Read Anna Online

Authors: Norman Collins

Anna (3 page)

In the dining-room Herr Karlin began to beat time with one finger.

“She plays beautifully, my Anna,” he said.

The Baron did not reply immediately: he bowed his head for a moment in acknowledgment and then, pushing his chair back
from the table, he crossed his legs and loosened his waistcoat a little.

“I cannot understand what you mean by suggesting that I am too old for her,” he said. “A
is only in his prime at fifty.”

Herr Karlin drew at his cigar before answering. It was obvious that both men had now reached the topic which hitherto they had been avoiding.

“I have told you before, Baron, that it was only an observation,” he said. “You have my full permission. So far as I am concerned, I should be proud. I should be happy.”

“And Anna?”

“It is for her to decide. Entirely for her. She has always been free. Quite free.”

Herr Karlin closed his eyes for a moment. Since the Baron had first spoken of the matter his feelings had undergone many changes. At first he had felt angry and resentful. He could not help remembering the way the Baron's hands, sooner or later in the evening, usually strayed across the fair sheen of Anna's hair—an innocent avuncular hand up to that moment it had always seemed—and he was shocked. It was unthinkable that this man who had known Anna from infancy should now actually be thinking of marrying her. But the mood had gradually passed. The Baron had always been his friend. And even now, with this testing of the friendship, he remained so. Slowly, the solid worth of the man reimposed itself—his wealth, his title, his position. And his character. Above all things his character. Men were not born like that nowadays, Herr Karlin consoled himself; men who would mourn one woman for thirty years and then turn instinctively to the household of their oldest friend when the idea of remarriage came upon them. Besides, the more one looked into it, the more suitable the match appeared. The Baron was rich enough to indulge her. Anna could have at once all those things that Marie had hankered after—and had never ceased talking about. Perhaps the difference in age would mean no more than that Anna would accept his authority, simply and without question. If she were to marry a young man, Herr Karlin trembled to think what would happen: within a year or two at the outside she would be ruling him.… But the decision, he reminded himself, lay entirely with Anna: he would make no attempt to coerce her. And if she chose to throw away a title, a house almost large enough to be called a Schloss, and a husband whose family name was in the history books, it was her own affair and no one else's.

But the Baron was speaking again.

“I should like it to be soon,” he was saying. “While the weather
keeps good for the honeymoon. I do not like being kept waiting.”

Herr Karlin spread out his hands.

“That also is for Anna to decide,” he said.

The Baron thrust out his underlip and blew a cloud of smoke into the air above his head.

“We shall go to Italy,” he said. “To Florence. It was to Florence that I went with my poor Hermione.”

Herr Karlin nodded.

“Anna is a very sensible girl. She will understand,” he said.

The Baron was already pulling at the bow of his cravate, and his face was a little flushed. He uncrossed his legs and placed his hands on the edge of the table to push himself up.

“I think I shall speak to her now. This very night. My mood is right. All women are very susceptible to mood.”

Herr Karlin rose obediently.

“I shall take my little Berthe into the conservatory,” he said. “Then you can speak to Anna alone.”

But the Baron shook his head emphatically.

“No,” he said. “It is in the conservatory that I shall speak to Anna. It is more suitable. The flowers will make it more romantic. Besides”—here the Baron abruptly threw away the butt of his cigar and brushed the specks of ash off his waistcoat—“it was in a conservatory that I made my first proposal.”

In the drawing-room, Herr Karlin was seated in his large chair, his feet resting upon a footstool. On the rug at his feet Berthe was sitting, her head against his knee. Herr Karlin's arm lay lightly upon her shoulders. He held a fold of her muslin dress in his fingers and teased it with the same idle motion with which he had crumbled bread between his fingers at dinner. Now that it had actually happened, now that the Baron was out there in the dusk of the conservatory with Anna beside him, he found himself disliking the idea again. She was altogether too like the young Marie whom he had married for it to be tolerable. Herr Karlin, in fact, was jealous.

Berthe turned for a moment and looked up at her father. He had lit his large china pipe again and was sucking at it absorbedly. Seeing him above her, remote somehow and aloof, she felt like a child again.

“I think our Anna is unhappy,” she remarked at last. “She is pining.”

Herr Karlin removed his pipe for a moment and sat tapping the stem against his teeth.

“pining?” he asked. “For what?”

“It is change that she wants,” Berthe told him. “She doesn't see enough people.”

She paused, wondering whether she had said too much, wondering whether her father would relapse into one of his sullen moods in which he found refuge when the household worried him. But Herr Karlin was still smoking steadily, the same absent look in his eyes. And she resumed.

“She was wondering,” Berthe continued, “if perhaps you would send her to Paris for a change?”


Herr Karlin spoke with the contemptuous emphasis of a man forced by circumstances to utter a word which otherwise would not have been heard upon his lips.

“Why should she want to spend her time in Paris?” he asked.

“Or Italy,” Berthe added apologetically. “It is only that she wants to travel. We thought of Paris because our cousins are there.”

Herr Karlin continued to play with the ruffles of muslin between his fingers. His expression of vexation had vanished. He was smiling.

“She is too impatient,” he said. “She is only seventeen, remember. Soon she will be able to travel all she wishes if she chooses.”

“If she chooses what?”

Berthe's eyes were very bright now: she was watching him closely. Herr Karlin noticed suddenly how like Anna she had become.

“How much do these children know,” he wondered; “how much have they noticed?”

And he became cautious and guarded with her, as he so often was when he was speaking with her sister.

“We shall see,” he said slowly. “We shall see.

“But I do not understand,” Anna was saying. “I simply do not understand.”

The Baron passed his handkerchief across his forehead. It was very hot in the conservatory and the musky scent of the flowers was overpowering. It made him feel faint and a little sick.

“It is because I have known you for so long that I now ask you,” he said. “It is your beautiful nature that makes me. I have watched it grow before my eyes.”

“And you really mean …?”

“That I wish to marry you.” The Baron interrupted her. “Yes,
I mean that. I give you half of everything in return for your hand.”

This was a moment, Anna recollected, at which many women, young girls especially, lost their heads. In one way or another they betrayed themselves, revealed, helplessly and shamefully their youth and their inexperience. She drew back a little so that her face was concealed. In her own mind she was perfectly assured and self-possessed.

“But you cannot expect that I should give you an answer now,” she said softly. “I had never really thought of marriage: it had not entered my head.” She paused. “Give me time to think, and you shall have my answer. Next week perhaps or the week after. I cannot say at the moment. I shall need to pray over it.”

“There is nothing to wait for,” the Baron protested. “I am ready, I tell you. Quite ready. We could get married next month.”

He came forward as he was speaking and held out his arms towards her. “You know me already, Anna,” he said. “I am your friend.”

“He is going to kiss me,” Anna reflected. “At all costs, I must stop him. It would be horrible, quite horrible to allow his lips on mine.”

She drew back a little, and shrunk from him.

“But it would also be very interesting,” she reconsidered. “I should know then what it would be like.”

The Baron, however, did not approach any nearer. He stood there, his arms still spread out appealingly towards her.

“I am ready, Anna,” he repeated. “Quite ready.”

Anna opened her eyes the merest trifle. Through her long lashes she regarded him.

“He is frightened of me,” she thought deliciously.

But the thought alarmed her.

“Perhaps he has no intention of kissing me,” she realised, “and then I shall never know.”

Watching him carefully, she swayed for a moment, and then with a little gasp, she slid forward into his arms.

The Baron was quite unprepared for what had happened. Half-fainting himself from the heat and from the scent of the flowers, he was not quick enough to save her. Before he could stretch out his arms, she was already slipping out of his grasp. He went down on to one knee to support her, and she remained resting there. Her eyes were closed and her breathing seemed for the moment to have stopped. But her colour, her lovely youthful colour, had departed hardly at all.

The Baron looked down at her and then gently, very gently, he kissed her on the brow. She did not stir. The Baron looked round him again, cautiously; guiltily this time. Then, seeing that he was still not observed, he kissed her again—on the lips, on the closed eyelids, on the hair. First peering furtively in the direction of the drawing-room, he kissed her on the throat, on the neck, on the smooth, white bosom which showed through the opening of the pretty dress. It seemed to him as he did so that a slight tremor, a passing shudder, ran through her almost as if she were conscious. But when he looked down at her, he saw that her eyes were still fast closed, and her breathing was imperceptible. His heart was hammering. He realised that, in a moment, what self-control was still left to him would be gone. Placing one more frantic kiss upon her lips, he turned away.

“Otto,” he called out, “do you hear me? Our little Anna has fainted.”

Chapter III

She had lain awake for what seemed hours already. But sleep was unthinkable. After what had happened in the conservatory, quite unthinkable. She could still feel the stiffness of his arms around her, and the weight of his powerful chest as it had been pressed against her. She could feel, too, the icy flecks of the water which Berthe stupidly had splashed on to her face when they had come through to her.

“I shall do it: I shall marry him.” “I shall not: I loathe everything about him.” She had told herself each of these a score of times already.

The house was very quiet by now. The only sound in it was the sound of breathing—low, placid, and unshareable—which came from the direction of Berthe's bed. The sound saddened her.

“How simple, how easy everything is for her,” she reflected. “And for me this torment, this chaos.”

She spread her arms under her head and stared up at the dark ceiling. “What is it exactly that he is offering me?” she asked herself. A title? It would certainly be exciting to be a Baroness. “I should be led into dinner before my friends,” she began saying. “On evenings when there is no one else of rank beside me, they would have to wait until I am ready to rise from the table.”

She paused.

“I might even be able to persuade him to take me to Court,”
she went on, her mind becoming filled with visions of huge, glittering ballrooms and bowing crowds. And there were other things as well—things nearer home. It would be nice to have horses, and a park of one's own to ride across in the mornings, she decided. And there was all his poor first wife's jewellery too: the Baron had spoken of it sometimes, regretfully, saying that it needed someone to wear the pearls again to bring out their lustre. He would be certain to give her that: it would indulge both his present infatuation and his mounting sentiment to bestow it. And clothes? He would undoubtedly give her all she asked for; expensive clothes unsuitable for the country, the sort of clothes that she had always longed for.

It was only the thought of the Baron that was repugnant.

“His children will be as fat as he is,” she told herself. “And if the first child is a girl he will expect me to go on having children year after year until there is someone to carry on the title. It is horrible.”

The idea sickened her. But she remembered with relief that the Baron was no longer young. He could not go on being a husband for ever. He was fifty already, and men of fifty who married again were usually short-lived. Then she would be left a widow. It was an enchanting prospect. To be a widow! Still young. And rich. And her own mistress. She closed her eyes and saw herself on the terrace of the house, dressed all in black and with a small, golden-haired child beside her. The thought of the child no longer seemed so alarming; perhaps she would even find that she loved it. And with the eventual wealth which would be coming to her as a widow she would be irresistible: she saw door after door opening invitingly before her down the long corridor of the future.

“I probably
accept him,” she decided. “But I shall make him go down on to his knees to me first, literally on to his knees.”

She wriggled delightedly for a moment. And then, because it was late and the day had been very exhausting, she turned over on her side and fell asleep.

Chapter IV

It must be admitted that M. Charles Latourette cut an incongruous figure on the platform of the little flat station of Rhinehausen. He was too well dressed for the place, altogether too much a man of the cafés and boulevards to be stranded heaven-knows-why at this wayside halt. In his long jacket, extremely well cut, with its flaring lapels and sinuous converging waist, and his pale, suedetopped boots, he completely eclipsed even the station-master. This official, usually the most imposing figure on the platform, except on the rare occasions when the Baron travelled anywhere by train, recognised the eclipse, and resented it. He disliked M. Latourette at sight.

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