Whittaker Burnham's Musicale
BY HUGH PENDEXTER
ILLUSTRATED BY HORACE TAYLOR
IT was the first phonograph to come to Peevy's Mills, and its advent caused something of a stir. The town clerk had just characterized it as "onreligious," and was endeavoring in vague desperation to prove that its only mission was to play "dance music." The selectman and the G. A. R. veteran, as they filled pipes from his plug, took no positive stand, but readily united with him in asking, Why had Whittaker Burnham bought it?
The selectman for the tenth time repeated, "How came a man so sot an' stern in his natur' as Whittaker ter go in for talkin'-machines? I always s'posed he lived only ter double th' dollars."
"While I don't approve of his buyin' it," drawled the town clerk, "I guess I've found th' reason. He wants ter chirk up his wife. Ever since their boy Bob ran away, ten years ago, she's been gloomy an' depressed like. Whittaker, close as he is, would buy anything ter rouse her up. But dang a talkin'-machine!"
"Yas," observed the stiff-legged veteran, who reveled in a local reputation of having supplied the brains behind every campaign in the Civil War; "they're mighty peculiar. I guess no one knows what they really be. I remember when Grant was askin' my advice about th' Wilderness——"
"A talkin'-machine is peculiar only in its disposition ter be cussed," amended the town clerk heavily. "They work simple enough. Th' principle is—wal, ye know how they condense milk? It's jest th' same."
"Jest like canned an' preserved stuff," cried the selectman loudly, his eyes dilating as he absorbed the theory.
The veteran's jaw flapped loosely as he listened to this simple exposition, but the clerk received the interruption coldly. "As I was sayin'," he continued, "it's like condensin' milk. Ter say music is canned ain't ter th' p'int. It's more'n that. It's condensed." And he surveyed the selectman defiantly. Then, swinging his chair to face the open-mouthed veteran and ignoring the selectman, he gravely elucidated. "Ye see, they squeeze th' music inter th' smallest compass an' trim off th' edges. When th' machine starts goin' it kind of expands, meller like, an' ta-ta-fra-la-la, an' there ye have it!"
The veteran ruffled his sparse locks dubiously and tried closing one eye in a futile essay to get the proper perspective, while the selectman frowned at the stove and shifted the conversation by reminding the others of the original question. "But ye ain't give no answer ter th' invitation. I was asked by Whittaker ter call here an' invite ye up ter th' house ter-night ter hear th' contraption play for th' first time. My errand's done. What d'ye say?"
"Don't think I'll go," declared the clerk, biting a penholder meditatively. "It's unmoral."
"Wal, I think I'll accept," confessed the veteran sheepishly. "I don't expect ter enjoy it much, but Whittaker might feel put out if we all kept away. I remember when General——"
"Ye see," expostulated the clerk sorrowfully, "they can teach a machine ter say anything. Who knows what this one has been taught?"
"By Judas!" cried the selectman, his dull eyes bulging. "I know now what old Burnham is up ter. His wife is failin' every day because nothin' is ever heard of Bob. Whittaker 'd rather lose all his money than his wife. He's goin' ter talk into this thing an' teach it ter cry out that a reward will be paid ter anybody furnishin' him with a clue ter Bob's whereabouts. Machines in every city will be rippin' it off, an' somebody is sure ter hear th' offer."
The town clerk's eyes rolled wide in amazed envy as he ponderously digested the suggestion, and his pipe grew cold as he regretted that he had not advanced the theory. The veteran, too, he loathed to behold, was impressed to the point of stupor. Naturally, it all irritated the clerk, and as soon as he could group his features into a sneer he sought to turn the tide by facing the veteran and felicitating that individual by earnestly inquiring: "Lemme see, what was it General Scott said ter ye when ye called on him in Washington?"
But the selectman was not to be sidetracked so easily, and before the veteran could delight in a long-drawn-out recital he babbled aloud in self-admiration, and with much gusto repeated the salient points of his conclusion. As the clerk could not endure any relegation to the second rank, he closed the situation by loudly banging his desk-cover and proclaiming that it was time to go for the mail. But even after he had ushered his guests outside, the selectman talked on, and the veteran, with mouth agape, forgot reminiscences in listening.
The clerk, halting on the top step, viewed the two in sullen silence for a moment. Then further to evince his position he bleated: "No, I sha'n't go up ter-night. I don't believe in them contraptions."
Old man Burnham, in the meanwhile, was experiencing considerable difficulty with the "contraption," or seemingly so. His wife had paid but scant attention as he unpacked it, and his mouth pulled down at the corners as he furtively noted her abstraction.
"I guess I can never fix this horn on, now I've bought th' danged thing," he grumbled.
"Let me help you, dear," she offered listlessly, and his frosty gaze burned warm as he saw the color mount her cheeks in her deft endeavor to aid him. "Why, you've turned this screw 'way in," she cried triumphantly, as with her scissors she remedied his blunder. "Of course you couldn't fix it with the screw that way." And quickly the horn was secured in place.
"We'll enjoy this, I'm a thinkin'," he observed genially, still studying her careworn face from the tail of his eye.
"Enjoy it? Oh, yes; we'll enjoy it," Mrs. Burnham repeated vacantly. "Ten years ago yesterday it was. Ten long, weary years!"
"Why d'ye always hark back ter that?" he cried in despair, and his black-veined hand shook as he arranged the records. He knew it was foolish to expect her to forget. He had hoped, however, that the talking-machine would by some mysterious means operate to arouse her brooding mind, even if but for a day. He had purposely tampered with the screw to give her a petty victory, and now she was cast back amid her bitter cogitations again, and her eyes neither saw him nor the toy as she sat by the window and propped her chin in one thin hand.
It was her favorite seat; for from that particular window she could watch the brown sweep of dusty road until it dodged behind the curve. On winter nights she had sat there, oblivious to his presence and with the curtains pulled behind her, so she might pierce the darkness.
"Why d'ye always hark back ter that?" he repeated weakly, now inviting what he had fought so hard to avoid.
"To Bob?" she inquired wearily. "That what you mean, Whittaker?"
"Yas, I mean Bob," he returned fiercely. "Ain't I yer husband? Ain't I ter be considered at all? Don't I count for nothin'?"
"Give me back my boy, then!" she cried, rising from her chair and stretching her arms to the window. "Give me back my boy!" Overpowered by her emotions, she sank in a limp heap and sobbed, "Oh, Bob! Bob!"
Her husband pressed his throat and his voice was husky as he asked: "I guess ye'll always hold it against me because Bob went away, won't ye?"
She ceased her weeping by a mighty effort and sought to smooth out her face as she replied: "I know you've spent money and time, Whittaker, in trying to find him. But—my son! my son!"
"It's killin' her," he mumbled to the machine. "It's killin' her, an' she blames me." As if hoping she would refute this conclusion, he patted her gray hair with clumsy gentleness and whispered: "I guess, little woman, ye ain't got much use for me."
"You did all you could," she replied, not turning her head.
"But ye blame me for his goin' away?"
"Bring him back."
"Ye think I was too snug with my money an' too hard on him because he didn't take ter farm work. Ye think if I'd treated him different he'd never quit us."
"Bring him back. If dead, bring his body back." Then meeting his gaze openly, with her face seamed and white, she moaned: "He is to be found somewhere, dead or alive. Bring him back."
"Ye blame me for all," he muttered. "An' mebbe I was too harsh. But I've tried my best ter find him. I'll begin again ter-morrer. I'll go ter town an' hire more detectives."
"Give me my boy, Whittaker," she whimpered, again bowing her head in her hands. "I guess I'm all unstrung, but I want him. Oh, how I want him!"
The fierce, hungry light in her staring eyes, now looking at him through the hot tears, caused him humbly to retreat and ponder in awe over the mighty weight of a mother's love. "I'll find him if it takes every inch of land I own," he promised more calmly, his iron jaw set at its most stubborn notch.
"Forgive me, dear, if I seem out of sorts"—her mood was sadly gentle now—"but when I think of the long years, and in the night seem to hear his sweet voice singing the old songs about the house, I know I must have him back soon, or it will be too late. Don't you remember how he used to sing?"
"Yas," he groaned, "but ye can't feel jest th' same toward me till he comes back." In declaring this he hoped she would reassure him.
She bit her lip for a moment and looked down; then raising her head she said simply: "You've done your best, and I shouldn't dwell on why Bob left home. He did wrong to wring my heart. Yet I can't forget your last words to him. I—no, nothing can ever be the same with me till he comes home—till he comes home."
He bowed his head as if receiving a sentence and his face was haggard as he resumed adjusting the machine. She blamed him and always would. Had the boy died, she would have remained the same loving helpmate. But now she was changed. He loved the boy, he told himself, and only God could know the washings his soul had received from useless tears, as in moments of privacy he gave way to his grief. He had been harsh. He had spoken words at that last parting the memory of which would always upbraid him. He felt guilty. To his neighbors he always presented the same hard face, but in his heart he ever hungered for the boy.
A movement at the window, caused him to turn. She had risen and was shading her eyes in an effort to scan the now dusky road. "Some one's coming," she faltered.
He knew the wild hope ever tugging at her soul when a figure turned the curve, and to save her further pain he explained bruskly: "Only three of the boys comin' up ter hear the machine."
"Oh," she sighed, lapsing into her chair again.
"Yas, only some of the boys. I know'd they'd enjoy it." Then pleadingly; "Kind of chirk up a bit, if ye can. I don't want 'em ter think ye're sour on me. There! If ye'll go ter the door, I'll light a lamp."
The guests consisted of the town clerk and his companions of a few hours before. The clerk was stern and solemn, as if present under protest, and he viewed the crude gaiety of the others with a semblance of contempt. As for the machine, he refused to join in the inspection, and, instead, sat down beside Mrs. Burnham and returned her mechanical smile with a curt nod. But the veteran and the selectman could only bubble in the keenest anticipation, and the latter, believing he had discovered his host's ulterior intention of utilizing the device in the search for the boy, caused some misapprehension as to his sanity by sundry sly nudges and prolonged chuckles.
"Wal, shall we have some music?" inquired the puzzled Mr. Burnham, caressing his side and backing away from the grinning selectman.
"Let's set an' talk a while," sniffed the clerk, not turning his head.
"Let's hear the music," cried the veteran excitedly. "I remember when——"
"Wal, we can talk while it's playin'," compromised Mr. Burnham.
The clerk immediately stepped to the table and became absorbed in a photograph album as his host gingerly slipped on the first record.
"Here's Bob's picture," whispered the mother, reaching a fluttering hand over the clerk's shoulder. But the other's attention faded into nothingness, and he jerked about in lasting amaze, as the smashing roar of the bass drum, the purr of the snare and the blatant blare of the trombones, decorated and frilled into fanciful conceits by piccolo and cornet, began streaming from the reproducer to drown her rhapsody. He had had no idea it would be like this, and he could not censure the old veteran for nervously stumping back and forth in an eccentric effort to keep time. The ranting lilt of the march made even his rebellious feet wish to prance, and once for all he shed his disdain, surrendered, and accepted the machine as a mighty thing.
Mrs. Burnham, who had listened almost impatiently, kept her finger on the photograph, and as the first selection ended, whispered: "This was Bob just before he—he went away."
"What next?" bawled the veteran.
"He was only fifteen when this was took," she murmured.
"Yas," acknowledged the clerk dully, his eyes seeing only the machine. "Yas, I s'pose so."
Her husband, beneath the running fire of query and comment, was anxiously observing her and had noted her hand on the album. He knew his last stratagem had hopelessly failed. If ever she should give the music heed, it would only accentuate her saddened thoughts. She smiled slightly at the next, a monologue, lost largely on her guests, but at the close obstinately returned to the album and said: "Here's another that was took two years earlier. Some think he has my chin."
Then awakening to her husband's wistful gaze, a wave of pity swept over her and she sought to shake herself into a show of enjoyment throughout several selections.
"Give us that comic song again," begged the clerk, his eyes swimming in tears of laughter. "What was it the feller said? 'Oh, I never, never——' Ha, ha! Wal, if he ain't a funny cuss!"
"There's only one more left," said the selectman regretfully. "Let's have that, an' then I vote we try 'em all over again."
"Jest as ye say," agreed Mr. Burnham wearily.
"Hope it's a war tune," gasped the veteran. "Gee whiz! But don't they remind me of them dark days when Grant use ter say ter me——"
B-r-r-r, buzzed the machine and pompously announced: "‘Ben Bolt,' the famous American ballad, as sung by Alan Ranmore,' the popular barytone of the Extravaganza Opera Company, for the Excelsior Phonograph Company of New York City."
Tinkle, tinkle, rippled the accompaniment and softly retreated before the bell-voiced singer and his wealth of melodic sweetness.
"Oh, don't you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt, sweet Alice——"
A shriek caused the four men to stumble to a right-about to behold Mrs. Burnham's face distorted and pasty white, while her hands worked convulsively. Now her wild outburst took on words and she screamed: "Robert! My boy!"
"—When you gave her a smile, and trembled with fear at your frown." continued the machine.
"She's dyin'!" whispered the slow-minded father.
"Sha'n't ye give up!" stuttered the town clerk, lolling back very limp.
"—Churchyard in the valley, Ben Bolt," sobbed the record.
"Bob! Oh, Bob!" panted the mother, tottering forward only to fall into her husband's arms.
"By th' Etarnal! It is Bob!" bellowed Mr. Burnham, laying her on the couch.
"They have fitted a slab of granite so gray," wailed the record.
"Oh, Heavens!" The selectman shivered with an unfamiliar emotion as he, too, caught the well-remembered voice of the long-missing boy.
Then, as the true import flashed home to all three, they became galvanized into an intensity of motion and danced madly around the machine, calling encouragement into the horn, with the clerk trumpeting through his hands to make the singer hear; but the old man kneeling beside the prostrate woman heeded none of it.
"Hello, Bob! Hello! This is me! Don't ye know me?" implored the clerk, standing on one leg.
"And sweet Alice lies under the stone," the liquid voice replied.
"Bob! Bobbie! I say, Bob! Come out!" hoarsely begged the veteran, stumping his stiff leg to command attention.
"Yas, jump out, Bob," choked the selectman, moving back a few steps.
But the machine was inexorable and with awful obliviousness repeated the primal query:
"Oh, don't you remember sweet Alice——"
"‘Ben Bolt!’" exploded the veteran, now completely beside himself. And only habit impelled him to add: "Why, we use ter sing that back in th' dark days after Fredericksburg, when General Hooker——"
"Yer mother's dyin', Bobbie," reproached the clerk in a dry sob.
"—And kept tune to the click of the mill——"
"Stop it!" groaned the gray-faced father from the couch. "Stop it! It will kill her."
"My boy," murmured the mother, struggling to her elbow and looking confusedly about. "My boy! Where is he? I hear his voice."
"See the old rustic porch with its roses so sweet——"
"Come out, Bobbie," whimpered the selectman in one last appeal, shaking the horn.
"Stop it!" repeated the old man, staggering from his knees.
"—Lies scattered and fallen to the——"
B-r-r-r. Click! And the lever was reversed.
A pale-faced woman clung to the porch railing of the Burnham house and scanned the road with aching eyes. No word yet from her husband, and her heart was like ice within her breast. He had assured her he would return within a week, and that period of time had elapsed without bringing a sign. from him. No doubt he had failed once more, and——
"Got a message for ye," chuckled a voice, and she turned to behold the veteran hopping onto the porch.
"From whom?" she whispered.
"I tell ye, it reminds me of when General Sherman took me aside and said——"
"Give me the message!" she cried fiercely, snatching the yellow slip from his hand.
"I know what it says," grinned the veteran, as her nervous fingers tore at the paper. "It was telephoned in from th' junction, an' th' town clerk read it out loud."
But with a glad cry Mrs. Burnham left him and stumbled into the house, her eyes blinded with happy tears; for on the yellow paper she had read:
Be prepared to hear "Ben Bolt" sung to-night. We arrive late stage. Whittaker.