The Song of the Lark

by Willa Cather

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Part I - Chapter XI

ONE Saturday, late in June, Thea arrived early for her lesson. As she perched herself upon the piano stool,—a wobbly, old-fashioned thing that worked on a creaky screw,—she gave Wunsch a side glance, smiling. "You must not be cross to me to-day. This is my birthday."

"So?" he pointed to the keyboard.

After the lesson they went out to join Mrs. Kohler, who had asked Thea to come early, so that she could stay and smell the linden bloom. It was one of those still days of intense light, when every particle of mica in the soil flashed like a little mirror, and the glare from the plain below seemed more intense than the rays from above. The sand ridges ran glittering gold out to where the mirage licked them up, shining and steaming like a lake in the tropics. The sky looked like blue lava, forever incapable of clouds,—a turquoise bowl that was the lid of the desert. And yet within Mrs. Kohler's green patch the water dripped, the beds had all been hosed, and the air was fresh with rapidly evaporating moisture.

The two symmetrical linden trees were the proudest things in the garden. Their sweetness embalmed all the air. At every turn of the paths,—whether one went to see the hollyhocks or the bleeding heart, or to look at the purple morning-glories that ran over the bean-poles,—wherever one went, the sweetness of the lindens struck one afresh and one always came back to them. Under the round leaves, where the waxen yellow blossoms hung, bevies of wild bees were buzzing. The tamarisks were still pink, and the flower-beds were doing their best in honor of the linden festival. The white dove-house was shining with a fresh coat of paint, and the pigeons were crooning contentedly, flying down often to drink at the drip from the water tank. Mrs. Kohler, who was transplanting pansies, came up with her trowel and told Thea it was lucky to have your birthday when the lindens were in bloom, and that she must go and look at the sweet peas. Wunsch accompanied her, and as they walked between the flower-beds he took Thea's hand.

"Es flüstern und sprechen die Blumen"— he muttered. "You know that von Heine? Im leuchtenden Sommermorgen?" He looked down at Thea and softly pressed her hand.

"No, I don't know it. What does flüstern mean?"

"Flüstern?—to whisper. You must begin now to know such things. That is necessary. How many birthdays?"

"Thirteen. I 'm in my 'teens now. But how can I know words like that? I only know what you say at my lessons. They don't teach German at school. How can I learn?"

"It is always possible to learn when one likes," said Wunsch. His words were peremptory, as usual, but his tone was mild, even confidential. "There is always a way. And if some day you are going to sing, it is necessary to know well the German language."

Thea stooped over to pick a leaf of rosemary. How did Wunsch know that, when the very roses on her wall-paper had never heard it? "But am I going to?" she asked, still stooping.

"That is for you to say," returned Wunsch coldly. "You would better marry some Jacob here and keep the house for him, may-be? That is as one desires."

Thea flashed up at him a clear, laughing look. "No, I don't want to do that. You know," she brushed his coat-sleeve quickly with her yellow head. "Only how can I learn anything here? It 's so far from Denver."

Wunsch's loose lower lip curled in amusement. Then, as if he suddenly remembered something, he spoke seriously. "Nothing is far and nothing is near, if one desires. The world is little, people are little, human life is little. There is only one big thing—desire. And before it, when it is big, all is little. It brought Columbus across the sea in a little boat, und so weiter." Wunsch made a grimace, took his pupil's hand and drew her toward the grape arbor. "Hereafter I will more speak to you in German. Now, sit down and I will teach you for your birthday that little song. Ask me the words you do not know already. Now: Im leuchtenden Sommermorgen."

Thea memorized quickly because she had the power of listening intently. In a few moments she could repeat the eight lines for him. Wunsch nodded encouragingly and they went out of the arbor into the sunlight again. As they went up and down the gravel paths between the flower-beds, the white and yellow butterflies kept darting before them, and the pigeons were washing their pink feet at the drip and crooning in their husky bass. Over and over again Wunsch made her say the lines to him. "You see it is nothing. If you learn a great many of the Lieder, you will know the German language already. Welter, nun." He would incline his head gravely and listen.

      "Im leuchtenden Sommermorgen
       Geh' ich im Garten herum;
       Es flüstern und sprechen die Blumen,
       Ich aber, ich wandte stumm.
      "Es flüstern und sprechen die Blumen
       Und schau'n mitleidig mich an:
      'Sei unserer Schwester nicht böse.
       Du trauriger, blasser Mann!"

(In the soft-shining summer morning
 I wandered the garden within.
 The flowers they whispered and murmured,
 But I, I wandered dumb.

The flowers they whisper and murmur,
 And me with compassion they scan:
"Oh, be not harsh to our sister,
 Thou sorrowful, death-pale man!")

Wunsch had noticed before that when his pupil read anything in verse the character of her voice changed altogether; it was no longer the voice which spoke the speech of Moonstone. It was a soft, rich contralto, and she read quietly; the feeling was in the voice itself, not indicated by emphasis or change of pitch. She repeated the little verses musically, like a song, and the entreaty of the flowers was even softer than the rest, as the shy speech of flowers might be, and she ended with the voice suspended, almost with a rising inflection. It was a nature-voice, Wunsch told himself, breathed from the creature and apart from language, like the sound of the wind in the trees, or the murmur of water.

"What is it the flowers mean when they ask him not to be harsh to their sister, eh?" he asked, looking down at her curiously and wrinkling his dull red forehead.

Thea glanced at him in surprise. "I suppose he thinks they are asking him not to be harsh to his sweetheart—or some girl they remind him of."

"And why trauriger, blasser Mann?"

They had come back to the grape arbor, and Thea picked out a sunny place on the bench, where a tortoise-shell cat was stretched at full length. She sat down, bending over the cat and teasing his whiskers. "Because he had been awake all night, thinking about her, was n't it? Maybe that was why he was up so early."

Wunsch shrugged his shoulders. "If he think about her all night already, why do you say the flowers remind him?"

Thea looked up at him in perplexity. A flash of comprehension lit her face and she smiled eagerly. "Oh, I did n't mean 'remind' in that way! I did n't mean they brought her to his mind! I meant it was only when he came out in the morning, that she seemed to him like that,—like one of the flowers."

"And before he came out, how did she seem?"

This time it was Thea who shrugged her shoulders. The warm smile left her face. She lifted her eyebrows in annoyance and looked off at the sand hills.

Wunsch persisted. "Why you not answer me?"

"Because it would be silly. You are just trying to make me say things. It spoils things to ask questions."

Wunsch bowed mockingly; his smile was disagreeable. Suddenly his face grew grave, grew fierce, indeed. He pulled himself up from his clumsy stoop and folded his arms. "But it is necessary to know if you know somethings. Somethings cannot be taught. If you not know in the beginning, you not know in the end. For a singer there must be something in the inside from the beginning. I shall not be long in this place, may-be, and I like to know. Yes,"—he ground his heel in the gravel,—"yes, when you are barely six, you must know that already. That is the beginning of all things; der Geist, die Phantasie. It must be in the baby, when it makes its first cry, like der Rhythmus, or it is not to be. You have some voice already, and if in the beginning, when you are with things-to-play, you know that what you will not tell me, then you can learn to sing, may-be."

Wunsch began to pace the arbor, rubbing his hands together. The dark flush of his face had spread up under the iron-gray bristles on his head. He was talking to himself, not to Thea. Insidious power of the linden bloom! "Oh, much you can learn! Aber nicht die Americanischen, Fräulein. They have nothing inside them," striking his chest with both fists. "They are like the ones in the Märchen, a grinning face and hollow in the insides. Some thing they can learn, oh, yes, may-be! But the secret—what make the rose to red, the sky to blue, the man to love—in der Brust, in der Brust it is, und ohne dieses giebt es keine Kunst, giebt es keine Kunst!" He threw up his square hand and shook it, all the fingers apart and wagging. Purple and breathless he went out of the arbor and into the house, without saying good-bye. These outbursts frightened Wunsch. They were always harbingers of ill.

Thea got her music-book and stole quietly out of the garden. She did not go home, but wandered off into the sand dunes, where the prickly pear was in blossom and the green lizards were racing each other in the glittering light. She was shaken by a passionate excitement. She did not altogether understand what Wunsch was talking about; and yet, in a way she knew. She knew, of course, that there was something about her that was different. But it was more like a friendly spirit than like anything that was a part of herself. She thought everything to it, and it answered her; happiness consisted of that backward and forward movement of herself. The something came and went, she never knew how. Sometimes she hunted for it and could not find it; again, she lifted her eyes from a book, or stepped out of doors, or wakened in the morning, and it was there,—under her cheek, it usually seemed to be, or over her breast,—a kind of warm sureness. And when it was there, everything was more interesting and beautiful, even people. When this companion was with her, she could get the most wonderful things out of Spanish Johnny, or Wunsch, or Dr. Archie.

On her thirteenth birthday she wandered for a long while about the sand ridges, picking up crystals and looking into the yellow prickly-pear blossoms with their thousand stamens. She looked at the sand hills until she wished she were a sand hill. And yet she knew that she was going to leave them all behind some day. They would be changing all day long, yellow and purple and lavender, and she would not be there. From that day on, she felt there was a secret between her and Wunsch. Together they had lifted a lid, pulled out a drawer, and looked at something. They hid it away and never spoke of what they had seen; but neither of them forgot it.


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