First Violin, The



As time went on, the image of Eugen Courvoisier, my unspoken of, unguessed at, friend, did not fade from my memory. It grew stronger. I thought of him every day—never went out without a distinct hope that I might see him; never came in without vivid disappointment that I had not seen him. I carried three thalers ten groschen so arranged in my purse that I could lay my hand upon them at a moment’s notice, for as the days went on it appeared that Herr Courvoisier had not made up his accounts, or if he had, had not chosen to claim that part of them owed by me.

I did not see him. I began dismally to think that after all the whole thing was at an end. He did not live at Elberthal—he had certainly never told me that he did, I reminded myself. He had gone about his business and interests—had forgotten the waif he had helped one spring afternoon, and I should never see him again. My heart fell and sunk with a reasonless, aimless pang. What did it, could it, ought it to matter to me whether I ever saw him again or not? Nothing, certainly, and yet I troubled myself about it a great deal. I made little dramas in my mind of how he and I were to meet, and how I would exert my will and make him to take the money. Whenever I saw an unusually large or handsome house, I instantly fell to wondering if it were his, and sometimes made inquiries as to the owner of any particularly eligible residence. I heard of Brauns, Müllers, Piepers, Schmidts, and the like, as owners of the same—never the name Courvoisier. He had disappeared—I feared forever.

Coming in weary one day from the town, where I had been striving to make myself understood in shops, I was met by Anna Sartorius on the stairs. She had not yet ceased to be civil to me—civil, that is, in her way—and my unreasoning aversion to her was as great as ever.

“This is the last opera of the season,” said she, displaying a pink ticket. “I am glad you will get to see one, as the theater closes after to-night.”

“But I am not going.”

“Yes, you are. Miss Hallam has a ticket for you. I am going to chaperon you.”

“I must go and see about that,” said I, hastily rushing upstairs.

The news, incredible though it seemed, was quite true. The ticket lay there. I picked it up and gazed at it fondly. Stadttheater zu Elberthal. Parquet, No. 16. As I had never been in a theater in my life, this conveyed no distinct idea to my mind, but it was quite enough for me that I was going. The rest of the party, I found, were to consist of Vincent, the Englishman, Anna Sartorius, and the Dutch boy, Brinks.

It was Friday evening, and the opera was “Lohengrin.” I knew nothing, then, about different operatic styles, and my ideas of operatic music were based upon duets upon selected airs from “La Traviata,” “La Somnambula,” and “Lucia.” I thought the story of “Lohengrin,” as related by Vincent, interesting. I was not in the least aware that my first opera was to be a different one from that of most English girls. Since, I have wondered sometimes what would be the result upon the musical taste of a person who was put through a course of Wagnerian opera first, and then turned over to the Italian school—leaving Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, to take care of themselves, as they may very well do—thus exactly reversing the usual (English) process.

Anna was very quiet that evening. Afterward I knew that she must have been observing me. We were in the first row of the parquet, with the orchestra alone between us and the stage. I was fully occupied in looking about me—now at the curtain hiding the great mystery, now behind and above me at the boxes, in a youthful state of ever-increasing hope and expectation.

“We are very early,” said Vincent, who was next to me, “very early, and very near,” he added, but he did not seem much distressed at either circumstance.

Then the gas was suddenly turned up quite high. The bustle increased cheerfully. The old, young, and middle-aged ladies who filled the Logen in the Erster Rang—hardened theater-goers, who came as regularly every night in the week during the eight months of the season as they ate their breakfasts and went to their beds, were gossiping with the utmost violence, exchanging nods and odd little old-fashioned bows with other ladies in all parts of the house, leaning over to look whether the parquet was well filled, and remarking that there were more people in the Balcon than usual. The musicians were dropping into the orchestra. I was startled to see a fair face I knew—that pleasant-looking young violinist with the brown eyes, whose name I had heard called out at the eye hospital. They all seemed very fond of him, particularly a man who struggled about with a violoncello, and who seemed to have a series of jokes to relate to Herr Helfen, exploding with laughter, and every now and then shaking the loose thick hair from his handsome, genial face. Helfen listened to him with a half smile, screwing up his violin and giving him a quiet look now and then. The inspiring noise of tuning up had begun, and I was on the very tiptoe of expectation.

As I turned once more and looked round, Vincent said, laughing, “Miss Wedderburn, your hat has hit me three times in the face.” It was, by the by, the brown hat which had graced my head that day at Köln.

“Oh, has it? I beg your pardon!” said I, laughing too, as I brought my eyes again to bear on the stage. “The seats are too near toge—”

Further words were upon my lips, but they were never uttered. In roving across the orchestra to the foot-lights my eyes were arrested. In the well of the orchestra immediately before my eyes was one empty chair, that by right belonging to the leader of the first violins. Friedhelm Helfen sat in the one next below it. All the rest of the musicians were assembled. The conductor was in his place, and looked a little impatiently toward that empty chair. Through a door to the left of the orchestra there came a man, carrying a violin, and made his way, with a nod here, a half smile there, a tap on the shoulder in another direction. Arrived at the empty chair, he laid his hand upon Helfen’s shoulder, and bending over him, spoke to him as he seated himself. He kept his hand on that shoulder, as if he liked it to be there. Helfen’s eyes said as plainly as possibly that he liked it. Fast friends, on the face of it, were these two men. In this moment, though I sat still, motionless, and quiet, I certainly realized as nearly as possible that impossible sensation, the turning upside down of the world. I did not breathe. I waited, spell-bound, in the vague idea that my eyes might open and I find that I had been dreaming. After an earnest speech to Helfen the new-comer raised his head. As he shouldered his violin his eyes traveled carelessly along the first row of the parquet—our row. I did not awake; things did not melt away in a mist before my eyes. He was Eugen Courvoisier, and he looked braver, handsomer, gallanter, and more apart from the crowd of men now, in this moment, than even my sentimental dreams had pictured him. I felt it all: I also know now that it was partly the very strength of the feeling that I had—the very intensity of the admiration which took from me the reflection and reason for the moment. I felt as if every one must see how I felt. I remembered that no one knew what had happened; I dreaded lest they should. I did the most cowardly and treacherous thing that circumstances permitted to me—displayed to what an extent my power of folly and stupidity could carry me. I saw these strange bright eyes, whose power I felt, coming toward me. In one second they would be upon me. I felt myself white with anxiety. His eyes were coming—coming—slowly, surely. They had fallen upon Vincent, and he nodded to him. They fell upon me. It was for the tenth of a second only. I saw a look of recognition flash into his eyes—upon his face. I saw that he was going to bow to me. With (as it seemed to me) all the blood in my veins rushing to my face, my head swimming, my heart beating, I dropped my eyes to the play-bill upon my lap, and stared at the crabbed German characters—the names of the players, the characters they took. “Elsa—Lohengrin.” I read them again and again, while my ears were singing, my heart beating so, and I thought every one in the theater knew and was looking at me.

“Mind you listen to the overture, Miss Wedderburn,” said Vincent, hastily, in my ear, as the first liquid, yearning, long-drawn notes sounded from the violins.

“Yes,” said I, raising my face at last, looking or rather feeling a look compelled from me, to the place where he sat. This time our eyes met fully. I do not know what I felt when I saw him look at me as unrecognizingly as if I had been a wooden doll in a shop window. Was he looking past me? No. His eyes met mine direct—glance for glance; not a sign, not a quiver of the mouth, not a waver of the eyelids. I heard no more of the overture. When he was playing, and so occupied with his music, I surveyed him surreptitiously; when he was not playing, I kept my eyes fixed firmly upon my play-bill. I did not know whether to be most distressed at my own disloyalty to a kind friend, or most appalled to find that the man with whom I had spent a whole afternoon in the firm conviction that he was outwardly, as well as inwardly, my equal and a gentleman—(how the tears, half of shame, half of joy, rise to my eyes now as I think of my poor, pedantic little scruples then!) the man of whom I had assuredly thought and dreamed many and many a time and oft was—a professional musician, a man in a band, a German band, playing in the public orchestra of a provincial town. Well! well!

In our village at home, where the population consisted of clergymen’s widows, daughters of deceased naval officers, and old women in general, and those old women ladies of the genteelest description—the Army and the Church (for which I had been brought up to have the deepest veneration and esteem, as the two head powers in our land—for we did not take Manchester, Birmingham, and Liverpool into account at Skernford)—the Army and the Church, I say, look down a little upon Medicine and the Law, as being perhaps more necessary, but less select factors in that great sum—the Nation, Medicine and the Law looked down very decidedly upon commercial wealth, and Commerce in her turn turned up her nose at retail establishments, while one and all—Church and Army, Law and Medicine, Commerce in the gross and Commerce in the little—united in pointing the finger at artists, musicians, literati, et id omne genus, considering them, with some few well-known and orthodox exceptions, as bohemians, and calling them “persons.” They were a class with whom we had and could have nothing in common; so utterly outside our life that we scarcely ever gave a thought to their existence. We read of pictures, and wished to see them; heard of musical wonders, and desired to hear them—as pictures, as compositions. I do not think it ever entered our heads to remember that a man with a quick life throbbing in his veins, with feelings, hopes, and fears and thoughts, painted the picture, and that in seeing it we also saw him—that a consciousness, if possible, yet more keen and vivid produced the combinations of sound which brought tears to our eyes when we heard “the band”—beautiful abstraction—play them! Certainly we never considered the performers as anything more than people who could play—one who blew his breath into a brass tube; another into a wooden pipe; one who scraped a small fiddle with fine strings, another who scraped a big one with coarse strings.

I was seventeen, and not having an original mind, had up to now judged things from earlier teachings and impressions. I do not ask to be excused. I only say that I was ignorant as ever even a girl of seventeen was. I did not know the amount of art and culture which lay among those rather shabby-looking members of the Elberthal städtische Kapelle—did not know that that little cherubic-faced man, who drew his bow so lovingly across his violin, had played under Mendelssohn’s conductorship, and could tell tales about how the master had drilled his band, and what he had said about the first performance of the “Lobgesang.” The young man to whom I had seen Courvoisier speaking was—I learned it later—a performer to ravish the senses, a conductor in the true sense—not a mere man who waves the stick up and down, but one who can put some of the meaning of the music into his gestures and dominate his players. I did not know that the musicians before me were nearly all true artists, and some of them undoubted gentlemen to boot, even if their income averaged something under that of a skilled Lancashire operative. But even if I had known it as well as possible, and had been aware that there could be nothing derogatory in my knowing or being known by one of them, I could not have been more wretched than I was in having been, as it were, false to a friend. The dreadful thing was, or ought to be—I could not quite decide which—that such a person should have been my friend.

“How he must despise me!” I thought, my cheeks burning, my eyes fastened upon the play-bill. “I owe him ten shillings. If he likes he can point me out to them all and say, ‘That is an English girl—lady I can not call her. I found her quite alone and lost at Köln, and I did all I could to help her. I saved her a great deal of anxiety and inconvenience. She was not above accepting my assistance; she confided her story very freely to me; she is nothing very particular—has nothing to boast of—no money, no knowledge, nothing superior; in fact, she is simple and ignorant to quite a surprising extent; but she has just cut me dead. What do you think of her?’”

Until the curtain went up, I sat in torture. When the play began, however, even my discomfort vanished in my wonder at the spectacle. It was the first I had seen. Try to picture it, oh, worn-out and blasé frequenter of play and opera! Try to realize the feelings of an impressionable young person of seventeen when “Lohengrin” was revealed to her for the first time—Lohengrin, the mystic knight, with the glamour of eld upon him—Lohengrin, sailing in blue and silver like a dream, in his swan-drawn boat, stepping majestic forth, and speaking in a voice of purest melody, as he thanks the bird and dismisses it:

“Dahin, woher mich trug dein Kahn
Kehr wieder mir zu unserm Glück!
Drum sei getreu dein Dienst gethan,
Leb wohl, leb wohl, mein lieber Schwan.”

Elsa, with the wonder, the gratitude, the love, and alas! the weakness in her eyes! The astonished Brabantine men and women. They could not have been more astonished than I was. It was all perfectly real to me. What did I know about the stage? To me, yonder figure in blue mantle and glittering armor was Lohengrin, the son of Percivale, not Herr Siegel, the first tenor of the company, who acted stiffly, and did not know what to do with his legs. The lady in black velvet and spangles, who gesticulated in a corner, was an “Edelfrau” to me, as the programme called her, not the chorus leader, with two front teeth missing, an inartistically made-up countenance, and large feet. I sat through the first act with my eyes riveted upon the stage. What a thrill shot through me as the tenor embraced the soprano, and warbled melodiously, “Elsa, ich liebe Dich!” My mouth and eyes were wide open, I have no doubt, till at last the curtain fell. With a long sigh I slowly brought my eyes down and “Lohengrin” vanished like a dream. There was Eugen Courvoisier standing up—he had resumed the old attitude—was twirling his mustache and surveying the company. Some of the other performers were leaving the orchestra by two little doors. If only he would go too! As I nervously contemplated a graceful indifferent remark to Herr Brinks, who sat next to me, I saw Courvoisier step forward. Was he, could he be going to speak to me? I should have deserved it, I knew, but I felt as if I should die under the ordeal. I sat preternaturally still, and watched, as if mesmerized, the approach of the musician. He spoke again to the young man whom I had seen before, and they both laughed. Perhaps he had confided the whole story to him, and was telling him to observe what he was going to do. Then Herr Courvoisier tapped the young man on the shoulder and laughed again, and then he came on. He was not looking at me; he came up to the boarding, leaned his elbow upon it, and said to Eustace Vincent:

“Good-evening: wie geht’s Ihnen?

Vincent held out his hand. “Very well, thanks. And you? I haven’t seen you lately.”

“Then you haven’t been at the theater lately,” he laughed. He never testified to me by word or look that he had ever seen me before. At last I got to understand as his eyes repeatedly fell upon me without the slightest sign of recognition, that he did not intend to claim my acquaintance. I do not know whether I was most wretched or most relieved at the discovery. It spared me a great deal of embarrassment; it filled me, too, with inward shame beyond all description. And then, too, I was dismayed to find how totally I had mistaken the position of the musician. Vincent was talking eagerly to him. They had moved a little nearer the other end of the orchestra. The young man, Helfen, had come up, others had joined them. I, meanwhile, sat still—heard every tone of his voice, and took in every gesture of his head or his hand, and I felt as I trust never to feel again—and yet I lived in some such feeling as that for what at least seemed to me a long time. What was the feeling that clutched me—held me fast—seemed to burn me? And what was that I heard? Vincent speaking:

“Last Thursday week, Courvoisier—why didn’t you come? We were waiting for you?”

“I missed the train.”

Until now he had been speaking German, but he said this distinctly in English and I heard every word.

“Missed the train?” cried Vincent in his cracked voice.

“Nonsense, man! Helfen, here, and Alekotte were in time and they had been at the probe as much as you.”

“I was detained in Köln and couldn’t get back till evening,” said he. “Come along, Friedel; there’s the call-bell.”

I raised my eyes—met his. I do not know what expression was in mine. His never wavered, though he looked at me long and steadily—no glance of recognition—no sign still. I would have risked the astonishment of every one of them now, for a sign that he remembered me. None was given.

“Lohengrin” had no more attraction for me. I felt in pain that was almost physical, and weak with excitement as at last the curtain fell and we left our places.

“You were very quiet,” said Vincent, as we walked home. “Did you not enjoy it?”

“Very much, thank you. It was very beautiful,” said I, faintly.

“So Herr Courvoisier was not at the soirée,” said the loud, rough voice of Anna Sartorius.

“No,” was all Vincent said.

“Did you have anything new? Was Herr von Francius there too?”

“Yes; he was there too.”

I pondered. Brinks whistled loudly the air of Elsa’s “Brautzug,” as we paced across the Lindenallée. We had not many paces to go. The lamps were lighted, the people were thronging thick as in the daytime. The air was full of laughter, talk, whistling and humming of the airs from the opera. My ear strained eagerly through the confusion. I could have caught the faintest sound of Courvoisier’s voice had it been there, but it was not. And we came home; Vincent opened the door with his latch-key, said, “It has not been very brilliant, has it? That tenor is a stick,” and we all went to our different rooms. It was in such wise that I met Eugen Courvoisier for the second time.

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