“He looks his angel in the face
Without a blush: nor heeds disgrace,
Whom naught disgraceful done
Disgraces. Who knows nothing base
Fears nothing known.”
It was noon. The probe to “Tannhauser” was over, and we, the members of the kapelle, turned out, and stood in a knot around the orchestra entrance to the Elberthal Theater.
It was a raw October noontide. The last traces of the by-gone summer were being swept away by equinoctial gales, which whirled the remaining yellowing leaves from the trees, and strewed with them the walks of the deserted Hofgarten; a stormy gray sky promised rain at the earliest opportunity; our Rhine went gliding by like a stream of ruffled lead.
“Proper theater weather,” observed one of my fellow-musicians; “but it doesn’t seem to suit you, Friedhelm. What makes you look so down?”
I shrugged my shoulders. Existence was not at that time very pleasant to me; my life’s hues were somewhat of the color of the autumn skies and of the dull river. I scarcely knew why I stood with the others now; it was more a mechanical pause before I took my spiritless way home, than because I felt any interest in what was going on.
“I should say he will be younger by a long way than old Kohler,” observed Karl Linders, one of the violoncellists, a young man with an unfailing flow of good nature, good spirits, and eagerness to enjoy every pleasure which came in his way, which qualities were the objects of my deep wonder and mild envy. “And they say,” he continued, “that he’s coming to-night; so Friedhelm, my boy, you may look out. Your master’s on the way.”
“So!” said I, lending but an indifferent attention; “what is his name?”
“That’s his way of gently intimating that he hasn’t got no master,” said Karl, jocosely, but the general answer to my question was, “I don’t know.”
“But they say,” said a tall man who wore spectacles and sat behind me in the first violins—“they say that von Francius doesn’t like the appointment. He wanted some one else, but Die Direktion managed to beat him. He dislikes the new fellow beforehand, whatever he may be.”
“So! Then he will have a roughish time of it!” agreed one or two others.
The “he” of whom they spoke was the coming man who should take the place of the leader of the first violins—it followed that he would be at least an excellent performer—possibly a clever man in many other ways, for the post was in many ways a good one. Our kapelle was no mean one—in our own estimation at any rate. Our late first violinist, who had recently died, had been on visiting terms with persons of the highest respectability, had given lessons to the very best families, and might have been seen bowing to young ladies and important dowagers almost any day. No wonder his successor was speculated about with some curiosity.
“Alle Wetter!” cried Karl Linders, impatiently—that young man was much given to impatience—“what does von Francius want? He can’t have everything. I suppose this new fellow plays a little too well for his taste. He will have to give him a solo now and then instead of keeping them all for himself.”
“Weiss ’s nit,” said another, shrugging his shoulders, “I’ve only heard that von Francius had a row with the Direction, and was outvoted.”
“What a sweet temper he will be in at the probe to-morrow!” laughed Karl. “Won’t he give it to the Mädchen right and left!”
“What time is he coming?” proceeded one of the oboists.
“Don’t know; know nothing about it; perhaps he’ll appear in ‘Tannhauser’ to-night. Look out, Friedhelm.”
“Here comes little Luischen,” said Karl, with a winning smile, a straightening of his collar, and a general arming-for-conquest expression, as some of the “ladies of the chorus and ballet,” appeared from the side door. “Isn’t she pretty?” he went on, in an audible aside to me. “I’ve a crow to pluck with her too. Tag, Fräulein!” he added, advancing to the young lady who had so struck him.
He was “struck” on an average once a week, every time with the most beautiful and charming of her sex. The others, with one or two exceptions, also turned. I said good-morning to Linders, who wished, with a noble generosity, to make me a partaker in his cheerful conversation with Fräulein Luise of the first soprans, slipped from his grasp and took my way homeward. Fräulein Luischen was no doubt very pretty, and in her way a companionable person. Unfortunately I never could appreciate that way. With every wish to accommodate myself to the only society with which fortune supplied me, it was but ill that I succeeded.
I, Friedhelm Helfen, was at that time a lonely, soured misanthrope of two-and-twenty. Let the announcement sound as absurd as it may, it is simply and absolutely true, I was literally alone in the world. My last relative had died and left me entirely without any one who could have even a theoretical reason for taking any interest in me. Gradually, during the last few months, I had fallen into evil places of thought and imagination. There had been a time before, as there has been a time since—as it is with me now—when I worshiped my art with all my strength as the most beautiful thing on earth; the art of arts—the most beautiful and perfect development of beauty which mankind has yet succeeded in attaining to, and when the very fact of its being so and of my being gifted with some poor power of expressing and interpreting that beauty was enough for me—gave me a place in the world with which I was satisfied, and made life understandable to me. At that time this belief—my natural and normal state—was clouded over; between me and the goddess of my idolatry had fallen a veil; I wasted my brain tissue in trying to philosophize—cracked my head, and almost my reason over the endless, unanswerable question, Cui bono? that question which may so easily become the destruction of the fool who once allows himself to be drawn into dallying with it. Cui bono? is a mental Delilah who will shear the locks of the most arrogant Samson. And into the arms and to the tender mercies of this Delilah I had given myself. I was in a fair way of being lost forever in her snares, which she sets for the feet of men. To what use all this toil? To what use—music? After by dint of hard twisting my thoughts and coping desperately with problems that I did not understand, having managed to extract a conviction that there was use in music—a use to beautify, gladden, and elevate—I began to ask myself further, “What is it to me whether mankind is elevated or not? made better or worse? higher or lower?”
Only one who has asked himself that question, as I did, in bitter earnest, and fairly faced the answer, can know the horror, the blackness, the emptiness of the abyss into which it gives one a glimpse. Blackness of darkness—no standpoint, no vantage-ground—it is a horror of horrors; it haunted me then day and night, and constituted itself not only my companion but my tyrant.
I was in bad health too. At night, when the joyless day was over, the work done, the play played out, the smell of the foot-lights and gas and the dust of the stage dispersed, a deadly weariness used to overcome me; an utter, tired, miserable apathy; and alone, surrounded by loneliness, I let my morbid thoughts carry me whither they would. It had gone so far that I had even begun to say to myself lately:
“Friedhelm Helfen, you are not wanted. On the other side this life is a nothingness so large that you will be as nothing in it. Launch yourself into it. The story that suicide is wrong and immoral is, like other things, to be taken with reservation. There is no absolute right and wrong. Suicide is sometimes the highest form of right and reason.”
This mood was strong upon me on that particular day, and as I paced along the Schadowstrasse toward the Wehrhahn, where my lodging was, the very stones seemed to cry out, “The world is weary, and you are not wanted in it.”
A heavy, cold, beating rain began to fall. I entered the room which served me as living- and sleeping-room. From habit I ate and drank at the same restauration as that frequented by my confrères of the orchestra. I leaned my elbows upon the table, and listened drearily to the beat of the rain upon the pane. Scattered sheets of music containing, some great, others little thoughts, lay around me. Lately it seemed as if the flavor was gone from them. The other night Beethoven himself had failed to move me, and I accepted it as a sign that all was over with me. In an hour it would be time to go out and seek dinner, if I made up my mind to have any dinner. Then there would be the afternoon—the dreary, wet afternoon, the tramp through the soaking streets, with the lamp-light shining into the pools of water, to the theater; the lights, the people, the weary round of painted ballet-girls, and accustomed voices and faces of audience and performers. The same number of bars to play, the same to leave unplayed; the whole dreary story, gone through so often before, to be gone through so often again.
The restauration did not see me that day; I remained in the house. There was to be a great concert in the course of a week or two; the “Tower of Babel” was to be given at it. I had the music. I practiced my part, and I remember being a little touched with the exquisite loveliness of one of the choruses, that sung by the “Children of Japhet” as they wander sadly away with their punishment upon them into the Waldeinsamkeit (that lovely and untranslatable word) one of the purest and most pathetic melodies ever composed.
It was dark that afternoon. I had not stirred from my hole since coming in from the probe—had neither eaten nor drunk, and was in full possession of the uninterrupted solitude coveted by busy men. Once I thought that it would have been pleasant if some one had known and cared for me well enough to run up the stairs, put his head into the room, and talk to me about his affairs.
To the sound of gustily blowing wind and rain beating on the pane, the afternoon hours dragged slowly by, and the world went on outside and around me until about five o’clock. Then there came a knock at my door, an occurrence so unprecedented that I sat and stared at the said door instead of speaking, as if Edgar Poe’s raven had put in a sudden appearance and begun to croak its “never-more” at me.
The door was opened. A dreadful, dirty-looking young woman, a servant of the house, stood in the door-way.
“What do you want?” I inquired.
A gentleman wished to speak to me.
“Bring him in then,” said I, somewhat testily.
She turned and requested some one to come forward. There entered a tall and stately man, with one of those rare faces, beautiful in feature, bright in expression, which one meets sometimes, and, having once seen, never forgets. He carried what I took at first for a bundle done up in a dark-green plaid, but as I stood up and looked at him I perceived that the plaid was wrapped round a child. Lost in astonishment, I gazed at him in silence.
“I beg you will excuse my intruding upon you thus,” said he, bowing, and I involuntarily returned his bow, wondering more and more what he could be. His accent was none of the Elberthal one; it was fine, refined, polished.
“How can I serve you?” I asked, impressed by his voice, manner, and appearance; agreeably impressed. A little masterful he looked—a little imperious, but not unapproachable, with nothing ungenial in his pride.
“You could serve me very much by giving me one or two pieces of information. In the first place let me introduce myself; you, I think, are Herr Helfen?” I bowed. “My name is Eugen Courvoisier. I am the new member of your städtisches Orchester.”
“O, was!” said I, within myself. “That our new first violin!”
“And this is my son,” he added, looking down at the plaid bundle, which he held very carefully and tenderly. “If you will tell me at what time the opera begins, what it is to-night, and finally, if there is a room to be had, perhaps in this house, even for one night. I must find a nest for this Vögelein as soon as I possibly can.”
“I believe the opera begins at seven,” said I, still gazing at him in astonishment, with open mouth and incredulous eyes. Our orchestra contained among its sufficiently varied specimens of nationality and appearance nothing in the very least like this man, beside whom I felt myself blundering, clumsy, and unpolished. It was not mere natural grace of manner. He had that, but it had been cultivated somewhere, and cultivated highly.
“Yes?” he said.
“At seven—yes. It is ‘Tannhauser’ to-night. And the rooms—I believe they have rooms in the house.”
“Ah, then I will inquire about it,” said he, with an exceedingly open and delightful smile. “I thank you for telling me. Adieu, mein Herr.”
“Is he asleep?” I asked, abruptly, and pointing to the bundle.
“Yes; armes Kerlchen! just now he is,” said the young man.
He was quite young, I saw. In that half light I supposed him even younger than he really was. He looked down at the bundle again and smiled.
“I should like to see him,” said I, politely and gracefully, seized by an impulse of which I felt ashamed, but which I yet could not resist.
With that I stepped forward and came to examine the bundle. He moved the plaid a little aside and showed me a child—a very young, small, helpless child, with closed eyes, immensely long, black, curving lashes, and fine, delicate black brows. The small face was flushed, but even in sleep this child looked melancholy. Yet he was a lovely child—most beautiful and most pathetic to see.
I looked at the small face in silence, and a great desire came upon me to look at it oftener—to see it again, then up at that of the father. How unlike the two faces! Now that I fairly looked at the man I found he was different from what I had thought; older, sparer, with more sharply cut features. I could not tell what the child’s eyes might be—those of the father were piercing as an eagle’s; clear, open, strange. There was sorrow in the face, I saw, as I looked so earnestly into it; and it was worn as if with a keen inner life. This glance was one of those which penetrate deep, not the glance of a moment, but a revelation for life.
“He is very beautiful,” said I.
“Nicht wahr?” said the other, softly.
“Look here,” I added, going to a sofa which was strewn with papers, books, and other paraphernalia; “couldn’t we put him here, and then go and see about the rooms? Such a young, tender child must not be carried about the passages, and the house is full of draughts.”
I do not know what had so suddenly supplied me with this wisdom as to what was good for a “young, tender child,” nor can I account for the sudden deep interest which possessed me. I dashed the things off the sofa, beat the dust from it, desired him to wait one moment while I rushed to my bed to ravish it of its pillow. Then with the sight of the bed (I was buying my experience) I knew that that, and not the sofa, was the place for the child, and said so.
“Put him here, do put him here!” I besought, earnestly. “He will sleep for a time here, won’t he?”
“You are very good,” said my visitor, hesitating a moment.
“Put him there!” said I, flushed with excitement, and with the hitherto unknown joy of being able to offer hospitality.
Courvoisier looked meditatively at me for a short time then laid the child upon the bed, and arranged the plaid around it as skillfully and as quickly as a woman would have done it.
“How clever he must be,” I thought, looking at him with awe, and with little less awe contemplating the motionless child.
“Wouldn’t you like something to put over him?” I asked, looking excitedly about. “I have an overcoat. I’ll lend it you.” And I was rushing off to fetch it, but he laughingly laid his hand upon my arm.
“Let him alone,” said he; “he’s all right.”
“He won’t fall off, will he?” I asked, anxiously.
“No; don’t be alarmed. Now, if you will be so good, we will see about the rooms.”
“Dare you leave him?” I asked, still with anxiety, and looking back as we went toward the door.
“I dare because I must,” replied he.
He closed the door, and we went down-stairs to seek the persons in authority. Courvoisier related his business and condition, and asked to see rooms. The woman hesitated when she heard there was a child.
“The child will never trouble you, madame,” said he, quietly, but rather as if the patience of his look were forced.
“No, never!” I added, fervently. “I will answer for that, Frau Schmidt.”
A quick glance, half gratitude, half amusement, shot from his eyes as the woman went on to say that she only took gentlemen lodgers, and could not do with ladies, children, and nurse-maids. They wanted so much attending to, and she did not profess to open her house to them.
“You will not be troubled with either lady or nurse-maid,” said he. “I take charge of the child myself. You will not know that he is in the house.”
“But your wife—” she began.
“There will be no one but myself and my little boy,” he replied, ever politely, but ever, as it seemed, to me, with repressed pain or irritation.
“So!” said the woman, treating him to a long, curious, unsparing look of wonder and inquiry, which made me feel hot all over. He returned the glance quietly and unsmilingly. After a pause she said:
“Well, I suppose I must see about it, but it will be the first child I ever took into the house, in that way, and only as a favor to Herr Helfen.”
I was greatly astonished, not having known before that I stood in such high esteem. Courvoisier threw me a smiling glance as we followed the woman up the stairs, up to the top of the house, where I lived. Throwing open a door, she said there were two rooms which must go together. Courvoisier shook his head.
“I do not want two rooms,” said he, “or rather, I don’t think I can afford them. What do you charge?”
She told him.
“If it were so much,” said he, naming a smaller sum, “I could do it.”
“Nie!” said the woman, curtly, “for that I can’t do it. Um Gotteswillen! One must live.”
She paused, reflecting, and I watched anxiously. She was going to refuse. My heart sunk. Rapidly reviewing my own circumstances and finances, and making a hasty calculation in my mind, I said:
“Why can’t we arrange it? Here is a big room and a little room. Make the little room into a bedroom, and use the big room for a sitting-room. I will join at it, and so it will come within the price you wish to pay.”
The woman’s face cleared a little. She had listened with a clouded expression and her head on one side. Now she straightened herself, drew herself up, smoothed down her apron, and said:
“Yes, that lets itself be heard. If Herr Helfen agreed to that, she would like it.”
“Oh, but I can’t think of putting you to the extra expense,” said Courvoisier.
“I should like it,” said I. “I have often wished I had a little more room, but, like you, I couldn’t afford the whole expense. We can have a piano, and the child can play there. Don’t you see?” I added, with great earnestness and touching his arm. “It is a large airy room; he can run about there, and make as much noise as he likes.”
He still seemed to hesitate.
“I can afford it,” said I. “I’ve no one but myself, unluckily. If you don’t object to my company, let us try it. We shall be neighbors in the orchestra.”
“Why not at home too? I think it an excellent plan. Let us decide it so.”
I was very urgent about it. An hour ago I could not have conceived anything which could make me so urgent and set my heart beating so.
“If I did not think it would inconvenience you,” he began.
“Then it is settled?” said I. “Now let us go and see what kind of furniture there is in that big room.”
Without allowing him to utter any further objection, I dragged him to the large room, and we surveyed it. The woman, who for some unaccountable reason appeared to have recovered her good-temper in a marvelous manner, said quite cheerfully that she would send the maid to make the smaller room ready as a bedroom for two. “One of us won’t take much room,” said Courvoisier with a laugh, to which she assented with a smile, and then left us. The big room was long, low, and rather dark. Beams were across the ceiling, and two not very large windows looked upon the street below, across to two similar windows of another lodging-house, a little to the left of which was the Tonhalle. The floor was carpetless, but clean; there was a big square table, and some chairs.
“There,” said I, drawing Courvoisier to the window, and pointing across: “there is one scene of your future exertions, the Städtische Tonhalle.”
“So!” said he, turning away again from the window—it was as dark as ever outside—and looking round the room again. “This is a dull-looking place,” he added, gazing around it.
“We’ll soon make it different,” said I, rubbing my hands and gazing round the room with avidity. “I have long wished to be able to inhabit this room. We must make it more cheerful, though, before the child comes to it. We’ll have the stove lighted, and we’ll knock up some shelves, and we’ll have a piano in, and the sofa from my room, nicht wahr? Oh, we’ll make a place of it, I can tell you.”
He looked at me as if struck with my enthusiasm, and I bustled about. We set to work to make the room habitable. He was out for a short time at the station and returned with the luggage which he had left there. While he was away I stole into my room and took a good look at my new treasure; he still slept peacefully and calmly on. We were deep in impromptu carpentering and contrivances for use and comfort, when it occurred to me to look at my watch.
“Five minutes to seven!” I almost yelled, dashing wildly into my room to wash my hands and get my violin. Courvoisier followed me. The child was awake. I felt a horrible sense of guilt as I saw it looking at me with great, soft, solemn, brown eyes, not in the least those of its father, but it did not move. I said apologetically that I feared I had awakened it.
“Oh, no! He’s been awake for some time,” said Courvoisier. The child saw him, and stretched out its arms toward him.
“Na! junger Taugenichts!” he said, taking it up and kissing it. “Thou must stay here till I come back. Wilt be happy till I come?”
The answer made by the mournful-looking child was a singular one. It put both tiny arms around the big man’s neck, laid its face for a moment against his, and loosed him again. Neither word nor sound did it emit during the process. A feeling altogether new and astonishing overcame me. I turned hastily away, and as I picked up my violin-case, was amazed to find my eyes dim. My visitors were something unprecedented to me.
“You are not compelled to go to the theater to-night, you know, unless you like,” I suggested, as we went down-stairs.
“Thanks, it is as well to begin at once.”
On the lowest landing we met Frau Schmidt.
“Where are you going, mein Herren?” she demanded.
“To work, madame,” he replied, lifting his cap with a courtesy which seemed to disarm her.
“But the child?” she demanded.
“Do not trouble yourself about him.”
“Is he asleep?”
“Not just now. He is all right, though.”
She gave us a look which meant volumes. I pulled Courvoisier out.
“Come along, do!” cried I. “She will keep you there for half an hour, and it is time now.”
We rushed along the streets too rapidly to have time or breath to speak, and it was five minutes after the time when we scrambled into the orchestra, and found that the overture was already begun.
Though there is certainly not much time for observing one’s fellows when one is helping in the overture to “Tannhauser,” yet I saw the many curious and astonished glances which were cast toward our new member, glances of which he took no notice, simply because he apparently did not see them. He had the finest absence of self-consciousness that I ever saw.
The first act of the opera was over, and it fell to my share to make Courvoisier known to his fellow-musicians. I introduced him to the director, who was not von Francius, nor any friend of his. Then we retired to one of the small rooms on one side of the orchestra.
“Hundewetter!” said one of the men, shivering. “Have you traveled far to-day?” he inquired of Courvoisier, by way of opening the conversation.
“From Köln only.”
The man continued his catechism, but in another direction.
“Are you a friend of Helfen’s?”
“I rather think Helfen has been a friend to me,” said Courvoisier, smiling.
“Have you found lodgings already?”
“So!” said his interlocutor, rather puzzled with the new arrival. I remember the scene well. Half a dozen of the men were standing in one corner of the room, smoking, drinking beer, and laughing over some not very brilliant joke; we three were a little apart. Courvoisier, stately and imposing-looking, and with that fine manner of his, politely answering his interrogator, a small, sharp-featured man, who looked up to him and rattled complacently away, while I sat upon the table among the fiddle-cases and beer-glasses, my foot on a chair, my chin in my hand, feeling my cheeks glow, and a strange sense of dizziness and weakness all over me, a lightness in my head which I could not understand. It had quite escaped me that I had neither eaten nor drunk since my breakfast at eight o’clock, on a cup of coffee and dry Brödchen, and it was now twelve hours later.
The pause was not a long one, and we returned to our places. But “Tannhauser” is not a short opera. As time went on my sensations of illness and faintness increased. During the second pause I remained in my place. Courvoisier presently came and sat beside me.
“I’m afraid you feel ill,” said he.
I denied it. But though I struggled on to the end, yet at last a deadly faintness overcame me. As the curtain went down amid the applause, everything reeled around me. I heard the bustle of the others—of the audience going away. I myself could not move.
“Was ist denn mit ihm?” I heard Courvoisier say as he stooped over me.
“Is that Friedhelm Helfen?” asked Karl Linders, surveying me. “Potz blitz! he looks like a corpse! he’s been at his old tricks again, starving himself. I expect he has touched nothing the whole day.”
“Let’s get him out and give him some brandy,” said Courvoisier. “Lend him an arm, and I’ll give him one on this side.”
Together they hauled me down to the retiring-room.
“Ei! he wants a schnapps, or something of the kind,” said Karl, who seemed to think the whole affair an excellent joke. “Look here, alter Narr!” he added; “you’ve been going without anything to eat, nicht?”
“I believe I have,” I assented, feebly. “But I’m all right; I’ll go home.”
Rejecting Karl’s pressing entreaties to join him at supper at his favorite Wirthschaft, we went home, purchasing our supper on the way. Courvoisier’s first step was toward the place where he had left the child. He was gone.
“Verschwunden!” cried he, striding off to the sleeping-room, whither I followed him. The little lad had been undressed and put to bed in a small crib, and was sleeping serenely.
“That’s Frau Schmidt, who can’t do with children and nurse-maids,” said I, laughing.
“It’s very kind of her,” said he, as he touched the child’s cheek slightly with his little finger, and then, without another word, returned to the other room, and we sat down to our long-delayed supper.
“What on earth made you spend more than twelve hours without food?” he asked me, laying down his knife and fork, and looking at me.
“I’ll tell you some time perhaps, not now,” said I, for there had begun to dawn upon my mind, like a sun-ray, the idea that life held an interest for me—two interests—a friend and a child. To a miserable, lonely wretch like me, the idea was divine.