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‘Ja — a.’
‘Wo bist du?’
Hannele did not lift her head from her work. She sat in a low chair under a reading-lamp, a basket of coloured silk pieces beside her, and in her hands a doll, or mannikin, which she was dressing. She was doing something to the knee of the mannikin, so that the poor little gentleman flourished head downwards with arms wildly tossed out. And it was not at all seemly, because the doll was a Scotch soldier in tight-fitting tartan trews.
There was a tap at the door, and the same voice, a woman’s, calling:
‘Ja — a!’
‘Are you here? Are you alone?’ asked the voice in German.
‘Yes — come in.’
Hannele did not sound very encouraging. She turned round her doll as the door opened, and straightened his coat. A dark-eyed young woman peeped in through the door, with a roguish coyness. She was dressed fashionably for the street, in a thick cape-wrap, and a little black hat pulled down to her ears.
‘Quite, quite alone!’ said the newcomer, in a tone of wonder. ‘Where is he, then?’
‘That I don’t know,’ said Hannele.
‘And you sit here alone and wait for him? But no! That I call courage! Aren’t you afraid?’ Mitchka strolled across to her friend.
‘Why shall I be afraid?’ said Hannele curtly.
‘But no! And what are you doing? Another puppet! He is a good one, though! Ha — ha — ha! HIM! It is him! No — no — that is too beautiful! No — that is too beautiful, Hannele. It is him — exactly him. Only the trousers.’
‘He wears those trousers too,’ said Hannele, standing her doll on her knee. It was a perfect portrait of an officer of a Scottish regiment, slender, delicately made, with a slight, elegant stoop of the shoulders and close-fitting tartan trousers. The face was beautifully modelled, and a wonderful portrait, dark-skinned, with a little, close-cut, dark moustache, and wide-open dark eyes, and that air of aloofness and perfect diffidence which marks an officer and a gentleman.
Mitchka bent forward, studying the doll. She was a handsome woman with a warm, dark golden skin and clear black eyebrows over her russet-brown eyes.
‘No,’ she whispered to herself, as if awe-struck. ‘That is him. That is him. Only not the trousers. Beautiful, though, the trousers. Has he really such beautiful fine legs?’
Hannele did not answer.
‘Exactly him. Just as finished as he is. Just as complete. He is just like that: finished off. Has he seen it?’
‘No,’ said Hannele.
‘What will he say, then?’ She started. Her quick ear had caught a sound on the stone stairs. A look of fear came to her face. She flew to the door and out of the room, closing the door to behind her.
‘Who is it?’ her voice was heard calling anxiously down the stairs.
The answer came in German. Mitchka immediately opened the door again and came back to join Hannele.
‘Only Martin,’ she said.
She stood waiting. A man appeared in the doorway — erect, military.
‘Ah! Countess Hannele,’ he said in his quick, precise way, as he stood on the threshold in the distance. ‘May one come in?’
‘Yes, come in,’ said Hannele.
The man entered with a quick, military step, bowed, and kissed the hand of the woman who was sewing the doll. Then, much more intimately, he touched Mitchka’s hands with his lips.
Mitchka meanwhile was glancing round the room. It was a very large attic, with the ceiling sloping and then bending in two handsome movements towards the walls. The light from the dark-shaded reading-lamp fell softly on the huge whitewashed vaulting of the ceiling, on the various objects round the walls, and made a brilliant pool of colour where Hannele sat in her soft, red dress, with her basket of silks.
She was a fair woman with dark-blond hair and a beautiful fine skin. Her face seemed luminous, a certain quick gleam of life about it as she looked up at the man. He was handsome, clean-shaven, with very blue eyes strained a little too wide. One could see the war in his face.
Mitchka was wandering round the room, looking at everything, and saying: ‘Beautiful! But beautiful! Such good taste! A man, and such good taste! No, they don’t need a woman. No, look here, Martin, the Captain Hepburn has arranged all this room himself. Here you have the man. Do you see? So simple, yet so elegant. He needs a woman.’
The room was really beautiful, spacious, pale, soft-lighted. It was heated by a large stove of dark-blue tiles, and had very little furniture save large peasant cupboards or presses of painted wood, and a huge writing-table, on which were writing materials and some scientific apparatus and a cactus plant with fine scarlet blossoms. But it was a man’s room. Tobacco and pipes were on a little tray, on the pegs in the distance hung military overcoats and belts, and two guns on a bracket. Then there were two telescopes, one mounted on a stand near a window. Various astronomical apparatus lay upon the table.
‘And he reads the stars. Only think — he is an astronomer and reads the stars. Queer, queer people, the English!’
‘He is Scottish,’ said Hannele.
‘Yes, Scottish,’ said Mitchka. ‘But, you know, I am afraid when I am with him. He is at a closed end. I don’t know where I can get to with him. Are you afraid of him too, Hannele? Ach, like a closed road!’
‘Why should I be?’
‘Ah, you! Perhaps you don’t know when you should be afraid. But if he were to come and find us here? No, no — let us go. Let us go, Martin. Come, let us go. I don’t want the Captain Hepburn to come and find me in his room. Oh no!’ Mitchka was busily pushing Martin to the door, and he was laughing with the queer, mad laugh in his strained eyes. ‘Oh no! I don’t like. I don’t like it,’ said Mitchka, trying her English now. She spoke a few sentences prettily. ‘Oh no, Sir Captain, I don’t want that you come. I don’t like it, to be here when you come. Oh no. Not at all. I go. I go, Hannele. I go, my Hannele. And you will really stay here and wait for him? But when will he come? You don’t know? Oh dear, I don’t like it, I don’t like it. I do not wait in the man’s room. No, no — Never — jamais — jamais, voyez-vous. Ach, you poor Hannele! And he has got wife and children in England? Nevair! No, nevair shall I wait for him.’
She had bustlingly pushed Martin through the door and settled her wrap and taken a mincing, elegant pose, ready for the street, and waved her hand and made wide, scared eyes at Hannele, and was gone. The Countess Hannele picked up the doll again and began to sew its shoe. What living she now had she earned making these puppets.
But she was restless. She pressed her arms into her lap, as if holding them bent had wearied her. Then she looked at the little clock on his writing-table. It was long after dinner-time — why hadn’t he come? She sighed rather exasperated. She was tired of her doll.
Putting aside her basket of silks, she went to one of the windows. Outside the stars seemed white, and very near. Below was the dark agglomeration of the roofs of houses, a fume of light came up from beneath the darkness of roofs, and a faint breakage of noise from the town far below. The room seemed high, remote, in the sky.
She went to the table and looked at his letter-clip with letters in it, and at his sealing-wax and his stamp-box, touching things and moving them a little, just for the sake of the contrast, not really noticing what she touched. Then she took a pencil, and in stiff Gothic characters began to write her name — Johanna zu Rassentlow — time after time her own name — and then once, bitterly, curiously, with a curious sharpening of her nose: Alexander Hepburn.
But she threw the pencil down, having no more interest in her writing. She wandered to where the large telescope stood near a farther window, and stood for some minutes with her fingers on the barrel, where it was a little brighter from his touching it. Then she drifted restlessly back to her chair. She had picked up her puppet when she heard him on the stairs. She lifted her face and watched as he entered.
‘Hello, you there!’ he said quietly, as he closed the door behind him. She glanced at him swiftly, but did not move or answer.
He took off his overcoat with quick, quiet movements, and went to hang it up on the pegs. She heard his step, and looked again. He was like the doll, a tall, slender, well-bred man in uniform. When he turned, his dark eyes seemed very wide open. His black hair was growing grey at the temples — the first touch.
She was sewing her doll. Without saying anything, he wheeled round the chair from the writing-table, so that he sat with his knees almost touching her. Then he crossed one leg over the other. He wore fine tartan socks. His ankles seemed slender and elegant, his brown shoes fitted as if they were part of him. For some moments he watched her as she sat sewing. The light fell on her soft, delicate hair, that was full of strands of gold and of tarnished gold and shadow. She did not look up.
In silence he held out his small, naked-looking brown hand for the doll. On his fore-arm were black hairs.
She glanced up at him. Curious how fresh and luminous her face looked in contrast to his.
‘Do you want to see it?’ she asked, in natural English.
‘Yes,’ he said.
She broke off her thread of cotton and handed him the puppet. He sat with one leg thrown over the other, holding the doll in one hand and smiling inscrutably with his dark eyes. His hair, parted perfectly on one side, was jet black and glossy.
‘You’ve got me,’ he said at last, in his amused, melodious voice.
‘What?’ she said.
‘You’ve got me,’ he repeated.
‘I don’t care,’ she said.
‘What — You don’t care?’ His face broke into a smile. He had an odd way of answering, as if he were only half attending, as if he were thinking of something else.
‘You are very late, aren’t you?’ she ventured.
‘Yes. I am rather late.’
‘Why are you?’
‘Well, as a matter of fact, I was talking with the Colonel.’
‘Yes. It was about you.’
She went pale as she sat looking up into his face. But it was impossible to tell whether there was distress on his dark brow or not.
‘Anything nasty?’ she said.
‘Well, yes. It was rather nasty. Not about you, I mean. But rather awkward for me.’
She watched him. But still he said no more.
‘What was it?’ she said.
‘Oh, well — only what I expected. They seem to know rather too much about you — about you and me, I mean. Not that anybody cares one bit, you know, unofficially. The trouble is, they are apparently going to have to take official notice.’
‘Oh, well — it appears my wife has been writing letters to the Major-General. He is one of her family acquaintances — known her all his life. And I suppose she’s been hearing rumours. In fact, I know she has. She said so in her letter to me.’
‘And what do you say to her then?’
‘Oh, I tell her I’m all right — not to worry.’
‘You don’t expect THAT to stop her worrying, do you?’ she asked.
‘Oh, I don’t know. Why should she worry?’ he said.
‘I think she might have some reason,’ said Hannele. ‘You’ve not seen her for a year. And if she adores you — ’
‘Oh, I don’t think she adores me. I think she quite likes me.’
‘Do you think you matter as little as that to her?’
‘I don’t see why not. Of course she likes to feel SAFE about me.’
‘But now she doesn’t feel safe?’
‘No — exactly. Exactly. That’s the point. That’s where it is. The Colonel advises me to go home on leave.’
He sat gazing with curious, bright, dark, unseeing eyes at the doll which he held by one arm. It was an extraordinary likeness of himself, true even to the smooth parting of his hair and his peculiar way of fixing his dark eyes.
‘For how long?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know. For a month,’ he replied, first vaguely, then definitely.
‘For a month!’ She watched him, and seemed to see him fade from her eyes.
‘And will you go?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ His head remained bent, he seemed to muse rather vaguely. ‘I don’t know,’ he repeated. ‘I can’t make up my mind what I shall do.’
‘Would you like to go?’ she asked.
He lifted his brows and looked at her. Her heart always melted in her when he looked straight at her with his black eyes and that curious, bright, unseeing look that was more like second sight than direct human vision. She never knew what he saw when he looked at her.
‘No,’ he said simply. ‘I don’t WANT to go. I don’t think I’ve any desire at all to go to England.’
‘Why not?’ she asked.
‘I can’t say.’ Then again he looked at her, and a curious white light seemed to shine on his eyes, as he smiled slowly with his mouth, and said: ‘I suppose you ought to know, if anybody does.’
A glad, half-frightened look came on her face.
‘You mean you don’t want to leave me?’ she asked, breathless.
‘Yes. I suppose that’s what I mean.’
‘But you aren’t sure?’
‘Yes, I am, I’m quite sure,’ he said, and the curious smile lingered on his face, and the strange light shone in his eyes.
‘That you don’t want to leave me?’ she stammered, looking aside.
‘Yes, I’m quite sure I don’t want to leave you,’ he repeated. He had a curious, very melodious Scottish voice. But it was the incomprehensible smile on his face that convinced and frightened her. It was almost a gargoyle smile, a strange, lurking, changeless-seeming grin.
She was frightened, and turned aside her face. When she looked at him again, his face was like a mask, with strange, deep-graven lines and a glossy dark skin and a fixed look — as if carved half grotesquely in some glossy stone. His black hair on his smooth, beautifully-shaped head seemed changeless.
‘Are you rather tired?’ she asked him.
‘Yes, I think I am.’ He looked at her with black, unseeing eyes and a mask-like face. Then he glanced as if he heard something. Then he rose with his hand on his belt, saying: ‘I’ll take off my belt and change my coat, if you don’t mind.’
He walked across the room, unfastening his broad, brown belt. He was in well-fitting, well-cut khaki. He hung up his belt and came back to her wearing an old, light tunic, which he left unbuttoned. He carried his slippers in one hand. When he sat down to unfasten his shoes, she noticed again how black and hairy his fore-arm was, how naked his brown hand seemed. His hair was black and smooth and perfect on his head, like some close helmet, as he stooped down.
He put on his slippers, carried his shoes aside, and resumed his chair, stretching luxuriously.
‘There,’ he said. ‘I feel better now.’ And he looked at her. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘and how are you?’
‘Me?’ she said. ‘Do I matter?’ She was rather bitter.
‘Do you matter?’ he repeated, without noticing her bitterness. ‘Why, what a question! Of course you are of the very highest importance. What? Aren’t you?’ And smiling his curious smile — it made her for a moment think of the fixed sadness of monkeys, of those Chinese carved soapstone apes. He put his hand under her chin, and gently drew his finger along her cheek. She flushed deeply,
‘But I’m not as important as you, am I?’ she asked defiantly.
‘As important as me! Why, bless you, I’m not important a bit. I’m not important a bit!’ — the odd straying sound of his words mystified her. What did he really mean?
‘And I’m even less important than that,’ she said bitterly.
‘Oh no, you’re not. Oh no, you’re not. You’re very important. You’re very important indeed, I assure you.’
‘And your wife?’ — the question came rebelliously. ‘Your wife? Isn’t she important?’
‘My wife? My wife?’ He seemed to let the word stray out of him as if he did not quite know what it meant. ‘Why, yes, I suppose she is important in her own sphere.’
‘What sphere?’ blurted Hannele, with a laugh.
‘Why, her own sphere, of course. Her own house, her own home, and her two children: that’s her sphere.’
‘And you? — where do you come in?’
‘At present I don’t come in,’ he said.
‘But isn’t that just the trouble,’ said Hannele. ‘If you have a wife and a home, it’s your business to belong to it, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, I suppose it is, if I want to,’ he replied.
‘And you DO want to?’ she challenged.
‘No, I don’t,’ he replied.
‘Well, then?’ she said.
‘Yes, quite,’ he answered. ‘I admit it’s a dilemma.’
‘But what will you DO?’ she insisted.
‘Why, I don’t know. I don’t know yet. I haven’t made up my mind what I’m going to do.’
‘Then you’d better begin to make it up,’ she said.
‘Yes, I know that. I know that.’
He rose and began to walk uneasily up and down the room. But the same vacant darkness was on his brow. He had his hands in his pockets. Hannele sat feeling helpless. She couldn’t help being in love with the man: with his hands, with his strange, fascinating physique, with his incalculable presence. She loved the way he put his feet down, she loved the way he moved his legs as he walked, she loved the mould of his loins, she loved the way he dropped his head a little, and the strange, dark vacancy of his brow, his not-thinking. But now the restlessness only made her unhappy. Nothing would come of it. Yet she had driven him to it.
He took his hands out of his pockets and returned to her like a piece of iron returning to a magnet. He sat down again in front of her and put his hands out to her, looking into her face.
‘Give me your hands,’ he said softly, with that strange, mindless, soft, suggestive tone which left her powerless to disobey. ‘Give me your hands, and let me feel that we are together. Words mean so little. They mean nothing. And all that one thinks and plans doesn’t amount to anything. Let me feel that we are together, and I don’t care about all the rest.’
He spoke in his slow, melodious way, and closed her hands in his. She struggled still for voice.
‘But you’ll HAVE to care about it. You’ll HAVE to make up your mind. You’ll just HAVE to,’ she insisted.
‘Yes, I suppose I shall. I suppose I shall. But now that we are together, I won’t bother. Now that we are together, let us forget it.’
‘But when we CAN’T forget it any more?’
‘Well — then I don’t know. But — tonight — it seems to me — we might just as well forget it.’
The soft, melodious, straying sound of his voice made her feel helpless. She felt that he never answered her. Words of reply seemed to stray out of him, in the need to say SOMETHING. But he himself never spoke. There he was, a continual blank silence in front of her.