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A Spinner of Silence by James Huneker


    She was only a woman famish'd for loving.
      Mad with devotion and such slight things.
    And he was a very great musician
      And used to finger his fiddle strings.

    Her heart's sweet gamut is cracking and breaking
      For a look, for a touch—for such slight things
    But he's such a very great musician
      Grimacing and fing'ring his fiddle strings.



In his study Belus sat before a piano, his slender troubled fingers seeking to follow the quick drift of his mind. He played Liszt's “Waldesrauschen,” but murmured, “She is the first to doubt me.” He laughed, and shifted by an almost unconscious cut to the F minor Nocturne of Chopin. With the upward curve of his thoughts the music grew more joyous; then came bits of a Schubert impromptu, boiling scales and flashes of clear sky. The window he faced looked out upon the park. Beyond the copper gleam from the great, erect synagogue was the placid toy lake with its rim of moving children; the trees swept smoothly in a huge semi-circle, and at their verge was the driveway. The glow of the afternoon, the purity of the air, and the glancing metal on the rolling carriages made a gay picture for the artist. But he was not long at ease, though his eyes rested gratefully upon the green foliage. The interrogative note in the music betrayed inquietude, even mental turbulence.

A certain firmness of features, long, narrow eyes set under a square forehead, heavily accented cheek-bones, almost Calmuck in width, a straight feminine nose, beckoning black hair—these, and a distinction of bearing made Belus the eighth wonder of his day. That is what the hypnotized ones averred. Master of a complex art, his nature complex, the synthesis was irresistible. His expression was complicated; he had not a frank gaze, nor did he meet his friends without a nameless reticence. This veiled manner made him difficult to decipher. Upon the stage Belus was like a desert cat, a gliding movement almost incorporeal, a glance of feline intensity, and then—the puissant attack upon the keyboard. As in sullen dreams one struggles to throw off the spell of hypnotic suggestion, so there were many who mutely fought his power, questioning with rebellious soul his right to conquer. But conquer he did—so all the conservatory pupils said. A steady stream of victorious tone came from under his supple fingers, and his instrument of shallow thunders and tinkling wires sang as if an archangel had smote it, celestially sang. Belus was the Raphael of the piano, and master of the emotional world. His planetary music gathered about him women, the ailing, the sorrowful, the mad, and there were days when these Mænads could have slain him in their excess of nervous fury, as was slain Bacchus of old. Thus wrote some enthusiastic critics of the impressionist school.

Zora came in. She was brune and broad, her eyes of changeful color, and her temper wifely. Belus flashed his fingers in the air, and she bowed her head. His own language was Hungarian, that tongue of tender and royal assonances, but Zora had never heard it. She was quite deaf; and so, barred from the splendors of this magician's inner court, she ever watched his face with a curiosity that honeycombed her very life.

The man's love of paradox had piqued him to select this deaf woman; he confessed to his intimate friends that the ideal companion for a musician was one who could never hear him practise his piano. She rapidly made a request in her little voice, the faded voice of the deaf: “Can't I go to the concert with you? Oh, do not put me off. I am crazy to see you play, to see the public.” He drew back at once. “If you go you will make me nervous—and the recital is sold out,” he signalled. She regarded him steadily. “Your art usually ends in the box-office.” They drank their coffee sadly. Leaving her with a pad upon which he had scribbled “Patience, Fatima, wife of Bluebeard!” Belus went to his concert, she to her hushed dreams....


Zora drowsed on the balcony. The park was a great, shapeless, soft flowing river of trees over which the tall stars hung, while the creeping plumes of rhythmic steam, and the earthly echoes of light from the flat-faced hotels on the west side set her wondering if any one really stayed at home when Belus played Chopin. No one but herself, she bitterly thought. Her mood turned jealous. His magnetism, her husband's magnetism, that vast reservoir upon which floated the souls of many, like tiny lamps set adrift upon the bosom of the Ganges by pious Mohammedan widows, must it ever be free to all but herself? Must she, who worshipped at his secret shrine, share her adoration, her idol, with the first sentimental school girl? It was revolting. She would bear with it no longer. The ride through the park cooled her blood and eased her headache. Just to be nearer to him; that might set her throbbing nerves at rest. As if she had been cut off from the big central current of life, so this woman suffered during the absence of her husband. In trance-like condition she stepped out of the carriage, and slowly walked down Seventh avenue. When Fifty-sixth Street was reached, she turned eastward and went up the few steps that led into the artists' room.

A man half staggered by her at the dimly lighted door, but steadied himself when he saw her.

“I am Madame Belus,” she said in her pretty English streaked with soft Magyar cadences. He stared at her, and she thought him crazy. “All right, ma'am,” he said after a pause. His speech was thick, yet he was not drunk; it was more the behavior of a drug eater.

“Don't go back there, lady!” he begged, “don't go back to the professor. He is doing wonderful things with the piano, but somehow I couldn't stand it, it made me dizzy. I had no business there anyhow.... You know his orders. Every door locked in the building when he plays. If the public knew it, what a row!” The man gasped in the spring air. Zora was terrified. What secret was being withheld from her? Who could be with him? Perhaps he was deceiving her, Belus, her husband! She tried to pass the man, who stared at her vacantly.

“Don't go in, ma'am, don't go in. Every door is locked, all except the two little doors looking out on the stage. My God, don't go there! I saw a mango tree—I know the mango, for I've been in India—I saw the tree bloom out over the keys, and its fruit fell on the stage. I saw it. And I swear to the ladder, the rope ladder, which he threw up with his left hand while he kept on playing with the other. If you had only seen what came tumbling down that rope as he played the cradle-song! Baby faces, withered faces, girls and mothers, the sweetest and the most fearful you ever saw. They all came rolling down and the people in front sat still, the old ones crying softly. And there were wings and devilish things. I couldn't stand the air, it was alive; and your man's face, white and drawn, with the eyes all gone like those jugglers I knew when I was a boy in India—out there in India.”

She trembled like the strings of a violin. Then after a sharp struggle with her beating heart, and bravely pushing the man aside, she went on rapid feet up the circular stairway, her head buzzing with the clamor of her nerves. India! Belus had once confessed that his youth had been spent in Eastern lands. What did it mean? As she mounted to the little doors she listened in vain for the sound of music. She heard nothing, not even the occasional singing of the electric lights. Not a break in the air told her of the vast assembly on the other side of the wall. Belus, where was he? Possibly in his room above. But why had she met none of the usual officials? What devilry was loosed in the large spaces of this hall? Again her heart roared threateningly and she was forced to sit on a chair to catch her breath. A humming like the wind plucking at the wires of a thousand Æolian harps set her soul shivering in fresh dismay. The two little arched doors were in front of her, but they seemed leagues away. To go to one and boldly open it she must; yet her tissues were dissolving, her eyes dim. That door!—if she could see him, see Belus, then all would be well. Across the stair she wavered, a wraith blown across the gulf of time. She grasped at the cold knob of the door—gripped but could not turn it, for it was locked. Zora fell to her knees, her heart weeping like the eyes of sorrow. Oh! for one firm, clangorous chord struck by Belus; it would be as wine to the wounded. Zora crawled to the other door, perhaps—! It was not locked, and slowly she opened it and peered out upon the stage, the auditorium.

The humming of the harps ceased and the chaplet of iron that bound her brow relaxed. The house was full of faces, pink human faces, the faces of women, and as these faces rose tier after tier, terrifying terraces of heads, Zora recalled the first council of the Angel of Light; Lucifer's council sung of by Milton and mezzo-tinted by John Martin. The faces were drained of expression, but in the rows near by she saw staring eyes. Belus—what was he doing?

He sat at the piano and over its keyboard his long, ghost-like fingers moved with febrile velocity. But no music reached her ears. Instead she saw suspended above him the soul of Belus. It was like a coat of many colors. It glistened with the subtle hues of a flying fish; and it swam in the air with passionate flashes of fire. This soul that wriggled and leapt, this burning coal that blistered the hearts of his audience, was it truly the soul of her husband? As the multitude rose in cadenced waves of emotion, the soul seemed to shrink, to become more remote. Then leaf by leaf it dropped its petals until only an incandescent core was left. And this, too, paled and died into numb nothingness. Where was the soul of Belus? What was the soul of Belus? A bit of carbon lighted by the world's applause? A trick-nest of boxes each smaller than the other, with black emptiness at the end? A musical mirage of the world?

Belus was bowing. Then she saw the faces ravished with delight, the swaying of crazy people. They had heard—but she alone knew the secret....


Belus shook Zora's shoulders when he returned from the concert. “Why, your hair is wet; you must have been asleep on the balcony in the rain,” he irritably fingered in the deaf code. Still possessed by the melodious terror of her dream, the rare audible dream of one born to silence, she arose from her chair and waved him a gentle good-night. He stared moodily after her and rang for the servant....

The hearts of some women are as a vast cathedral. Its gorgeous high altars, its sounding gloom, its lofty arches are there; and perhaps a tiny taper burns before an obscure votive shrine. Many pass through life with this taper unlighted, despite the pomps and pleasures of the conjugal comedy. But others carry in the little chapel of their hearts a solitary glimmering lamp of love which only flames out with death. Zora knows this glimmering light is not love, but renunciation. Is not she the wife of a great artist?


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