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- Maurice Guest - 121/121 -
neighbourhood, and having sought for some time, found a smaller shop, in a side street. He had ready this time the fiction of a friend and a commission. But a woman regretted wordily that her husband had just stepped out; he would no doubt be back again immediately; if the Herr would take a chair and wait a little?--,But the thought of waiting made him turn on his heel. Finally, at his third attempt, a young lad gave him what he desired, without demur; and, after he had known a quick fear lest he should not have sufficient money for the purchase, the matter was satisfactorily settled.
On returning to his room, he found a letter lying on the table. He pounced upon it with a desperate hope. But it was only the monthly bill for the hire of the piano.
In entering, he had made some noise, and Frau Krause was in the room before he knew it. She was primed for an angry scene. But he made short work of her complaints and accusations.
"To-morrow! I'll have time for all that to-morrow."
He turned the key in the door, and sitting down before the writing-table, commenced to go through drawers and pigeonholes. It had not been a habit of his to keep letters; but nevertheless a certain number had accumulated, and these he was averse to let fall into the hands of strangers. He performed his work coolly, with a pedantic thoroughness. He had no sympathy with those people, who, doing what he was about to do, left ragged ends behind them. His mind had always inclined to law and order. And so, having written a note authorising Frau Krause to keep his books and clothes, in place of the outstanding rent, he put a match to the fire which was laid in the stove, and, on his knees before it, burnt all such personal trifles as had value for himself alone. He postponed, to the last, even handling the small packet made up of the letters he had had from Louise. Then their turn came, too. Kneeling before the stovedoor, he dropped them, one by one, into the flames. The last to burn was the first he had received--a mere hastily scrawled line, a twisted note, which opened as it blackened. I MUST SPEAK TO YOU. WILL YOU COME TO ME THIS EVENING? As he watched it shrivel, he had a vivid recollection of that long past day. He remembered how he had tried to shave, and how he had dressed himself in his best, only to fling back again into his working-clothes, annoyed with himself for even harbouring the thought. Yes; but that had always been his way: he had expended consideration and delicacy where none was necessary; he had seen her only as he wished to see her.--After this, the photographs. They were harder to burn; he was forced to tear them across, in two, three pieces. Even then, the flames licked slowly; he watched them creep up--over her dress, her hands, her face.
Afternoon had turned to evening. When, at length, everything was in order, he lay down on the sofa to wait for it to grow quite dark. But almost at once, as if his back had been eased of a load, he fell asleep. When he opened his eyes again, the lamp had burned low, and filled the room with a poisonous vapour. It was two o'clock. This was the time to go. But a boisterous wind had risen, and was blustering round the house. He said to himself that he would wait still a little longer, to see if it did not subside. In waiting, he slept again, heavily, as he had not done for many a night, and when he wakened next, a clock was striking four. He rose at once, and with his boots in his hand, crept out of the house.
Day was breaking; as he walked, a thin streak of grey in the east widened with extreme rapidity, and became a bank of pale grey light. He met an army of street-sweepers, indistinguishably male and female, returning from their work, their long brooms over their shoulders. It had rained a little, and the pavements were damp and shining. The wind had dropped to a mere morning breeze, which met him at street-corners. Before his mind's eye rose a vision of the coming day. He saw one of those early spring days of illimitable blue highness and white, woofy clouds, which stand stationary where the earth meets the sky; the brightness of the sun makes the roads seem whiter and the grass greener, bringing out new tints and colours in everything it touches. Over it all would run this light, swift wind, bending the buds, and even, towards afternoon, throwing up a fine white dust.--And it was to the thought of the dust that his mind clung most tenaciously, as to some homely and familiar thing which he would never see again.
He had made straight for the well-known seat with the bosky background. Arrived at it, he went a few steps aside, into an open space among the undergrowth, which was now generously sprinkled with buds. The leaves that had fallen during the previous autumn made a carpet under his feet. Somewhere, in the distance, a band was playing: a body of soldiers was being marched out to exercise. He opened the case he was carrying, and laid it on the seat. He was not conscious of feeling afraid; if he had a fear, it was only lest, in his inexperience, he should do what he had to do, clumsily. In loosening the clothes at his neck, however, he perceived that his hand was shaking, and this made him aware that his heart also was beating unevenly. He stood and fumbled with his collar-stud, which he could not unfasten at once, and, while he was busied thus, the mists that blinded him fell away. He ceased, abruptly, to be the mere automaton that had moved and acted, without will of its own, for the past four-and-twenty hours. Standing there, with his fingers at his neck, he was pierced by a sudden lucid perception of what had happened. An intolerable spasm of remembrance gripped him. With a rush of bitterness, which was undiluted agony, all the shame and suffering of the past months swept over him once more, concentrated in a last supreme moment. And, as though this were not enough, while he still wrenched at his neck, tearing his shirt-collar in his desperation, her face rose before him--but not the face he had known and loved. He saw it as he had seen it for the last time, disfigured by hatred of him, horribly vindictive, as it had been when she spat on the ground at his feet. This vision gave him an unlooked-for jerk of courage. Without allowing himself another second in which to reason or reflect, he caught up the revolver from the seat, and pressed the cold little nozzle to his chest. Simultaneously he received a sharp blow, and heard the crack of a report--but far away . . . in the distance. He was on his back, without knowing how he had got there; straight overhead waved the bare branches of a tree; behind them, a grey morning cloud was sailing. For still the fraction of a second, he heard the familiar melody, to which the soldiers marched; and the branch swayed . . . swayed . . .
Then, as suddenly as the flame of a candle is puffed out by the wind, his life went from him. His right hand twitched, made as if to open, closed again, and stiffened round the iron of the handle. His jaw fell, and, like an inner lid, a glazed film rose over his eyes, which for hours afterwards continued to stare, with an expression of horror and amaze, at the naked branches of the tree.
* * * * *
One midday, a couple of years later, a number of those who had formed the audience at one of the last rehearsals of the season, were gathered round the back entrance to the Gewandhaus. It was a fresh spring day, gusty and sunny by turns: sometimes, there came a puff of wind that drove every one's hand to his hat; at others, the broad square basked in an almost motionless sunshine. The small crowd lingered in order to see, at close quarters, the violinist who had played there that morning. Only a few of those present had known Schilsky personally; but one and all were curious to catch a glimpse of the quondam Leipzig student, who, it was whispered, would soon return to the town to take up a leading position in the orchestra. Schilsky was now KONZERTMEISTER in a large South German town; but it was rather as a composer that his name had begun to burn on people's tongues. His new symphonic poem, UBER DIE LETZTEN DINGE, had drawn down on his head that mixture of extravagant laudation and abusive derision which constitutes fame.
"Take a look at his wife, if she's there," said one American to another, who was standing beside him. "She studied here same time he did, and is said to have been very handsome. An English chap shot himself on her account."
"You don't say!" drawled his companion. "It's a queer thing, how common suicide's getting to be. You can't pick up a noospaper, nowadays, without finding some fool or other has blown his brains out."
"Look out!--here they come."
Behind the thick glass doors, Schilsky became visible. He was talking volubly to a Jewish-looking stranger in a fur-lined coat. His hat was pushed far back on his forehead; his face was flushed with elation; and, consciously unconscious of the waiting crowd, he gesticulated as he walked, throwing out the palms of his loosely dangling hands, and emphasising his words with restless movements of the head. He was respectfully greeted by those who had known him. A minute or two later came Louise. At her side was a pianist with whom Schilsky had given a concert earlier in the week--a shabbily dressed young man, with a world of enthusiasm in his candid blue eyes. He, too, was talking with animation. But Louise had no attention for anyone but her husband.
"Well, not my taste . . . I must confess," laughed the man who had been severe on suicide. "Fine eyes, if you like--but give me something fresher."
She was wearing a long cloak. The door, in swinging to, caught an end of this, and hindered her progress. Both she and her companion stooped to free it; their hands met; and the bystanders saw the young man colour darkly over face and neck.
The others had got into one of the droschkes that waited in line beside the building. The dark stranger put an impatient head out of the window. The two behind quickened their steps; the young man helped Louise in, mounted himself, and slammed the door.
The driver gathered up the reins, cracked his whip, and the big-bodied droschke went swerving round the corner, clattering gutturally on the cobbled stone pavement.
The group of loiterers at the door dispersed.
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