Part I: Friends of Childhood - X
Wunsch and old Fritz and Spanish Johnny celebrated Christmas together, so riotously that Wunsch was unable to give Thea her lesson the next day. In the middle of the vacation week Thea went to the Kohlers' through a soft, beautiful snowstorm. The air was a tender blue-gray, like the color on the doves that flew in and out of the white dove-house on the post in the Kohlers' garden. The sand hills looked dim and sleepy. The tamarisk hedge was full of snow, like a foam of blossoms drifted over it. When Thea opened the gate, old Mrs. Kohler was just coming in from the chicken yard, with five fresh eggs in her apron and a pair of old top-boots on her feet. She called Thea to come and look at a bantam egg, which she held up proudly. Her bantam hens were remiss in zeal, and she was always delighted when they accomplished anything. She took Thea into the sitting-room, very warm and smelling of food, and brought her a plateful of little Christmas cakes, made according to old and hallowed formulae, and put them before her while she warmed her feet. Then she went to the door of the kitchen stairs and called: "Herr Wunsch, Herr Wunsch!"
Wunsch came down wearing an old wadded jacket, with a velvet collar. The brown silk was so worn that the wadding stuck out almost everywhere. He avoided Thea's eyes when he came in, nodded without speaking, and pointed directly to the piano stool. He was not so insistent upon the scales as usual, and throughout the little sonata of Mozart's she was studying, he remained languid and absent-minded. His eyes looked very heavy, and he kept wiping them with one of the new silk handkerchiefs Mrs. Kohler had given him for Christmas. When the lesson was over he did not seem inclined to talk. Thea, loitering on the stool, reached for a tattered book she had taken off the music-rest when she sat down. It was a very old Leipsic edition of the piano score of Gluck's "Orpheus." She turned over the pages curiously.
"Is it nice?" she asked.
"It is the most beautiful opera ever made," Wunsch declared solemnly. "You know the story, eh? How, when she die, Orpheus went down below for his wife?"
"Oh, yes, I know. I didn't know there was an opera about it, though. Do people sing this now?"
"ABER JA! What else? You like to try? See." He drew her from the stool and sat down at the piano. Turning over the leaves to the third act, he handed the score to Thea. "Listen, I play it through and you get the RHYTHMUS. EINS, ZWEI, DREI, VIER." He played through Orpheus' lament, then pushed back his cuffs with awakening interest and nodded at Thea. "Now, VOM BLATT, MIT MIR."
"ACH, ICH HABE SIE VERLOREN, ALL' MEIN GLUCK IST NUN DAHIN."
Wunsch sang the aria with much feeling. It was evidently one that was very dear to him.
"NOCH EINMAL, alone, yourself." He played the introductory measures, then nodded at her vehemently, and she began:—
"ACH, ICH HABE SIE VERLOREN."
When she finished, Wunsch nodded again. "SCHON," he muttered as he finished the accompaniment softly. He dropped his hands on his knees and looked up at Thea. "That is very fine, eh? There is no such beautiful melody in the world. You can take the book for one week and learn something, to pass the time. It is good to know—always. EURIDICE, EU—RI—DI—CE, WEH DASS ICH AUF ERDEN BIN!" he sang softly, playing the melody with his right hand.
Thea, who was turning over the pages of the third act, stopped and scowled at a passage. The old German's blurred eyes watched her curiously.
"For what do you look so, IMMER?" puckering up his own face. "You see something a little difficult, may-be, and you make such a face like it was an enemy."
Thea laughed, disconcerted. "Well, difficult things are enemies, aren't they? When you have to get them?"
Wunsch lowered his head and threw it up as if he were butting something. "Not at all! By no means." He took the book from her and looked at it. "Yes, that is not so easy, there. This is an old book. They do not print it so now any more, I think. They leave it out, may-be. Only one woman could sing that good."
Thea looked at him in perplexity.
Wunsch went on. "It is written for alto, you see. A woman sings the part, and there was only one to sing that good in there. You understand? Only one!" He glanced at her quickly and lifted his red forefinger upright before her eyes.
Thea looked at the finger as if she were hypnotized. "Only one?" she asked breathlessly; her hands, hanging at her sides, were opening and shutting rapidly.
Wunsch nodded and still held up that compelling finger. When he dropped his hands, there was a look of satisfaction in his face.
"Was she very great?"
"Was she beautiful?"
"ABER GAR NICHT! Not at all. She was ugly; big mouth, big teeth, no figure, nothing at all," indicating a luxuriant bosom by sweeping his hands over his chest. "A pole, a post! But for the voice—ACH! She have something in there, behind the eyes," tapping his temples.
Thea followed all his gesticulations intently. "Was she German?"
"No, SPANISCH." He looked down and frowned for a moment. "ACH, I tell you, she look like the Frau Tellamantez, some-thing. Long face, long chin, and ugly al-so."
"Did she die a long while ago?"
"Die? I think not. I never hear, anyhow. I guess she is alive somewhere in the world; Paris, may-be. But old, of course. I hear her when I was a youth. She is too old to sing now any more."
"Was she the greatest singer you ever heard?"
Wunsch nodded gravely. "Quite so. She was the most—" he hunted for an English word, lifted his hand over his head and snapped his fingers noiselessly in the air, enunciating fiercely, "KUNST-LER-ISCH!" The word seemed to glitter in his uplifted hand, his voice was so full of emotion.
Wunsch rose from the stool and began to button his wadded jacket, preparing to return to his half-heated room in the loft. Thea regretfully put on her cloak and hood and set out for home.
When Wunsch looked for his score late that afternoon, he found that Thea had not forgotten to take it with her. He smiled his loose, sarcastic smile, and thoughtfully rubbed his stubbly chin with his red fingers. When Fritz came home in the early blue twilight the snow was flying faster, Mrs. Kohler was cooking HASENPFEFFER in the kitchen, and the professor was seated at the piano, playing the Gluck, which he knew by heart. Old Fritz took off his shoes quietly behind the stove and lay down on the lounge before his masterpiece, where the firelight was playing over the walls of Moscow. He listened, while the room grew darker and the windows duller. Wunsch always came back to the same thing:—
"ACH, ICH HABE SIE VERLOREN,...EURIDICE, EURIDICE!"
From time to time Fritz sighed softly. He, too, had lost a Euridice.