Part II: The Song of the Lark - X
SPANISH JOHNNY had no shop of his own, but he kept a table and an order-book in one corner of the drug store where paints and wall-paper were sold, and he was sometimes to be found there for an hour or so about noon. Thea had gone into the drug store to have a friendly chat with the proprietor, who used to lend her books from his shelves. She found Johnny there, trimming rolls of wall-paper for the parlor of Banker Smith's new house. She sat down on the top of his table and watched him.
"Johnny," she said suddenly, "I want you to write down the words of that Mexican serenade you used to sing; you know, 'ROSA DE NOCHE.' It's an unusual song. I'm going to study it. I know enough Spanish for that."
Johnny looked up from his roller with his bright, affable smile. "SI, but it is low for you, I think; VOZ CONTRALTO. It is low for me."
"Nonsense. I can do more with my low voice than I used to. I'll show you. Sit down and write it out for me, please." Thea beckoned him with the short yellow pencil tied to his order-book.
Johnny ran his fingers through his curly black hair. "If you wish. I do not know if that SERENATA all right for young ladies. Down there it is more for married ladies. They sing it for husbands—or somebody else, may-bee." Johnny's eyes twinkled and he apologized gracefully with his shoulders. He sat down at the table, and while Thea looked over his arm, began to write the song down in a long, slanting script, with highly ornamental capitals. Presently he looked up. "This-a song not exactly Mexican," he said thoughtfully. "It come from farther down; Brazil, Venezuela, may-bee. I learn it from some fellow down there, and he learn it from another fellow. It is-a most like Mexican, but not quite." Thea did not release him, but pointed to the paper. There were three verses of the song in all, and when Johnny had written them down, he sat looking at them meditatively, his head on one side. "I don' think for a high voice, SENORITA," he objected with polite persistence. "How you accompany with piano?"
"Oh, that will be easy enough."
"For you, may-bee!" Johnny smiled and drummed on the table with the tips of his agile brown fingers. "You know something? Listen, I tell you." He rose and sat down on the table beside her, putting his foot on the chair. He loved to talk at the hour of noon. "When you was a little girl, no bigger than that, you come to my house one day 'bout noon, like this, and I was in the door, playing guitar. You was barehead, barefoot; you run away from home. You stand there and make a frown at me an' listen. By 'n by you say for me to sing. I sing some lil' ting, and then I say for you to sing with me. You don' know no words, of course, but you take the air and you sing it justa beauti-ful! I never see a child do that, outside Mexico. You was, oh, I do' know—seven year, may-bee. By 'n by the preacher come look for you and begin for scold. I say, 'Don' scold, Meester Kronborg. She come for hear guitar. She gotta some music in her, that child. Where she get?' Then he tell me 'bout your gran'papa play oboe in the old country. I never forgetta that time." Johnny chuckled softly.
Thea nodded. "I remember that day, too. I liked your music better than the church music. When are you going to have a dance over there, Johnny?"
Johnny tilted his head. "Well, Saturday night the Spanish boys have a lil' party, some DANZA. You know Miguel Ramas? He have some young cousins, two boys, very nice-a, come from Torreon. They going to Salt Lake for some job-a, and stay off with him two-three days, and he mus' have a party. You like to come?"
That was how Thea came to go to the Mexican ball. Mexican Town had been increased by half a dozen new families during the last few years, and the Mexicans had put up an adobe dance-hall, that looked exactly like one of their own dwellings, except that it was a little longer, and was so unpretentious that nobody in Moonstone knew of its existence. The "Spanish boys" are reticent about their own affairs. Ray Kennedy used to know about all their little doings, but since his death there was no one whom the Mexicans considered SIMPATICO.
On Saturday evening after supper Thea told her mother that she was going over to Mrs. Tellamantez's to watch the Mexicans dance for a while, and that Johnny would bring her home.
Mrs. Kronborg smiled. She noticed that Thea had put on a white dress and had done her hair up with unusual care, and that she carried her best blue scarf. "Maybe you'll take a turn yourself, eh? I wouldn't mind watching them Mexicans. They're lovely dancers."
Thea made a feeble suggestion that her mother might go with her, but Mrs. Kronborg was too wise for that. She knew that Thea would have a better time if she went alone, and she watched her daughter go out of the gate and down the sidewalk that led to the depot.
Thea walked slowly. It was a soft, rosy evening. The sand hills were lavender. The sun had gone down a glowing copper disk, and the fleecy clouds in the east were a burning rose-color, flecked with gold. Thea passed the cottonwood grove and then the depot, where she left the sidewalk and took the sandy path toward Mexican Town. She could hear the scraping of violins being tuned, the tinkle of mandolins, and the growl of a double bass. Where had they got a double bass? She did not know there was one in Moonstone. She found later that it was the property of one of Ramas's young cousins, who was taking it to Utah with him to cheer him at his "job-a."
The Mexicans never wait until it is dark to begin to dance, and Thea had no difficulty in finding the new hall, because every other house in the town was deserted. Even the babies had gone to the ball; a neighbor was always willing to hold the baby while the mother danced. Mrs. Tellamantez came out to meet Thea and led her in. Johnny bowed to her from the platform at the end of the room, where he was playing the mandolin along with two fiddles and the bass. The hall was a long low room, with whitewashed walls, a fairly tight plank floor, wooden benches along the sides, and a few bracket lamps screwed to the frame timbers. There must have been fifty people there, counting the children. The Mexican dances were very much family affairs. The fathers always danced again and again with their little daughters, as well as with their wives. One of the girls came up to greet Thea, her dark cheeks glowing with pleasure and cordiality, and introduced her brother, with whom she had just been dancing. "You better take him every time he asks you," she whispered. "He's the best dancer here, except Johnny."
Thea soon decided that the poorest dancer was herself. Even Mrs. Tellamantez, who always held her shoulders so stiffly, danced better than she did. The musicians did not remain long at their post. When one of them felt like dancing, he called some other boy to take his instrument, put on his coat, and went down on the floor. Johnny, who wore a blousy white silk shirt, did not even put on his coat.
The dances the railroad men gave in Firemen's Hall were the only dances Thea had ever been allowed to go to, and they were very different from this. The boys played rough jokes and thought it smart to be clumsy and to run into each other on the floor. For the square dances there was always the bawling voice of the caller, who was also the county auctioneer.
This Mexican dance was soft and quiet. There was no calling, the conversation was very low, the rhythm of the music was smooth and engaging, the men were graceful and courteous. Some of them Thea had never before seen out of their working clothes, smeared with grease from the round-house or clay from the brickyard. Sometimes, when the music happened to be a popular Mexican waltz song, the dancers sang it softly as they moved. There were three little girls under twelve, in their first communion dresses, and one of them had an orange marigold in her black hair, just over her ear. They danced with the men and with each other. There was an atmosphere of ease and friendly pleasure in the low, dimly lit room, and Thea could not help wondering whether the Mexicans had no jealousies or neighborly grudges as the people in Moonstone had. There was no constraint of any kind there to-night, but a kind of natural harmony about their movements, their greetings, their low conversation, their smiles.
Ramas brought up his two young cousins, Silvo and Felipe, and presented them. They were handsome, smiling youths, of eighteen and twenty, with pale-gold skins, smooth cheeks, aquiline features, and wavy black hair, like Johnny's. They were dressed alike, in black velvet jackets and soft silk shirts, with opal shirt-buttons and flowing black ties looped through gold rings. They had charming manners, and low, guitar-like voices. They knew almost no English, but a Mexican boy can pay a great many compliments with a very limited vocabulary. The Ramas boys thought Thea dazzlingly beautiful. They had never seen a Scandinavian girl before, and her hair and fair skin bewitched them. "BLANCO Y ORO, SEMEJANTE LA PASCUA!" (White and gold, like Easter!) they exclaimed to each other. Silvo, the younger, declared that he could never go on to Utah; that he and his double bass had reached their ultimate destination. The elder was more crafty; he asked Miguel Ramas whether there would be "plenty more girls like that A Salt Lake, maybee?"
Silvo, overhearing, gave his brother a contemptuous glance. "Plenty more A PARAISO may-bee!" he retorted. When they were not dancing with her, their eyes followed her, over the coiffures of their other partners. That was not difficult; one blonde head moving among so many dark ones.
Thea had not meant to dance much, but the Ramas boys danced so well and were so handsome and adoring that she yielded to their entreaties. When she sat out a dance with them, they talked to her about their family at home, and told her how their mother had once punned upon their name. RAMA, in Spanish, meant a branch, they explained. Once when they were little lads their mother took them along when she went to help the women decorate the church for Easter. Some one asked her whether she had brought any flowers, and she replied that she had brought her "ramas." This was evidently a cherished family story.
When it was nearly midnight, Johnny announced that every one was going to his house to have "some lil' icecream and some lil' MUSICA." He began to put out the lights and Mrs. Tellamantez led the way across the square to her CASA. The Ramas brothers escorted Thea, and as they stepped out of the door, Silvo exclaimed, "HACE FRIO!" and threw his velvet coat about her shoulders.
Most of the company followed Mrs. Tellamantez, and they sat about on the gravel in her little yard while she and Johnny and Mrs. Miguel Ramas served the ice-cream. Thea sat on Felipe's coat, since Silvo's was already about her shoulders. The youths lay down on the shining gravel beside her, one on her right and one on her left. Johnny already called them "LOS ACOLITOS," the altar-boys. The talk all about them was low, and indolent. One of the girls was playing on Johnny's guitar, another was picking lightly at a mandolin. The moonlight was so bright that one could see every glance and smile, and the flash of their teeth. The moonflowers over Mrs. Tellamantez's door were wide open and of an unearthly white. The moon itself looked like a great pale flower in the sky.
After all the ice-cream was gone, Johnny approached Thea, his guitar under his arm, and the elder Ramas boy politely gave up his place. Johnny sat down, took a long breath, struck a fierce chord, and then hushed it with his other hand. "Now we have some lil' SERENATA, eh? You wan' a try?"
When Thea began to sing, instant silence fell upon the company. She felt all those dark eyes fix themselves upon her intently. She could see them shine. The faces came out of the shadow like the white flowers over the door. Felipe leaned his head upon his hand. Silvo dropped on his back and lay looking at the moon, under the impression that he was still looking at Thea. When she finished the first verse, Thea whispered to Johnny, "Again, I can do it better than that."
She had sung for churches and funerals and teachers, but she had never before sung for a really musical people, and this was the first time she had ever felt the response that such a people can give. They turned themselves and all they had over to her. For the moment they cared about nothing in the world but what she was doing. Their faces confronted her, open, eager, unprotected. She felt as if all these warm-blooded people debouched into her. Mrs. Tellamantez's fateful resignation, Johnny's madness, the adoration of the boy who lay still in the sand; in an instant these things seemed to be within her instead of without, as if they had come from her in the first place.
When she finished, her listeners broke into excited murmur. The men began hunting feverishly for cigarettes. Famos Serranos the barytone bricklayer, touched Johnny's arm, gave him a questioning look, then heaved a deep sigh. Johnny dropped on his elbow, wiping his face and neck and hands with his handkerchief. "SENORITA," he panted, "if you sing like that once in the City of Mexico, they just-a go crazy. In the City of Mexico they ain't-a sit like stumps when they hear that, not-a much! When they like, they just-a give you the town."
Thea laughed. She, too, was excited. "Think so, Johnny? Come, sing something with me. EL PARRENO; I haven't sung that for a long time."
Johnny laughed and hugged his guitar. "You not-a forget him?" He began teasing his strings. "Come!" He threw back his head, "ANOCHE-E-E—"
"ANOCHE ME CONFESSE CON UN PADRE CARMELITE, Y ME DIO PENITENCIA QUE BESARAS TU BOQUITA."
(Last night I made confession With a Carmelite father, And he gave me absolution For the kisses you imprinted.)
Johnny had almost every fault that a tenor can have. His voice was thin, unsteady, husky in the middle tones. But it was distinctly a voice, and sometimes he managed to get something very sweet out of it. Certainly it made him happy to sing. Thea kept glancing down at him as he lay there on his elbow. His eyes seemed twice as large as usual and had lights in them like those the moonlight makes on black, running water. Thea remembered the old stories about his "spells." She had never seen him when his madness was on him, but she felt something tonight at her elbow that gave her an idea of what it might be like. For the first time she fully understood the cryptic explanation that Mrs. Tellamantez had made to Dr. Archie, long ago. There were the same shells along the walk; she believed she could pick out the very one. There was the same moon up yonder, and panting at her elbow was the same Johnny—fooled by the same old things!
When they had finished, Famos, the barytone, murmured something to Johnny; who replied, "Sure we can sing 'Trovatore.' We have no alto, but all the girls can sing alto and make some noise."
The women laughed. Mexican women of the poorer class do not sing like the men. Perhaps they are too indolent. In the evening, when the men are singing their throats dry on the doorstep, or around the camp-fire beside the work-train, the women usually sit and comb their hair.
While Johnny was gesticulating and telling everybody what to sing and how to sing it, Thea put out her foot and touched the corpse of Silvo with the toe of her slipper. "Aren't you going to sing, Silvo?" she asked teasingly.
The boy turned on his side and raised himself on his elbow for a moment. "Not this night, SENORITA," he pleaded softly, "not this night!" He dropped back again, and lay with his cheek on his right arm, the hand lying passive on the sand above his head.
"How does he flatten himself into the ground like that?" Thea asked herself. "I wish I knew. It's very effective, somehow."
Across the gulch the Kohlers' little house slept among its trees, a dark spot on the white face of the desert. The windows of their upstairs bedroom were open, and Paulina had listened to the dance music for a long while before she drowsed off. She was a light sleeper, and when she woke again, after midnight, Johnny's concert was at its height. She lay still until she could bear it no longer. Then she wakened Fritz and they went over to the window and leaned out. They could hear clearly there.
"DIE THEA," whispered Mrs. Kohler; "it must be. ACH, WUNDERSCHON!"
Fritz was not so wide awake as his wife. He grunted and scratched on the floor with his bare foot. They were listening to a Mexican part-song; the tenor, then the soprano, then both together; the barytone joins them, rages, is extinguished; the tenor expires in sobs, and the soprano finishes alone. When the soprano's last note died away, Fritz nodded to his wife. "JA," he said; "SCHON."
There was silence for a few moments. Then the guitar sounded fiercely, and several male voices began the sextette from "Lucia." Johnny's reedy tenor they knew well, and the bricklayer's big, opaque barytone; the others might be anybody over there—just Mexican voices. Then at the appointed, at the acute, moment, the soprano voice, like a fountain jet, shot up into the light. "HORCH! HORCH!" the old people whispered, both at once. How it leaped from among those dusky male voices! How it played in and about and around and over them, like a goldfish darting among creek minnows, like a yellow butterfly soaring above a swarm of dark ones. "Ah," said Mrs. Kohler softly, "the dear man; if he could hear her now!"