She had been standing there on the pavement a quarter of an hour or so after her shilling's worth of concert. Women of her profession are not supposed to have redeeming points, especially when—like May Belinski, as she now preferred to dub herself—they are German; but this woman certainly had music in her soul. She often gave herself these "music baths" when the Promenade Concerts were on, and had just spent half her total wealth in listening to some Mozart and a Beethoven symphony.
She was feeling almost elated, full of divine sound, and of the wonderful summer moonlight which was filling the whole dark town. Women "of a certain type" have, at all events, emotions—and what a comfort that is, even to themselves! To stand just there had become rather a habit of hers. One could seem to be waiting for somebody coming out of the concert, not yet over—which, of course, was precisely what she was doing. One need not forever be stealthily glancing and perpetually moving on in that peculiar way, which, while it satisfied the police and Mrs. Grundy, must not quite deceive others as to her business in life. She had only "been at it" long enough to have acquired a nervous dread of almost everything—not long enough to have passed through that dread to callousness. Some women take so much longer than others. And even for a woman "of a certain type" her position was exceptionally nerve-racking in war-time, going as she did by a false name. Indeed, in all England there could hardly be a greater pariah than was this German woman of the night.
She idled outside a book-shop humming a little, pretending to read the titles of the books by moonlight, taking off and putting on one of her stained yellow gloves. Now and again she would move up as far as the posters outside the Hall, scrutinising them as if interested in the future, then stroll back again. In her worn and discreet dark dress, and her small hat, she had nothing about her to rouse suspicion, unless it were the trail of violet powder she left on the moonlight.
For the moonlight this evening was almost solid, seeming with its cool still vibration to replace the very air; in it the war-time precautions against light seemed fantastic, like shading candles in a room still full of daylight. What lights there were had the effect of strokes and stipples of dim colour laid by a painter's brush on a background of ghostly whitish blue. The dreamlike quality of the town was perhaps enhanced for her eyes by the veil she was wearing—in daytime no longer white. As the music died out of her, elation also ebbed. Somebody had passed her, speaking German, and she was overwhelmed by a rush of nostalgia. On this moonlight night by the banks of the Rhine—whence she came—the orchards would be heavy with apples; there would be murmurs, and sweet scents; the old castle would stand out clear, high over the woods and the chalky-white river. There would be singing far away, and the churning of a distant steamer's screw; and perhaps on the water a log raft still drifting down in the blue light. There would be German voices talking. And suddenly tears oozed up in her eyes, and crept down through the powder on her cheeks. She raised her veil and dabbed at her face with a little, not-too-clean handkerchief, screwed up in her yellow-gloved hand. But the more she dabbed, the more those treacherous tears ran. Then she became aware that a tall young man in khaki was also standing before the shop-window, not looking at the titles of the books, but eyeing her askance. His face was fresh and open, with a sort of kindly eagerness in his blue eyes. Mechanically she drooped her wet lashes, raised them obliquely, drooped them again, and uttered a little sob....
This young man, Captain in a certain regiment, and discharged from hospital at six o'clock that evening, had entered Queen's Hall at half-past seven. Still rather brittle and sore from his wound, he had treated himself to a seat in the Grand Circle, and there had sat, very still and dreamy, the whole concert through. It had been like eating after a long fast—something of the sensation Polar explorers must experience when they return to their first full meal. For he was of the New Army, and before the war had actually believed in music, art, and all that sort of thing. With a month's leave before him, he could afford to feel that life was extraordinarily joyful, his own experiences particularly wonderful; and, coming out into the moonlight, he had taken what can only be described as a great gulp of it, for he was a young man with a sense of beauty. When one has been long in the trenches, lain out wounded in a shell-hole twenty-four hours, and spent three months in hospital, beauty has such an edge of novelty, such a sharp sweetness, that it almost gives pain. And London at night is very beautiful. He strolled slowly towards the Circus, still drawing the moonlight deep into his lungs, his cap tilted up a little on his forehead in that moment of unmilitary abandonment; and whether he stopped before the book-shop window because the girl's figure was in some sort a part of beauty, or because he saw that she was crying, he could not have made clear to any one.
Then something—perhaps the scent of powder, perhaps the yellow glove, or the oblique flutter of the eyelids—told him that he was making what he would have called "a blooming error," unless he wished for company, which had not been in his thoughts. But her sob affected him, and he said:
"What's the matter?"
Again her eyelids fluttered sideways, and she stammered:
"Not'ing. The beautiful evening—that's why!"
That a woman of what he now clearly saw to be "a certain type" should perceive what he himself had just been perceiving, struck him forcibly, and he said:
She looked up again swiftly: "Cheer up! You are not lonelee like me."
For one of that sort, she looked somehow honest; her tear-streaked face was rather pretty, and he murmured:
"Well, let's walk a bit, and talk it over."
They turned the corner, and walked east, along streets empty, and beautiful, with their dulled orange-glowing lamps, and here and there the glint of some blue or violet light. He found it queer and rather exciting—for an adventure of just this kind he had never had. And he said doubtfully:
"How did you get into this? Isn't it an awfully hopeless sort of life?"
"Ye-es, it ees—" her voice had a queer soft emphasis. "You are limping—haf you been wounded?"
"Just out of hospital to-day."
"The horrible war—all the misery is because of the war. When will it end?"
He looked at her attentively, and said:
"I say—what nationality are you?"
"Really! I never met a Russian girl."
He was conscious that she looked at him, then very quickly down. And he said suddenly:
"Is it as bad as they make out?"
She slipped her yellow-gloved hand through his arm.
"Not when I haf any one as nice as you; I never haf yet, though"; she smiled—and her smile was like her speech, slow, confiding—"you stopped because I was sad, others stop because I am gay. I am not fond of men at all. When you know, you are not fond of them."
"Well! You hardly know them at their best, do you? You should see them at the front. By George! they're simply splendid—officers and men, every blessed soul. There's never been anything like it—just one long bit of jolly fine self-sacrifice; it's perfectly amazing."
Turning her blue-grey eyes on him, she answered:
"I expect you are not the last at that. You see in them what you haf in yourself, I think."
"Oh! not a bit—you're quite out. I assure you when we made the attack where I got wounded, there wasn't a single man in my regiment who wasn't an absolute hero. The way they went in—never thinking of themselves—it was simply superb!"
Her teeth came down on her lower lip, and she answered in a queer voice: "It is the same too perhaps with—the enemy."
"Oh yes, I know that."
"Ah! You are not a mean man. How I hate mean men!"
"Oh! they're not mean really—they simply don't understand."
"Oh! you are a baby—a good baby, aren't you?"
He did not quite like being called a baby, and frowned; but was at once touched by the disconcertion in her powdered face. How quickly she was scared!
She said clingingly:
"But I li-ike you for it. It is so good to find a ni-ice man."
This was worse, and he said abruptly:
"About being lonely? Haven't you any Russian friends?"
"Rooshian! No!" Then quickly added: "The town is so beeg! Haf you been in the concert?"
"I, too—I love music."
"I suppose all Russians do."
She looked up at his face again, and seemed to struggle to keep silent; then she said quietly:
"I go there always when I haf the money."
"What! Are you so on the rocks?"
"Well, I haf just one shilling now." And she laughed.
The sound of that little laugh upset him—she had a way of making him feel sorry for her every time she spoke.
They had come by now to a narrow square, east of Gower Street.
"This is where I lif," she said. "Come in!"
He had one long moment of violent hesitation, then yielded to the soft tugging of her hand, and followed. The passage-hall was dimly lighted, and they went upstairs into a front room, where the curtains were drawn, and the gas turned very low. Opposite the window were other curtains dividing off the rest of the apartment. As soon as the door was shut she put up her face and kissed him—evidently formula. What a room! Its green and beetroot colouring and the prevalence of cheap plush disagreeably affected him. Everything in it had that callous look of rooms which seem to be saying to their occupants: "You're here to-day and you'll be gone to-morrow." Everything except one little plant, in a common pot, of maidenhair fern, fresh and green, looking as if it had been watered within the hour; in this room it had just the same unexpected touchingness that peeped out of the girl's matter-of-fact cynicism.
Taking off her hat, she went towards the gas, but he said quickly:
"No, don't turn it up; let's have the window open, and the moonlight in." He had a sudden dread of seeing anything plainly—it was stuffy, too, and pulling the curtains apart, he threw up the window. The girl had come obediently from the hearth, and sat down opposite him, leaning her arm on the window-sill and her chin on her hand. The moonlight caught her cheek where she had just renewed the powder, caught her fair crinkly hair; it caught the plush of the furniture, and his own khaki, giving them all a touch of unreality.
"What's your name?" he said.
"May. Well, I call myself that. It's no good askin' yours."
"You're a distrustful little party, aren't you?"
"I haf reason to be, don't you think?"
"Yes, I suppose you're bound to think us all brutes?"
"Well, I haf a lot of reasons to be afraid all my time. I am dreadfully nervous now; I am not trusting anybody. I suppose you haf been killing lots of Germans?"
"We never know, unless it happens to be hand to hand; I haven't come in for that yet."
"But you would be very glad if you had killed some?"
"Glad? I don't think so. We're all in the same boat, so far as that's concerned. We're not glad to kill each other. We do our job—that's all."
"Oh! it is frightful. I expect I haf my broders killed."
"Don't you get any news ever?"
"News! No indeed, no news of anybody in my country. I might not haf a country; all that I ever knew is gone—fader, moder, sisters, broders, all—never any more I shall see them, I suppose, now. The war it breaks and breaks, it breaks hearts." Her little teeth fastened again on her lower lip in that sort of pretty snarl. "Do you know what I was thinkin' when you came up? I was thinkin' of my native town, and the river there in the moonlight. If I could see it again, I would be glad. Were you ever homeseeck?"
"Yes, I have been—in the trenches; but one's ashamed, with all the others."
"Ah! ye-es!" It came from her with a hiss. "Ye-es! You are all comrades there. What is it like for me here, do you think, where everybody hates and despises me, and would catch me, and put me in prison, perhaps?"
He could see her breast heaving with a quick breathing painful to listen to. He leaned forward, patting her knee, and murmuring: "Sorry—sorry."
She said in a smothered voice:
"You are the first who has been kind to me for so long! I will tell you the truth—I am not Rooshian at all—I am German."
Hearing that half-choked confession, his thought was: "Does she really think we fight against women?" And he said:
"My dear girl, who cares?"
Her eyes seemed to search right into him. She said slowly:
"Another man said that to me. But he was thinkin' of other things. You are a veree ni-ice boy. I am so glad I met you. You see the good in people, don't you? That is the first thing in the world—because there is really not much good in people, you know."
He said, smiling:
"You're a dreadful little cynic!" Then thought: "Of course she is—poor thing!"
"Cyneec? How long do you think I would live if I was not a cyneec? I should drown myself to-morrow. Perhaps there are good people, but, you see, I don't know them."
"I know lots."
She leaned forward eagerly.
"Well now—see, ni-ice boy—you haf never been in a hole, haf you?"
"I suppose not a real hole."
"No, I should think not, with your face. Well, suppose I am still a good girl, as I was once, you know, and you took me to some of your good people, and said: 'Here is a little German girl that has no work, and no money, and no friends.' Your good people they will say: 'Oh! how sad! A German girl!' and they will go and wash their hands."
Silence fell on him. He saw his mother, his sisters, others—good people, he would swear! And yet—! He heard their voices, frank and clear; and they seemed to be talking of the Germans. If only she were not German!
"You see!" he heard her say, and could only mutter:
"I'm sure there are people."
"No. They would not take a German, even if she was good. Besides, I don't want to be good any more—I am not a humbug—I have learned to be bad. Aren't you going to kees me, ni-ice boy?"
She put her face close to his. Her eyes troubled him, but he drew back. He thought she would be offended or persistent, but she was neither; just looked at him fixedly with a curious inquiring stare; and he leaned against the window, deeply disturbed. It was as if all clear and simple enthusiasm had been suddenly knocked endways; as if a certain splendour of life that he had felt and seen of late had been dipped in cloud. Out there at the front, over here in hospital, life had been seeming so—as it were—heroic; and yet it held such mean and murky depths as well! The voices of his men, whom he had come to love like brothers, crude burring voices, cheery in trouble, making nothing of it; the voices of doctors and nurses, patient, quiet, reassuring voices; even his own voice, infected by it all, kept sounding in his ears. All wonderful somehow, and simple; and nothing mean about it anywhere! And now so suddenly to have lighted upon this, and all that was behind it—this scared girl, this base, dark, thoughtless use of her! And the thought came to him: "I suppose my fellows wouldn't think twice about taking her on! Why! I'm not even certain of myself, if she insists!" And he turned his face, and stared out at the moonlight. He heard her voice:
"Eesn't it light? No air raid to-night. When the Zepps burned—what a horrible death! And all the people cheered—it is natural. Do you hate us veree much?"
He turned round and said sharply:
"Hate? I don't know."
"I don't hate even the English—I despise them. I despise my people too—perhaps more, because they began this war. Oh, yes! I know that. I despise all the peoples. Why haf they made the world so miserable—why haf they killed all our lives—hundreds and thousands and millions of lives—all for not'ing? They haf made a bad world—everybody hating, and looking for the worst everywhere. They haf made me bad, I know. I believe no more in anything. What is there to believe in? Is there a God? No! Once I was teaching little English children their prayers—isn't that funnee? I was reading to them about Christ and love. I believed all those things. Now I believe not'ing at all—no one who is not a fool or a liar can believe. I would like to work in a hospital; I would like to go and help poor boys like you. Because I am a German they would throw me out a hundred times, even if I was good. It is the same in Germany and France and Russia, everywhere. But do you think I will believe in love and Christ and a God and all that?—not I! I think we are animals—that's all! Oh! yes—you fancy it is because my life has spoiled me. It is not that at all—that's not the worst thing in life. Those men are not ni-ice, like you, but it's their nature, and," she laughed, "they help me to live, which is something for me anyway. No, it is the men who think themselves great and good, and make the war with their talk and their hate, killing us all—killing all the boys like you, and keeping poor people in prison, and telling us to go on hating; and all those dreadful cold-blooded creatures who write in the papers—the same in my country, just the same; it is because of all them that I think we are only animals."
He got up, acutely miserable. He could see her following him with her eyes, and knew she was afraid she had driven him away. She said coaxingly: "Don't mind me talking, ni-ice boy. I don't know any one to talk to. If you don't like it, I can be quiet as a mouse."
"Oh! go on, talk away. I'm not obliged to believe you, and I don't."
She was on her feet now, leaning against the wall; her dark dress and white face just touched by the slanting moonlight; and her voice came again, slow and soft and bitter:
"Well, look here, ni-ice boy, what sort of a world is it, where millions are being tortured—horribly tortured, for no fault of theirs, at all? A beautiful world, isn't it! 'Umbug! Silly rot, as you boys call it. You say it is all 'Comrade'! and braveness out there at the front, and people don't think of themselves. Well, I don't think of myself veree much. What does it matter—I am lost now, anyway; but I think of my people at home, how they suffer and grieve. I think of all the poor people there and here who lose those they love, and all the poor prisoners. Am I not to think of them? And if I do, how am I to believe it a beautiful world, ni-ice boy?"
He stood very still, biting his lips.
"Look here! We haf one life each, and soon it is over. Well, I think that is lucky."
He said resentfully:
"No! there's more than that."
"Ah!" she went on softly; "you think the war is fought for the future; you are giving your lives for a better world, aren't you?"
"We must fight till we win," he said between his teeth.
"Till you win. My people think that, too. All the peoples think that if they win the world will be better. But it will not, you know, it will be much worse, anyway."
He turned away from her and caught up his cap; but her voice followed him.
"I don't care which win, I despise them all—animals—animals—animals! Ah! Don't go, ni-ice boy—I will be quiet now."
He took some notes from his tunic pocket, put them on the table, and went up to her.
She said plaintively:
"Are you really going? Don't you like me, enough?"
"Yes, I like you."
"It is because I am German, then?"
"Then why won't you stay?"
He wanted to answer: "Because you upset me so"; but he just shrugged his shoulders.
"Won't you kees me once?"
He bent, and put his lips to her forehead; but as he took them away she threw her head back, pressed her mouth to his, and clung to him.
He sat down suddenly and said:
"Don't! I don't want to feel a brute."
She laughed. "You are a funny boy, but you are veree good. Talk to me a little, then. No one talks to me. I would much rather talk, anyway. Tell me, haf you seen many German prisoners?"
He sighed—from relief, or was it from regret?
"A good many."
"Any from the Rhine?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Were they very sad?"
"Some were—some were quite glad to be taken."
"Did you ever see the Rhine? Isn't it beaudiful? It will be wonderful to-night. The moonlight will be the same here as there; in Rooshia too, and France, everywhere; and the trees will look the same as here, and people will meet under them and make love just as here. Oh! isn't it stupid, the war?—as if it was not good to be alive."
He wanted to say: "You can't tell how good it is to be alive, till you're facing death, because you don't live till then. And when a whole lot of you feel like that—and are ready to give their lives for each other, it's worth all the rest of life put together." But he couldn't get it out to this girl who believed in nothing.
"How were you wounded, ni-ice boy?"
"Attacking across open ground—four machine-gun bullets got me at one go off."
"Weren't you veree frightened when they ordered you to attack?" No, he had not been frightened just then! And he shook his head and laughed.
"It was great. We did laugh that morning. They got me much too soon, though—a swindle!"
She stared at him.
"Yes, and what do you think was the first thing I was conscious of next morning—my old Colonel bending over me and giving me a squeeze of lemon. If you knew my Colonel you'd still believe in things. There is something, you know, behind all this evil. After all, you can only die once, and if it's for your country all the better."
Her face, with intent eyes just touched with bistre, had in the moonlight a most strange, otherworld look. Her lips moved:
"No, I believe in nothing. My heart is dead."
"You think so, but it isn't, you know, or you wouldn't have been crying, when I met you."
"If it were not dead, do you think I could live my life—walking the streets every night, pretending to like strange men—never hearing a kind word—never talking, for fear I will be known for a German. Soon I shall take to drinking, then I shall be 'Kaput' very quick. You see, I am practical, I see things clear. To-night I am a little emotional; the moon is funny, you know. But I live for myself only, now. I don't care for anything or anybody."
"All the same, just now you were pitying your people, and prisoners, and that."
"Yes, because they suffer. Those who suffer are like me—I pity myself, that's all; I am different from your Englishwomen. I see what I am doing; I do not let my mind become a turnip just because I am no longer moral."
"Nor your heart either."
"Ni-ice boy, you are veree obstinate. But all that about love is 'umbug. We love ourselves, nothing more."
Again, at that intense soft bitterness in her voice, he felt stifled, and got up, leaning in the window. The air out there was free from the smell of dust and stale perfume. He felt her fingers slip between his own, and stay unmoving. Since she was so hard, and cynical, why should he pity her? Yet he did. The touch of that hand within his own roused his protective instinct. She had poured out her heart to him—a perfect stranger! He pressed it a little, and felt her fingers crisp in answer. Poor girl! This was perhaps a friendlier moment than she had known for years! And after all, fellow-feeling was bigger than principalities and powers! Fellow-feeling was all-pervading as this moonlight, which she had said would be the same in Germany—as this white ghostly glamour that wrapped the trees, making the orange lamps so quaint and decoratively useless out in the narrow square, where emptiness and silence reigned. He looked around into her face—in spite of bistre and powder, and the faint rouging on her lips, it had a queer, unholy, touching beauty. And he had suddenly the strangest feeling, as if they stood there—the two of them—proving that kindness and human fellowship were stronger than lust, stronger than hate; proving it against meanness and brutality, and the sudden shouting of newspaper boys in some neighbouring street. Their cries, passionately vehement, clashed into each other, and obscured the words—what was it they were calling? His head went up to listen; he felt her hand rigid within his arm—she too was listening. The cries came nearer, hoarser, more shrill and clamorous; the empty moonlight seemed of a sudden crowded with footsteps, voices, and a fierce distant cheering. "Great victory—great victory! Official! British! Defeat of the 'Uns! Many thousand prisoners!" So it sped by, intoxicating, filling him with a fearful joy; and leaning far out, he waved his cap and cheered like a madman; and the whole night seemed to him to flutter and vibrate, and answer. Then he turned to rush down into the street, struck against something soft, and recoiled. The girl! She stood with hands clenched, her face convulsed, panting, and even in the madness of his joy he felt for her. To hear this—in the midst of enemies! All confused with the desire to do something, he stooped to take her hand; and the dusty reek of the table-cloth clung to his nostrils. She snatched away her fingers, swept up the notes he had put down, and held them out to him.
"Take them—I will not haf your English money—take them." And suddenly she tore them across twice, three times, let the bits flutter to the floor, and turned her back to him. He stood looking at her leaning against the plush-covered table which smelled of dust; her head down, a dark figure in a dark room with the moonlight sharpening her outline—hardly a moment he stayed, then made for the door....
When he was gone she still stood there, her chin on her breast—she who cared for nothing, believed in nothing—with the sound in her ears of cheering, of hurrying feet, and voices; stood, in the centre of a pattern made by fragments of the torn-up notes, staring out into the moonlight, seeing, not this hated room and the hated square outside, but a German orchard, and herself, a little girl, plucking apples, a big dog beside her; a hundred other pictures, too, such as the drowning see. Her heart swelled; she sank down on the floor, laid her forehead on the dusty carpet, and pressed her body to it.
She who did not care—who despised all peoples, even her own—began, mechanically, to sweep together the scattered fragments of the notes, assembling them with the dust into a little pile, as of fallen leaves, and dabbling in it with her fingers, while the tears ran down her cheeks. For her country she had torn them, her country in defeat! She, who had just one shilling in this great town of enemies, who wrung her stealthy living out of the embraces of her foes! And suddenly in the moonlight she sat up and began to sing with all her might—"Die Wacht am Rhein."
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
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