The Eternal Feminine by Israel Zangwill

Story type: Literature

He wore a curious costume, representing the devil carrying off his corpse; but I recognised him at once as the lesser lion of a London evening party last season. Then he had just returned from a Polar expedition, and wore the glacier of civilisation on his breast. To-night he was among the maddest of the mad, dancing savagely with the Bacchantes of the Latin Quarter at the art students’ ball, and some of his fellow-Americans told me that he was the best marine painter in the atelier which he had joined. More they did not pause to tell me, for they were anxious to celebrate this night of nights, when, in that fine spirit of equality born of belonging to two Republics, the artist lowers himself to the level of his model.

The young Arctic explorer, so entirely at home in this more tropical clime, had relapsed into respectability when I spoke to him. He was sitting at a supper-table smoking a cigarette, and gazing somewhat sadly–it seemed to me–at the pandemoniac phantasmagoria of screaming dancers, the glittering cosmopolitan chaos that multiplied itself riotously in the mirrored walls of the great flaring ball-room, where under-dressed women, waving many-coloured paper lanterns, rode on the shoulders of grotesquely clad men prancing to joyous music. For some time he had been trying hard to get some one to take the money for his supper; but the frenzied waiters suspected he was clamouring for something to eat, and would not be cajoled into attention.

Moved by an impulse of mischief, I went up to him and clapped him on his corpse, which he wore behind.

There was a death-mask of papier-mache on the back of his head with appropriate funereal drapings down the body.

“I’ll take your money,” I said.

He started, and turned his devil upon me. The face was made Mephistophelian, and the front half of him wore scarlet.

“Thanks,” he said, laughing roguishly, when he recognised me. “It’s darned queer that Paris should be the place where they refuse to take the devil’s money.”

I suggested smilingly that it was the corpse they fought shy of.

“I guess not,” he retorted. “It’s dead men’s money that keeps this place lively. I wish I’d had the chance of some anyhow; but a rolling stone gathers no moss, they say–not even from graveyards, I suppose.”

He spoke disconsolately, in a tone more befitting the back than the front of him, and quite out of accord with the reckless revelry around him.

“Oh! you’ll make lots of money with your pictures,” I said heartily.

He shook his head. “That’s the chap who’s going to scoop in the dollars,” he said, indicating a brawny Frenchman attired in a blanket that girdled his loins, and black feathers that decorated his hair. “That fellow’s got the touch of Velasquez. You should see the portrait he’s doing for the Salon.”

“Well, I don’t see much art in his costume, anyhow,” I retorted. “Yours is an inspiration of genius.”

“Yes; so prophetic, don’t you know,” he replied modestly. “But you are not the only one who has complimented me. To it I owe the proudest moment of my life–when I shook hands with a European prince.” And he laughed with returning merriment.

“Indeed!” I exclaimed. “With which?”

“Ah! I see your admiration for my rig is mounting. No; it wasn’t with the Prince of Wales–confess your admiration is going down already. Come, you shall guess. Je vous le donne en trois.”

After teasing me a little he told me it was the Kronprinds of Denmark. “At the Kunstner Karneval in Copenhagen,” he explained briefly. His front face had grown sad again.

“Did you study art in Copenhagen?” I inquired.

“Yes, before I joined that expedition,” he said. “It was from there I started.”

“Yes, of course,” I replied. “I remember now. It was a Danish expedition. But what made you chuck up your studies so suddenly?”

“Oh! I don’t know. I guess I was just about sick of most things. My stars! Look at that little gypsy-girl dancing the can-can; isn’t she fresh? Isn’t she wonderful? How awful to think she’ll be used up in a year or two!”

“I suppose there was a woman–the eternal feminine,” I said, sticking him to the point, for I was more interested in him than in the seething saturnalia, our common sobriety amid which seemed somehow to raise our casual acquaintanceship to the plane of confidential friendship.

“Yes, I suppose there was a woman,” he echoed in low tones. “The eternal feminine!” And a strange unfathomable light leapt into his eyes, which he raised slightly towards the gilded ceiling, where countless lustres glittered.

“Deceived you, eh?” I said lightly.

His expression changed. “Deceived me, as you say,” he murmured, with a faint, sad smile, that made me conjure up a vision of a passionate lovely face with cruel eyes.

“Won’t you tell me about it?” I asked, as I tendered him a fresh cigarette, for while we spoke his half-smoked one had been snatched from his mouth by a beautiful Maenad, who whirled off puffing it.

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“I reckon you’ll be making copy out of it,” he said, his smile growing whimsical.

“If it’s good enough,” I replied candidly. “That’s why I am here.”

“What a lovely excuse! But there’s nothing in my affair to make a story of.”

I smiled majestically.

“You stick to your art–leave me to manage mine.” And I put a light to his cigarette.

“Ah, but you’ll be disappointed this time, I warrant,” he said laughingly, as the smoke circled round his diabolically handsome face. Then, becoming serious again, he went on: “It’s so terribly plebeian, yet it all befell through that very Kunstner Karneval. I was telling you of when I first wore this composite costume which gained me the smile of royalty. It was a very swell affair, of course, not a bit like this, but it was given in hell.”

“In hell!” I cried, startled.

“Yes. Underverden they call it in their lingo. The ball-room of the palace (the Palaeet, an old disused mansion) was got up to represent the infernal regions–you tumble?–and everybody had to dress appropriately. That was what gave me the idea of this costume. The staircase up which you entered was made the mouth of a great dragon, and as you trod on the first step his eye gleamed blazes and brimstone. There were great monsters all about, and dark grottoes radiating around; and when you took your dame into one of them, your tread flooded them with light. If, however, the cavalier modestly conducted his mistress into one of the lighted caves, virtue was rewarded by instantaneous darkness.”

“That was really artistic,” I said, laughing.

“You bet! The artists spent any amount of money over the affair. The whole of Hades bristled with ingenious devices in every corner. I had got a couple of tickets, and had designed the dress of my best girl, as well as my own, and the morning before (there being little work done in the studios that day, as you may well imagine) I called upon her to see her try it on. To my chagrin I found she was down with influenza, or something of that sort appropriate to the bitter winter we were having. And it did freeze that year, by Jove!–so hard that Denmark and Sweden were united–to their mutual disgust, I fancy–by a broad causeway of ice. I remember, as I walked back from the girl’s house towards the town along the Langelinie, my mortification was somewhat allayed by the picturesque appearance of the Sound, in whose white expanse boats of every species and colour were embedded, looking like trapped creatures unable to stir oar or sail. But as I left the Promenade and came into the narrow old streets of the town, with their cobblestones and their quaint, many-windowed houses, my ill-humour returned. I had had some trouble in getting the second ticket, and now it looked as if I should get left. I went over in my mind the girls I could ask, and what with not caring more for one than for another, and not knowing which were booked already, and what with the imminence of the ball, I felt the little brains I had getting addled in my head. At last, in sheer despair, I had what is called a happy thought. I resolved to ask the first girl of my acquaintance I met in my walk. Instantly my spirits rose like a thermometer in a Turkish bath. The clouds of irresolution rolled away, and the touch of adventure made my walk joyous again. I peered eagerly into every female face I met, but it was not till I approached the market-place that I knew my fate. Then, turning a corner, I came suddenly and violently face to face with Froeken Jensen.”

He paused and relit his cigarette, and the maddening music of brass instruments and brazen creatures, which his story had shut out, crashed again upon my ears. “I reckon if you were telling this, you’d stop here,” he said, “and put down ‘to be continued in our next.’” There seemed a trace of huskiness in his flippant tones, as if he were trying to keep under some genuine emotion.

“Never you mind,” I returned, smiling. “You’re not a writer, anyhow, so just keep straight on.”

“Well, Froeken Jensen was absolutely the ugliest girl I have seen in all my globe-trottings…. On second thoughts, that is the place to stop, isn’t it?”

“Not at all; it’s only in long novels one stops for refreshment. So go ahead, and–I say–do cut your interruptions a la Fielding and Thackeray. C’est vieux jeu.”

“All right, don’t get mad. Froeken Jensen had the most irregular and ungainly features that ever crippled a woman’s career; her nose was–But no! I won’t describe her, poor girl. She was about twenty-six years old, but one of those girls whose years no one counts, who are old maids at seventeen. Well, you can fancy what a fix I was in. It was no good pretending to myself that I hadn’t seen her, for we nearly bowled each other over–she was coming along quick trot with a basket on her arm–and it seemed kind of shuffling to back out of my promise to her, though she didn’t know anything about it. It was like betting with yourself and wanting to cheat yourself when you lost. I felt I should never trust myself again, if I turned welsher–that’s the word, isn’t it?”

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“It’s like Jephtha,” I said. “He swore, you know, he would sacrifice the first creature that he saw on his triumphant return from the wars, and his daughter came out and had to be sacrificed.”

“Thank you for the compliment,” he said, with a grimace. “But I’m not up in the classics, so the comparison didn’t strike me. But what did strike me, after the first moment of annoyance, was the humour of the situation. I turned and walked beside her–under cover of an elaborate apology for my dashing behaviour. She seemed quite concerned at my regret, and insisted that it was she that had dashed–it was her marketing-day, and she was late. You must know she kept a boarding-house for art and university students, and it was there that I had made her acquaintance, when I went to dine once or twice with a studio chum who was quartered there. I had never exchanged two sentences with her before, as you can well imagine. She was not inviting to the artistic eye; indeed, I rather wondered how my friend could tolerate her at the head of the table, till he jestingly told me it was reckoned off the bill. The place was indeed suited to the student’s pocket. But this morning I was surprised at the sprightliness of her share in the dialogue of mutual apologies. Her mind seemed as alert as her step, her voice was pleasing and gentle, and there was a refreshing gaiety in her attitude towards the situation.

“‘But I am quite sure it was my fault,’ I wound up rather lamely at last, ‘and, if you will allow me to make you amends, I shall be pleased to send you a ticket for the ball to-morrow night.’

“She stood still. ‘For the Kunstner Karneval!’ she cried eagerly, while her poor absurd face lit up.

“‘Yes, Froeken; and I shall be happy to escort you there if you will give me the pleasure.’

“She looked at me with sudden suspicion–the idea that I was chaffing her must have crossed her mind. I felt myself flushing furiously, feeling somehow half-guilty by my secret thoughts of her a few moments ago. We had arrived at the Amagertorv–the market-place–and I recollect getting a sudden impression of the quaint stalls and the picturesque Amager-women–one with a preternaturally hideous face–and the frozen canal in the middle, with the ice-bound fruit-boats from the islands, and the red sails of the Norwegian boats, and the Egyptian architecture of Thorwaldsen’s Museum in the background, making up my mind to paint it all, in the brief instant before I added in my most convincing tones, ‘The Kronprinds will be there.’

“Her incredulous expression became tempered by wistfulness, and with an inspiration I drew out the ticket and thrust it into her hand. I saw her eyes fill with tears as she turned her head away and examined some vegetables.

“‘You will excuse me,’ she said presently, holding the ticket limply in her hand, ‘but I fear it is impossible for me to accept your kind invitation. You see I have so much to do, and my children will be so uncomfortable without me.’

“‘Your children will be at the ball to a man,’ I retorted.

“‘But I haven’t any fancy costume,’ she pleaded, and tendered me the ticket back. It struck me–almost with a pang–that her hand was bare of glove, and the work-a-day costume she was wearing was ill adapted to the rigour of the weather.

“‘Oh! Come anyhow,’ I said. ‘Ordinary evening dress. Of course, you will need a mask.’

“I saw her lip twitch at this unfortunate way of putting it, and hastened to affect unconsciousness of my blunder.

“‘She wouldn’t,’ I added with feigned jocularity, nodding towards the preternaturally hideous Amager-woman.

“‘Poor old thing,’ she said gently. ‘I shall be sorry when she dies.’

“‘Why?’ I murmured.

“‘Because then I shall be the ugliest woman in Copenhagen,’ she answered gaily.

“Something in that remark sent a thrill down my backbone–there seemed an infinite pathos and lovableness in her courageous recognition of facts. It dispensed me from the painful necessity of pretending to be unaware of her ugliness–nay, gave it almost a cachet–made it as possible a topic of light conversation as beauty itself. I pressed her more fervently to come, and at last she consented, stipulating only that I should call for her rather late, after she had quite finished her household duties and the other boarders had gone off to the ball.

“Well, I took her to the ball (it was as brilliant and gay as this without being riotous), and–will you believe it?–she made quite a little sensation. With a black domino covering her impossible face, and a simple evening dress, she looked as distinguee as my best girl would have done. Her skin was good, and her figure, freed from the distracting companionship of her face, was rather elegant, while the lively humour of her conversation had now fair play. She danced well, too, with a natural grace. I believe she enjoyed her incog. almost as much as the ball, and I began to feel quite like a fairy godmother who was giving poor little Cinderella an outing, and to regret that I had not the power to make her beautiful for ever, or at least to make life one eternal fancy ball, at which silk masks might veil the horrors of reality. I dare say, too, she got a certain kudos through dancing so much with me, for, as I have told you ad nauseam, this lovely costume of mine was the hit of the evening, and the Kronprinds asked for the honour of an introduction to me. It was rather funny–the circuitous etiquette. I had to be first introduced to his aide-de-camp. This was done through an actress of the Kongelige Theatre, with whom I had been polking (he knew all the soubrettes, that aide-de-camp!). Then he introduced me to the Kronprinds, and I held out my hand and shook his royal paw heartily. He was very gracious to me, learning I was an American, and complimented me on my dress and my dancing, and I answered him affably; and the natives, gathered round at a respectful distance, eyed me with reverent curiosity. But at last, when the music struck up again, I said, ‘Excuse me, I am engaged for this waltz!’ and hurried off to dance with my Cinderella, much to the amazement of the Danes, who wondered audibly what mighty foreign potentate His Royal Highness had been making himself agreeable to.”

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“It was plain enough,” I broke in. “His Satanic Majesty, of course.”

“I am glad you interrupted me,” he said, “for you give me an opening to state that the Kronprinds has nothing to do with the story. You, of course, would have left him out; but I am only an amateur, and I get my threads mixed.”

“Shut up!” I cried. “I mean–go on.”

“Oh, well, perhaps, he has got a little to do with the story, after all; for after that, Froeken Jensen became more important–sharing in my reflected glory–or, perhaps, now I come to think of it, it was only then that she became important. Anyway, important she was; and, among others, Axel Larson–who was got up as an ancient Gallic warrior, to show off his fine figure–came up and asked me to introduce him. I don’t think I should have done so ordinarily, for he was the filthiest-mouthed fellow in the atelier–a great swaggering Don Juan Baron Munchausen sort of chap, handsome enough in his raffish way–a tall, stalwart Swede, blue-eyed and yellow-haired. But the fun of the position was that Axel Larson was one of my Cinderella’s ‘children,’ so I could not resist introducing him formally to ‘Froeken Jensen.’ His happy air of expectation was replaced by a scowl of surprise and disgust.

“‘What, thou, Ingeborg!’ he cried.

“I could have knocked the man down. The familiar tutoiement, the Christian name–these, perhaps, he had a right to use; but nothing could justify the contempt of his tone. It reminded me disagreeably of the ugliness I had nigh forgotten. I felt Ingeborg’s arm tremble in mine.

“‘Yes, it is I, Herr Larson,’ she said, with her wonted gentleness, and almost apologetically. ‘This gentleman was good enough to bring me.’ She spoke as if her presence needed explanation–with the timidity of one shut out from the pleasures of life. I could feel her poor little heart fluttering wildly, and knew that her face was alternating from red to white beneath the mask.

“Axel Larson shot a swift glance of surprise at me, which was followed by a more malicious bolt. ‘I congratulate you, Ingeborg,’ he said, ‘on the property you seem to have come into.’ It was a clever double entente–the man was witty after his coarse fashion–but the sarcasm scarcely stung either of us. I, of course, had none of the motives the cad imagined; and as for Ingeborg, I fancy she thought he alluded merely to the conquest of myself, and was only pained by the fear I might resent so ludicrous a suggestion. Having thrown the shadow of his cynicism over our innocent relation, Axel turned away highly pleased with himself, rudely neglecting to ask Ingeborg for a dance. I felt like giving him ‘Hail Columbia,’ but I restrained myself.

“Some days after this–in response to Ingeborg’s grateful anxiety to return my hospitality–I went to dine with her ‘children.’ I found Axel occupying the seat of honour, and grumbling at the soup and the sauces like a sort of autocrat of the dinner-table, and generally making things unpleasant. I had to cling to my knife and fork so as not to throw the water-bottle at his head. Ingeborg presided meekly over the dishes, her ugliness more rampant than ever after the illusion of the mask. I remembered now he had been disagreeable when I had dined there before, though, not being interested in Ingeborg then, I had not resented his ill-humour, contenting myself with remarking to my friend that I understood now why the Danes disliked the Swedes so much–a generalisation that was probably as unjust as most of one’s judgments of other peoples. After dinner I asked her why she tolerated the fellow. She flushed painfully and murmured that times were hard. I protested that she could easily get another boarder to replace him, but she said Axel Larson had been there so long–nearly two years–and was comfortable, and knew the ways of the house, and it would be very discourteous to ask him to go. I insisted that rather than see her suffer I would move into Larson’s room myself, but she urged tremulously that she didn’t suffer at all from his rudeness, it was only his surface-manner; it deceived strangers, but there was a good heart underneath, as who could know better than she? Besides, he was a genius with the brush, and everybody knew well that geniuses were bears. And, finally, she could not afford to lose boarders–there were already two vacancies.

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“It ended–as I dare say you have guessed–by my filling up one of those two vacancies, partly to help her pecuniarily, partly to act as a buffer between her and the swaggering Swede. He was quite flabbergasted by my installation in the house, and took me aside in the atelier and asked me if Ingeborg had really come into any money. I was boiling over, but I kept the lid on by main force, and answered curtly that Ingeborg had a heart of gold. He laughed boisterously, and said one could not raise anything on that; adding, with an air of authority, that he believed I spoke the truth, for it was not likely the hag would have kept anything from her oldest boarder. ‘I dare say the real truth is,’ he wound up, ‘that you are hard up, like me, and want to do the thing cheap.’

“‘I wasn’t aware you were hard up,’ I said, for I had seen him often enough flaunting it in the theatres and restaurants.

“‘Not for luxuries,’ he retorted with a guffaw, ‘but for necessities–yes. And there comes in the value of our domestic eyesore. Why, I haven’t paid her a skilling for six months!’

“I thought of poor Ingeborg’s thin winter attire, and would have liked to reply with my fist, only the reply didn’t seem quite logical. It was not my business, after all; but I thought I understood now why Ingeborg was so reluctant to part with him–it is the immemorial fallacy of economical souls to throw good money after bad; though when I saw the patience with which she bore his querulous complaints and the solicitude with which she attended to his wants, I sometimes imagined he had some secret hold over her. Often I saw her cower and flush piteously, as with terror, before his insolent gaze. But I decided finally his was merely the ascendency of the strong over the weak–of the bully over his victims, who serve him more loyally because he kicks them. The bad-tempered have the best of it in this vile world. I cannot tell you how I grew to pity that poor girl. Living in her daily presence, I marked the thousand and one trials of which her life was made up, all borne with the same sweetness and good-humour. I discovered that she had a bed-ridden mother, whom she kept in the attic, and whom she stole up to attend to fifty times a day, sitting with her when her work was done and the moonlight on the Sound tempted one to be out enjoying one’s youth. Alone she managed and financed the entire establishment, aided only by a little maid-of-all-work, just squeezing out a scanty living for herself and her mother. If ever there was an angel on earth it was Ingeborg Jensen. I tell you, when I see the angels of the Italian masters I feel they are all wrong: I don’t want flaxen-haired cherubs to give me an idea of heaven in this hell of a world. I just want to see good honest faces, full of suffering and sacrifice, and if ever I paint an angel its phiz shall have the unflinching ugliness of Ingeborg Jensen, God bless her! To be near her was to live in an atmosphere of purity and pity and tenderness, and everything that is sweet and sacred.”

As he spoke I became suddenly aware that the gas-lights were paling, and glancing towards the window on my left I saw the splendour of the sunrise breaking fresh and clear over the city of diabolical night, where in the sombre eastern sky–

“God made himself an awful rose of dawn.”

A breath of coolness and purity seemed to waft into the feverish ball-room; a ray of fresh morning sunlight. I looked curiously at the young artist. He seemed transfigured. I could scarcely realise that an hour ago he had been among the rowdiest of the Comus crew, whose shrieks and laughter still rang all around us. Even his duplex costume seemed to have grown subtly symbolical, the diabolical part typical of all that is bestial and selfish in man, the death-mask speaking silently of renunciation and the peace of the tomb. He went on, after a moment of emotion: “They say that pity is akin to love, but I am not sure that I ever loved her, for I suppose that love involves passion, and I never arrived at that. I only came to feel that I wanted to be with her always, to guard her, to protect her, to work for her, to suffer for her if need be, to give her life something of the joy and sweetness that God owed her. I felt I wasn’t much use in the world, and that would be something to do. And so one day–though not without much mental tossing, for we are curiously, complexly built, and I dreaded ridicule and the long years of comment from unsympathetic strangers–I asked her to be my wife. Her surprise, her agitation, was painful to witness. But she was not incredulous, as before; she had learned to know that I respected her.

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“Nevertheless, her immediate impulse was one of refusal.

“‘It cannot be,’ she said, and her bosom heaved spasmodically.

“I protested that it could and would be, but she shook her head.

“‘You are very kind to me! God bless you!’ she said. ‘You have always been kind to me. But you do not love me.’

“I assured her I did, and in that moment I dare say I spoke the truth. For in that moment of her reluctance and diffidence to snatch at proffered joy, when the suggestion of rejection made her appear doubly precious, she seemed to me the most adorable creature in the world.

“But still she shook her head. ‘No one can love me,’ she said sadly.

“I took her hand in mute protestation, but she withdrew it gently.

“‘I cannot be your wife,’ she persisted.

“‘Why not, Ingeborg?’ I asked passionately.

“She hesitated, panting and colouring painfully, then–the words are echoing in my brain–she answered softly, ‘Jeg kan ikke elske Dem‘ (I cannot love you).

“It was like a shaft of lightning piercing me, rending and illuminating. In my blind conceit the obverse side of the question had never presented itself to me. I had taken it for granted I had only to ask to be jumped at. But now, in one great flash of insight, I seemed to see everything plain.

“‘You love Axel Larson!’ I cried chokingly, as I thought of all the insults he had heaped upon her in her presence, all the sneers and vile jocosities of which she had been the butt behind her back, in return for the care she had lavished upon his comfort, for her pinching to make both ends meet without the money he should have contributed.

“She did not reply. The tears came into her eyes, she let her head droop on her heaving breast. As in those visions that are said to come to the dying, I saw Axel Larson feeding day by day at her board, brutally conscious of her passion, yet not deigning even to sacrifice her to it; I saw him ultimately leave the schools and the town to carry his clever brush to the welcome of a wider world, without a word or a thought of thanks for the creature who had worshipped and waited upon him hand and foot; and then I saw her life from day to day unroll its long monotonous folds, all in the same pattern, all drab duty and joyless sacrifice, and hopeless undying love.

“I took her hand again in a passion of pity. She understood my sympathy, and the hot tears started from her eyes and rolled down her poor wan cheeks. And in that holy moment I saw into the inner heaven of woman’s love, which purifies and atones for the world. The eternal feminine!”

The sentimental young artist ceased, and buried his devil’s face in his hands. I looked around and started. We were alone in the abandoned supper-room. The gorgeously grotesque company was seated in a gigantic circle upon the ball-room floor furiously applauding the efforts of two sweetly pretty girls who were performing the celebrated danse du ventre.

“The eternal feminine!” I echoed pensively.

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