The Wonder-Child

I AM a doctor by profession; and my brother is a great violinist. There is, of course, first Kreisler; then a long way off there are five others — I refrain from giving their names; but my brother is one of the five. Sometimes I think he plays better than they do. You can imagine I have listened to them with some attention, for if my profession is medicine my hobby is the violin! Sometimes he falls beneath them, for like all Viennese he is perhaps a shade too genial, too easy-going for the ruthlessness of Art; but I have heard him in his great moments shoot beyond them — spring like a star from world to world, where no one could follow him.

My brother is not married; my sister and I consider the subject often; but with the American market out of his power on account of the exchange, it is impossible to count upon sufficient for a good marriage. He has a great deal of temperament and my sister thinks a wife would demand of him more than she would be at all likely to get. Also, if there were to be a family, he could no longer take his summer holidays in the mountains or follow the cures I often consider necessary. Nor could he afford to do the kind actions he often does for others.

I say this much about him that you may understand what follows. First, that his opinion as to his art is considered final in Vienna (he smells out a good pupil from the Prater to the Hofburg); and second, that you may realize that as well as being a good judge of violin-playing my brother Ernst is a man of heart and principle. I have never known him to do a mean action. His temper is good, with raw streaks in it such as are common to all artists. An artist has not the padding for the nerves that the rest, of us have; it is worn off him in the practice of his art and in the perpetual excitation of his emotions. If a man is to sweep you off your feet, he must have something to sweep with, must he not? And he cannot always keep this something neatly packed up in a box to be opened only on occasions when it gives us pleasure.

Twice a year Ernst plays at Linz; it is a good town for music. It lies flat by the yellow Danube, with a fine pink Kloster on a hill above it.

On this occasion, as usual, I accompanied my brother from Vienna. He played before a full and enthusiastic audience. I should not have had a seat but for the kindness of a critic, who gave up his seat to me when he discovered who I was; so that I sat in the second row, and could observe Ernst as easily as I could hear him. It was a Beethoven evening. I say no more. It would not become me to say that my brother is worthy of Beethoven, but I must confess it occurred to me several times in the course of the evening to hope that his immortal spirit — cured of its deafness — may have been hovering above the platform. The accompanist, a young Russian with fire in his fingers, was almost fit to play with Ernst. Fortunately he was musician enough to subordinate himself entirely to my brother.

It was a sonata evening without orchestra. I think I prefer this form of music to any other. The music is, as it were, isolated, and in the hands of two skilled artists you get exactly what it means, neither more nor less by a shade! And what a blessing it is not to get more! Those artists who improve upon their composers, those instruments that forget their place in the orchestra, remembering their own identity, when like a good Buddhist they should exactly have no identity! How one resents such practices!

But with Ernst one need have no such fears. The passion is there, but the laws are those which form a channel for the passion; the music runs pure and deep. He does not add to the last ounce of the composer’s meaning some little extra of his own. He puts his fire into precision, and his personality into the depth of his tone. I say nothing about his tempo, or his bowing, because everyone knows they are as faultless as Andrea del Sarto’s famous ‘ line.’ It is a folly, that English saying, ‘Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains.’ I do not say geniuses should not put the sweat of their brows into their work; but I say that the sweat of other people’s brows does not make genius. It has always interested me as a doctor to know that my brother’s was a painless birth. All the rest of us cost my mother the usual price of women; but he, the largest and finest of the lot, came without pain.

I do not often notice audiences, but on this occasion I was sharply aware of two people in the first row. One was a woman of the people, a stout woman, ignorant, and with a rapacious glance as if music could be made to rattle into a box like pennies. Once she actually let her programme rustle — a shocking thing almost unknown in a Viennese audience, but possible in the provinces. The other was a little girl with a large white-satin bow tied over one ear, and resting upon straight and not pleasing brown hair. She was a plain little girl with a cast in her eye; her face was like a tame white rabbit’s. What struck me most about her was her stillness. She listened as if God spoke to her. Her spirit was not in her body at all; it hovered over the sweep of my brother’s bow as if it would absorb the sounds that escaped even the finest ear. In one of the pauses I asked who these ill-assorted people were.

"The child is Clara Stillman,’ my neighbor told me, ‘ ein Wunderkind. I am told your brother has consented to give an opinion upon her playing to-morrow. I have not heard her myself. She comes from rough people. It is to be hoped she is a genius, since the poor child is certainly no beauty.’

The music continued. It was a good evening — not one of Ernst’s best, but no one in the audience knew that, except myself. They called him before the curtain nine times, and several laurel wreaths with gold inscriptions were presented to him across the footlights. It is our custom in Austria to stand close to the stage for encores. The Wunderkind was nearly lost in the struggling crowd, but someone caught hold of her and lifted her on to the stage by my brother’s side. Then they told him who she was, and he patted her shoulder kindly. The child looked up at him with her little blinking crooked eyes, behind windowpanes, as we say. The look she gave him made me feel a little uncomfortable, it was so full of adoration; and as a father I have found excessive emotion bad for children. Little growing creatures should not be overpowered by too great a sensation. It is like pouring too hot a fluid into a brittle glass.

My brother had been invited to take supper after the concert with the Music Director of Linz. There were to be several critics and people of importance to meet him. It was to be a grand affair. I saw him stoop and whisper something to the Herr Direktor, who nodded, and then my brother asked the mother of the Wunderkind if she might not come to supper with us. The mother consented of course. It was as if the pennies she had seen in the music were changed to golden sovereigns. I did not like the look, at once so savage and so satisfied, that flashed into that woman’s eyes.

It has not been my experience that life is very happy. It has its fine moments, and of its worst one can always say that they will end; but never have I seen such joy as there was on the face of the little Wunderkind. She looked quite beautiful as she sat between us in a little carriage I had been forced to order for the sake of the violin. She put her hand on its cover and stroked it as if it were alive. ‘See that the little one eats well!’ said my brother kindly as we entered the café, where a private room had been arranged for us, ‘for she looks half starved!’ Then he took his seat by the Herr Direktor’s wife at the head of the table, and I placed the Wunderkind by me at the foot. She could see my brother from where she sat, and she never took her eyes from his face. Once she whispered to me, ‘He is the greatest violinist in the world, is n’t he?’ and I must admit that I humored the child as far as to say, ‘It would be hard to find a better!’

‘Im—possible,’ she answered softly.

We did not talk. Great happiness should be respected as great grief is respected. One should leave alone those who are experiencing these emotions. But I felt that I too perhaps might gather in silence the dreams that filled the mind of the little Wunderkind. For when I was young, before I had a wife and children to support, I also dreamed. I knew that she was hearing music, over and over again, those difficult, deep melodies of Beethoven that do not run lightly in the mind, but plough their slow way through the heart by the hard-cut channels of the intellect. I suspect too that she saw herself standing upon great platforms covered with light and flowers, hearing, as my brother had heard, the thunder of applause, and feeling in herself the magic of a great power moving out toward her audience — greater than their applause. She was in her Heaven — while we sat round her eating our good hot duck, and drinking glasses full of foaming beer. Everyone was kind to her; for the first time in her life she was accepted as part of the world that lives in and for music. No one had heard her, but they all believed in her.

After they had drunk my brother’s health, he looked down the long table and suddenly caught sight of the Wunderkind. He suggested that they should drink her health. ‘I am only the Present,’ he said with a goodnatured laugh, ‘and the Present is soon over. Let us drink to the health and to the music — of the Future!’ and they all stood up and drank to the Wunderkind.

She put her hand in mine, and I could feel her vibrating as a string vibrates in a good instrument. ‘It is too much!’ she whispered. ‘It is too much!’ I thanked them for her, and then I took her home. I was rather horrified at the house I had to leave her in; but it wasn’t a house to the eyes that looked for a shy, long moment into mine — it was a shifting enchanted palace, full of dreams.

The next morning the rain came down in a gray sheet. Out of our window we saw nothing but the yellow swollen river, and the half-drowned sodden street. Everything looked as stale as a last year’s newspaper. My brother was in low spirits, as often happens after a great evening. He sent away his coffee three times and said, ‘If this is coffee give me tea!' and ‘If this is tea give me coffee!’ Also he wished to challenge one of his critics.

I did not know whether or not to remind him of his appointment with the Wunderkind, but before I had made up my mind that vulgar pushing mother brought her to our hotel, half an hour before the time. My brother was very much annoyed, but what could one do? There they stood and dripped on the mat, all nerves and waterproofs. They had to be put somewhere, and sooner or later the Wunderkind had to be heard.

The mother was bursting with pride and ambition; she was just clean, as people are clean who are clean for an occasion and have not the habit. Her mouth was greedy and her bright black eyes avaricious; and I knew that women with such eyes and such a mouth are invariably cruel at heart. One trembles when one thinks of anything sensitive being in their power.

Of course little Clara was frightened. Her eyes filled and emptied perpetually with tears, her hands were red, and when I uncovered her from her wet outer garments I could feel the thumping of her heart, like a bird which feels a human hand close over it. My brother, when he had got over his annoyance, was very kind to her. He sat in his armchair by the window, smoking a cigarette. The mother, who would n’t stop talking, I put as far away from him as possible, on a short sofa by my side; and the child stood by the table with her violin, just opposite my brother.

‘There!’ said my brother, reassuringly. ‘Now remember, nervousness is of no consequence. I can tell all about your powers whether you are nervous or not! I am nervous myself always. All good artists are. If they say otherwise they lie, or they are not good enough. Think only of the music — nothing else matters. Now what are you prepared to play to me?’

‘She knows everything — but everything!’ her mother bounced off the sofa to declare. ‘Here in my hand is her first programme. The gracious gentleman may assure himself ! Please look at it, sir. Ask what you like! The child is a genius — it is all the same to her what she plays! It has all been made out, as you see, by her own teacher, for the first performance. We only await your kind pronouncement before bringing out the bills! Play, child, play! Don’t keep him waiting! Gracious sir, she is but ten years old! Consider her youth, I implore you, and tell me, her mother, her best friend, who has starved herself to give her a chance, if she does n’t play like an angel from Heaven!’

' I shall not consider anything but her playing,’ said my brother a little shortly. ‘As for this programme, it is very advanced. I doubt if any child ten years old is equal to it, and any programme at all may be out of place. Now, my child, since you can play all these, begin with the Beethoven Minuet, and then we will take the first movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto. You, madame, have the kindness to resume your seat, and remain perfectly still.’

My brother’s voice filled the room like thunder, but it did not make the Wunderkind more nervous; on the contrary she seemed to draw from it some kind of sustenance, for she began to play immediately.

You know that very merry, very delicate Minuet of Beethoven, which should be played with fingers as light as thistledown, and from a heart that is like a wandering youth’s, touched with many fancies, before one woman fixes it? Well — poor child, her thick little fingers stumbled woodenly through it. I thought it would never end; each note fell dirge-like and pattering as the heavy raindrops blown against the glass. I feared an outburst from my brother, — I saw the frown gathering upon his brow, and his fingers twitching, — but he was strangely patient. The Minuet did not finish. You know its swift gallant end, as complete as a perfect simile? The child scrambled to the last note; and just stopped. Nothing was complete— except the awful silence of my brother.

The poor child was less nervous when she began the Mendelssohn Concerto. I thought at first this would be an improvement and make her tone firmer, but she had been too badly taught — she simply had no tone. She had only — ah, how I felt this! how I wondered if my brother could feel it half as deeply! — she had intensity. If the heart could turn the blood that feeds it into music and so die, she would have died so. I have often heard gifted people say that if you want to acquire a talent sufficiently you will succeed in your desire. Did the frog succeed in puffing itself out to the size of an ox? It burst its heart in the effort. One cannot do more than try to get out of one’s skin. The Wunderkind was making this attempt all the time, and it was hideous.

When she stopped, my brother said nothing for a while. He is by nature not a patient man; and the mother began to talk in that hard overpersuasive tone which I knew would most infuriate him. ‘There now! there now!’ she cried, jumping up and down on the sofa. ‘What do you say to that, good gentlemen? Would n’t people pay money to hear it? I won’t say I’ve never heard her play better. She is nervous, of course, playing before such a great master. But at ten years old! Such a fine noise as that! And the right notes and all! And the pains the child lakes! Night and day always at it! I am not one of your soft mothers, but I will say when I see her teacher knock her about — blow after blow, my good sirs — sometimes I say to her, “Don’t you know enough without a teacher? Do I pay for nothing but blows? I shall just send her to the right-abouts, teacher or no teacher!" But the little one always says, “No, mother, no! Let her strike me — only let her go on teaching me too!”'

The child never moved while her mother spoke. Her eyes were fixed on my brother’s face. I think before he spoke she read her sentence there. I have often foutid that what it is vital for us to know we learn without teaching. Death deceives relations often, and doctors sometimes, but the patient — never.

‘The child plays with feeling,’ my brother said at last slowly. ‘If she had not been so execrably taught I could undertake better to say what talent she has. As it is now, my good woman, you deceive yourself. She plays all wrong! No one would pay a krone to listen to her! She has neither tone nor tempo; her fingers are like pellets of dough; her bow is like a stick scratching a dog! Her mind, I can see, is in her work. It is not her fault that she has been given nothing to work on. But I cannot truly say that she has talent! In order to find out, she would have to unlearn all that she knows now, and begin at the beginning with an honest teacher; then after two or three years I could judge better.’

The vulgar fury of the woman burst through her fear of offending my brother. ‘Two or three years!’ she cried indignantly. ‘Haven’t I paid enough for the child’s lessons as it is? What, do you think I’m made of money? I expected a return! And what her father will say, if what you tell me is true, — and not mere dirty jealousy on your part, — God knows! He’ll beat the child black and blue probably — and no wonder! Poor honest working-folks like ourselves taken in like this for nothing! I’ll tell that teacher what I think of her! I’ll scratch her eyes out t he first time I see her! Now, Clara, none of that silly sniveling! I ‘ve often told you I treated you far too well. Letting you practise, practise for hours, till it made my teeth ache, when you ought to have been at some decent work. Yes, I’ve properly spoiled you, my child! But I shan’t do so any more. It’s not likely, is it, keeping the food out of my own mouth to give you a chance to earn bread, and all for nothing! I’m to be told by this fine, great, generous gentleman that you can’t earn a krone!’

The enraged woman pulled the poor sobbing child toward the door, but my brother swept the Wunderkind out of her grasp. ‘Take that woman downstairs before I strangle her!’ he thundered at me.

The door shut behind us, but before it shut I heard the Wunderkind’s voice: ‘Oh, if I can only go on playing!’

Of course I don’t suppose for a moment that she did. My brother told me afterward what he had said to the child. He had given her the address of a useful teacher, one of his own old pupils in Linz, and promised to arrange with the lady the easiest price possible for lessons. More than this, he intended to pay part of this price himself, for he had determined to give the poor child all the chance there was. But the child kept on sobbing — I doubt if she even heard what he said. You see she knew what everyone else did n’t—that she had no chance.

When I left the mother downstairs, slightly mollified by a ham bread and a glass of beer, I found the child on the landing outside my brother’s closed door, crying without a sound. I took both her hands in mine and I murmured into her ear: ‘Little Wunderkind, I am like you! I have loved music all my life, but I could never be a musician. There is nothing in the world so good, so beautiful, as music, and no one can take this away from us! The greatest master in the world can only love his music well, and even he perhaps not quite so well as you — or I! ‘ She stopped crying. ‘Ah,’ she whispered, ‘do you think he understands — can you make him—that I knew? I did n’t at first; in my mind it sounded so—so beautiful! But when I heard it in the room, after his playing, I knew it would never be anything at all.’

I promised her very earnestly that I would make my brother understand. She had everything about an artist except expression — even an artist’s cruel veracity; and before I had finished promising, the child heard her mother calling, pulled her little hand out of mine, and fled downstairs.

I watched the two figures as they left the door and passed into the street — the stout, flurried, angry woman, and the tiny disheartened girl plodding home in the rain. I said to myself that we had witnessed two tragedies that morning — the tragedy of disappointed avarice, and the tragedy of disappointed art; and of the two tragedies perhaps the first was that for which there is the least compensation. If you love money, nothing but the possession of money gives you any satisfaction; but if you love beauty, even if you cannot possess beauty yourself, yet she is always there — and she is always beautiful.