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- Maurice Guest - 100/121 -
filled with the wish to be at one with her again--to be lulled into security. He pressed her hand.
"Forgive me! To-day I've been bothered--pestered with black thoughts. Or else I shouldn't go on like this."
Now she was silent; both stared out into the night. And then a strange thing happened. He began to speak again, and words rose to his lips, of which, a moment before, he had had no idea, but which he now knew for absolute truth. He said: "I don't want to excuse myself; I'm jealous, I admit it. And yet there IS an excuse for me, Louise. For saying such things to you, I mean. To-night I--Have you ever thought, dear, what a difference it would make to us, if you had . . . I mean if I knew . . . that you had never cared for anyone . . . if you had never belonged to anyone but me? That's what I wish now more than anything else in the world. If I could just say to myself: no one but me has ever held her in his arms; and no one ever will. Do you think then, darling, I could speak as I have to-night?"
A moment back, he had had no thought of such a thing; now, here it was, expressed, over his lips--another of those strange, inlying truths, which were existent in him, and only waited for a certain moment to come to light. Strangest of all, perhaps, was the manner in which it impressed itself on him. In it seemed to be summed up his trouble of the afternoon, his suspense and irritation of the later hours. It was as if he had suddenly found a formula for them, and, as he stated it, he was dumbfounded by its far-reaching significance.
A church-clock pealed a single stroke.
"Oh, yes, perhaps," said Louise, in a low voice. She could not rouse herself to a very keen interest in his feelings.
"No, not perhaps. Yes--a thousand times yes! Everything would be changed by it. Then I couldn't torment you. And our love would have a certainty such as it can now never have."
"But you knew, Maurice! I told you--everything! You said it didn't matter."
"And it doesn't, and never shall. But to make it undone, I would cheerfully give years of my life. You're a woman--you can't understand these things--or know what we miss. You mine only--life wouldn't be the same."
For a moment she did not answer. Then the same toneless voice came out of the darkness at his side. "But I AM yours only--now. And it's a foolish thing to wish for the impossible."
It was, indeed, a preposterous thought to have at this date: no one knew that better than himself. And as long as he was with Louise, he kept it at bay; it was a fatuous thing even to allow himself to think, considering the past, and considering all he knew.
But next morning, as he sat with busy fingers, and a vacant mind, it returned. He thrust it angrily away, endeavouring to concentrate his attention on his music open before him. For a time, he believed he had succeeded. Then, the idea was unexpectedly present to him again, and this time more forcibly than before; it came like a sharp, swift stab of remembrance, and forced an exclamation over his lips. Discouraged, he let his hands drop from the keys of the piano; for now he knew that he would probably never be rid of it again. This was always the way with unpleasant thoughts and impressions: if they returned, after he had resolved to have done with them, they were henceforth part and parcel of himself, fixed ideas, against which his will was powerless.
In the hope of growing used to the haunting reflection, and to the unhappiness it implied, he thought it through to the end--this strange, unsought knowledge, which had lain unsuspected in him, and now became articulate. Once considered, however, it made many things clear. He could even account to himself now, for the blasphemous suggestions that had plagued him not twenty-four hours ago. If he had then not, all unconsciously, had the feeling that Louise had known too long and too well what love was, to be willing to live without it, such thoughts as those would never have risen in him.
In vain he asked himself, why he should only now understand these things. He could find no answer. Throughout the time he had known Louise, he had been better acquainted with her mode of life than anyone else: her past had lain open to him; she had concealed nothing, had been what she called "brutally frank" with him. And he had protested, and honestly believed, that what had preceded their intimacy did not matter to him. Who could foresee that, on a certain day, an idea of this kind would break out in him--like a canker? But this query took him a step further. Was it not deluding himself to say break out? Had not this shadow lurked in their love from the very beginning? Had it not formed an invisible barrier between them? It was possible no, it was true; though he only recognised its truth at the present time. It had existed from the first: something which each of them, in turn, had felt, and vaguely tried to express. It had little or nothing to do with the fact that they had defied convention. That, regrettable though it might be, was beside the mark. The confounding truth was, that, in an emotional crisis of an intensity of the one they had come through, it was imperative to be able to say: our love is unparalleled, unique; or, at least: I am the only possible one; I am yours, you are mine, only. That had not been the case. What he had been forced to tell himself was, that he was not the first. And now he knew that, for some time past, he had been aware that he would always occupy the second place; she was forced to compare him with another, to his disadvantage. And he knew more. For the first time, he allowed his thoughts to rove, unchecked, over her previous life, and he was no longer astonished at the imperfections of the present. To him, the gradual unfolding of their love had been a wonderful revelation; to her, a repetition, and a paler and fainter one, of a tale she already knew by heart. And the knowledge of this awakened a fresh distrust in him. If she had loved that first time, as she had asserted, as he had seen with his own eyes that she did, desperately, abandonedly, how had it been possible for her to change front so quickly, to turn to him and love anew? Was such a thing credible? Was a woman's nature capable of it? And had it not been this constant fear, lest he should never be able to efface the image of his predecessor, which, yesterday, had boldly stalked out as a dread that what had drawn her to him, had not been love at all?
But this mood passed. He himself cared too well to doubt, for long, that in her own way she really loved him. What, however, he was obliged to admit was, that what she felt could in no way be counted the equal of his love for her: that had possessed a kind of primeval freshness, which no repetition, however passionately fond, could achieve. And yet, in his mind, there was still room for doubt--eager, willing doubt. It was due to his ignorance. He became aware of this, and, while brooding over these things, he was overmanned by the desire to learn, from her own lips, more about her past, to hear exactly what it had meant to her, in order that he might compare it with her present life, and with her feelings for him. Who could say if, by doing this, he might not drive away what was perhaps a phantom of his own uneasy brain?
He resolved to make the endeavour. But he was careful not to let her suspect his intention. First of all, he was full of compunction for his bad temper of the night before; he was also slightly ashamed of what he was going to do; and then, too, he knew that she would resent his prying. What he did must be done with tact. He had no wish to make her unhappy over it. And so, when he saw her again, he did his best to make her forget how disagreeable he had been.
But the desire to know remained, became a morbid curiosity. If this were satisfied, he believed it would make things easier for both of them. But he was infinitely cautious. Sometimes, without a word, he took her face between his hands and looked into her eyes, as if to read in them an answer to the questions he was afraid to put--looked right into the depth of her eyes, where the pupils swam in an oval of bluish white, overhung by lids which were finely creased in their folds, and netted with tiny veins. But he said not a word, and the eyes remained unfathomable, as they had always been.
Meanwhile, he did what he could to set his life on a solid basis again. But he was unable to arouse in himself a very vital interest in his work; some prompter-nerve in him seemed to have been injured. And often, he was overcome by the feeling that this perpetual preoccupation with music was only a trifling with existence, an excuse for not facing the facts of life. He would sometimes rather have been a labourer, worn out with physical toil. He was much alone, too; when he was not with Louise, he was given over to his own thoughts, and, day by day, fostered by the long, empty hours of practice, these moved more and more steadily in the one direction. The craving for a knowledge of the facts, for certainty in any form--this became a reason for, a plea in extenuation of, what he felt escaping him.
Louise did not help him; she assented to what he did without comment, half sorry for him in what seemed to her his wilful blindness, half disdainful. But she, too, made a discovery in these tame, flat days, and this was, that it was one thing to say to herself: it is over and done with, and another to make the assertion a fact. Energy for the effort was lacking in her; for the short, sharp stroke, which with her meant action, was invariably born of intense happiness or unhappiness. Now, as the days went by, she asked herself why she should do it. It was so much easier to let things slide, until something happened of itself, either to make the break, or to fill up the still greater emptiness in her life which a break would cause. And if he were content with what she could give him, well and good; she made no attempt to deceive him. And it seemed to her that he was content, though in a somewhat preoccupied way. But a little later, she acknowledged to herself that this was not the whole truth. There was habit to fight against--habit which could still give her hours of self-forgetfulness--and one could not forgo, all at once, and under no pressing necessity to do so, this means of escape from the cheerlessness of life.
But not for long did matters remain at this negative stage. Whereas, until now, the touch of her lips had been sufficient to chase away the shadows, the moment came, when, as he held her in his arms, Maurice was paralysed by the abrupt remembrance: she has known all this before. How was it then? To what degree is she mine, was she his? What fine, ultimate shade of feeling is she keeping back from me?--His ardour was damped; and as Louise also became aware of his sudden coolness, their hands sank apart, and had no strength to join anew.
Thus far, he had gone about his probings with skill, questioning her in a roundabout way, trying to learn by means of inference. But after this, he let himself go, and put a barefaced question. The subject once broached, there was no further need of concealment, and he flung tact and prudence to the winds. He could not forget--he was goaded on by--the look she had given him, as the ominous words crossed his lips: it made him conscious once more of the unapproachable nature of that first love of hers. He grew reckless; and while he had hitherto only sought to surprise her and entrap her, he now began to try to worm things out of her, all the time spying on
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