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Tower of Ivory: A Novel

281 pages
Library of Alexandria
John Ordham had been in Munich several months before he met Margarethe Styr. Like all the young men, native and foreign, he chose to fancy himself in love with her, and although both too dignified and too shy to applaud with the vehemence of the Germans, he never failed to attend a performance at the “Hof” when the greatest hochdramatische the new music had developed sang Iseult or Brynhildr. He was not sure that he wanted to meet her, for in a languid and somewhat affected manner he persuaded himself that she existed on the stage alone, and that did he even permit his imagination to picture her in private life it must be as a commonplace American woman of German extraction who drank enormously of beer and ate grossly, like the people in the restaurants. And as at that time he cultivated the sensuous rather than the stronger elements of his nature, he avoided what might have attenuated one of the most exquisite of his pleasures. It was true that in the second and last acts of Götterdämmerung her tragedy was so stupendous, her grief so poignant, her despair so fathomless, that he turned cold to his marrow, and felt as if the sufferings of all humanity were drowning him. But vicarious woe has all the voluptuousness and none of the hell of Life’s cruelties at first hand. Styr’s methods were as likely to inthral the fastidious Englishman as the more artistic German. In a day when Sarah Bernhardt was the fashion in tragediennes, she had a still method all her own, a manner of appearing quietly on the stage, seemingly as impersonal as a part of its setting; then gradually dominating it, not only by the magic of her great golden voice and imposing height and presence, but by a force, which the critics, after long and acrimonious controversy, agreed to be an emanation from the brain. Whether she possessed also that physical magnetism, commonly indispensable to stage people, was a question still agitated when Ordham arrived in Munich, although she had then been “Royal Bavarian Court Singer” for six years; but that she had cultivated a mental power which above all else made her the great artist she was, the most violent partisans of other prime donne, lyric and dramatic, frankly conceded. Her associates at the Hof told that at rehearsals she merely walked through her part; and Princess Nachmeister, boasting private acquaintance with her since her elevation to the Bavarian aristocracy as Countess Tann, confided to the world that she never practised even those slow, grand, graceful, and infinitely varied gestures of hands and arms which were as expressive as her voice, but directed them from her brain as she did her acting; that she sat for hours thinking out the minutest details, but without moving a muscle until the night of public performance. All facial expression was concentrated in her eyes. She could express more with those features for which Nature had failed to invoke her conventions, than any living actress with physical writhings and distorted visage. Therefore, when she gave way to momentary violence, as, when at Siegfried’s repudiation she looked to be tearing her heart out, she created so profound an impression that more than Ordham rose breathless from their seats. Her desolation, her incredulous horror, the alternate pride of the goddess and agony of the woman, the dark and remorseless vengeance of the daughter of Wotan, not only induced a nervous shudder in Ordham but plunged his imagination down the past of this great but forbidding creature, who seemed to unlock her own heart for the moment with the reckless indifference of the supreme artist. He was but twenty-four at this time, but he had seen a good deal of the world, and its inheritances had composed many of his brain cells; he was, moreover, a very clever young man, as all admitted. Nevertheless, when he stared at Brynhildr in her agony and wrath, or dreamed through the second act of Tristan und Isolde, he had vague prickings in the depths of his soul that tragedy was not confined to the gods, and uneasy forebodings that life even for such as he was not all roses and cream.