The Song of the Lark

by Willa Cather

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Part VI - Chapter VIII

THE "Ring of the Niebelungs" was to be given at the Metropolitan on four successive Friday afternoons. After the first of these performances, Fred Ottenburg went home with Landry for tea. Landry was one of the few public entertainers who own real estate in New York. He lived in a little three-story brick house on Jane Street, in Greenwich Village, which had been left to him by the same aunt who paid for his musical education.

Landry was born, and spent the first fifteen years of his life, on a rocky Connecticut farm not far from Cos Cob. His father was an ignorant, violent man, a bungling farmer and a brutal husband. The farmhouse, dilapidated and damp, stood in a hollow beside a marshy pond. Oliver had worked hard while he lived at home, although he was never clean or warm in winter and had wretched food all the year round. His spare, dry figure, his prominent larynx, and the peculiar red of his face and hands belonged to the chore-boy he had never outgrown. It was as if the farm, knowing he would escape from it as early as he could, had ground its mark on him deep. When he was fifteen Oliver ran away and went to live with his Catholic aunt, on Jane Street, whom his mother was never allowed to visit. The priest of St. Joseph's Parish discovered that he had a voice.

Landry had an affection for the house on Jane Street, where he had first learned what cleanliness and order and courtesy were. When his aunt died he had the place done over, got an Irish housekeeper, and lived there with a great many beautiful things he had collected. His living expenses were never large, but he could not restrain himself from buying graceful and useless objects. He was a collector for much the same reason that he was a Catholic, and he was a Catholic chiefly because his father used to sit in the kitchen and read aloud to his hired men disgusting "exposures" of the Roman Church, enjoying equally the hideous stories and the outrage to his wife's feelings.

At first Landry bought books; then rugs, drawings, china. He had a beautiful collection of old French and Spanish fans. He kept them in an escritoire he had brought from Spain, but there were always a few of them lying about in his sitting-room.

While Landry and his guest were waiting for the tea to be brought, Ottenburg took up one of these fans from the low marble mantel-shelf and opened it in the firelight. One side was painted with a pearly sky and floating clouds. On the other was a formal garden where an elegant shepherdess with a mask and crook was fleeing on high heels from a satin-coated shepherd.

"You ought not to keep these things about, like this, Oliver. The dust from your grate must get at them."

"It does, but I get them to enjoy them, not to have them. They 're pleasant to glance at and to play with at odd times like this, when one is waiting for tea or something."

Fred smiled. The idea of Landry stretched out before his fire playing with his fans, amused him. Mrs. McGinnis brought the tea and put it before the hearth: old teacups that were velvety to the touch and a pot-bellied silver cream pitcher of an Early Georgian pattern, which was always brought, though Landry took rum.

Fred drank his tea walking about, examining Landry's sumptuous writing-table in the alcove and the Boucher drawing in red chalk over the mantel. "I don't see how you can stand this place without a heroine. It would give me a raging thirst for gallantries."

Landry was helping himself to a second cup of tea. "Works quite the other way with me. It consoles me for the lack of her. It 's just feminine enough to be pleasant to return to. Not any more tea? Then sit down and play for me. I 'm always playing for other people, and I never have a chance to sit here quietly and listen."

Ottenburg opened the piano and began softly to boom forth the shadowy introduction to the opera they had just heard. "Will that do?" he asked jokingly. "I can't seem to get it out of my head."

"Oh, excellently! Thea told me it was quite wonderful, the way you can do Wagner scores on the piano. So few people can give one any idea of the music. Go ahead, as long as you like. I can smoke, too." Landry flattened himself out on his cushions and abandoned himself to ease with the circumstance of one who has never grown quite accustomed to ease.

Ottenburg played on, as he happened to remember. He understood now why Thea wished him to hear her in "Rheingold." It had been clear to him as soon as Fricka rose from sleep and looked out over the young world, stretching one white arm toward the new Götterburg shining on the heights. "Wotan! Gemahl! erwache!" She was pure Scandinavian, this Fricka: "Swedish summer"! he remembered old Mr. Nathanmeyer's phrase. She had wished him to see her because she had a distinct kind of loveliness for this part, a shining beauty like the light of sunset on distant sails. She seemed to take on the look of immortal loveliness, the youth of the golden apples, the shining body and the shining mind. Fricka had been a jealous spouse to him for so long that he had forgot she meant wisdom before she meant domestic order, and that, in any event, she was always a goddess. The Fricka of that afternoon was so clear and sunny, so nobly conceived, that she made a whole atmosphere about herself and quite redeemed from shabbiness the helplessness and unscrupulousness of the gods. Her reproaches to Wotan were the pleadings of a tempered mind, a consistent sense of beauty. In the long silences of her part, her shining presence was a visible complement to the discussion of the orchestra. As the themes which were to help in weaving the drama to its end first came vaguely upon the ear, one saw their import and tendency in the face of this clearest-visioned of the gods.

In the scene between Fricka and Wotan, Ottenburg stopped. "I can't seem to get the voices, in there."

Landry chuckled. "Don't try. I know it well enough. I expect I 've been over that with her a thousand times. I was playing for her almost every day when she was first working on it. When she begins with a part she 's hard to work with: so slow you 'd think she was stupid if you did n't know her. Of course she blames it all on her accompanist. It goes on like that for weeks sometimes. This did. She kept shaking her head and staring and looking gloomy. All at once, she got her line—it usually comes suddenly, after stretches of not getting anywhere at all—and after that it kept changing and clearing. As she worked her voice into it, it got more and more of that 'gold' quality that makes her Fricka so different."

Fred began Fricka's first aria again. "It 's certainly different. Curious how she does it. Such a beautiful idea, out of a part that 's always been so ungrateful. She 's a lovely thing, but she was never so beautiful as that, really. Nobody is." He repeated the loveliest phrase. "How does she manage it, Landry? You 've worked with her."

Landry drew cherishingly on the last cigarette he meant to permit himself before singing. "Oh, it 's a question of a big personality—and all that goes with it. Brains, of course. Imagination, of course. But the important thing is that she was born full of color, with a rich personality. That 's a gift of the gods, like a fine nose. You have it, or you have n't. Against it, intelligence and musicianship and habits of industry don't count at all. Singers are a conventional race. When Thea was studying in Berlin the other girls were mortally afraid of her. She has a pretty rough hand with women, dull ones, and she could be rude, too! The girls used to call her die Wölfin."

Fred thrust his hands into his pockets and leaned back against the piano. "Of course, even a stupid woman could get effects with such machinery: such a voice and body and face. But they, could n't possibly belong to a stupid woman, could they?"

Landry shook his head, "It 's personality; that 's as near as you can come to it. That 's what constitutes real equipment. What she does is interesting because she does it. Even the things she discards are suggestive. I regret some of them. Her conceptions are colored in so many different ways. You 've heard her Elizabeth? Wonderful, isn't it? She was working on that part years ago when her mother was ill. I could see her anxiety and grief getting more and more into the part. The last act is heart-breaking. It 's as homely as a country prayer meeting: might be any lonely woman getting ready to die. It 's full of the thing every plain creature finds out for himself, but that never gets written down. It 's unconscious memory, maybe; inherited memory, like folk-music. I call it personality."

Fred laughed, and turning to the piano began coaxing the Fricka music again. "Call it anything you like, my boy. I have a name for it myself, but I shan't tell you." He looked over his shoulder at Landry, stretched out by the fire. "You have a great time watching her, don't you?"

"Oh, yes!" replied Landry simply. "I 'm not interested in much that goes on in New York. Now, if you 'll excuse me, I 'll have to dress." He rose with a reluctant sigh. "Can I get you anything? Some whiskey?"

"Thank you, no. I 'll amuse myself here. I don't often get a chance at a good piano when I 'm away from home. You have n't had this one long, have you? Action 's a bit stiff. I say," he stopped Landry in the doorway, "has Thea ever been down here?"

Landry turned back. "Yes. She came several times when I had erysipelas. I was a nice mess, with two nurses. She brought down some inside window-boxes, planted with crocuses and things. Very cheering, only I could n't see them or her."

"Did n't she like your place?"

"She thought she did, but I fancy it was a good deal cluttered up for her taste. I could hear her pacing about like something in a cage. She pushed the piano back against the wall and the chairs into corners, and she broke my amber elephant." Landry took a yellow object some four inches high from one of his low bookcases. "You can see where his leg is glued on,—a souvenir. Yes, he 's lemon amber, very fine."

Landry disappeared behind the curtains and in a moment Fred heard the wheeze of an atomizer. He put the amber elephant on the piano beside him and seemed to get a great deal of amusement out of the beast.


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