The Twilight of the Souls/Chapter XII
Yes, Gerrit had quite forgotten the golden glint of those two laughing eyes which he had seemed to recognize; he had only just reflected, lightly and vaguely, that he must have been mistaken. And great was his surprise, a few days later, when, on his way to the Witte after dinner, a woman came up to him near the club, in the dusk of the evening, and, as she passed, flashed a laughing glance into his eyes and whispered very tenderly, almost in his ear:
He knew the voice, even as he had known the eyes: a drowsy, deep-throated note, with a slight roll of the "r's." Yes, he recognized her: it was really Pauline; she was back at the Hague. After twelve years' time! . . . Well, he took no notice of her, walked on, turned the corner and reached the Witte at once. He ran up the steps, almost as though fleeing from something outside; and his face was red, his temples throbbed. He stayed talking to his friends for an hour or so, curious to learn whether they too had happened to see Pauline. But the others—younger officers than himself, he reflected—did not know her; and he did not hear her name mentioned. . . .
He went home early. The impudent wench, to dare to speak to him! He went to bed early, man of regular habits that he had become in the course of years; and, while Adeline was already asleep in the other bed, he saw the golden eyes laughing, heard his name murmured by that drowsy, provocative voice, heard it whispered almost close to his ear. . . . He fell asleep and, in his dreams, saw the golden eyes. . . .
Well, he thought next morning, if he was to start dreaming of all the eyes into which he had looked, his sleep would be one great firmament of eyes! And, as he got up and took his bath, he threw the thing off him, washed those eyes out of his mind. . . . Then he breakfasted, quickly, with his pretty children, vigorous and fair-haired, around him; and then he rode to the barracks. . . .
But, two days later, walking back from barracks with a couple of officers, at six or half-past, he came upon Pauline under the fading trees beside the Alexandersveld. He repressed a movement of impatience and thought:
"Is she mad? Is she pursuing me deliberately?" But he did not let the others notice anything. One of them said:
"A fine girl. Who is she?"
But none of them knew; and they went on. Gerrit did not look round.
The thing began to get on his nerves. What did the damned wench want to come back to Holland for and why must she look at him and speak to him, why must she go walking past the barracks? Was she mad, was she mad? . . . He felt angry and uneasy. . . . And, a day or two after, as though he had a presentiment, he hung about the barracks, so as to go away alone, quite late.
He met her; and, in the dim light under the fading trees, her eyes laughed towards him through the distance like gold, with that gay, wicked glint of mockery.
"Damn it all!" he cursed.
And, resolved to take up a firm attitude, he squared his chest, put his shoulders back, apparently wishing to fill the whole lane with his manly determination to force his way through every ambush and snare. But she stopped right in front of him and said, in that drowsy, seductive voice:
"Look here, clear off, will you? And be damned quick about it!" said Gerrit, angrily.
"It's so nice, meeting you again!"
"Yes, but I don't think it a bit nice, see? So be off!"
And he tried to walk on, broad-chested and imposing, the strong man who would trample on every smiling and mocking temptation that blocked his way under the fading trees.
"Gerrit, I must speak to you," she implored.
"Yes, but I don't want to speak to you."
"Oh, but I must speak to you, Gerrit!" murmured the languorous, maddening voice. "I must, I must speak to you. Not here, but just . . . just inside the Woods."
"What do you want to speak to me about?"
"Only for a second . . . . I can't tell you here."
"Well, no, d'you see?" said Gerrit, roughly. I don't want to have anything to do with you.
"Yes, yes, Gerrit. . . . Please, Gerrit . . . only for a second. . . ."
And he walked on.
She followed him:
"Gerrit . . ."
"I say, if you don't hurry up and clear out . . . !"
"Gerrit, just let me tell you something . . . let me speak to you for three minutes . . . in the Woods. . . ."
The voice coaxed him and he saw that deep glint of mockery in the laughing eyes.
"Only for three minutes . . . and then I sha'n't worry you any more . . ."
"Well . . . go ahead then!" said Gerrit. "You go on. . . . I'll follow you. . . . But be quick . . . I've no time. . . ."
"Where are you going?"
"Are you married, Gerrit?"
"Yes. Go ahead now."
"And have you any kiddies?"
"Yes, I have. . . . Ajo! . . ."
"I expect they're charming kiddies, Gerrit?"
Once again the deep glint in those golden, mocking eyes leapt out at Gerrit . . . and then she had turned, walked away quickly, gone down the Timorstraat, disappeared in the Woods. It was quite dark there.
"Well, what is it?"
"I haven't seen you for twelve years, Gerrit."
"Is that all you have to say to me? . . ."
"No, listen," she said, swiftly, understanding that she must make the most of this precious moment. "Listen. I've been twelve years in Paris, Gerrit; I've had a lot of trouble there, I can tell you. . . . But a lot of fun too. I was all the rage: my photo used to be in the shop-windows between the Tsar and the King of the Belgians and under Otero's. That shows, doesn't it? . . . But a lot of trouble too, Gerrit. Men are beasts, Gerrit: they're not all like you, so kind, so nice. I often used to think of you. . . ."
"Yes, but I don't care a hang about all this. . . ."
"I often thought of you, how nice you were and how kind, though you often pretended to be rough and put on such an angry voice. . . . Well, Gerrit, I had to go back to the Hague—you see, it's too long a story to tell you—and now, Gerrit, now I want to tell you, I'm very hard up . . . I haven't got a penny just now. . . . Please, Gerrit, can you give me fifty guilders?"
"Look here, if you think I'm well off, you're very much mistaken. I can't give you anything."
"Well, Gerrit, couldn't you give me twenty-five guilders? You'd be doing me a good turn."
"I haven't got it."
"Oh, but, please, Gerrit, can't you give me something?"
Gerrit fumbled in his pocket:
"Here's two rixdollars . . . and a ten-guilder piece. That's all I've got. I'm not rich and I don't go about with sheaves of notes in my pocket."
He gave her the fifteen guilders.
"Oh, Gerrit, thank you ever so much! Oh, Gerrit, how sweet of you!"
And, before he could stop her, she had thrown her arms round his neck and was kissing him wildly on the mouth.
He almost flung her from him:
"Look here, are you mad?"
"No, Gerrit, but I love you and you're such a dear. Thank you, Gerrit, thank you ever so much."
He saw the golden eyes jeering.
"And now clear out!" said Gerrit, shaking with fury, while sparks seemed to dazzle his eyes. "And never speak to me again and don't go thinking that you'll get any more money out of me, for I haven't got it. So it's finished: understand that. You look out for a young, rich fellow . . . and leave me alone. . . ."
"Oh, Gerrit, they're all beasts . . . all but you . . . all but you . . ."
"Well, beast or no beast," roared Gerrit, "you go this way now and I that, see?"
And he released himself, panting, snorting, quivering. He walked as fast as he could; and, when he looked round, she was out of sight, must have gone up the Riouwstraat. He breathed again, managed to catch a tram, stood on the front platform to get the wind in his face and cool his throbbing temples. . . . And all the time he was thinking:
"The girl's mad, to speak to me . . . to go kissing me! . . . I'd have done better not to give her any money. . . . Twelve years! . . . She looks older, but she's still a fine girl. . . . She's put on flesh and she was painted, which she never used to be. But she's still a fine girl. . . ."
Her kiss lingered on his mouth, like a burning pressure, as if she had sealed his lips with wax, the hot, melting wax of her kiss. And suddenly he had to admit to himself that, for years and years, for twelve years, no one had kissed him like that; and the admission sent his blood racing through his veins and set all sorts of memories, like swift spirals, swarming before his eyes, in curving, waving lines, between him and the wet autumn street, down which the horse-tram jogged along, toiling slowly on its rails. Memories flashed before his eyes, in glowing visions before him and inside him and around him, until it was as though he were standing there, on the platform of the tram-car, in a blaze of recollections which the wind fanned rather than extinguished. . . . But the tram was passing his house; and he jumped down, wildly, almost stumbling over his sword, hampered by his military great-coat, which blew between his legs. He rattled with his latchkey against the door, like a drunken man, could not find the keyhole at once. . . . The door of the dining-room was open, sending forth a soft light of domesticity; the table was laid for dinner. Gerdy and Guy ran out to meet him. Adeline, inside the room, called out:
"Is that you, Gerrit? How late you are!"
"I missed the tram," he fibbed; and he thrust the two children away from him, a little roughly. "Wait, children: Papa must go upstairs first and wash his hands."
He stormed up the stairs, again nearly stumbling. The noise shook the whole house; the door of his bedroom slammed. He feverishly felt in his pocket for matches, couldn't find them; his trembling hands groped all round the room, knocking things over, almost breaking things; at last he found the box, lit the gas, looked at himself in the glass. He saw his face red with fierce, raging blood, which glowed under his cheeks and beat up towards his temples. His eyes started from their sockets and contracted to pin-points. He looked at his mouth, to see if the kiss was visible that still burnt on his lips like a hot seal of purple wax. His uniform felt too tight for him and he undressed himself, savagely. He washed his head in a basin full of water; he rubbed his mouth with a handkerchief till his lips glowed, went on rubbing them, as if they were dirty. He crunched the handkerchief into a ball and flung it on the ground. Then he quickly put on his indoor-jacket and then . . . then he went downstairs. . . .
"How late you are!" Adeline said again, very gently.
He did not answer, made no jokes with the children. He now, deliberately, let Gerdy kiss him, with cool lips; and it was as a cool flower, pressed flat on his glowing cheek. It calmed him; and he suddenly felt safe, in that small room, under the circle of light from the hanging lamp, with in front of him the great piece of beef, which he began to carve, with great art, and advised Alex to watch how Papa carved, so that he could do it too when he was older. He now gave all his mind to the beef, carved it in clean, regular slices, while Adeline and the children looked on.
He ate heartily and, after dinner, fell into a heavy sleep.
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