SACRED AND PROFANE LOVE
A NOVEL IN THREE EPISODES
BY ARNOLD BENNETT
TO MY FRIEND EDEN PHILLPOTTS
THE NOVELIST FOR WHOM MAN AND NATURE ARE INSEPARABLE WITH PROFOUND RESPECT FOR THE CLASSICAL DIGNITY OF HIS AIM AND EQUAL ADMIRATION FOR THE AUSTERE SPLENDOUR OF HIS PERFORMANCE
IN THE NIGHT
THREE HUMAN HEARTS
'How I have wept, the long night through, over the poor women of the past, so beautiful, so tender, so sweet, whose arms have opened for the kiss, and who are dead! The kiss—it is immortal! It passes from lip to lip, from century to century, from age to age. Men gather it, give it back, and die.'—GUY DE MAUPASSANT.
SACRED AND PROFANE LOVE
IN THE NIGHT
For years I had been preoccupied with thoughts of love—and by love I mean a noble and sensuous passion, absorbing the energies of the soul, fulfilling destiny, and reducing all that has gone before it to the level of a mere prelude. And that afternoon in autumn, the eve of my twenty-first birthday, I was more deeply than ever immersed in amorous dreams.
I, in my modern costume, sat down between two pairs of candles to the piano in the decaying drawing-room, which like a spinster strove to conceal its age. A generous fire flamed in the wide grate behind me: warmth has always been to me the first necessary of life. I turned round on the revolving stool and faced the fire, and felt it on my cheeks, and I asked myself: 'Why am I affected like this? Why am I what I am?' For even before beginning to play the Fantasia of Chopin, I was moved, and the tears had come into my eyes, and the shudder to my spine. I gazed at the room inquiringly, and of course I found no answer. It was one of those rooms whose spacious and consistent ugliness grows old into a sort of beauty, formidable and repellent, but impressive; an early Victorian room, large and stately and symmetrical, full—but not too full—of twisted and tortured mahogany, green rep, lustres, valances, fringes, gilt tassels. The green and gold drapery of the two high windows, and here and there a fine curve in a piece of furniture, recalled the Empire period and the deserted Napoleonic palaces of France. The expanse of yellow and green carpet had been married to the floor by two generations of decorous feet, and the meaning of its tints was long since explained away. Never have I seen a carpet with less individuality of its own than that carpet; it was so sweetly faded, amiable, and flat, that its sole mission in the world seemed to be to make things smooth for the chairs. The wall-paper looked like pale green silk, and the candles were reflected in it as they were reflected in the crystals of the chandelier. The grand piano, a Collard and Collard, made a vast mass of walnut in the chamber, incongruous, perhaps, but still there was something in its mild and indecisive tone that responded to the furniture. It, too, spoke of Evangelicalism, the Christian Year, and a dignified reserved confidence in Christ's blood. It, too, defied the assault of time and the invasion of ideas. It, too, protested against Chopin and romance, and demanded Thalberg's variations on 'Home, Sweet Home.'
My great-grandfather, the famous potter—second in renown only to Wedgwood—had built that Georgian house, and my grandfather had furnished it; and my parents, long since dead, had placidly accepted it and the ideal that it stood for; and it had devolved upon my Aunt Constance, and ultimately it would devolve on me, the scarlet woman in a dress of virginal white, the inexplicable offspring of two changeless and blameless families, the secret revolutionary, the living lie! How had I come there?
I went to the window, and, pulling the curtain aside, looked vaguely out into the damp, black garden, from which the last light was fading. The red, rectangular house stood in the midst of the garden, and the garden was surrounded by four brick walls, which preserved it from four streets where dwelt artisans of the upper class. The occasional rattling of a cart was all we caught of the peaceable rumour of the town; but on clear nights the furnaces of Cauldon Bar Ironworks lit the valley for us, and we were reminded that our refined and inviolate calm was hemmed in by rude activities. On the east border of the garden was a row of poplars, and from the window I could see the naked branches of the endmost. A gas-lamp suddenly blazed behind it in Acre Lane, and I descried a bird in the tree. And as the tree waved its plume in the night-wind, and the bird swayed on the moving twig, and the gas-lamp burned meekly and patiently beyond, I seemed to catch in these simple things a glimpse of the secret meaning of human existence, such as one gets sometimes, startlingly, in a mood of idle receptiveness. And it was so sad and so beautiful, so full of an ecstatic melancholy, that I dropped the curtain. And my thought ranged lovingly over our household—prim, regular, and perfect: my old aunt embroidering in the breakfast-room, and Rebecca and Lucy ironing in the impeachable kitchen, and not one of them with the least suspicion that Adam had not really waked up one morning minus a rib. I wandered in fancy all over the house—the attics, my aunt's bedroom so miraculously neat, and mine so unkempt, and the dark places in the corridors where clocks ticked.
I had the sense of the curious compact organism of which my aunt was the head, and into which my soul had strayed by some caprice of fate. What I felt was that the organism was suspended in a sort of enchantment, lifelessly alive, unconsciously expectant of the magic touch which would break the spell, and I wondered how long I must wait before I began to live. I know now that I was happy in those serene preliminary years, but nevertheless I had the illusion of spiritual woe. I sighed grievously as I went back to the piano, and opened the volume of Mikuli's Chopin.
Just as I was beginning to play, Rebecca came into the room. She was a maid of forty years, and stout; absolutely certain of a few things, and quite satisfied in her ignorance of all else; an important person in our house, and therefore an important person in the created universe, of which our house was for her the centre. She wore the white cap with distinction, and when an apron was suspended round her immense waist it ceased to be an apron, and became a symbol, like the apron of a Freemason.
'Well, Rebecca?' I said, without turning my head.
I guessed urgency, otherwise Rebecca would have delegated Lucy.
'If you please, Miss Carlotta, your aunt is not feeling well, and she will not be able to go to the concert to-night.'
'Not be able to go to the concert!' I repeated mechanically.
'I will come downstairs.'
'If I were you, I shouldn't, miss. She's dozing a bit just now.'
I went on playing. But Chopin, who was the chief factor in my emotional life; who had taught me nearly all I knew of grace, wit, and tenderness; who had discovered for me the beauty that lay in everything, in sensuous exaltation as well as in asceticism, in grief as well as in joy; who had shown me that each moment of life, no matter what its import, should be lived intensely and fully; who had carried me with him to the dizziest heights of which passion is capable; whose music I spiritually comprehended to a degree which I felt to be extraordinary—Chopin had almost no significance for me as I played then the most glorious of his compositions. His message was only a blurred sound in my ears. And gradually I perceived, as the soldier gradually perceives who has been hit by a bullet, that I was wounded.
The shock was of such severity that at first I had scarcely noticed it. What? My aunt not going to the concert? That meant that I could not go. But it was impossible that I should not go. I could not conceive my absence from the concert—the concert which I had been anticipating and preparing for during many weeks. We went out but little, Aunt Constance and I. An oratorio, an amateur operatic performance, a ballad concert in the Bursley Town Hall—no more than that; never the Hanbridge Theatre. And now Diaz was coming down to give a pianoforte recital in the Jubilee Hall at Hanbridge; Diaz, the darling of European capitals; Diaz, whose name in seven years had grown legendary; Diaz, the Liszt and the Rubenstein of my generation, and the greatest interpreter of Chopin since Chopin died—Diaz! Diaz! No such concert had ever been announced in the Five Towns, and I was to miss it! Our tickets had been taken, and they were not to be used! Unthinkable! A photograph of Diaz stood in a silver frame on the piano; I gazed at it fervently. I said: 'I will hear you play the Fantasia this night, if I am cut in pieces for it to-morrow!' Diaz represented for me, then, all that I desired of men. All my dreams of love and freedom crystallized suddenly into Diaz.
I ran downstairs to the breakfast-room.
'You aren't going to the concert, auntie?' I almost sobbed.
She sat in her rocking-chair, and the gray woollen shawl thrown round her shoulders mingled with her gray hair. Her long, handsome face was a little pale, and her dark eyes darker than usual.
'I don't feel well enough,' she replied calmly.
She had not observed the tremor in my voice.
'But what's the matter?' I insisted.
'Nothing in particular, my dear. I do not feel equal to the exertion.'
'But, auntie—then I can't go, either.'
'I'm very sorry, dear,' she said. 'We will go to the next concert.'
'Diaz will never come again!' I exclaimed passionately. 'And the tickets will be wasted.'
'My dear,' my Aunt Constance repeated, 'I am not equal to it. And you cannot go alone.'
I was utterly selfish in that moment. I cared nothing whatever for my aunt's indisposition. Indeed, I secretly accused her of maliciously choosing that night of all nights for her mysterious fatigue.
'But, auntie,' I said, controlling myself, 'I must go, really. I shall send Lucy over with a note to Ethel Ryley to ask her to go with me.'
'Do,' said my aunt, after a considerable pause, 'if you are bent on going.'
I have often thought since that during that pause, while we faced each other, my aunt had for the first time fully realized how little she knew of me; she must surely have detected in my glance a strangeness, a contemptuous indifference, an implacable obstinacy, which she had never seen in it before. And, indeed, these things were in my glance. Yet I loved my aunt with a deep affection. I had only one grievance against her. Although excessively proud, she would always, in conversation with men, admit her mental and imaginative inferiority, and that of her sex. She would admit, without being asked, that being a woman she could not see far, that her feminine brain could not carry an argument to the end, and that her feminine purpose was too infirm for any great enterprise. She seemed to find a morbid pleasure in such confessions. As regards herself, they were accurate enough; the dear creature was a singularly good judge of her own character. What I objected to was her assumption, so calm and gratuitous, that her individuality, with all its confessed limitations, was, of course, superior—stronger, wiser, subtler than mine. She never allowed me to argue with her; or if she did, she treated my remarks with a high, amused tolerance. 'Wait till you grow older,' she would observe, magnificently ignorant of the fact that my soul was already far older than hers. This attitude naturally made me secretive in all affairs of the mind, and most affairs of the heart.
We took in the county paper, the Staffordshire Recorder, and the Rock and the Quiver. With the help of these organs of thought, which I detested and despised, I was supposed to be able to keep discreetly and sufficiently abreast of the times. But I had other aids. I went to the Girls' High School at Oldcastle till I was nearly eighteen. One of the mistresses there used to read continually a red book covered with brown paper. I knew it to be a red book because the paper was gone at the corners. I admired the woman immensely, and her extraordinary interest in the book—she would pick it up at every spare moment—excited in me an ardent curiosity. One day I got a chance to open it, and I read on the title-page, Introduction to the Study of Sociology, by Herbert Spencer. Turning the pages, I encountered some remarks on Napoleon that astonished and charmed me. I said: 'Why are not our school histories like this?' The owner of the book caught me. I asked her to lend it to me, but she would not, nor would she give me any reason for declining. Soon afterwards I left school. I persuaded my aunt to let me join the Free Library at the Wedgwood Institution. But the book was not in the catalogue. (How often, in exchanging volumes, did I not gaze into the reading-room, where men read the daily papers and the magazines, without daring to enter!) At length I audaciously decided to buy the book. I ordered it, not at our regular stationer's in Oldcastle Street, but at a little shop of the same kind in Trafalgar Road. In three days it arrived. I called for it, and took it home secretly in a cardboard envelope-box. I went to bed early, and I began to read. I read all night, thirteen hours. O book with the misleading title—for you have nothing to do with sociology, and you ought to have been called How to Think Honestly—my face flushed again and again as I perused your ugly yellowish pages! Again and again I exclaimed: 'But this is marvellous!' I had not guessed that anything so honest, and so courageous, and so simple, and so convincing had ever been written. I am capable now of suspecting that Spencer was not a supreme genius; but he taught me intellectual courage; he taught me that nothing is sacred that will not bear inspection; and I adore his memory. The next morning after breakfast I fell asleep in a chair. 'My dear!' protested Aunt Constance. 'Ah,' I thought, 'if you knew, Aunt Constance, if you had the least suspicion, of the ideas that are surging and shining in my head, you would go mad—go simply mad!' I did not care much for deception, but I positively hated clumsy concealment, and the red book was in the house; at any moment it might be seized. On a shelf of books in my bedroom was a novel called The Old Helmet, probably the silliest novel in the world. I tore the pages from the binding and burnt them; I tore the binding from Spencer and burnt it; and I put my treasure in the covers of The Old Helmet. Once Rebecca, a person privileged, took the thing away to read; but she soon brought it back. She told me she had always understood that The Old Helmet was more, interesting than that.
Later, I discovered The Origin of Species in the Free Library. It finished the work of corruption. Spencer had shown me how to think; Darwin told me what to think. The whole of my upbringing went for naught thenceforward. I lived a double life. I said nothing to my aunt of the miracle wrought within me, and she suspected nothing. Strange and uncanny, is it not, that such miracles can escape the observation of a loving heart? I loved her as much as ever, perhaps more than ever. Thank Heaven that love can laugh at reason!
So much for my intellectual inner life. My emotional inner life is less easy to indicate. I became a woman at fifteen—years, interminable years, before I left school. I guessed even then, vaguely, that my nature was extremely emotional and passionate. And I had nothing literary on which to feed my dreams, save a few novels which I despised, and the Bible and the plays and poems of Shakespeare. It is wonderful, though, what good I managed to find in those two use-worn volumes. I knew most of the Song of Solomon by heart, and many of the sonnets; and I will not mince the fact that my favourite play was Measure for Measure. I was an innocent virgin, in the restricted sense in which most girls of my class and age are innocent, but I obtained from these works many a lofty pang of thrilling pleasure. They illustrated Chopin for me, giving precision and particularity to his messages. And I was ashamed of myself. Yes; at the bottom of my heart I was ashamed of myself because my sensuous being responded to the call of these masterpieces. In my ignorance I thought I was lapsing from a sane and proper ideal. And then—the second miracle in my career, which has been full of miracles—I came across a casual reference, in the Staffordshire Recorder, of all places, to the Mademoiselle de Maupin of Theophile Gautier. Something in the reference, I no longer remember what, caused me to guess that the book was a revelation of matters hidden from me. I bought it. With the assistance of a dictionary, I read it, nightly, in about a week. Except Picciola, it was the first French novel I had ever read. It held me throughout; it revealed something on nearly every page. But the climax dazzled and blinded me. It was exquisite, so high and pure, so startling, so bold, that it made me ill. When I recovered I had fast in my heart's keeping the new truth that in the body, and the instincts of the body, there should be no shame, but rather a frank, joyous pride. From that moment I ceased to be ashamed of anything that I honestly liked. But I dared not keep the book. The knowledge of its contents would have killed my aunt. I read it again; I read the last pages several times, and then I burnt it and breathed freely.
Such was I, as I forced my will on my aunt in the affair of the concert. And I say that she who had never suspected the existence of the real me, suspected it then, when we glanced at each other across the breakfast-room. Upon these apparent trifles life swings, as upon a pivot, into new directions.
I sat with my aunt while Lucy went with the note. She returned soon with the reply, and the reply was:
'So sorry I can't accept your kind invitation. I should have liked to go awfully. But Fred has got the toothache, and I must not leave him.'
The toothache! And my very life, so it seemed to me, hung in the balance.
I did not hesitate one second.
'Hurrah!' I cried. 'She can go. I am to call for her in the cab.'
And I crushed the note cruelly, and threw it in the fire.
'Tell him to call at Ryleys',' I said to Rebecca as she was putting me and my dress into the cab.
And she told the cabman with that sharp voice of hers, always arrogant towards inferiors, to call at Ryleys.'
I put my head out of the cab window as soon as we were in Oldcastle Street.
'Drive straight to Hanbridge,' I ordered.
The thing was done.
He was like his photograph, but the photograph had given me only the most inadequate idea of him. The photograph could not render his extraordinary fairness, nor the rich gold of his hair, nor the blue of his dazzling eyes. The first impression was that he was too beautiful for a man, that he had a woman's beauty, that he had the waxen beauty of a doll; but the firm, decisive lines of the mouth and chin, the overhanging brows, and the luxuriance of his amber moustache, spoke more sternly. Gradually one perceived that beneath the girlish mask, beneath the contours and the complexion incomparably delicate, there was an individuality intensely and provocatively male. His body was rather less than tall, and it was muscular and springy. He walked on to the platform as an unspoilt man should walk, and he bowed to the applause as if bowing chivalrously to a woman whom he respected but did not love. Diaz was twenty-six that year; he had recently returned from a tour round the world; he was filled full of triumph, renown, and adoration. As I have said, he was already legendary. He had become so great and so marvellous that those who had never seen him were in danger of forgetting that he was a living human being, obliged to eat and drink, and practise scales, and visit his tailor's. Thus it had happened to me. During the first moments I found myself thinking, 'This cannot be Diaz. It is not true that at last I see him. There must be some mistake.' Then he sat down leisurely to the piano; his gaze ranged across the hall, and I fancied that, for a second, it met mine. My two seats were in the first row of the stalls, and I could see every slightest change of his face. So that at length I felt that Diaz was real, and that he was really there close in front of me, a seraph and yet very human. He was all alone on the great platform, and the ebonized piano seemed enormous and formidable before him. And all around was the careless public—ignorant, unsympathetic, exigent, impatient, even inimical—two thousand persons who would get value for their money or know the reason why. The electric light and the inclement gaze of society rained down cruelly upon that defenceless head. I wanted to protect it. The tears rose to my eyes, and I stretched out towards Diaz the hands of my soul. My passionate sympathy must have reached him like a beneficent influence, of which, despite the perfect self-possession and self-confidence of his demeanour, it seemed to me that he had need.
I had risked much that night. I had committed an enormity. No one but a grown woman who still vividly remembers her girlhood can appreciate my feelings as I drove from Bursley to Hanbridge in the cab, and as I got out of the cab in the crowd, and gave up my ticket, and entered the glittering auditorium of the Jubilee Hall. I was alone, at night, in the public places, under the eye of the world. And I was guiltily alone. Every fibre of my body throbbed with the daring and the danger and the romance of the adventure. The horror of revealing the truth to Aunt Constance, as I was bound to do—of telling her that I had lied, and that I had left my maiden's modesty behind in my bedroom, gripped me at intervals like some appalling and exquisite instrument of torture. And yet, ere Diaz had touched the piano with his broad white hand, I was content, I was rewarded, and I was justified.
The programme began with Chopin's first Ballade.
There was an imperative summons, briefly sustained, which developed into an appeal and an invocation, ascending, falling, and still higher ascending, till it faded and expired, and then, after a little pause, was revived; then silence, and two chords, defining and clarifying the vagueness of the appeal and the invocation. And then, almost before I was aware of it, there stole forth from under the fingers of Diaz the song of the soul of man, timid, questioning, plaintive, neither sad nor joyous, but simply human, seeking what it might find on earth. The song changed subtly from mood to mood, expressing that which nothing but itself could express; and presently there was a low and gentle menace, thrice repeated under the melody of the song, and the reply of the song was a proud cry, a haughty contempt of these furtive warnings, and a sudden winged leap into the empyrean towards the Eternal Spirit. And then the melody was lost in a depth, and the song became turgid and wild and wilder, hysteric, irresolute, frantically groping, until at last it found its peace and its salvation. And the treasure was veiled in a mist of arpeggios, but one by one these were torn away, and there was a hush, a pause, and a preparation; and the soul of man broke into a new song of what it had found on earth—the magic of the tenderness of love—an air so caressing and so sweet, so calmly happy and so mournfully sane, so bereft of illusions and so naive, that it seemed to reveal in a few miraculous phrases the secret intentions of God. It was too beautiful; it told me too much about myself; it vibrated my nerves to such an unbearable spasm of pleasure that I might have died had I not willed to live.... It gave place momentarily to the song of the question and the search, but only to return, and to return again, with a more thrilling and glorious assurance. It was drowned in doubt, but it emerged triumphantly, covered with noble and delicious ornaments, and swimming strongly on mysterious waves. And finally, with speed and with fire, it was transformed and caught up into the last ecstasy, the ultimate passion. The soul swept madly between earth and heaven, fell, rose; and there was a dreadful halt. Then a loud blast, a distortion of the magic, an upward rush, another and a louder blast, and a thunderous fall, followed by two massive and terrifying chords....
Diaz was standing up and bowing to his public. What did they understand? Did they understand anything? I cannot tell. But I know that they felt. A shudder of feeling had gone through the hall. It was in vain that people tried to emancipate themselves from the spell by the violence of their applause. They could not. We were all together under the enchantment. Some may have seen clearly, some darkly, but we were equal before the throne of that mighty enchanter. And the enchanter bowed and bowed with a grave, sympathetic smile, and then disappeared. I had not clapped my hands; I had not moved. Only my full eyes had followed him as he left the platform; and when he returned—because the applause would not cease—my eyes watched over him as he came back to the centre of the platform. He stood directly in front of me, smiling more gaily now. And suddenly our glances met! Yes; I could not be mistaken. They met, and mine held his for several seconds.... Diaz had looked at me. Diaz had singled me out from the crowd. I blushed hotly, and I was conscious of a surpassing joy. My spirit was transfigured. I knew that such a man was above kings. I knew that the world and everything of loveliness that it contained was his. I knew that he moved like a beautiful god through the groves of delight, and that what he did was right, and whom he beckoned came, and whom he touched was blessed. And my eyes had held his eyes for a little space.
The enchantment deepened. I had read that the secret of playing Chopin had died with Chopin; but I felt sure that evening, as I have felt sure since, that Chopin himself, aristocrat of the soul as he was, would have received Diaz as an equal, might even have acknowledged in him a superior. For Diaz had a physique, and he had a mastery, a tyranny, of the keyboard that Chopin could not have possessed. Diaz had come to the front in a generation of pianists who had lifted technique to a plane of which neither Liszt nor Rubinstein dreamed. He had succeeded primarily by his gigantic and incredible technique. And then, when his technique had astounded the world, he had invited the world to forget it, as the glass is forgotten through which is seen beauty. And Diaz's gift was now such that there appeared to intervene nothing between his conception of the music and the strings of the piano, so perfected was the mechanism. Difficulties had ceased to exist.
The performance of some pianists is so wonderful that it seems as if they were crossing Niagara on a tight-rope, and you tremble lest they should fall off. It was not so with Diaz. When Diaz played you experienced the pure emotions caused by the unblurred contemplation of that beauty which the great masters had created, and which Diaz had tinted with the rare dyes of his personality. You forgot all but beauty. The piano was not a piano; it was an Arabian magic beyond physical laws, and it, too, had a soul.
So Diaz laid upon us the enchantment of Chopin and of himself. Mazurkas, nocturnes, waltzes, scherzos, polonaises, preludes, he exhibited to us in groups those manifestations of that supreme spirit—that spirit at once stern and tender, not more sad than joyous, and always sane, always perfectly balanced, always preoccupied with beauty. The singular myth of a Chopin decadent, weary, erratic, mournful, hysterical, at odds with fate, was completely dissipated; and we perceived instead the grave artist nourished on Bach and studious in form, and the strong soul that had dared to look on life as it is, and had found beauty everywhere. Ah! how the air trembled and glittered with visions! How melody and harmony filled every corner of the hall with the silver and gold of sound! How the world was changed out of recognition! How that which had seemed unreal became real, and that which had seemed real receded to a horizon remote and fantastic!...
He was playing the fifteenth Prelude in D flat now, and the water was dropping, dropping ceaselessly on the dead body, and the beautiful calm song rose serenely in the dream, and then lost itself amid the presaging chords of some sinister fate, and came again, exquisite and fresh as ever, and then was interrupted by a high note like a clarion; and while Diaz held that imperious, compelling note, he turned his face slightly from the piano and gazed at me. Several times since the first time our eyes had met, by accident as I thought. But this was a deliberate seeking on his part. Again I flushed hotly. Again I had the terrible shudder of joy. I feared for a moment lest all the Five Towns was staring at me, thus singled out by Diaz; but it was not so: I had the wit to perceive that no one could remark me as the recipient of that hurried and burning glance. He had half a dozen bars to play, yet his eyes did not leave mine, and I would not let mine leave his. He remained moveless while the last chord expired, and then it seemed to me that his gaze had gone further, had passed through me into some unknown. The applause startled him to his feet.
My thought was: 'What can he be thinking of me?... But hundreds of women must have loved him!'
In the interval an attendant came on to the platform and altered the position of the piano. Everybody asked: 'What's that for?' For the new position was quite an unusual one; it brought the tail of the piano nearer to the audience, and gave a better view of the keyboard to the occupants of the seats in the orchestra behind the platform. 'It's a question of the acoustics, that's what it is,' observed a man near me, and a woman replied: 'Oh, I see!'
When Diaz returned and seated himself to play the Berceuse, I saw that he could look at me without turning his head. And now, instead of flushing, I went cold. My spine gave way suddenly. I began to be afraid; but of what I was afraid I had not the least idea. I fixed my eyes on my programme as he launched into the Berceuse. Twice I glanced up, without, however, moving my head, and each time his burning blue eyes met mine. (But why did I choose moments when the playing of the piece demanded less than all his attention?) The Berceuse was a favourite. In sentiment it was simpler than the great pieces that had preceded it. Its excessive delicacy attracted; the finesse of its embroidery swayed and enraptured the audience; and the applause at the close was mad, deafening, and peremptory. But Diaz was notorious as a refuser of encores. It had been said that he would see a hall wrecked by an angry mob before he would enlarge his programme. Four times he came forward and acknowledged the tribute, and four times he went back. At the fifth response he halted directly in front of me, and in his bold, grave eyes I saw a question. I saw it, and I would not answer. If he had spoken aloud to me I could not have more clearly understood. But I would not answer. And then some power within myself, hitherto unsuspected by me, some natural force, took possession of me, and I nodded my head.... Diaz went to the piano.
He hesitated, brushing lightly the keys.
'The Prelude in F sharp,' my thought ran. 'If he would play that!'
And instantly he broke into that sweet air, with its fateful hushed accompaniment—the trifle which Chopin threw off in a moment of his highest inspiration.
'It is the thirteenth Prelude,' I reflected. I was disturbed, profoundly troubled.
The next piece was the last, and it was the Fantasia, the masterpiece of Chopin.
In the Fantasia there speaks the voice of a spirit which has attained all that humanity may attain: of wisdom, of power, of pride and glory. And now it is like the roll of an army marching slowly through terrific defiles; and now it is like the quiet song of royal wanderers meditating in vast garden landscapes, with mossy masonry and long pools and cypresses, and a sapphire star shining in the purple sky on the shoulder of a cypress; and now it is like the cry of a lost traveller, who, plunging heavily through a virgin forest, comes suddenly upon a green circular sward, smooth as a carpet, with an antique statue of a beautiful nude girl in the midst; and now it is like the oratory of richly-gowned philosophers awaiting death in gorgeous and gloomy palaces; and now it is like the upward rush of winged things that are determined to achieve, knowing well the while that the ecstasy of longing is better than the assuaging of desire. And though the voice of this spirit speaking in the music disguises itself so variously, it is always the same. For it cannot, and it would not, hide the strange and rare timbre which distinguishes it from all others—that quality which springs from a pure and calm vision, of life. The voice of this spirit says that it has lost every illusion about life, and that life seems only the more beautiful. It says that activity is but another form of contemplation, pain but another form of pleasure, power but another form of weakness, hate but another form of love, and that it is well these things should be so. It says there is no end, only a means; and that the highest joy is to suffer, and the supreme wisdom is to exist. If you will but live, it cries, that grave but yet passionate voice—if you will but live! Were there a heaven, and you reached it, you could do no more than live. The true heaven is here where you live, where you strive and lose, and weep and laugh. And the true hell is here, where you forget to live, and blind your eyes to the omnipresent and terrible beauty of existence....
No, no; I cannot—I cannot describe further the experiences of my soul while Diaz played. When words cease, music has scarcely begun. I know now—I did not know it then—that Diaz was playing as perhaps he had never played before. The very air was charged with exquisite emotion, which went in waves across the hall, changing and blanching faces, troubling hearts, and moistening eyes.... And then he finished. It was over. In every trembling breast was a pang of regret that this spell, this miracle, this divine revolution, could not last into eternity.... He stood bowing, one hand touching the piano. And as the revolution he had accomplished in us was divine, so was he divine. I felt, and many another woman in the audience felt, that no reward could be too great for the beautiful and gifted creature who had entranced us and forced us to see what alone in life was worth seeing: that the whole world should be his absolute dominion; that his happiness should be the first concern of mankind; that if a thousand suffered in order to make him happy for a moment, it mattered not; that laws were not for him; that if he sinned, his sin must not be called a sin, and that he must be excused from remorse and from any manner of woe.
The applauding multitude stood up, and moved slightly towards the exits, and then stopped, as if ashamed of this readiness to desert the sacred temple. Diaz came forward three times, and each time the applause increased to a tempest; but he only smiled—smiled gravely. I could not see distinctly whether his eyes had sought mine, for mine were full of tears. No persuasions could induce him to show himself a fourth time, and at length a middle-aged man appeared and stated that Diaz was extremely gratified by his reception, but that he was also extremely exhausted and had left the hall.
We departed, we mortals; and I was among the last to leave the auditorium. As I left the lights were being extinguished over the platform, and an attendant was closing the piano. The foyer was crowded with people waiting to get out. The word passed that it was raining heavily. I wondered how I should find my cab. I felt very lonely and unknown; I was overcome with sadness—with a sense of the futility and frustration of my life. Such is the logic of the soul, and such the force of reaction. Gradually the foyer emptied.
'You think I am happy,' said Diaz, gazing at me with a smile suddenly grave; 'but I am not. I seek something which I cannot find. And my playing is only a relief from the fruitless search; only that. I am forlorn.'
'You!' I exclaimed, and my eyes rested on his, long.
Yes, we had met. Perhaps it had been inevitable since the beginning of time that we should meet; but it was none the less amazing. Perhaps I had inwardly known that we should meet; but, none the less, I was astounded when a coated and muffled figure came up swiftly to me in the emptying foyer, and said: 'Ah! you are here! I cannot leave without thanking you for your sympathy. I have never before felt such sympathy while playing.' It was a golden voice, pitched low, and the words were uttered with a very slight foreign accent, which gave them piquancy. I could not reply; something rose in my throat, and the caressing voice continued: 'You are pale. Do you feel ill? What can I do? Come with me to the artists' room; my secretary is there.' I put out a hand gropingly, for I could not see clearly, and I thought I should reel and fall. It touched his shoulder. He took my arm, and we went; no one had noticed us, and I had not spoken a word. In the room to which he guided me, through a long and sombre corridor, there was no sign of a secretary. I drank some water. 'There, you are better!' he cried. 'Thank you,' I said, but scarcely whispering. 'How fortunate I ventured to come to you just at that moment! You might have fallen'; and he smiled again. I shook my head. I said: 'It was your coming—that—that—made me dizzy!' 'I profoundly regret—' he began. 'No, no,' I interrupted him; and in that instant I knew I was about to say something which society would, justifiably, deem unpardonable in a girl situated as I was. 'I am so glad you came'; and I smiled, courageous and encouraging. For once in my life—for the first time in my adult life—I determined to be my honest self to another. 'Your voice is exquisitely beautiful,' he murmured. I thrilled.
Of what use to chronicle the steps, now halting, now only too hasty, by which our intimacy progressed in that gaunt and echoing room? He asked me no questions as to my identity. He just said that he would like to play to me in private if that would give me pleasure, and that possibly I could spare an hour and would go with him.... Afterwards his brougham would be at my disposal. His tone was the perfection of deferential courtesy. Once the secretary came in—a young man rather like himself—and they talked together in a foreign language that was not French nor German; then the secretary bowed and retired.... We were alone.... There can be no sort of doubt that unless I was prepared to flout the wisdom of the ages, I ought to have refused his suggestion. But is not the wisdom of the ages a medicine for majorities? And, indeed, I was prepared to flout it, as in our highest and our lowest moments we often are. Moreover, how many women in my place, confronted by that divine creature, wooed by that wondrous personality, intoxicated by that smile and that voice, allured by the appeal of those marvellous hands, would have found the strength to resist? I did not resist, I yielded; I accepted. I was already in disgrace with Aunt Constance—as well be drowned in twelve feet of water as in six!
So we drove rapidly away in the brougham, through the miry, light-reflecting streets of Hanbridge in the direction of Knype. And the raindrops ran down the windows of the brougham, and in the cushioned interior we could see each other darkly. He did his best to be at ease, and he almost succeeded. My feeling towards him, as regards the external management, the social guidance, of the affair, was as though we were at sea in a dangerous storm, and he was on the bridge and I was a mere passenger, and could take no responsibility. Who knew through what difficult channels we might not have to steer, and from what lee-shores we might not have to beat away? I saw that he perceived this. When I offered him some awkward compliment about his good English, he seized the chance of a narrative, and told me about his parentage: how his mother was Scotch, and his father Danish, and how, after his father's death, his mother had married Emilio Diaz, a Spanish teacher of music in Edinburgh, and how he had taken, by force of early habit, the name of his stepfather. The whole world was familiar with these facts, and I was familiar with them; but their recital served our turn in the brougham, and, of course, Diaz could add touches which had escaped the Staffordshire Recorder, and perhaps all other papers. He was explaining to me that his secretary was his stepfather's son by another wife, when we arrived at the Five Towns Hotel, opposite Knype Railway Station. I might have foreseen that that would be our destination. I hooded myself as well as I could, and followed him quickly to the first-floor. I sank down into a chair nearly breathless in his sitting-room, and he took my cloak, and then poked the bright fire that was burning. On a small table were some glasses and a decanter, and a few sandwiches. I surmised that the secretary had been before us and arranged things, and discreetly departed. My adventure appeared to me suddenly and over-poweringly in its full enormity. 'Oh,' I sighed, 'if I were a man like you!' Then it was that, gazing up at me from the fire, Diaz had said that he was not happy, that he was forlorn.
'Yes,' he proceeded, sitting down and crossing his legs; 'I am profoundly dissatisfied. What is my life? Eight or nine months in the year it is a homeless life of hotels and strange faces and strange pianos. You do not know how I hate a strange piano. That one'—he pointed to a huge instrument which had evidently been placed in the room specially for him—'is not very bad; but I made its acquaintance only yesterday, and after to-morrow I shall never see it again. I wander across the world, and everybody I meet looks at me as if I ought to be in a museum, and bids me make acquaintance with a strange piano.'
'But have you no friends?' I ventured.
'Who can tell?' he replied. 'If I have, I scarcely ever see them.'
'And no home?'
'I have a home on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, and I loathe it.'
'Why do you loathe it?'
'Ah! For what it has witnessed—for what it has witnessed.' He sighed. 'Suppose we discuss something else.'
You must remember my youth, my inexperience, my lack of adroitness in social intercourse. I talked quietly and slowly, like my aunt, and I know that I had a tremendous air of sagacity and self-possession; but beneath that my brain and heart were whirling, bewildered in a delicious, dazzling haze of novel sensations. It was not I who spoke, but a new being, excessively perturbed into a consciousness of new powers. I said:
'You say you are friendless, but I wonder how many women are dying for love of you.'
He started. There was a pause. I felt myself blushing.
'Let me guess at your history,' he said. 'You have lived much alone with your thoughts, and you have read a great deal of the finest romantic poetry, and you have been silent, especially with men. You have seen little of men.'
'But I understand them,' I answered boldly.
'I believe you do,' he admitted; and he laughed. 'So I needn't explain to you that a thousand women dying of love for one man will not help that man to happiness, unless he is dying of love for the thousand and first.'
'And have you never loved?'
The words came of themselves out of my mouth.
'I have deceived myself—in my quest of sympathy,' he said.
'Can you be sure that, in your quest of sympathy, you are not deceiving yourself tonight?'
'Yes,' he cried quickly, 'I can.' And he sprang up and almost ran to the piano. 'You remember the D flat Prelude?' he said, breaking into the latter part of the air, and looking at me the while. 'When I came to that note and caught your gaze'—he struck the B flat and held it—'I knew that I had found sympathy. I knew it! I knew it! I knew it! Do you remember?'
'The way we looked at each other.'
'Yes,' I breathed, 'I remember.'
'How can I thank you? How can I thank you?'
He seemed to be meditating. His simplicity, his humility, his kindliness were more than I could bear.
'Please do not speak like that,' I entreated him, pained. 'You are the greatest artist in the world, and I am nobody—nobody at all. I do not know why I am here. I cannot imagine what you have seen in me. Everything is a mystery. All I feel is that I am in your presence, and that I am not worthy to be. No matter how long I live, I shall never experience again the joy that I have now. But if you talk about thanking me, I must run away, because I cannot stand it—and—and—you haven't played for me, and you said you would.'
He approached me, and bent his head towards mine, and I glanced up through a mist and saw his eyes and the short, curly auburn locks on his forehead.
'The most beautiful things, and the most vital things, and the most lasting things,' he said softly, 'are often mysterious and inexplicable and sudden. And let me tell you that you do not know how lovely you are. You do not know the magic of your voice, nor the grace of your gestures. But time and man will teach you. What shall I play?'
He was very close to me.
'Bach,' I ejaculated, pointing impatiently to the piano.
I fancied that Bach would spread peace abroad in my soul.
He resumed his place at the piano, and touched the keys.
'Another thing that makes me more sure that I am not deceiving myself to-night,' he said, taking his fingers off the keys, but staring at the keyboard, 'is that you have not regretted coming here. You have not called yourself a wicked woman. You have not even accused me of taking advantage of your innocence.'
And ere I could say a word he had begun the Chromatic Fantasia, smiling faintly.
And I had hoped for peace from Bach! I had often suspected that deep passion was concealed almost everywhere within the restraint and the apparent calm of Bach's music, but the full force of it had not been shown to me till this glorious night. Diaz' playing was tenfold more impressive, more effective, more revealing in the hotel parlour than in the great hall. The Chromatic Fantasia seemed as full of the magnificence of life as that other Fantasia which he had given an hour or so earlier. Instead of peace I had the whirlwind; instead of tranquillity a riot; instead of the poppy an alarming potion. The rendering was masterly to the extreme of masterliness.
When he had finished I rose and passed to the fireplace in silence; he did not stir.
'Do you always play like that?' I asked at length.
'No,' he said; 'only when you are there. I have never played the Chopin Fantasia as I played it to-night. The Chopin was all right; but do not be under any illusion: what you have just heard is Bach played by a Chopin player.'
Then he left the piano and went to the small table where the glasses were.
'You must be in need of refreshment,' he whispered gaily. 'Nothing is more exhausting than listening to the finest music.'
'It is you who ought to be tired,' I replied; 'after that long concert, to be playing now.'
'I have the physique of a camel,' he said. 'I am never tired so long as I am sure of my listeners. I would play for you till breakfast to-morrow.'
The decanter contained a fluid of a pleasant green tint. He poured very carefully this fluid to the depth of half an inch in one glass and three-quarters of an inch in another glass. Then he filled both glasses to the brim with water, accomplishing the feat with infinite pains and enjoyment, as though it had been part of a ritual.
'There!' he said, offering me in his steady hand the glass which had received the smaller quantity of the green fluid. 'Taste.'
'But what is it?' I demanded.
'Taste,' he repeated, and he himself tasted.
I obeyed. At the first mouthful I thought the liquid was somewhat sinister and disagreeable, but immediately afterwards I changed my opinion, and found it ingratiating, enticing, and stimulating, and yet not strong.
'Do you like it?' he asked.
I nodded, and drank again.
'It is wonderful,' I answered. 'What do you call it?'
'Men call it absinthe,' he said.
I put the glass on the mantelpiece and picked it up again.
'Don't be frightened,' he soothed me. 'I know what you were going to say. You have always heard that absinthe is the deadliest of all poisons, that it is the curse of Paris, and that it makes the most terrible of all drunkards. So it is; so it does. But not as we are drinking it; not as I invariably drink it.'
'Of course,' I said, proudly confident in him. 'You would not have offered it to me otherwise.'
'Of course I should not,' he agreed. 'I give you my word that a few drops of absinthe in a tumbler of water make the most effective and the least harmful stimulant in the world.'
'I am sure of it,' I said.
'But drink slowly,' he advised me.
I refused the sandwiches. I had no need of them. I felt sufficient unto myself. I no longer had any apprehension. My body, my brain, and my soul seemed to be at the highest pitch of efficiency. The fear of being maladroit departed from me. Ideas—delicate and subtle ideas—welled up in me one after another; I was bound to give utterance to them. I began to talk about my idol Chopin, and I explained to Diaz my esoteric interpretation of the Fantasia. He was sitting down now, but I still stood by the fire.
'Yes, he said, 'that is very interesting.'
'What does the Fantasia mean to you?' I asked him.
'Nothing,' he said.
'Nothing, in the sense you wish to convey. Everything, in another sense. You can attach any ideas you please to music, but music, if you will forgive me saying so, rejects them all equally. Art has to do with emotions, not with ideas, and the great defect of literature is that it can only express emotions by means of ideas. What makes music the greatest of all the arts is that it can express emotions without ideas. Literature can appeal to the soul only through the mind. Music goes direct. Its language is a language which the soul alone understands, but which the soul can never translate. Therefore all I can say of the Fantasia is that it moves me profoundly. I know how it moves me, but I cannot tell you; I cannot even tell myself.'
Vistas of comprehension opened out before me.
'Oh, do go on,' I entreated him. 'Tell me more about music. Do you not think Chopin the greatest composer that ever lived? You must do, since you always play him.'
'No,' he said, 'I do not. For me there is no supremacy in art. When fifty artists have contrived to be supreme, supremacy becomes impossible. Take a little song by Grieg. It is perfect, it is supreme. No one could be greater than Grieg was great when he wrote that song. The whole last act of The Twilight of the Gods is not greater than a little song of Grieg's.'
'I see,' I murmured humbly. 'The Twilight of the Gods—that is Wagner, isn't it?'
'Yes. Don't you know your Wagner?'
'You don't know Tristan?'
He jumped up, excited.
'How could I know it?' I expostulated. 'I have never seen any opera. I know the marches from Tannhaeuser and Lohengrin, and "O Star of Eve!"'
'But it is impossible that you don't know Tristan!' he exclaimed. 'The second act of Tristan is the greatest piece of love-music—No, it isn't.' He laughed. 'I must not contradict myself. But it is marvellous—marvellous! You know the story?'
'Yes,' I said. 'Play me some of it.'
'I will play the Prelude,' he answered.
I gulped down the remaining drops in my glass and crossed the room to a chair where I could see his face. And he played the Prelude to the most passionately voluptuous opera ever written. It was my first real introduction to Wagner, my first glimpse of that enchanted field. I was ravished, rapt away.
'Wagner was a great artist in spite of himself,' said Diaz, when he had finished. 'He assigned definite and precise ideas to all those melodies. Nothing could be more futile. I shall not label them for you. But perhaps you can guess the love-motive for yourself.'
'Yes, I can,' I said positively. 'It is this.'
I tried to hum the theme, but my voice refused obedience. So I came to the piano, and played the theme high up in the treble, while Diaz was still sitting on the piano-stool. I trembled even to touch the piano in his presence; but I did it.
'You have guessed right,' he said; and then he asked me in a casual tone: 'Do you ever play pianoforte duets?'
'Often,' I replied unsuspectingly, 'with my aunt. We play the symphonies of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, and overtures, and so on.'
'Awfully good fun, isn't it?' he smiled.
'Splendid!' I said.
'I've got Tristan here arranged for pianoforte duet,' he said. 'Tony, my secretary, enjoys playing it. You shall play part of the second act with me.'
'Me! With you!'
'Impossible! I should never dare! How do you know I can play at all?'
'You have just proved it to me,' said he. 'Come; you will not refuse me this!'
I wanted to leave the vicinity of the piano. I felt that, once out of the immediate circle of his tremendous physical influence, I might manage to escape the ordeal which he had suggested. But I could not go away. The silken nets of his personality had been cast, and I was enmeshed. And if I was happy, it was with a dreadful happiness.
'But, really, I can't play with you,' I said weakly.
His response was merely to look up at me over his shoulder. His beautiful face was so close to mine, and it expressed such a naive and strong yearning for my active and intimate sympathy, and such divine frankness, and such perfect kindliness, that I had no more will to resist. I knew I should suffer horribly in spoiling by my coarse amateurishness the miraculous finesse of his performance, but I resigned myself to suffering. I felt towards him as I had felt during the concert: that he must have his way at no matter what cost, that he had already earned the infinite gratitude of the entire world—in short, I raised him in my soul to a god's throne; and I accepted humbly the great, the incredible honour he did me. And I was right—a thousand times right.
And in the same moment he was like a charming child to me: such is always in some wise the relation between the creature born to enjoy and the creature born to suffer.
'I'll try,' I said; 'but it will be appalling.'
I laughed and shook my head.
'We shall see how appalling it will be,' he murmured, as he got the volume of music.
He fetched a chair for me, and we sat down side by side, he on the stool and I on the chair.
'I'm afraid my chair is too low,' I said.
'And I'm sure this stool is too high,' he said. 'Suppose we exchange.'
So we both rose to change the positions of the chair and the stool, and our garments touched and almost our faces, and at that very moment there was a loud rap at the door.
I darted away from him.
'What's that?' I cried, low in a fit of terror.
'Who's there?' he called quietly; but he did not stir.
We gazed at each other.
The knock was repeated, sharply and firmly.
'Who's there?' Diaz demanded again.
'Go to the door,' I whispered.
He hesitated, and then we heard footsteps receding down the corridor. Diaz went slowly to the door, opened it wide, slipped out into the corridor, and looked into the darkness.
'Curious!' he commented tranquilly. 'I see no one.'
He came back into the room and shut the door softly, and seemed thereby to shut us in, to enclose us against the world in a sweet domesticity of our own. The fire was burning brightly, the glasses and the decanter on the small table spoke of cheer, the curtains were drawn, and through a half-open door behind the piano one had a hint of a mysterious other room; one could see nothing within it save a large brass knob or ball, which caught the light of the candle on the piano.
'You were startled,' he said. 'You must have a little more of our cordial—just a spoonful.'
He poured out for me an infinitesimal quantity, and the same for himself.
I sighed with relief as I drank. My terror left me. But the trifling incident had given me the clearest perception of what I was doing, and that did not leave me.
We sat down a second time to the piano.
'You understand,' he explained, staring absently at the double page of music, 'this is the garden scene. When the curtain goes up it is dark in the garden, and Isolda is there with her maid Brangaena. The king, her husband, has just gone off hunting—you will hear the horns dying in the distance—and Isolda is expecting her lover, Tristan. A torch is burning in the wall of the castle, and as soon as she gives him the signal by extinguishing it he comes to her. You will know the exact moment when they meet. Then there is the love-scene. Oh! when we arrive at that you will be astounded. You will hear the very heart-beats of the lovers. Are you ready?'
We began to play. But it was ridiculous. I knew it would be ridiculous. I was too dazed, and artistically too intimidated, to read the notes. The notes danced and pranced before me. All I could see on my page was the big black letters at the top, 'Zweiter Aufzug.' And furthermore, on that first page both the theme and the accompaniment were in the bass of the piano. Diaz had scarcely anything to do. I threw up my hands and closed my eyes.
'I can't,' I whispered, 'I can't. I would if I could.'
He gently took my hand.
'My dear companion,' he said, 'tell me your name.'
I was surprised. Memories of the Bible, for some inexplicable reason, flashed through my mind.
'Magdalen,' I replied, and my voice was so deceptively quiet and sincere that he believed it.
I could see that he was taken aback.
'It is a holy name and a good name,' he said, after a pause. 'Magda, you are perfectly capable of reading this music with me, and you will read it, won't you? Let us begin afresh. Leave the accompaniment with me, and play the theme only. Further on it gets easier.'
And in another moment we were launched on that sea so strange to me. The influence of Diaz over me was complete. Inspired by his will, I had resolved intensely to read the music correctly and sympathetically, and lo! I was succeeding! He turned the page with the incredible rapidity and dexterity of which only great pianists seem to have the secret, and in conjunction with my air in the bass he was suddenly, magically, drawing out from the upper notes the sweetest and most intoxicating melody I had ever heard. The exceeding beauty of the thing laid hold on me, and I abandoned myself to it. I felt sure now that, at any rate, I should not disgrace myself.'
'Unless it was Chopin,' whispered Diaz. 'No one could ever see two things at once as well as Wagner.'
We surged on through the second page. Again the lightning turn of the page, and then the hunters' horns were heard departing from the garden of love, receding, receding, until they subsided into a scarce-heard drone, out of which rose another air. And as the sound of the horns died away, so died away all my past and all my solicitudes for the future. I surrendered utterly and passionately to the spell of the beauty which we were opening like a long scroll. I had ceased to suffer.
The absinthe and Diaz had conjured a spirit in me which was at once feverish and calm. I was reading at sight difficult music full of modulations and of colour, and I was reading it with calm assurance of heart and brain. Deeper down the fever raged, but so separately that I might have had two individualities. Enchanted as I was by the rich and complex concourse of melodies which ascended from the piano and swam about our heads, this fluctuating tempest of sound was after all only a background for the emotions to which it gave birth in me. Naturally they were the emotions of love—the sense of the splendour of love, the headlong passion of love, the transcendent carelessness of love, the finality of love. I saw in love the sole and sacred purpose of the universe, and my heart whispered, with a new import: 'Where love is, there is God also.'
The fever of the music increased, and with it my fever. We seemed to be approaching some mighty climax. I thought I might faint with ecstasy, but I held on, and the climax arrived—a climax which touched the limits of expression in expressing all that two souls could feel in coming together.
'Tristan has come into the garden,' I muttered.
And Diaz, turning his face towards me, nodded.
We plunged forward into the love-scene itself—the scene in which the miracle of love is solemnized and celebrated. I thought that of all miracles, the miracle which had occurred that night, and was even then occurring, might be counted among the most wondrous. What occult forces, what secret influences of soul on soul, what courage on his part, what sublime immodesty and unworldliness on mine had brought it about! In what dreadful disaster would it not end! ... I cared not in that marvellous hectic hour how it would end. I knew I had been blessed beyond the common lot of women. I knew that I was living more intensely and more fully than I could have hoped to live. I knew that my experience was a supreme experience, and that another such could not be contained in my life.... And Diaz was so close, so at one with me.... A hush descended on the music, and I found myself playing strange disturbing chords with the left hand, irregularly repeated, opposing the normal accent of the bar, and becoming stranger and more disturbing. And Diaz was playing an air fragmentary and poignant. The lovers were waiting; the very atmosphere of the garden was drenched with an agonizing and exquisite anticipation. The whole world stood still, expectant, while the strange chords fought gently and persistently against the rhythm.
'Hear the beating of their hearts,' Diaz' whisper floated over the chords.
It was too much. The obsession of his presence, reinforced by the vibrating of his wistful, sensuous voice, overcame me suddenly. My hands fell from the keyboard. He looked at me—and with what a glance!
'I can bear no more,' I cried wildly. 'It is too beautiful, too beautiful!'
And I rushed from the piano, and sat down in an easy-chair, and hid my face in my hands.
He came to me, and bent over me.
'Magda,' he whispered, 'show me your face.' With his hands he delicately persuaded my hands away from my face, and forced me to look on him. 'How dark and splendid you are, Magda!' he said, still holding my hands. 'How humid and flashing your eyes! And those eyelashes, and that hair—dark, dark! And that bosom, with its rise and fall! And that low, rich voice, that is like dark wine! And that dress—dark, and full of mysterious shadows, like our souls! Magda, we must have known each other in a previous life. There can be no other explanation. And this moment is the fulfilment of that other life, which was not aroused. You were to be mine. You are mine, Magda!'
There is a fatalism in love. I felt it then. I had been called by destiny to give happiness, perhaps for a lifetime, but perhaps only for a brief instant, to this noble and glorious creature, on whom the gods had showered all gifts. Could I shrink back from my fate? And had he not already given me far more than I could ever return? The conventions of society seemed then like sand, foolishly raised to imprison the resistless tide of ocean. Nature, after all, is eternal and unchangeable, and everywhere the same. The great and solemn fact for me was that we were together, and he held me while our burning pulses throbbed in contact. He held me; he clasped me, and, despite my innocence, I knew at once that those hands were as expert to caress as to make music. I was proud and glad that he was not clumsy, that he was a master. And at that point I ceased to have volition....
When I woke up, perplexed at first, but gradually remembering where I was, and what had occurred to me, the realistic and uncompromising light of dawn had commenced its pitiless inquiry, and it fell on the brass knob, which I had noticed a few hours before, from the other room, and on another brass knob a few feet away. My eyes smarted; I had disconcerting sensations at the back of my head; my hair was brittle, and as though charged with a dull electricity; I was conscious of actual pain, and an incubus, crushing but intangible, lay heavily, like a physical weight, on my heart. After the crest of the wave the trough—it must be so; but how profound the instinct which complains! I listened. I could hear his faint, regular breathing. I raised myself carefully on one elbow and looked at him. He was as beautiful in sleep as in consciousness; his lips were slightly parted, his cheek exquisitely flushed, and nothing could disarrange that short, curly hair. He slept with the calmness of the natural innocent man, to whom the assuaging of desires brings only content.
I felt that I must go, and hastily, frantically. I could not face him when he woke; I should not have known what to say; I should have been abashed, timid, clumsy, unequal to myself. And, moreover, I had the egoist's deep need to be alone, to examine my soul, to understand it intimately and utterly. And, lastly, I wanted to pay the bill of pleasure at once. I could never tolerate credit; I was like my aunt in that. Therefore, I must go home and settle the account in some way. I knew not how; I knew only that the thing must be done. Diaz had nothing to do with that; it was not his affair, and I should have resented his interference. Ah! when I was in the bill-paying mood, how hard I could be, how stony, how blind! And that morning I was like a Malay running amok.
Think not that when I was ready to depart I stopped and stooped to give him a final tender kiss. I did not even scribble a word of adieu or of explanation. I stole away on tiptoe, without looking at him. This sounds brutal, but it is a truth of my life, and I am writing my life—at least, I am writing those brief hours of my existence during which I lived. I had always a sort of fierce courage; and as I had proved the courage of my passion in the night, so I proved the courage of my—not my remorse, not my compunction, not my regret—but of my intellectual honesty in the morning. Proud and vain words, perhaps. Who can tell? No matter what sympathies I alienate, I am bound to say plainly that, though I am passionate, I am not sentimental. I came to him out of the void, and I went from him into the void. He found me, and he lost me. Between the autumn sunset and the autumn sunrise he had learnt to know me well, but he did not know my name nor my history; he had no clue, no cord to pull me back.
I passed into the sitting-room, dimly lighted through the drawn curtains, and there was the score of Tristan open on the piano. Yes; and if I were the ordinary woman I would add that there also were the ashes in the cold grate, and so symbolize the bitterness of memory and bring about a pang. But I have never regretted what is past. The cinders of that fire were to me cinders of a fire and nothing more.
In the doorway I halted. To go into the corridor was like braving the blast of the world, and I hesitated. Possibly I hesitated for a very little thing. Only the women among you will guess it. My dress was dark and severe. I had a simple, dark cloak. But I had no hat. I had no hat, and the most important fact in the universe for me then was that I had no hat. My whole life was changed; my heart and mind were in the throes of a revolution. I dared not imagine what would happen between my aunt and me; but this deficiency in my attire distressed me more than all else. At the other end of the obscure corridor was a chambermaid kneeling down and washing the linoleum. Ah, maid! Would I not have exchanged fates with you, then! I walked boldly up to her. She seemed to be surprised, but she continued to wring out a cloth in her pail as she looked at me.
'What time is it, please?' I asked her.
'Better than half-past six, ma'am,' said she.
She was young and emaciated.
'Have you got a hat you can lend me? Or I'll buy it from you.'
'A hat, ma'am?'
'Yes, a hat,' I repeated impatiently. And I flushed. 'I must go out at once, and I've—I've no hat And I can't—'
It is extraordinary how in a crisis one's organism surprises one. I had thought I was calm and full of self-control, but I had almost no command over my voice.
'I've got a boat-shaped straw, ma'am, if that's any use to you,' said the girl kindly.
What she surmised or what she knew I could not say. But I have found out since in my travels, that hotel chambermaids lose their illusions early. At any rate her tone was kindly.
'Get it me, there's a good girl,' I entreated her.
And when she brought it, I drew out the imitation pearl pins and put them between my teeth, and jammed the hat on my head and skewered it savagely with the pins.
'Is that right?'
'It suits you better than it does me, ma'am, I do declare,' she said. 'Oh, ma'am, this is too much—I really couldn't!'
I had given her five shillings.
'Nonsense! I am very much obliged to you,' I whispered hurriedly, and ran off.
She was a good girl. I hope she has never suffered. And yet I would not like to think she had died of consumption before she knew what life meant.
I hastened from the hotel. A man in a blue waistcoat with shining black sleeves was moving a large cocoa-nut mat in the hall, and the pattern of the mat was shown in dust on the tiles where the mat had been. He glanced at me absently as I flitted past; I encountered no other person. The square between the hotel and the station was bathed in pure sunshine—such sunshine as reaches the Five Towns only after a rain-storm has washed the soot out of the air. I felt, for a moment, obscene in that sunshine; but I had another and a stronger feeling. Although there was not a soul in the square, I felt as if I was regarding the world and mankind with different eyes from those of yesterday. Then I knew nothing; to-day I knew everything—so it seemed to me. It seemed to me that I understood all sorts of vague, subtle things that I had not understood before; that I had been blind and now saw; that I had become kinder, more sympathetic, more human. What these things were that I understood, or thought I understood, I could not have explained. All I felt was that a radical change of attitude had occurred in me. 'Poor world!
Poor humanity! My heart melts for you!' Thus spoke my soul, pouring itself out. The very stone facings of the station and the hotel seemed somehow to be humanized and to need my compassion.
I walked with eyes downcast into the station. I had determined to take the train from Knype to Shawport, a distance of three miles, and then to walk up the hill from Shawport through Oldcastle Street to Bursley. I hoped that by such a route at such an hour, I should be unlikely to meet acquaintances, of whom, in any case, I had few. My hopes appeared to be well founded, for the large booking-hall at the station was thronged with a multitude entirely strange to me—workmen and workwomen and workgirls crowded the place. The first-class and second-class booking-windows were shut, and a long tail of muscular men, pale men, stout women, and thin women pushed to take tickets at the other window. I was obliged to join them, and to wait my turn amid the odour of corduroy and shawl, and the strong odour of humanity; my nostrils were peculiarly sensitive that morning. Some of the men had herculean arms and necks, and it was these who wore pieces of string tied round their trousers below the knee, disclosing the lines of their formidable calves. The women were mostly pallid and quiet. All carried cans, or satchels, or baskets; here and there a man swung lightly on his shoulder a huge bag of tools, which I could scarcely have raised from the ground. Everybody was natural, direct, and eager; and no one attempted to be genteel or refined; no one pretended that he did not toil with his hands for dear life. I anticipated that I should excite curiosity, but I did not. The people had a preoccupied, hurried air. Only at the window itself, when the ticket-clerk, having made me repeat my demand, went to a distant part of his lair to get my ticket, did I detect behind me a wave of impatient and inimical interest in this drone who caused delay to busy people.
It was the same on the up-platform, the same in the subway, and the same on the down-platform. I was plunged in a sea of real, raw life; but I could not mingle with it; I was a bit of manufactured lace on that full tide of nature. The porters cried in a different tone from what they employed when the London and Manchester expresses, and the polite trains generally, were alongside. They cried fraternally, rudely; they were at one with the passengers. I alone was a stranger.
'These are the folk! These are the basis of society, and the fountain of our wealth and luxury!' I thought; for I was just beginning, at that period, to be interested in the disquieting aspects of the social organism, and my ideas were hot and crude. I was aware of these people on paper, but now, for the first time, I realized the immense rush and sweep of their existence, their nearness to Nature, their formidable directness. They frightened me with their vivid humanity.
I could find no first-class carriage on the train, and I got into a compartment where there were several girls and one young man. The girls were evidently employed in the earthenware manufacture. Each had her dinner-basket. Most of them were extremely neat; one or two wore gloves. From the young man's soiled white jacket under his black coat, I gathered that he was an engineer. The train moved out of the station and left the platform nearly empty. I pictured the train, a long procession of compartments like ours, full of rough, natural, ungenteel people. None of my companions spoke; none gave me more than a passing glance. It was uncanny.
Still, the fundamental, cardinal quality of my adventure remained prominent in my being, and it gave me countenance among these taciturn, musing workgirls, who were always at grips with the realities of life. 'Ah,' I thought, 'you little know what I know! I may appear a butterfly, but I have learnt the secret meaning of existence. I am above you, beyond you, by my experience, and by my terrible situation, and by the turmoil in my heart!' And then, quite suddenly, I reflected that they probably knew all that I knew, that some of them might have forgotten more than I had ever learnt. I remembered an absorbing correspondence about the manners of the Five Towns in the columns of the Staffordshire Recorder—a correspondence which had driven Aunt Constance to conceal the paper after the second week. I guessed that they might smile at the simplicity of my heart could they see it. Meaning of existence! Why, they were reared in it! The naturalness of natural people and of natural acts struck me like a blow, and I withdrew, whipped, into myself. My adventure grew smaller. But I recalled its ecstasies. I dwelt on the romantic perfection of Diaz. It seemed to me amazing, incredible, that Diaz, the glorious and incomparable Diaz, had loved me—me! out of all the ardent, worshipping women that the world contained. I wondered if he had wakened up, and I felt sorry for him. So far, I had not decided how soon, if at all, I should communicate with him. My mind was incapable of reaching past the next few hours—the next hour.
We stopped at a station surrounded by the evidences of that tireless, unceasing, and tremendous manufacturing industry which distinguishes the Five Towns, and I was left alone in the compartment. The train rumbled on through a landscape of fiery furnaces, and burning slag-heaps, and foul canals reflecting great smoking chimneys, all steeped in the mild sunshine. Could the toil-worn agents of this never-ending and gigantic productiveness find time for love? Perhaps they loved quickly and forgot, like animals. Thoughts such as these lurked sinister and carnal, strange beasts in the jungle of my poor brain. Then the train arrived at Shawport, and I was obliged to get out. I say 'obliged,' because I violently wished not to get out. I wished to travel on in that train to some impossible place, where things were arranged differently.
The station clock showed only five minutes to seven. I was astounded. It seemed to me that all the real world had been astir and busy for hours. And this extraordinary activity went on every morning while Aunt Constance and I lay in our beds and thought well of ourselves.
I shivered, and walked quickly up the street. I had positively not noticed that I was cold. I had scarcely left the station before Fred Ryley appeared in front of me. I saw that his face was swollen. My heart stopped. Of course, he would tell Ethel.... He passed me sheepishly without stopping, merely raising his hat, and murmuring the singular words:
'We're both very, very sorry.'
What in the name of Heaven could they possibly know, he and Ethel? And what right had he to ...? Did he smile furtively? Fred Ryley had sometimes a strange smile. I reddened, angry and frightened.
The distance between the station and our house proved horribly short. And when I arrived in front of the green gates, and put my hand on the latch, I knew that I had formed no plan whatever. I opened the right-hand gate and entered the garden. The blinds were still down, and the house looked so decorous and innocent in its age. My poor aunt! What a night she must have been through! It was inconceivable that I should tell her what had happened to me. Indeed, under the windows of that house it seemed inconceivable that the thing had happened which had happened. Inconceivable! Grotesque! Monstrous!
But could I lie? Could I rise to the height of some sufficient and kindly lie?
A hand drew slightly aside the blind of the window over the porch. I sighed, and went wearily, in my boat-shaped straw, up the gravelled path to the door.
Rebecca met me at the door. It was so early that she had not yet put on an apron. She looked tired, as if she had not slept.
'Come in, miss,' she said weakly, holding open the door.
It seemed to me that I did not need this invitation from a servant.
'I suppose you've all been fearfully upset, wondering where I was,' I began, entering the hall.
My adventure appeared fantastically unreal to me in the presence of this buxom creature, whom I knew to be incapable of imagining anything one hundredth part so dreadful.
'No, miss; I wasn't upset on account of you. You're always so sensible like. You always know what to do. I knew as you must have stopped the night with friends in Hanbridge on account of the heavy rain, and perhaps that there silly cabman not turning up, and them tramcars all crowded; and, of course, you couldn't telegraph.'
This view that I was specially sagacious and equal to emergencies rather surprised me.
'But auntie?' I demanded, trembling.
'Oh, miss!' cried Rebecca, glancing timidly over her shoulder, 'I want you to come with me into the dining-room before you go upstairs.'
In the dining-room I went at once to the window to draw up the blinds.
'Not that, not that!' Rebecca appealed, weeping. 'For pity's sake!' And she caught my hand.
I then noticed that Lucy was standing in the doorway, also weeping. Rebecca noticed this too.
'Lucy, you go to your kitchen this minute,' she said sharply, and then turned to me and began to cry again. 'Miss Peel—how can I tell you?'
'Why do you call me Miss Peel?' I asked her.
But I knew why. The thing flashed over me instantly. My dear aunt was dead.
'You've got no aunt,' said Rebecca. 'My poor dear! And you at the concert!'
I dropped my head and my bosom on the bare mahogany table and cried. Never before, and never since, have I spilt such tears—hot, painful drops, distilled plenteously from a heart too crushed and torn.
'There, there!' muttered Rebecca. 'I wish I could have told you different—less cruel; but it wasn't in me to do it.'
'And she's lying upstairs this very moment all cold and stiff,' a wailing voice broke in.
It was Lucy, who could not keep herself away from us.
'Will you go to your kitchen, my girl!'
Rebecca drove her off. 'And the poor thing's not stiff either. Her poor body's as soft as if she was only asleep, and doctor says it will be for a day or two. It's like that when they're took off like that, he says. Oh, Miss Carlotta—'
'Tell me all about it before I go upstairs,' I said.
I had recovered.
'Your poor aunt went to bed just as soon as you were gone, miss,' said Rebecca. 'She would have it she was quite well, only tired. I took her up a cup of cocoa at ten o'clock, and she seemed all right, and then I sends Lucy to bed, and I sits up in the kitchen to wait for you. Not a sound from your poor aunt. I must have dropped asleep, miss, in my chair, and I woke up with a start like, and the kitchen clock was near on one. Thinks I, perhaps Miss Carlotta's been knocking and ringing all this time and me not heard, and I rushes to the front door. But of course you weren't there. The porch was nothing but a pool o' water. I says to myself she's stopping somewhere, I says. And I felt it was my duty to go and tell your aunt, whether she was asleep or whether she wasn't asleep.... Well, and there she was, miss, with her eyes closed, and as soft as a child. I spoke to her, loud, more than once. "Miss Carlotta a'n't come," I says. "Miss Carlotta a'n't come, ma'am," I says. She never stirred. Thinks I, this is queer this is. And I goes up to her and touches her. Chilly! Then I takes the liberty of pushing back your poor aunt's eyelids, and I could but see the whites of her eyes; the eyeballs was gone up, and a bit outwards. Yes; and her poor dear chin was dropped. Thinks I, here's trouble, and Miss Carlotta at the concert. I runs to our bedroom, and I tells Lucy to put a cloak on and fetch Dr. Roycroft. "Who for?" she says. "Never you mind who for!" I says, says I. "You up and quick. But you can tell the doctor it's missis as is took." And in ten minutes he was here, miss. But it's only across the garden, like. "Yes," he said, "she's been dead an hour or more. Failure of the heart's action," he said. "She died in her sleep," he said. "Thank God she died in her sleep if she was to die, the pure angel!" I says. I told the doctor as you were away for the night, miss. And I laid her out, miss, and your poor auntie wasn't my first, either. I've seen trouble—I've—'
And Rebecca's tears overcame her voice.
'I'll go upstairs with you, miss,' she struggled out.
One thought that flew across my mind was that Doctor Roycroft was very intimate with the Ryleys, and had doubtless somehow informed them of my aunt's death. This explained Fred Ryley's strange words and attitude to me on the way from the station. The young man had been too timid to stop me. The matter was a trifle, but another idea that struck me was not a trifle, though I strove to make it so. My aunt had died about midnight, and it was at midnight that Diaz and I had heard the mysterious knock on his sitting-room door. At the time I had remarked how it resembled my aunt's knock. Occasionally, when the servants overslept themselves, Aunt Constance would go to their rooms in her pale-blue dressing-gown and knock on their door exactly like that. Could it be that this was one of those psychical manifestations of which I had read? Had my aunt, in passing from this existence to the next, paused a moment to warn me of my terrible danger? My intellect replied that a disembodied soul could not knock, and that the phenomenon had been due simply to some guest or servant of the hotel who had mistaken the room, and discovered his error in time. Nevertheless, the instinctive part of me—that part of us which refuses to fraternize with reason, and which we call the superstitious because we cannot explain it—would not let go the spiritualistic theory, and during all my life has never quite surrendered it to the attacks of my brain.