The Song of the Lark

by Willa Cather

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Part VI - Chapter IX

WHEN Archie and Ottenburg dined with Thea on Saturday evening, they were served downstairs in the hotel dining-room, but they were to have their coffee in her own apartment. As they were going up in the elevator after dinner, Fred turned suddenly to Thea. "And why, please, did you break Landry's amber elephant?"

She looked guilty and began to laugh. "Has n't he got over that yet? I did n't really mean to break it. I was perhaps careless. His things are so over-petted that I was tempted to be careless with a lot of them."

"How can you be so heartless, when they 're all he has in the world?"

"He has me. I 'm a great deal of diversion for him; all he needs. There," she said as she opened the door into her own hall, "I should n't have said that before the elevator boy."

"Even an elevator boy could n't make a scandal about Oliver. He 's such a catnip man."

Dr. Archie laughed, but Thea, who seemed suddenly to have thought of something annoying, repeated blankly, "Catnip man?"

"Yes, he lives on catnip, and rum tea. But he 's not the only one. You are like an eccentric old woman I know in Boston, who goes about in the spring feeding catnip to street cats. You dispense it to a lot of fellows. Your pull seems to be more with men than with women, you know; with seasoned men, about my age, or older. Even on Friday afternoon I kept running into them, old boys I had n't seen for years, thin at the part and thick at the girth, until I stood still in the draft and held my hair on. They 're always there; I hear them talking about you in the smoking-room. Probably we don't get to the point of apprehending anything good until we 're about forty. Then, in the light of what is going, and of what, God help us! is coming, we arrive at understanding."

"I don 't see why people go to the opera, anyway,—serious people." She spoke discontentedly. "I suppose they get something, or think they do. Here 's the coffee. There, please," she directed the waiter. Going to the table she began to pour the coffee, standing. She wore a white dress trimmed with crystals which had rattled a good deal during dinner, as all her movements had been impatient and nervous, and she had twisted the dark velvet rose at her girdle until it looked rumpled and weary. She poured the coffee as if it were a ceremony in which she did not believe. "Can you make anything of Fred's nonsense, Dr. Archie?" she asked, as he came to take his cup.

Fred approached her. "My nonsense is all right. The same brand has gone with you before. It 's you who won't be jollied. What 's the matter? You have something on your mind."

"I 've a good deal. Too much to be an agreeable hostess." She turned quickly away from the coffee and sat down on the piano bench, facing the two men. "For one thing, there 's a change in the cast for Friday afternoon. They 're going to let me sing Sieglinde." Her frown did not conceal the pleasure with which she made this announcement.

"Are you going to keep us dangling about here forever, Thea? Archie and I are supposed to have other things to do." Fred looked at her with an excitement quite as apparent as her own.

"Here I 've been ready to sing Sieglinde for two years, kept in torment, and now it comes off within two weeks, just when I want to be seeing something of Dr. Archie. I don't know what their plans are down there. After Friday they may let me cool for several weeks, and they may rush me. I suppose it depends somewhat on how things go Friday afternoon."

"Oh, they 'll go fast enough! That 's better suited to your voice than anything you 've sung here. That gives you every opportunity I 've waited for." Ottenburg crossed the room and standing beside her began to play "Du bist der Lenz."

With a violent movement Thea caught his wrists and pushed his hands away from the keys.

"Fred, can't you be serious? A thousand things may happen between this and Friday to put me out. Something will happen. If that part were sung well, as well as it ought to be, it would be one of the most beautiful things in the world. That 's why it never is sung right, and never will be." She clenched her hands and opened them despairingly, looking out of the open window. "It 's inaccessibly beautiful!" she brought out sharply.

Fred and Dr. Archie watched her. In a moment she turned back to them. "It 's impossible to sing a part like that well for the first time, except for the sort who will never sing it any better. Everything hangs on that first night, and that 's bound to be bad. There you are," she shrugged impatiently. "For one thing, they change the cast at the eleventh hour and then rehearse the life out of me."

Ottenburg put down his cup with exaggerated care. "Still, you really want to do it, you know."

"Want to?" she repeated indignantly; "of course I want to! If this were only next Thursday night—But between now and Friday I 'll do nothing but fret away my strength. Oh, I 'm not saying I don't need the rehearsals! But I don't need them strung out through a week. That system 's well enough for phlegmatic singers; it only drains me. Every single feature of operatic routine is detrimental to me. I usually go on like a horse that's been fixed to lose a race. I have to work hard to do my worst, let alone my best. I wish you could hear me sing well, once," she turned to Fred defiantly; "I have, a few times in my life, when there was nothing to gain by it."

Fred approached her again and held out his hand. "I recall my instructions, and now I 'll leave you to fight it out with Archie. He can't possibly represent managerial stupidity to you as I seem to have a gift for doing."

As he smiled down at her, his good humor, his good wishes, his understanding, embarrassed her and recalled her to herself. She kept her seat, still holding his hand. "All the same, Fred, is n't it too bad, that there are so many things—" She broke off with a shake of the head.

"My dear girl, if I could bridge over the agony between now and Friday for you— But you know the rules of the game; why torment yourself? You saw the other night that you had the part under your thumb. Now walk, sleep, play with Archie, keep your tiger hungry, and she 'll spring all right on Friday. I 'll be there to see her, and there 'll be more than I, I suspect. Harsanyi 's on the Wilhelm der Grosse; gets in on Thursday."

"Harsanyi?" Thea's eye lighted. "I have n't seen him for years. We always miss each other." She paused, hesitating. "Yes, I should like that. But he 'll be busy, maybe?"

"He gives his first concert at Carnegie Hall, week after next. Better send him a box if you can."

"Yes, I 'll manage it." Thea took his hand again. "Oh, I should like that, Fred!" she added impulsively. "Even if I were put out, he 'd get the idea,"—she threw back her head,—"for there is an idea!"

"Which won't penetrate here," he tapped his brow and began to laugh. "You are an ungrateful huzzy, comme les autres!"

Thea detained him as he turned away. She pulled a flower out of a bouquet on the piano and absently drew the stem through the lapel of his coat. "I shall be walking in the Park to-morrow afternoon, on the reservoir path, between four and five, if you care to join me. You know that after Harsanyi I 'd rather please you than anyone else. You know a lot, but he knows even more than you."

"Thank you. Don't try to analyze it. Schlafen Sie wohl!" he kissed her fingers and waved from the door, closing it behind him.

"He 's the right sort, Thea." Dr. Archie looked warmly after his disappearing friend. "I 've always hoped you 'd make it up with Fred."

"Well, have n't I? Oh, marry him, you mean! Perhaps it may come about, some day. Just at present he 's not in the marriage market any more than I am, is he?"

"No, I suppose not. It s a damned shame that a man like Ottenburg should be tied up as he is, wasting all the best years of his life. A woman with general paresis ought to be legally dead."

"Don't let us talk about Fred's wife, please. He had no business to get into such a mess, and he had no business to stay in it. He 's always been a softy where women were concerned."

"Most of us are, I 'm afraid," Dr. Archie admitted meekly.

"Too much light in here, is n't there? Tires one's eyes. The stage lights are hard on mine." Thea began turning them out. "We 'll leave the little one, over the piano." She sank down by Archie on the deep sofa. "We two have so much to talk about that we keep away from it altogether; have you noticed? We don't even nibble the edges. I wish we had Landry here to-night to play for us. He 's very comforting."

"I 'm afraid you don't have enough personal life, outside your work, Thea." The doctor looked at her anxiously.

She smiled at him with her eyes half closed. "My dear doctor, I don't have any. Your work becomes your personal life. You are not much good until it does. It 's like being woven into a big web. You can't pull away, because all your little tendrils are woven into the picture. It takes you up, and uses you, and spins you out; and that is your life. Not much else can happen to you."

"Did n't you think of marrying, several years ago?"

"You mean Nordquist? Yes; but I changed my mind. We had been singing a good deal together. He 's a splendid creature."

"Were you much in love with him, Thea?" the doctor asked hopefully.

She smiled again. "I don't think I know just what that expression means. I 've never been able to find out. I think I was in love with you when I was little, but not with any one since then. There are a great many ways of caring for people. It 's not, after all, a simple state, like measles or tonsilitis. Nordquist is a taking sort of man. He and I were out in a rowboat once in a terrible storm. The lake was fed by glaciers,—ice water,—and we could n't have swum a stroke if the boat had filled. If we had n't both been strong and kept our heads, we 'd have gone down. We pulled for every ounce there was in us, and we just got off with our lives. We were always being thrown together like that, under some kind of pressure. Yes, for a while I thought he would make everything right." She paused and sank back, resting her head on a cushion, pressing her eyelids down with her fingers. "You see," she went on abruptly, "he had a wife and two children. He had n't lived with her for several years, but when she heard that he wanted to marry again, she began to make trouble. He earned a good deal of money, but he was careless and always wretchedly in debt. He came to me one day and told me he thought his wife would settle for a hundred thousand marks and consent to a divorce. I got very angry and sent him away. Next day he came back and said he thought she 'd take fifty thousand."

Dr. Archie drew away from her, to the end of the sofa. "Good God, Thea,"—He ran his handkerchief over his forehead. "What sort of people—" He stopped and shook his head.

Thea rose and stood beside him, her hand on his shoulder. "That 's exactly how it struck me," she said quietly. "Oh, we have things in common, things that go away back, under everything. You understand, of course. Nordquist did n't. He thought I was n't willing to part with the money. I could n't let myself buy him from Fru Nordquist, and he could n't see why. He had always thought I was close about money, so he attributed it to that. I am careful,"—she ran her arm through Archie's and when he rose began to walk about the room with him. "I can't be careless with money. I began the world on six hundred dollars, and it was the price of a man's life. Ray Kennedy had worked hard and been sober and denied himself, and when he died he had six hundred dollars to show for it. I always measure things by that six hundred dollars, just as I measure high buildings by the Moonstone standpipe. There are standards we can't get away from."

Dr. Archie took her hand. "I don't believe we should be any happier if we did get away from them. I think it gives you some of your poise, having that anchor. You look," glancing down at her head and shoulders, "sometimes so like your mother."

"Thank you. You could n't say anything nicer to me than that. On Friday afternoon, did n't you think?"

"Yes, but at other times, too. I love to see it. Do you know what I thought about that first night when I heard you sing? I kept remembering the night I took care of you when you had pneumonia, when you were ten years old. You were a terribly sick child, and I was a country doctor without much experience. There were no oxygen tanks about then. You pretty nearly slipped away from me. If you had—"

Thea dropped her head on his shoulder. "I 'd have saved myself and you a lot of trouble, would n't I? Dear Dr. Archie!" she murmured.

"As for me, life would have been a pretty bleak stretch, with you left out." The doctor took one of the crystal pendants that hung from her shoulder and looked into it thoughtfully. "I guess I 'm a romantic old fellow, underneath. And you 've always been my romance. Those years when you were growing up were my happiest. When I dream about you, I always see you as a little girl."

They paused by the open window. "Do you? Nearly all my dreams, except those about breaking down on the stage or missing trains, are about Moonstone. You tell me the old house has been pulled down, but it stands in my mind, every stick and timber. In my sleep I go all about it, and look in the right drawers and cupboards for everything. I often dream that I 'm hunting for my rubbers in that pile of overshoes that was always under the hatrack in the hall. I pick up every overshoe and know whose it is, but I can t find my own. Then the school bell begins to ring and I begin to cry. That 's the house I rest in when I 'm tired. All the old furniture and the worn spots in the carpet—it rests my mind to go over them."

They were looking out of the window. Thea kept his arm. Down on the river four battleships were anchored in line, brilliantly lighted, and launches were coming and going, bringing the men ashore. A searchlight from one of the ironclads was playing on the great headland up the river, where it makes its first resolute turn. Overhead the night-blue sky was intense and clear.

"There 's so much that I want to tell you," she said at last, "and it 's hard to explain. My life is full of jealousies and disappointments, you know. You get to hating people who do contemptible work and who get on just as well as you do. There are many disappointments in my profession, and bitter, bitter contempts!" Her face hardened, and looked much older. "If you love the good thing vitally, enough to give up for it all that one must give up for it, then you must hate the cheap thing just as hard. I tell you, there is such a thing as creative hate! A contempt that drives you through fire, makes you risk everything and lose everything, makes you a long sight better than you ever knew you could be." As she glanced at Dr. Archie's face, Thea stopped short and turned her own face away. Her eyes followed the path of the searchlight up the river and rested upon the illumined headland.

"You see," she went on more calmly, "voices are accidental things. You find plenty of good voices in common women, with common minds and common hearts. Look at that woman who sang Ortrude with me last week. She 's new here and the people are wild about her. 'Such a beautiful volume of tone!' they say. I give you my word she 's as stupid as an owl and as coarse as a pig, and any one who knows anything about singing would see that in an instant. Yet she 's quite as popular as Necker, who 's a great artist. How can I get much satisfaction out of the enthusiasm of a house that likes her atrociously bad performance at the same time that it pretends to like mine? If they like her, then they ought to hiss me off the stage. We stand for things that are irreconcilable, absolutely. You can't try to do things right and not despise the people who do them wrong. How can I be indifferent? If that does n't matter, then nothing matters. Well, some times I 've come home as I did the other night when you first saw me, so full of bitterness that it was as if my mind were full of daggers. And I 've gone to sleep and wakened up in the Kohlers' garden, with the pigeons and the white rabbits, so happy! And that saves me." She sat down on the piano bench. Archie thought she had forgotten all about him, until she called his name. Her voice was soft now, and wonderfully sweet. It seemed to come from some where deep within her, there were such strong vibrations in it. "You see, Dr. Archie, what one really strives for in art is not the sort of thing you are likely to find when you drop in for a performance at the opera. What one strives for is so far away, so deep, so beautiful"—she lifted her shoulders with a long breath, folded her hands in her lap and sat looking at him with a resignation that made her face noble,—"that there 's nothing one can say about it, Dr. Archie."

Without knowing very well what it was all about, Archie was passionately stirred for her. "I 've always believed in you, Thea; always believed," he muttered.

She smiled and closed her eyes. "They save me: the old things, things like the Kohlers' garden. They are in everything I do."

"In what you sing, you mean?"

"Yes. Not in any direct way,"—she spoke hurriedly,—"the light, the color, the feeling. Most of all the feeling. It comes in when I 'm working on a part, like the smell of a garden coming in at the window. I try all the new things, and then go back to the old. Perhaps my feelings were stronger then. A child's attitude toward everything is an artist's attitude. I am more or less of an artist now, but then I was nothing else. When I went with you to Chicago that first time, I carried with me the essentials, the foundation of all I do now. The point to which I could go was scratched in me then. I have n't reached it yet, by a long way."

Archie had a swift flash of memory. Pictures passed before him. "You mean," he asked wonderingly, "that you knew then that you were so gifted?"

Thea looked up at him and smiled. "Oh, I did n't know anything! Not enough to ask you for my trunk when I needed. But you see, when I set out from Moonstone with you, I had had a rich, romantic past. I had lived a long, eventful life, and an artist's life, every hour of it. Wagner says, in his most beautiful opera, that art is only a way of remembering youth. And the older we grow the more precious it seems to us, and the more richly we can present that memory. When we 've got it all out,—the last, the finest thrill of it, the brightest hope of it,"—she lifted her hand above her head and dropped it,—"then we stop. We do nothing but repeat after that. The stream has reached the level of its source. That 's our measure."

There was a long, warm silence. Thea was looking hard at the floor, as if she were seeing down through years and years, and her old friend stood watching her bent head. His look was one with which he used to watch her long ago, and which, even in thinking about her, had become a habit of his face. It was full of solicitude, and a kind of secret gratitude, as if to thank her for some inexpressible pleasure of the heart. Thea turned presently toward the piano and began softly to waken an old air:—

"Ca' the yowes to the knowes,
Ca' them where the heather grows,
Ca' them where the burnie rowes,
⁠My bonnie dear-ie."

Archie sat down and shaded his eyes with his hand. She turned her head and spoke to him over her shoulder. "Come on, you know the words better than I. That 's right."

"We 'll gae down by Clouden's side,
Through the hazels spreading wide,
O'er the waves that sweetly glide,
⁠To the moon sae clearly.
Ghaist nor bogle shalt thou fear,
Thou'rt to love and Heav'n sae dear,
Nocht of ill may come thee near,
⁠My bonnie dear-ie!"

"We can get on without Landry. Let 's try it again, I have all the words now. Then we 'll have Sweet Afton. Come: 'Ca' the yowes to the knowes'—"


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