J'aime les nuages ... la bas...!
NEW YORK CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS 1916
COPYRIGHT, 1905, BY CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
Published October, 1905.
A MON CHER MAITRE
REMY DE GOURMONT PARIS
I. A MASTER OF COBWEBS 1
II. THE EIGHTH DEADLY SIN 23
III. THE PURSE OF AHOLIBAH 44
IV. REBELS OF THE MOON 64
V. THE SPIRAL ROAD 80
VI. A MOCK SUN 110
VII. ANTICHRIST 135
VIII. THE ETERNAL DUEL 145
IX. THE ENCHANTED YODLER 149
X. THE THIRD KINGDOM 168
XI. THE HAUNTED HARPSICHORD 188
XII. THE TRAGIC WALL 203
XIII. A SENTIMENTAL REBELLION 227
XIV. HALL OF THE MISSING FOOTSTEPS 249
XV. THE CURSORY LIGHT 266
XVI. AN IRON FAN 278
XVII. THE WOMAN WHO LOVED CHOPIN 289
XVIII. THE TUNE OF TIME 309
XIX. NADA 326
XX. PAN 332
A MASTER OF COBWEBS
Alixe Van Kuyp sat in the first-tier box presented to her husband with the accustomed heavy courtesy of the Societe Harmonique. She went early to the hall that she might hear the entire music-making of the evening—Van Kuyp's tone-poem, Sordello, was on the programme between a Weber overture and a Beethoven symphony, an unusual honour for a young American composer. If she had gone late, it would have seemed an affectation, she reasoned. Her husband kept within doors; she could tell him all. And then, was there not Elvard Rentgen?
She regretted that she had invited the Parisian critic to her box. It happened at a soiree, where he showed his savage profile among admiring musical lambs. But he was never punctual at musical affairs. This consoled Alixe.
Perhaps he would forget her impulsive, foolish speech,—"without him the music would fall upon unheeding ears,—he, who interpreted art for the multitude, the holder of the critical key that unlocked masterpieces." She had felt the banality of her compliment as she uttered it, and she knew the man who listened, his glance incredulous, his mouth smiling, could not be deceived. Rentgen had been too many years in the candy shop to care for sweets. She recalled her mean little blush as he twisted his pointed, piebald beard with long, fat fingers and leisurely traversed—his were the measuring eyes of an architect—her face, her hair, her neck, and finally, stared at her ears until they burned like a child's cheek in frost time.
Alixe Van Kuyp was a large woman, with a conscientious head and gray eyes. As she waited, she realized that it was one of her timid nights, when colour came easily and temper ran at its lowest ebb. She had begged Van Kuyp to cancel the habit of not listening to his own music except at rehearsal, and, annoyed by his stubbornness, neglected to tell him of the other invitation. The house was quite full when the music began. Uneasiness overtook her as the Oberon slowly stole upon her consciousness. She forgot Rentgen; a more disquieting problem presented itself. Richard's music—how would it sound in the company of the old masters, those masters who were newer than Wagner, newer than Strauss and the "moderns"! She envisaged her husband—small, slim, with his bushy red hair, big student's head—familiarly locking arms with Weber and Beethoven in the hall of fame. No, the picture did not convince her. She was his severest censor. Not one of the professional critics could put their fingers on Van Kuyp's weak spots—"his sore music," as he jestingly called it—so surely as his wife. She had studied; she had even played the violin in public; but she gave up her virtuosa ambitions for the man she had married during their student years in Germany. Now the old doubts came to life as the chivalric tones of Weber rose to her sharpened senses. Why couldn't Richard—
The door in the anteroom opened, her guest entered. Alixe was not dismayed. She left her seat and, closing the curtains, greeted him.
The overture was ending as Rentgen sat down beside her in the intimate little chamber, lighted by a solitary electric bulb.
"You are always thoughtful," she murmured.
"My dear lady, mine is the honour. And if you do not care, can't we hear the music of your young man—" he smiled, she thought, acidly—"here? If I sit outside, the world will say—we have to be careful of our unsmirched reputations—we poor critics and slave-drivers of the deaf."
She drew her hand gently away. He had held it, playfully tapping it as he slowly delivered himself in short sentences. He was a Dane, but his French and English were without trace of accent; certain intonations alone betrayed his Scandinavian origin.
Alixe could not refuse, for the moment he finished speaking she heard a too familiar motive, the ponderous phrase in the brass choir which Van Kuyp intended as the thematic label for his hero, "Sordello."
"Ah, there's your Browning in tone for you," whispered the critic. She wished him miles away. The draperies were now slightly parted and into the room filtered the grave, languorous accents of the new tone-poem. Her eyes were fixed by Rentgen's. His expression changed; with nostrils dilated like a hunter scenting prey, his rather inert, cold features became transfigured; he was the man who listened, the cruel judge who sentenced. And she hoped, also the kind friend who would consider the youth and inexperience of the culprit. To the morbidly acute hearing of the woman, the music had a ring of hollow sonority after the denser packed phrases of Weber.
She had read Sordello with her husband until she thought its meaning was as clear as high noon. By the critic's advice the subject had been selected for musical treatment. Sordello's overweening spiritual pride—"gate-vein of this heart's blood of Lombardy"—appealed to Van Kuyp. The stress of souls, the welter of cross-purposes which begirt the youthful dreamer, his love for Palma, and his swift death when all the world thrust upon him its joys—here were motives, indeed, for any musician of lofty aim and sympathetic imagination.
Alixe recalled the interminable arguments, the snatches of poetry, the hasty rushes to the keyboard; a composer was in travail. At the end of a year, Rentgen professed his satisfaction; Van Kuyp stood on the highroad to fame. Of that there could be no doubt; Elvard Rentgen would say so in print. Alixe had been reassured—
Yet sitting now within the loop of her husband's music it suddenly became insipid, futile, and lacking in those enchantments for which she yearned. Her eyes dropped to the shapely hands meekly folded in her lap, dropped because the bold, interrogative expression on Rentgen's face disturbed her. She knew, as any woman would have known, that he admired her—but was he not Richard's friend? His glance enveloped her with piteous mockery.
The din was tremendous. After passages of dark music, in which the formless ugly reigned, occurred the poetic duel between Sordello and Eglamor at Palma's Court of Love. But why all this stress and fury? On the pianoforte the delicate episode sounded gratefully; with the thick riotous orchestration came a disillusioning transformation. There was noise without power, there was sensuality that strove to imitate the tenderness of passion; and she had fancied it a cloudy garden of love. Alixe raised an involuntary hand to her ear.
"Yes," whispered the critic, "I warned him not to use his colours with a trowel. His theme is not big enough to stand it." He lifted thin eyebrows and to her overheated brain was an unexpected Mephisto. Then the music whirled her away to Italy; the love scene of Palma and Sordello. It should have been the apex of the work.
"Sounds too much like Tschaikowsky's Francesca da Rimini," interrupted Rentgen. She was annoyed.
"Why didn't you tell Van Kuyp before he scored the work?" she demanded, her long gray eyes beginning to blacken.
"I did, my dear lady, I did. But you know what musicians are—" He shrugged a conclusion with his narrow shoulders. Alixe coldly regarded him. There was something new and dangerous in his attitude to her husband's music this evening.
Her heart began to beat heavily. What if her suspicions were but the advance guard of a painful truth! What if this keen analyst of other men's ideas—she dared not finish the thought. With a sluggish movement the music uncoiled itself like a huge boa about to engulf a tiny rabbit. The simile forced itself against her volition; all this monstrous preparation for a—rabbit! In a concert-hall the poetic idea of the tone-poem was petty. And the churning of the orchestra, foaming hysteria of the strings, bellowing of the brass—would they never cease! Such an insane chase after a rabbit! Yes, she said the word to herself and found her lips carved into a hard smile, which she saw reflected as in a trick mirror upon the face of Elvard Rentgen. He understood.
Of little avail Sordello's frantic impotencies. She saw through the rhetorical trickeries of the music, weighed its cheap splendours, realized the mediocrity of this second-rate poet turned symphonist. Image after image pressed upon her brain, each more pessimistic, more depressing than its predecessor. Alixe could have wept. Her companion placed his hand on her arm. His fingers burned; she moved, but she felt his will controlling her mood. With high relief she heard the music end. There was conventional applause. Alixe restlessly peered into the auditorium. Again she saw opera-glasses turned toward the box. "Our good friends," she rather bitterly thought. Rentgen recognized her mental turmoil.
"Don't worry," he said soothingly. "It will be all right to-morrow morning. What I write will make the fortune of the composition." He did not utter this vaingloriously, but as a man who stated simple truth. She gazed at him, her timidity and nervousness returning in full tide.
"I know I am overwrought. I should be thankful. But—but, isn't it deception—I mean, will it be fair to conceal from Richard the real condition of affairs?" He took her hand.
"Spoken like a true wife," he gayly exclaimed. "My dear friend, there will be no deception. Only encouragement, a little encouragement. As for deceiving a composer, telling him that he may not be so wonderful as he thinks—that's impossible. I know these star-shouldering souls, these farmers of phantasms who exist in a world by themselves. It would be a pity to let in the cold air of reality—anyhow Van Kuyp has some talent."
Like lifting mists revealing the treacherous borders of a masked pool, she felt this speech with its ironic innuendo. She flushed, her vanity irritated. Rentgen saw her eyes contract.
"Let us go when the symphony begins," she begged, "I can't talk to any one in my present bad humour; and to hear Beethoven would drive me mad—now."
"I don't wonder," remarked her companion, consolingly. Alixe winced.
The silver-cold fire of an undecided moon was abroad in the sky and rumours of spring filled the air. They parted at a fiacre. He told her he would call the next afternoon, and she nodded an unforgiving head. It was her turn to be disagreeable.
In his music room, Van Kuyp read a volume of verse. He did not hear his wife enter. It pained her when she saw his serious face with its undistinguished features and dogged expression. No genius this, was her hasty verdict, as she quickly went to him and put a hand on his head. It was her hand now that was hot. He raised eyes, dolent with dreams.
"Well?" he queried.
"You are a curious man!" she said wonderingly. "Aren't you interested in the news about your symphonic poem?" He smiled the smile of the fatuous elect. "I imagine it went all right," he languidly replied. "I heard it at rehearsal yesterday—I suppose Theleme took the tempi too slow!"
She sighed and asked:—
"What are you reading a night like this?" His expression became animated.
"A volume of Celtic poetry—I've found a stunning idea for music. What a tone-poem it will make! Here it is. What colour, what rhythms. It is called The Shadowy Horses. 'I hear the shadowy horses, their long manes a-shake'—"
"Who gave you the poem?"
"Oh, Rentgen, of course. Did you see him to-night?"
"You dear boy! You must be tired to death. Better rest. The critics will get you up early enough."
Through interminable hours the mind of Alixe revolved about a phrase she had picked up from Elvard Rentgen: "Music is a trap for weak souls; for the strong as the spinning of cobwebs...."
It was pompous July and the Van Kuyps were still in Paris. They lived near Passy—from her windows high in the air Alixe caught the green at dawn as the sun lifted level rays. Richard was writing his new tone-poem, which the Societe Harmonique accepted provisionally for the season following. Sordello had set the town agog because of the exhaustive articles by Rentgen it brought in its wake. He was a critic who wrote brilliantly of music in the terms of painting, of plastic arts in the technical phraseology of music, and by him the drama was discussed purely as literature. This deliberate and delicate confusion of aesthetics clouded the public mind. He described Sordello as a vast mural fresco, a Puvis de Chavannes in tone, a symphonic drama wherein agonized the shadowy AEschylean protagonist. Even sculpture was rifled for analogies, and Van Kuyp to his bewilderment found himself called "The Rodin of Music"; at other times, "Richard Strauss II," or a "Tonal Browning"; finally, he was adjured to swerve not from the path he had so wonderfully hewn for himself in the virgin jungle of modern art, and begged to resist the temptations of the music-drama.
Rentgen loathed the music of Wagner. Wagner had abused Meyerbeer for doing what he did himself—writing operas stuffed with spectacular effects. This man of the foot-lights destroyed all musical imagination with his puppet shows, magic lanterns, Turkish bazaars, where, to the booming of mystic bells, the listener was drugged into opium-fed visions.
Under a tent, as at a fair, he assembled the mangled masterpieces of Bach, Gluck, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, and to a gullible public sold the songs of these music-lords—songs that should swim on high like great swan-clouds cleaving skies blue and inaccessible. And his music was operatic, after all, grand opera saccharine with commonplace melodies gorgeously attired—nothing more. Wagner, declared the indignant critic, was not original. He popularized the noble ideas of the masters, vulgarized and debased their dreams. He never conceived a single new melody, but substituted instead, sadly mauled and pinched thematic fragments of Liszt, Berlioz, and Beethoven, combined with exaggerated fairy-tales, clothed in showy tinsel and theatrical gauds, the illusion being aided by panoramic scenery; scenery that acted in company with toads, dragons, horses, snakes, crazy valkyrs, mermaids, half-mad humans, gods, demons, dwarfs, and giants. What else is all this but old-fashioned Italian opera with a new name? What else but an inartistic mixture of Scribe libretto and Northern mythology? Music-drama—fudge! Making music that one can see is a death-blow to a lofty idealization of the art.
Puzzled by the richness of Rentgen's vocabulary, by his want of logic, Alixe asked herself many times whether she was wrong and her husband right. She wished to be loyal. His devotion to his work, his inspiration springing as it did from poetic sources, counted for something. Why not? All composers should read the poets. It is a starting-point. Modern music leans heavily on drama and fiction. Richard Strauss embroiders philosophical ideas, so why should not Richard Van Kuyp go to Ireland, to the one land where there is hope of a spiritual, a poetic renascence? Ireland! The very name evoked dreams!
When Rentgen called at the Van Kuyps' it was near the close of a warm afternoon. The composer would not stir, despite the invitation of the critic or the pleading of his wife. He knew that the angel wings of inspiration had been brushing his brow all the morning, and such visits were too rare to be flouted. He sat at his piano and in a composer's raucous varied voice, imitated the imaginary timbres of orchestral instruments. Sent forth, Mrs. Van Kuyp and Rentgen slowly walked into the little Parc of Auteuil, once the joy of the Goncourts.
"Musicians are as selfish as the sea," he asserted, as they sat upon a bench of tepid iron. She did not demur. The weather had exhausted her patience; she was young and fond of the open air—the woods made an irresistible picture this day. The critic watched her changing, dissatisfied face.
"Shall we ride?" he suddenly asked. Before she could shake a negative head, he quickly uttered the words that had been hovering in her mind for hours.
"Or, shall we go to the Bois?" She started. "What an idea! Go to the Bois without Richard, without my husband?"
"Why not?" he inquired, "it's not far away. Send him a wire asking him to join us; it will do him good after his labours. Come, Madame Van Kuyp, come Alixe, my child." He paused. Her eyes expanded. "I'll go," she quietly announced—"that is, if you grant me a favour."
"A hundred!" he triumphantly cried.
To soothe her conscience, which began to ring faint alarm-bells at sundown, Alixe sent several despatches to her husband, and then tried a telephone; but she was not successful. Her mood shifted chilly, and they bored each other immeasurably on the long promenade vibrating with gypsy music and frivolous folk.
It was after seven o'clock as the sun slowly swam down the sky-line. Decidedly their little flight from the prison of stone was not offering rich recompense to Alixe Van Kuyp and her elderly companion.
"And now for the favour!" he demanded, his eyes contentedly resting upon the graceful expanse of his guest's figure.
She moved restlessly: "My dear Rentgen, I am about to ask you a question, only a plain question. That is the favour." He bowed incredulously.
"I must know the truth about Richard. It is a serious matter, this composing of his. He neglects his pupils—most of them Americans who come to Paris to study with him. Yet with the reputation he has attained, due to you entirely"—she waved away an interruption—"he refuses to write songs or piano music that will sell. He is an incorrigible idealist and I confess I am discouraged. What can be our future?" She drew the deep breath of one in peril; this plain talk devoid of all sham mortified her exceedingly.
She was thankful that he did not attempt to play the role of fatherly adviser. His eyes were quite sincere when he answered her:—
"What you say, Alixe—" the familiarity brought with it no condescending reverberations—"has bothered me more than once. I shall be just as frank on my side. No, your husband has but little talent; original talent, none. He is mediocre—wait!" She started, her cheeks red with the blood that fled her heart when she heard this doleful news. "Wait! There are qualifications. In the first place, what do you expect from an American?"
"But you always write so glowingly of our composers," she interjected.
"And," he went on as if she had not spoken, "Van Kuyp is your typical countryman. He has studied in Germany. He has muddled his brain with the music of a dozen different nations; if he had had any individuality it would have been submerged. His memory has killed his imagination. He borrows his inspiration from the poets, from Liszt, Wagner, Berlioz, Richard Strauss. Anyhow, like all musicians of his country, he is too painfully self-conscious of his nationality."
"You, alone, are responsible for his present ambitions," retorted the unhappy woman.
"Quite true, my dear friend. I acknowledge it."
"And you say this to my face?"
"Do you wish me to lie?" She did not reply. After a grim pause she burst forth:—
"Oh, why doesn't he compose an opera, and make a popular name?"
"Richard Wagner Number II!" There were implications of sarcasm in this which greatly displeased Mrs. Van Kuyp. They strolled on slowly. It was a melodious summer night; mauve haze screened all but the exquisite large stars. Soothed despite rebellion, Alixe told herself sharply that in every duel with this man she was worsted. He said things that scratched her nerves; yet she forgave. He had not the slightest attraction for her; nevertheless, when he spoke, she listened, when he wrote, she read. He ruled the husband through his music; he ruled her through her husband. And what did he expect?
They retraced their way. A fantastic bridge spanning the brief marshland, frozen by the moonlight, appealed to them. They crossed. A coachman driving an open carriage hailed confidentially. Alixe entered and with a dexterous play of draperies usurped the back seat. Rentgen made no sign. He had her in full view, the moon streaking her disturbed features with its unflattering pencil.
They started bravely, the horses running for home; but the rapid gait soon subsided into a rhythmic trot. Rentgen spoke. She hardly recognized his voice, so gently monotonous were his phrases.
"Dear Alixe. It is a night for confessions. You care for your husband, you are wrapped up in his art work, you are solicitous of his future, of his fame. It is admirable. You are a model wife for an artist. But tell me frankly, doesn't it bore you to death? Doesn't all this talk of music, themes, orchestration, of the public, critics, musicians, conductors, get on your nerves? Is it any consolation for you to know that Van Kuyp will be famous? What is his fame or his failure to you? Where do you, Alixe Van Kuyp, come in? Why must your charming woman's soul be sacrificed, warped to this stunted tree of another's talent? You are silent. You say he is trying to make me deny Richard! You were never more mistaken. I am interested in you both; interested in you as a noble woman—stop! I mean it. And interested in Richard—well—because he is my own creation...."
She watched him now with her heart in her eyes; he frightened her more with these low, purring words, than if he declared open love.
"He is my own handiwork. I have created him. I have fashioned his outlines, have wound up the mechanism that moves him to compose. Did you ever read that terrifying thought of Yeats, the Irish poet? I've forgotten the story, but remember the idea: 'The beautiful arts were sent into the world to overthrow nations, and, finally, life itself, sowing everywhere unlimited desires, like torches thrown into a burning city.' There—'like torches thrown into a burning city!' Richard Van Kuyp is one of my burning torches. In the spectacle of his impuissance I find relief from my own suffering."
The booming of the Tzigane band was no longer heard—only the horses' muffled footfalls and the intermittent chromatic drone of hidden distant tram-cars. She shivered and shaded her face with her fan. There was something remote from humanity in his speech. He continued with increasing vivacity:—
"Music is a burning torch. And music, like ideas, can slay the brain. Wagner borrowed his harmonic fire from the torch of Chopin—" She broke in:—
"Don't talk of Chopin! Tell me more of Van Kuyp. Why do you call him yours?" Her curiosity was become pain. It mastered her prudence.
"In far-away Celtic legends there may be found a lovely belief that our thoughts are independent realities, that they go about in the void seeking creatures to control. They are as bodiless souls. When they descend into a human being they possess his moods, in very existence—"
"And Richard!" she muttered. His words swayed her like strange music; the country through which they were passing was a blank; she could see but two luminous points—the nocturnal eyes of Elvard Rentgen, as he spun his cobwebs in the moonshine. She did not fear him; nothing could frighten her now. One desire held her. If it were unslaked, she felt she would collapse. It was to know the truth, to be told everything! He put restraining fingers on her ungloved hand; they seemed like cold, fat spiders. Yet she was only curious, with a curiosity that murdered the spirit within her.
"To transfuse these shadows, my dear Alixe, has been one of my delights, for I can project my futile desires into another's soul. I am denied the gift of music-making, so this is my revenge on nature for bungling its job. If Richard had genius, my intervention would be superfluous. He has none. He is dull. You must realize it. But since he has known me, has felt my influence, has been subject to my volition, my sorcery, you may call it,—" his laugh was disagreeably conscious,—"he has developed the shadow of a great man. He will seem a great composer. I shall make him think he is one. I shall make the world believe it, also. It is my fashion of squaring a life I hate. But if I chose to withdraw—"
The road they entered was black and full of the buzzing shadows of hot night, but she was oblivious to everything but his hallucinating voice:—
"And if you withdraw?" Her mouth echoed phrases without the complicity of her brain.
"If I do—ah, these cobweb spinners! Good-by to Richard Van Kuyp and dreams of glory." This note of harsh triumph snapped his weaving words.
"I don't believe you or your boasts," remarked Alixe, in her most conventionally amused manner. "You are trying to scare me, and with this hypnotic joke about Richard you have only hypnotized yourself. I mean to tell Mr. Van Kuyp every bit of our conversation. I'm not frightened by your vampire tales. You critics are only shadows of composers."
"Yes, but we make ordinary composers believe they are great," he replied acridly.
"I'll tell this to Richard."
"He won't believe you."
"He shall—he won't believe you! Oh, Rentgen, how can you invent such cruel things? Are you always so malicious? What do you mean? Come—what do you expect?" She closed her eyes, anticipating an avowal. Why should a man seek to destroy her faith in her husband, in love itself, if not for some selfish purpose of his own? But she was wrong, and became vaguely alarmed—at least if he had offered his service and sympathy in exchange for her friendship, she might have understood his fantastic talk. Rentgen sourly reflected—despite epigrams, women never vary. For him her sentiment was suburban. It strangled poetry. But he said nothing, though she imagined he looked depressed; nor did he open his mouth as the carriage traversed avenues of processional poplars before arriving at her door. She turned to him imploringly:—
"You must come with me. I shall never be able to go in alone, without an excuse. Don't—don't repeat to Richard what you said to me, in joke, I am sure, about his music. Heavens! What will my husband think?" There was despair in her voice, but hopefulness in her gait and gesture, when they reached the ill-lighted hall.
A night-lamp stood on the composer's study table. The piano was open. He sat at the keyboard, though not playing, as they hurriedly entered the room.
"You poor fellow! You look worn out. Did you think we had run away from you? Did you get the wires, the telephone messages? Oh, why did you keep us expecting you, Richard! We have had a wonderful time and missed you so much! Such a talk with Rentgen! And all about you. Nicht wahr, Rentgen? He says you are the only man in the world with a musical future. Isn't that so, Rentgen? Didn't you say that Richard was the only man in whom you took any interest? Say what you said to me! I dare you!"
The musician, aroused by this wordy assault, looked from one to the other with his heavy eyes, the eyes of an owl rudely disturbed. Alixe almost danced her excitement. She hummed shrilly and grasped Van Kuyp's arm in the gayest rebounding humour.
"Why don't you speak, Maestro?"
"I didn't join you because I was too busy at my score. Listen, children! I have sketched the beginning of The Shadowy Horses. You remember the Yeats poem, Rentgen? Listen!"
Furiously he attacked the instrument, from which escaped accents of veritable torture; a delirium of tone followed, meagre melodies fighting for existence in the boiling madness of it all; it was the parody of a parody, the music of yesterday masquerading as the music of to-morrow. Alixe nervously watched the critic. He stood at the end of the piano and morosely fumbled his beard. Again a wave of anxious hatred, followed by forebodings, crowded her alert brain. She desperately clutched her husband's shoulder; he finished in a burst of sheer pounding and brutal roaring. Then she threw her arms about him in an ecstasy of pride—her confidence was her only anchorage.
"There, Elvard Rentgen! What did you tell me? I dare you to say that this music is not marvellous, not original!" Her victorious gaze, in which floated indomitable faith, challenged him, as she drew the head of her husband to her protecting bosom. The warring of exasperated eyes endured a moment; to Alixe it seemed eternity. Rentgen bowed and went away from this castle of cobwebs, deeply stirred by the wife's tender untruths.... She was the last dawn illuminating his empty, sordid life,—now a burnt city of defaced dreams and blackened torches.
THE EIGHTH DEADLY SIN
Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.—Genesis.
"And the Seven Deadly Sins, beloved brethren, are: Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy, Sloth. To these our wise Mother, the Church, opposes the contrary virtues: Humility, Chastity, Meekness, Temperance, Brotherly Love, Diligence." The voice of the preacher was clear and well modulated. It penetrated to the remotest corner of the church. Baldur, sitting near the pulpit, with its elaborate traceries of marble, idly wondered why the sins were, with few exceptions, words of one syllable, while those of the virtues were all longer. Perhaps because it was easier to sin than to repent! The voice of the speaker deepened as he continued:—
"Now the Seven Deadly Arts are: Music, Literature, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Dancing, Acting. The mercy of God has luckily purified these once pagan inventions, and transformed them into saving instruments of grace. Yet it behooves us to examine with the utmost diligence the possible sources of evil latent in each and every one of those arts. Then we shall consider some of the special forms of sin that may develop from them. St. Chrysostom warned the faithful against the danger of the Eighth Deadly Art—Perfume...."
His phrases, which began to fall into the rhythmic drone of a Sunday sermon, lulled Baldur to dreaming. Perfume—that delicious vocable! And the contrast with what his own nostrils reported to his consciousness made him slightly shiver. It was on a Friday night in Lent that, weary in flesh and spirit, his conscience out of tune, he had entered the church and taken the first vacant seat. Without, the air was sluggish; after leaving his club the idea of theatres or calls had set his teeth on edge. He longed to be alone, to weigh in the silence of his heart the utter futility of life. Religion had never been a part of his training as the only son of a millionnaire, and if he preferred the Roman Catholic ritual above all others, it was because the appeal was to his aesthetic sense; a Turkish mosque, he assured his friends, produced the same soothing impression—gauze veils gently waving and slowly obscuring the dulling realities of everyday existence. This morbidezza of the spirit the Mahometans call Kef; the Christians, pious ecstasy.
But now he could not plunge himself, despite the faint odour of incense lingering in the atmosphere, into the deepest pit of his personality. At first he ascribed his restlessness to the sultry weather, then to his abuse of tea and cigarettes,—perhaps it was the sharp odour of the average congregation, that collective odour of humanity encountered in church, theatre, or court-rooms. The smell of poverty was mingled with the heavy scents of fashionable women, who, in the minority, made their presence felt by their showy gowns, rustling movements, and attitudes of superior boredom. In a vast building like this extremes touch with eagerness on the part of the poor, to whom these furtive views of the rich and indolent brought with them a bitter consolation.
Baldur remarked these things as he leaned back in his hard seat and barely listened to the sermon, which poured forth as though the tap would never be turned off again. And then a delicate note of iris, most episcopal of perfumes, emerged from the mass of odours—musk, garlic, damp shoes, alcohol, shabby clothing, rubber, pomade, cologne, rice-powder, tobacco, patchouli, sachet, and a hundred other tintings of the earthly symphony. The finely specialized olfactory sense of the young man told him that it was either a bishop or a beautiful woman who imparted to the air the subtle, penetrating aroma of iris. But it was neither ecclesiastic nor maid. At his side was a short, rather thick-set woman of vague age; she might have been twenty-five or forty. Her hair was cut in masculine fashion, her attire unattractive. As clearly as he could distinguish her features he saw that she was not good-looking. A stern mask it was, though not hardened. He would not have looked at such an ordinary physiognomy twice if the iris had not signalled his peculiar sense. There was no doubt that to her it was due. Susceptible as he was to odours, Baldur was not a ladies' man. He went into society because it was his world; and he attended in a perfunctory manner to the enormous estate left him by his father, bound up in a single trust company. But his thoughts were always three thousand miles away, in that delectable city of cities, Paris. For Paris he suffered a painful nostalgia. There he met his true brethren, while in New York he felt an alien. He was one. The city, with its high, narrow streets—granite tunnels; its rude reverberations; its colourless, toiling barbarians, with their undistinguished physiognomies, their uncouth indifference to art,—he did not deny that he loathed this nation, vibrating only in the presence of money, sports, grimy ward politics, while exhibiting a depressing snobbery to things British. There was no nuance in its life or its literature, he asserted. France was his patrie psychique; he would return there some day and forever....
The iris crept under his nostrils, and again he regarded the woman. This time she faced him, and he no longer wondered, for he saw her eyes. With such eyes only a great soul could be imprisoned in her brain. They were smoke-gray, with long, dark lashes, and they did not seem to focus perfectly—at least there was enough deflection to make their expression odd, withal interesting, like the slow droop of Eleonora Duse's magic eye. Though her features were rigid, the woman's glance spoke to Baldur, spoke eloquently. Her eyes were—or was it the iris?—symbols of a soul-state, of a rare emotion, not of sex, nor yet sexless. The pupils seemed powdered with a strange iridescence. He became more troubled than before. What did the curious creature want of him! She was neither coquette nor cocotte, flirtation was not hinted by her intense expression. He resumed his former position, but her eyes made his shoulders burn, as if they had sufficient power to bore through them. He no longer paid any attention to his surroundings. The sermon was like the sound of far-away falling waters, the worshippers were so many black marks. Of two things was he aware—the odour of iris and her eyes.
He knew that he was in an overwrought mood. For some weeks this mood had been descending upon his spirit, like a pall. He had avoided music, pictures, the opera—which he never regarded as an art; even his favourite poets he could not read. Nor did he degustate, as was his daily wont, the supreme prose of the French masters. The pleasures of robust stomachs, gourmandizing and drinking, were denied him by nature. He could not sip a glass of wine, and for meat he entertained distaste. His physique proved him to be of the neurotic temperament—he was very tall, very slim, of an exceeding elegance, in dress a finical dandy; while his trim pointed blue-black beard and dark, foreign eyes were the cause of his being mistaken often for a Frenchman or a Spaniard—which illusion was not dissipated when he chose to speak their several tongues.
Involuntarily, and to the ire of his neighbours, he arose and indolently made his way down the side aisle. When he reached the baize swinging doors, he saw the woman approaching him. As if she had been an acquaintance of years, she saluted him carelessly, and, accompanied by the scandalized looks of many in the congregation, the pair left the church, though not before the preacher had sonorously quoted from the Psalm, Domine ne in Furore, "For my loins are filled with illusions; and there is no health in my flesh."
Je cherche des parfums nouveaux, des fleurs plus larges, des plaisirs ineprouves.—FLAUBERT.
"It may be all a magnificent illusion, but—" he began.
"Everything is an illusion in this life, though seldom magnificent," she answered. They slowly walked up the avenue. The night was tepid; motor cars, looking like magnified beetles, with bulging eyes of fire, went swiftly by. The pavements were almost deserted when they reached the park. He felt as if hypnotized, and once, rather meanly, was glad that no one saw him in company of his dowdy companion.
"I wonder if you realize that we do not know each other's name," he said.
"Oh, yes. You are Mr. Baldur. My name is Mrs. Lilith Whistler."
"Mrs. Whistler. Not the medium?"
"The medium—as you call it. In reality I am only a woman, happy, or unhappy, in the possession of super-normal powers."
"Not supernatural, then?" he interposed. He was a sceptic who called himself agnostic. The mystery of earth and heaven might be interpreted, but always in terms of science; yet he did not fancy the superior manner in which this charlatan flouted the supernatural. He had heard of her miracles—and doubted them. She gave a little laugh at his correction.
"What phrase-jugglers you men are! You want all the splendours of the Infinite thrown in with the price of admission! I said super-normal, because we know of nothing greater than nature. Things that are off the beaten track of the normal, across the frontiers, some call supernatural; but it is their ignorance of the vast, unexplored territory of the spirit—which is only the material masquerading in a different guise."
"But you go to church, to a Lenten service—?" It was as if he had known her for years, and their unconventional behaviour never crossed his mind. He did not even ask himself where they were moving.
"I go to church to rest my nerves—as do many other people," she replied; "I was interested in the parallel of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Deadly Arts."
"You believe the arts are sinful?" He was curious.
"I don't believe in sin at all. A bad conscience is the result of poor digestion. Sins are created so that we pay the poll-tax to eternity—pay it on this side of the ferry. Yet the arts may become dangerous engines of destruction if wrongfully employed. The Fathers of the early Church, Ambrose and the rest, were right in viewing them suspiciously."—He spoke:—
"The arts diabolic! Then what of the particular form of wizardry practised so successfully by the celebrated Mrs. Whistler, one of whose names is, according to the Talmud, that of Adam's first wife?"
"What do you know, my dear young man, of diabolic arts?"
"Only that I am walking with you near the park on a dark night of April and I never saw you before a half-hour ago. Isn't that magic—white, not black?"
"Pray do not mock magic, either white or black. Remember the fate of the serpents manufactured by Pharaoh's magicians. They were, need I tell you, speedily devoured by the serpents of Moses and Aaron. Both parties did not play fair in the game. If it was black magic to transform a rod into a snake on the part of Pharaoh's conjurers, was it any less reprehensible for the Hebrew magicians to play the same trick? It was prestidigitation for all concerned—only the side of the children of Israel was espoused in the recital. Therefore, do not talk of black or white magic. There is only one true magic. And it is not slate-writing, toe-joint snapping, fortune-telling, or the vending of charms. Magic, too, is an art—like other arts. This is forgotten by the majority of its practitioners. Hence the sordid vulgarity of the average mind-reader and humbugging spiritualist of the dark-chamber seance. Besides, the study of the super-normal mind tells us of the mind in health—nature is shy in revealing her secrets."
They passed the lake and were turning toward the east driveway. Suddenly she stopped and under the faint starlight regarded her companion earnestly. He had not been without adventures in his career—Paris always provided them in plenty; but this encounter with a homely woman piqued him. Her eye he felt was upon him and her voice soothing.
"Mr. Baldur—listen! Since Milton wrote his great poem the English-speaking people are all devil-worshippers, for Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost. But I am no table-tipping medium eager for your applause or your money. I don't care for money. I think you know enough of me through the newspapers to vouchsafe that. You are rich, and it is your chief misery. Listen! Whether you believe it or not, you are very unhappy. Let me read your horoscope. Your club life bores you; you are tired of our silly theatres; no longer do you care for Wagner's music. You are deracinated; you are unpatriotic. For that there is no excuse. The arts are for you deadly. I am sure you are a lover of literature. Yet what a curse it has been for you! When you see one of your friends drinking wine, you call him a fool because he is poisoning himself. But you—you—poison your spirit with the honey of France, of Scandinavia, of Russia. As for the society of women—"
"The Eternal Womanly!" he sneered.
"The Eternal Simpleton, you mean. In that swamp of pettiness, idiocy, and materialism, a man of your nature could not long abide. Religion—it has not yet responded to your need. And without faith your sins lose their savour. The arts—you don't know them all, the Seven Deadly Arts and the One Beautiful Art!" She paused. Her voice had been as the sound of delicate flutes. He was aflame.
"Is there, then, an eighth art?" he quickly asked.
"Would you know it if you saw it?"
"Of course. Where is it, what is it?"
She laughed and took his arm.
"Why did you look at me in church?"
"Because—it was mere chance—no, it may have been the odour of iris. I am mad over perfume. I think it a neglected art, degraded to the function of anointment. I have often dreamed of an art by which a dazzling and novel synthesis of fragrant perfumes would be invented by some genius, some latter-day Rimmel or Lubin whom we could hail as a peer of Chopin or Richard Strauss—two composers who have expressed perfume in tone. Roinard in his Cantiques des Cantiques attempted a concordance of tone, light, and odours. Yes—it was the iris that attracted me."
"But I have no iris about me. I have none now," she simply replied. He faced her.
"No iris? What—?"
"I thought iris," she added triumphantly, as she guided him into one of the side streets off Madison Avenue. He was astounded. She must be a hypnotist, he said to himself. No suggestion of iris clung to her now. And he remembered that the odour disappeared after they left the church. He held his peace until they arrived before a brown-stone house of the ordinary kind with an English basement. She took a key from her pocket and, going down several steps, beckoned to him. Baldur followed. His interest in this modern Cassandra and her bizarre words was too great for him to hesitate or to realize that he would get himself into some dangerous scrape. And was this truly the Mrs. Whistler whose tricks of telepathy and other extraordinary antics had puzzled and angered the wise men of two continents? He did not have much time for reflection. A grilled door opened, and presently he was in a room furnished very much like a physician's office. Electric bulbs, an open grate, and two bookcases gave the apartment a familiar, cheerful appearance. Baldur sat down on a low chair, and Mrs. Whistler removed her commonplace headgear. In the bright light she was younger than he had imagined, and her head a beautifully modelled one—broad brows, very full at the back, and the mask that of an emotional actress. Her smoke-coloured eyes were most remarkable and her helmet of hair blue black.
"And now that you are my guest at last, Mr. Baldur, let me apologize for the exercise of my art upon your responsive nerves;" she made this witch-burning admission as if she were accounting for the absence of tea. To his relief she offered him nothing. He had a cigarette between his fingers, but he did not care to smoke. She continued:—
"For some time I have known you—never mind how! For some time I have wished to meet you. I am not an impostor, nor do I desire to pose as the goddess of a new creed. But you, Irving Baldur, are a man among men who will appreciate what I may show you. You love, you understand, perfumes. You have even wished for a new art—don't forget that there are others in the world to whom the seven arts have become a thrice-told tale, to whom the arts have become too useful. All great art should be useless. Yet architecture houses us; sculpture flatters us; painting imitates us; dancing is pure vanity; literature and the drama, mere vehicles for bread-earning; while music—music, the most useless art as it should have been—is in the hands of the speculators. Moreover music is too sexual—it reports in a more intense style the stories of our loves. Music is the memory of love. What Prophet will enter the temple of the modern arts and drive away with his divine scourge the vile money-changers who fatten therein?" Her voice was shrill as she paced the room. A very sibyl this, her crest of hair agitated, her eyes sparkling with wrath. He missed the Cumaean tripod.
"There is an art, Baldur, an art that was one of the lost arts of Babylon until now, one based, as are all the arts, on the senses. Perfume—the poor, neglected nose must have its revenge. It has outlived the other senses in the aesthetic field."
"What of the palate—you have forgotten that. Cookery, too, is a fine art," he ventured. His smile irritated her.
"Yes, Frenchmen have invented symphonic sauces, they say. But again, eating is a useful art; primarily it serves to nourish the body. When man was wholly wild—he is a mere barbarian to-day—his sense of smell guarded him from his foes, from the beasts, from a thousand dangers. Civilization, with its charming odours of decay,—have you ever ventured to savour New York?—cast into abeyance the keenest of all the senses. Little wonder, then, that there was no art of perfume like the arts of vision and sound. I firmly believe the Hindoos, Egyptians, and the Chinese knew of such an art. How account for the power of theocracies? How else credit the tales of the saints who scattered perfumes—St. Francis de Paul, St. Joseph of Cupertino, Venturini of Bergamo?"
"But," he interrupted, "all this is interesting, fascinating. What I wish to know is what form your art may take. How marshal odours as melodies in a symphony, as colours on a canvas?" She made an impatient gesture.
"And how like an amateur you talk. Melody! When harmony is infinitely greater in music! Form! When colour is infinitely greater than line! The most profound music gives only the timbre—melodies are for infantile people without imagination, who believe in patterns. Tone is the quality I wish on a canvas, not anxious drawing. So it is with perfumes. I can blend them into groups of lovely harmony; I can give you single notes of delicious timbre—in a word, I can evoke an odour symphony which will transport you. Memory is a supreme factor in this art. Do not forget how the vaguest scent will carry you back to your youthful dreamland. It is also the secret of spiritual correspondences—it plays the great role of bridging space between human beings."
"I sniff the air promise-crammed," he gayly misquoted. "But when will you rewrite this Apocalypse? and how am I to know whether I shall really enjoy this feast of perfume, if you can simulate the odour of iris as you did an hour ago?"
"I propose to show you an artificial paradise," she firmly asserted. In the middle of the room there was a round table, the top inlaid with agate. On it a large blue bowl stood, and it was empty. Mrs. Whistler went to a swinging cabinet and took from it a dozen small phials. "Now for the incantation," he jokingly said. In her matter-of-fact manner she placed the bottles on the table, and uncorking them, she poured them slowly into the bowl. He broke the silence:—
"Isn't there any special form of hair-raising invocation that goes with this dangerous operation?"
"Listen to this." Her eyes swimming with fire, she intoned:—
As I came through the desert thus it was, As I came through the desert: Lo you there, That hillock burning with a brazen glare; Those myriad dusky flames with points aglow Which writhed and hissed and darted to and fro; A Sabbath of the serpents, heaped pell-mell For Devil's roll-call and some fete in Hell: Yet I strode on austere; No hope could have no fear.
He did not seem to hear. From out the bowl there was stealing a perfume which overmastered his will and led him captive to the lugubrious glade of the Druids....
THE CIRCUS OF CANDLES
Comme d'autres esprits voguent sur la musique, Le mien, o mon amour! nage sur ton parfum.
He was not dreaming, for he saw the woman at the bowl, saw her apartment. But the interior of his brain was as melancholy as a lighted cathedral. A mortal sadness encompassed him, and his nerves were like taut violin strings. It was within the walls of his skull, that he saw—his mundane surroundings did not disturb his visions. And the waves of dolour swept over his consciousness. A mingling of tuberoses, narcissus, attar of roses, and ambergris he detected in the air—as triste as a morbid nocturne of Chopin. This was followed by a blending of heliotrope, moss-rose, and hyacinth, together with dainty touches of geranium. He dreamed of Beethoven's manly music when whiffs of apple-blossom, white rose, cedar, and balsam reached him. Mozart passed roguishly by in strains of scarlet pimpernel, mignonette, syringa, and violets. Then the sky was darkened with Schumann's perverse harmonies as jasmine, lavender, and lime were sprayed over him. Music, surely, was the art nearest akin to odour. A superb and subtle chord floated about him; it was composed of vervain, opoponax, and frangipane. He could not conceive of a more unearthly triad. It was music from Parsifal. Through the mists that were gathering he savoured a fulminating bouquet of patchouli, musk, bergamot, and he recalled the music of Mascagni. Brahms strode stolidly on in company with new-mown hay, cologne, and sweet peas. Liszt was interpreted as ylang-ylang, myrrh, and marechale; Richard Strauss, by wistaria, oil of cloves, chypre, poppy, and crab-apple.
Suddenly there developed a terrific orchestration of chromatic odours: ambrosia, cassia, orange, peach-blossoms, and musk of Tonkin, magnolia, eglantine, hortensia, lilac, saffron, begonia, peau d'Espagne, acacia, carnation, liban, fleur de Takeoka, cypress, oil of almonds, benzoin, jacinth, rue, shrub, olea, clematis, the hediosma of Jamaica, olive, vanilla, cinnamon, petunia, lotus, frankincense, sorrel, neroli from Japan, jonquil, verbena, spikenard, thyme, hyssop, and decaying orchids. This quintessential medley was as the sonorous blasts of Berlioz, repugnant and exquisite; it swayed the soul of Baldur as the wind sways the flame. There were odours like winged dreams; odours as the plucked sounds of celestial harps; odours mystic and evil, corrupt and opulent; odours recalling the sweet, dense smell of chloroform; odours evil, angelic, and anonymous. They painted—painted by Satan!—upon his cerebellum more than music—music that merged into picture; and he was again in the glade of the Druids. The huge scent-symphony dissolved in a shower of black roses which covered the ground ankle-deep. An antique temple of exotic architecture had thrown open its bronze doors, and out there surged and rustled a throng of Bacchanalian beings who sported and shouted around a terminal god, which, with smiling, ironic lips, accepted their delirious homage. White nymphs and brown displayed in choric rhythms the dance of the Seven Deadly Sins, and their goat-hoofed mates gave vertiginous pursuit. At first the pagan gayety of the scene fired the fancy of the solitary spectator; but soon his nerves, disordered by the rout and fatigued by the spoor of so many odours, warned him that something disquieting was at hand. He felt a nameless horror as the sinister bitter odour of honeysuckle, sandalwood, and aloes echoed from the sacred grove. A score of seductive young witches pranced in upon their broomsticks, and without dismounting surrounded the garden god. A battalion of centaurs charged upon them. The vespertine hour was nigh, and over this iron landscape there floated the moon, an opal button in the sky. Then to his shame and fear he saw that the Satyr had vanished and in its place there reared the Black Venus, the vile shape of ancient Africa, and her face was the face of Lilith. The screaming lovely witches capered in fantastic spirals, each sporting a lighted candle. It was the diabolic Circus of the Candles, the infernal circus of the Witches' Sabbath. Rooted to the ground, Baldur realized with fresh amazement and vivid pain the fair beauty of Adam's prehistoric wife, her luxurious blond hair, her shapely shoulders, her stature of a goddess—he trembled, for she had turned her mordant gaze in his direction. And he strove in vain to bring back the comforting vision of the chamber. She smiled, and the odours of sandal, coreopsis, and aloes encircled his soul like the plaited strands of her glorious hair. She was that other Lilith, the only offspring of the old Serpent. On what storied fresco, limned by what worshipper of Satan, had these accursed lineaments, this lithe, seductive figure, been shown! Names of Satanic painters, from Hell-fire Breughel to Arnold Boecklin, from Felicien Rops to Franz Stuck, passed through the halls of Irving Baldur's memory.
The clangour of the feast was become maddening. He heard the Venus ballet music from Tannhaeuser entwined with the acridities of aloes, sandal, and honeysuckle. Then the aroma of pitch, sulphur, and assafoetida cruelly strangled the other melodic emanations. Lilith, disdaining the shelter of her nymphs and their clowneries, stood forth in all the hideous majesty of AEnothea, the undulating priestess of the Abominable Shape. His nerves macerated by this sinful apparition, Baldur struggled to resist her mute command. What was it? He saw her wish streaming from her eyes. Despair! Despair! Despair! There is no hope for thee, wretched earthworm! No abode but the abysmal House of Satan! Despair, and you will be welcomed! By a violent act of volition, set in motion by his fingers fumbling a small gold cross he wore as a watch-guard, the heady fumes of the orgy dissipated....
He was sitting facing the bowl, and over it with her calm, confidential gaze was the figure of Lilith Whistler.
"Have I proved to you that perfume is the art of arts?" she demanded. He rushed from the room and was shaking the grilled gate in the hallway like a caged maniac, when with a pitying smile she released him. He reached the street at a bound....
* * * * *
... "the evil of perfume, I repeat, was one against which the venerable Fathers of the Church warned the faithful." The preacher's voice had sagged to a monotone. Baldur lifted his eyes in dismay. Near him sat the same woman, and she still stared at him as if to rebuke him for his abstraction. About her hovered the odour of iris. Had it been only a disturbing dream? Intoxicated by his escape from damnation, from the last of the Deadly Arts, he bowed his head in grateful prayer. What ecstasy to be once more in the arms of Mother Church! There, dipped in her lustral waters, and there alone would he find solace for his barren heart, pardon for his insane pride of intellect, and protection from the demons that waylaid his sluggish soul. The sermon ended as it began:—
"And the Seven Deadly Sins, beloved brethren, are: Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy, Sloth. Oremus!"
"Amen," fervently responded Baldur the Immoralist.
THE PURSE OF AHOLIBAH
Lo, this is that Aholibah Whose name was blown among strange seas....
When the last breakfast guests had gone the waiters of the cafe began their most disagreeable daily task. All the silver was assembled on one of the long tables in an inner room, where, as at a solemn conclave, the servants took their seats, and, presided over by the major-domo of the establishment, they polished the knives and forks, spoons, and sugar-tongs, filled the salt-cellars, replenished the pepper-boxes and other paraphernalia of the dining art. The gabble in this close apartment was terrific. Joseph, the maitre d'hotel, rapped in vain a dozen times for silence. The chef poked his head of a truculent Gascon through the door and indulged in a war of wit with a long fellow from Marseilles,—called the "mast" because he was very tall and thin, and had cooked in the galley of a Mediterranean trading brig. From time to time one of the piccolos, a fat little boy from the South, carried in pitchers of flat beer, brewed in the suburbs. As it was a hot day, he was kept busy. The waiters had gone through a trying morning; there were many strangers in Paris. Outside, the Boulevard des Italiens, despite its shade trees, broiled under a torrid July sun that swam in a mercilessly blue sky.
The majority of the men were listening to gossip about their colleagues in the Cafe Cardinal across the way. Ambroise alone sat apart and patted and smoothed the salt in its receptacles. He was a young man from some little town in Alsace, a furious patriot, and the butt of his companions—for he was the latest comer in the Cafe Riche. Though he told his family name, Nettier, and declared that his father and mother were of French blood, he was called "the German." He was good-looking, very blond, with big, innocent blue eyes; and while he was never molested personally,—a short, sharp tussle with a cook had proved him to be a man of muscle,—behind his back his walk was mimicked, his precise attitudes were openly bantered. But Ambroise stood this torture gantlet equably. He had lived long enough among Germans to copy their impassive manner and, coupled with a natural contempt for his fellow-monkeys in the cage, he knew that perhaps in a day a new man would receive all these unwelcome attentions. Moreover, his work, clear-cut, unobtrusive, and capable, pleased M. Joseph. And when the patron himself dined at the cafe, Ambroise was the garcon selected to wait upon him. Hence the jealousy of his colleagues. Couple to this the fact that he was reported miserly, and had saved a large sum—which were all sufficient reasons for his unpopularity.
As the afternoon wore on little airs began to play in the tree-tops; the street watering carts had been assiduous, and before the terrace water had been sprinkled by the piccolos so effectively that at five o'clock, when the jaded stock-brokers, journalists, and business men began to flock in, each for his aperitif, the cafe was comparatively cool.
A few women's frocks relieved the picture with discreet or joyous shades of white and pink. Ambroise was diligent and served his regular customers, the men who grumbled if any one occupied their favourite corners. Absinthe nicely iced, dominoes, the evening papers—these he brought as he welcomed familiar faces. But his thoughts were not his own, and his pose when not in service was listless, even bored. Would she return that evening with the same crowd—was the idea that had taken possession of his brain. He was very timid in the presence of women, and it diverted the waiters to see him blush when he waited upon the gorgeous birds that thronged the aviary at night, making its walls echo with their chattering, quarrels, laughter. This provincial, modest, sensitive, the only child of old-fashioned parents, was stupefied and shocked in the presence of the over-decorated and under-dressed creatures, daubed like idols, who began to flock in the cafe, with or without escorts, after eleven o'clock every night in the year. He knew them all by name. He knew their histories. He could detect at a glance whether they were unhappy or merely depressed by the rain, whether they drank champagne from happiness or desperation. Notwithstanding his dreamy disposition his temperament was ardent; his was an unspoiled soul; he felt himself a sort of moral barometer for the magnificent and feline women who treated him as if he were a wooden post when they were gossiping, harried him like an animal when they were thirsty. He noted that they were always thirsty. They smoked more than they ate, and whispered more, if no men were present, than they smoked. But then, men were seldom absent.
The night previous, Ambroise recalled the fact, she had not come in with a different set. This was not her custom, and he worried over it. Protected by princes and financiers, she nevertheless loved her liberty so much that one seldom caught her in the same company twice in succession. For this singular caprice Aholibah, oftener called the Woman from Morocco,—because she had lived in Algiers,—was the despair of her circle. Why, argued the other birds, why fly in the face of luck? To be sure, she was still young, still beautiful, with that sort of metallic beauty which reminded Ambroise of some priceless bronze blackened in the sun. She was meagre, diabolically graceful, dark, with huge saucer-like eyes that greedily drank in her surroundings. But her lashes were long, and she could veil her glance so that her brilliant face looked as if the shutters had been closed on her soul. Across her brows a bar of blue-black marked the passage of her eyebrows—which sable line was matched by her abundant hair, worn in overshadowing clusters. She dressed winter and summer in scarlet, and her stage name was Aholibah—bestowed upon her by some fantastic poet who had not read Ezekiel, but Swinburne. It was rumoured by her intimates that her real name was Clotilde Durval, that her mother had been a seamstress....
With a sinking at the heart Ambroise saw her enter in the company of the same gentleman she had brought the previous evening. The garcon did not analyze this strange, jealous feeling, for he was too busily employed in seating his guests and relieving the man of his hat and walking-stick. An insolent chap it was, with his air of an assured conqueror and the easy bearing of wealth. There was little discussion as to the order—a certain brand of wine, iced beyond recognition for any normal palate, was always served to Aholibah. She loved "needles on her tongue," she asseverated if any one offered her weaker stuff. That July night she looked like a piratical craft that had captured a sleek merchantman for prize. She was all smoothness; Ambroise alone detected the retracted claws of the leopardess. She blazed in the electric illumination, and her large hat, with its swelling plumes, threw her dusky features into shadow—her eyes seemed far away under its brim and glowed with unholy phosphorescence.
While he arranged the details of the silver wine-pail in the other room, the chef asked him if the Princess Comet had arrived. Ambroise almost snarled—much to the astonishment of the Gascon. And when the sommelier attempted to help him with the wine, he was elbowed vigorously. Ambroise must have been drinking too much, said the boys. Joseph rather curiously inspected his waiter as he made his accustomed round in the cafe. But, pale as usual, Ambroise stood near his table, his whole bearing an intent and thoroughly professional one. Joseph was satisfied and drove the chef back to the kitchen.
The young Alsatian had never seen Aholibah look so radiant. She was in high spirits, and her pungent talk aroused her companion from incipient moroseness. After midnight the party grew—some actresses from a near-by theatre came in with their male friends, and another waiter was detailed to the aid of Ambroise. But he stuck to the first-comers and served so much wine to them that he had the satisfaction of seeing Aholibah's disagreeable protector collapse. She hardly noticed it, for she was talking vivaciously to Madeleine about the premiere of Donnay's comedy. Thrice Ambroise sought to fill her glass; but she repulsed him. He was sad. Something told him that Aholibah was farther away from him than ever; was she on the eve of forming one of those alliances that would rob him finally of her presence? He eyed the sleeping man—surely a monster, a millionnaire, with the tastes of a brute. It was all very trying to a man with fine nerves. Several times he caught Aholibah's eye upon him, and he vaguely wondered if he had omitted anything—or, had he betrayed his feelings? In Paris the waiter who shows that he has ears, or eyes, or a heart, except in the exercise of his functions, is lost. He is bound to be caught and his telltale humanity scourged by instant dismissal. So when those fathomless eyes glittered in his direction, his knees trembled, and a ball of copper invaded his throat. He could barely drag himself to her side and ask if he could help her. A burst of impertinent laughter greeted him, and Madeleine cried:—
"Your blond garcon seems smitten, Aholibah!" When Ambroise heard this awful phrase, his courage quite forsook him, and he withdrew into the obscurity of the hall. So white was he that the kindly Joseph asked solicitously if he were ill. Ambroise shook his head. The heat, he feebly explained, had made his head giddy. Better drink some iced mineral water, was suggested—the other man could look after the party! But Ambroise would not hear of this, and feeling once more the beckoning gaze of Aholibah he marched bravely to her and was rewarded by a tap on the wrist.
"There, loiterer! Go call a carriage. The Prince is sleepy—dear sheep!" This last was a tender apostrophe to her snoring friend. Ambroise helped them into a fiacre. When it drove away it was past two o'clock; the house had to be closed. He walked slowly home to his little chamber on the Rue Puteaux, just off the Batignolles. But he could not sleep until the street-cleaners began the work of another day.... The Woman from Morocco was the scarlet colour of his troubled dreams....
* * * * *
August had almost spent itself, and Aholibah remained in the arid and flavourless town. Her intimate friends had weeks earlier gone to Trouville, to Dinard, to Ostende, to Hombourg, even as far as Brighton; but she lingered, seemingly from perversity. She came regularly to the cafe about eleven, always in company with her Prince, and was untiringly served by Ambroise. He was rewarded for his fidelity with many valuable tips and latterly with gifts—for on being questioned he was forced to admit that gratuities had to be shared with the other waiters. He was so amiable, his smile so winning, his admiration so virginal, that Aholibah kept him near her. Her Prince drank, sulked, or grumbled as much as ever. He was bored by the general heat and the dulness, yet made no effort to escape either. One night they entered after twelve o'clock. Aholibah was in vicious humour and snapped at her garcon. Dog-like he waited upon her, an humble, devoted helot. He overheard her say to her companion that she must have lost the purse at the Folies-Bergeres.
"Well, go to the Rue de la Paix to-morrow and buy another," was the reply.
"I can't replace that purse. Besides, it was a prized gift—"
"From your sainted mother in heaven!" he sneered.
Ambroise saw the windows of her eyes close with a snap, and he moved away, fearing to be present in the surely impending quarrel. He remembered the purse. It was a long gold affair, its tiny links crusted with precious pearls—emeralds, rubies, diamonds. And the top he saw before him with ease, for its pattern was odd—a snake's head with jaws distended by a large amethyst. Yes, it was unique, that purse. And its value must have been bewildering for any but the idle rich. Ah! how he hated all this money, coming from nowhere, pouring in golden streams nowhere. He was not a revolutionist,—not even a socialist,—but there were times when he could have taken the neck of the Prince between his strong fingers and choked out his worthless life. These attacks of envy were short-lived—he could not ascribe them to the reading of the little hornet-like anarchist sheet, Pere Peinard, which the other waiters lent him; rather was it an excess of bile provoked by the coveted beauty of Aholibah.
She usurped his day dreams, his night reveries. He never took a step without keeping her memory in the foreground. When he closed his eyes, he saw scarlet. When he opened them, he felt her magnetic glance upon him, though she was far from the cafe. His one idea was to speak with her. His maddest wish assumed the shape of a couple walking slowly arm in arm through the Bois—she was the woman! But this particular vision bordered on delirium, and he rarely indulged in it.... He stooped to look under the chairs, under the table, for the missing treasure. It was not to be seen. Indolently the Prince watched him as he peered all over the cafe, out on the terrace. Aholibah was deeply preoccupied. She sipped her wine without pleasure. Her brows were thunderous. The cart-wheel hat was tipped low over them. Several times Ambroise sought her glance. He could have sworn that she was regarding him steadily. So painful became the intensity of her eyes that he withdrew in confusion. His mind was made up at last.
The next day was for him a free one. He wandered up and down the Rue de la Paix staring moodily into the jewellers' windows. That night, though he could have stayed away from the cafe, he returned at ten o'clock, and luckily enough was needed. Joseph greeted him effusively. The "mast," the thin fellow from Marseilles, had gone home with a splitting headache. Would Ambroise stay and serve his usual table? To his immense astonishment and joy he saw her enter alone. He took her wraps and seated her on her favourite divan near an electric fan. Then he stared expectantly at the door. But her carriage had driven away. Was a part of his dream coming true? He closed his eyes, and straightway saw scarlet. Then he went for wine, without taking her order.
Aholibah was preoccupied. She played with the bracelet on her tawny left wrist. Occasionally she lifted her glass, or else tossed her hair from her eyes. If any stranger ventured near her, she began to hum insolently, or spoke earnestly with Ambroise. He was in the eleventh heaven of the Persians. Two Ambroises appeared to be in him: one served his lady, spoke with her; the other from afar contemplated with the ecstasy of a hasheesh eater his counterfeit brother. It was an exquisite sensation.
"The purse—has Mademoiselle—" He stammered.
"No," she crisply answered.
"Can it never be duplicated? Perhaps—"
"Never. It is impossible. It was made in Africa."
"But—but—" he persisted. His bearing was so peculiar that she bent upon him her dynamic gaze.
"What's the matter with you this evening, Ambroise? Have you come into a successful lottery ticket? Or—" She was suspiciously looking at him. "Or—you haven't found it?"
He nodded his head, his face beatific with joy. He resembled the youthful Saint George after slaying the dragon. She was startled. Her eyes positively lightened; he listened for the attendant peal of thunder.
"Speak out, you booby. Cornichon! Where did you find it? Let me see it—at once." All fire and imperiousness, she held out grasping fingers. He shook. And then carefully he drew from the inside pocket of his coat, the purse. She snatched it. Yes—it was her purse. And yet there was something strange about it. Had the stones been tampered with? She examined it searchingly. She boasted a jeweller's knowledge of diamonds and rubies. One of the stones had been transposed, that she could have sworn. And how different the expression of the serpent's eyes—small carbuncles. No—it was not her purse! She looked at Ambroise. He was paling and reddening in rapid succession.
"It is not my purse! How did this come into your possession? It is very valuable, quite as valuable as mine. But the eyes of my serpent were not so large—I mean the carbuncles. Ambroise—look at me! I command you! Where did you find this treasure—cher ami!" Her seductive voice lingered on the last words as if they were a morsel of delicious fruit. He leaned heavily on the table and closed his eyes to shut out her face—but he only saw scarlet. He heard scarlet.
"I—I—bought the thing because—you missed the other—" He could get no further. She smiled, showing her celebrated teeth.
"You bought the thing—hein? You must be a prince in disguise—Ambroise! And I have just lost my Prince! Perhaps—you thought—you audacious boy—"
He kept his eyes closed. She was in a corner of the room—quite empty—the other waiters were on the terrace. She weighed his appearance and smiled mysteriously; her smile, her glance, and her scarlet gowns were her dramatic assets. Then she spoke in a low voice—a contralto like the darker tones of an English horn:—
"I fancy I'll keep your thoughtful gift—Ambroise. And now, like a good boy, get a fiacre for me!" She went away, leaving him standing in the middle of the room, a pillar of burning ice. When Joseph spoke to him he did not answer. Then they took him by the arm, and he fell over in a seizure which, asserted the practical head waiter, was caused by indigestion.
ACROSS THE STYX
It was raining on the Left Bank. The chill of a November afternoon cut its way through the doors of the Cafe La Source in the Boul' Mich' and made shiver the groups of young medical students who were reading or playing dominos. Ambroise Nettier, older, thinner, paler, waited carefully on his patrons. He had been in the hospital with brain fever, and after he was cured, one of the students secured him a position at this cafe in the Quartier. He had been afraid to go back to the Cafe Riche; Joseph had harshly discharged him on that terrible night; alone, without a home, without a penny, his savings gone, his life insurance hypothecated,—it had been intended for the benefit of his parents,—his clothes, his very trunk gone, and plunged in debt to his fellow-waiters, his brain had succumbed to the shock. But Ambroise was young and strong; when he left the hospital he was relieved to find that he no longer saw scarlet. He was a healed man. He had intended to seek for a place at the Cafe Cardinal, but it was too near the Cafe Riche—he might meet old acquaintances, might be asked embarrassing questions. So he gladly accepted his present opportunity.
The dulness of the day waxed with its waning. It was nearly six o'clock when the door slowly opened and Aholibah entered. She was alone. Her scarlet plumage was wet, and she was painted like a Peruvian war-god. She did not appear so brilliant a bird of paradise—or elsewhere—as at the aviary across the water. Yet her gaze was as forthright as ever. She sat on a divan between two domino parties, and was hardly noticed by the fanatics of that bony diversion. Recognizing Ambroise, she made a sign to him. It was some minutes before he could reach her table; he had other orders. When he did, she said she wanted some absinthe. He stared at her. Yes, absinthe—she had discarded iced wines. The doctor told her that cold wine was dangerous. He still stared. Then she held up the purse. It was a mere shell; all the stones save the amethyst in the mouth of the serpent were gone. She laughed shrilly. He went for the drink. She lighted a cigarette....
Every night for six months she haunted the cafe. She was always unattended, always in excellent humour. She made few friends among the students. Her scarlet dress grew shabbier. Her gloves and boots were pitiful to Ambroise, who recalled her former splendours, her outrageous extravagances. Why had fortune flouted her! Why had she let it, like water, escape through her jewelled, indifferent fingers! He made no inquiries. She vouchsafed none. They were now on a different footing. Tantalizingly she dangled the purse under his nose as he brought her absinthe—always this opalescent absinthe. She drank it in the morning, in the afternoon, at night. She seldom spoke save to Ambroise. And he—he no longer saw scarlet, for the glorious tone of her hat and gown had vanished. They were rusty red, a carroty tint. Her face was like the mask of La Buveuse d'Absinthe, by Felicien Rops; her eyes, black wells of regard; her hair without lustre, and coarse as the mane of a horse. Aholibah no longer manifested interest in the life of Paris. She did not read or gossip. But she still had money to spend.
The night he quarrelled with his new patron, Ambroise was not well. All the day his head had pained him. When he reached La Source, the dame at the cashier's desk told him that he was in for a scolding. He shrugged his thin shoulders. He didn't care very much. Later the prophesied event occurred. He had been much too attentive to the solitary woman who drank absinthe day and night. The patron did not propose to see his establishment, patronized as it was by the shining lights of medicine—!
Ambroise changed his clothes and went away without a word. He was weary of his existence, and a friend who shared his wretched room in the Rue Mouffetard had apprised him of a vacant job at a livelier resort, the Cafe Vachette, commonly known as the Cafe Rasta. There he would earn more tips, though the work would be more fatiguing. And—the Morocco Woman might not follow him. He hurried away.
She sat on a divan in the corner when he entered the Vachette for the first time. He said nothing, nor did he experience either a thrill of pleasure or disgust. The other waiters assured him that she was an old customer, sometimes better dressed, yet never without money. And she was liberal. He took her usual order, but did not speak to her, though she played with the purse as if to tempt him—it had become for him a symbol of their lives. A quick glance assured him that the amethyst had disappeared. She was literally drinking his gift away in absinthe. The spring passed, and Ambroise did not regain his former health. His limbs were leaden, his head always heavy. The alert waiter was transformed. He took his orders soberly, executed them soberly,—he was still a good routinier; but his early enthusiasm was absent. Something had gone from him that night; as she went to her carriage with her scornful, snapping, petulant Ca!—he felt that his life was over. Aholibah watched like a cat every night; he was not on for day duty. She never came to the Rasta before dark. The story of her infatuation for the well-bred, melancholy garcon was noised about; but it did not endanger his position, as at La Source. He paid little attention to the jesting, and was scrupulously exact in his work. But the sense of his double personality began to worry him again. He did not see scarlet as of old; he noticed when his eyes were closed that the apparition of a second Ambroise swam into the field of his vision. And he was positively certain that this spectre of himself saw scarlet—the attitude of his double assured him of the fact. Simple-minded, ignorant of cerebral disorders, loyal, and laborious, Ambroise could not speak of these disquieting things—indeed, he only worked the more....
At last, one night in late summer, she did not appear. It was after a day when she had sung more insolently than ever, drunk more than her accustomed allowance, and had shown Ambroise the purse—the sockets of the serpent's eyes untenanted by the beautiful carbuncles. Apathetic as he had become, he was surprised at her absence. It was either caprice or serious illness. She had dwindled to a skeleton, with a maleficent smile. Her teeth were yellow, her hands become claws, the scarlet of her clothes a drab hue, the plumes on her hat gone. Ambroise wondered. About midnight a mean-looking fellow entered and asked for him. A lady, a very ill lady, was in a coupe at the door. He hurried out. It was Aholibah. Her eyes were glazed and her lips black and cracked. She tried to croon, in a hoarse voice:—
"I am the Woman of Morocco!" But her head fell on the window-sill of the carriage. Ambroise lifted the weary head on his shoulder. His eyes were so dry that they seemed thirsty. The old glamour gripped him. The cabman held the reins and waited; it was an every-night occurrence for him. The starlight could not penetrate to the Boulevard through the harsh electric glare; and the whirring of wheels and laughter of the cafe's guests entered the soul of Ambroise like steel nails. She opened her eyes.
"I am that Aholibah ... a witness through waste Asia ... that the strong men and the Captains knew ..." This line of Swinburne's was pronounced in the purest English. Ambroise did not understand. Then followed some rapidly uttered jargon that might have been Moorish. He soothed her, and softly passed his hand over her rough and dishevelled hair. His heart was bursting. She was after all his Aholibah, his first love. A crowd gathered. He asked for a doctor. A dozen students ran in a dozen different directions. The tired horse stamped its feet impatiently, and once it whinnied. The coachman lighted his pipe and watched his dying fare. Some wag sang a drunken lyric, and Ambroise repeated at intervals:—
"Please not so close, Messieurs. She needs air." Then she moved her head and murmured:
"Where's—my Prince? My—Prince Ambroise—I have something—" Her head fell back on his shoulder with a rigid jerk. In her clenched fingers he recognized his purse—smudged, torn, the serpent mouth gaping, the eyes empty.... And for the last time Ambroise saw scarlet—saw scarlet double. His two personalities had separated, never to merge again.
REBELS OF THE MOON
"On my honour, friend," Zarathustra answered, "what thou speakest of doth not exist: there is no devil nor hell. Thy soul will be dead even sooner than thy body: henceforth fear naught."
The moon, a spiritual gray wafer, fainted in the red wind of a summer morning as the two men leaped a ditch soft with mud. The wall was not high, the escape an easy one. Crouching, their clothes the colour of clay, they trod cautiously the trench, until opposite a wood whose trees blackened the slow dawn. Then, without a word, they ran across the road, and, in a few minutes, were lost in the thick underbrush of the little forest. It was past four o'clock and the dawn began to trill over the rim of night; the east burst into stinging sun rays, while the moving air awoke the birds and sent scurrying around the smooth green park a cloud of golden powdery dust....
Arved and Quell stood in a secret glade and looked at each other solemnly—but only for a moment. Laughter, unrestrained laughter, frightened the squirrels and warned them that they were still in danger.
"Well, we've escaped this time," said the poet.
"Yes; but how long?" was the sardonic rejoinder of the painter.
"See here, Quell, you're a pessimist. You are never satisfied; which, I take it, is a neat definition of pessimism."
"I don't propose to chop logic so early in the morning," was the surly reply. "I'm cold and nervous. Say, did you lift anything before we got away?" Arved smiled the significant smile of a drinking man.
"Yes, I did. I waited until Doc McKracken left his office, and then I sneaked this." The severe lines in Quell's face began to swim together. He reached out his hand, took the flask, and then threw back his head. Arved watched him with patient resignation.
"Hold on there! Leave a dozen drops for a poor maker of rhymes," he chuckled, and soon was himself gurgling the liquor.
They arose, and after despairing glances at their bespattered garments, trudged on. In an hour, the pair had reached the edge of the forest, and, as the sun sat high and warm, a rest was agreed upon. But this time they did not easily find a hiding-place. Fearing to venture nearer the turnpike, hearing human sounds, they finally retired from the clearing, and behind a moss-etched rock discovered a cool resting-place on the leafy floor.
At full length, hands under heads, brains mellowed by brandy, the men summed up the situation. Arved was the first to speak. He was tall, blond, heavy of figure, and his beard hung upon his chest. His dissatisfied eyes were cynical when he rallied his companion. A man of brains this, but careless as the grass.
"Quell, let us think this thing out carefully. It is nearly six o'clock. At six o'clock the cells will be unlocked, and then,—well, McKracken will damn our bones, for he gets a fat board fee from my people, and the table is not so cursed good at the Hermitage that he misses a margin of profit! What will he do? Set the dogs after us? No, he daren't; we're not convicts—we're only mad folk." He smiled good-humouredly, though his white brow was dented as if by harsh thoughts.
Quell's little bloodshot eyes stared up into a narrow channel of foliage, at the end of which was a splash of blue sky. He was mean-appearing, with a horselike head, his mustache twisted into a savage curl. His forehead was abnormal in breadth and the irritable flashes of fire in his eyes told the story of a restless soul. The nostrils expanded as he spoke:—
"We're only mad folk, as you say; nevertheless, the Lord High Keeper will send his police patrol wagon after us in a jiffy. He went to bed dead full last night, so his humour won't be any too sweet when he hears that several of his boarders have vanished. He'll miss you more than me; I'm not at the first table with you swells."
Quell ended his speech with so disagreeable an inflection that Arved was astonished. He looked around and spat at a beetle.
"What's wrong with you, my hearty? I believe you miss your soft iron couch. Or did you leave it this morning left foot foremost? Anyhow, Quell, don't get on your ear. We'll push to town as soon as it's twilight, and I know a little crib near the river where we can have all we want to eat and drink. Do you hear—drink!" Quell made no answer. The other continued:—
"Besides, I don't see why you've turned sulky simply because your family sent you up to the Hermitage. It's no disgrace. In fact, it steadies the nerves, and you can get plenty of booze."
"If you have the price," snapped his friend.
"Money or no money, McKracken's asylum—no, it's bad taste to call it that; his retreat, ah, there's the word!—is not so awful. I've a theory that our keepers are crazy as loons; though you can't blame them, watching us, as they must, from six o'clock in the morning until midnight. Say, why were you put away?"
"Crazy, like yourself, I suppose." Quell grinned.
"And now we're cured. We cured ourselves by flight. How can they call us crazy when we planned the job so neatly?"
Arved began to be interested in the sound of his own voice. He searched his pockets and after some vain fumbling found a half package of cigarettes.
"Take some and be happy, my boy. They are boon-sticks indeed." Quell suddenly arose.
"Arved, what were you sent up for, may I ask?"
The poet stretched his big legs, rolled over on his back again, and scratching his tangled beard, smoked the cigarette he had just lighted. In the hot hum of the woods there was heard the occasional dropping of pine cones as the wind fanned lazy music from the leaves. They could not see the sun; its power was felt. Perspiration beaded their shiny faces and presently they removed collars and coats, sitting at ease in shirt-sleeves.... Arved's tongue began to speed:—
"Though I've only known you twenty-four hours, my son, I feel impelled to tell you the history of my happy life—for happiness has its histories, no matter what the poets say. But the day is hot, our time limited. Wait until we are recaptured, then I'll spin you a yarn."
"You expect to get caught for sure?"
"I do. So do you. No need to argue—your face tells me that. But we'll have the time of our life before they gather us in. Anyhow, we'll want to go back. The whole world is crazy, but ashamed to acknowledge it. We are not. Pascal said men are so mad that he who would not be is a madman of a new kind. To escape ineffable dulness is the privilege of the lunatic; the lunatic, who is the true aristocrat of nature—the unique man in a tower of ivory, the elect, who, in samite robes, traverses moody gardens. Really, I shudder at the idea of ever living again in yonder stewpot of humanity, with all its bad smells. To struggle with the fools for their idiotic prizes is beyond me. The lunatic asylum—"
"Can't you find some other word?" asked Quell, dryly.
"—is the best modern equivalent for the tub of Diogenes—he who was the first Solitary, the first Individualist. To dream one's dreams, to be alone—"
"How about McKracken and the keepers?"
"From the volatile intellects of madmen are fashioned the truths of humanity. Mental repose is death. All our modern theocrats, politicians,—whose minds are sewers for the people,—and lawyers are corpses, their brains dead from feeding on dead ideas. Motion is life—mad minds are always in motion."
"Let up there! You talk like the doctor chaps over at the crazy crib," interrupted Quell.
"Ah, if we could only arrange our dreams in chapters—as in a novel. Sometimes Nature does it for us. There is really a beginning, a development, a denouement. But, for the most of us, life is a crooked road with weeds so high that we can't see the turn of the path. Now, my case—I'm telling you my story after all—my case is a typical one of the artistic sort. I wrote prose, verse, and dissipated with true poetic regularity. It was after reading Nietzsche that I decided to quit my stupid, sinful ways. Yes, you may smile! It was Nietzsche who converted me. I left the old crowd, the old life in Paris, went to Brittany, studied new rhythms, new forms, studied the moon; and then people began to touch their foreheads knowingly. I was suspected simply because I did not want to turn out sweet sonnets about the pretty stars. Why, man, I have a star in my stomach! Every poet has. We are of the same stuff as the stars. It was Marlowe who said, 'A sound magician is a mighty god.' He was wrong. Only the mentally unsound are really wise. This the ancients knew. Even if Gerard de Nerval did walk the boulevards trolling a lobster by a blue ribbon—that is no reason for judging him crazy. As he truly said, 'Lobsters neither bark nor bite; and they know the secrets of the sea!' His dreams simply overflowed into his daily existence. He had the courage of his dreams. Do you remember his declaring that the sun never appears in dreams? How true! But the moon does, 'sexton of the planets,' as the crazy poet Lenau called it—the moon which is the patron sky-saint of men with brains. Ah, brains! What unhappiness they cause in this brainless world, a world rotten with hypocrisy. A poet polishes words until they glitter with beauty, charging them with fulminating meaning—straightway he is called mad by men who sweat and toil on the stock exchange. Have you ever, my dear Quell, watched those little, grotesque brokers on a busy day? No? Well, you will say that no lunatic grimacing beneath the horns of the moon ever made such ludicrous, such useless, gestures. And for what? Money! Money to spend as idiotically as it is garnered. The world is crazy, I tell you, crazy, to toil as it does. How much cleverer are the apes who won't talk, because, if they did, they would be forced to abandon their lovely free life, put on ugly garments, and work for a living. These animals, for which we have such contempt, are freer than men; they are the Supermen of Nietzsche—Nietzsche whose brain mirrored both a Prometheus and a Napoleon." Quell listened to this speech with indifference. Arved continued:—
"Nor was Nietzsche insane when he went to the asylum. His sanity was blinding in its brilliancy; he voluntarily renounced the world of foolish faces and had himself locked away where he would not hear its foolish clacking. O Silence! gift of the gods, deified by Carlyle in many volumes and praised by me in many silly words! My good fellow, society, which is always hypocritical, has to build lunatic asylums in self-defence. These polite jails keep the world in countenance; they give it a standard. If you are behind the bars—"
"Speak for yourself," growled Quell.
"Then the world knows that you are crazy and that it is not. There is no other way of telling the difference. So a conspiracy of fools, lawyers, and doctors is formed. If you do not live the life of the stupid: cheat, lie, steal, smirk, eat, dance, and drink—then you are crazy! That fact agreed upon, the hypocrites, who are quite mad, but cunning enough to dissemble, lock behind bolted doors those free souls, the poets, painters, musicians—artistic folk in general. They brand our gifts with fancy scientific names, such as Megalomania, Paranoia, Folie des grandeurs. Show me a genius and I'll show you a madman—according to the world's notion."
"There you go again," cried Quell, arising to his knees. "Genius, I believe, is a disease of the nerves; and I don't mind telling you that I consider poets and musicians quite crazy."
Arved's eyes were blazing blue signals.
"But, my dear Quell, are not all men mad at some time or another? Madly in love, religiously mad, patriotically insane, and idiotic on the subject of clothes, blood, social precedence, handsome persons, money? And is it not a sign of insanity when one man claims sanity for his own particular art? Painting, I admit, is—"
"What the devil do you know about painting?" Quell roughly interposed; "you are a poet and, pretending to love all creation,—altruism, I think your sentimental philosophers call it,—have the conceit to believe you bear a star in your stomach when it is only a craving for rum. I've been through the game."
He began to pace the sward, chewing a blade of grass. He spoke in hurried, staccato phrases:—
"Why was I put away? Listen: I tried to paint the sun,—for I hate your moon and its misty madness. To put this glorious furnace on canvas is, as you will acknowledge, the task of a god. It never came to me in my dreams, so I wooed it by day. Above all, I wished to express truth; the sun is black. Think of an ebon sun fringed with its dazzling photosphere! I tried to paint sun-rhythms, the rhythms of the quivering sky, which is never still even when it seems most immobile; I tried to paint the rhythms of the atmosphere, shivering as it is with chords of sunlight and chromatic scales as yet unpainted. Like Oswald Alving in Ibsen's Ghosts, my last cry will be for 'the sun.' How did my friends act? What did the critics say? A black sun was too much for the world, though astronomers have proven my theory correct. The doctors swore I drank too much absinthe; the critics said a species of optical madness had set in; that I saw only the peripheral tints—I was yellow and blue crazy. Perhaps I was, perhaps I am. So is the fellow crazy who invented wireless telegraphy; so is the man off his base who invents a folding bird cage. We are all crazy, and the craziest gang are our doctors at the Hermitage." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. Arved rolled his handsome head acquiescingly.
"You poets and musicians are trying to compass the inane. You are trying to duplicate your dreams, dreams without a hint of the sun. The painter at least copies or interprets real life; while the composer dips his finger in the air, making endless sound-scrolls—noises with long tails and whirligig decorations like foolish fireworks—though I think the art of the future will be pyrotechnics. Mad, mad, I tell you! But whether mad or not matters little in our land of freedom, where all men are born unequal, where only the artists are sad. They are useless beings, openly derided, and when one is caught napping, doing something that offends church or State or society, he is imprisoned. Mad, you know! No wonder anarchy is thriving, no wonder every true artist is an anarch, unavowed perhaps, yet an anarch, and an atheist."