‘I THINK it’s getting worse, Martha.'
‘Oh, it must n’t! It’s too bad, it’s too bad!’
Mr. and Mrs. Stoughton continued to stare out of the living-room window into the almost darkness. It was raining. Torrentially. There was no way of deceiving one’s self about it. The lightning and thunder were the worst that summer. And the rain was settling down to a steady downpour, with something vicious and personal about it. A few hardy souls whose business or temper made haste exigent could be seen through the dusk and rain fighting their umbrellas into the wind.
‘I’m very much afraid it will keep people away,’ admitted Mr. Stoughton, miserably enough.
‘Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!’ not helpfully replied his wife.
A mantel clock, with preliminary whizzings, struck the half-hour. The single stroke echoed through the house, and, dying away, was drowned by the gusty tattoos of rain on the windows.
‘Half-past seven. We must be starting soon,’ announced Mr. Stoughton.
From the floor above came the sounds of a flute, runs and trills that made apodeictic the metaphor of running water.
‘He keeps at that little fast part even while he’s dressing,’ said Mrs. Stoughton. ‘He’s a little worried about it. I do hope it will go well, that little fast part.’
‘The presto,’ automatically specified Mr. Stoughton, turning gloomily back to the window. ‘Lord, what a storm!’ There was for a moment only the sound of the rain; then he added: ‘He’d better finish dressing and trust to luck on the presto. It’s getting late.’
The flute, after thrice running through a more complicated flourish, was silent. In the renewed silence the two parents looked fearfully out at the dismal street, at the rushing gutters. Again no sound but the driving rain.
‘Of course, I’m a business man and not an artist,’ began Mr. Stoughton, thus forestalling his wife’s usual objection, ‘but I think he should have put the ticket-selling end of this concert into the hands of a professional manager or at least someone who knows about business. Having a concert in the summer when so many people are away is bad enough; and especially I don’t think this way of putting window cards in shops and leaving a few tickets on sale inside is really the best way. I dropped into a few drug stores in the last few days, and they’d only sold one or two tickets each.’
‘But, Arthur, it would have cost money to hire a manager, and he did n’t want to put you to any more expense than he could help.’
‘The ticket end of this is a business matter, Martha, and in business you’ve got to spend money to make money; you’ve got: to advertise. As it is, there’s considerable expense for the high-school hall, and the printing, and the accompanist, and the dress clothes, and the supper, and so on, and it does n’t look like much return.’
‘But, Arthur, he said his mind was so preoccupied with the playing part of it that he could n’t be bothered with the commercial end.’
‘Yes, yes,’ answered Mr. Stoughton, drumming on the sash and staring at the undiminished rain. A sore point.
‘Besides,’ added his wife, ‘surely his old school chums will turn out for him, and then — It’s only this storm that bothers me. What a pity, what a pity!’
There was again only the dismal sound of the rain, a sound that makes even the most lived-in house seem deserted.
‘Well,’ drawled Mr. Stoughton finally, ‘I guess I can spare the money. But it’s the turnout I’m thinking of. Damn this rain!’
The two again were silent. The rain rained. The darkness deepened. The wind blew, gustily. The rain rained. Rained. And rained.
At a quarter to eight Gordon came downstairs, his only-son manner heightened by virtuoso tension. Assiduous brushing and a minute application of vaseline had given to his mouse-colored hair form if not distinction; his twentyyear-old face was shaved and excited; a new dinner jacket sat with apparent fit upon his relative thinness. On the handle of his flute case his right palm was damp.
‘Oh, Gordon, how lovely you look!’ exclaimed his mother.
His father grinned and nodded: ‘Not bad, son. Well, are you all ready? Got that presto?’
‘Got it cold, Father. I just want to get at them.’
‘Good. I’ll get out the car, then. It’s a rotten night, son; hope it won’t keep many away.’
It was obvious that Gordon too had been watching the storm, and had reacted to it. He answered, with a trace of bravado: ‘If the mere matter of a storm would keep people away, then they are n’t really interested either in good music or in me. Why, the movies are full on rainy nights.’
‘It’s unusually bad, son.’
‘Damn the weather. Who cares? I guess my own good friends won’t let a little thing like weather keep them away.’
His father shrugged slightly, got into his raincoat, and opened the front door. The first gust blinded him.
‘Little thing like weather!’ said he to the wet. ‘Well, I can’t do anything about it.’
At eight o’clock, his windshield wipers hissing with only relative success, Mr. Stoughton was negotiating the driveway into the high-school yard. The left rear wheel going over the curb, there was a jolt.
‘For heaven’s sake, Father, I’m feeling on edge as it is. Don’t do that.’
Mr. Stoughton rubbed his lower lip over his moustache twice before answering gently over his shoulder: ‘Excuse me, Gordon. It’s hard to see.’
They turned up at the stage entrance. Mrs. Stoughton broke silence: — ‘Are you quite sure you would n’t prefer us back-stage with you, Gordon ? ’
‘No, I’ve told you plenty of times already that I want to be alone with the accompanist, so I’ll not be distracted.’
‘Very well, Gordon.’
He got out, dashed the few feet through the rain; the black door swallowed him. Mr. Stoughton parked the car.
‘Have you the umbrella back there, Martha?’
They opened it and ran to the hall entrance. Inside, they shook themselves, blinked at the lights, saw Henry Ranger, Gordon’s closest friend, sitting at his little table before the auditorium doors.
‘Good evening, Henry. Wretched weather, is n’t it?’
‘Never saw anything like it. Tough luck on Gordon.’
Mr, Stoughton coughed. ‘Many here?’ he asked.
Young Ranger coughed. ‘Well . . . no. In fact,’ — he tried to grin, — ‘only three so far.’
There was a moment’s silence, modified only by Henry’s ruffling a pile of three hundred programmes. Mrs. Stoughton clucked to herself. Mr. Stoughton and Henry looked at each other.
‘Well,’ said Mr. Stoughton finally. ‘Well, that’s pretty bad.’ He looked at his watch. ‘Still, there’s eight minutes to go.’ Upon which the outer door opened, and a wet gust blew in an old gentleman, Mr. Daventry, Gordon’s former grammar-school principal.
‘Good evening, Mrs. Stoughton. Good evening, Mr. Stoughton. Good evening, Henry. Frightful evening, is n’t it? I hope you’re all well.’ He neatly put his ticket on the table, took a programme, and went in, looking old and rather wet. He had walked from the car stop.
Mr. Stoughton said ‘Four’ to himself. Mrs. Stoughton swallowed the lump, watching the door close behind the principal, who reminded her of many things, among them Gordon’s teacher at the Conservatory, away in Europe for his vacation.
‘There’sanother,’ announced Henry.
‘Yes,’ answered Mr. Stoughton. There seemed nothing else to say.
Another gust blew in Miss Phyllis Cartwright.
‘Oh, how do you do! Mother and Father did n’t dare come out, though they had tickets. But I could n’t let Gordon down, so I took a taxi and here I am. What a dreadful night it is out! Shall we go in?’
They went in.
The hall seated four hundred. The four were spread a little.
They sat near the front. On the stage was a piano.
What sounds emptier than an empty hall? When Mr. Daventry, who was catching cold, coughed, it echoed so hollowly that subsequent coughers simply rasped their throats in soft and apologetic wise. The echo of the cough having at length died, there was silence and waiting. The bang of the outer door penetrated to them; then voices; the padded door of the auditorium thudded. Though Mr. Stoughton succeeded in not looking around, Mrs. Stoughton from the corner of her slued eyes saw her old friend Nellie Hayes, a thin, kindly spinster of fifty, walk quietly down the centre aisle and seat herself.
‘Nellie Hayes, Arthur.’
‘Specially nice of her, considering her health.’
Programmes rustled. The three high-school friends who had arrived first whispered hoarsely among themselves.
Following another bang, everyone tried not to notice too pointedly the voices in the corridor. Another thud. There entered two Conservatory classmates. Less ill at ease, they talked in more nearly normal voices. Their arrival improved the atmosphere. Mr. Stoughton was able to nod to Miss Hayes. But, somebody reversing his crossed knees, the sound of the foot scraping was sufficient to renew the embarrassment. Mr. Stoughton, having, unseeing, read the programme for the fourth time, looked up at the tall windows, black and uncurtained.
‘ Counting ourselves, that makes ten,’ he reflected.
Mrs. Stoughton looked alternately at the two stage doors. Both were tight shut; no one was peeping. What could Gordon be thinking?
One Conservatory student corrected Addagio on his programme to Adagio, glancing quizzically at his companion, who said: ‘Guess I’ll wait another year.’
1 Be better. Funny — home town and all.’
The next bang was loud, and the subsequent voice plainly audible: —
‘Yes, of course it’s a rotten night. Quite right. Lousy. But it’s my business to hear this concert, and it’s not raining in the hall, is it?’ A pause. ‘Damned good programme — not a blithering bird-call on it.’
Most of them frankly turned at the thud of the auditorium door to regard the speaker. A tall heavy man of, say, thirty, he had an air of caring little about people, places, or manners. He went halfway down the aisle, coughed, listened, moved back five rows, listened, and, sitting down, proceeded to read a paper-covered book. Nobody knew him; everybody, wondering, asked his neighbor. Followed a mild susurration of speculative whispers.
Mr. Stoughton looked at his watch again: eight-fifteen. Two deep breaths did not relieve his muscular tensity; and either way he crossed his knees they were uncomfortable. No one having peered through the stage doors, he realized that Gordon, unprepared, was going to take it on the chin. Mr. Stoughton was frankly afraid. What could the poor devil be thinking and feeling back there, shut up, waiting, looking at his watch?
In the scattered audience watching the stage doors there was silence and waiting. But another thud announced another entry — another high-school friend, who with much embarrassed laughter and much unnecessary handshaking joined the other three. Again silence and waiting, broken by two coughs and one dropped programme. Cyclically: first they were waiting, then they forgot they were waiting, then they were waiting again.
Catching them forgetfully off guard, the stage door (simultaneously with a gulf under Mr. Stoughton’s feet) opened suddenly, briskly; and it was briskly that Gordon Stoughton walked without hesitation through spattered and distinct applause across the stage to front centre. He was undeniably pale. But on his face was not too desperately fixed a pleasant sour little smile; and his bow was half to the audience and half to fate. Mr. Stoughton took a deep breath, feeling his heart grow hot with pride. Gordon’s simple entrance, unheeding as a sleepwalker’s, had overcome the programme rustling, the pale embarrassment, the applause, the emptiness, and even the hollow echo of his own steps across the wooden stage.
He turned without too great haste, raising his eyebrows in inquiry, toward his accompanist, who was still rubbing his hands on a stage handkerchief and moving the non-adjustable piano bench meticulously backward and forward. Mr. Stoughton held his breath as Gordon held his position. The accompanist hastily completed his manœuvres and nodded. Gordon nodded, turned back, raised his flute to his lips. Looking once, in a quick flash of eyes, over the audience, he took breath, and began. From the flute streamed an introductory trill, strong, firm, confident. The piano struck the first chord on the opening beat as the flute went into the statement of theme. The concert had begun.
As it began, so it went on. To thirteen nervous people engaged in the benevolent conspiracy of pretending that they were three hundred, a young man, who, somnambulist, cared little whether they were one or a thousand, played in three sections, with unhurried intermissions, flute arrangements of alive and agreeable pieces by such as Rameau, Couperin, Scarlatti, Cimarosa, Bach, and Mozart. Each time he played, the audience enthusiastically clattered with distinguishable hands; each time he met their kind applause with the same crisp bow, better than it had been in the mirror the preceding month by the extent of his tautness and hurt. As a matter of historic fact, Gordon Stoughton played that evening with considerable technical brilliance; as for the dubious presto, there alone his obscure anger at the long hours spent in preparing for these thirteen fiendishly kind people breaking out in action, he struck into it at a tempo that nearly paralyzed his accompanist with fear that he would go to pieces. He did not; by some miracle of youth and cold anger he raced breakneck through its convolutions to a brilliant conclusion that made even the little audience, ignorant though it was of the technique of the flute, breathe quickly at a genuine tour de force.
This does not mean that Gordon played in a masterly manner. The emotional possibilities of the flute are slight even in great hands and under the most favorable circumstances; and it is cold inspiration for an ‘artist’ to play to thirteen people in a hall for four hundred, even if that ‘artist’ is just an earnest young man from the Conservatory giving his first recital, in his home town’s high-school hall. It may be argued that there was perhaps not much warmth to Gordon’s renditions, but there was a certain angry brilliance of technique; and that was something.
Thus it went. He played; they applauded; and eventually, when the sympathy and embarrassment wore off sufficiently, it is to be presumed that the audience actually enjoyed itself. The stranger applauded loudest of all, louder even, perhaps, than Mr. Stoughton, who was admiring his son for more things than flute-playing.
When the last nice piece was nicely rendered, and the pleasant young man had pleasantly bowed to the almost too prolonged applause of the little group he had entertained, and had left the stage not running, Mr. and Mrs. Stoughton, accompanied by Miss Phyllis Cartwright, walked across the hall, where the people, anxious in renewed embarrassment to leave, were talking together and were putting on their raincoats and placing carefully folded in their pockets the programmes which they would throw dog-eared away the following rainy Thursday — walked through the hall which was again seeming empty because the young man was no longer obstinately and skillfully playing his flute on the stage in the front part of it, to the door connecting with the back of the stage; and fear was upon them. Not only generally, but, in addition, before the concert they and Gordon had arranged a congratulatory supper party to celebrate Gordon’s success, which situation was now badly bothering Mr. Stoughton, who was by nature less delicately diplomatic than he at this awkward moment earnestly wished. Mr. Stoughton was moreover afraid that he could not show his son why he admired him at that moment more than almost anybody without hurting his as he knew oversensitive feelings; Mrs. Stoughton was more simply afraid that Gordon would be feeling badly; and Miss Phyllis Cartwright was feeling something or other obscurely unhappy which she could n’t express, which did n’t matter, because she would n’t try to, but predictably would kiss Gordon good-night in a pleasant young way when they took her home, which is what Gordon mostly needed in that particular quarter, because young men are rather more than likely to have odd notions about young women like Miss Phyllis Cartwright, who was almost blonde and had kind hands and was n’t much good at algebra. These three, then, opened the door and fortunately found Gordon shaking hands good-night with his accompanist, who, having to catch a train back to the near-by larger city, went out into the night, where it was raining not so much. Gordon turned in the empty passage to greet them.
‘You played beautifully, and everyone enjoyed every bit of it,’ said his mother — which was probably the best thing she could have said under the very special circumstances.
‘You stood up to it, too, son, in a way to make me very proud of you,’ added his father. Which was perhaps awkward but appropriate.
‘Oh, Gordon, it was wonderful! ’ said Miss Phyllis Cartwright. And though this was hardly a significant comment, it did n’t matter while she was looking at Gordon, for young men, as above, have the oddest notions.
Gordon exhaled a hearty lungful of a training-breaking cigarette and took a deep breath.
‘We all agree,’ he said, with still a trace of bravado, ‘though you have n’t any of you mentioned it,’ — he paused half a moment, — ‘that the audience was ridiculously small, that I have fewer friends than I thought, and that I rather made a fool of myself. But I know that I played damned well, that I’ll have more practical sense next time, and,’ he ended with an almost normal smile, ‘that I’m hungry. Let’s eat.’
Mr. Stoughton felt strongly that it was pleasant being a father, Mrs. Stoughton breathed in relief, and Miss Phyllis Cartwright went down the corridor to the greenroom to help Gordon pack up his flute.
So, joined by Henry Ranger, who carelessly or tactfully forgot to turn in his tickets, they went out to Curtis’s Florentine Grill, where a table had been reserved. They were not tragically gay. Gordon had all the things he liked to eat, and looked at Phyllis mostly. He moreover thanked his father for his expenditures on the concert, which thanks his father poohpoohed less delicately than he might have done, being proud and excited and never very good at turning a phrase gracefully. Henry Ranger rendered himself as agreeable as he could, and suggested the pleasant speculation that the mysterious and apparently musical stranger could be none other than a sort of scout, like a baseball scout, looking for big-league talent. A dance orchestra, moreover, played several pieces of soporific music, which Gordon and Phyllis danced with their mouths tasting of chicken à la King. The waiters treated them just like any other pleasant party, because, not having been at the concert, they did n’t know whether it was tragic or comic or anything special. Nor did anyone else, properly speaking. Nor was it.
They drove Phyllis home, dropping Gordon to kiss her good-night in the manner in which it was done in this city, and picked him up again after they had delivered faithful Henry Ranger at his ordinary house. And went home to Barclay Street, where again Mr. Stoughton tried to show pride without offense, and Mrs. Stoughton was rather too devoted for Gordon’s adolescent taste, which saw sentimentality in anything.
Gordon’s gasping sobs were plainly audible in his parents’ adjoining bedroom; they could hear the creak of his bed as he flung himself about on it. They lay motionless, looking with slitted eyes at the wall flickering in the faint light from a distant arc lamp shining diagonally through the window, each pretending to the other to be asleep.
Mrs. Stoughton finally got noiselessly out of bed.
‘Where are you going, Martha?’
‘Gordon’s crying. He was hurt, after all. I knew it.’
Mr. Stoughton got out of bed and went up to her.
‘I should n’t, Martha; really I should n’t. You remember three years ago when he failed to play in that Thanksgiving Day football game at high school. You remember it only made it worse, and he held it against you for weeks. He would n’t want us to show we knew.’
‘Well, perhaps you’re right, Arthur. But his own mother! . . . And it breaks my heart to hear him and not be able to help. It just breaks my heart, it does,’ she repeated, getting back into bed and pulling the bedclothes around her impatiently.
‘I don’t feel good about it either,’ said Mr. Stoughton with deceptive gentleness, as a particularly desperate sob penetrated to them. ‘I don’t know,’ he concluded, standing at the window and looking diagonally across at a light in the house where Doctor Mahoney was supposed by gossip to have lost his mind on account of his wife. ‘ Poor kid. Nothing we can do. Too bad. I don’t know.’
There was no sound in dark Barclay Street save, in the next room, Gordon Stoughton’s young sobbing, diminuendo.