First Violin, The


“Es ist bestimmt, in Gottes Rath,
Dass man vom Liebsten was man hat
Muss scheiden.”

Our merry little zauberfest of Christmas-eve was over. Christmas morning came. I remember that morning well—a gray, neutral kind of day, whose monotony outside emphasized the keenness of emotion within.

On that morning the postman came—a rather rare occurrence with us; for, except with notes from pupils, notices of proben, or other official communications, he seldom troubled us.

It was Sigmund who opened the door; it was he who took the letter, and wished the postman “good-morning” in his courteous little way. I dare say that the incident gave an additional pang afterward to the father, if he marked it, and seldom did the smallest act or movement of his child escape him.

“Father, here is a letter,” he said, giving it into Eugen’s hand.

“Perhaps it is for Friedel; thou art too ready to think that everything appertains to thy father,” said Eugen, with a smile, as he took the letter and looked at it; but before he had finished speaking the smile had faded. There remained a whiteness, a blank, a haggardness.

I had caught a glimpse of the letter; it was large, square, massive, and there was a seal upon the envelope—a regular letter of fate out of a romance.

Eugen took it into his hand, and for once he made no answer to the caress of his child, who put his arms round his neck and wanted to climb upon his knee. He allowed the action, but passively.

“Let me open it!” cried Sigmund. “Let me open thy letter!”

“No, no, child!” said Eugen, in a sharp, pained tone. “Let it alone.”

Sigmund looked surprised, and recoiled a little; a shock clouding his eyes. It was all right if his father said no, but a shade presently crossed his young face. His father did not usually speak so; did not usually have that white and pallid look about the eyes—above all, did not look at his son with a look that meant nothing.

Eugen was usually prompt enough in all he did, but he laid aside that letter, and proposed in a subdued tone that we should have breakfast. Which we had, and still the letter lay unopened. And when breakfast was over he even took up his violin and played runs and shakes and scales—and the air of a drinking song, which sounded grotesque in contrast with the surroundings. This lasted for some time, and yet the letter was not opened. It seemed as if he could not open it. I knew that it was with a desperate effort that he at last took it up, and—went into his room and shut the door.

I was reading—that is, I had a book in my hands, and was stretched out in the full luxury of an unexpected holiday upon the couch; but I could no more have read under the new influence, could no more have helped watching Sigmund, than I could help breathing and feeling.

He, Sigmund, stood still for a moment, looking at the closed door; gazing at it as if he expected it to open, and a loved hand to beckon him within. But it remained pitilessly shut, and the little boy had to accommodate himself as well as he could to a new phase in his mental history—the being excluded—left out in the cold. After making an impulsive step toward the door he turned, plunged his hands into his pockets as if to keep them from attacking the handle of that closed door, and walking to the window, gazed out, silent and motionless. I watched; I was compelled to watch. He was listening with every faculty, every fiber, for the least noise, the faintest movement from the room from which he was shut out. I did not dare to speak to him. I was very miserable myself; and a sense of coming loss and disaster was driven firmly into my mind and fixed there—a heavy prevision of inevitable sorrow and pain overhung my mind. I turned to my book and tried to read. It was one of the most delightful of romances that I held—no other than “Die Kinder der Welt”—and the scene was that in which Edwin and Toinette make that delightful, irregular Sunday excursion to the Charlottenburg, but I understood none of it. With that pathetic little real figure taking up so much of my consciousness, and every moment more insistently so, I could think of nothing else.

Dead silence from the room within; utter and entire silence, which lasted so long that my misery grew acute, and still that little figure, which was now growing terrible to me, neither spoke nor stirred. I do not know how long by the clock we remained in these relative positions; by my feelings it was a week; by those of Sigmund, I doubt not, a hundred years. But he turned at last, and with a face from which all trace of color had fled walked slowly toward the closed door.

“Sigmund!” I cried, in a loud whisper. “Come here, my child! Stay here, with me.”

“I must go in,” said he. He did not knock. He opened the door softly, and went in, closing it after him. I know not what passed. There was silence as deep as before, after one short, inarticulate murmur. There are some moments in this our life which are at once sacrificial, sacramental, and strong with the virtue of absolution for sins past; moments which are a crucible from which a stained soul may come out white again. Such were these—I know it now—in which father and son were alone together.

After a short silence, during which my book hung unheeded from my hand, I left the house, out of a sort of respect for my two friends. I had nothing particular to do, and so strolled aimlessly about, first into the Hofgarten, where I watched the Rhine, and looked Hollandward along its low, flat shores, to where there was a bend, and beyond the bend, Kaiserswerth. It is now long since I saw the river. Fair are his banks higher up—not at Elberthal would he have struck the stranger as being a stream for which to fight and die; but to me there is no part of his banks so lovely as the poor old Schöne Aussicht in the Elberthal Hofgarten, from whence I have watched the sun set flaming over the broad water, and felt my heart beat to the sense of precious possessions in the homely town behind. Then I strolled through the town, and coming down the Königsallée, beheld some bustle in front of a large, imposing-looking house, which had long been shut up and uninhabited. It had been a venture by a too shortly successful banker. He had built the house, lived in it three months, and finding himself bankrupt, had one morning disposed of himself by cutting his throat. Since then the house had been closed, and had had an ill name, though it was the handsomest building in the most fashionable part of the town, with a grand porte-cochère in front, and a pleasant, enticing kind of bowery garden behind—the house faced the Exerzierplatz, and was on the promenade of Elberthal. A fine chestnut avenue made the street into a pleasant wood, and yet Königsallée No. 3 always looked deserted and depressing. I paused to watch the workmen who were throwing open the shutters and uncovering the furniture. There were some women-servants busy with brush and duster in the hall, and a splendid barouche was being pushed through the porte-cochère into the back premises; a couple of trim-looking English grooms with four horses followed.

“Is some one coming to live here?” I demanded of a workman, who made answer:

Ja wohl! A rich English milord has taken the house furnished for six months—Sir Le Marchant, oder so etwas. I do not know the name quite correctly. He comes in a few days.”

“So!” said I, wondering what attraction Elberthal could offer to a rich English sir or milord, and feeling at the same time a mild glow of curiosity as to him and his circumstances, for I humbly confess it—I had never seen an authentic milord. Elberthal and Köln were almost the extent of my travels, and I only remembered that at the Niederrheinisches Musikfest last year some one had pointed out to me a decrepit-looking old gentleman, with a bottle-nose and a meaningless eye, as a milord—very, very rich, and exceedingly good. I had sorrowed a little at the time in thinking that he did not personally better grace his circumstances and character, but until this moment I had never thought of him again.

“That is his secretary,” pursued the workman to me, in an under-tone, as he pointed out a young man who was standing in the middle of the hall, note-book in hand. “Herr Arkwright. He is looking after us.”

“When does the Engländer come?”

“In a few days, with his servants and milady, and milady’s maid and dogs and bags and everything. And she—milady—is to have those rooms”—he pointed overhead, and grinned—“those where Banquier Klein was found with his throat cut. Hè!

He laughed, and began to sing lustily, “In Berlin, sagt’ er.”

After giving one more short survey to the house, and wondering why the apartments of a suicide should be assigned to a young and beautiful woman (for I instinctively judged her to be young and beautiful), I went on my way, and my thoughts soon returned to Eugen and Sigmund, and that trouble which I felt was hanging inevitably over us.

Eugen was, that evening, in a mood of utter, cool aloofness. His trouble did not appear to be one that he could confide—at present, at least. He took up his violin and discoursed most eloquent music, in the dark, to which music Sigmund and I listened. Sigmund sat upon my knee, and Eugen went on playing—improvising, or rather speaking the thoughts which were uppermost in his heart. It was wild, strange, melancholy, sometimes sweet, but ever with a ringing note of woe so piercing as to stab, recurring perpetually—such a note as comes throbbing to life now and then in the “Sonate Pathetique,” or in Raff’s Fifth Symphony.

Eugen always went to Sigmund after he had gone to bed, and talked to him or listened to him. I do not know if he taught him something like a prayer at such times, or spoke to him of supernatural things, or upon what they discoursed. I only know that it was an interchange of soul, and that usually he came away from it looking glad. But to-night, after remaining longer than usual, he returned with a face more haggard than I had seen it yet.

He sat down opposite me at the table, and there was silence, with an ever-deepening, sympathetic pain on my part. At last I raised my eyes to his face; one elbow rested upon the table, and his head leaned upon his hand. The lamp-light fell full upon his face, and there was that in it which would let me be silent no longer, any more than one could see a comrade bleeding to death, and not try to stanch the wound. I stepped up to him and laid my hand upon his shoulder. He looked up drearily, unrecognizingly, unsmilingly at me.

“Eugen, what hast thou?”

La mort dans lâme,” he answered, quoting from a poem which we had both been reading.

“And what has caused it?”

“Must you know, friend?” he asked. “If I did not need to tell it, I should be very glad.”

“I must know it, or—or leave you to it!” said I, choking back some emotion. “I can not pass another day like this.”

“And I had no right to let you spend such a day as this,” he answered. “Forgive me once again, Friedel—you who have forgiven so much and so often.”

“Well,” said I, “let us have the worst, Eugen. It is something about—”

I glanced toward the door, on the other side of which Sigmund was sleeping.

His face became set, as if of stone. One word, and one alone, after a short pause, passed his lips—“Ja!

I breathed again. It was so then.

“I told you, Friedel, that I should have to leave him?”

The words dropped out one by one from his lips, distinct, short, steady.


“That was bad, very bad. The worst, I thought, that could befall; but it seems that my imagination was limited.”

“Eugen, what is it?”

“I shall not have to leave him. I shall have to send him away from me.”

As if with the utterance of the words, the very core and fiber of resolution melted away and vanished, and the broken spirit turned writhing and shuddering from the phantom that extended its arms for the sacrifice, he flung his arms upon the table; his shoulders heaved. I heard two suppressed, choked-down sobs—the sobs of a strong man—strong alike in body and mind; strongest of all in the heart and spirit and purpose to love and cherish.

La mort dans lâme,” indeed! He could have chosen no fitter expression.

“Send him away!” I echoed, beneath my breath.

“Send my child away from me—as if I—did not—want him,” said Courvoisier, slowly, and in a voice made low and halting with anguish, as he lifted his gaze, dim with the desperate pain of coming parting, and looked me in the face.

I had begun in an aimless manner to pace the room, my heart on fire, my brain reaching wildly after some escape from the fetters of circumstance, invisible but iron strong, relentless as cramps and glaives of tempered steel. I knew no reason, of course. I knew no outward circumstances of my friend’s life or destiny. I did not wish to learn any. I did know that since he said it was so it must be so. Sigmund must be sent away! He—we—must be left alone; two poor men, with the brightness gone from our lives.

The scene does not let me rightly describe it. It was an anguish allied in its intensity to that of Gethsemane. Let me relate it as briefly as I can.

I made no spoken assurance of sympathy. I winced almost at the idea of speaking to him. I knew then that we may contemplate, or believe we contemplate, some coming catastrophe for years, believing that so the suffering, when it finally falls, will be lessened. This is a delusion. Let the blow rather come short, sharp, and without forewarning; preparation heightens the agony.

“Friedel,” said he at last, “you do not ask why must this be.”

“I do not need to ask why. I know that it must be, or you would not do it.”

“I would tell you if I could—if I might.”

“For Heaven’s sake, don’t suppose that I wish to pry—” I began. He interrupted me.

“You will make me laugh in spite of myself,” said he. “You wish to pry! Now, let me see how much more I can tell you. You perhaps think it wrong, in an abstract light, for a father to send his young son away from him. That is because you do not know what I do. If you did, you would say, as I do, that it must be so—I never saw it till now. That letter was a revelation. It is now all as clear as sunshine.”

I assented.

“Then you consent to take my word that it must be so, without more.”

“Indeed, Eugen, I wish for no more.”

He looked at me. “If I were to tell you,” said he, suddenly, and an impulsive light beamed in his eyes. A look of relief—it was nothing else—of hope, crossed his face. Then he sunk again into his former attitude—as if tired and wearied with some hard battle; exhausted, or what we more expressively call niedergeschlagen.

“Now something more,” he went on; and I saw the frown of desperation that gathered upon his brow. He went on quickly, as if otherwise he could not say what had to be said: “When he goes from me, he goes to learn to become a stranger to me. I promise not to see him, nor write to him, nor in any way communicate with him, or influence him. We part—utterly and entirely.”

“Eugen! Impossible! Herrgott! Impossible!” cried I, coming to a stop, and looking incredulously at him. That I did not believe. “Impossible!” I repeated, beneath my breath.

“By faith men can move mountains,” he retorted.

This, then, was the flavoring which made the cup so intolerable.

“You say that that is and must be wrong under all circumstances,” said Eugen, eying me steadily.

I paused. I could almost have found it in my heart to say, “Yes, I do.” But my faith in and love for this man had grown with me; as a daily prayer grows part of one’s thoughts, so was my confidence in him part of my mind. He looked as if he were appealing to me to say that it must be wrong, and so give him some excuse to push it aside. But I could not. After wavering for a moment, I answered:

“No. I am sure you have sufficient reasons.”

“I have. God knows I have.”

In the silence that ensued my mind was busy. Eugen Courvoisier was not a religious man, as the popular meaning of religious runs. He did not say of his misfortune, “It is God’s will,” nor did he add, “and therefore sweet to me.” He said nothing of whose will it was; but I felt that had that cause been a living thing—had it been a man, for instance, he would have gripped it and fastened to it until it lay dead and impotent, and he could set his heel upon it.

But it was no strong, living, tangible thing. It was a breathless abstraction—a something existing in the minds of men, and which they call “Right!” and being that—not an outside law which an officer of the law could enforce upon him; being that abstraction, he obeyed it.

As for saying that because it was right he liked it, or felt any consolation from the knowledge—he never once pretended to any such thing; but, true to his character of Child of the World, hated it with a hatred as strong as his love for the creature which it deprived him of. Only—he did it. He is not alone in such circumstances. Others have obeyed and will again obey this invisible law in circumstances as anguishing as those in which he stood, will steel their hearts to hardness while every fiber cries out, “Relent!” or will, like him, writhe under the lash, shake their chained hands at Heaven, and—submit.

“One more question, Eugen. When?”


“A year would seem soon to any of us three.”

“In a very short time. It may be in weeks; it may be in days. Now, Friedhelm, have a little pity and don’t probe any further.”

But I had no need to ask any more questions. The dreary evening passed somehow over, and bed-time came, and the morrow dawned.

For us three it brought the knowledge that for an indefinite time retrospective happiness must play the part of sun on our mental horizon.

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