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An Ibsen Girl by James Huneker

I

As Ellenora Vibert quietly descended the stairs of the apartment house in Harlem where she had lived with her husband until this hot morning in May, she wondered at her courage. She was taking a tremendous step, and one that she hoped would not be a backward one. She was leaving Arthur Vibert after a brief year of marriage for another man. Yet her pulse fluttered not, and before she reached the open doorway a mocking humor possessed her.

Her active brain pictured herself in the person of Ibsen's Nora Helmer. But Nora left children behind, and deserted them in hot blood; no woman could be cold after such a night in the Doll's House—the champagne, the tarantella, the letter and the scene with Torvald! No, she was not quite Nora Helmer; and Paul, her young husband, was hardly a Scandinavian bureaucrat. When Ellenora faced the cutting sunshine and saw Mount Morris Park, green and sweet, she stopped and pressed a hand to her hip. It was a characteristic pose, and the first inspiration of the soft air gave her peace and hardihood.

“I've been penned behind the bars too long,” she thought. Arthur's selfish, artistic absorption in his musical work and needless indifference to the development of her own gifts must count no longer.

She was free, and she meant to remain so as long as she lived.

Then she went to the elevated railroad and entered a down-town train, left it at Cortlandt Street, reached the Pennsylvania depot before midday, and in the waiting-room met Paul Goddard. A few minutes later they were on the Philadelphia train. The second chapter of Ellenora Vibert's life began—and most happily.

II

Paul Goddard, after he had returned from Bayreuth, gave his musical friends much pain by his indifference to old tastes. His mother, Mrs. Goddard of Madison Square, was not needlessly alarmed. She told her friends that Paul always had been a butterfly, sipping at many pretty arts. She included among these fine arts, girls. Paul's devotion to golf and a certain rich young woman gave her fine maternal satisfaction. “He stays away from that odious Bohemian crowd, and as long as he does that I am satisfied. Paul is too much of a gentleman to make a good musician.”

During the winter she saw little of her son. His bachelor dinners were pronounced models, but the musical mob he let alone. “Paul must be going in for something stunning,” they said at his club, and when he took off his moustache there was a protest.

The young man was not pervious to ridicule. He had found something new and as he was fond of experimenting and put his soul into all he did, was generally rewarded for his earnestness. He met Mrs. Arthur Vibert at the reception of a portrait-painter, and her type being new to him, resolved to study it.

Presently he went to the art galleries with the lady, and to all the piano recitals he could bid her. He called several times and admired her husband greatly; but she snubbed this admiration and he consoled himself by admiring instead the intellect of the wife.

“I suppose,” she confided to him one February afternoon at Sherry's, “I suppose you think I am not a proper wife because I don't sit home at his feet and worship my young genius?”

Paul looked at her strong, ugly face and deep iron-colored eyes, and smiled ironically.

“You don't go in for that sort of thing, I suppose. If you did love him would you acknowledge it to any one, even to yourself—or to me?”

Ellenora flushed slightly and put down her glass.

“My dear man, when you know me better you won't ask such a question. I always say what I mean.”

“And I don't.” They fell to fugitive thinking.

“What poet wrote 'the bright disorder of the stars is solved by music'?”

“I never read modern verse.”

“Yes, but this is not as modern as that cornet-virtuoso Kipling, or as ancient as Tennyson, if you must know.”

“What has it to do with you? You are all that I am interested in—at the present.” Paul smiled.

“Don't flatter me, Mr. Goddard. I hate it. It's a cheap trick of the enemy. Flatter a woman, tell her that she is unlike her sex, repeat to her your wonderment at her masculine intellect, and see how meekly she lowers her standard and becomes your bondslave.”

“Hello! you have been through the mill,” said Paul, brightly. “If I thought that it would do any good, be of any use, I would mentally plump on my knees and say to you that Ellenora Vibert is unlike any woman I ever met.” Ellenora half rose from the table, looking sarcastically at him.

“My dear Mr. Goddard, don't make fun. You have hurt me more than I dare tell you. I fancied that you were a friend, the true sort.” She was all steel and glitter now. Paul openly admired her.

“Mrs. Vibert, I beg your pardon. Please forget what I said. I do enjoy your companionship, and you know I am not a lady-killer. Tell me that you forgive me, and we will talk about that lovely line you quoted from—?”

“Coventry Patmore, a dead poet. He it was that spoke of Wagner as a musical impostor, and of the grinning woman in every canvas of Leonardo da Vinci. I enjoy his 'Angel in the House' so much, because it shows me the sort of a woman I am not and the sort of a woman we modern women are trying to outlive.... Yes, 'the bright disorder of the stars is solved by music,' he sings; and I remember reading somewhere in Henry James that music is a solvent. But it's false—false in my case. Mr. Vibert is, as you know, a talented young man. Well, his music bores me. He is said to have genius, yet his music never sounds as if it had any fire in it; it is as cold as salt. Why should I be solved by his music?”

Ellenora upset her glass and laughed. Paul joined in at a respectful pace. The woman was beyond him. He gave her a long glance and she returned it, but not ardently; only curiosity was in her insistent gaze.

“Ah! Youth is an alley ambuscaded by stars,” he proclaimed. The phrase had cost him midnight labor.

“Don't try to be epigrammatic,” she retorted, “it doesn't suit your mental complexion. I'll be glad, then, when my youth has passed. It's a time of turmoil during which one can't really think clearly. Give me cool old age.”

“And the future?”

“I leave that to the licensed victuallers of eternity.” Paul experienced a thrill. The woman's audacity was boundless. Did she believe in anything?...

“I wonder why your husband does not give you the love he puts into his music.”

“He has not suffered enough yet. You know what George Moore says about the 'sadness of life being the joy of art!' ... Besides, Arthur is only half a man if he can't give it to both. Where is your masculine objectivity, then?” she retorted.

“Lord, what a woman! 'Masculine objectivity,' and I suppose 'feminine subjectivity' too. I never met such a blue-stocking. Do you remember how John Ruskin abused those odious terms 'objective' and 'subjective'?” Paul asked.

“I can't read Ruskin. He is all landscape decoration; besides, he believes in the biblical attitude of woman. Put a woman on the mantelpiece and call her luscious, poetic names and then see how soon she'll hop down when another man simply cries 'I love you.' If a man wishes to spoil a woman successfully let him idealize her.”

“Poor Ruskin! There are some men in this world too fine for women.” Paul sighed, and slily watched Ellenora as she cracked almonds with her strong white fingers.

“Fine fiddlesticks!” she ejaculated. “Don't get sentimental, Mr. Goddard, or else I'll think you have a heart. You are trying to flirt with me. I know you are. Take me away from this place and let us walk, walk! Heavens! I'd like to walk to the Battery and smell the sea!”

Paul discreetly stopped, and the pair started up Fifth Avenue. The day was a brave one; the sky was stuffed with plumy clouds and the rich colors of a reverberating sunset. The two healthy beings sniffed the crisp air, talked of themselves as only selfish young people can, and at Fifty-ninth street, Ellenora becoming tired, waited for a cross-town car—she expected some people at her house in the evening, and must be home early. Paul was bidden, but declined; then without savor of affection they said good-by.

The man went slowly down the avenue thinking: “Of all the women I've met, this is the most perverse, heartless, daring.” He recalled his Bayreuth experiences, and analyzed Ellenora. Her supple, robust figure attracted his senses; her face was interesting; she had brains, uncommon brains. What would she become? Not a poet, not a novelist. Perhaps a literary critic, like Sainte-Beuve with shining Monday morning reviews. Perhaps—yes, perhaps a critic, a writer of bizarre prose-poems; she has personal style, she is herself, and no one else.

“That's it,” said Paul, half aloud; “she has style, and I admire style above everything.” He resolved on meeting Ellenora as often as he could....

The following month he saw much of Arthur Vibert's wife, and found himself a fool in her strong grasp. The girl had such baffling contrasts of character, such slippery moods, such abundant fantasy that the young man—volatility itself—lost his footing, his fine sense of honor and made love to this sphinx of the ink-pot, was mocked and flouted but never entirely driven from her presence. More than any other woman, Ellenora enjoyed the conquest of man. She mastered Paul as she had mastered Arthur, easily; but there was more of the man of the world, more of the animal in the amateur, and the silkiness of her husband, at first an amusement, finally angered her.

Vibert knew that his wife saw Paul much too often for his own edification, but only protested once, and so feebly that she laughed at him.

“Arthur,” she said, taking him by his slender shoulders, “why don't you come home some night in a jealous rage and beat me? Perhaps then I might love you. As it is, Mr. Goddard only amuses me; besides, I read him my new stories, otherwise I don't care an iota for him.”

He lifted his eyebrows, went to the piano and played the last movement of his new concerto, played it with all the fire he could master, his face white, muscles angry, a timid man transformed.

“Why don't you beat me instead of the piano, dear?” she cried out mockingly; “some women, they say, can be subdued in that fashion.” He rushed from the room....

April was closing when Vibert, summoned to Washington, gave a piano recital there, and Ellenora went down-town to dinner with Goddard. She was looking well, her spring hat and new gown were very becoming. As they sat at Martin's eating strawberries, Paul approved of her exceedingly. He had been drinking, and the burgundy and champagne at dinner made him reckless.

“See here, Ellenora Vibert, where is all this going to end? I'm not a bad fellow, but I swear I'm only human, and if you are leading me on to make a worse ass of myself than usual, why, then, I quit.”

She regarded him coolly. “It will end when I choose and where I choose. It is my own affair, Paul, and if you feel cowardly qualms, go home like a good boy to your mamma and tell her what a naughty woman I am.”

He sobered at once and reaching across the narrow dining-table took her wrist in both of his hands and forced her to listen.

“You disdainful woman! I'll not be mastered by you any longer—”

“That means,” interrupted Ellenora coolly, “do as you wish, and not as I please.”

Paul, his vanity wounded, asked the waiter for his reckoning. His patience was worn away.

“Paul, don't be silly,” she cried, her eyes sparkling. “Now order a carriage and we'll take a ride in the park and talk the matter over. I'm afraid the fool's fever is in your blood; the open air may do it good. Oh! the eternal nonsense of youth. Call a carriage, Paul!—April Paul!” ...

III

Life in Philadelphia runs on oiled wheels. After the huge clatter of New York, there is something mellow and human about the drowsy hum of Chestnut Street, the genteel reaches of Walnut, and the neat frontage of Spruce Street. Ellenora, so quick to notice her surroundings, was at first bored, then amused, at last lulled by the intimate life of her new home. She had never been abroad, but declared that London, out-of-the-way London, must be something like this. The fine, disdainful air of Locust Street, the curiously constrained attitude of the brick houses on the side streets—as if deferentially listening to the back-view remarks of their statelier neighbors, the brown-stone fronts—all these things she amused herself telling Paul, playfully begging him not to confront her with the oft-quoted pathetic fallacy of Ruskin. Hadn't Dickens, she asked, discerned human expression in door-knockers, and on the faces of lean, lonely, twilight-haunted warehouses?

She was gay for the first time in her restless dissatisfied life. By some strange alchemy she and Paul were able to precipitate and blend the sum total of their content, and the summer was passed in peace. At first they went to a hotel, but fearing the publicity, rented under an assumed name a suite in the second storey of a pretty little house near South Rittenhouse Square. Here in the cheerful morning-room Ellenora wrote, and Paul smoked or trifled at the keyboard. They were perfectly self-possessed as to the situation. When tired of the bond it should be severed. This young woman and this young man had no illusion about love—the word did not enter into their life scheme. Theirs was a pact which depended for continuance entirely upon its agreeable quality. And there was nothing cynical in all this; rather the ready acceptance of the tie's fallibility mingled with a little curiosity how the affair would turn out.

It was not yet November when Paul stopped in the middle of a Chopin mazurka:

“Ellenora, have you heard from Vibert?”

She looked up from the writing-desk.

“How could I? He doesn't know where we are.”

“And I fancy he doesn't care.” Paul whistled a lively lilt. His manner seemed offensive. She flushed and scowled. He moved about the room still whistling and made much noise. Ellenora regarded him intently.

“Getting bored, Paul? Better go to New York and your club,” she amiably suggested.

“If you don't care,” and straightway he began making preparations for the journey. In a quarter of an hour he was ready, and with joy upon his handsome face kissed Ellenora fervently and went away to the Broad Street station. Then she did something surprising. She threw herself upon a couch and wept until she was hysterical.

“I'm a nice sort of a fool, after all,” she reflected, as she wiped her face with a cool handkerchief and proceeded to let her hair down for a good, comfortable brushing. “I'm a fool, a fool, to cry about this vain, selfish fellow. Paul has no heart. Poor little Arthur! If he had been more of a man, less of a conceited boy. Yet conceit may fetch him through, after all. Dear me, I wonder what the poor boy did when he got the news.”

Ellenora laughed riotously. The silliness of the situation burned her sense of the incongruous. There she stood opposite the mirror with her tears hardly dry, and yet she was thinking of the man she had deserted! It was absurd after all, this hurly-burly of men and women. Then she began to wonder when Paul would return. The day seemed very long; in the evening she walked in Rittenhouse Square and watched Trinity Church until its brown façade faded in the dusk. She expected Paul back at midnight, and sat up reading. She didn't love him, she told herself, but felt lonely and wished he would come. To be sure, she recalled with her morbidly keen memory that Howells had said: “There is no happy life for woman—the advantage that the world offers her is her choice in self-sacrifice.” At two hours past the usual time, she went to bed and slept uneasily until dawn, when she reached out her hand and awoke with a start....

The next night he came back slightly the worse for a pleasant time. He was too tired to answer questions. In the morning he told her that Vibert announced a concert in Carnegie Hall, the programme made up of his own compositions.

“His own compositions?” Ellenora indignantly queried. “He has nothing but the piano concerto, an overture he wrote in Germany, and some songs.” She was very much disturbed. Paul noticed it and teased her.

“Oh, yes, he has; read this:”

“Mr. Arthur Vibert, a talented young composer, pupil of Saint-Saëns and Brahms, will give an instrumental concert at Carnegie Hall, November 10th, the programme of which will be devoted entirely to his own compositions. Mr. Vibert, who is an excellent pianist, will play his new piano concerto; a group of his charming songs will be heard; an overture, one of his first works, and a new symphonic poem will comprise this unusually interesting musical scheme. Mr. Vibert will have the valuable assistance of Herr Anton Seidl and his famous orchestra.”

“I will go to New York and hear that symphonic poem.” She spoke in her most aggressive manner.

“Well, why not?” replied Paul flippantly. “Only you will see a lot of people you know, and would that be pleasant?”

“You needn't go to the concert, you can meet me afterward, and we'll go home together.”

Paul yawned, and went out for his afternoon stroll.... Ellenora passed the intervening days in a flame of expectancy. She conjectured all sorts of reasons for the concert. Why should Arthur give it so early in the season? Where did he get the money for the orchestra? Perhaps that old, stupid, busybody, portrait-painting friend of his had advanced it. But when did he compose the symphonic poem? He had said absolutely nothing about it to her; and she was surprised, irritated, a little proud that he had finished something of symphonic proportions. She knew Arthur too well to suppose that he would offer a metropolitan audience scamped workmanship. Anyhow, she would go over even if she had to face an army of questioning friends.

Vibert! How singularly that name looked now. It was a prettier, more compact name than Goddard. But of course she wasn't Mrs. Goddard, she was Mrs. Vibert, and would be until her husband saw fit to divorce her. Would he do that soon? Then she walked about furiously, drank tea, and groaned—she was ennuied beyond description....

Paul had the habit of going to New York every other week, and she raised no objection as his frivolous manner was very trying during sultry days; when he was away she could abandon herself to her day-dreams without fear of interruption. She thought hard, and her strong head often was puzzled by the cloud of contradictory witnesses her memory raised. But she cried no more at his absence....

It was quite gaily that she took her seat beside him in the drawing-room car of the train and impatiently awaited the first sight of the salt meadows before Jersey City is reached.

“Ah! the sea,” she cried enthusiastically, and Paul smiled indulgently.

“You are lyrical, after all, Ellenora,” he remarked in his most critical manner. “Presently you will be calling aloud 'Thalatta, Thalatta!' like some dithyrambic Greek of old.”

“Smell the ocean, Paul,” urged Ellenora, who looked years younger and almost handsome. Paul's comment was not original but it was sound: “You are a born New York girl and no mistake.” He took her to luncheon when they reached the city and in the afternoon she went to a few old familiar shops, felt buoyant, and told herself that she would never consent to live in Philadelphia, as inelastic as brass. Alone she had a hasty dinner at the hotel—Paul had gone to dine with his mother—and noted in the paper that there was no postponement of the Vibert concert. The evening was cool and clear, and with a singular sensation of lightness in her head she went up to the hall in a noisy Broadway car....

Her heart beat so violently that she feared she was about to be ill; intense excitement warned her she must be calmer. All this fever and tremor were new to her, their novelty alarmed and interested her. Accustomed since childhood to time the very pulse-beats of her soul, this analytical woman was astounded when she felt forces at work within her—forces that seemed beyond control of her strong will. She did not dare to sit downstairs, so secured a seat in the top gallery, meeting none of Arthur's musical acquaintances. She eagerly read the programme. How odd “Vibert” seemed on it! She almost expected to see her own name follow her husband's. Arthur Vibert and Ellenora, his wife, will play his own—their own—concerto for piano and orchestra!

She laughed at her conceit, but her laugh sounded so thin and miserable that she was frightened....

Again she looked at the programme. After the concerto overture “Adonaïs”—Vibert loved Shelley and Keats—came the piano concerto, a group of songs—the singer's name an unfamiliar one—and finally the symphonic poem. The symphonic poem! What did she see, or were her eyes blurred?

“Symphonic Poem 'The Zone of the Shadow'. For explanatory text see the other side.” Sick and trembling she turned the page and read “The Argument of this Symphonic Poem is by Ellenora Vibert.”

      THE ZONE OF THE SHADOW

      To the harsh sacrificial tones of curious shells wrought
      from conch let us worship our blazing parent planet! We
      stripe our bodies with ochre and woad, lamenting the decline
      of our god under the rim of the horizon. O! sweet lost days
      when we danced in the sun and drank his sudden rays. O!
      dread hour of the Shadow, the Shadow whose silent wings
      drape the world in gray, the Shadow that sleeps. Our souls
      slink behind our shields; our women and children hide in the
      caves; the time is near, and night is our day. Softly, with
      feet of moss, the Shadow stalks out of the South. The
      brilliant eye of the Sun is blotted over, and with a
      remorseless mantle of mist the silvery cusp of the new moon
      is enfolded. Follow fast the stars, the little brethren of
      the sky; and like a huge bolster of fog the Shadow scales
      the ramparts of the dawn. We are lost in the blur of doom,
      and the long sleep of the missing months is heavy upon our
      eyelids. We rail not at the coward Sun-God who fled fearing
      the Shadow, but creep noiselessly to the caves. Our shields
      are cast aside, unloosed are our stone hatchets, and the
      fire lags low on the hearth. Without, the Shadow has
      swallowed the earth; the cry of our hounds stilled as by the
      hand of snow. The Shadow rolls into our caves; our brain is
      benumbed by its caresses; it closes the porches of the ear,
      and gently strikes down our warring members. Supine, routed
      we rest; and above all, above the universe, is the silence
      of the Shadow.

“Arthur has had his revenge,” she murmured, and of a sudden went sick; the house was black about her as she almost swooned.... The old pride kept her up, and she looked about the thinly filled galleries; the concert commenced; she listened indifferently to the overture. When Vibert came on the stage and bowed, she noticed that he seemed rather worn but he was active and played with more power and brilliancy than she ever before recalled. He was very masterful, and that was a new note in his music. And when the songs came, he led out a pretty, slim girl, and with evident satisfaction accompanied her at the piano. The three songs were charming. She remembered them. But who was this soprano? Arthur was evidently interested in her; the orchestra watched the pair sympathetically.

So the elopement had not killed him! Indeed he seemed to have thriven artistically since her desertion! Ellenora sat in the black gulf called despair, devoured by vain regrets. Was it the man or his music she regretted? At last the Symphonic Poem! The strong Gothic head of Anton Seidl was seen, and the music began....

The natural bent of Arthur for the mystic, the supernatural, was understood by his wife. Here was frosty music, dazzling music, in which the spangled North, with its iridescent auroras, its snow-driven soundless seas and its arctic cold, were imagined by this woman. She quickly discerned the Sun theme and the theme of the Shadow, and alternately blushed and wept at the wonderfully sympathetic tonal transposition of her idea. That this slight thing should have trapped his fantasy surprised her. After she had written it, it had seemed remote, all too white, a “Symphonie en Blanc Majeur”—as Théophile Gautier would have called it—besides devoid of human interest. But Arthur had interwoven a human strand of melody, a scarlet skein of emotion, primal withal, yet an attempt to catch the under emotions of the ice-bound Esquimaux surprised in their zone of silence by the sleep of the Shadow, the long night of their dreary winter. And the composer had succeeded surprisingly well. What boreal epic had he read into Ellenora's little prose poem, the only thing of hers that he had ever pretended to admire! She was amazed, stunned. She wondered how all this emotional richness could have been tapped. Had she left him too soon, or had her departure developed some richer artistic vein? She tortured her brain and heart. After a big tonal climax followed by the lugubrious monologue of a bassoon the work closed.

There was much applause, and she saw her husband come out again and again bowing. Finally he appeared with the young singer. Ellenora left the hall and feebly felt her way to the street. As she expected, Paul was not in sight, so she called a carriage, and getting into it she saw Arthur drive by with his pretty soprano.

IV

How she reached the train and Philadelphia she hardly remembered. She was miserably sick at soul, miserably mortified. Her foolish air-castles vanished, and in their stead she saw the brutal reality. She had deserted a young genius for a fashionable dilettante. In time she might have learned to care for Arthur—but how was she to know this? He was so backward, such a colorless companion!... She almost disliked the man who had taken her away from him; yet six months ago Ellenora would have resented the notion that a mere man could have led her. Besides there was another woman in the muddle now!... In her disgust she longed for her own zone of silence. In her heart she called Ibsen and Nora Helmer delusive guides; her chief intellectual staff had failed her and she began to see Torvald Helmer's troubles in a different light. Perhaps when Nora reached the street that terrible night, she thought of her children—perhaps Helmer was watching her from the Doll's House window—perhaps—perhaps Arthur—then she remembered the young singer and bitterness filled her mouth....

When Paul came back, twenty-four hours later, she turned a disagreeable regard upon him.

“Why didn't you stay away longer?” she demanded inconsistently.

“My dear girl, I searched for you at Carnegie Hall that night, but I suppose I must have come too late; so yesterday I went yachting and had a jolly time.”

Ellenora fell to reproaching Paul violently for his cruel neglect. Didn't he know that she was ailing and needed him? He answered maliciously: “I fancied that your trip might upset your nerves. I am really beginning to believe you care more for your young composer than you do for me. Ellenora Vibert, sentimentalist!—what a joke.”

He smiled at his wit....

“Leave me, leave me, and don't come here again!... I have a right to care for any man I please.”

“Ah! Ibsen encore,” said Paul, tauntingly.

“No, not Ibsen,” she replied in a weak voice, “only a free woman—free even to admire the man whose name I bear,” she added, her temper sinking to a sheer monotone.

“Free?” he sarcastically echoed. The shock of their voices filled the room. Paul angrily stared out of the window at the thin trees in dusty Rittenhouse Square, wondering when the woman would stop her tiresome reproaches. Ellenora's violent agitation affected her; and the man, his selfish sensibilities aroused by the most unheroic sight in the world, slowly descended the staircase, grumbling as he put on his hat....

       * * * * *

Too cerebral to endure the philandering Paul, Ellenora Vibert is still in Philadelphia. She has little hope that her husband will ever make any sign.... After a time her restless mind and need of money drove her into journalism. To-day she successfully edits the Woman's Page of a Sunday newspaper, and her reading of an essay on Ibsen's Heroines before the Twenty-first Century Club was declared a positive achievement. Ellenora, who dislikes Nietzsche more than ever, calls herself Mrs. Bishop. Her pen name is now Nora Helmer.

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index