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The Home Monthly

by Willa Cather

From The Home Monthly, VI (July 1897):  9-11.

The Prodigies.

"I AM ready at last, Nelson. Have I kept you very long?" asked Mrs. Nelson Mackenzie as she came hurriedly down the stairs. "I'm sorry, but I just had one misfortune after another in dressing."

"You don't look it," replied her husband, as he glanced up at her admiringly.

"Do you like it? O, thank you! I am never quite sure about this shade of green, it's so treacherous. I have had such a time. The children would not stay in the nursery and poor Elsie has lost her 'Alice in Wonderland' and wails without ceasing because nurse cannot repeat 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' off hand."

"I should think every one about this house could do that. I know the whole fool book like the catechism," said Mackenzie as he drew on his coat.

"Is the carriage there?"

Mackenzie didn't answer. He knew that Harriet knew perfectly well that the carriage had been waiting for half an hour.

"I hope we shant be late," remarked Harriet as they drove away. "But it's just like Kate to select the most difficult hour in the day and recognize no obstacles to our appearing. She admits of no obstacles either for herself or other people. You've never met her except formally, have you? We saw a great deal of each other years ago. I took a few vocal lessons from her father and was for a time the object of her superabundant enthusiasm. If there is anything in the world that has not at some time been its object I don't know it. One must always take her with a grain of allowance. But even her characteristic impracticability does not excuse her for inviting busy people at four o'clock in the afternoon."

"I suppose it's the only hour at which the prodigies exhibit."

"Now don't speak disrespectfully, Nelson. They really are very wonderful children. I fancy Kate is working them to death, that's her way. But I don't think I ever heard two young voices of such promise. They sang at Christ Church that Sunday you didn't go, and I was quite overcome with astonishment. They have had the best instruction. It's wonderful to think of mere children having such method. As a rule juvenile exhibitions merely appeal to the maternal element in one, but when I heard them I quite forgot that they were children. I assure you they quite deserve to be taken seriously."

"All the same I shouldn't like to be exhibiting my children about like freaks."

"Poor Nelson! there's not much danger of your ever being tempted. It's extremely unlikely that poor Billy or Elsie will ever startle the world. Really, do you know when I heard those Massey children and thought of all they have done, of all they may do, I envied them myself? To youth everything is possible—when anything at all is possible."

Harriet sighed and Mackenzie fancied he detected a note of disappointment in her voice. He had suspected before that Harriet was disappointed in her children. They suited him well enough, but Harriet was different.

If Harriet Norton had taken up missionary work in the Cannibal Islands her friends could not have been more surprised than when she married Nelson Mackenzie. They had slated her for a very different career. As a girl she had possessed unusual talent. After taking sundry honors at the New England Conservatory, she had studied music abroad. It had been rumored that Leschetizky was about to launch her on a concert tour as a piano virtuoso, when she had suddenly returned to America and married the one among all her admirers who seemed particularly unsuited to her. Mackenzie was a young physician, a thoroughly practical, methodical Scotchman, rather stout, with a tendency to baldness, and with a propensity for playing the cornet. This latter fact alone was certainly enough to disqualify him for becoming the husband of a pianiste. When it reached Leschetizky's ears that Miss Norton had married a cornet-playing doctor, he "recorded one lost soul more," and her name never passed his lips again. Even her former rivals felt that they could now afford to be generous, and with one accord sent their congratulations to herself and husband "whom they had heard was also a musician."

Harriet received these neat sarcasms with great amusement. She had known when she married him that Mackenzie played the cornet, that he even played "Promise Me"; but she considered it one of the most innocent diversions in which a married man could indulge. But Harriet had not married him to inaugurate a romance or to develop one. She had seen romances enough abroad and knew by heart that fatal fifth act of marriages between artists. She was sometimes glad that there was not a romantic fiber in Mackenzie's substantial frame. She had married him because for some inexplicable reason she had always been fond of him, and since her marriage she had never been disappointed or disillusioned in him. He was not a brilliant man, and his chief merits were those of character—virtues not always fascinating, but they wear well in a husband and are generally about the safest things to be married to.

So, in Mackenzie's phraseology, they had "pulled well enough together." Of course Mrs. Mackenzie had her moments of rebellion against the monotony of the domestic routine, and felt occasional stirrings of the old restlessness for achievement and the old thirst of the spirit. But knowing to what unspiritual things this soul-thirst had led women aforetime, she resolved to live the common life at least commonly well.

But her married life had held one very bitter disappointment, her children. Someway she had never doubted that her children would be like her. She had settled upon innumerable artistic careers for them. Of course they would both have her talent for music, probably talent of a much finer sort than her own, and the boy would do all the great things that she had not done. She knew well enough that if the cruelly exacting life of art is not wholly denied a woman, it is offered to her at a terrible price. She had not chosen to pay it. But with the boy it would be different. He should realize all the dreams that once stirred in the breast on which he slept.

She had awaited impatiently the time when his little fingers were strong enough to strike the keys. But although he had heard music from the time he could hear at all, the child displayed neither interest nor aptitude for it. In vain his papa tooted familiar airs to him on the cornet; sometimes he recognized them and sometimes he did not. It was just the same with the little girl. The poor child could never sing the simplest nursery air correctly. They were both healthy, lively children, unusually truthful and well conducted, but thoroughly commonplace. Harriet could not resign herself to this, she could not understand it. There was always a note of envy in her voice when she spoke of the wonderful Massey children, whose names were on every one's lips. It seemed just as though Kate Massey had got what she should have had herself.

When the Mackenzies arrived at the Massey's door Mrs. Massey rushed past the servant and met them herself.

"I'm so glad you've come, Harriet, dear. We were just about to begin and I didn't want you to miss Adrienne's first number. It's the waltz song from Romeo et Juliette; she had special drill on that from Madame Marchesi you know, and in London they considered it one of her best. I know this is a difficult hour, but they have to sing again after dinner and I don't want to tax them too much. Poor dears! there are so many demands on their time and strength that I sometimes feel like fleeing to the North Pole with them. To the left, upstairs, Mr. Mackenzie. Harriet, you know the way." And their animated hostess dashed off in search of more worlds to conquer. Mrs. Massey's manner was always that of a conqueror fresh from the fray. She demanded of every one absolute capitulation and absolute surrender to the object of her particular enthusiasm, whatever that happened to be at the moment. Usually it was her wonderful children.

When the Mackenzies descended, Kate met them with a warning gesture and ushered them into the music room where the other guests were seated silently and expectantly. When they were seated she herself sank into a chair with an air of rapt and breathless anticipation.

The accompanist took her seat and a very pale, languid little girl came forward and stood beside the piano. She looked to be about fourteen but was unusually small for her age. She was a singularly frail child with apparently almost no physical reserve power, and stood with a slight natural stoop which she quickly corrected as she caught her mother's eye. Her great dark eyes seemed even larger than they were by reason of the dark circles under them. She clasped her little hands and waited until the brief prelude was over. She seemed not at all nervous, but very weary. Even the spirited measures of that most vivacious of arias could not wholly dispel the listlessness from those eyes that were so sad for a child's face. As to the merit or even the "wonder" of her singing, there was no doubt. Even the unmusical Mackenzie, who could not have described her voice in technical language, knew that this voice was marvellous from the throat of a child. The volume of a mature singer was of course not there, but her tones were pure and limpid and wonderfully correct. The thing that most surprised him was what his wife had called the "method" of the child's singing. Gounod's waltz aria is not an easy one, and the child must have been perfectly taught. It seemed to him, though, that the little dash of gaiety she threw into it had been taught her, too, and that this child herself had never known what it was to be gay.

"O Kate, how I envy you!" sighed Harriet in a burst of admiration too sincere to be concealed.

Her hostess smiled triumphantly; she expected every one to envy her, took that for granted. As Mackenzie saw the little figure glide between the portieres, he was not quite so sure that he envied Massey.

Massey was a practical man of business like himself, who seemed rather overcome by the surprising talent of his children. He always stood a little apart from the musical circle which surrounded them, even in his own house, and when his wife took them abroad for instruction he stayed at home and supplied the funds. His natural reserve grew more marked as the years went by, and he seemed so obliterated even at his own fireside that Mackenzie sometimes fancied he regretted having given prodigies to the world.

Mrs. Massey turned to Harriet in an excited whisper: "Hermann will only sing the 'Serenade.' He selected that because it saves his voice. The duet they will sing after dinner is very trying, it's the parting scene from Juliette, the one they will sing in concert next week."

The boy was the elder of the two; and not so thin as his sister perhaps, but still pitifully fragile, with an unusually large head, all forehead, and those same dark, tired eyes. He sang the German words of that matchless serenade of Schubert's, so familiar, yet so perennially new and strange; so old, yet so immortally young. It was a voice like those one sometimes hears in the boy choirs of the great cathedrals of the Old World, a voice that, untrained, would have been alto rather than tenor; clear, sweet, and vibrant, with an indefinable echo of melancholy. He was less limited by his physique than his sister, and it seemed impossible that such strong, sustained tones could come from that fragile body. Although he sang so feelingly there was no fervor, rather a yearning, joyless and hopeless. It was a serenade to which no lattice would open, which expected no answer. It was as though this boy of fifteen were tired of the very name of love, and sang of a lost dream, inexpressibly sweet. He, at least, had not been taught that strange unboyish sadness, thought Mackenzie.

When the last vibrant note had died away the boy bowed, and, coughing slightly, crossed the room and stood by his father.

Every one rose and crowded about the hostess, whose enthusiasm burst forth afresh. By her side stood her father, a placid old gentleman who was thoroughly satisfied with himself, his daughter and his grandchildren. He had once been a vocal teacher himself, and it was he who accompanied his daughter and her prodigies on their trips abroad. The father and boy stood apart.

"Yes," Kate was replying to the comments of her friends, "Yes, it has always been so. When I would sing them to sleep when they were little things, just learning to talk, Hermann would take up the contralto with me and little Adrienne would form the soprano for herself. Of course it comes from my side of the house. Papa might have been a great baritone had he not devoted himself to teaching. They have never heard anything but good music. They had a nurse who used to sing Sunday school songs and street airs, and when Hermann was a little fellow of five he came to me one day and said: 'Mamma, I don't like to ask you to send Annie away, but please ask her not to sing to us, she sings such dreadful things!' We took them to Dr. Harrison's church one day and the soloist sang an aria from the Messiah. After that I had no rest; all day long it was, 'Mamma, sing Man a' Sorrow,s'—it was before they could talk plainly. They would do anything for me if I would only sing 'In Questa Tomba' for them." Here she turned to her father, who was slightly deaf, and raising her voice said, "I was telling them about 'In Questa Tomba,' father."

The old gentleman smiled serenely and nodded.

Mackenzie heard his wife say, "But Kate, it seems almost impossible that they should have cared for such music so young."

Mrs. Massey caught up the conversation with renewed energy.

"That's just what I once said to Madame Marchesi in Paris, my dear. I said, 'These children seem impossible to me, I cannot think they are my own.' 'Madame,' she replied, 'genius is just that: the impossible.' Of course, Harriet, that's Madame Marchesi. I don't claim genius for them, I'm afraid of the very word. It means such responsibility. You must not think I am too vain. Of course I speak quite freely today because only my intimate friends are present."

Mackenzie glanced apprehensively at the boy who must be hearing all this. But he did not seem to hear; he still stood holding his father's hand and looking out of the window. By this time Mackenzie had edged his way until he stood quite near the hostess, and he was thinking of something nice to say. He could say nice things sometimes, but he always had to think for them. He knew that on this occasion his speech must be sufficiently appreciative. He took his hostess' hand warmly and said in a low tone for her ear alone:

"I should think you would feel blessed among women, Mrs. Massey."

Kate beamed upon him and then turned to her father and shouted, "He says he should think I'd feel blessed among women, father."

The old gentleman smiled serenely his superior smile, his daughter's smile. Poor Mackenzie blushed violently at hearing his bit of soulful rhetoric shouted to the world and retreated. His wife smiled slyly at him. She knew Kate better than he. Kate was always beside herself; she could never be unemotional for an instant. She dined, dressed, talked, shopped, called, all at high pressure. Harriet could never imagine her passive even in sleep. She was always at white heat. Her enthusiasm was a Niagara and its supply seemed exhaustless. She threw herself and her whole self into everything, at everything, as an exhibition modeller throws his clay at his easel.

"I should think with the two of them your responsibility would be a grave one," ventured one robust old gentleman whose knowledge of music was limited, and who confined his remarks to safe generalities.

"That's just it, there are two of them! You would think that one would be care and responsibility enough. But there are two, think of it! Madame Marchesi used to say, 'A little Patti and Campanini': And I would reply, 'and only one poor commonplace mortal mother to look after them.' As I say, when I hear them sing I don't feel as if they belong to me at all. I can't comprehend why I should be selected from among all other women for such a unique position."

Mackenzie cast a look of amazed inquiry at his wife. She laughed and whispered, "O, Kate's always like this when she's excited, and she's generally excited."

The little girl had slipped quietly in and now the guests were shaking hands with the children and making them compliments. They received them with quiet indifference, only smiling when courtesy seemed to require it.

"Now Adrienne, get the handkerchief case the Princess of Wales made for you herself and show it to the ladies."

"I think they are all there on the mantel, mamma," replied the child quietly.

"So they are. And here, Mr. Mackenzie, is Jean de Reszke's photograph that he gave Adrienne with the inscription, 'To the Juliette of the future from an old Romeo.' Prettily worded, isn't it? And here is the jewelled miniature of Malibran that the Duke of Orleans gave her, and the opera glasses from Madame Marchesi. And there is the portrait of her husband that Frau Cosima Wagner gave Hermann. Of course he doesn't sing Wagnerian music yet, but ca ira, ca ira, as Madame used to say."

After examining trinkets enough to stock a small museum, Mackenzie said quietly:

"Aren't you just a little afraid of all this notoriety for them at their age? It seems as if there will be nothing left for them later."

He saw at once that he had touched a delicate subject and she threw herself on the defensive. "No, Mr. Mackenzie, I am afraid of nothing that will spur them to their work or make them feel the importance and weight of their art. Remember the age at which Patti began."

Mackenzie glanced at the two frail figures and ventured further. "That's just it, the weight of it. Their shoulders are young to bear it all, I'm thinking. Aren't you sometimes afraid it will exhaust them physically?"

"O, they are never ill, and," with her superior smile, "in their art one cannot begin too soon. It is the work of a lifetime, you know, a lifelong consecration. I do not feel that I have any right to curb them or to stop the flight of Pegasus. You see they are beyond me; I can only follow and help them as I may."

Mackenzie turned wearily away. He was thinking of the mother in a certain novel of Daudet's who refused to risk her son's life for a throne. Mrs. Massey shot across the room to show the rotund gentleman those trophies which were perhaps given so lightly, but were in her eyes precious beyond price.

Mackenzie saw the children slip through the portierre into the library and determined to follow them and discover whether these strange little beings were fay or human. They were standing by the big window watching a group of children who were playing in the snow outside.

"Say, Ad," said the boy, "do you suppose mamma would let us go out there and snowball for a while? Suppose you ask her."

"It would be no use to ask, Hermann. We should both be in wretched voice this evening. Besides, you know mamma considers those Hamilton children very common. They do have awfully good times though. Perhaps that's why they are so common. Most people seem to be who have a good time."

"I suppose so. We never get to do anything nice. John Hamilton has a new pair of skates and goes down on the ice in the park every day. I think I might learn to skate, anyhow."

"But you'd never get time to skate if you did learn. We haven't time to keep up our Italian, even. I'm forgetting mine."

"O bother our Italian! Ad, I'm just sick of it all. Sometimes I think I'll run away. But I'd practice forever if she'd just let us go to-morrow night. Do you suppose she would?"

"I'm awfully afraid not. You know at the beginning of the season she said we must hear that opera. I'll tell you; I'll go to the opera if she'll let you go to see them."

"No you won't either! You want to see them just as much as I do. I think we might go! We never get to do anything we want to." He struck the window casing impatiently with his clenched hand.

"What's the matter, children?" said Mackenzie, feeling that he was overhearing too much.

"O we're talking secrets, sir. We didn't know there was any one in here."

"Well, I'm not any one much, but just an old fellow who likes little folks. Come over here on the divan and talk to me."

They followed him passively, like children who were accustomed to doing what they were told. He sat down and took the little girl on his knee and put his arm around the boy. He felt so sorry for them, these poor little prodigies who seemed so tired out with life.

"Now I want you to come over and visit my little folks some day and see Billy's goats."

"Are your children musical?" asked the girl.

Mackenzie felt rather abashed. "No, they're not. But they are very nice children, at least I think so."

"Then what could we talk about?"

"O, about lots of things! What do young folks usually talk about? They have a great many books. Do you like to read?"

"Yes, pretty well, but we don't often have time. What do your children read?"

"Well, they like rather old-fashioned books: Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson and Pilgrim's Progress. Do you like Pilgrim's Progress?"

"We never read it, did we Hermann?"

The boy shook his head.

"Never read it? then you must before you are a year older. It's a great old book; full of fights and adventures, you know."

"We have read the legends of the Holy Grail and Frau Cosima Wagner gave us a book of the legends of the Nibelung Trilogy. We liked that. It was full of fights and things. I suppose I will have to sing all that music some day; there is a great deal of it, you know," said the boy apprehensively.

"You work very hard, don't you?"

"O yes, very hard. You see there is so much to do," he replied feverishly.

"Plenty of time, my lad, plenty of time. Of course you play and take plenty of exercise to make you strong?"

"We have a gymnasium and exercise there. I fence half an hour every morning. I will need to know how some day, when I sing Faust and parts like that."

"And what do you do, Miss? Do you take good care of your dolls?"

"I haven't any now. I used to have a dear one, but one day when we were driving in from Fontainebleau I left her in the carriage. We advertised for her, but we never found her and I never wanted another."

"Ad cared so much for that one, you see," explained the boy. "Next day when we were taking our lesson she felt so badly about it she cried and Madame asked what was the matter and said, 'Never mind, ma chere, wait a little and you will have dolls enough. Girls who sing like you never lack for toys in this world. I taught the beautiful Sybil, and behold what toys she has!' I have often wondered what she meant. But it was often very difficult to tell just what Madame meant. Sometimes I used to think she was making fun of us."

Mackenzie looked at the boy sharply and veered into safer waters.

"Aren't you glad to be home again?"

"Yes, but of course we are better abroad. There's no artistic atmosphere over here. I think we go back to Paris in the spring, or London, maybe."

"You go to the opera often, don't you?"

"Yes," replied the little girl, "we are going to the 'Damnation of Faust' to-morrow night,—that is if we don't go somewhere else."

"Now Ad, don't you tell secrets," said her brother sternly.

"Well, I thought we might just tell him. Perhaps he'd coax her for us."

"You'll not laugh at us and you'll not tell?"

"On my honor," said Mackenzie.

"You see," explained Hermann, "we want to see the dog show to-morrow night. We've never been to one and I think we might. The Hamilton children go every night and they say there are just hundreds of dogs."

"And why can't you, pray?"

"Well, you see it's the only time they will sing Berlioz's 'Damnation of Faust' here this season, and we ought to hear it. Then mamma don't like us to go to such things."

Mackenzie set his teeth. "Now I'll just tell you; my children are going to the dog show and you shall go with them. I'll fix it up with your mother. And what's more I'll send you over one of our skye terrier pups. Even singers are permitted to have dogs, aren't they? At least they are always losing them. You go and ask your mother if you may keep the pup, my son."

As the boy shot off the little girl nestled closer to him. "I'm so awfully glad! Hermann has just been wild to go. And perhaps we'll see the Hamilton children. You see mamma doesn't like the Hamilton children very well. They wear lots of jewels and are not always careful about their grammar, but they do have good times. Sometimes Hermann and I play we are the Hamilton children; and he pretends he has been off skating and tells me what he saw, and I pretend I've been to school and making fancy work like Mollie Hamilton. That's a very secret play and we only play it when we're alone."

So these poor little prodigies loved to play that they were just the common children of the "new rich" next door! Mackenzie took the little hand that a single ruby made look so bloodless and his eyes were very tender.

"Why, my child, how hot your hands are, and your checks are all flushed. Your pulse is going like a trip-hammer. Are you ill?"

"O no, I'm just tired. We've been working very hard for our big concert next week. That's a very important concert, you know. But there, they are all going out to dinner, and you are to take mamma out, I think. Good-bye."

"But aren't you coming too?"

"O no! We sing later, so of course we can't dine now."

"O no, of course you can't dine!" said Mackenzie.

After dinner the more formal guests arrived and the party again assembled in the music room.

They are going to sing the parting scene from Juliette, those babies! Why will Kate select such music for them? The effect will be little short of grotesque. But then it's just like Kate, she never admits of distinctions or conditions," whispered Mrs. Mackenzie to her husband. "Here they come. O Nelson, that boy Romeo and his baby Juliet, it's sacrilege!"

They quietly took their places, "the boy Romeo and his baby Juliette," looking earnestly at each other, and began that frenzied song of pain and parting: "Tu die partir ohime!" Poor little children! What could they know of the immeasurable anguish of that farewell—or of the immeasurable joy which alone can make such sorrow possible? What could they know of the fearful potency of the words they uttered—words that have governed nations and wrecked empires! They sang bravely enough, but the effect was that of trying to force the tones of a 'cello from a violin.

Suddenly a quick paleness came over the face of the little Juliet. Still struggling with the score she threw out her hand and caught her Romeo's shoulder, swaying like a flower before the breath of a hurricane.

"Ad, Ad!" shrieked the boy as he sank upon one knee with his sister in his arms.

There was wild confusion among the guests; the men threw open the doors and struggled with the windows. Mackenzie sprang to the child's side, but her mother was there before him, whiter than the little Juliet herself.

"Doctor, what does it mean? She has never done like this before, she is never ill."

As she bent over the child her husband thrust her back, lifting the little girl in his arms.

"Let me take her now,—you have done enough!" he said sternly, with an ominous flash in his eyes. It was the only time he was ever heard to issue a command in his own household.

"O Nelson, it is terrible!" said Mrs. Mackenzie as they drove home that night. "Kate Massey must be mad. Poor little girl! And the boy—why I wouldn't have that haunted look in Billy's eyes for the world!"

"Not even to make a tenor of him?" asked Mackenzie.

A month later Mackenzie stood again in the Massey's music room with Kate beside him. The woman was so pale and broken that he could almost find it in his heart to be sorry for her.

"I don't think I need come again now, Mrs. Massey, unless there is a relapse."

"And you still think, Doctor, that there is no hope at all? For her voice, I mean?"

"The best specialists in New York agree with me in that. Your foreign teachers have not been content with duping you out of your money, they have simply drained your child's life out of her veins," said Mackenzie brutally.

There was a ghost of the old superior smile. "Doctor, you forget yourself. Whatever you American physicians may say, I know that the child was properly taught. This has broken my heart, but it has not convinced me that I am in error. I have said I could make any sacrifice for their art, but God knows I never thought it would be this!"

The little boy entered the room with a roll of music under his arm. His mother caught him to her impulsively.

"Ah, my boy, you must travel your way alone now. I suppose the day must have come when one of you must have suffered for the other. Two of the same blood can never achieve equally. Perhaps it is best that it should come now. But remember, my son, you carry not one destiny in your throat, but two. You must be great enough for both!"

The boy kissed her and said gently, "Don't cry, mother. I will try."

His mother hid her face on his shoulder and he turned to the Doctor, who was drawing on his gloves, and shrugging his frail shoulders smiled. It was the smile which might have touched the face of some Roman youth on the bloody sand, when the reversed thumb of the Empress pointed deathward.