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- Maurice Guest - 110/121 -
"And matters are simplified by that very fact.--I can give you his address, Lulu."
"Go away! I may hurt you. I could kill you.--Go away!"
"And this," said Krafft, as he put on his coat again, "is how a woman listens quietly. Well, Lulu, think it over. A word at any time will bring me, if you change your mind."
One evening, about a week later, Maurice entered Seyffert's Cafe. The heavy snowfall had been succeeded by a period of thaw--of slush and gloom; and, on this particular night, a keen wind had risen, making the streets seem doubly cheerless. It was close on nine o'clock, and Seyffert's was crowded with its usual guests--young people, who had escaped from more or less dingy rooms to the warmth and light of the cafe, where the yellow blinds were drawn against the inclement night. The billiard table in the centre was never free; those players whose turn had not yet come, or was over, stood round it, cigarette or large black cigar in hand, and watched the game.
Maurice had difficulty in finding a seat. When he did, it was at a table for two, in a corner. A youth who had already eaten his supper, sat alone there, picking his teeth. Maurice took the opposite chair, and made his evening meal with a languid appetite. At the other side of the room was a large and boisterous party, whose leader was Krafft--Krafit in his most outrageous mood. Every other minute, his sallies evoked roars of laughter. Maurice refrained from glancing in that direction. When, however, his VIS-A-VIS got up and went away, he was startled from his conning of the afternoon paper by seeing Krafft before him. The latter, who carried his beer-mug in his hand, took the vacated scat, nodded and smiled.
Maurice was on his guard at once; for it seemed to him that they were being watched by the party Krafft had left. Putting down the newspaper, he wished his friend good-evening.
"I've something to say to you," said Krafft without responding, and, having drained his glass, he clapped the lid to attract the waiter's attention.
With the over-anxious readiness to oblige, which was becoming one of his most marked traits, and, in reality, cloaked a deathly indifference, Maurice hung up his paper, and sat forward to listen. Crossing his arms on the table, Krafft began to speak, meanwhile fixing his companion with his eye. Maurice was at first too bewildered by what he heard to know to whom the words referred. Then, the colour mounted to his face; the nerves in his temples began to throb; and his hand moved along the edge of the table, in search of something to which it could hold fast.--It was the first time the name of Louise had been mentioned between them--and in what a tone!
"Heinz!" he said at last; his voice seemed not to be his own. "How dare you speak of Miss Dufrayer like that!"
"PARDON!" said Krafft; his flushed, transparent cheeks were aglow, his limpid eyes shone like stars. "Do you mean Lulu?"
Maurice grew pale. "Mind what you're saying!"
Krafft took a gulp of beer. "Are you afraid of the truth?--But just one word, and I'm done. You no doubt knew, as every one else did, that Lulu was Schilsky's mistress. What you didn't know, was this;" and now, without the least attempt at palliation, without a single extenuating word, there fell from his lips the quick and witty narration of an episode in which Louise and he had played the chief parts. It was the keynote of their relations to each other: the story, grossly told, of a woman's unsatisfied fancy.
Before the pitiless details, not one of which was spared him, were checked off, Maurice understood; half rising from his chair, he struck Krafft a resounding blow in the face. He had intended to hit the mouth, but, his hand remaining fully open, caught on the cheek, and with such force that the delicate skin instantly bore a white imprint of all five fingers.
Only the people in their immediate neighbourhood saw what had happened; but these sprang up; a girl gave a nervous cry; and in a minute, the further occupants of the room had gathered round them, the billiard-players with their cues in their hands. Two waiters, napkin on arm, hastened up, and the proprietor came out from an inner room, and rubbed his hands.
"MEINE HERREN! MEINE HERREN!"
Krafft had jumped to his feet; he was also unable to refrain from putting his hand to his tingling face. Maurice, who was very pale, stood staring, like a person in a trance, at the mark, now deep red, which his hand had left on his friend's cheek. There was a solemn pause; all eyes were fixed on Krafft; and the stillness was only broken by the proprietor's persuasive: "MEINE HERREN! MEINE HERREN!"
In half a minute Krafft had collected himself. Turning, he jauntily waved his hand to those pressing up behind; though one side of his face still blazed and burned.
"Don't allow yourselves to be disturbed, gentlemen. The incident is closed--for the present, at least. My friend here was carried away by a momentary excitement. Kindly resume your seats, and act as if nothing had happened. I shall call him to account at my own convenience.--But just one moment, please!"
The last words were addressed to Maurice. Opening a notebook, Krafft tore out one of the little pages, and, with his customary indolence of movement, wrote something on it. Then he folded it through the middle, and across again, and gave it to Maurice.
Maurice took it, because there seemed nothing else for him to do; he also, for the same reason, took his coat and hat, which some one handed to him. He saw nothing of what went on--nothing but the five outspread marks, which had run together so slowly. He had, however, enough presence of mind to do what was evidently expected of him; and, in the hush that still prevailed, he left the cafe.
The wind sent a blast in his face. Round the corners of the streets, which it was briskly scavenging, it swept in boisterous gusts, which beat the gas-flames flat as soon as they reared themselves, and made them give a wavering, uncertain light. Not a soul was visible. But in the moment that he stood hesitating outside the brilliancy of the yellow blinds, the hubbub of voices burst forth again. He moved hastily away, and began to walk, to put distance between himself and the place. He did not shrink before the wind-scourged meadows, but fought his way forward, till he reached the woods. There he threw himself face downwards on the first bench he came to.
A smell of rotting and decay met his nostrils: as if, from the thousands of leaves, mouldering under the trees on which they had once hung, some invisible hand had set free thousands of odours, there mounted to him, as he lay, all that rich and humid earthiness that belongs to sunless places. And for a time, he was conscious of little else but this morbid fragrance.
An open brawl! He had struck a man in the face before a crowd of onlookers, and had as good as been ejected from their midst. From now on, he was an outcast from orderly society, was branded as one who was not wholly responsible for his actions--he, Maurice Guest, who had ever been so chary of committing himself. What made the matter seem still blacker, too, in his own eyes, was the fact of Krafft having once been his intimate, personal friend. Now, he could never even think of him again, without, at the same time, seeing the mark of his hand on Krafft's cheek. If the blow had remained invisible, it might have been more easily forgotten; but he had seen it, as it were, taken shape before him.--Or, had it only been returned, it would have helped to lessen the weight of his present abasement--oh, he would have given all he had to have felt a return blow on his own face! Even the smallest loss of selfcontrol on the part of Krafft would have been enough. But the latter was too proud to give himself away gratuitously: he preferred to take his revenge in the more unconventional fashion of leaving his friend to bear the ignominy alone.
Maurice lay stabbing himself with these and similar thoughts. Only little by little did the tumult that had been roused in him abate. Then, and just the more vividly for the break in his memory, the gross words Krafft had said, came back to him. Recalling them, he felt an intense bitterness against Louise. She was the cause of all his sufferings; were it not for her, he might still be leading a quiet, decent life. It was her doing that he was compelled to part, bit by bit, with his selfrespect. Not once, in all the months they had been together, had the smallest good come to him through her. Nothing but misery.
Now, he had no further rest where he was. He must go to her, and tax her with it, repeat what Krafft had said, to her very face. She should suffer, too--and the foretasted anguish and pleasure of hot recriminations dulled all other feelings in him.
He rose, chilled to the bone from his exposure; one hand, which had hung down over the bench, was wet and sticky from grasping handfuls of dead leaves.
It was past eleven o'clock. Louise wakened with a start, and, at the sight of his muddy, dishevelled dress, rose to her elbow.
"What is it? What's the matter? Where have you been?"
He stood at the foot of the bed, and looked at her. The loose masses of her hair, which had come unplaited, arrested his attention: he had never seemed to know before how brutally black it was. With his eyes fixed on it, he repeated what Krafft had told him.
Louise lay with the back of one hand on her forehead, and watched him from under it. When he had finished, she said: "So Heinz has raked up that old story again, has he?"
Maurice had expected--yes, what had he expected?--anger, perhaps, or denial, or, it might be, vituperation; only not the almost impartial composure with which she listened to him. For he had not spared her a word.
"Is that all you've got to say?" he cried, suffocated with doubt. "Then you . . . you admit it?"
"Admit it! Maurice! Are you crazy?--to wake me up for this! It happened YEARS ago!"
His recoil of disgust was too marked to be ignored. Louise half sat up in bed again, supporting herself on one hand. Her nightgown was not buttoned; he saw to the waist a strip of the white skin beneath, saw, too, how a long black strand of her hair fell in and lay on it.
"You won't tell me you didn't know from the first there had been . . . something between Heinz and me?" she cried, roused to defend herself.--"And look here, Maurice, as he told you that, it's my turn now.
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