Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson


He shunned Madeleine for days after this. He was morose and unhappy, and brooded darkly over the baseness of wagging tongues. For the first time in his life he had come into touch with slander, that invisible Hydra, and straightway it seized upon the one person to whom he was not indifferent. In this mood it was a relief to him that certain three windows in the Bruderstrasse remained closed and shuttered; with the load of malicious gossip fresh on his mind, he chose rather not to see her; he must first accustom himself to it, as to the scar left by a wound.

He did not, of course, believe what Madeleine, with her infernal frankness, had told him; but the knowledge that such a report was abroad, depressed him unspeakably: it took colour from the sky and light from the sun. Sometimes in these days, as he sat at his piano, he had a sudden fit of discouragement, which made it seem not worth while to continue playing. It was unthinkable that she could be aware how busy scandal was with her name, and how her careless acts were spied on and misrepresented; and he turned over in his mind ways and means by which she might be induced to take more thought for herself in future.

He did not believe it; but hours of distracting uncertainty came, none the less, when small things which his memory had stored up made him go so far as to ask himself, what if it should be true?—what then? But he had not courage enough to face an answer; he put the possibility away from him, in the extreme background of his mind, refused to let his brain piece its observations together. The mere suspicion was a blasphemy, a blasphemy against her dignified reserve, against her sweet pale face, her supreme disregard of those about her. Not thus would guilt have shown itself.

Schilsky, who was the origin of all the evil, he made wide circuits to avoid. He thought of him, at this time, with what he believed to be a feeling of purely personal antipathy. In his most downcast moments, he had swift and foolish visions publicly executing vengeance on him; but if, a moment later, he saw the violinist’s red hair or big hat before him in the street, he turned aside as though the other had been plague-struck. Once, however, when he was going up the steps of the Conservatorium, and Schilsky, in leaping down, pushed carelessly against him, he returned the knock so rudely and swore with such downrightness that, in spite of his hurry, Schilsky stopped and fixed him, and with equal vehemence damned him for a fool of an Englishman.

His despondency spread like a weed. A furious impatience overcame him, too, at the thought of the innumerable hours he would be forced to spend at the piano, day in, day out, for months to come, before the result could be compared with the achievements even of many a fellow-student. As the private lessons Schwarz gave were too expensive for him, he decided, as a compromise, to take a course of extra lessons with Furst, who prepared pupils for the master, and was quite willing to come to terms, in other words, who taught for what he could get.

Once a week, then, for the rest of the summer, Maurice climbed the steep, winding stair of the house in the Brandvorwerkstrasse where Furst lived with his mother. It was so dark on this stair that, in dull weather, ill-trimmed lamps burnt all day long on the different landings. To its convolutions, in its unaired corners, clung what seemed to be the stale, accumulated smells of years; and these were continually reinforced; since every day at dinnertime, the various kitchen-windows, all of which gave on the stair, were opened to let the piercing odours of cooking escape. The house, like the majority of its kind in this relatively new street, was divided into countless small lodgings; three families, with three rooms apiece, lived on each storey, and on the fifth floor, at the top of the house, the same number of rooms was let out singly. Part of the third storey was occupied by a bird-fancier; and between him and the Fursts above waged perpetual war, one of those petty, unending wars that can only arise and be kept up when, as here, such heterogeneous elements are forced to live side by side, under one roof. The fancier, although his business was nominally in the town, had enough of his wares beside him to make his house a lively, humming kind of place, and the strife dated back to a day when, the door standing temptingly ajar, Peter, the Fursts’ lean cat, had sneaked stealthily in upon this, to him, enchanted ground, and, according to the fancier, had caused the death, from fright, of a delicate canary, although the culprit had done nothing more than sit before the cage, licking his lips. This had happened several years ago, but each party was still fertile in planning annoyances for the other, and the females did not bow when they met. On the fourth floor, next the Fursts, lived a pale, harassed teacher, with a family which had long since outgrown its accommodation; for the wife was perpetually in childbed, and cots and cradles were the chief furniture of the house. As the critical moments of her career drew nigh, the “Frau Lehrer” complained, with an aggravated bitterness, of the unceasing music that went on behind the thin partition; and this grievance, together with the racy items of gossip left behind the midwife’s annual visit, like a trail of smoke, provided her and Furst’s mother with infinite food for talk. They were thick friends again a few minutes after a scene so lively that blows seemed imminent, and they met every morning on the landing, where, with broom or child in hand, they stood gossiping by the hour.

When Maurice rang, Frau Furst opened the door to him herself, having first cautiously examined him through the kitchen window. Drying her hands on her apron, she ushered him through the tiny entry—a place of dangers, pitch-dark as it was, and lumbered with chests and presses—into Franz’s room, the “best room” of the house. Here were collected a red plush suite, which was the pride of Frau Furst’s heart, and all the round, yellowing family photographs; here, too, stood the well-used Bechstein, pile upon pile of music, a couple of music-stands, a bust of Schubert, a faded, framed diploma. For years, assuredly, the windows had never been thrown wide open; the odours of stale coffee and forgotten dinners, of stove and warmed wood, of piano, music and beeswax: all these lay as it were in streaks in the atmosphere, and made it heavy and thought-benumbing.

A willing listener was worth more than gold to Frau Furst and here, the first time he came, while waiting for Franz, Maurice heard in detail the history of the family. The father had been an oboist in the Gewandhaus orchestra, and had died a few years previously, of a chill incurred after a performance of Die meistersinger. At his death, it had fallen on Franz to support the family; and, thanks to Schwarz’s aid and influence, Franz was able to get as many pupils as he had time to teach. It was easy to see that this, her eldest son, was the apple of Frau Furst’s eye; her other children seemed to be there only to meet his needs; his lightest wish was law. Each additional pupil that sought him out, was a fresh tribute to his genius, each one that left him, no matter after how long, was unthankful and a traitor. For the nights on which his quartet met at the house, she prepared as another woman would for a personal fete; and she watched the candles grow shorter without a tinge of regret. When Franz played at an Abendunterhaltung, the family turned out in a body. Schwarz was a god, all-powerful, on whom their welfare depended; and it was necessary to propitiate him by a quarterly visit on a Sunday morning, when, over wine and biscuits, she wept real and feigned tears of gratitude.

In this hard-working, careworn woman, who was seldom to be seen but in petticoat, bed-jacket, and heelless, felt shoes; who, her whole life long, had been little better than a domestic servant; in her there existed a devotion to art which had never wavered. It would have seemed to her contrary to nature that Franz should be anything but a musician, and it was also quite in the order of things for them to be poor. Two younger boys, who were still at school, gave up all their leisure time to music—they had never in their lives tumbled round a football or swung a bat—and Franz believed that the elder would prove a skilful violinist. Of the little girls, one had a pure voice and a good ear, and was to be a singer—for before this Juggernaut, prejudice went down. Had anyone suggested to Frau Furst that her daughter should be a clerk, even a teacher, she would have flung up hands of horror; but music!—that was a different matter. It was, moreover, the single one of the arts, in which this staunch advocate of womanliness granted her sex a share.

“Ask Franz,” she said to Maurice. “Franz knows. He will explain. All women can do is to reproduce what some one else has thought or felt.”

As an immortal example of the limits set by sex, she invariably fell back on Clara Schumann, with whom she had more than once come into personal contact. In her youth, Frau Furst had had a clear soprano voice, and, to Maurice’s interest, she told him how she had sometimes been sent for to the Schumann’s house in the Inselstrasse, to sing Robert’s songs for him.

“Clara accompanied me,” she said, relating this, the great reminiscence of her life; “and he was there, too, although I never saw him face to face. He was too shy for that. But he was behind a screen, and sometimes he would call: ‘I must alter that; it is too high;’ or ‘Quicker, quicker!’ Sometimes even ‘Bravo!’”

Her motherly ambitions for Franz knew no bounds. One of the few diversions she allowed herself was a visit to the theatre—when Franz had tickets given to him; when one of her favourite operas was performed; or on the anniversary of her husband’s death—and, on such occasions, she pointed out to the younger children, the links that bound and would yet bind them to the great house.

“That was your father’s seat,” she reminded them every time. “The second row from the end. He came in at the door to the left. And that,” pointing to the conductor’s raised chair, “is where Franz will sit some day.” For she dreamed of Franz in all the glory of Kapellmeister; saw him swinging the little stick that dominated the theatre-audience, singers and players alike.

And the children, hanging over the high gallery, shuffling their restless feet, thus had their path as dearly traced for them, their destiny as surely sealed, as any fate-shackled heroes of antiquity.

* * * * *

Late one afternoon about this time, Franz might have been found together with his friends Krafft and Schilsky, at the latter’s lodging in the Talstrasse. He was astride a chair, over the back of which he had folded his arms; and his chubby, rubicund face glistened with moisture.

In the middle of the room, at the corner of a bare deal table that was piled with loose music and manuscript, Schilsky sat improving and correcting the tails and bodies of hastily made, notes. He was still in his nightshirt, over which he had thrown coat and trousers; and, wide open at the neck, it exposed to the waist a skin of the dead whiteness peculiar to red-haired people. His face, on the other hand, was sallow and unfresh; and the reddish rims of the eyes, and the coarsely self-indulgent mouth, contrasted strikingly with the general youthfulness of his appearance. He had the true musician’s head: round as a cannon-ball, with a vast, bumpy forehead, on which the soft fluffy hair began far back, and stood out like a nimbus. His eyes were either desperately dreamy or desperately sharp, never normally attentive or at rest; his blunted nose and chin were so short as to make the face look top-heavy. A carefully tended young moustache stood straight out along his cheeks. He had large, slender hands, and quick movements.

The air of the room was like a thin grey veiling, for all three puffed hard at cigarettes. Without removing his from between his teeth, Schilsky related an adventure of the night before. He spoke in jerks, with a strong lisp, intent on what he was doing than on what he was saying.

“Do you think he’d budge?” he asked in a thick, spluttery way. “Not he. Till nearly two. And then I couldn’t get him along. He thought it wasn’t eleven, and wanted to relieve himself at every corner. To irritate an imaginary bobby. He disputed with them, too. Heavens, what sport it was! At last I dragged him up here and got him on the sofa. Off he rolls again. So I let him lie. He didn’t disturb me.”

Heinrich Krafft, the hero of the episode lay on the short, uncomfortable sofa, with the table-cover for a blanket. In answer to Schilsky, he said faintly, without opening his eyes: “Nothing would. You are an ox. When I wake this morning, with a mouth like gum arabic, he sits there as if he had not stirred all night. Then to bed, and snores till midday, through all the hellish light and noise.”

Here Furst could not resist making a little joke. He announced himself by a chuckle-like the click of a clock about to strike.

“He’s got to make the most of his liberty. He doesn’t often get off duty. We know, we know.” He laughed tonelessly, and winked at Krafft.

Krafft quoted:

In der Woche zwier —

“Now, you fellows, shut up!” said Schilsky. It was plain that banter of this kind was not disagreeable to him; at the same time he was just at the moment too engrossed, to have more than half an car for what was said. With his short-sighted eyes close to the paper, he was listening with all his might to some harmonies that his fingers played on the table. When, a few minutes later he rose and stretched the stiffness from his limbs, his face, having lost its expression of rapt concentration, seemed suddenly to have grown younger. He set about dressing himself by drawing off his nightshirt over his head. At a word from him, Furst sprang to collect utensils for making coffee. Heinrich Krafft opened his eyes and followed their movements; and the look he had for Schilsky was as warily watchful as a cat’s.

Schilsky, an undeveloped Hercules—he was narrow in proportion to his height—and still naked to the waist, took some bottles from a long line of washes and perfumes that stood on the washstand, and, crossing to an elegant Venetian-glass mirror, hung beside the window, lathered his chin. It was a peculiarity of his only to be able to attend thoroughly to one thing at a time, and a string of witticisms uttered by Furst passed unheeded. But Krafft’s first words made him start.

Having watched him for some time, the latter said slowly. “I say, old fellow, are you sure it’s all square about Lulu and this Dresden business?”

Razor in hand, Schilsky turned and looked at him. As he did so, he coloured, and answered with an over-anxious haste: “Of course I am. I made her go. She didn’t want to”

“That’s a well-known trick.”

The young man scowled and thrust out his under-lip. “Do you think I’m not up to their tricks? Do you want to teach me how to manage a woman? I tell you I sent her away.”

He tried to continue shaving, but was visibly uneasy. “Well, if you won’t believe me,” he said, with sudden anger, though neither of the others had spoken. “Now where the deuce is that letter?”

He rummaged among the music and papers on the table; in chaotic drawers; beneath dirty, fat-scaled dinner-dishes on the washstand; between door and stove, through a kind of rubbishheap that had formed with time, of articles of dress, spoiled sheets of music-paper, soiled linen, empty bottles, and boots, countless boots, single and in pairs. When he had found what he looked for, he ran his eyes down the page, as if he were going to read it aloud. Then, however, he changed his mind; a boyish gratification overspread his face, and, tossing the letter to Krafft, he bade them read it for themselves. Furst leaned over the end of the sofa. It was written in English, in a bold, scrawly hand, and ran, without date or heading:

My own dearest

Now only four days more—I count them morning and night. I am good for nothing—My thoughts are always with you. Yesterday at the gallery I sat alone in the room where the Madonna is, pretending enthusiasm—while the rest went to Holbein—and read your letter over and over again. But it made me a little unhappy too, for I soon found out that you had written it at three different times. Is it really so hard to write to Lulu?

Have you worked better for want of interruption?—My damned interruptions, as you called them last week when you were so angry with me. Shall you have a great deal to show me when I come home? No—don’t say you will—or I shall hate Zarathustra more than I do already.

And now only till Friday. This time you will meet me yes?—And not come to the station an hour late, as you said you did last time. If you are not there—I warn you—I shall throw myself under the train. I am writing, to Grunhut. Get flowers—there is money in one of the vases on the writing-table. Oh, if you only will, we shall have such a happy evening—if only you will. And I shall never leave you again, never again.

Your own loving, L.

Furst could not make out much of this; he was still spelling through the first paragraph when Krafft had finished. Schilsky, who had gone on dressing, kept a sharp eye on his friends—particularly on Krafft.

“Well?” he asked eagerly as the letter was laid down.

Krafft was silent, but Furst kissed his finger-tips to a large hanging photograph of the girl in question, and was facetious on the subject of dark, sallow women.

“And you, Heinz? What do you say?” demanded Schilsky with growing impatience.

Still Krafft did not reply, and Schilsky was mastered by a violent irritation.

“Why the devil can’t you open your mouth? What’s the matter with you? Have You anything like that to show—you Joseph, you?”

Krafft let a waxen hand drop over the side of the sofa and trail on the floor. “The letters were burned, dear boy — when you appeared.” He closed his eyes and smiled, seeming to remember something. But a moment later, he fixed Schilsky sharply, and asked: “You want my opinion, do you?”

“Of course I do,” said Schilsky, and flung things about the room.

“Lulu,” said Krafft with deliberation, “Lulu is getting you under her thumb.”

The other sprang up, swore, and aimed a boot, which he had been vainly trying to put on the wrong foot, at a bottle that protruded from the rubbish-heap.

“Me? Me under her thumb?” he spluttered—his lips became more marked under excitement. “I should like to see her try it. You don’t know me. You don’t know Lulu. I am her master, I tell you. She can’t call her soul her own.”

“And yet,” said Krafft, unmoved, “it’s a fact all the same.”

Schilsky applied a pair of curling tongs to his hair, at such a degree of heat that a lock frizzled, and came off in his hand. His anger redoubled. “Is it my fault that she acts like a wet-nurse? Is that what you call being under her thumb?” he cried.

Furst tried to conciliate him and to make peace. “You’re a lucky dog, old fellow, and you know you are. We all know it—in spite of occasional tantaras. But you would be still luckier if you took a friend’s sound advice and got you to the registrar. Ten minutes before the registrar, and everything would be different. Then she might play up as she liked; you would be master in earnest.”

“Registrar?” echoed Krafft with deep scorn. “Listen to the ape! Not if we can hinder it. When he’s fool enough for that—I know him—it will be with something fresher and less faded, something with the bloom still on it.”

Schilsky winced as though he had been struck. Her age — she was eight years older than he—was one of his sorest points.

“Oh, come on, now,” said Furst as he poured out the coffee. “That’s hardly fair. She’s not so young as she might be, it’s true, but no one can hold a candle to her still. Lulu is Lulu.”

“Ten minutes before the registrar,” continued Krafft, meditatively shaking his head. “And for the rest of life, chains. And convention. And security, which stales. And custom, which satiates. Oh no, I am not for matrimony!”

Schilsky’s ill-humour evaporated in a peal of boisterous laughter. “Yes, and tell us why, chaste Joseph, tell us why,” he cried, throwing a brush at his friend. “Or go to the devil—where you’re at home.”

Krafft warded off the brush. “Look here,” he said, “confess. Have you kissed another girl for months? Have you had a single billet-doux?”

But Schilsky only winked provokingly. Having finished laughing, he said with emphasis: “But after Lulu, they are all tame. Lulu is Lulu, and that’s the beginning and end of the matter.”

“Exactly my opinion,” said Furst. “And yet, boys, if I wanted to make your mouths water, I could.” He closed one eye and smacked his lips. “I know of something—something young and blond . . . and dimpled . . . and round, round as a feather-pillow”— he made descriptive movements of the hand —“with a neck, boys, a neck, I say ——” Here in sheer ecstasy, he stuck fast, and could get no further.

Schilsky roared anew. “He knows of something . . . so he does,” he cried—Furst’s pronounced tastes were a standing joke among them. “Show her to us, old man, show her to us! Where are you hiding her? If she’s under eighteen, she’ll do—under eighteen, mind you, not a day over. Come along, I’m on for a spree. Up with you, Joseph!”

He was ready, come forth from the utter confusion around him, like a god from a cloud. He wore light grey clothes, a loosely knotted, bright blue tie, with floating ends and conspicuous white spots, and buttoned boots of brown kid. Hair and handkerchief were strongly scented.

Krafft, having been prevailed on to rise, made no further toilet than that of dipping his head in a basin of water, which stood on the tail of the grand piano. His hair emerged a mass of dripping ringlets, covetously eyed by his companions.

They walked along the streets, Schilsky between the others, whom he overtopped by head and shoulders: three young rebels out against the Philistines: three bursting charges of animal spirits.

There was to be a concert that evening at the Conservatorium, and, through vestibule and entrance-halls, which, for this reason, were unusually crowded, the young men made a kind of triumphal progress. Especially Schilsky. Not a girl, young or old, but peddled for a word or a look from him; and he was only too prodigal of insolently expressive glances, whispered greetings, and warm pressures of the hand. The open flattery and bold adoration of which he was the object mounted to his head; he felt secure in his freedom, and brimful of selfconfidence; and, as the three of them walked back to the town, his exhilaration, a sheer excess of well-being, was no longer to be kept within decent bounds.

“Wait!” he cried suddenly as they were passing the Gewandhaus. “Wait a minute! See me make that woman there take a fit.”

He ran across the road to the opposite pavement, where the only person in sight, a stout, middle-aged woman, was dragging slowly along, her arms full of parcels; and, planting himself directly in front of her, so that she was forced to stop, he seized both her hands and worked them up and down.

“Now upon my soul, who would have thought of seeing you here, you baggage, you?” he cried vociferously.

The woman was speechless from amazement; her packages fell to the ground, and she gazed open-mouthed at the wild-haired lad before her, making, at the same time, vain attempts to free her hands.

“No, this really is luck,” he went on, holding her fast. “Come, a kiss, my duck, just one! Ein kusschen in ehren, you know ——” and, in very fact, he leaned forward and pecked at her cheek.

The blood dyed her face and she panted with rage.

“You young scoundrel!” she gasped. “You impertinent young dog! I’ll give you in charge. I’ll—I’ii report you to the police. Let me go this instant—this very instant, do you hear?—or I’ll scream for help.”

The other two had come over to enjoy the fun. Schilsky turned to them with a comical air of dismay, and waved his arm. “Well I declare, if I haven’t been and made a mistake!” he exclaimed, and slapped his forehead. “I’m out by I don’t know how much—by twenty years, at least. No thank you, Madam, keep your kisses! You’re much too old and ugly for me.”

He flourished his big hat in her face, pirouetted on his heel, and the three of them went down the street, hallooing with laughter.

They had supper together at the Bavaria, Schilsky standing treat; for they had gone by way of the Bruderstrasse, where he called in to investigate the vase mentioned in the letter. Afterwards, they commenced an informal wandering from one haunt to another, now by themselves, now with stray acquaintances. Krafft, who was still enfeebled by the previous night, and who, under the best of circumstances, could not carry as much as his friends, was the first to give in. For a time, they got him about between them. Then Furst grew obstreperous, and wanted to pour his beer on the floor as soon as it was set before him, so that they were put out of two places, in the second of which they left Krafft. But the better half of the night was over before Schilsky was comfortably drunk, and in a state to unbosom himself to a sympathetic waitress, about the hardship it was to be bound to some one older than yourself. He shed tears of pity at his lot, and was extremely communicative. “‘N korper, scha-age ihnen, ‘N korper!” but old, old, a “Halb’sch jahrUnd’rt” older than he was, and desperately jealous.

“It’s too bad; such a nice young man as you are,” said the Mamsell, who, herself not very sober, was sitting at ease on his knee, swinging her legs. “But you nice ones are always chicken-hearted. Treat her as she deserves, my chuck, and make no bones about it. Just let her rip—and you stick to me!”

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