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- Maurice Guest - 2/121 -
enveloped in an old-fashioned, circular cloak, and carrying on one arm a pile of paper-covered music. This, she laid on the table next that at which the young man was sitting, then took off her hat. When she had also hung up the unbecoming cloak, he saw that she was young and slight. For the rest, she seemed to bring with her, into the warm, tranquil atmosphere of the place, heavy with midday musings, a breath of wind and outdoor freshness--a suggestion that was heightened by the quick decisiveness of her movements: the briskness with which she divested herself of her wrappings, the quick smooth of the hair on either side, the business-like way in which she drew up her chair to the table and unfolded her napkin.
She seemed to be no stranger there, for, on her entrance, the younger and more active waiter had at once sprung up with officious haste, and almost before she was ready, the little table was newly spread and set, and the dinner of the day before her. She spoke to the man in a friendly way as she took her seat, and he replied with a pleased and smiling respect.
Then she began to eat, deliberately, and with an overemphasised nicety. As she carried her soup-spoon to her lips, Maurice Guest felt that she was observing him; and throughout the meal, of which she ate but little, he was aware of a peculiarly straight and penetrating gaze. It ended by disconcerting him. Beckoning the waiter, he went through the business of paying his bill, and this done, was about to push back his chair and rise to his feet, when the man, in gathering up the money, addressed what seemed to be a question to him. Fearful lest he had made a mistake in the strange coinage, Maurice looked up apprehensively. The waiter repeated his words, but the slight nervousness that gained on the young man made him incapable of separating the syllables, which were indistinguishably blurred. He coloured, stuttered, and felt mortally uncomfortable, as, for the third time, the waiter repeated his remark, with the utmost slowness.
At this point, the girl at the adjacent table put down her knife and fork, and leaned slightly forward.
"Excuse me," she said, and smiled. "The waiter only said he thought you must be a stranger here: DER HERR IST GEWISS FREMD IN LEIPZIG?" Her rather prominent teeth were visible as she spoke.
Maurice, who understood instantly her pronunciation of the words, was not set any more at his ease by her explanation. "Thanks very much." he said, still redder than usual. "I . . . er . . . thought the fellow was saying something about the money."
"And the Saxon dialect is barbarous, isn't it?" she added kindly. "But perhaps you have not had much experience of it yet."
"No. I only arrived this morning."
At this, she opened her eyes wide. "Why, you are a courageous person!" she said and laughed, but did not explain what she meant, and he did not like to ask her.
A cup of coffee was set on the table before her; she held a lump of sugar in her spoon, and watched it grow brown and dissolve. "Are you going to make a long stay?" she asked, to help him over his embarrassment.
"Two years, I hope," said the young man.
"Music?" she queried further, and, as he replied affirmatively: "Then the Con. of course?"--an enigmatic question that needed to be explained. "You're piano, are you not?" she went on. "I thought so. It is hardly possible to mistake the hands"--here she just glanced at her own, which, large, white, and well formed, were lying on the table. "With strings, you know, the right hand is as a rule shockingly defective."
He found the high clearness of her voice very agreeable after the deep roundnesses of German, and could have gone on listening to it. But she was brushing the crumbs from her skirt, preparatory to rising.
"Are you an old resident here?" he queried in the hope of detaining her.
"Yes, quite. I'm at the end of my second year; and don't know whether to be glad or sorry," she answered. "Time goes like a flash.--Now, look here, as one who knows the ways of the place, would you let me give you a piece of advice? Yes?--It's this. You intend to enter the Conservatorium, you say. Well, be sure you get under a good man--that's half the battle. Try and play privately to either Schwarz or Bendel. If you go in for the public examination with all the rest, the people in the BUREAU will put you to anyone they like, and that is disastrous. Choose your own master, and beard him in his den beforehand."
"Yes . . . and you recommend? May I ask whom you are with?" he said eagerly.
"Schwarz is my master; and I couldn't wish for a better. But Bendel is good, too, in his way, and is much sought after by the Americans--you're not American, are you? No.--Well, the English colony runs the American close nowadays. We're a regular army. If you don't want to, you need hardly mix with foreigners as long as you're here. We have our clubs and balls and other social functions--and our geniuses--and our masters who speak English like natives . . . But there!--you'll soon know all about it yourself."
She nodded pleasantly and rose.
"I must be off," she said. "To-day every minute is precious. That wretched PROBE spoils the morning, and directly it is over, I have to rush to an organ-lesson--that's why I'm here. For I can't expect a PENSION to keep dinner hot for me till nearly three o'clock--can I? Morning rehearsals are a mistake. What?--you were there, too? Really?--after a night in the train? Well, you didn't get much, did you, for your energy? A dull aria, an overture that 'belongs in the theatre,' as they say here, an indifferently played symphony that one has heard at least a dozen times. And for us poor pianists, not a fresh dish this season. Nothing but yesterday's remains heated up again."
She laughed as she spoke, and Maurice Guest laughed, too, not being able at the moment to think of anything to say.
Getting the better of the waiter, who stood by, napkin on arm, smiling and officious, he helped her into the unbecoming cloak; then took up the parcel of music and opened the door. In his manner of doing this, there may have been a touch of over-readiness, for no sooner was she outside, than she quietly took the music from him, and, without even offering him her hand, said a friendly but curt good-bye: almost before he had time to return it, he saw her hurrying up the street, as though she had never vouchsafed him word or thought. The abruptness of the dismissal left him breathless; in his imagination, they had walked at least a strip of the street together. He stepped off the pavement into the road, that he might keep her longer in sight, and for some time he saw her head, in the close-fitting hat, bobbing along above the heads of other people.
On turning again, he found that the waiter was watching him from the window of the restaurant, and it seemed to the young man that the pale, servile face wore a malicious smile. With the feeling of disconcertion that springs from being caught in an impulsive action we have believed unobserved, Maurice spun round on his heel and took a few quick steps in the opposite direction. When once he was out of range of the window, however, he dropped his pace, and at the next corner stopped altogether. He would at least have liked to know her name. And what in all the world was he to do with himself now?
Clouds had gathered; the airy blue and whiteness of the morning had become a level sheet of grey, which wiped the colour out of everything; the wind, no longer tempered by the sun, was chilly, as it whirled down the narrow streets and freaked about the corners. There was little temptation now to linger on one's steps. But Maurice Guest was loath to return to the solitary room that stood to him for home, to shut himself up with himself, inside four walls: and turning up his coat collar, he began to walk slowly along the curved GRIMMAISCHESTRASSE. But the streets were by this time black with people, most of whom came hurrying towards him, brisk and bustling, and gay, in spite of the prevailing dullness, at the prospect of the warm, familiar evening. He was continually obliged to step off the pavement into the road, to allow a bunch of merry, chattering girls, their cheeks coloured by the wind beneath the dark fur of their hats, or a line of gaudy capped, thickset students, to pass him by, unbroken; and it seemed to him that he was more frequently off the pavement than on it. He began to feel disconsolate among these jovial people, who were hastening forward, with such spirit, to some end, and he had not gone far, before he turned down a side street to be out of their way. Vaguely damped by his environment, which, with the sun's retreat, had lost its charm, he gave himself up to his own thoughts, and was soon busily engaged in thinking over all that had been said by his quondam acquaintance of the dinner-table, in inventing neatly turned phrases and felicitous replies. He walked without aim, in a leisurely way down quiet streets, quickly across big thoroughfares, and paid no attention to where he was going. The falling darkness made the quaint streets look strangely alike; it gave them, too, an air of fantastic unreality: the dark old houses, marshalled in rows on either side, stood as if lost in contemplation, in the saddening dusk. The lighting of the street-lamps, which started one by one into existence, and the conflict with the fading daylight of the uneasily beating flame, that was swept from side to side in the wind like a woman's hair--these things made his surroundings seem still shadowier and less real.
He was roused from his reverie by finding himself on what was apparently the outskirts of the town. With much difficulty he made his way back, but he was still far from certain of his whereabouts, when an unexpected turn to the right brought him out on the spacious AUGUSTUSPLATZ, in front of the New Theatre. He had been in this square once already, but now its appearance was changed. The big buildings that flanked it were lit up; the file of droschkes waiting for fares, under the bare trees, formed a dotted line of lights. A double row of hanging lamps before the CAFE FRANCAIS made the corner of the GRIMMAISCHESTRASSE dazzling to the eyes; and now, too, the massive white theatre was awake as well. Lights shone from all its high windows, streamed out through the Corinthian columns and low-porched doorways. Its festive air was inviting, after his twilight wanderings, and he went across the square to it. Immediately before the theatre, early corners stood in knots and chatted; programme--and text-vendors cried and sold their wares; people came hurrying from all directions, as to a magnet; hastily they ascended the low steps and disappeared beneath the portico.
He watched until the last late-comer had vanished. Only he was left; he again was the outsider. And now, as he stood there in the deserted square, which, a moment before, had been so animated, he had a sudden sinking of the heart: he was seized by that acute sense of desolation that lies in wait for one, caught by nightfall, alone in a strange city. It stirs up a wild longing, not so much for any particular spot
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