Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson


In the days that followed, Maurice threw himself heart and soul into his work. He had lost ground of late, he saw it plainly now: after his vigorous start, he had quickly grown slack. He was not, to-day, at the stage he ought to be, and there was not a doubt but that Schwarz saw it, too. Now that he, came to think of it, he had more than once been aware of a studied coolness in the master’s manner, of a rather ostentatious indifference to the quality of the work he brought to the class: and this he knew by hearsay to be Schwarz’s attitude towards those of his pupils in whom his interest was waning. If he, Maurice, wished to regain his place in the little Pasha’s favour, he must work like a coal-heaver. But the fact was, the strenuous industry to which he now condemned himself, was something of a relaxation after the mental anxiety he had recently undergone; this striking of a black and white keyboard was a pleasant, thought-deadening employment, and could be got through, no matter what one’s mood.—And so he rose early again, and did not leave the house till he had five hours’ practice behind him.

Wer sich der einsamkeit ergiebt, ach, der ist bald allein: at the end of a fortnight, Maurice smiled to find the words of Goethe’s song proved on himself. If he did not go to see his friends, none of them came to him. Dove, who was at the stage of: “I told you so,” in the affair of the Cayhills, had found fresh listeners, who were more sympathetic than Maurice could be expected to be: and Madeleine was up to her ears in work, as she phrased it, with the “C minor Beethoven.”

“Agility of finger equals softening of the brain” was a frequent gibe of Krafft’s; and now and then, at the close of a hard day’s work, Maurice believed that the saying contained a grain of truth. Opening both halves of his window, he would lean out on the sill, too tired for connected thought. But when dusk fell, he lay on the sofa, with his arms clasped under his head, his knees crossed in the air.

At first, in his new buoyancy of spirit, he was able to keep foolish ideas behind him, as well as to put away all recollection of the disagreeable events he had been mixed up in of late: after having, for weeks, borne a load that was too heavy for him, he breathed freely once more. The responsibility of taking care of Ephie had been removed from him—and this by far outweighed the little that he missed her. The matter had wound up, too, in a fairly peaceable way; all being considered, things might have been worse. So, at first, he throve under his light-heartedness; and only now became aware how great the strain of the past few weeks had been. His chief sensation was relief, and also of relief at being able to feel relieved—indeed, the moment even came when he thought it would be possible calmly to accept the fact of Louise having left the town, and of his never being likely to see her again.

Gradually, however, he began to be astonished at himself, and in the background of his mind, there arose a somewhat morbid curiosity, even a slight alarm, at his own indifference. He found it hard to understand himself. Could his feelings, those feelings which, a week or two ago, he had believed unalterable, have changed in so short a time? Was his nature one of so little stability? He began to consider himself with something approaching dismay, and though, all this time, he had been going about on a kind of mental tiptoe, for fear of rousing something that might be dormant in him, he now could not help probing himself, in order to see if the change he observed were genuine or not. And this with a steadily increasing frequency. Instead of continuing thankful for the respite, he ultimately grew uneasy under it. Am I a person of this weak, straw-like consistency, to be tossed about by every wind that blows? Is there something beneath it all that I cannot fathom?

He had not seen Louise since the night he had left her asleep, beside the sofa; and he was resolved not to see her — not, at least, until she wished to see him. It was much better for him that the uncertainties of the bygone months did not begin anew; then, too, she had called him to her when she was in trouble, and not for anything in the world would he presume on her appeal. Besides, his presence would recall to her the unpleasant details connected with Ephie’s visit, which he hoped she had by this time begun to forget. Thus he argued with himself, giving several reasons where one would have served; and the upshot of it was, that his own state of mind occupied him considerably.

His friends noticed the improvement in him; the careworn expression that had settled down on him of late gave way to his old air of animation; and on all the small topics of the day, he brought a sympathetic interest to bear, such as people had ceased to expect from him. Madeleine, in particular, was satisfied with her “boy,” as she took to calling him. She noted and checked off, in wise silence, each inch of his progress along the road of healthy endeavour; and the relations between them became almost as hearty as at the commencement of their friendship. Privately, she believed that the events of the past month had taught him a lesson, which he would not soon forget. It was sufficient, however, if they had inspired him with a distrust of Louise, which would keep him from her for the present; for Madeleine had grounds for believing that before many weeks had passed, Louise would have left Leipzig.

So she kept Maurice as close to her as work permitted; and as the winter’s flood of concerts set in, in full force, he accompanied her, almost nightly, to the Old Gewandhaus or the Alberthalle; for Madeleine was an indefatigable concert-goer, and never missed a performer of note, rarely even a first appearance at the Hotel de Prusse or a Bluthner Matinee. On the night she herself played in an Abendunterhaltung, with the easily gained success that attended all she did, Maurice went with her to the green-room, and was the first afterwards to tell her how her performance had “gone.” That same evening she took him with her to the house of friends of hers, the Hensels. There he met some of the best musical society of the place, made a pleasant impression, and was invited to return.

Meanwhile, winter had set in, with extreme severity. Piercing north winds drove down the narrow streets, and raged round the corners of the Gewandhaus square: on emerging from the Probe on a Wednesday morning, one’s breath was cut clean off, and the tears raced down one’s cheeks. When the wind dropped, there were hard black frosts—a deadly, stagnant kind of cold, which seemed to penetrate every pore of the skin and every cranny of the house. Then came the snow, which fell for three days and nights on end, and for several nights after, so that the town was lost under a white pall: house-entrances were with difficulty kept free, and the swept streets were banked with walls of snow, four and five feet high. The night-frosts redoubled their keenness; the snow underfoot crackled like electric sparks; the sleighs crunched the roads. But except for this, and for the tinkling of the sleigh-bells, the streets were as noiseless as though laid with straw, and especially while fresh snow still formed a soft coating on the crisp layer below. All dripping water hung as icicles; water froze in ewers and pitchers; milk froze in cans and jugs; and this though the great stoves in the dwelling-rooms were heated to bursting-point. Red-nosed, red-eared men, on whose beards and moustaches the breath had turned to ice-drops, cried to one another at street-corners that such a winter had not been known for thirty years; and, as they spoke, they stamped their feet, and clapped their hands, to keep the chilly blood a-going. Women muffled and veiled themselves like Orientals, hardly showing the tips of their noses; and all manner of strange, antiquated fur-garments saw the day. At night, if one opened a window, and peered out at the houses crouching beneath their thick white load, and at the deserted, snow-bound streets, over which the street-lamps threw a pale, uncertain light—at night, familiar things took on an unfamiliar aspect, and the well-known streets might have been the untrodden ways that led to a new world.

Early in November, all ponds and pools were bearing, and forthwith many hundreds of people forgot the severity of the weather, and thronged out with their skates.

Maurice was among the first. He was a passionate skater; and it was the one form of sport in which he excelled. As four o’clock came round, he could contain himself no longer; he would rather have gone without his dinner, thanhave missed, on the Johannateich, the two hours that elapsed before the sweepers, crying: “Feierabend!” drove the skaters before them, with their brooms. In a tightly buttoned square jacket, the collar of which was turned up as far as it would go, with the flaps of his astrachan cap drawn over his cars, his hands in coarse woollen gloves, Maurice defied the cold, flying round the two ponds that formed the Johannateich, or practising intricate figures with a Canadian acquaintance in a corner.

Madeleine watched him approvingly from one of the wooden bridges that spanned the neck connecting the ponds. She rejoiced at his glowing face and vigorous, boyish pleasure, also at the skill that marked him out as one of the best skaters present. For some time, Maurice tried in vain to persuade her to join him. Madeleine, usually so confident, was here diffident and timid. She had never in her life attempted to skate, and was sure she would fall. And what should she do if she broke a thumb or strained a finger? — with her Prufung just before the door. She would never have the courage to confess to Schwarz how it had happened; for he was against “sport” in any form. But Maurice laughed at her fears.

“There is not the least chance of your falling,” he cried up to her. “Do come down, Madeleine. Before you’ve gone round twice, you’ll be able to throw off all those mufflings.”

Finally, she let herself be persuaded, and according to his promise, Maurice remained at her side from the moment of her first, hesitating steps, each of which was accompanied by a faint scream, to the time when, with the aid of only one of his hands, she made uncertain efforts at striking out. She did not learn quickly; but she was soon as enthusiastic a skater as Maurice himself; and he fell into the habit of calling for her, every afternoon, on his way to the ponds.

Dove was also of assistance in the beginning, and, as usual, was well up in the theory of the thing, though he did not shine in practice.

“Oh, bother, never mind how you go at first. That’ll come afterwards,” said Maurice impatiently. But Dove thought the rules should be observed from the beginning, and gave Madeleine minute instructions how to place her feet.

Towards five o’clock, the ice grew more crowded, and especially was this the case on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when the schools had half-holidays. On one of these latter days, Maurice did not find Madeleine at home; and he had been on the ponds for nearly an hour, before he espied her on a bench beside the Garderobe, having her skates put on by a blue-smocked attendant. He waved his cap to her, and skated over.

“Why are you so late?”

“Oh, thank goodness, there you are. I should never have dared to stand up alone in this crowd. Aren’t these children awful? Get away, you little brutes! If you touch me, I’ll fall.—Here, give me change,” she said to the ice-man, holding out a twenty-pfennig piece.

Maurice saw that she was unusually excited, and as soon as he had drawn her out of reach of the children, asked her the reason.

“I’ve something interesting to tell you, Maurice.”

But here Dove, coming up behind, took possession of her left hand, with no other greeting than the military salute, which, on the ice, he adopted for all his friends, male and female, alike; and Madeleine hastily swallowed the rest of her sentence.

They skated round the larger of the ponds several times without stopping. The cold evening air stung their faces; the sun had gone down in a lurid haze; Madeleine’s skirts swayed behind her and lent her a fictitious grace.

But presently she cried a halt, and while she rested in a quiet corner, they watched Maurice doing a complicated figure, which he and his Canadian friend had invented the day before. Dove was explaining how it was done —“It is really not so hard as it looks”— when, with a cry of “Achtung!” some one whizzed in among them, scattered the group, and, revolving on himself, ended with a jump in the air. It was James. He took out his handkerchief and blew his nose, in the most unconcerned manner possible.

“I don’t think such acrobatic tricks should be allowed,” said Madeleine disapprovingly; she had been forced to grab Dove’s arm to keep her balance.

“Say, do you boys know the river has six inches and will be open to-morrow, if it isn’t to-day?” asked James, stooping to tighten a strap.

“Is that so? Oh gee, that’s fine!” cried Miss Martin, who had skated leisurely up in his rear. “Say, you people, why don’t we fix up a party an’ go up it nights? A lady in my boarding-house done that with some folks she was acquainted with last year. Seems to me we oughtn’t to be behind.”

Miss Martin was a skilled and graceful skater, and looked her best in a dark fur hat and jacket, which set off her abundance of pale flaxen hair. Others had followed her, and it was resolved to form a party for the following evening, provided Dove had previously ascertained if the river actually was “free,” in order that they ran no risk of being ignominiously turned off.

“The ice may be a bit rough, but it’s a fine run to Connewitz.”

“An’ by moonlight, too—but say, is there a moon? Why, I presume there ought to be,” said Miss Martin.

“‘Doth the moon shine that night we play our play?’” quoted Dove, examining a tiny pocket-calendar.

“Oh gee, that’s fine!” repeated Miss Martin, on hearing his answer. “Say, we must dance a Francaise. Mr. Guest, you an’ I’ll be partners, I surmise,” and ceasing to waltz and pirouette with James, she took a long sweep, then stood steady, and let her skates bear her out to the middle of the pond. Her skirts clung close in front, and swept out behind her lithe figure, until it was lost in the crowd.

“Don’t you wish You could skate like that?” asked the sharp-tongued little student, called Dickensey, who was standing beside Madeleine. Madeleine, who held him in contempt because his trousers were baggy at the knees, and because he had once appeared at a ball in white cotton gloves, answered with asperity that there were other things in life besides skating. She had no further chance of speaking to Maurice in private, so postponed telling her news till the following evening.

Shortly after eight o’clock, the next night, a noisy party whistled and hallooed in the street below Maurice’s window. He was the last to join, and then some ten or eleven of them picked their steps along the hard-frozen ruts of the Schleussiger weg, a road that followed the river to the outskirts of the town. Just above the Germaniabad, a rough scat had been erected on the ice, for the convenience of skaters. They were the first to make use of it; the snow before it was untrodden; and the Pleisse wound white and solitary between its banks of snow.

They set off in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, each striking out for himself. When, however, they had passed the narrower windings, gone under the iron bridge which was low enough to catch the unwary by the forehead, and when the full breadth of the river was before them, they took hands, and, forming a long line, skated in time to the songs some one struck up, and in which all joined: The rose of sharon, jingle bells, there is a tavern in our town. As they advanced to the corners where the big trees trailed their naked branches on the ice, just as in summer they sank their leaves in the water, Miss Jensen, who, despite her proportions, was a surprisingly good skater, sent her big voice over the snow-bound stillness in an aria from the Prophet; and after this, Miss Martin, no; to be done, struck up the popular Allerseelen. This was the song of the hour; they all knew it, and up and down and across the ice rang out their voices in unison: Wie einst im mai, wie einst im mai.

Inside Wagner’s Waldcafe at Connewitz, they sat closely packed round one of the wooden tables, and drank beer and coffee, and ate Berliner pfannkuchen. The great iron stove was almost red-hot; the ladies threw off their wrappings; cold faces glowed and burnt, and frozen hands tingled. One and all were in high spirits, and the jollity reached a climax when, having exchanged hats, James and Miss Jensen cleared a space in the middle of the floor and danced a nigger-dance, the lady with her skirts tucked up above her ankles. In the adjoining room, some one began to play a concertina, and then two or three couples stood up and danced, with much laughter and many outcries at the narrowness of the space. Even Dove joined in, his partner being a very pretty American, whom Miss Martin had brought with her, and whose side Dove had not left for a moment. Only Madeleine and Dickensey sat aloof, and for once were agreed: Americans were really “very bad form.” There was no livelier pair than Maurice and Miss Martin; the latter’s voice could be heard above all others, as she taught Maurice new steps in a corner of the room. Her flaxen hair had partly come loose, and she did not stop to put it up. They were the first to run through the dark garden, past the snow-laden benches and arbours, which, in summer, were buried in greenery; and, from the low wooden landingplace, they jumped hand in hand on to the ice, and had shot a long way down the river before any of the rest could follow them.

But this did not please Madeleine. As it was, she was vexed at not having had the opportunity of a quiet word with Maurice; and when she had laboriously skated up, with Dickensey, to the spot where, in a bright splash of moonlight, Maurice and Miss Martin were cutting ingenious capers, she cried to the former in a peremptory tone: “There’s something wrong with my skate, Maurice. Will you look at it, please?” and as sharply declined Dickensey’s proffered aid.

Maurice came to her side at once, and in this way she detained him. But Dickensey hovered not far off, and Miss Martin was still in sight. Madeleine caught her skate in a crack, fell on her knee, and said she had now loosened the strap altogether. She sat down on a heap of snow, and Dickensey’s shade vanished good-naturedly round a corner.

“Well, You seem to be enjoying yourself,” she said as Maurice drew off his gloves and knelt down.

“Why, yes, aren’t you?” he replied so frankly that she did not continue the subject.

“I’ve been trying all the evening to get a word with you. I told you yesterday, you remember, that I wanted to speak to you. Sit down here, for a moment, so that we can talk in peace,” and she spread part of her skirt over the snow-heap.

Maurice complied, and she could not discover any trace of reluctance in his manner.

“I want your advice,” she continued. “I was taken quite by surprise myself. Schwarz sent for me, you know, after counterpoint. It was about my Prufung at Easter. If I play then, it’s a case of the C minor Beethoven. Well, now he says it’s a thousand pities for me to break off just at the stage I’m at, and he wants me to stay for another year. If I do, he’ll give me the G major—that’s a temptation, isn’t it? On the other hand, I shall have been here my full time—three years—at Easter. That’s a year longer than I originally intended, and I feel I’m getting too old to be a pupil. But this talk with Schwarz has upset my plans. I’m naturally flattered at his interesting himself in me. He wouldn’t do it for every one. And I do feel I could gain an immense deal in another year.—Now, what do you think?”

“Why, stay, of course, Madeleine. If you can afford it, that is. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to leave.”

“Oh, my capital will last so long, and it’s a good enough investment.”

“But wasn’t a place being kept open for you in a school?”

“Yes; but I don’t think a year more or less will make much difference to them. I must sound them, of course, though,” said Madeleine, and did not mention that she had written and posted the letter the night before. “Then you advise me to stay?”

“Why, of course,” he repeated, and was mildly astonished at her. “If everything is as smooth as you say.”

“You would miss me, if I left?”

“Why, of course I should,” he said again, and wondered what in the world she was driving at.

“Well, all the better,” replied Madeleine. “For when one has really got to like a person, one would rather it made a difference than not.”

She was silent after this, and sat looking down the stretch of ice they had travelled: the moon was behind a cloud, and the woods on either side were masses of dense black shadow. Not a soul was in sight; the river was like a deserted highway. Madeleine stared down it, and did not feel exactly satisfied with the result of her investigation. She had not expected anything extraordinary — Heaven forbid!—but she had been uncomfortably conscious of Maurice’s surprise. To her last remark, he had made no answer: be was occupied with the screw of one of his skates.

She drew his attention to the fact that, if she remained in Leipzig for another twelvemonth, they would finish at the same time; and thereupon she sketched out a plan of them going somewhere together, and starting a music-school of their own. Maurice, who thought she was jesting, laughingly assented. But Madeleine was in earnest: “Other people have done it—why shouldn’t we? We could take a ‘cellist with us, and go to America, or Australia, or Canada—there are hundreds of places. And there’s a great deal of money in it, I’m sure. A little capital would be needed to begin with, but not much, and I could supply that. You’ve always said you dreaded going back to the English provinces to decay—here’s your chance!”

She saw the whole scheme cut and dried before her. As they, skated after the rest, she continued to enlarge upon it, in a detailed way that astonished Maurice. He confessed that, with a head like hers to conduct it, such a plan stood a fair chance of success; and thus encouraged, Madeleine undertook to make a kind of beginning at once, by sounding some of the numerous friends she had, scattered through America. Her idea was that they should go over together, and travel to various places, giving concerts, and acquainting themselves, as they did so, with the musical conditions of the towns they visited.

“And the ‘cellist shall be an American—that will draw.”

According to the pace at which they were skating, the others should have remained well out of reach. But on turning a corner, they came upon the whole party dancing a Francaise— which two members whistled—on a patch of ice that was smoother than the rest.

“Here, Guest, come along, we want you,” was the cry as soon as Maurice appeared; and, to Madeleine’s deep displeasure, she was thrown on Dove, whose skill had not sufficed. When the dancing was over, Maurice once more found himself with Miss Martin, whom, for some distance, he pushed before him, she standing steady on her skates, and talking to him over her shoulder.

“That wasn’t a bit pretty of you, Mr. Guest,” she asserted, with her long, slow, twanged speech. “It was fixed up yesterday, I recollect, that you were to dance the Francaise with me. Yes, indeed. An’ then I had to take up with Mr. Dove. Now Mr. Dove is just a lovely gentleman, but he don’t skate elegantly, an’ he nearly tumbled me twice. Yes, indeed. But I presume when Miss Wade says come, then you’re most obliged to go.”

“How is it one don’t ever see you now?” she queried a moment later. “It isn’t anyhow so pleasurable at dinner as it used to be. But I hear you’re working most hard—it’s to’ bad.”

“It’s what one comes to here.”

“I guess it is. But I do like to see my friends once in a while. Say, now, Mr. Guest, won’t you drink coffee with me one afternoon? I’ll make you some real American coffee if you do, sir. What they call coffee here don’t count.”

She turned, offered him her hand, and they began to skate in long, outward curving lines.

“I think one has just a fine time here, don’t you?” she continued. “Momma, she came right with me, an’ stopped a bit, till I was fixed up in a boarding-house. But she didn’t find it agreeable, no sir. She missed America, an’ presumed I would, too. When she was leaving, she said to me: ‘EI’nor Martin, if you find you can’t endure it among these Dutch, just you cable, and poppa he’ll come along an’ fetch you right home,’ But I’m sure I haven’t desired to quit, no, not once. I think it’s just fine. But then I’ve gotten me so many friends I don’t ever need to feel lonesome. Why, my friend Susie Fay, she says: ‘Why, EI’nor, I guess you’re acquainted with most every one in the place.’ An’ I reckon she’s not far out. Anyways there ain’t more than two Americans in the city I don’t know. An’ I see most all strangers that come. Say, are you acquainted with Miss Moses? She’s from Chicago, an’ resides in a boarding-house way down by the Colonnaden. I got acquainted with her yesterday. She’s a lovely lady, an’, why, she’s just as smart as she can be. Say, if you like, I’ll invite her along, so you can get acquainted with her too.”

Maurice expressed pleasure at the prospect; and Miss Martin continued to rattle on, with easy frankness, of herself, her family, and her friends. He listened vaguely, with half an ear, since it was only required of him to throw in an occasional word of assent. But suddenly his attention was arrested, and brought headlong back to what she was saying: in the string of names that fell from her tongue, he believed he had caught one he knew.

“Miss Dufrayer?” he queried.

“That’s it,” replied his companion. “Louise Dufrayer. Well, sir, as I was going on to remark, when first I was acquainted with her, she was just as sweet as she could be; yes, indeed; why, she was just dandy. But she hasn’t behaved a bit pretty—I presume you heard tell of what took place here this fall?”

“Then you know Miss Dufrayer?”

“Yes, indeed. But I don’t see her any more, an’ I guess I don’t want to. Not but what I’ve heard she feels pretty mean about it now—beg pardon?—how I know? Why, indeed, the other day, Schwarz come in an’ told us how she’s moping what she can—moping herself to death—if I recollect, those were his very words. Yes, indeed. She don’t take lessons no more, I presume. I think she should go right away from this city. It ain’t possible to be acquainted with her any more, for all she’s so lonesome, an’ one feels sort of bad about it, yes, indeed. But momma, the last thing she said to me was: ‘Now EI’nor Martin, just keep your eyes open, an’ don’t get acquainted with people you might feel bad about afterwards.’ An’ I presume momma was right. I don’t—Oh, say, do look at her, isn’t she a peach?”— this, as her pretty friend, with Dove in tow, came gliding up to them. “Say, Susie Fay, are you acquainted with Mr. Guest?”

“MR. Guest. Pleased to know you,” said Susie cordially; and Miss Martin was good-natured enough to skate off with Dove, leaving Maurice to her friend.

But afterwards, at the bench, as he was undoing Madeleine’s skates, he overheard pretty Susie remark, without much care to moderate her voice: “Say, EI’nor Martin, that’s the quietest sort of young man I’ve ever shown round a district. Why, seems to me, he couldn’t say ‘shoh.’ Guess you shouldn’t have left us, EI’nor.”

And Miss Martin guessed so, too.

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