Part 3 out of 3
Sometimes in the early autumn twilights, when the white mists rose from the
park-land, and the rooks formed long black lines on the palings, I almost
fancied I saw him start at the very trees and bushes, the outlines of the
distant oast-houses, with their conical roofs and projecting vanes, like
gibing fingers in the half light.
"Your husband is ill," I once ventured to remark to Mrs. Oke, as she sat
for the hundred-and-thirtieth of my preparatory sketches (I somehow could
never get beyond preparatory sketches with her). She raised her beautiful,
wide, pale eyes, making as she did so that exquisite curve of shoulders and
neck and delicate pale head that I so vainly longed to reproduce.
"I don't see it," she answered quietly. "If he is, why doesn't he go up to
town and see the doctor? It's merely one of his glum fits."
"You should not tease him about Lovelock," I added, very seriously. "He
will get to believe in him."
"Why not? If he sees him, why he sees him. He would not be the only person
that has done so"; and she smiled faintly and half perversely, as her eyes
sought that usual distant indefinable something.
But Oke got worse. He was growing perfectly unstrung, like a hysterical
woman. One evening that we were sitting alone in the smoking-room, he began
unexpectedly a rambling discourse about his wife; how he had first known
her when they were children, and they had gone to the same dancing-school
near Portland Place; how her mother, his aunt-in-law, had brought her for
Christmas to Okehurst while he was on his holidays; how finally, thirteen
years ago, when he was twenty-three and she was eighteen, they had been
married; how terribly he had suffered when they had been disappointed of
their baby, and she had nearly died of the illness.
"I did not mind about the child, you know," he said in an excited voice;
"although there will be an end of us now, and Okehurst will go to the
Curtises. I minded only about Alice." It was next to inconceivable that
this poor excited creature, speaking almost with tears in his voice and in
his eyes, was the quiet, well-got-up, irreproachable young ex-Guardsman who
had walked into my studio a couple of months before.
Oke was silent for a moment, looking fixedly at the rug at his feet, when
he suddenly burst out in a scarce audible voice--
"If you knew how I cared for Alice--how I still care for her. I could kiss
the ground she walks upon. I would give anything--my life any day--if only
she would look for two minutes as if she liked me a little--as if she
didn't utterly despise me"; and the poor fellow burst into a hysterical
laugh, which was almost a sob. Then he suddenly began to laugh outright,
exclaiming, with a sort of vulgarity of intonation which was extremely
foreign to him--
"Damn it, old fellow, this is a queer world we live in!" and rang for more
brandy and soda, which he was beginning, I noticed, to take pretty freely
now, although he had been almost a blue-ribbon man--as much so as is
possible for a hospitable country gentleman--when I first arrived.
It became clear to me now that, incredible as it might seem, the thing that
ailed William Oke was jealousy. He was simply madly in love with his wife,
and madly jealous of her. Jealous--but of whom? He himself would probably
have been quite unable to say. In the first place--to clear off any
possible suspicion--certainly not of me. Besides the fact that Mrs. Oke
took only just a very little more interest in me than in the butler or the
upper-housemaid, I think that Oke himself was the sort of man whose
imagination would recoil from realising any definite object of jealousy,
even though jealously might be killing him inch by inch. It remained a
vague, permeating, continuous feeling--the feeling that he loved her, and
she did not care a jackstraw about him, and that everything with which she
came into contact was receiving some of that notice which was refused to
him--every person, or thing, or tree, or stone: it was the recognition of
that strange far-off look in Mrs. Oke's eyes, of that strange absent smile
on Mrs. Oke's lips--eyes and lips that had no look and no smile for him.
Gradually his nervousness, his watchfulness, suspiciousness, tendency to
start, took a definite shape. Mr. Oke was for ever alluding to steps or
voices he had heard, to figures he had seen sneaking round the house. The
sudden bark of one of the dogs would make him jump up. He cleaned and
loaded very carefully all the guns and revolvers in his study, and even
some of the old fowling-pieces and holster-pistols in the hall. The
servants and tenants thought that Oke of Okehurst had been seized with a
terror of tramps and burglars. Mrs. Oke smiled contemptuously at all these
"My dear William," she said one day, "the persons who worry you have just
as good a right to walk up and down the passages and staircase, and to hang
about the house, as you or I. They were there, in all probability, long
before either of us was born, and are greatly amused by your preposterous
notions of privacy."
Mr. Oke laughed angrily. "I suppose you will tell me it is Lovelock--your
eternal Lovelock--whose steps I hear on the gravel every night. I suppose
he has as good a right to be here as you or I." And he strode out of the
"Lovelock--Lovelock! Why will she always go on like that about Lovelock?"
Mr. Oke asked me that evening, suddenly staring me in the face.
I merely laughed.
"It's only because she has that play of his on the brain," I answered; "and
because she thinks you superstitious, and likes to tease you."
"I don't understand," sighed Oke.
How could he? And if I had tried to make him do so, he would merely have
thought I was insulting his wife, and have perhaps kicked me out of the
room. So I made no attempt to explain psychological problems to him, and he
asked me no more questions until once--But I must first mention a curious
incident that happened.
The incident was simply this. Returning one afternoon from our usual walk,
Mr. Oke suddenly asked the servant whether any one had come. The answer was
in the negative; but Oke did not seem satisfied. We had hardly sat down to
dinner when he turned to his wife and asked, in a strange voice which I
scarcely recognised as his own, who had called that afternoon.
"No one," answered Mrs. Oke; "at least to the best of my knowledge."
William Oke looked at her fixedly.
"No one?" he repeated, in a scrutinising tone; "no one, Alice?"
Mrs. Oke shook her head. "No one," she replied.
There was a pause.
"Who was it, then, that was walking with you near the pond, about five
o'clock?" asked Oke slowly.
His wife lifted her eyes straight to his and answered contemptuously--
"No one was walking with me near the pond, at five o'clock or any other
Mr. Oke turned purple, and made a curious hoarse noise like a man choking.
"I--I thought I saw you walking with a man this afternoon, Alice," he
brought out with an effort; adding, for the sake of appearances before me,
"I thought it might have been the curate come with that report for me."
Mrs. Oke smiled.
"I can only repeat that no living creature has been near me this
afternoon," she said slowly. "If you saw any one with me, it must have been
Lovelock, for there certainly was no one else."
And she gave a little sigh, like a person trying to reproduce in her mind
some delightful but too evanescent impression.
I looked at my host; from crimson his face had turned perfectly livid, and
he breathed as if some one were squeezing his windpipe.
No more was said about the matter. I vaguely felt that a great danger was
threatening. To Oke or to Mrs. Oke? I could not tell which; but I was aware
of an imperious inner call to avert some dreadful evil, to exert myself, to
explain, to interpose. I determined to speak to Oke the following day, for
I trusted him to give me a quiet hearing, and I did not trust Mrs. Oke.
That woman would slip through my fingers like a snake if I attempted to
grasp her elusive character.
I asked Oke whether he would take a walk with me the next afternoon, and he
accepted to do so with a curious eagerness. We started about three o'clock.
It was a stormy, chilly afternoon, with great balls of white clouds rolling
rapidly in the cold blue sky, and occasional lurid gleams of sunlight,
broad and yellow, which made the black ridge of the storm, gathered on the
horizon, look blue-black like ink.
We walked quickly across the sere and sodden grass of the park, and on to
the highroad that led over the low hills, I don't know why, in the
direction of Cotes Common. Both of us were silent, for both of us had
something to say, and did not know how to begin. For my part, I recognised
the impossibility of starting the subject: an uncalled-for interference
from me would merely indispose Mr. Oke, and make him doubly dense of
comprehension. So, if Oke had something to say, which he evidently had, it
was better to wait for him.
Oke, however, broke the silence only by pointing out to me the condition of
the hops, as we passed one of his many hop-gardens. "It will be a poor
year," he said, stopping short and looking intently before him--"no hops at
all. No hops this autumn."
I looked at him. It was clear that he had no notion what he was saying. The
dark-green bines were covered with fruit; and only yesterday he himself had
informed me that he had not seen such a profusion of hops for many years.
I did not answer, and we walked on. A cart met us in a dip of the road, and
the carter touched his hat and greeted Mr. Oke. But Oke took no heed; he
did not seem to be aware of the man's presence.
The clouds were collecting all round; black domes, among which coursed the
round grey masses of fleecy stuff.
"I think we shall be caught in a tremendous storm," I said; "hadn't we
better be turning?" He nodded, and turned sharp round.
The sunlight lay in yellow patches under the oaks of the pasture-lands, and
burnished the green hedges. The air was heavy and yet cold, and everything
seemed preparing for a great storm. The rooks whirled in black clouds round
the trees and the conical red caps of the oast-houses which give that
country the look of being studded with turreted castles; then they
descended--a black line--upon the fields, with what seemed an unearthly
loudness of caw. And all round there arose a shrill quavering bleating of
lambs and calling of sheep, while the wind began to catch the topmost
branches of the trees.
Suddenly Mr. Oke broke the silence.
"I don't know you very well," he began hurriedly, and without turning his
face towards me; "but I think you are honest, and you have seen a good deal
of the world--much more than I. I want you to tell me--but truly,
please--what do you think a man should do if"--and he stopped for some
"Imagine," he went on quickly, "that a man cares a great deal--a very great
deal for his wife, and that he finds out that she--well, that--that she is
deceiving him. No--don't misunderstand me; I mean--that she is constantly
surrounded by some one else and will not admit it--some one whom she hides
away. Do you understand? Perhaps she does not know all the risk she is
running, you know, but she will not draw back--she will not avow it to her
"My dear Oke," I interrupted, attempting to take the matter lightly, "these
are questions that can't be solved in the abstract, or by people to whom
the thing has not happened. And it certainly has not happened to you or
Oke took no notice of my interruption. "You see," he went on, "the man
doesn't expect his wife to care much about him. It's not that; he isn't
merely jealous, you know. But he feels that she is on the brink of
dishonouring herself--because I don't think a woman can really dishonour
her husband; dishonour is in our own hands, and depends only on our own
acts. He ought to save her, do you see? He must, must save her, in one way
or another. But if she will not listen to him, what can he do? Must he seek
out the other one, and try and get him out of the way? You see it's all the
fault of the other--not hers, not hers. If only she would trust in her
husband, she would be safe. But that other one won't let her."
"Look here, Oke," I said boldly, but feeling rather frightened; "I know
quite well what you are talking about. And I see you don't understand the
matter in the very least. I do. I have watched you and watched Mrs. Oke
these six weeks, and I see what is the matter. Will you listen to me?"
And taking his arm, I tried to explain to him my view of the
situation--that his wife was merely eccentric, and a little theatrical and
imaginative, and that she took a pleasure in teasing him. That he, on the
other hand, was letting himself get into a morbid state; that he was ill,
and ought to see a good doctor. I even offered to take him to town with me.
I poured out volumes of psychological explanations. I dissected Mrs. Oke's
character twenty times over, and tried to show him that there was
absolutely nothing at the bottom of his suspicions beyond an imaginative
_pose_ and a garden-play on the brain. I adduced twenty instances, mostly
invented for the nonce, of ladies of my acquaintance who had suffered from
similar fads. I pointed out to him that his wife ought to have an outlet
for her imaginative and theatrical over-energy. I advised him to take her
to London and plunge her into some set where every one should be more or
less in a similar condition. I laughed at the notion of there being any
hidden individual about the house. I explained to Oke that he was suffering
from delusions, and called upon so conscientious and religious a man to
take every step to rid himself of them, adding innumerable examples of
people who had cured themselves of seeing visions and of brooding over
morbid fancies. I struggled and wrestled, like Jacob with the angel, and I
really hoped I had made some impression. At first, indeed, I felt that not
one of my words went into the man's brain--that, though silent, he was not
listening. It seemed almost hopeless to present my views in such a light
that he could grasp them. I felt as if I were expounding and arguing at a
rock. But when I got on to the tack of his duty towards his wife and
himself, and appealed to his moral and religious notions, I felt that I was
making an impression.
"I daresay you are right," he said, taking my hand as we came in sight of
the red gables of Okehurst, and speaking in a weak, tired, humble voice. "I
don't understand you quite, but I am sure what you say is true. I daresay
it is all that I'm seedy. I feel sometimes as if I were mad, and just fit
to be locked up. But don't think I don't struggle against it. I do, I do
continually, only sometimes it seems too strong for me. I pray God night
and morning to give me the strength to overcome my suspicions, or to remove
these dreadful thoughts from me. God knows, I know what a wretched creature
I am, and how unfit to take care of that poor girl."
And Oke again pressed my hand. As we entered the garden, he turned to me
"I am very, very grateful to you," he said, "and, indeed, I will do my best
to try and be stronger. If only," he added, with a sigh, "if only Alice
would give me a moment's breathing-time, and not go on day after day
mocking me with her Lovelock."
I had begun Mrs. Oke's portrait, and she was giving me a sitting. She was
unusually quiet that morning; but, it seemed to me, with the quietness of a
woman who is expecting something, and she gave me the impression of being
extremely happy. She had been reading, at my suggestion, the "Vita Nuova,"
which she did not know before, and the conversation came to roll upon that,
and upon the question whether love so abstract and so enduring was a
possibility. Such a discussion, which might have savoured of flirtation in
the case of almost any other young and beautiful woman, became in the case
of Mrs. Oke something quite different; it seemed distant, intangible, not
of this earth, like her smile and the look in her eyes.
"Such love as that," she said, looking into the far distance of the
oak-dotted park-land, "is very rare, but it can exist. It becomes a
person's whole existence, his whole soul; and it can survive the death, not
merely of the beloved, but of the lover. It is unextinguishable, and goes
on in the spiritual world until it meet a reincarnation of the beloved; and
when this happens, it jets out and draws to it all that may remain of that
lover's soul, and takes shape and surrounds the beloved one once more."
Mrs. Oke was speaking slowly, almost to herself, and I had never, I think,
seen her look so strange and so beautiful, the stiff white dress bringing
out but the more the exotic exquisiteness and incorporealness of her
I did not know what to answer, so I said half in jest--
"I fear you have been reading too much Buddhist literature, Mrs. Oke. There
is something dreadfully esoteric in all you say."
She smiled contemptuously.
"I know people can't understand such matters," she replied, and was silent
for some time. But, through her quietness and silence, I felt, as it were,
the throb of a strange excitement in this woman, almost as if I had been
holding her pulse.
Still, I was in hopes that things might be beginning to go better in
consequence of my interference. Mrs. Oke had scarcely once alluded to
Lovelock in the last two or three days; and Oke had been much more cheerful
and natural since our conversation. He no longer seemed so worried; and
once or twice I had caught in him a look of great gentleness and
loving-kindness, almost of pity, as towards some young and very frail
thing, as he sat opposite his wife.
But the end had come. After that sitting Mrs. Oke had complained of fatigue
and retired to her room, and Oke had driven off on some business to the
nearest town. I felt all alone in the big house, and after having worked a
little at a sketch I was making in the park, I amused myself rambling about
It was a warm, enervating, autumn afternoon: the kind of weather that
brings the perfume out of everything, the damp ground and fallen leaves,
the flowers in the jars, the old woodwork and stuffs; that seems to bring
on to the surface of one's consciousness all manner of vague recollections
and expectations, a something half pleasurable, half painful, that makes it
impossible to do or to think. I was the prey of this particular, not at all
unpleasurable, restlessness. I wandered up and down the corridors, stopping
to look at the pictures, which I knew already in every detail, to follow
the pattern of the carvings and old stuffs, to stare at the autumn flowers,
arranged in magnificent masses of colour in the big china bowls and jars. I
took up one book after another and threw it aside; then I sat down to the
piano and began to play irrelevant fragments. I felt quite alone, although
I had heard the grind of the wheels on the gravel, which meant that my host
had returned. I was lazily turning over a book of verses--I remember it
perfectly well, it was Morris's "Love is Enough"--in a corner of the
drawing-room, when the door suddenly opened and William Oke showed himself.
He did not enter, but beckoned to me to come out to him. There was
something in his face that made me start up and follow him at once. He was
extremely quiet, even stiff, not a muscle of his face moving, but very
"I have something to show you," he said, leading me through the vaulted
hall, hung round with ancestral pictures, into the gravelled space that
looked like a filled-up moat, where stood the big blasted oak, with its
twisted, pointing branches. I followed him on to the lawn, or rather the
piece of park-land that ran up to the house. We walked quickly, he in
front, without exchanging a word. Suddenly he stopped, just where there
jutted out the bow-window of the yellow drawing-room, and I felt Oke's hand
tight upon my arm.
"I have brought you here to see something," he whispered hoarsely; and he
led me to the window.
I looked in. The room, compared with the out door, was rather dark; but
against the yellow wall I saw Mrs. Oke sitting alone on a couch in her
white dress, her head slightly thrown back, a large red rose in her hand.
"Do you believe now?" whispered Oke's voice hot at my ear. "Do you believe
now? Was it all my fancy? But I will have him this time. I have locked the
door inside, and, by God! he shan't escape."
The words were not out of Oke's mouth. I felt myself struggling with him
silently outside that window. But he broke loose, pulled open the window,
and leapt into the room, and I after him. As I crossed the threshold,
something flashed in my eyes; there was a loud report, a sharp cry, and the
thud of a body on the ground.
Oke was standing in the middle of the room, with a faint smoke about him;
and at his feet, sunk down from the sofa, with her blond head resting on
its seat, lay Mrs. Oke, a pool of red forming in her white dress. Her mouth
was convulsed, as if in that automatic shriek, but her wide-open white eyes
seemed to smile vaguely and distantly.
I know nothing of time. It all seemed to be one second, but a second that
lasted hours. Oke stared, then turned round and laughed.
"The damned rascal has given me the slip again!" he cried; and quickly
unlocking the door, rushed out of the house with dreadful cries.
That is the end of the story. Oke tried to shoot himself that evening, but
merely fractured his jaw, and died a few days later, raving. There were all
sorts of legal inquiries, through which I went as through a dream; and
whence it resulted that Mr. Oke had killed his wife in a fit of momentary
madness. That was the end of Alice Oke. By the way, her maid brought me a
locket which was found round her neck, all stained with blood. It contained
some very dark auburn hair, not at all the colour of William Oke's. I am
quite sure it was Lovelock's.
_A Wicked Voice_
To M.W., IN REMEMBRANCE OF THE LAST SONG AT PALAZZO BARBARO, _Chi ha
They have been congratulating me again today upon being the only
composer of our days--of these days of deafening orchestral effects and
poetical quackery--who has despised the new-fangled nonsense of
Wagner, and returned boldly to the traditions of Handel and Gluck and
the divine Mozart, to the supremacy of melody and the respect of the
O cursed human voice, violin of flesh and blood, fashioned with the
subtle tools, the cunning hands, of Satan! O execrable art of singing,
have you not wrought mischief enough in the past, degrading so much
noble genius, corrupting the purity of Mozart, reducing Handel to a
writer of high-class singing-exercises, and defrauding the world of the
only inspiration worthy of Sophocles and Euripides, the poetry of the
great poet Gluck? Is it not enough to have dishonored a whole century
in idolatry of that wicked and contemptible wretch the singer, without
persecuting an obscure young composer of our days, whose only wealth is
his love of nobility in art, and perhaps some few grains of genius?
And then they compliment me upon the perfection with which I imitate
the style of the great dead masters; or ask me very seriously whether,
even if I could gain over the modern public to this bygone style of
music, I could hope to find singers to perform it. Sometimes, when
people talk as they have been talking today, and laugh when I declare
myself a follower of Wagner, I burst into a paroxysm of unintelligible,
childish rage, and exclaim, "We shall see that some day!"
Yes; some day we shall see! For, after all, may I not recover from this
strangest of maladies? It is still possible that the day may come when
all these things shall seem but an incredible nightmare; the day when
_Ogier the Dane_ shall be completed, and men shall know whether I
am a follower of the great master of the Future or the miserable
singing-masters of the Past. I am but half-bewitched, since I am
conscious of the spell that binds me. My old nurse, far off in Norway,
used to tell me that were-wolves are ordinary men and women half their
days, and that if, during that period, they become aware of their
horrid transformation they may find the means to forestall it. May this
not be the case with me? My reason, after all, is free, although my
artistic inspiration be enslaved; and I can despise and loathe the
music I am forced to compose, and the execrable power that forces me.
Nay, is it not because I have studied with the doggedness of hatred
this corrupt and corrupting music of the Past, seeking for every little
peculiarity of style and every biographical trifle merely to display
its vileness, is it not for this presumptuous courage that I have been
overtaken by such mysterious, incredible vengeance?
And meanwhile, my only relief consists in going over and over again in
my mind the tale of my miseries. This time I will write it, writing
only to tear up, to throw the manuscript unread into the fire. And yet,
who knows? As the last charred pages shall crackle and slowly sink into
the red embers, perhaps the spell may be broken, and I may possess once
more my long-lost liberty, my vanished genius.
It was a breathless evening under the full moon, that implacable full
moon beneath which, even more than beneath the dreamy splendor of
noon-tide, Venice seemed to swelter in the midst of the waters,
exhaling, like some great lily, mysterious influences, which make the
brain swim and the heart faint--a moral malaria, distilled, as I
thought, from those languishing melodies, those cooing vocalizations
which I had found in the musty music-books of a century ago. I see that
moonlight evening as if it were present. I see my fellow-lodgers of
that little artists' boarding-house. The table on which they lean after
supper is strewn with bits of bread, with napkins rolled in tapestry
rollers, spots of wine here and there, and at regular intervals chipped
pepper-pots, stands of toothpicks, and heaps of those huge hard peaches
which nature imitates from the marble-shops of Pisa. The whole
_pension_-full is assembled, and examining stupidly the engraving
which the American etcher has just brought for me, knowing me to be mad
about eighteenth century music and musicians, and having noticed, as he
turned over the heaps of penny prints in the square of San Polo, that
the portrait is that of a singer of those days.
Singer, thing of evil, stupid and wicked slave of the voice, of that
instrument which was not invented by the human intellect, but begotten
of the body, and which, instead of moving the soul, merely stirs up the
dregs of our nature! For what is the voice but the Beast calling,
awakening that other Beast sleeping in the depths of mankind, the Beast
which all great art has ever sought to chain up, as the archangel
chains up, in old pictures, the demon with his woman's face? How could
the creature attached to this voice, its owner and its victim, the
singer, the great, the real singer who once ruled over every heart, be
otherwise than wicked and contemptible? But let me try and get on with
I can see all my fellow-boarders, leaning on the table, contemplating
the print, this effeminate beau, his hair curled into _ailes de
pigeon_, his sword passed through his embroidered pocket, seated
under a triumphal arch somewhere among the clouds, surrounded by puffy
Cupids and crowned with laurels by a bouncing goddess of fame. I hear
again all the insipid exclamations, the insipid questions about this
singer:--"When did he live? Was he very famous? Are you sure, Magnus,
that this is really a portrait," &c. &c. And I hear my own voice, as if
in the far distance, giving them all sorts of information, biographical
and critical, out of a battered little volume called _The Theatre of
Musical Glory; or, Opinions upon the most Famous Chapel-masters and
Virtuosi of this Century_, by Father Prosdocimo Sabatelli,
Barnalite, Professor of Eloquence at the College of Modena, and Member
of the Arcadian Academy, under the pastoral name of Evander Lilybaean,
Venice, 1785, with the approbation of the Superiors. I tell them all
how this singer, this Balthasar Cesari, was nick-named Zaffirino
because of a sapphire engraved with cabalistic signs presented to him
one evening by a masked stranger, in whom wise folk recognized that
great cultivator of the human voice, the devil; how much more wonderful
had been this Zaffirino's vocal gifts than those of any singer of
ancient or modern times; how his brief life had been but a series of
triumphs, petted by the greatest kings, sung by the most famous poets,
and finally, adds Father Prosdocimo, "courted (if the grave Muse of
history may incline her ear to the gossip of gallantry) by the most
charming nymphs, even of the very highest quality."
My friends glance once more at the engraving; more insipid remarks are
made; I am requested--especially by the American young ladies--to play
or sing one of this Zaffirino's favorite songs--"For of course you know
them, dear Maestro Magnus, you who have such a passion for all old
music. Do be good, and sit down to the piano." I refuse, rudely enough,
rolling the print in my fingers. How fearfully this cursed heat, these
cursed moonlight nights, must have unstrung me! This Venice would
certainly kill me in the long-run! Why, the sight of this idiotic
engraving, the mere name of that coxcomb of a singer, have made my
heart beat and my limbs turn to water like a love-sick hobbledehoy.
After my gruff refusal, the company begins to disperse; they prepare to
go out, some to have a row on the lagoon, others to saunter before the
_cafÚs_ at St. Mark's; family discussions arise, gruntings of
fathers, murmurs of mothers, peals of laughing from young girls and
young men. And the moon, pouring in by the wide-open windows, turns
this old palace ballroom, nowadays an inn dining-room, into a lagoon,
scintillating, undulating like the other lagoon, the real one, which
stretches out yonder furrowed by invisible gondolas betrayed by the red
prow-lights. At last the whole lot of them are on the move. I shall be
able to get some quiet in my room, and to work a little at my opera of
_Ogier the Dane_. But no! Conversation revives, and, of all
things, about that singer, that Zaffirino, whose absurd portrait I am
crunching in my fingers.
The principal speaker is Count Alvise, an old Venetian with dyed
whiskers, a great check tie fastened with two pins and a chain; a
threadbare patrician who is dying to secure for his lanky son that
pretty American girl, whose mother is intoxicated by all his mooning
anecdotes about the past glories of Venice in general, and of his
illustrious family in particular. Why, in Heaven's name, must he pitch
upon Zaffirino for his mooning, this old duffer of a patrician?
"Zaffirino,--ah yes, to be sure! Balthasar Cesari, called Zaffirino,"
snuffles the voice of Count Alvise, who always repeats the last word of
every sentence at least three times. "Yes, Zaffirino, to be sure! A
famous singer of the days of my forefathers; yes, of my forefathers,
dear lady!" Then a lot of rubbish about the former greatness of Venice,
the glories of old music, the former Conservatoires, all mixed up with
anecdotes of Rossini and Donizetti, whom he pretends to have known
intimately. Finally, a story, of course containing plenty about his
illustrious family:--"My great grand-aunt, the Procuratessa Vendramin,
from whom we have inherited our estate of MistrÓ, on the Brenta"--a
hopelessly muddled story, apparently, fully of digressions, but of
which that singer Zaffirino is the hero. The narrative, little by
little, becomes more intelligible, or perhaps it is I who am giving it
"It seems," says the Count, "that there was one of his songs in
particular which was called the 'Husbands' Air'--_L'Aria dei
Marit_--because they didn't enjoy it quite as much as their
better-halves.... My grand-aunt, Pisana Renier, married to the
Procuratore Vendramin, was a patrician of the old school, of the style
that was getting rare a hundred years ago. Her virtue and her pride
rendered her unapproachable. Zaffirino, on his part, was in the habit
of boasting that no woman had ever been able to resist his singing,
which, it appears, had its foundation in fact--the ideal changes, my
dear lady, the ideal changes a good deal from one century to
another!--and that his first song could make any woman turn pale and
lower her eyes, the second make her madly in love, while the third song
could kill her off on the spot, kill her for love, there under his very
eyes, if he only felt inclined. My grandaunt Vendramin laughed when
this story was told her, refused to go to hear this insolent dog, and
added that it might be quite possible by the aid of spells and infernal
pacts to kill a _gentildonna_, but as to making her fall in love
with a lackey--never! This answer was naturally reported to Zaffirino,
who piqued himself upon always getting the better of any one who was
wanting in deference to his voice. Like the ancient Romans, _parcere
subjectis et debellare superbos_. You American ladies, who are so
learned, will appreciate this little quotation from the divine Virgil.
While seeming to avoid the Procuratessa Vendramin, Zaffirino took the
opportunity, one evening at a large assembly, to sing in her presence.
He sang and sang and sang until the poor grand-aunt Pisana fell ill for
love. The most skilful physicians were kept unable to explain the
mysterious malady which was visibly killing the poor young lady; and
the Procuratore Vendramin applied in vain to the most venerated
Madonnas, and vainly promised an altar of silver, with massive gold
candlesticks, to Saints Cosmas and Damian, patrons of the art of
healing. At last the brother-in-law of the Procuratessa, Monsignor
Almor˛ Vendramin, Patriarch of Aquileia, a prelate famous for the
sanctity of his life, obtained in a vision of Saint Justina, for whom
he entertained a particular devotion, the information that the only
thing which could benefit the strange illness of his sister-in-law was
the voice of Zaffirino. Take notice that my poor grand-aunt had never
condescended to such a revelation.
"The Procuratore was enchanted at this happy solution; and his lordship
the Patriarch went to seek Zaffirino in person, and carried him in his
own coach to the Villa of MistrÓ, where the Procuratessa was residing.
"On being told what was about to happen, my poor grand-aunt went into
fits of rage, which were succeeded immediately by equally violent fits
of joy. However, she never forgot what was due to her great position.
Although sick almost unto death, she had herself arrayed with the
greatest pomp, caused her face to be painted, and put on all her
diamonds: it would seem as if she were anxious to affirm her full
dignity before this singer. Accordingly she received Zaffirino
reclining on a sofa which had been placed in the great ballroom of the
Villa of MistrÓ, and beneath the princely canopy; for the Vendramins,
who had intermarried with the house of Mantua, possessed imperial fiefs
and were princes of the Holy Roman Empire. Zaffirino saluted her with
the most profound respect, but not a word passed between them. Only,
the singer inquired from the Procuratore whether the illustrious lady
had received the Sacraments of the Church. Being told that the
Procuratessa had herself asked to be given extreme unction from the
hands of her brother-in-law, he declared his readiness to obey the
orders of His Excellency, and sat down at once to the harpsichord.
"Never had he sung so divinely. At the end of the first song the
Procuratessa Vendramin had already revived most extraordinarily; by the
end of the second she appeared entirely cured and beaming with beauty
and happiness; but at the third air--the _Aria dei Mariti_, no
doubt--she began to change frightfully; she gave a dreadful cry, and
fell into the convulsions of death. In a quarter of an hour she was
dead! Zaffirino did not wait to see her die. Having finished his song,
he withdrew instantly, took post-horses, and traveled day and night as
far as Munich. People remarked that he had presented himself at MistrÓ
dressed in mourning, although he had mentioned no death among his
relatives; also that he had prepared everything for his departure, as
if fearing the wrath of so powerful a family. Then there was also the
extraordinary question he had asked before beginning to sing, about the
Procuratessa having confessed and received extreme unction.... No,
thanks, my dear lady, no cigarettes for me. But if it does not distress
you or your charming daughter, may I humbly beg permission to smoke a
And Count Alvise, enchanted with his talent for narrative, and sure of
having secured for his son the heart and the dollars of his fair
audience, proceeds to light a candle, and at the candle one of those
long black Italian cigars which require preliminary disinfection before
... If this state of things goes on I shall just have to ask the doctor
for a bottle; this ridiculous beating of my heart and disgusting cold
perspiration have increased steadily during Count Alvise's narrative.
To keep myself in countenance among the various idiotic commentaries on
this cock-and-bull story of a vocal coxcomb and a vaporing great lady,
I begin to unroll the engraving, and to examine stupidly the portrait
of Zaffirino, once so renowned, now so forgotten. A ridiculous ass,
this singer, under his triumphal arch, with his stuffed Cupids and the
great fat winged kitchenmaid crowning him with laurels. How flat and
vapid and vulgar it is, to be sure, all this odious eighteenth century!
But he, personally, is not so utterly vapid as I had thought. That
effeminate, fat face of his is almost beautiful, with an odd smile,
brazen and cruel. I have seen faces like this, if not in real life, at
least in my boyish romantic dreams, when I read Swinburne and
Baudelaire, the faces of wicked, vindictive women. Oh yes! he is
decidedly a beautiful creature, this Zaffirino, and his voice must have
had the same sort of beauty and the same expression of wickedness....
"Come on, Magnus," sound the voices of my fellow-boarders, "be a good
fellow and sing us one of the old chap's songs; or at least something
or other of that day, and we'll make believe it was the air with which
he killed that poor lady."
"Oh yes! the _Aria dei Mariti_, the 'Husbands' Air,'" mumbles old
Alvise, between the puffs at his impossible black cigar. "My poor
grand-aunt, Pisana Vendramin; he went and killed her with those songs
of his, with that _Aria dei Mariti_."
I feel senseless rage overcoming me. Is it that horrible palpitation
(by the way, there is a Norwegian doctor, my fellow-countryman, at
Venice just now) which is sending the blood to my brain and making me
mad? The people round the piano, the furniture, everything together
seems to get mixed and to turn into moving blobs of color. I set to
singing; the only thing which remains distinct before my eyes being the
portrait of Zaffirino, on the edge of that boarding-house piano; the
sensual, effeminate face, with its wicked, cynical smile, keeps
appearing and disappearing as the print wavers about in the draught
that makes the candles smoke and gutter. And I set to singing madly,
singing I don't know what. Yes; I begin to identify it: 'tis the
_Biondina in Gondoleta_, the only song of the eighteenth century
which is still remembered by the Venetian people. I sing it, mimicking
every old-school grace; shakes, cadences, languishingly swelled and
diminished notes, and adding all manner of buffooneries, until the
audience, recovering from its surprise, begins to shake with laughing;
until I begin to laugh myself, madly, frantically, between the phrases
of the melody, my voice finally smothered in this dull, brutal
laughter.... And then, to crown it all, I shake my fist at this
long-dead singer, looking at me with his wicked woman's face, with his
mocking, fatuous smile.
"Ah! you would like to be revenged on me also!" I exclaim. "You would
like me to write you nice roulades and flourishes, another nice _Aria
dei Mariti_, my fine Zaffirino!"
That night I dreamed a very strange dream. Even in the big
half-furnished room the heat and closeness were stifling. The air
seemed laden with the scent of all manner of white flowers, faint and
heavy in their intolerable sweetness: tuberoses, gardenias, and
jasmines drooping I know not where in neglected vases. The moonlight
had transformed the marble floor around me into a shallow, shining,
pool. On account of the heat I had exchanged my bed for a big
old-fashioned sofa of light wood, painted with little nosegays and
sprigs, like an old silk; and I lay there, not attempting to sleep, and
letting my thoughts go vaguely to my opera of _Ogier the Dane_, of
which I had long finished writing the words, and for whose music I had
hoped to find some inspiration in this strange Venice, floating, as it
were, in the stagnant lagoon of the past. But Venice had merely put all
my ideas into hopeless confusion; it was as if there arose out of its
shallow waters a miasma of long-dead melodies, which sickened but
intoxicated my soul. I lay on my sofa watching that pool of whitish
light, which rose higher and higher, little trickles of light meeting
it here and there, wherever the moon's rays struck upon some polished
surface; while huge shadows waved to and fro in the draught of the open
I went over and over that old Norse story: how the Paladin, Ogier, one
of the knights of Charlemagne, was decoyed during his homeward
wanderings from the Holy Land by the arts of an enchantress, the same
who had once held in bondage the great Emperor Caesar and given him King
Oberon for a son; how Ogier had tarried in that island only one day and
one night, and yet, when he came home to his kingdom, he found all
changed, his friends dead, his family dethroned, and not a man who knew
his face; until at last, driven hither and thither like a beggar, a
poor minstrel had taken compassion of his sufferings and given him all
he could give--a song, the song of the prowess of a hero dead for
hundreds of years, the Paladin Ogier the Dane.
The story of Ogier ran into a dream, as vivid as my waking thoughts had
been vague. I was looking no longer at the pool of moonlight spreading
round my couch, with its trickles of light and looming, waving shadows,
but the frescoed walls of a great saloon. It was not, as I recognized
in a second, the dining-room of that Venetian palace now turned into a
boarding-house. It was a far larger room, a real ballroom, almost
circular in its octagon shape, with eight huge white doors surrounded
by stucco moldings, and, high on the vault of the ceiling, eight little
galleries or recesses like boxes at a theatre, intended no doubt for
musicians and spectators. The place was imperfectly lighted by only one
of the eight chandeliers, which revolved slowly, like huge spiders,
each on its long cord. But the light struck upon the gilt stuccoes
opposite me, and on a large expanse of fresco, the sacrifice of
Iphigenia, with Agamemnon and Achilles in Roman helmets, lappets, and
knee-breeches. It discovered also one of the oil panels let into the
moldings of the roof, a goddess in lemon and lilac draperies,
foreshortened over a great green peacock. Round the room, where the
light reached, I could make out big yellow satin sofas and heavy gilded
consoles; in the shadow of a corner was what looked like a piano, and
farther in the shade one of those big canopies which decorate the
anterooms of Roman palaces. I looked about me, wondering where I was: a
heavy, sweet smell, reminding me of the flavor of a peach, filled the
Little by little I began to perceive sounds; little, sharp, metallic,
detached notes, like those of a mandolin; and there was united to them
a voice, very low and sweet, almost a whisper, which grew and grew and
grew, until the whole place was filled with that exquisite vibrating
note, of a strange, exotic, unique quality. The note went on, swelling
and swelling. Suddenly there was a horrible piercing shriek, and the
thud of a body on the floor, and all manner of smothered exclamations.
There, close by the canopy, a light suddenly appeared; and I could see,
among the dark figures moving to and fro in the room, a woman lying on
the ground, surrounded by other women. Her blond hair, tangled, full of
diamond-sparkles which cut through the half-darkness, was hanging
disheveled; the laces of her bodice had been cut, and her white breast
shone among the sheen of jeweled brocade; her face was bent forwards,
and a thin white arm trailed, like a broken limb, across the knees of
one of the women who were endeavoring to lift her. There was a sudden
splash of water against the floor, more confused exclamations, a
hoarse, broken moan, and a gurgling, dreadful sound.... I awoke with a
start and rushed to the window.
Outside, in the blue haze of the moon, the church and belfry of St.
George loomed blue and hazy, with the black hull and rigging, the red
lights, of a large steamer moored before them. From the lagoon rose a
damp sea-breeze. What was it all? Ah! I began to understand: that story
of old Count Alvise's, the death of his grand-aunt, Pisana Vendramin.
Yes, it was about that I had been dreaming.
I returned to my room; I struck a light, and sat down to my
writing-table. Sleep had become impossible. I tried to work at my
opera. Once or twice I thought I had got hold of what I had looked for
so long.... But as soon as I tried to lay hold of my theme, there arose
in my mind the distant echo of that voice, of that long note swelled
slowly by insensible degrees, that long note whose tone was so strong
and so subtle.
There are in the life of an artist moments when, still unable to seize
his own inspiration, or even clearly to discern it, he becomes aware of
the approach of that long-invoked idea. A mingled joy and terror warn
him that before another day, another hour have passed, the inspiration
shall have crossed the threshold of his soul and flooded it with its
rapture. All day I had felt the need of isolation and quiet, and at
nightfall I went for a row on the most solitary part of the lagoon. All
things seemed to tell that I was going to meet my inspiration, and I
awaited its coming as a lover awaits his beloved.
I had stopped my gondola for a moment, and as I gently swayed to and
fro on the water, all paved with moonbeams, it seemed to me that I was
on the confines of an imaginary world. It lay close at hand, enveloped
in luminous, pale blue mist, through which the moon had cut a wide and
glistening path; out to sea, the little islands, like moored black
boats, only accentuated the solitude of this region of moonbeams and
wavelets; while the hum of the insects in orchards hard by merely added
to the impression of untroubled silence. On some such seas, I thought,
must the Paladin Ogier, have sailed when about to discover that during
that sleep at the enchantress's knees centuries had elapsed and the
heroic world had set, and the kingdom of prose had come.
While my gondola rocked stationary on that sea of moonbeams, I pondered
over that twilight of the heroic world. In the soft rattle of the water
on the hull I seemed to hear the rattle of all that armor, of all those
swords swinging rusty on the walls, neglected by the degenerate sons of
the great champions of old. I had long been in search of a theme which
I called the theme of the "Prowess of Ogier;" it was to appear from
time to time in the course of my opera, to develop at last into that
song of the Minstrel, which reveals to the hero that he is one of a
long-dead world. And at this moment I seemed to feel the presence of
that theme. Yet an instant, and my mind would be overwhelmed by that
savage music, heroic, funereal.
Suddenly there came across the lagoon, cleaving, checkering, and
fretting the silence with a lacework of sound even as the moon was
fretting and cleaving the water, a ripple of music, a voice breaking
itself in a shower of little scales and cadences and trills.
I sank back upon my cushions. The vision of heroic days had vanished,
and before my closed eyes there seemed to dance multitudes of little
stars of light, chasing and interlacing like those sudden
"To shore! Quick!" I cried to the gondolier.
But the sounds had ceased; and there came from the orchards, with their
mulberry-trees glistening in the moonlight, and their black swaying
cypress-plumes, nothing save the confused hum, the monotonous chirp, of
I looked around me: on one side empty dunes, orchards, and meadows,
without house or steeple; on the other, the blue and misty sea, empty
to where distant islets were profiled black on the horizon.
A faintness overcame me, and I felt myself dissolve. For all of a
sudden a second ripple of voice swept over the lagoon, a shower of
little notes, which seemed to form a little mocking laugh.
Then again all was still. This silence lasted so long that I fell once
more to meditating on my opera. I lay in wait once more for the
half-caught theme. But no. It was not that theme for which I was
waiting and watching with baited breath. I realized my delusion when,
on rounding the point of the Giudecca, the murmur of a voice arose from
the midst of the waters, a thread of sound slender as a moonbeam,
scarce audible, but exquisite, which expanded slowly, insensibly,
taking volume and body, taking flesh almost and fire, an ineffable
quality, full, passionate, but veiled, as it were, in a subtle, downy
wrapper. The note grew stronger and stronger, and warmer and more
passionate, until it burst through that strange and charming veil, and
emerged beaming, to break itself in the luminous facets of a wonderful
shake, long, superb, triumphant.
There was a dead silence.
"Row to St. Mark's!" I exclaimed. "Quick!"
The gondola glided through the long, glittering track of moonbeams, and
rent the great band of yellow, reflected light, mirroring the cupolas
of St. Mark's, the lace-like pinnacles of the palace, and the slender
pink belfry, which rose from the lit-up water to the pale and bluish
In the larger of the two squares the military band was blaring through
the last spirals of a _crescendo_ of Rossini. The crowd was
dispersing in this great open-air ballroom, and the sounds arose which
invariably follow upon out-of-door music. A clatter of spoons and
glasses, a rustle and grating of frocks and of chairs, and the click of
scabbards on the pavement. I pushed my way among the fashionable youths
contemplating the ladies while sucking the knob of their sticks;
through the serried ranks of respectable families, marching arm in arm
with their white frocked young ladies close in front. I took a seat
before Florian's, among the customers stretching themselves before
departing, and the waiters hurrying to and fro, clattering their empty
cups and trays. Two imitation Neapolitans were slipping their guitar
and violin under their arm, ready to leave the place.
"Stop!" I cried to them; "don't go yet. Sing me _something--sing
_La Camesella_ or _Funiculý, funiculÓ_--no matter what,
provided you make a row;" and as they screamed and scraped their utmost,
I added, "But can't you sing louder, d--n you!--sing louder, do you
I felt the need of noise, of yells and false notes, of something vulgar
and hideous to drive away that ghost-voice which was haunting me.
Again and again I told myself that it had been some silly prank of a
romantic amateur, hidden in the gardens of the shore or gliding
unperceived on the lagoon; and that the sorcery of moonlight and
sea-mist had transfigured for my excited brain mere humdrum roulades
out of exercises of Bordogni or Crescentini.
But all the same I continued to be haunted by that voice. My work was
interrupted ever and anon by the attempt to catch its imaginary echo;
and the heroic harmonies of my Scandinavian legend were strangely
interwoven with voluptuous phrases and florid cadences in which I
seemed to hear again that same accursed voice.
To be haunted by singing-exercises! It seemed too ridiculous for a man
who professedly despised the art of singing. And still, I preferred to
believe in that childish amateur, amusing himself with warbling to the
One day, while making these reflections the hundredth time over, my
eyes chanced to light upon the portrait of Zaffirino, which my friend
had pinned against the wall. I pulled it down and tore it into half a
dozen shreds. Then, already ashamed of my folly, I watched the torn
pieces float down from the window, wafted hither and thither by the
sea-breeze. One scrap got caught in a yellow blind below me; the others
fell into the canal, and were speedily lost to sight in the dark water.
I was overcome with shame. My heart beat like bursting. What a
miserable, unnerved worm I had become in this cursed Venice, with its
languishing moonlights, its atmosphere as of some stuffy boudoir, long
unused, full of old stuffs and potpourri!
That night, however, things seemed to be going better. I was able to
settle down to my opera, and even to work at it. In the intervals my
thoughts returned, not without a certain pleasure, to those scattered
fragments of the torn engraving fluttering down to the water. I was
disturbed at my piano by the hoarse voices and the scraping of violins
which rose from one of those music-boats that station at night under
the hotels of the Grand Canal. The moon had set. Under my balcony the
water stretched black into the distance, its darkness cut by the still
darker outlines of the flotilla of gondolas in attendance on the
music-boat, where the faces of the singers, and the guitars and
violins, gleamed reddish under the unsteady light of the
"_Jammo, jammo; jammo, jammo jÓ_," sang the loud, hoarse voices;
then a tremendous scrape and twang, and the yelled-out burden,
_"Funiculi, funiculÓ; funiculi, funiculÓ; jammo, jammo, jammo, jammo,
Then came a few cries of "_Bis, Bis_!" from a neighboring hotel, a
brief clapping of hands, the sound of a handful of coppers rattling
into the boat, and the oar-stroke of some gondolier making ready to
"Sing the _Camesella___," ordered some voice with a foreign
"No, no! _Santa Lucia_."
"I want the _Camesella_."
"No! _Santa Lucia_. Hi! sing _Santa Lucia_--d'you hear?"
The musicians, under their green and yellow and red lamps, held a
whispered consultation on the manner of conciliating these
contradictory demands. Then, after a minute's hesitation, the violins
began the prelude of that once famous air, which has remained popular
in Venice--the words written, some hundred years ago, by the patrician
Gritti, the music by an unknown composer--_La Biondina in
That cursed eighteenth century! It seemed a malignant fatality that
made these brutes choose just this piece to interrupt me.
At last the long prelude came to an end; and above the cracked guitars
and squeaking fiddles there arose, not the expected nasal chorus, but a
single voice singing below its breath.
My arteries throbbed. How well I knew that voice! It was singing, as I
have said, below its breath, yet none the less it sufficed to fill all
that reach of the canal with its strange quality of tone, exquisite,
They were long-drawn-out notes, of intense but peculiar sweetness, a
man's voice which had much of a woman's, but more even of a
chorister's, but a chorister's voice without its limpidity and
innocence; its youthfulness was veiled, muffled, as it were, in a sort
of downy vagueness, as if a passion of tears withheld.
There was a burst of applause, and the old palaces re-echoed with the
clapping. "Bravo, bravo! Thank you, thank you! Sing again--please, sing
again. Who can it be?"
And then a bumping of hulls, a splashing of oars, and the oaths of
gondoliers trying to push each other away, as the red prow-lamps of the
gondolas pressed round the gaily lit singing-boat.
But no one stirred on board. It was to none of them that this applause
was due. And while every one pressed on, and clapped and vociferated,
one little red prow-lamp dropped away from the fleet; for a moment a
single gondola stood forth black upon the black water, and then was
lost in the night.
For several days the mysterious singer was the universal topic. The
people of the music-boat swore that no one besides themselves had been
on board, and that they knew as little as ourselves about the owner of
that voice. The gondoliers, despite their descent from the spies of the
old Republic, were equally unable to furnish any clue. No musical
celebrity was known or suspected to be at Venice; and every one agreed
that such a singer must be a European celebrity. The strangest thing in
this strange business was, that even among those learned in music there
was no agreement on the subject of this voice: it was called by all
sorts of names and described by all manner of incongruous adjectives;
people went so far as to dispute whether the voice belonged to a man or
to a woman: every one had some new definition.
In all these musical discussions I, alone, brought forward no opinion.
I felt a repugnance, an impossibility almost, of speaking about that
voice; and the more or less commonplace conjectures of my friend had
the invariable effect of sending me out of the room.
Meanwhile my work was becoming daily more difficult, and I soon passed
from utter impotence to a state of inexplicable agitation. Every
morning I arose with fine resolutions and grand projects of work; only
to go to bed that night without having accomplished anything. I spent
hours leaning on my balcony, or wandering through the network of lanes
with their ribbon of blue sky, endeavoring vainly to expel the thought
of that voice, or endeavoring in reality to reproduce it in my memory;
for the more I tried to banish it from my thoughts, the more I grew to
thirst for that extraordinary tone, for those mysteriously downy,
veiled notes; and no sooner did I make an effort to work at my opera
than my head was full of scraps of forgotten eighteenth century airs,
of frivolous or languishing little phrases; and I fell to wondering
with a bitter-sweet longing how those songs would have sounded if sung
by that voice.
At length it became necessary to see a doctor, from whom, however, I
carefully hid away all the stranger symptoms of my malady. The air of
the lagoons, the great heat, he answered cheerfully, had pulled me down
a little; a tonic and a month in the country, with plenty of riding and
no work, would make me myself again. That old idler, Count Alvise, who
had insisted on accompanying me to the physician's, immediately
suggested that I should go and stay with his son, who was boring
himself to death superintending the maize harvest on the mainland: he
could promise me excellent air, plenty of horses, and all the peaceful
surroundings and the delightful occupations of a rural life--"Be
sensible, my dear Magnus, and just go quietly to MistrÓ."
MistrÓ--the name sent a shiver all down me. I was about to decline
the invitation, when a thought suddenly loomed vaguely in my mind.
"Yes, dear Count," I answered; "I accept your invitation with
gratitude and pleasure. I will start tomorrow for MistrÓ."
The next day found me at Padua, on my way to the Villa of MistrÓ. It
seemed as if I had left an intolerable burden behind me. I was, for the
first time since how long, quite light of heart. The tortuous,
rough-paved streets, with their empty, gloomy porticoes; the
ill-plastered palaces, with closed, discolored shutters; the little
rambling square, with meager trees and stubborn grass; the Venetian
garden-houses reflecting their crumbling graces in the muddy canal; the
gardens without gates and the gates without gardens, the avenues
leading nowhere; and the population of blind and legless beggars, of
whining sacristans, which issued as by magic from between the
flag-stones and dust-heaps and weeds under the fierce August sun, all
this dreariness merely amused and pleased me. My good spirits were
heightened by a musical mass which I had the good fortune to hear at
Never in all my days had I heard anything comparable, although Italy
affords many strange things in the way of sacred music. Into the deep
nasal chanting of the priests there had suddenly burst a chorus of
children, singing absolutely independent of all time and tune; grunting
of priests answered by squealing of boys, slow Gregorian modulation
interrupted by jaunty barrel-organ pipings, an insane, insanely merry
jumble of bellowing and barking, mewing and cackling and braying, such
as would have enlivened a witches' meeting, or rather some mediaeval
Feast of Fools. And, to make the grotesqueness of such music still more
fantastic and Hoffmannlike, there was, besides, the magnificence of the
piles of sculptured marbles and gilded bronzes, the tradition of the
musical splendor for which St. Anthony's had been famous in days gone
by. I had read in old travelers, Lalande and Burney, that the Republic
of St. Mark had squandered immense sums not merely on the monuments and
decoration, but on the musical establishment of its great cathedral of
Terra Firma. In the midst of this ineffable concert of impossible
voices and instruments, I tried to imagine the voice of Guadagni, the
soprano for whom Gluck had written _Che faru senza Euridice_, and
the fiddle of Tartini, that Tartini with whom the devil had once come
and made music. And the delight in anything so absolutely, barbarously,
grotesquely, fantastically incongruous as such a performance in such a
place was heightened by a sense of profanation: such were the
successors of those wonderful musicians of that hated eighteenth
The whole thing had delighted me so much, so very much more than the
most faultless performance could have done, that I determined to enjoy
it once more; and towards vesper-time, after a cheerful dinner with two
bagmen at the inn of the Golden Star, and a pipe over the rough sketch
of a possible cantata upon the music which the devil made for Tartini,
I turned my steps once more towards St. Anthony's.
The bells were ringing for sunset, and a muffled sound of organs seemed
to issue from the huge, solitary church; I pushed my way under the
heavy leathern curtain, expecting to be greeted by the grotesque
performance of that morning.
I proved mistaken. Vespers must long have been over. A smell of stale
incense, a crypt-like damp filled my mouth; it was already night in
that vast cathedral. Out of the darkness glimmered the votive-lamps of
the chapels, throwing wavering lights upon the red polished marble, the
gilded railing, and chandeliers, and plaqueing with yellow the muscles
of some sculptured figure. In a corner a burning taper put a halo about
the head of a priest, burnishing his shining bald skull, his white
surplice, and the open book before him. "Amen" he chanted; the book was
closed with a snap, the light moved up the apse, some dark figures of
women rose from their knees and passed quickly towards the door; a man
saying his prayers before a chapel also got up, making a great clatter
in dropping his stick.
The church was empty, and I expected every minute to be turned out by
the sacristan making his evening round to close the doors. I was
leaning against a pillar, looking into the greyness of the great
arches, when the organ suddenly burst out into a series of chords,
rolling through the echoes of the church: it seemed to be the
conclusion of some service. And above the organ rose the notes of a
voice; high, soft, enveloped in a kind of downiness, like a cloud of
incense, and which ran through the mazes of a long cadence. The voice
dropped into silence; with two thundering chords the organ closed in.
All was silent. For a moment I stood leaning against one of the pillars
of the nave: my hair was clammy, my knees sank beneath me, an
enervating heat spread through my body; I tried to breathe more
largely, to suck in the sounds with the incense-laden air. I was
supremely happy, and yet as if I were dying; then suddenly a chill ran
through me, and with it a vague panic. I turned away and hurried out
into the open.
The evening sky lay pure and blue along the jagged line of roofs; the
bats and swallows were wheeling about; and from the belfries all
around, half-drowned by the deep bell of St. Anthony's, jangled the
peel of the _Ave Maria_.
"You really don't seem well," young Count Alvise had said the previous
evening, as he welcomed me, in the light of a lantern held up by a
peasant, in the weedy back-garden of the Villa of MistrÓ. Everything
had seemed to me like a dream: the jingle of the horse's bells driving
in the dark from Padua, as the lantern swept the acacia-hedges with
their wide yellow light; the grating of the wheels on the gravel; the
supper-table, illumined by a single petroleum lamp for fear of
attracting mosquitoes, where a broken old lackey, in an old stable
jacket, handed round the dishes among the fumes of onion; Alvise's fat
mother gabbling dialect in a shrill, benevolent voice behind the
bullfights on her fan; the unshaven village priest, perpetually
fidgeting with his glass and foot, and sticking one shoulder up above
the other. And now, in the afternoon, I felt as if I had been in this
long, rambling, tumble-down Villa of MistrÓ--a villa three-quarters of
which was given up to the storage of grain and garden tools, or to the
exercise of rats, mice, scorpions, and centipedes--all my life; as if I
had always sat there, in Count Alvise's study, among the pile of
undusted books on agriculture, the sheaves of accounts, the samples of
grain and silkworm seed, the ink-stains and the cigar-ends; as if I had
never heard of anything save the cereal basis of Italian agriculture,
the diseases of maize, the peronospora of the vine, the breeds of
bullocks, and the iniquities of farm laborers; with the blue cones of
the Euganean hills closing in the green shimmer of plain outside the
After an early dinner, again with the screaming gabble of the fat old
Countess, the fidgeting and shoulder-raising of the unshaven priest,
the smell of fried oil and stewed onions, Count Alvise made me get into
the cart beside him, and whirled me along among clouds of dust, between
the endless glister of poplars, acacias, and maples, to one of his
In the burning sun some twenty or thirty girls, in colored skirts,
laced bodices, and big straw-hats, were threshing the maize on the big
red brick threshing-floor, while others were winnowing the grain in
great sieves. Young Alvise III. (the old one was Alvise II.: every one
is Alvise, that is to say, Lewis, in that family; the name is on the
house, the carts, the barrows, the very pails) picked up the maize,
touched it, tasted it, said something to the girls that made them
laugh, and something to the head farmer that made him look very glum;
and then led me into a huge stable, where some twenty or thirty white
bullocks were stamping, switching their tails, hitting their horns
against the mangers in the dark. Alvise III. patted each, called him by
his name, gave him some salt or a turnip, and explained which was the
Mantuan breed, which the Apulian, which the Romagnolo, and so on. Then
he bade me jump into the trap, and off we went again through the dust,
among the hedges and ditches, till we came to some more brick farm
buildings with pinkish roofs smoking against the blue sky. Here there
were more young women threshing and winnowing the maize, which made a
great golden DanaŰ cloud; more bullocks stamping and lowing in the cool
darkness; more joking, fault-finding, explaining; and thus through five
farms, until I seemed to see the rhythmical rising and falling of the
flails against the hot sky, the shower of golden grains, the yellow
dust from the winnowing-sieves on to the bricks, the switching of
innumerable tails and plunging of innumerable horns, the glistening of
huge white flanks and foreheads, whenever I closed my eyes.
"A good day's work!" cried Count Alvise, stretching out his long legs
with the tight trousers riding up over the Wellington boots. "Mamma,
give us some aniseed-syrup after dinner; it is an excellent restorative
and precaution against the fevers of this country."
"Oh! you've got fever in this part of the world, have you? Why, your
father said the air was so good!"
"Nothing, nothing," soothed the old Countess. "The only thing to be
dreaded are mosquitoes; take care to fasten your shutters before
lighting the candle."
"Well," rejoined young Alvise, with an effort of conscience, "of course
there _are_ fevers. But they needn't hurt you. Only, don' go out
into the garden at night, if you don't want to catch them. Papa told me
that you have fancies for moonlight rambles. It won't do in this
climate, my dear fellow; it won't do. If you must stalk about at night,
being a genius, take a turn inside the house; you can get quite
After dinner the aniseed-syrup was produced, together with brandy and
cigars, and they all sat in the long, narrow, half-furnished room on
the first floor; the old Countess knitting a garment of uncertain shape
and destination, the priest reading out the newspaper; Count Alvise
puffing at his long, crooked cigar, and pulling the ears of a long,
lean dog with a suspicion of mange and a stiff eye. From the dark
garden outside rose the hum and whirr of countless insects, and the
smell of the grapes which hung black against the starlit, blue sky, on
the trellis. I went to the balcony. The garden lay dark beneath;
against the twinkling horizon stood out the tall poplars. There was the
sharp cry of an owl; the barking of a dog; a sudden whiff of warm,
enervating perfume, a perfume that made me think of the taste of
certain peaches, and suggested white, thick, wax-like petals. I seemed
to have smelt that flower once before: it made me feel languid, almost
"I am very tired," I said to Count Alvise. "See how feeble we city folk
But, despite my fatigue, I found it quite impossible to sleep. The
night seemed perfectly stifling. I had felt nothing like it at Venice.
Despite the injunctions of the Countess I opened the solid wooden
shutters, hermetically closed against mosquitoes, and looked out.
The moon had risen; and beneath it lay the big lawns, the rounded
tree-tops, bathed in a blue, luminous mist, every leaf glistening and
trembling in what seemed a heaving sea of light. Beneath the window was
the long trellis, with the white shining piece of pavement under it. It
was so bright that I could distinguish the green of the vine-leaves,
the dull red of the catalpa-flowers. There was in the air a vague
scent of cut grass, of ripe American grapes, of that white flower (it
must be white) which made me think of the taste of peaches all melting
into the delicious freshness of falling dew. From the village church
came the stroke of one: Heaven knows how long I had been vainly
attempting to sleep. A shiver ran through me, and my head suddenly
filled as with the fumes of some subtle wine; I remembered all those
weedy embankments, those canals full of stagnant water, the yellow
faces of the peasants; the word malaria returned to my mind. No matter!
I remained leaning on the window, with a thirsty longing to plunge
myself into this blue moonmist, this dew and perfume and silence, which
seemed to vibrate and quiver like the stars that strewed the depths of
heaven.... What music, even Wagner's, or of that great singer of starry
nights, the divine Schumann, what music could ever compare with this
great silence, with this great concert of voiceless things that sing
within one's soul?
As I made this reflection, a note, high, vibrating, and sweet, rent the
silence, which immediately closed around it. I leaned out of the
window, my heart beating as though it must burst. After a brief space
the silence was cloven once more by that note, as the darkness is
cloven by a falling star or a firefly rising slowly like a rocket. But
this time it was plain that the voice did not come, as I had imagined,
from the garden, but from the house itself, from some corner of this
rambling old villa of MistrÓ.
MistrÓ--MistrÓ! The name rang in my ears, and I began at length to
grasp its significance, which seems to have escaped me till then.
"Yes," I said to myself, "it is quite natural." And with this odd
impression of naturalness was mixed a feverish, impatient pleasure. It
was as if I had come to MistrÓ on purpose, and that I was about to meet
the object of my long and weary hopes.
Grasping the lamp with its singed green shade, I gently opened the door
and made my way through a series of long passages and of big, empty
rooms, in which my steps re-echoed as in a church, and my light
disturbed whole swarms of bats. I wandered at random, farther and
farther from the inhabited part of the buildings.
This silence made me feel sick; I gasped as under a sudden
All of a sudden there came a sound--chords, metallic, sharp, rather
like the tone of a mandolin--close to my ear. Yes, quite close: I was
separated from the sounds only by a partition. I fumbled for a door;
the unsteady light of my lamp was insufficient for my eyes, which were
swimming like those of a drunkard. At last I found a latch, and, after
a moment's hesitation, I lifted it and gently pushed open the door. At
first I could not understand what manner of place I was in. It was dark
all round me, but a brilliant light blinded me, a light coming from
below and striking the opposite wall. It was as if I had entered a dark
box in a half-lighted theatre. I was, in fact, in something of the
kind, a sort of dark hole with a high balustrade, half-hidden by an
up-drawn curtain. I remembered those little galleries or recesses for
the use of musicians or lookers-on--which exist under the ceiling of
the ballrooms in certain old Italian palaces. Yes; it must have been
one like that. Opposite me was a vaulted ceiling covered with gilt
moldings, which framed great time-blackened canvases; and lower down,
in the light thrown up from below, stretched a wall covered with faded
frescoes. Where had I seen that goddess in lilac and lemon draperies
foreshortened over a big, green peacock? For she was familiar to me,
and the stucco Tritons also who twisted their tails round her gilded
frame. And that fresco, with warriors in Roman cuirasses and green and
blue lappets, and knee-breeches--where could I have seen them before? I
asked myself these questions without experiencing any surprise.
Moreover, I was very calm, as one is calm sometimes in extraordinary
dreams--could I be dreaming?
I advanced gently and leaned over the balustrade. My eyes were met at
first by the darkness above me, where, like gigantic spiders, the big
chandeliers rotated slowly, hanging from the ceiling. Only one of them
was lit, and its Murano-glass pendants, its carnations and roses, shone
opalescent in the light of the guttering wax. This chandelier lighted
up the opposite wall and that piece of ceiling with the goddess and the
green peacock; it illumined, but far less well, a corner of the huge
room, where, in the shadow of a kind of canopy, a little group of
people were crowding round a yellow satin sofa, of the same kind as
those that lined the walls. On the sofa, half-screened from me by the
surrounding persons, a woman was stretched out: the silver of her
embroidered dress and the rays of her diamonds gleamed and shot forth
as she moved uneasily. And immediately under the chandelier, in the
full light, a man stooped over a harpsichord, his head bent slightly,
as if collecting his thoughts before singing.
He struck a few chords and sang. Yes, sure enough, it was the voice,
the voice that had so long been persecuting me! I recognized at once
that delicate, voluptuous quality, strange, exquisite, sweet beyond
words, but lacking all youth and clearness. That passion veiled in
tears which had troubled my brain that night on the lagoon, and again
on the Grand Canal singing the _Biondina_, and yet again, only two
days since, in the deserted cathedral of Padua. But I recognized now
what seemed to have been hidden from me till then, that this voice was
what I cared most for in all the wide world.
The voice wound and unwound itself in long, languishing phrases, in
rich, voluptuous _rifiorituras_, all fretted with tiny scales and
exquisite, crisp shakes; it stopped ever and anon, swaying as if
panting in languid delight. And I felt my body melt even as wax in the
sunshine, and it seemed to me that I too was turning fluid and
vaporous, in order to mingle with these sounds as the moonbeams mingle
with the dew.
Suddenly, from the dimly lighted corner by the canopy, came a little
piteous wail; then another followed, and was lost in the singer's
voice. During a long phrase on the harpsichord, sharp and tinkling, the
singer turned his head towards the dais, and there came a plaintive
little sob. But he, instead of stopping, struck a sharp chord; and with
a thread of voice so hushed as to be scarcely audible, slid softly into
a long _cadenza_. At the same moment he threw his head backwards,
and the light fell full upon the handsome, effeminate face, with its
ashy pallor and big, black brows, of the singer Zaffirino. At the sight
of that face, sensual and sullen, of that smile which was cruel and
mocking like a bad woman's, I understood--I knew not why, by what
process--that his singing _must_ be cut short, that the accursed
phrase _must_ never be finished. I understood that I was before an
assassin, that he was killing this woman, and killing me also, with his
I rushed down the narrow stair which led down from the box, pursued, as
it were, by that exquisite voice, swelling, swelling by insensible
degrees. I flung myself on the door which must be that of the big
saloon. I could see its light between the panels. I bruised my hands in
trying to wrench the latch. The door was fastened tight, and while I
was struggling with that locked door I heard the voice swelling,
swelling, rending asunder that downy veil which wrapped it, leaping
forth clear, resplendent, like the sharp and glittering blade of a
knife that seemed to enter deep into my breast. Then, once more, a
wail, a death-groan, and that dreadful noise, that hideous gurgle of
breath strangled by a rush of blood. And then a long shake, acute,
The door gave way beneath my weight, one half crashed in. I entered. I
was blinded by a flood of blue moonlight. It poured in through four
great windows, peaceful and diaphanous, a pale blue mist of moonlight,
and turned the huge room into a kind of submarine cave, paved with
moonbeams, full of shimmers, of pools of moonlight. It was as bright as
at midday, but the brightness was cold, blue, vaporous, supernatural.
The room was completely empty, like a great hayloft. Only, there hung
from the ceiling the ropes which had once supported a chandelier; and
in a corner, among stacks of wood and heaps of Indian-corn, whence
spread a sickly smell of damp and mildew, there stood a long, thin
harpsichord, with spindle-legs, and its cover cracked from end to end.
I felt, all of a sudden, very calm. The one thing that mattered was the
phrase that kept moving in my head, the phrase of that unfinished
cadence which I had heard but an instant before. I opened the
harpsichord, and my fingers came down boldly upon its keys. A
jingle-jangle of broken strings, laughable and dreadful, was the only
Then an extraordinary fear overtook me. I clambered out of one of the
windows; I rushed up the garden and wandered through the fields, among
the canals and the embankments, until the moon had set and the dawn
began to shiver, followed, pursued for ever by that jangle of broken
People expressed much satisfaction at my recovery.
It seems that one dies of those fevers.
Recovery? But have I recovered? I walk, and eat and drink and talk; I
can even sleep. I live the life of other living creatures. But I am
wasted by a strange and deadly disease. I can never lay hold of my own
inspiration. My head is filled with music which is certainly by me,
since I have never heard it before, but which still is not my own,
which I despise and abhor: little, tripping flourishes and languishing
phrases, and long-drawn, echoing cadences.
O wicked, wicked voice, violin of flesh and blood made by the Evil
One's hand, may I not even execrate thee in peace; but is it necessary
that, at the moment when I curse, the longing to hear thee again should
parch my soul like hell-thirst? And since I have satiated thy lust for
revenge, since thou hast withered my life and withered my genius, is it
not time for pity? May I not hear one note, only one note of thine, O
singer, O wicked and contemptible wretch?
_Other books by Vernon Lee_