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Siegfried's Death by James Huneker

 

    But, as you will! we'll sit contentedly,
    And eat our pot of honey on the grave.

    —GEORGE MEREDITH.

I

It was finally arranged that the two women should not be present together at the funeral. The strain might prove too great; and as Marsoc wiped his forehead he congratulated himself that for the present at least a horrid scandal might be averted. He had pleaded in a most forceful manner with Selene, his sister, and it seemed to him that his arguments had taken root. Ever since Brazier's death there had been much talking, much visiting—and now he felt it soon would end. Oh, for the relief of a quiet house; for the relief that must follow when the newspaper men would stop haunting the neighborhood. The past two days had well-nigh worn him out, and yet he hated leaving Selene to face her troubles alone. Marsoc believed in blood and all its entailed obligations....

The pitiless comment of the press he had hidden from his sister, but the visit of the other woman was simply unavoidable. There were certain rights not to be ignored, and the perfidy of the dead man placed beyond Marsoc's power all hopes of reprisal. Brazier had acted badly, but then, too, he had been forced by a fatal temperament into a false position—a position from which only sudden death could rout him; and death had not turned a deaf ear to his appeal. It came with implacable swiftness and with one easy blow created two mourning women, a world of surmise and much genuine indignation.

Selene sent for her brother. He went to her chamber in rather a doubting mood. If there was to be any more backing and filling, any new programme, then he must be counted out. He had accepted his share of the trouble that had thrust itself into their life, and could endure no more. On this point he solemnly assured himself as he knocked at Selene's door. To his quick gaze she did not appear to be downcast as on the night before.

“I sent for you, my dear Val,” she said in rather acid tones, “because I wanted to reassure you about to-morrow morning. I have considered the matter a hundred times and have made up my mind that I shall not allow Bellona Brydges to sit alone at the head of his coffin—”

“But you said—” interrupted her brother.

“I know I said lots of things, but please remember that Sig Brazier was my husband, quite as much, if not more than Belle's, that he committed—that he died under our roof, and simply because the divorce laws of this country are idiotic is no reason why I should abdicate my rights as a wife—at least his last wife. If Belle attempts her grand airs or begins to lord it over me I'll make a scene—”

Marsoc groaned. He knew that his sister was capable of making, not one, but half a dozen scenes with a well defined tragic crescendo at the close of each. The situation was fast becoming unbearable. With a gesture of despair he turned to leave the room but Selene detained him.

“You poor fellow, how you do worry! But it is all your fault. You introduced Sig here—”

“How the deuce did I know that he had a wife up in the hills somewhere?” cried Marsoc.

“Very true; but you knew of his habits,” his sister rejoined gently. “You knew what a boastful, vain, hard-drinking, immoral man he was, and at least you might have warned me.”

“What good would that have done?” asked her brother, in heated accents.... He was tall, very blond and his eyes were hopelessly blue. Brother and sister they were—that a dog might have discovered—but there was more reserve, chilliness of manner, coldness in the woman. She could never give herself to any one or anything with the same vigor as Val. She lacked enthusiasms and had a doubtful temper. Even now, as they faced each other, she forced him to drop his eyes; then the doorbell rang.

“If it's Belle, send her up at once. Run, Val, and see.” Selene almost pushed her brother down the short flight that led to the landing on the second floor. The house was old-fashioned, the drawing-room upstairs. Val went down grumbling and wondering what sort of a girl was his sister. He almost ran into a woman dressed in deep mourning.

“Why, Belle—why, Mrs. Brazier, is that you?” he exclaimed, and then felt like biting his tongue.

Bellona Brydges was as big as Brünnhilde and dark as Carmen. Her tread was majestic and her black eyes, aquiline nose and firm, large-lipped mouth, gave an expression of power to her countenance. Her bearing was one of command, her voice as rich as an English horn, and her manner forthright.

“Never mind the Brazier part of it, Val,” she replied, in an off-hand, unembarrassed tone. “I want to see Selene and have this dreadful business over before the funeral. Where is she?”

Val motioned upstairs and the clear voice of his sister was heard:

“Is that you, Belle? Come up right away....”

II

Both women were dry-eyed as they embraced. Belle showed signs of fatigue, so Selene made her comfortable on the divan.

“Shall I ring for tea, Belle?” The other nodded. Then she burst forth: “And to think, Selene, to think that we should be the unlucky victims. To think that my dearest friend should be the wife of my husband.” She began to laugh. Selene would not smile. The tea was brought by a man-servant, who did not lift his eyes, but the corners of his mouth twitched when he turned his back. Belle sipping the hot, comforting drink looked about her curiously. The apartment reflected unity of taste. It was rather low, and long, the ceiling panelled and covered with dull gilt arabesques. The walls were hung with soft material upon which were embroidered fugitive figures heavily powdered with gold dust. One wide window with a low sill covered the end of this room, and over the fireplace was swung a single painting, “The Rape of the Rhinegold,” by a German master. The grand piano loaded with music occupied the lower part of the room and there were plenty of books in the cases. Belle reflected that Sig's taste was artistic and sighed at the recollection of her—of their—big, bare, uncanny house on the hill. Selene began:

“Belle, dear, I'm glad to see you, sorry to see you. The odious newspapers were the cause of your discovering the crime—don't stop me—the crime of that wretch downstairs—” Belle started. “I sha'n't mince words with you. Sig was a scamp, a gifted rascal; his singing and artistic love-making the cause of many a woman's downfall.”

“Oh, then there are some more?” asked Belle, in a most interested voice.

“Yes, there are many more; but my dear girl, we mustn't become morbid and discuss the matter. I'm afraid what we are doing now is in rather bad taste, but I'm too fond of you, too fond of the girl I went to school with to quarrel because a bad man deceived us. I've been laying down the law to Val, Belle; we must not be present at the funeral. We've got to bury our headstrong husband and we both can see the last of him from the closed windows, but neither of us must be present. Now, don't shake your head! In this matter I'm determined; besides what would the newspapers say? One miserable sheet actually compared us to Brünnhilde and Gutrune because—oh, you know why!”

“When Sig left the opera-house,” continued Belle, in a calm voice, “he always took a special train home and I suppose the railroad men gave the story to the reporters.”

“Not always; excuse me, Belle,” contradicted Selene, in her coldest manner; “the last time Sig sang 'Götterdämmerung' he returned here.” Belle stood up and waved her teaspoon.

“Now, don't be ridiculous, Selene; this was not as much his home as ours in the mountains, and—”

“There is no necessity of becoming excited, Belle; he told me of his affair with you.” Selene's blue eyes were opened very wide. The other woman began to blaze.

“Affair? Why, foolish child, I am his first wife—” “Common-law wife,” interjected Selene. “His first, his legal wife, and I mean to test it in the courts. His property—” “You mean his debts, Belle,” interrupted Selene, contemptuously. “Sig owes even for his Siegfried helmet. He gambled his money away. He played poker-dice when he wasn't singing Wagner, and flirted when he wasn't drunk.”

Belle sat down and laughed again, and this time Selene joined in.

“Tell me, dear, how and when he persuaded you,” inquired Belle. Selene grew snappish. “Oh, you read the papers. We were married last month with Val as witness; then some fool got hold of the story; it was printed. Sig came home after the opera and told me that he was ruined because he had expected a fortune from Mrs. Madison—you know the old bleached blonde who sits in the first tier box at the opera—and, of course, I smelt another affair. I scolded him and sent for Val. Well, Val was a perfect fool on the subject of Sig, and when he heard of the gambling debts he said a lawyer might straighten the affair out. That night Sig began drinking absinthe and brandy, and in the morning James, the butler, found him dead. If the papers hadn't got hold of your story, the thing could have been nicely settled. As it is we are simply ridiculous, and the worst of all is that the management and the stockholders insist on a public funeral and speeches; Sig was such a favorite. Think! he was the first great American Wagner singer; and so here are we, a pair of fools in love with the same man”—“Excuse me, Selene, I never loved him. He forced me to marry him.” “And my own brother, Belle, with his nonsensical Wagner worship, drove me to marry a man I had only met twice.” Selene sighed.

“We were fools,” they said in chorus, as Val entered, his eyes red from weeping. “You silly, silly boy, Sig never cared a rap for any one on earth but himself. Look at us and follow our example in grieving,” and the widows laughed almost hysterically....

III

As early as seven o'clock there was a small crowd in front of the Marsoc residence, from which was to be buried the famous tenor, Siegfried Brazier. His death, his many romances, his marriages, his debts and his stalwart personality canalized public curiosity, and after the doors had been thrown open a constantly growing stream of men, women, children, and again women, women, women, flowed into the house through the hall, into the big reception-room, past the modest coffin with its twin bouquets of violets, out of the side door and into the street again. The fact that at midday there were to be imposing public obsequies, did not check the desire of the morbid-minded to view the corpse in a more intimate fashion. No members of the family were downstairs; but over the broad balustrade hung two veiled women, their eyes burning with curiosity. As the tide of humanity swept by Belle felt her arm pinched:

“There, there! the old woman in a crape veil. That's mother Madison. She'll have to alter her will now. Perhaps she's done it already. She was in love with Sig. Yes, that old thing.” Selene gave a husky titter. “And she's sneaking in to see the poor boy and thinks no one will recognize her. I'd like to call out her name.” Belle clapped her hand over Selene's mouth.

“Look, now,” said the latter, releasing herself; “look at those chorus girls. What cheek! All with violets, because it was his favorite flower. What a man; what a man!” ...

Belle's companion leaned heavily on her, and Val came up and persuaded his sister to go to the front room. His eyes were hollow and his voice broke as he whispered to Belle that they might be seen. Besides, it was nearly time—he went downstairs....

From the latticed window the two women watched. First, the police cleared the way; the ragamuffins were driven into the street. Then the fat undertaker appeared with Val and stood on the curb as the coffin, an oak affair with silver handles and plate, was carried to the hearse. Val and the undertaker got into a solitary carriage, and amidst much gabbling and wondering gossip were driven off. It was a plain, very plain, funeral, every one said, and without a note of music. As the crowd dribbled away, Selene recognized two of the prima donnas and the first contralto of the opera, and she nudged Belle in a sardonic manner.

“More of them, Belle, more of them. We ought to feel flattered,” then both women burst into hysterical sobbing and embraced desperately. They read in each other's eyes a mutual desire.

“Shall we risk it?” whispered Belle. Selene was already putting on her heavy mourning veil. Belle at once began to dress, and James was despatched for a carriage. The street was clear when the widows went forth, and in half an hour they reached the opera-house. Here they were delayed. A mounted policeman tried to turn their hansom away.

Selene beckoned to him and explained:

“I am Mrs. Brazier,” and the officer bowed. They were driven to a side entrance, and the assistant-manager took the pair to his box. There they sat and trembled behind their long crape veils....

Some one on the stage was speaking of music, the “Heavenly Maid,” and the women dissolved in tears at the glowing eulogies upon their husband. The huge auditorium was draped entirely in black. In it was thronged a sombre-coated mass of men and the women known in the fashionable and artistic world. The stage was filled with musicians, and in its centre, banked by violets, violets only, was the catafalque. The numerous candles and flowers made the air dull and perfumed; the large chandeliers burned dimly, and when the Pilgrims' Chorus began, Belle felt that she was ready to swoon.

The stage-setting was the last scene of “Götterdämmerung", and the chorus was in costume. A celebrated orator had finished; the chorus welled up solemnly, and Selene said again and again:

“Oh, Sig! Sig! what a funeral, what a funeral for such a man!” “It's just the kind he would have liked,” remonstrated Belle, in a barely audible voice, and Selene shivered. When the music ceased a soprano sang the Immolation music and there was weeping heard in the body of the house. The ushers with difficulty kept the aisles clear, and the lobbies were packed with perspiring persons. Wherever Selene peeped she saw faces, and they all wore an expression of grief. Nearly all the women carried handkerchiefs to their eyes, and many of the men seemed shamefaced at the tears they could not keep back. In one of the front stalls a solitary figure knelt, face buried in hands.

“There's Val, Belle. There, near the stage, to the left. I do believe he's praying. And for what? For a man who had no brains, no heart; a reckless, handsome man, who was simply a voice, a sweet, lying voice.”

“For shame, Selene, for shame! He was your—he was our husband.” Belle's lips were white and trembling as she murmured, “May God rest his poor soul. He was a sweet boy, poor Sig, may God rest his soul. Oh, how I wish he were alive!” Selene looked disdainful, and her eyes grew black.

“I don't,” she said, so loudly that a man in the next box leaned over, and then as “Siegfried's Trauermarsch” sounded, the coffin was carried in pompous procession from the building. There was a brief conflict between the ushers and a lot of women over the flowers on the stage, and every one, babbling and relieved, went out into the daylight.... The widows waited until the police had emptied the house, then sent for their carriage. They lunched at home and later, after many exchanges of affection, Belle drove away to catch the evening train. Selene watched her from the window.

“I do believe she loved him after all! I wish she'd set her cap now for Val. Pooh! what a soft fool she is. Sig was my legal husband, and I alone can bear his name, for she has no certificate. What an interesting name, Mrs. Siegfried Brazier, widow of the famous Wagnerian tenor. Is that you, Val?” Val came in, dusty and exhausted.

“Did you go to the cemetery?” “Yes.” “Was any one there?” “Only one old woman.” “Mrs. Madison!” cried Selene, in rasping, triumphant tones.

“No,” wearily answered the man, lying....

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index