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The Corridor of Time by James Huneker

 

    Ah! to see behind me no longer on the Lake of Eternity the
    implacable Wake of Time.—EPHRAÏM MIKAËL.

When Cintras was twenty he planned an appeal to eternity. He knew “Émaux et Camées” as pious folk their Bible; he felt that naught endured but art. So he became a pagan, and sought for firmness and delicacy in the texture, while aiming to fill his verse with the fire of Swinburne, the subtlety of Rossetti and the great, clear day-flame of Gautier. A well-nigh impossible ideal; yet he cherished it for twice ten years, and at forty had forsworn poetry for prose....

Then he read the masters of that “other harmony of prose” until he dreamed of long, sweeping phrases, drumming with melody, cadences like the humming of slow, uplifting walls of water tumbling on sullen strands. He knew Sir Thomas Browne, and repeated with unction: “Now since these dead bones have already outlasted the living ones of Methusaleh, and in a yard under ground, and thin walls of clay, outworn all the strong and spacious buildings above it; and quietly rested under the drums and tramplings of three conquests; what prince can promise such diuturnity unto his relicks.” ... He wondered if Milton, De Quincey, Walter Pater or even Jeremy Taylor had made such sustained music. He marvelled at the lofty structures of old seventeenth century prose-men, and compared them with the chippy staccato of the modern perky style, its smug smartness, its eternal chattering gallop. He absorbed the quiet prose of Addison and Steele and swore it tasted like dry sherry. Swift, he found brilliantly hard, often mannered; and he loved Dr. Goldsmith, so bland, loquacious, welcoming. In Fielding's sentences he heard the clatter of oaths; and when bored by the pulpy magnificence of Pater's harmonies went back to Bunyan with his stern, straightforward way. For Macaulay and his multitudinous prose, Cintras conceived a special abhorrence, but could quote for you with unfailing diction Sir William Temple's “Use of Poetry and Music,” and its sweet coda: “When all is done, human life is at the greatest and the best, but like a froward child that must be played with and humored to keep it quiet till it falls asleep, and then the care is over.”

Cintras had become enamoured with the English language, and emptied it into his eyes from Chaucer to Stevenson. He most affected Charles Lamb and Laurence Sterne; he also loved the Bible for its canorous prose, and on hot afternoons as the boys lolled about his room, he thundered forth bits of Job and the Psalms. Cintras was greatly beloved by the gang, though it was generally conceded that he had as yet done nothing. This is the way Berkeley put it, down at Chérierre's, where they often met to say obvious things in American-French....

“You see boys, if Cintras had the stuff in him he would have turned out something by this time. He's a bad poet—what, haven't you ever read any of his verse?—and now he's gone daft on artistic prose. Artistic rubbish! Who the devil cares for chiselled prose nowadays? In the days when link-boys and sedan chairs helped home a jag they had the time to speak good English. But now! Good Lord! With typewriters cutting your phrases into angular fragments, with the very soil at your heels saturated with slang, what hope in an age of hurry has a fellow to think of the cadence? I honestly believe Stevenson was having fun when he wrote that essay of his on the technical elements of style. It's a puzzle picture and no more to be deciphered than a Bach fugue.”

“When Bill Berkeley gets the flow on, he's worse than Cintras with his variable vowels. Say, Bill, I think you're jealous of old Pop Cintras.” It was Sammy Hodson, a newspaper man, who spoke, and as he wrote on space he was usually the cashier of the crowd....

Chérierre's is on University Place, and the spot where the artistic set—Berkeley, Hodson, Pauch, the sculptor, and Cintras—happened to be hanging about just then. The musician of the circle was a tall thin young man named Merville. It was said that he had written a symphony; and one night they all got drunk when the last movement was finished, though not a soul had heard a note. Every one believed Merville would do big things some day.

Cintras entered. He was hopelessly uninteresting looking and wore a beard. Berkeley swore that if he shaved he would be sent to prison; but Cintras pleaded economy, a delicate throat, also the fact that his nose was stubby. But set him to talking about the beauties of English prose, and his eyes blazed with a green fire. The conversation turned on good things to drink; wine at twenty-five cents a litre was ordered, and the chatter began....

“It seems to me, Berkeley,” Cintras spoke, “that you modern fellows are too much devoted to the color scheme. I remember when I was a boy, Gautier set us crazy in Paris with his color sense. His pages glowed with all the pigments of the palette; he vied with the jeweller in introducing precious stones of the most ravishing brilliancy within the walls of his paragraph; I sickened of all this splendor, this Ruskin word-painting, and went in for cool grays, took up Baudelaire and finally reached Verlaine, whose music is the echo of music heard in misty mediæval parks while the peacock dragging by with its twilight tail, utters shrill commentary on such moonshine. After that I reached Chopin and found him too dangerous, too treacherous, too condensed, the art too filled out; and so I finally landed in the arms of Wagner, and I've been there ever since.”

“Look here, Cintras, you're prose-mad and you've landed nowhere.” Berkeley lighted one of Hodson's cigarettes. “When a new, big fellow comes along you follow him until you find out how he does the trick and then you get bored. Don't you remember the day you rushed into my studio and yelled, 'Newman is the only man who wrote prose in the nineteenth century,' and then persisted in spouting long sentences from the 'Apologia'? First it was Arnold, then it was Edmund Burke.” “It will always be Burke,” interrupted Cintras. “Then it was Maurice de Guérin, and I suppose it will be Flaubert forever and ever.” They all laughed.

“Yes, Billy, it will always be Gustave Flaubert, and I worship him more and more every day. It took him forty years to write four books and three stories, and, as Henry James says, he deliberately planned masterpieces.”

Hodson broke in: “You literary men make me tired. Why, if I turned out copy at the rate of Slobsbert—what's his name?—I'd starve. What's all the fuss about, anyhow? Write natural English and any one will understand you”—“Ah, natural English, that's what one man writes in a generation,” sighed Cintras. “And when you want something great,” continued the young man, “why, read a good 'thriller' about the great Cemetery Syndicate, and how it robbed the dead for gold fillings in teeth. The author just slings it out—and such words!”

“Yes, with a whitewash brush.” Berkeley scowled.

“Why,” pursued Hodson, unmoved, “why don't you get married, Cintras, and work for your living? Then you'll have to write syndicate stuff and that will knock the nonsense out of you. Or, fall in love and be miserable like me.” Hodson paused to drink.

    “O triste, triste était mon âme,
    À cause, à cause d'une femme.”

“That's Verlaine; Hoddy, my boy, when you grow up, quit newspapering and become cultured, you may appreciate its meaning and beauty.”

“When I am cultured I'll be a night city editor; that's my ideal,” said the youth, stoutly.

“Let's go over to Merville's room and make him play Chopin,” suggested Pauch, the sculptor, who seldom spoke, but could eat more than four men.... They drank their coffee and went across into Twelfth street, and at the top of the house they found the musician's room. It was large, but poorly fitted out. An old square-piano, a stove, a bed, three chairs, a big lounge and a washstand completed the catalogue. Merville made them comfortable and sat down to the piano. Its tone, as his fingers crept over the keys, was of faded richness and there were reverberations of lost splendors in the bass. Merville started with a Chopin nocturne, but Hodson hurt the cat as it brushed against him, and the noise displeased the pianist. He stopped.

“I don't feel like Chopin, it's too early in the day. Chopin should be heard only in the early evening or after midnight. I'll give you some Brahms instead. Brahms suits the afternoon, this gray, dull day.” All were too lazy to reply and the pianist began, with hesitating touch, an Intermezzo in A minor. It sounded like music heard in a dream, a dream anterior to this existence. It seemed as if life, tired of the external blaze of the sun, sought for the secret of hidden spaces; searched for the message in the sinuous murmuring shell. It was an art of an art, the penumbra of an art. Its faint outlines melted into one's soul and refused to be turned away. The recollection of other music seemed gross after this curiously introspective, this almost whorl-like, music. It was the return to the invertebrate, the shadow of a shadow, and the hearts of Merville's guests were downcast and purified....

When he had finished, Cintras asked: “If that is Brahms, why then he has solved the secret of the age's end. He has written the song of humanity absorbed in the slime of a dying planet.”

“Very morbid, very perverse in rhythms, I should say,” broke in Berkeley; they all shivered. Merville arose, his face glum and drawn, and brought whiskey and glasses.

Cintras was the first to speak:

“Hodson, you are a very young fellow and I wish to give you good advice. Yours to me was better than you supposed. Now don't you ever bother with art, music or artistic prose. Just marry a nice girl who goes to comic operas. You stick to her and avoid Balzac. He is too strong meat for you—” “Yes, but he's great; I read him!” “And no more understand him than you do Chopin. Because he is great he is readable, but his secret is the secret of the sphinx; it may only be unravelled by a few strong souls. So go your road and be happy in your plush way, read your historical hog-wash, and believe me when I swear that the most miserable men are those who have caught a glimpse of the eternal beauty of art, who pursue her ideal face, who have the vision but not the voice. I once wrote a little prose poem about this desire of beauty; I will see if I can remember it for you.”

“Go ahead, old man; I'll stand anything to-day,” sang out Hodson.

“Here it is:” and Cintras recited his legend of

      THE RECURRING STAIRCASE

      I first saw her on the Recurring Staircase. I had turned
      sharply the angle of the hall and placed my foot upon the
      bottom step and then I saw her. She was motionless; her back
      I saw, and O! the grace of her neck and the glory of her
      arrested attitude. I feared to move, but some portent,
      silent, inflexibly eloquent, haled me to the staircase. That
      was years ago. I called to her, strange calls, beautiful
      sounding names; I besought her to bend her head, to make
      some sign to my signals of urgency; but her glance was
      aloft, where, illumined by the scarlet music of a setting
      sun, I saw in a rich, heavy mullioned embrazure,
      multi-colored glass shot through with drunken despairing
      daylight. Again I prayed my Lady of the Recurring Staircase
      to give me hope by a single dropped glance. At last I
      conjured her in Love's fatal name, and she moved
      languorously up the steep slope of stairs. As if the spell
      had been thwarted, I followed the melodious adagio of her
      footsteps. That was many years ago. She never mounted to the
      heavy mullioned embrazure with the multi-colored glass shot
      through with drunken, despairing daylight. I never touched
      the hand of the Lady of the Recurring Staircase; for the
      stairs were endless and I stood ever upon the bottom step;
      and the others below slipped into eternity; and all this was
      many years ago. I never have seen the glorious glance of My
      Lady on the Recurring Staircase.

They all applauded, Hodson violently. “I say, old chap, what would you have gained by overtaking the lady?” Cintras sniffed; Berkeley laughingly remarked that the staircase reminded him of the sort you see at a harvest with a horse on the treadmill.

“Don't, fellows!” begged Merville. “Cintras is giving one ideas to-day for a symphonic poem. Go on, Cintras, with more, but in a different vein. Something in the classical style.”

“I can't do that,” responded Cintras, trying not to look flattered, “but I will show you my soul when overtaken by doubt.” “Cintras, your soul, like Huysmans's, is a cork one.” They were aghast, for Hodson the uncultured one had spoken.

“And where, Hoddy, my brave lad, did you ever in the world hear of Huysmans?” he was asked. “I read that; I thought it fitted Cintras. His soul is like a cork ball that is always rebounding from one idea to another.” “Bravo! you will be the literary, not the night city editor, before you die, Hoddy.” ... Then Cintras read another prose-poem which he had named

      THE MIRROR OF UNFAITH

      I looked into my mirror the next morning. With scared cry I
      again looked into my mirror. With brutish, trembling fingers
      I tried to cleanse the mist from my eyes, and once more I
      looked into my mirror, scraped its surface tenderly, but it
      availed not. There was no reflection of my features in its
      polished depths; naught but vacancy, steely and profound.
      There is no God, I had proclaimed; no God in high heaven, no
      God with the world, no spirit ever moved upon the vasty
      waters, no spirit ever travailed in the womb of time and
      conceived the cosmos. There is no God and man is not made in
      his image; eternity is an eyeless socket—a socket that
      never beheld the burning splendors of the Deity. There is no
      God, O my God! And my cries are futile, for have I not gazed
      into my mirror, gazed with clear ironic frantic gaze and
      missed my own image! There is no God; yet has my denial been
      heard in blackest Eblis, and has it not reverberated unto
      the very edges of Time? There is no God, and from that
      moment my face was blotted out. I may never see it in the
      moving waters, in mirrors, in the burnished hearts of
      things, or in the liquid eyes of woman. I denied God. I
      mocked His omnipotence. I dared him to mortal combat, and my
      mirror tells me there is no Me, no image of the man called
      by my name. I denied God and God denies me!

“If I were in such a mental condition,” Hodson eagerly commented, “I'd call a doctor or join the Salvation Army.” “Why haven't you written more short stories?” inquired Merville. “Because I've never had the time,” Cintras sadly answered. “Once I tried to condense what novelists usually spread over hundreds of pages, and say it in a couple of paragraphs. Every word must illuminate the past, in every sentence may be found the sequel.”

“Cintras, I vow your case is hopeless. You are a regular cherry-stone carver. Here you've shown us the skeletons of two stories and yet given none of them flesh enough to live upon.” “Berkeley you belong to a past full of novelistic monsters. You are the three volume man with the happy ending tacked on willy-nilly. It is the tact of omission—” “Hang your art-for-art theories. I'll make more money than Cintras ever did when I publish my “Art of Anonymous Letter Writing!” cut in Hodson. Cintras calmly continued, “Here is my title and see if you can follow me.”

      INELUCTABLE

      The light waned as with tense fingers he turned the round,
      bevelled-edge screw of the lamp. Darkness, immitigable,
      profound, and soft, must soon succeed yellow radiance. To
      face this gloom, to live in it and breathe of it, set his
      heart harshly beating. Yet he slowly turned with tense
      fingers the bevelled-edge screw of the lamp. He would
      presently be forced to a criticism of the day, that day,
      which must brilliantly flame when night closed upon him. As
      in the vivid agony endured between two bell-strokes of a
      clock, he strove to answer the oppressing shape threatening
      him. And his fingers lingeringly revolved the lamp-screw
      with its brass and bevelled-edge. If only some gust of
      resolution would arise like the sudden scud of the squall
      that whitens far-away level summer seas, and drive forth
      pampered procrastinations! Then might his fingers become
      flexile, his mind untied. Poor, drab seconds that fooled
      with eternity and supped on vain courage as they went
      trooping by. Could not one keen point of consciousness
      abide? Why must all go humming into oblivion like untuned
      values? He grasped at a single strand of recollection; he
      saw her parted lips, the passionate reproach of her eyes and
      felt her strenuous tacit acquiescence; he sensed the
      richness of her love. So he stood, unstable, vacillating and
      a treacherous groper amidst cruel shards of an ineluctable
      memory, powerless to stay the fair phantom and fearful of
      looking night squarely in the front. And he remained a
      dweller in the shadows, as he faintly fingered the
      bevelled-edge screw of the lamp....

“If Maeterlinck would feed on Henry James and write a dream fugue on your affected title, this might be the result,” muttered Berkeley. “Hush!” whispered Merville; “can't you see that it is his own life he is unconsciously relating in this sequence of short stories; the tale of his own pampered procrastinations? If he had only made up his mind perhaps he could have kept her by his side and been happy but”—“But instead,” said Berkeley sourly “he wrote queer impossible things about bevelled-edge lamp screws and she couldn't stand it. I don't blame her. I say, nature before art every time.” ... Then Hodson shouted, dispelling dangerous reveries:

“Cintras, why don't you finish that book of yours? Ten years ago you told me that you had finished it nearly one-half.” “Yes, and in ten years more he will finish the other,” remarked Berkeley.

“If you knew how I worked you would not ask why I work slowly.” “Flaubert again!” interjected Berkeley.

“The title cost me much pain, and the first two lines infinite travail. I really write with great facility. I once wrote a novel in three weeks for a sensation monger of a publisher; but because of this ease I suspect every sentence, every word, aye, every letter that drops from my pen.”

“Hire a typewriter and you'll suspect nobody,” suggested Hodson....

The party began to break up; Cintras pressed hands and went first. There was some desultory conversation, during which Berkeley endeavored to persuade Hodson to buy him his dinner. Then they left Merville and Pauch alone. The musician looked at the sculptor.

“And these makers of words think they have the secret of art; as if form, as if music, is not infinitely greater and nearer the core of life.” Pauch grunted.

“There's a man, that Brahms, you played, Merville; his is great art which will girdle the centuries. The man built solidly for the future. He reminds me of Rodin's Calais group: harsh but eternal; secret and sweetly harsh. Brahms is the Bonze of his art; his music has often the immobility of the Orient—I think the 'Vibrationists' would describe it as 'kinetic stability.' ... Cintras is done. He never did anything; he never will. He theorizes too much. If you talk too often of the beautiful things you are going to execute they will go sailing into the air for some other fellow to catch. Mark my words! No man may play tag with his soul and win the game. He is a study in temperament, or, rather the need of one, is Cintras. He must have received a black eye some time. Was he ever in love?”

“Yes, but she went off with another fellow.”

“That explains all.” Pauch stolidly asked for beer, and getting none strolled home....

Cintras died. Among his effects was found a bulky mass of manuscript; almost trembling with joy and expectation Berkeley carried the treasure to Merville's room. On the title-page was read: “The Corridor of Time: A Novel. By George Cintras.”

Frantic with curiosity the friends found on the next page the following lines:

“And the insistent clamor of her name at my heart is like the sonorous roll of the sea on a savage shore.”

The other pages were virginal of ink....

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index