Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson


Meanwhile, before the blinds in the Bruderstrasse were drawn up again, Maurice had found his way back to Madeleine. When they met, she smiled at him in a somewhat sarcastic manner, but no reference was made to the little falling-out they had had, and they began afresh to read and play together. On the first afternoon, Maurice was full of his new friends, and described them at length to her. But Madeleine damped his ardour.

“I know them, yes, of course,” she said. “The usual Americans—even the blue-stocking, from whom heaven defend us. The little one is pretty enough as long as she keeps her mouth shut. But the moment she speaks, every illusion is shattered.—Why I don’t go there on a Sunday? Good gracious, do you think they want me?—me, or any other petticoat? Are honours made to be divided?—No, Maurice, I don’t like Americans. I was once offered a position in America, as ‘professor of piano and voice-production’ in a place called Schenectady; but I didn’t hesitate. I said to myself, better one hundred a year in good old England, than five in a country where the population is so inflated with its importance that I should always be in danger of running amuck. And besides that, I should lose my accent, and forget how to say ‘leg’; while the workings of the stomach would be discussed before me with an unpleasant freedom.”

“You’re too hard on them, Madeleine,” said Maurice, smiling in spite of himself. But he was beginning to stand in awe of her sharp tongue and decided opinions; and, in the week that followed, he took himself resolutely together, and did not let a certain name cross his lips.

Consequently, he was more than surprised on returning to his room one day, to find a note from Madeleine, saying that she expected Louise that very afternoon at three.

It was not news to Maurice that Louise had come home. The evening before, as he turned out of the Bruderstrasse, a closed droschke turned into it. After the vehicle had lumbered past him and disappeared, the thought crossed his mind that she might be inside it. He had not then had time to go back but early this very morning, he had passed the house and found the windows open. So Madeleine had engaged her immediately! As usual, Furst had kept him waiting for his lesson; it was nearly three o’clock already, and he was so hurried that he could only change his collar; but, on the way there, in a sudden spurt of gratitude, he ran to a flower-shop, and bought a large bunch of carnations.

He arrived at Madeleine’s room in an elation he did not try to hide; and over the carnations they had a mock reconciliation. Madeleine wished to distribute the flowers in different vases about the room, but he asked her put them all together on the centre table. She laughed and complied.

For several weeks now, musical circles had been in a stir over the advent of a new piano-teacher named Schrievers—a person who called himself a pupil of Liszt, held progressive views, arid, being a free lance, openly ridiculed the antiquated methods of the Conservatorium. Madeleine was extremely interested in the case, and, as they sat waiting, talked about it to Maurice with great warmth, enlarging especially upon the number of people who had the audacity to call themselves pupils of Liszt. To Maurice, in his present frame of mind, the matter seemed of no possible consequence—for all he cared, the whole population of the town might lay claim to having been at Weimar—and he could not understand Madeleine finding it important. For he was in one of those moods when the entire consciousness is so intently directed towards some end that, outside this end, nothing has colour or vitality: all that has previously impressed and interested one, has no more solidity than papier mache. Meanwhile she spoke on, and did not appear to notice how time was flying. He was forced at length to take out his watch, and exclaim, in feigned surprise, at the hour.

“A quarter to four already!”

“Is it so late?” But on seeing his disturbance, she added: “It will be all right. Louise was never punctual in her life.”

He did his best to look unconcerned, and they spoke of that evening’s Abendunterhaltung, at which Furst was to play. But by the time the clock struck four, Maurice had relapsed, in spite of himself, into silence. Madeleine rallied him.

“You must make shift with my company, Maurice. Not but what I am sure Louise will come. But you see from this what she is—the most unreliable creature in the world.”

To pass the time, she suggested that he should help her to make tea, and they were both busy, when the electric bell in the passage whizzed harshly, and the next moment there came a knock at the door. But it was not Louise. Instead, two persons entered, one of whom was Heinrich Krafft, the other a short, thickset girl, in a man’s felt hat and a closely buttoned ulster.

On recognising her visitors, Madeleine made a movement of annoyance, and drew her brows together. “You, Heinz!” she said.

Undaunted by this greeting, Krafft advanced to her and, taking her hands, kissed them, one after the other. He was also about to kiss her on the lips, but she defended herself. “Stop! We are not alone.”

“Just for that reason,” said the girl in the ulster drily.

“What ill wind blows you here to-day?” Madeleine asked him.

As he was still wearing his hat, she took it off, and dropped it on the floor beside him; then she recollected Maurice, and made him known to the other two. Coming forward, Maurice recalled to Krafft’s memory where they had already met, and what had passed between them. Before he had finished speaking, Krafft burst into an unmannerly peal of laughter. Madeleine laughed, too, and shook her finger at him. “You have been up to your tricks again!” Avery Hill, the girl in the ulster, did not laugh aloud, but a smile played round her mouth, which Maurice found even more disagreeable than the mirth of which he had been the innocent cause. He coloured, and withdrew to the window.

Krafft was so convulsed that he was obliged to sit down on the sofa, where Madeleine fanned him with a sheet of music. He had been seized by a kind of paroxysm, and laughed on and on, in a mirthless way, till Avery Hill said suddenly and angrily: “Stop laughing at once, Heinz! You will have hysterics.”

In an instant he was sobered, and now he seemed to fall, without transition, into a mood of dejection. Taking out his penknife, he set to paring his nails, in a precise and preoccupied manner. Madeleine turned to Maurice.

“You’ll wonder what all this is about,” she said apologetically. “But Heinz is never happier than when he has succeeded in imposing on some one—as he evidently did on you.”

“Indeed!” said Maurice. Their laughter had been offensive to him, and he found Krafft, and Madeleine with him, exceedingly foolish.

There was a brief silence. Krafft was absorbed in what he was doing, and Avery Hill, on sitting down, had lighted a cigarette, which she smoked steadily, in long-drawn whiffs. She was a pretty girl, in spite of her severe garb, in spite, too, of her expression, which was too composed and too self-sure to be altogether pleasing. Her face was fresh of skin, below smooth fair hair, and her lips were the red, ripe lips of Botticelli’s angels and Madonnas. But the under one, being fuller than the other, gave the mouth a look of over-decision, and it would be difficult to imagine anything less girlish than were the cold grey eyes.

“We came for the book you promised to lend Heinz,” she said, blowing off the spike of ash that had accumulated at the tip of the cigarette. “He could not rest till he had it.”

Madeleine placed a saucer on the table with the request to use it as an ash-tray, and taking down a volume of De Quincey from the hanging shelf, held it out to Krafft.

“There you are. It will interest me to hear what you make of it.”

Krafft ceased his paring to glance at the title-page. “I shall probably not open it,” he said.

Madeleine laughed, and gave him a light blow on the hand with the book. “How like you that is! As soon as you know that you can get a thing, you don’t want it any longer.”

“Yes, that’s Heinz all over,” said Avery Hill. “Only what he hasn’t got, seems worth having.”

Krafft shut his knife with a click, and put it back in his pocket.” And that’s what you women can’t understand, isn’t it?—that the best of things is the wishing for them. Once there, and they are nothing—only another delusion. The happiest man is the man whose wishes are never fulfilled. He always has a moon to cry for.”

“Come, come now,” said Madeleine. “We know your love for paradox. But not to-day. There’s no time for philosophising today. Besides, you are in a pessimistic mood, and that’s a bad sign.”

“I and pessimism? Listen, heart of my heart, I have a new story for you.” He moved closer to her, and put his arm round her neck. “There was once a man and his wife ——”

But, at the first word, Madeleine put her hands to her ears.

“Mercy, have mercy, Heinz! No stories, I entreat you. And behave yourself, too. Take your arm away.” She tried to remove it. “I have told you already, I can’t have you here to-day. I’m expecting a visitor.”

He laid his head on her shoulder. “Let him come. Let the whole world come. I don’t budge. I am happy here.”

“You must go and be happy elsewhere,” said Madeleine more decisively than she had yet spoken. “And before she comes, too.”

“She? What she?”

“Never mind.”

“For that very reason, Mada.”

She whispered a word in his ear. He looked at her, incredulously at first, then whimsically, with a sham dismay; and then, as if Maurice had only just taken shape for him, he turned and looked at him also, and from him to Madeleine, and back to him, finally bursting afresh into a roar of laughter. Madeleine laid her hand over his mouth. “Take him away, do,” she said to Avery Hill —“as a favour to me.”

“Yes, when I have finished my cigarette,” said the girl without stirring.

Unsettled all the same, it would seem, by what he had heard, Krafft rose and shuffled about the room, with his hands in his pockets. Approaching Maurice, he even stood for a moment and contemplated him, with a kind of mock gravity. Maurice acted as if he did not see Krafft; long since, he had taken up a magazine, and, half hidden in a chair between window and writing-table, pretended to bury himself in its contents. But he heard very plainly all that passed, and, at the effect produced on Krafft by the name of the expected visitor, his hands trembled with anger. If the fellow had stood looking at him for another second, he would have got up and knocked him down. But Krafft turned nonchalantly to the piano, where his attention was caught by a song that was standing on the rack. He chuckled, and set about making merciless fun of the music—the composer was an elderly singing-teacher, of local fame. Madeleine grew angry, and tried to take it from him.

“Hold your tongue, Heinz! If your own songs were more like this, they would have a better chance of success. Now be quiet! I won’t hear another word. Herr Wendling is a very good friend of mine.”

“A friend! Heavens! She says friend as if it were an excuse for him.—Mada, let your friend cease making music if he hopes for salvation. Let him buy a broom and sweep the streets—let him ——”

“You are disgusting!”

She had got the music from him, but he was already at the piano, parodying, from memory, the conventional accompaniment and sentimental words of the song. “And this,” he said, “from the learned ass who is not yet convinced that the Feuerzauber is music, and who groans like a dredge when the last act of Siegfried is mentioned. Wendling and Wagner! Listen to this!—for once, I am a full-blooded Wagnerite.”

He felt after the chords that prelude Brunnhilde’s awakening by Siegfried. Until now, Avery Hill had sat indifferent, as though what went on had nothing to do with her; but no sooner had Krafft commenced to play than she grew uneasy; her eyes lost their cold assurance, and, suddenly getting up and going round to the front of the piano, she pushed the young man’s hands from the keys. Krafft yielded his place to her, and, taking up the chords where he had left them, she went on. She played very well — even Maurice in his disturbance could, not but notice it — with a firm, masculine touch, and that inborn ease, that enviable appearance of perfect fitness, of being one with the instrument, which even the greatest players do not always attain. She had, besides, grip and rhythm, and long, close-knit hands insinuated themselves artfully among the complicated harmonies.

When she began to play, Madeleine made “Tch, tch, tch!” and shook her head, in despair of now ever being rid of them. Krafft remained standing behind the piano at the window leaning his forehead on the glass. Maurice, who watched them both surreptitiously, saw his face change, and grow thoughful as he stood there; but when Avery Hill ceased abruptly on a discord, he wheeled round at once and patted her on the back. While looking over to Maurice, he said: “No doubt you found that very pretty and affecting?”

“I think that’s none of your business,” said Maurice.

But Krafft did not take umbrage. “You don’t say so?” he murmured with a show of surprise.

“Now, go, go, go!” cried Madeleine. “What have I done to be subjected to such a visitation? No, Heinz, you don’t sit down again. Here’s your hat. Away with you!—or I’ll have you put out by force.”

And at last they really did go, to a cool bow from Maurice, who still sat holding his magazine. But Madeleine had hardly closed the door behind them, when, like a whirlwind, Krafft burst into the room again.

“Mada, I forgot to ask you something,” he said in a stage-whisper, drawing her aside. “Tell me—you Kupplerin, you!—does he know her?” He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb at Maurice.

Madeleine shook her head, in real vexation and distress, and laid a finger on her lip. But it was of no use. Stepping over to Maurice, Krafft bowed low, and held his hat against his breast.

“It is impossible for you to understand how deeply it has interested me to meet you,” he said. “Allow me, from the bottom of my heart, to wish you success.” Whereupon, before Maurice could say “damn!” he was gone again, leaving his elfin laugh behind him in the air, like smoke.

Madeleine shut the door energetically and gave a sigh of relief.

“Thank goodness! I thought they would never go. And now, the chances are, they’ll run into Louise on the stairs. You’ll wonder why I was so bent on getting rid of them. It’s a long story. I’ll tell it to you some other time. But if Louise had found them here when she came, she would not have stayed. She won’t have anything to do with Heinz.”

“I don’t wonder at it,” said Maurice. He stood up and threw the magazine on the table.

Madeleine displayed more astonishment than she felt. “Why what’s the matter? You’re surely not going to take what Heinz said, seriously? He was in a bad mood to-day, I know, and I noticed you were very short with him. But you mustn’t be foolish enough to be offended by him. No one ever is. He is allowed to say and do just what he likes. He’s our spoilt child.”

Maurice laughed. “The fellow is either a cad, or an unutterable fool. You, Madeleine, may find his impertinence amusing. I tell you candidly, I don’t!” and he went on to make it clear to her that the fault would not be his, were Krafft and he ever in the same room together again. “The kind of man one wants to kick downstairs. What the deuce did he mean by guffawing like that when you told him who was coming?”

“You mean about Louise?” Madeleine gave a slight shrug. “Yes, Maurice—unfortunately that was not to be avoided. But sit down again, and let me explain things to you. When you hear ——”

But he did not want explanations; he did not even want an answer to the question he had put; his chief concern now was to get away. To stay there, in that room, for another quarter of an hour, would be impossible, on such tenterhooks was he. To stay—for what? Only to listen to more slanderous hints, of the kind he had heard before. As it was, he did not believe he could face her frankly, should she still come. He felt as if, in some occult way, he had assisted at a tampering with her good name.

“You will surely not be so childish?” said Madeleine, on seeing him take up his hat.

“Childish?—you call it childish?” he exclaimed, growing angry with her, too. “Do you know what time it is? Three o’clock, you write me, and it’s now a quarter past five. I have sat here doing nothing for over two mortal hours. It seems to me that’s enough, without being made the butt of your friends’ wit into the bargain. I’m sick of the whole thing. Good-bye.”

“We seem bound to quarrel,” said Madeleine calmly. “And always about Louise. But there’s no use in being angry. I am not responsible for what Heinz says and does. And on the mere chance of his coming in to-day, to sit down and unroll another savoury story to you, about your idol—would you have thanked me for it? Remember the time I did try to open you eyes!—It’s not fair either to blame me because Louise hasn’t come. I did my best for you. I can’t help it if she’s as stable as water.”

“I think you dislike her too much to want to help it,” said Maurice grimly. He stood staring at the carnations, and his resentment gave way to depression, as he recalled the mood which he had bought them.

“Come back as soon as you feel better. I’m not offended, remember!” Madeleine called after him as he went down the stairs. When she was alone, she said “Silly boy!” and, still smiling, made excuses for him: he had come with such pleasurable anticipations, and everything had gone wrong. Heinz had behaved disagracefully, as only he could. While as for Louise, one was no more able to rely on her than on a wisp straw; and she, Madeleine, was little better than a fool not to have known it.

She moved about the room, putting chairs and papers in their places, for she could not endure disorder of any kind. Then she sat down to write a letter; and when, some half hour later, the girl for whom they had waited, actually came, she met her with exclamations of genuine surprise.

“Is it really you? I had given you up long ago. Pray, do you know what time it is?”

She took out her watch and dangled it before the other’s eyes. But Louise Dufrayer hardly glanced at it. As, however, Madeleine persisted, she said: “I’m late, I know. But it was not my fault. I couldn’t get away.”

She unpinned her hat, and shook back her hair; and Madeleine helped her to take off her jacket, talking all the time. “I have been much annoyed with you. Does it never occur to you that you may put other people in awkward positions, by not keeping your word? But you are just the same as of old—incorrigible.”

“Then why try to improve me?” said the other with a show of lightness. But almost simultaneously she turned away from Madeleine’s matter-of-fact tone, passed her handkerchief over her lips, and after making a vain attempt to control herself, burst into tears.

Madeleine eyed her shrewdly. “What’s the matter with you?”

But the girl who had sunk into a corner of the sofa merely shook her head, and sobbed; and Madeleine, to whom such emotional outbreaks were distasteful, went to the writing-table and busied herself there, with her back to the room. She did not ask for an explanation, nor did her companion offer any.

Louise abandoned herself to her tears with as little restraint as though she were alone, holding her handkerchief to her eyes with both hands and giving deep, spasmodic sobs, which had apparently been held for some time in cheek.

Afterwards, she sat with her elbow on the end of the sofa, her face on her hand, and, still shaken at intervals by a convulsive breath, watched Madeleine make fresh tea. But when she took the cup that was handed to her, she was so far herself again as to inquire whom she was to have met, although her voice still did not obey her properly.

“Some one who is anxious to know you,” replied Madeleine an air of mystery. “But he couldn’t, or rather would not, wait so long.”

Louise showed no further curiosity. But when Madeleine said with meaning emphasis that Krafft had also been there in the course of the afternoon, she shrank perceptibly and flushed.

“What! Does he still exist?” she asked with an effort at playfulness.

“As you very well know,” answered Madeleine drily. “Tell me, Louise, how do you manage to keep out of his way?”

Louise made no rejoinder; she raised her cup to her lips, and the dark blood that had stained her face, in a manner distressing to see, slowly retreated. She continued to look down, and, the light of her big, dark eyes gone out, her face seemed wan and dead. Madeleine, studying her, asked herself, not for the first time, but, as always, with an unclear irritation, what the secret of the other’s charm was. Beautiful she had never thought Louise; she was not even pretty, in an honest way—at best, a strange, foreign-looking creature, dark-skinned, black of eyes and hair, with flashing teeth, and a wonderfully mobile mouth — and some people, hopeless devotees of a pink and white fairness, had been known to call her plain. At this moment, she was looking her worst; the heavy, blue-black lines beneath her eyes were deepened by crying; her rough hair had been hastily coiled, unbrushed; and she was wearing a shabby red blouse that was pinned across in front, where a button was missing. There was nothing young or fresh about her; she looked her twenty-eight years, every day of them — and more.

And yet, Madeleine knew that those who admired Louise would find her as desirable at this moment as at any other. Hers was a nameless charm; it was present in each gesture of the slim hands, in each turn of the head, in every movement of, the broad, slender body. Strangers felt it instantly; her very walk seemed provocative of notice; there was something in the way her skirts clung, and moved with her, that was different from the motion of other women’s. And those whose type she embodied went crazy about her. Madeleine remembered as though it were yesterday, the afternoon on which Heinz had burst in to rave to her of his discovery; and how he would have dragged her out hatless to see this miracle. She remembered, too, after—days, when she had had him there, pacing the floor, and pouring out his feelings to her, infatuated, mad. An he was not the only one; they bowled over like ninepins; an it would be the same for years to come—was there any reason to wonder at Maurice Guest?

Meanwhile, as Madeleine sat thinking these and similar things, Maurice was tramping through the Rosental. The May afternoon, of lucent sunshine and heaped, fleecy clouds, had tempted a host of people into the great park, but he soon left them all behind him, for he walked as though he were pursued. These people, placid, and content of face, and the brightness of the day, jarred on him; he was out of patience with himself, with Madeleine, with the World at large. Especially with Madeleine, he bore her a grudge for her hints and innuendoes, for being behind the scenes, as it were, and also for being so ready to enlighten him; but, most of all, for a certain malicious gratification, which was to be felt in ever word she said about Louise.

He went steadily on, against the level bars of the afternoon sun and, by the time he had tired himself bodily, he had worked off his inward vexation as well. As he walked back towards the town, he was almost ready to smile at his previous heat. What did all these others matter to him? They could not hinder him from carrying through what he had set his mind on. To-morrow was a day, and the next was another, and the next again; and life, considered thus in days and opportunities, was infinitely long.

He now felt not only an aversion to dwelling on his thoughts of an hour back, but also the need of forgetting them altogether. And, in nearing the Lessingstrasse, he followed an impulse to go to Ephie and to let her merry laugh wipe out the last traces of his ill-humour.

Mrs. Cayhill and Johanna were both reading in the sitting room, and though Johanna agreeably laid aside her book, conversation languished. Ephie was sent for, but did not come, and Maurice was beginning to wish he had thought twice before calling, when her voice was heard in the passage, and, a moment later, she burst into the room, with her arms full of lilac, branches of lilac, which she explained had been bought early that morning at the flower-market, by one of their fellow-boarders. She hardly greeted Maurice, but going over to him held up her scented burden, and was not content till he had buried his face in it.

“Isn’t it just sweet?” she cried holding it high for all to see. “And the very first that is to be had. Again, Maurice again, put your face right down into the middle of it—like that.”

Mrs. Cayhill laughed, as Maurice obediently bowed his head, but Johanna reproved her sister.

“Don’t be silly, Ephie. You behave as if you had never seen lilac before.”

“Well, neither I have—not such lilac as this, and Maurice hasn’t either,” answered Ephie. “You shall smell it too, old Joan!”— and in spite of Johanna’s protests, she forced her sister also to sink her face in the fragrant white and purple blossoms. But then she left them lying on the table, and it was Johanna who put them in water.

Mrs. Cayhill withdrew to her bedroom to be undisturbed, and Johanna went out on an errand. Maurice and Ephie sat side by side on the sofa, and he helped her to distinguish chords of the seventh, and watched her make, in her music-book, the big, tailless notes, at which she herself was always hugely tickled, they‘reminded her so of eggs. But on this particular evening, she was not in a studious mood, and bock, pencil and india-rubber slid to the floor. Both windows were wide open; the air that entered was full of pleasant scents, while that of the room was heavy with lilac. Ephie had taken a spray from one of the vases, and was playing with it; and when Maurice chid her for thoughtlessly destroying it, she stuck the pieces in her hair. Not content with this, she also put bits behind Maurice’s ears, and tried to twist one in the piece of hair that fell on his forehead. Having thus bedizened them, she leaned back, and, with her hands clasped behind her head, began to tease the young man. A little bird, it seemed, had whispered her any number of interesting things about Madeleine and Maurice, and she had stored them all up. Now, she repeated them, with a charming impertinence, and was so provoking that, in laughing exasperation, Maurice took her fluffy, flower-bedecked head between his hands, and stopped her lips with two sound kisses.

He acted impulsively, without reflecting, but, as soon as it was done, he felt a curious sense of satisfaction, which had nothing to do with Ephie, and was like a kind of unconscious revenge taken on some one else. He was not, however, prepared for the effect of his hasty deed. Ephie turned scarlet, and jumping up from the sofa, so that all the blossoms fell from her hair at once, stamped her foot.

“Maurice Guest! How dare you!” she cried angrily, and, to his surprise, the young man saw that she had tears in her eyes.

He had never known Ephie to be even annoyed, and was consequently dumfounded; he could not believe, after the direct provocation she had given him, that his crime had been so great

“But Ephie dear!” he protested. “I had no idea, upon my word I hadn’t, that you would take it like this. What’s the matter? It was nothing. Don’t cry. I’m a brute.”

“Yes, you are, a horrid brute! I shall never forgive you — never!” said Ephie, and then she began to cry in earnest.

He put his arm round her, and coaxing her to sit down, wiped away her tears with his own handkerchief. In vain did he beg her to tell him why she was so vexed. To all he said, she only shook her head, and answered: “You had no right to do it.”

He vowed solemnly that it should never happen again, but at least a quarter of an hour elapsed before he succeeded in comforting her, and even then, she remained more subdued than usual. But when Maurice had gone, and she had dropped the scattered sprays of lilac out of the window on his head, she clasped her hands at the back of her neck, and dropped a curtsy to herself in the locking-glass.

“Him, too!” she said aloud.

She nodded at her reflected self, but her face was grave; for between these two, small, blue-robed figures was a deep and unsuspected secret.

And Maurice, as he walked away, wondered to himself for still a little why she should have been so disproportionately angry; but not for long; for, when he was not actually with Ephie, he was not given to thinking much about her. Besides, from there, he went straight to the latter half of an Abendunterhaltung, to hear Furst play Brahms’ Variations on a theme by handel

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