Song of the Lark by Willa Cather - HTML preview

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Chapter VI.7

ON Saturday night Dr. Archie went with Fred Ottenburg to hear "Tannhauser." Thea had a rehearsal on Sunday afternoon, but as she was not on the bill again until Wednesday, she promised to dine with Archie and Ottenburg on Monday, if they could make the dinner early.

At a little after eight on Monday evening, the three friends returned to Thea's apartment and seated themselves for an hour of quiet talk.

"I'm sorry we couldn't have had Landry with us tonight," Thea said, "but he's on at Weber and Fields' every night now. You ought to hear him, Dr. Archie. He often sings the old Scotch airs you used to love."

"Why not go down this evening?" Fred suggested hopefully, glancing at his watch. "That is, if you'd like to go. I can telephone and find what time he comes on."

Thea hesitated. "No, I think not. I took a long walk this afternoon and I'm rather tired. I think I can get to sleep early and be so much ahead. I don't mean at once, however," seeing Dr. Archie's disappointed look. "I always like to hear Landry," she added. "He never had much voice, and it's worn, but there's a sweetness about it, and he sings with such taste."

"Yes, doesn't he? May I?" Fred took out his cigarette case. "It really doesn't bother your throat?"

"A little doesn't. But cigar smoke does. Poor Dr. Archie! Can you do with one of those?"

"I'm learning to like them," the doctor declared, taking one from the case Fred proffered him.

"Landry's the only fellow I know in this country who can do that sort of thing," Fred went on. "Like the best English ballad singers. He can sing even popular stuff by higher lights, as it were."

Thea nodded. "Yes; sometimes I make him sing his most foolish things for me. It's restful, as he does it. That's when I'm homesick, Dr. Archie."

"You knew him in Germany, Thea?" Dr. Archie had quietly abandoned his cigarette as a comfortless article. "When you first went over?"

"Yes. He was a good friend to a green girl. He helped me with my German and my music and my general discouragement. Seemed to care more about my getting on than about himself. He had no money, either. An old aunt had loaned him a little to study on.-- Will you answer that, Fred?"

Fred caught up the telephone and stopped the buzz while Thea went on talking to Dr. Archie about Landry. Telling some one to hold the wire, he presently put down the instrument and approached Thea with a startled expression on his face.

"It's the management," he said quietly. "Gloeckler has broken down: fainting fits. Madame Rheinecker is in Atlantic City and Schramm is singing in Philadelphia tonight. They want to know whether you can come down and finish SIEGLINDE."

"What time is it?"

"Eight fifty-five. The first act is just over. They can hold the curtain twenty-five minutes."

Thea did not move. "Twenty-five and thirty-five makes sixty," she muttered. "Tell them I'll come if they hold the curtain till I am in the dressing-room. Say I'll have to wear her costumes, and the dresser must have everything ready. Then call a taxi, please."

Thea had not changed her position since he first interrupted her, but she had grown pale and was opening and shutting her hands rapidly. She looked, Fred thought, terrified. He half turned toward the telephone, but hung on one foot.

"Have you ever sung the part?" he asked.

"No, but I've rehearsed it. That's all right. Get the cab." Still she made no move. She merely turned perfectly blank eyes to Dr. Archie and said absently, "It's curious, but just at this minute I can't remember a bar of 'Walkure' after the first act. And I let my maid go out." She sprang up and beckoned Archie without so much, he felt sure, as knowing who he was. "Come with me." She went quickly into her sleeping-chamber and threw open a door into a trunk-room. "See that white trunk? It's not locked. It's full of wigs, in boxes. Look until you find one marked `Ring 2.' Bring it quick!" While she directed him, she threw open a square trunk and began tossing out shoes of every shape and color.

Ottenburg appeared at the door. "Can I help you?"

She threw him some white sandals with long laces and silk stockings pinned to them. "Put those in something, and then go to the piano and give me a few measures in there--you know." She was behaving somewhat like a cyclone now, and while she wrenched open drawers and closet doors, Ottenburg got to the piano as quickly as possible and began to herald the reappearance of the Volsung pair, trusting to memory.

In a few moments Thea came out enveloped in her long fur coat with a scarf over her head and knitted woolen gloves on her hands. Her glassy eye took in the fact that Fred was playing from memory, and even in her distracted state, a faint smile flickered over her colorless lips. She stretched out a woolly hand, "The score, please. Behind you, there."

Dr. Archie followed with a canvas box and a satchel. As they went through the hall, the men caught up their hats and coats. They left the music-room, Fred noticed, just seven minutes after he got the telephone message. In the elevator Thea said in that husky whisper which had so perplexed Dr. Archie when he first heard it, "Tell the driver he must do it in twenty minutes, less if he can. He must leave the light on in the cab. I can do a good deal in twenty minutes. If only you hadn't made me eat-- Damn that duck!" she broke out bitterly; "why did you?"

"Wish I had it back! But it won't bother you, to-night. You need strength," he pleaded consolingly.

But she only muttered angrily under her breath, "Idiot, idiot!"

Ottenburg shot ahead and instructed the driver, while the doctor put Thea into the cab and shut the door. She did not speak to either of them again. As the driver scrambled into his seat she opened the score and fixed her eyes upon it. Her face, in the white light, looked as bleak as a stone quarry.

As her cab slid away, Ottenburg shoved Archie into a second taxi that waited by the curb. "We'd better trail her," he explained. "There might be a hold-up of some kind." As the cab whizzed off he broke into an eruption of profanity.

"What's the matter, Fred?" the doctor asked. He was a good deal dazed by the rapid evolutions of the last ten minutes.

"Matter enough!" Fred growled, buttoning his overcoat with a shiver. "What a way to sing a part for the first time! That duck really is on my conscience. It will be a wonder if she can do anything but quack! Scrambling on in the middle of a performance like this, with no rehearsal! The stuff she has to sing in there is a fright--rhythm, pitch,--and terribly difficult intervals."

"She looked frightened," Dr. Archie said thoughtfully, "but I thought she looked--determined."

Fred sniffed. "Oh, determined! That's the kind of rough deal that makes savages of singers. Here's a part she's worked on and got ready for for years, and now they give her a chance to go on and butcher it. Goodness knows when she's looked at the score last, or whether she can use the business she's studied with this cast. Necker's singing BRUNNHILDE; she may help her, if it's not one of her sore nights."

"Is she sore at Thea?" Dr. Archie asked wonderingly.

"My dear man, Necker's sore at everything. She's breaking up; too early; just when she ought to be at her best. There's one story that she is struggling under some serious malady, another that she learned a bad method at the Prague Conservatory and has ruined her organ. She's the sorest thing in the world. If she weathers this winter through, it'll be her last. She's paying for it with the last rags of her voice. And then--" Fred whistled softly.

"Well, what then?"

"Then our girl may come in for some of it. It's dog eat dog, in this game as in every other."

The cab stopped and Fred and Dr. Archie hurried to the box office. The Monday-night house was sold out. They bought standing room and entered the auditorium just as the press representative of the house was thanking the audience for their patience and telling them that although Madame Gloeckler was too ill to sing, Miss Kronborg had kindly consented to finish her part. This announcement was met with vehement applause from the upper circles of the house.

"She has her--constituents," Dr. Archie murmured.

"Yes, up there, where they're young and hungry. These people down here have dined too well. They won't mind, however. They like fires and accidents and DIVERTISSEMENTS. Two SIEGLINDES are more unusual than one, so they'll be satisfied."

After the final disappearance of the mother of Siegfried, Ottenburg and the doctor slipped out through the crowd and left the house. Near the stage entrance Fred found the driver who had brought Thea down. He dismissed him and got a larger car. He and Archie waited on the sidewalk, and when Kronborg came out alone they gathered her into the cab and sprang in after her.

Thea sank back into a corner of the back seat and yawned. "Well, I got through, eh?" Her tone was reassuring. "On the whole, I think I've given you gentlemen a pretty lively evening, for one who has no social accomplishments."

"Rather! There was something like a popular uprising at the end of the second act. Archie and I couldn't keep it up as long as the rest of them did. A howl like that ought to show the management which way the wind is blowing. You probably know you were magnificent."

"I thought it went pretty well," she spoke impartially. "I was rather smart to catch his tempo there, at the beginning of the first recitative, when he came in too soon, don't you think? It's tricky in there, without a rehearsal. Oh, I was all right! He took that syncopation too fast in the beginning. Some singers take it fast there--think it sounds more impassioned. That's one way!" She sniffed, and Fred shot a mirthful glance at Archie. Her boastfulness would have been childish in a schoolboy. In the light of what she had done, of the strain they had lived through during the last two hours, it made one laugh,--almost cry. She went on, robustly: "And I didn't feel my dinner, really, Fred. I am hungry again, I'm ashamed to say,

--and I forgot to order anything at my hotel."

Fred put his hand on the door. "Where to? You must have food."

"Do you know any quiet place, where I won't be stared at? I've still got make- up on."

"I do. Nice English chop-house on Forty-fourth Street. Nobody there at night but theater people after the show, and a few bachelors." He opened the door and spoke to the driver.

As the car turned, Thea reached across to the front seat and drew Dr. Archie's handkerchief out of his breast pocket.

"This comes to me naturally," she said, rubbing her cheeks and eyebrows. "When I was little I always loved your handkerchiefs because they were silk and smelled of Cologne water. I think they must have been the only really clean handkerchiefs in Moonstone. You were always wiping my face with them, when you met me out in the dust, I remember. Did I never have any?"

"I think you'd nearly always used yours up on your baby brother."

Thea sighed. "Yes, Thor had such a way of getting messy. You say he's a good chauffeur?" She closed her eyes for a moment as if they were tired. Suddenly she looked up. "Isn't it funny, how we travel in circles? Here you are, still getting me clean, and Fred is still feeding me. I would have died of starvation at that boarding-house on Indiana Avenue if he hadn't taken me out to the Buckingham and filled me up once in a while. What a cavern I was to fill, too. The waiters used to look astonished. I'm still singing on that food."

Fred alighted and gave Thea his arm as they crossed the icy sidewalk. They were taken upstairs in an antiquated lift and found the cheerful chop-room half full of supper parties. An English company playing at the Empire had just come in. The waiters, in red waistcoats, were hurrying about. Fred got a table at the back of the room, in a corner, and urged his waiter to get the oysters on at once.

"Takes a few minutes to open them, sir," the man expostulated.

"Yes, but make it as few as possible, and bring the lady's first. Then grilled chops with kidneys, and salad."

Thea began eating celery stalks at once, from the base to the foliage. "Necker said something nice to me tonight. You might have thought the management would say something, but not they." She looked at Fred from under her blackened lashes. "It WAS a stunt, to jump in and sing that second act without rehearsal. It doesn't sing itself."

Ottenburg was watching her brilliant eyes and her face. She was much handsomer than she had been early in the evening. Excitement of this sort enriched her. It was only under such excitement, he reflected, that she was entirely illuminated, or wholly present. At other times there was something a little cold and empty, like a big room with no people in it. Even in her most genial moods there was a shadow of restlessness, as if she were waiting for something and were exercising the virtue of patience. During dinner she had been as kind as she knew how to be, to him and to Archie, and had given them as much of herself as she could. But, clearly, she knew only one way of being really kind, from the core of her heart out; and there was but one way in which she could give herself to people largely and gladly, spontaneously. Even as a girl she had been at her best in vigorous effort, he remembered; physical effort, when there was no other kind at hand. She could be expansive only in explosions. Old Nathanmeyer had seen it. In the very first song Fred had ever heard her sing, she had unconsciously declared it.

Thea Kronborg turned suddenly from her talk with Archie and peered suspiciously into the corner where Ottenburg sat with folded arms, observing her. "What's the matter with you, Fred? I'm afraid of you when you're quiet,-- fortunately you almost never are. What are you thinking about?"

"I was wondering how you got right with the orchestra so quickly, there at first. I had a flash of terror," he replied easily.

She bolted her last oyster and ducked her head. "So had I! I don't know how I did catch it. Desperation, I suppose; same way the Indian babies swim when they're thrown into the river. I HAD to. Now it's over, I'm glad I had to. I learned a whole lot to-night."

Archie, who usually felt that it behooved him to be silent during such discussions, was encouraged by her geniality to venture, "I don't see how you can learn anything in such a turmoil; or how you can keep your mind on it, for that matter."

Thea glanced about the room and suddenly put her hand up to her hair. "Mercy, I've no hat on! Why didn't you tell me? And I seem to be wearing a rumpled dinner dress, with all this paint on my face! I must look like something you picked up on Second Avenue. I hope there are no Colorado reformers about, Dr. Archie. What a dreadful old pair these people must be thinking you! Well, I had to eat." She sniffed the savor of the grill as the waiter uncovered it. "Yes, draught beer, please. No, thank you, Fred, NO champagne.-- To go back to your question, Dr. Archie, you can believe I keep my mind on it. That's the whole trick, in so far as stage experience goes; keeping right there every second. If I think of anything else for a flash, I'm gone, done for. But at the same time, one can take things in--with another part of your brain, maybe. It's different from what you get in study, more practical and conclusive. There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm. You learn the delivery of a part only before an audience."

"Heaven help us," gasped Ottenburg. "Weren't you hungry, though! It's beautiful to see you eat."

"Glad you like it. Of course I'm hungry. Are you staying over for `Rheingold' Friday afternoon?"

"My dear Thea,"--Fred lit a cigarette,--"I'm a serious business man now. I have to sell beer. I'm due in Chicago on Wednesday. I'd come back to hear you, but FRICKA is not an alluring part."

"Then you've never heard it well done." She spoke up hotly. "Fat German woman scolding her husband, eh? That's not my idea. Wait till you hear my FRICKA. It's a beautiful part." Thea leaned forward on the table and touched Archie's arm. "You remember, Dr. Archie, how my mother always wore her hair, parted in the middle and done low on her neck behind, so you got the shape of her head and such a calm, white forehead? I wear mine like that for FRICKA. A little more coronet effect, built up a little higher at the sides, but the idea's the same. I think you'll notice it." She turned to Ottenburg reproachfully: "It's noble music, Fred, from the first measure. There's nothing lovelier than the WONNIGER HAUSRATH. It's all such comprehensive sort of music--fateful. Of course, FRICKA KNOWS," Thea ended quietly.

Fred sighed. "There, you've spoiled my itinerary. Now I'll have to come back, of course. Archie, you'd better get busy about seats to-morrow."

"I can get you box seats, somewhere. I know nobody here, and I never ask for any." Thea began hunting among her wraps. "Oh, how funny! I've only these short woolen gloves, and no sleeves. Put on my coat first. Those English people can't make out where you got your lady, she's so made up of contradictions." She rose laughing and plunged her arms into the coat Dr. Archie held for her. As she settled herself into it and buttoned it under her chin, she gave him an old signal with her eyelid. "I'd like to sing another part to-night. This is the sort of evening I fancy, when there's something to do. Let me see: I have to sing in `Trovatore' Wednesday night, and there are rehearsals for the `Ring' every day this week. Consider me dead until Saturday, Dr. Archie. I invite you both to dine with me on Saturday night, the day after `Rheingold.' And Fred must leave early, for I want to talk to you alone. You've been here nearly a week, and I haven't had a serious word with you. TAK FOR MAD, Fred, as the Norwegians say."