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The Iron Virgin by James Huneker

 

    For there is order in the streets, but in the
    soul—confusion.

    —MAXIM GORKY.

The carriage stood awaiting them in the Place Boïeldieu. Chardon told the coachman to drive rapidly; then closed the door upon Madame Patel and himself. Cautiously traversing the crowded boulevards they reached the Madeleine; a sharp turn to the left, down the Rue Royale, they were soon crossing the vast windy spaces of the Place de la Concorde and there he spoke to his companion.

“It was a glorious victory! The Opéra Comique looked like a battlefield after the conflict.” Chardon's voice trembled as if with timidity. Madame Patel turned from the half-opened window.

“Yes, a glorious triumph. And he is not here to enjoy it, to exult over his detractors.” Her tone was bitter as winter.

“My poor friend,” the other answered as he laid his hand gently on her arm. She shuddered. “Are you cold? Shall I close the window?” “Thanks, no; it is too warm. How long this ride seems! Yet he always delighted in it after conducting.” Chardon was silently polite. They were riding now at high speed along the Avenue Montaigne which the carriage had entered after leaving the Champs Élysées. From the Quai de Billy to the Quai de Passy their horses galloped over naked well-lighted avenues. The cool of the river penetrated them and the woman drew herself back into the corner absorbed in depressing memories. Along Mirabeau and Molitor, after passing the Avenue de Versailles; and when the street called Boileau appeared the carriage, its lanterns shooting tiny shafts of light on the road, headed for the Hameau, named after the old poet of Auteuil. There it stopped. Madame Patel and Chardon, a moment later, were walking slowly down the broad avenue of trees through which drawled the bourdon of the breeze this night in early May.

It was one o'clock when they entered the pretty little house, formerly the summer retreat of the dead composer Patel. A winner of the Prix de Rome he had produced many operas and oratorios until his death, just a year previous to the première of “The Iron Virgin.” Of its immense success widow and librettist were in no doubt. Had they not witnessed it an hour earlier! Such furore did not often occur at the Comique. All recollection of Patel's mediocre work was wiped away in the swelter and glow of this passionate music, more modern than Wagner, more brutal than Richard Strauss. “Who would have believed that the old dried-up mummy had such a volcano in his brain?”—this the bereaved woman had overheard as she descended the marble stairway of the theatre, and Chardon hurried her to the carriage fearing that the emotions of the evening—the souvenirs of the dead, the shouting of the audience and the blaring of the band as it had saluted her trembling, bowing figure in the box—finally would prove too strong for her. He, too, had come in for some of the applause, a sort of inverted glory which like a frosty nimbus envelopes the head of the librettist. Now he recalled all this and rejoiced that his charge was safely within doors.

Madame Patel retained only one servant in her dignified, miniature household, for she was not rich; but the lamps were burning brightly, and on the table stood cold food, wine and fruit. The music-room was familiar to her late husband's associate. Patel's portrait hung over the fireplace. It represented in hard, shallow tones the face of a white-haired, white-bearded man whose thin lips, narrow nose and high forehead proclaimed him an ascetic of art. The deep-set eyes alone told of talent—their gaze inscrutable and calculating; a disappointed life could be read in every seam of the brow.

Near the piano, where Chardon turned as he waited Madame Patel's return from her dressing-room, there swung a picture whose violence was not dissipated by the gloom of the half-hidden corner. He approached it with a lamp. Staring eyes saluted him, eyes saturated with the immitigable horror of life; eyes set in grotesque faces and smothered in a sinister Northern landscape. It was one of Edvard Munch's ferocious and ironic travesties of existence. And on the white margin of the lithograph the artist had pencilled: “I stopped and leaned against the balustrade almost dead with fatigue. Over the blue-black fjord hung clouds red as blood—as tongues of flame. My friends passed on, and alone, trembling with anguish, I listened to the great infinite cry of Nature.”

She tapped him on the shoulder. “Come,” she said gravely, “leave that awful picture and eat. You must be dead—you poor man!” Chardon blushed happily until he saw her cold eyes. “I was trying to catch the color of that painter's mind—that Norwegian, Munch. Disordered, farouche as is his style its spiritual note enchains me. The title of the picture means nothing, yet everything—'Les Curieux,' is it not?” “Yes, you know it well enough by this time. What M. Patel could see in it I can't say.” As she sat down to the table—not at the head: that was significantly empty—he admired her figure, maidenly still despite her majestic bearing; admired the terse contour of her head and noticed, not without a sigh, her small selfish ear. Madame Patel was nearing forty and her November hair had begun to whiten, but in her long gray eyes was invincible youth, poised, self-centred youth. She was deliberate in her movements and her complexion a clear brown. Chardon followed her example, eating and drinking, for they were exhausted by the ordeal of hearing under the most painful conditions, a posthumous opera.

“The great, infinite cry of Nature,”—he returned to the picture. “How difficult that is to get into one's art.” “Yes, mon ami; but our dead one succeeded, did he not?” She was plainly obsessed by the theme. “His enemies—ah! the fools, fools. What a joy to see their astonished faces! Did you notice the critics, did you notice Millé in particular? He was in despair; for years that man pursued with his rancorous pen every opera by M. Patel.” She paused. “But now he is conquered at last. Ah! Chardon, ah! Robert, Patel loved you, trusted you—and you helped him so much with your experience, your superior dramatic knowledge, your poetic gifts. You have been a noble friend indeed.” She pressed his hand while he sat beside her in a stupor. “The great, infinite cry of Nature,” he muttered. “And think of his kindness to me, a poor singer, so many years younger than himself! No father could have treated a daughter with such delicacy!” ...

Chardon looked up. “Yes,” he assented, “he was very, very old—too old for such a beautiful young wife.” She started. “Not too old, M. Chardon,” she said, slightly raising her contralto voice: “What if he was thirty years my senior! He married me to spare me the peril and fatigue of a singer's life; few women can stand them—I least of all. He loved me with a pure, narrow affection. I was his daughter, his staff. You, he often called 'Son.'“ She grazed the hem of tears. Chardon was touched; he seized her large, shapely hand, firm and cold as iron, and spoke rapidly.

“Listen, Madame Patel, listen Olivie—you were like a daughter to him, I know it, he told me. I was his adopted son. I tried to repay him for his interest in a young, unknown poet and composer—well, I compose a bit, you know—and I feel that I pleased him in my libretto of 'The Iron Virgin.' You remember the summer I spent at Nuremberg digging up the old legend, and the numberless times I visited the torture chamber where stands the real Iron Virgin, her interior studded with horrid spikes that cruelly stabbed the wretches consigned to her diabolical embraces? You recall all this?” he went on, his vivacity increasing. “Now on the night of the successful termination of our artistic enterprise, the night when all Paris is ringing with the name of Patel, with 'The Iron Virgin'”—he did not dare to add his own name—“let me tell you what you know already: I love you, Olivie. I have always loved you and I offer you my love, knowing that our dear one—” She dragged her hand from his too exultant grasp and sat down breathless on a low couch. Her eye never left his and he wavered at the thought of following her.

“So this is the true reason for your friendship!” she protested in sorrowful accents. “For this you cultivated the good graces of an unsuspecting old man.” “Olivie!” he exclaimed. “For this,” she sternly pursued, “you sought my company after his death. Oh, Chardon! Robert! How could you be so soon unfaithful to the memory of a man who loved you? He loved you, Robert, he made you! Without him what would you be?” “What am I?” She did not reply for she was gazing at the portrait over the fireplace. “A neglected genius,” she mused. “He was forced to conduct operas to support his life—and mine. Yet he composed a masterpiece. He composed 'The Iron Virgin.'“ “Could he have done it without me?” Madame Patel turned upon him: “You ask such a question, you?” Chardon paced between table and piano. He stopped to look at the Munch picture and bit his lips: “The great, infinite cry of Nature! Much Patel knew of music, of nature and her infinite cries.” His excitement increased with every step.

“Olivie Patel, we must come to an understanding. You wonder at that picture, wonder what dread thing is happening. Perhaps the eyes are looking into this room, peering into our souls, into my soul which is black with sin and music.” Like some timid men aroused he had begun to shout. The woman half rose in alarm but he waved her back. His forehead, full of power, an obstinate forehead, wrinkled with pain; his hands—the true index of the soul—were clasped, the fingers interlocked, wiry fingers agile with pen and piano. “Hear me out, Olivie,” he commanded. “I've been too good a friend to dismiss because I've offended your sense of propriety”—she made an indignant gesture—“well, your idea of fidelity. But there is the other side of the slate: I've been a faithful slave, I've worked long years for my reward; and disciple of Nietzsche as I am, I have never attempted to assert my claims.” “Your claims!” she uttered scornfully. “Yes, my claims, the claims of a man who sees his love sacrificed to miserable deception. Sit still! You must hear all now. I loved poetry but I loved you better. It was for that I endured everything. I spoke of my black soul—it is black, I've poisoned it with music, slowly poisoned it until now it must be deadened. Like the opium eater I began with small doses of innocent music: I absorbed Haydn, Mozart. When Mozart became too mild I turned to Beethoven; from Beethoven to the mad stuff of Schubert, Schumann, Chopin—sick souls all of them. They sustained me until even they failed to intoxicate. My nerves needed music that would bite—I found it in Liszt, Wagner and Tschaïkowsky; and like absinthe-drinkers I was wretched without my daily draughts.” “You drink absinthe also, do you not?” she asked in her coldest manner. He did not notice her. “My soul gradually took on the color of the evil I sucked from all this music. Why? I can't say; perhaps because a poet has nothing in common with music—it usually kills the poetry in him. That is why I wonder what music Edvard Munch hears when he paints such pictures. It must be dire! Then Richard Strauss swept the torrid earth and my thirsty soul slaked itself in his tumultuous seas. At last I felt sure I had met my match. Your husband was like a child in my hands.” She listened eagerly. “I did with him what I wished—but to please you I wrote 'The Iron Virgin.'“ ...

“The book,” she calmly corrected. “As I wrote 'The Iron Virgin' I thought of you: You were my iron virgin, you, the wife of Patel. Will you hear the truth at last, the truth about a soul damned by music? Patel knew it. He promised me on his death-bed—” Olivie pushed by him and stood in the doorway. He only stared at her. “You are an Oread,” he mumbled, “you still pine for your lost Narcissus till nothing is left of you but a voice—a voice which echoes him, echoes Ambroise Patel.”

She watched him until his color began to return. “Robert,” she said almost kindly, “Robert, the excitement of to-night has upset your nerves. Drink some brandy, and sit down.” He eyed her piteously, then covered his face with nervous hands, his hair falling over them. She felt surer of him. “You called me an echo a moment ago, Robert,” she resumed, her voice deepening. “I can never forget Patel. And it was because of this and because of my last promise to him that your offer shocked me; I ask your pardon for my rudeness. You have been so like a brother for the past years that marriage seems sacrilegious. Come, let us be friends—we have been trusty comrades. 'The Iron Virgin' is a success”—“Yes,” he whispered, “the iron virgin is always a success.” ”—and why should our friendship merely be an echo of the past? Come, let us be more united than ever, Patel, you and I.” Her smooth voice became vibrant as she pointed triumphantly at the portrait. He followed her with dull eyes from which all fire had fled.

“The echo,” he said, drinking a tumbler of brandy. “The echo! I have it now: they see the echo in that picture back of me. Munch is the first man who painted tone; put on canvas that ape of music, of our souls, the ape which mocks us, leaps out after our voice, is always ready to follow us and show its leering shape when we pass under dark, vaulted bridges or stand in the secret shadow of churches. The echo! What is the echo, Olivie, you discoursed of so sweetly? It is the sound of our souls escaping from some fissure of the brain. It has color, is a living thing, the thin wraith that pursues man ever to his grave. Patel was an echo. When his soul leans naked against the chill bar of heaven and bears false witness, then his echo will tell the truth about his music—this damnable reverberating Doppelgänger which sneaks into corners and lies in wait for our guilty gliding footsteps.” She began to retreat again; she feared him, feared the hypnotism of his sad voice. “Robert, I firmly believe that picture has bewitched you—you, a believer in the brave philosophy of Nietzsche!” He moved toward her. “Madame Patel, it is you who are the cruel follower of Nietzsche. So was the original iron virgin; so is the new 'Iron Virgin' which I had the honor to surround with—” “You mean instrumentation,” she faltered. “Ah! you acknowledge so much?”

“Patel told me.”

“He did not tell you enough.”

Chardon laughed, shook her hand, put on his top-coat and descended the steps that led into the garden.

“Where are you going?” she asked affrightedly, regret stirring within her. “To Nuremberg to see the real iron virgin,” he answered without sarcasm. They looked hard into each other's eyes—his were glowing like restless red coals—and then he plunged down the path leaving her strained and shaken to the very centre of her virginal soul. Had he spoken the truth! Ambroise Patel, upon whose grave would be strown flowers that belonged to the living! It was vile, the idea. “Robert!” she cried.

A smoky, yellow morning mist hung over Auteuil. A long, slow rain fell softly. Chardon pulled the chord at the gate of the Hameau roughly summoning the concierge. He soon found himself under the viaduct on the Boulevard Exelmans, where he walked until he reached Point-du-Jour. There a few workingmen about to take the circular railway to Batignolles regarded him cynically. He seemed like a man in the depths of a crazy debauch. He blundered on toward the Seine. “The echo! god of thunders, the echo!” he moaned as he heard his steps resound in the hollow arches. Near the water's edge he found a café and sat before a damp tin table. He pounded it with his walking stick. “The iron virgin,” he roared; and laughed at the joke until the tears rolled over his tremulous chin. Lifting his inflamed eyes to the dirty little waiter he again brought his cane heavily upon the table. “Garçon,” he clamored “the iron virgin!” The waiter brought absinthe; Chardon drank five. Doggedly he began his long journey.

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index