The unnatural position circumstances had forced him into, was to him summed up in the fact that he had spoken in defence of the man he despised above all others. Only at isolated moments was he content with the part he played; it was wholly unlike what he had intended. He had wished to be friend and mentor to her, and he was now both; but nevertheless, there was something wrong about his position. It seemed as if he had at first been satisfied with too low a place in her esteem, ever to allow of him taking a higher one. He was conscious that in her liking for him, there was a drop of contempt. And he tormented himself with such a question as: should a new crisis in her life arise, would she, now that she knows you, turn to you? And in moments of despondency he answered no. He felt the tolerance that lurked in her regard for him. Kindness and care on his part were not enough.
None of his friends had an idea of what was going on. No one he knew lived in the neighbourhood of the BRUDERSTRASSE; and, the skating at an end, he was free to spend his time as he chose. When another brief nip of frost occurred, he alleged pressure of work, and did not take advantage of it.
Then, early one morning, Dove paid him a visit, with a list in his hand. Since the night of the skating party, his acquaintances had not seen much of Dove; for he had been in close attendance on the pretty little American, who made no scruple of exacting his services. Now, after some preamble, it came out that he wished to include Maurice in a list of mutual friends, who were clubbing to give a ball — a “Bachelors’ Ball,” Dove called it, since the gentlemen were to pay for the tickets, and to invite the ladies. But Maurice, vexed at the interruption, made it clear that he had neither time nor inclination for an affair of this kind: he did not care a rap for dancing. And after doing his best to persuade him, and talking round the matter for half an hour, Dove said he did not of course wish to press anyone against his will, and departed to disturb other people.
Maurice had also to stand fire from Madeleine; for she had counted on his inviting her. She was first incredulous, then offended, at his refusal: and she pooh-poohed his strongest argument — that he did not own a dress-suit. If that was all, she knew a shop in the BRUHL, where such things could be hired for a song.
Maurice now thought the matter closed. Not many days later, however, Dove appeared again, with a crestfallen air. He had still over a dozen tickets on his hands, and, at the low price fixed, unless all were sold, the expenses of the evening would not be covered. In order to get rid of him, Maurice bought a ticket, on the condition that he was not expected to use it, and also suggested some fresh people Dove might try; so that the latter went off with renewed courage on his disagreeable errand.
Maurice mentioned the incident to Louise that evening, as he mentioned any trifle he thought might interest her. He sat on the edge of his chair, and did not mean to stay; for he had found her on the sofa with a headache.
So far, she had listened to him with scant attention; but at this, she raised her eyebrows.
“Then you don’t care for dancing?”— she could hardly believe it.
He repeated the words he had used to Dove.
She smiled faintly, looking beyond him, at a sombre patch of sky.
“I should think not. If it were me! ——” She raised her hand, and considered her fingers.
“If it were you? — yes?”
But she did not continue.
It had been almost a spring day: that, no doubt, accounted for her headache. Maurice made a movement to rise. But Louise turned quickly on her side, and, in her own intense way, said: “Listen. You have the ticket, you say? Use it, and take me with you. Will you?”
He smiled as at the whim of a child. But she was in earnest.
“No, of course not.”
He tempered his answer with the same smile. But she was not pleased — he saw that. Her nostrils tightened, and then, dilated, as they had a way of doing when she was annoyed. For some time after, she did not speak.
But the very next day, when he was remonstrating with her over some small duty which she had no inclination to perform, she turned on him with an unreasonable irritation. “You only want me to do disagreeable things. Anything that is pleasant, you set yourself against.”
It took him a minute to grasp that she was referring to what he had said the evening before.
“Yes, but then . . . I didn’t think you were in earnest.”
“Am I in the habit of saying things I don’t mean? And haven’t you said yourself that I am killing myself, shut up in here? — that I must go out and mix with people? Very well, here is my chance.”
He kept silence: he did not know whether she was not mainly inspired by a spirit of contradiction, and he was afraid of inciting her, by resistance, to say something she would be unable to retract. “I don’t think you’ve given the matter sufficient thought,” he said at last. “It can’t be decided offhand.”
She was angry, even more with herself than with him. “Oh, I know what you mean. You think I shall be looked askance at. As if it mattered what people say! All my life I haven’t cared, and I shall not begin now, when I have less reason than ever before.”
He did not press the subject; he hoped she would change her mind, and thus render further discussion unnecessary. But this was not the case; she clung to the idea, and was deaf to reason. To a certain extent, he could feel for her; but he was too troubled by the thought of unpleasant possibilities, not to endeavour to persuade her against it: he knew, as she did not, how unkindly she had been spoken of; and he was not sure whether her declared bravado was strong enough to sustain her. But the more he reasoned, the more determined she was to have her own way; and she took his efforts in very bad part.
“You pretend to be solicitous about me,” she said one afternoon, from her seat by the fire. “Yet when a chance of diversion comes you begrudge it to me. You would rather I mouldered on here.”
“That’s not generous of you. It is only you I am thinking of — in all this ridiculous affair.”
The word stung her. “Ridiculous? How dare you say that! I’m still young, am I not? And I have blood in my veins, not water. Well, I want to feel it. For months now, I have been walled up in this tomb. Now I want to live. Not — do you understand? — to go out alone, on a filthy day, with no companion but my own thoughts. I want to dance — to forget myself — with light and music. It’s the most natural thing in the world. Anyone but you would think so.”
“It is not life you mean; it’s excitement.”
“What it means is that you don’t want to take me. — Yes, that’s what it is. But I can get some one else. I will send for Eggis; he will have no objection.”
“Why drag in that cad’s name? You know very well if you do go, it will be with me, and no one else.”
A slight estrangement grew up between them. Maurice was hurt: she had shown too openly the small value she set on his opinion. In addition to this, he was disagreeably affected by her craving for excitement at any cost. To his mind, there was more than a touch of impropriety in the proceeding; it was just as if a mourner of a few months’ standing should suddenly discard his mourning, and with it all the other decencies of grief.
She had not been entirely wrong in accusing him of unreadiness to accompany her. When he pictured to himself the astonished faces of his friends, he found it impossible to look forward to the event with composure. He saw now that it would have been better to make no secret of his friendship with Louise; so harmless was it that every one he knew might have assisted at it; but now, the very abruptness of its disclosure would put it in a bad light. Through Dove, he noised it abroad that he would probably be present at the ball after all; but he shunned Madeleine with due precaution, and could not bring himself even to hint who his companion might be. In his heart, he still thought it possible that Louise might change her mind at the last moment — take fright in the end, at what she might have to face.
But the night came, and this had not happened. While he dressed himself in the hired suit, which was too large here, too small there, he laid a plan of action for the evening. Since it had to be gone through with, it must be carried off in a highhanded way. He would do what he could to make her presence in the hall seem natural; he would be attentive, without devoting himself wholly to her; and he would induce her to leave early.
He called for her at eight o’clock. The landlady said that Fraulein was not quite ready, and told him to wait in the passage. But the door of the room was ajar, and Louise herself called to him to come in.
It was comparatively dark; for she had the lamp behind the screen, where he heard her moving about. Her skirts rustled; drawers and cupboards were pulled noisily open. Then she came out, with the lamp in her hand.
Maurice was leaning against the piano. He raised his eyes, and made a step forward, to take the lamp from her. But after one swift, startled glance, he drew back, colouring furiously. For a moment he could not collect himself: his heart seemed to have leapt into his throat, and there to be hammering so hard that he had no voice with which to answer her greeting.
Owing to what he now termed his idiotic preoccupation with himself, he had overlooked the fact that she, too, would be in evening dress. Another thing was, he had never seen Louise in any but street-dress, or the loose dressing-gown. Now he called himself a fool and absurd; this was how she was obliged to be. Convention decreed it, hence it was perfectly decorous; it was his own feelings that were unnatural, overstrained. But, in the same breath, a small voice whispered to him that all dresses were not like this one; also that every girl was not of a beauty, which, thus emphasised, made the common things of life seen poor and stale.
Louise wore a black dress, which glistened over all its surface, as if it were sown with sparks; it wound close about her, and out behind her on the floor. But this was only the sheath, from which rose the whiteness of her arms and shoulders, and the full column of her throat, on which the black head looked small. Until now, he had seen her bared wrist — no more. Now the only break on the long arm was a band of black velvet, which as it were insisted on the petal-white purity of the skin, and served in place of a sleeve.
Strange thoughts coursed through the young man’s mind. His first impulse had been to avert his eyes; in this familiar room it did not seem fitting to see her dressed so differently from the way he had always known her. Before, however, he had followed this sensation to an end, he made himself the spontaneous avowal that, until now, he had never really seen her. He had known and treasured her face — her face alone. Now he became aware that to the beautiful head belonged also a beautiful body, that, in short, every bit of her was beautiful and desirable. And this feeling in its turn was overcome by a painful reflection: others besides himself would make a similar observation; she was about to show herself to a hundred other eyes: and this struck him as such an unbearable profanation, that he could have gone down on his knees to her, to implore her to stay at home.
Unconscious of his embarrassment, Louise had gone to the console-glass; and there, with the lamp held first above her head, then placed on the console-table, she critically examined her appearance. As if dissatisfied, she held a velvet bow to the side of her hair, and considered the effect; she took a powderpuff, and patted cheeks and neck with powder. Next she picked up a narrow band of velvet, on which a small star was set, and put it round her throat. But the clasp would not meet behind, and, having tried several times in vain to fasten it, she gave an impatient exclamation.
“I can’t get it in.”
As Maurice did not offer to help her, she went out of the room with the thing in her hand. During the few seconds she was absent, the young man racked his brain to invent telling reasons which would induce her not to go; but when she returned, slightly flushed at the landlady’s ready flattery, she was still so engrossed in herself, and so unmindful of him, that he recognised once more his utter powerlessness. He only half existed for her this evening: her manner was as different as her dress.
She gathered her skirts high under her cloak, displaying her feet in fur-lined snow-boots. In the turmoil of his mind, Maurice found nothing to say as they went. But she did not notice his silence; there was a suppressed excitement in her very walk; and she breathed in the cold, crisp air with open lips and nostrils, like a wild animal.
“Oh, how glad I am I came! I might still have been sitting in that dull room — when I haven’t danced for years — and when I love it so!”
“I can’t understand you caring about it,” he said, and the few words contained all his bitterness.
“That is only because you don’t know me,” she retorted, and laughed. “Dancing is a passion with me. I have dance-rhythms in my blood, I think. — My mother was a dancer.”
He echoed her words in a helpless way, and a set of new images ran riot in his brain. But Louise only smiled, and said no more.
They were late in arriving; dancing had already begun; the cloak-rooms were black with coats and mantles. In the narrow passage that divided the rooms, two Englishmen were putting on their gloves. As Maurice changed his shoes, close to the door, he overheard one of these men say excitedly: “By Jove, there’s a pair of shoulders! Who the deuce is it?”
Maurice knew the speaker by sight: he was a medical student, named Herries, who, on the ice, had been conspicuous for his skill as a skater. He had a small dark moustache, and wore a bunch of violets in his buttonhole.
“You haven’t been here long enough, old man, or you wouldn’t need to ask,” answered his companion. Then he dropped his voice, and made a somewhat disparaging remark — so low, however, but what the listener was forced to hear it, too.
Both laughed a little. But though Maurice rose and clattered his chair, Herries persisted, with an Englishman’s supreme indifference to the bystander: “Do you think she can dance?”
“Can’t tell. Looks a trifle heavy.”
“Well, I’ll risk it. Come on. Let’s get some one to introduce us.”
The blood had rushed to Maurice’s head and buzzed there: another second, and he would have stepped out and confronted the speaker. But the incident had passed like a flash. And it was better so: it would have been a poor service to her, to begin the evening with an unpleasantness. Besides, was this not what he had been bracing himself to expect? He looked stealthily over at Louise; considering the proximity of the rooms, it was probable that she, too, had overheard the derogatory words. But when she had put on her gloves, she took his arm without a trace of discomfiture.
They entered the hall at the close of a polka, and slipped unnoticed into the train of those who promenaded. But they had not gone once round, when they were the observed of all eyes; although he looked straight in front of him, Maurice could see the astonished eyebrows and open mouths that greeted their advance. At one end of the hall was an immense mirror: he saw that Louise, who was flushed, held her head high, and talked to him without a pause. In a kind of bravado, she made him take her round a second time; and after the third, which was a solitary progress, they remained standing with their backs to the mirror. Eggis at once came up, with Herries in his train, and, on learning that she had no programme, the latter ran off to fetch one. Before he returned, a third man had joined them, and soon she was the centre of a little circle. Herries, having returned with the programme, would not give it up until he had put his initials opposite several dances. Louise only smiled — a rather artificial smile that had been on her lips since she entered the hall.
Maurice had fallen back, and now stood unnoticed behind the group. Once Louise turned her head, and raised her eyebrows interrogatively; but a feeling that was mingled pride and dismay restrained him; and as, even when the choosing of dances was over, he did not come forward, she walked down the hall on Herries’s arm. The musicians began to tune; Dove, as master of ceremonies, was flying about, with his hands in gloves that were too large for him; people ranged themselves for the lancers in lines and squares. Maurice lost sight for a moment of the couple he was watching. As soon as the dance began, however, he saw them again; they were waltzing to the FRANCAISE, at the lower end of the hall.
He was driven from the corner in which he had taken refuge, by hearing some one behind him say, in an angry whisper: “I call it positively horrid of her to come.” It was Susie Fay who spoke; through some oversight, she had not been asked to dance. Moving slowly along, behind the couples that began a schottische, he felt a tap on his arm, and, looking round, saw Miss Jensen. She swept aside her ample skirts, and invited him to a seat beside her. But he remained standing.
“You don’t care for dancing?” she queried. And, when he had replied: “Well, say, now, Mr. Guest — we are all dying to know — however have you gotten Louise Dufrayer along here this evening? It’s the queerest thing out.”
“Indeed?” said the young man drily.
“Well, maybe queer is not just the word. But, why, we all presumed she was perfectly inconsolable — thinking only of another world. That’s so. And then you work a miracle, and out she pops, fit as can be.”
“I persuaded her . . . for the sake of variety,” mumbled Maurice.
Little Fauvre, the baritone, had come up; but Miss Jensen did not heed his meek reminder that this was their dance.
“That was excessively kind of you,” said the big woman, and looked at Maurice with shrewd, good-natured eyes. “And no doubt, Louise is most grateful. She seems to be enjoying herself. Keep quiet, Fauvre, do, till I am ready. — But I don’t like her dress. It’s a lovely goods, and no mistake. But it ain’t suitable for a little hop like this. It’s too much.”
“How Miss Dufrayer dresses is none of my business.”
“Well, maybe not. — Now, Fauvre, come along”— she called it “Fover.” “I reckon you think you’ve waited long enough.”
Maurice, left to himself again, was astonished to hear Madeleine’s voice in his ear. She had made her way to him alone.
“For goodness’ sake, pull yourself together,” she said cuttingly. “Every one in the hall can see what’s the matter with you.”
Before he could answer, she was claimed by her partner — one of the few Germans scattered through this Anglo-American gathering. “Is zat your brozzer?” Maurice heard him ask as they moved away. He watched them dancing together, and found it a ridiculous sight: round Madeleine, tall and angular, the short, stout man rotated fiercely. From time to time they stopped, to allow him to wipe his face.
Maurice contemplated escaping from the hall to some quiet room beyond. But as he was edging forward, he ran into Dove’s arms, and that was the end of it. Dove, it seemed, had had his eye on him. The originator of the ball confessed that he was not having a particularly good time; he had everything to superintend — the dances, the musicians, the arrangements for supper. Besides this, there were at least a dozen too many ladies present; he believed some of the men had simply given their tickets away to girl-friends, and had let them come alone. So far, Dove had been forced to sacrifice himself entirely, and he was hot and impatient.
“Besides, I’ve routed half a dozen men out of the billiardroom, more than once,” he complained irrelevantly, wiping the moisture from his brow. “But it’s of no —— Now just look at that!” he interrupted himself. “The ‘cellist has had too much to drink already, and they’re handing him more beer. Another glass, and he won’t be able to play at all. — I say, you’re not dancing. My dear fellow, it really won’t do. You must help me with some of these women.”
Taking Maurice by the arm, he steered him to a corner of the hall where sat two little provincial English sisters, looking hopeless and forlorn. Who had invited them, it was impossible to say; but no one wished to dance with them. They were dressed exactly alike, were alike in face, too — as like as two nuts, thought Maurice, as he bowed to them. Their hair was of a nutty brown, their eyes were brown, and they wore brown d resses. He led them out to dance, one after the other, and they were overwhelmingly grateful to him. He could hardly tell them apart; but that did not matter; for, when he took one back to her seat, the other sat waiting for her turn.
In dancing, he was thrown together with more of his friends, and he was not slow to catch the looks — cynical, contemptuous, amused — that were directed at him. Some were disposed to wink, and to call him a sly dog; others found food for malicious gossip in the way Louise had deserted him; and, when he met Miss Martin in a quadrille, she snubbed his advances with a definiteness that left no room for doubt.
Round dances succeeded to square dances; the musicians’ playing grew more mechanical; flowers drooped, and dresses were crushed. An Englishman or two ran about complaining of the ventilation. As often as Maurice saw Louise, she was with Herries. At first, she had at least made a feint of dancing with other people; now she openly showed her preference. Always this dapper little man, with the violets and the simpering smile.
They were the two best dancers in the hall. Louise, in particular, gave herself up to the rhythm of the music with an abandon not often to be seen in a ball-room. Something of the professional about it, said Maurice to himself as he watched her; and, in his own estimation, this was the hardest thought he had yet had of her.
At supper, he sat between the two little sisters, whose birdlike chatter acted upon him as a reiterated noise acts on the nerves of one who is trying to sleep. He could hardly bring himself to answer civilly. At the further end of the table, on the same side as he, sat Louise. She was with those who had been her partners during the evening. They were drinking champagne, and were very lively. Maurice could not see her face; but her loud, excited laugh jarred on his ears.
Afterwards, the same round was to begin afresh, except that the sisters had generously introduced him to a friend. But when the first dance was over, Maurice abruptly excused himself to his surprised partner, and made his way out of the hall.
At the disordered supper-table, a few people still lingered; and deserters were again knocking balls about the green cloth of the billiard-table. Maurice went past them, and up a flight of stairs that led to a gallery overlooking the hall. This gallery was in semidarkness. At the back of it, chairs were piled one on top of the other; but the two front rows had been left standing, from the last concert held in the building, and here, two or three couples were sitting out the dance. He went into the extreme corner, where it was darkest.
At last he was alone. He no longer needed to dance with girls he did not care a jot for, or to keep up appearances. He was free to be as wretched as he chose, and he availed himself unreservedly of the chance. It was not only the personal slight Louise had put upon him throughout the evening, making use of him, as it were, to the very door, and then throwing him off: but that she could be attracted by a mere waxen prettiness, and well-fitting clothes — for the first time, distrust of her was added to his hurt amazement.
He had not been in his hiding-place for more than a very few minutes, when the door he had entered by reopened, and a couple came down the steps to the corner where he was sitting.
“Oh, there’s some one there!” cried Louise at the sight of the dark figure. “Maurice! Is it you? What are you doing here?”
“Sssh!” said Herries warningly, afraid lest her clear voice should carry too far.
“Yes. It’s me,” said Maurice stiffly, and rose. “But I’m going. I shan’t disturb you.”
“Disturb?” she said, and laughed a little. “Nonsense! Of course not.” From her position on Herries’s arm, she looked down at him, uncertain how to proceed. Then she laughed again. “But how fortunate that I found you! The next is our dance, isn’t it?”—-she pretended to examine her programme. “It will begin in a minute. I think I’ll wait here.”
“The next may be, but not the next again, remember,” said Herries, before he allowed her to withdraw her arm. Louise nodded and laughed. “AUF WIEDERSEHEN!”
But after the door had dosed behind Herries, she remained standing, a step higher than Maurice, tipping her face with her handkerchief.
When she descended the step, and was on a level with him, he could see how her eyes glittered.
“Was that lie necessary? — for me?”
“What’s the matter, Maurice? Why are you like this? Why have you not asked me to dance?”
He was unpleasantly worked on by her free use of his name.
“I, you? Have I had a chance?”
“Wasn’t it for you to make the chance? Or did you expect me to come to you: Mr. Guest, will you do me the honour of dancing with me? — Oh, please, don’t be cross. Don’t spoil my pleasure — for this one night at least.”
But she laughed again as she spoke, as though she did not fear his power to do so, and laid her hand on his arm: and, at her touch, he seemed to feel through sleeve and glove, the superabundance of vitality that was throbbing in her this evening. She was unable to be still for a moment; in the delicate pallor of her face, her eyes burned, black as jet.
“Are you really enjoying yourself so much? What CAN you find in it all?”
“Come — come down and dance. Listen! — can you resist that music? Quick, let us go down.”
“I dance badly. I’m not Herries.”
“But I can suit my step to anyone’s. Won’t you dance with me? — when I ask you?”
She had been leaning forward, looking over the balustrade at the couples arranging themselves below. Now she turned, and put her arm through his.
They went down the stairs, into the hall. Close beside the door at which they entered, they began to dance.
In all these months, Maurice had scarcely touched her hand. Now convention required that he should take her in his arms: he had complete control over her, could draw her closer, or put her further away, as he chose. For the first round or two, this was enough to occupy him entirely: the proximity of the lithe body, the nearness of the dark head, the firm, warm resistance that her back offered to his hand.
They were dancing to the music of the WIENER BLUT, most melancholy gay of waltzes, in which the long, legato, upward sweep of the violins says as plainly as in words that all is vanity. But with the passing of the players to the second theme, the melody made a more direct appeal: there was a passionate unrest in it, which disquieted all who heard if. The dancers, with flushed cheeks and fixed eyes, responded instinctively to its challenge: the lapidary swing with which they followed the rhythm became less circumspect; and a desire to dance till they could dance no more, took possession of those who were fanatic. No one yielded to the impulse more readily than Louise; she was quite carried away. Maurice felt the change in her; an uneasiness seized him, and increased with every turn. She had all but closed her eyes; her hair brushed his shoulder; she answered to the lightest pressure of his arm. Even her face looked strange to him: its expression, its individuality, all that made it hers, was as if wiped out. Involuntarily he straightened himself, and his own movements grew stiffer, in his effort to impart to her some of his own restraint. But it was useless. And, as they turned and turned, to the maddening music, cold spots broke out on his forehead: in this manner she had danced with all her previous partners, and would dance with those to come. Such a pang of jealousy shot through him at the thought that, without knowing what he was doing, he pulled her sharply to him. And she yielded to the tightened embrace as a matter of course.
With a jerk he stopped dancing and loosened his hold of her.
She stood and blinked at lights and people: she had been far away, in a world of melody and motion, and could not come back to herself all at once. Wonderingly she looked at Maurice; for the music was going on, and no one else had left off dancing; and, with the same of comprehension, but still too dazed to resist, she followed him up the stairs.
“It’s easy to see you don’t care for dancing,” she said, when they were back in the corner of the gallery. Her breath came unsteadily, and again she touched her face with the small, scented handkerchief.
“No. Not dancing like that,” he answered rudely. But now again, as so often before, directly it was put into words, his feeling seemed strained and puritanic.
Louise leaned forward in her seat to look into his face.
“Like what? — what do you mean? Oh, you foolish boy, what is the matter with you to-night? You will tell me next I can’t dance.”
“You dance only too well.”
“But you would rather I was a wooden doll — is that it How is one to please you? First you are vexed with me because YOU did not ask ME to dance; and when I send my partner away, on your account, you won’t finish one dance with me but exact that I shall sit here, in a dark corner, and let that glorious music go by. I don’t know what to make of you.” But her attention had already wandered to the dancers below. “Look at them! — Oh, it makes me envious! No one else has dreamt of stopping yet. For no matter how tired you are beforehand, when you dance you don’t feel it, and as long as the music goes on, you must go on, too, though it lasted all night. — Oh, how often I have longed for a night like this! And then I’ve never met a better dancer than Mr. Herries.”
“And for the sake of his dancing, you can forget what a puppy he is?”
“Puppy?” At the warmth of his interruption, she laughed, the low, indolent laugh, by means of which she seemed determined, on this night, to keep anything from touching her too nearly. “How crude you men are! Because he is handsome and dances well, you reason that he must necessarily be a simpleton.”
“Handsome? Yes — if a tailor’s dummy is handsome.”
But Louise only laughed again, like one over whom words had no power. “If he were the veriest scarecrow, I would forgive him — for the sake of his dancing.”
She leant forward, letting her gloved arms lie along her knees; and above the jet-trimmed line of her bodice, he saw her white chest rise and fall. At a slight sound behind, she turned and looked expectantly at the door.
“No, not yet,” said the young man at her side. “Besides, even if it were, this is my dance, remember. You said so yourself.”
“You are rude to-night, Maurice — and LANGWEILIG.” She averted her face, and tapped her foot. But the content that lapped her made it impossible for her to take anything earnestly amiss, and even that others should show displeasure jarred on her like a false note.
“Don’t be angry. To-morrow it will all be different again. Let me have just this one night of pleasure — let me enjoy myself in my own way.”
“To hear you talk, one would think I had no wish but to spoil your pleasure.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that. You misunderstand everything.”
“What I say or think has surely no weight with you?”
She gave up the attempt to pacify him, and leaning back in her chair, stifled a yawn. Then with an exclamation of: “How hot it is up here!” she peeled off her gloves. With her freed hands, she tidied her hair, drawing out and thrusting in again the silver dagger that held the coil together. Then she let her bare arms fall on her lap, where they lay in strong outline against the black of her dress. One was almost directly under Maurice’s eyes; even by the poor light, he could see the mark left on the inside of the wrist, by the buttons of the glove. It was a generously formed arm, but so long that it looked slender, and its firm white roundness was flawless from wrist to shoulder. He shut his eyes, but he could see it through his eyelids. Sitting beside her like this, in the semidarkness, morbidly aware of the perfume of her hair and dress, he suddenly forgot that he had been rude, and she indifferent. He was conscious only of the wish to drive it home to her, how unhappy she was making him.
“Louise,” he said so abruptly that she started. “I’m going to ask you to do something for me. I haven’t made many demands, have I? — since you first called me your friend.” He paused and fumbled for words. “Don’t — don’t dance any more to-night. Don’t dance again.”
She stooped forward to look at him. “Not dance again? — I? What do you mean?”
“What I say. Let us go home.”
“Home? Now? When it’s only half over? — You don’t know what you are saying.” But her surprise was already on the wane.
“Oh, yes, I do. I’m not going to let you dance again.”
She laughed, in spite of herself, at the new light in which he was showing himself. But, the moment after, she ceased to laugh; for, with an audacity he had not believed himself capable of, Maurice took the arm that was lying next him, and, midway between wrist and elbow, put his lips to it, kissing it several times, in different places.
Taken unawares, Louise was helpless. Then she freed herself, ungently. “No, no, I won’t have it. Oh, how can you be so foolish! My gloves — where is my glove? Pick it up, and give it to me — at once!”
He groped on the dusty floor; the veins in his forehead hammered. She had moved to a distance, and now stood busy with the gloves; she would not look at him.
In the uneasy silence that ensued, Herries opened the door: a moment later, they went out together. Maurice remained standing until he saw them appear below. Then he dropped back into his seat, and covered his face with his hands.
He did not regret what he had done; he did not care in the least, whether he had made her angry with him or not. On the contrary, the feeling he experienced was akin to relief: disapproval and mortification, jealousy and powerlessness — all the varying emotions of the evening — had found vent and alleviation in the few hastily snatched kisses. He no longer felt injured by her treatment of him: that hardly seemed to concern him now. His sensations, at this minute, resolved themselves into the words: “She is mine, she is mine!” which went round and round in his brain. And then, in a sudden burst of clearness, he understood what it meant for him to say this. It meant that the farce of friendship, at which he had played, was at an end; it meant that he loved her — not as hitherto, with a touch of elegiac resignation — but with a violence that made him afraid. If seemed incredible to him now that he had spent two months in close fellowship with her: it was ludicrous, inhuman. For he now saw, that his ultimate desire had been neither to help her nor to restore her to life — that was a comedy he had acted for the benefit of the traditions in his blood. Brutally, at this moment, he acknowledged that he had only wished to hear her voice and to touch her hand: to make for himself so indispensable a place among the necessities of her life that no one could oust him from it. — Mine — mine! Instinct alone spoke in him to-night — that same blunt instinct which had reared its head the first time he saw her, but which, until now, he had kept under, like a medieval ascetic. No reason came to his aid; he neither looked into the future nor did he consider the past: he only swore to himself in a kind of stubborn wrath that she was his, and that no earthly power should take her from him.
One by one the slow-dragging hours wore away. The dancers’ ranks were thinned; but those who remained, gyrated as insensately as ever. There was an air of greater freedom over the ball-room. The chaperons who, earlier in the evening, had sat patiently on the red velvet sofas, had vanished with their charges, and, in their train, the more sedate of the company: it was past three o’clock, and now, every few minutes, a cloaked couple crossed a corner of the hall to the street-door.
When Maurice went downstairs, he could not find Louise, and some time elapsed before she and Herries emerged from the supper-room. Although the lines beneath her eyes were like rings of hammered iron, she danced anew, went on to the very end, with a few other infatuated people. Finally, the tired musicians rose stiffly to pack their instruments; and, with a sigh of exhaustion, she received on her shoulders the cloak Maurice stood holding.
They were among the last to leave the hall; the lights went out behind them. Herries walked a part of the way home with them, and talked much and idly — ineffable in his self-conceit, thought Maurice. But Louise urged him on, saying wild, disconnected things, as if, as long as words were spoken, it did not matter what they were. Again and again her laugh resounded: it was hoarse, and did not ring true.
“She has had too much champagne,” Maurice said to himself, as he walked silent at her side.
In the ROSSPLATZ, Herries, who was in a becoming fur cap, and a coat with a fur-lined collar, took a circumstantial leave of her. He raised both her hands to his lips.
“To the memory of those divine waltzes — our waltzes!” he said sentimentally. “And to all the others the future has in store for us!”
She left her hands in his, and smiled at him.
“Till to-morrow then,” said Herries. “Or shall you forget your promise?”
“It is you who will forget — not I.”
After this, Maurice and she walked on alone together. It was that dreariest of all the hours between sunset and dawn, when it is scarcely night any longer, and yet not nearly day. The crisp frost of the previous evening had given place to a bleak rawness; the day that was coming would crawl in, lugubriously, unable to get the better of the darkness. The houses about them were wrapped in sleep; they two were the only people abroad, and their footsteps echoed in the damp streets. But, for once, Louise was not affected by the gloom of her surroundings. She walked swiftly, and her chief aim seemed to be to render any but the most trival words impossible. Now, however, her strained gaiety had the aspect of a fever; Maurice believed that, for the most part, she did not know what she was saying.
Until they stood in front of the house-door, she kept up the tension. But when the young man had fitted the key in the lock and turned it, she looked at him, and, for the first time this night, gave him her full attention.
“Good night — my friend!”
She was leaning against the woodwork; beneath the lace scarf, her eyes were bent on him with a strange expression. Maurice looked down into them, and, for a second or two, held them with his own, in one of those looks which are not for ordinary use between a man and a woman. Louise shivered under it, and gave a nervous laugh; the next moment, she made a slight movement towards him, an involuntary movement, which was so imperceptible as to be hardly more than an easing of her position against the doorway, and yet was unmistakable — as unmistakable as was the little upward motion with which she resigned herself at the outset of a dance. For an instant, his heart stopped beating; in a flash he knew that this was the solution: there was only one ending to this night of longing and excitement, and that was to take her in his arms, as she stood, to hold her to him in an infinite embrace, till his own nerves were stilled, and the madness had gone from her. But the returning beat of his blood brought the knowledge that a morrow must surely come — a morrow for both of them — a cold, grey day to be faced and borne. She was not herself, in the bonds of her unnatural excitement; it was for him to be wise.
He took her limply hanging hand, and looked at her gravely and kindly.
“You are very tired.”
At his voice, the wild light died out of her eyes; she seemed to shrink into herself. “Yes, very tired. And oh, so cold!”
“Can’t you get a cup of tea? — something to warm you?”
But she did not hear him; she was already on the stair. He waited till her steps had died away, then went headlong down the street. But, when he came to think things over, he did not pride himself on the self-control he had displayed. On the contrary, he was tormented by the wish to know what she would have said or done had he yielded to his impulse; and, for the remainder of the night, his brain lost itself in a maze of hazardous conjecture. Only when day broke, a cheerless February day, was he satisfied that he could not have acted differently.
Upstairs, in her room, Louise lay face downwards on her bed, and there, her arms thrown wildly out over the pillows, all the froth and intoxication of the evening gone from her — there lay, and wished she were dead.
* * * * *
Three days later, towards four o’clock in the afternoon, Maurice watched the train that carried her from him steam out of the DRESDENER BAHNHOF.
The clearness he had gained as to his own motives, and the ruthless probing of himself it induced, both led to the same conclusion: Louise must go away. The day after the ball, too, he had found her in a state of collapse, which was unparalleled even in the ups and downs of the past weeks.
“Anything! — do anything you like with me. I wish I had never been born;” and, though no muscle of her face moved, large slow tears ran down her sallow cheeks.
Unconsciously twisting and bending Herries’s card, which was lying on the table, Maurice laid his plan before her. And having won the above consent, he did not let the grass grow under his feet. He applied to Miss Jensen for practical aid, and that lady was tactful enough to give it without curiosity. She knew Dresden well, recommended it as a lively place, and wrote forthwith to a PENSION there, engaging rooms for a lady who had just recovered from a severe illness. By tacit agreement, this was understood to cover any extravagance or imprudence, of which Louise might make herself guilty.
Now she had gone, and with her, the central interest of his life. But the tired gesture, with which he took off his hat and wiped his forehead, as he walked home, was expressive of the relief he felt that he was not going to see her again for some time.
He let a fortnight elapse — a fortnight of colourless days, unbroken by word or sign from her. Then, one night, he spent several hours writing to her — writing a carefully worded letter, in which he put forward the best reasons he could devise, for her remaining away altogether.
To this he received no answer.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:54