Finding love at last
She had been by the sea for a week before she noticed much improvement. She could not rest at night, and the sea seemed to keep her awake with its noise. She had pains in her back and limbs, and could not lie comfortably. Reading was no good; her head would not retain a single line. She read, but did not understand.
Then one morning about eleven o’clock, as she stood by the open window and looked out over the sea with sad, yearning eyes, she heard the notes of a piano sound softly through the house, as if it were in gentle accord with wind and waves. The music was so quick, so smooth, so wonderfully fluent and masterly, so sure and firm, like an army of splendid beings bringing her tidings of peace and love.
Hedwig felt overtaken by surprise, and entirely overpowered by these lofty, strong and tender strains. Before long, something hard within her seemed to melt, something tightly shut began to open. Again she clasped her hands, and stretched them passionately towards the open window and the sea. Her eyes were fixed and wide, her lips compressed, and deep lines of pain furrowed her cheeks. Her long-suppressed sorrow burst forth. But, though quite alone, she tried to control herself, and murmured calmly, ‘Beethoven, I think.’
But the music rose again like a resurgent torrent, spreading out in ripples in all directions, and Hedwig lost control of herself, and broke into refreshing tears, so that she no longer heard the music. Then the high ‘heart feeling’ of long ago seized her with unusual strength. She could even see before her, in her dark hands, the great white heart of marble.
When she raised her eyes again everything was changed, as if a clouded window pane had been cleaned. The music was still going on, and for an hour she enjoyed works by Chopin, Liszt and Wagner.
She went down, delighted, to ask who had been playing. A famous foreign name was mentioned. She did not remember ever having seen the performer or heard his playing.
That afternoon she saw a tall man sitting on a camp-stool on the beach, wearing white flannels and a straw hat. He was a dark-looking man, with black hair and moustache. On the strength of a sudden impulse, and with an inexplicable feeling of certainty, for which she had no grounds at all, Hedwig went up to him and asked, ‘Are you the gentleman who was playing this morning?’
He rose at once, and answered with a polite French bow, as if he did not care about the neglect of the usual formalities, especially on the part of hypersensitive and enthusiastic young women.
Hedwig felt ashamed of herself, and stood there ready to cry like a shy child. How had she ever dared to do such a silly thing? But, after glancing at him a moment in her confusion, she said, ‘But I know you; don’t you speak Dutch?’
Then his eyes softened, and his whole face changed. He looked at her for some moments, and then said slowly, ‘Oh! … Schumann! … Hetty, isn’t it?’
He remembered how flattered he had been by the simple adoration of the young girl. And Hedwig, too, discovered that this was he who had first taught her to understand music, and his friendly greeting thrilled her through and through. She knew him as Ritsaart, though he had become famous under an assumed name. Hedwig was sorry for that. Why should he change his name? It made her think of a strolling player.
He now spoke to her in his old way, as if she had still been a girl with her hair down and he her eldest brother’s friend.
‘You are married, aren’t you?’ he asked.
Hedwig wished he had not enquired. But it never occurred to her that she might truthfully assent. Day and night she was full of the thought – and it was a great comfort to her – that marriage is indeed something high and holy, but that she had never known it, so she replied hesitatingly, ‘No, I thought I was – but, happily, it is not so. I have only just lately heard this.’
Ritsaart began to smile, and was prepared for a joke, for he knew for a fact that she was married, and who her husband was. But her expression and tone were so serious and simply sad, that he looked at her a moment with knitted brows, as if she were not right in her mind. Then, conjecturing some painful family complication, he changed the subject and began to talk about music.
To Hedwig, who was so anxious to get well that, like all melancholy people, she was always thinking about her own condition, this meeting seemed to be a blessing sent to do her good. For this man possessed the power of raising her mind out of the drifting sands of melancholy and sinful imaginings. If he would only play to her.
So she asked if he was staying any length of time, and told him how thankful she was for his playing.
Ritsaart had not intended to stay, but he immediately began to think how soon he could get back. For Hedwig’s flattering opinion touched him, and he felt most anxious to do her good.
They talked together the whole afternoon, sitting among the long grass on the dunes, or walking slowly along the sands by the foamy dance of the waves. She spoke of her mental depression, how her dull life weighed upon her, how she had come here to get better, but that neither the dear sea nor the spell of poetry had done so much for her as his music. Ritsaart listened with gratified attention, completely fascinated by her charm of manner, and made up his mind resolutely to help this sweet, unhappy woman.
Ritsaart was a man of great artistic ability, not only in music, but also in the poetic and plastic arts. He was high-minded and exacting, especially in art, which he placed before everything else. He had a sensitive disposition, and strong impulses which he never attempted to restrain, and was loftily indifferent to public opinion. Many people thought him stiff and disagreeable, for he talked little, always sought what was singular and had no mercy on the commonplace.
He was accustomed to doing just as he liked and to roaming about the country, welcomed everywhere for the sake of his playing, though he himself had no great opinion of it, for he was no composer, only an interpreter of the works of others. He made friends with certain exceptional natures, but the generality of people he thought only worthy to be exploited or deceived. He liked the ways of the artists of Paris who call themselves Bohemians; he was something of a Bohemian too, only more refined and proud, because he had been brought up in comfort and came of a respectable family. He detested the ordinary fashionable men of society, and particularly society women, who seemed to him the worst of their kind. He tolerated free-livers, whether men or women, and especially the poor, the peasant and labouring classes. But the artist was to him the only true man.
His figure was tall and supple, and women thought him handsome. His eyes had that oblique, wide-open form, which in a stronger degree characterises the cruel, sensual faces of the ancient Assyrians; but when slightly closed in a friendly smile they could be gentle and seductive. He was well but carelessly dressed, as if he never gave it a thought, but always bought whatever seemed to him at the time to be finest and most comfortable, without regard to price or fashion.
Ritsaart left that same evening, promising to return in a week. For two whole days Hedwig mused over this fortunate encounter. And when Gerard arrived, she received him with beaming face and shining eyes, longing to tell him what had happened, and that at last she had found someone who could certainly cure her.
She had told Gerard everything that had taken place with regard to the doctors, and he had become more anxious than ever about her. Not that he ever thought for a moment that she would herself court danger, but her continuing power of fascination alarmed him. He did not want her to do any more harm, nor to know that she was an object of desire to others. He had been pleased that this time there was no doctor in the case, and now, behold, there was another man.
But Gerard was never inclined to think himself wiser than Hedwig. He wanted to be able to trust and respect her judgement as well as her heart. He had begun by revering her as something divine, but in what had happened with regard to Johan he had seen how childishly and dangerously unwise she could be, and he had been obliged to treat as a child her whom he revered so highly. It was a delicate situation, for Hedwig no less than for him, for how can one be found fault with and revered at the same time? And yet she was naturally inclined to submit herself to a stronger personality. Gerard had made a mistake from the outset in putting her on a pedestal and taking a subordinate place himself, instead of retaining his own independence and strengthening hers till it fairly balanced his.
So now he tried to share in her joy and could not bring himself to utter any warning. All the same, Hedwig noticed the lack of heartiness in his words, so much so that she felt quite dejected and could with difficulty restrain her tears. It gave her all the irresistible charm of a dear, naughty child who tries to be good and cannot.
All that Gerard knew of Ritsaart was to his disadvantage. He had that aversion to Ritsaart’s appearance which a decent Dutchman always feels for a man whom he hears women call good-looking. He dimly hated in him, just as he had in Johan, the man who reckoned himself to be an artist above the ordinary run of men. And of course it was just this which attracted Hedwig, because it seemed to promise deliverance from the ordinariness of her life. Gerard stuck to certain Dutch notions of orthodoxy and propriety, which Ritsaart, accustomed to foreign ways, would have thought narrow and ridiculous.
Gerard could not endure any man who used scent or scented soap, who wore coloured ties instead of black ones, or flowers in his buttonhole. Ritsaart did all these things, and Gerard regarded him as a light, effeminate creature, and all that he knew about his life served to confirm this opinion. For instance, he knew for a fact that Ritsaart associated with very shady, doubtful people, and that he had for a long time been the acknowledged lover of a well-known actress.
He went away with a heavy heart, and on leaving he did a thing he had never done before and which he instantly regretted – he reminded Hedwig of Johan. Now this was the most tender, most sensitive spot in her soul. For the first time since Johan’s death she had passed a few days without being tormented with remorse and useless self-reproach for what could never be undone or made good. And now Gerard must needs probe the wound roughly, and, as it seemed, unnecessarily. It was his one attempt to guide her aright, and it was a clumsy failure. She writhed with pain and grew hard and cold towards her husband for the first time in her life.
Then he went away, and Hedwig was left to ponder over the contrast between Ritsaart, who had refreshed and comforted her, and Gerard, who had made her feel hurt and depressed.
When Ritsaart returned, he had made up his mind during his week’s absence only to stay for one day and to renounce his design of curing Hedwig by his music. As soon as the fascination of her presence was removed, he reflected that he had allowed himself to be rather carried away, that it was a dangerous game to play, that she had said some astonishing things, which no one could have said who was not a shameless flirt, or incredibly innocent, or else out of her mind; moreover, that her husband was a prim Dutchman of the very worst kind.
But when he found her sitting on the sunny shore, humming a tune like a dreamy, expectant child, and letting the sand run over her fingers so that the changeful light of a ring glanced through the pale dust – and when she looked up, with her wonderfully bright, clear gaze, knowing that it was he, and beckoning him towards her with joyful glance – then he forgot the resolutions of the whole week. She was dressed in black, and this choice was a surprise to him, though it was not done with any intention on her part; it struck him as if he were beaten in artistic refinement.
A day of passionate, downright love-making on both sides followed. It was not understood as such at the time, only when it was too late. They both underwent an entirely new experience. Ritsaart was ten years Hedwig’s senior, and had had many love affairs, which he took no pains to conceal. But he had never known anything that resembled this sensation. Hitherto he had placed little faith in ‘ladies’. He hated the very word. Intellectually they were inferior to men, and as mistresses and mothers the poor and lowly outdid them. But now he was completely fascinated and enthralled, and yet, what was Hedwig but a lady, and one convinced, too, that ladies ought to exist?
Hedwig, on her part, was even more deeply fascinated. Here was a man who knew life in all its fullness and splendour, an artist no less than Johan, a master of beautiful emotions, at once distinguished and unique, and more physically attractive than anyone else she had ever met. And this at a time when, owing to her empty life, and the physical desires which had been stimulated and left unsatisfied, she was more susceptible than ever to impressions of this kind. Everything about him charmed and attracted her, even the fact that he had not concealed his irregular mode of life. For she had learnt to despise the libertine, as he the lady, and to their surprise both discovered that the despised quality did not detract at all from personal charm and attractiveness. This did not mean that he had altered his opinion, or that her dislike of libertinism was weakened, but they could not help finding the individual attractive in spite of it, and the result was a certain sweet, sharp sadness, a tender sympathy, a call to help and save.
The day was as rich and full as a whole year: morning, afternoon and evening were long, important periods of their whole lives. But this they understood only the next day. The moments were too intense, too affecting for all the depth of their significance to be felt, just as in a battle wounds pass unheeded and unknown.
Ritsaart deceived himself with the pitiful delusion of appearing to be completely master of himself, of bending down from an inaccessible height, in kind, benevolent wisdom, to a soul who sought his help. An impartial observer would have seen at once that his whole heart and soul was in it, hopelessly carried away, like a swimmer by the turn of the tide.
Hedwig enjoyed the miracle with clearer self-knowledge, because she was less blinded by pride. She felt what she had never known before: ecstasy which could bear to be looked at and observed without vanishing. And she knew that she felt it, and that it was different from any other feeling she had ever had. She gazed at it, as a person awakening from a swoon gazes at his hands, trying to understand.
She talked with unwonted ease and fluency; she opened her lips and words came of themselves, expressive of her inmost thoughts, gentle and tractable, as if it never had been otherwise. She noticed everything, the sea and the dunes, his hands, eyes, feet, teeth, his gestures and voice, and the beautiful new things he said. And, meanwhile, she thought over all the best feelings of her life with a wonderfully vivid recollection, and thought, meantime, ‘This is the best.’ She looked back upon all the heart feelings and times of introspection which she had never before been able to review as a whole, as if she had now gained a height which was above them.
Yet, with all this insight, she had not the faintest suspicion that she was in danger. She saw no sign of harm, not even of approaching harm. She felt exceptionally happy, and would have been very much surprised if Gerard or anyone else had grudged her this happiness, or looked upon it as something dangerous and improper.
Nevertheless, under all the changeful play of her emotions there was something which, more than anything else, seemed strange and curious. Through all the doings of the day there ran an undercurrent of memory about her childish dreams: the white marble heart, the alder avenue, the ball, an ever-present memory, whether she sat at the crowded dinner table, or walked abroad, or listened to Ritsaart’s playing. And the present seemed haunted with a strange feeling of recollection, as if it was not new, like the autumn feeling by the old ruin, which had also seemed to be only the remembrance of something passing fair, and long ago.
And this long summer day in the clear sea air was penetrated by the same feeling, only stronger and more wonderful, as if she could almost stretch out her hand and seize the moment which had been so like this one. Every hour the feeling became more unmistakable, until its strength was almost overwhelming.
In the evening they both sat on the broad terrace, the music played, and the people laughed and talked all around them. The air was soft and still, the sea grey and smooth, heavy clouds hung over it, and little ripples broke with a dull thud upon the beach. Barefooted children were playing about, little pink and blue spots on a pale silver-grey ground.
The fading sun had withdrawn behind the clouds, leaving a long, faint trail of silver behind. Far away, where the secrets of heaven begin, there glowed a splendour as of burnished gold. Of all the visible wonders of the sea, this was to Hedwig the fairest, and never again did she find it more lovely.
Both these young creatures felt as if they had traversed many a distant land together, and had now reached their desired haven. Their voices were a little husky, they were tired of emotion, so they simply sat and looked. Hedwig smiled quietly as at a pleasant memory. ‘How beautiful it was,’ she whispered, meaning the moment at which she spoke. Her hands lay folded in her lap, her eyes fixed on the grey depth above, on the glowing copper summits of the clouds.
The cheerful, commonplace strains of the band lulled the lower sphere of their souls into calm contentment, above which they seemed to gaze hand in hand at the silent splendour of the sea, while above and over it all there came to Hedwig a feeling as if she were wandering alone and in silence through time, and saw all the space of days and hours, and gathered a bouquet of the fairest flowers which bloomed in the fields of time, and she bound it gently with this day, like a grey ribbon with edges of rich gold.
Number of pages: 287
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