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The Quest of the Elusive by James Huneker

  To Miss Bella Seymour

  BALAK, November 5.

DEAR DARLING OLD BELLA,—How I wish you were with me. I miss you almost as much as mamma and the girls. I've had such a homesickness that even the elegant concerts, the gay city and the novelty of this out of the way foreign place do not compensate, for Why, oh why, doesn't Herr Klug live in Berlin or Paris, or even Vienna? Think, after you leave Vienna you must travel six hours by boat and three by rail before you reach Balak, but what a city, what curious houses, and what an opera house!

Let me first tell you of my experiences with Herr Klug. I met the Ransoms; you remember those queer Michigan avenue people. They are here with their mother—snuffy Mother Ransom we used to call her—and are both studying with Herr Klug. I met them on the Ringstrasse—the principal avenue here—and they looked so dissatisfied when they saw me. Ada, the short, thin one, you know—well, she lowered her parasol—say, the weather is awful hot—and, honest, I believed she wasn't going to speak to me. But Lizzie is the nice one, and she fairly ate me up. They raved about Herr Klug. He is so nice, so gentle, and plays so wonderfully! Mrs. Ransom was a trifle cool—she and ma never did get along, you remember that fight about free lager for indigent Germans in sultry weather?—well, she and ma quarrelled over the meaning of the word “indigent,” and Mrs. R. said that she was indigent at ma's ignorance; then ma burst into a fit of laughter. I heard her—it was a real mean laugh, Bella, and—but I must tell you about this place. Dear, I'm quite out of breath!

Well, the Ransoms took me off to lunch and it was real nice at their boarding house; they call it the Hôtel Serbe, or some such name, and I almost regretted that I went to the miserable rooms I'm in, but I have to be economical, and as I intend practising all day and sleeping all night it doesn't matter much where I am. I forgot to tell you what we had for lunch, funny dishes, sour and full of red pepper. I'll tell you all about it in my next letter. I'm so full of Herr Klug that I can't sit still. He is a grand man, Bella, only very old, and very small, and very nervous, and very cross. He didn't say much to me and I held my tongue, for they say he is so nervous that he is almost crazy, besides, he hates American pupils. When I went into the big lesson room it was empty, and I had a good chance to look at all the pictures on the wall. There were Bach, Beethoven and Herr Klug at every age. There must have been at least thirty portraits. He was homely in every one, and wore his hair long, and has such a high, noble forehead. You know Chicago men have such low foreheads. I love high foreheads. They are so destingué (is that spelt right?) and it means such a lot of brains. He was photographed with Liszt and with Chopin. I think it was Chopin, and—just then he came in. He walked very slowly and his shoulders were stooped. Oh, Bella, he has such a venerable look, so saintly! Well, he stood in the doorway and his eyeglasses fairly stared into me, he has such piercing gaze. I was scared out of my seven senses and stood stock still.

Nu was!” he cried out; “where do you come from?” His English was maddening, Bella, just maddening, but I understood him, and with my heart in my boots I said:

“Chicago, Herr Klug.” He snorted.

“Chicago. I hate Chicago, I hate Americans! There's only one city in America—that is San Francisco. I was never there, but I like it because I never had a pupil from that city; that's why I like it, hein!” He laughed, Bella, and coughed himself into a strangling fit over his joke—he thought it was a joke—and then he sharply cried out:

“You may kiss me, and play for me.” I was too frightened to reply, so I went up to him and didn't like him. He smelt of cigarettes and liquor, but I kissed him on the forehead, and he gave me a queer look and pushed me to the piano. Well, I was flabbergasted.

“Play,” he said, as harsh as could be, and I dashed off the Military Polonaise of Chopin. He walked about the whole time humming out loud, and never paid any attention to me any more than if I hadn't been playing. When I got to the trio I stuck, and he burst out laughing, so I stopped short.

“Aha! you girls and your teachers, how you, all swindle yourselves. You have no talent, no touch, nothing, nothing!”—his voice was like a screaming whistle—“and yet you cheat yourselves and run to Europe to be artists in a year, aha!” “Shall I go on?” I asked. I was getting mad. “No, I've heard enough. Come to the class every Monday and Thursday morning at ten—mind you, ten sharp—and in the meantime study this piece of mine, 'The Five Blackbirds,' for the black keys, and take the first book of my 'Indispensable Studies for Stupid American Girls.'“ He laughed again.

“You pay now for the music. I make no discount, for I print it myself. Your lessons you pay for one by one. Please put the money—twenty marks—on the mantelpiece when you are through playing, but don't tell me. I'm too nervous. And now good-day; practise ten hours every day. You may kiss me good-by. No? Well, next time. I hate American girls when they play; but I like to kiss them, for they are very pretty. Wait: I will introduce you to my wife.” He rang a bell and barked something at a servant, and she returned followed by a nice-looking German lady, quite young. I was surprised. “My wife.” We bowed and then I left.

Funny people, these foreigners. I take my lesson day after to-morrow and I must hurry home to my Blackbirds. Good-by, dear Bella, and tell the girls to write. You answer this soon and I'll write after lesson on Monday. Good-by, Bella. Don't show my ma this letter, and, Bella—say nothing to nobody about the kisses. I didn't like—now if it had been—you know—oh, dear. I hate the piano. Good-by at last, Bella, and oh, Bella, will you send me the address of Schaefer, Schloss & Cantwell's? I want to order some writing paper. Good-by.

  Your devoted IRENE.

P.S.—Any kind of Irish linen paper will do without any monogram.


  To Mrs. William Murray

  BALAK, January 31.

MY DEAR MAMMA,—Certainly I got your last letter. I have not forgotten you at all, and the draft came all right. Bella Seymour exaggerates so. Herr Klug kisses all his pupils in the class, but just as Grandpa Murray would. He's old enough to be our grandfather; besides, as Mrs. Ransom says, it is not for our beauty, but when we play well, that he rewards us. I'm sure I don't like it, and if Mrs. Klug, or his six or seven cousins who live with him, caught him they would make a lively time. I never saw such a jealous set of relatives in my life. How am I improving? Oh, splendid; just splendid. I do wish you wouldn't coax and worm out of Bella Seymour all I write. You know girls exaggerate so. Good-by, darling mamma. Give my love to pa and Harry. I'll write soon. Yes, I need one new morning frock. I owe for one at a store here where the Ransoms go. Lizzie Ransom is the nicest, but I play better than she does.

  Your affectionate daughter,

  To Miss Bella Seymour

  BALAK, March 2.

YOU MEAN OLD THING,—I got your letter, Bella, but I don't understand yet how you came to tell mamma the nonsense I wrote. Such a lot of things have happened since I wrote last fall. I haven't improved a bit. I have no talent, old man Kluggy says—he's such a soft old fool. He can't play a bit, but he's always talking about his method, his virtuosity, his wonderful memory and his marvellous touch. He must have played well when he was painted with Beethoven in the same picture. Yes, he knew Beethoven. He's as old as old what's-his-name who ate grass and died of a colic, in the Bible. Golly, wouldn't I like to get out of this hole, but I promised pa I'd stick it out until spring. I play nothing but Klug compositions, his valses, mazurkas—mind his nerve, he says he gave Chopin points on mazurkas; and Bella, Bella, what do you think, I've found out all about his cousins! I wrote ma that all the old hens in his house were his cousins, and I spoke of his wife. Bella, he has no wife, he has no cousins. What do you think? I'll tell you how I found it out. The Ransom girls know, but they don't let on to their mother. The first lesson I took, Klug—I hate that man—motioned me to wait until the other girls had gone. He pretended to fool and fuss over some autographs of Bach and a lot of other old idiots—I hate Bach, too, nasty dry stuff—and I knew what he was up to. He glared at me through his spectacles for a while and then mumbled out:

“You may kiss me before you go.” Not much, I thought, and told him so. He rang a bell. The servant came. “Send my wife down. Schnell, du.” She hesitated and he yelled out, “Dummkopf” and then turned to me and smiled. The old monkey had forgotten that he had introduced me to Frau Klug two days before. In a minute I heard the swish of a silk dress and a fine-looking old lady entered. I was introduced to—what do you think? Frau Klug, please. I nearly fell over, for I remembered well the frightened-looking German girl—a pretty girl, too, only dressed rotten. Well, I got out the best I could—I couldn't talk German or Balakian—a hideous language, full of coughing and barking sounds—so I bowed and got out. Now comes the funny part of it, Bella. Every time the old fool tries to kiss me I ask him to introduce me to his wife, and he invariably answers: “What, you have not met my wife?” and rings for the ugly servant who stands grinning until I really expect her to say “Which one?” but she never does. I've counted seventeen so far, all sizes, ages and complexions.

The class says they are old pupils who couldn't pay their bills, so Kluggy got a mortgage on them, and they have to stay with him until they work the mortgage off by sewing, washing, cooking and teaching beginners. I've not seen them all yet, and Anne Sypher, from Cleveland, swears that there is a dungeon in the house full of girls from the eighteenth century who hadn't money enough to pay for their lessons. I'm sure ugly Babette, the servant, is an old pupil, for one day I sneaked into the dining-room and heard her playing the Bella Capricciosa, by Hummel, on an upright piano that was almost falling apart. Heavens! how she started when she saw me! The old lady he introduced me to the second time was a pupil of Steibelt's, and she played the “Storm” for us in class when the professor was sick. She must have been good-looking. Her fingers were quite lively. Honest, it is the joke of Balak, and we girls have grown so sensitive on the subject that we never walk out in a crowd, for the young men at the corners call out, “Hello, there goes the new crop for 1902.” It is very embarrassing.

Bella, I want to tell you something. Swear that you will never tell my father or mother. I don't give a rap for music; I hate it, but I like the young men here in Balak, no, not the citizens. They are slow, but the soldiers, the regiment attached to the Royal Household. I've met a Lieutenant Fustics—oh, he's lovely, belongs to the oldest family in Serbia, is young, handsome and so fine in his uniform. He is crazy over music and America, and says he will never bear to be separated from me. Of course he's in love and of course he's foolish, for I'm too young to marry—fancy, not eighteen yet, or, is it nineteen?—this place makes me forget my name—besides, pa wouldn't hear of such a thing. Herr Lieutenant Fustics asked my father's business, and told me all Americans were millionaires, and I just laughed in his face. I play for him in the salon—oh, no, not in my room—that would be a crime in this tight-laced old town. Now, Bella, don't tell mamma this time. Why don't you write oftener? Love to all.

  Your devoted IRENE.

P.S.—Bella, he's lovely.

  To William Murray, Esq.

  BALAK, May 12.

DEAR PA,—Yes, I need $500, and Herr Klug says if I stay a year more I can play in public when I go back. Five hundred dollars will be enough now.

  Your loving daughter, IRENE.

  To Miss Bella Seymour

  BALAK, May 25.

DEAR, SWEET BELLA,—I'm gone; Hector, that's his name, proposed to me—and proposed a secret marriage—he says that I can study quietly, inspired by his love, for a year, for his regiment will stay in Balak for another year. Oh, Bella, I'm so happy. How I wish you could see him. I simply don't go near the piano. Old Klug is cross with me and I'm sure the Ransoms are jealous. Good-by, Bella, don't tell mamma. Remember I trust you.

  Your crazy IRENE.

P. S.—I'm wild to get married!

  To Frau Wilhelm Murray

  BALAK, June 25.

HIGH RESPECTED AND HONORABLE MADAME,—I've not seen your daughter, the Fräulein Irene Murray, since April, although she has been in Balak. I fear she has more talent for a military career than as a pianist. She does owe me for two lessons. Please send me the amount—40 marks. Send it care of Frau Klug—Frau Emma Klug. With good weather,


  To William Murray, Esq.

  August 1.

DEAR WILLIAM,—I've found her—my heart bleeds when I think of her face, poor child—miles from Balak. Of course she followed the regiment when the wretch left, and of course he is a married man. Oh! William, the disgrace, and all for some miserable music lessons. Send the draft to Balak—to the Oriental Bank. I went as far as Belgrade. Poor, tired, daring Irene, how she cried for Chicago and for her papa! Yes, it will be all right. The girls in that old mummy's class gossiped a little, but I fixed up a story about going to Berlin and lessons there. Only the hateful Ransoms smile, and ask every day particularly for Irene. I'd like to strangle them. Have patience, William; will be back in the spring—early in the spring. My sweet, deceived child, our child William! Oh, I would kill that Fizz-sticks, or whatever his name is. His regiment is off in the mountains somewhere, and I'm afraid of the publicity or I'd get our consul to introduce me to the Queen. She is a lady, and would listen to my complaint. But Irene begs me with frightened eyes not to say a word to any one. So I'll go on to Vienna and thence to Paris. For gracious sake, tell that Seymour girl—Bella Seymour—not to bother you about Irene; tell her anything you please. Tell her Irene is too busy practising to answer her silly letters. And William, not a word to Grandpa Murray—not a word, William!

  Your loving wife,

P. S.—I don't know, William.

       * * * * *

Extract from the Daily Eagle, November 5, 1903

The most interesting feature of the concert was the début as a pianist of Miss Irene Murray, the daughter of William Murray, Esq., of the Drovers' National Bank. Miss Murray, who was a slip of a girl before she went abroad two years ago to study with the celebrated Herr Armin Klug, of Balak, returns a superb, self-possessed young woman of regal appearance and queenly manners. She played a sweet bit, a fantasia by her teacher, Herr Klug, entitled “The Five Blackbirds,” and displayed a wonderful command of the resources of the keyboard. For encore she dashed off a brilliant morceau by Herr Klug, entitled “Echoes de Seraglio.” This was very difficult, but for the fair débutante it was child's play. She got five recalls, and after the concert held an impromptu reception in her dressing-room, her happy parents being warmly congratulated by their fellow townsmen. We predict a great career for Irene Murray. Among those present we noticed, etc., etc....


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