The Song of the Lark

by Willa Cather

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Part VI - Chapter V

WHEN Archie got back to his hotel at two o'clock in the morning, he found Fred Ottenburg's card under his door, with a message scribbled across the top: "When you come in, please call up room 811, this hotel." A moment later Fred's voice reached him over the telephone.

"That you, Archie? Won't you come up? I 'm having some supper and I 'd like company. Late? What does that matter? I won't keep you long."

Archie dropped his overcoat and set out for room 811. He found Ottenburg in the act of touching a match to a chafing-dish, at a table laid for two in his sitting-room. "I 'm catering here," he announced cheerfully. "I let the waiter off at midnight, after he 'd set me up. You 'll have to account for yourself, Archie."

The doctor laughed, pointing to three wine-coolers under the table. "Are you expecting guests?"

"Yes, two." Ottenburg held up two fingers,—"you, and my higher self. He 's a thirsty boy, and I don't invite him often. He has been known to give me a headache. Now, where have you been, Archie, until this shocking hour?"

"Bah, you 've been banting!" the doctor exclaimed, pulling out his white gloves as he searched for his handkerchief and throwing them into a chair. Ottenburg was in evening clothes and very pointed dress shoes. His white waistcoat, upon which the doctor had fixed a challenging eye, went down straight from the top button, and he wore a camelia. He was conspicuously brushed and trimmed and polished. His smoothly controlled excitement was wholly different from his usual easy cordiality, though he had his face, as well as his figure, well in hand. On the serving-table there was an empty champagne pint and a glass. He had been having a little starter, the doctor told himself, and would probably be running on high gear before he got through. There was even now an air of speed about him.

"Been, Freddy?"—the doctor at last took up his question. "I expect I 've been exactly where you have. Why did n't you tell me you were coming on?"

"I was n't, Archie." Fred lifted the cover of the chafing-dish and stirred the contents. He stood behind the table, holding the lid with his handkerchief. "I had never thought of such a thing. But Landry, a young chap who plays her accompaniments and who keeps an eye out for me, telegraphed me that Madame Rheinecker had gone to Atlantic City with a bad throat, and Thea might have a chance to sing Elsa. She has sung it only twice here before, and I missed it in Dresden. So I came on. I got in at four this afternoon and saw you registered, but I thought I would n't butt in. How lucky you got here just when she was coming on for this. You could n't have hit a better time." Ottenburg stirred the contents of the dish faster and put in more sherry. "And where have you been since twelve o'clock, may I ask?"

Archie looked rather self-conscious, as he sat down on a fragile gilt chair that rocked under him, and stretched out his long legs. "Well, if you 'll believe me, I had the brutality to go to see her. I wanted to identify her. Could n't wait."

Ottenburg placed the cover quickly on the chafing-dish and took a step backward. "You did, old sport? My word! None but the brave deserve the fair. Well,"—he stooped to turn the wine,—"and how was she?"

"She seemed rather dazed, and pretty well used up. She seemed disappointed in herself, and said she had n't done herself justice in the balcony scene."

"Well, if she did n't, she 's not the first. Beastly stuff to sing right in there; lies just on the 'break' in the voice." Fred pulled a bottle out of the ice and drew the cork. Lifting his glass he looked meaningly at Archie. "You know who, doctor. Here goes!" He drank off his glass with a sigh of satisfaction. After he had turned the lamp low under the chafing-dish, he remained standing, looking pensively down at the food on the table. "Well, she rather pulled it off! As a backer, you re a winner, Archie. I congratulate you." Fred poured himself another glass. "Now you must eat something, and so must I. Here, get off that bird cage and find a steady chair. This stuff ought to be rather good; head waiter's suggestion. Smells all right." He bent over the chafing-dish and began to serve the contents. "Perfectly innocuous: mushrooms and truffles and a little crab-meat. And now, on the level, Archie, how did it hit you?"

Archie turned a frank smile to his friend and shook his head. "It was all miles beyond me, of course, but it gave me a pulse. The general excitement got hold of me, I suppose. I like your wine, Freddy." He put down his glass. "It goes to the spot to-night. She was all right, then? You were n't disappointed?"

"Disappointed? My dear Archie, that's the high voice we dream of; so pure and yet so virile and human. That combination hardly ever happens with sopranos." Ottenburg sat down and turned to the doctor, speaking calmly and trying to dispel his friend's manifest bewilderment. "You see, Archie, there 's the voice itself, so beautiful and individual, and then there 's something else; the thing in it which responds to every shade of thought and feeling, spontaneously, almost unconsciously. That color has to be born in a singer, it can't be acquired; lots of beautiful voices have n't a vestige of it. It 's almost like another gift—the rarest of all. The voice simply is the mind and is the heart. It can't go wrong in interpretation, because it has in it the thing that makes all interpretation. That 's why you feel so sure of her. After you 've listened to her for an hour or so, you are n't afraid of anything. All the little dreads you have with other artists vanish; You lean back and you say to yourself, 'No, that voice will never betray.' Treulich geführt, treulich bewacht."

Archie looked envyingly at Fred's excited, triumphant face. How satisfactory it must be, he thought, to really know what she was doing and not to have to take it on hearsay. He took up his glass with a sigh. "I seem to need a good deal of cooling off to-night. I 'd just as lief forget the Reform Party for once.

"Yes, Fred," he went on seriously; "I thought it sounded very beautiful, and I thought she was very beautiful, too. I never imagined she could be as beautiful as that."

"Was n't she? Every attitude a picture, and always the right kind of picture, full of that legendary, supernatural thing she gets into it. I never heard the prayer sung like that before. That look that came in her eyes; it went right out through the back of the roof. Of course, you get an Elsa who can look through walls like that, and visions and Grail-knights happen naturally. She becomes an abbess, that girl, after Lohengrin leaves her. She 's made to live with ideas and enthusiasms, not with a husband." Fred folded his arms, leaned back in his chair, and began to sing softly:

"In lichter Waff en Scheine, Ein Ritter nahte da."

"Does n't she die, then, at the end?" the doctor asked guardedly.

Fred smiled, reaching under the table. "Some Elsas do; she did n't. She left me with the distinct impression that she was just beginning. Now, doctor, here 's a cold one." He twirled a napkin smoothly about the green glass, the cork gave and slipped out with a soft explosion. "And now we must have another toast. It 's up to you, this time."

The doctor watched the agitation in his glass. "The same," he said without lifting his eyes. "That 's good enough. I can't raise you."

Fred leaned forward, and looked sharply into his face. "That 's the point; how could you raise me? Once again!"

"Once again, and always the same!" The doctor put down his glass. "This does n't seem to produce any symptoms in me to-night." He lit a cigar. "Seriously, Freddy, I wish I knew more about what she 's driving at. It makes me jealous, when you are so in it and I 'm not."

"In it?" Fred started up. "My God, have n't you seen her this blessed night?—when she 'd have kicked any other man down the elevator shaft, if I know her. Leave me something; at least what I can pay my five bucks for."

"Seems to me you get a good deal for your five bucks," said Archie ruefully. "And that, after all, is what she cares about,—what people get."

Fred lit a cigarette, took a puff or two, and then threw it away. He was lounging back in his chair, and his face was pale and drawn hard by that mood of intense concentration which lurks under the sunny shallows of the vineyard. In his voice there was a longer perspective than usual, a slight remoteness. "You see, Archie, it 's all very simple, a natural development. It 's exactly what Mahler said back there in the beginning, when she sang Woglinde. It 's the idea, the basic idea, pulsing behind every bar she sings. She simplifies a character down to the musical idea it 's built on, and makes everything conform to that. The people who chatter about her being a great actress don't seem to get the notion of where she gets the notion. It all goes back to her original endowment, her tremendous musical talent. Instead of inventing a lot of business and expedients to suggest character, she knows the thing at the root, and lets the musical pattern take care of her. The score pours her into all those lovely postures, makes the light and shadow go over her face, lifts her and drops her. She lies on it, the way she used to lie on the Rhine music. Talk about rhythm!"

The doctor frowned dubiously as a third bottle made its appearance above the cloth. "Are n't you going in rather strong?"

Fred laughed. "No, I 'm becoming too sober. You see this is breakfast now; kind of wedding breakfast. I feel rather weddingish. I don't mind. You know," he went on as the wine gurgled out, "I was thinking to-night when they sprung the wedding music, how any fool can have that stuff played over him when he walks up the aisle with some dough-faced little hussy who 's hooked him. But it is n't every fellow who can see—well, what we saw to-night. There are compensations in life, Dr. Howard Archie, though they come in disguise. Did you notice her when she came down the stairs? Wonder where she gets that bright-and-morning star look? Carries to the last row of the family circle. I moved about all over the house. I 'll tell you a secret, Archie: that carrying power was one of the first things that put me wise. Noticed it down there in Arizona, in the open. That, I said, belongs only to the big ones." Fred got up and began to move rhythmically about the room, his hands in his pockets. The doctor was astonished at his ease and steadiness, for there were slight lapses in his speech. "You see, Archie, Elsa is n't a part that 's particularly suited to Thea's voice at all, as I see her voice. It 's over-lyrical for her. She makes it, but there 's nothing in it that fits her like a glove, except, maybe, that long duet in the third act. There, of course,"—he held out his hands as if he were measuring something,—"we know exactly where we are. But wait until they give her a chance at something that lies properly in her voice, and you 'll see me rosier than I am to-night."

Archie smoothed the tablecloth with his hand. "I am sure I don't want to see you any rosier, Fred."

Ottenburg threw back his head and laughed. "It 's enthusiasm, doctor. It 's not the wine. I 've got as much inflated as this for a dozen trashy things: brewers dinners and political orgies. You, too, have your extravagances, Archie. And what I like best in you is this particular enthusiasm, which is not at all practical or sensible, which is downright Quixotic. You are not altogether what you seem, and you have your reservations. Living among the wolves, you have not become one. Lupibus vivendi non lupus sum."

The doctor seemed embarrassed. "I was just thinking how tired she looked, plucked of all her fine feathers, while we get all the fun. Instead of sitting here carousing, we ought to go solemnly to bed."

"I get your idea." Ottenburg crossed to the window and threw it open. "Fine night outside; a hag of a moon just setting. It begins to smell like morning. After all, Archie, think of the lonely and rather solemn hours we 've spent waiting for all this, while she s been—reveling."

Archie lifted his brows. "I somehow did n't get the idea to-night that she revels much."

"I don't mean this sort of thing." Fred turned toward the light and stood with his back to the window. "That," with a nod toward the wine-cooler, "is only a cheap imitation, that any poor stiff-fingered fool can buy and feel his shell grow thinner? But take it from me, no matter what she pays, or how much she may see fit to lie about it, the real, the master revel is hers." He leaned back against the window sill and crossed his arms. "Anybody with all that voice and all that talent and all that beauty, has her hour. Her hour," he went on deliberately, "when she can say, 'there it is, at last, wie im Traum ich—

"'As in my dream I dreamed it, As in my will it was.'"

He stood silent a moment, twisting the flower from his coat by the stem, and staring at the blank wall with haggard abstraction. "Even I can say to-night, Archie," he brought out slowly,

"'As in my dream I dreamed it, As in my will it was.'

Now, doctor, you may leave me. I 'm beautifully drunk, but not with anything that ever grew in France."

The doctor rose. Fred tossed his flower out of the window behind him and came toward the door. "I say," he called, "have you a date with anybody?"

The doctor paused, his hand on the knob. "With Thea, you mean? Yes. I 'm to go to her at four this afternoon—if you have n't paralyzed me."

"Well, you won't eat me, will you, if I break in and send up my card? She 'll probably turn me down cold, but that won't hurt my feelings. If she ducks me, you tell her for me, that to spite me now she 'd have to cut off more than she can spare. Good-night, Archie."


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