Lydian Measures Edit

I dined en famille at Mr. Denman’s the day after that panic-struck night walk with Cecil Dreeme.

“You are looking pale and thin, Emma,” said Mr. Denman, as his daughter rose to leave us to our claret. “You need more variety in your life. Why not let Byng take you to the opera to-night? Our box has stood vacant, now, these many weeks.”

“Yes,” said I, “it is the new opera to-night.”

Emma glanced at her black dress.

“Go!” said Denman, with something of harshness in his tone, “that need not cloud your life forever.”

“Do go,” said I.

“I will,” she said, with a slight effort. “But I shrink from appearing in public again.”

“It is time you should get over that feeling. We shall soon be receiving company again,” said her father. “So be ready when Byng and I have had our cigars.”

She was ready, and we drove to the Opera-House together.

Her mourning was exquisitely becoming to her slight, graceful, refined figure. The startled and almost timorous manner I had noticed in our first interview had lately grown more marked. This shy, feminine trait excited instant sympathy. It recalled how her life had been shocked by the sudden news of a tragedy. She seemed to have learned to tremble, lest she might encounter at any moment some new disaster sadder than the first. This was probably mere nervousness after her long grief, so I thought. Yet sometimes, when I spoke to her with any suddenness, she would start and shrink, and turn from me; then, exercising a strong control over herself, she would return, smile away the fleeting shiver, and be again as self-possessed and gay as ever.

As we entered the Opera-House and took our places in Mr. Denman’s conspicuous box, the glare of the lights and the eyes of a great audience making a focus upon her affected Emma with the panic I have described. She turned to me with the gesture of one asking protection, almost humbly.

“I must go,” she said; “I cannot bear to have all the world staring at me in this blank, hard, cruel way. They hurt me, — these people, prying into my heart to find the sorrow there.”

“In a moment it will be an old story,” said I. “Do not think of going, dear Emma. The change and the excitement of the music will do you good. This nervousness of a débutante will pass away presently.”

Dear Emma! The first time that any such tender familiarity had passed my lips. And my manner, too, I perceived, expressed a new and deeper solicitude. I perceived this; so did my companion.

She looked at me, with a strange, fixed expression, as if she were resisting some potent impulse. Then a hot blush came into her cheeks. She sank into her seat, and fanned herself rapidly. Her brilliant color remained.

“Emma,” said I, bending toward her, “what splendid change has befallen you? You are at this moment beautiful beyond any possible dream of mine.”

“Do not speak to me,” she said; “I shall burst into tears before all these people. This crowd, after my seclusion, confuses and frightens me. Let me be quiet a moment!”

All the world, of course, was immediately aware of the reappearance of the beautiful Miss Denman. There was much curiosity, and some genuine sympathy. “Nods and becks and wreathed smiles” came to her from the boxes on every side. Her entrée was a triumph — as such triumphs go.

To avoid this inspection, she took her lorgnette and glanced about the house. I followed its direction.

I saw her pause a moment on the group of men in the lobby. At the same time we both recognized Densdeth, regarding us.

He was laughing with Raleigh and others. I seemed almost to hear the sharp tone of that cynical, faithless laugh of his.

All the color faded out of Emma Denman’s face. She sank back, almost cowering. Cowering, — the expression does not exaggerate the effect of her gesture. She cowered into the corner of the box, and hid her face behind her fan.

I should have spoken to demand the reason of her strange distress, when the leader of the orchestra rapped; there was a hush, and the new overture began with a barbaric blare of trumpets.

So the opera went on, to the great satisfaction of all dilettanteism.

It was thoroughly debilitating, effeminate music. No single strain of manly vigor rose, from end to end of the drama. Never would any noble sentiment thrill along the fibres of the soul in response to those Lydian measures. It was music to steep the being in soft, luxurious languors; to make all effort seem folly, all ardor madness, all steady toil impossible; — music to lap the mind in somnolence, in a careless consent to whatever was, were it but bodily ease and moral stagnancy.

There was no epic dignity, no tragic elevation, no lyrical fervor, in the new opera. Passion it had; but it was a dreamy passionateness, not the passion that wakes action, nervous and intent. Even its wild strains, that meant terror and danger, came like the distant cry of wild beasts in a heavy midnight of the tropics, — a warning so far away, that it would never stir the slumbers of the imperilled.

Always this music seemed to sound and sing, with every note of voice or instrument, — “Brethren, what have we to do with that idle fiction of an earnest life? While we live, let us live in sloth. Let us deaden ourselves with soft intoxications and narcotic stupors, out of reach of care. Why question? Why wrestle? Why agonize? Here are roses, not too fresh, so as to shame the cheeks of revelry. Here is the dull, heavy sweetness of tropic perfume. Here is wine, dark purple, prostrating, Lethean. Here are women, wooing to languid joys. Here is sweet death in life. So let us drowse and slumber, while the silly world goes wearily along.”

Emasculated music! Such music as tyranny over mind and spirit calls for, to lull its unmanned subjects into sensual calm. Such as an Italian priesthood has encouraged, to make its people forget that they were men, and remember that they were and would ever be slaves. Music that no tyrant need ever dread, lest it should nerve the arm of a tyrannicide. Music that would never ring to any song of freedom, or chime with any lay of tender and ennobling love.

The story was as base as the strain. There was tragedy, indeed, in it, and death. But a neat, graceful, orderly death, in white satin. Nothing ugly, like blood and pangs; nothing distressing, like final repentance with tears, or final remorse with sobs and anguish. The moral was, that after a life of revelry, not too frantic, to die by digestible poison, when pleasure began to pall, was a very proper and pretty exit.

Delicious music, and only soothing if music were simply a corporeal influence, but utterly enervating to the soul. I felt it. I was aware of a deterioration in myself. I passed into a Sybaritic mood, — a mood of consent, — of accepting facts as they were, and missing nothing that could give a finer joy to my sensuous tranquillity. In this frame of mind, the degree and kind of my passion for Emma Denman satisfied me wholly. I yielded to it.

And she, in the same lulled and dreamy state, lost the dignity of manner which had kept us apart. She no longer shrank as she had been wont to do when my voice or words conveyed a lover meaning. Her shyness was gone. She seemed to yield herself to me, fully and finally.

All the while the swelling, flowing, soothing strains of honeyed music hung around us, and when the movement of the drama paused, our minds pursued the same intention in our talk.

We agreed that all regret was idle; that sorrow was more idle than regret; that error brought its little transitory pang, and so should be forgotten; that mundane creatures should not be above mundane joys in this fair world, reeking with sights and sounds of pleasure, and all lavish with what sense and appetite desire. We agreed that it was all unwisdom to perplex the soul with too much aspiration; better not aspire than miss attainment, and so pine and waste, as one might sigh his soul away that loved a cloud.

Between the acts, I saw Densdeth moving about, welcome everywhere, — the man who had the key of the world. A golden key Densdeth carried. All the salable people, and, alas! that includes all but a mere decimation, threw open their doors to Densdeth. Opera-box and the tenants of the box were free to him.

The drama was nearly done, and he had not been to pay his respects to Emma Denman, though he had bowed and smiled in congratulation.

“Densdeth does not come to tell you how brilliantly you are looking to-night,” I said.

“I do not need his verdict,” she said, coldly enough; — and then, as if I might take the coldness to myself, she added, “since I have yours, and it is favorable.”

“Yes; my verdict is this, — Guilty, — guilty of being your most fascinating self, — guilty of a finer charm to-night than ever before.”

“Guilty!” she said, turning from me. “Guilty, thrice repeated! Do use some less ominous word.”

The music ceased. The curtain slowly descended, and hid the sham death-scene. There was the usual formal applause. The conceited tenor in his velvet doublet, unsullied by his late despair, the truculent basso, now in jovial mood, the prima donna, past her prime, sidled along, hand in hand, behind the foot-lights, and bowed to the backs of two thirds of the audience, and to the muffled resonance of the white gloves of the other third.

The spiritual influence of the opera remained, mingled with a slight forlornness, the reaction after luxurious excitement.

I left Emma Denman in the corridor, and went to find the carriage.