A difficult decision
No, Eline did not know how to decide. She shuddered at taking a step that could make her happy or unhappy for life. It seemed to her as though her future depended only on one single word, which she hesitated to utter. She shuddered at the very idea of a mariage de raison, because in her heart she felt a longing for love, much love, although it was a feeling which she had done her best to repress after her recent disappointment. And Otto… she had danced with him, she had laughed and joked with him, but his image had never held her thoughts even for a moment, and she had always forgotten him as soon as she heard or saw him no longer. However, when she saw his earnest simplicity of character, when she guessed that he loved her, the idea was sweet to her, and she told herself that it would pain her to cause him grief, or to refuse him anything, even her hand. And whilst she thus wilfully blinded herself, the rapture of his quiet passion for her seemed to pour balm into her wounded heart.
The thought of becoming his wife, under the influence of her self-deception, filled her with a serene joy; something like a sweet vision arose in her mind, and… she began to look at the matter from a financial point of view.
Yes; the idea was a cheering one: to be quite independent, to leave her sister’s house, where, notwithstanding her own little private fortune, she felt as though she were in fetters, something like a troublesome guest, whose presence was tolerated for the sake of the world’s opinion. But beneath all the various reasons which enticed her to welcome Otto with calm pleasure, there lurked, like an adder as it were, invisible to her own eye, a bitter regret at the ruin of her shattered fantasies, and if ever she gave herself to Otto, it would be in order to be avenged on Fabrice, and on herself.
In the meantime, as soon as he had proposed, as soon as it became necessary for her to reflect, and there was no overwhelming wealth of passion to which she could succumb, she had stepped back, full of terror at the ordeal of giving her decision.
Otto waited; he at least was discreet. For some days past he had avoided the house of the van Raats, and she wanted to reward him for his discretion; blushingly she had asked Betsy to send him a personal, intimate invitation, as she did to Freddie and Etienne.
He would come, she would speak to him; and it seemed to her as if some unseen power pushed her forward down a steep path. It was as if she wanted to act otherwise than she did, but she was powerless to escape her fate. It seemed to her as though she groped about blindfolded after her happiness, stretching forth her hands in anxious, breathless suspense, and listening to something that seemed like the echo of a happiness that she was never, ever to find.
Betsy poured out the tea. Mrs van Raat and Mrs Eekhof sat beside her on a sofa, and conversed with Emilie de Woude. Henk, with his hands in his pockets, was listening attentively to Vincent, and Eline, Ange, Léonie and Paul were turning over some music at the piano, when Otto and Etienne entered.
‘And Frédérique?’ asked Betsy with surprise, as she held out her hand to Otto.
‘Frédérique felt a little tired; she is very sorry,’ he answered simply.
‘She is often out of sorts lately,’ said Etienne, as though to add some weight to his brother’s words.
Eline felt her heart beat. She was very nervous, although she effectually concealed her nervousness under her happy cheerfulness. It suddenly seemed to her as if everyone were looking at her, guessing at her thoughts, and she nearly trembled to raise her eyes, out of fear at seeing the glance of all directed upon her. But still, when she looked up, the aspect of the room was quite unchanged; the old ladies were still chatting with Betsy and Emilie, Vincent was speaking almost in whispers to Henk, and the girls and Paul were shaking hands with Etienne.
But Otto approached her. She scarcely knew how to hold herself, and fancied she looked very awkward; but it was that very hesitancy that lent something coy to her slender little figure, and gave her a new charm. She heard how he simply bade her good evening, but in his voice there sounded something full and rich, like the promise of a great affection. She suddenly felt conscious of a fresh emotion, a melting tenderness in her heart which she could not understand.
He remained standing there, by the piano, at her side; but entered into conversation with Ange, while Léonie was engaged in boisterous fun with Etienne. Once or twice Otto glanced at Eline to include her in their chatter, and she smiled, without hearing what was said. She could no longer follow her thoughts; they fluttered about in her mind like a swarm of butterflies, and it seemed to her as though a chorus of voices was singing in her ears. She understood that she should not allow herself to be drawn into the luxurious softness which seemed to encircle her as with velvet arms, that she dared not give herself up to dreams in the midst of a room full of people. And after a few laughing words she turned away, wondering at the subdued tone of her voice, which sounded as though she was speaking through a veil.
‘Vincent, you will play too, won’t you?’ she heard Betsy ask, and she saw the old ladies and Emilie rise, and caught sight of Henk seated at the card table in the opposite room, busily picking out the pearl card counters from a Japanese box. She seemed to be moving in a dream; she saw the cards spread out on the red cloth-covered table in the form of a big S; she saw the wax candles burning at the corners of the table, and sparkling rings as Mrs Eekhof drew a card.
It seemed to her as though she herself was far away from it all. Vincent sat down opposite Mrs van Raat, and Henk was to have Mrs Eekhof for a partner. Betsy returned with Emilie; they would join in later on.
‘Mrs van Raat, shall we be disturbing them if we have a little music, or is it a terribly serious card party?’ Léonie asked of Betsy, pointing to the card table.
‘Oh no, not at all, amusez-vous toujours,’ answered Betsy, and she led Otto and Emilie with her to the sofa. She was always most amiable with strangers.
‘Come, Eline, do let us hear you; darling, we are dying for your ravishing melodies!’ Léonie continued, with irrepressible vivacity. ‘I will accompany you with my fairy fingers.’
‘No, Léo; not this evening, please. I am not in good voice.’
‘Not in good voice? I don’t believe a word of it! Come, allons, chante, ma belle! What shall it be?’
‘Yes, Eline, do sing!’ cried Mrs van Raat from the opposite room, and then in an embarrassed voice asked her partner what were trumps.
‘Really, darling Madame, really, Léo, I can’t. I can always tell when I can’t sing. I don’t refuse as a rule, do I? But you have brought some music with you, have you not?’
‘Yes; but they are not the sort of songs to start with, they are for later in the evening. Something serious first; come, Eline, allons!’
‘No, no; positively not,’ said Eline, shaking her head; it was really impossible. She felt as though she had a fever, which brought a faint blush to her cheeks, caused her eyelids to droop languidly, made her pulse beat faster, her fingers tremble.
‘Positively not?’ she heard softly repeated, and she glanced round. It was Otto, who, seated beside Betsy and Emilie, had asked her, and looked at her with his honest, expressive eyes. Once more she shook her head, still awkwardly, or so she thought, but really with unconscious grace.
‘Really, I could not.’
And she turned away directly, fearing that he would suspect why. Besides, she felt very embarrassed when her glance met his, although there was not the slightest reproach in it. And it seemed to her as though there was something awkward in the manner of the people who filled the rooms with their chat and laughter, something that was unusual and strange; but still, she thought, only Betsy and Mrs van Raat knew that Otto had proposed to her, and that she would give him her answer that evening. Whatever the others might suspect, they would not let a word escape them that could compel her to lift the veil from her secret before she chose. And this confidence in their well-bred discreetness reassured her.
Léonie pouted, however, and thought Eline a tiresome girl. Paul and Etienne cried that Léo must sing, and set off to fetch her music, which the girl, with an affectation of shyness, had left in the hall. All three rushed laughing to the door, but Léonie would not permit them to look for the music, and they caused a sudden, cheerful stir that made the whist-players in the next room look up smiling from their cards. Etienne triumphed, however, and soon returned, carrying in his uplifted arms the score of The Mascotte. The young Eekhofs were persuaded, and laughing and haltingly they sang, with their thin, shrill little voices, the duet of Pipo and Betinna, ‘O, mon Pipo, mon Dieu, qu’t’es bien!’ whilst Etienne accompanied them, with frequently doubtful chords.
Still, the duet was a success, and with rising gaiety they soon sang, all four of them – Ange, Léonie, Etienne, and Paul – with a delightful disregard both of time and tune, first the languishing ‘Un baiser est un douce chose’, then the comic ‘Le grand singe d’Amérique’, and their music wafted gaily through the rooms, in a fluttering of airy melody.
Eline had seated herself on a stool next to the piano, and she leaned her feverish little head against it, almost deafened by Etienne’s loud voice. Her hand kept time on her knee, thus still showing some little interest in what was going on. She heard the chords of the piano drumming in her ears, and the sounds prevented her from thinking and coming to a decision.
Constantly she swayed from one resolution to another. Yes, she would accept; his love, though not requited, would still be her happiness; it was her destiny. No; she could not force herself, she could not allow herself to be bound in this way, without a shadow of love. And it seemed to her as though her thoughts were continually swaying to and fro, as if a clock were constantly ticking in her ears: yes… no… yes… no. It would be a relief to grasp at anything, however blindly. No; she must only decide after calm deliberation. Oh, if only that clock would stop! She could not struggle thus with herself; she had not the strength. She would reflect no longer; she would let herself be carried away by the invisible powers that drove her down this steep path; she would yield herself up entirely to the stress of circumstances; they must decide for her. And she felt a cold shiver overtake her when their glances met, and she rose.
Vincent spoke to her. ‘Well, Elly, have you committed any folly yet; anything outrageously mad?’ he asked, mocking her voice.
Round the piano it was quieter. Léonie was seated beside Emilie, and was giving her a vivid description of a little dance at the van Larens’. Etienne had turned himself round on the piano stool and was joking with Ange, who had tumbled onto the ottoman in a burst of laughter, and covered her face with both her little hands. Paul joined in the laughter and turned over the pages of music.
‘How? What? What do you mean?’ stammered Eline, who did not understand.
‘Did you not tell me, a little while ago, that you were about to do something desperately absurd? Now I ask you whether you have hit upon anything yet? I should like to join you.’
His banter grated on her ears. In her present unusually serious mood, the remembrance of that period of frivolity seemed to her like an echo of vanished wishes. No; she no longer had any desire to give herself over to vague absurdities; she would be sensible and practical, as Otto was. Equivocally absurd, her disappointed passion – if she might give that name to her folly – had been more than enough; in future she would not let herself be carried away. And she crushed the feeling of bitter remorse that rose in her heart with the sharp sting of an adder.
While she was searching for some light response to Vincent’s question, a sudden alarm seized her. A new thought had just struck her. No, it was no longer possible; she could not retreat. Otto, Betsy, they all expected her to accept; they could not help doing so. If she did not intend to accept him, then why did she have an express invitation sent to him? It was settled. It could not be otherwise, and after her sudden alarm a great calm came over her whole being.
‘But, my dear girl, I believe you suffer from absent-mindedness,’ cried Vincent, laughing. He had asked her why Georges de Woude was not there, and she had languidly replied, ‘Oh, yes; that is true.’
Now she laughed in her turn; she was coming round, in the blissfulness of that calm.
‘I beg your pardon, I have a little…’ and she placed her hand on her forehead.
‘Oh! headache, I suppose? Yes; I know the disease,’ he interrupted ironically, and gave her a searching glance. ‘That headache is a family complaint with us; we suffer a great deal from headache.’
In some alarm she looked at him; surely he could not suspect anything.
‘I got a headache too, whilst playing cards, with the hammering of the piano. It was as though I saw all kinds of colours – green, yellow, orange. When that little lively girl there… Léonie… sings, I always see orange colours.’
‘And when I sing?’ she asked coquettishly.
‘Oh, then it is quite different,’ he resumed, more seriously. ‘Then I always see before me a harmonious mixture, from faintest pink to purple, until it is all fused together in a delightful coalescence. Your low notes are pink, your high ones purple and brilliant. When Paul sings it is all grey, with a tinge of violet sometimes.’
She laughed gaily, and Paul – who had heard him – laughed too.
‘But, Vincent, these are visions of an over-excited imagination.’
‘Perhaps so; but sometimes it is very pretty. Have you never experienced it?’
She reflected for a moment, while Ange and Etienne, who had heard the latter part of their conversation, came nearer and listened, as did Paul.
‘No; I don’t think I have.’
‘And have you never felt that some notes remind you of some particular odour – for instance, sweet myrrh or mignonette? The tones of an organ are like incense. When you sing that scene by Beethoven, “Ah, Perfido!”, I always smell the odour of verbena, especially in one of the concluding high passages. When you sing it again, I shall show you.’
Ange roared with laughter.
‘But, Mr Vere, how lovely to be perfumed like that!’
Everyone joined in the laughter, and Vincent too seemed in a good humour.
‘It’s true, parole d’honneur.’
‘No; but I tell you what, some people remind me of different animals,’ whispered Etienne. ‘Henk, for instance, reminds me of a big dog, Betsy of a hen, Mrs van der Stoor of a crab.’
They screamed with laughter. Otto, Emilie and Léonie rose from their seats and came nearer.
‘What is all this about?’ asked Emilie inquisitively.
‘Mrs van der Stoor is a crab!’ yelled Ange, with tears in her eyes from laughing.
‘And tell me, Eetje, what do I remind you of?’ asked Léonie with glistening eyes.
‘Oh, you and Ange are just like two little puppies,’ cried Etienne.
‘Freule de Woude, with her double chin, is a turkey!’ he whispered, delighted with his success, in Ange’s ear. She nearly choked with laughter. ‘Miss Frantzen is also a turkey, of another kind. Willem the servant is a stately stork, and Dien, the cook at the Verstraetens’, is a cockatoo.’
‘It is a menagerie, a Noah’s ark!’ screamed Léonie.
‘And Eline?’ Paul asked at last.
‘Oh, Eline,’ repeated Etienne, and reflected. ‘Sometimes a peacock – sometimes a serpent – right now a little dove.’ They shook their head at his extravagant fancies, but still they laughed gaily.
‘Etienne is always jolly,’ said Eline to Otto, when the little groups were broken up, and she nodded smilingly at Mrs van Raat, who had given her seat at the card table to Emilie. In the meantime Vincent became the butt of the little Eekhofs, who asked him if he were going to open a perfumery store.
‘Yes,’ answered Otto. ‘He has no reason to be otherwise, has he? He has all that he desires.’ There was something sad in his words, as if that was not the case with him, and Eline could find nothing to say in reply. For a while they stood close together, in silence, whilst her trembling hand clasped the fan at her side, and again her thoughts began to stray.
‘Have you nothing to say to me?’ he whispered softly, but without a tinge of reproach.
She took a deep breath. ‘Really, oh… I… I cannot yet; forgive me, but really… later, later.’
‘All right, later; I will be patient… as long as I can,’ he said, and his calm tone brought a little peace to her whirling brain. No; she could refuse no longer – but still, she could not yet decide. And she could not help admiring his quiet tact, as he conversed with her on subjects in which neither of them took the slightest interest. That simple, quiet tact constituted his greatest charm; he was so entirely himself that it seemed as if his manly frankness concealed nothing that the eyes of the world might not see. Whilst he spoke, he did not attempt to pretend to himself or to her that there was anything interesting in the conversation; he seemed only to continue it because he liked to be near her and speak with her. It was so evident in the full tones of his voice. His thoughts were not on his conversation, and he made no attempt to conceal the fact. And for the first time she felt something like pity for him; she felt that she was cruel, and that he was suffering, and this feeling again aroused within her that melting tenderness which she could not understand.
Refreshments were handed round.
‘Will you have some lemonade, Madame, and a cake?’ Eline asked Mrs van Raat, who was sitting rather abandoned on the sofa, now and again smiling at the jolly group of young people, who were now engaged telling each other’s fortunes.
‘Wait a moment,’ she continued to Otto. ‘The old lady is all alone; I shall go and keep her company.’
He gave her a friendly nod and went to listen to Paul’s horoscope, which Ange was drawing for him.
Eline took the lemonade, laid a cake on a plate, and offered it to Mrs van Raat. Then she sat down next to the old lady, and took her hand.
Mrs van Raat, however, did not touch the refreshments, but looked Eline straight in the eye.
‘Well, how is it?’ she asked.
In her present mood of melting tenderness, Eline could not feel annoyed at the indiscreet question. And she answered, very softly, almost inaudibly… ‘I… I shall accept.’
She sighed, and the tears rose in her eyes, as, for the first time, she made that resolution. She would accept. And she could find nothing more to say to the old lady; that one word filled her mind so completely, that it absorbed every other thought. For a moment, therefore, they sat next to each other in silence, a little turned away from the happy group around the cards. And Eline could hear Ange’s shrill, laughing voice, as she laid down the cards, one by one, on the table.
‘Now just listen, Mr Erlevoort. I am much cleverer than Mrs Lenormand. Here is yours, king of diamonds. You are surrounded by many tears, but they are turned into smiles; you will have much money, and will go and live in a chateau in the Pyrenees. Or would you rather buy a villa near Nice? Ah, there she is! Queen of hearts, you see. You are rather wide apart, but all the intermediate cards are favourable. You will have to struggle against many obstacles before you can reach her, for she is rather sought after, you see; but… the king of clubs, king of diamonds, a plebeian even, a social democrat; knave of spades!’
‘Black jack!’ cried Léonie. ‘Ah, fi donc!’
Eline smiled, a little frightened, and wiped away a tear from her lashes; and Mrs van Raat, who had also been listening, smiled too.
‘There, just see how beautifully those aces lie,’ Ange went on. ‘Never fear, Mr Erlevoort, never fear; it is all clearing up nicely.’
‘The cards seem favourable,’ whispered Mrs van Raat.
Eline gave a little smile of contempt, but she felt a little upset; ‘black jack’ had reminded her of Fabrice.
The company had risen from the whist table, and the conversation became lively and general. The fortune telling had given an impetus to everyone’s gaiety, and Etienne was loud in his protestations to Ange, who prophesied that he would be an old bachelor. Not he; he declined with thanks.
Ange and Léonie persuaded Paul to sing something else, and Leonie accompanied him in one of Massenet’s songs. In the meantime Betsy looked attentively at her sister and Otto, and thought she could see that nothing had yet transpired between them. How Eline did dilly-dally, to be sure! She had managed it better herself. She had quietly accepted van Raat when he had clumsily proposed to her. What was Eline thinking about? Why in heaven’s name shouldn’t she accept Erlevoort? They were quite cut out for one another. And she worried about her sister’s sentimental hesitation, when she had the chance of marrying into a good family, and a man in a fair position. Her eye rested coldly on Eline’s slender form, to which that hesitating coyness lent an additional charm, and she noted it, as she also noted the unwonted earnestness that seemed to be diffused over her beauty. What a lot of fuss about such a simple matter! But when she caught sight of her husband, who was talking to Otto, she felt even more annoyed; how stupid he was, to be sure! Had he really still no notion why Otto was here that evening?
Mrs van Raat left later than she usually did, still feeling uncertain in her mind about Eline’s decision. She had rather anticipated a sort of family evening, and she felt decidedly disappointed.
It was now long past twelve, and Mrs Eekhof and her daughters prepared to go, together with Emilie, Vincent and Paul. The girls, amid much laughing banter, were conducted through the hall to their carriage by Henk and Etienne. Betsy, Eline and Otto stayed behind in the little boudoir, and the silence became somewhat embarrassing. But Betsy purposefully rose and walked into the drawing room towards the card table, as though to gather up the scattered counters. To Eline it seemed as if the ground was giving way beneath her. She could not hide her confusion from Otto’s eyes, and although he had had no intention that evening of referring to his proposal, he did not find himself strong enough to resist the temptation of the moment, now that they were alone together.
‘Eline,’ he whispered, in a broken voice. ‘Oh, must I leave you like this?’
Almost in terror she let out her pent-up breath in a trembling sigh.
‘Otto… really, truly… I… I cannot, not yet.’
‘Adieu then; forgive me, pray, for having worried you a second time,’ he said, and with that he lightly pressed her fingers and went.
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