*

From ‘The Common Law’ by Robert W. Chambers:

A reception at the Five-Minute Club was anything but an ordinary affair.

It was the ultra-modern school of positivists where realism was on the
cards and romance in the discards; where muscle, biceps, and
thumb-punching replaced technical mastery and delicate skill; where
inspiration was physical, not intellectual; where writers called a spade
a spade, and painters painted all sorts of similar bucolic instruments
with candour and an inadequate knowledge of their art; where composers
thumped their pianos the harder, the less their raucous inspiration
responded, or maundered incapably into interminable incoherency, hunting for themes in grays and mauves and reds and yellows, determined to find in music what does not belong there and never did.

In spite of its apparent vigour and uncompromising modernity, one
suspected a sub-stratum of weakness and a perversity slightly vicious.

Colour blindness might account for some of the canvases, strabismus for
some of the draughtmanship; but not for all. There was an ugly
deliberation in the glorification of the raw, the uncouth; there was a
callous hardness in the deadly elaboration of ugliness for its own sake.
And transcendentalism looked on in approval.

A near-sighted study of various masters, brilliant, morbid, or
essentially rotten, was the basis of this cult–not originality. Its
devotees were the devotees of Richard Strauss, of Huysmans, of Manet, of
Degas, Rops, Louis Le Grand, Forain, Monticelli; its painters painted
nakedness in footlight effects with blobs for faces and blue shadows
where they were needed to conceal the defects of impudent drawing; its
composers maundered with both ears spread wide for stray echoes of
Salome; its sculptors, stupefied by Rodin, achieved sections of human
anatomy protruding from lumps of clay and marble; its dramatists,
drugged by Mallarme and Maeterlinck, dabbled in dullness, platitude and
mediocre psychology; its writers wrote as bloodily, as squalidly, and as
immodestly as they dared; its poets blubbered with Verlaine, spat with
Aristide Bruant, or leered with the alcoholic muses of the Dead Rat.

They were all young, all in deadly earnest, all imperfectly educated,
all hard workers, brave workers, blind, incapable workers sweating and
twisting and hammering in their impotence against the changeless laws of
truth and beauty. With them it was not a case of a loose screw; all
screws had been tightened so brutally that the machinery became
deadlocked. They were neither lazy, languid, nor precious; they only
thought they knew how and they didn’t. All their vigour was sterile; all
their courage vain.

Several attractive women exquisitely gowned were receiving; there was
just a little something unusual in their prettiness, in their toilets;
and also a little something lacking; and its absence was as noticeable
in them as it was in the majority of arriving or departing guests.

It could not have been self-possession and breeding which an outsider
missed. For the slim Countess d’Enver possessed both, inherited from
her Pittsburgh parents; and Mrs. Hind-Willet was born to a social
security indisputable; and Latimer Varyck had been in the diplomatic
service before he wrote “Unclothed,” and the handsome, dark-eyed Mrs.
Atherstane divided social Manhattan with a blonder and lovelier rival.

Valerie entering with Neville, slender, self-possessed, a hint of
inquiry in her level eyes, heard the man at the door announce them, and
was conscious of many people turning as they passed into the big
reception room. A woman near her murmured, “What a beauty!” Another
added, “How intelligently gowned!” The slim Countess Helene d’Enver, nee
Nellie Jackson, held out a perfectly gloved hand and nodded amiably to
Neville. Then, smiling fixedly at Valerie:

“My dear, how nice of you,” she said. “And you, too, Louis; it is very
amusing of you to come. Jose Querida has just departed. He gave us such
a delightful five-minute talk on modernity. Quoting Huneker, he spoke of
it as a ‘quality’–and ‘that nervous, naked vibration’–”

She ended with a capricious gesture which might have meant anything
ineffable, or an order for a Bronx cocktail.

“What’s a nervous, naked vibration?” demanded Neville, with an impatient
shrug. “It sounds like a massage parlour–not,” he added with respect,
“that Huneker doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Nobody doubts that.
Only art is one delicious bouillabaisse to him.”

The Countess d’Enver laughed, still retaining Valerie’s hand:

“Your gown is charming–may I add that you are disturbingly beautiful,
Miss West? When they have given you some tea, will you find me if I
can’t find you?”

“Yes, I will,” said Valerie.

At the tea table Neville brought her a glass of sherry and a bite of
something squashy; a number of people spoke to him and asked to be
presented to Valerie. Her poise, her unconsciousness, the winning
simplicity of her manner were noticed everywhere, and everywhere
commented on. People betrayed a tendency to form groups around her;
women, prepared by her unusual beauty for anything between mediocrity
and inanity, were a little perplexed at her intelligence and candour.

To Mrs, Hind-Willet’s question she replied innocently: “To me there is
no modern painter comparable to Mr. Neville, though I dearly love
Wilson, Sorella and Querida.”

To Latimer Varyck’s whimsical insistence she finally was obliged to
admit that her reasons for not liking Richard Strauss were because she
thought him ugly, uninspired, and disreputable, which unexpected truism
practically stunned that harmless dilettante and so delighted Neville
that he was obliged to disguise his mirth with a scowl directed at the
ceiling.

“Did I say anything very dreadful, Kelly?” she whispered, when
opportunity offered.

“No, you darling. I couldn’t keep a civil face when you told the truth
about Richard Strauss to that rickety old sensualist.”

“Her poise, her unconsciousness, the winning simplicity
of her manner were noticed everywhere.”

“I don’t really know enough to criticise anything. But Mr. Varyck
_would_ make me answer; and one must say something.”

Olaf Dennison, without preliminary, sat down at the piano, tossed aside
his heavy hair, and gave a five-minute prelude to the second act of his
new opera, “Yvonne of Bannalec.” The opera might as well have been
called Mamie of Hoboken, for all the music signified to Neville.

Mrs. Hind-Willet, leaning over the chair where Valerie was seated,
whispered fervently:

“Isn’t it graphic! The music describes an old Breton peasant going to
market. You can hear the very click of his sabots and the gurgle of the
cider in his jug. And that queer little slap-stick noise is where he’s
striking palms with another peasant bargaining for his cider.”

“But where does Yvonne come in?” inquired Valerie in soft bewilderment.

“He’s Yvonne’s father,” whispered Mrs. Hind-Willet. “The girl doesn’t
appear during the entire opera. It’s a marvellously important advance
beyond the tonal and graphic subtleties of Richard Strauss.”

Other earnest and worthy people consumed intervals of five minutes now
and then; a “discuse,”–whom Neville insisted on calling a
“disease,”–said a coy and rather dirty little French poem directly at
her audience, leeringly assisted by an over-sophisticated piano
accompaniment.

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