First Violin, The



“Aren’t you coming to the ball, Eugen?”

“I? No.”

“I would if I were you.”

“But you are yourself, you see, and I am I. What was it that Heinrich Mohr in ‘The Children of the World’ was always saying? Ich bin ich, und setze mich selbst. Ditto me, that’s all.”

“It is no end of a lark,” I pursued.

“My larking days are over.”

“And you can talk to any one you like.”

“I am going to talk to myself, thanks. I have long wanted a little conversation with that interesting individual, and while you are masquerading, I will be doing the reverse. By the time you come home I shall be so thoroughly self-investigated and set to rights that a mere look at me will shake all the frivolity out of you.”

“Miss Wedderburn will be there.”

“I hope she may enjoy it.”

“At least she will look so lovely that she will make others enjoy it.”

He made no answer.

“You won’t go—quite certain?”

“Quite certain, mein lieber. Go yourself, and may you have much pleasure.”

Finding that he was in earnest, I went out to hire one domino and purchase one mask, instead of furnishing myself, as I had hoped, with two of each of those requisites.

It was Sunday, the first day of the carnival, and that devoted to the ball of the season. There were others given, but this was the Malerball, or artists’ ball. It was considered rather select, and had I not been lucky enough to have one or two pupils, members of the club, who had come forward with offerings of tickets, I might have tried in vain to gain admittance.

Everybody in Elherthal who was anybody would be at this ball. I had already been at one like it, as well as at several of the less select and rougher entertainments, and I found a pleasure which was somewhat strange even to myself in standing to one side and watching the motley throng and the formal procession which was every year organized by the artists who had the management of the proceedings.

The ball began at the timely hour of seven; about nine I enveloped myself in my domino, and took my way across the road to the scene of the festivities, which took up the whole three saals of the Tonhalle.

The night was bitter cold, but cold with that rawness which speaks of a coming thaw. The lamps were lighted, and despite the cold there was a dense crowd of watchers round the front of the building and in the gardens, with cold, inquisitive noses flattened against the long glass doors through which I have seen the people stream in the pleasant May evenings after the concert or musikfest into the illuminated gardens.

The last time I had been in the big saal had been to attend a dry probe to a dry concert—the “Erste Walpurgisnacht” of Mendelssohn. The scene was changed now; the whole room was a mob—“motley the only wear.” It was full to excess, so that there was scarcely room to move about, much less for dancing. For that purpose the middle saal of the three had been set aside, or rather a part of it railed off.

I felt a pleasant sense of ease and well-being—a security that I should not be recognized, as I had drawn the pointed hood of my domino over my head, and enveloped myself closely in its ample folds, and thus I could survey the brilliant Maskenball as I surveyed life from a quiet, unnoticed obscurity, and without taking part in its active affairs.

There was music going on as I entered. It could scarcely be heard above the Babel of tongues which was sounding. People were moving as well as they could. I made my way slowly and unobtrusively toward the upper end of the saal, intending to secure a place on the great orchestra, and thence survey the procession.

I recognized dozens of people whom I knew personally, or by sight, or name, transformed from sober Rhenish burger, or youths of the period, into persons and creatures whose appropriateness or inappropriateness to their every-day character it gave me much joy to witness. The most foolish young man I knew was attired as Cardinal Richelieu; the wisest, in certain respects, had a buffoon’s costume, and plagued the statesman and churchman grievously.

By degrees I made my way through the mocking, taunting, flouting, many-colored crowd, to the orchestra, and gradually up its steps until I stood upon a fine vantage-ground. Near me were others; I looked round. One party seemed to keep very much together—a party which for richness and correctness of costume outshone all others in the room. Two ladies, one dark and one fair, were dressed as Elsa and Ortrud. A man, whose slight, tall, commanding figure I soon recognized, was attired in the blue mantle, silver helm and harness of Lohengrin the son of Percivale; and a second man, too boyish-looking for the character, was masked as Frederic of Telramund. Henry the Fowler was wanting, but the group was easily to be recognized as personating the four principal characters from Wagner’s great opera.

They had apparently not been there long, for they had not yet unmasked. I had, however, no difficulty in recognizing any of them. The tall, fair girl in the dress of Elsa was Miss Wedderburn; the Ortrud was Lady Le Marchant, and right well she looked the character. Lohengrin was von Francius, and Friedrich von Telramund was Mr. Arkwright, Sir Peter’s secretary. Here was a party in whom I could take some interest, and I immediately and in the most unprincipled manner devoted myself to watching them—myself unnoticed.

“Who in all that motley crowd would I wish to be?” I thought, as my eyes wandered over them.

The procession was just forming; the voluptuous music of “Die Tausend und eine Nacht” waltzes was floating from the gallery and through the room. They went sweeping past—or running, or jumping; a ballet-girl whose mustache had been too precious to be parted with and a lady of the vielle cour beside her, nuns and corpses; Christy Minstrels (English, these last, whose motives were constantly misunderstood), fools and astrologers, Gretchens, Clärchens, devils, Egmonts, Joans of Arc enough to have rescued France a dozen times, and peasants of every race: Turks and Finns; American Indians and Alfred the Great—it was tedious and dazzling.

Then the procession was got into order; a long string of German legends, all the misty chronicle of Gudrun, the “Nibelungenlied” and the Rheingold—Siegfried and Kriemhild—those two everlasting figures of beauty and heroism, love and tragedy, which stand forth in hues of pure brightness that no time can dim; Brunhild and von Tronje-Hagen—this was before the days of Bayreuth and the Tetralogy—Tannhauser and Lohengrin, the Loreley, Walther von der Vogelweide, the two Elizabeths of the Wartburg, dozens of obscure legends and figures from “Volkslieder” and Folklore which I did not recognize; “Dornroschen,” Rubezahl; and the music to which they marched, was the melancholy yet noble measure, “The Last Ten of the Fourth Regiment.”

I surveyed the masks and masquerading for some time, keeping my eye all the while upon the party near me. They presently separated. Lady Le Marchant took the arm which von Francius offered her, and they went down the steps. Miss Wedderburn and the young secretary were left alone. I was standing near them, and two other masks, both in domino, hovered about. One wore a white domino with a scarlet rosette on the breast. The other was a black domino, closely disguised, who looked long after von Francius and Lady Le Marchant, and presently descended the orchestra steps and followed in their wake.

“Do not remain with me, Mr. Arkwright,” I heard Miss Wedderburn say. “You want to dance. Go and enjoy yourself.”

“I could not think of leaving you alone, Miss Wedderburn.”

“Oh, yes, you could, and can. I am not going to move from here. I want to look on—not to dance. You will find me here when you return.”

Again she urged him not to remain with her, and finally he departed in search of amusement among the crowd below.

Miss Wedderburn was now alone. She turned; her eyes, through her mask, met mine through my mask, and a certain thrill shot through me. This was such an opportunity as I had never hoped for, and I told myself that I should be a great fool if I let it slip. But how to begin? I looked at her. She was very beautiful, this young English girl, with the wonderful blending of fire and softness which had made me from the first think her one of the most attractive women I had ever seen.

As I stood, awkward and undecided, she beckoned me to her. In an instant I was at her side, bowing but maintaining silence.

“You are Herr Helfen, nicht wahr?” said she, inquiringly.

“Yes,” said I, and removed my mask. “How did you know it?”

“Something in your figure and attitude. Are you not dancing?”

“I—oh, no!”

“Nor I—I am not in the humor for it. I never felt less like dancing, nor less like a masquerade.” Then—hesitatingly—“Are you alone to-night?”

“Yes. Eugen would not come.”

“He will not be here at all?”

“Not at all?”

“I am surprised.”

“I tried to persuade him to come,” said I, apologetically. “But he would not. He said he was going to have a little conversation at home with himself.”

“So!” She turned to me with a mounting color, which I saw flush to her brow above her mask, and with parted lips.

“He has never cared for anything since Sigmund left us,” I continued.

“Sigmund—was that the dear little boy?”

“You say very truly.”

“Tell me about him. Was not his father very fond of him?”

“Fond! I never saw a man idolize his child so much. It was only need—the hardest need that made them part.”

“How—need? You do not mean poverty?” said she, somewhat awe-struck.

“Oh, no! Moral necessity. I do not know the reason. I have never asked. But I know it was like a death-blow.”

“Ah!” said she, and with a sudden movement removed her mask, as if she felt it stifling her, and looked me in the face with her beautiful clear eyes.

“Who could oblige him to part with his own child?” she asked.

“That I do not know, mein Fräulein. What I do know is that some shadow darkens my friend’s life and imbitters it—that he not only can not do what he wishes, but is forced to do what he hates—and that parting was one of the things.”

She looked at me with eagerness for some moments; then said, quickly:

“I can not help being interested in all this, but I fancy I ought not to listen to it, for—for—I don’t think he would like it. He—he—I believe he dislikes me, and perhaps you had better say no more.”

“Dislikes you!” I echoed. “Oh, no!”

“Oh, yes! he does,” she repeated, with a faint smile, which struggled for a moment with a look of pain, and then was extinguished. “I certainly was once very rude to him, but I should not have thought he was an ungenerous man—should you?”

“He is not ungenerous; the very reverse; he is too generous.”

“It does not matter, I suppose,” said she, repressing some emotion. “It can make no difference, but it pains me to be so misunderstood and so behaved to by one who was at first so kind to me—for he was very kind.”

Mein Fräulein,” said I, eager, though puzzled, “I can not explain it; it is as great a mystery to me as to you. I know nothing of his past—nothing of what he has been or done; nothing of who he is—only of one thing I am sure—that he is not what he seems to be. He may be called Eugen Courvoisier, or he may call himself Eugen Courvoisier; he was once known by some name in a very different world to that he lives in now. I know nothing about that, but I know this—that I believe in him. I have lived more than three years with him; he is true and honorable; fantastically, chivalrously honorable” (her eyes were downcast and her cheeks burning). “He never did anything false or dishonest—”

A slight, low, sneering laugh at my right hand caused me to look up. That figure in a white domino with a black mask, and a crimson rosette on the breast, stood leaning up against the foot of the organ, but other figures were near; the laugh might have come from one of them; it might have nothing to do with us or our remarks. I went on in a vehement and eager tone:

“He is what we Germans call a ganzer kerl—thorough in all—out and out good. Nothing will ever make me believe otherwise. Perhaps the mystery will never be cleared up. It doesn’t matter to me. It will make no difference in my opinion of the only man I love.”

A pause. Miss Wedderburn was looking at me; her eyes were full of tears; her face strangely moved. Yes—she loved him. It stood confessed in the very strength of the effort she made to be calm and composed. As she opened her lips to speak, that domino that I mentioned glided from her place and stooping down between us, whispered or murmured:

“You are a fool for your pains. Believe no one—least of all those who look most worthy of belief. He is not honest; he is not honorable. It is from shame and disgrace that he hides himself. Ask him if he remembers the 20th of April five years ago; you will hear what he has to say about it, and how brave and honorable he looks.”

Swift as fire the words were said, and rapidly as the same she had raised herself and disappeared. We were left gazing at each other. Miss Wedderburn’s face was blanched—she stared at me with large dilated eyes, and at last in a low voice of anguish and apprehension said:

“Oh, what does it mean?”

Her voice recalled me to myself.

“It may mean what it likes,” said I, calmly. “As I said, it makes no difference to me. I do not and will not believe that he ever did anything dishonorable.”

“Do you not?” said she, tremulously. “But—but—Anna Sartorius does know something of him.”

“Who is Anna Sartorius?”

“Why, that domino who spoke to us just now. But I forgot. You will not know her. She wanted long ago to tell me about him, and I would not let her, so she said I might learn for myself, and should never leave off until I knew the lesson by heart. I think she has kept her word,” she added, with a heartsick sigh.

“You surely would not believe her if she said the same thing fifty times over,” said I, not very reasonably, certainly.

“I do not know,” she replied, hesitatingly. “It is very difficult to know.”

“Well, I would not. If the whole world accused him I would believe nothing except from his own lips.”

“I wish I knew all about Anna Sartorius,” said she, slowly, and she looked as if seeking back in her memory to remember some dream. I stood beside her; the motley crowd ebbed and flowed beneath us, but the whisper we had heard had changed everything; and yet, no—to me not changed, but only darkened things.

In the meantime it had been growing later. Our conversation, with its frequent pauses, had taken a longer time than we had supposed. The crowd was thinning. Some of the women were going.

“I wonder where my sister is!” observed Miss Wedderburn, rather wearily. Her face was pale, and her delicate head drooped as if it were overweighed and pulled down by the superabundance of her beautiful chestnut hair, which came rippling and waving over her shoulders. A white satin petticoat, stiff with gold embroidery; a long trailing blue mantle of heavy brocade, fastened on the shoulders with golden clasps; a golden circlet in the gold of her hair; such was the dress, and right royally she became it. She looked a vision of loveliness. I wondered if she would ever act Elsa in reality; she would be assuredly the loveliest representative of that fair and weak-minded heroine who ever trod the boards. Supposing it ever came to pass that she acted Elsa to some one else’s Lohengrin, would she think of this night? Would she remember the great orchestra—and me, and the lights, and the people—our words—a whisper? A pause.

“But where can Adelaide be?” she said, at last. “I have not seen them since they left us.”

“They are there,” said I, surveying from my vantage-ground the thinning ranks. “They are coming up here too. And there is the other gentleman, Graf von Telramund, following them.”

They drew up to the foot of the orchestra, and then Mr. Arkwright came up to seek us.

“Miss Wedderburn, Lady Le Marchant is tired and thinks it is time to be going.”

“So am I tired,” she replied. I stepped back, but before she went away she turned to me, holding out her hand:

“Good-night, Herr Helfen. I, too, will not believe without proof.”

We shook hands, and she went away.

The lamp still burning, the room cold, the stove extinct. Eugen seated motionless near it.

“Eugen, art thou asleep?”

“I asleep, my dear boy! Well, how was it?”

“Eugen, I wish you had been there.”

“Why?” He roused himself with an effort and looked at me. His brow was clouded, his eyes too.

“Because you would have enjoyed it. I did. I saw Miss Wedderburn, and spoke to her. She looked lovely.”

“In that case it would have been odd indeed if you had not enjoyed yourself.”

“You are inexplicable.”

“It is bed-time,” he remarked, rising and speaking, as I thought, coldly.

We both retired. As for the whisper, frankly and honestly, I did not give it another thought.

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