Countess zu Rassentlow had a studio in one of the main streets. She was really a refugee. And nowadays you can be a grand-duke and a pauper, if you are a refugee. But Hannele was not a pauper, because she and her friend Mitchka had the studio where they made these dolls, and beautiful cushions of embroidered coloured wools, and such-like objects of feminine art. The dolls were quite famous, so the two women did not starve.
Hannele did not work much in the studio. She preferred to be alone in her own room, which was another fine attic, not quite so large as the captain's, under the same roof. But often she went to the studio in the afternoon, and if purchasers came, then they were offered a cup of tea.
The Alexander doll was never intended for sale. What made Hannele take it to the studio one afternoon, we do not know. But she did so, and stood it on a little bureau. It was a wonderful little portrait of an officer and gentleman, the physique modelled so that it made you hold your breath.
'And THAT - that is genius!' cried Mitchka. 'That is a chef d'oeuvre! That is thy masterpiece, Hannele. That is really marvellous. And beautiful! A beautiful man, what! But no, that is TOO real. I don't understand how you DARE. I always thought you were GOOD, Hannele, so much better-natured than I am. But now you frighten me. I am afraid you are wicked, do you know. It frightens me to think that you are wicked. Aber nein! But you won't leave him there?'
'Why not?' said Hannele, satiric.
Mitchka made big dark eyes of wonder, reproach, and fear.
'But you MUST not,' she said.
'No, that you MAY not do. You love the man.'
'You can't leave his puppet standing there.'
'Why can't I?'
'But you are really wicked. Du bist wirklich bös. Only think! - and he is an English officer.'
'He isn't sacrosanct even then.'
'They will expel you from the town. They will deport you.'
'Let them, then.'
'But no! What will you do? That would be horrible if we had to go to Berlin or to Munich and begin again. Here everything has happened so well.'
'I don't care,' said Hannele.
Mitchka looked at her friend and said no more. But she was angry. After some time she turned and uttered her ultimatum.
'When you are not there,' she said, 'I shall put the puppet away in a drawer. I shall show it to nobody, nobody. And I must tell you, it makes me afraid to see it there. It makes me afraid. And you have no right to get me into trouble, do you see. It is not I who look at the English officers. I don't like them, they are too cold and finished off for me. I shall never bring trouble on MYSELF because of the English officers.'
'Don't be afraid,' said Hannele. 'They won't trouble YOU. They know everything we do, well enough. They have their spies everywhere. Nothing will happen to you.'
'But if they make you go away - and I am planted here with the studio - '
It was no good, however; Hannele was obstinate.
So, one sunny afternoon there was a ring at the door: a little lady in white, with a wrinkled face that still had its prettiness.
'Good afternoon!' - in rather lardy-dardy, middle-class English. 'I wonder if I may see your things in your studio.'
'Oh yes!' said Mitchka. 'Please come in.'
Entered the little lady in her finery and her crumpled prettiness. She would not be very old: perhaps younger than fifty. And it was odd that her face had gone so crumpled, because her figure was very trim, her eyes were bright, and she had pretty teeth when she laughed. She was very fine in her clothes: a dress of thick knitted white silk, a large ermine scarf with the tails only at the ends, and a black hat over which dripped a trail of green feathers of the osprey sort. She wore rather a lot of jewellery, and two bangles tinkled over her white kid gloves as she put up her fingers to touch her hair, whilst she stood complacently and looked round.
'You've got a CHARMING studio - CHARMING - perfectly delightful! I couldn't imagine anything more delightful.'
Mitchka gave a slight ironic bow, and said in her odd, plangent English:
'Oh yes. We like it very much also.'
Hannele, who had dodged behind a screen, now came quickly forth.
'Oh, how do you do!' smiled the elderly lady.' I heard there were two of you. Now which is which, if I may be so bold? This' - and she gave a winsome smile and pointed a white kid finger at Mitchka - 'is the - ?'
'Annamaria von Prielau-Carolath,' said Mitchka, slightly bowing.
'Oh!' - and the white kid finger jerked away. 'Then this - '
'Johanna zu Rassentlow,' said Hannele, smiling.
'Ah, yes! Countess von Rassentlow! And this is Baroness von - von - but I shall never remember even if you tell me, for I'm awful at names. Anyhow, I shall call one Countess and the other Baroness. That will do, won't it, for poor me! Now I should like awfully to see your things, if I may. I want to buy a little present to take back to England with me. I suppose I shan't have to pay the world in duty on things like these, shall I?'
'Oh no,' said Mitchka. 'No duty. Toys, you know, they - there is - ' Her English stammered to an end, so she turned to Hannele.
'They don't charge duty on toys, and the embroideries they don't notice,' said Hannele.
'Oh, well. Then I'm all right,' said the visitor. 'I hope I can buy something really nice! I see a perfectly lovely jumper over there, perfectly delightful. But a little too gay for me, I'm afraid. I'm not quite so young as I was, alas.' She smiled her winsome little smile, showing her pretty teeth and the old pearls in her ears shook.
'I've heard so much about your dolls. I hear they're perfectly exquisite, quite works of art. May I see some, please?'
'Oh yes,' came Mitchka's invariable answer, this exclamation being the foundation-stone of all her English.
There were never more than three or four dolls in stock. This time there were only two. The famous captain was hidden in his drawer.
'Perfectly beautiful! Perfectly wonderful!' murmured the little lady, in an artistic murmur. 'I think they're perfectly delightful. It's wonderful of you, Countess, to make them. It is you who make them, is it not? Or do you both do them together?'
Hannele explained, and the inspection and the rhapsody went on together. But it was evident that the little lady was a cautious buyer. She went over the things very carefully, and thought more than twice. The dolls attracted her - but she thought them expensive, and hung fire.
'I do wish,' she said wistfully, 'there had been a larger selection of the dolls. I feel, you know, there might have been one which I JUST LOVED. Of course these are DARLINGS - darlings they are: and worth every PENNY, considering the work there is in them. And the art, of course. But I have a feeling, don't you know how it is, that if there had been just one or two more, I should have found one which I ABSOLUTELY couldn't live without. Don't you know how it is? One is so foolish, of course. What does Goethe say - "Dort wo du nicht bist. . ."? My German isn't even a beginning, so you must excuse it. But it means you always feel you would be happy somewhere else, and not just where you are. Isn't that it? Ah, well, it's so very often true - so very often. But not always, thank goodness.' She smiled an odd little smile to herself, pursed her lips, and resumed: 'Well now, that's how I feel about the dolls. If only there had been one or two more. Isn't there a single one?'
She looked winsomely at Hannele.
'Yes,' said Hannele, 'there is one. But it is ordered. It isn't for sale.'
'Oh, do you think I might see it? I'm sure it's lovely. Oh, I'm dying to see it. You know what woman's curiosity is, don't you?' - she laughed her tinkling little laugh. 'Well, I'm afraid I'm all woman, unfortunately. One is so much harder if one has a touch of the man in one, don't you think, and more able to bear things. But I'm afraid I'm all woman.' She sighed and became silent.
Hannele went quietly to the drawer and took out the captain. She handed him to the little woman. The latter looked frightened. Her eyes became round and childish, her face went yellowish. Her jewels tinkled nervously as she stammered:
'Now THAT - isn't that - ' and she laughed a little, hysterical laugh.
She turned round, as if to escape.
'Do you mind if I sit down,' she said. 'I think the standing - ' and she subsided into a chair. She kept her face averted. But she held the puppet fast, her small, white fingers with their heavy jewelled rings clasped round his waist.
'You know,' rushed in Mitchka, who was terrified. 'You know, that is a life picture of one of the Englishmen, of a gentleman, you know. A life picture, you know.'
'A portrait,' said Hannele brightly.
'Yes,' murmured the visitor vaguely. 'I'm sure it is. I'm sure it is a very clever portrait indeed.'
She fumbled with a chain, and put up a small gold lorgnette before her eyes, as if to screen herself. And from behind the screen of her lorgnette she peered at the image in her hand.
'But,' she said, 'none of the English officers, or rather Scottish, wear the close-fitting tartan trews any more - except for fancy dress.'
Her voice was vague and distant.
'No, they don't now,' said Hannele. 'But that is the correct dress. I think they are so handsome, don't you?'
'Well. I don't know. It depends' - and the little woman laughed shakily.
'Oh yes,' said Hannele. 'It needs well-shapen legs.'
'Such as the original of your doll must have had - quite,' said the lady.
'Oh yes,' said Hannele. 'I think his legs are very handsome.'
'Quite!' said the lady. 'Judging from his portrait, as you call it. May I ask the name of the gentleman - if it is not too indiscreet?'
'Captain Hepburn,' said Hannele.
'Yes, of course it is. I knew him at once. I've known him for many years.'
'Oh, please,' broke in Mitchka. 'Oh, please, do not tell him you have seen it! Oh, please! Please do not tell anyone!'
The visitor looked up with a grey little smile.
'But why not?' she said. 'Anyhow, I can't tell him at once, because I hear he is away at present. You don't happen to know when he will be back?'
'I believe tomorrow,' said Hannele.
'And please!' pleaded Mitchka, who looked lovely in her pleading distress, 'please not to tell anybody that you have seen it.'
'Must I promise?' smiled the little lady wanly. 'Very well, then, I won't tell him I've seen it. And now I think I must be going. Yes, I'll just take the cushion-cover, thank you. Tell me again how much it is, please.'
That evening Hannele was restless. He had been away on some duty for three days. He was returning that night - should have been back in time for dinner. But he had not arrived, and his room was locked and dark. Hannele had heard the servant light the stove some hours ago. Now the room was locked and blank as it had been for three days.
Hannele was most uneasy because she seemed to have forgotten him in the three days whilst he had been away. He seemed to have quite disappeared out of her. She could hardly even remember him. He had become so insignificant to her she was dazed.
Now she wanted to see him again, to know if it was really so. She felt that he was coming. She felt that he was already putting out some influence towards her. But what? And was he real? Why had she made his doll? Why had his doll been so important, if he was nothing? Why had she shown it to that funny little woman this afternoon? Why was she herself such a fool, getting herself into tangles in this place where it was so unpleasant to be entangled? Why was she entangled, after all? It was all so unreal. And particularly HE was unreal: as unreal as a person in a dream, whom one has never heard of in actual life. In actual life, her own German friends were real. Martin was real: German men were real to her. But this other, he was simply not there. He didn't really exist. He was a nullus, in reality. A nullus - and she had somehow got herself complicated with him.
Was it possible? Was it possible she had been so closely entangled with an absolute nothing? Now he was absent she couldn't even IMAGINE him. He had gone out of her imagination, and even when she looked at his doll she saw nothing but a barren puppet. And yet for this dead puppet she had been compromising herself, now, when it was so risky for her to be compromised.
Her own German friends - her own German men - they were men, they were real beings. But this English officer, he was neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring, as they say. He was just a hypothetical presence. She felt that if he never came back, she would be just as if she had read a rather peculiar but false story, a tour de force which works up one's imagination all falsely.
Nevertheless, she was uneasy. She had a lurking suspicion that there might be something else. So she kept uneasily wandering out to the landing, and listening to hear if he might be coming.
Yes - there was a sound. Yes, there was his slow step on the stairs, and the slow, straying purr of his voice. And instantly she heard his voice she was afraid again. She knew there WAS something there. And instantly she felt the reality of his presence, she felt the unreality of her own German men friends. The moment she heard the peculiar, slow melody of his foreign voice everything seemed to go changed in her, and Martin and Otto and Albrecht, her German friends, seemed to go pale and dim as if one could almost see through them, like unsubstantial things.
This was what she had to reckon with, this recoil from one to the other. When he was present, he seemed so terribly real. When he was absent he was completely vague, and her own men of her own race seemed so absolutely the only reality.
But he was talking. Who was he talking to? She heard the steps echo up the hollows of the stone staircase slowly, as if wearily, and voices slowly, confusedly mingle. The slow, soft trail of his voice - and then the peculiar, quick tones - yes, of a woman. And not one of the maids, because they were speaking English. She listened hard. The quick, and yet slightly hushed, slightly sad- sounding voice of a woman who talks a good deal, as if talking to herself. Hannele's quick ears caught the sound of what she was saying: 'Yes, I thought the Baroness a perfectly beautiful creature, perfectly lovely. But so extraordinarily like a Spaniard. Do you remember, Alec, at Malaga? I always thought they fascinated you then, with their mantillas. Perfectly lovely she would look in a mantilla. Only perhaps she is too open-hearted, too impulsive, poor thing. She lacks the Spanish reserve. Poor thing, I feel sorry for her. For them both, indeed. It must be very hard to have to do these things for a living, after you've been accustomed to be made much of for your own sake, and for your aristocratic title. It's very hard for them, poor things. Baroness, Countess, it sounds just a little ridiculous, when you're buying woollen embroideries from them. But I suppose, poor things, they can't help it. Better drop the titles altogether, I think - '
'Well, they do, if people will let them. Only English and American people find it so much easier to say Baroness or Countess than Fräulein von Prielau-Carolath, or whatever it is.'
'They could say simply Fräulein, as we do to our governesses - or as we used to, when we HAD German governesses,' came the voice of HER.
'Yes, we COULD,' said his voice.
'After all, what is the good, what is the good of titles if you have to sell dolls and woollen embroideries - not so very beautiful, either.'
'Oh, quite! Oh, quite! I think titles are perhaps a mistake, anyhow. But they've always had them,' came his slow, musical voice, with its sing-song note of hopeless indifference. He sounded rather like a man talking out of his sleep.
Hannele caught sight of the tail of blue-green crane feathers veering round a turn in the stairs away below, and she beat a hasty retreat.