The Song of the Lark

by Willa Cather

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Part IV - Chapter VIII

ON the first day of September Fred Ottenburg and Thea Kronborg left Flagstaff by the east-bound express. As the bright morning advanced, they sat alone on the rear platform of the observation car, watching the yellow miles unfold and disappear. With complete content they saw the brilliant, empty country flash by. They were tired of the desert and the dead races, of a world without change or ideas. Fred said he was glad to sit back and let the Santa Fé do the work for a while.

"And where are we going, anyhow?" he added.

"To Chicago, I suppose. Where else would we be going?" Thea hunted for a handkerchief in her hand bag.

"I was n't sure, so I had the trunks checked to Albuquerque. We can recheck there to Chicago, if you like. Why Chicago? You 'll never go back to Bowers. Why would n't this be a good time to make a run for it? We could take the southern branch at Albuquerque, down to El Paso, and then over into Mexico. We are exceptionally free. Nobody waiting for us anywhere."

Thea sighted along the steel rails that quivered in the light behind them. "I don't see why I could n't marry you in Chicago, as well as any place," she brought out with some embarrassment.

Fred took the handbag out of her nervous clasp and swung it about on his finger. "You 've no particular love for that spot, have you? Besides, as I 've told you, my family would make a row. They are an excitable lot. They discuss and argue everlastingly. The only way I can ever put anything through is to go ahead, and convince them afterward."

"Yes; I understand. I don't mind that. I don't want to marry your family. I 'm sure you would n't want to marry mine. But I don't see why we have to go so far."

"When we get to Winslow, you look about the freight yards and you 'll probably see several yellow cars with my name on them. That 's why, my dear. When your visiting-card is on every beer bottle, you can't do things quietly. Things get into the papers." As he watched her troubled expression, he grew anxious. He leaned forward on his camp-chair, and kept twirling the handbag between his knees. "Here 's a suggestion, Thea," he said presently. "Dismiss it if you don't like it: suppose we go down to Mexico on the chance. You 've never seen anything like Mexico City; it will be a lark for you, anyhow. If you change your mind, and don't want to marry me, you can go back to Chicago, and I 'll take a steamer from Vera Cruz and go up to New York. When I get to Chicago, you 'll be at work, and nobody will ever be the wiser. No reason why we should n't both travel in Mexico, is there? You 'll be traveling alone. I 'll merely tell you the right places to stop, and come to take you driving. I won't put any pressure on you. Have I ever?" He swung the bag toward her and looked up under her hat.

"No, you have n't," she murmured. She was thinking that her own position might be less difficult if he had used what he called pressure. He clearly wished her to take the responsibility.

"You have your own future in the back of your mind all the time," Fred began, "and I have it in mine. I 'm not going to try to carry you off, as I might another girl. If you wanted to quit me, I could n't hold you, no matter how many times you had married me. I don't want to over-persuade you. But I 'd like mighty well to get you down to that jolly old city, where everything would please you, and give myself a chance. Then, if you thought you could have a better time with me than without me, I 'd try to grab you before you changed your mind. You are not a sentimental person."

Thea drew her veil down over her face., "I think I am, a little; about you," she said quietly. Fred's irony somehow hurt her.

"What 's at the bottom of your mind, Thea?" he asked hurriedly. "I can't tell. Why do you consider it at all, if you 're not sure? Why are you here with me now?"

Her face was half-averted. He was thinking that it looked older and more firm—almost hard—under a veil.

"Is n't it possible to do things without having any very clear reason?" she asked slowly. "I have no plan in the back of my mind. Now that I 'm with you, I want to be with you; that 's all. I can't settle down to being alone again. I am here to-day because I want to be with you to-day." She paused. "One thing, though; if I gave you my word, I 'd keep it. And you could hold me, though you don't seem to think so. Maybe I 'm not sentimental, but I 'm not very light, either. If I went off with you like this, it would n't be to amuse myself."

Ottenburg's eyes fell. His lips worked nervously for a moment. "Do you mean that you really care for me, Thea Kronborg?" he asked unsteadily.

"I guess so. It 's like anything else. It takes hold of you and you 've got to go through with it, even if you 're afraid. I was afraid to leave Moonstone, and afraid to leave Harsanyi. But I had to go through with it."

"And are you afraid now?" Fred asked slowly.

"Yes; more than I 've ever been. But I don't think I could go back. The past closes up behind one, somehow. One would rather have a new kind of misery. The old kind seems like death or unconsciousness. You can't force your life back into that mould again. No, one can't go back." She rose and stood by the back grating of the platform, her hand on the brass rail.

Fred went to her side. She pushed up her veil and turned her most glowing face to him. Her eyes were wet and there were tears on her lashes, but she was smiling the rare, whole-hearted smile he had seen once or twice be fore. He looked at her shining eyes, her parted lips, her chin a little lifted. It was as if they were colored by a sunrise he could not see. He put his hand over hers and clasped it with a strength she felt. Her eyelashes trembled, her mouth softened, but her eyes were still brilliant.

"Will you always be like you were down there, if I go with you?" she asked under her breath.

His fingers tightened on hers. "By God, I will!" he muttered.

"That 's the only promise I 'll ask you for. Now go away for a while and let me think about it. Come back at lunch-time and I 'll tell you. Will that do?"

"Anything will do, Thea, if you 'll only let me keep an eye on you. The rest of the world does n't interest me much. You 've got me in deep."

Fred dropped her hand and turned away. As he glanced back from the front end of the observation car, he saw that she was still standing there, and any one would have known that she was brooding over something. The earnestness of her head and shoulders had a certain nobility. He stood looking at her for a moment.

When he reached the forward smoking-car, Fred took a seat at the end, where he could shut the other passengers from his sight. He put on his traveling-cap and sat down wearily, keeping his head near the window. "In any case, I shall help her more than I shall hurt her," he kept saying to himself. He admitted that this was not the only motive which impelled him, but it was one of them. "I 'll make it my business in life to get her on. There 's nothing else I care about so much as seeing her have her chance. She has n't touched her real force yet. She is n't even aware of it. Lord, don't I know something about them? There is n't one of them that has such a depth to draw from. She 'll be one of the great artists of our time. Playing accompaniments for that cheese-faced sneak! I 'll get her off to Germany this winter, or take her. She has n't got any time to waste now. I 'll make it up to her, all right."

Ottenburg certainly meant to make it up to her, in so far as he could. His feeling was as generous as strong human feelings are likely to be. The only trouble was, that he was married already, and had been since he was twenty.

His older friends in Chicago, people who had been friends of his family, knew of the unfortunate state of his personal affairs; but they were people whom in the natural course of things Thea Kronborg would scarcely meet. Mrs. Frederick Ottenburg lived in California, at Santa Barbara, where her health was supposed to be better than elsewhere, and her husband lived in Chicago. He visited his wife every winter to reinforce her position, and his devoted mother, although her hatred for her daughter-in-law was scarcely approachable in words, went to Santa Barbara every year to make things look better and to relieve her son.

When Frederick Ottenburg was beginning his junior year at Harvard, he got a letter from Dick Brisbane, a Kansas City boy he knew, telling him that his fiancée, Miss Edith Beers, was going to New York to buy her trousseau. She would be at the Holland House, with her aunt and a girl from Kansas City who was to be a bridesmaid, for two weeks or more. If Ottenburg happened to be going down to New York, would he call upon Miss Beers and "show her a good time"?

Fred did happen to be going to New York. He was going down from New Haven, after the Thanksgiving game. He called on Miss Beers and found her, as he that night telegraphed Brisbane, a "ripping beauty, no mistake." He took her and her aunt and her uninteresting friend to the theater and to the opera, and he asked them to lunch with him at the Waldorf. He took no little pains in arranging the luncheon with the head waiter. Miss Beers was the sort of girl with whom a young man liked to seem experienced. She was dark and slender and fiery. She was witty and slangy; said daring things and carried them off with nonchalance. Her childish extravagance and contempt for all the serious facts of life could be charged to her father's generosity and his long packing-house purse. Freaks that would have been vulgar and ostentatious in a more simple-minded girl, in Miss Beers seemed whimsical and picturesque. She darted about in magnificent furs and pumps and close-clinging gowns, though that was the day of full skirts. Her hats were large and floppy. When she wriggled out of her moleskin coat at luncheon, she looked like a slim black weasel. Her satin dress was a mere sheath, so conspicuous by its severity and scantness that every one in the dining-room stared. She ate nothing but alligator-pear salad and hothouse grapes, drank a little champagne, and took cognac in her coffee. She ridiculed, in the raciest slang, the singers they had heard at the opera the night before, and when her aunt pretended to reprove her, she murmured indifferently, "What 's the matter with you, old sport?" She rattled on with a subdued loquaciousness, always keeping her voice low and monotonous, always looking out of the corner of her eye and speaking, as it were, in asides, out of the corner of her mouth. She was scornful of everything,—which became her eyebrows. Her face was mobile and discontented, her eyes quick and black. There was a sort of smouldering fire about her, young Ottenburg thought. She entertained him prodigiously.

After luncheon Miss Beers said she was going uptown to be fitted, and that she would go alone because her aunt made her nervous. When Fred held her coat for her, she murmured, "Thank you, Alphonse," as if she were addressing the waiter. As she stepped into a hansom, with a long stretch of thin silk stocking, she said negligently, over her fur collar, "Better let me take you along and drop you somewhere." He sprang in after her, and she told the driver to go to the Park.

It was a bright winter day, and bitterly cold. Miss Beers asked Fred to tell her about the game at New Haven, and when he did so paid no attention to what he said. She sank back into the hansom and held her muff before her face, lowering it occasionally to utter laconic remarks about the people in the carriages they passed, interrupting Fred's narrative in a disconcerting manner. As they entered the Park he happened to glance under her wide black hat at her black eyes and hair—the muff hid everything else—and discovered that she was crying. To his solicitous inquiry she replied that it "was enough to make you damp, to go and try on dresses to marry a man you were n't keen about."

Further explanations followed. She had thought she was "perfectly cracked" about Brisbane, until she met Fred at the Holland House three days ago. Then she knew she would scratch Brisbane's eyes out if she married him. What was she going to do?

Fred told the driver to keep going. What did she want to do? Well, she did n't know. One had to marry somebody, after all the machinery had been put in motion. Perhaps she might as well scratch Brisbane as anybody else; for scratch she would, if she did n't get what she wanted.

Of course, Fred agreed, one had to marry somebody. And certainly this girl beat anything he had ever been up against before. Again he told the driver to go ahead. Did she mean that she would think of marrying him, by any chance? Of course she did, Alphonse. Had n't he seen that all over her face three days ago? If he had n't, he was a snowball.

By this time Fred was beginning to feel sorry for the driver. Miss Beers, however, was compassionless. After a few more turns, Fred suggested tea at the Casino. He was very cold himself, and remembering the shining silk hose and pumps, he wondered that the girl was not frozen. As they got out of the hansom, he slipped the driver a bill and told him to have something hot while he waited.

At the tea-table, in a snug glass enclosure, with the steam puttering in the pipes beside them and a brilliant winter sunset without, they developed their plan. Miss Beers had with her plenty of money, destined for tradesmen, which she was quite willing to divert into other channels—the first excitement of buying a trousseau had worn off, any way. It was very much like any other shopping. Fred had his allowance and a few hundred he had won on the game. She would meet him to-morrow morning at the Jersey ferry. They could take one of the west-bound Pennsylvania trains and go—anywhere, some place where the laws were n't too fussy.—Fred had not even thought about the laws!—It would be all right with her father; he knew Fred's family.

Now that they were engaged, she thought she would like to drive a little more. They were jerked about in the cab for another hour through the deserted Park. Miss Beers, having removed her hat, reclined upon Fred's shoulder.

The next morning they left Jersey City by the latest fast train out. They had some misadventures, crossed several States before they found a justice obliging enough to marry two persons whose names automatically instigated inquiry. The bride's family were rather pleased with her originality; besides, any one of the Ottenburg boys was clearly a better match than young Brisbane. With Otto Ottenburg, however, the affair went down hard, and to his wife, the once proud Katarina Fürst, such a disappointment was almost unbearable. Her sons had always been clay in her hands, and now the geliebter Sohn had escaped her.

Beers, the packer, gave his daughter a house in St. Louis, and Fred went into his father's business. At the end of a year, he was mutely appealing to his mother for sympathy. At the end of two, he was drinking and in open rebellion. He had learned to detest his wife. Her wastefulness and cruelty revolted him. The ignorance and the fatuous conceit which lay behind her grimacing mask of slang and ridicule humiliated him so deeply that he became absolutely reckless. Her grace was only an uneasy wriggle, her audacity was the result of insolence and envy, and her wit was restless spite. As her personal mannerisms grew more and more odious to him, he began to dull his perceptions with champagne. He had it for tea, he drank it with dinner, and during the evening he took enough to insure that he would be well insulated when he got home. This behavior spread alarm among his friends. It was scandalous, and it did not occur among brewers. He was violating the noblesse oblige of his guild. His father and his father's partners looked alarmed.

When Fred's mother went to him and with clasped hands entreated an explanation, he told her that the only trouble was that he could n't hold enough wine to make life endurable, so he was going to get out from under and enlist in the navy. He did n't want anything but the shirt on his back and clean salt air. His mother could look out; he was going to make a scandal.

Mrs. Otto Ottenburg went to Kansas City to see Mr. Beers, and had the satisfaction of telling him that he had brought up his daughter like a savage, eine Ungebildete. All the Ottenburgs and all the Beers, and many of their friends, were drawn into the quarrel. It was to public opinion, however and not to his mother's activities, that Fred owed his partial escape from bondage. The cosmopolitan brewing world of St. Louis had conservative standards. The Ottenburgs friends were not predisposed in favor of the plunging Kansas City set, and they disliked young Fred's wife from the day that she was brought among them. They found her ignorant and ill-bred and insufferably impertinent. When they became aware of how matters were going between her and Fred, they omitted no opportunity to snub her. Young Fred had always been popular, and St. Louis people took up his cause with warmth. Even the younger men, among whom Mrs. Fred tried to draft a following, at first avoided and then ignored her. Her defeat was so conspicuous, her life became such a desert, that she at last consented to accept the house in Santa Barbara which Mrs. Otto Ottenburg had long owned and cherished. This villa, with its luxuriant gardens, was the price of Fred's furlough. His mother was only too glad to offer it in his behalf. As soon as his wife was established in California, Fred was transferred from St. Louis to Chicago.

A divorce was the one thing Edith would never, never, give him. She told him so, and she told his family so, and her father stood behind her. She would enter into no arrangement that might eventually lead to divorce. She had insulted her husband before guests and servants, had scratched his face, thrown hand-mirrors and hairbrushes and nail-scissors at him often enough, but she knew that Fred was hardly the fellow who would go into court and offer that sort of evidence. In her behavior with other men she was discreet.

After Fred went to Chicago, his mother visited him often, and dropped a word to her old friends there, who were already kindly disposed toward the young man. They gossiped as little as was compatible with the interest they felt, undertook to make life agreeable for Fred, and told his story only where they felt it would do good: to girls who seemed to find the young brewer attractive. So far, he had behaved well, and had kept out of entanglements.

Since he was transferred to Chicago, Fred had been abroad several times, and had fallen more and more into the way of going about among young artists,—people with whom personal relations were incidental. With women, and even girls, who had careers to follow, a young man might have pleasant friendships without being regarded as a prospective suitor or lover. Among artists his position was not irregular, because with them his marriageableness was not an issue. His tastes, his enthusiasm, and his agreeable personality made him welcome.

With Thea Kronborg he had allowed himself more liberty than he usually did in his friendships or gallantries with young artists, because she seemed to him distinctly not the marrying kind. She impressed him as equipped to be an artist, and to be nothing else; already directed, concentrated, formed as to mental habit. He was generous and sympathetic, and she was lonely and needed friendship; needed cheerfulness. She had not much power of reaching out toward useful people or useful experiences, did not see opportunities. She had no tact about going after good positions or enlisting the interest of influential persons. She antagonized people rather than conciliated them. He discovered at once that she had a merry side, a robust humor that was deep and hearty, like her laugh, but it slept most of the time under her own doubts and the dullness of her life. She had not what is called a "sense of humor." That is, she had no intellectual humor; no power to enjoy the absurdities of people, no relish of their pretentiousness and inconsistencies—which only depressed her. But her joviality, Fred felt, was an asset, and ought to be developed. He discovered that she was more receptive and more effective under a pleasant stimulus than she was under the gray grind which she considered her salvation. She was still Methodist enough to believe that if a thing were hard and irksome, it must be good for her. And yet, whatever she did well was spontaneous. Under the least glow of excitement, as at Mrs. Nathanmeyer's, he had seen the apprehensive, frowning drudge of Bowers's studio flash into a resourceful and consciously beautiful woman.

His interest in Thea was serious, almost from the first, and so sincere that he felt no distrust of himself. He believed that he knew a great deal more about her possibilities than Bowers knew, and he liked to think that he had given her a stronger hold on life. She had never seen herself or known herself as she did at Mrs. Nathanmeyer's musical evenings. She had been a different girl ever since. He had not anticipated that she would grow more fond of him than his immediate usefulness warranted. He thought he knew the ways of artists, and, as he said, she must have been "at it from her cradle." He had imagined, perhaps, but never really believed, that he would find her waiting for him sometime as he found her waiting on the day he reached the Biltmer ranch. Once he found her so—well, he did not pretend to be anything more or less than a reasonably well-intentioned young man. A lovesick girl or a flirtatious woman he could have handled easily enough. But a personality like that, unconsciously revealing itself for the first time under the exaltation of a personal feeling,—what could one do but watch it? As he used to say to himself, in reckless moments back there in the canyon, "You can't put out a sunrise." He had to watch it, and then he had to share it.

Besides, was he really going to do her any harm? The Lord knew he would marry her if he could! Marriage would be an incident, not an end with her; he was sure of that. If it were not he, it would be some one else; some one who would be a weight about her neck, probably; who would hold her back and beat her down and divert her from the first plunge for which he felt she was gathering all her energies. He meant to help her, and he could not think of another man who would. He went over his unmarried friends, East and West, and he could not think of one who would know what she was driving at—or care. The clever ones were selfish, the kindly ones were stupid.

"Damn it, if she 's going to fall in love with somebody, it had better be me than any of the others—of the sort she 'd find. Get her tied up with some conceited ass who 'd try to make her over, train her like a puppy! Give one of 'em a big nature like that, and he 'd be horrified. He would n't show his face in the clubs until he 'd gone after her and combed her down to conform to some fool idea in his own head—put there by some other woman, too, his first sweetheart or his grandmother or a maiden aunt. At least, I understand her. I know what she needs and where she 's bound, and I mean to see that she has a fighting chance."

His own conduct looked crooked, he admitted; but he asked himself whether, between men and women, all ways were not more or less crooked. He believed those which are called straight were the most dangerous of all. They seemed to him, for the most part, to lie between windowless stone walls, and their rectitude had been achieved at the expense of light and air. In their unquestioned regularity lurked every sort of human cruelty and meanness, and every kind of humiliation and suffering. He would rather have any woman he cared for wounded than crushed. He would deceive her not once, he told himself fiercely, but a hundred times, to keep her free.

When Fred went back to the observation car at one o'clock, after the luncheon call, it was empty, and he found Thea alone on the platform. She put out her hand, and met his eyes.

"It 's as I said. Things have closed behind me. I can't go back, so I am going on—to Mexico?" She lifted her face with an eager, questioning smile.

Fred met it with a sinking heart. Had he really hoped she would give him another answer? He would have given pretty much anything— But there, that did no good. He could give only what he had. Things were never complete in this world; you had to snatch at them as they came or go without. Nobody could look into her face and draw back, nobody who had any courage. She had courage enough for anything—look at her mouth and chin and eyes! Where did it come from, that light? How could a face, a familiar face, become so the picture of hope, be painted with the very colors of youth's exaltation? She was right; she was not one of those who draw back. Some people get on by avoiding dangers, others by riding through them.

They stood by the railing looking back at the sand levels, both feeling that the train was steaming ahead very fast. Fred's mind was a confusion of images and ideas. Only two things were clear to him: the force of her determination, and the belief that, handicapped as he was, he could do better by her than another man would do. He knew he would always remember her, standing there with that expectant, forward-looking smile, enough to turn the future into summer.


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