The Piano Next Door





BABETTE had gone away for the

summer; the furniture was in its

summer linens; the curtains were

down, and Babette's husband, John

Boyce, was alone in the house. It was the

first year of his marriage, and he missed

Babette. But then, as he often said to him-

self, he ought never to have married her. He

did it from pure selfishness, and because he

was determined to possess the most illusive,

tantalizing, elegant, and utterly unmoral little

creature that the sun shone upon. He wanted

her because she reminded him of birds, and

flowers, and summer winds, and other exqui-

site things created for the delectation of

mankind. He neither expected nor desired

her to think. He had half-frightened her into

marrying him, had taken her to a poor man's

home, provided her with no society such as

she had been accustomed to, and he had no

reasonable cause of complaint when she

answered the call of summer and flitted away,

like a butterfly in the morning sunshine, to

the place where the flowers grew.



He wrote to her every evening, sitting in

the stifling, ugly house, and poured out his

soul as if it were a libation to a goddess.

She sometimes answered by telegraph, some-

times by a perfumed note. He schooled him-

self not to feel hurt. Why should Babette

write? Does a goldfinch indict epistles; or

a humming-bird study composition; or a

glancing, red-scaled fish in summer shallows

consider the meaning of words?



He knew at the beginning what Babette was

-- guessed her limitations -- trembled when

he buttoned her tiny glove -- kissed her dainty

slipper when he found it in the closet after

she was gone -- thrilled at the sound of her

laugh, or the memory of it! That was all.

A mere case of love. He was in bonds.

Babette was not. Therefore he was in the

city, working overhours to pay for Babette's

pretty follies down at the seaside. It was

quite right and proper. He was a grub in

the furrow; she a lark in the blue. Those

had always been and always must be their

relative positions.



Having attained a mood of philosophic

calm, in which he was prepared to spend his

evenings alone -- as became a grub -- and to

await with dignified patience the return of

his wife, it was in the nature of an inconsist-

ency that he should have walked the floor of

the dull little drawing-room like a lion in

cage. It did not seem in keeping with the

position of superior serenity which he had

assumed, that, reading Babette's notes, he

should have raged with jealousy, or that, in

the loneliness of his unkempt chamber, he

should have stretched out arms of longing.

Even if Babette had been present, she would

only have smiled her gay little smile and co-

quetted with him. She could not understand.

He had known, of course, from the first mo-

ment, that she could not understand! And

so, why the ache, ache, ache of the heart!

Or WAS it the heart, or the brain, or the

soul?



Sometimes, when the evenings were so hot

that he could not endure the close air of the

house, he sat on the narrow, dusty front porch

and looked about him at his neighbors. The

street had once been smart and aspiring, but

it had fallen into decay and dejection. Pale

young men, with flurried-looking wives, seemed

to Boyce to occupy most of the houses. Some-

times three or four couples would live in one

house. Most of these appeared to be child-

less. The women made a pretence at fashion-

able dressing, and wore their hair elaborately

in fashions which somehow suggested board-

ing-houses to Boyce, though he could not

have told why. Every house in the block

needed fresh paint. Lacking this renovation,

the householders tried to make up for it by

a display of lace curtains which, at every

window, swayed in the smoke-weighted breeze.

Strips of carpeting were laid down the front

steps of the houses where the communities of

young couples lived, and here, evenings, the

inmates of the houses gathered, committing

mild extravagances such as the treating of each

other to ginger ale, or beer, or ice-cream.



Boyce watched these tawdry makeshifts at

sociability with bitterness and loathing. He

wondered how he could have been such a

fool as to bring his exquisite Babette to this

neighborhood. How could he expect that

she would return to him? It was not reason-

able. He ought to go down on his knees

with gratitude that she even condescended to

write him.



Sitting one night till late, -- so late that the

fashionable young wives with their husbands

had retired from the strips of stair carpeting,

-- and raging at the loneliness which ate at

his heart like a cancer, he heard, softly creep-

ing through the windows of the house adjoin-

ing his own, the sound of comfortable mel-

ody.



It breathed upon his ear like a spirit of

consolation, speaking of peace, of love which

needs no reward save its own sweetness, of

aspiration which looks forever beyond the

thing of the hour to find attainment in that

which is eternal. So insidiously did it whis-

per these things, so delicately did the simple

and perfect melodies creep upon the spirit --

that Boyce felt no resentment, but from the

first listened as one who listens to learn, or

as one who, fainting on the hot road, hears, far

in the ferny deeps below, the gurgle of a spring.



Then came harmonies more intricate: fair

fabrics of woven sound, in the midst of which

gleamed golden threads of joy; a tapestry of

sound, multi-tinted, gallant with story and

achievement, and beautiful things. Boyce,

sitting on his absurd piazza, with his knees

jambed against the balustrade, and his chair

back against the dun-colored wall of his

house, seemed to be walking in the cathedral

of the redwood forest, with blue above him,

a vast hymn in his ears, pungent perfume in

his nostrils, and mighty shafts of trees lifting

themselves to heaven, proud and erect as pure

men before their Judge. He stood on a

mountain at sunrise, and saw the marvels of

the amethystine clouds below his feet, heard

an eternal and white silence, such as broods

among the everlasting snows, and saw an eagle

winging for the sun. He was in a city, and

away from him, diverging like the spokes of

a wheel, ran thronging streets, and to his sense

came the beat, beat, beat of the city's heart.

He saw the golden alchemy of a chosen race;

saw greed transmitted to progress; saw that

which had enslaved men, work at last to their

liberation; heard the roar of mighty mills,

and on the streets all the peoples of earth

walking with common purpose, in fealty and

understanding. And then, from the swelling

of this concourse of great sounds, came a

diminuendo, calm as philosophy, and from

that, nothingness.



Boyce sat still for a long time, listening to

the echoes which this music had awakened

in his soul. He retired, at length, content,

but determined that upon the morrow he

would watch -- the day being Sunday -- for

the musician who had so moved and taught

him.



He arose early, therefore, and having pre-

pared his own simple breakfast of fruit and

coffee, took his station by the window to

watch for the man. For he felt convinced

that the exposition he had heard was that of

a masculine mind. The long, hot hours of

the morning went by, but the front door

of the house next to his did not open.



"These artists sleep late," he complained.

Still he watched. He was too much afraid

of losing him to go out for dinner. By three

in the afternoon he had grown impatient. He

went to the house next door and rang the

bell. There was no response. He thun-

dered another appeal. An old woman with

a cloth about her head answered the door.

She was very deaf, and Boyce had difficulty

in making himself understood.



"The family is in the country," was all she

would say. "The family will not be home

till September."



"But there is some one living here?"

shouted Boyce.



"I live here," she said with dignity, put-

ting back a wisp of dirty gray hair behind

her ear. "It is my house. I sublet to the

family."



"What family?"



But the old creature was not communica-

tive.



"The family that lives here," she said.



"Then who plays the piano in this house?"

roared Boyce. "Do you?"



He thought a shade of pallor showed itself

on her ash-colored cheeks. Yet she smiled a

little at the idea of her playing.



"There is no piano," she said, and she put

an enigmatical emphasis to the words.



"Nonsense," cried Boyce, indignantly. "I

heard a piano being played in this very house

for hours last night!"



"You may enter," said the old woman,

with an accent more vicious than hospitable.



Boyce almost burst into the drawing-room.

It was a dusty and forbidding place, with ugly

furniture and gaudy walls. No piano nor any

other musical instrument stood in it. The

intruder turned an angry and baffled face to

the old woman, who was smiling with ill-

concealed exultation.



"I shall see the other rooms," he an-

nounced. The old woman did not appear to

be surprised at his impertinence.



"As you please," she said.



So, with the hobbling creature, with her

bandaged head, for a guide, he explored every

room of the house, which being identical with

his own, he could do without fear of leaving

any apartment unentered. But no piano did

he find!



"Explain," roared Boyce at length, turning

upon the leering old hag beside him. "Ex-

plain! For surely I heard music more beau-

tiful than I can tell."



"I know nothing," she said. "But it is

true I once had a lodger who rented the

front room, and that he played upon the

piano. I am poor at hearing, but he must

have played well, for all the neighbors used

to come in front of the house to listen, and

sometimes they applauded him, and some-

times they were still. I could tell by

watching their hands. Sometimes little chil-

dren came and danced. Other times young

men and women came and listened. But the

young man died. The neighbors were angry.

They came to look at him and said he had

starved to death. It was no fault of mine.

I sold his piano to pay his funeral ex-

penses -- and it took every cent to pay for

them too, I'd have you know. But since

then, sometimes -- still, it must be non-

sense, for I never heard it -- folks say that he

plays the piano in my room. It has kept me

out of the letting of it more than once. But

the family doesn't seem to mind -- the family

that lives here, you know. They will be back

in September. Yes."



Boyce left her nodding her thanks at what

he had placed in her hand, and went home to

write it all to Babette -- Babette who would

laugh so merrily when she read it!





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