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The Thrush in the Hedge by Joseph Hergesheimer

I

Harry Baggs came walking slowly over the hills in the blue May dusk. He could now see below him the clustered roofs and tall slim stack of a town. His instinct was to avoid it, but he had tramped all day, his blurred energies were hardly capable of a detour, and he decided to settle near by for the night. About him the country rose and fell, clothed in emerald wheat and pale young corn, while trees filled the hollows with the shadowy purple of their darkening boughs. A robin piped a belated drowsy note; the air had the impalpable sweetness of beginning buds.

A vague pleasant melancholy enveloped him; the countryside swam indistinctly in his vision—he surrendered himself to inward sensations, drifting memories, unformulated regrets. He was twenty and had a short powerful body; a broad dusty patient face. His eyes were steady, light blue, and his jaw heavy but shapely. His dress—the forlorn trousers, the odd coat uncomfortably drawn across thick shoulders, and incongruous hat—held patently the stamp of his worldly position: he was a tramp.

He stopped, looking about. The road, white and hard, dipped suddenly down; on the right, windows glimmered, withdrawn behind shrubbery and orderly trees; on the left, a dark plowed field rose to a stiff company of pines and the sky. Harry Baggs stood turned in the latter direction, for he caught the faint odor of wood smoke; behind the field, a newly acquired instinct told him, a fire was burning in the open. This, now, probably meant that other wanderers—tramps—had found a place of temporary rest.

Without hesitation he climbed a low rail fence, found a narrow path trod in the soft loam and followed it over the brow into the hollow beyond. His surmise was correct—a fire smoldered in a red blur on the ground, a few relaxed forms gathered about the wavering smoke, and at their back were grouped four or five small huts.

Harry Baggs walked up to the fire, where, with a conventional sentence, he extended his legs to the low blaze. A man regarded him with a peering suspicious gaze; but any doubts were apparently laid, for the other silently resumed a somnolent indifference. His clothes were an amazing and unnecessary tangle of rags; his stubble of beard and broken black hat had an air of unreality, as though they were the stage properties of a stupid and conventional parody of a tramp.

Another, sitting with clasped knees beyond the fire, interrupted a monotonous whining recital to question Harry Baggs. “Where'd you come from?”

“Somewhere by Lancaster.”

“Ever been here before?” And, when Baggs had said no: “Thought I hadn't seen you. Most of us here come back in the spring. It's a comfortable dump when it don't rain cold.” He was uncommonly communicative. “The Nursery's here for them that want work; and if not nobody's to ask you reasons.”

A third, in a grimy light overcoat, with a short bristling red mustache and morose countenance, said harshly: “Got any money?”

“Maybe two bits.”

“Let's send him in for beer,” the other proposed; and a new animation stirred the dilapidated one and the talker.

“You can go to hell!” Baggs responded without heat.

“That ain't no nice way to talk,” the second proclaimed. “Peebles, here, meant that them who has divides with all that hasn't.”

Peebles directed a hard animosity at Harry Baggs. His gaze flickered over the latter's heavy-set body and unmoved face. “Want your jaw slapped crooked?” he demanded with a degree of reservation.

“No,” the boy placidly replied.

A stillness enveloped them, accentuated by the minute crackling of the disintegrating wood. The dark increased and the stars came out; the clip-clip of a horse's hoofs passed in the distance and night. Harry Baggs became flooded with sleep.

“I s'pose I can stay in one of these brownstones?” he queried, indicating the huts.

No one answered and he stumbled toward a small shelter. He was forced to bend, edge himself into the close damp interior, where he collapsed into instant unconsciousness on a heap of bagging. In the night he cried out, in a young strangely distressed voice; and later a drift of rain fell on the roof and ran in thin cold streams over his still body.

II

He woke late the following morning and emerged sluggishly into a sparkling rush of sunlight. The huts looked doubly mean in the pellucid day. They were built of discarded doors and variously painted fragments of lumber, with blistered and unpinned roofs of tin, in which rusted smokepipes had been crazily wired; strips of moldy matting hung over an entrance or so, but the others gaped unprotected. The clay before them was worn smooth and hard; a replenished fire smoked within blackened bricks; a line, stretched from a dead stump to a loosely fixed post, supported some stained and meager red undergarb.

Harry Baggs recognized Peebles and the loquacious tramp at the edge of the clearing. The latter, clad in a grotesquely large and sorry suit of ministerial black, was emaciated and had a pinched bluish countenance. When he saw Baggs he moved forward with a quick uneven step.

“Say,” he proceeded, “can you let me have something to get a soda-caffeine at a drug store? This ain't a stall; I got a fierce headache. Come out with a dime, will you? My bean always hurts, but to-day I'm near crazy.”

Harry Baggs surveyed him for a moment, and then, without comment, produced the sum in question. The other turned immediately and rapidly disappeared toward the road.

“He's crazy, all right, to fill himself with that dope,” Peebles observed; “it's turning him black. You look pretty healthy,” he added. “You can work, and they're taking all the men they can get at the Nursery.”

The boy was sharply conscious of a crawling emptiness—hunger. He had only fifteen cents; when that was gone he would be without resources. “I don't mind,” he returned; “but I've got to eat first.”

“Can't you stick till night?” his companion urged. “There's only half a day left now. If you go later there'll be nothing doing till tomorrow.”

“All right,” Harry Baggs assented.

The conviction seized him that this dull misery of hunger and dirt had settled upon him perpetually—there was no use in combating it; and, with an animal-like stoicism, he followed the other away from the road, out of the hollow, to where row upon row of young ornamental trees reached in mathematical perspective to broad sheds, glittering expanses of glass, a huddle of toolhouses, and office.

His conductor halted at a shed entrance and indicated a weather-bronzed individual.

“Him,” he said. “And mind you come back when you're through; we all dish in together and live pretty good.”

Harry Baggs spent the long brilliant afternoon burning bunches of condemned peach shoots. The smoke rolled up in a thick ceaseless cloud; he bore countless loads and fed them to the flames. The hungry crawling increased, then changed to a leaden nausea; but, accepting it as inevitable, he toiled dully on until the end of day, when he was given a dollar and promise of work to-morrow.

He saw, across a dingy street, a small grocery store, and purchased there coffee, bacon and a pound of dates. Then he returned across the Nursery to the hollow and huts. More men had arrived through the day, other fires were burning, and an acrid odor of scorched fat and boiling coffee rose in the delicate evening. A small group was passing about a flasklike bottle; a figure lay in a stupor on the clay; a mutter of voices, at once cautious and assertive, joined argument to complaint.

“Over this way,” Peebles called as Harry Baggs approached. The former inspected the purchased articles, then cursed. “Ain't you got a bottle on you?”

But when the bacon had been crisped and the coffee turned into a steaming thick liquid, he was amply appreciative of the sustenance offered. They were shortly joined by Runnel, the individual with the bluish poisoned countenance, and the elaborately ragged tramp.

“Did you frighten any cooks out of their witses?” Peebles asked the last contemptuously. The other retorted unintelligibly in his appropriately hoarse voice. “Dake knocks on back doors,” Peebles explained to Harry Baggs, “and then fixes to scare a nickel or grub from the women who open.”

Quiet settled over the camp; the blue smoke of pipes and cigarettes merged imperceptibly into the dusk of evening. Harry Baggs was enveloped by a momentary contentment, born of the satisfaction of food, relaxation after toil; and, leaning his head back on clasped hands, he sang:

  “I changed my name when I got free
    To Mister, like the res'.
  But now ... Ol' Master's voice I hears
    Across de river: 'Rome,
  You damn ol' nigger, come and bring
    Dat boat an' row me home!'”

His voice rolled out without effort, continuous as a flowing stream, grave and round as the deep tone of a temple bell. It increased in volume until the hollow vibrated; the sound, rather than coming from a single throat, seemed to dwell in the air, to be the harmony of evening made audible. The simple melody rose and fell; the simple words became portentous, burdened with the tragedy of vain longing, lost felicity. The dead past rose again like a colored mist over the sordid reality of the present; it drifted desirable and near across the hill; it soothed and mocked the heart—and dissolved.

The silence that followed the song was sharply broken by a thin querulous question; a tenuous bent figure stumbled across the open.

“Who's singing?” he demanded.

“That's French Janin,” Peebles told Harry Baggs; “he's blind.”

“I am,” the latter responded—“Harry Baggs.”

The man came closer, and Baggs saw that he was old and incredibly worn; his skin clung in dry yellow patches to his skull, the temples were bony caverns, and the pits of his eyes blank shadows. He felt forward with a siccated hand, on which veins were twisted like blue worsted over fleshless tendons, gripped Harry Baggs' shoulder, and lowered himself to the ground.

“Another song,” he insisted; “like the last. Don't try any cheap show.”

The boy responded immediately; his serious voice rolled out again in a spontaneous tide.

“'Hard times,'“ Harry Baggs sang; “'hard times, come again no more.'“

The old man said: “You think you have a great voice, eh? All you have to do to take the great roles is open your mouth!”

“I hadn't thought of any of that,” Baggs responded. “I sing because— well, it's just natural; no one has said much about it.”

“You have had no teaching, that's plain. Your power leaks like an old rain barrel. What are you doing here?”

“Tramping.”

Harry Baggs looked about, suddenly aware of the dark pit of being into which he had fallen. The fires died sullenly, deserted except for an occasional recumbent figure. Peebles had disappeared; Dake lay in his rags on the ground; Runnel rocked slowly, like a pendulum, in his ceaseless pain.

“Tramping to the devil!” he added.

“What started you?” French Janin asked.

“Jail,” Harry Baggs answered.

“Of course you didn't take it,” the blind man commented satirically; “or else you went in to cover some one else.”

“I took it, all right—eighteen dollars.” He was silent for a moment; then: “There was something I had to have and I didn't see any other way of getting it. I had to have it. My stepfather had money that he put away—didn't need. I wanted an accordion; I dreamed about it till I got ratty, lifted the money, and he put me in jail for a year.

“I had the accordion hid. I didn't tell them where, and when I got out I went right to it. I played some sounds, and—after all I'd done—they weren't any good. I broke it up—and left.”

“You were right,” Janin told him; “the accordion is an impossible instrument, a thing entirely vulgar. I know, for I am a musician, and played the violin at the Opera Comique. You think I am lying; but you are young and life is strange. I can tell you this: I, Janin, once led the finale of Hamlet. I saw that the director was pale; I leaned forward and he gave me the baton. I knew music. There were five staves to conduct—at the Opera Comique.”

He turned his sightless face toward Harry Baggs.

“That means little to you,” he spoke sharply; “you know nothing. You have never seen a gala audience on its feet; the roses—”

He broke off. His wasted palms rested on knees that resembled bones draped with maculate clothing; his sere head fell forward. Runnel paced away from the embers and returned. Harry Baggs looked, with doubt and wonderment, at the, ruined old man.

The mere word musician called up in him an inchoate longing, a desire for something far and undefined. He thought of great audiences, roses, the accompaniment of violins. Subconsciously he began to sing in a whisper that yet reached beyond the huts. He forgot his surroundings, the past without light, the future seemingly shorn of all prospect.

French Janin moved; he fumbled in precarious pockets and at last produced a small bottle; he removed the cork and tapped out on his palm a measure of white crystalline powder, which he gulped down. Then he struggled to his feet and wavered away through the night toward a shelter.

Harry Baggs imagined himself singing heroic measures; he finished, there was a tense pause, and then a thunderous acclamation. His spirit mounted up and up in a transport of emotional splendor; broken visions thronged his mind of sacrifice, renouncement, death. The fire expired and the night grew cold. His ecstasy sank; he became once more aware of the human wreckage about him, the detritus of which he was now a part.

III

He spent the next day moving crated plants to delivery trucks, where his broad shoulders were most serviceable, and in the evening returned to the camp, streaked with fine rich loam. French Janin was waiting for him and consumed part of Harry Baggs' unskilfully cooked supper. The old man was silent, though he seemed continually at the point of bursting into eager speech. However, he remained uncommunicative and followed the boy's movements with a blank speculative countenance. Finally he said abruptly:

“Sing that song over—about the 'damn ol' nigger.'“

Harry Baggs responded; and, at the end, Janin nodded.

“What I should have expected,” he pronounced. “When I first heard you I thought: 'Here, perhaps, is a great voice, a voice for Paris;' but I was mistaken. You have some bigness—yes, good enough for street ballads, sentimental popularities; that is all.”

An overwhelming depression settled upon Harry Baggs, a sense of irremediable loss. He had considered his voice a lever that might one day raise him out of his misfortunes; he instinctively valued it to an extraordinary degree; it had resembled a precious bud, the possible opening of which would flood his being with its fragrant flowering. He gazed with a new dread at the temporary shelters and men about him, the huts and men that resembled each other so closely in their patched decay.

Until now, except in brief moments of depression, he had thought of himself as only a temporary part of this broken existence. But it was probable that he, too, was done—like Runnel, and Dake, who lived on the fear of women. He recalled with an oath his reception in the village of his birth on his return from jail: the veiled or open distrust of the adults; the sneering of the young; his barren search for employment. He had suffered inordinately in his narrow cell—fully paid, it had seemed, the price of his fault. But apparently he was wrong; the thing was to follow him through life—and he would live a long while—; condemning him, an outcast, to the company of his fellows.

His shoulders drooped, his face took on the relaxed sullenness of those about him; curiously, in an instant he seemed more bedraggled, more disreputable, hopeless.

French Janin continued:

“Your voice is good enough for the people who know nothing. Perhaps it will bring you money, singing at fairs in the street. I have a violin, a cheap thing without soul; but I can get a thin jingle out of it. Suppose we go out together, try our chance where there is a little crowd; it will be better than piggin' in the earth.”

It would, Baggs thought, be easier than carrying heavy crates; subtly the idea of lessened labor appealed to him. He signified his assent and rolled over on his side, staring into nothingness.

French Janin went into the town the following day—he walked with a surprising facility and speed—to discover where they might find a gathering for their purpose. Harry Baggs loafed about the camp until the other returned with the failing of light.

“The sales about the country are all that get the people together now,” he reported; “the parks are empty till July. There's to be one tomorrow about eight miles away; we'll try it.”

He went to the shelter, where he secured a scarred violin, with roughly shaped pegs and lacking a string. He motioned Harry Baggs to follow him and proceeded to the brow of the field, where he settled down against a fence, picking disconsolately at the burring strings and attempting to tighten an ancient bow. Baggs dropped beside him. Below them night flooded the winding road and deepened under the hedges; a window showed palely alight; the stillness was intense.

“Now!” French Janin said.

The violin went home beneath his chin and he improvised a thin but adequate opening for Harry Baggs' song. The boy, for the first time in his existence, sang indifferently; his voice, merely big, lacked resonance; the song was robbed of all power to move or suggest.

Janin muttered unintelligibly; he was, Harry Baggs surmised, speaking his native language, obscurely complaining, accusing. They tried a second song: “Hard times, hard times, come again no more.” There was not an accent of longing nor regret.

“That'll do,” French Janin told him; “good enough for cows and chickens.”

He rose and descended to the camp, a bowed unsubstantial figure in the gloom.

IV

They started early to the sale. Janin, as always, walked swiftly, his violin wrapped in a cloth beneath his arm. Harry Baggs lounged sullenly at his side. The day was filled with a warm silvery mist, through which the sun mounted rayless, crisp and round. Along the road plum trees were in vivid pink bloom; the apple buds were opening, distilling palpable clouds of fragrance.

Baggs met the morning with a sullen lowered countenance, his gaze on the monotonous road. He made no reply to the blind man's infrequent remarks, and the latter, except for an occasional murmur, fell silent. At last Harry Baggs saw a group of men about the fence that divided a small lawn and neatly painted frame house from the public road. A porch was filled with a confusion of furniture, china was stacked on the grass, and a bed displayed at the side.

The sale had not yet begun; A youth, with a pencil and paper, was moving distractedly about, noting items; a prosperous-appearing individual, with a derby resting on the back of his neck, was arranging an open space about a small table. Beyond, a number of horses attached to dusty vehicles were hitched to the fence where they were constantly augmented by fresh arrivals.

“Here we are!” Baggs informed his companion. He directed Janin forward, where the latter unwrapped his violin. A visible curiosity held the prospective buyers; they turned and faced the two dilapidated men on the road. A joke ran from laughing mouth to mouth. Janin drew his bow across the frayed strings; Harry Baggs cleared the mist from his throat. As he sang, aware of an audience, a degree of feeling returned to his tones; the song swept with a throb to its climax:

  “'You damn ol' nigger, come and bring
  Dat boat an' row me home
!'“

There was scattered applause.

“Take your hat round,” Janin whispered; and the boy opened the gate and moved, with his battered hat extended, from man to man.

Few gave; a careless quarter was added to a small number of pennies and nickels. Janin counted the sum with an unfamiliar oath.

“That other,” he directed, and drew a second preliminary bar from his uncertain instrument.

“Here, you!” a strident voice called. “Shut your noise; the sale's going to commence.”

French Janin lowered the violin.

“We must wait,” he observed philosophically. “These things go on and on; people come and go.”

He found a bank, where he sat, after stumbling through a gutter of stagnant water. Harry Baggs followed and filled a cheap ornate pipe. The voice of the auctioneer rose, tiresome and persistent, punctuated by bids, haggling over minute sums for the absurd flotsam of a small house keeping square of worn oilcloth, a miscellany of empty jars. A surprisingly passionate argument arose between bidders; personalities and threats emerged. Janin said:

“Listen! That is the world into which musicians are born; it is against such uproar we must oppose our delicate chords—on such hearts.” His speech rambled into French and a melancholy silence.

“It's stopped for a little,” Baggs reminded him.

Janin rose stiffly and the other guided him to their former place. The voice and violin rose, dominated a brief period, and the boy went among the throng, seeking newcomers. The mist thickened, drops of water shone on his ragged sleeves, and then a fine rain descended. The crowd filled the porch and lower floor, bulged apparently from door and windows. Harry Baggs made a motion to follow with his companion, but no one moved; there was no visible footing under cover. They stayed out stolidly in the wet, by an inadequate tree; and whenever chance offered Harry Baggs repeated his limited songs. A string of the violin broke; the others grew soggy, limp; the pegs would tighten no more and Janin was forced to give up his accompanying.

The activities shifted to a shed and barn, where a horse and three sorry cows and farming implements were sold. Janin and Harry Baggs followed, but there was no opportunity for further melody; larger sums were here involved; the concentration of the buyers grew painful. The boy's throat burned; it was strained, and his voice grew hoarse. Finally he declared shortly that he was going back to the shelter by the Nursery.

As they tramped over the rutted and muddy road, through a steadily increasing downpour, Harry Baggs counted the sum they had collected. It was two dollars and some odd pennies. Janin was closely attentive as the money passed through the other's fingers. He took it from Baggs' hand, re-counted it with an unfailing touch, and gave back a half.

The return, even to the younger's tireless being, seemed interminable. Harry Baggs tramped doggedly, making no effort to avoid the deepening pools. French Janin struggled at his heels, shifting the violin from place to place and muttering incoherently.

It was dark when they arrived at the huts; the fires were sodden mats of black ash; no one was visible. They stumbled from shelter to shelter, but found them full. One at last was discovered unoccupied; but they had no sooner entered than the reason was sharply borne upon them—the roof leaked to such an extent that the floor was an uneasy sheet of mud. However, there was literally nowhere else for them to go. Janin found a broken chair on which he balanced his bowed and shrunken form; Harry Baggs sat against the wall.

He dozed uneasily, and, wakened by the old man's babbling, cursed him bitterly. At last he fell asleep; but, brought suddenly back to consciousness by a hand gripping his shoulder, he started up in a blaze of wrath.

He shook off the hand and heard French Janin slip and fall against an insecure wall. The interior was absolutely black; Harry Baggs could see no more than his blind companion. The latter fumbled, at last regained a footing, and his voice fluctuated out of an apparent nothingness.

“There is something important for you to know,” Janin proceeded.

“I lied to you about your voice—I, once a musician of the orchestra at the Opera Comique. I meant to be cunning and take you round to the fairs, where we would make money; have you sing truck for people who know nothing. I let you sing to-day, in the rain, for a dollar—while I, Janin, fiddled.

“I am a voyou; there is nothing in English low enough. The thought of it has been eating at me like a rat.” The disembodied words stopped, the old man strangled and coughed; then continued gasping: “Attention! You have a supreme barytone, a miracle! I heard all the great voices for twenty years, and know.

“At times there is a voice with perfect pitch, a true art and range; not many—they are cold. At times there is a singer with great heart, sympathy ... mostly too sweet.

“But once, maybe, in fifty, sixty years, both are together. You are that—I make you amends.”

The rain pounded fantastically on the roof a few inches above Harry Baggs' head and the water seeped coldly through his battered shoes; but, in the violent rebirth of the vague glow he had lost a short while before, he gave no heed to his bodily discomfort. “A supreme barytone!” The walls of the hut, the hollow, dissolved before the sudden light of hope that enveloped him; all the dim dreams, the unformulated aspirations on which subconsciously his spirit had subsisted, returned.

“Can you be sure?” he demanded uncertainly.

“Absolutely! You are an artist, and life has wrung you out like a cloth—jail, hungry, outcast; yes, and nights with stars, and water shining; men like old Janin, dead men, begging on the roads—they are all in your voice, jumbled—serious barytone——” The high thin recital stopped, from exhaustion.

Harry Baggs was warm to the ends of his fingers. He wiped his wet brow with a wetter hand.

“That's fine,” he said impotently; “fine!”

He could hear French Janin breathing stertorously; and, suddenly aware of the other's age, the misery of their situation, he asked:

“Don't you feel good?”

“I've been worse and better,” he replied. “This is bad for your throat, after singing all day in the rain. Voyou!” he repeated of himself.

Silence enveloped them, broken by the creaking of the blind man's chair and the decreasing patter of the rain. Soon it stopped and Harry Baggs went outside; stars glimmered at the edges of shifting clouds, a sweet odor rose from the earth, a trailing scent of blossoming trees expanded.

He sang in a vibrant undertone a stave without words. An uneasy form joined him; it was Runnel.

“I b'lieve my head'll burst!” he complained.

“Leave that soda-caffeine be.”

He would never forget Runnel with his everlasting pain; or Dake, who lived by scaring women.... Great audiences and roses, and the roar of applause. He heard it now.

V

Harry Baggs returned to the Nursery, where, with his visions, his sense of justification, he was happy among the fields of plants. There he was given work of a more permanent kind; he was put under a watchful eye in a group transplanting berry bushes, definitely reassigned to that labor to-morrow. He returned to the camp with a roll of tar paper and, after supper, covered the leaking roof of the shelter. French Janin sat with his blank face following the other's movements. Janin's countenance resembled a walnut, brown and worn in innumerable furrows; his neck was like a dry inadequate stem. As he glanced at him the old man produced a familiar bottle and shook out what little powder, like finely ground glass, it contained. He greedily absorbed what there was and, petulantly exploring the empty container, flung it into the bushes. A nodding drowsiness overtook him, his head rolled forward, he sank slowly into a bowed amorphous heap. Harry Baggs roused him with difficulty.

“You don't want to sit like this,” he said; “come up by the field, where it's fresher.”

He lifted Janin to his feet, half carried him to the place under the fence. Harry Baggs was consumed by a desire to talk about the future— the future of his voice; he wanted to hear of the triumphs of other voices, of the great stages that they finally dominated. He wanted to know the most direct path there; he was willing that it should not be easy. “I'm as strong as an ox,” he thought.

But he was unable to move French Janin from his stupor; in reply to his questions the blind man only muttered, begged to be let alone. Life was at such a low ebb in him that his breathing was imperceptible. Harry Baggs was afraid that he would die without a sound—leave him. He gave up his questioning and sang. He was swept to his feet by a great wave of feeling; with his head back, he sent the resonant volume of his tones toward the stars. Baggs stopped suddenly; stillness once more flooded the plowed hill and he raised imploring arms to the sky in a gust of longing.

“I want to sing!” he cried. “That's all—to sing.”

Janin was brighter in the morning.

“You must have some exercises,” he told the boy. “I'll get new strings for the violin; it'll do to give you the pitch.”

At the day's end they went again to the hilltop. French Janin tightened and tuned his instrument.

“Now!” he measured, with poised bow. “Ah!” Both his voice and violin were tremulous, shrill; but they indicated the pitch of the desired note. “Ah!” the old man quavered, higher.

“Ah!” Harry Baggs boomed in his tremendous round tone.

They repeated the exercises until a slip of a new moon, like a wistful girl, sank and darkness hid the countryside. A palpitating chorus of frogs rose from the invisible streams. Somnolence again overtook Janin; the violin slipped into the fragrant grass by the fence, but his fingers still clutched the bow.

Pity for the other stirred Baggs' heart. He wondered what had ruined him, brought him—a man who had played in an opera house—here. A bony elbow showed bare through a torn sleeve—the blind man had no shirt; the soles of his shoes gaped, smelling evilly. Yet once he had played in an orchestra; he was undoubtedly a musician. Life suddenly appeared grim, a sleepless menace awaiting the first opportune weakness by which to enter and destroy.

It occurred to Harry Baggs for the first time that against such a hidden unsuspected blight his sheer strength would avail him little. He had stolen money; that in itself held danger to his future, his voice. He had paid for it; that score was clear, but he must guard against such stupidities in the years to come. He had now a conscious single purpose—to sing. A new sense of security took the place of his doubts. He stirred Janin from his collapsed sleep, directed him toward their hut.

He returned eagerly in the evening to the vocal exercises. French Janin struggled to perform his part, but mostly Harry Baggs boomed out his Ahs! undirected. The other had been without his white powder for three days; his shredlike muscles twitched continually and at times he was unable to hold the violin. Finally:

“Can you go in to the post-office and ask for a package for me at general delivery?” he asked Harry Baggs. “I'm expecting medicine.”

“That medicine of yours is bad as Runnel's dope. I've a mind to let it stay.”

The other rose, stood swaying with pinching fingers, tremulous lips.

“I'm afraid I can't make it,” he whimpered.

“Sit down,” Harry Baggs told him abruptly; “I'll go. Too late now to try pulling you up. Whatever it is, it's got you.”

It was warm, almost hot. He walked slowly down the road toward the town. On the left was a smooth lawn, with great stately trees, a long gray stone house beyond. A privet hedge, broken by a drive, closed in the withdrawn orderly habitation. A young moon bathed the scene in a diffused silver light; low cultivated voices sounded from a porch.

Harry Baggs stopped; he had never before seen such a concretely desirable place; it filled him with a longing, sharp like pain. Beyond the hedge lay a different world from this; he could not even guess its wide possession of ease, of knowledge, of facility for song. A voice laughed, gay and untroubled as a bird's note. He wanted to stay, seated obscurely on the bank, saturate himself with the still beauty; but the thought of French Janin waiting for the relief of his drug drove him on.

The maple trees that lined the quiet streets of the town were in full early leaf. Groups paced tranquilly over the brick ways; the houses stood in secure rows. A longing for safety, recognition, choked at Harry Baggs' throat. He wanted to stop at the corner, talk, move home to a shadowy cool porch. He hurried in his ragged clothes past the pools of light at the street crossings into the kinder gloom. At that moment he would have surrendered his voice for a place in the communal peace about him.

He reached the post-office and asked for a package addressed to Janin. The clerk delayed, regarded him with suspicion, but in the end surrendered a small precisely wrapped box. As he returned his mood changed; all he asked, he muttered bitterly, was a fair trial for his voice. He recognized obscurely that a singer's existence must be different from the constricted life of a country town; here were no stage, no audience, for the great harmonies he had imagined himself producing. He had that in his heart which would make mere security, content, forever impossible.

In the dilapidated camp French Janin eagerly clutched the box. He almost filled his palm with the crystalline powder and gulped it hastily. Its effect was produced slowly.... Janin waited rigidly for the release of the drug.

The evening following, under the fence on the hill, the blind man dozed while Harry Baggs exercised his voice.

“Good!” the former pronounced unexpectedly. “I know; heard all the great voices for twenty years; a violin in the Opera Comique. Once I led the finale of Hamlet. I saw the Director stop.... He handed me the baton. He died soon after, and that was the beginning of my bad luck. I should have been Director; but I was ignored, and came to America— Buenos Aires; then Washington, and—and morphia.”

There was a long silence and then he spoke again with a new energy:

“I'm done, but you haven't started. You're bigger than ever I was; you'll go on and on. I, Janin, will train you; when you sing the great roles I'll sit in a box, wear diamond studs. Afterward, as we roll in a carriage down the Grandes Boulevards, the people in front of the cafes will applaud; the voice is appreciated in Paris.”

“I have a lot to learn first,” Baggs put in practically.

The old man recovered his violin. “Ah!” He drew the note tenuous but correct from the uncertain strings. “Ah!” Harry Baggs vociferated to the inattentive frogs, busy with their own chorus.

VI

The practice proceeded with renewed vigor through the evenings that followed; then French Janin sank back into a torpor, varied by acute depression.

“I haven't got the life in me to teach you,” he admitted to Harry Baggs. “I'll be dead before you get your chance; besides, you ought to be practising all day, and not digging round plants and singing a little in the evening. You've got the voice, but that's not enough; you've got to work at exercises all your life.”

“I'm strong,” Harry Baggs told him; “I can work more than most men.”

“No, that won't do alone; you've got to go at it right, from the start; the method's got to be good. I'll be dead in some hospital or field when you'll be hardly starting. But remember it was Janin who found you, who dug you out of a set of tramps, gave you your first lessons.” He changed. “Stay along with me, Harry,” he begged; “take me with you. You're strong and'll never notice an old man. You will be making thousands some day. I will stop the morphia; perhaps I've got a good bit in me yet. Attention!” He raised the bow.

“No!” he cried, interrupting. “Breathe deep, below the chest. Control! Control! Hold the note steady, in the middle; don't force it into your head.”

His determination scion expired. Tears crept from under his sunken lids. He reached furtively into his pocket, took morphia. The conviction seized Harry Baggs that nothing could be accomplished here. The other's dejection was communicated to him. Where could he find the money, the time for the necessary laborious years of preparation? He was without credentials, without clothes; there was no one to whom he could go but the old spent man beside him. They were adrift together outside life, as the huts they inhabited were outside the orderly town beyond the hill.

He rose, left Janin, and walked slowly along the fence to the road. The moon had increased in size and brilliancy; the apple trees had bloomed and their fallen petals glimmered on the ground. He thought of the house on the smooth sward, with its hedge and old trees; a sudden longing seized him to linger at its edge, absorb again the profound peaceful ease; and he quickened his pace until he was opposite the low gray facade.

He sat on the soft steep bank, turned on his elbow, gazing within. The same voices drifted from the porch, voices gay or placid, and contained laughter. A chair scraped. It was all very close to Harry Baggs—and in another world. There was a movement within the house; a window leaped into lighted existence and then went out against the wall. Immediately after, a faint pure harmony of strings drifted out to the hedge. It was so unexpected, so lovely, that Harry Baggs sat with suspended breath. The strings made a pattern of simple harmony; and then, without warning, a man's voice, almost like his own, began singing. The tones rose fluid and perfect, and changed with feeling. It seemed at first to be a man; and then, because of a diminuendo of the voice, a sense of distance not accounted for by his presence near the hedge, he knew that he heard a record of the actual singing.

The voice, except for its resemblance to his own, did not absorb his attention; it was the song itself that thrilled and held him. He had never before heard music at once so clear and capable of such depths. He realized instinctively, with a tightening of his heart, that he was listening to one of the great songs of which Janin had spoken. It hung for a minute or more in his hearing, thrilling every nerve, and then died away. It stopped actually, but its harmony rang in Harry Baggs' brain. Instantly it had become an essential, a permanent part of his being. It filled him with a violent sense of triumph, a richness of possession that gave birth to a new unconquerable pride.

He rose, waited for a short space; but nothing more followed. He was glad of that; he had no wish to blur the impressions of the first. Harry Baggs hurried up the road and crossed the field to where he had left French Janin. The latter was still sleeping, crumpled against the vegetation. Baggs grasped the thin shoulder, shook him into consciousness.

“I have just heard something,” he said. “Listen! What is it?”

He sang without further preliminary, substituting a blank phrasing for uncomprehended words; but the melody swept without faltering to its conclusion. Janin answered irritably, disturbed by his rude awakening:

“The Serenade from Don Giovanni—Mozart. Well, what about it?”

“It's wonderful!” Harry Baggs declared. “Are there any more as great?”

“It is good,” Janin agreed, his interest stirred; “but there are better—the Dio Possente, the Brindisi from Hamlet. Once I led the finale of Hamlet. I saw the Director——”

“I'll get every one,” the boy interrupted.

“There are others now, newer—finer still, I'm told; but I don't know.” Janin rose and steadied himself against the fence. “Give me a start. I've been getting confused lately; I don't seem to keep a direction like I could. From Don Giovanni: 'Deh vieni alla finestra'— 'Come to the window' 's about it. I'm glad you're not a tenor; they're delicate and mean. But you are a fine boy, Harry; you'll take the old man up along with you!”

He talked in a rapid faint voice, like his breathing. Harry Baggs grasped his arm and led him down to their shanty. French Janin entered first, and immediately the other heard a thin complaint from within:

“Somebody's got that nice bed you made me.”

Harry Baggs went into the hut and, stooping, shook a recumbent shape.

“Get out of the old man's place!” he commanded.

A string of muffled oaths responded.

“There's no reserved rooms here.”

“Get out!” Baggs insisted.

The shape heaved up obscurely and the boy sent him reeling through the door. French Janin sank with weary relief on the straw and bagging. He grasped the thick young arm above him.

“We won't be long in this,” he declared; “diamond studs!”

He fell asleep instantly, with his fingers caught in Harry Baggs' sleeve. The latter, with the supreme egotism of youth, of a single ambition, loosened the hand and moved out of the narrow confinement of the shanty. He wanted space, the sky, into which to sing his imaginary triumphant songs.

VII

The next day moved toward its end without arresting incident. Janin and Harry Baggs had walked to the public road, where they stood leaning against the rail fence. The smoke from Baggs' pipe uprose in unbroken spheres; the evening was definitely hot. French Janin said:

“In the town to-day I asked about that house here at the bend. It seems he's got money; comes for a couple of months in the spring—just like us—and then goes to Europe like as not. Perhaps he knows a voice.”

The blind man fell silent, contemplative.

“Trouble is,” he broke out fretfully, “we've got nothing to sing. That about the 'damn old nigger' won't do. You ought to know something like the Serenade.

“Well,” he added after a moment, “why not? I could teach you the words —it's Italian; you've nearly got the air. It's all wrong and backward; but this isn't the Conservatoire. You can forget it when you have started; sing exercises again.”

“When can we begin?” Harry Baggs asked.

“We'll brush our clothes up best we can,” Janin proceeded, absorbed in his planning, “and go up to the porch of an evening. 'Mr. Brinton'— that's his name—I'll say, 'I'm M. Janin, once of the orchestra at the Opera Comique, and I'd like you to listen to a pupil of mine. I've heard them all and this boy is better——'“ He stopped; took morphia.

“Can't you stop that for a day?” Harry Baggs demanded desperately. “Can't you?”

He watched with bitter rebellion the inevitable slackening of the other's being, the obfuscation of his mind. Janin hung over the fence, with hardly more semblance of life than an incredibly tattered and empty garment.

“Come on, you old fool!” Baggs exclaimed, burning with impatience, balked desire; he half carried him brusquely to his bed.

Yet, under the old man's fluctuating tuition, he actually began the Serenade within twenty-four hours. “Deh vieni alla finestra,” French Janin pronounced. “Deh vieni——” Harry Baggs struggled after him. His brow grew wet with the intensity of his effort; his tongue, it seemed to him, would never accomplish the desired syllables.

Janin made a determined effort to live without his drug; the abstinence emphasized his fragility and he was cold, even in the heart of the long sunny day; but the effort stayed him with a flickering vitality, bred visions, renewed hopes of the future. He repeated the names of places, opera houses—the San Carlo, in Naples; the Scala—unknown to Harry Baggs, but which came to him with a strange vividness. The learning of the Serenade progressed slowly; French Janin forgot whole phrases, some of which returned to memory; one entire line he was forced to supply from imagination.

At last the boy could sing it with a degree of intelligence; Janin translated and reconstructed the scene, the characters.

“You ought to have some good clothes,” he told Harry Baggs; he spoke again of the necessity of a diamond stud.

“Well, I haven't,” the other stated shortly. “They'll have to listen to me without looking.”

He borrowed a rusted razor and subjected himself to the pain of an awkward shaving; then inadequately washed his sole shirt and looped the frayed collar with a nondescript tie.

The night was immaculate; the moon, past the full, cast long segments of light and shadow across the countryside. Harry Baggs drew a deep breath:

“We might as well go.”

French Janin objected; he wasn't ready; he wasn't quite sure of what he was going to say. Then:

“I haven't anything to show. Perhaps they will laugh at me—at Janin, of the Opera Comique. I couldn't allow that.”

“I'm going to sing,” the boy reminded him; “if it's any good they won't laugh. If what you say's right they'll have to believe you.”

“I feel bad to-night, too, in my legs.”

“Get your violin.”

A fresh difficulty arose: French Janin positively refused to play on his present instrument before a critical audience.

“It's as thin as a cat,” he protested. “Do you want me to make a show of myself?”

“All right; I'll sing alone. Come on!”

Janin's legs were uncertain; he stumbled over the path to the road and stopped at the fence. He expressed fresh doubts, the hesitation of old age; but Harry Baggs silenced him, forced him on. A cold fear possessed the boy, which he resolutely suppressed: if Janin were wrong, his voice worthless, if they laughed, he was done. Opportunity, he felt, would never return. With his voice scorned, no impetus remained; he had no other interest in life, no other power that could subdue the slight inward flaw.

He saw this in a vivid flash of self-knowledge.... If he couldn't sing he would go down, lower than Janin; perhaps sink to the level of Dake.

“Come on!” he repeated grimly, assisting his companion over the luminous white road.

Janin got actually feebler as he progressed. He stopped, gasping, his sightless face congested.

“I'll have to take a little,” he whispered, “just a taste. That puts life in me; it needs a good deal now to send me off.”

He produced the familiar bottle and absorbed some powder. Its effect was unexpected—he straightened, walked with more ease; but it acted upon his mind with surprising force.

“I want to stop just a little,” he proclaimed with such an air of decision that Harry Baggs followed him without protest to the fragrant bank. “You're a good fellow,” Janin went on, seated; “and you're going to be a great artist. It'll take you among the best. But you will have a hard time for a while; you won't want anybody hanging on you. I'd only hurt your chances—a dirty old man, a drugtaker. I would go back to it, Harry; it's got me, like you said. People wouldn't have me round. I doubt if I'd be comfortable with them. They'd ask me why I wasn't Director.”

“Come on,” Baggs repeated for the third time; “it's getting late.”

He lifted French Janin to his feet and forced him on. “You don't know life,” the other continued. “You would get sick of me; you might get influenced to put me in a Home. I couldn't get my breath right there.”

Harry Baggs forced him over the road, half conscious of the protesting words. The fear within him increased. Perhaps they wouldn't even listen to him; they might not be there.

His grip tightened on French Janin; he knew that at the first opportunity the old man would sink back into the oblivion of morphia.

“I've done all I could for you, Harry”—the other whimpered. “I've been some—good. Janin was the first to encourage you; don't expect too much.”

“If I get anywhere, you did it,” Harry Baggs told him.

“I'd like to see it all,” French Janin said. “I know it so well. Who'd have thought”—a dull amazement crept into his voice—“that old Janin, the sot, did it?... And you'll remember.”

They stopped opposite the entrance to the place they sought. Harry Baggs saw people on the porch; he recognized a man's voice that he had heard there before. On the right of the drive a thick maple tree cast a deep shadow, but beyond it a pool of clear moonlight extended to the house. He started forward, but Janin dragged him into the gloom of the maple.

“Sing here,” he whispered in the boy's ear; “see, the window—Deh vieni alla finestra.”

Harry Baggs stood at the edge of the shadow; his throat seemed to thicken, his voice expire.

“No,” he protested weakly; “you must speak first.”

He felt the old man shaking under his hand and a sudden desperate calm overtook him.

He moved forward a little and sang the first phrase of the Serenade.

A murmur of attention, of surprised amusement, arose from the porch; then, as his voice gained in bigness, flowed rich and thrilling and without effort from his deep powerful lungs, the murmur died away. The song rose toward its end; Harry Baggs saw nothing but the window above him; he put all the accumulated feeling, the longing, of the past miserable years into his ending.

A silence followed, in which Harry Baggs stood with drooping head. Then an unrestrained patter of applause followed; figures advanced. French Janin gave the boy a sharp unexpected shove into the radiance beyond the tree.

“Go on and on,” he breathed; “and never come back any more!”

He turned and shambled rapidly away into the shadows, the obscurity, that lined the road.

 
 
 

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