The Song of the Lark

by Willa Cather

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Part VI - Chapter X

OTTENBURG dismissed his taxicab at the 91st Street entrance of the Park and floundered across the drive through a wild spring snowstorm. When he reached the reservoir path he saw Thea ahead of him, walking rapidly against the wind. Except for that one figure, the path was deserted. A flock of gulls were hovering over the reservoir, seeming bewildered by the driving currents of snow that whirled above the black water and then disappeared with in it. When he had almost overtaken Thea, Fred called to her, and she turned and waited for him with her back to the wind. Her hair and furs were powdered with snowflakes, and she looked like some rich-pelted animal, with warm blood, that had run in out of the woods. Fred laughed as he took her hand.

"No use asking how you do. You surely need n't feel much anxiety about Friday, when you can look like this."

She moved close to the iron fence to make room for him beside her, and faced the wind again. "Oh, I 'm well enough, in so far as that goes. But I 'm not lucky about stage appearances. I 'm easily upset, and the most perverse things happen."

"What 's the matter? Do you still get nervous?"

"Of course I do. I don't mind nerves so much as getting numbed," Thea muttered, sheltering her face for a moment with her muff. "I 'm under a spell, you know, hoodooed. It 's the thing I want to do that I can never do. Any other effects I can get easily enough."

"Yes, you get effects, and not only with your voice. That 's where you have it over all the rest of them; you 're as much at home on the stage as you were down in Panther Canyon—as if you 'd just been let out of a cage. Did n't you get some of your ideas down there?"

Thea nodded. "Oh, yes! For heroic parts, at least. Out of the rocks, out of the dead people. You mean the idea of standing up under things, don't you, meeting catastrophe? No fussiness. Seems to me they must have been a reserved, somber people, with only a muscular language, all their movements for a purpose; simple, strong, as if they were dealing with fate bare-handed." She put her gloved fingers on Fred's arm. "I don't know how I can ever thank you enough. I don't know if I 'd ever have got anywhere without Panther Canyon. How did you know that was the one thing to do for me? It 's the sort of thing nobody ever helps one to, in this world. One can learn how to sing, but no singing teacher can give anybody what I got down there. How did you know?"

"I did n't know. Anything else would have done as well. It was your creative hour. I knew you were getting a lot, but I did n't realize how much."

Thea walked on in silence. She seemed to be thinking.

"Do you know what they really taught me?" she came out suddenly. "They taught me the inevitable hardness of human life. No artist gets far who does n't know that. And you can't know it with your mind. You have to realize it in your body, Somehow; deep—It 's an animal sort of feeling. I sometimes think it 's the strongest of all. Do you know what I 'm driving at?"

"I think so. Even your audiences feel it, vaguely: that you 've sometime or other faced things that make you different."

Thea turned her back to the wind, wiping away the snow that clung to her brows and lashes. "Ugh!" she exclaimed; "no matter how long a breath you have, the storm has a longer. I have n't signed for next season, yet, Fred. I 'm holding out for a big contract: forty performances. Necker won't be able to do much next winter. It 's going to be one of those between seasons; the old singers are too old, and the new ones are too new. They might as well risk me as anybody. So I want good terms. The next five or six years are going to be my best."

"You 'll get what you demand, if you are uncompromising. I 'm safe in congratulating you now."

Thea laughed. "It 's a little early. I may not get it at all. They don't seem to be breaking their necks to meet me. I can go back to Dresden."

As they turned the curve and walked westward they got the wind from the side, and talking was easier.

Fred lowered his collar and shook the snow from his shoulders. "Oh, I don't mean on the contract particularly. I congratulate you on what you can do, Thea, and on all that lies behind what you do. On the life that 's led up to it, and on being able to care so much. That, after all, is the unusual thing."

She looked at him sharply, with a certain apprehension. "Care? Why should n't I care? If I did n't, I 'd be in a bad way. What else have I got?" She stopped with a challenging interrogation, but Ottenburg did not reply. "You mean," she persisted, "that you don't care as much as you used to?"

"I care about your success, of course." Fred fell into a slower pace. Thea felt at once that he was talking seriously and had dropped the tone of half-ironical exaggeration he had used with her of late years. "And I 'm grateful to you for what you demand from yourself, when you might get off so easily. You demand more and more all the time, and you 'll do more and more. One is grateful to anybody for that; it makes life in general a little less sordid. But as a matter of fact, I 'm not much interested in how anybody sings anything."

"That 's too bad of you, when I 'm just beginning to see what is worth doing, and how I want to do it!" Thea spoke in an injured tone.

"That 's what I congratulate you on. That 's the great difference between your kind and the rest of us. It 's how long you 're able to keep it up that tells the story. When you needed enthusiasm from the outside, I was able to give it to you. Now you must let me withdraw."

"I 'm not tying you, am I?" she flashed out. "But withdraw to what? What do you want?"

Fred shrugged. "I might ask you, What have I got? I want things that would n't interest you; that you probably would n't understand. For one thing, I want a son to bring up."

"I can understand that. It seems to me reasonable. Have you also found somebody you want to marry?"

"Not particularly." They turned another curve, which brought the wind to their backs, and they walked on in comparative calm, with the snow blowing past them. "It 's not your fault, Thea, but I 've had you too much in my mind. I 've not given myself a fair chance in other directions. I was in Rome when you and Nordquist were there. If that had kept up, it might have cured me."

"It might have cured a good many things," remarked Thea grimly.

Fred nodded sympathetically and went on. "In my library in St. Louis, over the fireplace, I have a property spear I had copied from one in Venice,—oh, years ago, after you first went abroad, while you were studying. You 'll probably be singing Brünnhilde pretty soon now, and I 'll send it on to you, if I may. You can take it and its history for what they 're worth. But I 'm nearly forty years old, and I 've served my turn. You 've done what I hoped for you, what I was honestly willing to lose you for—then. I 'm older now, and I think I was an ass. I would n't do it again if I had the chance, not much! But I 'm not sorry. It takes a great many people to make one—Brünnhilde."

Thea stopped by the fence and looked over into the black choppiness on which the snowflakes fell and disappeared with magical rapidity. Her face was both angry and troubled. "So you really feel I 've been ungrateful. I thought you sent me out to get something. I did n't know you wanted me to bring in something easy. I thought you wanted something—" She took a deep breath and shrugged her shoulders. "But there! nobody on God's earth wants it, really! If one other person wanted it,"—she thrust her hand out before him and clenched it,—"my God, what I could do!"

Fred laughed dismally. "Even in my ashes I feel myself pushing you! How can anybody help it? My dear girl, can't you see that anybody else who wanted it as you do would be your rival, your deadliest danger? Can't you see that it 's your great good fortune that other people can't care about it so much?"

But Thea seemed not to take in his protest at all. She went on vindicating herself. "It 's taken me a long while to do anything, of course, and I 've only begun to see daylight. But anything good is—expensive. It has n't seemed long. I 've always felt responsible to you."

Fred looked at her face intently, through the veil of snowflakes, and shook his head. "To me? You are a truthful woman, and you don't mean to lie to me. But after the one responsibility you do feel, I doubt if you 've enough left to feel responsible to God! Still, if you 've ever in an idle hour fooled yourself with thinking I had anything to do, Heaven knows I 'm grateful."

"Even if I 'd married Nordquist," Thea went on, turning down the path again, "there would have been something left out. There always is. In a way, I 've always been married to you. I 'm not very flexible; never was and never shall be. You caught me young. I could never have that over again. One can't, after one begins to know anything. But I look back on it. My life has n't been a gay one, any more than yours. If I shut things out from you, you shut them out from me. We 've been a help and a hindrance to each other. I guess it 's always that way, the good and the bad all mixed up. There 's only one thing that 's all beautiful—and always beautiful! That 's why my interest keeps up."

"Yes, I know." Fred looked sidewise at the outline of her head against the thickening atmosphere. "And you give one the impression that that is enough. I 've gradually, gradually given you up."

"See, the lights are coming out." Thea pointed to where they flickered, flashes of violet through the gray tree-tops. Lower down the globes along the drives were becoming a pale lemon color. "Yes, I don 't see why anybody wants to marry an artist, anyhow. I remember Ray Kennedy used to say he did n't see how any woman could marry a gambler, for she would only be marrying what the game left." She shook her shoulders impatiently. "Who marries who is a small matter, after all. But I hope I can bring back your interest in my work. You 've cared longer and more than anybody else, and I 'd like to have somebody human to make a report to once in a while. You can send me your spear. I 'll do my best. If you 're not interested, I 'll do my best anyhow. I 've only a few friends, but I can lose every one of them, if it has to be. I learned how to lose when my mother died.—We must hurry now. My taxi must be waiting."

The blue light about them was growing deeper and darker, and the falling snow and the faint trees had become violet. To the south, over Broadway, there was an orange reflection in the clouds. Motors and carriage lights flashed by on the drive below the reservoir path, and the air was strident with horns and shrieks from the whistles of the mounted policemen.

Fred gave Thea his arm as they descended from the embankment. "I guess you 'll never manage to lose me or Archie, Thea. You do pick up queer ones. But loving you is a heroic discipline. It wears a man out. Tell me one thing: could I have kept you, once, if I 'd put on every screw?"

Thea hurried him along, talking rapidly, as if to get it over. "You might have kept me in misery for a while, perhaps. I don't know. I have to think well of myself, to work. You could have made it hard. I 'm not ungrateful. I was a difficult proposition to deal with. I understand now, of course. Since you did n't tell me the truth in the beginning, you could n't very well turn back after I 'd set my head. At least, if you 'd been the sort who could, you would n't have had to,—for I 'd not have cared a button for that sort, even then." She stopped beside a car that waited at the curb and gave him her hand. "There. We part friends?"

Fred looked at her. "You know. Ten years."

"I 'm not ungrateful," Thea repeated as she got into her cab.

"Yes," she reflected, as the taxi cut into the Park carriage road, "we don't get fairy tales in this world, and he has, after all, cared more and longer than anybody else." It was dark outside now, and the light from the lamps along the drive flashed into the cab. The snowflakes hovered like swarms of white bees about the globes.

Thea sat motionless in one corner staring out of the window at the cab lights that wove in and out among the trees, all seeming to be bent upon joyous courses. Taxicabs were still new in New York, and the theme of popular minstrelsy. Landry had sung her a ditty he heard in some theater on Third Avenue, about

"But there passed him a bright-eyed taxi
⁠With the girl of his heart inside."

Almost inaudibly Thea began to hum the air, though she was thinking of something serious, something that had touched her deeply. At the beginning of the season, when she was not singing often, she had gone one afternoon to hear Paderewski's recital. In front of her sat an old German couple, evidently poor people who had made sacrifices to pay for their excellent seats. Their intelligent enjoyment of the music, and their friendliness with each other, had interested her more than anything on the programme. When the pianist began a lovely melody in the first movement of the Beethoven D minor sonata, the old lady put out her plump hand and touched her husband's sleeve and they looked at each other in recognition. They both wore glasses, but such a look! Like forget-me-nots, and so full of happy recollections. Thea wanted to put her arms around them and ask them how they had been able to keep a feeling like that, like a nosegay in a glass of water.


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