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   Chapter 2 No.2

A Cathedral Singer By James Lane Allen Characters: 23797

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

That morning on the ledge of rock at the rear of the cathedral Nature hinted to passers what they would more abundantly see if fortunate enough to be with her where she was entirely at home-out in the country.

The young grass along the foot of this slope was thick and green; imagination missed from the picture rural sheep, their fleeces wet with April rain. Along the summit of the slope trees of oak and ash and maple and chestnut and poplar lifted against the sky their united forest strength. Between the trees above and the grass below, the embankment spread before the eye the enchantment of a spring landscape, with late bare boughs and early green boughs and other boughs in blossom.

The earliest blossoms on our part of the earth's surface are nearly always white. They have forced their way to the sun along a frozen path and look akin to the perils of their road: the snow-threatened lily of the valley, the chill snowdrop, the frosty snowball, the bleak hawtree, the wintry wild cherry, the wintry dogwood. As the eye swept the park expanse this morning, here and there some of these were as the last tokens of winter's mantle instead of the first tokens of summer's.

There were flushes of color also, as where in deep soil, on a projection of rock, a pink hawthorn stood studded to the tips of its branches with leaf and flower. But such flushes of color were as false notes of the earth, as harmonies of summer thrust into the wrong places and become discords. The time for them was not yet. The hour called for hardy adventurous things, awakened out of their cold sleep on the rocks. The blue of the firmament was not dark summer blue but seemed the sky's first pale response to the sun. The sun was not rich summer gold but flashed silver rays. The ground scattered no odors; all was the budding youth of Nature on the rocks.

Paths wind hither and thither over this park hillside. Benches are placed at different levels along the way. If you are going up, you may rest; if you are coming down, you may linger; if neither going up nor coming down, you may with a book seek out some retreat of shade and coolness and keep at a distance the millions that rush and crush around the park as waters roar against some lone mid-ocean island.

About eleven o'clock that morning, on one of these benches placed where rock is steepest and forest trees stand close together and vines are rank with shade, a sociable-looking little fellow of some ten hardy well-buffeted years had sat down for the moment without a companion. He had thrown upon the bench beside him his sun-faded, rain-faded, shapeless cap, uncovering much bronzed hair; and as though by this simple act he had cleared the way for business, he thrust one capable-looking hand deep into one of his pockets. The fingers closed upon what they found there, like the meshes of a deep-sea net filled with its catch, and were slowly drawn to the surface. The catch consisted of one-cent and five-cent pieces, representing the sales of his morning papers. He counted the coins one by one over into the palm of the other hand, which then closed upon the total like another net, and dropped the treasure back into the deep sea of the other pocket.

His absorption in this process had been intense; his satisfaction with the result was complete. Perhaps after every act of successful banking there takes place in the mind of man, spendthrift and miser, a momentary lull of energy, a kind of brief Pax vobiscum, O my soul and stomach, my twin masters of need and greed! And possibly, as the lad deposited his earnings, he was old enough to enter a little way into this adult and despicable joy. Be this as it may, he was not the next instant up again and busy. He caught up his cap, dropped it not on his head but on one of his ragged knees; planted a sturdy hand on it and the other sturdy hand on the other knee; and with his sturdy legs swinging under the bench, toe kicking heel and heel kicking toe, he rested briefly from life's battle.

The signs of battle were thick on him, unmistakable. The palpable sign, the conqueror's sign, was the profits won in the struggle of the streets. The other signs may be set down as loss-dirt and raggedness and disorder. His hair might never have been straightened out with a comb; his hands were not politely mentionable; his coarse shoes, which seemed to have been bought with the agreement that they were never to wear out, were ill-conditioned with general dust and the special grime of melted pitch from the typical contractor's cheapened asphalt; one of his stockings had a fresh rent and old rents enlarged their grievances.

A single sign of victory was better even than the money in the pocket-the whole lad himself. He was strongly built, frankly fashioned, with happy grayish eyes, which had in them some of the cold warrior blue of the sky that day; and they were set wide apart in a compact round head, which somehow suggested a bronze sphere on a column of triumph. Altogether he belonged to that hillside of nature, himself a human growth budding out of wintry fortunes into life's April, opening on the rocks hardy and all white.

But to sit there swinging his legs-this did not suffice to satisfy his heart, did not enable him to celebrate his instincts; and suddenly from his thicket of forest trees and greening bushes he began to pour forth a thrilling little tide of song, with the native sweetness of some human linnet unaware of its transcendent gift.

Up the steep hill a man not yet of middle age had mounted from the flats. He was on his way toward the parapet above. He came on slowly, hat in hand, perspiration on his forehead; that climb from base to summit stretches a healthy walker and does him good. At a turn of the road under the forest trees with shrubbery alongside he stopped suddenly, as a naturalist might pause with half-lifted foot beside a dense copse in which some unknown species of bird sang-a young bird just finding its notes.

It was his vocation to discover and to train voices. His definite work in music was to help perpetually to rebuild for the world that ever-sinking bridge of sound over which Faith aids itself in walking-toward the eternal. This bridge of falling notes is as Nature's bridge of falling drops: individual drops appear for an instant in the rainbow, then disappear, but century after century the great arch stands there on the sky unshaken. So throughout the ages the bridge of sacred music, in which individual voices are heard a little while and then are heard no longer, remains for man as one same structure of rock by which he passes over from the mortal to the immortal.

Such was his life-work. As he now paused and listened, you might have interpreted his demeanor as that of a professional musician whose ears brought tidings that greatly astonished him. The thought had at once come to him of how the New York papers once in a while print a story of the accidental finding in it of a wonderful voice-in New York, where you can find everything that is human. He recalled throughout the history of music instances in which some one of the world's famous singers had been picked up on life's road where it was roughest. Was anything like this now to become his own experience? Falling on his ear was an unmistakable gift of song, a wandering, haunting, unidentified note under that early April blue. He had never heard anything like it. It was a singing soul.

Voice alone did not suffice for his purpose; the singer's face, personality, manners, some unfortunate strain in the blood, might debar the voice, block its acceptance, ruin everything. He almost dreaded to walk on, to explore what was ahead. But his road led that way, and three steps brought him around the woody bend of it.

There he stopped again. In an embrasure of rock on which vines were turning green, a little fellow, seasoned by wind and sun, with a countenance open and friendly, like the sky, was pouring out his full heart.

The instant the man came into view, the song was broken off. The sturdy figure started up and sprang forward with the instinct of business. When any one paused and looked questioningly at him, as this man now did, it meant papers and pennies. His inquiry was quite breathless:

"Do you want a paper, Mister? What paper do you want? I can get you one on the avenue in a minute."

He stood looking up at the man, alert, capable, fearless, ingratiating. The man had instantly taken note of the speaking voice, which is often a safer first criterion to go by than the singing voice itself. He pronounced it sincere, robust, true, sweet, victorious. And very quickly also he made up his mind that conditions must have been rare and fortunate with the lad at his birth: blood will tell, and blood told now even in this dirt and in these rags.

His reply bore testimony to how appreciative he felt of all that faced him there so humanly on the rock.

"Thank you," he said, "I have read the papers."

Having thus disposed of some of the lad's words, he addressed a pointed question to the rest:

"But how did you happen to call me mister? I thought boss was what you little New-Yorkers generally said."

"I'm not a New-Yorker," announced the lad, with ready courtesy and good nature. "I don't say boss. We are Southerners. I say mister."

He gave the man an unfavorable look as though of a mind to take his true measure; also as being of a mind to let the man know that he had not taken the boy's measure.

The man smiled at being corrected to such good purpose; but before he could speak again, the lad went on to clinch his correction:

"And I only say mister when I am selling papers and am not at home."

"What do you say when not selling papers and when you are at home?" asked the man, forced to a smile.

"I say 'sir,' if I say anything," retorted the lad, flaring up, but still polite.

The man looked at him with increasing interest. Another word in the lad's speech had caught his attention-Southerner.

That word had been with him a good deal in recent years; he had not quite seemed able to get away from it. Nearly all classes of people in New York who were not Southerners had been increasingly reminded that the Southerners were upon them. He had satirically worked it out in his own mind that if he were ever pushed out of his own position, it would be some Southerner who pushed him. He sometimes thought of the whole New York professional situation as a public wonderful awful dinner at which almost nothing was served that did not have a Southern flavor as from a kind of pepper. The guests were bound to have administered to them their shares of this pepper; there was no getting away from the table and no getting the pepper out of the dinner. There was the intrusion of the South into every delicacy.

"We are Southerners," the lad had announced decisively; and there the flavor was again, though this time as from a mere pepper-box in a school basket. Thus his next remark was addressed to his own thoughts as well as to the lad:

"And so you are a Southerner!" he reflected audibly, looking down at the Southern plague in small form.

"Why, yes, Mister, we are Southerners," replied the lad, with a gay and careless patriotism; and as giving the handy pepper-box a shake, he began to dust the air with its contents: "I was born on an old Southern battle-field. When Granny was born there, it had hardly stopped smoking; it was still piled with wounded and dead Northerners. Why, one of the worst batteries was planted in our front porch."

This enthusiasm as to the front porch was assumed to be acceptable to the listener. The battery might have been a Cherokee rose.

The man had listened with a quizzical light in his eyes.

"In what direction did you say that battery was pointed?"

"I didn't say; but it was pointed up

this way, of course."

The man laughed outright.

"And so you followed in the direction of the deadly Southern shell and came north-as a small grape-shot!"

"But, Mister, that was long ago. They had their quarrel out long ago. That's the way we boys do: fight it out and make friends again. Don't you do that way?"

"It's a very good way to do," said the man. "And so you sell papers?"

"I sell papers to people in the park, Mister, and back up on the avenue. Granny is particular. I'm not a regular newsboy."

"I heard you singing. Does anybody teach you?"


"And so your grandmother is your music teacher?"

It was the lad's turn to laugh.

"Granny isn't my grandmother; Granny is my mother."

Toppling over in the dust of imagination went a gaunt granny image; in its place a much more vital being appeared just behind the form of the lad, guarding him even now while he spoke.

"And so your mother takes pupils?"

"Only me."

"Has any one heard you sing?"

"Only she."

It had become more and more the part of the man during this colloquy to smile; he felt repeatedly in the flank of his mind a jab of the comic spur. Now he laughed at the lad's deadly preparedness; business competition in New York had taught him that he who hesitates a moment is lost. The boy seemed ready with his answers before he heard the man's questions.

"Do you mind telling me your name?"

"My name is Ashby. Ashby Truesdale. We come from an old English family. What is your name, and what kind of family do you come from, Mister?"

"And where do you live?"

The lad wheeled, and strode to the edge of the rock,-the path along there is blasted out of solid rock,-and looking downward, he pointed to the first row of buildings in the distant flats.

"We live down there. You see that house in the middle of the block, the little old one between the two big ones?"

The man did not feel sure.

"Well, Mister, you see the statue of Washington and Lafayette?"

The man was certain he saw Washington and Lafayette.

"Well, from there you follow my finger along the row of houses till you come to the littlest, oldest, dingiest one. You see it now, don't you? We live up under the roof."

"What is the number?"

"It isn't any number. It's half a number. We live in the half that isn't numbered; the other half gets the number."

"And you take your music lessons in one half?"

"Why, yes, Mister. Why not?"

"On a piano?"

"Why, yes, Mister; on my piano."

"Oh, you have a piano, have you?"

"There isn't any sound in about half the keys. Granny says the time has come to rent a better one. She has gone over to the art school to-day to pose to get the money."

A chill of silence fell between the talkers, the one looking up and the other looking down. The man's next question was put in a more guarded tone:

"Does your mother pose as a model?"

"No, Mister, she doesn't pose as a model. She's posing as herself. She said I must have a teacher. Mister, were you ever poor?"

The man looked the boy over from head to foot.

"Do you think you are poor?" he asked.

The good-natured reply came back in a droll tone:

"Well, Mister, we certainly aren't rich."

"Let us see," objected the man, as though this were a point which had better not be yielded, and he began with a voice of one reckoning up items: "Two feet, each cheap at, say, five millions. Two hands-five millions apiece for hands. At least ten millions for each eye. About the same for the ears. Certainly twenty millions for your teeth. Forty millions for your stomach. On the whole, at a rough estimate you must easily be worth over one hundred millions. There are quite a number of old gentlemen in New York, and a good many young ones, who would gladly pay that amount for your investments, for your securities."

The lad with eager upturned countenance did not conceal his amusement while the man drew this picture of him as a living ragged gold-mine, as actually put together and made up of pieces of fabulous treasure. A child's notion of wealth is the power to pay for what it has not. The wealth that childhood is, escapes childhood; it does not escape the old. What most concerned the lad as to these priceless feet and hands and eyes and ears was the hard-knocked-in fact that many a time he ached throughout this reputed treasury of his being for a five-cent piece, and these reputed millionaires, acting together and doing their level best, could not produce one.

Nevertheless, this fresh and never-before-imagined image of his self-riches amused him. It somehow put him over into the class of enormously opulent things; and finding himself a little lonely on that new landscape, he cast about for some object of comparison. Thus his mind was led to the richest of all near-by objects.

"If I were worth a hundred million," he said, with a satisfied twinkle in his eyes, "I would be as rich as the cathedral."

A significant silence followed. The man broke it with a grave surprised inquiry:

"How did you happen to think of the cathedral?"

"I didn't happen to think of it; I couldn't help thinking of it."

"Have you ever been in the cathedral?" inquired the man more gravely still.

"Been in it! We go there all the time. It's our church. Why, good Lord! Mister, we are descended from a bishop!"

The man laughed outright long and heartily.

"Thank you for telling me," he said as one who suddenly feels himself to have become a very small object through being in the neighborhood of such hereditary beatitudes and ecclesiastical sanctities. "Are you, indeed? I am glad to know. Indeed, I am!"

"Why, Mister, we have been watching the cathedral from our windows for years. We can see the workmen away up in the air as they finish one part and then another part. I can count the Apostles on the roof. You begin with James the Less and keep straight on around until you come out at Simon. Big Jim and Pete are in the middle of the row." He laughed.

"Surely you are not going to speak of an apostle as Pete! Do you think that is showing proper respect to an apostle?"

"But he was Pete when he was little. He wasn't an apostle then and didn't have any respect."

"And you mustn't call an apostle Big Jim! It sounds dreadful!"

"Then why did he try to call himself James the Greater? That sounds dreadful too. As far as size is concerned he is no bigger than the others: they are all nine and a half feet. The Archangel Gabriel on the roof, he's nine and a half. Everybody standing around on the outside of the roof is nine and a half. If Gabriel had been turned a little to one side, he would blow his trumpet straight over our flat. He didn't blow anywhere one night, for a big wind came up behind him and blew him down and he blew his trumpet at the gutter. But he didn't stay down," boasted the lad.

Throughout his talk he was making it clear that the cathedral was a neighborhood affair; that its haps and mishaps possessed for him the flesh and blood interest of a living person. Love takes mental possession of its object and by virtue of his affection the cathedral had become his companion.

"You seem rather interested in the cathedral. Very much interested," remarked the man, strengthening his statement and with increased attention.

"Why, of course, Mister. I've been passing there nearly every day since I've been selling papers on the avenue. Sometimes I stop and watch the masons. When I went with Granny to the art school this morning, she told me to go home that way. I have just come from there. They are building another one of the chapels now, and the men are up on the scaffolding. They carried more rock up than they needed and they would walk to the edge and throw big pieces of it down with a smash. The old house they are using for the choir school is just under there. Sometimes when the class is practising, I listen from the outside. If they sing high, I sing high; if they sing low, I sing low. Why, Mister, I can sing up to-"

He broke off abruptly. He had been pouring-out all kinds of confidences to his new-found friend. Now he hesitated. The boldness of his nature deserted him. The deadly preparedness failed. A shy appealing look came into his eyes as he asked his next question-a grave question indeed:

"Mister, do you love music?"

"Do I love music?" echoed the startled musician, pierced by the spear-like sincerity of the question, which seemed to go clean through him and his knowledge and to point back to childhood's springs of feeling. "Do I love music? Yes, some music, I hope. Some kinds of music, I hope."

These moderate, chastened words restored the boy's confidence and completely captured his friendship. Now he felt sure of his comrade, and he put to him a more searching question:

"Do you know anything about the cathedral?"

The man smiled guiltily.

"A little. I know a little about the cathedral," he admitted.

There was a moment of tense, anxious silence. And now the whole secret came out:

"Do you know how boys get into the cathedral choir school?"

The man did not answer. He stood looking down at the lad, in whose eyes all at once a great baffled desire told its story. Then he pulled out his watch and merely said:

"I must be going. Good morning." He turned his way across the rock.

Disappointment darkened the lad's face when he saw that he was to receive no answer; withering blight dried up its joy. But he recovered himself quickly.

"Well, I must be going, too," he said bravely and sweetly. "Good morning." He turned his way across the rock. But he had had a good time talking with this stranger, and, after all, he was a Southerner; and so, as his head was about to disappear below the cliff, he called back in his frank human gallant way:

"I'm glad I met you, Mister."

The man went up and the boy went down.

The man, having climbed to the parapet, leaned over the stone wall. The tops of some of the tall poplar-trees, rooted far below, were on a level with his eyes. Often he stopped there to watch them swaying like upright plumes against the wind. They swayed now in the silvery April air with a ripple of silvery leaves. His eyes sought out intimately the barely swollen buds on the boughs of other forest trees yet far from leaf. They lingered on the white blossoms of the various shrubs. They found the pink hawthorn; in the boughs of one of those trees one night in England in mid-May he had heard the nightingale, master singer of the non-human world. Up to him rose the enchanting hillside picture of grass and moss and fern. It was all like a sheet of soft organ music to his nature-reading eyes.

While he gazed, he listened. Down past the shadows and the greenness, through the blossoms and the light, growing fainter and fainter, went a wandering little drift of melody, a haunting, unidentified sound under the blue cathedral dome of the sky. He reflected again that he had never heard anything like it. It was, in truth, a singing soul.

Then he saw the lad's sturdy figure bound across the valley to join friends in play on the thoroughfare that skirts the park alongside the row of houses.

He himself turned and went in the direction of the cathedral.

As he walked slowly along, one thing haunted him remorsefully-the upturned face of the lad and the look in his eyes as he asked the question which brought out the secret desire of a life: "Do you know how boys get into the cathedral choir school?" Then the blight of disappointment when there was no answer.

The man walked thoughtfully on, seemingly as one who was turning over and over in his mind some difficult, delicate matter, looking at it on all sides and in every light, as he must do.

Finally he quickened his pace as though having decided what ought to be done. He looked the happier for his decision.

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