The Golden House

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Author: Charles Dudley Warner

I

It was near midnight: The company gathered in a famous city studio were under the impression, diligently diffused in the world, that the end of the century is a time of license if not of decadence. The situation had its own piquancy, partly in the surprise of some of those assembled at finding themselves in bohemia, partly in a flutter of expectation of seeing something on the border-line of propriety. The hour, the place, the anticipation of the lifting of the veil from an Oriental and ancient art, gave them a titillating feeling of adventure, of a moral hazard bravely incurred in the duty of knowing life, penetrating to its core. Opportunity for this sort of fruitful experience being rare outside the metropolis, students of good and evil had made the pilgrimage to this midnight occasion from less-favored cities. Recondite scholars in the physical beauty of the Greeks, from Boston, were there; fair women from Washington, whose charms make the reputation of many a newspaper correspondent; spirited stars of official and diplomatic life, who have moments of longing to shine in some more languorous material paradise, had made a hasty flitting to be present at the ceremony, sustained by a slight feeling of bravado in making this exceptional descent. But the favored hundred spectators were mainly from the city-groups of late diners, who fluttered in under that pleasurable glow which the red Jacqueminot always gets from contiguity with the pale yellow Clicquot; theatre parties, a little jaded, and quite ready for something real and stimulating; men from the clubs and men from studios—representatives of society and of art graciously mingled, since it is discovered that it is easier to make art fashionable than to make fashion artistic.

The vast, dimly lighted apartment was itself mysterious, a temple of luxury quite as much as of art. Shadows lurked in the corners, the ribs of the roof were faintly outlined; on the sombre walls gleams of color, faces of loveliness and faces of pain, studies all of a mood or a passion, bits of shining brass, reflections from lustred ware struggling out of obscurity; hangings from Fez or Tetuan, bits of embroidery, costumes in silk and in velvet, still having the aroma of balls a hundred years ago, the faint perfume of a scented society of ladies and gallants; a skeleton scarcely less fantastic than the draped wooden model near it; heavy rugs of Daghestan and Persia, making the footfalls soundless on the floor; a fountain tinkling in a thicket of japonicas and azaleas; the stems of palmettoes, with their branches waving in the obscurity overhead; points of light here and there where a shaded lamp shone on a single red rose in a blue Granada vase on a toppling stand, or on a mass of jonquils in a barbarous pot of Chanak-Kallessi; tacked here and there on walls and hangings, colored memoranda of Capri and of the North Woods, the armor of knights, trophies of small-arms, crossed swords of the Union and the Confederacy, easels, paints, and palettes, and rows of canvases leaning against the wall-the studied litter, in short, of a successful artist, whose surroundings contribute to the popular conception of his genius.

On the wall at one end of the apartment was stretched a white canvas; in front of it was left a small cleared space, on the edge of which, in the shadow, squatting on the floor, were four swarthy musicians in Oriental garments, with a mandolin, a guitar, a ney, and a darabooka drum. About this cleared space, in a crescent, knelt or sat upon the rugs a couple of rows of men in evening dress; behind them, seated in chairs, a group of ladies, whose white shoulders and arms and animated faces flashed out in the semi-obscurity; and in their rear stood a crowd of spectators— beautiful young gentlemen with vacant faces and the elevated Oxford shoulders, rosy youth already blase to all this world can offer, and gray-headed men young again in the prospect of a new sensation. So they kneel or stand, worshipers before the shrine, expecting the advent of the Goddess of AEsthetic Culture.

The moment has come. There is a tap on the drum, a tuning of the strings, a flash of light from the rear of the room inundates the white canvas, and suddenly a figure is poised in the space, her shadow cast upon the glowing background.

It is the Spanish dancer!

The apparition evokes a flutter of applause. It is a superb figure, clad in a high tight bodice and long skirts simply draped so as to show every motion of the athletic limbs. She seems, in this pose and light, supernaturally tall. Through her parted lips white teeth gleam, and she smiles. Is it a smile of anticipated, triumph, or of contempt? Is it the smile of the daughter of Herodias, or the invitation of a ’ghazeeyeh’? She pauses. Shall she surprise, or shock, or only please? What shall the art that is older than the pyramids do for these kneeling Christians? The drum taps, the ney pipes, the mandolin twangs, her arms are extended—the castanets clink, a foot is thrust out, the bosom heaves, the waist trembles. What shall it be—the old serpent dance of the Nile, or the posturing of decorous courtship when the olives are purple in the time of the grape harvest? Her head, wreathed with coils of black hair, a red rose behind the left ear, is thrown back. The eyes flash, there is a snakelike movement of the limbs, the music hastens slowly in unison with the quickening pulse, the body palpitates, seems to flash invitation like the eyes, it turns, it twists, the neck is thrust forward, it is drawn in, while the limbs move still slowly, tentatively; suddenly the body from the waist up seems to twist round, with the waist as a pivot, in a flash of athletic vigor, the music quickens, the arms move more rapidly to the click of the heated castenets, the steps are more pronounced, the whole woman is agitated, bounding, pulsing with physical excitement. It is a Maenad in an access of gymnastic energy. Yes, it is gymnastics; it is not grace; it is scarcely alluring. Yet it is a physical triumph. While the spectators are breathless, the fury ceases, the music dies, and the Spaniard sinks into a chair, panting with triumph, and inclines her dark head to the clapping of hands and the bravos. The kneelers rise; the spectators break into chattering groups; the ladies look at the dancer with curious eyes; a young gentleman with the elevated Oxford shoulders leans upon the arm of her chair and fans her. The pose is correct; it is the somewhat awkward tribute of culture to physical beauty.

To be on speaking terms with the phenomenon was for the moment a distinction. The young ladies wondered if it would be proper to go forward and talk with her.

"Why not?" said a wit. "The Duke of Donnycastle always shakes hands with the pugilists at a mill."

"It is not so bad"—the speaker was a Washington beauty in an evening dress that she would have condemned as indecorous for the dancer it is not so bad as I—"

"Expected?" asked her companion, a sedate man of thirty-five, with the cynical air of a student of life.

"As I feared," she added, quickly. "I have always had a curiosity to know what these Oriental dances mean."

"Oh, nothing in particular, now. This was an exhibition dance. Of course its origin, like all dancing, was religious. The fault I find with it is that it lacks seriousness, like the modern exhibition of the dancing dervishes for money."

"Do you think, Mr. Mavick, that the decay of dancing is the reason our religion lacks seriousness? We are in Lent now, you know. Does this seem to you a Lenten performance?"

"Why, yes, to a degree. Anything that keeps you up till three o’clock in the morning has some penitential quality."

"You give me a new view, Mr. Mavick. I confess that I did not expect to assist at what New Englanders call an ’evening meeting.’ I thought Eros was the deity of the dance."

"That, Mrs. Lamon, is a vulgar error. It is an ancient form of worship. Virtue and beauty are the same thing—the two graces."

"What a nice apothegm! It makes religion so easy and agreeable."

"As easy as gravitation."

"Dear me, Mr. Mavick, I thought this was a question of levitation. You are upsetting all my ideas. I shall not have the comfort of repenting of this episode in Lent."

"Oh yes; you can be sorry that the dancing was not more alluring."

Meantime there was heard the popping of corks. Venetian glasses filled with champagne were quaffed under the blessing of sparkling eyes, young girls, almond-eyed for the occasion, in the costume of Tokyo, handed round ices, and the hum of accelerated conversation filled the studio.

"And your wife didn’t come?"

"Wouldn’t," replied Jack Delancy, with a little bow, before he raised his glass. And then added, "Her taste isn’t for this sort of thing."

The girl, already flushed with the wine, blushed a little—Jack thought he had never seen her look so dazzlingly handsome —as she said, "And you think mine is?"

"Bless me, no, I didn’t mean that; that is, you know"—Jack didn’t exactly see his way out of the dilemma—"Edith is a little old-fashioned; but what’s the harm in this, anyway?"

"I did not say there was any," she replied, with a smile at his embarrassment. "Only I think there are half a dozen women in the room who could do it better, with a little practice. It isn’t as Oriental as I thought it would be."

"I cannot say as to that. I know Edith thinks I’ve gone into the depths of the Orient. But, on the whole, I’m glad—" Jack stopped on the verge of speaking out of his better nature.

"Now don’t be rude again. I quite understand that she is not here."

The dialogue was cut short by a clapping of hands. The spectators took their places again, the lights were lowered, the illumination was turned on the white canvas, and the dancer, warmed with wine and adulation, took a bolder pose, and, as her limbs began to move, sang a wild Moorish melody in a shrill voice, action and words flowing together into the passion of the daughter of tents in a desert life. It was all vigorous, suggestive, more properly religious, Mavick would have said, and the applause was vociferous.

More wine went about. There was another dance, and then another, a slow languid movement, half melancholy and full of sorrow, if one might say that of a movement, for unrepented sin; a gypsy dance this, accompanied by the mournful song of Boabdil, "The Last Sigh of the Moor." And suddenly, when the feelings of the spectators were melted to tender regret, a flash out of all this into a joyous defiance, a wooing of pleasure with smiling lips and swift feet, with the clash of cymbals and the quickened throb of the drum. And so an end with the dawn of a new day.

It was not yet dawn, however, for the clocks were only striking three as the assembly, in winter coats and soft wraps, fluttered out to its carriages, chattering and laughing, with endless good-nights in the languages of France, Germany, and Spain.

The streets were as nearly deserted as they ever are; here and there a lumbering market-wagon from Jersey, an occasional street-car with its tinkling bell, rarer still the rush of a trembling train on the elevated, the voice of a belated reveler, a flitting female figure at a street corner, the roll of a livery hack over the ragged pavement. But mainly the noise of the town was hushed, and in the sharp air the stars, far off and uncontaminated, glowed with a pure lustre.

Farther up town it was quite still, and in one of the noble houses in the neighborhood of the Park sat Edith Delancy, married not quite a year, listening for the roll of wheels and the click of a night-key.

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Chicago: Charles Dudley Warner, "I," The Golden House, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in The Golden House (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed May 26, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GGEUNA18TD517DI.

MLA: Warner, Charles Dudley. "I." The Golden House, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in The Golden House, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 26 May. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GGEUNA18TD517DI.

Harvard: Warner, CD, 'I' in The Golden House, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, The Golden House, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 26 May 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GGEUNA18TD517DI.