Choice by James Huneker
And you say they met him this afternoon? ... Yes, met him in
broad daylight coming from the house of that odious woman. Well, I
never would have believed it! That accounts for his mysterious
absence from the clubs and drawing-rooms. Henry Tannhäuser is not the
style of man to miss London in the season, unless there is a big
attraction elsewhere. ... The air was heavy with flowers, and in the
windows opening on the balcony were thronged smartly dressed folk; it
was May and the weather warm. The Landgrave's musicale had been
anticipated eagerly by all music-lovers in town; Wartburg, the large
house on the hill, hardly could hold the invited....
The evening was young when Mrs. Minne, charming and a widow, stood
with her pretty nun-like face inclined to the tall, black Mr. Biterolf,
the basso of the opera. She had been sonnetted until her perfectly
arched eyebrows were famous. Her air of well-bred and conventual calm
never had been known to desert her; and her high, light, colorless
soprano had something in it of the sexless timbre of the boy chorister.
With her blond hair pressed meekly to her shapely head she was the
delight and despair of poets, painters and musicians, for she turned an
impassable cheek to their pleadings. Mrs. Minne would never remarry;
and it was her large income that made water the mouth of the
impecunious artistic tribe....
Just now she seemed interested in Karl Biterolf, but even his vanity
did not lead him to hope. They resumed their conversation, while about
them the crush became greater, and the lights burned more brilliantly.
In the whirl of chatter and conventional compliment stood Elizabeth
Landgrave, the niece of the host, receiving her uncle's guests. Mrs.
Minne regarded her, a sweet, unpleasant smile playing about her thinly
Yet the men rave over her, Mr. Biterolf. Is it not so? What chance
has a passée woman with such a pure, delicate slip of a girl? And she
sings so well. I wonder if she intends going on the stage? Her
companion leaned over and whispered something.
No, no, I'll never believe it. What? Henry Tannhäuser in love with
that girl! Jamais, jamais!
But I tell you it's so, and her refusal sent him afterwell, that
other one. Biterolf looked wise.
You mean to tell me that he could forget her for an old woman?
Stop, I know you are going to say that the Holda is as fascinating as
Diana of Poitiers and has a trick of making boys, young enough to be
her grandsons, fall madly in love with her. I know all that is said in
her favor. No one knows who she is, where she came from, or her age.
She's fifty if she's a day, and she makes up in the morning. Mrs.
Minne paused for breath. Both women moved in the inner musical set of
fashionable London and both captained rival camps. Mrs. Minne was voted
a saint and Mrs. Holda a sinnera fascinating one.... There was a
little feeling in the widow's usually placid voice when she again
I always fancied that Eschenbach, that man with the baritone voice,
son of the rich breweryou know him of course?I always fancied that
he was making up to our pretty young innocent over yonder.
Biterolf gazed in amusement at his companion. Her veiled, sarcastic
tone was not lost on him; he felt that he had to measure his words with
this lily-like creature.
Oh, yes; Wolfram Eschenbach? Certainly, I know him. He sings very
well for an amateur. I believe he is to sing this evening. Let us go
out on the balcony; it's very warm. I intend remaining here, for I
shall not miss a trick in the game to-night and if, as you say, that
silly Tannhäuser was seen leaving the Holda's house this afternoon
Yes, with young Walter Vogelweide, and they were quarrelling
Drinking, I suppose? No; Henry was very much depressed, and when
Eschenbach asked him where he had been so long What a fool question
for a man in love with Elizabeth Landgrave, interposed Mrs. Minne,
tartly. Henry answered that he didn't know, and he wished he were in
the Thames. And a good place for him, say I. The lady put up her
lorgnon and bowed amiably to Miss Landgrave, who was talking eagerly to
The elder Landgrave was as fond of hunting as of music, and
sedulously fostered the cultivation of his niece's voice. As she stood
beside him, her slender figure was almost as tall as his. Her eyes were
large in the cup and they went violet in the sunlight; at night they
seemed lustrously black. She was in virginal white this evening, and
her delicately modelled head was turned toward the door. Her uncle
spoke slowly to her.
He promised to come. Elizabeth flushed. Whether he does or not, I
shall sing; besides, his rudeness is unbearable. Uncle, dear, what can
I say to a man who goes away for a month without vouchsafing me a word
Her uncle coughed insinuatingly in his beard. He was a widower.
Hadn't we better begin, uncle? Go out on the balcony and stop that
noisy gypsy band. I hate Hungarian music. ... She carried herself with
dignity, and Mr. Landgrave admired the pretty curves of her face and
wondered what would happen when her careless lover arrived. Soon the
crowd drifted in from the balcony and the great music-room, its solemn
oak walls and ceilings blazing with light, was jammed. Near the
concert-grand gathered a group of music makers, in which Wolfram
Eschenbach's golden beard and melancholy eyes were at once singled out
by sentimental damsels. He had long been the by-word of match-making
mammas because of his devotion to a hopeless cause. Elizabeth Landgrave
admired his good qualities, but her heart was held by that rake,
vaurien and man about town, dashing Harry Tannhäuser; and as
Wolfram bent over Miss Landgrave her uncle could not help regretting
that girls were so obstinate.
A crashing of chords announced that the hour had arrived. After the
Tannhäuser overture, Elizabeth Landgrave arose to sing. Instantly
there was a stillness. She looked very fair in her clinging gown, and
as her powerful, well modulated soprano uttered the invocation to the
Wartburg Dich, teure Halle, grüss ich wieder, the thrill of
excitement was intensified by the appearance of Henry Tannhäuser in the
doorway at the lower end of the room. If Elizabeth saw him her voice
did not reveal emotion, and she gave, with rhetorical emphasis, Froh
grüss ich dich, geliebter Raum.
He looks pretty well knocked out, doesn't he? whispered Biterolf
to Mrs. Minne. She curled her lip. She had long set her heart on
Tannhäuser, but since he preferred to sing the praises of Mrs. Holda,
she slaked her feelings by cutting up his character in slices and
serving them to her friends with a saintly smile.
Poor old Harry, went on Biterolf in his clumsy fashion. Your poor
old Harry had better keep away from his Venus, snapped the other; he
looks as if he'd been going the pace too fast. Every one looked
curiously at the popular tenor. He stood the inspection very well,
though his clean-shaven face was slightly haggard, his eyes sunken and
bloodshot. But he was such good style, as the women remarked, and his
bearing, as ever, gallant.
Elizabeth ended with Sei mir gegrüsst, and there was a volley of
handclapping. Tannhäuser made his way to the piano. His attitude was
anything but penitent; the girl did not stir a muscle. He shook hands.
Then he complimented her singing. She bowed her head stiffly.
Tannhäuser smiled ironically.
I suppose I ought to do the conventional operatic thing, he
murmuredcry aloud, 'Let me kneel forever here.' She regarded him
coldly. You might find it rather embarrassing before this crowd. Do
you ever sing any more? He was slightly confused. Let us sing the duo
in the second act; you know it, she curtly said, and stop the mob's
gaping. Mrs. Minne over there is straining her eyes out. She cannot
say that I ever sang her praises, laughed Tannhäuser, and as he faced
the audience with Elizabeth there was a hum which modulated clamorously
into noisy applause.
The pair began Gepriesen sei die Stunde, gepriesen sei die Macht,
and Mr. Landgrave looked on gloomily as the voices melted in lyric
ecstasy. Henry's voice was heroic, like himself, and his friend Wolfram
felt a glow when its thrilling top tones rang out so pure, so clear.
What a voice, what a man! If he would only take care of himself, he
thought and looked at Elizabeth's spiritual face wondering if she
knewif she knew of the other woman who was making Henry forget his
The duo ceased and congratulations were heaped upon the singers....
How do you manage to keep it up, old man? asked Biterolf while
Mrs. Minne engaged Elizabeth.
Tannhäuser smiled. You old grim wolf, Biterolf, you cling to the
notion that a singer must lead the life of an anchorite to preserve his
voice. I enjoy life. I am not a monk, but a tenor Yes, but not a
professional one! No; therefore I'm happy. If I had to sing to order,
I'd jump into the river. That's what you said this afternoon,
replied Biterolf, knowingly.
Henry's face grew dark. You've said nothing, have you? That's a
good fellow. I assure you, Karl, I'm in the very devil of a fix. I've
got rid of Holda, but no one can tell how long. She's a terror. Why
don't you travel? I have, I swear I have, but she has a trick of
finding where my luggage goes and then turns up at Pau or Paris as if I
expected her. She's a witch! That's what she is.
She is Venus, said Biterolf moodily. Aha! you've been hard hit,
too? I believe she does come from the Hollow Hill. Her cavern must be
full of dead men's bones, trophies of her conquests. I think I've
escaped this time. Tannhäuser's face grew radiant. Don't be too sure,
she may turn up here to-night. Good Lord, man, she's not invited, I
hope. I don't know why notshe goes with the best people. Take a tip
from me, Harry. Don't waste any more time with her for Eschenbach may
cut you out. He's very fond of Elizabeth, and you'd better cut short
that duet over there now; Mrs. Minne is not fond of you. Nonsense!
said Tannhäuser, but he lounged over toward the two women and his big
frame was noted by all the girls in the room.
Tannhäuser had a very taking way with him. His eyes were sky-blue
and his hair old gold. He was a terrific sportsman and when not making
love was singing. From his Teutonic ancestry he had inherited a taste
for music which desultory study in a German university town, combined
with a musical ear, had improved. He had been told by managers that if
he would work hard he could make a sensation, but Henry was lazy and
Henry was rich, so he sang, shot big game and flirted his years away.
Then he met Mrs. Holda, of Berg Street, Piccadilly.
The women were not looking at each other with loving eyes when he
drew near. Elizabeth turned to him, her face aglow: Let us walk a bit
before Mr. Eschenbach sings. Her manner was almost seductive. Mrs.
Minne sneered slightly and waved her fan condescendingly at the two as
they moved slowly up the room. There go the biggest pair of fools in
all Christendom, she remarked to Biterolf; why, she will believe
everything he tells her. She wouldn't listen to my advice. Biterolf
shook his head. When Tannhäuser and Elizabeth returned both looked
That woman has actually been abusing you, Harry. He pressed her
arm reassuringly. Wolfram Eschenbach began to sing Blick' ich umher in
diesem edlen Kreise, and once more silence fell upon the bored crowd.
Sympathy was in his tones and he sang tenderly, lovingly. Elizabeth
listened unmoved. She now had eyes for Tannhäuser only, and she laughed
aloud when he proposed to follow Wolfram with a solo.
Do, she said enthusiastically, it will stir them all up.
Although this number was not down on the program, Tannhäuser was
welcomed as he went to the piano. Wolfram seemed uneasy and once looked
fixedly at Elizabeth. Then he walked out on the balcony as if seeking
some one, and Mrs. Minne nudged her stolid neighbor. Mark my words,
there's trouble brewing, she declared.
By this time Tannhäuser was in his best form. He seemed to have
regained all his usual elasticity, for Berg Street, with its depressing
memories, had completely vanished. He expanded his chest and sang, his
victorious blue eyes fastened on Elizabeth. He sang the song of Venus,
Dir, Göttin der Liebe, and all the old passion came into his voice;
when he uttered Zieht in den Berg der Venus ein he was transported,
his surroundings melted and once more he was gazing at the glorious
woman, his Venus, his Holda. The audience was completely shaken out of
its fashionable immobility, and superb, bravo, magnificent,
encore, bis, were heard on all sides. Elizabeth alone remained
mute. Her skin was the pallor of ivory, and into her glance came the
look of a lovely fawn run down by the hounds.
He'd better pack his traps and make a pilgrimage to Rome, remarked
Mrs. Minne with malice in her secular eyes as Tannhäuser strode to the
balcony. Wolfram, looking anxious, went to Elizabeth and led her to her
uncle; then the supper signal sounded and the buzz and struggle became
Mrs. Minne disappeared. Ten minutes later she was at Miss
Landgrave's side, and presently the pair left the table, slowly forced
a passage through the mob of hungry and thirsty humans and reached the
The night was rich with May odors, but the place seemed deserted.
Plucking at the girl's sleeve, her companion pointed to a couple that
stood looking into the garden, the arm of the man passed about the
waist of the woman. Even in the starlight Elizabeth recognized the
exquisite head and turned to leave; the woman with her was bent on
seeing the game. In sharp staccato she said, What a relief after that
hot supper-room! and the others turned. Elizabeth did not pause a
moment. She went to Tannhäuser's companion and said:
My dear Mrs. Holda, where have you been hiding to-night? I fear you
missed the music and I fear now you will miss the supper; do let us go
Five minutes later Mrs. Holda left with Tannhäuser in her brougham,
telling the coachman to drive to Berg Street.
The drawing-room was delicious that May afternoonthe next after
the musicale at Landgrave's. Henry was indolently disposed, and on a
broad divan, heaped with Persian pillows, he stretched his big limbs
like a guardsman in a Ouida novel. The dark woman near watched him
closely, and as he seemed inclined to silence she did not force the
Shall we drive, Venus? he nonchalantly asked. Just as you please.
We may meet your saint with the insipid eyes in the park. Good
heavens! he testily answered, why do you forever drag in that girl's
name? She's nothing to me. Mrs. Holda went to the window and he lazily
noticed her perfect figure, her raven hair and black eyes. She was a
stunner after all, and didn't look a day over twenty-eight. How did she
manage to preserve the illusion of youth? She turned to him, and he saw
the contour of a face Oriental, with eyes that allured and a mouth that
invited. A desirable but dangerous woman, and he fell to thinking of
the other, of her air of girlhood, her innocence of poise, her calm of
breeding that nothing disturbed. Like a good pose in the saddle,
nothing could ever unseat the equanimity of Elizabeth. Mrs. Holda grew
distasteful for the moment and her voice sounded metallic.
When you cease your perverse mooning, Harry Tannhäuser, when you
make up your mind once and for all which woman you intend to choose,
when you decide between Elizabeth Landgrave and Venus Holda, I shall be
most happy. As it is now I amJust then two cards were handed her by
a footman, and after looking at them she laughed a mellow laugh.
Tannhäuser sat up and asked her the news.
I laugh because the situation is so funny, she said; here are
your two friends come to visit you and perhaps attempt your rescue from
the Venusberg. Oh! for a Wagner now! What appropriate music he could
set to this situation. She gave him the cards, and to his
consternation he read the names of Elizabeth Landgrave and Wolfram
Eschenbach. He started up in savage humor and was for going to the
reception room. Quite calmly Mrs. Holda bade him stay where he was.
They did not ask for you, Harry, dear; stay here and be a good boy,
and I'll tell you all about it when they've gone. Her laughter was
resilient as she descended the staircase, but to the young man it
seemed sinister. He felt that hope had abandoned him when he entered
the Berg Street house, and now Elizabeth's presence, instead of
relieving his dull remorse, increased it. She was under the same roof
with him, yet he could not go to her....
Tannhäuser paced the parquetry almost hidden by Bokhara rugs, trying
to forget the girl. Stopping before an elaborate ebony and gold
lectern, he found a volume in vellum, opened and in it he read: Livre
des grandes Merveilles d'amour, escript en Latin et en françoys par
Maistre Antoine Gaget 1530. Has love its marvels? pondered the
disquieted young man. Turning over the title-page he came upon these
words in sweet old English:
Then lamented he weeping: Alas, most unhappy and accursed sinner
that I am, in that I shall never see the clemency and mercy of my God.
Now will I go forth and hide myself within Mount Horsel, imploring my
sweet lady Venus for favor and loving mercy, for willingly would I be
forever condemned to hell for her love. Here endeth all my deeds of
arms and my sweet singing. Alas, that my lady's face and her eyes were
too beautiful, and that in an unfortunate moment I saw them. Then went
he forth sighing and returned to her, and dwelt sadly in the presence
of his lady, filled with a surpassing love. And afterwards it came to
pass that one day the pope saw many red and white flowers and leaf-buds
spring forth from his bastions, and all without bloomed anew. So that
he feared greatly, and being much moved thereby was filled with great
pity for the chevalier who had gone forth hopeless like unto a man
forever damned and miserable. And straightway sent he numberless
messengers to him to bring him back, saying that he should receive
grace and absolution from God, for this his great sin of love. But
never more was he seen; for the poor chevalier dwelt forever near unto
Venus, that most high and mighty Goddess, in the bosom of the amorous
Mrs. Holda was delightful as she welcomed her visitors. The
drawing-room was not empty, she said; a friend, an old friend, a bit
of a bore, you know; and they must just stay downstairs, it was more
cozy, more intimate. Elizabeth, whose face was quite rosy from walking,
studied the woman with the Egyptian profile and glorious hair, and
wondered if she ever told the truth. Wolfram alone seemed uneasy. He
could not get into the swing of conversation; he was in his watchful
mood. He looked at the portières as if every moment he expected some
one to appear. The musicale was discussed and Miss Landgrave's singing
praised. Wolfram rather awkwardly attempted to introduce Tannhäuser's
name, but was snubbed by Elizabeth.
Now, my dear Mrs. Holda, I've come to tell you some news; promise
me, I beg of you, promise me not to divulge it. We are engaged, Wolfram
and I, and you being such an old friend I came to you first. The
girl's pure face was the picture of nubile candor, and her eyes met
fairly the shock of the other's quick glance.
How lovely, how perfectly lovely it all is, and how I appreciate
your confidence, sang Mrs. Holda, in purring accents. How glad Henry
Tannhäuser will be to hear that his two best friends are to be married.
I must telltell him this afternoon.
Oh! cried Elizabeth, lightly, but your promise, have you
forgotten it? The other laughed in her face.
We go to Rome, to make what dear Mrs. Minne calls the pilgrimage,
declared the girl unflinchingly.
Then I hope the Wagner miracle will take place again, mockingly
answered Mrs. Holda, and after a few more sentences the visitors went
away. Venus burst into her drawing-room holding her sides, almost
choking. Harry, Harry, Harry Tannhäuser, I shall die. They're engaged
to be married. They came to tell me, to tell me, knowing that you were
upstairs. Oh, that deceitful virgin with her sly airs! I understood
her. She fancied that she would put me out of countenance. She and that
sheep of a brewer's son, Eschenbach. They're engaged, I tell you, and
going to Rome on their wedding triptheir pilgrimage she called it.
Oh, these affected Wagnerites! You had better go, too, Mr. Tannhäuser;
perhaps the miracle might be renewed and your staff of faith grow green
with the leaves of repentance. Oh, Harry, what a lark it all is!
He sat on the couch and stared at her as she rolled about on a
divan, gripped by malicious laughter.... Engaged! Elizabeth Landgrave
engaged to be married! And a few hours ago she told him she loved him,
could never love anotherand now! What had happened in such a brief
time to make her change her mind? Engaged to Wolfram Eschenbach, dear,
old stupid Wolfram, who had loved her with a dog's love for years, even
when she flouted him. Wolfram, his best friend, slow Wolfram, with his
poetizing, his fondness for German singing societies, his songs to
evening stars; Eschenbach, the brewer's son, to cut him out, cut out
brilliant Harry Tannhäuser! It was incredible, it was monstrous!... He
slowly went to the window. The street was empty, and only his desperate
thoughts made noise as they clattered through his hollow head. Her
voice roused him. You can take the pitcher too often to the well,
Harry dear, and you drove once too often to Berg Street. Elizabeth,
sensible girl, instead of dying, takes the best man she could possibly
find; a better man than you, Harry, and she couldn't resist letting me
know it. So, silly old boy, better give up your Wartburg ambitions,
your pilgrimage to Rome, and stay here in the Venusberg. I know I'm
old, but, after all, am I not your Venus? In the soft light of an
early evening in May the face of Mrs. Holda seemed impossibly