Several versions of the contretemps with Herries were afloat immediately. All agreed in one point: Maurice Guest had been in an advanced stage of intoxication. A scuffle was said to have taken place in the deserted street; there had been tears, and prayers, and shrill accusing voices. In the version that reached Madeleine’s cars, blows were mentioned. She stood aghast at the disclosures the story made, and at all these implied. Until now, Maurice had at least striven to preserve appearances. If once you became callous enough not to care what people said of you, you wilfully made of yourself a social outcast.
That same afternoon, as she was mounting the steps of the Conservatorium, she came face to face with Krafft. They had not met for weeks; and Madeleine remarked this, as they stood together. But she was not thinking very deeply of him or his affairs; and when she asked him if he would go across to her room, and wait for her there, she was following an impulse that had no connection with him. As usual, Krafft had nothing particular to do; and when she returned, half an hour later, she found him lying on her sofa, with his arms under his head, his knees crossed above him. The air of the room was grey with smoke; but, for once, Madeleine set no limit to his cigarettes. Sitting down at the table, she looked meditatively at him. For some moments neither spoke.
But as Krafft drew out his case to take another cigarette, a tattered volume of Reclam’s Universal Library fell from his pocket, and spread itself on the floor. Madeleine stooped and pieced it together.
“What have we here?—ah, your Bible!” she said sarcastically: it was a novel by a modern Danish poet, who died young. “You carry it about with you, I see.”
“To-day I needed Stimmung. But don’t say Bible; that’s an error of taste. Say ‘ death-book.’ One can study death in it, in all its forms.”
“To give you Stimmung! I can’t understand your love for the book, Heinz. It’s morbid.”
“Everything’s morbid that the ordinary mortal doesn’t wish to be reminded of. Some day—if I don’t turn stoker or acrobat beforehand, and give up peddling in the emotions — some day I shall write music to it. That would be a melodrama worth making.”
“Morbid, Heirtz, morbid!”
“All women are not of your opinion. I remember once hearing a woman say, had the author still lived, she would have pilgrimaged barefoot to see him.”
“Oh, I dare say. There are women enough of that kind.”
“Fools, of course?”
“Extravagant; unbalanced. The class of person that suffers from a diseased temperament.—But men can make fools of themselves, too. There are specimens enough here to start a museum with.”
“Of which you, as normalmensch, could be showman.”
Madeleine pushed her chair back towards the head of the, sofa, so that she came to sit out of the range of Krafft’s eyes.
“Talking of fools,” she said slowly, “have you seen anything of Maurice Guest lately?”
Krafft lowered a spike of ash into the tray. “I have not.”
“Yes; I heard he had got into a different hour,” she said disconnectedly. As, however, Krafft remained impassive, she took the leap. “Is there—can nothing be done for him, Heinz?”
Here Krafft did just what she had expected him to do: rose on his elbow, and turned to look at her. But her face was inscrutable.
“Explain,” he said, dropping back into his former position.
“Oh, explain!” she echoed, firing up at once. “I suppose if a fellow-mortal were on his way to the scaffold, you men would still ask for explanations. Listen to me. You’re the only man here Maurice was at all friendly with—I shouldn’t turn to you, you scoffer, you may be sure of it, if I knew of anyone else. He liked you; and at one time, what you said had a good deal of influence with him. It might still have. Go to him, Heinz, and talk straight to him. Make him think of his future, and of all the other things he has apparently forgotten.—You needn’t laugh! You could do it well enough if you chose—if you weren’t so hideously cynical.—Oh, don’t laugh like that! You’re loathsome when you do. And there’s nothing natural about it.”
But Krafft enjoyed himself undisturbed. “Not natural? It ought to be,” he said when he could speak again. “Oh, you English, you English!—was there ever a people like you? Don’t talk to me of men and women, Mada. Only an Englishwoman would look at the thing as you do. How you would love to reform and strait-lace all us unregenerate youths! You’ve done your best for me—in vain!—and now it’s Guest. Mada, you have the Puritan’s watery fluid in your veins, and Cain’s mark on your brow: the mark of the race that carries its Sundays, its—language, its drinks, its dress, and its conventions with it, where ever it goes, and is surprised, and mildly shocked, if these things are not instantly adopted by the poor, purblind foreigner.—You are the missionaries of the world!”
“Oh, I’ve heard all that before. Some day, Heinz, you really must come to England and revise your impressions of us. However, I’m not going to let you shirk the subject. I will tell you this. I know the Milieu Maurice Guest has sprung from, and I can judge, as you never can, how totally he is unfitting himself to return. The way he’s going on—I hear on all sides that he’ll never ‘make his Prufung,’ now, and you yourself know his certificate won’t be worth a straw.”
“There’s something fascinating, I admit,” Krafft went on, “about a people of such a purely practical genius. And it follows, as a matter of course, that, being the extreme individualists you are, you should question the right of others to their particular mode of existence. For individualism of this type implies a training, a culture, a grand style, which it has taken centuries to attain—WE have still centuries to go, before we get there. If we ever do! For we are the artists among nations—waxen temperaments, formed to take on impressions, to be moulded this way and that, by our age, our epoch. You are the moralists, we are the . . .”
“If you like. In your vocabulary, that’s a synonym for Kunstler.”
“You make me ill, Heinz!”
“Kuss’ die hand!” He was silent, following a smoke-ring with his eyes. “Seriously, Mada,” he said after a moment—but there was no answering seriousness in his face, which mocked as usual. “Seriously, now, I suppose you wouldn’t admit what this Dressur, this Hohe schule Guest is going through, might be of service to him in the end?”
“No, indeed, I wouldn’t,” she answered hotly. “You talk as if he were a circus-horse. Think of him now, and think of him as he was when he first came here. A good fellow — wasn’t he? And full to the brim of plans and projects — ridiculous enough, some of them—but the great thing is to be able to make plans. As long as a man can do that, he’s on the upward grade.—And he had talent, you said so yourself, and unlimited perseverance.”
“Good God, Madeleine” burst out Krafft. “That you should have been in this place as long as you have, and still remain so immaculate!—Surely you realise that something more than talent and perseverance is necessary? One can have talent as one has a hat . . . use it or not as one likes.—I tell you, the mill Guest is going through may be his salvation—artistically.”
“And morally?” asked Madeleine, not without bitterness. “Must one give thanks then, if one’s friend doesn’t turn out a genius?”
Krafft shrugged his shoulders. “As you take it. The artist has as much to do with morality, as, let us say, your musical festivals have to do with art.—And if his genius isn’t strong enough to float him, he goes under, Und damit Basta! The better for art. There are bunglers enough.—But I’ll tell you this,” he rose on his elbow again, and spoke more warmly. “Since I’ve seen what our friend is capable of; how he has allowed himself to be absorbed; since, in short, he has behaved In such a highly un-British way—well, since then, I have some hope of him. He seems open to impression.—And impressions are the only things that matter to the artist.”
“Oh, don’t go on, please! I’m sick to death of the very words art and artist.”
“Cheer up, Mada! You’ve nothing of the kind in your blood.” He stretched himself and yawned. “Nor has he, either, I believe. A face may deceive. And a clear head, and unlimited perseverance, and intelligence, and ambition — none of these things is enough. The Lord asks more of his chosen.”
Madeleine clasped her hands behind her head, and tilted back her chair.
“So you couldn’t interfere, I see? Your artistic conscience would forbid it.”
“Why don’t you do it yourself?” He scrutinised her face, with a sarcastic smile.
“Oh, say it out! I know what you think.”
“And am I not right?”
“No, you’re not. How I hate the construction you put on things! In your eyes, nothing is pure or disinterested. You can’t even imagine to yourself a friendship between a man and a woman. Such a thing isn’t known here—in your nation of artists. Your men are too inflammatory, and too self-sufficient, to want their calves fatted for any but the one sacrifice. Girls have their very kitchen-aprons tied on them with an under-meaning. And poor souls, who can blame them for submitting! What a fate is theirs, if they don’t manage to catch a man! Gossip and needlework are only slow poison.”
“Now you’re spiteful. But I’ll tell You something. Such friendships as you speak of are only possible where the woman is old—or ugly—or abnormal, in some way: a man-woman, or a clever woman, or some other freak of nature. Now, our women are, as a rule, sexually healthy. They know what they’re here for, too, and are not ashamed of it. Also, they still have their share of physical attraction. While yours—good God! I wonder you manage to keep the breed going!”
“Stop, Heinz!” said Madeleine sternly. “You are illogical, and indecent; and you know there’s a limit I don’t choose to let you pass.—You’re wrong, too. You’ve only to look about you, here, with unbiased eyes, to see which race the prettiest girls belong to.—But never mind! You only launch out in this way that you may not be obliged to discuss Maurice Guest. I know you. I can read you like a book.”
“You are not very old . . . or ugly . . . or abnormal, Mada.”
She smiled in spite of herself. “And are we not friends, pray?”
“Something that way.—But in all you say about Guest, the impersonal note is wanting. You’re jealous.”
“I’m nothing of the sort!—But you’ll at least allow me to resent seeing a friend of mine in the claws of this . . . this vampire?”
Krafft laughed. “Vampire is good!—A poor, distraught——”
“Spare your phrases, Heinz. She’s bad through and through, and stupid into the bargain.”
“Lulu stupid? Ei, ei, Mada! Your eyes are indeed askew. She has a touch of the other extreme—of genius.”
“NA!—Well, if this is another of your manifestations of genius, then permit me to hate—no, to loathe it, in all its forms.”
“Ganz nach belieben! It’s a privilege of your sex, you know. There never was a woman yet who didn’t prefer a good, square talent.”
“A crack this way, and it’s madness; that, and the world says genius. And some people have a peculiar gift for discovering it. Those who set themselves to it can find genius in a flea’s jump.”
“But has it never occurred to you, that the power of loving—that some women have a genius for loving?—No, why do I ask! For if I am a book, you are a poster—a placard.”
“What a people you are for words! You make phrases about everything. That’s a ridiculous thing to say. If every fickle woman —”
“Fickle woman! fickle fiddle-sticks!” he interrupted. “That’s only a tag. The people whose business it is to decide these things—Die herren dichter— are not agreed to this day whet it’s man who’s fickle or woman. In this mood it’s one, in that, the other; and the silly world bleats it after them, like sheep.”
“Well, if you wish me to put it more plainly: if what you say were true, vice would be condoned.”
“Vice!!” he cried with derision, and sat up and faced her. “Vice!—my dear Mada!—sweet, innocent child! . . . No, no. A special talent is needed for that kind of thing; an unlimited capacity for suffering; an entire renunciation of what is commonly called happiness! You hold the good old Philistine opinions. You think, no doubt, of two lovers living together in delirious pleasure, in saus und braus.—Nothing could be falser. A woman only needs to have the higher want in her nature, and the suffering is there, too. She’s born gifted with the faculty. And a woman of the type we’re speaking of, is as often as not the flower of her kind.—Or becomes it.—For see all she gains on her way: the mere passing from hand to hand; the intense impressionable nature; the process of being moulded—why, even the common prostitute gets a certain manly breadth of mind, such as you other women never arrive at. Each one who comes and goes leaves her something: an experience—a turn of thought—it may be only an intuition—which she has not had before.”
“And the contamination? The soul?” cried Madeleine; two red spots had come out on her cheeks.
“As you understand it, such a woman has no soul, and doesn’t need one. All she needs is tact and taste.”
“You are the eternal scoffer.”
“I never was more serious in my life.—But let us put it another way. What does a—what does any beautiful woman want with a soul, or brains, or morals, or whatever you choose to call it? Let her give thanks, night and day, that she is what she is: one of the few perfect things on this imperfect earth. Let her care for her beauty, and treasure it, and serve it. Time,enough when it is gone, to cultivate the soul—if, indeed, she doesn’t bury herself alive, as it’s her duty to do, instead of decaying publicly. Mada! do you know a more disgusting, more humiliating sight than the sagging of the skin on a neck that was once like marble? — than a mouth visibly losing its form?—the slender shoulders we have adored, broadening into massivity?—all the fine spiritual delicacy of youth being touched to heaviness?—all the barbarous cruelty, in short, with which, before our eyes, time treats the woman who is no longer young.—No, no! As long as she has her beauty, a woman is under no necessity to bolster up her conscience, or to be reasonable, or to think.—Think? God forbid! There are plain women enough for that. We don’t ask our Lady of Milo to be witty for us, or to solve us problems. Believe me, there is more thought, more eloquence, in the corners of a beautiful mouth—the upward look of two dark eyes—than in all women have said or done from Sappho down. Springy colour, light, music, perfume: they are all to be found in the curves of a perfect throat or arm.”
Madeleine’s silence bristled with irony.
“And that,” he went on, “was where the girl you are blaspheming had such exquisite tact. She knew this. Her instinct taught her what was required of her. She would fall into an attitude, and remain motionless in it, as if she knew the eye must feast its full. Or if she did move, and speak—for she, too, had hours of a desperate garrulity—then one was content, as well. Her vitality was so intense that her whole body spoke when her lips did; she would pass so rapidly from one position to another that you had to shut your eyes for fear that, out of all this multitude, you would not be able to carry one away with you.—If some of her ways of expressing herself in motion could be caught and fixed, a sculptor’s fame would be made. — A painter’s, if he could reproduce the trick she has of smiling entirely with her eyes and eyebrows.—And then her hands! Mada, I wonder you other women don’t weep for envy of them. She has only to raise them, to pass them over her forehead, or to finger at her hair, and the world is hers. — Do you really think a man asks soul of a woman with such eyes and hand as those?—Good God, no! He worships her and adores her. Were is only one place for him, and that’s on his knees before her.”
“Well, really, Heinz!” said Madeleine, and the spots on her cheeks burnt a dull red. “In imagination, do you know, I’m carried just three years backwards? Do you remember that spring evening, when you came rushing in here to me? ‘I’ve seen the most beautiful woman in the world, and I’m drunk with her.’ And how I couldn’t understand? For I thought her plain, just as I still do.—But then, if I remember aright, your admiration was by no means the platonic, artistic affair it . . . hm! . . . is now.”
“It was not.—But now, you understand, Mada, that I think a man makes a good exchange of career, and success, and other such accidents of his material existence, for the right to touch these hands at will. The one thing necessary is, that he be fit for the post. I demand of him that he be a gourmand, a connoisseur in beauty. And it’s here, mind you, that I have doubts of our friend.—Is it clear to you?”
“As clear as day, thanks. And you may be quite sure: of me never applying to you for help again. I shall respect your principles.”
“And mind you, I don’t say Guest may not come out of the affair all right—enriched for the rest of his life.”
“Very good. And now you may go. I regret that I ever bothered with you.”
Krafft went across to where Madeleine was standing, put his hands on her two shoulders, and laid his head on his right arm, so that she, who was taller than he was, looked down on the roundnesses of his curly hair. “You’re a good fellow, Mada—a good fellow! Ja, ja— who knows! If you had had just a little more of the ewigweibliche about you!”
“Too much honour . . . But you don’t expect Englishwomen to join your harem, do, you?”
“There would have been a certain repose in belonging to a woman of your type. But it’s the charm—physical charm — we poor wretches can’t do without.”
“Upon my word, it’s almost a declaration!” cried Madeleine, not unnettled. “Take my advice, Heinz. Hie you home, and marry the person you ought to. Take pity on the poor thing’s constancy. Unless,” she added, a moment later, with a sarcastic laugh, “since you’re still so infatuated with Louise, you persuade her to transfer her favours to you. That would solve all difficulties in the most satisfactory way. She would have the variety that seems necessary to her existence; you could lie on your knees before her all day long; and our friend would be restored to sanity. Think it over, Heinz. It’s a good idea.”
“Do you think she’d have me?” he asked, as he shook himself into his coat.
“Heaven knows and Heaven only! Where Louise is concerned, nothing’s impossible—I’ve always maintained it.”
“Well, ta-ta!—You shall have early news, I promise you.”
Madeleine heard him go down the stair, whistling the Rose of sharon. But he could not have been half-way to the bottom, when he turned and came back. Holding her door ajar, he stuck a laughing face into the room.
“Upon my word, Mada, I congratulate you! It’s a colossal idea.”
But Madeleine had had enough of him. “I’m glad it pleases you. Now go, go! You’ve played the fool here long enough.”
When he emerged from the house, Krafft had stopped whistling. He walked with his hands in his pockets, his felt hat pulled down over his eyes. At the corner, he was so lost in thought as to be unable to guide his feet: he stood and gazed at the pavement. Still on the same spot, he pushed his hat to the back of his head, and burst into such an eerie peal of laughter that some ladies, who were coming towards him, started back, and, picking up their skirts, went off the pavement, in order to avoid passing him too nearly.
The following afternoon, at an hour when Maurice was safely out of the way, Krafft climbed the stair to the house in the Bruderstrasse.
The landlady did not know him. Yes, Fraulein was at home, she said; but—Krafft promptly entered, and himself closed the door.
Outside Louise’s room, he listened, with bent head. Having satisfied himself, he turned the handle of the door and went in.
Louise stood at the window, watching the snow fall. It had snowed uninterruptedly since early morning; out of the leaden sky, flake after flake fluttered down, whirled, spun, and became part of the fallen mass. At the opening of the door, she did not stir; for it would only be Maurice coming back to ask forgiveness; and she was too unspeakably tired to begin all over again.
Krafft stood and eyed her, from the crown of her rough head, to the bedraggled tail of the dressing-gown.
“Gruss’ gott, Lulu!”
At the sound of his voice, she jumped round with a scream.
“You, Heinz! You!”
The blood suffused her face a purplish red; her voice was shrill with dismay; her eyes hung on the young man as though he were a returning spirit.
With an effort, she got the better of her first fright, and took a step towards him. “How dare you come into this room!”
Krafft hung his wet coat over the back of a chair, and wiped his face dry of the melted snow.
“No heroics, Lulu!”
But she could not contain herself. “Oh, how dare you, It’s a mean, dishonourable trick—only you would do it!”
“Sit down and listen to what I have to say. It won’t take long. And it’s to your own advantage, I think, not to make a noise.—May I smoke?”
She obeyed, taking the nearest chair; for she had begun to tremble; her legs shook under her. But when he held out the case of cigarettes to her, she struck it, and the contents were spilled on the floor.
“Look here, Lulu,” he said, and crossing his legs, put one hand in his pocket, while with the other he made gestures suitable to his words. “I’ve not come here to-day to rake up old sores. Time has gone over them and healed them, and it’s only your—nebenbei gesagt, extremely bad-conscience that makes you afraid of me. I’m not here for myself, but —”
“Heinz!” The cry escaped her against her will. “For him? You’ve come from him!”
He removed his cigarette and smiled. “Him? Which? Which of them do you mean?”
“Which?” It was another uncontrollable exclamation. Then the expression of almost savage joy that had lighted up her face, died out. “Oh, I know you! . . . know you and hate you, Heinz! I’ve never hated anyone as much as you.”
“And a woman of your temperament hates uncommonly well. —No, all jokes aside,”—the word cut her; he saw this, and repeated it. “Joking apart, I’ve come to you to-day, merely to ask if you don’t think your present little affair has gone far enough?”
She was as composed as he was. “What business is it of yours?”
“Oh, none. Except that the poor fool was once my friend.”
She gave a daring laugh, full of suggestion.
But Krafft was not put out by it. “Don’t do that again,” he said. “It sounds ugly; and you have nothing to do with ugliness, you know. No, I repeat once more: this is not a personal matter.”
“And you expect me to believe that?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
It was now she who smiled derisively. “Have you forgotten a certain evening in this room, three years ago?”
But he did not flinch. “Upon my word, if you are bold enough to recall that!—However, the reminder was unnecessary. Tell me now: aren’t you about done with Guest?”
For still a moment, she fought to keep up her show of dignity. Then she broke down. “Heinz!—oh, I don’t know! Oh, yes, yes, yes—a thousand times, yes! Oh, I’m so tired — I can’t tell you how tired I am—of the very sight of him! I never wanted him, believe me, I didn’t! He thrust himself on me. It was not my doing.”
“Oh, come now! Tell that to some one else.”
“Yes, I know: you only think the worst of me. But though I was weak, and yielded, anyone would have done the same. He gave me no peace.—But I’ve been punished out of all proportion to the little bit of happiness it brought me. There’s no more miserable creature alive than I am.”
“What interests me,” continued Krafft, in a matter-of-fact tone, “is, how you came to choose so far afield from your particular type. It’s well enough represented here.”
She saw the folly of wasting herself upon him, and gave a deep sigh. Then, however, the same wild change as before came over her face. Stooping, she took his hand and fondled it.
“Heinz! Now that you’re here, do one thing—only one — for me! Have pity on me! I’ve gone through so much—been so unhappy. Tell me—there’s only one thing I want to know. Where is he? Will he never come back? For you know. You must know. You have seen him.”
She had sunk to her knees; her head was bent over his hand; she laid her cheek against it. Krafft considered her thoughtfully; his eye dwelt with approval on the broad, slender shoulders, the lithe neck—all the sure grace of the crouching body.
“Will you do something for me, Lulu?”
“Then let your hair down.”
He himself drew out the pins and combs that held it, and the black mass fell, and lay in wide, generous waves round face and neck.
“That’s the idea! Now go on.”
Louise kissed his hand. “Tell me; you must know.”
“But is it possible that still interests you?”
“Oh, no! My life depends on it, that’s all. You are cruel and bad; but still I can speak to you—for months now, I haven’t had a soul to speak to. Be kind to me this once, Heinz. I can’t go on living without him. I haven’t lived since he left me—not an hour!—Oh, you’re my last hope!”
“You’ll have plenty of hopes in your life yet.”
“In those old days, you hated me, too. But don’t bear malice now. There’s nothing I won’t do for you, if you tell me. I’ll never speak to—never even think of you again.”
“I’m not so long-suffering.”
“Then you won’t tell me?”
“I didn’t say that.”
She crushed his hand between hers. “Here’s the chance you asked for—to save your friend! Oh, won’t you understand?”
An inward satisfaction, of which only he himself knew the cause, warmed Krafft through at seeing her prostrate before him. But as he continued to look at her, a thought crossed his mind, and quickly resolved, he laid his cigarette on the table, and put his hands, first on her head, amid the tempting confusion of her hair, which met them like a thick stuff pleasant to the touch, and from there to her shoulders, inclining her towards him. She looked up, and though her eyes were full of tears, her white face was alight in an instant with hope again, as he said: “Would you do something else for me if I told you?”
She strained back, so that she might see his face. “Heinz!—what is it?” And then, with a sudden gasp of comprehension:
“Oh, if that’s all!—I will never see Maurice Guest again.”
“That’s not it.”
“What is it then?”
“Will you listen quietly?”
“Yes, yes.” She ceased to draw back, let herself be held. But he felt her trembling.
He whispered a few words in her ear. Almost simultaneously she jerked her head away, and, turning a dark red, stared incredulously at him. Then she sprang to her feet.
“Oh, what a fool I am! To believe, for one instant, there was a human spot in you I could get at!—Take your hands away—take them off me! Because I’ve had no one to speak to for so long: because I know you could understand if you would—Oh, when a woman is down, anyone may hit her.”
“Gently, gently!—You’re too good for such phrases.”
“I’m no different from other women. It’s only you—with your horrible thoughts of me. You! Why, you’re no more to me than the floor I stand on.”
“And matters are simplified by that very fact.—I can give you his address, Lulu.”
“Go away! I may hurt you. I could kill you.—Go away!”
“And this,” said Krafft, as he put on his coat again, “is how a woman listens quietly. Well, Lulu, think it over. A word at any time will bring me, if you change your mind.”
One evening, about a week later, Maurice entered Seyffert’s Cafe. The heavy snowfall had been succeeded by a period of thaw—of slush and gloom; and, on this particular night, a keen wind had risen, making the streets seem doubly cheerless. It was close on nine o’clock, and Seyffert’s was crowded with its usual guests—young people, who had escaped from more or less dingy rooms to the warmth and light of the cafe, where the yellow blinds were drawn against the inclement night. The billiard table in the centre was never free; those players whose turn had not yet come, or was over, stood round it, cigarette or large black cigar in hand, and watched the game.
Maurice had difficulty in finding a seat. When he did, it was at a table for two, in a corner. A youth who had already eaten his supper, sat alone there, picking his teeth. Maurice took the opposite chair, and made his evening meal with a languid appetite. At the other side of the room was a large and boisterous party, whose leader was Krafft—Krafft in his most outrageous mood. Every other minute, his sallies evoked roars of laughter. Maurice refrained from glancing in that direction. When, however, his vis-a-vis got up and went away, he was startled from his conning of the afternoon paper by seeing Krafft before him. The latter, who carried his beer-mug in his hand, took the vacated seat, nodded and smiled.
Maurice was on his guard at once; for it seemed to him that they were being watched by the party Krafft had left. Putting down the newspaper, he wished his friend good-evening.
“I’ve something to say to you,” said Krafft without responding, and, having drained his glass, he clapped the lid to attract the waiter’s attention.
With the over-anxious readiness to oblige, which was becoming one of his most marked traits, and, in reality, cloaked a deathly indifference, Maurice hung up his paper, and sat forward to listen. Crossing his arms on the table, Krafft began to speak, meanwhile fixing his companion with his eye. Maurice was at first too bewildered by what he heard to know to whom the words referred. Then, the colour mounted to his face; the nerves in his temples began to throb; and his hand moved along the edge of the table, in search of something to which it could hold fast.—It was the first time the name of Louise had been mentioned between them—and in what a tone!
“Heinz!” he said at last; his voice seemed not to be his own. “How dare you speak of Miss Dufrayer like that!”
“Pardon!” said Krafft; his flushed, transparent cheeks were aglow, his limpid eyes shone like stars. “Do you mean Lulu?”
Maurice grew pale. “Mind what you’re saying!”
Krafft took a gulp of beer. “Are you afraid of the truth?—But just one word, and I’m done. You no doubt knew, as every one else did, that Lulu was Schilsky’s mistress. What you didn’t know, was this;” and now, without the least attempt at palliation, without a single extenuating word, there fell from his lips the quick and witty narration of an episode in which Louise and he had played the chief parts. It was the keynote of their relations to each other: the story, grossly told, of a woman’s unsatisfied fancy.
Before the pitiless details, not one of which was spared him, were checked off, Maurice understood; half rising from his chair, he struck Krafft a resounding blow in the face. He had intended to hit the mouth, but, his hand remaining fully open, caught on the cheek, and with such force that the delicate skin instantly bore a white imprint of all five fingers.
Only the people in their immediate neighbourhood saw what had happened; but these sprang up; a girl gave a nervous cry; and in a minute, the further occupants of the room had gathered round them, the billiard-players with their cues in their hands. Two waiters, napkin on arm, hastened up, and the proprietor came out from an inner room, and rubbed his hands.
“Meine herren! Meine herren!”
Krafft had jumped to his feet; he was also unable to refrain from putting his hand to his tingling face. Maurice, who was very pale, stood staring, like a person in a trance, at the mark, now deep red, which his hand had left on his friend’s cheek. There was a solemn pause; all eyes were fixed on Krafft; and the stillness was only broken by the proprietor’s persuasive: “Meine herren! Meine herren!”
In half a minute Krafft had collected himself. Turning, he jauntily waved his hand to those pressing up behind; though one side of his face still blazed and burned.
“Don’t allow yourselves to be disturbed, gentlemen. The incident is closed—for the present, at least. My friend here was carried away by a momentary excitement. Kindly resume your seats, and act as if nothing had happened. I shall call him to account at my own convenience.—But just one moment, please!”
The last words were addressed to Maurice. Opening a notebook, Krafft tore out one of the little pages, and, with his customary indolence of movement, wrote something on it. Then he folded it through the middle, and across again, and gave it to Maurice.
Maurice took it, because there seemed nothing else for him to do; he also, for the same reason, took his coat and hat, which some one handed to him. He saw nothing of what went on—nothing but the five outspread marks, which had run together so slowly. He had, however, enough presence of mind to do what was evidently expected of him; and, in the hush that still prevailed, he left the cafe.
The wind sent a blast in his face. Round the corners of the streets, which it was briskly scavenging, it swept in boisterous gusts, which beat the gas-flames flat as soon as they reared themselves, and made them give a wavering, uncertain light. Not a soul was visible. But in the moment that he stood hesitating outside the brilliancy of the yellow blinds, the hubbub of voices burst forth again. He moved hastily away, and began to walk, to put distance between himself and the place. He did not shrink before the wind-scourged meadows, but fought his way forward, till he reached the woods. There he threw himself face downwards on the first bench he came to.
A smell of rotting and decay met his nostrils: as if, from the thousands of leaves, mouldering under the trees on which they had once hung, some invisible hand had set free thousands of odours, there mounted to him, as he lay, all that rich and humid earthiness that belongs to sunless places. And for a time, he was conscious of little else but this morbid fragrance.
An open brawl! He had struck a man in the face before a crowd of onlookers, and had as good as been ejected from their midst. From now on, he was an outcast from orderly society, was branded as one who was not wholly responsible for his actions—he, Maurice Guest, who had ever been so chary of committing himself. What made the matter seem still blacker, too, in his own eyes, was the fact of Krafft having once been his intimate, personal friend. Now, he could never even think of him again, without, at the same time, seeing the mark of his hand on Krafft’s cheek. If the blow had remained invisible, it might have been more easily forgotten; but he had seen it, as it were, taken shape before him.—Or, had it only been returned, it would have helped to lessen the weight of his present abasement—oh, he would have given all he had to have felt a return blow on his own face! Even the smallest loss of self-control on the part of Krafft would have been enough. But the latter was too proud to give himself away gratuitously: he preferred to take his revenge in the more unconventional fashion of leaving his friend to bear the ignominy alone.
Maurice lay stabbing himself with these and similar thoughts. Only little by little did the tumult that had been roused in him abate. Then, and just the more vividly for the break in his memory, the gross words Krafft had said, came back to him. Recalling them, he felt an intense bitterness against Louise. She was the cause of all his sufferings; were it not for her, he might still be leading a quiet, decent life. It was her doing that he was compelled to part, bit by bit, with his self-respect. Not once, in all the months they had been together, had the smallest good come to him through her. Nothing but misery.
Now, he had no further rest where he was. He must go to her, and tax her with it, repeat what Krafft had said, to her very face. She should suffer, too—and the foretasted anguish and pleasure of hot recriminations dulled all other feelings in him.
He rose, chilled to the bone from his exposure; one hand, which had hung down over the bench, was wet and sticky from grasping handfuls of dead leaves.
It was past eleven o’clock. Louise wakened with a start, and, at the sight of his muddy, dishevelled dress, rose to her elbow.
“What is it? What’s the matter? Where have you been?”
He stood at the foot of the bed, and looked at her. The loose masses of her hair, which had come unplaited, arrested his attention: he had never seemed to know before how brutally black it was. With his eyes fixed on it, he repeated what Krafft had told him.
Louise lay with the back of one hand on her forehead, and watched him from under it. When he had finished, she said: “So Heinz has raked up that old story again, has he?”
Maurice had expected—yes, what had he expected? — anger, perhaps, or denial, or, it might be, vituperation; only not the almost impartial composure with which she listened to him. For he had not spared her a word.
“Is that all you’ve got to say?” he cried, suffocated with doubt. “Then you . . . you admit it?”
“Admit it! Maurice! Are you crazy?—to wake me up for this! It happened years ago!”
His recoil of disgust was too marked to be ignored. Louise half sat up in bed again, supporting herself on one hand. Her nightgown was not buttoned; he saw to the waist a strip of the white skin beneath, saw, too, how a long black strand of her hair fell in and lay on it.
“You won’t tell me you didn’t know from the first there had been . . . something between Heinz and me?” she cried, roused to defend herself. —“And look here, Maurice, as he told you that, it’s my turn now. I’ll tell you why! “And sitting still more upright, she gave a reason which made him grasp the knob of the bed-post so fiercely that it came away in his hand. He threw it into a corner.
“Louise! . . . you! to take such words on your tongue! Is there no shame left in you?” His throat was dry and narrow.
“Shame! You only mean the need for concealment. Before you had got me, there was no talk of shame.”
“Do you know what you’re saying?”
“Oh, that’s your eternal cry!” and, suddenly spurred to anger, she rose again. “I know—yes, I know! Do you think I’m a fool? Why must you alone be so innocent! Why should you alone not know that I was only jealous of a single person, and that was Krafft?”
Maurice turned away. In the comparative darkness behind the screen, he sat down on the sofa, put his arms on the table, and his head on his arms. He was exhausted, and found he must have slept as he sat; for when he lifted his head again, the hands of the clock had moved forward by several hours.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59