The Music-Master's Wife
THE MUSIC-MASTER'S WIFE
BY DOROTHY CANFIELD
AUTHOR OF "ON THE HOTEL VERANDA," ETC.
THE ugly little alarm-clock on the kitchen-shelf seemed to tick faster and faster. Mrs. Clifton hurried her dish-washing in rhythm to its quickened pace; but as she began on the big black kettle which had contained the pot-au-feu,the door-bell rang.
It was characteristic that she allowed herself no exclamation of impatience as she untied the apron from her trim waist and flashed to the door. It was as characteristic that she did not permit herself a look of disappointment, scarcely even of surprise, as she opened upon a lank girl of fourteen, carrying a violin-case.
"Ah, it is you, Mees Wardle," she said, a slight accent coloring her speech pleasantly. "I was expecting a bigger friend, and hurrying to get through my work before she came. Go right up-stairs. My husband is just practising a little."
She stood smiling upon the awkward child until the violin-case had bumped against the last of the balustrades at the head of the stairs; then, with a nimble haste, she darted back into the kitchen. The clock was even more breathlessly counting out the minutes than before. It was half past two. Mrs. Clifton plunged her little hands indomitably into the greasy water, and for a moment drowned out the clock by the vigorous scrape and splash of her operations. At a quarter to three she gave a sigh of relief, although she did not slacken her speed. At three she sat in the dark little parlor which looked out on the grimy street, her hands still damp, but folded quietly over a decent black silk apron.
From up-stairs there wavered down uncertain chromatic scales, played with a slurring lack of precision which made them sound like wailing whines. She leaned her head back against the chair and closed her eyes. With the momentary extinction of the resolute purposefulness in her face she looked suddenly old and worn.
The sound of the door-bell rang up this heavy curtain of dulness upon an expression of the liveliest expectancy. However, she did not hurry to the door; and when she reached it she stood hesitating a moment, and opened it slowly. There came a rush from outside, the smell of violets, and a rich voice exclaiming, in breathless reproach:
"Ah, naughty Camille, you didn't want to see me! You are so slow to open!"
From among the dangling tails of fur where the embrace of the tall girl held her, Mrs. Clifton's sweet, high voice rose in indignant self-justification.
"You wicked Sina! I was so afraid it might not be you. I thought you come half an hour ago, and I rush to let you in, but it is only a pupil come to take a lesson. Hear, up-stairs?"
As she spoke she was whirled back into a chair, her waist encircled by the long arms of her visitor.
"Chatterbox! Camille, dearest little Camille, are you not a bit interested to know why I've come all this way from flowers and sunshine into this black, wintry Pittsburgh, where you will be so perversely happy with no reason for it?"
The other put her firm, small hand over the girl's mouth.
"Sina, how can I say how curious your letter made me when you are speaking every minute? I think of nothing ever since I get that letter, but wonder why the splendid Miss McMaster want to see her so-poor foreign friend."
The girl sprang to her feet and threw off her wraps as she talked.
"Why do I want to see you, little Camille? Because you are so perversely happy with no reason for it—because you are the only happy person I have ever known, and because you've made me over by being so. Petite chérie, do you remember that first day when I came wandering here looking for a first violin for our stupid theatricals? Think! That's only two years ago, and sitting right here in your dingy little house, doing your hateful, dirty housework, you've made me over!"
She sat down on the floor beside her friend's chair, the wilful childishness of the attitude contrasting oddly with the rich amplitude of her beauty. Mrs. Clifton took the smooth hand between her own roughened palms.
"But, Sina, this does not tell me why you came all the way from 'that sunshine and those flowers' to say to me something you cannot write." She paused, startled at the face turned up to her. "Sina! You love!"
The girl's silence did not deny it.
"Then why do you come to me?" asked the woman with an enigmatical emphasis.
"Because—because it wouldn't have been so without you; because you made me believe in the existence of love, really truly love that lasts through everything."
"I!" with a startled accent.
"Yes, you—who else? You, with your Roger, and your poor, contented little home. Ah, Camille, you must have guessed how miserably bitter I was when I first knew you. You've never asked why, but you could not have healed me so without knowing I was sick with unbelief in what people had blasphemed by calling love."
"I knew you were not happy, yes, but you never told me—"
"I couldn't! It was like opening a raw wound: but now that I'm cured, I must tell you a little, so that you can know from what a prison I've escaped. It won't be long—it's only the sad preface to the lovely story I've come all this way to tell you. You know my sister is divorced, and lives with us at home? Well, I was in her home a great deal when I was a little girl, and I thought her husband the best man who ever lived. He was a minister, and I used to think he looked like Christ as I looked up at him in the pulpit. At home he was always so lofty and above small things. I blamed my sister Anne because she didn't appreciate him. She was always moody and fretful often, even when he was talking most beautifully to her. And so I grew up till I was eighteen—"
She stopped short, her nostrils quivering, her mouth set in a bitter line.
"Camille, I can't tell you—even now I find I can't speak of it—how I found out. little by little, that he was cruel to my sister—oh, abominable! And then, one evening, Anne was out late with a sick person, and I had gone into the garden to try and get away from him. He came out after me and—he tried to kiss me, and he said—oh, horrible! I screamed and ran toward the house. Anne was there, and had heard it, and oh, Camille. the most terrible thing that ever happened to me was that Anne was not surprised! And when I got home and told my mother, she was not surprised, only heart-broken. It was the end of the world to me, and nobody was surprised at it!"
"Poor little girl! Poor child, to have it come so—"
"Oh, it didn't kill me! I grew up, but like an Ishmael! I said to myself that I too would never be surprised again at anything that men did to women. And I was not surprised when one of my uncles ran away from his family because it was too much trouble to support them. And when a friend of mine left her husband because she had grown tired of him. then I said that women were just like men. Everywhere I looked I saw things like that. Father and mother live quite apart, you know, as if they had never been married, though they are friendly enough at meal-times, as they never see each other anywhere else. I saw that whenever people tried to do more than that, they failed; and if they didn't seem to fail, it was only because you couldn't see deep enough to know about it."
She stood up, shaking her broad shoulders impatiently.
"It was like death to live so, but there was nothing in our world that could help me. All the women who had had experience looked at me with Anne's sick, tired eyes, or with mother's absent ones, busying herself with clubs and orphanages and things. And then I chanced here, far out of our world, and you opened the door and looked at me with other eyes than I had ever seen; and oh, dearest Camille, little beacon-light of happy love, you must know the rest of it without my telling."
Mrs. Clifton shook her head with a hasty vehemence.
"No! No! No! I never dreamed all this! What is the rest?"
"Why, you are the rest, you and your husband! Your radiant content with poverty, with exile from all you care for, with monotony, with real hardships, with everything, if you only are with him; his dependence on you, your comradeship, your keeping his art alive in him, your blessed certainty that neither of you will ever be alone till death comes!
Mrs. Clifton had turned very pale.
"And is that the reason you—" she began; and then with a bluntness she made no effort to soften: "Have you promised to marry him?"
The girl flushed at this.
"No, dear Camille, I have not, but I have only waited to have your blessing on me before I follow you into your happy world. I am going back to marry him, and to tell him that you have taught me what love can mean."
She spread out her hands as if offering a visible tribute. Camille shrank back with a gesture of dismayed refusal. A door opened and shut above them, and a violin-case began banging against the balustrades. Mrs. Clifton hurried to hold the door open for the pupil. She made some pleasant remark about her good progress, to which the child answered mumblingly, staring rudely past her teacher's wife at the beautiful young lady in the sitting-room.
After the door had closed, Mrs. Clifton stood in the hall so long that her friend went to seek her. She made, at this, a gesture of almost harsh preoccupation, as of one interrupted in the last stage of a complicated problem. As the girl persisted, and put her arms about the rigid little figure with a half-apprehensive interrogation, she even pushed her away with a murmured—
"Non! Non! Laisse-moi un instant!" Then: "Thomasina McMaster, how old are you?"
"Twenty-six," wondered the girl.
Apparently this was the answer to the problem.
"Then you are old enough to know things as they are," preluded her friend a little grimly, pulling her down on a threadbare sofa. "You have somehow imagined to yourself some romantic ideas about me, and you are brave enough to know they are not true. It is not pleasant to tell any one, and you least—you who have brought so strangely sunshine to me: but I see that I have just the same as lied to you, and now I must tell you the truth. I am not happy! I am not content! I have tears, savage tears in my heart always, and in my eyes whenever I am alone. I do not love my husband. I do not respect him. I know him!"
The distilled bitterness of this last cut short like a blow a loud exclamation from the girl, whose dark eyes widened to a frightened stare.
"You must not go back to marry your lover and to tell him that I have taught you what love can mean, I who have worn out love utterly long ago—two months after I married that man. How could I love him? He is so weak that his great talent goes for nothing—nothing! He could be one of the great artists of the world, but if I did not make him work he would starve in the streets. Any one can cheat him, any woman of the street lead him away. He drinks, or would if I did not always stand between him and it; for never can I let him out of my sight, like a naughty child. I keep him well by cooking just the right things for him, I keep him amused. I make him go to bed, I make him get up and work; and so I can mostly keep him from making a beast of himself."
She added no emphasis of tone or gesture to the baldness of her narrative, and she finished it without a flicker of her steady eyes.
"And I, all these years in this black place, I could scream with misery. Before I married him in Paris I was free, I had a good home, friends, my work—I can teach music better than he!—art, all Paris for my pleasure." On the last words her voice broke a little. "A letter from Paris is like a cut from a sword now. I sit here and look out on the black soot falling, and I see Paris, the clean, gray little Rue de Cluny where we lived with the green of the old garden at the end." The effort to keep the heart-beats out of her voice throbbed all over her now. "My youth is gone, and I have but a little time more. I want to live a little before I die. And I hate even to hear from Paris! They always try to make me leave him and go back. They knew what he was as soon as he came to Paris. I would not know then, but now I do. That is all, only now you will not go back to marry your lover and tell him I have taught you what love can mean!"
She stopped short, and looked at the girl, down whose white cheeks two large tears rolled, glistening. There were no others. The two women faced each other in a profound silence which was suddenly broken by a mounting roulade of sweet, shrill violin-tones from above them. The girl was the first to move. Her speech was like her aspect, dazed, blank, incredulous.
"But your gaiety, your love for housekeeping, your—"
"All part of the medicine I sell my soul for to keep him alive. I hate housework: more than mortal and deadly sin do I hate it. I am an artist as well as he; but I must give that up, like everything else that makes life sweet. He was jealous, and if I make music I cannot have the time to cook those little dinners you have liked so much and thought my soul was in. They are so he will eat much, much, like an American, and be heavy afterward and comfortable, and will not go out to those low pleasures that make him sick."
For the first time the girl seemed suddenly to come to a realization of what had been said to her.
"Why, it's infamous!" she exclaimed furiously. "Why don't you leave him and go back to Paris?"
The answer came in a haste as furious as her own, with the unconscious and utterly involuntary promptness of a heart-beat:
"Oh, mon dieu! What would become of him?" cried the wife of the music-master.
She began to sob quietly. The stupefaction of the other's face was like a pool into which this cry plunged for an instant, with no consequent wavering in the smooth blankness of its surface. Then, as the phrase seemed to echo and reverberate in the ensuing silence, wave after wave of deeper and deeper perception of its significance swept across her face. At first she said nothing at all, as if staggered by the immensity of her new vision. She shivered a little, as if this inner flood were a force almost physical. As it mounted, she stood up to her full noble height, throwing her head up. Her voice was harsh with her tense effort at self-control.
"Camille, tell me, how long have you lived in Pittsburgh?"
"And you could have gone back, any day, any hour, to all you— You have stayed here!"
She looked about the dingy little room as if it were a place unutterably strange to her, never seen before, frightening. Her hand went to her throat, but with the great gasp for breath which shook her the flood within finally overwhelmed her. She began to weep, not with a self-contained repression like the woman on the sofa, but loudly, like a child. Groping blindly, she found her wraps, and, with a mechanical instinct, the tears streaming down her cheeks, made herself ready for the street.
The other, hearing her move toward the door, looked up and cried out:
"Oh, you are going away, like this—"
The girl turned hack and, with a gesture as violent as her loud sobs, threw herself down beside her friend, kissing her hand again and again, and finally carrying to her lips the hem of the shabby little skirt.
"Yes, I am going away," she said. "I am going back to marry my lover, and to tell him you have taught me what love can mean!"