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Brynhild's Immolation by James Huneker

 

She had infinitely sad, wide eyes. The sweet pangs of maternity and art had not been denied this woman with the vibrant voice and temperament of fire. Singing only in the Wagner music dramas critics awarded her the praise that pains. She did not sing as Patti, but oh! the sonorous heart....

“Götterdämmerung” was being declaimed in a fervent and eminently Teutonic fashion. The house was fairly filled though it could hardly be called a brilliant gathering; the conductor dragged the tempi, the waits were interminable. A young girl sat and wonderingly watched. Her mother was the Brynhild....

This daughter was a strange girl. Her only education was the continual smatter which comes from many cities superficially glided. She spoke French with the accent of Vienna, and her German had in it some of the lingering lees of the Dutch. Wherever they pitched their tent the girl went abroad in the city, absorbing it. Thus she knew many things denied women; and when her mother was summoned to Bayreuth, she soon forgot all in the mists, weavings and golden noise of Wagner. Then followed five happy years. The singer prospered at Bayreuth and engagements trod upon the heels of engagements. Her girl was petted, grew tall, shy, and one day they said, “She is a young woman.” The heart of the child beat tranquilly in her bosom, and her thoughts took on little color of the life about her.

Once, after “Tristan und Isolde” she asked:

“Why do you never speak of my father?”

Her mother, sitting on the bed, was coiling her glorious hair; the open dress revealed the massive throat and great white shoulders.

“Your father died years ago, child. Why do you ask now?”

The girl looked directly at her.

“I thought to-night how lovely if he had only been Tristan instead of Herr Albert.”

The other's face was draped by hair. She did not speak for a moment.

“Yes. But he never sang: your father was not a music lover.” ...

Presently they embraced affectionately and went to bed; the singer did not sleep at once. Her thoughts troubled her....

Madame Stock was a great but unequal artist. She had never concerned herself with the little things of the vocal art. Nature had given her much; voice, person, musical temperament, dramatic aptitude. She erred artistically on the side of over-emphasis, and occasionally tore passion to pieces. But she had the true fire, and with time would compass repose and symmetry. Toward conquering herself she seldom gave a thought. Her unhappy marriage had left its marks; she was cynical and often reckless; but with the growth of her daughter came reflection.... Hilda was not to be treated as other girls. Her Scotch ancestry showed itself early. The girl did not, and could not, see the curious life about her; it was simply a myopia that her mother fostered. Thus, through all the welter and confusion of an opera-singer's life, Hilda walked serenely. She knew there were disagreeable things in the world but refused herself even the thought of them. It was not the barrier of innocence but rather a selection of certain aspects of life that she fancied, and an absolute impassibility in the presence of evil. Then her mother grew more careful.

Hilda loved Wagner. She knew every work of the Master from “Die Feen” to “Parsifal.” She studied music, arduously playing accompaniments for her mother. In this way she learned the skeleton of the mighty music dramas, and grew up absorbing the torrid music as though it were Mozartean. She repeated the stories of the dramas as a child its astronomy lessons, without feeling. She saw Siegmund and Sieglinde entwined in that wondrous Song of Spring, and would have laughed in your face if you hinted that all this was anything but many-colored arabesque. It was her daily bread and butter, and like one of those pudic creatures of the Eleusinian mysteries she lived in the very tropics of passion, yet without one pulse-throb of its feverishness. It was the ritual of Wagner she worshipped; the nerves of his score had never been laid bare to her. She took her mother's tumult in good faith, and ridiculed singers of more frigid temperaments. When she writhed in Tristan's arms this vestal sat in front, a piano score on her lap, carefully listening, and later, at home, she would say:

“Dearest, you skipped two bars in the scene with Brangaene,” and the singer could not contradict the stern young critic....

Herr Albert sang with them longer than most tenors. They met him in Bayreuth and then in Munich. When they went to Berlin Albert was with them, and also in London. Her mother said that his style and acting suited her better than any artist with whom she had ever sung. He was a young man, much younger than Madame Stock, and a Hungarian. Tall and very dark, he looked unlike the ideal Wagner tenor. Hilda teased him and called him the hero of a melodrama. She grew fond of the young man, who was always doing her some favor. To her mother he was extremely polite; indeed he treated her as a queen.

One afternoon Hilda went back to the dressing-room. In the darkness of the corridor she ran against some one—a man. As she turned to apologize she was caught up in a pair of strong arms and kissed. It was all over in the tick of the clock, and then she ran—ran into the room, frightened, indignant, her face burning.

Her mother's back was toward her, she was preparing for the last act of “Walküre.” She knew Hilda's footsteps. The girl threw herself on a couch and covered her hot face with the cushions. The woman hummed “Ho, jo to-ho!” and continued dressing. And then came her call.

Hilda sat and thought. She must tell—she would tell her. But the man, what of him? She knew who it was, knew it by intuition. She did not see his face, but she knew the man. Oh, why did he do it? Why? She blushed and with her handkerchief she rubbed her lips until they stung. Wipe away the kiss she must, or she could never look him in the face again....

It seemed a long time before Brynhild returned. Footsteps and laughter told of her approach. The maid came in first carrying a shawl, and at the door the singer paused. Hilda half rose in fear—not knowing who was talking. Of course it was Albert. The door was partly opened, and Hilda, looking at her mother on the top steps of the little staircase, saw her lower her head to the level of the tenor's face and kiss him.... Fainting, the girl leaned back and covered her face with her hands. The other entered in whirlwind fashion.

“My Hilda. My God! child, have you been mooning here ever since I went on? What is the matter? You look flushed. Let us go home and have a quiet cup of tea. Albert is coming for us to go to some nice place for dinner. Come, come, rouse yourself! Marie-chen”—to the maid—“don't be stupid. Dépêchez-vous, dépêchez-vous!”

And Madame Stock bustled about and half tore off her cuirass, pitched her helmet in the corner and looked very much alive and young.

“Oh, what a Wotan, Mein Gott! what a man. Do you know what he was doing when I sang 'War es so schmählich?' He had his back to the house and chewed gum. I swear it. When I grabbed his legs in anguish the beast chewed gum, his whole body trembled from the exertion; he says that it is good for a dry throat.”

Hilda hardly listened. Her mother had kissed Albert, and she shook as one with the ague....

She pleaded a headache, and did not go to dinner. The next day they left Hamburg, and Albert did not accompany them. Madame Stock declared that she needed a rest, and the pair went to Carlsbad. There they stayed two weeks. The nervous, excitable soprano could not long bide in one place. She was tired of singing, but she grew restless for the theatre.

“Yes, yes,” she cried to Hilda, in the train which bore them toward Berlin. “Yes, the opera is crowded every night when I sing. You know that I get flowers, enjoy triumphs enough to satisfy me. Well, I'm sick of it all. I believe that I shall end by going mad. It may become a monomania. I often say, Why all this feverishness, this art jargon? Why should I burn myself up with Isolde and weep my heart out with Sieglinde? Why go on repeating words that I do not believe in? Art! oh, I hate the word.” ...

Hilda, her eyes half closed, watched the neat German landscape unroll itself.

Her mother grumbled until she fell asleep.

Her face was worn and drawn in the twilight, and Hilda noticed the heavy markings about the mouth and under the eyes and the few gray hairs.

She caught herself analyzing, and stopped with a guilty feeling. Yes, Dearest was beginning to look old. The stress and strain of Wagner was showing. In a few years, when her voice—Hilda closed her eyes determinedly and tried to shut out a picture. But then she was not sure, not sure of herself.

She began thinking of Albert. His swarthy face forced itself upon her, and her mother's image grew faint. Why did he kiss her, why? Surely it must have been some mistake—it was dark; perhaps he mistook her. Here her heart began beating so that it tolled like a bell in her brain—mistook her, oh, God, for her mother! No! no! That could never be. Had she not caught him watching her very often? But then why should her mother have kissed him—perhaps merely a motherly interest.

Hilda sat upright and tried to discern some expression on her mother's face. But it was too dark. The train rattled on toward Berlin....

The next day at the Hôtel Bellevue there was much running to and fro. Musical managers went upstairs smiling and came down raging; musical managers rushed in raging and fled roaring. Madame Stock drove a hard bargain, and, during the chaffering and gabble about dates and terms, Hilda went out for a long walk. Unter den Linden is hardly a promenade for privacy, but this girl was quite alone as she trod the familiar walk, alone as if she were the last human on the pave. She did not notice that she was being followed; when she turned homeward she faced Herr Albert, the famous Wagnerian tenor.

She felt a little shocked, but her placidity was too deep-rooted to be altogether destroyed. And so Albert found himself looking into two large eyes the persistency of whose gaze disconcerted him.

“Ach, Fräulein Hilda, I'm so glad. How are you, and when did you return?”

She had a central grip on herself, and regarded him quite steadily.

He noticed it and became abashed—he, the hero of a hundred footlights. He could not face her pure, threatening eyes.

“Herr Albert, we got back last night. Herr Albert, why did you kiss me in the theatre?”

He looked startled and reddened.

“Because I love you, Hilda. Yes, I did it because I love you,” he replied, and his accents were embarrassed.

“You love me, Herr Albert,” pursued the terrible Hilda. “Yet you were kissed by mamma an hour later. Do you love her too?”

The tenor trembled and said nothing....

The girl insisted:

“Do you love mamma too? You must, for she kissed you and you did not move away.”

Albert was plainly nervous.

“Yes, I love your mamma, too, but in a different way. Oh, dearest Hilda, you don't understand. I am the artistic associate of your mother. But I love—I love you.”

Hilda felt the ground grow billowy; the day seemed supernaturally bright. She took Albert's arm and they walked slowly, without a word.

When the hotel was reached she motioned him not to come in, and she flew to her mother's room. The singer was alone. She sat at the window and in her lap was a photograph. She looked old and soul-weary.

Hilda rushed toward her, but stopped in the middle of the room, overcome by some subtle fear that seized her throat and limb.

Madame Stock looked at her wonderingly.

“Hilda, Hilda, have you gone mad?”

Hilda went over to her and put her arms about her and whispered:

“Oh, mamma, mamma, he loves me; he has just told me so.”

Her mother started:

“He! Who loves you, Hilda? What do you mean?”

Hilda's eyes drooped, and then she saw the photograph in the soprano's hand.

It was Albert's....

“I love him—you have his picture—he gave it to you for me? Oh! he has spoken, Dearest, he has spoken.”

The picture dropped to the floor....

“Mamma, mamma, what is the matter? Are you angry at me? Do you dislike Albert? No, surely no; I saw you kiss him at the theatre. He says that he loves you, but it is a different love. It must be a Siegmund and Sieglinde love, Dearest, is it not? But he loves me. Don't be cross to him for loving me. He can't help it. And he says we must all live together, if—” ...

The singer closed her eyes and the corners of her mouth became tense. Then she looked at her daughter almost fiercely. Hilda was terrified.

“Tell me, Hilda, swear to me, and think of what you are saying: Do you love Albert?”

“With my heart,” answered the girl in all her white simplicities.

Her mother laughed and arose.

“Then you silly little goose, you shall marry him and be nice and unhappy.” Hilda cried with joy: “I don't care if I am unhappy with him.”

“Idiot!” replied the other.

That night “Götterdämmerung” was given. The conductor dragged the tempi; the waits were interminable, and a young slip of a girl wonderingly watched. Her mother was the Brynhild. The performance was redeemed by the magnificent singing of the Immolation scene....

Later Brynhild faced her mirror and asked no favor of it. As she uncoiled the heavy ropes of hair her eyes grew harsh, and for a moment her image seemed blurred and bitter in the oval glass with the burnished frame that stood upon the dressing-table. But at last she would achieve the unique Brynhild!...

“Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren.”

 
 
 

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