Boston Adventure, page 35
The butler was gone so long that I began to think I had come on the wrong day or that the Countess was offended by my tardiness, or, worst of all, that she had not really meant her invitation, could not remember any Miss Marburg, and would instruct the servant to turn me out, a commission that would delight him. The first time I reproduced the scene in Miss Pride’s drawing-room, the date and the hour of the engagement were perfectly clear, “Friday week at four o’clock,” but, as minutes passed and the porter of my banal name did not reappear and I again and again rehearsed the Countess’ words in an effort to determine who was to blame for my mistake, I became so confused that had not the word Kaffeeklatsch, which I had never before heard spoken, been audible in each revision I made, I would have believed that the invitation was imaginary. Presently I heard the door-bell and stood up, thinking that the butler would come down to answer it and on his way would inform me of my verdict, and indeed, in a moment there came to me the sound of music as if a door had suddenly been opened on a floor above. Still, he did not appear. Yet I heard voices in the entry and immediately the treacherous butler, who had evidently come down another way in order to tease me, came into sight but vanished as soon as the visitor had turned toward the stairs. The visitor appeared tremendous, for he was magnified by the shadows: his pale hair, which might have been blond or white, lost and then regained its glow as he passed the first sconce. I stepped forward, still in the shadow, intending to ask him if this were the day for the Kaffeeklatsch. He wheeled, startled, and peered through the dimness.
“Doch, ist’s so spät?” he said.
“Nein, es ist früh, glaub’ ich.”
“Warum denn . . . ?” He came closer. “Oh,” he said, “oh, forgive me. I thought you were my daughter, Annaliese. It’s so dim here. I expect I’ll find her upstairs. Excuse me!”
“Ich bin auch deutsche.”
“So?” Impatient to be off, his eyes wandered up the stairs.
“I mean, sir,” I said, “that for a moment I, too, was confused and I thought you were my father. But I see now that your dueling scar is not the same.”
He gave a short, unamused laugh. “That’s the way to tell, nicht?” And he ran up the stairs two at a time.
I had not, of course, mistaken him even though he did, in a general way, resemble my father, but I had been seized by a terrible longing to speak German and to be allowed to enter the upstairs room from which the music issued and which I conceived of as a world separate from Boston, the one to which I belonged and the only one in which I should ever be happy. But it was not only the man, apparitional and fugitive, that snatched me from the present time and Boston which I had hoped would be as familiar to me as a native habitat, it was, even more than him, the music. It was of a sort and played upon an instrument which I had never heard before: its academic precision was so intellectual, belonged so much to that altitude where mathematical progressions and retrogressions were animated by imaginative genius that, just as one cannot look directly at the sun, so I could not submit the part of the mind that hears without the protection of the part that sees. Thus, my pleasure came to me attended by memory of scenes or objects, my mother’s face, the beach at Chichester, my father’s rosary hanging in his shop, the summer drives to Wolfburg, so that the passage of the music to my heart was insulated, roundabout, enriched. And I saw, as though I stood upon it and not upon the costly Persian rug, the sweating sand at Chichester, pawed by the surf on a glaring August day, where my father and I had stopped to watch a plover. The amber-clear, archaic notes, plucked from the siccative strings of the instrument I did not know, and the stranger’s voice, and the somnolent waves cast out and entrapped my father’s exclamation: “Ein Regenpfeifer! Still!” My longing to speak German was then elaborately if minutely satisfied by the redemption of “Regenpfeifer,” a word I had heard only that one time, twelve years before.
The cessation of the music reminded me that I had been waiting an unconscionable time and was no closer to the Countess von Happel than this romantic representation of her, larger than life size. I wondered if, by hanging it here, she had meant to tantalize as well as impress visitors who, unknown in the house, were not allowed to go at once into her presence. It was a mistake, if this had been her purpose, and an insulting one to prolong their suspense, for, like the magazines in the busy dentist’s office, it became an unendurable bore, and one’s temptation was to leave and come back on another day. The postponement of a disagreeable affair and the self-righteousness in which it has had its genesis afford as much relief as if the pain or the embarrassment has been undergone, is finished, and can be forgotten. But just as we throw down the magazine, so trashy it seems like a calculated insult to our intelligence, and prepare to announce cuttingly to the secretary that our time is precious, we had assumed, when we made the appointment for four, that we would be attended to at that time, the door opens and the dentist emerges smiling, disarming us with a genial apology and a word of sympathy about the suffering our wisdom tooth is causing us. I had reached the turn in the hallway and had just annexed a new feature to my grievance, for I was hungry and my vitals informed me that it was past the hour when it was my secret and shameful custom to eat two crullers and drink a cup of coffee in a small, steamy café at the top of Pinckney Street, an indulgence into which I had been forced by the meager fare at Miss Pride’s tea-table. The butler, coming through a door at my right, which I had not noticed, stopped me, and said that I might go up now, that Madam had been playing and he had been unable to announce me at once. Then, by way of apologizing for his suspicions, he said flatteringly, like the dentist, “Madam is waiting for you.”
“How d’ye do?” said the Countess who stood in the doorway and drew my arm through hers, the vegetative softness and fragrance of her person and the intense heat of the small room making me think of summertime. “It’s a pity you had to wait. Tell me, how did you like that little likeness of me in the hall? Did you notice it?” She turned her profile to me, waiting for my answer, and when I gave it, saying that I had been charmed, she continued to pose a moment longer in imitation of the “little likeness” as if she were not in the least concerned with my opinion, the anticipation of which, in fact, had set every nerve in her body tingling. Then, pressing my arm against her, she said, “It’s an excellent painting, even if you don’t like the subject, isn’t it? I debated with myself a long time before I hung it at all: Will people want to look at poor me? I said to myself. But what nonsense! The painting is the thing, you goose, people won’t even recognize you, you’re simply incidental to the composition.” I agreed that the painting was excellent (for all I knew it was, but it had struck me as being remarkably dull), but that she was wrong in thinking people would not recognize her, for she, not the composition, was its raison d’être. She could not deny my praise, but brought up from her interior an exultant purr: “Did you look at the hands? They are divine!”
This toll was levied upon every newcomer; some, less green than myself, added a gratuity to the set fee. Twice during that afternoon and many times thereafter, I observed the transaction carried out on the part of the Countess with a sort of childlike poise which made one feel that she was not so much vain as honestly amazed at her endowments. And when she had made her concluding remark, to one person about the hands, to another about the throat or the eyes, in a lowered voice as though she were praising someone within earshot, she became an amiable, solicitous hostess dedicated to the wants of her guests. Like the hypodermic injection of adrenalin that instantaneously relieves the asthmatic, the Countess’ hospitality at once made me forget my annoyance and my hunger. She now allowed me to pass through into a small, bare room which in no way conformed to the speculations I had made about it when I was half submerged in the yellow satin sofa. It was an ascetic’s cell on the top floor and at the back of the house, presenting a view from the uncurtained dormer windows of chimney pots and blind brick walls. Central in the
The Countess, leading me to the table, said, “You must have been late, for I began sharp at four. There’s no point in coming at all if you miss the music.”
“I’m very sorry,” I told her. “I met someone on the way. But there will be more, won’t there?”
“More?” she repeated incredulously. “Well, you are a baby!” But she patted my hand kindly and chuckled. “No, after I’ve played one opus I’m through, for I won’t mix composers and I won’t overindulge in one. But you didn’t know. All’s forgiven. Next time you’ll know better and not let yourself be waylaid.”
“Then I may come again?”
“If you don’t, I won’t forgive you. Now let me get you started and I’ll come back to you later on. Just now I must speak to Herr Speyer and his adorable daughter. I’m losing them. They’re sailing for Germany, naughty deserters!”
The Countess plucked a boy by the sleeve. “I want you to meet this unfortunate young lady who got here late and ‘sat out’ the whole of the minuet.”
The boy, a tall, frail Jew with a womanly grace in his long, supple fingers and a transparency of skin, turned eagerly at the sound of her voice, but not to meet me. “Oh, Berthe, you were wonderful today! When I closed my eyes, I could have sworn it was Landowska playing. I was overcome!” He was, in truth, dumfounded and gazed at her with famished, radiant eyes. The Countess puckered her brow in annoyance. “You’re a trifler, Gerhardt, but you don’t take me in. I’m improving, yes, but I’m still a greenhorn. Now be good and give Miss Marburg a cup of coffee.” His eyes implored her retreating figure to come back, but simultaneously he said to me, “Will you have cream and sugar?”
I was surprised at the Countess’ treatment of Herr Preis who was obviously head over heels in love with her. And being certain, from my own observation as well as from remarks dropped by Hopestill and Dr. McAllister, that vanity was the principle of her being, I could not understand why she had taken his compliment with so much displeasure. I thought perhaps he knew nothing of music and, being devoted to it almost as much as she was to herself, she could not accept homage to one and not to the other. But then I learned, in our ensuing conversation, that the unhappy boy had himself taught her how to play the harpsichord.
Because the room was small, it seemed crowded with people. There were, in fact, less than a dozen. They had not gathered into groups but wandered with their coffee cups to examine the letter from Liszt or the unrewarding view from the windows or to smell the roses on the harpsichord. A hush prevailed like that in an art gallery. The Countess, engrossed in a whispered conversation with Herr and Fräulein Speyer, made no attempt to remedy her guests’ unease. I had no choice but to remain with Gerhardt Preis who would have liked to leave me, like a wounded animal, to nurse his hurts in solitude. Feeling that for the time being at least, he was incapable of talk, I made the opening remark myself, expressing my surprise that the guests were not, as I had expected them to be, in the midst of a spirited discussion of music. I had supposed, I said, that the company would be made up of experts and of ambitious amateurs.
Preis gave me a pained smile. “Berthe does not allow us to talk music here. Why should she? What more can be said than she says when she plays?”
“But surely,” I said, “she must like to talk shop. I thought all artists did.”
He shook his head. “Not the Countess von Happel. She’s above it.”
“Well, then, I’m more comfortable. I thought, when I came, that the talk would be too intellectual for me to follow.”
“Intellectual!” he exclaimed to himself and for a moment drank in his own scorn. Then facing me with a civil smile, he changed the subject. “Your name is the name of my father’s town. Do you know it?” I told him I had never been to Germany. “I shall never be in Germany again. No doubt you guessed that I am a Jew. I was born in Marburg, but I have no memory of it, for my mother took me to Paris when I was very small and we only visited Germany in the springtime. My father was a manufacturer of surgical instruments and as you Americans say, he ‘made a fortune.’ I’m therefore of that species Berthe finds so odd. She’s completely above money, you know.” I smiled, recalling her parleys with Miss Pride.
The young man continued. “Have you heard about the time she met the millionaire department store owner from Chicago? It’s the most Happelisch story in the whole Berthe Sammlung. This Croesus was house-guest of someone she had invited to one of her Saturdays and he had to be brought along. As they were starting in to dinner, she said to him, ‘You must go first, for I understand that you are a “merchant prince” and my only other noble guest this evening is nothing but a poor little Russian baron.’ ”
A pretty, dark-haired girl beside us took a step closer and frowned at Preis. “I was at the dinner-party. It was appalling, because, you see, Mr. Bruce was my mother’s guest and it was very trying to us. For he was by no means a stupid man and he perfectly well knew he had been horribly insulted. You know, she ought to inquire into people’s histories before she plays such a joke as that. We all think he is a fine man and not at all coarsened by his money. And anyhow, he came from Boston in the first place and went to Harvard. I think the Countess goes too far.”
“I disagree,” returned the young man sourly and his tone implied that the girl had taken far greater liberties than their hostess had done with Mr. Bruce. “It’s of no use to criticize Berthe. She’s unique.”
“You forget that this is Boston,” said his adversary. “To be quite blunt, Mr. Preis, what I mean is that we New Englanders were here a great many years before you refugees started arriving.”
Immediately she regretted her tantrum since, though she had enjoyed it, it had been a breach of manners. But instead of apologizing, she simply left us and vanished from the room without telling the Countess good-by. I remarked to Mr. Preis that she seemed to have had enough of the salon.
“No, she hasn’t had enough at all, and unless Berthe overhears her sometime, she’ll be back every Friday all winter long. No one refuses invitations to this house. Berthe shouldn’t live in Boston, of course, for it’s very bad for her. She only does it because she’s fond of the way she’s done her house, though I’ve told her a thousand times she could have done a better one in New York. She’s made for a Central Park penthouse. I hope you appreciate her, as I see you’re not a native. If you have the good fortune to be asked often, I beg you to see how adorable she is. I’m afraid this is my last afternoon here! I’ve offended her somehow. She’s as sensitive as the princess who could feel the pea.”
His misery was so acute that he clasped his head in his hands and did not stir but sorrowed behind the handsome façade of his Hebraic face, his eyes closed, his full red lips parted as if in illness. I was deeply touched. “Perhaps things will come all right in the end,” I said.
“Oh, you don’t know her at all or you wouldn’t talk about things coming all right in the end. No, when she’s through, she’s through once and for all. I could no more get her to forgive me than you could get her to play again this afternoon.”
“But what have you done, Mr. Preis?”
The Countess had gone to the door with the Speyers and allowed Herr Speyer to kiss her hand. Then, drawing Annaliese to her, she kissed the girl on the cheeks and on the lips and cried, “Don’t change a particle while you are gone. I shall die of a broken heart if you cut off that golden tail about your head! Good-by! I love you!”
Above the heads of the embracing women, there appeared the face of a young man which, as the girl submitted to a final kiss upon her mouth, registered a virile horror, a response that the scene did not elicit in my companion who had not taken his eyes off the Countess for a second. The Speyers left and the head which had materialized out of the shadows in the hall acquired a body. The Countess smiled radiantly and had already forgotten her grief at the farewells. She told the young man she was sorry he had been kept waiting, that she supposed he had got sick and tired of her “little likeness” in the lobby. I turned my head in embarrassment at the repetition of her welcoming speech and told Mr. Preis that I would like to look at the view from the windows.