.

“Is anything the matter to-night? Or are you only tired?”

He was tired. But though she herself had suggested it, she was not satisfied with his answer.

“Something has bothered you. Has your work gone badly?”

No, it was nothing of that sort. But Madeleine persisted: could she be of any help to him?

“The merest trifle—not worth talking about.”

The twilight had grown thick around them; the furniture of the room lost its form, and stood about in shapeless masses. Through the open window was heard the whistle of a distant train; a large fly that had been disturbed buzzed distractingly, undecided where to re-settle for the night. It was sultry again, after the rain.

“Look here, Maurice,” Madeleine said, when she had observed him for some time in silence. “I don’t want to be officious, but there’s something I should like to say to you. It’s this. You are far too soft-hearted. If you want to get on in life, you must think more about yourself than you do. The battle is to the strong, you know, and the strong, within limits, are certainly the selfish. Let other people look after themselves; try not to mind how foolish they are—you can’t improve them. It’s harder, I daresay, than it is to be a person of unlimited sympathies; it’s harder to pass the maimed and crippled by, than to stop and weep over them, and feel their sufferings through yourself. But You have really something in you to occupy yourself with. You’re not one of those people—I won’t mention names!—whose own emptiness forces them to take an intense interest in the doings of others, and who, the moment they are alone with their thoughts, are bored to desperation. just as there are people who have no talent for making a home home-like, and are only happy when they are out of it.”

Here she laughed at her own seriousness.

“But you are smiling inwardly, and thinking: the real old school-marm!”

“You don’t practise what you preach, Madeleine. Besides, you’re mistaken. At heart, I’m a veritable egoist.”

She contradicted him. “I know you better than you know yourself.”

He did not reply, and a silence fell, in which the commonplace words she had last said, went on sounding and resounding, until they had no more likeness to themselves. Madeleine rose, and pushed back her chair, with a grating noise.

“I must light the lamp. Sitting in the dark makes for foolishness. Come, wake up, and tell me what plans you have for the holidays.”

“If I had a sister, I should like her to be like you,” said Maurice, watching her busy with the lamp. “Clear-headed, and helpful to a fellow.”

“I suppose men always will continue to consider that the greatest compliment they can pay,” said Madeleine, and turned up the light so high that they both blinked.—And then she scolded the young man soundly for his intention of remaining in Leipzig during the holidays.

But when he rose to go, she said, with an impulsiveness that was foreign to her: “I wish you had a friend.”

It was his turn to smile. “Have you had enough of me?”

Madeleine, who was sitting with crossed arms, remained grave. “I mean a man. Some one older than yourself, and who has had experience. The best-meaning woman in the world doesn’t count.”

Only a very few days later, an occasion offered when, with profit to himself, he might have acted upon Madeleine’s introductory advice. He had been for a quick, solitary walk, and was returning, in the evening between nine and ten o’clock, along one of the paths of the wood, when suddenly, and close at hand, he heard the sound of voices. He stopped instantaneously, for by the jump his heart gave, he knew that Louise was one of the speakers. What she said was inaudible to him; but it was enough to be able to listen, unseen, to her voice. Hearing it like this, as something existing for itself, he was amazed at its depth and clearness; he felt that her personal presence had, until now, hindered him from appreciating a beautiful but immaterial thing at its true worth. At first, like a cadence that repeats itself, its tones rose and fell, but with more subtle inflections than the ordinary voice has: there was a note in it that might have belonged to a child’s voice; another, more primitive, that betrayed feeling with as little reserve as the cry of an animal. Then it sank, and went on in a monotone, like a Hebrew prayer, as if reiterating things worn threadbare by repetition, and already said too often. Gradually, it died away in the surrounding silence. There was no response but a gentle rustling of the leaves overhead. It began anew, and, in the interval, seemed to have gained in intensity; now there was a bitterness in it which, when it swelled, made it give out a tone like the roughly touched strings of an instrument; it seemed to be accusing, to be telling of unmerited suffering. And, this time, it elicited a reply, but a casual, indifferent one, which might have related to the weather, or to the time of night. Louise gave a shrill laugh, and then, as plainly as if the words were being carved in stone before his eyes, Maurice heard her say: “You have never given me a moment’s happiness.”

As before, no answer was returned, and almost immediately his ear caught a muffled sound of footsteps. At the same moment, a night-wind shook the tree-tops; there was a general fluttering and swaying around him; and he came back to himself to find that he was standing rigid, holding on to a slender tree that grew close by the path. His first conscious thought was that this wind meant rain . . . there would be another storm in the night . . . and the summer holidays—time of partings — were at the door. She would go away . . . and he would perhaps never see her again.

Since the evening they had walked home from the theatre together, he had had no further chance of speaking to her. If they met in the street, she gave him, as Madeleine had foretold of her, a nod and a smile; and from this coolness, he had drawn the foolish inference that she wished to avoid him. Abnormally sensitive, he shrank out of her way. But now, the mad sympathy that had permeated him on the night she had made him her confidant grew up in him again; it swelled out into something monstrous—a gigantic pity that rebounded on himself. For he knew now why she suffered; and he was cast down both for her and for himself. It seemed unnatural that he was debarred from giving her just a fraction of the happiness she craved—he, who, had there been the least need for it, would have lain himself down for her to tread on. And in some of the subsequent nights when he could not sleep, he composed fantastic letters to her, in which he told her this and more, only to colour guiltily, with the return of daylight, at the impertinent folly of his thoughts.

But he could not forget the words he had heard her say; they haunted him like an importunate refrain. Even his busiest hours were set to them —“You have never given me a moment’s happiness”— and they were alike a torture and a joy.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59