A Word Only A Word by Georg Ebers
The admiral's ship, which bore King Philip's ambassador to Venice, reached its destination safely, though it had encountered many severe storms on the voyage, during which Ulrich was the only passenger, who amid the rolling and pitching of the vessel, remained as well as an old sailor.
But, on the other hand his peace of mind was greatly impaired, and any one who had watched him leaning over the ship's bulwark, gazing into the sea, or pacing up and down with restless bearing and gloomy eyes, would scarcely have suspected that this reserved, irritable youth, who was only too often under the dominion of melancholy moods, had won only a short time before a noble human heart, and was on the way to the realization of his boldest dreams, the fulfilment of his most ardent wishes.
How differently he had hoped to enter "the Paradise of Art!"
Never had he been so free, so vigorous, so rich, as in the dawn of the day, at whose close he was to unite Isabella's life with his own--and now--now!
He had expected to wander through Italy from place to place as untrammelled, gay, and free as the birds in the air; he had desired to see, admire, en joy, and after becoming familiar with all the great artists, choose a new master among them. Sophonisba's home was to have become his, and it had never entered his mind to limit the period of his enjoyment and study on the sacred soil.
How differently his life must now be ordered! Until he went on board of the ship in Valencia, the thought of calling a girl so good, sensible and loving as Isabella his own, rejoiced and inspired him, but during the solitary hours a sea-voyage so lavishly bestows, a strange transformation in his feelings occurred.
The wider became the watery expanse between him and Spain, the farther receded Isabella's memory, the less alluring and delightful grew the thought of possessing her hand.
He now told himself that, before the fatal hour, he had rejoiced at the anticipation of escaping her pedantic criticism, and when he looked forward to the future and saw himself, handsome Ulrich Navarrete, whose superior height filled the smaller Castilians with envy, walking through the streets with his tiny wife, and perceived the smiles of the people they met, he was seized with fierce indignation against himself and his hard fate.
He felt fettered like the galley-slaves, whose chains rattled and clanked, as they pulled at the oars in the ship's waist. At other times he could not help recalling her large, beautiful, love-beaming eyes, her soft, red lips, and yearningly confess that it would have been sweet to hold her in his arms and kiss her, and, since he had forever lost his Ruth, he could find no more faithful, sensible, tender wife than she.
But what should he, the student, the wandering disciple of Art, do with a bride, a wife? The best and fairest of her sex would now have seemed to him an impediment, a wearisome clog. The thought of being obliged to accomplish some fixed task within a certain time, and then be subjected to an examination, curbed his enjoyment, oppressed, angered him.
Grey mists gathered more and more densely over the sunny land, for which he had longed with such passionate ardor, and it seemed as if in that luckless hour, he had been faithless to the "word,"--had deprived himself of its assistance forever.
He often felt tempted to send Coello his ducats and tell him he had been hasty, and cherished no desire to wed his daughter; but perhaps that would break the heart of the poor, dear little thing, who loved him so tenderly! He would be no dishonorable ingrate, but bear the consequences of his own recklessness.
Perhaps some miracle would happen in Italy, Art's own domain. Perhaps the sublime goddess would again take him to her heart, and exert on him also the power Sophonisba had so fervently praised.
The ambassador and his secretary, de Soto, thought Ulrich an unsocial dreamer; but nevertheless, after they reached Venice, the latter invited him to share his lodgings, for Don Juan had requested him to interest himself in the young artist.
What could be the matter with the handsome fellow? The secretary tried to question him, but Ulrich did not betray what troubled him, only alluding in general terms to a great anxiety that burdened his mind.
"But the time is now coming when the poorest of the poor, the most miserable of all forsaken mortals, cast aside their griefs!" cried de Soto. "Day after to morrow the joyous Carnival season will begin! Hold up your head, young man! Cast your sorrows into the Grand Canal, and until Ash-Wednesday, imagine that heaven has fallen upon earth!"
Oh! blue sea, that washes the lagunes, oh! mast-thronged Lido, oh! palace of the Doges, that chains the eye, as well as the backward gazing, mind, oh! dome of St. Mark, in thy incomparable garb of gold and paintings, oh! ye steeds and other divine works of bronze, ye noble palaces, for which the still surface of the placid water serves as a mirror, thou square of St. Mark, where, clad in velvet, silk and gold, the richest and freest of all races display their magnificence, with just pride! Thou harbor, thou forest of masts, thou countless fleet of stately galleys, which bind one quarter of the globe to another, inspiring terror, compelling obedience, and gaining boundless treasures by peaceful voyages and with shining blades. Oh! thou Rialto, where gold is stored, as wheat and rye are elsewhere;--ye proud nobles, ye fair dames with luxuriant tresses, whose raven hue pleases ye not, and which ye dye as bright golden as the glittering zechins ye squander with such small, yet lavish hands! Oh! Venice, Queen of the sea, mother of riches, throne of power, hall of fame, temple of art, who could escape thy spell!
What wanton Spring is to the earth, thy carnival season is to thee! It transforms the magnificence of color of the lagune-city into a dazzling radiance, the smiles to Olympic laughter, the love-whispers to exultant songs, the noisy, busy life of the mighty commercial city into a mad whirlpool, which draws everything into its circle, and releases nothing it has once seized.
De Soto urged and pushed the youth, who had already lost his mental equipoise, into the midst of the gulf, ere he had found the right current.
On the barges, amid the throngs in the streets, at banquets, in ball-rooms, at the gaming-table, everywhere, the young, golden-haired, superbly-dressed artist, who was on intimate terms with the Spanish king's ambassador, attracted the attention of men, and the eyes, curiosity and admiration of the women; though people as yet knew not whence he came.
He chose the tallest and most stately of the slender dames of Venice to lead in the dance, or through the throng of masks and citizens intoxicated with the mirth of the carnival. Whithersoever he led the fairest followed.
He wished to enjoy the respite before execution. To forget--to forget--to indemnify himself for future seasons of sacrifice, dulness, self-conquest, torment.
Poor little Isabella! Your lover sought to enjoy the sensation of showing himself to the crowd with the stateliest woman in the company on his arm! And you, Ulrich, how did you feel when people exclaimed behind you: "A splendid pair! Look at that couple!"
Amid this ecstasy, he needed no helping word, neither "fortune" nor "art;" without any magic spell he flew from pleasure to pleasure, through every changing scene, thinking only of the present and asking no questions about the future.
Like one possessed he plunged into passion's wild whirl. From the embrace of beautiful arms he rushed to the gaming-table, where the ducats he flung down soon became a pile of gold; the zechins filled his purse to overflowing.
The quickly-won treasure melted like snow in the sun, and returned again like stray doves to their open cote.
The works of art were only enjoyed with drunken eyes--yet, once more the gracious word exerted its wondrous power on the misguided youth.
On Shrove-Tuesday, the ambassador took Ulrich to the great Titian.
He stood face to face with the mighty monarch of colors, listened to gracious words from his lips, and saw the nonogenarian, whose tall figure was scarcely bowed, receive the king's gifts.
Never, never, to the close of his existence could he forget that face!
The features were as delicately and as clearly outlined, as if cut with an engraver's chisel from hard metal; but pallid, bloodless, untinged by the faintest trace of color. The long, silver-white beard of the tall venerable painter flowed in thick waves over his breast, and the eyes, with which he scanned Ulrich, were those of a vigorous, keen-sighted man. His voice did not sound harsh, but sad and melancholy; deep sorrow shadowed his glance, and stamped itself upon the mouth of him, whose thin, aged hand still ensnared the senses easily and surely with gay symphonies of color!
The youth answered the distinguished Master's questions with trembling lips, and when Titian invited him to share his meal, and Ulrich, seated at the lower end of the table in the brilliant banqueting-hall, was told by his neighbors with what great men he was permitted to eat, he felt so timid, small, and insignificant, that he scarcely ventured to touch the goblets and delicious viands the servants offered.
He looked and listened; distinguishing his old master's name, and hearing him praised without stint as a portrait-painter. He was questioned about him, and gave confused answers.
Then the guests rose.
The February sun was shining into the lofty window, where Titian seated himself to talk more gaily than before with Paolo Cagliari, Veronese, and other great artists and nobles.
Again Ulrich heard Moor mentioned. Then the old man, from whom the youth had not averted his eyes for an instant, beckoned, and Cagliari called him, saying that he, the gallant Antonio Moor's pupil, must now show what he could do; the Master, Titian, would give him a task.
A shudder ran through his frame; cold drops of perspiration, extorted by fear, stood on his brow.
The old man now invited him to accompany his nephew to the studio. Daylight would last an hour longer. He might paint a Jew; no usurer nor dealer in clothes, but one of the noble race of prophets, disciples, apostles.
Ulrich stood before the easel.
For the first time after a long period he again called upon the "word," and did so fervently, with all his heart. His beloved dead, who in the tumult of carnival mirth had vanished from his memory, again rose before his mind, among them the doctor, who gazed rebukingly at him with his clear, thoughtful eyes.
Like an inspiration a thought darted through the youth's brain. He could and would paint Costa, his friend and teacher, Ruth's father.
The portrait he had drawn when a boy appeared before his memory, feature for feature. A red pencil lay close at hand.
Sketching the outlines with a few hasty strokes, he seized the brush, and while hurriedly guiding it and mixing the colors, he saw in fancy Costa standing before him, asking him to paint his portrait.
Ulrich had never forgotten the mild expression of the eyes, the smile hovering about the delicate lips, and now delineated them as well as he could. The moments slipped by, and the portrait gained roundness and life. The youth stepped back to see what it still needed, and once more called upon the "word" from the inmost depths of his heart; at the same instant the door opened, and leaning on a younger painter, Titian, with several other artists, entered the studio.
He looked at the picture, then at Ulrich, and said with an approving smile: "See, see! Not too much of the Jew, and a perfect apostle! A Paul, or with longer hair and a little more youthful aspect, an admirable St. John. Well done, well done! my son!"
Well done, well done! These words from Titian had ennobled his work; they echoed loudly in his soul, and the measure of his bliss threatened to overflow, when no less a personage than the famous Paolo Veronese, invited him to come to his studio as a pupil on Saturday.
Enraptured, animated by fresh hope, he threw himself into his gondola.
Everyone had left the palace, where he lodged with de Soto. Who would remain at home on the evening of Shrove-Tuesday?
The lonely rooms grew too confined for him.
Quiet days would begin early the next morning, and on Saturday a new, fruitful life in the service of the only true word, Art, divine Art, would commence for him. He would enjoy this one more evening of pleasure, this night of joy; drain it to the dregs. He fancied he had won a right that day to taste every bliss earth could give.
Torches, pitch-pans and lamps made the square of St. Mark's as bright as day, and the maskers crowded upon its smooth pavement as if it were the floor of an immense ball-room.
Intoxicating music, loud laughter, low, tender whispers, sweet odors from the floating tresses of fair women bewildered Ulrich's senses, already confused by success and joy. He boldly accosted every one, and if he suspected that a fair face was concealed under a mask, drew nearer, touched the strings of a lute, that hung by a purple ribbon round his neck, and in the notes of a tender song besought love.
Many a wave of the fan rewarded, many an angry glance from men's dark eyes rebuked the bold wooer. A magnificent woman of queenly height now passed, leaning on the arm of a richly-dressed cavalier.
Was not that the fair Claudia, who a short time before had lost enormous sums at the gaming-table in the name of the rich Grimani, and who had invited Ulrich to visit her later, during Lent?
It was, he could not be mistaken, and now followed the pair like a shadow, growing bolder and bolder the more angrily the cavalier rebuffed him with wrathful glances and harsh words; for the lady did not cease to signify that she recognized him and enjoyed his playing. But the nobleman was not disposed to endure this offensive sport. Pausing in the middle of the square, he released his arm with a contemptuous gesture, saying: "The lute-player, or I, my fair one; you can decide----"
The Venetian laughed loudly, laid her hand on Ulrich's arm and said: "The rest of the Shrove-Tuesday night shall be yours, my merry singer."
Ulrich joined in her gayety, and taking the lute from his neck, offered it to the cavalier, with a defiant gesture, exclaiming:
"It's at your disposal, Mask; we have changed parts. But please hold it firmer than you held your lady." High play went on in the gaming hall; Claudia was lucky with the artist's gold.
At midnight the banker laid down the cards. It was Ash-Wednesday, the hall must be cleared; the quiet Lenten season had begun.
The players withdrew into the adjoining rooms, among them the much-envied couple.
Claudia threw herself upon a couch; Ulrich left her to procure a gondola.
As soon as he was gone, she was surrounded by a motley throng of suitors.
How the beautiful woman's dark eyes sparkled, how the gems on her full neck and dazzling arms glittered, how readily she uttered a witty repartee to each gay sally.
"Claudia unaccompanied!" cried a young noble. "The strangest sight at this remarkable carnival!"
"I am fasting," she answered gaily; "and now that I long for meagre food, you come! What a lucky chance!"
"Heavy Grimani has also become a very light man, with your assistance."
"That's why he flew away. Suppose you follow him?"
"Gladly, gladly, if you will accompany me."
"Excuse me to-day; there comes my knight."
Ulrich had remained absent a long time, but Claudia had not noticed it. Now he bowed to the gentlemen, offered her his arm, and as they descended the staircase, whispered: "The mask who escorted you just now detained me;--and there . . . see, they are picking him up down there in the court-yard.--He attacked me. . . ."
"You have--you. . . ."
"'They came to his assistance immediately. He barred my way with his unsheathed blade."
Claudia hastily drew her hand from the artist's arm, exclaiming in a low, anxious tone: "Go, go, unhappy man, whoever you may be! It was Luigi Grimani; it was a Grimani! You are lost, if they find you. Go, if you love your life, go at once!"
So ended the Shrove-Tuesday, which had begun so gloriously for the young artist. Titian's "well done" no longer sounded cheerfully in his ears, the "go, go," of the venal woman echoed all the more loudly.
De Soto was waiting for him, to repeat to him the high praise he had heard bestowed upon his art-test at Titian's; but Ulrich heard nothing, for he gave the secretary no time to speak, and the latter could only echo the beautiful Claudia's "go, go!" and then smooth the way for his flight.
When the morning of Ash-Wednesday dawned cool and misty, Venice lay behind the young artist. Unpursued, but without finding rest or satisfaction, he went to Parma, Bologna, Pisa, Florence.
Grimani's death burdened his conscience but lightly. Duelling was a battle in miniature, to kill one's foe no crime, but a victory. Far different anxieties tortured him.
Venice, whither the "word" had led him, from which he had hoped and expected everything, was lost to him, and with it Titian's favor and Cagliari's instruction.
He began to doubt himself, his future, the sublime word and its magic spell. The greater the works which the traveller's eyes beheld, the more insignificant he felt, the more pitiful his own powers, his own skill appeared.
"Draw, draw!" advised every master to whom he applied, as soon as he had seen his work. The great men, to whom he offered himself as a pupil, required years of persevering study. But his time was limited, for the misguided youth's faithful German heart held firmly to one resolve; he must present himself to Coello at the end of the appointed time. The happiness of his life was forfeited, but no one should obtain the right to call him faithless to his word, or a scoundrel.
In Florence he heard Sebastiano Filippi--who had been a pupil of Michael Angelo-praised as a good drawer; so he sought him in Ferrara and found him ready to teach him what he still lacked. But the works of the new master did not please him. The youth, accustomed to Moor's wonderful clearness, Titian's brilliant hues, found Filippi's pictures indistinct, as if veiled by grey mists. Yet he forced himself to remain with him for months, for he was really remarkably skilful in drawing, and his studio never lacked nude models; he needed them for the preliminary studies for his "Day of Judgment."
Without satisfaction, without pleasure in the wearisome work, without love for the sickly master, who held aloof from any social intercourse with him when the hours of labor were over, he felt discontented, bored, disenchanted.
In the evening he sought diversion at the gaming-table, and fortune favored him here as it had done in Venice. His purse overflowed with zechins; but with the red gold, Art withdrew from him her powerful ally, necessity, the pressing need of gaining a livelihood by the exertion of his own strength.
He spent the hours appointed for study like a careless lover, and worked without inclination, without pleasure, without ardor, yet with visible increase of skill.
In gambling he forgot what tortured him, it stirred his blood, dispelled weariness; the gold was nothing to him.
The lion's share of his gains he loaned to broken gamblers, without expectation of return, gave to starving artists, or flung with lavish hand to beggars.
So the months in Ferrara glided by, and when the allotted time was over, he took leave of Sebastiano Filippi without regret. He returned by sea to Spain, and arrived in Madrid richer than he had gone away, but with impoverished confidence in his own powers, and doubting the omnipotence of Art.