The Song of the Lark

by Willa Cather

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Part VI - Chapter IV

ONE bright morning late in February Dr. Archie was breakfasting comfortably at the Waldorf. He had got into Jersey City on an early train, and a red, windy sunrise over the North River had given him a good appetite. He consulted the morning paper while he drank his coffee and saw that "Lohengrin" was to be sung at the opera that evening. In the list of the artists who would appear was the name "Kronborg." Such abruptness rather startled him. "Kronborg": it was impressive and yet, somehow, disrespectful; somewhat rude and brazen, on the back page of the morning paper. After breakfast he went to the hotel ticket office and asked the girl if she could give him something for "Lohengrin," "near the front." His manner was a trifle awkward and he wondered whether the girl noticed it. Even if she did, of course, she could scarcely suspect. Before the ticket stand he saw a bunch of blue posters announcing the opera casts for the week. There was "Lohengrin," and under it he saw:—

Elsa von Brabant . . . . Thea Kronborg.

That looked better. The girl gave him a ticket for a seat which she said was excellent. He paid for it and went out to the cabstand. He mentioned to the driver a number on Riverside Drive and got into a taxi. It would not, of course, be the right thing to call upon Thea when she was going to sing in the evening. He knew that much, thank goodness! Fred Ottenburg had hinted to him that, more than almost anything else, that would put one in wrong.

When he reached the number to which he directed his letters, he dismissed the cab and got out for a walk. The house in which Thea lived was as impersonal as the Waldorf, and quite as large. It was above 116th Street, where the Drive narrows, and in front of it the shelving bank dropped to the North River. As Archie strolled about the paths which traversed this slope, below the street level, the fourteen stories of the apartment hotel rose above him like a perpendicular cliff. He had no idea on which floor Thea lived, but he reflected, as his eye ran over the many windows, that the outlook would be fine from any floor. The forbidding hugeness of the house made him feel as if he had expected to meet Thea in a crowd and had missed her. He did not really believe that she was hidden away behind any of those glittering windows, or that he was to hear her this evening. His walk was curiously uninspiring and unsuggestive. Presently remembering that Ottenburg had encouraged him to study his lesson, he went down to the opera house and bought a libretto. He had even brought his old "Adler's German and English" in his trunk, and after luncheon he settled down in his gilded suite at the Waldorf with a big cigar and the text of "Lohengrin."

The opera was announced for seven-forty-five, but at half-past seven Archie took his seat in the right front of the orchestra circle. He had never been inside the Metropolitan Opera House before, and the height of the audience room, the rich color, and the sweep of the balconies were not without their effect upon him. He watched the house fill with a growing feeling of expectation. When the steel curtain rose and the men of the orchestra took their places, he felt distinctly nervous. The burst of applause which greeted the conductor keyed him still higher. He found that he had taken off his gloves and twisted them to a string. When the lights went down and the violins began the overture, the place looked larger than ever; a great pit, shadowy and solemn. The whole atmosphere, he reflected, was somehow more serious than he had anticipated.

After the curtains were drawn back upon the scene beside the Scheldt, he got readily into the swing of the story. He was so much interested in the bass who sang King Henry that he had almost forgotten for what he was waiting so nervously, when the Herald began in stentorian tones to summon Elsa Von Brabant. Then he began to realize that he was rather frightened. There was a flutter of white at the back of the stage, and women began to come in: two, four, six, eight, but not the right one. It flashed across him that this was something like buck-fever, the paralyzing moment that comes upon a man when his first elk looks at him through the bushes, under its great antlers; the moment when a man's mind is so full of shooting that he forgets the gun in his hand until the buck nods adieu to him from a distant hill.

All at once before the buck had left him, she was there. Yes, unquestionably it was she. Her eyes were downcast, but the head, the cheeks, the chin—there could be no mistake; she advanced slowly, as if she were walking in her sleep. Some one spoke to her; she only inclined her head. He spoke again, and she bowed her head still lower. Archie had forgotten his libretto, and he had not counted upon these long pauses. He had expected her to appear and sing and reassure him. They seemed to be waiting for her. Did she ever forget? Why in thunder did n't she— She made a sound, a faint one. The people on the stage whispered together and seemed confounded. His nervousness was absurd. She must have done this often before; she knew her bearings. She made another sound, but he could make nothing of it. Then the King sang to her, and Archie began to remember where they were in the story. She came to the front of the stage, lifted her eyes for the first time, clasped her hands and began, "Einsam in trüben Tagen."

Yes, it was exactly like buck-fever. Her face was there, toward the house now, before his eyes, and he positively could not see it. She was singing, at last, and he positively could not hear her. He was conscious of nothing but an uncomfortable dread and a sense of crushing disappointment. He had, after all, missed her. Whatever was there, she was not there—for him.

The King interrupted her. She began again, "In lichter Waffen Scheine." Archie did not know when his buck-fever passed, but presently he found that he was sitting quietly in a darkened house, not listening to but dreaming upon a river of silver sound. He felt apart from the others, drifting alone on the melody, as if he had been alone with it for a long while and had known it all before. His power of attention was not great just then, but in so far as it went he seemed to be looking through an exalted calmness at a beautiful woman from far away, from another sort of life and feeling and understanding than his own, who had in her face something he had known long ago, much brightened and beautified. As a lad he used to believe that the faces of people who died were like that in the next world; the same faces, but shining with the light of a new understanding. No, Ottenburg had not prepared him!

What he felt was admiration and estrangement. The homely reunion, that he had somehow expected, now seemed foolish. Instead of feeling proud that he knew her better than all these people about him, he felt chagrined at his own ingenuousness. For he did not know her better. This woman he had never known; she had somehow devoured his little friend, as the wolf ate up Red Ridinghood. Beautiful, radiant, tender as she was, she chilled his old affection; that sort of feeling was not appropriate. She seemed much, much farther away from him than she had seemed all those years when she was in Germany. The ocean he could cross, but there was something here he could not cross. There was a moment, when she turned to the King and smiled that rare, sunrise smile of her childhood, when he thought she was coming back to him. After the Herald's second call for her champion, when she knelt in her impassioned prayer, there was again something familiar, a kind of wild wonder that she had had the power to call up long ago. But she merely reminded him of Thea; this was not the girl herself.

After the tenor came on, the doctor ceased trying to make the woman before him fit into any of his cherished recollections. He took her, in so far as he could, for what she was then and there. When the knight raised the kneeling girl and put his mailed hand on her hair, when she lifted to him a face full of worship and passionate humility, Archie gave up his last reservation. He knew no more about her than did the hundreds around him, who sat in the shadow and looked on, as he looked, some with more understanding, some with less. He knew as much about Ortrude or Lohengrin as he knew about Elsa—more, because she went further than they, she sustained the legendary beauty of her conception more consistently. Even he could see that. Attitudes, movements, her face, her white arms and fingers, everything was suffused with a rosy tenderness, a warm humility, a gracious and yet—to him—wholly estranging beauty.

During the balcony singing in the second act the doctor's thoughts were as far away from Moonstone as the singer's doubtless were. He had begun, indeed, to feel the exhilaration of getting free from personalities, of being released from his own past as well as from Thea Kronborg's. It was very much, he told himself, like a military funeral, exalting and impersonal. Something old died in one, and out of it something new was born. During the duet with Ortrude, and the splendors of the wedding processional, this new feeling grew and grew. At the end of the act there were many curtain calls and Elsa acknowledged them, brilliant, gracious, spirited, with her far-breaking smile; but on the whole she was harder and more self-contained before the curtain than she was in the scene behind it. Archie did his part in the applause that greeted her, but it was the new and wonderful he applauded, not the old and dear. His personal, proprietary pride in her was frozen out.

He walked about the house during the entr'acte, and here and there among the people in the foyer he caught the name "Kronborg." On the staircase, in front of the coffee-room, a long-haired youth with a fat face was discoursing to a group of old women about "die Kronborg." Dr. Archie gathered that he had crossed on the boat with her.

After the performance was over, Archie took a taxi and started for Riverside Drive. He meant to see it through to-night. When he entered the reception hall of the hotel before which he had strolled that morning, the hall porter challeged him. He said he was waiting for Miss Kronborg. The porter looked at him suspiciously and asked whether he had an appointment. He answered brazenly that he had. He was not used to being questioned by hall boys. Archie sat first in one tapestry chair and then in another, keeping a sharp eye on the people who came in and went up in the elevators. He walked about and looked at his watch. An hour dragged by. No one had come in from the street now for about twenty minutes, when two women entered, carrying a great many flowers and followed by a tall young man in chauffeur's uniform. Archie advanced toward the taller of the two women, who was veiled and carried her head very firmly. He confronted her just as she reached the elevator. Although he did not stand directly in her way, something in his attitude compelled her to stop. She gave him a piercing, defiant glance through the white scarf that covered her face. Then she lifted her hand and brushed the scarf back from her head. There was still black on her brows and lashes. She was very pale and her face was drawn and deeply lined. She looked, the doctor told himself with a sinking heart, forty years old. Her suspicious, mystified stare cleared slowly.

"Pardon me," the doctor murmured, not knowing just how to address her here before the porters, "I came up from the opera. I merely wanted to say good-night to you."

Without speaking, still looking incredulous, she pushed him into the elevator. She kept her hand on his arm while the cage shot up, and she looked away from him, frowning, as if she were trying to remember or realize something. When the cage stopped, she pushed him out of the elevator through another door, which a maid opened, into a square hall. There she sank down on a chair and looked up at him.

"Why did n't you let me know?" she asked in a hoarse voice.

Archie heard himself laughing the old, embarrassed laugh that seldom happened to him now. "Oh, I wanted to take my chance with you, like anybody else. It 's been so long, now!"

She took his hand through her thick glove and her head dropped forward. "Yes, it has been long," she said in the same husky voice, "and so much has happened."

"And you are so tired, and I am a clumsy old fellow to break in on you to-night," the doctor added sympathetically. "Forgive me, this time." He bent over and put his hand soothingly on her shoulder. He felt a strong shudder run through her from head to foot.

Still bundled in her fur coat as she was, she threw both arms about him and hugged him. "Oh, Dr. Archie, Dr. Archie,"—she shook him,—"don't let me go. Hold on, now you re here," she laughed, breaking away from him at the same moment and sliding out of her fur coat. She left it for the maid to pick up and pushed the doctor into the sitting-room, where she turned on the lights. "Let me look at you. Yes; hands, feet, head, shoulders—just the same. You 've grown no older. You can't say as much for me, can you?"

She was standing in the middle of the room, in a white silk shirtwaist and a short black velvet skirt, which somehow suggested that they had 'cut off her petticoats all round about.' She looked distinctly clipped and plucked. Her hair was parted in the middle and done very close to her head, as she had worn it under the wig. She looked like a fugitive, who had escaped from something in clothes caught up at hazard. It flashed across Dr. Archie that she was running away from the other woman down at the opera house, who had used her hardly.

He took a step toward her. "I can't tell a thing in the world about you, Thea—if I may still call you that."

She took hold of the collar of his overcoat. "Yes, call me that. Do: I like to hear it. You frighten me a little, but I expect I frighten you more. I 'm always a scarecrow after I sing a long part like that—so high, too." She absently pulled out the handkerchief that protruded from his breast pocket and began to wipe the black paint off her eyebrows and lashes. "I can't take you in much to-night, but I must see you for a little while." She pushed him to a chair. "I shall be more recognizable to-morrow. You must n't think of me as you see me to-night. Come at four to-morrow afternoon and have tea with me. Can you? That 's good."

She sat down in a low chair beside him and leaned forward, drawing her shoulders together. She seemed to him inappropriately young and inappropriately old, shorn of her long tresses at one end and of her long robes at the other.

"How do you happen to be here?" she asked abruptly. "How can you leave a silver mine? I could n't! Sure nobody 'll cheat you? But you can explain everything to-morrow." She paused. "You remember how you sewed me up in a poultice, once? I wish you could to-night. I need a poultice, from top to toe. Something very disagreeable happened down there. You said you were out front? Oh, don't say anything about it. I always know exactly how it goes, unfortunately. I was rotten in the balcony. I never get that. You did n't notice it? Probably not, but I did."

Here the maid appeared at the door and her mistress rose. "My supper? Very well, I 'll come. I 'd ask you to stay, doctor, but there would n't be enough for two. They seldom send up enough for one,"—she spoke bitterly.—"I have n't got a sense of you yet," turning directly to Archie again. "You have n't been here. You 've only announced yourself, and told me you are coming to-morrow. You have n't seen me, either. This is not I. But I 'll be here waiting for you to-morrow, my whole works! Good night, till then." She patted him absently on the sleeve and gave him a little shove toward the door.


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