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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
With the brim of his wide-awake turned down, the collar of his overcoat up to his ears, Jerome Mocs stepped into the street. It was late afternoon, and the air smelt of coming rain; the sky was spread with cloud as evenly as with mortar from a trowel. The young man shot a single glance of distaste round him; then, hunching his shoulders, made for a narrow street that led to the centre of the town. He walked listlessly, dragging his feet. Yet rather than chance brushing up against a passer-by, he went to the trouble of stepping off the pavement into the road.
In his present mood the very sight of his fellow-men was odious to him. For he was that most distracted of mortals, the creative artist whose inspiration has failed him. The rich flow of musical ideas, the power to bend these rhythmically to his will, to compress them in the chosen form, everything alike had deserted him, and as abruptly as once it had descended. He was left hollow as a clock emptied of its works; left flat, cold, purposeless; a CUI BONO in the flesh. — For, without this power that was mine a moment back, who am I, what am I? A straw driven before the wind; a null; a parasite at life’s board. — And, on top of this, the envy, the murderous envy, of those who were still masters of their genius. No! envy was not the word: it was at once too much and too little. What he felt was more like the hurt and bewilderment of a child who has been shut out, for no conscious fault, from a lamp-lit festivity, at which all but him make merry. Sven Arped preached patience . . . but Sven was old in comparison: his early fires had burned low. And he, Jerome Mocs, was still so young. Beard in hand, Arped taught that these blanks, these breaks in one’s continuity, served an end: they obliged the artist to come to grips with life in the raw, from which he might distil further sublimates; had, in short, a reproductive value. Sven himself at such times sought the company of women; found, in women’s simple, unsophisticated minds, a wholesome contrast to the subtleties of art, to the eternal and damnable preoccupation with colour and line. And, then, so wild were his extravagances that his name burned on men’s lips. But he, Mocs, had still no use for women as a surrogate. His attitude to them was one either of contempt or of exaggerated awe. — Again, there was Gregor Muthesius, the poet. Gregor drowned suspense in alcohol, went blind and deaf to his barrenness, till he could rise once more full of pristine vigour for his task of beating out a super-reality in words. (But then Gregor had the physique of a lion-hunter, and could permit himself the luxury of debauch.) And so it was with all the rest: each had his peculiar trick of surmounting these breaks in his artistic being, when impulse died at the spring. He, Jerome Mocs, alone had not learned wisdom. And this time the loss hit him harder than ever before. For he had been on the edge of completing what he believed to be his masterpiece, a free symphonic rhapsody that should carry his name far beyond the select inner circle — had not the great Ricchi himself promised it a hearing? And he had swept forward, gaily, audaciously, prodigal of his riches, never doubting that they would last him to the end. Then, the block had come, and he had risen one morning to find his verve gone, his grip loosened, his mind dry as a drained keg. Angry, incredulous, he had fought like one possessed to recapture the flow: in vain. Worse still, he began to be invaded by doubts, to look critically at his beloved work; and gradually a feeling of aversion for it grew up in him that fell not far short of hatred. — Oh! surely no other anguish could compare with this? . . . just as no other human joy touched the joys of creation: this acme of lightness, this sense of walking on rainbows, this supreme surrender to a force outside oneself! Some, he knew, went on doing hodman’s work in place of a creator’s; claiming that a skill born of long practice carried you over the bare patches. But Arped was not one of them, nor yet Gregor, nor, by God, he, Jerome Mocs! He was still jealous as a girl of his immaculateness. There was no room for compromise in him. Rather, and savagely, he descended into hell. And in hell he remained.
* * *
At moments on this particular afternoon, when he touched bottom, he threw back his head and swept the sky with a look that resembled a shaken fist, or a dog’s bared teeth. Put into words it would have run: Oh, You up there! . . . You, Who have granted us artists but a single faculty — that of aping You, of playing the Creator-and Who then freakishly and thievishly rob us of the power to do it . . . .
At one such moment his sullen eyes, in falling, met those of a girl who had paused on the kerb to decipher a scrap of writing. She had glanced up unthinkingly as he drew near; but she did not look away again — he saw to that! It pleased him suddenly to fix her eyes with his, to pin them fast, paying out his own evil mood in the look, till his victim reddened and made off. And he did not so much as turn his head after her, though she had been both young and winsome.
But the little encounter diverted him, and on the next likely object he tried the trick anew. And again a woman started, and shrank, and quickened her pace. The third, on the other hand, held out his look and paid it back in kind. After this the thing became a game, a means of killing time; and gradually he fell to classing the eyes he caught. There were those that met his frankly, and as frankly fled. Those that fell like smitten doves, only to flutter up again a second later. Some peeped demurely from behind their curtain of lash; others — the few — pretended to be outraged, indignant. But there also met him the flattered eyes of little work-girls, which fawned shyly, or laughed an arch response; as well as those of riper women, which hung on his with the scantly veiled allure of a Mona Lisa. Oh, these women’s eyes.
Till, all at once, the biter was bit, the fisher tangled in his own net. Suddenly he found himself gazing into two eyes which neither fled, nor beckoned, nor repelled; which gave back his look with the ingenuous freedom of a child’s, and yet were very woman’s in their depth and knowledge. He had never seen eyes like them: he could not tear his away. And so dreamlike was the state he had fallen into, that it needed a push from a passer-by to wake him to the fact that they were the eyes of no living person. What he stood staring at was but the drawing of a woman’s face, life-sized, and traced by a master-hand. — With a laugh at his own folly he turned on his heel.
Then, however, curiosity pricked him, and he stooped to see whose was the face that had duped him. The picture was here used as an advertisement, other posters surrounded it; but it was now some days old, and of the lettering that had originally accompanied it, not a trace remained. So he was none the wiser. Stepping back, with his head tilted slightly to one side, he took another long look. Then, since a fine rain had begun to fall, and his game for the day was spoilt, he went to seek shelter.
But that night, when he fought by means of any trifle to ban the thought of his impotence, of all the eyes whose secrets he had filched, these counterfeits alone came back with any clearness. Again he sank his own in them. And now he saw that they held a vital spark, a kind of spiritual promise, which none of the living had possessed: as if the unknown artist had condensed and compressed in them a sum of human experience. And gradually it began to seem that their message was aimed specially at him; as if these eyes were striving to make some wordless revelation to him, of mysteries in his art, in life, to which he had not yet attained. — And this idea grew till it became a certainty.
Next morning, for the first time since the break, he did not sit with his head between his hands, despairing. His coffee gulped down, he went out and back on his steps of the day before. Walking more and more swiftly as he drew near the place where the picture had stood. For a sudden fear seized him lest it should have vanished overnight, have been pasted over or torn off. And so it was. In its stead he now faced the announcement of a BAL PARE. Then the hunt began. He scoured the streets, head down before a biting wind, running from one quarter of the town to another, gyrating round advertisement columns, without success. Not till late in the day was his search crowned. Then, once again, the mysterious eyes met his. And this time, too, beneath the portrait, he was able to make out the half-torn lettering of a name. Bianca Josefa del S. . . . Bianca Josefa del S . . . .
Who was she? Where was she to be found?
* * *
“Has anyone seen young Mocs these days?”
Sven Arped put the question to his circle, having sucked in, with a hiss, the foam left by a BOCK on his drooping moustachios and opulent beard. “Upon my soul, the lad has become a living conundrum — a walking riddle! In place of a how-do, does he now meet you, he buttonholes you to inquire, with dry lips: harkee, have ever you heard tell of a Bianca Josefa — a Bianca Josefa with an S? (An S, mark you!) Who is she? Where is she to be found? . . . this Bianca Josefa and her appendage! — Boys, what madness is this? For no farther does the fellow get. He stops short — like a winged bird — and will say no more.”
But when he walked the next night at his young friend’s side, now in the inky shadow of the houses, now in the river of light which a full moon, riding the gabled roofs, sent coursing down the narrow streets; here, Arped dropped his mockery. His tone was mild, even fond.
“You are not working?”
“I am not working.” And Mocs turned the palms of his hands outwards, to express his inner dearth.
Arped laid a fatherly hand on his shoulder. “Patience, boy, patience! . . . it will pass.” But in continuing he grew emphatic, and slashed at the air with his sombrero as if to carve it in slices. “Meanwhile, repose . . . divert yourself. Let the tired nag stretch its neck. Turn to women, my son! Lave your eyes in their beauty, your mind in their childlike prattle — have I not always said, you lose by holding aloof? Mark me, though, I say ‘women!’ With women you remain in the shallows; a woman may lure you into the depths. And from that, may the good God preserve you! For the artist is permitted to enjoy the things of the heart in imagination only. For him, women must be but the match to light the flame; never the flame itself . . . which might consume him. And so I say to you, lad, I, Sven Arped”— and he smacked his lips, and sucked, as after a foamy draught —“I say to you, beware the pull! Love your fill; freely give and freely take; but, should you feel the pull threaten, then, yes, then it is time to flee. Avoid it, my child, as you would the plague or the devil.”
“What do you mean by that? . . . the pull,” asked Mocs, with but languid interest.
Arped, now thoroughly in the vein, threw out his chest.
“I mean, as long as you are able to enjoy unthinkingly — enjoy and put your pleasure from you, once it is over — you are safe. The danger comes when, absent from your inamorata, you are yet conscious of her presence. When a memory of her image tangles your thoughts, disintegrates your life. When, apart from her, you feel a sense of longing and loss . . . we Danes call it SAVN. When fantastic fears assail you, or a bitter jealousy consumes: no, no! the artist dare have no traffic in things such as these. Does he yield to the temptation, he dies to his art. — You do not understand? Ah! you are still young, cold, untouched. But the day will come, my Jerome, will surely come. And then, remember Father Arped’s warning!”
Some twenty-four hours later, an old waiter approached the table where the group of friends sat, and said with a bow:
“I ask pardon of the gentlemen . . . I overheard their talk. I can, I believe, give them the information they seek. This young gentleman here inquires for a certain Bianca Josefa del Sanseverina, is it not so? It was a variety singer, sir, who appeared at Tessino’s cafe in a northern suburb: a person of a fine presence, with a voice like a bird’s. About a week or ten days ago, if my memory serves me. Where to? To . . . let me think . . . yes, to N., where she was next billed to appear.”
Jerome Mocs gave chase. Overnight, without a word even to Arped, he vanished from his friends’ midst, a prey to one of those ungovernable impulses that have their breeding-place in empty, worked-out brains, and exasperated nerves.
Himself he felt as if, by yielding to the urge, he was escaping from a world peopled by bloodless shades. Of which his art was as chimerical as any. And at first the novelty of his journeyings — until now he had travelled only in tones, with an eye everlastingly bent on notes and staves — helped him to the belief that he was in touch with reality at last. His way, too, led him through many lovely places, the time of the year was spring, and he but two-and-twenty.
But the clues he followed continued of the slightest — a word here, a line of print there, a glimpse caught in passing of a tattered paper face. And very soon they failed him altogether. A little cafe-chantant artist seemed to enter a great city only to be lost in the crowd; the prints of hundreds of other feet closed over hers. Once again he was baffled; and, at this new check, the same fiery anger ran through him as at the failure of his inspiration. Now, though, it was directed against the unknown woman who, by her witch-hold on him, was eating up his life. Woe to her when he found her!
Thus, savage and despairing, he hawked from place to place.
Then a queer thing happened.
From the noisy streets of a city in central Europe, he turned one night into a cafe for his evening meal. It was early, a mere sprinkling of guests was present, and the waitresses loitered in a group, idly gossiping. They seemed very merry. The one who came to take his order was giggling; giggling when she planked his KRUG down on its mat. She had a fat, foolish face, on which the one-time dimples had run to lines.
Mocs raised misanthropic eyebrows. “Pray, what’s the matter with you?”
The girl sniffed apologetically, drawing her knuckles across her mouth. “Oh, nothing. It’s just that Salli there. She mimics people that it’s a scream. — The little dark one . . . with her back to us.”
Having been the last customer to enter, Mocs cocked the apprehensive eye of a very young man at the quizzing group of girls. Two were just the ordinary plump pigeons. The third still presented her back to him — a sturdy, broadish back, topped by a small dark head. But, as he looked, she turned and faced him . . . and then, at the hard, stony, disbelieving stare to which he subjected her, her smile died out as if a sponge had been passed over it, leaving her round-eyed, open-mouthed.
To the waitress, who was turning away, he cried: “Here, you! . . . Berthe, Mizi, Trudl, or whatever your name is . . . send that girl Salli to me!”
“But ‘tisn’t her table! She serves the row by the wall.”
“Hers or not, she’s to come here.”
“My goodness me! — But you won’t get far with Salli, young sir. She’s not that sort.”
“That’s my affair!”
With a perk and a toss, she rejoined her mates; Mocs saw the four deep in confab. The pigeons eyed him with a spiteful curiosity. But the little dark girl shook her head, and vanished through the swing-doors leading to the kitchen.
Fat-face strolled back to him, wearing a thin, malicious smile.
“Now then! . . . is she coming?”
“I guess not! Or not till you say what ’tis you want.”
“Well and good then!” And picking up his glass, Mocs stalked across the room to re-seat himself at a table by the wall.
“JESSES! . . . aren’t you a one?” murmured the waitress behind his retreating form, and pettishly swished the table with her cloth.
Mocs sat with his eyes glued to the door. Now, she could not escape him! And no sooner did she reappear than he raised a customer’s crooked finger and beckoned her to him. There was nothing for it; she had to obey. Sulkily, unwillingly, she crossed to his side.
He had not been mistaken. Before him, in this ordinary little serving-girl, he had one of those staggering resemblances occasionally to be met with between two mortals who are yet unlinked by any ties of blood. It was, indeed, more of a replica than a resemblance, though both features and outline gave the impression of being slightly blurred, and though the whole face was triter and commoner, entirely lacking in the wilfully heightened charactery of the unknown artist’s brush. But the eyes were the very eyes of his haunting. Here, in this vulgar setting, shone the twin stars that had robbed him of his peace.
Dazed, dumbfounded, he sat with the bill-of-fare in his hand, meandering a finger down the list of meats without knowing what he read. His one thought was, how to detain this image, how so to arrange things that he might keep the face before him. He had made a bad start; his cheeks still tingled from it. For, at first sight of her, and almost against his will, the foolish words had leapt from him: “What are you doing here?” At which she had turned a fiery red, and with a puzzled: “Me? . . . doing here?” had pointed to her chest like a child counting out in a game. Not in this way should he go to work.
First, though, to give an order. He named a dish at random, and, she having stiffly and dumbly retired, gripped his head with his hands and sat with closed eyes, trying to plumb the sensations this apparition had stirred in him. He felt strangely angry; words like: “How dare she . . . how dare she!” went round and round in his brain. For this flagrant, fantastic resemblance affected him like a theft — like something filched, purloined, stolen. And by such a one! . . . from the woman of his dreams. It was a desecration — a crime. And yet . . . as he sat nursing his anger, he gradually became aware that the presence of even this reflection of his eidolon was sending small thrills through him, of excitement and anticipation. And a growing desire to look again mastered him; along with a fear lest he had offended her, and she should send one of the other girls to wait on him in her stead.
But she herself returned, carrying a tray: and her reappearance was the signal for a fresh shock . . . of recognition, of satisfaction. Swiftly his mind was made up. Leaning forward and calling her by her name, he said in a low, urgent voice: “Salli, there are things . . . see, I MUST speak to you! When do you get off? What time does this place close?” At the queer look she threw him, however, he again turned uneasy; what if she was expecting something else, something more personal? Spurred by the thought, he tried to take her hand as it moved over the table.
But she jerked it away. “Don’t! I won’t have it!”
And then, aggrieved and bewildered: “What is it you want? Can’t you let me be?” She had a dry throaty voice that grated on his car.
Both that night and the next, and the next again, he waylaid her. The moon, three-parts full to start with, waxed at each meeting, and their shadows grew nightly denser and stumpier. There she stood, the typical little working-girl, in a round black-straw hat, the brim of which cut off half her face, a prim little black cape hanging from her shoulders. But, say what he would, he could make no headway. She did not thaw — just stood and let him talk, in watching the toe of her shoe draw circles on the pavement.
Not until their third meeting would she agree to him walking home with her: to the little wooden house by the river where she lived with her mother, a “fancy ironer.” And it took him over a week to persuade her to throw up her job and go away with him. She was “not that sort.” Nor did the conventional “I love you,” with which he backed up and, as it were, decked out his persuasions, deceive her. But in the course of this week he paid a private visit to the mother, whom he found easy-going and compliant. So that in the end, public opinion, voiced by this mother and the girl’s fellow-workers, who were loud in envy of her luck: “SUCH a pretty boy!” “Money, too, or I’ll be eat!” “Fool, you, if you don’t get all you can out of him!” wore her resistance down. — And Mocs carried her off.
He christened her Bianca; and she came to the name as humbly as a dog to any that his master chooses to bestow on him. It is so: hence it must be so. A more spirited creature might at least have shown some curiosity. Not so she: she had not a grain of spirit in her. Altogether there was something dog-like about her: her dumbness, her servileness, her . . . her stupidity. Yes, that word fitted her best: stupid she was, and stupid she remained. Thus, at the end of a day or two, he summed her up.
In this dullness, which warped their intercourse and made all but the crude physical side of it a cumbrous and a laboured thing, her eyes alone had no share. These continued to burn with a strange inner light, and lost none of their power to move him. He still felt, when she turned them on him, that in them some ancient wisdom lay hid, which it was imperative he should make his own. WHEN she looked! The trouble was, she remained as mutinous as ever about facing him: just in this, most crucial way denied herself: casting none but sly, sloping glances, that fled even as they touched him.
Hence, his original scheme, of snatching what he wanted and letting her go, came to nothing. With a nature such as this he did not know how to deal. None of his strokes told. Hitting at her was like hitting into a lump of dough. Though that there was another side to her he very well knew, remembering his first sight of her. Again, one hot afternoon when she believed him sleeping, he heard her chattering away in the wash-house below, where she was bearing their landlady company. — For, in this semi-alpine village, where the mountains tapered off into hills and the hills ran down to the plains, they had found a lodging with the chief laundress of the place, Frau Rosi, who stumped about her tubs the livelong day, her bare feet thrust into clogs, her vast, unbound figure a-swing. The soapy, steamy air of the wash-house was no doubt a homely odour, to a girl used to the hot air of the ironing-room. At any rate it served to loose her tongue. While as far as he was concerned. she might have been born without one.
He had approached her too roughly and precipitately in the beginning . . . he saw that now. So, grown warier, he did his best to hide from her how personally unattractive she was to him. (And, he being her first lover, and she very young, it was not hard, he flattered himself, to bluff her.) The plain truth was, nothing about her pleased him. Her way of walking, for instance. Short and thick-set, she advanced with a roll from side to side that was little less than a waddle. Speedily he rid her of her intolerable “Sunday best,” now her daily wear, by buying her a peasant-dress, which hid the worst points of her figure. Her hands were not so easily got rid of — these short, fat, work-seamed hands, with deeply bitten nails. He put one from him once, in a moment of disgust; and simultaneously felt the shift of her lowered gaze from it to his own slim, well-tended musician’s hands. After that, she carried hers tucked under her voluminous black apron, or doubled up behind her back. And one day she capped the climax by appearing with a pair of huge, clown-like, white-cotton gloves dangling from the ends of her plump little arms. He was convulsed with inward laughter, but made no comment; and together they walked paths strewn with pine-needles, through woods into which the golden sunshine fell only in streaks and blotches, she thus ludicrously attired.
But, on their way home, he halted on the wooden bridge that spanned the milky-green alpine river. Here, taking each glove in turn by one of the long, clown-like fingers, he drew it off, and rolling the two to a ball, dropped this in the swiftly flowing water. It bobbed about, twirled, was swept away.
“And that’s that!”
For a moment he thought she was going to cry. Her lips pouched and trembled. But she said nothing; just hung her head and slid her naked hands back under her apron. After this, though, they were more carefully scrubbed; and gradually the ingrained black of the seams yielded, the nails grew less unsightly. And before she had finished, she could show quite a presentable little pair of paws.
This affair showed an artless desire to please, and he counted it to her credit. But it ended here, led nowhere: not an inch further did he get because of it. She seemed to sit entrenched behind a wall of her own making. A wall of mute resistance; an entrenchment of sulks and sullens. But her very dumbness spoke for her, and to him what it said was: you dragged me here against my will; I didn’t want to come, I didn’t want you. I’ll give what I am bound to give, but no more; the rest is my own. And this, when all he really wanted of her WAS this intangible, incorporeal remainder! For the bodily intimacy they were forced into left him cold; sensually she meant as little to him as he to her. His mind hankered after just what she would not give; and day by day he grew more incensed at the persistence with which she withheld herself.
None of the little endearments of ordinary lovers — overflow of the closer bond — passed between them. He was never driven to smooth her hair, or to lay his arm about her and cup the place where arm and shoulder met, or to stoop and put his lips to her neck. Now, indeed, in his exasperation, he had to master a crazy inclination to hurt her. And, taking her by the chin, to jerk her stubborn face up to his, he would pinch her flesh between thumb and finger till she turned red with pain.
So it went on till that day when he first saw her cry. When he first made her cry.
In actual count of time they had been together but a week: but, as they walked that morning through the dewy freshness of the forest, he stalking ahead, she a couple of paces behind, he felt as if, for the better part of his life, he had gone with this mute shadow at his heels. There were men who complained of women’s eternal clacking: God! give him rather one who talked from dawn to eve. And when they had reached their goal, and sat at a wooden table before a mountain inn, alone but for the hens scratching round their feet, and for a gaunt cat which, perched on a neighbouring table, watched them with unwinking green eyes — here he came to a swift decision. He would bring things to a head here and now, force her out into the open, compel her to speak — oh! to-day he felt ripe for a scene . . . was regularly in the mood.
Leaning over the table, he snatched at rather than took her hand, gripping it till the ring on his little finger cut into her palm.
“Look here, my girl! — enough is enough. I’ll stand no more. I’m done, finished, played out. Now you shall say — you SHALL say! . . . what’s wrong with you. Or else we part.”
That got her. Wincing, she shot him one of her most furtive glances, and tried to stammer out: “But nothing!” Her dry lips refusing, she feebly shook her head.
At this renewed prevarication, his last shred of patience fell away. Careless of the woman of the inn, who was advancing with a load of plates, he brought his fist down in a blow that made the table dance and the woman retreat, sent the hens scuttling, the cat flying. Then, with his eyes aflame, his head alternately thrown back or menacingly forward, his loose black hair tossing, the fingers of his free hand making spear like motions, he gave his rage and indignation vent, pouring out all he had fumed over in silence, and so working himself up that he did not even spare her a recital of her physical shortcomings: her hands, her walk, her voice, her manner of speaking, every thing about her that had jarred on his nerves: by this means setting free not only his present tangled emotions, but also the accumulated fire and passion which, given a creative work, would have found their outlet in that work: as well as the shame and misery his prolonged unproductiveness had caused him, him orphaned of the art that was his salvation. When, for sheer shortage of breath, he came to a stop, he was white and trembling. But relieved as of a load — relieved beyond the telling. — And she? The blood that had driven up over neck, cheeks, forehead, slowly ebbed again, leaving her, too, paler than before. There she sat, and, under the lash of his tongue, turned her head helplessly from side to side, like a tortured animal seeking refuge. But she could not escape: her hand was held in a vice. There was nothing left for her to do but weep, and weep she did; he had never seen such tears. They rolled out from under her lids like large round glass beads, slid one after the other down her cheeks and chin, losing shape as they fell, and dripping unheeded into her lap. It was a very child’s way of weeping; she made no attempt to hide them, or to wipe them away. But when the sobs came, and twisted up her face, she let her head droop, lower and lower, till it ended by lying on the hand that held hers. And then both their hands were wet.
His anger had puffed out like a candle-flame. And to feel these tears on his hand did the rest. Lifting his other hand he put it on her hair, so that for a moment her head was shut between them.
But in her, too, her tears set something free. He felt her lips move, and bending, caught the words: “Oh, I’ve been so . . . so afraid.”
“Afraid?” he echoed uncertainly. “What of? Of me?”
She nodded. Then made space enough to whisper: “You see, it’s because . . . oh, if I could only understand — if I only KNEW what it is you want. For it isn’t . . . it’s not REALLY . . . me. Me you don’t even LIKE— you’re only cruel to.”
“Cruel? . . . I? Oh, no, little Bianca,” he demurred, but unthinkingly, his mind busy with her unlooked-for insight.
Again she nodded. “Yes. Why, this is the . . . the very first time you’ve ever spoke kind to me.”
And now, as if still further to astonish him, she raised her head, dabbed her cheeks with her knuckles, and looked at him — looked straight and full, giving her eyes as one might give one’s hands to a sorely-missed, long-absent friend. — His vicious hold relaxed, turned to a warm and easy clasp.
His quest was ended. To this moment of time his devious steps had led him. There he sat, and was now free to drink his fill, in one of those long, searching looks from man to woman, when every veil falls.
But the expected revelation did not take place. Mysterious depths in these eyes there were none. All he could find in them, peer and press as he would, was a disarming candour, the bare simplicity of a child. Persuaded by their frankness, he began to believe her stammered confession that fear alone had made her shrink from him. And suddenly, to his own astonishment, he found himself smiling at her, to cheer her, give her courage. To which, though her lips were still a-twitch and a-tremble, she made a brave effort to respond. And the way this little half-smile, the widening and thinning of the lips, lit up her face was extraordinary. It also called two dimples into play — two adorable, roguish dimples — one in each cheek. Why! she was almost pretty when she smiled.
But this admission, arrived at grudgingly, and as it were in spite of himself, was trivial compared to the next.
It was only twenty-four hours later; but hours alive with the throbs, the surprises, the delicious bagatelles of a rapidly deepening feeling. She was cutting bread, and the great knife slipped and gashed her hand. Out spurted the blood, running down palm and wrist, and falling to her apron in thick red drops. Like tears of blood. At the sight alarm seized him, to whom hands were precious property, and he dashed from room to room in search of a basin, cold water, a sponge, a bandage. Then, biting his lips on his squeamishness, he washed and dressed the wound. But it left him a-shake. And in the overflow of this nervous excitement he caught her to him, and held her fast, with a: “Bianca . . . little Bianca!” For a moment she was content to stand and nuzzle her face into the stuff of his coat. Then, throwing back her head she looked up at him and laughed, laughed from sheer happiness, the lashes of her starry eyes turned back, a line of strong little white notched teeth visible, the corners of her sweet mouth indented as by the twist of a finger-tip, all her dimples a-play.
When she laughed she was lovely.
This discovery broke down the last barriers between them. Henceforth, he was as utterly hers as, she whispered, at heart she had always been his. But now there was no more room for doubts and precautions, and she surrendered herself to him with an artless abandon; while into his feelings for her stole a tender, jealous passion that made him not only hotly overthrow his previous cavillings, but even take up arms for her defects. Her voice, formerly hoarse and displeasing to his ear, now grew to seem a veiled contralto, and as if made to whisper endearments. Her way of speaking was pithy, picturesque. At the base of each chubby finger sat a tiny dimple, just big enough to drop a kiss in. Even her walk became as lovable to him as it had once been grotesque. It belonged to her, was hers only; he would have known her among a hundred others because of it; for nothing in the world would he have had it changed.
And in the days that followed, days of young love, of first love. they knew a happiness without compare. A golden summer played its part, dealing them out endless hours of sunshine, and nights of cloudless or starry skies. Sometimes they lay stretched on the smooth grass of an ALM, high above tree-level, where no sound reached them but the scattered tinkling of the cow-bells, or faint echoes of cries or whistles from the valley below. Or, in a SENNERIN’S hut, they drank to each other over the rim of glasses of foamy milk, strong of the stall. Again, of an evening, his arm lying round her, all the warmth and ardour of her young body calling to his, they would sit and watch the moon come up behind the mountains opposite. These were black as pitch, their outlines deeply graved on the violet sky. Until the immense silver globe of the moon, sailing in splendour, cast loose from them and floated away in space, turning the velvety black of the forest-clad slopes to a pearly grey. Meanwhile, around them, all the scents of the day were being set free: the fragrance of clover and new-mown hay from the meadows; the resinous smell of new wood from the sawmills; the scent of sun-warmed firs, of damp moss, of crystal streamlets, with which, in the cool of the evening, the night wind bore, heavily laden, down the mountain side.
And summer passed. With this woman of flesh and blood in his arms, all thought of the phantom woman had faded from his mind.
So it was with a shock of something more than surprise, on unfolding his newspaper one morning, that he saw before him, black on white, the name he would once have given all he had to see. Now, his first impulse was mentally to jump away from it. With a quick glance at his companion, he turned over and crumpled up the sheet. But as soon as she had left the room he went back to it, and smoothed it out. What if his eyes had played him false? But there it stood: an announcement that the singer, Bianca Josefa del Sanseverina, would perform at a certain cafe, in the city of M., on such and such an evening.
He threw the paper from him and laughed. He could afford to laugh. What did she matter to him now?
But, matter or not, the mere sight or sound of the name had set something stirring in him again. And, that night, he lay and went back on all that had happened to him since the day when he hurled his manuscript into a drawer and turned the key on it; went back on his wild-goose chase and its fantastic issue; and, over this, the image of the unknown woman came oddly to life again. He began to wonder what his sensations would be, if, at long last, he found himself face to face with her. Did the mysterious hold she had had over him still persist? Curious? . . . yes, curious he was — perhaps even more than curious. And admitting this brought on a fit of restlessness, in which he tumbled and tossed. Before him, on the whitewashed wall, the tiny, flower-encumbered window printed a silver square. Beyond the window, a black ridge of mountain cut across the sky. Not a sound broke the stillness. Or only that of his watch which, hanging above his head, had suddenly begun a frenzied ticking. He could close his eyes to the moonshine, to the mountains, but the noise of this ticking he could not shut out. And, as he lay and listened, it seemed to, grow in strength, until it filled the room. He sat up in bed. To become aware that every nerve in his body was beating in unison with it, and that it had turned to a kind of menace, and what it said was: Time flies, time flies, time flies! He snatched it from its hook and buried it under the mattress, but this did not help, it had left its echo in the air; time was still in flight . . . while he lay supine, inert. And now he knew that he would go — would have to go. Once more this stranger, this interloper, had thrust herself destructively in upon his life. — The old fury blazed up in him. He lay and cursed her.
To the girl beside him he said: “A day . . . at most a couple of days, sweetheart!”
This for his own comfort as much as hers. For she did not murmur, or try to dissuade him, or even put a question about the business that was calling him away: a sweet reasonableness that made her doubly dear to him.
At the very last moment, he was within an ace of jumping from the train and letting his dreams go hang. Left standing alone on the gravelled platform, she looked so childish and forlorn that his heart misgave him. True, she smiled, showing, all her dimples, but with lips pressed tight one on the other, to hide their trembling; while her fingers rolled and twisted without pause at a corner of the big black apron. But again something stronger than himself prevailed. All he did was to lean from the window, and wave to her, and swing his hat, till a turn in the line hid her from sight.
Arrived in M. he traced his way with ease, and that evening found him sitting among a cluster of portly burghers and their wives, who supped at tables set in front of a small stage. On this, when he entered, a sinister-looking individual in evening clothes and an opera-hat was cracking a riding-whip, to the strokes of which and his shouts of command, a madonna-faced woman, sheathed in black to her chin, to her finger-tips, her toes, with nothing of her visible but a lasciviously white face under an enormous black hat, capered like a horse. The performance earned scant applause. Then came the turn of the singer. Or should have come. But an interminable wait followed, in which raised voices could be heard behind the scenes. The audience grew restive. Whereupon the tawdry curtains rattled apart, and on to the stage walked . . . a woman . . . THE woman, his woman! — oh! one look, one only, and it was as if, in a titanic burst of laughter, a merciless, sardonic laughter, a giant bubble exploded and collapsed. For this . . . THIS! . . . he had torn up his life by the roots, dragged himself over half Europe. His eyes sought the ground.
At odds with custom, however, the voice had not suffered the irreparable damage of the flesh. And over his lowered head it trilled its way, serene and pure, through some half-dozen ditties, each with a sting in its tail.
His first impulse had been to fly, to put distance between himself and the catastrophe this apparition was to him. But he was far from the entrance, and the right moment had passed. He remained sitting. And, the turn at an end, he abruptly rose and pushed his way through the papered door that gave behind the scenes.
Here the dispute had broken out afresh. Between the singer and the man of the whip. Money, it seemed, was owing her; and money she would and must have. But while she continued to vociferate, snatching breaths with the skill of the practised singer, she was also coolly taking in and appraising the young man who stood fixing her; and more than one meaning glance was sped at him from under her heavily blued and bistred lids. Still without ceasing in her flow, she edged near enough to him to press his arm, touch his foot with hers. Almost before he knew where he was, he found himself engaged to take her out to supper.
She was HUNGRY. Under the glaring lights of a gilt and plush restaurant, he sat and watched her jaws go, in a kind of PERPETUUM MOBILE of mastication, of talk. Never had he seen such an eater, heard a like volubility. Whether her mouth was empty or full, she carried on at the top of her voice, chewing the while with many a juicy smack and suck, and much running of her tongue round her teeth. Moments came, when every eye was upon her.
But she had, it seemed, her own ideas of honesty. One of those who tried to diddle you, get something out of you for nothing, she was not . . . not she! — she said this once, she said it a dozen times; on her tongue it became a kind of theme with variations. And, her appetite finally glutted, he had no choice but to follow her to the mean little HOTEL GARNI where she lodged, and, at her heels, climb a bare stone stair to a room on the second floor, in the lock of which she fitted a key.
She switched the lights on, and he looked past a grimy portiere into a dingy, disorderly bedroom.
Holding back the curtain with one hand, with the other she signed to him to enter.
“Here you are! This is the way.”
* * *
Not till the second morning after, did he succeed in making his escape.
Early though the hour was, a crowd of Saturday holiday-makers, armed with sticks, ropes and knapsacks, was hastening to catch the first train to the mountains. He mingled with them; pushed and shoved his way; joined in the rude scramble for a seat.
But no sooner was the train in motion than he wandered restlessly into the corridor, and planted himself at the window to watch the country fly by. Free . . . free! And now for — But no! . . . not again, not as long as he lived, would that name cross his lips. It was fouled for him for ever . . . by arts indescribable. Salli — little Salli! In fancy he held her to him, felt her small head sleek to his chin, the skin of her neck blossom-soft and cool. Oh! once with Salli again, and all would be well.
But would it? Was that true? Would her presence pacify him? Free he might be, calm he certainly was not: deep down in him, a strange excitement was brewing. An unnatural excitement, that had nothing to do with Salli, or the joys of meeting. It recalled the throbbing unrest which the tick of his watch had set a-going in him, that moonlight night in the mountains. But was even more violent. He eyed himself in dismay. His heart hammered, his fingers trembled with suspense. He was like a man who stood waiting, with every nerve on end, for a bomb that is timed to fall. What on earth was happening to him?
With limbs as jerky as if hung on wires, he went back to the carriage, and turned to rid himself of his hat by tossing it on to the rack.
And then he knew.
He was still on his feet, still steadying himself by the rail, when the miracle happened. Quite suddenly, it was as if walls dropped away — from his brain, his sight, the carriage itself — walls that had shut him in, blocking and hindering. Now, with one accord they fell, but as noiselessly as soft curtains. For an instant their collapse seemed to leave him alone in space, without a hold, and feeling strangely shrunken. In the next it was he who filled space, swelled by a power that ran through him and overflowed him, magnificently spreading until it embraced all living things. Then he knew. The gift of creation was his. again, he was one again with his daemon’ his genius; with that mystic force which alone justified his existence. Humbly, like one accepting alms, he yielded to its oncoming; yet with a silent shout of exultation: received it into himself — as the prone, entranced body, lying deep in sleep, receives back the night-wanderer that is its spirit.
With a kind of groan he sank to his seat, and hid his face in his hands. For, in this moment, in this lightning-flash of perception, he had seen his way: the link, the key was his, for lack of which his work had shattered: the handful of notes, the combination of tones, needed to start the chain of ideas that should carry him rapturously to the end. His now — all his! But he reached for neither pencil nor paper; before now he had known the prosaic act of transcription break the flow. He just sat with tight-closed eyes, and lived through, to its last intricate windings, the revelation that had been made him; with such intensity that each note might have been written in fire, each phrase burnt with a hot iron on his brain. Sat, and let himself sink into the state nearest bliss vouchsafed to mortal on this side of the great divide; a bliss that shares the quivers of a sheerly physical pleasure, yet is past expression subtle and pure: when the creative artist, freed from the trammels of time, lives through aeons in a few seconds of man’s measuring.
At the first stop he left the train, and, some hasty purchases made, fell to the drudgery that must follow even the most inspired flights. The day passed; in a gloomy hotel-bedroom it was noon, it was afternoon, then dusk, before he finally lifted his head: pale, spent, famished; but a king again in his own right.
His first move was to seek for a calendar. And, this found, he began hastily to reckon and dovetail dates. Yes! it was still possible. With luck — oh, God give it! — he might yet be in time. Luck, and a toil beggaring description, was he to have his manuscript ready to lay in Maestro Ricchi’s hands on the appointed day.
There was not a moment to lose. First to get food; then for the night train to the north.
But something troubled him; there was something at the back of his brain that he could not get at. He put a hand to his forehead. Then . . . why, of course, blamed fool that he was! . . . Salli.
Without a moment’s hesitation he drew a sheet of paper to him and wrote:
My own love, my little Salli!
All day you will have waited for me and hoped for my coming — you are perhaps still waiting, still hoping — and I . . . I shall not come. Not any more, little love — or not for a very long time. And so I say to you, do not wait. Go back to your old life, and take it up where you laid it down for my sake. But don’t forget me, child, or the many happy hours we have spent together. From my heart I thank you for them — though I am forced to act in what must seem an ungrateful way. I shall not forget. I shall treasure the memory of all you gave me . . . like a lovely flower that time cannot fade. It may be that some day I shall come back. Who knows! Till then, farewell, my little love. I thank you again and again.
But later in the evening, when he had eaten and drunk, and food and wine were insinuating their warmth through his veins, he tore this letter to small pieces. Salli! . . . little Salli. A longing for her that was sharp as pain was upon him: to see her, to hold her to him again, seemed the acme of his desire. He was still so young; he stretched out his arm, the better to feel the youth and strength of it; and he loved her, loved her. In thought he lived through their meeting: the snatched hands, stammered words, the rush of body to body, the sinking to sleep, work-worn and passion-spent, on her breast. If he broke with her now, he would never see her but as in his last glimpse of her — a picture to haunt him all his days.
When his whole heart cried out for her.
And yet. . . . To go back now, let this unique chance slip his grasp, might — WOULD mean hazarding his whole future as an artist. And that he would never forgive himself. Not in this way was happiness to be bought. When passion flagged . . . as passion did — must flag . . .
Feverishly he sought an alternative. What if he took her with him? . . . wrote and bade her follow him? But even as the thought came to him he swept it aside. Absorbed in his work he needed no one, could tolerate nobody beside him . . . let alone a woman: he the “Saint Jerome” of his friends’ gibes! To be perpetually aware of a presence, no matter how mute, how humble, would hang him with chains. Nor was it he alone who came in question. What of her, who had so far known him only in a summer mood of idleness, of relaxation, when he became cold, preoccupied, a victim of the fierce nervous irritability to which creative work condemned him?
And then . . . his friends . . . the clique his life was spent amongst. What, take her, his little love, back among this ribald, scoffing crew? — this artist-pack that respected no one and nothing outside the products of their own genius? She would get scant mercy at their hands. For it was not even as if. . . . The plain truth being, love had stolen a kind of march on him, dimming his vision, making him in the end fond even to her unlovelinesses. But THEY would judge her as inhumanly as he himself had once done; each of her defects serve as the butt for a coarse witticism, an obscene joke: he could imagine them, from Arped down, cynically winking and chuckling. At the thought, such a wave of protective tenderness ran through him, in this moment he so truly loved her, that doubts and hesitations were swept away. Rather than expose her to so bitter an obloquy, he would never see her again.
The rest was easy.
He wrote no second letter; better, since the break was inevitable, that it be short and sharp. And having found a telegraph-office, he pulled a form to him, and wrote the few words that were all that remained to be said.
AM NOT COMING BACK. RETURN HOME.
This done, he flung out and. strode through deserted streets, where a gusty wind buffeted him at every corner, and the branches of half-bare trees thrashed despairingly. Afterwards, in waiting for the train, which was late, he paced a station open at both ends to the dark, and cheerless as the night itself: a place of murky shadows, and hollow, clanking sounds; of tears, partings, irremediable regrets.
The thunder of the express, cries of porters, opening of doors roused him; hoisting himself up, he picked his steps among disgruntled sleepers. And soon, with more banging and shouting, the train slid into motion, and began to bore its way through the night, shrilled round on the high plains by the whistle of the wind. In the corner of a shaded carriage, Mocs sat and listened to the grotesque distortions ground out by the wheels, now of this theme, now of that. And oftenest what he heard was one of a tossing sea, sailed by a ship carrying lover back to lover. In its broken rhythm, its restless upward surge, his own unrest, his growing exaltation found vent: he, with his face set once more for what, to him, had never ceased to be the one Reality . . . all else but a ghostly surrogate.
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005