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- Maurice Guest - 90/121 -
Towards seven o'clock the following evening, Maurice loitered about the vestibule of the Conservatorium. In spite of his attempt to time himself, he had arrived too early, and his predecessor on the programme had still to play two movements of a sonata by Beethoven.
As he stood there, Madeleine entered by the street-door.
"Is that you?" she asked, in the ironical tone she now habitually used to him. "You look just as if you were posing for the John in a Rubens Crucifixion.--Feel shaky? No? You ought to, you know. One plays all the better for it.--Well, good luck to you! I'll hold my thumbs."
He went along the passage to the little green-room, at the heels of his string-players. On seeing them go by, it had occurred to him that he might draw their attention to a passage in the VARIATIONS, with which he had not been satisfied at rehearsal that day. But when he caught them up, they were so deep in talk that he hesitated to interrupt. The 'cellist, a greasy, little fellow with a mop of touzled hair, was relating an adventure he had had the night before. His droll way of telling it was more amusing than the long-winded story, and he himself was more tickled by it than was the violinist, a lanky German-American boy, with oily black hair and a pimpled face. Throughout, both tuned their instruments assiduously, with that air of inattention common to string-players.
Meanwhile, the sonata by Beethoven ran its course. While the story-teller still smacked his lips, it came to an end, and the performer, a tall, Polish girl, with a long, sallow, bird-like neck, round which was wound a piece of black velvet, descended the steps. Behind her was heard the applause of many hands. As this showed no sign of ceasing, Schwarz, who had come out of the hall by a lower door, bade her return and bow her thanks. At his words, the girl burst into tears.
"NA, NA, NA!" he said soothingly. "What's all this about? You did excellently."
She seized his hand and clung to it. The 'cellist ran to fetch water; the other two young men were embarrassed, and looked away.
Here, however, several friends burst into the room, and bore Fraulein Prybowski off. Schwarz gave the signal, the stringplayers picked up their instruments, and the little procession, with Maurice at its head, mounted the steps to the platform.
Although before an audience for the first time in his life, Maurice had never felt more composed. Passing by the organ, and the empty seats of the orchestra, he descended to the front of the platform, where two grand pianos stood side by side; and, as he went, he noted that the hall was exceptionally well filled. He let down the lid of the piano to the peg for chambermusic; he lowered the piano-chair, and flicked the keys with his handkerchief. And Schwarz, sitting by him, to turn the pages of the music, felt so sure of this pupil's coolness that he yawned, and stroked the insides of his trouser-legs.
Maurice was just ready for the start, when the 'cellist, who was restless, discovered that the stand which had been placed for him was insecure; rising from his scat, he went to fetch another from the back of the platform. In the delay that ensued, Maurice looked round at the audience. He saw innumerable heads and faces, all turned expectantly towards him, like lines of globular fruits. His eye ranged indifferently over the occupants of the front seats--strange faces, which told him nothing--until his attention was arrested by a face almost directly beneath him, in the second row. For the flash of a second, he thought he knew the person to whom it belonged, and struggled to recall a name. Then, almost as swiftly, he dismissed the idea. It was, however, a face of that kind which, once seen, is never forgotten--a frog-like face, with protruding eyes, and the frog's expressive leer. Somewhere, not very long ago, this face had been before him, and had stared at him in the same disconcerting manner--but where? when? In the few seconds that remained, his brain worked furiously, sped back in desperate haste over all the likely places where he might have seen it. And a restaurant evolved itself; a table in a secluded corner; chrysanthemums and their acrid scent; a screen, round which this repulsive face had peered. It had fixed them both, with such malevolence that it had destroyed his pleasure, and he had persuaded Louise to go home. His memory was now so alert that he could recall the man's two companions as well.
The scene built itself up with inconceivable rapidity. And while he was still absorbed by it, Schwarz raised a decisive hand. It was the signal to begin; he obeyed unthinkingly; and was at the bottom of the first page before he knew it.
Throughout the whole of the opening movement, he was not rightly awake to what he was doing. His fingers, like well-drilled soldiers, went automatically through their work, neither blundering nor forgetting; but the mind which should have controlled them was unable to concentrate itself: he heard himself play as though he were listening to some one else. He was only roused by the burst of applause that succeeded the final chords. As he struck the first notes of the ANDANTE WITH VARIATIONS, he nerved himself for an effort; but now, as if it were the result of his previous inattention, an odd uneasiness beset him; and his beginning to weigh each note as he played it, his fingers hesitated and grew less sure. Having failed, through over-care, in the rounding of a turn, he resolved to let things go as they would, and his thoughts wander at will. The movements of the trio succeeded one another; the VARIATIONS ceased, and were followed by the crisp gaiety of the MINUET. The lights above his head were reflected in the shining ebony of the piano; regularly, every moment or two, he was struck by the appearance of Schwarz's broad, fat hand, which crossed his range of vision to turn a leaf; he meditated absently on a sharp uplifting of this hand that occurred, as though the master were dissatisfied with the rhythm--the 'cellist's fault, no doubt: he had been inexact at rehearsal, and, this evening, was too much taken up with his own witticisms beforehand, to think about what he had to do. And thus the four divisions of the trio slipped past, separated by a disturbing noise of hands, which continued to seem as unreal to Maurice as everything else. Only as the last notes of the PRESTISSIMO died away, in the disappointing, ineffectual scales in C major, with which the trio closed--not till then did he grasp that the event to which he had looked forward for many weeks was behind him, and also that no one present knew less of how it had passed off than he himself.
With his music in his hand, he turned to Schwarz, to learn what success he had had, from the master's face. According to custom, Schwarz shook hands with him; he also nodded. but he did not smile. He was, however, in a hurry; the old: white-haired director had left his seat, and stood waiting to speak to him. Both 'cellist and violinist had vanished on the instant; the audience, eager as ever at the end of a concert to shake off an imposed restraint, had risen while Maurice still played the final notes; and, by this time, the hall was all but empty.
He slowly ascended the platform. Now that it was over, he felt how tired he was; his very legs were tired, as though he had walked for miles. The green-room was deserted; the gas-jet had been screwed down to a peep. None of his friends had come to say a word to him. He had really hardly expected it; but, all the same, a hope had lurked in him that Krafft would perhaps afterwards make some sign--even Madeleine. As, however, neither of them appeared, he seemed to read a confirmation of his failure in their absence, and he loitered for some time in the semi-darkness, unwilling to face the dispersing crowd. When at length he went down the passage, only a few stragglers remained. One or two acquaintances congratulated him in due form, but he knew neither well enough to try to get at the truth. As he was nearing the street-door, however, Dove came out of the BUREAU. He made for Maurice at once; his manner was eager, his face bore the imprint of interesting news.
"I say, Guest!" he cried, while still some way off. "An odd coincidence. Young Leumann is to play this very same trio next week. A little chap in knickerbockers, you know--pupils of Rendel's. He is said to have a glorious LEGATO--just the very thing for the VARIATIONS."
"Indeed?" said Maurice with a well-emphasised dryness. His tone nudged Dove's memory.
"By the way, all congratulations, of course," he hastened to add. "Never heard you play better. Especially the MENUETTO. Some people sitting behind me were reminded of Rubinstein."
"Well, good-night, I'm off," said Maurice, and, even as he spoke, he shot away, leaving his companion in some surprise.
Once out of Dove's sight, he took off his hat and passed his hand over his forehead. Any slender hope he might have had was now crushed; his playing had been so little remarkable that even Dove had been on the point of overlooking it altogether.
Louise threw herself into his arms. At last! she exulted to herself. But his greeting had not its usual fervour; instead of kissing her, he laid his face against her hair. Instantly, she became uncertain. She did not quite know what she had been expecting; perhaps it had been something of the old, pleasurable excitement that she had learnt to associate with an occasion like the present. She put back her head and looked at him, and her look was a question.
"Yes. At least it's over, thank goodness!" he said in reply.
Not knowing what answer to make to this, she led him to the sofa. They sat down, and, for a few minutes, neither spoke. Then, he did what on the way there, he had imagined himself doing: laid his head on her lap, and himself placed her hands on his hair. She passed them backwards and forwards; her sense of having been repulsed, yielded, and she tried to change the current of his thoughts.
"Did you notice, Maurice, as you came along, how full the air was of different scents to-night?" she asked as her cool hands went to and fro. "It was like an evening in July. I was at the window trying to make them out. But the roses were too strong for them; for you see--or rather you have not seen--all the roses I have got for you--yes, just dark red roses. This afternoon I went to the little shop at the corner, and bought all they had. The pretty girl served me--do you remember the pretty girl with the yellow hair, who tried to make friends with you last summer? You like roses, too, don't you? Though not as much as I do. They were always my favourite flowers. As a child, I used to imagine what it would be like to gather them for a whole day, without stopping. But, like all my wishes then, this had to be postponed, too, till that wonderful future, which was to bring me all I wanted. There were only a few bushes where I lived; it was too dry for them. But the smell of them takes me back--always. I have only to shut my eyes, and I am full of the old extravagant longings--the childish impatience with time, which seemed to crawl so slowly . . . even to stand still."
"Tell me all about it," he murmured, without raising his head.
She smiled and humoured him.
"I like flowers best for their scents," she went on. "No matter what beautiful colours they have. A camelia is a foolish flower; like a blind man's face--the chief thing is wanting. But then, of course, the smell must remind one of pleasant things. It's strange, isn't it, how much association has to do with pleasure?--or pain. Some things affect me so
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