The Transgression of Andrew Vane/Chapter XIII
- Chapter XIII. Rhapsodie Hongroise, No. 2.
“It was a whim, if you like,” said Mirabelle, a little unevenly, as she stripped off her gloves. “I hadn’t seen you for four whole days, except for that little glimpse at St. Germain, and I was tired, cross, and a little lonely. So I took the chance of your being back and of finding you alone and disengaged. Perhaps, if you’ve nothing to do, you will let me stay to breakfast. I told Pierre that I would send down word if he was not to wait. Will you ask your man to say so?”
Andrew touched the bell, gave the message, and, when Jules had gone, stood for a moment by the table fingering his letters. Mirabelle had removed her veil and hat, but was still at the mirror, touching the trifling disarrangement of her hair. Their eyes met in reflection, and suddenly both laughed. Then he went over to her side.
“It’s very good to see you again,” he said, but with a slight trace of embarrassment in his voice.
Mirabelle gave his shoulder a tiny pat.
“L’ami!” she said simply. Abruptly her mood changed, and she wheeled upon him, all eager animation.
“So this is your little house, great baby! You must show me everything. It’s a picnic, this: we shall be two children. Paris? Ça n’existe pas! Il n’y a que nous deux au monde!”
She perched upon the tall fender, swinging her feet, and humming a little time.
“Oh, la vie bourgeoisé!”
Subtly her gaiety infected him, and he laughed again, this time without a hint of embarrassment. This was another Mirabelle, a Mirabelle he had not known. In some unaccountable fashion, her mood stripped her of a decade. She was, in very truth, a child, with a child’s light-hearted mirth, a child’s shiningly excited eyes, a child’s imperious demand to be amused.
They went over the apartment together, pausing for all manner of comment. She took an almost infantile delight in bringing into prim order the chaos of neckties thrown carelessly into an upper drawer; smoothed her golden-bronze hair with his silver-backed brushes; washed her hands at his basin, and flicked the shining drops of water at him from the tips of her slender fingers. She mocked the vanity indicated by a dozen pairs of patent-leathers; tested, with a feigned shudder, the keenness of his razors; simulated a furious jealousy at the discovery of a photograph of Réjane upon his dressing-table; rummaged through the cups and plates and glasses in the vitrine; called him, whimsically, gran’père, mon oncle, and vieux garçon; laughed, frowned, scolded, teased, and petted; and was, in short, the incarnation of a gay, reckless, toi-et-moi-et-vogue-la-galère femininity.
Little by little, the charm of her humour gained upon him. To the man in whose life woman has never played a thoroughly intimate part there is something indescribably alluring in her near association with the little details of commonplace existence. Andrew was conscious that, in this independence which he had so lately learned to value, there had been lacking a something which was now, for the first time, supplied. A phrase occurred to him — “the better half.” Yes, that was it — the curious inspiration with which an interested, intimately concerned woman infects such sordid items as neckties, cups and saucers. Until then, the main charm of his new manner of life had lain in its sheer independence of all save his personal inclination. Now he was suddenly aware that man’s completest happiness relies upon a partial subordination; upon a certain dependence upon another, if still a kindred, point of view. As he watched Mirabelle come and go, as he heard her comments, as he felt the magnetism of her presence, he was smitten with a vast sense of loneliness — with a perception that, in reality, no man is sufficient unto himself. In this first flush of life, in this new enjoyment of Paris the alluring, he felt the need of something more. Was it Margery? Was it Mirabelle? At the moment he could not have told which, if indeed it was either. Once he risked a compliment.
“How pretty you are! It makes one want to kiss you!”
“Don’t!” she said shortly. “Please don’t talk like that. It spoils everything.”
He drew back to look at her, puzzled, but it seemed that she avoided his eyes.
“Not — not just now,” she added. “You don’t understand.”
Almost immediately, she was laughing and chattering again.
Then came breakfast, and — what is rare even in Paris — a breakfast perfect in its very simplicity. A bisque as smooth as velvet, sole cardinale worthy of Frédéric himself, a casserole of chicken, with a salad of celery and peppers, Burgundy tempered to an eighth of a degree, no sweets — but a compensating cup of coffee, eau de vie de Dantzic, with its flecks of shattered sunlight gleaming oddly in the clear liquid, and cigarettes, which Mirabelle refused with a moue which hinted at temptation. Andrew toasted her, across the table, with mock ceremony, in the gold-shot liqueur.
“It’s like your life, l’amie,” he said, squinting at the last few drops, “smooth and sweet and all spangled with sunshine and gold.”
“And soon done with!” added Mirabelle lightly, turning her glass upside down upon the cloth.
She would have him take the largest and most comfortable chair by the window, while she chose the broad, flat sill at his feet. The glare of the sunlight was cut off from them by an awning, but its warmth came pleasurably through. A window-box of narcissus in full bloom breathed a perfume, as deadening as the juice of poppies, on the air. Now and again a cab rattled sharply down the incline of cobbles to the Place d’Iéna, and was blotted abruptly out of hearing on the muffling driveway of the square. For the rest, the world was very still, all distinct noises of the great and restless city being merged into one indeterminate blur of sound.
The curious instinct of silence, which so often gave the hours they spent together their especial character, fell upon them now. Once, as if some disturbing thought had startled her, Mirabelle turned suddenly and touched Andrew’s hand, but her own fell back before the gesture was actually complete. The light wind stirred the hair at her temples, and the long scarf of delicate Liberty gauze which she had thrown across her shoulders, and he took up a corner of this and pleated it between his fingers for a time in silence. He was the first to speak.
“Would you care to go out — to the Exposition or the Bois? You’ll be saying presently that you’ve had a stupid afternoon.”
Mirabelle shook her head, with a faint smile, and then altered her position, drawing up her feet and linking her fingers across her knees. The change brought her close to the arm of his chair, and she looked up at him long and steadily, and then shook her head again.
“No,” she answered, “I shall not say that. The Exposition? The Bois? I suppose there are such things, but I’d forgotten them. I like it here. I am happy.”
With that strange new understanding of his, it was not alone her smile which he noticed, but the slow, irregular fall of her eyelids, and the deepening of a tiny shadow when the lashes rested on her cheek. An atmosphere for which he was at a loss to account seemed always to envelop him when he came into this girl’s presence. He was conscious of the same not unpleasant languor which had come upon him on that first afternoon in her salon, after the return from Auteuil, but now it was not due, as then, to drowsiness. Rather, it was a blotting out of every consideration save that he was with her. America, Poissy, even Paris, humming there below them, seemed to belong to another world, and that in which he was living for the moment, to be made up of sunlight, and silence, and perfume.
“I’m almost sorry,” he said presently, “that you came.”
The girl made no reply. A singular change, which was not movement, seemed to stiffen and straighten her. Without actually altering, her position lost its grace, its ease, its assurance. Staring straight away before her, her eyes forgot to wink. Her whole bearing was that of an animal warned by the crackle of a trodden twig of some peril imminent and vital.
“I’m sorry you felt that you could come,” continued Andrew. “I’ve not had much experience of life, and it’s not for me to question you. But we’ve been good friends. I wish it could have remained that way. Young as I am, I’ve had disappointments — bitter ones. The people I thought I could trust—”
She had never called him by his name before. At the word, a curious little thrill stirred in him, and he closed his eyes, his mouth tightening at the corners.
“Forgive me,” he added, in a whisper.
“Is it possible,” said Mirabelle slowly, “that all this time you — haven’t known?”
“I’ve tried not to know,” he answered. “I’ve tried not to listen to what people said. It has all been so different from anything like that. You’ve been like the girls I know in my own country, like a comrade, like a chum. I’ve tried to keep myself from thinking of you in any other light. I’ve always been glad to be with you: yes, and I’m glad to have you with me now. And yet — I know that we shall both be sorry for this. To-morrow—”
Misunderstanding, she turned to him, and slipped her hand into his. A moment she hesitated, and then bowed her face against his arm.
“Then you do know!” she continued. “Ah, my friend, I have hoped that it would not come to this.”
Her voice had suddenly gone wistful. She was the child again, but the child hurt, penitent, and near to tears.
“Believe me, l’ami, I hoped it would not come to this. I’m so careless, Andrew. I don’t think — I forget. You see, we are different, nous autres. What are little things to other women are great things to us, and what are great things to them—”
Then she looked into his eyes. Almost unconsciously, her fingers touched his arm.
“I wish I could make you understand,” she added. “Even with me, there is only one thing that can justify—”
She paused for a breath, with a gesture toward the open window.
“It was to get away from all that that I came — to forget — to be alone with you — just we together — two children — to have something different. I’m so tired of it all, Andrew — and — there has never been any one like you. I didn’t think what it would mean. Ah, my friend—”
She sank back upon the cushion, with a little sigh.
Suddenly Andrew’s heart contracted, seemed to mount into his throat, and, repulsed, beat wildly against the bars of its prison. He felt the tremor of its pulsing in his wrists, in his temples, in his ears. He knew that he was colouring deeply. He strove to tighten his lips, but they parted in spite of him, and the breath shot through with a little hiss. Then he came to himself, and saw that the girl’s eyes had closed, and that her hand on the arm of the chair had gripped the silken scarf. Folds of it, sharpened to the thinness of paper, came out between her fingers, and her knuckles showed like little bosses of tinted ivory through the pink flesh.
What was it? The hand of a passing spirit, wholly unfamiliar, had touched him; a voice never heard before had whispered something in his ear. What was it — what was this thing which he understood and did not understand? Bending slightly forward, he looked down through the ironwork railing at the street below. A solitary cab leaned maudlinly over the kerb, the driver slewed around in his seat, with his elbow on the roof, and his varnished hat on the back of his head, reading a newspaper; and the horse nodding, with his nose in a feed-bag. Two children were marching resolutely, hand in hand and out of step, their nurses following, with the gay plaid ribbons of their caps flapping about their hips. The pipe of an itinerant plumber whined and squeaked unmelodiously, and the horn of a passing automobile hiccoughed in the distance. Inconsequently there came to Andrew the memory of a sudden awakening from a nap on the beach at Newport. For a moment, everything in sight — people, houses, boats, the sand, the sunlight, and the sea — had been garbed in startling unreality, in a new, strange light.
The restlessness of a curious dissatisfaction suddenly laid hold upon him, and he rose and began to pace the salon once more. He would have given something to fling himself out of the chaos of conflicting thoughts which beset him, to ride, for example, five miles at a gallop, as he had been wont to do at Beverly, with the wind tearing at his hair and a thoroughbred lunging between his knees.
Presently he became aware that Mirabelle was watching him curiously, and was puzzled to find that for the first time he was not ready to meet her eyes. He seated himself at the piano, and for a moment fingered the music on the rack, without actually taking in the title — “Rhapsodic Hongroise, No. 2.” Then he smiled, with a little nod as if he had been greeting an acquaintance on the street, and his hands fell upon the keys.
Majestically, with ponderous bass notes and a deeper comment of short, staccato chords, the Rhapsodic began. It was as solemn as a dirge in its adagio movement, till the high treble began to flutter into the motif, and dragged it upward, with a brilliant run, into a suggestion of running water. Plunging again into the bass, the music marched firmly on, varied with higher chords, until, through the monotonous throb, a bird chirped, twittered, and trilled, and cadenza followed cadenza, plashing in and over the main theme. This variation was presently gone again in a swiftly descending arpeggio, and the adagio reasserted itself, beating out across the salon with the lingering quality of tolled bells, freeing itself at last by another run into the crystal sparkle of the treble, where the motif was repeated, ringing with fresh vigour. The bass replied with a brief word now and again, correcting the new rendering of the air that it had taught, or patiently repeating a whole phrase. But, petulantly, the treble threw off the sombre spirit of what had gone before. Again it thrilled with bird-music, and ran into the gay babble of brooks, punctuated rarely by a deeper chord, as if the water swerved round a stone, and slid, murmuring, across a level, before swinging again down a shelving reach. But, almost immediately, a new element stole in — a tremulous flutter of one note, potently suggestive of mad music to follow. Faster — faster! The flutter was interrupted by a dripping of stray notes, an octave lower, dotted, presently, with a tiny tinkling above. Then, without warning, the whole plunged into a mad vivace movement, that galloped like a living thing, was interrupted by whimsically coupled notes, gabbling up and down, and then seemed to lengthen and bound forward as if it had been spurred. There was a thunder of chromatics — hoofs pounding on a long bridge — then the tinkle of water broke in again — right at his elbow — lingered briefly, and was gone, and the hoofs were thudding on a muffling stretch of soft road. The suggestion, at first merely a fancy, grew upon him as he played. This was the gallop of which he had felt a need! He could almost see the wiry mare snapping in the wind, smell the horse and the saddle, and hear the stirrup-leathers squeaking against his boots. In spirit, at least, he put into the music the exultation, which is near to delirium, of a ride at nightfall or at dawn. The earth, which never sighs save when falling asleep or waking, sighs then, and her breath is sweet. Scents and sounds step to the roadside, and are gone again in a moment. The wind whips and whistles. And the triplicate hoof-beats pound, pound, pound out of life all that is stale, morbid, and unclean, so that it becomes a crystal dome inverted on a perfume-breathing garden, and one man whirling through space like a god, with a laugh on his lips!
Hurdles rushed at Andrew out of the music, and he rose to them, and, clearing them, would have shouted, but that the music shouted for him. He felt the familiar shock of landing, the infinitesimal pause before the recover, and then — away, away! It was life, youth, the surge and hammer of red blood through every vein, the certainty of strength and the sovereignty of success, the ineffable wine of life, filling the cup to the brim, and splashing over into the sunlight, in drops like rubies sheathed in silver.
As suddenly as it had begun, the mad, blood-stirring gallop was over. The stream tinkled and was still. The motif was repeated softly, incompletely, as if regretfully, in adagio, then paraphrased in a brilliant staccato movement, which mounted, plunged madly down from treble to bass, hesitated, and whipped out of existence in a group of crashing chords.
“I never knew you could play like that!”
Mirabelle had risen, and come across to the piano, and the words were spoken in a voice barely above a whisper. The room seemed to Andrew to be closing in around him, and out of its dwindling distance floated her face, more beautiful than he had ever seen it, but very pale and with eyes wide and startled. He did not answer directly. Thoughts as confused as the wisps of a dream but half recalled went racing through his brain. For an instant he strove to control himself, strove to remember, strove to forget. Then, as it were, a great tide of oblivion to all but the intoxication of the moment swept down upon him.
“You said,” he began, “that only one thing could justify — What is it? What did you mean?”
He stood up as he spoke, came quite close to her, and took her hands.
“What did you mean?” he repeated. “Tell me — Mirabelle.”
As she did not speak, he took her hand and drew her toward him, with a kind of dull wonder in his eyes. What he saw in hers he had never seen in a woman’s before — a mist not wholly moisture, and tenderer than tears. “Mirabelle!”
“Je t’aime!” she murmured. “Je t’adore!”
She would have drawn back, but he took her in his arms. From the gold-bronze hair which touched his cheek came a faint perfume, and through the thin silk he could feel the hammer of her heart. So for a long moment he held her, with his lips on hers. It was like kissing a rose — a rose that smelt of orris.