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AT THE AUSTRIAN EMBASSY.
The Austrian embassy at Athens was more largely and more brilliantly attended than usual. At nine o’clock the Patissia Road showed a line of carriages going backward towards the Platea Omonia from the gaily-lighted embassy. All the foreign ministers were there, as well as the Prime Minister of Greece, and whatever distinguished travellers Athens had the honour of entertaining at that time,—it being winter, there was a goodly number. A Russian Prince or two, presented by the Russian minister; two eminent English politicians on their way to Constantinople for a confidential exchange of views with the Sublime Sultan, to be remembered by jewelled snuff-boxes or some such trifles; a sprightly French mathematician straight from Paris the Blest; a half-dozen of celebrated archæologists, furnished by Europe and the United States, all viewing each other with more or less malevolence and suspicion—the Frenchman noticeably not on speaking terms with his distinguished brother from Germany; Dr. Jarovisky of world renown, fresh from Pergamos
and recent discoveries at Argos, speaking various languages as badly as possible; a genial and witty Irish professor rushing through Greece with the intention of writing an exhaustive analysis of the country and the people, in that spirit of amiable impertinence so characteristic of hasty travellers. There was the flower of the so-called Greek aristocracy: Phanariote Princes, Græco-Italian Counts from Zante and Corfu, and retired merchants and speculators from Constantinople and Smyrna and London. There was a Greek poet, hardly distinguishable in accent and manner from a Parisian, except in a detail of appearance which gave him the head of a convict, so hideously do the Hellenes shave their heads to look as if they wore mouse-coloured skull caps; a prose translator of Shakespeare, who had lately visited the Immortal’s shrine at Warwick, and, in the interests of local colouring modelled himself since his return as closely as possible upon the accepted type of the English man of letters, and surveyed the frivolities under his eye with a British impassivity and glacial neutrality of gaze. All the musical dilettanti of the city of the Wise Maid were there, and all its presentable women. Some of the girls were pretty, and all were thickly powdered and richly dressed; all had large, brilliant dark eyes. And the gowns and frocks from Paris, the jewels, lace, aigrettes, flowers, and bare arms and shoulders made an effective and troublous contrast with the preponderance of masculine evening attire and semi-official splendour.
This large and distinguished gathering had been convened in honour of the return to her native city of Mademoiselle Photini Natzelhuber, a celebrated pianiste,
the rival and friend of Rubinstein, the pupil of Liszt and not greatly inferior to her master, who, at Vienna, had been publicly named by him Queen of Pianists to match his recognised kingliness. All Athens was on tiptoe of expectation, eager to hear her, and still more eager to see her. It is not known, but extravagantly conjectured, with what sum the Baroness von Hohenfels was able to bid over the heads of her rival salonists and procure the honour of the Natzelhuber’s first appearance in Athens. Sane and discerning persons were probably right in putting it down to francs represented by four figures, for Austrian baronesses have a pretty accurate knowledge of the value of money. But for the moment six figures were supposed to represent the sum, and the matter was discussed with that singular absence of reserve or delicacy with which fashionable and well-bred society is apt to discuss the affairs of its host in the host’s own house.
Through the confused mingling of languages French could be detected as the most universal. A fair, pale young man, with the grave questioning air of a stranger who is disagreeably conscious of being shy and ill at ease, and, above all, utterly and helplessly alone, was walking about the rooms, amazed and bewildered by this Babel of tongues and types, and seemed to entreat by his look of gentle fear that no one should notice him or talk to him. He stared around with unquiet, troubled blue eyes, so very blue, so hopelessly, stupidly frank and clear, like a child’s, that they made more noticeable the extreme youthfulness of his face and most slender figure. A mere boy, twenty-one years of innocence and ignorance leaving him on the brink of
manhood with only the potentialities of his sex faintly shadowed in the lightest gold stain above the soft upper lip. He had just stepped into the glare and turmoil of life from the protected shadow of an isolated old castle in Rapolden Kirchen, with no more reliable and scientific guide to the mysteries of existence than a tender and nervous mother, who, after bringing him up like a girl, had left him for another sphere, and no other knowledge of the passions and their complex sensations than that to be gathered in a close and fervent study of music. It is easy to picture him. A reserved lad of high-bred Austrian type, with a glacially pure face, and heart fluttering with girlish timidity, half-frightened and half-attracted by the world he interprets in the vague light of his own pathetic ignorance, just conscious of opening curiosities upon the eternal feminine, and ready to sink with shame the instant a strange woman looked at him.
“Who is that charming boy?” asked a handsome old lady, whose motherly heart was touched by the childish uneasiness and loneliness of his attitude.
“That fair-haired young fellow near the window?” her companion answered. “Nice looking, isn’t he? A very pretty young lady, eh?”
“Don’t be so malicious. Men are always jealous of a handsome boy. You know how powerfully he appeals to our sympathetic sex. But who is he?”
“Rudolph Ehrenstein—a nephew of Madame von Hohenfels. He has just lost his mother, and is travelling in search of distraction. Some of these young ladies will doubtless take compassion on him.”
“Yes, with that pretty face and doleful forsaken
air he will not have to go far for a willing consoler.”
“It would be the very best thing for him,” said the popular poet, joining them. “One never knows how much to believe of gossip, especially in this centre of canards, but they speak of him already as the Natzelhuber’s latest flame.”
“Good heavens! Not possible, surely!” cried the old lady, in a tremor of delighted horror. “He has the face of an angel.”
“Angels have been known to fall, Madame,” said the poet, with his best Parisian bow and cynical shrug, throwing a challenging glance at his neighbour as if to defy him to prove that Théophile Gautier or Dumas could have capped an observation more neatly; and then quoted with a beatific consciousness of his own smartness: “L’ange n’est complet que lorsqu’ il est déchu.”
“Talk of women’s tongues! You men have never a good word to say either of yourselves or of us.”
“Is there not a proverb to that effect as regards the ladies?”
“Calumny, my friend, pure calumny. Men have had the monopoly of proverbs, and, of course, they have used them as they have used everything else, against us. It does not follow that even the clever man believes all the smart and satirical things he says of our sex, but an arrow shot at us looks a smarter achievement than a juster arrow aimed at yourselves. And the smart thing goes down to a duller posterity, and there’s your proverb. Truth is as likely to be in it as in the bottom of the proverbial well!”
“I shall seek it henceforth in you, Madame. Can
you tell me if there is any truth in the announcement that the Natzelhuber is coming to-night?”
“Madame von Hohenfels looks certainly anxious and doubtful. You know Mademoiselle Natzelhuber has an alarming reputation.”
“Oh, yes, abominably eccentric—and ugly,” sighed the poet.
Rudolph Ehrenstein, modestly unconscious that the reliable voice of Public Opinion, glancing at his wings, had been pleased to pronounce them singed and soiled, had retreated into a deep recess and was nearly hidden by a silk curtain and tall palm branches. He sat down on a low chair, and rejoiced that here, at least, there were no bare obtrusive shoulders and brilliant orbs to dazzle him, no scented skirts to trouble him, and that the murmur of varied tongues and voices and the whirr of fans came to him in softened sound. He was just closing his eyes to think of the old dim castle of Rapolden Kirchen and his beloved mother, whose subdued manner and tone seemed to him the more exquisite to remember because of the noisy and strongly perfumed women around him, when a man near the door caught sight of him through his gold-rimmed eyeglass, and starting forward, burst into his retreat with clamorous recognition and two extended hands, the offering of demonstrative friendship.
“Delighted, charming boy, delighted to see you so soon again. Heard from the baroness you were expected in Athens, but no idea you would be here to-night.”
“I arrived last evening,” said Ehrenstein, standing up and grasping the proffered hands with a look of relief, as if he found the necessary restorative in their
touch. “What a quantity of strangers there are here! All their different languages have made my head ache.”
His companion was a rich Greek merchant from Trieste, who was arrayed in extremely florid evening dress and wore a very large white camelia. He glanced at the boy’s mourning studs and sighed as if recalled suddenly to the stern sorrows of life, and then blew a little whiff which expressed the recognised evanescence of even sorrow and bereavement, and thrust their presence from him.
“Well, you see, we Greeks have to draw very largely upon foreign countries for our entertainments,” he said, slipping his arm into Ehrenstein’s and dragging him gently out of the recess. “As a Greek from abroad, I regret to say that it would be impossible to mix with the pure Athenians for any purposes of social pleasure. They can neither talk, dance, nor eat like civilised beings. In fact, my dear Ehrenstein, they are not civilised.”
“What a dreadful thing to say of the descendants of the ancient Greeks,” laughed Rudolph.
“Oh, the ancient Greeks!” exclaimed Agiropoulos, airily. “If you are going back to those old fossils, I will candidly admit that I am out of my depth. There is nothing I am more heartily sick of than the ancient Greek. There’s Jarovisky over there, a perfect lunatic on the subject. Homer for breakfast, Homer for dinner, and Homer for supper admits of variety with improvement. He reads Homer on the terrace by moonlight, and falls asleep with Homer under his pillow. My opinion of the ancient Greeks is, that they were not
one whit better than their amiable representatives of to-day. They were men of great natural eloquence and literary gifts, and knew how to lay on their colours with an eye to future generations. But we have only their version, and it would require at least twenty connecting evidences to prove the word of one Athenian. Why, to hear them talk to-day, one might imagine theirs the chief nation of Europe, and Athens its handsomest capital—dull, ugly little Athens!”
They were walking round the rooms, when Agiropoulos, surveying the crowd through his aggressive eyeglass, suddenly asked his friend if he had been introduced to any ladies.
“I have been introduced to nobody yet except the Greek Minister—oh, I forgot, a young English attaché.”
“Ah, I see the baroness is resolved to keep you hovering yearningly upon the skirts of paradise. Never mind, my child, I will find you a houri. There is a very handsome brunette, the prettiest girl in Athens. Her French is fit for the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and her dot acceptable should your views incline that way. My faith, I would not object to either myself, but my time has not come for settling down. Butterfly, you know, from sweet to sweet, and that sort of thing. Sad dog, as those droll English say. Ah!—””
Before Rudolph could demand an explanation of this singular and enigmatic avowal, understood by even such white innocence as his to hint at something darkly and yet pleasantly irregular, the Baroness von Hohenfels bore down upon the young men with a disturbed expression of face. She tapped Agiropoulos on the shoulder with her fan, and said hurriedly:—
“My dear M. Agiropoulos, I am greatly alarmed about the Natzelhuber. You, I believe, are the best authority on her movements and caprices. Do you know why she has not come?”
“I do not, indeed, Madame la Baronne,” answered Agiropoulos, bowing, and twirling his moustache with a fatuous smile. “But it is not so very late.”
“Don’t you know what very primitive hours we keep in Athens?” the baroness cried testily. “Did you see her to-day, Rudolph?”
Young Ehrenstein flushed and shrank a little with a hint of anxious pain in his blue eyes.
“No, aunt, I called, but Mademoiselle Natzelhuber was not visible,” he said.
Agiropoulos looked at him sharply with an imperceptible frown, and then, turning to his hostess, resumed his smile of fatuous security, and said:
“To relieve your doubts, Madame la Baronne, I will drive at once to the lady’s house, and carry her back with me, if even I must employ force.”
“Do so, and you will earn my lasting gratitude. We are all dying to hear her play, and her name was the attraction to-night,” and Madame von Hohenfels brightened. “Come with me, Rudolph. I must find you some lively girl to chat you into good-humour. Delay as little as possible, M. Agiropoulos.”
Agiropoulos bowed low and retired, while Rudolph silently offered his arm to his aunt, shrinking still and wounded.
“It is a great disappointment that M. Reineke is not here to-night. He, also, is a new lion—singularly handsome and captivating and very clever, they say. He
created quite a sensation in Paris last winter. But he got ill coming from Egypt and I suppose he will make his first appearance at the Jaroviskys’ ball next week.”
“Is there to be a ball next week?” Rudolph asked listlessly.
“Of course; are we not all vying to honour an English Cabinet minister? He will probably write about us when he gets home.”
“Who are those girls laughing so loudly?” Rudolph asked, with no particular desire for information.
“They belong to the American legation. Not exactly the choice I would have you make in girls’ society, my dear,—intolerably loud and vulgar,” said the Baroness, surveying them through her long-handled and elegant face-à-main which she raised to her eyes. “They represent the United States—most deplorably. I want you to cultivate the society of the Mowbray Thomases—English Embassy. Here is the son, Vincent, a very nice boy who can speak intelligible French for a wonder, and will, I am sure, be glad to teach you tennis and cricket.”
“He is quite a boy,” cried Rudolph, cheerfully. “I shall be less afraid of him than of your lively young ladies.”
Agiropoulos had in the meantime driven to Academy Street, where Mademoiselle Photini Natzelhuber was staying. He found the house in complete darkness, and only when he had made a considerable noise did a somnolent and astonished servant thrust her head out of a window and demand his business.
“Where is your mistress, Polyxena?” cried Agiropoulos.
“In bed, sir.”
“In the name of all that is wonderful, has Photini gone clean out of her senses? In bed, and all Athens waiting for her at the Austrian Embassy!”
Polyxena leisurely unbolted the door, and Agiropoulos rushed past her up the stairs, and hammered frantically outside Photini’s bedroom door.
“Photini, get up and dress this instant. I insist. I swear I will not leave off knocking until you come out—not even at the risk of driving all the neighbours mad!” he shouted.
“What the devil do you want at this time of night, Agiropoulos?” was roared back to him. “I will box that girl’s ears for letting you in. Stop that row. You must be drunk.”
“Come, no nonsense, Photini. I am serious, on my soul I am. You’ve been expected at the Austrian Embassy for the last hour and a half. It is just eleven, and Athenian receptions break up at midnight, you know.”
“I suppose they want me to play. I had forgotten all about it. The mischief take the idiots! For goodness’ sake stop that noise, and I’ll get up.”
It was a little after eleven when a murmur ran through the rooms on the Patissia Road that Agiropoulos had returned with the missing Pleiad. Every one pressed eagerly forward to see the great and eccentric artist. Corns were gratuitously trodden upon and the proprietors forgot to swear, dresses were crushed, and no lady remembered to cover a cross expression with a mendacious smile and a feeble “It does not matter;” all faces wore an expression of open anxiety, curiosity, and wonder.
“Quite a bear, I hear,” somebody whispered, audibly, “bites and snarls even. Dresses abominably, and swears like a trooper.”
Mademoiselle Natzelhuber entered the room a little in advance of Agiropoulos, whose smile was one of radiant self-approval and triumph,—he quite enjoyed this open recognition of his ménage irregulier. Photini wore a look of hardly concealed contempt and indifference, and advanced slowly, meeting the multitudinous gaze of curiosity with a regal calmness. Her dress was dowdy and common: she was stout and low-sized, but she succeeded in carrying off these details with truly majestic grace. It was impossible to titter or sneer; despite all shocks of disappointment, it was impossible not to meet gravely that grave indifferent glance, and recognise a strange kind of superiority in its lambent topaz imperturbability. All eyes were fixed upon her but two boyish blue eyes that, after one swift and inquiring look, were averted in a poignant confusion of emotions. Instead, they rested on Agiropoulos.
Madame von Hohenfels moved towards the artist with a gracious smile of welcome, and expressed her pleasure in very cordial terms,—she could afford to be exuberant now that she was relieved of the terror of this woman’s possible defection.
“This, I believe, is your first appearance in Athens after a long absence, Mademoiselle Natzelhuber.”
“Where is your piano, Madame? You did not invite me for the sake of my handsome face, I suppose. Then pass compliments and come to business.”
“Qu’elle est grossière,” was the comment that ran round the room, and the English Cabinet Minister, the
Right Honourable Samuel Warren, gazed at her through his eyeglass, and lisped, “What a very extraordinary creature!” One does not mix in the highest diplomatic circles for nothing, and the Baroness von Hohenfels was perfectly competent to extricate herself and her guests from an awkward situation with both grace and glory. She laughed musically, as if something specially witty had been said, and led the way to the grand piano. The seat was a high one, and Photini tranquilly kicked it down, and gazed around her in search of a low stool. Agiropoulos rushed forward with a chair of the required height, and the artist sat down amid universal silence and touched the keys lightly, upon which her nose might conveniently have played, so near were both. After a few searching bars she burst into Liszt’s splendid orchestral arrangement of “Don Giovanni.”
Agiropoulos cared nothing whatever about her music, and wandered round the room till he reached the place where Ehrenstein was standing.
“That was a delicate mission, eh, Ehrenstein?” he said, with his persistent smile. “Successfully accomplished too.”
“Its success is as apparent as its delicacy,” retorted Rudolph. He was filled with astonishment at the wave of bitterness towards this oily self-satisfied Greek that swelled within him.
Agiropoulos caught the unmistakable ironical tone.
“Might I request you to define your precise meaning, my young friend?” he asked, drily.
“That is easily done. You have acted to-night as no gentleman should.”
All girlish timidity had faded out of Rudolph’s eyes,
which flashed like gem fire in the sparkle of honest indignation.
“Ho! is that where we are?” cried the Greek, with a low exasperating laugh, as he twisted his moustache and examined the gloss of his shoes. “And the crime?”
“In permitting my aunt to speak to you in a distinctly offensive way of Mademoiselle Natzelhuber, and in smiling as you did when you entered the room with her.”
“My dear fellow, what a simpleton you are to talk in this superannuated style about the Natzelhuber.”
“Mademoiselle Natzelhuber is a woman. An honourable gentleman makes no distinction between women as regards certain laws. The same courtesy and consideration are due to all.”
“Don’t tilt against windmills in this extravagant way, Ehrenstein,” said Agiropoulos, laughing good-humoredly. “Why, Photini would be the first to laugh at us for a pair of imbeciles if she heard that we quarrelled about her. She does not want consideration. She is rather a fine fellow in a rough and manly way of her own—very rough, I admit.”
“Pray, make no mistake about me. I object to such vulgar classification as you are disposed to make,” cried Rudolph, sharply.
“I’ll be as wide and as refined as you like—platonic, artistic, spiritual—whichever suits you best. But we may not doubt the admiration, my friend.”
“To prevent gross misinterpretation, I will give you the situation. I hold myself willingly and proudly enslaved to such genius as hers. I would gladly sit in
silence all my life if my ear might be filled with music such as hers. For the sake of that, I am ready to offer my friendship, and forget the rest.”
Rudolph stood back a little with a listening rapt expression, and Agiropoulos glanced contemptuously down at Photini. Agiropoulos was constitutionally incapable of understanding disinterested admiration. His sentiments were coarse and definite, and to him were unknown the conditions of strife, probation, unrewarded and unexacting love, self-distrust and tremulous aspiration and fear; above all, was he free from a young man’s humble reverence of womanhood, which, in the abstract, was to him something so greatly inferior to himself as to be below consideration. Cheerful it must be to escape the hesitations and exquisitely painful flutterings between doubt and hope, and the thousand and one causes of clouded bliss, to the more fastidious and ideal Northern nature. He looked forward to a suitable marriage when his relations with Photini should come to an end, but was not concerned with the question of choice. Girls are plentiful enough, and handsome or ugly, they come to the same thing in the long run: mothers of children of whose looks their husbands are unconscious.
In response to the loud applause which greeted her last chord, Mademoiselle Natzelhuber rose slowly, bent her head as low as her knees, the mossy black curls rolling over her forehead like a veil, and her hands hanging straight down beside her. No one present had ever seen a lady bow in this masculine fashion, and following the breathless magnificence of her playing it so awed her spectators that some moments of dead
silence passed before they were able to break into their many-tongued speech.
“Let me have some cognac, if you please,” she said, curtly, turning to her delighted hostess.
What will not the mistress of a salon endure if she may furnish her guests with a thoroughly new sensation! And certainly Mademoiselle was a very novel sensation.
The cognac was promptly administered to the artist, and the people began to move about and express their opinions.
“That girl is tremendously admired here,” said Agiropoulos to Rudolph, drawing his attention to a noticeable group of young ladies. “Her name is Mademoiselle Eméraude Veritassi. She was not christened Eméraude, I may mention, but we are so very Parisian at Athens that we insist on translating everything, even our own names, into French. The girl beside her is Miss Mary Perpignani, and her brother Mr. John Perpignani, though neither of them knows a word of English. It is chic with us. I am Tonton. I can’t exactly say what language it may be, but it isn’t Greek, and that you see is the main thing. My sister Persephone calls herself Proserpine.”
“What bad taste! Persephone is surely a beautiful name.”
“Ah, but it is Greek—not fashionable, not chic. And if we have no chic, my friend, we have no raison d’être.”
“Who is that going to play now?” asked Rudolph.
“Good heavens! it’s Melpomene—and after the Natzelhuber!”
No wonder there was much admiration expressed at
the nerve of the lady who bravely undertook to play such a masterpiece as Chopin’s “Barcarolle” in the presence of a master not given to handle offenders gently. But everyone was disposed to receive the amiable imperfection of an amateur with indulgence, while it was impossible to conjecture the feelings of the short-haired woman who was quietly sipping her second glass of cognac on an ottoman and listening with a fixed neutral stare in her yellow eyes. When the piece was over, the artist rose, and said with awful measured politeness:
“Does Madame imagine that she has played Chopin’s ‘Barcarolle?’ Doubtless Madame has mistaken the name. I will play the ‘Barcarolle’ now.”
It is easy to understand the feelings with which Madame retired, and the feelings aroused in the breast of Madame’s irate husband, who glared vengeance from the other end of the room; and for one moment every one recognised that a star is not the most agreeable ornament of society, but this idea was soon swept away upon magic sound. Could there be anything dreamed of on earth like the beauty of the “Barcarolle” so played? Enthusiasm reached the white-heat of passion. Ladies tore the flowers from their bosoms, men from their button-holes and flung them at her; faces went white and red, and eyes filled with tears. And there stood Agiropoulos smiling blandly and taking half the triumph as his own, while Rudolph had gone back to his recess and was sobbing unrestrainedly in sheer ecstasy.
When the first wave of emotion had subsided, and the artist had bowed her acknowledgment in the same
curious way, too contemptuous even to shake the flowers off her person, her host stepped forward to offer her his arm and lead her towards the buffet in another room. Somebody else stepped forward with gracious intent, a young self-sufficient viscount, the nephew of the distinguished French minister. He bowed low, and acquainted her with the agreeable fact that he had never heard anything like her playing of the “Barcarolle,” and his regret that Chopin himself could not hear it. Mademoiselle looked at him meditatively for some trying seconds, then said calmly:
“Do you really believe, sir, that I require your approval? Be so good, sir, as to confine your observations on music to your equals.”
“Truly a remarkable and slightly disconcerting person,” said the English Cabinet Minister, arranging his eyeglass the better to observe her. “Extraordinary, egad! I suppose artists are bound to be erratic. But don’t you think they could play just as well with hair like everybody else, and decent manners?”
His companion was of opinion they could, and suggested that the artist in question would create a lively sensation in a London drawing-room.
“By Jove, yes. Suppose we strike a bargain with her, and carry her back with us. We might label her—‘authentic specimen of a Greek barbarian, picked up near the Acropolis; dangerous.’”
All the guests now struggled forward in search of refreshments. But Rudolph strolled about waiting for an opportunity to see Photini alone. His gratitude and admiration were at that exalted pitch when an outpouring is imperative. He knew nothing of the vile report
that had been circulated concerning his own relations with her, and sought her with the damning candour of complete innocence. He found her, and the discovery sent a shock of horror through him that almost stopped the beating of his heart. She was in the centre of a noisy laughing group of men, smoking a cigarette and holding an empty liqueur glass in her hand into which the Baron von Hohenfels was pouring some brandy, laughing boisterously and joking hideously. Every nerve within him thrilled in an agony of shame. This the glorious interpreter of heavenly sound! This the artist he so passionately desired to reverence as a woman, while worshipping her genius! He was half prompted to go away in silence, when his eyes caught the sarcastic triumph of Agiropoulos’ smile. With a mighty effort he gulped down the bitterness of disappointment and shocked surprise, and bravely went forward.
“I have been looking for you, Mademoiselle,” he said coldly. “I wanted so much to thank you for the delight you have given me to-night—this addition to past delight,” he added, holding out his hand.
“Ah! my little Austrian page!” Photini cried, laughing into his solemn grieved face. “I got your card to-day. You must come and see me again. The ‘Mélodiés Hongroises’ you know. I’ve promised you that. A pretty fellow is your nephew, Baron, and quite as charming as he is pretty. But too grave, too grave, and too—sans reproche,” she added cynically.
All the men looked at Rudolph curiously, and laughed. The boy flushed scarlet, bowed and walked away. The rooms were rapidly thinning, and recognising him
as a member of the Hohenfels family, several guests stopped to shake hands with him as they passed him. He received their advances mechanically, hardly heard a word addressed to him, and was still in a dream when his aunt and her husband returned to join him in the empty chambers.