Song of the Lark by Willa Cather - HTML preview

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Chapter V.2

FRED OTTENBURG, smartly dressed for the afternoon, with a long black coat and gaiters was sitting in the dusty parlor of the Everett House. His manner was not in accord with his personal freshness, the good lines of his clothes, and the shining smoothness of his hair. His attitude was one of deep dejection, and his face, though it had the cool, unimpeachable fairness possible only to a very blond young man, was by no means happy. A page shuffled into the room and looked about. When he made out the dark figure in a shadowy corner, tracing over the carpet pattern with a cane, he droned, "The lady says you can come up, sir."

Fred picked up his hat and gloves and followed the creature, who seemed an aged boy in uniform, through dark corridors that smelled of old carpets. The page knocked at the door of Thea's sitting-room, and then wandered away. Thea came to the door with a telegram in her hand. She asked Ottenburg to come in and pointed to one of the clumsy, sullen-looking chairs that were as thick as they were high. The room was brown with time, dark in spite of two windows that opened on Union Square, with dull curtains and carpet, and heavy, respectable- looking furniture in somber colors. The place was saved from utter dismalness by a coal fire under the black marble mantelpiece, --brilliantly reflected in a long mirror that hung between the two windows. This was the first time Fred had seen the room, and he took it in quickly, as he put down his hat and gloves.

Thea seated herself at the walnut writing-desk, still holding the slip of yellow paper. "Dr. Archie is coming," she said. "He will be here Friday morning."

"Well, that's good, at any rate," her visitor replied with a determined effort at cheerfulness. Then, turning to the fire, he added blankly, "If you want him."

"Of course I want him. I would never have asked such a thing of him if I hadn't wanted him a great deal. It's a very expensive trip." Thea spoke severely. Then she went on, in a milder tone. "He doesn't say anything about the money, but I think his coming means that he can let me have it."

Fred was standing before the mantel, rubbing his hands together nervously. "Probably. You are still determined to call on him?" He sat down tentatively in the chair Thea had indicated. "I don't see why you won't borrow from me, and let him sign with you, for instance. That would constitute a perfectly regular business transaction. I could bring suit against either of you for my money."

Thea turned toward him from the desk. "We won't take that up again, Fred. I should have a different feeling about it if I went on your money. In a way I shall feel freer on Dr. Archie's, and in another way I shall feel more bound. I shall try even harder." She paused. "He is almost like my father," she added irrelevantly.

"Still, he isn't, you know," Fred persisted. "It would n't be anything new. I've loaned money to students before, and got it back, too."

"Yes; I know you're generous," Thea hurried over it, "but this will be the best way. He will be here on Friday did I tell you?"

"I think you mentioned it. That's rather soon. May I smoke?" he took out a small cigarette case. "I suppose you'll be off next week?" he asked as he struck a match.

"Just as soon as I can," she replied with a restless movement of her arms, as if her dark-blue dress were too tight for her. "It seems as if I'd been here forever."

"And yet," the young man mused, "we got in only four days ago. Facts really don't count for much, do they? It's all in the way people feel: even in little things."

Thea winced, but she did not answer him. She put the telegram back in its envelope and placed it carefully in one of the pigeonholes of the desk.

"I suppose," Fred brought out with effort, "that your friend is in your confidence?"

"He always has been. I shall have to tell him about myself. I wish I could without dragging you in."

Fred shook himself. "Don't bother about where you drag me, please," he put in, flushing. "I don't give--" he subsided suddenly.

"I'm afraid," Thea went on gravely, "that he won't understand. He'll be hard on you."

Fred studied the white ash of his cigarette before he flicked it off. "You mean he'll see me as even worse than I am. Yes, I suppose I shall look very low to him: a fifthrate scoundrel. But that only matters in so far as it hurts his feelings."

Thea sighed. "We'll both look pretty low. And after all, we must really be just about as we shall look to him."

Ottenburg started up and threw his cigarette into the grate. "That I deny. Have you ever been really frank with this preceptor of your childhood, even when you WERE a child? Think a minute, have you? Of course not! From your cradle, as I once told you, you've been `doing it' on the side, living your own life, admitting to yourself things that would horrify him. You've always deceived him to the extent of letting him think you different from what you are. He couldn't understand then, he can't understand now. So why not spare yourself and him?"

She shook her head. "Of course, I've had my own thoughts. Maybe he has had his, too. But I've never done anything before that he would much mind. I must put myself right with him,--as right as I can,--to begin over. He'll make allowances for me. He always has. But I'm afraid he won't for you."

"Leave that to him and me. I take it you want me to see him?" Fred sat down again and began absently to trace the carpet pattern with his cane. "At the worst," he spoke wanderingly, "I thought you'd perhaps let me go in on the business end of it and invest along with you. You'd put in your talent and ambition and hard work, and I'd put in the money and--well, nobody's good wishes are to be scorned, not even mine. Then, when the thing panned out big, we could share together. Your doctor friend hasn't cared half so much about your future as I have."

"He's cared a good deal. He doesn't know as much about such things as you do. Of course you've been a great deal more help to me than any one else ever has," Thea said quietly. The black clock on the mantel began to strike. She listened to the five strokes and then said, "I'd have liked your helping me eight months ago. But now, you'd simply be keeping me."

"You weren't ready for it eight months ago." Fred leaned back at last in his chair. "You simply weren't ready for it. You were too tired. You were too timid. Your whole tone was too low. You couldn't rise from a chair like that,"--she had started up apprehensively and gone toward the window.-- "You were fumbling and awkward. Since then you've come into your personality. You were always locking horns with it before. You were a sullen little drudge eight months ago, afraid of being caught at either looking or moving like yourself. Nobody could tell anything about you. A voice is not an instrument that's found ready-made. A voice is personality. It can be as big as a circus and as common as dirt.-- There's good money in that kind, too, but I don't happen to be interested in them.-- Nobody could tell much about what you might be able to do, last winter. I divined more than anybody else."

"Yes, I know you did." Thea walked over to the oldfashioned mantel and held her hands down to the glow of the fire. "I owe so much to you, and that's what makes things hard. That's why I have to get away from you altogether. I depend on you for so many things. Oh, I did even last winter, in Chicago!" She knelt down by the grate and held her hands closer to the coals. "And one thing leads to another."

Ottenburg watched her as she bent toward the fire. His glance brightened a little. "Anyhow, you couldn't look as you do now, before you knew me. You WERE clumsy. And whatever you do now, you do splendidly. And you can't cry enough to spoil your face for more than ten minutes. It comes right back, in spite of you. It's only since you've known me that you've let yourself be beautiful."

Without rising she turned her face away. Fred went on impetuously. "Oh, you can turn it away from me, Thea; you can take it away from me! All the same--" his spurt died and he fell back. "How can you turn on me so, after all!" he sighed.

"I haven't. But when you arranged with yourself to take me in like that, you couldn't have been thinking very kindly of me. I can't understand how you carried it through, when I was so easy, and all the circumstances were so easy."

Her crouching position by the fire became threatening. Fred got up, and Thea also rose.

"No," he said, "I can't make you see that now. Some time later, perhaps, you will understand better. For one thing, I honestly could not imagine that words, names, meant so much to you." Fred was talking with the desperation of a man who has put himself in the wrong and who yet feels that there was an idea of truth in his conduct. "Suppose that you had married your brakeman and lived with him year after year, caring for him even less than you do for your doctor, or for Harsanyi. I suppose you would have felt quite all right about it, because that relation has a name in good standing. To me, that seems--sickening!" He took a rapid turn about the room and then as Thea remained standing, he rolled one of the elephantine chairs up to the hearth for her.

"Sit down and listen to me for a moment, Thea." He began pacing from the hearthrug to the window and back again, while she sat down compliantly. "Don't you know most of the people in the world are not individuals at all? They never have an individual idea or experience. A lot of girls go to boarding-school together, come out the same season, dance at the same parties, are married off in groups, have their babies at about the same time, send their children to school together, and so the human crop renews itself. Such women know as much about the reality of the forms they go through as they know about the wars they learn the dates of. They get their most personal experiences out of novels and plays. Everything is second-hand with them. Why, you COULDN'T live like that."

Thea sat looking toward the mantel, her eyes half closed, her chin level, her head set as if she were enduring something. Her hands, very white, lay passive on her dark gown. From the window corner Fred looked at them and at her. He shook his head and flashed an angry, tormented look out into the blue twilight over the Square, through which muffled cries and calls and the clang of car bells came up from the street. He turned again and began to pace the floor, his hands in his pockets.

"Say what you will, Thea Kronborg, you are not that sort of person. You will never sit alone with a pacifier and a novel. You won't subsist on what the old ladies have put into the bottle for you. You will always break through into the realities. That was the first thing Harsanyi found out about you; that you couldn't be kept on the outside. If you'd lived in Moonstone all your life and got on with the discreet brakeman, you'd have had just the same nature. Your children would have been the realities then, probably. If they'd been commonplace, you'd have killed them with driving. You'd have managed some way to live twenty times as much as the people around you."

Fred paused. He sought along the shadowy ceiling and heavy mouldings for words. When he began again, his voice was lower, and at first he spoke with less conviction, though again it grew on him. "Now I knew all this--oh, knew it better than I can ever make you understand! You've been running a handicap. You had no time to lose. I wanted you to have what you need and to get on fast-get through with me, if need be; I counted on that. You've no time to sit round and analyze your conduct or your feelings. Other women give their whole lives to it. They've nothing else to do. Helping a man to get his divorce is a career for them; just the sort of intellectual exercise they like."

Fred dived fiercely into his pockets as if he would rip them out and scatter their contents to the winds. Stopping before her, he took a deep breath and went on again, this time slowly. "All that sort of thing is foreign to you. You'd be nowhere at it. You haven't that kind of mind. The grammatical niceties of conduct are dark to you. You're simple--and poetic." Fred's voice seemed to be wandering about in the thickening dusk. "You won't play much. You won't, perhaps, love many times." He paused. "And you did love me, you know. Your railroad friend would have understood me. I COULD have thrown you back. The reverse was there,--it stared me in the face,-but I couldn't pull it. I let you drive ahead." He threw out his hands. What Thea noticed, oddly enough, was the flash of the firelight on his cuff link. He turned again. "And you'll always drive ahead," he muttered. "It's your way."

There was a long silence. Fred had dropped into a chair. He seemed, after such an explosion, not to have a word left in him. Thea put her hand to the back of her neck and pressed it, as if the muscles there were aching.

"Well," she said at last, "I at least overlook more in you than I do in myself. I am always excusing you to myself. I don't do much else."

"Then why, in Heaven's name, won't you let me be your friend? You make a scoundrel of me, borrowing money from another man to get out of my clutches."

"If I borrow from him, it's to study. Anything I took from you would be different. As I said before, you'd be keeping me."

"Keeping! I like your language. It's pure Moonstone, Thea,--like your point of view. I wonder how long you'll be a Methodist." He turned away bitterly.

"Well, I've never said I wasn't Moonstone, have I? I am, and that's why I want Dr. Archie. I can't see anything so funny about Moonstone, you know." She pushed her chair back a little from the hearth and clasped her hands over her knee, still looking thoughtfully into the red coals. "We always come back to the same thing, Fred. The name, as you call it, makes a difference to me how I feel about myself. You would have acted very differently with a girl of your own kind, and that's why I can't take anything from you now. You've made everything impossible. Being married is one thing and not being married is the other thing, and that's all there is to it. I can't see how you reasoned with yourself, if you took the trouble to reason. You say I was too much alone, and yet what you did was to cut me off more than I ever had been. Now I'm going to try to make good to my friends out there. That's all there is left for me."

"Make good to your friends!" Fred burst out. "What one of them cares as I care, or believes as I believe? I've told you I'll never ask a gracious word from you until I can ask it with all the churches in Christendom at my back."

Thea looked up, and when she saw Fred's face, she thought sadly that he, too, looked as if things were spoiled for him. "If you know me as well as you say you do, Fred," she said slowly, "then you are not being honest with yourself. You know that I can't do things halfway. If you kept me at all--you'd keep me." She dropped her head wearily on her hand and sat with her forehead resting on her fingers.

Fred leaned over her and said just above his breath, "Then, when I get that divorce, you'll take it up with me again? You'll at least let me know, warn me, before there is a serious question of anybody else?"

Without lifting her head, Thea answered him. "Oh, I don't think there will ever be a question of anybody else. Not if I can help it. I suppose I've given you every reason to think there will be,--at once, on shipboard, any time."

Ottenburg drew himself up like a shot. "Stop it, Thea!" he said sharply. "That's one thing you've never done. That's like any common woman." He saw her shoulders lift a little and grow calm. Then he went to the other side of the room and took up his hat and gloves from the sofa. He came back cheerfully. "I didn't drop in to bully you this afternoon. I came to coax you to go out for tea with me somewhere." He waited, but she did not look up or lift her head, still sunk on her hand.

Her handkerchief had fallen. Fred picked it up and put it on her knee, pressing her fingers over it. "Good-night, dear and wonderful," he whispered,--"wonderful and dear! How can you ever get away from me when I will always follow you, through every wall, through every door, wherever you go." He looked down at her bent head, and the curve of her neck that was so sad. He stooped, and with his lips just touched her hair where the firelight made it ruddiest. "I didn't know I had it in me, Thea. I thought it was all a fairy tale. I don't know myself any more." He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "The salt's all gone out of your hair. It's full of sun and wind again. I believe it has memories." Again she heard him take a deep breath. "I could do without you for a lifetime, if that would give you to yourself. A woman like you doesn't find herself, alone."

She thrust her free hand up to him. He kissed it softly, as if she were asleep and he were afraid of waking her.

From the door he turned back irrelevantly. "As to your old friend, Thea, if he's to be here on Friday, why,"--he snatched out his watch and held it down to catch the light from the grate,--"he's on the train now! That ought to cheer you. Good-night." She heard the door close.