‘COULD you train a choir for us? It would be a great thing for the reformatory.’
A choir! For the State Reformatory for Women! But my musical education ended abruptly twelve years ago, after twelve music-lessons, famous in the family annals. Howbeit, in these two overwhelming days since my arrival — days for which college cloisters have in no wise prepared me — life has been tuning to the pitch of adventure. A choir? Yes, I can play the piano with two fingers! Diffidence, my Old Man of the Sea, trundles out of sight around the corner. Just being here at all is a Scheherezadian adventure. Why not train a choir?
My audacity is soon challenged. On Sunday morning the young superintendent gives me a memorandum. ‘Just go over these hymns for the afternoon service. And these are the girls who usually sit in the choir-seats to lead the singing. Alice O’Connor plays the organ. Run along, girls, and show Miss Case where you sit.’
Under my panic I am desperately glad that retreat is impossible. My horizons leap away from me, while the gay music of adventure quickens to allegro. Exhilaration challenges me to discard past accustomed rhythms.
The choir seats itself. I take a tentative account of stock. In a musical manner of speaking, the three altos on the left of the aisle undoubtedly hold the credit side of the account. I am already acquainted with Gretchen, a pretty blonde with an effervescing temperament. Though her previous career was checkered by unwarranted ‘borrowing,’ here (by the paradox which rules this reformatory) she is my stewardess, dispenser of supplies, and queen of the attic, already my right hand. Her German home has given her some musical training. Reluctantly I include among my assets old Jane Spicer, sharp-nosed and respectable, who finds solace for unmerited reverses in reminiscences of a church choir which endured her nasal alto in her palmy days. ‘Oh, them lovely anth’ms as our sightseein’ choir useter sing!’
A hiss from the soprano side of the aisle greets this pleasantry. Jane glares over her solid gold rims. Panicstricken, I forestall hostilities.
‘Girls, Miss Clervel wants us to sing number 5.’
Helplessly 1 w onder what it means to ‘just go over the hymns.’
Without opening her hymn-book, Rachel hums alto through her nose. Inexperienced though I am, I soon recognize the fact that during a childhood spent in institutions, this immoral young Jewess, with her sound brain and her silliness, has learned, like Jane, to sing ‘note-perfect.’
The unskilled fingers of Alice O’Connor persuade the organ into the stirring strains of ‘Nicæa.’ I am aware of a minor undertone. Half unwillingly, I realize that these women are prisoners, their lives broken. A reformatory is not, then, simply the jolly place it seems to be. The sunny house, the cheerful spirit, the routine of work, which is still an enigma to me but is evidently spontaneous and pleasant — all these are surface aspects. Into the lively music glides a sombre undertone. For I have learned that this young organist, serious of face and gentle of manner, took poison in a railway station to end a life all jangled out of tune. Since that disastrous interruption, the broken melody has striven vainly for its old simple sweetness. Beneath the swelling chords there runs a fugitive minor strain.
declare the insistent sopranos.
Led by the rich power of Sheila’s voice, — Sheila the beautiful, Sheila the volcano, — our song does rise! The roof shudders. Fat Dora Simpson watches me with one eye, I am never sure which. Could I have shuddered too? Sheila, I think, is an asset. As for the rest—those bad little sisters, Daisy and Marian; wan-faced English Maude, the humorous drunkard; big, handsome Francesca, with her ‘movie voice’; and three girls who cannot read; the stubborn Dutch child, Catherine, and Minna French, whose innocent charm beguiles the stranger, and ‘Submarine Carrie,’ the red-haired burglar lass — with enthusiasm, if not finesse, they invoke the Heavenly Maid!
‘ A-a-amen!' heartily.
‘So be it,’ echo the hills to my quailing soul.
Thirteen strong they clamor at the gates of ‘Cecilia’s mingled world of sound.’ Some of the choristers may be musical assets, but in a human sense they are undoubtedly liabilities. Gretchen and ‘Submarine Carrie’ are protegées of the Artful Dodger; respectable Jane broke the seventh commandment, and Alice, we suppose, the sixth; while those youngsters, Minna and Catherine, bore false witness against their neighbors. The other seven were prone to wander on the Great White Way. The choir-stalls hold Pole and Hollander, Irish Sheila and the girl from Tuscany, English Maude, my German alto, and some indigenous voices. Here mingle Catholic, Protestant, and Jew. Thirteen strong they clamor at the gates. Who, in like case, would not resolve to find for them the golden key?
While I am still in the throes of this exhilarating allegro, I am asked to lead evening ‘Prayers.’ Miss Clervel is adamant. ‘Oh, you’ll get over minding it!’ At the fatal hour, however, I am appalled by the clamoring piano, which is encouraging the rapturous pleadings of Gretchen, Dora, and Maude, —
After the alarming accusation that
the three irrepressibles begin a lurid description of some presumably distant era, —
And I was a red, red rose!’
I summon courage to curtail further particulars by observing, ‘It is time for Prayers, girls.’ (Miss Clervel does it this way.)
Two kerosene lamps hum in a livingroom crowded with merciless eyes. The ‘In Excelsis’ is distributed. I am aware of the slumbrous beauty of Sheila’s brooding face, aware of Dora’s twinkle and Daisy’s inscrutable sneer. Gretchen relapses into comparative placidity. Quiet falls.
‘Can we sing “Just-as-I-am,” Miss Case ? ’
‘Yes, 148, please!’
‘Aw, Miss Case, can’t we sing “Dayis-dying-in-the-west ” ? ’
‘Aw, say, Gretchen, we always sing 40! Lay off ’n 40! I got a Billy Sunday hymn-book — ’
I announce 148 and 40. Alice strikes up. Sheila soars, Rachel twangs, Gretchen deafens me. Minna, who cannot read, sits with eyes intelligently glued on hymn-book. Everyone knows 148 by heart. Good-natured vocal energy racks the old farmhouse. Do I alone detect that haunting undertone?
‘She’s nervous!' That whisper stiffened me. My ‘In Excelsis’ shakes no more. Dora innocently fixes her own page with her right eye, while I survey the room with a creditable counterfeit of Miss Clervel’s fearless gaze. After droning the Lord’s Prayer in expressionless unison, we tell the entire countryside that day is dying in the west. At last day does die. At last the galloping music slows.
But it is not easy to ‘get over minding it.’ Adventure after adventure assails me, while I struggle for the formidable rhythm of this new life, this fierce and brilliant fantasia. Presently, what seemed the savage discord of reformatory discipline yields to a subtler harmony. Yet ever on my inner ear that minor cadence swells. Pain dwells here, — pain for us all, — stalking the heedless heart with mysterious promises and invitations, urging some incredible acceptance, and offering fantastic bribes of spiritual treasure.
But confident youth cannot in her heart believe that the prizes of rich living must be bought with pain. Youth heeds no portent of spiritual hardship. It is enough to know that my place is in this splendid march under noble leadership, which is to bring us to‘the heavenbuilt walls. ’ It is enough to know that our goal is the ideal commonwealth where loyalty is each citizen’s sole master; that our Jerusalem, the Beloved Community, is to restore these broken lives. For democracy is a reality in this prison. We are involved in a remarkable experiment, and these prisoners live by self-government. Each day sees us further on the adventurous road. The new choir must contribute some momentum, some quickening music of its own. That undertone of personal portent falls on ears filled with a different music, and, resentful of disturbing strains, I plunge light-hearted into work.
Between the absorbing adventures of school and the endless details of matronwork, which challenge and fascinate my unpractical soul, I snatch time for choir-practices. I hope much from the community’s vigorous love of singing. The first necessity is to build upon this love a strong loyalty to the choir. To do this the personnel must be improved. Just as a Sunday-school picnic effects timely conversions, so certain affairs known as ‘choir-parties’ prove an inducement to join the choir. By Christmas-carol time the choir is electing its own candidates, for whose benefit I invent a magic rite known as a ‘ tryout.’ With solemn formalities we have taken in (all too literally!) Mabel Andrews, cheerful, plump and pious; Sonya, the gentle Yiddish dancer, lover of beauty; shifty-eyed Mollie O’Brien, pal of the notorious Marmaduke Jones; poor Gina Janssen, with her sodden look and the chip on her thin young shoulder, and fragile Evelyn Van Tyne, whose eyes dream ever of the opium pipe.
In its pride that Mollie, Gina, and Evelyn can actually read music, the choir at my suggestion decrees that the ability to read English shall be a minimum requisite for all members. School soon qualifies Ellie Higgins, the slim gypsy, and swarthy Tina Rossata. We have lost sorrowful Alice and Sheila and Maude and my dear Gretchen to ‘the outside,’ and since a slight difference of opinion with me, Catherine Brinker has repudiated all interest in ‘your choir.’ ‘For shpite I resign at your choir!’ Daisy, too, has resigned for reasons best known to herself and me. But, in spite of transient membership, there is a solid nucleus of accomplishment.
We achieve a processional. My choir pleads to ‘march in and out,’ like the college choir of which I tell them. In the privacy of the chapel we experiment. Minna’s feet are always getting in her way, so I march her up and down the aisle, while the choir helpfully exhorts, ‘Open your mouth when you sing, Minna, why don’t you?’ Minna collapses in tears. ‘O-o-oh! — I can’t march and I can’t sing.’ I regret the truth of this statement and accept Minna’s resignation. She takes a back seat, in order to watch other people’s mistakes.
The lively lines are marshaled at the rear. Gina’s objections to marching with Jane are summarily settled. Mabel beams benevolently, while Ellie searches through the entire book for the hymn. I smite the page. All eyes converge on the harassed leader.
‘Two hundred thirty-eight, everybody! Wake up, Evelyn! — The trumpets ! Ready — sing! ’
Leads forth in beauty all the starry band
Of shining worlds —’
‘Girls! Don’t say “beau-ty”! Breathe after the word, not in the middle of it.’ (This sounds like safe doctrine.) ‘Now, try again!’
Their response is prompt and conservative.
‘— beau-ty all the starry band ’ —
I am startled to hear my own voice in emphatic demonstration. But the majority is reluctant to desert its traditions. Jane brings in a minority report, her solid gold rims trembling with aggravating correctness. Finally I give up.
‘That’s all for to-night, girls. We’ll sing something else next Sunday.’
Out under the stars they burst into ‘ Roaming in the gloaming.’ Carrie displays a tenor. The spontaneous harmony is sweet and effortless. Bitterly I wonder why they can’t sing like that when I want them to. I tell myself that the failure is mine; this choir was a reckless undertaking when I knew nothing about music; I am too tired —
I feel Sonya’s hand on my arm. ‘ The stars ! How beautiful to-night! ’
‘How beautiful!’ I echo, meaning Sonya herself. Gratefully my heart opens to the revelation of the pettiness of my discouragement, and suddenly, unguarded, is clutched by the pathos of Sonya’s kinship with all loveliness. An artist in a reformatory! Life’s keyboard leaps to span the sky! Again the minor music swells, celestial largo of these shining worlds. For Sonya suffers, as Alice suffered, as they must all suffer. How may I staunch their pain? As I ponder, life draws new stops on the hidden organ; keys no longer silent yield to the inner symphony new range of overtones and undertones. I know that I cannot give my choir the training I have never had; but my own love of song — that shall be theirs, and born of that love, loyalty to the choir, loyalty that is the very golden key, the soul of self-government, the means of grace and the hope of glory. Thus I shall staunch their pain!
The boding undertone rolls on, but youth heeds not.
By Easter-time my choir is making history. It may not be learning much about music, but a splendid crystallization of esprit de corps is a by-product of the adventure. We believe in the value of incidental returns. We believe that character is really a more significant qualification for membership than the ability to sing. Instinctively the girls respond to our standard. Of the four ‘student officers’ whom they elect to represent them and to oversee their work, the choir claims Constance and heavy-footed Saba Zabriska and Nora, who is Gretchen’s successor at my right hand — awkward, likable Nora, who is fighting the good fight, for self-rehabilitation. Constance has a harder fight. Constance was a book-keeper to whom insidious temptation came. ‘I’m underpaid, anyway. It’s really due me.’ You must not class Constance with these reformatory women. Had her offense been immorality instead of embezzlement, had she sinned against life or honor instead of someone’s pocketbook, — that most vulnerable point of our social anatomy, — she would doubtless have been given probation instead of being ‘ put away.’ When she heard her sentence, she tried to take poison. The girls resent her finer grain. In spite of her desirable alto, the choir splits on her election. But I insist that my choir shall not be a battleground for personal spite; that if a girl who can sing is making a fine record, the choir shall give her to me for its own sake. Constance is elected ! This is indeed a victory for democracy.
‘ The Day of Resurrection! ’
The choir marches in with dignified sway. We are wearing the long-coveted white capes and little black caps. These vestments you should regard as the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Clothes do make, if not the man, certainly the woman.
Of course, everyone turns at the starchy rustle. Not that it was unexpected, for Constance’s sewing-room has been working overtime, and Nora’s laundry force has washed and ironed for blithe hours. But who could foresee the realized glory of our regalia? It is a proud moment! Up the long aisle we pace in the Easter sunshine, while the sweet pæan soars, —
‘From death to life eternal!’
Thus increases the prestige of my choir. Its value to self-government rests, of course, in the last analysis, upon its value to the chapel service. By becoming essential to that service, impressive in its simple dignity, this choir is going to save souls. Therefore we vary numbers 40 and 148 with new hymns. We become real leaders of congregational singing. Our musical progress (I say ‘ours’ advisedly) produces a pleasant self-importance in the choir. When it asks to organize under a constitution, I seek advice. ‘Go as far as you like, or as they like,’ says the oracle. ‘But don’t let them make rules just for the fun of it. Make them take this seriously. You’ve got splendid possibilities in that choir.’
The choir does take it seriously. It now holds business meetings, duly recorded by Gina. On the authority of a constitution drawn up by its own committee, it suspends unappreciative members and enemies of the common weal. It sends giggling Rachel under a temporary cloud. It ostracizes Judith, who scorned the honor of membership. It yearns magnanimously to ‘give a chance’ to ‘returned girls’ who have broken parole, though it sternly withholds this favor until after ‘punishment time.’ It invites to its parties little Lisa, whose responsibilities in the nursery prevent her from accepting membership. It leads a general hymnpractice every week, and begs me to offer a course in reading music, an elective course popular with hopeful outsider. And best of all, I often hear a melody from Gounod through the hum of sewing-machines or the scraping of hoes.
Visiting ministers now look forward to our singing. The man who is to preach next Sunday, asks, without explanation, ‘May the choir sing 257?’
My new organist is a supple, slimwristed Norwegian, straight-featured and urbane. I like her engaging manner and the topaz tint of her skin. She used to play the trombone in her father’s band until the two daughters ‘went wild.’ Now that she has mastered the treble clef, she plays for Prayers, and under my cautious tutelage those slender, glowing hands essay the organ.
‘Augusta, let’s try the knee-swells for the high passage of “Materna.’ After experiment I mark the stops in her ‘In Excelsis’: voix celeste for two lines, vox humana for the fifth, and so on. This is our favorite processional. To me it is a bond between shining phantoms of academic ideals and the nerve and sinew of dear present reality. Long months of difficult work, of failures and sure progress in life’s new orchestration, give undertone and overtone to this transporting harmony.
Name ever dear to me,
When shall my labors have an end
In joy, and peace, and thee?
When shall these eyes thy heaven-built walls
And pearly gates behold,
Thy bulwarks with salvation strong
And streets of shining gold?’
I am too happy to sing. Do we not build the New Jersualem? Are not these bulwarks with salvation strong? Surely this wondrous music peals from those very pearly gates. No minor cadence troubles now — the minister’s wife is speaking.
‘We wanted to hear your choir sing “Materna,” because my father wrote the music. I have never heard it so beautifully sung — with such feeling. You must love teaching them, to have got such splendid results. Do please tell them how much we enjoyed the singing!’
I promise with a nod, for I cannot speak.
But the choir has already constituted itself a Society for the Mutual Admiration of Ourselves. ‘Did n’t we sing it lovely, Miss Case? We done it just like you said — loud up high. Did you see Judith making faces at the choir? Yes, she did, but we should worry! Miss Case, Saba never opened her mouth. (No, you did not neither, I saw you!) But we all just looked at you every minute. Aw, Miss Case, can’t we sing special next Sunday?’
I promise them the blind preacher’s hymn, ‘O Love that wilt not let me go.'
For our final practice we brave wind and mud, and start for the chapel without waiting for Augusta, who is invariably late. Far behind our spattered lanterns Augusta falls into a ditch. Ignorant of this catastrophe, I try over the hymns while we wait for our organist. The choir is restive. Where is Augusta? Finally I plod around to the dark basement and with fumbling key reach the telephone. It is ringing violently.
I demand irately: ‘ Where’s my organist? She is keeping us all waiting!’
‘Your organist! Well, I must say! Your organist is safe in bed. Your organist fell off the road. She was all muddy from head to foot. She was badly frightened and came back to the house. I’ve tried and tried to get you. Were n’t you fearfully worried?’
‘Worried!’ I explode. ‘I was mad. She should have started when we did. Did she get her hymn-book muddy?’
‘Hymn-book! Did n’t it occur to you, young woman, that your organist might have run away?’
‘Run away! My organist! Well, I can’t imagine such a thing! She knew perfectly well it’s our last practice for special music for Sunday. Run away, indeed! ’
‘Well, all I can say is that you certainly are an asset to self-government, because you never expect things to happen and so they usually don’t. — No! Of course she can’t come over now. — Well, you’ll have to get someone else to play! ’
I seat myself at the organ and draw the stops. The choir looks amazed. But I feel as if I had played the organ since childhood. For I am confident in the knowledge that in very truth I am learning to play a far more difficult instrument than that which now pours forth these loved harmonies.
How clear the gentle voices rise, while the vox humana trembles and thrills.
I rest my weary soul in Thee.
I give Thee back the life I owe.
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.’
Now rolls the ground bass into life’s light music, and through that other, that invisible organ, swells the boding undertone. Booms in full diapason! Gretchen is singing alto — Gretchen, my dear Gretchen, has returned from a broken parole, a broken life. Now the brutal bludgeonings of pain have squarely ca ught me, smitten me to the knees. Life has the better of my reluctant heart. For lightly I asked, how may I staunch their pain? And now — her pain is incredibly mine. Tumultuous days of suffering and defeat drown out the glad allegro. Bruised mind and heart despair to understand, to hear a vaster harmony singing of shared guilt and mystical vicarious victory.
I cannot close my heart to Thee!'
The low melodious strains gather depth. I fumble at the organ stops, bass and diapason and the voix celeste. How we muddle the music of our lives — what discords and what toll of grief! How faint and far the voix celeste, —
‘O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee.’
The courage of our young leader, her faith, her personal genius have laid the sure foundations of these bulwarks with salvation strong. Now, in the fourth year of the institution’s history, half of the girls ‘sleep unlocked,’ electing their own candidates for this privilege; runaways are unknown; Public Opinion makes disobedience all but impossible. Our recalcitrants have fallen in line, for Judith herself has executed an amazing right-about-face. Judith spent the early days of our acquaintance in her room; she had ‘sassed’ the judge, and ‘That’s why I’m here, all right.’ Consequently her mood was not amiable. Until her ‘grouch’ abated, we found food for thought in her genius for leadership. Recently Nora was paroled, and the electorate, always reluctant to court trouble after a period of serenity, hesitated before the choice of a new student officer. Gretchen was inspired.
‘Oh, Miss Clervel, we girls wonder if Judie would be allowed to run! Of course, I don’t suppose you’d let her after all the trouble she made at first, but — we think she’d be square.’
What clash of cymbal and what clang of brass! What tumult in the orchestra, while Puck is meddling with the organstops! But a sure hand sweeps the keyboard, and sweet and clear the brave allegro peals.
‘Certainly Judith may run for student officer! You know perfectly well that any girl may run. But remember, you girls are taking the responsibility! ’
So Gretchen, who has lately got a new hold on herself, swings the election. And one night, after locking the doors for me, Judith comes in, crying. ‘Oh, I just can’t help it, to think of their electing me! After my record here — and there’s nothing bad I have n’t done on the outside, nothing! Do you think there’s any good in me? Well, then, do you think the choir would ask me again?’
Surely there was rejoicing in heaven! Judith goes down the corridor jingling my keys, and humming, —
But I suspect the words actually in her mind are those of the parody now current in our reformatory, —
And now, in the hands of Judith and her following lies an undreamed-of power. Public Opinion governs with marvelous justice. At zenith stands our climbing sun. And now the serene orchestra plays with pomp and circumstance a brilliant panoramic march.
Like a band of dancers in a Roman triumph, my choristers repeat and swell the festival tune. Judith is one of us, and stately Margaret, and Nellie Sudermann, shaggy-headed like a Shetland pony. Josephine Trudeau, whose Gallic imagination brought her a sentence for perjury, by the familiar paradox is keeping a reliable record of the doings of the choir. For our first secretary, Gina, has gone out—to break her parole. She is not to be found. As Gretchen says, ‘A girl’s got to want to keep straight.’ Gretchen knows. No term in a reformatory, no system of self-government, can save the Ginas. But the Gretchens and the Judiths have a fighting chance. For them and by them self-government has reached high-water mark.
On the flood-tide of our fortunes I launch a new venture. I select Margaret to sing a solo in chapel. For weeks she works upon MacDougal’s setting of ‘Jesus, Lover of my Soul.’ Only a little more practice is needed, when, to everyone’s disappointment, the performance for Sunday is called off by my unexpected absence. I leave hasty directions for Josephine to choose familiar hymns for the service.
Returning from my holiday, I slip into the chapel during the processional. How well they sustain that line, —
A kind of psychic wave tells me that the choir has discovered my return. They lead, execrably, the inevitable 148. The tension increases. What’s up? I wonder. Then, —
‘A solo — “Jesus, Lover of my Soul.” ’
‘Well! Self-government is all right, but there are limits,’ and terror seizes me as Margaret’s fine figure rises. Upon the organ undertone swings the rich, low voice, with quiet confidence. I catch my breath. ‘She can do it.’
Margaret stands easily, facing the far hills, horizon-blue. She has forgotten us.
All the tragic need of that young thwarted life, the sorrow of sordid adventure, the lost courage and the drowning hope, vibrate in the passionate undertone. But hark! the organ peals into victorious voix celeste.
With unseeing eyes Margaret takes her seat. There is a sigh —
After the triumphant recessional I am vociferously surrounded.
‘Was n’t it just beautiful? Are n’t you glad she tried it? We made her, Miss Case. She said she could n’t, but we made her practise. And Miss Clervel did n’t know, nor nobody!’
‘I’m proud of you! Now that you don’t need me any longer, suppose I resign from the choir.’
Their indignation is gratifying. I laugh, but to myself I amend, ‘Yes, self-government is all right, and there are no limits!’
But now the bugle-call of larger adventure clarions through the symphony, blending minor cadence with the lively march. My last recessional is sung. I lay aside beloved vestments and close the chapel door. On the steps I wait until my choir turns at the bend of the road to wave once more. Now they have vanished.
Gretchen lingers. She too is soon to brave the great adventure of the ‘outside.’ But Gretchen’s heart is burdened with the heavy cross of shame. Alone, so handicapped, she must fail. Self-government has done its best for her; strong shoulders have shifted upon themselves such portion of her burden as they might. But as we say good-bye, I feel again the deep assurance that a greater task remains. Else, why is my own heart heavy? Why is her burden incredibly mine?
Before the last dip into the valley I look back again. Gretchen is no longer visible. The Reformatory lies hidden in the girdling hills, save for the cross shining over the chapel.
At last! Life throws wide the organswells. Love understands, and Love believes the unbelievable! Upon my spirit breaks the full glory of the imperious undertone; in whelming crescendo bursts the full power of the truth. The Cross shines on. — Wave upon wave, from depth to height, immortal music floods! And through tremendous diapason peals the Voix Celeste!