The Classic Masque

I

SHARP, jagged lines stabbed at the sky through fog and smoke; the air was acrid with the bitterness of dirt and oils and rotted, water-soaked wood. Vittoria, leaning on the rail of the incoming steamer, smelled her roses to dispel the odors and shut out what her eyes had seen. Her idea of it all had been far different.

‘It’s a rotten day,’said Mr. Tempest anxiously. ‘I’m afraid it’s given you the wrong impression. Generally this is one of the most beautiful harbors in the world.'

Vittoria was ready to admit it; she had not the habit of comparisons, and anyway she was not observant enough to bother. It was a feeling, not an observation; the stab of those mammoth buildings was in her side, not in her eyes.

‘Will you receive the reporters in your sitting room?’ Tempest began again. He had just been rounding them up, and had left them there in charge of Vittoria’s large and noisy crowd of dependents.

She came with him willingly enough. It seemed to be so abysmally unimportant whether she did or not. The fog and drizzle were in her brain, or her heart — she could not tell which.

In the sitting room Madame Magini, perspiring a vigorous red, was in struggle with the reporters.

‘Madonna!’ she exclaimed as Vittoria entered. ‘Here are men who have never heard of me — of me, the Magini! Twenty-five years ago their grandfathers lost their sausage heads over me. And now — Madonna!’

Magini was astonishingly fat, and her little beady eyes looked astonishingly small by comparison with their setting. Her nose was a commanding feature, presiding superciliously over the rest of her face like a cathedral in a slum. Her voice squeaked indignation in oddly assorted Italian and French. The reporters, some ten or twelve of them, of all ages and descriptions, looked at her with considerable alarm.

Vittoria sat down and folded her hands in her lap. She had been prepared for this; there was no flutter of embarrassment about her.

The reporters looked at each other significantly. To most of them she was a species unexpected, legendary: she was an opera singer of fame, and she was undeniably beautiful. Her face had the repose, the ageless purity of Greek marble; and her burnished bronze hair, when she removed her hat, clustered at her neck like grapes overripe.

‘I make my début on the twelfth of November, as Isolde,’ she told them evenly. Her English was the precise, uncolored idiom of the educated foreigner; it was as correct and accentless as a history book.

‘Yes, I was born in this country. At Springfield, in the Massachusetts. My father was a violinist in a traveling opera troupe; my mother sang. She was Italian. He was American. Named Holmar. They are dead.’

With a tranquil, unemotional affection, she paraded her eyes over the indignant figure of Magini, spread across the largest chair in the room.

' Madame Magini has been my father and my mother,’she stated with a certain mathematical precision (five hundred and seventy-three plus eightyfour equals six hundred and fifty-seven). ‘She was one of the greatest artists of her generation, and she has taught me everything I know. Not everything she knows. I still have a great deal to learn.’

They smiled politely at this. But they wrote it all down.

‘No, I am not married. I never have been. I am thirty-three, and I do not see why I should marry. Perhaps, when I am sixty-five. . . .

’No, I do not disbelieve in marriage. Or believe in it. Or believe or disbelieve in anything. I have enough to do to sing. I have no time for believing or disbelieving in things. . . .

‘I do not remember America at all. I was only five years old when I left here. . . . Yes, it is very impressive, the harbor. . . . No, I do not think it is beautiful. It is something, yes; but it is not beautiful. . . . Yes, I shall be here all season. In the spring, Paris and Covent Garden. In the summer, Bayreuth. Here I shall sing Isolde, Iphigénie en Aulide, Sieglinde, Elsa, Elisabeth, Donna Anna, the Contessa in The Marriage of Figaro, Other things, perhaps. ... I have been singing for ten years. Everywhere. All the Italian houses; German ones, too; French, Spanish. The Scala at Milan is the best house I know. ... I know nothing about woman’s suffrage. ... I have no pets, but Madame Magini has a cat. ... I have forty-one pieces of luggage. . . . No, I shall not miss wines very much; but is it certain that I shall not have them? . . . The Metropolitan is a very great house; I am glad to come here. . . . Yes, I have heard that my wage is very high. I do not know if it is the highest offered a new singer; I do not care. I am not permitted to say what it is. The contract is for one year; there is an option for five more years.’

They were photographed on the top deck, Vittoria many times, once with Madame Magini and her saffron-colored husband, Artemidoro. Mr. Tempest hovered about, apprehensive, thoughtful; he distrusted this unregulated publicity, like a good Metropolitan attaché, and felt that a dignified silence was more in keeping with the traditions of the house. When questions about marriage and prohibition were in the air, you never could tell what these singers would say, especially when they were new to the country.

Vittoria went through it all unmoved, and as silent as the circumstances allowed. The mist and the cold would not leave her; the skyline maintained its terrifying gesture. She was in the presence of the totally unfamiliar, the completely new; it depressed without exciting her. She could not be puzzled, for she never asked herself questions; it was only that same deaf pressure on the chest, a crushing of inexplicable foreboding. She could not fear what could not hurt her; but if she had ever known what it was to be afraid, she would have been then, perhaps.

An apartment spacious enough for twenty had been reserved for them at the Ritz; Magini and Artemidoro, with a maid and a voluble, decrepit valet de chambre, one of Magini’s innumerable relics, established themselves with much inefficient excitement while Vittoria locked herself wearily into her room and went to sleep.

II

She met Henry Morehouse the next day at a tea given for her by the wife of one of the Metropolitan’s directors.

It was the usual musical-literarysocial business there, as she had seen it everywhere from Munich to Buenos Ayres, and for the first time in twentyfour hours she felt no disturbing unfamiliarity about her. There was less of the musical and literary here, and more of the social, perhaps; but it was essentially the same. Even many of the people were the same; the Russian Jewish violinist, the Hungarian pianist, the earnest-eyed, horse-faced young British composer, had not changed in translation to New York. The women belonged, mostly, to the universally established type characterized as lionhunters; they were a necessary evil of the career, blessed only in their exquisite absence. One felt at home, in the vague way of the homeless who carry their world with them. Henry Morehouse alone was unlike anything else.

Not that he was unmusical, unliterary, or unsocial. If he had been, he would not have been there. He talked, in a more or less self-contained way, of much the same things as the rest of them; but the difference was none the less apparent for that. It was partly his clothes, his unpretentious correctness, and partly the restraint of his attitudes, which belonged to neither the tail-hat nor the long-haired school of behavior. But most of all the difference resided in the lines of his jaw and mouth, the fineness of nostril allied to the strength of feature, the distant awareness of his eyes. He appeared to have penetration, acumen, and humor — three qualities which have no business at a gathering of musical celebrities and their assiduous appreciators. Vittoria resented him distinctly for the first fifteen minutes. His intelligence was almost insulting; it made a spectator out of him. After they had talked a little of music here and there, and of the plans for the season, she asked him if he was a composer. In that category he might just conceivably fit.

‘No,’ he answered with an amused grin. ‘I’m only, temporarily, a man of business. In Wall Street. I’m not anything concerned with music or the theatre. I believe I’m probably what you would call The Public.’

She looked at him gravely, her wide, indeterminate dark eyes reflecting upon his presence. There was no humor in her; she studied him intently.

‘Madonna!’ she said at last. ‘I have been looking for you for ten years. And I have never met you until to-day. I have often wondered about you, but when I have thought to be meeting you, you have always turned out to be — that!”

She indicated the swarm of people in the room. His glance followed hers; he seemed a little disconcerted at the seriousness of her attack.

‘Oh, I’m a good fellow, really,’ he said, a shade of embarrassment coming over him. ‘Not awfully musical, perhaps, but not too ignorant either. I’m just about the same anywhere — a plugging, sincere, earnest soul. There are millions of me.’

‘I know,’ she thought aloud. ‘Rows upon rows of you, paying large sums of money to hear us sing or watch us walk the tight rope. If I were not a singer I should never listen to other singers. I often wonder why you do. If you like singing, why don’t you do it yourselves? In Munich you come because of the good beer in the intervals, and because the arguments afterward give you chances to talk; in Paris you come because you want to see all the pretty women; in London you come to be able to say you have been. Only in Italy do you come because you sing yourself and like to imagine you are doing it on the stage. You are very strange, Public.’

‘In New York, I come to see and be seen, I suppose,’ he said. ‘But I like the reflection, too, that mine is the best opera company money can buy in the whole world. I am like that. All the millions of me.’

His eyes did not lose their penetration; he seemed to be aware of her in a completer sense than anybody she had ever known, and yet oddly unmoved by her beauty or her actuality. He belonged, with a destructive certainty, to the world of the unfamiliar and the new — he belonged to the skyscrapers and the November drizzle. Yet he gave evidence of a sort of mind and training which were neither unfamiliar nor new; in a way, he bridged the Atlantic. Not that Vittoria thought of it thus specifically; indeed, she hardly thought of it at all. She asked him to lunch with her the next day, and barely observed the touch of reluctance with which he accepted. . . .

Morehouse at luncheon was monopolized by Magini. Magini had found at last somebody who had heard of her, of her glorious past: somebody who could remember how she had sung Norma and L’Africana at the Metropolitan twenty-five years ago. It made no difference to Magini that he was too polite to be really interested; his deferential manner hid, perhaps, colossal boredom. She raced on, eating vast quantities of food and spilling reminiscence after reminiscence into the already overflowing monologue. She was at times embarrassingly frank; the men who had succeeded one another in her capacious affections had as much place in her memory as the rôles she had sung, and she scanted nothing.

Vittoria never remembered having experienced any impatience or annoyance with Magini before. It was as new as everything else, this feeling that there was something wrong, that Magini was somehow not the person to be talking to Morehouse — that he remained, even at the luncheon table, The Public, separated from the rest of them by a row of footlights and an interplanetary space.

After luncheon Magini went on a shopping expedition with her Artemidoro. Morehouse lingered almost unwillingly; there were liqueurs, but no conversation. Vittoria went to the piano in her drawing room and sang to him. When puzzles presented themselves, she could always sing.

He kept his eyes on his little glass of brandy while she did it. The sound of it, rich and smooth and full, was everywhere in the little room, pervasive even in a whisper. ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt,’ she said, ‘weisst was ich leide. . . .’

When she had finished, she sat there a moment indifferently. The tones had come gratefully out of her throat; she knew from the hum of them in her chest, the echo of them in her ears afterward, that she had done very well indeed.

As she turned round, Morehouse rose to leave, He was very much disturbed, too disturbed to be polite. He hardly thanked her; he seemed nervous and only anxious to get away. She walked with him to the door and closed it behind him slowly. As she turned back to the piano it seemed to her that she understood things even less than before.

In a week’s time she knew. She was in love.

III

At first it seemed too ridiculous to be believed, even for a moment. But it could not be dismissed; it was a force, an eccentric, disintegrating thing. Nothing had ever been like it. No man. She had been ‘in love’ before, of course; love was a joyous, natural phenomenon, not in the least like this. Love came and went, like the seasons passing over the white marble of a statue, mellowing and caressing; love touched and vanished, and with its departure were forever added new tones to the voice, new heights, and the magic of new color. Everything had contributed to the glory of her voice, the rising and the setting of the sun, winds over a marsh, men and books and music and the rainy salt of an open sea. They had all seasoned, enriched; no tone but represented the flavor of life, full and unafraid. Love had always given a radiance; this thing was fierce and destructive, like age clawing at the throat.

At the first rehearsal of Isolde sick horror laid hold of Vittoria. She was singing very badly; there were weary notes and raucous notes, inadequate and tired. Most desperate was the knowledge that it did not essentially matter; she had no longer the wholehearted rapture in making what music could come from her. She was no longer a perfect instrument — she was Vittoria sick and fearful.

‘Furchtbar, schrecklich!’ she said dully to the hook-nosed conductor at the end of the rehearsal.

He looked at. her from his height of wisdom.

‘It is best, my child,’ he told her in his fiercely gentle way. ‘You will be a great Isolde whatever happens.’

This was cryptic and unnecessary; Vittoria knew how bad it had been, and what Magini, squeezed horror-stricken into one of the orchestra stalls, was ready and waiting to say to her.

For from the beginning Morehouse had made it plain that it was impossible. Not that they had said much of anything; he had come twice to her hotel, and once he had driven her for dinner to a restaurant far out on Long Island. Each time he had had spells of talking feverishly about the things they had in common, followed by spells of complete silence. She was nearly always speechless with him; the feeling of his bitter hostility, not to her, but to something of which she was, perhaps, a part or a symbol, froze everything she might, have said. It was no help to realize, as Vittoria did definitely realize, that he loved her. His hungry, nervous eyes, and the look of sleepless worry that had come over him, told a good deal; the sound of his voice sometimes, when he was most under restraint, told more. The night before the first Isolde rehearsal, at dinner in the Long Island roadhouse, he had most closely approached revelation of what was in his mind.

‘I’m on the fence,’ he put it, fingering his champagne glass, ‘between two worlds. Always have been, I suppose. And I’m forty now, and it’s too late to get off. For the outside, at least, I’ve chosen. . . . We’re like that often, we whom you cal! The Public. Sometimes it’s only circumstance makes us what we are, and we don’t know it until we have our own grooves. . . . Position, wife, children, and the things we call collectively honor. ... It might be better to be a Russian Jewish violinist, I suppose.’

She felt very sure of what he was talking about; it was like a ton weight, depressing the breadth of her chest.

He came again the night before her debut. They drove again to the roadhouse on Long Island.

Vittoria’s change had equaled his; she knew it. She was a beautiful woman always; the look of other people as she passed them could have told her so if she had never seen a mirror. The heavy clusters of her hair still cast shadows over the white of her neck; but her eyes were deeper and darker. There was a drawn look about the mouth, too; she had seen it in the glass, and did not care. She wore a dress of severe black and silver; her shoulders kept their magnificence, but her whole beauty had grown definitely older in two weeks. Not older, either, exactly; but what had been as ageless as a statue had now taken on the human stamp of its years. She did not care; definitively, she knew she did not care for anything at all. Except for what was impossible.

‘I’m sailing for Europe Saturday with my wife,’ he mentioned, as casually as could be. He was looking through the window at the lashing rain. ‘She needs a vacation, she seems to think, and I’m sure I do. We mean to run down to Philadelphia to-morrow for some leave-takings.'

Vittoria put her hand, for one moment, to her side. It was a strictly physical pain she felt there, sharp and restless.

‘You will not hear me, then, tomorrow night?’ she asked. Her voice sounded a little muffled, as if her teeth had suddenly filled all her mouth.

‘No,’ he answered. He turned round toward her again, and his miserable eyes looked at her fairly. ‘I could n’t,’he added. ‘I could n’t.’

They drove back through the angry rain, mile after mile of silence. Vittoria could feel, through her furs, the slight, touch of his shoulder. The headlights made sudden wet drifts of light against the solemn black all around. He drove fast at first., but later very slowly; with the jagged, stabbing pain in her side, Vittoria felt the inevitability of what was coming. They had seen each other nine times, all told. Two weeks. Relentless and certain, like death itself. At the end of this black road. Drive fast or drive slow, the end could not be changed. It was there, waiting.

At the Ritz he took her through the lobby, but paused before the elevator.

‘I’m going now,’ he said quietly. looking long at her. ‘I’ve got to go. Good-bye.’

She turned to him and staggered very slightly. The brutal, certain inevitability. Nothing to be done against it. Cry out until the voice was torn, and the heart too. No good — the end of the road.

‘You are going?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ he said. He bent over swiftly, took her hand, and held it to his lips. With the accomplishment of the gesture, he was gone. The lobby was empty; gilt and brocade leered.

She walked into the elevator. The physical pain was in her chest, the reiteration of it in her head, revolving dully. A brutal, inevitable fact. Perhaps — she could not possibly know — a truth. Honor, wife, children. Children, wife, honor. Good-bye.

She went into her room and locked the door. It was past daylight when she fell asleep.

IV

At five in the afternoon she woke up again. Magini was in the room, looking at her anxiously.

Accidente! I was afraid you would sleep forever! In another minute I should have wakened you. It is well to sleep as much as possible, Torina, but it is five o’clock now. You must be ready at seven. A bath, a hot bath! Ay! Ay! Rosaccia!’

The maid prepared the bath; eggs and tea were brought in. Magini chattered on shrewdly; she did not know what had happened, but it must be forgotten. Many people had come during the day, she said, the general manager of the company among them. She had warded them all off. Vittoria must have rest, ’poveretta.

In her dressing room Vittoria put on her costume and jewels slowly, carefully, mechanically. With Magini she had done half an hour’s exercises before leaving the hotel. The voice was dull and lifeless. Suddenly, terribly, it mattered; if the voice went, too, what was left? Magini was prostrate and profane with nervousness; she had never heard Vittoria sing so badly. No kindness could hide her alarm.

Vittoria sent them out into the house shortly before eight. The conductor came in to see her, and rapped her sharply on the hand with his skinny fingers.

’sing, my child,’ he commanded thunderously. ‘Nothing is important but that. Sing everything you have — everything. Let it out. It is a big house. You can be a great Isolde; all the rest is Schweinerei.’

She studied herself in the mirror. Her eyes were tired, brilliant, and she looked almost haggard. But she was beautiful, almost more beautiful than three weeks ago. That was something. Suddenly she remembered what that fool Borelli, the poet man in Milan, had written of her once six or eight years before. A poem called the Maschera Classica, the Classic Masque, le Masque Classique. Plow did it go? She was a masque in a Greek garden, he had said; the seasons touched her only with love, and everything was nothing to her marble serenity. She could not even remember what language it was written in. Borelli. . . . How many years.

. . . He had said that the masque would break one day: fall upon reality and break. With it had broken something else, she thought; it was what people called the heart. Or the courage of life, perhaps. No masque looked at her from the mirror. There was reality there, at last.

That fool Borelli!

She took her place on the stage. The ship, Tristan’s ship, was set against a sky of hieratic blue. The contralto who was to sing Brängane looked at Vittoria pityingly.

‘Courage,’ she said, in a voluminous German way. ‘ Courage. You are very great. You need not fear the dumb brutes out there. Sing as you sang in Bayreuth last year. You will conquer them easily.’

The woman actually thought she was afraid. Vittoria threw back her head as the curtains swept apart.

From the first notes she sang she knew that her day of power had come. It was no longer easy and joyous singing, the making of great, beautiful tones; it was drawn out of her ruthlessly now, muscle and brain and blood, until there was nothing of her left for thinking. She went through it with the meaning of ten years; at the end, when the vast conglomerate roar came to her from the crowded house, she knew that it could not matter any more. She would sing because she could not help it; they would cheer because they could not help it; it was no longer a thing she did, an effect she achieved. Singer and listener, they were part of an inevitability. Like death. Waiting.

After the second act she was exhausted and very old. She could take no more curtain calls; she lay with her eyelids closed on the couch in her dressing room. Rosaccia piled up flowers, unheeded. Magini came in, breathless and tearful. When she saw the motionless figure on the couch she went away again and closed the door softly behind her.

‘Artemidoro! Artemidoro!’ she sobbed comfortably; the whole massive grotesque of her fell into the arms of her wraith-like little man. ‘ I have seen and heard a great artist, a very great artist. Dio, Dio, I am sorry for her, my little Toruccia! ’

Artemidoro’s saffron-colored face was mournful as ever. He put one arm about the Magini obediently. He was used to these scenes.

The Liebestod was the end of everything. Nothing could ever happen to her afterward, Vittoria knew. Weak, trembling, uncertain, she found her way to her dressing room. Willing hands helped her; adoring eyes followed her. No voice and no singing like this had stirred the dusty backstage echoes for at least a generation.

Magini felt, somehow, what had happened. Her competent, if slightly hysterical, person warded off hosts of visitors again; she found an attache and posted him at a vantage point to say, ‘Madame Vittoria is tired and can see nobody.’

They went out by the Thirty-ninth Street entrance, through the press bureau. There was a great crowd churning about there; cheers welled up, German, Italian, English. As she got into the car waiting for her, Vittoria tried to smile and bow. It was a wan effort. She was tired and old, old and tired. Lived out.

In the hotel she locked herself in her room. Magini and Artemidoro had ordered food for themselves; she could hear them squabbling about the sauce for the spaghetti.

She walked to the window and leaned against it. The street below was still alive with passing cars and hurrying people; the huge, impersonal roar of subway and elevated and chattering voices, the yells of newsboys and the submerged noise of marching feet, came up massed and sickening. Building after building poked through the murky sky; lights blazed from them at strange altitudes, a monstrous Walpurgisnacht.

One push, and she could be a part of the cruel clamor. She could fall swiftly, blessedly, certainly, to the street beneath. Nothing more. Death.

Or she could turn her back upon it and join Magini. . . . Magini! Magini had been a great artist, too; Magini had known all there was to be known of triumph. Magini sat out there now, eating spaghetti and drinking Chianti; weeping, no doubt, noisily as she ate, reminiscing. Joy over, there remained food and drink. And reminiscence. One went on in a world too beautiful, and one fell upon a fact. The classic masque smashed, lying in fragments over the pattern of a garden walk. After that, nothing. Nothing but age and appetite — the years taking beauty and leaving its bewildering memory. One could go on, triumph to triumph. No joy left, but appetite. Fat and sentimental. The voice torn out of one unconsciously by remembered things from a haunted place. Fame, certainly, and fortune. Age, at last, and death.

The street was clamoring, would be always clamoring, in its terrible depths. Its noise invited; it could give an end as ugly as itself— swift, real, true. With no beauty or dignity in it. One could fall vertiginously into its ugliness, surrender to its jagged edges and its stony yawn.

Vittoria turned away into the other room. Magini sat there, a platter of spaghetti before her. Artemidoro was silent as always, eating.

‘Ring for the waiter, cara,’ Vittoria said, ‘and order more spaghetti. Spaghetti, I want, and wine.’