The Song of the Lark

by Willa Cather

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Part II - Chapter III

ANDOR HARSANYI had never had a pupil in the least like Thea Kronborg. He had never had one more intelligent, and he had never had one so ignorant. When Thea sat down to take her first lesson from him, she had never heard a work by Beethoven or a composition by Chopin. She knew their names vaguely. Wunsch had been a musician once, long before he wandered into Moonstone, but when Thea awoke his interest there was not much left of him. From him Thea had learned something about the works of Gluck and Bach, and he used to play her some of the compositions of Schumann. In his trunk he had a mutilated score of the F sharp minor sonata, which he had heard Clara Schumann play at a festival in Leipsic. Though his powers of execution were at such a low ebb, he used to play at this sonata for his pupil and managed to give her some idea of its beauty. When Wunsch was a young man, it was still daring to like Schumann; enthusiasm for his work was considered an expression of youthful waywardness. Perhaps that was why Wunsch remembered him best. Thea studied some of the Kinderszenen with him, as well as some little sonatas by Mozart and Clementi. But for the most part Wunsch stuck to Czerny and Hummel.

Harsanyi found in Thea a pupil with sure, strong hands, one who read rapidly and intelligently, who had, he felt, a richly gifted nature. But she had been given no direction, and her ardor was unawakened. She had never heard a symphony orchestra. The literature of the piano was an undiscovered world to her. He wondered how she had been able to work so hard when she knew so little of what she was working toward. She had been taught according to the old Stuttgart method; stiff back, stiff elbows, a very formal position of the hands. The best thing about her preparation was that she had developed an unusual power of work. He noticed at once her way of charging at difficulties. She ran to meet them as if they were foes she had long been seeking, seized them as if they were destined for her and she for them. Whatever she did well, she took for granted. Her eagerness aroused all the young Hungarian's chivalry. Instinctively one went to the rescue of a creature who had so much to overcome and who struggled so hard. He used to tell his wife that Miss Kronborg's hour took more out of him than half a dozen other lessons. He usually kept her long over time; he changed her lessons about so that he could do so, and often gave her time at the end of the day when he could talk to her afterward and play for her a little from what he happened to be studying. It was always interesting to play for her. Sometimes she was so silent that he wondered, when she left him, whether she had got anything out of it. But a week later, two weeks later, she would give back his idea again in a way that set him vibrating.

All this was very well for Harsanyi; an interesting variation in the routine of teaching. But for Thea Kronborg, that winter was almost beyond enduring. She always remembered it as the happiest and wildest and saddest of her life. Things came too fast for her; she had not had enough preparation. There were times when she came home from her lesson and lay upon her bed hating Wunsch and her family, hating a world that had let her grow up so ignorant; when she wished that she could die then and there, and be born over again to begin anew. She said something of this kind once to her teacher, in the midst of a bitter struggle. Harsanyi turned the light of his wonderful eye upon her—poor fellow, he had but one, though that was set in such a handsome head—and said slowly: "Every artist makes himself born. It is very much harder than the other time, and longer. Your mother did not bring anything into the world to play piano. That you must bring into the world yourself."

This comforted Thea temporarily, for it seemed to give her a chance. But a great deal of the time she was comfortless. Her letters to Dr. Archie were brief and business-like. She was not apt to chatter much, even in the stimulating company of people she liked, and to chatter on paper was simply impossible for her. If she tried to write him anything definite about her work, she immediately scratched it out as being only partially true, or not true at all. Nothing that she could say about her studies seemed unqualifiedly true, once she put it down on paper.

Late one afternoon, when she was thoroughly tired and wanted to struggle on into the dusk, Harsanyi, tired too, threw up his hands and laughed at her. "Not to-day, Miss Kronborg. That sonata will keep; it won't run away. Even if you and I should not waken up to-morrow, it will be there."

Thea turned to him fiercely. "No, it is n't here unless I have it—not for me," she cried passionately. "Only what I hold in my two hands is there for me!"

Harsanyi made no reply. He took a deep breath and sat down again. "The second movement now, quietly, with the shoulders relaxed."

There were hours, too, of great exaltation; when she was at her best and became a part of what she was doing and ceased to exist in any other sense. There were other times when she was so shattered by ideas that she could do nothing worth while; when they trampled over her like an army and she felt as if she were bleeding to death under them. She sometimes came home from a late lesson so exhausted that she could eat no supper. If she tried to eat, she was ill afterward. She used to throw herself upon the bed and lie there in the dark, not thinking, not feeling, but evaporating. That same night, perhaps, she would waken up rested and calm, and as she went over her work in her mind, the passages seemed to become something of themselves, to take a sort of pattern in the darkness. She had never learned to work away from the piano until she came to Harsanyi, and it helped her more than anything had ever helped her before.

She almost never worked now with the sunny, happy contentment that had filled the hours when she worked with Wunsch—"like a fat horse turning a sorgum mill," she said bitterly to herself. Then, by sticking to it, she could always do what she set out to do. Now, everything that she really wanted was impossible; a cantabile like Harsanyi's, for instance, instead of her own cloudy tone. No use telling her she might have it in ten years. She wanted it now. She wondered how she had ever found other things interesting: books, "Anna Karenina"—all that seemed so unreal and on the outside of things. She was not born a musician, she decided; there was no other way of explaining it.

Sometimes she got so nervous at the piano that she left it, and snatching up her hat and cape went out and walked, hurrying through the streets like Christian fleeing from the City of Destruction. And while she walked she cried. There was scarcely a street in the neighborhood that she had not cried up and down before that winter was over. The thing that used to lie under her cheek, that sat so warmly over her heart when she glided away from the sand hills that autumn morning, was far from her. She had come to Chicago to be with it, and it had deserted her, leaving in its place a painful longing, an unresigned despair.

Harsanyi knew that his interesting pupil—"the savage blonde," one of his male students called her"—was sometimes very unhappy. He saw in her discontent a curious definition of character. He would have said that a girl with so much musical feeling, so intelligent, with good training of eye and hand, would, when thus suddenly introduced to the great literature of the piano, have found boundless happiness. But he soon learned that she was not able to forget her own poverty in the richness of the world he opened to her. Often when he played to her, her face was the picture of restless misery. She would sit crouching forward, her elbows on her knees, her brows drawn together and her gray-green eyes smaller than ever, reduced to mere pin-points of cold, piercing light. Sometimes, while she listened, she would swallow hard, two or three times, and look nervously from left to right, drawing her shoulders together. "Exactly," he thought, "as if she were being watched, or as if she were naked and heard some one coming."

On the other hand, when she came several times to see Mrs. Harsanyi and the two babies, she was like a little girl, jolly and gay and eager to play with the children, who loved her. The little daughter, Tanya, liked to touch Miss Kronborg's yellow hair and pat it, saying, "Dolly, dolly," because it was of a color much oftener seen on dolls than on people. But if Harsanyi opened the piano and sat down to play, Miss Kronborg gradually drew away from the children, retreated to a corner and became sullen or troubled. Mrs. Harsanyi noticed this, also, and thought it very strange behavior.

Another thing that puzzled Harsanyi was Thea's apparent lack of curiosity. Several times he offered to give her tickets to concerts, but she said she was too tired or that it "knocked her out to be up late." Harsanyi did not know that she was singing in a choir, and had often to sing at funerals, neither did he realize how much her work with him stirred her and exhausted her. Once, just as she was leaving his studio, he called her back and told her he could give her some tickets that had been sent him for Emma Juch that evening. Thea fingered the black wool on the edge of her plush cape and replied, "Oh, thank you, Mr. Harsanyi, but I have to wash my hair to-night."

Mrs. Harsanyi liked Miss Kronborg thoroughly. She saw in her the making of a pupil who would reflect credit upon Harsanyi. She felt that the girl could be made to look strikingly handsome, and that she had the kind of personality which takes hold of audiences. Moreover, Miss Kronborg was not in the least sentimental about her husband. Sometimes from the show pupils one had to endure a good deal. "I like that girl," she used to say, when Harsanyi told her of one of Thea's gaucheries. "She does n't sigh every time the wind blows. With her one swallow does n't make a summer."

Thea told them very little about herself. She was not naturally communicative, and she found it hard to feel confidence in new people. She did not know why, but she could not talk to Harsanyi as she could to Dr. Archie, or to Johnny and Mrs. Tellamantez. With Mr. Larsen she felt more at home, and when she was walking she sometimes stopped at his study to eat candy with him or to hear the plot of the novel he happened to be reading.

One evening toward the middle of December Thea was to dine with the Harsanyis. She arrived early, to have time to play with the children before they went to bed. Mrs. Harsanyi took her into her own room and helped her take off her country "fascinator" and her clumsy plush cape. Thea had bought this cape at a big department store and had paid $16.50 for it. As she had never paid more than ten dollars for a coat before, that seemed to her a large price. It was very heavy and not very warm, ornamented with a showy pattern in black disks, and trimmed around the collar and the edges with some kind of black wool that "crocked" badly in snow or rain. It was lined with a cotton stuff called "farmer's satin." Mrs. Harsanyi was one woman in a thousand. As she lifted this cape from Thea's shoulders and laid it on her white bed, she wished that her husband did not have to charge pupils like this one for their lessons. Thea wore her Moonstone party dress, white organdie, made with a "V" neck and elbow sleeves, and a blue sash. She looked very pretty in it, and around her throat she had a string of pink coral and tiny white shells that Ray once brought her from Los Angeles. Mrs. Harsanyi noticed that she wore high heavy shoes which needed blacking. The choir in Mr. Larsen's church stood behind a railing, so Thea did not pay much attention to her shoes.

"You have nothing to do to your hair," Mrs. Harsanyi said kindly, as Thea turned to the mirror. "However it happens to lie, it 's always pretty. I admire it as much as Tanya does."

Thea glanced awkwardly away from her and looked stern, but Mrs. Harsanyi knew that she was pleased. They went into the living-room, behind the studio, where the two children were playing on the big rug before the coal grate. Andor, the boy, was six, a sturdy, handsome child, and the little girl was four. She came tripping to meet Thea, looking like a little doll in her white net dress—her mother made all her clothes. Thea picked her up and hugged her. Mrs. Harsanyi excused herself and went to the dining-room. She kept only one maid and did a good deal of the housework herself, besides cooking her husband's favorite dishes for him. She was still under thirty, a slender, graceful woman, gracious, intelligent, and capable. She adapted herself to circumstances with a well-bred ease which solved many of her husband's difficulties, and kept him, as he said, from feeling cheap and down at the heel. No musician ever had a better wife. Unfortunately her beauty was of a very frail and impressionable kind, and she was beginning to lose it. Her face was too thin now, and there were often dark circles under her eyes.

Left alone with the children, Thea sat down on Tanya's little chair—she would rather have sat on the floor, but was afraid of rumpling her dress—and helped them play "cars" with Andor's iron railway set. She showed him new ways to lay his tracks and how to make switches, set up his Noah's ark village for stations and packed the animals in the open coal cars to send them to the stockyards. They worked out their shipment so realistically that when Andor put the two little reindeer into the stock car, Tanya snatched them out and began to cry, saying she was n't going to have all their animals killed.

Harsanyi came in, jaded and tired, and asked Thea to go on with her game, as he was not equal to talking much before dinner. He sat down and made pretense of glancing at the evening paper, but he soon dropped it. After the railroad began to grow tiresome, Thea went with the children to the lounge in the corner, and played for them the game with which she used to amuse Thor for hours together behind the parlor stove at home, making shadow pictures against the wall with her hands. Her ringers were very supple, and she could make a duck and a cow and a sheep and a fox and a rabbit and even an elephant. Harsanyi, from his low chair, watched them, smiling. The boy was on his knees, jumping up and down with the excitement of guessing the beasts, and Tanya sat with her feet tucked under her and clapped her frail little hands. Thea's profile, in the lamplight, teased his fancy. Where had he seen a head like it before?

When dinner was announced, little Andor took Thea's hand and walked to the dining-room with her. The children always had dinner with their parents and behaved very nicely at table. "Mamma," said Andor seriously as he climbed into his chair and tucked his napkin into the collar of his blouse, "Miss Kronborg's hands are every kind of animal there is."

His father laughed. "I wish somebody would say that about my hands, Andor."

When Thea dined at the Harsanyis before, she noticed that there was an intense suspense from the moment they took their places at the table until the master of the house had tasted the soup. He had a theory that if the soup went well, the dinner would go well; but if the soup was poor, all was lost. To-night he tasted his soup and smiled, and Mrs. Harsanyi sat more easily in her chair and turned her attention to Thea. Thea loved their dinner table, because it was lighted by candles in silver candle-sticks, and she had never seen a table so lighted anywhere else. There were always flowers, too. To-night there was a little orange tree, with oranges on it, that one of Harsanyi's pupils had sent him at Thanksgiving time. After Harsanyi had finished his soup and a glass of red Hungarian wine, he lost his fagged look and became cordial and witty. He persuaded Thea to drink a little wine to-night. The first time she dined with them, when he urged her to taste the glass of sherry beside her plate, she astonished them by telling them that she "never drank."

Harsanyi was then a man of thirty-two. He was to have a very brilliant career, but he did not know it then. Theodore Thomas was perhaps the only man in Chicago who felt that Harsanyi might have a great future. Harsanyi belonged to the softer Slavic type, and was more like a Pole than a Hungarian. He was tall, slender, active, with sloping, graceful shoulders and long arms. His head was very fine, strongly and delicately modelled, and, as Thea put it, "so independent." A lock of his thick brown hair usually hung over his forehead. His eye was wonderful; full of light and fire when he was interested, soft and thoughtful when he was tired or melancholy. The meaning and power of two very fine eyes must all have gone into this one—the right one, fortunately, the one next his audience when he played. He believed that the glass eye which gave one side of his face such a dull, blind look, had ruined his career, or rather had made a career impossible for him. Harsanyi lost his eye when he was twelve years old, in a Pennsylvania mining town where explosives happened to be kept too near the frame shanties in which the company packed newly arrived Hungarian families.

His father was a musician and a good one, but he had cruelly over-worked the boy; keeping him at the piano for six hours a day and making him play in cafés and dance halls for half the night. Andor ran away and crossed the ocean with an uncle, who smuggled him through the port as one of his own many children. The explosion in which Andor was hurt killed a score of people, and he was thought lucky to get off with an eye. He still had a clipping from a Pittsburg paper, giving a list of the dead and injured. He appeared as "Harsanyi, Andor, left eye and slight injuries about the head." That was his first American "notice"; and he kept it. He held no grudge against the coal company; he understood that the accident was merely one of the things that are bound to happen in the general scramble of American life, where every one comes to grab and takes his chance.

While they were eating dessert, Thea asked Harsanyi if she could change her Tuesday lesson from afternoon to morning. "I have to be at a choir rehearsal in the afternoon, to get ready for the Christmas music, and I expect it will last until late."

Harsanyi put down his fork and looked up. "A choir rehearsal? You sing in a church?"

"Yes. A little Swedish church, over on the North side."

"Why did you not tell us?"

"Oh, I 'm only a temporary. The regular soprano is not well."

"How long have you been singing there?"

"Ever since I came. I had to get a position of some kind," Thea explained, flushing, "and the preacher took me on. He runs the choir himself. He knew my father, and I guess he took me to oblige."

Harsanyi tapped the tablecloth with the ends of his fingers. "But why did you never tell us? Why are you so reticent with us?"

Thea looked shyly at him from under her brows. "Well, it 's certainly not very interesting. It 's only a little church. I only do it for business reasons."

"What do you mean? Don't you like to sing? Don't you sing well?"

"I like it well enough, but, of course, I don't know anything about singing. I guess that 's why I never said anything about it. Anybody that 's got a voice can sing in a little church like that."

Harsanyi laughed softly—a little scornfully, Thea thought. "So you have a voice, have you?"

Thea hesitated, looked intently at the candles and then at Harsanyi. "Yes," she said firmly; "I have got some, anyway."

"Good girl," said Mrs. Harsanyi, nodding and smiling at Thea. "You must let us hear you sing after dinner."

This remark seemingly closed the subject, and when the coffee was brought they began to talk of other things. Harsanyi asked Thea how she happened to know so much about the way in which freight trains are operated, and she tried to give him some idea of how the people in little desert towns live by the railway and order their lives by the coming and going of the trains. When they left the dining-room the children were sent to bed and Mrs. Harsanyi took Thea into the studio. She and her husband usually sat there in the evening.

Although their apartment seemed so elegant to Thea, it was small and cramped. The studio was the only spacious room. The Harsanyis were poor, and it was due to Mrs. Harsanyi's good management that their lives, even in hard times, moved along with dignity and order. She had long ago found out that bills or debts of any kind frightened her husband and crippled his working power. He said they were like bars on the windows, and shut out the future; they meant that just so many hundred dollars worth of his life was debilitated and exhausted before he got to it. So Mrs. Harsanyi saw to it that they never owed anything. Harsanyi was not extravagant, though he was sometimes careless about money. Quiet and order and his wife's good taste were the things that meant most to him. After these, good food, good cigars, a little good wine. He wore his clothes until they were shabby, until his wife had to ask the tailor to come to the house and measure him for new ones. His neckties she usually made herself, and when she was in shops she always kept her eye open for silks in very dull or pale shades, grays and olives, warm blacks and browns.

When they went into the studio Mrs. Harsanyi took up her embroidery and Thea sat down beside her on a low stool, her hands clasped about her knees. While his wife and his pupil talked, Harsanyi sank into a chaise longue in which he sometimes snatched a few moments rest between his lessons, and smoked. He sat well out of the circle of the lamplight, his feet to the fire. His feet were slender and well shaped, always elegantly shod. Much of the grace of his movements was due to the fact that his feet were almost as sure and flexible as his hands. He listened to the conversation with amusement. He admired his wife's tact and kindness with crude young people; she taught them so much without seeming to be instructing. When the clock struck nine, Thea said she must be going home.

Harsanyi rose and flung away his cigarette. "Not yet. We have just begun the evening. Now you are going to sing for us. I have been waiting for you to recover from dinner. Come, what shall it be?" he crossed to the piano.

Thea laughed and shook her head, locking her elbows still tighter about her knees. "Thank you, Mr. Harsanyi, but if you really make me sing, I 'll accompany myself. You could n't stand it to play the sort of things I have to sing."

As Harsanyi still pointed to the chair at the piano, she left her stool and went to it, while he returned to his chaise longue. Thea looked at the keyboard uneasily for a moment, then she began "Come, ye Disconsolate," the hymn Wunsch had always liked to hear her sing. Mrs. Harsanyi glanced questioningly at her husband, but he was looking intently at the toes of his boots, shading his forehead with his long white hand. When Thea finished the hymn she did not turn around, but immediately began "The Ninety and Nine." Mrs. Harsanyi kept trying to catch her husband's eye; but his chin only sank lower on his collar.

"There were ninety and nine that safely lay
⁠In the shelter of the fold,
But one was out on the hills away,
 ⁠Far off from the gates of gold."

Harsanyi looked at her, then back at the fire.

"Rejoice, for the Shepherd has found his sheep."

Thea turned on the chair and grinned. "That 's about enough, is n't it? That song got me my job. The preacher said it was sympathetic," she minced the word, remembering Mr. Larsen's manner.

Harsanyi drew himself up in his chair, resting his elbows on the low arms. "Yes? That is better suited to your voice. Your upper tones are good, above G. I must teach you some songs. Don't you know anything—pleasant?"

Thea shook her head ruefully. "I 'm afraid I don't. Let me see— Perhaps," she turned to the piano and put her hands on the keys. "I used to sing this for Mr. Wunsch a long while ago. It 's for contralto, but I 'll try it." She frowned at the keyboard a moment, played the few introductory measures, and began

"Ach, ich habe sie verloren,"

She had not sung it for a long time, and it came back like an old friendship. When she finished, Harsanyi sprang from his chair and dropped lightly upon his toes, a kind of entre-chat that he sometimes executed when he formed a sudden resolution, or when he was about to follow a pure intuition, against reason. His wife said that when he gave that spring he was shot from the bow of his ancestors, and now when he left his chair in that manner she knew he was intensely interested. He went quickly to the piano.

"Sing that again. There is nothing the matter with your low voice, my girl. I will play for you. Let your voice out." Without looking at her he began the accompaniment. Thea drew back her shoulders, relaxed them instinctively, and sang.

When she finished the aria, Harsanyi beckoned her nearer. "Sing ah—ah for me, as I indicate." He kept his right hand on the keyboard and put his left to her throat, placing the tips of his delicate fingers over her larynx. "Again,—until your breath is gone.—Trill between the two tones, always; good! Again; excellent!—Now up,—stay there. E and F. Not so good, is it? F is always a hard one.—Now, try the half-tone.—That 's right, nothing difficult about it.—Now, pianissimo, ah—ah. Now, swell it, ah—ah.—Again, follow my hand.—Now, carry it down.—Anybody ever tell you anything about your breathing?"

"Mr. Larsen says I have an unusually long breath," Thea replied with spirit.

Harsanyi smiled. "So you have, so you have. That was what I meant. Now, once more; carry it up and then down,—ah—ah." He put his hand back to her throat and sat with his head bent, his one eye closed. He loved to hear a big voice throb in a relaxed, natural throat, and he was thinking that no one had ever felt this voice vibrate before. It was like a wild bird that had flown into his studio on Middleton Street from goodness knew how far! No one knew that it had come, or even that it existed; least of all the strange, crude girl in whose throat it beat its passionate wings. What a simple thing it was, he reflected; why had he never guessed it before? Everything about her indicated it,—the big mouth, the wide jaw and chin, the strong white teeth, the deep laugh. The machine was so simple and strong, seemed to be so easily operated. She sang from the bottom of herself. Her breath came from down where her laugh came from, the deep laugh which Mrs. Harsanyi had once called "the laugh of the people." A relaxed throat, a voice that lay on the breath, that had never been forced off the breath; it rose and fell in the air-column like the little balls which are put to shine in the jet of a fountain. The voice did not thin as it went up; the upper tones were as full and rich as the lower, produced in the same way and as unconsciously, only with deeper breath.

At last Harsanyi threw back his head and rose. "You must be tired, Miss Kronborg."

When she replied, she startled him; he had forgotten how hard and full of burs her speaking voice was. "No," she said, "singing never tires me."

Harsanyi pushed back his hair with a nervous hand. "I don't know much about the voice, but I shall take liberties and teach you some good songs. I think you have a very interesting voice."

"I 'm glad if you like it. Good-night, Mr. Harsanyi." Thea went with Mrs. Harsanyi to get her wraps.

When Mrs. Harsanyi came back to her husband, she found him walking restlessly up and down the room.

"Don't you think her voice wonderful, dear?" she asked.

"I scarcely know what to think. All I really know about that girl is that she tires me to death. We must not have her often. If I did not have my living to make, then—" he dropped into a chair and closed his eyes. "How tired I am. What a voice!"


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