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Hunding's Wife by James Huneker

I

Calcraft was very noisy in his morning humors, and the banging of windows caused his wife to raise a curious voice.

From the breakfast-room she called, “What is the matter with you this morning, Cal? Didn't Wagner agree with you last night? Or was it the—?”

“Yes, it was that,” replied a surly voice.

“Have you hung your wrists out of the window and given them a good airing?”

“I have.” Calcraft laughed rudely.

“Then for goodness' sake hurry in to breakfast, if you are cooled off; the eggs are.” Mrs. Calcraft sighed. It was their usual conversation; thus the day began.... Her husband entered the room. Of a thick-set, almost burly figure, Calcraft was an enormously muscular man. His broad shoulders, powerful brow, black, deep-set eyes, inky black hair and beard—the beard worn in Hunding fashion—made up a personality slightly forbidding. The suppleness of his gait, the ready laughter and bright expression of the eye, soon corrected this aversion; the critic was liked, and admired,—after the critical fashion. Good temper and wit in the evening ever are. The recurring matrimonial duel over the morning teacups awoke him for the day's labors; he actually profited from the verbal exercising of Tekla's temper.

“After what you promised!” she inquired in her most reproachful manner. Calcraft smiled. “And your story in the Watchman. Now, Cal, aren't you a bit ashamed? We have heard much worse Siegmunds.”

“Not much,” he grunted, swallowing a huge cup of tea at a draught.

“Yet you roasted the poor boy as you would never dare roast a singer with any sort of reputation. Hinweg's Siegmund was—”

“Like himself, too thin,” said her husband; “fancy a thin Siegmund! Besides, the fellow doesn't know how to sing, and he can't act.”

“But his voice; it has all the freshness of youth.” ... She left the table, and lounging to the window regarded the streets and sky with a contemptuous expression. Tekla was very tall, rather heavy, though well built, with hair and skin of royal blond. She looked as Scandinavian as her name.

“My dear Tek, you are always discovering genius. You remember that young pianist with a touch like old gold? Or was it smothered onions? I've forgotten which.” He grinned as he spilled part of an egg on his beard.

She faced him. “If the critics don't encourage youthful talent, who will? But they never do.” Her voice took on flat tones: “I wonder, Cal, that you are not easier as you grow older, for you certainly do not improve with age, yourself. Do you know what time you got in this morning?”

“No, and I don't want to know.” The man's demeanor was harsh; there were deep circles under his large eyes; his cheeks were slightly puffed, and, as he opened his newspaper, he looked like one who had not slept.

Tekla sighed again and stirred uneasily about the room. “For heaven's sake, girl, sit down and read—or, something!”

“I don't wonder your nerves are bad this morning,” she sweetly responded; “the only wonder is that you can keep up such a wearing pace and do your work so well.”

“This isn't such a roast,” said Calcraft irrelevantly. He had heard these same remarks every morning for more than ten years. “Last night,” he proceeded, “the new tenor—”

“Oh! Cal, please don't read your criticism aloud. I saw it hours ago,” she implored,—her slightly protuberant, blue eyes were fixed steadily upon him.

“Why, what time is it?”

“Long past twelve.”

“Phew! And I promised to be at the office at midday! Where's my coat, my overshoes! Magda! Magda! Hang that girl, she's always gadding with the elevator boy when I need her.” Calcraft bustled about the room, rushed to his bedchamber, to the hall, and reappeared dressed for his trip down-town.

“Cal, I forgot to say that Hinweg called this morning and left his card. Foreigners are so polite in these matters. He left cards for both of us.”

“He did, did he?” answered Calcraft grimly. “Well, that won't make him sing Wagner any better in the Watchman. And as a matter of politeness—if you will quote the polite ways of foreigners—he should have left cards here before he sang. What name is on his pasteboard? I've heard that his real one is something like Whizzina. He's a Croat, I believe.”

She indifferently took some cards from a bronze salver and read aloud: “Adalbert Viznina, Tenor, Royal Opera, Prague.”

“So-ho! a Bohemian. Well, it's all the same. Croatia is Czech. Your Mr. Viznina can't sing a little bit. That vile, throaty German tone-production of his—but why in thunder does he call himself Hinweg? Viznina is a far prettier name. Perhaps Viznina is Hinweg in German!”

Tekla shrugged her strong shoulders and gazed outdoors. “What a wretched day, and I have so much to do. Now, Cal, do come home early. We dine at seven. No opera to-night, you know. And come back soon. We never spend a night home alone together. What if this young man should call again?”

“Don't stop him,” her husband answered in good-humored accents as he bade her good-by. He was prepared to meet the world now, and in a jolly mood. “Tell your Hinweg or Whizzerina, or whatever his name is, to sing Tristan better to-morrow night than he did Siegmund, or there will be more trouble.” He skipped off. She called after him:

“Cal, remember your promise!”

“Not a drop,” and the double slamming of the street doors set Tekla humming Hunding's motif in “Die Walküre.”

II

Her morning-room was hung with Japanese umbrellas and, despite the warning of friends, peacock-feathers hid from view the walls; this comfortable little boudoir, with its rugs, cozy Turkish corner, and dull sweet odors was originally a hall-bedroom; Tekla's ingenuity and desperate desire for the unconventional had converted the apartment into the prettiest of the Calcraft flat. Here, and here alone, was the imperious critic forbidden pipe or cigar. Cigarettes he abhorred, therefore Tekla allowed her favorites to use them. She became sick if she merely lighted one; so her pet attitude was to loll on a crimson divan and hold a freshly rolled Russian cigarette in her big fingers covered with opals. Her male friends said that she reminded them of a Frankish slave in a harem; she needed nothing more but Turkish-trousers, hoop ear-rings, and the sad, resigned smile of the captive maiden....

It was half-past five in the dark, stormy afternoon when the electric buzzer warned Tekla of visitors. A man was ushered into the drawing-room and Magda, in correct cap and apron, fetched his card to her mistress.

“Show him in here, Magda, and Magda”—there were languid intonations in the voice of this vigorous woman—“light that lamp with the green globe.”

In the fast disappearing daylight Tekla peeped at herself in a rhomboid crystal mirror, saw her house frock, voluminously becoming, and her golden hair set well over her brow: she believed in the eternal charm of fluffiness. After the lamp was ready the visitor came in. He was a very tall, rather emaciated looking, blond young man, whose springy step and clear eyes belied any hint of ill-health. As he entered, the gaze of the two met in the veiled light of the green-globed lamp, and the fire flickered high on the gas-log hearth. He hesitated with engaging modesty; then Tekla, holding out a hand, moved in a large curved way, to meet him.

“Delighted, I am sure, my dear Herr Viznina, to know you! How good of you to call on such a day, to see a bored woman.” He bowed, smiled, showing strong white teeth under his boyish moustache, and sat down on the low seat near her divan.

“Madame,” he answered in Slavic-accented English, “I am happy to make your acquaintance and hope to meet your husband, M. Calcraft.” She turned her head impatiently. “I only hope that his notice will not discourage you for Tristan to-morrow night. But Mr. Calcraft is really a kind man, even if he seems severe in print. I tell him that he always hangs his fiddle outside the door, as the Irish say, which means, my dear Herr Viznina, that he is kinder abroad than at home.” Seeing the slightly bewildered look of her companion she added, “And so you didn't mind his being cross this morning, did you?” The tenor hesitated.

“But he was not cross at all, Madame; I thought him very kind; for my throat was rough—you know what I mean! sick, sore; yes, it was a real sore throat that I had last night.” It was her turn to look puzzled.

“Not cross? Mr. Calcraft not severe? Dear me, what do you call it, then?”

“He said I was a great artist,” rejoined the other.

Tekla burst into laughter and apologized. “You have read the wrong paper, Herr Viznina, and I am glad you have. And now you must promise to stay and dine with us to-night. No, you sha'n't refuse! We are quite alone and you must know that, as old married folks, we are always delighted to have some one with us. I told Mr. Calcraft only this morning that we should go out to dinner if he came home alone. Don't ask for which paper he writes until you meet him. Nothing in the world could make me tell you.” She was all frankness and animation, and her guest told himself that she was of a great charm. They fell into professional talk. She spoke of her husband's talents; how he had played the viola in quartet parties; of his successful lecture, “The Inutility of Wagner,” and his preferences in music.

“But if he does not care for Wagner he must be a Brahmsianer.” The last word came out with true Viennese unction.

“He now despises Brahms, and thinks that he had nothing to say. Wagner is, for him, a decadent, like Liszt and the rest.”

“But the classics, Madame, what does M. Calcraft write of the classics?” demanded the singer.

“That they are all used-up romantics; that every musical dog has his day, and the latest composer is always the best; he voices his generation. We liked Brahms yesterday; to-day we are all for Richard Strauss and the symphonic poem.”

We?” A quizzical inflection was in the young man's voice. She stared at him.

“I get into the habit of using the editorial 'we.' I do it for fun; I by no means always agree with my husband. Besides, I often write criticism for Mr. Calcraft when he is away—or lecturing.” She paused.

“Then,” he exclaimed, and he gazed at her tenderly, “if you like my Tristan you may, perhaps, write a nice little notice. Oh, how lovely that would be!”

The artist in him stirred the strings of her maternal lyre. “Yes, it would be lovely, but Mr. Calcraft is not lecturing to-morrow night, and I hope that—”

The two street doors banged out a half bar of the Hunding rhythm. Calcraft was heard in the hall. A minute later he stood in the door of his wife's retreat; there was a frown upon his brow when he saw her companion, but it vanished as the two men shook hands. Viznina asked him if he spoke German; Magda beckoned to Mrs. Calcraft from the middle of the drawing-room. When Tekla returned, after giving final instructions for dinner, she found critic and tenor in heated argument over Jean de Reszké's interpretation of the elder Siegfried....

The dining-room was a small salon, oak-panelled, and with low ceilings. A few prints of religious subjects, after the early Italian masters, hung on the walls. The buffet was pure renaissance. Comfortable was the room, while the oval table and soft leather chairs were provocative of appetite and conversation.

“Very un-American,” remarked the singer, as he ate his crab bisque.

“How many American houses have you been in?” irritably asked Calcraft. Viznina admitted that he was enjoying his début.

“I thought so.” Calcraft was now as bland as a May morning, and his eyes sparkled. His wife watched Magda serve the fish and fowl, and her husband insisted upon champagne as the sole wine. The tenor looked surprised, and then amused.

“Americans love champagne, do they not? I never touch it.”

“Would you rather have claret or beer?” hastily inquired the host.

“Neither; I must sing Tristan to-morrow.”

“You singers are saints on the stage.” The critic laughed. “I am old-fashioned enough to believe that good wine or beer will never hurt the throat. Now there was Karl Formes, and Niemann the great tenor—”

Tekla interrupted. “My dear Cal, pray don't get on one of your interminable liquid talks. Herr Viznina does not care to drink, whether he is singing or not. I told him, too, that we always liked a guest at dinner, for we are such old married people.”

Calcraft watched the pair facing one another. He was in a disagreeable humor because of his wife's allusion to visitors; he liked to bear the major burden of conversation, even when they were alone. If Tekla began he had to sit still and drink—there was no other alternative. She asked Viznina where he was born, where he had studied, and why he had changed his name. The answers were those of a man in love with his art. Hinweg, he explained, was his mother's name, and assumed because of the anti-Slav prejudice existing in Vienna.

Calcraft broke in. “You say you are Bohemian, Herr Viznina? You are really as Swedish looking as Mrs. Calcraft.”

“What a Sieglinde she would make, with her beautiful blond complexion and grand figure,” returned the tenor with enthusiasm.

Tekla sighed for the third time that day. She burned to become a Wagner singer. Had she not been a successful elocutionist in Minnesota? How this talented young artist appreciated her gift, intuitively understood her ambition! Calcraft noted that they looked enough alike to be brother and sister; tall, fair and blue-eyed as they were. He laughed at the conceit.

“You are both of the Wölfing tribe,” he roared and ordered beer of Magda. “I always drink dark beer after champagne, it settles the effervesence,” he argued.

“You can always drink beer, before and after anything, Cal,” said his wife in her sarcastic, vibrant voice.

The guest was hopelessly bored, but, being a man of will, he concentrated his attention upon himself and grew more resigned. He did not pretend to understand this rough-spoken critic, with his hatred of Wagner and his contradictory Teutonic tastes. Tekla with eyes full of beaming implications spoke:

“I should tell you, Cal, that Herr Viznina does not know, or else has forgotten, which paper you write for, and I let him guess. He thinks you praised his Siegmund.”

“Saturday morning after the Tristan performance he will know for sure,” answered the critic sardonically, drinking a stein of Würzburger.

“You rude man! of course he will know, and he will love you afterwards.” If Calcraft had been near enough she would have tapped him playfully on the arm.

“Ah! Madame, what would we poor artists do if it were not for the ladies, the kind, sweet American ladies?”

“That's just it,” cried Calcraft.

“What an idea, Warrington Calcraft!” Tekla was thoroughly indignant. “Never since I've known you have I attempted to influence you.”

“You couldn't,” said he.

“No, not even for poor Florence Deliba, who entered into a suicidal marriage after she read your brutal notice of her début.”

“And a good thing it was for the operatic stage,” chuckled the man.

“If I write the notices of a few minor concerts I always try to follow your notions.” She was out of breath and Viznina admired her without reserve.

Calcraft was becoming slow of utterance. “You women are wonders when it comes to criticism.” The air darkened. Viznina looked unhappy and Mrs. Calcraft rose: “Come, let us drink our coffee in my den, Herr Viznina, I hate shop talk.” She swept out of the room and the tenor, after a dismissal from the drowsy critic, joined her.

“My headstrong husband doesn't care for coffee,” she confessed, apologetically. “Sit down where you were before. The soft light is so becoming to you. Do you know that you have an ideal face for Tristan, and this green recalls the forest scene. Now just fancy that I am Isolde and tell me what your thoughts and feelings are in the second act.”

Sitting beside her on the couch and watching her long fingers milky-green with opals, Viznina spoke only of himself, with all the meticulous delicacy of a Wagnerian tenor, and was thoroughly happy playing the part of a tame Tristan.

III

Tristan and Isolde were in the middle of their passionate symphony of flesh and spirit, when Tekla was ushered to the regular Calcraft seats in the opera house. Her husband, who had been in the city all day, returned to the house late for dinner, through which meal he dozed. He then fell asleep on a couch. After dressing and waiting wearily until nearly nine o'clock she had a carriage called and went to the opera alone; not forgetting, however, to bid Magda leave a case of imported beer where Mr. Calcraft could find it when he awoke....

Rather flustered, she watched the stage with anxious eyes. Brangaene—an ugly, large person in a terra-cotta cheese-cloth peplum—had already warned the desperate pair beneath the trees that dawn and danger were at hand. But the lovers sang of death and love, and love and death; and their sweet, despairing imagery floated on the oily waves of orchestral passion. The eloquence became burning; Tekla had forgotten her tribulations, Calcraft and time and space, when King Marke entered accompanied by the blustering busybody Melot.

“Oh, these tiresome husbands!” she thought, and not listening to the noble music of the deceived man, she presently slipped into the lobby. The place was deserted, and as she paced up and down, she recollected with pleasure the boyish-looking Tristan. How handsome he was! and how his voice, husky in “Die Walküre,” now rang out thrillingly! There!—she heard it again, muffled indeed by the thick doors, but pure, free, full of youthful fire. What a Tristan! And he had looked at her the night before with the same ardor! A pity it was, that she, Tekla Calcraft, born Tekla Björnsen, had not studied for the opera; had not sung Sieglinde to his Siegmund; was not singing at this moment with such a Tristan in the place of that fat Malska, old enough to be his mother! and instead of being the wife of an indifferent man who—...

The act was over, the applause noisy. People began to press out through the swinging doors, and Tekla, not caring to be caught alone, walked around to the stage entrance. She met the Director, who made much of her and took her through the archway presided over by a hoarse-voiced keeper.

In his dressing-room Tristan welcomed her with outstretched hands.

“You are so good,” and then quickly pointed to his throat.

“And you were superb,” she responded unaffectedly.

“Your husband, is he here?” he asked, forgetting his throat.

“He is not here yet; he is detained down-town.”

“But he will write the critique?” inquired Viznina with startled eyes. Tekla did not at first answer him.

“I don't know,” she replied thickly. He seized her hands.

“Oh, you will like my third act! I am there at my best,” he declared with all the muted vanity of a modest man. She was slightly disappointed.

“I like everything you do,” she slowly admitted. Viznina kissed her wrists. She regarded him with maternal eyes.

As Tekla mounted the stairs her mind was made up. Fatigued as she was by the exciting events of the past twenty-four hours, she reached the press-room in a buoyant mood. It was smoky with the cigars and cigarettes of a half dozen men who invented ideas, pleasant and otherwise, about the opera, for the morning papers. Mrs. Calcraft was greeted with warmth; like her husband she was a favorite, though an old man grumbled out something about women abusing their privilege. Jetsam, one of her devoted body-guard, gave her a seat, pen and paper, and told her to go ahead; there were plenty of messenger boys in waiting. It was not the first time Tekla had been in the press-room, the room of the dreaded critical chain-gang, as Cal had named it. All asked after Calcraft.

“He has gone to the Symphony Concert,” replied Tekla unblushingly, and young Jetsam winked his thin eyes at the rest. Feeling encouraged at this he persisted:

“I thought Gardner was 'doing' the concert for Cal?”

“Oh! you know Cal!” she put a pen in her mouth, “he hates Wagner; perhaps he thinks Mr. Gardner needs company once in a while.”

“Perhaps he does,” gravely soliloquized Jetsam.

“How many performances of Tristan does this make, Mr. Jetsam?”

“I'm sure I don't know—I am never much on statistics.”

When she was told the correct number the scratching of pens went on and the smoke grew denser. Messenger after messenger was dismissed with precious critical freightage, and soon Tekla had finished, envious eyes watching her all the while. Every man there wished that his wife were as clever and helpful as Mrs. Calcraft.

Driving home she forgot all about the shabby cab having memories only for the garden scene, its musical enchantments. The spell of them lay thick upon her as she was undressed by Magda. When the lights were out, she asked Magda if Mr. Calcraft still slept.

“No, ma'am; after drinking the beer he went out.”

“Oh! he went out after all, did he?” responded Tekla in a sleepy voice and immediately passed into happy dreams....

It was sullen afternoon when she stood in her room regarding with instant joy a large bunch of roses. Calcraft came in without slamming the doors as usual. She turned a shining face to him. He looked factitiously fresh, with a Turkish bath freshness, his linen was spotless, and in his hand he held a newspaper.

“That was a fine, dark potion you brewed for me last night, Sieglinde!” he mournfully began. “No wonder your Tristan sang so well in the Watchman this morning!” The youthful candors of her Swedish blue eyes with their tinted lashes evoked his sulky admiration.

“I knew, Cal, that you would do the young man justice for his magnificent performance,” she replied, her cheeks beginning to echo the hues of the roses she held; her fingers had just closed over an angular bit of paper buried in the heart of the flowers....

For answer, Calcraft ironically hummed the Pity motif from “Die Walküre” and went out of the house, the doors closing gently after him to the familiar rhythm of that sadly duped warrior, Hunding.

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index