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My Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather

 

Book II: The Hired Girls

Chapter VII

 

WINTER LIES TOO LONG in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen.  On the farm the weather was the great fact, and men's affairs went on underneath it, as the streams creep under the ice. But in Black Hawk the scene of human life was spread out shrunken and pinched, frozen down to the bare stalk.

 

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Through January and February I went to the river with the Harlings on clear nights, and we skated up to the big island and made bonfires on the frozen sand.  But by March the ice was rough and choppy, and the snow on the river bluffs was grey and mournful-looking. I was tired of school, tired of winter clothes, of the rutted streets, of the dirty drifts and the piles of cinders that had lain in the yards so long. There was only one break in the dreary monotony of that month: when Blind d'Arnault, the Negro pianist, came to town. He gave a concert at the Opera House on Monday night, and he and his manager spent Saturday and Sunday at our comfortable hotel. Mrs. Harling had known d'Arnault for years.  She told Antonia she had better go to see Tiny that Saturday evening, as there would certainly be music at the Boys' Home.

 

Saturday night after supper I ran downtown to the hotel and slipped quietly into the parlour.  The chairs and sofas were already occupied, and the air smelled pleasantly of cigar smoke. The parlour had once been two rooms, and the floor was swaybacked where the partition had been cut away. The wind from without made waves in the long carpet. A coal stove glowed at either end of the room, and the grand piano in the middle stood open.

   

There was an atmosphere of unusual freedom about the house that night, for Mrs. Gardener had gone to Omaha for a week.  Johnnie had been having drinks with the guests until he was rather absent-minded. It was Mrs. Gardener who ran the business and looked after everything. Her husband stood at the desk and welcomed incoming travellers. He was a popular fellow, but no manager.

 

Mrs. Gardener was admittedly the best-dressed woman in Black Hawk, drove the best horse, and had a smart trap and a little white-and-gold sleigh.  She seemed indifferent to her possessions, was not half so solicitous about them as her friends were. She was tall, dark, severe, with something Indian-like in the rigid immobility of her face.  Her manner was cold, and she talked little.  Guests felt that they were receiving, not conferring, a favour when they stayed at her house. Even the smartest travelling men were flattered when Mrs. Gardener stopped to chat with them for a moment. The patrons of the hotel were divided into two classes: those who had seen Mrs. Gardener's diamonds, and those who had not.

 

When I stole into the parlour, Anson Kirkpatrick, Marshall Field's man, was at the piano, playing airs from a musical comedy then running in Chicago. He was a dapper little Irishman, very vain, homely as a monkey, with friends everywhere, and a sweetheart in every port, like a sailor. I did not know all the men who were sitting about, but I recognized a furniture salesman from Kansas City, a drug man, and Willy O'Reilly, who travelled for a jewellery house and sold musical instruments. The talk was all about good and bad hotels, actors and actresses and musical prodigies.  I learned that Mrs. Gardener had gone to Omaha to hear Booth and Barrett, who were to play there next week, and that Mary Anderson was having a great success in `A Winter's Tale,' in London.

 

The door from the office opened, and Johnnie Gardener came in, directing Blind d'Arnault--he would never consent to be led. He was a heavy, bulky mulatto, on short legs, and he came tapping the floor in front of him with his gold-headed cane. His yellow face was lifted in the light, with a show of white teeth, all grinning, and his shrunken, papery eyelids lay motionless over his blind eyes.

 

`Good evening, gentlemen.  No ladies here?  Good evening, gentlemen. We going to have a little music?  Some of you gentlemen going to play for me this evening?'  It was the soft, amiable Negro voice, like those I remembered from early childhood, with the note of docile subservience in it.  He had the Negro head, too; almost no head at all; nothing behind the ears but folds of neck under close-clipped wool. He would have been repulsive if his face had not been so kindly and happy. It was the happiest face I had seen since I left Virginia.

 

He felt his way directly to the piano.  The moment he sat down, I noticed the nervous infirmity of which Mrs. Harling had told me. When he was sitting, or standing still, he swayed back and forth incessantly, like a rocking toy.  At the piano, he swayed in time to the music, and when he was not playing, his body kept up this motion, like an empty mill grinding on. He found the pedals and tried them, ran his yellow hands up and down the keys a few times, tinkling off scales, then turned to the company.

 

`She seems all right, gentlemen.  Nothing happened to her since the last time I was here.  Mrs. Gardener, she always has this piano tuned up before I come.  Now gentlemen, I expect you've all got grand voices. Seems like we might have some good old plantation songs tonight.'

 

The men gathered round him, as he began to play `My Old Kentucky Home.' They sang one Negro melody after another, while the mulatto sat rocking himself, his head thrown back, his yellow face lifted, his shrivelled eyelids never fluttering.

 

He was born in the Far South, on the d'Arnault plantation, where the spirit if not the fact of slavery persisted.  When he was three weeks old, he had an illness which left him totally blind. As soon as he was old enough to sit up alone and toddle about, another affliction, the nervous motion of his body, became apparent. His mother, a buxom young Negro wench who was laundress for the d'Arnaults, concluded that her blind baby was `not right' in his head, and she was ashamed of him.  She loved him devotedly, but he was so ugly, with his sunken eyes and his `fidgets,' that she hid him away from people.  All the dainties she brought down from the Big House were for the blind child, and she beat and cuffed her other children whenever she found them teasing him or trying to get his chicken-bone away from him.  He began to talk early, remembered everything he heard, and his mammy said he `wasn't all wrong.' She named him Samson, because he was blind, but on the plantation he was known as `yellow Martha's simple child.'  He was docile and obedient, but when he was six years old he began to run away from home, always taking the same direction.  He felt his way through the lilacs, along the boxwood hedge, up to the south wing of the Big House, where Miss Nellie d'Arnault practised the piano every morning. This angered his mother more than anything else he could have done; she was so ashamed of his ugliness that she couldn't bear to have white folks see him.  Whenever she caught him slipping away from the cabin, she whipped him unmercifully, and told him what dreadful things old Mr. d'Arnault would do to him if he ever found him near the Big House. But the next time Samson had a chance, he ran away again. If Miss d'Arnault stopped practising for a moment and went toward the window, she saw this hideous little pickaninny, dressed in an old piece of sacking, standing in the open space between the hollyhock rows, his body rocking automatically, his blind face lifted to the sun and wearing an expression of idiotic rapture. Often she was tempted to tell Martha that the child must be kept at home, but somehow the memory of his foolish, happy face deterred her. She remembered that his sense of hearing was nearly all he had-- though it did not occur to her that he might have more of it than other children.

 

One day Samson was standing thus while Miss Nellie was playing her lesson to her music-teacher. The windows were open. He heard them get up from the piano, talk a little while, and then leave the room.  He heard the door close after them. He crept up to the front windows and stuck his head in: there was no one there.  He could always detect the presence of anyone in a room.  He put one foot over the window-sill and straddled it.

 

His mother had told him over and over how his master would give him to the big mastiff if he ever found him `meddling.' Samson had got too near the mastiff's kennel once, and had felt his terrible breath in his face. He thought about that, but he pulled in his other foot.

 

Through the dark he found his way to the Thing, to its mouth.  He touched it softly, and it answered softly, kindly.  He shivered and stood still. Then he began to feel it all over, ran his finger-tips along the slippery sides, embraced the carved legs, tried to get some conception of its shape and size, of the space it occupied in primeval night. It was cold and hard, and like nothing else in his black universe. He went back to its mouth, began at one end of the keyboard and felt his way down into the mellow thunder, as far as he could go.  He seemed to know that it must be done with the fingers, not with the fists or the feet. He approached this highly artificial instrument through a mere instinct, and coupled himself to it, as if he knew it was to piece him out and make a whole creature of him.  After he had tried over all the sounds, he began to finger out passages from things Miss Nellie had been practising, passages that were already his, that lay under the bone of his pinched, conical little skull, definite as animal desires.

 

The door opened; Miss Nellie and her music-master stood behind it, but blind Samson, who was so sensitive to presences, did not know they were there.  He was feeling out the pattern that lay all ready-made on the big and little keys. When he paused for a moment, because the sound was wrong and he wanted another, Miss Nellie spoke softly. He whirled about in a spasm of terror, leaped forward in the dark, struck his head on the open window, and fell screaming and bleeding to the floor.  He had what his mother called a fit. The doctor came and gave him opium.

 

When Samson was well again, his young mistress led him back to the piano. Several teachers experimented with him.  They found he had absolute pitch, and a remarkable memory.  As a very young child he could repeat, after a fashion, any composition that was played for him. No matter how many wrong notes he struck, he never lost the intention of a passage, he brought the substance of it across by irregular and astonishing means.  He wore his teachers out. He could never learn like other people, never acquired any finish. He was always a Negro prodigy who played barbarously and wonderfully. As piano-playing, it was perhaps abominable, but as music it was something real, vitalized by a sense of rhythm that was stronger than his other physical senses--that not only filled his dark mind, but worried his body incessantly.  To hear him, to watch him, was to see a Negro enjoying himself as only a Negro can. It was as if all the agreeable sensations possible to creatures of flesh and blood were heaped up on those black-and-white keys, and he were gloating over them and trickling them through his yellow fingers.

 

In the middle of a crashing waltz, d'Arnault suddenly began to play softly, and, turning to one of the men who stood behind him, whispered, `Somebody dancing in there.' He jerked his bullet-head toward the dining-room. `I hear little feet--girls, I spect.'

 

Anson Kirkpatrick mounted a chair and peeped over the transom. Springing down, he wrenched open the doors and ran out into the dining-room. Tiny and Lena, Antonia and Mary Dusak, were waltzing in the middle of the floor.  They separated and fled toward the kitchen, giggling.

 

Kirkpatrick caught Tiny by the elbows.  `What's the matter with you girls?  Dancing out here by yourselves, when there's a roomful of lonesome men on the other side of the partition! Introduce me to your friends, Tiny.'

 

The girls, still laughing, were trying to escape.  Tiny looked alarmed. `Mrs. Gardener wouldn't like it,' she protested.  `She'd be awful mad if you was to come out here and dance with us.'

 

`Mrs. Gardener's in Omaha, girl.  Now, you're Lena, are you?-- and you're Tony and you're Mary.  Have I got you all straight?'

 

O'Reilly and the others began to pile the chairs on the tables. Johnnie Gardener ran in from the office.

 

`Easy, boys, easy!' he entreated them.  `You'll wake the cook, and there'll be the devil to pay for me.  She won't hear the music, but she'll be down the minute anything's moved in the dining-room.'

 

`Oh, what do you care, Johnnie?  Fire the cook and wire Molly to bring another.  Come along, nobody'll tell tales.'

 

Johnnie shook his head.  `'S a fact, boys,' he said confidentially. `If I take a drink in Black Hawk, Molly knows it in Omaha!'

 

His guests laughed and slapped him on the shoulder.  `Oh, we'll make it all right with Molly.  Get your back up, Johnnie.'

 

Molly was Mrs. Gardener's name, of course.  `Molly Bawn' was painted in large blue letters on the glossy white sides of the hotel bus, and `Molly' was engraved inside Johnnie's ring and on his watch-case-- doubtless on his heart, too.  He was an affectionate little man, and he thought his wife a wonderful woman; he knew that without her he would hardly be more than a clerk in some other man's hotel.

 

At a word from Kirkpatrick, d'Arnault spread himself out over the piano, and began to draw the dance music out of it, while the perspiration shone on his short wool and on his uplifted face.  He looked like some glistening African god of pleasure, full of strong, savage blood. Whenever the dancers paused to change partners or to catch breath, he would boom out softly, `Who's that goin' back on me? One of these city gentlemen, I bet!  Now, you girls, you ain't goin' to let that floor get cold?'

 

Antonia seemed frightened at first, and kept looking questioningly at Lena and Tiny over Willy O'Reilly's shoulder. Tiny Soderball was trim and slender, with lively little feet and pretty ankles--she wore her dresses very short. She was quicker in speech, lighter in movement and manner than the other girls.  Mary Dusak was broad and brown of countenance, slightly marked by smallpox, but handsome for all that. She had beautiful chestnut hair, coils of it; her forehead was low and smooth, and her commanding dark eyes regarded the world indifferently and fearlessly.  She looked bold and resourceful and unscrupulous, and she was all of these. They were handsome girls, had the fresh colour of their country upbringing, and in their eyes that brilliancy which is called-- by no metaphor, alas!--`the light of youth.'

 

D'Arnault played until his manager came and shut the piano. Before he left us, he showed us his gold watch which struck the hours, and a topaz ring, given him by some Russian nobleman who delighted in Negro melodies, and had heard d'Arnault play in New Orleans.  At last he tapped his way upstairs, after bowing to everybody, docile and happy. I walked home with Antonia.  We were so excited that we dreaded to go to bed. We lingered a long while at the Harlings' gate, whispering in the cold until the restlessness was slowly chilled out of us.

 

 


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