The Rim of Finer
Issues by James Huneker
There seemed to be a fitting dispensation in the marriage of Arthur
Vibert and Ellenora Bishop. She was a plain looking girl of
twenty-foureven her enemies admitted her plainnessbut she had
brains; and the absence of money was more than compensated by her love
for literature. It had been settled by her friends that she would do
wonderful things when she had her way. Therefore her union with Arthur
Vibert was voted singularly auspicious. He had just returned from
Germany after winning much notice by his talent for composition. What
could be more natural than the marriage of these two gifted persons?
Miss Bishop had published some thingsrhapsodic prose-poems, weak
in syntax but strong in the quality miscalled imagination. Her pen name
was George Bishop: following the example of the three Georges so dear
to the believer in sexless literatureGeorge Sand, George Eliot and
George Egerton. She greatly admired the latter.
Ellenora was a large young woman of more brawn than tissue; she had
style and decision, though little amiability. Ugly she was; yet, after
the bloom of her ugliness wore off, you admired perforce the full
iron-colored eyes alive with power, and wondered why nature in dowering
her with a big brain had not made for her a more refined mouth. The
upper part of her face was often illuminated; the lower narrowly
escaped coarseness; and a head of rusty red hair gave a total
impression of strenuous brilliancy, of keen abiding vitality. A
self-willed New York girl who had never undergone the chastening
influence of discipline or rigorously ordered studyshe averred that
it would attenuate the individuality of her style; avowedly despising
the classics, she was a modern of moderns in her tastes.
She had nerves rather than heart, but did not approve of revealing
her vagaries in diary form. Adoring Guy de Maupassant, she heartily
disliked Marie Bashkirtseff. The Frenchman's almost Greek-like fashion
of regarding life in profile, his etching of its silver-tipped angles,
made an irresistible appeal to her; and she vainly endeavored to catch
his crisp, restrained style, his masterly sense of form. In the secrecy
of her study she read Ouida and asked herself why this woman had not
gone farther, and won first honors in the race. Her favorite heroines
were Ibsen's Nora, Rebecca and Hedda. Then, bitten by the emancipation
craze, she was fast developing into one of the shrieking sisterhood
when Arthur Vibert came from Berlin.
A Frenchman has said that the moment a woman occupies her thoughts
with a man, art ceases for her. The night Ellenora Bishop met the young
pianist in my atelier, I saw that she was interested. Arthur came to me
with letters from several German critics. I liked the slender,
blue-eyed young fellow who was not a day over twenty-one. His was a
true American type tempered by Continental culture. Oval-faced,
fair-haired, of a rather dreamy disposition and with a certain
austerity of manner, he was the fastidious puritana puritan expanded
by artistic influences. Strangely enough he had temperament, and set to
music Heine and Verlaine. A genuine talent, I felt assured, and
congratulated myself on my new discovery; I was fond of finding lions,
and my Sunday evenings were seldom without some specimen that roared,
if somewhat gently, yet audibly enough, for my visitors. When Arthur
Vibert was introduced to Ellenora Bishop, I recognized the immediate
impact of the girl's brusque personality upon his sensitized nature.
She was a devoted admirer of Wagner, and that was bond enough to set
reverberating other chords of sympathy in the pair. I do not assert in
cold blood that the girl deliberately set herself to charm the
boyish-looking composer, but there was certainly a basking allurement
in her gaze when her eyes brushed his. With her complicated personality
he could not copethat was only too evident; and so I watched the
little comedy with considerable interest, and not without misgiving.
Arthur fell in love without hesitation, and though Ellenora felt
desperately superior to himyou saw thatshe could not escape the
bright, immediate response of his face. The implicated interest of her
bearingthough she never lost her headhis unconcealed adoration,
soon brought the affair to the altaror rather to a civil ceremony,
for the bride was an agnostic, priding herself on her abstention from
established religious forms.
Her clear, rather dry nature had always been a source of study to
me. What could she have in common with the romantic and decidedly shy
youth? She was older, more experiencedplain girls have experiences as
well as favored onesand she was not fond of matrimony with poverty as
an obbligato. Arthur had prospects of pupils, his compositions sold at
a respectable rate, but the couple had little money to spare;
nevertheless, people argued their marriage a capital ideafrom such a
union of rich talents surely something must result. Look at the
Brownings, the Shelleys, the Schumanns, not to mention George Eliot and
her man Lewes!
They were married. I was best man, and realized what a menstruum is
musicwhat curious trafficking it causes, what opposites it
intertwines. And the overture being finished the real curtain arose, as
it does on all who mate....
I did not see much of the Viberts that winter. I cared not at all
for society and they had moved to Harlem; so I lost two stars of my
studio receptions. But I occasionally heard they were getting on
famously. Arthur was composing a piano concerto, and Ellenora engaged
upon a novela novel, I was told, that would lay bare to its rotten
roots the social fabric; and knowing the girl's inherent fund of bitter
cleverness I awaited the new-born polemic with gentle impatience. I
hoped, however, like the foolish inexperienced old bachelor I am, that
her feminine asperity would be tempered by the suavities of married
One afternoon late in March Arthur Vibert dropped in as I was
putting the finishing touches on my portrait of Mrs. Beacon. He looked
weary and his eyes were heavily circled.
Hello, my boy! and how is your wife, and how is that wonderful
concerto we've all been hearing about?
He shrugged his shoulders and asked for a cigarette.
Shall I play you some bits of it? he queried in a gloomy way. I
was all eagerness, and presently he was absently preluding at my piano.
There was little vigor in his touch, and I recalled his rambling
wits by crying, The concerto, let's have it!
Arthur pulled himself together and began. He was very modern in
musical matters and I liked the dynamic power of his opening. The first
subject was more massive than musical and was built on the
architectonics of Liszt and Tschaïkowsky. There was blood in the idea,
plenty of nervous fibre, and I dropped my brushes and palette as the
unfolding of the work began with a logical severity and a sense of form
unusual in so young a mind.
This first movement interested me; I almost conjured up the rich
instrumentation and when it ended I was warm in my congratulations.
Arthur moodily wiped his brow and looked indifferent.
And now for the second movement. My boy, you always had a marked
gift for the lyrical. Give us your romanzathe romanza, I should say,
born of your good lady!
He answered me shortly: There is no romance, I've substituted for
it a scherzo. You know that's what Saint-Saëns and all the fellows are
doing nowadays, Scharwenka too.
I fancied that there was a shade of eager anxiety in his
explanation, but I said nothing and listened.
The scherzoor what is called the scherzo since Beethoven and
Schumannwas too heavy, inelastic in its tread, to dispel the
blue-devils. It was conspicuous for its absence of upspringing
delicacy, light, arch merriment. It was the sad, bitter joking of a man
upon whose soul life has graven pain and remorse, and before the trio
was reached I found myself watching the young composer's face. I knew
that, like all modern music students, he had absorbed in Germany some
of that scholastic pessimism we encounter in the Brahms music, but I
had hoped that a mere fashion of the day would not poison the springs
of this fresh personality.
Yet here I was confronted with a painful confession that life had
brought the lad more than its quantum of spiritual and physical
hardship; he was telling me all this in his music, for his was too
subjective a talent to ape the artificial, grand, objective manner.
Without waiting for comment he plunged into his last movement which
proved to be a series of ingenious variationsa prolonged
passacagliain which the grace and dexterity of his melodic invention,
contrapuntal skill and symmetrical sense were gratifyingly present.
I was in no flattering vein when I told him he had made a big jump
in his work.
But, Arthur, why so much in the Brahms manner? Has your wife turned
your love of Shelley to Browning worship? I jestingly concluded.
My wife, if she wishes, can turn Shelley into slush, he answered
bitterly. This shocked me. I felt like putting questions, but how could
I? Had I not been one of the many who advised the fellow to marry
Ellenora Bishop? Had we not all fancied that in her strength was his
security, his hope for future artistic triumphs?
He went on as his fingers snatched at fugitive harmonic
experimentings: It's not all right up town. I wish that you would run
up some night. You've not seen Ellenora for months, and perhaps you
could induce her to put the brake on. I was puzzled. Putting the brake
on a woman is always a risky experiment, especially if she happens to
be wedded. Besides, what did he mean?
I mean, he replied to my tentative look of inquiry, that Ellenora
is going down-hill with her artistic theories of literature, and I mean
that she has made our house a devilish unpleasant place to live in.
I hastily promised to call in a few days, and after seeing him to
the door, and bidding him cheer up, I returned to the portrait of Mrs.
Beacon, and felt savage at the noisiness of color and monotony of tonal
values in the picture.
Good Lord, why will artists marry? I irritably asked of my subject
in the frame. Her sleek Knickerbocker smile further angered me, and I
went to my club and drank coffee until long after midnight.
If, as her friends asserted, Ellenora Vibert's ugliness had softened
I did not notice it. She was one of those few women in the world that
marriage had not improved. Her eyes were colder, more secret; her jaw
crueller, her lips wider and harder at the edges. She welcomed me with
distinguished loftiness, and I soon felt the unpleasant key in which
the household tune was being played. It was amiable enough, this flat
near Mount Morris Park in Harlem. The Viberts had taste, and their
music-room was charming in its reticent scheme of decorationa
Steinway grand piano, a low crowded book-case with a Rodin cast, a
superb mezzotint of Leonardo's Mona Lisa after Calmatta, revealing the
admirable poise of sweetly folded handssurely the most wonderful
hands ever paintedwhile the polished floor, comforting couches and
open fireplace proclaimed this apartment as the composition of refined
I am alive to the harmonies of domestic interiors, and I sensed the
dissonance in the lives of these two.
Soon we three warmed the cold air of restraint and fell to
discussing life, art, literature, friends, and even ourselves. I could
not withhold my admiration for Ellenora's cleverness. She was
transposed to a coarser key, and there was a suggestion of the
overblown in her figure; but her tongue was sharp, and she wore the air
of a woman who was mistress of her mansion. Presently Arthur relapsed
into silence, lounged and smoked in the corner, while Mrs. Vibert
expounded her ideas of literary form, and finally confessed that she
had given up the notion of a novel.
You see, the novel is overdone to-day. The short story ended with
de Maupassant. The only hope we have, we few who take our art
seriously, is to compress the short story within a page and distil into
it the vivid impression of a moment, a lifetime, an eternity. She
looked intellectually triumphant. I interposed a mild objection.
This form, my dear lady, is it a fitting vehicle for so much weight
of expression? I admire, as do you, the sonnet, but I can never be
brought to believe that Milton could have compressed 'Paradise Lost'
within a sonnet.
Then all the worse for Milton, she tartly replied. Look at the
Chopin prelude. Will you contradict me if I say that in one prelude
this composer crowds the experience of a lifetime? When he expands his
idea into the sonata form how diffuse, how garrulous he becomes!
I ventured to remark that Chopin had no special talent for the
The sonata form is dead, the lady asserted. Am I not right,
Yes, my dear, came from Arthur. I fully understood his depression.
No, she continued, magnificently, it is this blind adherence to
older forms that crushes all originality to-day. There is Arthur with
his sonata formas if Wagner did not create his own form!
But I am no Wagner, interrupted her husband.
Indeed, you are not, said Mrs. Vibert rather viciously. If you
were we wouldn't be in Harlem. You men to-day lack the initiative. The
way must be shown you by woman; yes, by poor, crushed womanwoman who
has no originality according to your Schopenhauer; woman whose
sensations, not being of coarse enough fibre to be measured by the rude
emotion-weighing machine of Lombroso, are therefore adjudged of less
delicacy than man's. What fools your scientific men be!
Mrs. Vibert was a bit pedantic, but she could talk to the point when
You discredit the idea of compressing an epic into a sonnet, a
sonata into a prelude; well, I've attempted something of the sort, and
even if you laugh I'll stick to my argument. I've attempted to tell the
biological history of the cosmos in a single page.... I begin with the
unicellular protozoa and finally reach humanity; and to give it
dramatic interest I trace a germ-cell from eternity until the now, and
you shall hear its history this moment. She stopped for breath, and I
wondered if Mrs. Somerville or George Eliot had ever talked in this
astounding fashion. I was certain that she must have read Iamblichus
and Porphyry. Arthur on his couch groaned.
Mock if you please, Ellenora's strong face flushed, but women
will yet touch the rim of finer issues. Paul Goddard, who is a critic I
respect, told me I had struck the right note of modernity in my prose
poem. I winced at the note of modernity, and could not help seeing
the color mount to Arthur's brow when the man's name was mentioned.
And pray who is Mr. Paul Goddard? I asked while Mrs. Vibert was
absent in search of her manuscript. Arthur replied indifferently, Oh,
a rich young man who went to Bayreuth last summer and poses as a
Wagnerite ever since! He also plays the piano!
Arthur's tone was sarcastic; he did not like Paul Goddard and his
critical attentions to his wife. The poor lad looked so disheartened,
so crushed by the rigid intellectual atmosphere about him, that I put
no further question and was glad when Mrs. Vibert returned with her
She read it to us and it was called
O the misty plaint of the Unconceived! O crystal
incuriousness of the monad! The faint swarming toward the
light and the rending of the sphere of hope, frustrate,
inutile. I am the seed called Life; I am he, I am she. We
walk, swim, totter, and blend. Through the ages I lay in the
vast basin of Time; I am called by Fate into the Now. On
pulsing terraces, under a moon blood-red, I dreamed of the
mighty confluence. About me were my kinsfolk. Full of dumb
pain we pleasured our centuries with anticipation; we
watched as we gamed away the hours. From Asiatic plateaus we
swept to Nilotic slime. We roamed in primeval forests, vast
and arboreally sublime, or sported with the behemoth and
listened to the serpent's sinuous irony; we chattered with
the sacred apes and mouthed at the moon; and in the Long Ago
wore the carapace and danced forthright figures on
coprolitic sandssands stretching into the bosom of the
earth, sands woven of windy reaches hemming the sun.... We
lay with the grains of corn in Egyptian granaries, and saw
them fructify under the smile of the sphinx; we buzzed in
the ambient atmosphere, gaudy dragon-flies or whirling motes
in full cry chased by humming-birds. Then from some cold
crag we launched with wings of fire-breathing pestilence and
fell fathoms under sea to war with lizard-fish and narwhal.
For us the supreme surrender, the joy of the expected....
With cynical glance we saw the Buddha give way to other
gods. We watched protoplasmically the birth of planets and
the confusion of creation. We saw hornéd monsters become
gentle ruminants, and heard the scream of the pterodactyl on
the tree-tops dwindle to child's laughter. We heard, we saw,
we felt, we knew. Yet hoped we on; every monad has his
day.... One by one the billions disintegrated and floated
into formal life. And we watched and waited. Our evolution
had been the latest delayed; until heartsick with longing
many of my brethren wished for annihilation....
At last I was alone, save one. The time of my fruition was
not afar. O! for the moment when I should realize my
dreams.... I saw this last one swept away, swept down the
vistas toward life, the thunderous surge singing in her
ears. O! that my time would come. At last, after vague
alarms, I was summoned....
The hour had struck; eternity was left behind, eternity
loomed ahead, implacable, furrowed with Time's scars. I
hastened to the only one in the Cosmos. I tarried not as I
ran in the race. Moments were precious; a second meant æons;
and crashing into the lightAlas! I was too late.... Of
what avail my travail, my countless, cruel preparations? O
Chance! O Fate! I am one of the silent multitude of the
When she had finished reading this strange study in evolution she
awaited criticism, but with the air of an armed warrior.
Really, Mrs. Vibert, I am overwhelmed, I managed to stammer. Only
the most delicate symbolism may dare to express such a theme. I felt
that this was very vaguebut what could I say?
She regarded me sternly. Arthur, catching what I had uttered at
random, burst in:
There, Ellenora, I am sure he is right! You leave nothing to the
imagination. Now a subtile veiled idealism He was not allowed to
Veiled idealism indeed! she angrily cried. You composers dare to
say all manner of wickedness in your music, but it is idealized by
tone, isn't it? What else is music but a sort of sensuous algebra? Or a
vast shadow-picture of the emotions?... Why can't language have the
same privilege? Why must it be bridled because the world speaks it?
Just because of that reason, dear madame, I soothingly said;
because reticence is art's brightest crown; because Zola never gives
us a real human document and Flaubert does; and the difference is a
difference of method. Flaubert is magnificently naked, but his
nakedness implicates nothing that is
As usual you men enter the zone of silence when a woman's work is
mentioned. I did not attempt a monument in the frozen manner of your
Flaubert. Mr. Goddard believes There was a crash of music from the
piano as Arthur endeavored to change the conversation. His wife's fine
indifference was tantalizing, also instructive.
Mr. Goddard believes with Nietzsche that individualism is the only
salvation of the race. My husband, Mr. Vibert, believes in altruism,
self-sacrifice and all the old-fashioned flummery of outworn creeds.
I wonder if Mr. Vibert has heard of Nietzsche's 'Thou goest to
women? Remember thy whip'? I meekly questioned. Ellenora looked at her
husband and shrugged her shoulders; then picking up her manuscript she
left the room with the tread of a soldier, laughing all the while.
An exasperating girl! I mused, as Vibert, after some graceful
swallow-like flights on the keyboard, finally played that most
dolorously delicious of Chopin's nocturnes, the one in C sharp minor.
That night in my studio I did not rejoice over my bachelorhood, for
I felt genuinely sad at the absence of agreeable modulations in the
married life of my two friends.
I thought about the thing for the next month, with the conclusion
that people had to work out their own salvation, and resolved not to
visit the Viberts again. It was too painful an experience; and yet I
could see that Vibert cared for his wife in a weak sort of a way. But
she was too overpowering for him and her robust, intellectual nature
needed Nietzsche's whipa stronger, more passionate will than her own.
It was simply a case of mismating, and no good would result from the
Later I felt as if I had been selfish and priggish, and resolved to
visit the home in Harlem and try to arrange matters. I am not sure
whether it was curiosity rather than a laudable benevolence that
prompted this resolve. However, one hot afternoon in May, Arthur Vibert
entered my room and throwing himself in an easy-chair gave me the news.
She's left me, old man, she's gone off with Paul Goddard. ...
I came dangerously near swearing.
Oh, it's no use of your trying to say consoling things. She's gone
for good. I was never strong enough to hold her, and so it's come to
this disgraceful smash.
I looked eagerly at Arthur to discover over-mastering sorrow; there
was little. Indeed he looked relieved; his life for nearly a year must
have been a trial and yet I mentally confessed to some disappointment
at his want of deep feeling. I saw that he was chagrined, angry, but
not really heart-hurt. Lucky chap! he was only twenty-two and had all
his life before him. I asked for explanations.
Oh, Ellenora always said that I never understood her; that I never
could help her to reach the rim of finer issues. I suppose this fellow
Goddard will. At least she thinks so, else she wouldn't have left me.
She said no family could stand two prima-donnas at the same time: as if
I ever posed, or pretended to be as brilliant as she! No, she stifled
me, and I feel now as if I might compose that romanza for my concerto.
I consoled the young pianist; told him that this blow was intended
as a lesson in self-control; that he must not be downcast, but turn to
his music as a consolation; and a whole string of such platitudes. When
he left me I asked myself if Ellenora was not right, after all. Could
she have reached that visionary rim of finer issuesof which she
always pratedwith this man, talented though he was, yet a slender
reed shaken by the wind of her will? Besides, his chin was too small.
He could not master her nature. Would she be happy with Paul
Goddard, that bright-winged butterfly of æstheticism? I doubted it.
Perhaps the feminine, receptive composer was intended to be her saving
complement in life. Perhaps she unconsciously cared for Arthur Vibert;
and arguing the question as dispassionately as I could my eyes fell
upon Thus Spake Zarathustra, and opening the fat unwieldy volume I
Is it not better to fall into the hands of a murderer than into the
dreams of an ardent woman?
Pooh! I sneered. Nietzsche was a rank woman-hater; then I began
my work on Mrs. Beacon's portrait, the fashionable Mrs. Beacon, and
tried to forget all about the finer issues and the satisfied sterility
of its ideals.