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Tannhauser's Choice by James Huneker

I

“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 carved lips.

“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 after—well, 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 sinner—a fascinating one.... There was a little feeling in the widow's usually placid voice when she again questioned Biterolf.

“I always fancied that Eschenbach, that man with the baritone voice, son of the rich brewer—you 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 her uncle....

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 of excuse?”

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 murmured—“cry 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 knew—if she knew of the other woman who was making Henry forget his better self!

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 not—she 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 supremely happy.

“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 tremendous.

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 balcony.

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 in.” ...

Five minutes later Mrs. Holda left with Tannhäuser in her brougham, telling the coachman to drive to Berg Street.

II

The drawing-room was delicious that May afternoon—the 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 conversation.

“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 am”—Just 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 mountain.” ...

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 tell—tell 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 trip—their 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 another—and 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 charming....

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index