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Intermezzo by James Huneker

 

In his hand Frank Etharedge held a cablegram. The emotion of the moment was one of triumph mixed with curiosity; his sensitive face a keyboard over which his feelings swept the octave. He was alone in his office, and from the windows on the top floor of this giant building he saw the harbor, saw the river maculated with craft; saw the bay, the big Statue—best of all saw steamships. This caught his fancies into one chord and the keynote sounded: Yes, life was a good thing sometimes. A few months more, in the spring, he would be sailing on just such an iron carrier of joy, sailing to Paris, to Edna. He looked at the pink message again. It announced in disconnected words that Mrs. Etharedge had been bidden to the Paris Grand Opéra. The cable was ten days old, and on each of these days the lawyer had gone to his private consulting room immediately after luncheon, and, facing seaward, read the precious revelation: “Engaged by Gailhard for Opéra. Will write. Edna.” That was all—but it was the top of the hill for both after three years of separation and work. He was not an expansive man and said little to his associates of this good fortune, though there were times when he felt as if he would like to throw open the windows and shout the glorious news across the chimneys of the world.

Etharedge was a slim, nervous man with dark eyes and pointed beard. He believed in his wife. Europe, artistic Europe, had for him the fascination which sends fanatics across hot sands to Mecca shrines. He had never seen Paris but knew its people, palaces, galleries. His whole life was a preparation for deliberate assault upon the City by the Seine. He spoke American-French, ate at French-American table d'hôtes, and had been married four years to a girl of Gallic descent whose singing held such promise of future brilliancy that finally their household was disrupted by music and its fluent deceptions. The advice of friends, the unfortunate praise of a few professional critics, and Edna Etharedge accompanied by her cousin, a widow, sailed for Paris. Each summer he made up his mind to join her; once the death of his mother had stopped him, and a second time money matters held him in a vise of steel, but the third season—he did not care to dwell upon that last summer: his conscience was ill at ease. And Edna worked like the galley slave into which operatic routine transforms the most buoyant spirit. For the first two years her letters were as regular as the mail service—and hopeful. She was getting on famously. Her cousin corroborated the accounts of plain living and high singing. There were no vacations in the simple pension on the Boulevard de Clichy. She had the best master in Paris, the best répétiteur; and the instructor who came to coach her in stage business declared that madame held the future in the hollow of her pretty palm. But the third year letters began to miss. Edna wrote irregularly in pessimistic phrases. Art was so long and life so gray that she felt, thus she assured her husband, as if she must give up everything and return to him. Did he miss her? Why was he cool—above all, patient? Didn't he long for wings to fly across the Atlantic? Then a silence of three weeks. Etharedge grew frantic. He neglected business, spent much money in telegraph tolls, and was at last relieved by a letter from Emmeline relating Edna's severe illness, her close sailing to the perilous gate, and her slow recovery. He was told not to come over as they were on the point of starting for Switzerland where the invalid had been ordered. Frank felt happy for the first time since his wife had gone away. After that, letters began again—old currents ran smooth and the climax came with the wonderful news.

He would go to Paris—go in a few months, go without writing. Then, gaining the beautiful city, he would read the announcements of Edna's singing. With what selfish, subtle joy would he buy a box and listen to the voice of his beautiful wife, watch the lithe figure, hear the applause after her aria! He had sworn this was to reward his long months of loneliness, of syncopated hopes, of tiresome labor; his profession had become unleavened drudgery. Perhaps Edna would make him her business man, her constant companion. Ah! what enchantment to stand in the coulisses and hold her wraps while she floated near the footlights on the pinions of song. He would give up his distasteful practice and devote the remainder of his life to the service of a great artist, hear all the music he longed for, see the Paris of his dreams.

The door opened. Plunged in reverie he felt that this was but an extension of his vision. “Edna!” he cried and flung wide his arms. “Frank, you dear old boy, how thin you've grown! Heavens! You're not sick? Wait, wait until I raise the window.” She pushed up the sash noisily and Frank felt the brisk air on his temples. He smiled though his heart nipped sadly. It was Edna, Edna his wife in the flesh; and the excitement of holding her in his willing arms drove from his brain the vapors of idle hope. She was looking down at him a strong, handsome girl with eyes too bright and hair too golden. “Edna,” he cried, “your hair, what have you done to your lovely black hair?” “There's a salute from a loving husband. No surprise, though I've dropped from the clouds. But my hair is quizzed. Now, what do you mean, Frank Etharedge?” Both were agitated, both endeavored to dissemble. Then his eyes fell on the cablegram. He started.

“In the name of God, Edna, is anything the matter? This cable! Why are you here? Are you in trouble?” The dark shadows under her eyes lightened at the commonplace questions. She had time to tune her whirring thoughts.

“Frank, don't ask too much at once. I'm here because I am. We have just landed. I left Emmeline on the pier with the custom officers and came to you immediately. Say you're glad to see me—my old Frank!”

“But, but—” he stammered.

“Yes, I know what you are thinking. I was engaged for the Paris Opéra—” “Was?” he blankly ejaculated—“and I couldn't stand it. Locatéli—” “Who?” “Locatéli. You remember him, Frank, my old teacher? He got me into the Opéra and he got me out of it.” “Do you mean that low-lived scamp who gave you lessons here, the man I kicked out of doors?” She flushed. Etharedge stared at her. He was near despair. His dream of an artistic life on the Continent was as a bubble burst in the midday sunlight. He loved his wife, but the shock of her unheralded arrival, the hasty ill-news, proved too much for this patient man's nerves. So he transposed his wrath to Locatéli.

“Well, I'm damned!” he blurted, kicking aside the chair and walking the floor like a caged cat. “And to think that scoundrel of an Italian—” “Frenchman, Frank,” she interposed—“that foreigner, who ought to have been shot for insulting you, that Locatéli, followed you to Paris and mixed up in your affairs! And you say he had you pushed out of the Opéra? The intriguing villain! How did you come to see him?”

“He gave me lessons in Paris.” “Locatéli gave you—Lord!” The man was speechless. He put his hand to his forehead several times, and then gazed at his wife's hair. She fell to sobbing. “Frank,” she wailed, “Frank! I've come back to you because I couldn't stand it any longer—it was killing me. Can't you see it? Can't you believe me? No woman, no American girl can go through that life and come out of it—happy. It made me sick, Frank, but I did not like to tell you. And now, after I've thrown up a career simply because I can't be your wife and a great artist at the same time, your suspicions are driving me mad.” Her tone was poignant. He looked out on the harbor as another steamer passed the Statue bound for Europe.

“Ask Emmeline!” She, too, followed the vessel with hopeless expression and clasped his shoulder. “Oh! Sweetheart, aren't you glad to have me back again? It's Edna, your wife! I've been through lots for the sake of music. Now I want my husband—I'm not happy away from him.” He suddenly embraced her. Forgotten the disappointment, forgotten the fast vanishing hope of a luxurious life, of seeing his dream—Paris; forgotten all in the fierce joy of having Edna with him forever. Again he experienced a thrill that must be happiness: as if his being were dissolving into a magnetic slumber. He searched her eyes. She bore it without blenching.

“Are you my same little Edna?” “Oh, my husband!” There was a knock at the door; an office boy entered and gave Etharedge a letter which bore a foreign stamp. She put out her hand greedily. “It will keep until after dinner, Edna. We'll go to some café, drink a bottle of champagne and celebrate. You must tell me your story—perhaps we may be able to go to Paris, after all.” “To Paris!” Edna shivered and importuned for the letter until he showed it. “Why, it's mine!” she exclaimed. “It's the letter I wrote you before we sailed.” “You said nothing about it when you came in?” He put it in his pocket and looked for his hat. She was the color of clay. “It is my letter. Let me have it,” she begged. “Why, dear, what's the matter? I'll give it to you after I have read it. Why this excitement? Besides, the address is not in your handwriting.” He trembled. “Emmeline wrote it for me; I was too busy—or sick—or—” “Hang the letter, my dear girl. I hear the elevator. Let's run and catch it. This is the happiest hour of my life. An 'intermezzo' you musicians call it, don't you?” “Yes,” she desperately whispered following him into the hall, “an intermezzo of happiness—for you!”

Suddenly with a grin the man turned and handed her the letter: “Here! I'd better not juggle with the future. You can tell me all about it—to-morrow.”

And now for the first time Edna hated him.

 
 
 

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