He stood on the gym steps, his overcoat over one arm, giving amiable half attention to Miss Webb’s discourse while the low October sun warmed his back. He looked very much like the doctor in the magazine advertisements who urges the right cereal or cosmetic on the earnest beauty seeker. A ruddy, graying man whose direct blue gaze bespoke quiet strength, he studied now the sharp wooded profile of Mt. Tarewoga etched sharply against the sky.
“Our young performers are coming along exceptionally well, don’t you think? The rain-dance number especially. Those rhythms in the rain dance, they’re fascinating. That dum-di-di-dum—it’s so … Indian. Where on earth do you composers go for such things?”
“Well, in this case I went to the Indian, Miss Webb,” Heber said in his mild way. He wished sometimes that Miss Webb were not so fervent. “I’ll see you Wednesday afternoon, then, for the final rehearsal.”
“Yes,” said Miss Webb brightly. (She pronounced it “Yay-us.”) “Yes, and don’t forget, Mr. Thorsen, Wyhee Auditorium, not Carnegie Hall.”
The four o’clock bell jangled in the hall, and Heber watched with amused interest as the doors flew violently open and the liberated scholars streamed out across the graveled yard in one multicolored, excited surge. Warring Tartars, Heber mused. Young eagles with all the heavens to soar in. He sighed. When does a man truly reconcile himself to losing the limitless sky of his youth? Well, he must get along home.
He turned up Woodruff Avenue and crossed over the black steel bridge that spanned the river. At the Western rail tracks he paused to yell at Harv, the crossing watchman. Some boys in grass-stained jeans played touch football on the station lawn. Suddenly the ball squibbled out of the sweaty mass of players and shot toward Heber like a woozy badger. He spiraled it expertly back to the boys. The effort brought a tingle of pleasure. He straightened up and felt years younger, and the well-ordered platoons of zinnias and marigolds that spelled out WYHEE in the little station park pleased him tremendously for no reason at all.
Yes, his world was sound and safe and a happy one as worlds went. He had a white house perched on a green hill up on Taylor Avenue. He had Geneal and the children. He prospered in a mild way—no debts and no great financial prospects—his financial affairs seeming to balance in the same even manner of the man himself. He was respected, even esteemed, by his fellow townsmen, for he supplied them with two ancient commodities: he brought music to their children, and he provided stones for their castles. Thus, while some people knew Heber as the earnest and amiable supervisor of music for Wyhee’s schools, others recognized in him the junior partner of Janssen-Thorsen Lumber & Hardware—an enterprise not half as imposing as it sounded. All in all, Heber had good cause to teeter back and forth on his heels and bask in the pleasant sun of success, for it was generally held in Wyhee that Heber was nothing if not a successful man. And if someone, even Geneal, had asked him, “Heber, are you happy?” he would have felt himself affronted indeed. Even so, in the delectable apple of Heber’s life there dwelt a worm.
He rounded the corner now, and there was his neat, white, green-shuttered castle. On the back lawn Geneal was gathering in clothes from the lines. She struggled determinedly, a short, plump, aproned figure in the midst of a comic ballet of frantic, leaping, gyrating shirts and towels and underwear. Heber grinned hugely at the spectacle, and when his wife came up the porch steps, arms laden with clothes, he leaped with exaggerated gallantry to open the door, bowing low and sweeping off his gray fedora, at which she frowned in mock severity.
Heber stood there on the steps then, a warm glow of content suffusing his being, and his gaze happened to fall upon a baby’s footprint in the smooth gray concrete of the walk. “There is immortality—of a sort,” he reflected. Why, it seemed only yesterday that Ralph, his firstborn, had toddled out upon the wet concrete, and he had taken up his trowel to smooth out the tiny disfigurement. “Let’s leave it there, dear,” Geneal had said, and so it had remained. Ralph was grown up now, preaching the gospel to the Samoans, but here he somehow lingered. “Immortality …” mused Heber.
When supper was over, Heber gathered up the remnants of the evening newspaper and disappeared into his office-study—a cheery, booklined alcove at the end of the sun porch. He sat down and shuffled through the half-dozen letters lying on the old maple desk. One he tore open immediately, and as he read, his face lighted with pleasure and from time to time he chuckled. “Same old Mad,” he sighed. He shuffled into the kitchen where Geneal and sixteen-year-old Glenda were washing dishes. “Got a letter from Mad,” he said. “Listen to this: ‘I’ve been working like a Scandihoovian mule since Diana left me. In a strangely sardonic upturn of events since our matrimonial shipwreck, our parting seems to have bequeathed none but jolly dividends. Diana married some producer—Harkins or Harkness or something—out in Hollywood; so you see, she’s come up in the world. Where formerly she held sway over a mere salon, now she presides over a swimming pool. I, too, have risen. The Philharmonic plays the latest of my brainchildren on Sunday the 17th. It is a work that defies description, but it has already received much comment, surmises mild and wild. Some program notes are enclosed. I’d appreciate your listening, dear fellow. …’ He sends his best to you. Same old Mad, eh?”
“Poor fellow,” said Geneal, her brown eyes grave.
On the appointed day and hour, Heber went to the living room and tuned in the program with scarcely concealed eagerness. He fidgeted, curious and expectant. Madsen Wyatt had grown to be a composer of note, a man to be reckoned with. This Heber knew from the journals. A near-infallible sign of Wyatt’s eminence was the fact that younger men, Europeans as well as Americans, were now much given to assiduous imitation of his arid style. The list of performed works was imposing: two symphonies, an oboe concerto, an opera, an overture to King Lear, several tone poems and serenades, and one string quartet.
Of all this Heber was proud and profoundly appreciative. He took a vicarious pleasure in his old friend’s triumphs, for had not Madsen Wyatt come out of this very same valley? In other days Mad and Heber had pounded away at the same piano, slaved over the same exercises, showed their first creative efforts to the same teacher. Mad had gone to Boston. Heber stayed in the valley where his strong back and patient hands had been needed on his father’s farm. Earning a livelihood from the gray alkali flats took many Thorsens. Later, when more prosperous times had eased Heber’s load, it seemed that he might again take up his music. But friends introduced him to Geneal, and liking grew to love, though she scarcely knew Mendelssohn from Mahler. They married and mortgaged and managed. Year by year, the family grew: Ralph, Evan, Irene, Glenda, Joseph, Moroni, and Leah. Winters, Heber attended the university; in the remaining months he turned his hands to anything that would yield an honest dollar: farming, news reporting, jackknife carpentry, sheep-shearing and its respectable cousin—barbering—orchestral arranging for dance bands, piano tuning, and even more trying, piano teaching. He reached the first fruits of those Trojan years when, one June evening, he strode across a stage, a serious, ruddy block of a man, and grasped a beribboned token of academic attainment in his square farmer’s fist. He was then thirty-two and the father of four. (In the same year, Mad had finished the King Lear and had received a commission for his first symphony.) Yes, those had been rich and furious years.
The fires burn lower now, thought Heber. I came once to a crossroads, he mused, listening with only half an ear to the Delius being played. Down one road I hurried. By choice? Or herded by circumstance? No—I made my choice. I look back now, back down the road that I have come by. Those other lands I never saw lie shining there. Why do they shine so? I did what I had to do. I’m happy in my way. And yet, while thus he argued, he saw the golden fields, and they grew ever brighter …
Heber jerked awake. Outside some neighbor children grated thunderously by on roller skates. The Delius work winged to an exquisite and graceful close. There followed a mild torrent of handclapping. “And now,” intoned the announcer, “we shall hear, for the first time anywhere, the tone poem The Dark Traveler, from the pen of the gifted American composer, Madsen Wyatt.”
After a lengthy asthmatic introduction, like a dinosaur heaving himself panting out of a tar pit, the piece leaped into a squalling tirade featuring the snare drums and the woodwinds. They quarreled awhile at the top of their voices; then as suddenly as they had begun, they subsided into a sullen silence broken only by fitful snorts and rustles like a field of dry cornstalks. A great clamor burst in upon this stillness—a guttural, strident outburst of jangles, wails, cackles, crashes, shrieks, and thumps. After several variations of this, the trumpet choir silenced all with a long, sour comment, whereupon the bassoons croaked out an equally dismal subject, and the other instruments howled and jostled one another in a barbaric travesty of a fugue. One last acrid snarl from the orchestra, and the piece ended. The applause, after a long, startled silence, came steadily and politely. Heber sat slumped in his armchair, teeth clamped meditatively upon a knuckle. He was frankly appalled. “What’s happened to my friend? What’s happened to all of us?”
He turned to the program notes. “The Dark Traveler,” he read, “represents the endless and hopeless quest man embarks upon when he seeks to know himself. Driven by fierce rains and torrents, the dark traveler comes in the night upon a bottomless abyss. Peering down into its black silent depths, the traveler feels himself tempted to leap to destruction, to forget all, to flee the anguish that is his. He rebels against this temptation but the rains beat mercilessly upon him, so that, wildly despairing, he leaps. Having done so, he finds a perfect peace, for in the abyss he finds the ultima Thule of negation. He sings of his salvation.”
Gravely Heber folded the program, laid it on his piano. “What a poor salvation to sing of!” he ruminated. “Mad, poor fellow, you’ve everything and nothing. You’ve gone a long way from this valley. A long, long way.” The slanting sun lit up the jackets of his books. “Yet who am I to carp? What have I accomplished? It looks as though you’ve lost your way, and that’s bad for an artist. … Yes, you’ve lost your way, but I—I never even started.”
The rehearsal on Wednesday ran shockingly true to form. Heber, having long before learned what to expect, faced the fiasco with remarkable composure. Miss Webb seemed blithely unaware of any artistic shortcomings. Penny Parris showed up with a bad cold. Bill Ricks interpreted the rain god as equal parts of railroad semaphore and circus buffoon. The chorus shouted with misplaced zeal. The dancers hopped about like timorous, feathered bunnies. The music suffered in translation: not only did unscheduled dissonances crop up, but exotic syncopations crept in, due to a lamentable lag that existed between Miss Webb’s precise, schoolmarm’s beat and the execution of the more languid of the orchestral players. “This,” thought Heber as he listened and watched, “is the sort of thing that goes to confirm the Indian’s inherent belief in the essential drollness of the paleface.”
When the last quavering note had flown to its reward, and the last molting costume feather had settled to the dusty stage, Heber rose and thanked the assembled company and adjured them to do as well on Friday; then, as soon as it was decently possible, he escaped to his automobile. And though the sun shone as brightly as a burnished penny and the great turquoise countenance of the sky was serenity itself, in Heber all was turmoil under leaden skies.
A road wound and twisted like a tan shoelace up through the rolling golden-brown fields and airily twined its way up to the summit of Mt. Tarewoga. The mountain was a cherished haunt of Heber’s. He savored its pristine silence; he partook of its brooding strength; he gloried in its lofty, indomitable presence. So it was as one friend visiting another when Heber came this sun-washed afternoon, his blue coupe dipping and swooping by the fenceposts, startling magpies into frantic black-and-white flutterings against the great blueness. Out in a stubble field old Virgil Mort straightened up and waved. Heber pulled up by the fence, and they talked crops awhile. Then Heber whirred up the rise, down past clumps of flaming foliage, along the crests of tawny, cedared slopes, and disappeared at length up the side of the mountain.
He sat there on the mount, did Heber, holding in his hand a chokecherry twig with some wizened cherries yet clinging to it, the wind whispering its tale in his ear, the splendid patchwork of the valley spread out luxuriously before him. What was it Miss Webb had said one day?” … don’t forget, Wyhee Auditorium, not Carnegie Hall.” A livid bitterness welled up in Heber. Life passed you by. You got but one chance, usually, and if you fumbled—well, it was gone. Heber hurled the chokecherry twig down the slope.
He felt old and wizened himself. What could an old man do? Life passed you by inexorably. “The moving finger, having writ …” Heber sighed. What dreams he’d dreamed when he was young! Well, he knew better now. Life was a dirge for dreams, a dirge marked Adagio lamentoso.
Thus did he brood, and while he brooded, back to mind stole the image of a baby’s footprint. His discontent burned a little lower. They were all fine children, he smiled. He and Geneal had been truly blessed. The Lord had been wondrously good to him all his days. Heber felt a little shamefaced. I’m acting like a fool, he thought angrily. We come here, all mortals, to learn, and all life is our schooling. While thus he sat in reverie, a bit of music echoed in his thoughts. It was the poignant dialogue from the finale of the Brahms First Symphony that Heber heard. First a great unsatisfied plaint: whither goes man? And to Heber, the joyous and supremely confident rejoinder could only chant: he goes to glory.
The wind set the juniper branches to dancing. A quarter mile away a hawk traced his silent circles in the air. Heber reflected upon the bond of truth and art. He recalled to mind the giants of his art—the splendid ghosts now gone from the earth. He tried to look into the spirit of music. It is not mere sound, mere mechanics, mere blowing or scraping, he pondered, though these things must surely be mastered. Music must encompass all life and all goodness, thought Heber. It will grow toward heaven, not by accretion, but inwardly, like the aspens there below. Out of the spirit it will flow—as from a spring.
Father, Heber prayed, let me listen as I am listening now, and let me sing. I should be singing, out of gratitude, out of the joy I feel in thy creation. I should be singing, if only little songs. Lord of all creation, let me sing.
Thus he sat there, unseeing—pondering, pondering—listening with all his soul. Gently out of somewhere, out of the sighing juniper boughs, out of the hawk’s still circle, out of the river’s silver thread in the broad valley below, came a tiny melody shrilling in the velvety recesses of his consciousness. Over and over, with infinitely delicate gossamer webs of variations, the theme persisted. Heber sat entranced, scarcely moving a muscle. Deeper and richer, other voices joined in the paean. Ringing and thunderous, it exulted. It sang of man and his redemption and of the glory and majesty of God. It burned with a fire of eloquence and power that leaped blazing toward the heavens and then, ever so slowly, settled back to earth again. Sweetly and gravely, the mighty psalm trailed off to a murmur, to a whisper, the merest sigh, and then, silent as the sunshine, it stole away completely.
Heber rose then, profoundly moved, his heart pounding and his hands trembling like aspen leaves, cupped as a man might who had just risen from drinking at a spring of pure water. He stood for a long time looking down at the plain. He knew now that he could never hope to capture what his soul had heard this day, but there were other songs to sing with gladness, and days and years to sing them.
Far down below him the hawk drew lambent circles in the crystalline air.