In Father’s childhood it was unusual for boys to take music lessons, and his father hadn’t had him taught music. Men didn’t play the piano. Young ladies learned to play pretty things on it as an accomplishment, but few of them went further, and any desire to play classical music was rare.
After Father grew up, however, and began to do well in his business, he decided that music was one of the good things of life. He bought himself a piano and paid a musician to teach him. He took no interest in the languishing love songs which were popular then, he didn’t admire patriotic things such as “Marching Through Georgia,” and he had a hearty distaste for songs of pathos–he always swore if he heard them. He enjoyed music as he did a fine wine or a good ride on horseback.
The people he associated with didn’t care much for this kind of thing, and Father didn’t wish to associate with the long-haired musicians who did. He got no encouragement from anyone and his progress was lonely. But Father was not the kind of man who depends on encouragement. He had long muscular fingers, he practised faithfully, and he learned to the best of his ability to play Beethoven and Bach.
His feeling for music was limited, but it was deeply rooted, and he cared enough for it to keep on practising even after he married and in the busy years when he was providing for a house full of boys. He didn’t go to symphonic concerts and he never liked Wagner, but he’d hum something of Brahms while posting his ledger, or play Mozart or Chopin after dinner. It gave him a sense of well-being.
Mother liked music too. We often heard her sweet voice gently singing old songs of an evening. If she forgot parts here or there, she swiftly improvised something that would let the air flow along without breaking the spell.
Father didn’t play that way. He was erecting much statelier structures, and when he got a chord wrong, he stopped. He took that chord apart and went over the notes one by one, and he kept on going over them methodically. This sometimes drove Mother mad. She would desperately cry “Oh-oh-oh!” and run out of the room.
Her whole attitude toward music was different. She didn’t get a solid and purely personal enjoyment from it like Father. It was more of a social function to her. It went with dancing and singing. She played and sang for fun, or to keep from being sad, or to give others pleasure.
On Thursday afternoons in the winter, Mother was always “at home.” She served tea and cakes, and quite a few people dropped in to see her. She liked entertaining. And whenever she saw a way to make her Thursdays more attractive, she tried it.
About this time, Mother’s favourite niece, Cousin Julie, was duly “finished” at boarding school and came to live with us, bringing her trunks and hat-boxes and a great gilded harp. Mother at once made room for this beautiful object in our crowded parlour, and the first thing Julie knew she had to play it for the Thursday-afternoon visitors. Julie loved her harp dearly but she didn’t like performing at all–performances frightened her, and if she fumbled a bit, she felt badly. But Mother said she must get over all that. She tried to give Julie self-confidence. She talked to her like a determined though kind impresario.
These afternoon sessions were pleasant, but they made Mother want to do more. While she was thinking one evening about what a lot of social debts she must pay, she suddenly said to Father, who was reading Gibbon, half-asleep by the fire, “Why not give a musicale, Clare, instead of a series of dinners?”
When Father was able to understand what she was talking about, he said he was glad if she had come to her senses sufficiently to give up any wild idea of having a series of dinners, and that she had better by all means give up musicales, too. He informed her he was not made of money, and all good string quartets were expensive; and when Mother interrupted him, he raised his voice and said, to close the discussion: “I will not have my peaceful home turned into a Roman arena, with a lot of hairy fiddlers prancing about and disturbing my comfort.”
“You needn’t get so excited, Clare,” Mother said. “I didn’t say a word about hairy fiddlers. I don’t know where you get such ideas. But I do know a lovely young girl whom Mrs. Spiller has had, and she’ll come for very little, I’m sure.”
“What instrument does this inexpensive paragon play?” Father inquired sardonically.
“She doesn’t play, Clare. She whistles.”
“Whistles!” said Father. “Good God!”
“Very well, then,” Mother said after an argument. “I’ll have to have Julie instead, and Miss Kregman can help her, and I’ll try to get Sally Brown or somebody to play the piano.”
“Miss Kregman!” Father snorted. “I wash my hands of the whole business.”
Mother asked nothing better. She could have made a grander affair of it if he had provided the money, but even with only a little to spend, getting up a party was fun. Before her marriage, she had loved her brother Alden’s musicales. She would model hers upon those. Hers would be different in one way, for Uncle Alden had had famous artists, and at hers the famous artists would be impersonated by Cousin Julie. But the question as to how expert the music would be didn’t bother her, and she didn’t think it would bother the guests whom she planned to invite. The flowers would be pretty; she knew just what she would put in each vase (the parlour was full of large vases); she had a special kind of little cakes in mind, and everybody would enjoy it all thoroughly.
But no matter what kind of artists she has, a hostess is bound to have trouble managing them, and Mother knew that even her homemade material would need a firm hand. Julie was devoted to her, and so was the other victim, Sally Brown, Julie’s schoolmate. But devoted or not, they were uneasy about this experiment. Sally would rather have done almost anything than perform at a musicale, and the idea of playing in public sent cold chills down Julie’s back.
The only one Mother worried about, however, was Julie’s teacher, Miss Kregman. She could bring a harp of her own, so she would be quite an addition, but Mother didn’t feel she was decorative. She was an angular, plain-looking woman, and she certainly was a very unromantic sight at a harp.
Father didn’t feel she was decorative either, and said, “I’ll be hanged if I come.” He said musicales were all poppycock anyway. “Nothing but tinkle and twitter.”
“Nobody’s invited you, Clare,” Mother said defiantly. As a matter of fact, she felt relieved by his announcement. This wasn’t like a dinner, where she wanted Father and where he would be of some use. She didn’t want him at all at her musicale.
“All I ask is,” she went on, “that you will please dine out for once. It won’t be over until six at the earliest, and it would make things much easier for me if you would dine at the club.”
Father said that was ridiculous. “I never dine at the club. I won’t do it. Any time I can’t have my dinner in my own home, this house is for sale. I disapprove entirely of these parties and uproar!” he shouted. “I’m ready to sell the place this very minute if I can’t live here in peace, and we can all go and sit under a palm tree and live on breadfruit and pickles!”
On the day of the musicale, it began to snow while we were at breakfast. Father had forgotten what day it was, of course, and he didn’t care anyhow–his mind was on a waistcoat which he wished Mother to take to his tailor’s. To his astonishment, he found her standing on a stepladder, arranging some ivy, and when he said “Here’s my waistcoat,” she gave a loud wail of self-pity at this new infliction. Father said in a bothered way: “What is the matter with you, Vinnie? What are you doing up on that ladder? Here’s my waistcoat, I tell you, and it’s got to go to the tailor at once.” He insisted on handing it up to her, and he banged the front door going out.
Early in the afternoon, the snow changed to rain. The streets were deep in slush. We boys gave up sliding downhill on the railroad bridge in East Forty-eighth Street and came tramping in with our sleds. Before going up to the playroom, we looked in the parlour. It was full of small folding chairs. The big teakwood armchairs with their embroidered backs were crowded off into corners, and the blue velvety ottoman with its flowered top could hardly be seen. The rubber tree had been moved from the window and strategically placed by Miss Kregman’s harp, in such a way that the harp would be in full view but Miss Kregman would not.
Going upstairs, we met Julie coming down. Her lips were blue. She was pale. She passed us with fixed, unseeing eyes, and when I touched her hand it felt cold.
Looking over the banisters, we saw Miss Kregman arrive in her galoshes. Sally Brown, who was usually gay, entered silently later. Miss Kregman clambered in behind the rubber tree and tuned the majestic gold harps. Mother was arranging trayfuls of little cakes and sandwiches, and giving a last touch to the flowers. Her excited voice floated up to us. There was not a sound from the others.
At the hour appointed for this human sacrifice, ladies began arriving in long, swishy dresses which swept bits of mud over the carpet. Soon the parlour was packed. I thought of Sally, so anxious and numb she could hardly feel the piano keys, and of Julie’s icy fingers plucking valiantly away at the strings. Then Mother clapped her hands as a signal for the chatter to halt, the first hesitating strains of music began, and someone slid the doors shut.
When we boys went down to dinner that evening, we heard the news, good and bad. In a way it had been a success. Julie and Sally had played beautifully the whole afternoon, and the ladies had admired the harps, and applauded, and eaten up all the cakes. But there had been two catastrophes. One was that although Miss Kregman herself had been invisible, everybody had kept looking fascinatedly at her feet, which had stuck out from the rubber tree, working away by themselves, as it were, at the pedals, and the awful part was she had forgotten to take off her galoshes. The other was that Father had come home during a sweet little lullaby and the ladies had distinctly heard him say “Damn” as he went up to his room.