The Platonic Bassoon by Eugene Field

Story type: Literature

All who knew the beautiful and accomplished Aurora wondered why she did not marry. She had now reached the mature age of twenty-five years, and was in full possession of those charms which are estimated by all men as the choicest gifts a woman can possess. You must know that Aurora had a queenly person, delightful manners, an extensive education, and an amiable disposition; and, being the only child of wealthy parents, she should not have lacked the one thing that seemed necessary to perfect and round out her usefulness as a member of society.

The truth was, Aurora did not fancy the male sex. She regarded men as conveniences that might come handy at times when an escort to the theatre was required, or when a partner in a dance was demanded, when a fan was to be picked up, or when an errand was to be run; but the idea of marrying any man was as distasteful to Aurora as the proposition to marry a hat-rack or any other piece of household furniture would have been.

The secret of this strange aversion might have been traced to Aurora’s maiden aunt Eliza, who had directed Aurora’s education, and had from her niece’s early youth instilled into Aurora’s mind very distinct notions touching the masculine sex.

Aurora had numerous admirers among the young gentlemen who moved in the same elevated social circle as herself and frequently called at her father’s house. Any one of them would gladly have made her his wife, and many of them had expressed a tender yearning for her life companionship. But Aurora was quick to recognize in each suitor some objectionable trait or habit or feature which her aunt Eliza had told about, and which imperatively prohibited a continuance of the young gentleman’s attentions.

Aurora’s father could not understand why his daughter was so hypercritical and fastidious in a matter which others of her sex were so apt to accept with charitable eyes. “They are bright, honest fellows,” he urged, “worthy of any girl’s love. Receive their advances kindly, my child, and having chosen one among them, you will be the happier for it.”

“Never mind, Aurora,” said Aunt Eliza. “Men are all alike. They show their meanness in different ways, but the same spirit of evil is in ’em all. I have lived in this world forty-six years, and during that time I have found men to be the most unfeeling and most untrustworthy of brutes.”

So it was that at the age of twenty-five Aurora was found beautiful, amiable, and accomplished, but thoroughly and hopelessly a man-hater. And it was about this time that she became involved in that unhappy affair which even to this day is talked of by those who knew her then.

On the evening of a certain day Aurora attended the opera with her father and mother and Morgan Magnus, the young banker. Their box at the opera was so close to the orchestra that by reaching out her hand Aurora could have touched several of the instruments. Now it happened that a bassoon was the instrument nearest the box in which Aurora sat, and it was natural therefore that the bassoon attracted more of Aurora’s attention than any other instrument in the orchestra. If you have never beheld or heard a bassoon you are to understand that it is an instrument of wood, of considerable more length than breadth, provided with numerous stops and keys, and capable of producing an infinite variety of tones, ranging from the depth of lugubriousness to the highest pitch of vivacity. This particular bassoon was of an appearance that bordered upon the somber, the polished white of his keys emphasizing the solemn black of his long, willowy body. And, as he loomed up above the serene bald head of the musician that played him, Aurora thought she had never seen a more distingue object.

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The opera was “Il Trovatore,” a work well calculated to call in play all that peculiar pathos of which the bassoon is capable. When Aurora saw the player raise the bassoon and apply the tiny tube thereunto appertaining to his lips, and heard him evoke from the innermost recesses of the bassoon tones that were fairly reeking with tears and redolent of melancholy, she felt a curious sentiment of pity awakened in her bosom.

Aurora had seen many an agonized swain at her feet, and had heard his impassioned pleadings for mercy; she had perused many a love missive wherein her pity was eloquently implored, but never had she experienced the tender, melting sentiment that percolated through her breast when she heard the bassoon mingling his melancholy tones with Manrico’s plaints. The tears welled up into Aurora’s eyes, her bosom heaved convulsively, and the most subtile emotions thrilled her soul.

In vain did young Magnus, the banker, seek to learn the cause of her agitation, and it seemed like a cruel mockery when Aurora’s mother said: “You must remember, dear, that it is not real; it is only a play.” After this memorable evening, wherein an unexpected and indescribable sweetness had crept into the young woman’s life, Aurora more frequently insisted upon going to the opera. A strange fascination attracted her thither, and on each succeeding evening she found some new beauty in the bassoon, some new phase in his kaleidoscopic character to wonder at, some new accomplishment to admire. On one occasion–it was at the opera bouffe–this musical prodigy exhibited a playfulness and an exuberance of wit and humor that Aurora had never dreamed of. He ran the gamut of vocal conceit, and the polyglot fertility of his fancy simply astounded his rapt auditor. She was dazed, enchanted, spellbound. So here we find the fair Aurora passing from the condition of pity into the estate of admiration.

And now, having first conceived a wondrous pity for the bassoon, and then having become imbued with an admiration of his wit, sarcasm, badinage, repartee, and humor, it followed naturally and logically that Aurora should fall desperately in love with him; for pity and admiration are but the forerunners of the grand passion.

“Aunt Eliza,” said Aurora one day, “you have instilled into my sensitive nature an indelible aversion to men, compared with which all such deleble passions as affection and love are as inconsequential as summer zephyrs. I believe men to be by nature and practice gross, vulgar, sensual, and unworthy; and from this opinion I feel that I shall never recede. Yet such a clinging and fragile thing is woman’s heart that it must needs have some object about which it may twine, even as the gentle ivy twines about the oak. Now, as you know, some women there are who, convinced of the utter worthlessness of the opposite sex, dedicate their lives to the adoration of some art or science, lavishing thereupon that love which women less prudent squander upon base men and ungrateful children; in the painting of pictures, devotion to the drama, the cultivation of music, pursuit of trade, or the exclusive attention to a profession, some women find the highest pleasure. But you and I, dear aunt, who are directed by even higher and purer motives than these women, scorn the pursuits of the arts and sciences, the professions and trades, and lay our hearts as willing sacrifices upon the altars of a tabby cat and a bassoon. What could be purer or more exalted than a love of that kind?”

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Having uttered this eloquent preface, which was, indeed, characteristic of the fair creature, Aurora told Aunt Eliza of the bassoon, and as she spoke of his versatile accomplishments and admirable qualities her eyes glowed with an unwonted animation, and a carmine hue suffused her beautiful cheeks. It was plain that Aurora was deeply in love, and Aunt Eliza was overjoyed.

“It is gratifying,” said Aunt Eliza, “to find that my teachings promise such happy results, that the seeds I have so carefully sown already show signs of a glorious fruition. Now, while it is true that I cannot conceive of a happier love than that which exists between my own dear tabby cat and myself, it is also true that I recognize your bassoon as an object so much worthier of adoration than mankind in general, and your male acquaintances in particular, that I most heartily felicitate you upon the idol you have chosen for your worship. Bassoons do not smoke, nor chew tobacco, nor swear, nor bet on horse-races, nor play billiards, nor do any of those horrid things which constitute the larger part of a man’s ambitions and pursuits. You have acted wisely, my dear, and heaven grant you may be as happy in his love as I am in tabby’s.”

“I feel that I shall be,” murmured Aurora; “already my bassoon is very precious to me.”

With the dawn of this first passion a new motive seemed to come into Aurora’s life–a gentle melancholy, a subdued sentiment whose accompaniments were sighings and day-dreamings and solitary tears and swoonings.

Quite naturally Aurora sought Aunt Eliza’s society more than ever now, and her conversation and thoughts were always on the bassoon. It was very beautiful.

But late one night Aurora burst into Aunt Eliza’s room and threw herself upon Aunt Eliza’s bed, sobbing bitterly. Aunt Eliza was inexpressibly shocked, and under a sudden impulse of horror the tabby sprang to her feet, arched her back, bristled her tail, and uttered monosyllables of astonishment.

“Why, Aurora, what ails you?” inquired Aunt Eliza, kindly.

“Oh, auntie, my heart is broken, I know it is,” wailed Aurora.

“Come, come, my child,” said Aunt Eliza, soothingly, “don’t take on so. Tell auntie what ails you.”

“He was harsh and cruel to me to-night, and oh! I loved him so!” moaned Aurora.

“A lovers’ quarrel, eh?” thought Aunt Eliza; and she got up, slipped her wrapper on, and brewed Aurora a big bowl of boneset tea. Oh, how nice and bitter and fragrant it was, and how Aunt Eliza’s nostrils sniffed, and how her eyes sparkled as she sipped the grateful beverage.

“There, drink that, my dear,” said Aunt Eliza, “and then tell me all about it.”

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Aurora quaffed the bowl of boneset tea, and the wholesome draught seemed to give her fortitude, for now she told Aunt Eliza the whole story. It seems that Aurora had been to the opera as usual, not for the purpose of hearing and seeing the performance, but simply for the sake of being where the beloved bassoon was. The opera was Wagner’s “Die Walkuere,” and the part played by the bassoon in the orchestration was one of conspicuous importance. Fully appreciating his importance, the bassoon conducted himself with brutal arrogance and superciliousness on this occasion. His whole nature seemed changed; his tones were harsh and discordant, and with malevolent obstinacy he led all the other instruments in the orchestra through a seemingly endless series of musical pyrotechnics. There never was a more remarkable exhibition of stubbornness. When the violins and the ‘cellos, the hautboys and the flutes, the cornets and the trombones, said “Come, let us work together in G minor,” or “Let us do this passage in B flat,” the bassoon would lead off with a wild shriek in D sharp or some other foreign key, and maintain it so lustily that the other instruments–e. g., the violins, the ‘cellos, the hautboys, and all–were compelled to back, switch, and wheel into the bassoon’s lead as best they could.

But no sooner had they come into harmony than the bassoon–oh, melancholy perversity of that instrument–would strike off into another key with a ribald snicker or coarse guffaw, causing more turbulence and another stampede. And this preposterous condition of affairs was kept up the whole evening, the bassoon seeming to take a fiendish delight in his riotous, brutal conduct.

At first Aurora was mortified; then her mortification deepened into chagrin. In the hope of touching his heart she bestowed upon him a look of such tender supplication that, had he not been the most callous creature in the world, he must have melted under it. To his eternal shame, let it be said, the bassoon remained as impervious to her beseeching glances as if he had been a sphinx or a rhinoceros. In fact, Aurora’s supplicating eyes seemed to instigate him to further and greater madness, for after that he became still more riotous, and at many times during the evening the crisis in the orchestra threatened anarchy and general disintegration.

Aurora’s humiliation can be imagined by those only who have experienced a like bitterness–the bitterness of awakening to a realization of the cruelty of love. Aurora loved the bassoon tenderly, deeply, absorbingly. The sprightliness of his lighter moods, no less than the throbbing pathos of his sadder moments, had won her heart. She had given him her love unreservedly, she fairly worshipped him, and now she awakened, as it were, from a golden dream, to find her idol clay! It was very sad. Yet who that has loved either man or bassoon does not know this bitterness?

“He will be gentler hereafter,” said Aunt Eliza, encouragingly. “You must always remember that we should be charitable and indulgent with those we love. Who knows why the bassoon was harsh and wayward and imperious to-night? Let us not judge him till we have heard the whys and wherefores. He may have been ill; depend upon it, my dear, he had cause for his conduct.”

Aunt Eliza’s prudent words were a great solace to Aurora. And she forgave the bassoon all the pain he had inflicted when she went to the opera the next night and heard him in “I Puritani,” a work in which the grand virility of his nature, its vigor and force, came out with telling effect. There was not a trace of the insolence he had manifested in “Die Walkuere,” nor of the humorous antics he had displayed in “La Grande Duchesse”; divested of all charlatanism, he was now a magnificent, sonorous, manly bassoon, and you may depend upon it Aurora was more in love with him than ever.

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It was about this time that, perceiving a marked change in his daughter’s appearance and demeanor, Aurora’s father began to question her mother about it all, and that good lady at last made bold to tell the old gentleman the whole truth of the matter, which was simply that Aurora cherished a passion for the bassoon. Now the father was an exceedingly matter-of-fact, old-fashioned man, who possessed not the least bit of sentiment, and when he heard that his only child had fallen in love with a bassoon, his anger was very great. He summoned Aurora into his presence, and regarded her with an austere countenance.

“Girl,” he said, in icy tones, “is it true that you have been flirting with a bassoon?”

“Father,” replied Aurora, with dignity, “I have never flirted with anybody, and you grievously wrong the bassoon when you intimated that he, too, is capable of such frivolity.”

“It is nevertheless true,” roared the old gentleman, “that you have conceived a passion for this bassoon, and have cherished it clandestinely.”

“It is true, father, that I love the bassoon,” said Aurora; “it is true that I admire his wit, vivacity, sentiment, soul, force, power, and manliness, but I have loved in secret. We have never met; he may know I love him, and he may reciprocate my love, but he has never spoken to me nor I to him, so there is nothing clandestine in the affair.”

“Oh, my child! my child!” sobbed the old man, breaking down; “how could you love a bassoon, when so many eligible young men are suitors for your hand?”

“Don’t mention him in the same breath with those horrid creatures!” cried Aurora, indignantly. “What scent of tobacco or odor of wines has ever profaned the purity of his balmy breath? What does he know of billiards, of horse-racing, of actresses, and those other features of brutal men’s lives? Father, he is pure and good and exalted; seek not to debase him by naming him in the category of man!”

“These are Eliza’s teachings!” shrieked the old gentleman; and off he bundled to vent his wrath on the maiden aunt. But it was little satisfaction he got from Aunt Eliza.

After that the old gentleman kept a strict eye on Aurora, and very soon he became satisfied of two things: First, that Aurora was sincerely in love with the bassoon; and, second, that the bassoon cared nothing for Aurora. That Aurora loved the bassoon was evidenced by her demeanor when in his presence–her steadfast eyes, her parted lips, her heaving bosom, her piteous sighs, her flushed cheeks, and her varying emotions as his tones changed, bore unimpeachable testimony to the sincerity of her passion. That the bassoon did not care for Aurora was proved by his utter disregard of her feelings, for though he might be tender this moment he was harsh the next–though pleading now he spurned her anon; and so, variable and fickle and false as the winds, he kept Aurora in misery and hysterics about half the time.

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One morning the old gentleman entered the theatre while the orchestra was rehearsing.

“Who plays the bassoon?” he asked, in an imperative tone.

“Ich!” said a man with a bald head and gold spectacles.

“Your name?” demanded the old gentleman.

“Otto Baumgarten,” replied he of the bald head and gold spectacles.

“Then, Otto Baumgarten,” said the father, “I will give you one hundred dollars for your bassoon.”

“Mein Gott!” said Herr Baumgarten, “dat bassoon gost me not half so much fon dot!”

“Never mind!” replied the old gentleman. “Take the money and give me the bassoon.”

Herr Baumgarten did not hesitate a moment. He clutched at the gold pieces, and while he counted them Aurora’s father was hastening up the street with the bassoon under his arm. Aurora saw him coming, and she recognized the idol of her soul; his silver-plated keys were not to be mistaken. With a cry of joy she met her father in the hallway, snatched the bassoon to her heart, and covered him with kisses.

“He makes no answer to your protestations!” said her father. “Come, give over a love that is hopeless; cast aside this bassoon, who is hollow at heart, and whose affection at best is only platonic!”

“You speak blasphemies, father,” cried Aurora, “and you yourself shall hear how he loves me, for when I but put my lips to this slender mouthpiece there shall issue from my worshipped bassoon tones of such ineffable tenderness that even you shall be convinced that my passion is reciprocated.”

With these words Aurora glued her beauteous lips to the slender blowpipe of the bassoon, and, having inflated her lungs to their capacity, breathed into it a respiration that seemed to come from her very soul. But no sound issued from the cold, hollow, unresponsive bassoon. Aurora repeated the effort with increased vigor. There came no answer at all.

“Aha!” laughed her father. “I told you so; he loves you not.”

But then, with a last superhuman effort, Aurora made her third attempt; her eyeballs started from their sockets, big, blue veins and cords stood out on her lovely neck, and all the force and vigor of her young life seemed to go out through her pursed lips into the bassoon’s system. And then, oh then! as if to mock her idolatry and sound the death knell of her unhappy love, the bassoon recoiled and emitted a tone so harsh, so discordant, so supernatural, that even Aurora’s father drew back in horror.

And lo! hearing that supernatural sound that told her of the hopelessness of love, Aurora dropped the hollow, mocking scoffer, clutched spasmodically at her heart, and, with an agonizing shriek, fell lifeless to the floor.

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