EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index

 
 
 

The Rim of Finer Issues by James Huneker

I

There seemed to be a fitting dispensation in the marriage of Arthur Vibert and Ellenora Bishop. She was a plain looking girl of twenty-four—even her enemies admitted her plainness—but 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 things—rhapsodic 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 literature—George 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 study—she 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 puritan—a 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 cope—that 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 him—you saw that—she could not escape the bright, immediate response of his face. The implicated interest of her bearing—though she never lost her head—his unconcealed adoration, soon brought the affair to the altar—or 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 experienced—plain girls have experiences as well as favored ones—and 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 idea—from 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 music—what 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 novel—a 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 life.

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 romanza—the 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 scherzo—or what is called the scherzo since Beethoven and Schumann—was 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 variations—a prolonged passacaglia—in 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.

II

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 decoration—a 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 hands—surely the most wonderful hands ever painted—while the polished floor, comforting couches and open fireplace proclaimed this apartment as the composition of refined people.

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 sonata form.

“The sonata form is dead,” the lady asserted. “Am I not right, Arthur?”

“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 form—as 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 woman—woman 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 aroused.

“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 prose poem.

She read it to us and it was called

      FRUSTRATE

      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 sands—sands 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 light—Alas! 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
      Frustrate....

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 vague—but 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 finish.

“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 whip—a stronger, more passionate will than her own. It was simply a case of mismating, and no good would result from the union.

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 issues—of which she always prated—with 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 read:

“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.

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index