First Violin, The


“The merely great are, all in all,
No more than what the merely small
Esteem them. Man’s opinion
Neither conferred nor can remove
This man’s dominion.”

Three years passed—an even way. In three years there happened little of importance—little, that is, of open importance—to either of us. I read that sentence again, and can not help smiling; “to either of us.” It shows the progress that our friendship has made. Yes, it had grown every day.

I had no past, painful or otherwise, which I could even wish to conceal; I had no thought that I desired hidden from the man who had become my other self. What there was of good in me, what of evil, he saw. It was laid open to him, and he appeared to consider that the good predominated over the bad; for, from that first day of meeting, our intimacy went on steadily in one direction—increasing, deepening. He was six years older than I was. At the end of this time of which I speak he was one-and-thirty, I five-and-twenty; but we met on equal ground—not that I had anything approaching his capacities in any way. I do not think that had anything to do with it. Our happiness did not depend on mental supremacy. I loved him—because I could not help it; he me, because—upon my word, I can think of no good reason—probably because he did.

And yet we were as unlike as possible. He had habits of reckless extravagance, or what seemed to me reckless extravagance, and a lordly manner (when he forgot himself) of speaking of things, which absolutely appalled my economical burgher soul. I had certain habits, too, the outcomes of my training, and my sparing, middle-class way of living, which I saw puzzled him very much. To cite only one insignificant incident. We were both great readers, and, despite our sometimes arduous work, contrived to get through a good amount of books in the year. One evening he came home with a brand-new novel, in three volumes, in his hands.

“Here, Friedel; here is some mental dissipation for to-night. Drop that Schopenhauer, and study Heyse. Here is ‘Die Kinder der Welt;’ it will suit our case exactly, for it is what we are ourselves.”

“How clean it looks!” I observed, innocently.

“So it ought, seeing that I have just paid for it.”

“Paid for it!” I almost shouted. “Paid for it! You don’t mean that you have bought the book!”

“Calm thy troubled spirit! You don’t surely mean that you thought me capable of stealing the book?”

“You are hopeless. You have paid at least eighteen marks for it.”

“That’s the figure to a pfennig.”

“Well,” said I, with conscious superiority, “you might have had the whole three volumes from the library for five or six groschen.”

“I know. But their copy looked so disgustingly greasy I couldn’t have touched it; so I ordered a new one.”

“Very well. Your accounts will look well when you come to balance and take stock,” I retorted.

“What a fuss about a miserable eighteen marks!” said he, stretching himself out, and opening a volume. “Come, Sig, learn how the children of the world are wiser in their generation than the children of light, and leave that low person to prematurely age himself by beginning to balance his accounts before they are ripe for it.”

“I don’t know whether you are aware that you are talking the wildest and most utter rubbish that was ever conceived,” said I, nettled. “There is simply no sense in it. Given an income of—”

Aber, ich bitte Dich!” he implored, though laughing; and I was silent.

But his three volumes of “Die Kinder der Welt” furnished me with many an opportunity to “point a moral or adorn a tale,” and I believe really warned him off one or two other similar extravagances. The idea of men in our position recklessly ordering three-volume novels because the circulating library copy happened to be greasy, was one I could not get over for a long time.

We still inhabited the same rooms at No. 45, in the Wehrhahn. We had outstayed many other tenants; men had come and gone, both from our house and from those rooms over the way whose windows faced ours. We passed our time in much the same way—hard work at our profession, and, with Eugen at least, hard work out of it; the education of his boy, whom he made his constant companion in every leisure moment, and taught, with a wisdom that I could hardly believe—it seemed so like inspiration—composition, translation, or writing of his own—incessant employment of some kind. He never seemed able to pass an idle moment; and yet there were times when, it seemed to me, his work did not satisfy him, but rather seemed to disgust him.

Once when I asked him if it were so, he laid down his pen and said, “Yes.”

“Then why do you do it?”

“Because—for no reason that I know; but because I am an unreasonable fool.”

“An unreasonable fool to work hard?”

“No; but to go on as if hard work now can ever undo what years of idleness have done.”

“Do you believe in work?” I asked.

“I believe it is the very highest and holiest thing there is, and the grandest purifier and cleanser in the world. But it is not a panacea against every ill. I believe that idleness is sometimes as strong as work, and stronger. You may do that in a few years of idleness which a life-time of afterwork won’t cover, mend, or improve. You may make holes in your coat from sheer laziness, and then find that no amount of stitching will patch them up again.”

I seldom answered these mystic monologues. Love gives a wonderful sharpness even to dull wits; it had sharpened mine so that I often felt he indulged in those speeches out of sheer desire to work off some grief or bitterness from his heart, but that a question might, however innocent, overshoot the mark, and touch a sore spot—the thing I most dreaded. And I did not feel it essential to my regard for him to know every item of his past.

In such cases, however, when there is something behind—when one knows it, only does not know what it is (and Eugen had never tried to conceal from me that something had happened to him which he did not care to tell)—then, even though one accept the fact, as I accepted it, without dispute or resentment, one yet involuntarily builds theories, has ideas, or rather the ideas shape themselves about the object of interest, and take their coloring from him, one can not refrain from conjectures, surmises. Mine were necessarily of the most vague and shadowy description; more negative than active, less theories as to what he had been or done than inferences from what he let fall in talk or conduct as to what he had not been or done.

In our three years’ acquaintance, it is true, there had not been much opportunity for any striking display on his part of good or bad qualities; but certainly ample opportunity of testing whether he were, taken all in all, superior, even with, or inferior to the average man of our average acquaintance. And, briefly speaking, to me he had become a standing model of a superior man.

I had by this time learned to know that when there were many ways of looking at a question, that one, if there were such an one, which was less earthily practical, more ideal and less common than the others, would most inevitably be the view taken by Eugen Courvoisier, and advocated by him with warmth, energy, and eloquence to the very last. The point from which he surveyed the things and the doings of life was, taken all in all, a higher one than that of other men, and was illumined with something of the purple splendor of that “light that never was on sea or land.” A less practical conduct, a more ideal view of right and wrong—sometimes a little fantastic even—always imbued with something of the knightliness which sat upon him as a natural attribute. Ritterlich, Karl Linders called him, half in jest, half in earnest; and ritterlich he was.

In his outward demeanor to the world with which he came in contact, he was courteous to men; to a friend or intimate, as myself, an ever-new delight and joy; to all people, truthful to fantasy; and to women, on the rare occasions on which I ever saw him in their company, he was polite and deferential—but rather overwhelmingly so; it was a politeness which raised a barrier, and there was a glacial surface to the manner. I remarked this, and speculated about it. He seemed to have one manner to every woman with whom he had anything to do; the maid-servant who, at her leisure or pleasure, was supposed to answer our behests (though he would often do a thing himself, alleging that he preferred doing so to “seeing that poor creature’s apron”), old Frau Henschel who sold the programmes at the kasse at the concerts, to the young ladies who presided behind a counter, to every woman to whom he spoke a chance word, up to Frau Sybel, the wife of the great painter, who came to negotiate about lessons for the lovely Fräulein, her daughter, who wished to play a different instrument from that affected by every one else. The same inimitable courtesy, the same unruffled, unrufflable quiet indifference, and the same utter unconsciousness that he, or his appearance, or behavior, or anything about him, could possibly interest them. And yet he was a man eminently calculated to attract women, only he never to this day has been got to believe so, and will often deprecate his poor power of entertaining ladies.

I often watched this little by-play of behavior from and to the fairer sex with silent amusement, more particularly when Eugen and I made shopping expeditious for Sigmund’s benefit. We once went to buy stockings—winter stockings for him; it was a large miscellaneous and smallware shop, full of young women behind the counters and ladies of all ages before them.

We found ourselves in the awful position of being the only male creatures in the place. Happy in my insignificance and plainness, I survived the glances that were thrown upon us; I did not wonder that they fell upon my companions. Eugen consulted a little piece of paper on which Frau Schmidt had written down what we were to ask for, and, marching straight up to a disengaged shop-woman, requested to be shown colored woolen stockings.

“For yourself, mein Herr?” she inquired, with a fascinating smile.

“No, thank you; for my little boy,” says Eugen, politely, glancing deferentially round at the piles of wool and packets of hosen around.

“Ah, so! For the young gentleman? Bitte, meine Herren, be seated.” And she gracefully pushes chairs for us; on one of which I, unable to resist so much affability, sit down.

Eugen remains standing; and Sigmund, desirous of having a voice in the matter, mounts upon his stool, kneels upon it, and leans his elbows on the counter.

The affable young woman returns, and with a glance at Eugen that speaks of worlds beyond colored stockings, proceeds to untie a packet and display her wares. He turns them over. Clearly he does not like them, and does not understand them. They are striped; some are striped latitudinally, others longitudinally. Eugen turns them over, and the young woman murmurs that they are of the best quality.

“Are they?” says he, and his eyes roam round the shop. “Well, Sigmund, wilt thou have legs like a stork, as these long stripes will inevitably make them, or wilt thou have legs like a zebra’s back?”

“I should like legs like a little boy, please,” is Sigmund’s modest expression of a reasonable desire.

Eugen surveys them.

Von der besten Qualität,” repeats the young woman, impressively.

“Have you no blue ones?” demands Eugen. “All blue, you know. He wears blue clothes.”

“Assuredly, mein Herr, but of a much dearer description; real English, magnificent.”

She retires to find them, and a young lady who has been standing near us turns and observes:

“Excuse me—you want stockings for your little boy?”

We both assent. It is a joint affair, of equal importance to both of us.

“I wouldn’t have those,” says she, and I remark her face.

I have seen her often before—moreover, I have seen her look very earnestly at Eugen. I learned later that her name was Anna Sartorius. Ere she can finish, the shop-woman with wreathed smiles still lingering about her face, returns and produces stockings—fine, blue-ribbed stockings, such as the children of rich English parents wear. Their fineness, and the smooth quality of the wool, and the good shape appear to soothe Eugen’s feelings. He pushes away his heap of striped ones, which look still coarser and commoner now, observing hopefully and cheerily:

Ja wohl! That is more what I mean.” (The poor dear fellow had meant nothing, but he knew what he wanted when he saw it.) “These look more like thy legs, Sigmund, nicht wahr? I’ll take—”

I dug him violently in the ribs.

“Hold on, Eugen! How much do they cost the pair, Fräulein?”

“Two thalers twenty-five; the very best quality,” she says, with a ravishing smile.

“There! eight shillings a pair!” say I. “It is ridiculous.”

“Eight shillings!” he repeats, ruefully. “That is too much.”

“They are real English, mein Herr,” she says, feelingly.

“But, um Gotteswillen! don’t we make any like them in Germany?”

“Oh, sir!” she says, reproachfully.

“Those others are such brutes,” he remarks, evidently wavering.

I am in despair. The young woman is annoyed to find that he does not even see the amiable looks she has bestowed upon him, so she sweeps back the heap of striped stockings and announces that they are only three marks the pair—naturally inferior, but you can not have the best article for nothing.

Fräulein Sartorius, about to go, says to Eugen:

Mein Herr, ask for such and such an article. I know they keep them, and you will find it what you want.”

Eugen, much touched and much surprised (as he always is and has been) that any one should take an interest in him, makes a bow, and a speech, and rushes off to open the door for Fräulein Sartorius, thanking her profusely for her goodness. The young lady behind the counter smiles bitterly, and now looks as if butter would not melt in her mouth. I, assuming the practical, mention the class of goods referred to by Fräulein Sartorius, which she unwillingly brings forth, and we straightway purchase. The errand accomplished, Eugen takes Sigmund by the hand, makes a grand bow to the young woman, and instructs his son to take off his hat, and, this process being complete, we sally forth again, and half-way home Eugen remarks that it was very kind of that young lady to help us.

“Very,” I assent, dryly, and when Sigmund has contributed the artless remark that all the ladies laughed at us and looked at us, and has been told by his father not to be so self-conceited, for that no one can possibly wish to look at us, we arrive at home, and the stockings are tried on.

Constantly I saw this willingness to charm on the part of women; constantly the same utter ignorance of any such thought on the part of Eugen, who was continually expressing his surprise at the kindness of people, and adding with the gravest simplicity that he had always found it so, at which announcement Karl laughed till he had to hold his sides.

And Sigmund? Since the day when Courvoisier had said to me, slowly and with difficulty, the words about parting, he had mentioned the subject twice—always with the same intention expressed. Once it was when I had been out during the evening, and he had not. I came into our sitting-room, and found it in darkness. A light came from the inner room, and, going toward it, I found that he had placed the lamp upon a distant stand, and was sitting by the child’s crib, his arms folded, his face calm and sad. He rose when he saw me, brought the lamp into the parlor again, and said:

“Pardon, Friedel, that I left you without light. The time of parting will come, you know, and I was taking a look in anticipation of the time when there will be no one there to look at.”

I bowed. There was a slight smile upon his lips, but I would rather have heard a broken voice and seen a mien less serene.

The second, and only time, up to now, and the events I am coming to, was once when he had been giving Sigmund a music lesson, as we called it—that is to say, Eugen took his violin and played a melody, but incorrectly, and Sigmund told him every time a wrong note was played, or false time kept. Eugen sat, giving a look now and then at the boy, whose small, delicate face was bright with intelligence, whose dark eyes blazed with life and fire, and whose every gesture betrayed spirit, grace, and quick understanding. A child for a father to be proud of. No meanness there; no littleness in the fine, high-bred features; everything that the father’s heart could wish, except perhaps some little want of robustness; one might have desired that the limbs were less exquisitely graceful and delicate—more stout and robust.

As Eugen laid aside his violin, he drew the child toward him, and asked (what I had never heard him ask before):

“What wilt thou be, Sigmund, when thou art a man?”

Ja, lieber Vater, I will be just like thee.”

“How just like me?”

“I will do what thou dost.”

“So! Thou wilt be a musiker like me and Friedel?”

Ja wohl!” said Sigmund, but something else seemed to weigh upon his small mind. He eyed his father with a reflective look, then looked down at his own small hands and slender limbs (his legs were cased in the new stockings).

“How?” inquired his father.

“I should like to be a musician,” said Sigmund, who had a fine confidence in his sire, and confided his every thought to him.

“I don’t know how to say it,” he went on, resting his elbows upon Eugen’s knee, and propping his chin upon his two small fists, he looked up into his father’s face.

“Friedhelm is a musician, but he is not like thee,” he pursued. Eugen reddened; I laughed.

“True as can be, Sigmund,” I said.

“‘I would I were as honest a man,’” said Eugen, slightly altering “Hamlet;” but as he spoke English I contented myself with shaking my head at him.

“I like Friedel,” went on Sigmund. “I love him; he is good. But thou, mein Vater—”

“Well?” asked Eugen again.

“I will be like thee,” said the boy, vehemently, his eyes filling with tears. “I will. Thou saidst that men who try can do all they will—and I will, I will.”

“Why, my child?”

It was a long earnest look that the child gave the man. Eugen had said to me some few days before, and I had fully agreed with him:

“That child’s life is one strife after the beautiful in art, and nature, and life—how will he succeed in the search?”

I thought of this—it flashed subtly through my mind as Sigmund gazed at his father with a childish adoration—then, suddenly springing round his neck, said, passionately:

“Thou art so beautiful—so beautiful! I must be like thee.”

Eugen bit his lip momentarily, saying to me in English:

“I am his God, you see, Friedel. What will he do when he finds out what a common clay figure it was he worshiped?”

But he had not the heart to banter the child; only held the little clinging figure to his breast; the breast which Sigmund recognized as his heaven.

It was after this that Eugen said to me when we were alone:

“It must come before he thinks less of me than he does now, Friedel.”

To these speeches I could never make any answer, and he always had the same singular smile—the same paleness about the lips and unnatural light in the eyes when he spoke so.

He had accomplished one great feat in those three years—he had won over to himself his comrades, and that without, so to speak, actively laying himself out to do so. He had struck us all as something so very different from the rest of us, that, on his arrival and for some time afterward, there lingered some idea that he must be opposed to us. But I very soon, and the rest by gradual degrees, got to recognize that though in, not of us, yet he was no natural enemy of ours; if he made no advances, he never avoided or repulsed any, but on the very contrary, seemed surprised and pleased that any one should take an interest in him. We soon found that he was extremely modest as to his own merits and eager to acknowledge those of other people.

“And,” said Karl Linders once, twirling his mustache, and smiling in the consciousness that his own outward presentment was not to be called repulsive, “he can’t help his looks; no fellow can.”

At the time of which I speak, his popularity was much greater than he knew, or would have believed if he had been told of it.

Only between him and von Francius there remained a constant gulf and a continual coldness. Von Francius never stepped aside to make friends; Eugen most certainly never went out of his way to ingratiate himself with von Francius. Courvoisier had been appointed contrary to the wish of von Francius, which perhaps caused the latter to regard him a little coldly—even more coldly than was usual with him, and he was never enthusiastic about any one or anything, while to Eugen there was absolutely nothing in von Francius which attracted him, save the magnificent power of his musical talent—a power which was as calm and cold as himself.

Max von Francius was a man about whom there were various opinions, expressed and unexpressed; he was a person who never spoke of himself, and who contrived to live a life more isolated and apart than any one I have ever known, considering that he went much into society, and mixed a good deal with the world. In every circle in Elberthal which could by any means be called select, his society was eagerly sought, nor did he refuse it. His days were full of engagements; he was consulted, and his opinion deferred to in a singular manner—singular, because he was no sayer of smooth things, but the very contrary; because he hung upon no patron, submitted to no dictation, was in his way an autocrat. This state of things he had brought about entirely by force of his own will and in utter opposition to precedent, for the former directors had been notoriously under the thumb of certain influential outsiders, who were in reality the directors of the director. It was the universal feeling that though the Herr Direktor was the busiest man, and had the largest circle of acquaintance of any one in Elberthal, yet that he was less really known than many another man of half his importance. His business as musik-direktor took up much of his time; the rest might have been filled to overflowing with private lessons, but von Francius was not a man to make himself cheap; it was a distinction to be taught by him, the more so as the position or circumstances of a would-be pupil appeared to make not the very smallest impression upon him. Distinguished for hard, practical common sense, a ready sneer at anything high-flown or romantic, discouraging not so much enthusiasm as the outward manifestation of it, which he called melodrama, Max von Francius was the cynosure of all eyes in Elberthal, and bore the scrutiny with glacial indifference.

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