The Iron Virgin
by James Huneker
For there is order in the streets, but in the
The carriage stood awaiting them in the Place Boïeldieu. Chardon
told the coachman to drive rapidly; then closed the door upon Madame
Patel and himself. Cautiously traversing the crowded boulevards they
reached the Madeleine; a sharp turn to the left, down the Rue Royale,
they were soon crossing the vast windy spaces of the Place de la
Concorde and there he spoke to his companion.
It was a glorious victory! The Opéra Comique looked like a
battlefield after the conflict. Chardon's voice trembled as if with
timidity. Madame Patel turned from the half-opened window.
Yes, a glorious triumph. And he is not here to enjoy it, to
exult over his detractors. Her tone was bitter as winter.
My poor friend, the other answered as he laid his hand gently on
her arm. She shuddered. Are you cold? Shall I close the window?
Thanks, no; it is too warm. How long this ride seems! Yet he always
delighted in it after conducting. Chardon was silently polite. They
were riding now at high speed along the Avenue Montaigne which the
carriage had entered after leaving the Champs Élysées. From the Quai de
Billy to the Quai de Passy their horses galloped over naked
well-lighted avenues. The cool of the river penetrated them and the
woman drew herself back into the corner absorbed in depressing
memories. Along Mirabeau and Molitor, after passing the Avenue de
Versailles; and when the street called Boileau appeared the carriage,
its lanterns shooting tiny shafts of light on the road, headed for the
Hameau, named after the old poet of Auteuil. There it stopped.
Madame Patel and Chardon, a moment later, were walking slowly down the
broad avenue of trees through which drawled the bourdon of the breeze
this night in early May.
It was one o'clock when they entered the pretty little house,
formerly the summer retreat of the dead composer Patel. A winner of the
Prix de Rome he had produced many operas and oratorios until his
death, just a year previous to the première of The Iron
Virgin. Of its immense success widow and librettist were in no doubt.
Had they not witnessed it an hour earlier! Such furore did not often
occur at the Comique. All recollection of Patel's mediocre work was
wiped away in the swelter and glow of this passionate music, more
modern than Wagner, more brutal than Richard Strauss. Who would have
believed that the old dried-up mummy had such a volcano in his
brain?this the bereaved woman had overheard as she descended the
marble stairway of the theatre, and Chardon hurried her to the carriage
fearing that the emotions of the eveningthe souvenirs of the dead,
the shouting of the audience and the blaring of the band as it had
saluted her trembling, bowing figure in the boxfinally would prove
too strong for her. He, too, had come in for some of the applause, a
sort of inverted glory which like a frosty nimbus envelopes the head of
the librettist. Now he recalled all this and rejoiced that his charge
was safely within doors.
Madame Patel retained only one servant in her dignified, miniature
household, for she was not rich; but the lamps were burning brightly,
and on the table stood cold food, wine and fruit. The music-room was
familiar to her late husband's associate. Patel's portrait hung over
the fireplace. It represented in hard, shallow tones the face of a
white-haired, white-bearded man whose thin lips, narrow nose and high
forehead proclaimed him an ascetic of art. The deep-set eyes alone told
of talenttheir gaze inscrutable and calculating; a disappointed life
could be read in every seam of the brow.
Near the piano, where Chardon turned as he waited Madame Patel's
return from her dressing-room, there swung a picture whose violence was
not dissipated by the gloom of the half-hidden corner. He approached it
with a lamp. Staring eyes saluted him, eyes saturated with the
immitigable horror of life; eyes set in grotesque faces and smothered
in a sinister Northern landscape. It was one of Edvard Munch's
ferocious and ironic travesties of existence. And on the white margin
of the lithograph the artist had pencilled: I stopped and leaned
against the balustrade almost dead with fatigue. Over the blue-black
fjord hung clouds red as bloodas tongues of flame. My friends passed
on, and alone, trembling with anguish, I listened to the great infinite
cry of Nature.
She tapped him on the shoulder. Come, she said gravely, leave
that awful picture and eat. You must be deadyou poor man! Chardon
blushed happily until he saw her cold eyes. I was trying to catch the
color of that painter's mindthat Norwegian, Munch. Disordered,
farouche as is his style its spiritual note enchains me. The title of
the picture means nothing, yet everything'Les Curieux,' is it not?
Yes, you know it well enough by this time. What M. Patel could see in
it I can't say. As she sat down to the tablenot at the head: that
was significantly emptyhe admired her figure, maidenly still despite
her majestic bearing; admired the terse contour of her head and
noticed, not without a sigh, her small selfish ear. Madame Patel was
nearing forty and her November hair had begun to whiten, but in her
long gray eyes was invincible youth, poised, self-centred youth. She
was deliberate in her movements and her complexion a clear brown.
Chardon followed her example, eating and drinking, for they were
exhausted by the ordeal of hearing under the most painful conditions, a
The great, infinite cry of Nature,he returned to the picture.
How difficult that is to get into one's art. Yes, mon ami;
but our dead one succeeded, did he not? She was plainly obsessed by
the theme. His enemiesah! the fools, fools. What a joy to see their
astonished faces! Did you notice the critics, did you notice Millé in
particular? He was in despair; for years that man pursued with his
rancorous pen every opera by M. Patel. She paused. But now he is
conquered at last. Ah! Chardon, ah! Robert, Patel loved you, trusted
youand you helped him so much with your experience, your superior
dramatic knowledge, your poetic gifts. You have been a noble friend
indeed. She pressed his hand while he sat beside her in a stupor. The
great, infinite cry of Nature, he muttered. And think of his kindness
to me, a poor singer, so many years younger than himself! No father
could have treated a daughter with such delicacy! ...
Chardon looked up. Yes, he assented, he was very, very oldtoo
old for such a beautiful young wife. She started. Not too old, M.
Chardon, she said, slightly raising her contralto voice: What if he
was thirty years my senior! He married me to spare me the peril and
fatigue of a singer's life; few women can stand themI least of all.
He loved me with a pure, narrow affection. I was his daughter, his
staff. You, he often called 'Son.' She grazed the hem of tears.
Chardon was touched; he seized her large, shapely hand, firm and cold
as iron, and spoke rapidly.
Listen, Madame Patel, listen Olivieyou were like a daughter to
him, I know it, he told me. I was his adopted son. I tried to repay him
for his interest in a young, unknown poet and composerwell, I compose
a bit, you knowand I feel that I pleased him in my libretto of 'The
Iron Virgin.' You remember the summer I spent at Nuremberg digging up
the old legend, and the numberless times I visited the torture chamber
where stands the real Iron Virgin, her interior studded with horrid
spikes that cruelly stabbed the wretches consigned to her diabolical
embraces? You recall all this? he went on, his vivacity increasing.
Now on the night of the successful termination of our artistic
enterprise, the night when all Paris is ringing with the name of Patel,
with 'The Iron Virgin'he did not dare to add his own namelet me
tell you what you know already: I love you, Olivie. I have always loved
you and I offer you my love, knowing that our dear one She dragged
her hand from his too exultant grasp and sat down breathless on a low
couch. Her eye never left his and he wavered at the thought of
So this is the true reason for your friendship! she protested in
sorrowful accents. For this you cultivated the good graces of an
unsuspecting old man. Olivie! he exclaimed. For this, she sternly
pursued, you sought my company after his death. Oh, Chardon! Robert!
How could you be so soon unfaithful to the memory of a man who loved
you? He loved you, Robert, he made you! Without him what would you be?
What am I? She did not reply for she was gazing at the portrait over
the fireplace. A neglected genius, she mused. He was forced to
conduct operas to support his lifeand mine. Yet he composed a
masterpiece. He composed 'The Iron Virgin.' Could he have done it
without me? Madame Patel turned upon him: You ask such a question,
you? Chardon paced between table and piano. He stopped to look at
the Munch picture and bit his lips: The great, infinite cry of Nature!
Much Patel knew of music, of nature and her infinite cries. His
excitement increased with every step.
Olivie Patel, we must come to an understanding. You wonder at that
picture, wonder what dread thing is happening. Perhaps the eyes are
looking into this room, peering into our souls, into my soul which is
black with sin and music. Like some timid men aroused he had begun to
shout. The woman half rose in alarm but he waved her back. His
forehead, full of power, an obstinate forehead, wrinkled with pain; his
handsthe true index of the soulwere clasped, the fingers
interlocked, wiry fingers agile with pen and piano. Hear me out,
Olivie, he commanded. I've been too good a friend to dismiss because
I've offended your sense of proprietyshe made an indignant
gesturewell, your idea of fidelity. But there is the other side of
the slate: I've been a faithful slave, I've worked long years for my
reward; and disciple of Nietzsche as I am, I have never attempted to
assert my claims. Your claims! she uttered scornfully. Yes, my
claims, the claims of a man who sees his love sacrificed to miserable
deception. Sit still! You must hear all now. I loved poetry but I loved
you better. It was for that I endured everything. I spoke of my black
soulit is black, I've poisoned it with music, slowly poisoned it
until now it must be deadened. Like the opium eater I began with small
doses of innocent music: I absorbed Haydn, Mozart. When Mozart became
too mild I turned to Beethoven; from Beethoven to the mad stuff of
Schubert, Schumann, Chopinsick souls all of them. They sustained me
until even they failed to intoxicate. My nerves needed music that would
biteI found it in Liszt, Wagner and Tschaïkowsky; and like
absinthe-drinkers I was wretched without my daily draughts. You drink
absinthe also, do you not? she asked in her coldest manner. He did not
notice her. My soul gradually took on the color of the evil I sucked
from all this music. Why? I can't say; perhaps because a poet has
nothing in common with musicit usually kills the poetry in him. That
is why I wonder what music Edvard Munch hears when he paints such
pictures. It must be dire! Then Richard Strauss swept the torrid earth
and my thirsty soul slaked itself in his tumultuous seas. At last I
felt sure I had met my match. Your husband was like a child in my
hands. She listened eagerly. I did with him what I wishedbut to
please you I wrote 'The Iron Virgin.' ...
The book, she calmly corrected. As I wrote 'The Iron Virgin' I
thought of you: You were my iron virgin, you, the wife of Patel. Will
you hear the truth at last, the truth about a soul damned by music?
Patel knew it. He promised me on his death-bed Olivie pushed by him
and stood in the doorway. He only stared at her. You are an Oread, he
mumbled, you still pine for your lost Narcissus till nothing is left
of you but a voicea voice which echoes him, echoes Ambroise Patel.
She watched him until his color began to return. Robert, she said
almost kindly, Robert, the excitement of to-night has upset your
nerves. Drink some brandy, and sit down. He eyed her piteously, then
covered his face with nervous hands, his hair falling over them. She
felt surer of him. You called me an echo a moment ago, Robert, she
resumed, her voice deepening. I can never forget Patel. And it was
because of this and because of my last promise to him that your offer
shocked me; I ask your pardon for my rudeness. You have been so like a
brother for the past years that marriage seems sacrilegious. Come, let
us be friendswe have been trusty comrades. 'The Iron Virgin' is a
successYes, he whispered, the iron virgin is always a success.
and why should our friendship merely be an echo of the past? Come,
let us be more united than ever, Patel, you and I. Her smooth voice
became vibrant as she pointed triumphantly at the portrait. He followed
her with dull eyes from which all fire had fled.
The echo, he said, drinking a tumbler of brandy. The echo! I have
it now: they see the echo in that picture back of me. Munch is
the first man who painted tone; put on canvas that ape of music, of our
souls, the ape which mocks us, leaps out after our voice, is always
ready to follow us and show its leering shape when we pass under dark,
vaulted bridges or stand in the secret shadow of churches. The echo!
What is the echo, Olivie, you discoursed of so sweetly? It is the sound
of our souls escaping from some fissure of the brain. It has color, is
a living thing, the thin wraith that pursues man ever to his grave.
Patel was an echo. When his soul leans naked against the chill bar of
heaven and bears false witness, then his echo will tell the truth about
his musicthis damnable reverberating Doppelgänger which sneaks
into corners and lies in wait for our guilty gliding footsteps. She
began to retreat again; she feared him, feared the hypnotism of his sad
voice. Robert, I firmly believe that picture has bewitched youyou, a
believer in the brave philosophy of Nietzsche! He moved toward her.
Madame Patel, it is you who are the cruel follower of Nietzsche. So
was the original iron virgin; so is the new 'Iron Virgin' which I had
the honor to surround with You mean instrumentation, she faltered.
Ah! you acknowledge so much?
Patel told me.
He did not tell you enough.
Chardon laughed, shook her hand, put on his top-coat and descended
the steps that led into the garden.
Where are you going? she asked affrightedly, regret stirring
within her. To Nuremberg to see the real iron virgin, he answered
without sarcasm. They looked hard into each other's eyeshis were
glowing like restless red coalsand then he plunged down the path
leaving her strained and shaken to the very centre of her virginal
soul. Had he spoken the truth! Ambroise Patel, upon whose grave would
be strown flowers that belonged to the living! It was vile, the idea.
Robert! she cried.
A smoky, yellow morning mist hung over Auteuil. A long, slow rain
fell softly. Chardon pulled the chord at the gate of the Hameau
roughly summoning the concierge. He soon found himself under the
viaduct on the Boulevard Exelmans, where he walked until he reached
Point-du-Jour. There a few workingmen about to take the circular
railway to Batignolles regarded him cynically. He seemed like a man in
the depths of a crazy debauch. He blundered on toward the Seine. The
echo! god of thunders, the echo! he moaned as he heard his steps
resound in the hollow arches. Near the water's edge he found a café and
sat before a damp tin table. He pounded it with his walking stick. The
iron virgin, he roared; and laughed at the joke until the tears rolled
over his tremulous chin. Lifting his inflamed eyes to the dirty little
waiter he again brought his cane heavily upon the table. Garçon, he
clamored the iron virgin! The waiter brought absinthe; Chardon drank
five. Doggedly he began his long journey.