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Mary Harrison
XAVIER PETROVSKI was English in spite of his name, appearance, and his temperament.
“As for his appearance,” said Judith Lesueur to her sister, Marian, “well, it’s too ravishing for words. Eyes that melt, my dear—melt with their own fire.”
Marian laughed.
“I never like your little gods, your little tin gods; your little gods of flesh and blood. And I particularly hate the melting variety. Just like the butter you get in the Café Roma in August.”
His temperament was melancholy, for he was cursed with a hot, uneasy ambition that goaded him on to work till his body grew tired, his brain stale, and his spirit dejected. He believed himself to be a musical composer.
“I have genius: I know I have genius,” he said, over and over again in spring nights when he lay in his lodging overlooking the sea.
And then he would sleep and dream, his brain ravished by sumptuous harmonies, his very flesh soothed by sound.
For a living he played the violin in the Orient Café, for he was a member of the Ostrovsky Quartet. From three o’clock in the afternoon till midnight he played, whilst the loose men and women of Salonika danced and drank and ate. In the mornings he composed music and counted up the money he had saved. For Xavier was nothing if not practical. He was not going to miss the reward of his genius by foolish conduct or faulty management of his affairs. Already he had saved £800. Not a penny was spent that could by any contriving be added to his hoard. In a little while he would take his money to Lond{186}on, and then! Oh, then he would show them! The finest orchestra in the world should play his music and the critics should praise it; it should be printed and sold; his name should be on the lips of every man. Fame: money: the companionship of the great: the smiles of women: the intoxication of life lived to the full. All should be his. In a little while. He was sure of it.
At least, sometimes he was sure. In his happy moments, his moods of exaltation. But there were black moods.
“Is it possible that I have written these inanities?” he would sometimes ask himself. “I am a fool, sick with vanity, eaten up with egomania.”
In one of these unendurable moods he met Judith Lesueur, the most beautiful and most cultured demirep in all Salonika.
“Oh, Miss Lesueur,” he exclaimed, “do help me.”
“What is it?” she asked, smiling. “Has someone been horrid to you?” (She always treated him as though he were a child.)
“No: but I’m terribly depressed: my music won’t come right. I looked at my String Serenade this morning, and it is inconceivable that I should have written such ridiculous stuff. And when I was writing it I thought it was so splendid.”
“It probably is splendid,” she said, sympathetically; “everyone has moods. Come to the Café and drink with me.”
“Oh, no!” he protested. “This rotten feeling—I must walk it off. Drink would only make me worse.”
But, instead of going a long tramp as he had intended, he returned to his lodgings, and sat brooding at his open window. His thoughts turned to his dead father: he also had been a composer of music, and he had been one of life’s failures. He had worked hard and very patiently, but no one had ever played anything he had written.
Xavier rose from his chair and walked across the room to a big chest full of MSS., all in his father’s neat writing. He turned over page after page—symphonies, overtures, songs, string quartets. How like his father this music was!—mystical, tender, exquisite. “Like the poems of Rossetti,” Xavier murmured to himself. Soon he became so absorbed in his father’s work, that he nearly lost consciousness of himself. The music he was reading murmured and sang in his ears. His father’s very spirit seemed to suspire from the pages. Almost could his voice be heard. It was as though the soul of the dead man was brooding over his living son....
Some of the music had been written only ten years ago: it was very much in advance of its period, and perhaps it was for this reason that both publishers and conductors had disdained it. Xavier’s father had lived in London where, it is true, good music cannot for long go unrecognized; but he had been proud and almost vainly sensitive, and the rejection of a composition used {188}to throw him into a condition of despair so great, that months would pass before he could persuade himself to give the work another chance. His sensitive pride had been his ruin....
Xavier, wrapped up in his own work, had not for some years examined his father’s music, and had never divined its true quality; but now he recognized its extraordinary distinction, its peculiar originality, its brooding power and barbed eloquence. Oblivious of time, he read on until his landlady entered with his lunch.
“We are going to have a thunderstorm,” she said, looking at the copper sky.
“Very likely,” he said, his eyes still on the music.
And while he ate his frugal meal, he continued reading his father’s music; he absorbed it until it was time to go to the Orient Café. As he walked slowly thither, he felt that during the last few hours his personality had undergone a strange metamorphosis. He was not himself: something had been added to him: some luxury, a kind of mental wantonness—had entered his spirit unawares. His mind was larger, his imagination more rapid and higher in its flights.
There was something ghostly in this, something, perhaps, even threatening. But no doubt the minatory feeling came from the sulphur sky that hung so low, a sky heavy with electricity and sulky with spleen....
The dances{189} he and his comrades played that afternoon and evening meant less than nothing to him, for he did not even hear them. One performs mechanically the acts one performs frequently. The music that was in the air about him was the music he had read that morning.
At midnight, the day’s work over, he left the Café and sought his lodging. There were no stars. Thunder had begun to mutter, but as yet no rain had fallen. Faint fires trembled in the sky. Xavier felt the excitement of something important about to happen. His brain teemed with ideas. As soon as he got home, he would begin to compose.
“‘The Storm!’” he said, suddenly, speaking aloud. “The storm that never breaks—that’s an idea, and a damned good one, too. The storm that is always threatening and never begins. Something brooding, something gathering itself together, something couching, something licking its chops. And nothing ever happening.”
He knitted his brows in deep thought, and by the time he had reached his room, musical ideas for his composition were already filling his mind.
He sat down and wrote. Muted horns cried mysteriously on the paper before him in discords that were continually on the point of being, but never were, resolved.... At the end of an hour he read what he had written; from the very first bar it was good. It was with difficulty that he kept his excitement under control. He worked without effort, without thought, but with deep and disturbed feeling. His pen moved mechanically, and he could but wonder at its strange activity.{190}
Just before dawn, he lay down and fell asleep. At the end of the third hour of his slumber, he awoke suddenly, all his senses fresh and alert. The sun was in his room. Anxiously he bounded out of bed, and sat down at his little table near the window, scanning his MS. with eager eyes. The muted horns made magic music. Yes—it was fine! Every note of it was fine! How mysteriously yet significantly the strings stirred! How broodingly the wood-wind kept suggesting the principal theme that was never fully stated!
It was with a trembling fear that he took his pen in hand. Had his inspiration failed? Had that mood gone? No: without effort he began at the point at which he had left off. Though it was happy day outside, the storm was still brewing on his paper. Little flickers of flame danced on his sky’s edge: a black turbulence was at his zenith....
Three days later, his Symphonic Poem was finished, and he sought out Judith Lesueur that she might share his joy.
“Oh, Miss Lesueur,” he said, bursting into her flat, “do sympathize with me!”
“What is it?” she asked. “Has someone been horrid to you?”
“No: I’m so happy I can’t remain alone. I’ve written a wonderful work: I can’t believe it is I who have written it. And really—don’t laugh at me!—it just seemed to me all the time that somebody else was writing it for me.”{191}
“Oh, I’m so glad. If you weren’t so terribly virtuous, I would kiss you.”
Involuntarily, he moved a pace or two away from her. She held out her hand.
“Don’t be afraid, dear friend!” She smiled on him. “If you are happy, I am also. And now, I suppose, you’ll be going to London and I shall see you no more. Poor Judith!”
“Yes,” he answered, “I shall be going soon. It describes a storm—the gathering of a storm: clouds coming out of the vacant blue and massing together: yellow, treacherous vapours emerging from God knows where: enmity in the air. But the storm never breaks. All the thick, heavy passions of nature mingle until they become clogged. And then the music stops, choked by its own congestion.”
Judith did not understand him: he was just a little mad, she thought.
“I do hope it will be a success,” she said. “I’m sure it will. But I wish I was coming to London with you to hear it.”
He glanced at her rather shyly.
“Do you?” he asked. “Do you, really?”
“Why, of course I do. I want to see your success: I want to be with you in the midst of it.”
“Perhaps, some day ...” he said, vaguely, blushing a little. “Well, good-bye,” he added, “I must be off to the Café now.”
Lond{192}on was much kinder than Xavier Petrovski had anticipated, for he had not reflected that all cities, all people, are kind to men who have money to spend. He came with letters of introduction, and was soon on friendly terms with many musicians, critics, and people of social influence. A German firm of publishers had already accepted a volume of his songs, and the wealthy amateur, Countess Idionowsky, had arranged for an evening of his music to be given at her house in Portman Square. His timid manner, his air of distinction, and the “melting” eyes, which Judith had tried to describe to her sister, made him very popular with women, and he received more invitations than he could accept.
More satisfactory than anything else, he had been able to secure Queen’s Hall for an evening in the first week in June, and Marcel Xystobam was to conduct for him, and the great soprano, Alice Gardner, was to sing a group of his songs and a scene from his opera Dido.
On this concert, and in advertising it, he had spent a large portion of his hoard. All his hopes for the future were centered on this event. If it failed, his life would be broken, his ambition killed. But the thought of failure rarely entered his mind, so full were his days of happiness, so continuous was the flow of praise he received from his new friends.
In the afternoon of the day before his orchestral concert, a stranger called to see Xavier at his hotel. He was a tall ascetic-looking man, fashionably dressed, courteous, even a little deferential.{193}
“My name is Shaw—Geoffrey Shaw,” he said, “and I have called to see you because I knew your father well: indeed, he was a dear friend of mine.”
Xavier, who had been writing at a desk when the stranger entered, rose excitedly to his feet.
“You knew my father?” he asked.
“Yes. I was with him when he died. In those days I was not so ... so well-circumstanced as I am now, or perhaps he would not have died when he did. I was one of those who had faith in him—in his genius.”
“Tell me about him. You know, I was only fifteen when he died, and during the last two years of his life I never saw him at all.”
So the stranger told Xavier of his father’s last years—of his patient courage, his extraordinary capacity for work, his sensitiveness.
“He really had very great powers,” Shaw continued, “but the weakness in him was that he had not sufficient faith in himself. His faith came and went. A single hostile word was sufficient to make him suspect his own genius.”
He stayed for half-an-hour and then rose to go.
“I am going to your concert to-morrow, of course,” he said; “perhaps you will come and sup at my flat when it is over. My place is in Oxford Street, less than five minutes’ walk from Queen’s Hall.”
“I shall be delighted.”{194}
There are few experiences so salutary, and yet at the same time so galling, as that undergone by an inexperienced composer when he listens to the first performance of his orchestral works. His music may look extraordinarily lucid on paper, but in actual performance all kinds of elaborately calculated effects fail to “come off”: they are destroyed by lack of balance between the different sections of the orchestra. The ideas are there, but they are not heard.
At the long rehearsal of his music, Xavier suffered deeply. It seemed to him that his compositions were like exquisite paintings at which handfuls of mud had been thrown: the tender sound would suddenly become meaningless noise: muddy patches here and there stopped and choked the logical continuity of his work.
When he first noticed this, his instinct was to throw the blame on his conductor, Marcel Xystobam, but two or three minutes’ reflection disclosed to him that the fault was in the writing itself, and not in the manner of its interpretation. Only one work, “The Storm,” came out in sound precisely as he had heard it in his inner ear; his other compositions were palpably the work of an untried, though gifted, amateur.
Xavier Petrovski sat writhing at his own music.
The large audience was obviously bored; even Al{195}ice Gardner’s appearance did not lift them out of their apathy. During the interval many left the hall. The applause bestowed on each composition could only just be heard. All the critics were already congregated round the refreshment bar. Nothing but a miracle could prevent the concert from being the most conspicuous failure of the season.
There was nothing from which Xavier could derive consolation. The fault was his own. His music was the music of a man who had not learned the technique of his art; the sounds that reached him from the orchestra were not the sounds that had come to him in the silence of his room in Salonika; through lack of skill—through want of experience—he had failed to record what he had heard.
After what to the composer seemed hours of misery, the last work was reached. He knew well that if the audience were in a mood to listen, “The Storm” could not fail of its effect. In rehearsal, it had been peculiarly impressive. Not a single note was miscalculated: it was the work of a mature mind: it had all the attributes of genius.
And to-night, the very first bars gripped the tired and disappointed listeners. They forgot their disappointment in listening to this strange disturbing sound. Brooding yet passionate, the music filled the hall: it flickered like flame; it rolled, like heavy waters; it menaced, like distant, just-heard thunder. It made its listeners believe that something terrible was about to happen. And when all the black beauty of it had passed away without its threatened terrible{196} culmination, the listeners felt an exquisite relief that expressed itself in thunderous applause.
Not until the conductor had signified with an expressive gesture that the composer was not present and could not therefore bow his acknowledgments from the platform, did the audience begin to disperse....
At the entrance of the hall Xavier Petrovski found his new friend, Geoffrey Shaw, waiting for him. The meeting of the two men was constrained; it seemed almost as though they were enemies compelled to meet on a matter of business. They began to walk towards Oxford Street.
“I wish to God I had stayed in Salonika,” said Petrovski, at length, “for it’s all been waste.”
His companion tried to comfort him.
“You have not yet had the experience that every composer needs before he can become successful—the kind of experience that you can’t get out there in Greece. You must stay in London—live here. You would learn quickly all that is required.”
“But my ‘Storm’ succeeded, didn’t it?”
For a moment Shaw made no reply. Then:
“Yes,” he said; “that work was a great success.”
“But they tell me the critics did not stop to hear it. They all left the hall long before the concert was finished. I do not blame them, but it’s a pity they did not hear my best work.... I feel like a beginner, Mr. Shaw—I have everything yet to learn. And for some years I have{197} been flattering myself that I was a master of my art.”
“Don’t be too despondent, my dear fellow. You’ve got the stuff in you all right: it only wants bringing out and putting into proper shape.”
“Yes; but the curious thing is that my work, ‘The Storm,’ is absolutely free from all faults of inexperience. It might almost have been written by another man.”
They had now reached Shaw’s flat. His host unlocked the door and led him to his dining-room where supper was laid.
Shaw’s sympathetic kindness and, no doubt, the wine also soon put Petrovski into a more hopeful frame of mind. When they had finished supper, Shaw invited his guest into his library. The room contained nothing but books, a desk, and a couple of easy chairs.
“I have something here I want to show you,” he said, very gravely. “It is a MS. of your father’s—he gave it to me a few weeks before his death. I happen to know it is the only copy in existence; and I was present when he destroyed the preliminary sketch on which this composition is founded.”
Taking a thin volume from a cabinet, he opened it at the first page and placed it before his guest.
At the very first glance Petrovski uttered an exclamation of surprise. Then, bending over it, he examined it hurriedly and with the utmost agitation. His hands trembled so violently th{198}at he could scarcely turn over the pages.
“Good God!” he exclaimed at length; “it’s ‘The Storm'—note for note—my own work!”
He transferred his gaze from the MS. to his host.
“What does it mean?” he asked; “in God’s name, what does it mean?”


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