The Music Teacher
NATHANIEL LAMAR, who was born in Atlanta. Georgia, twenty-two years ago, prepared for Harvard at Phillips Exeter. He majored in English and found particular stimulus for his writing in the courses which he took under Archibald MacLeish. Mr. La Mar’s first story in the Atlantic, “Creole Love Song, won the Dana Reed Award at Harvard and was reprinted in The Best American Stories, 1956. Last autumn he began to work on his first novel; and to assist in its completion, we have awarded him an Atlantic Grant in Fiction.
THAT day it was the middle of the summer, only a week before Mrs. Howard’s sad, sudden death. That day, all things were conducive. On that day, even the music room was conducive. On that particular day the music room was like the seaside, with the afternoon sun shining into six big windows; and the cast-off beach chairs; and blue vases of water lilies. Valencia watched him from the windows as he came, walking up the driveway.
He was very young, for a music teacher, Mr. Davies, He usually wore a seersucker suit, left over from the days when he was in college. He was scarcely more than a boy, and yet his hair was beginning to come out. Strands of it fell on the white keys of the piano.
Luana the maid had already Warned against him. Luana had swarthy skin and long brown hair. Luana attracted every man who looked at her, and no wonder. She had fine legs. She wore shoes with ice-pick heels. “I would beware of him, Valencia, if I was you. That so-called Mr. Davies,” she said. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you. He may have elegant manners, but he’s so ugly, He is as ugly as homemade sin. And his hair. His hair is falling out. It’s coming out by the handful, can’t you see?”
Her father had warned against him. Her father sometimes watched Luana’s legs. He sometimes gazed at the seams of Luann’s stockings with undivided attention as Luana walked this way and that way, balancing a glass of whiskey and water on a tray. Her father relied on his whiskey and water more and more. “I don’t like the worshipful attitude that he has toward you,” he said. “Oh yes, Valencia, he definitely has a worshipful attitude. And it’s not healthy. It’s not the way a normal young man his age should act. You’re sixteen now. You mustn’t go running to your mother with this. Your mother is too ill to be worried.”
Even her young brother, Mark, hated Mr. Davies. Mark was eleven years old, and advanced and brilliant in a peculiar way. All day long he drew beautiful pictures of women’s faces on scraps of paper. Women always wearing strange, enormous wedding-cake hats adorned with leaves and stars. Women with heart-shaped lips. When it came time for Mark’s piano lesson Mark would sit down at the big concert grand and say, in a deliberately high-pitched, effeminate voice, “Do I arch my wrists correctly, Mr. Davies?" And then he would confide certain things — family secrets but in such a diabolical way. “Do you think my mother is beautiful, Mr. Davies?” Mark would say. “She used to be beautiful. Terribly, until she developed a malignant growth. The doctors have operated once to remove it, but now she has another. It’s hidden somewhere in her body and they cannot find it, Mr. Davies.”
Mr. Davies did not know what to say. Mr. Davies was so timid that if he saw a bird’s egg fall from a nest in a tree he would shut his eyes and pul his hands over his ears. Yet, in the end, when it was all over he would go to the spot and look at the wrinkled rubbery shell, and the little white bird-bones, and the soft yellow beak. And he might even smile. He was so anxious to please that he might smile at anything.
After the music lessons, just as he was leaving the house, Mrs. Howard always waylaid him. She sat on the front terrace in a lounge chair with a blanket spread over her legs. She was having chills constantly, though it was the middle of summer. She would always smile at young Mr. Davies, because she thought him handsome in an odd way. And she sympathized with him. She sympathized, though for what exactly, she did not know. Maybelle Wallace, who had been the one to recommend him as a music teacher, said that he had been sick. He had been sick for a year or more, said May-belle, but apparently May-belle Wallace did not know the nature of his illness, and now he was supposedly completely recovered. This was the thing that confused Mrs. Howard: she did not know what to picture to herself when she tried to imagine a man being sick. She had never seen her husband sick. When she tried to imagine a man ill she thought of some secret weakness. Some quiet masculine weakness, concealed from a worried woman behind the locked door of a bathroom, perhaps. But whatever it was she sympathized. She smiled at lonely young Mr. Davies, and that was her way of detaining him as he came down the driveway. It was because Mr. Davies captivated her. He had the ability to stimulate and captivate her by talking about a certain person. One particular person. It was the way Mr. Davies talked about him. It was his excited, affectionate, and glowing descriptions of this person. This friend. This “Robert.” Amorous descriptions, almost! For instance, “Last night, I read a French poem,” Mr. Davies would say. “Of course my best friend Robert says the obscene parts and even all the funny parts are sad. Incredibly sad, he says. Comedy is always at the expense of the future. I don’t know what he means, except that I know that he is rather deep and thoughtful. You see, I’m ugly,”said Mr. Davies. “I’m ugly and there’s no debate about that, but he is . . .”
“Mr. Davies, what do you think of this weather?” she would say. “It’s very chilly, isn’t it ? ”
Even if it was the loveliest of days, Mr. Davies would agree, He would grin and say, “Yes, yes.” With excitement, he would say, “You’re right, Mrs. Howard.” Perhaps he knew she would soon die.
JUST two days before the unfortunate incident — a week before Mrs. Howard died — she waylaid him again, in the garden. “Mr. Davies, would you please wait a moment?” she said. “I want to talk to you about the welfare of my children.” The breeze blew her dress about her legs in heavy folds, because she had lost so much weight. She was leaning against the trunk of a tree. “You’ve had such a considerable influence on them, in one way or another, Mr. Davies, that sometimes I think it’s dangerous.” She smiled nervously, in that perverse way of people who have a glimpse of death.
But young Mr. Davies did not say a word.
“Do you write music? I mean, do you compose?”
“No,” he said. “I intend to, someday. But . . . but . . . you see, I’ve been very ill,” he said. “So very ill. I’ve been . . .” Suddenly his eyes flashed. He narrowed those wide-open eyes of his, and his eyebrows leapt up, and he looked almost like a different person: excited, very beautiful. “I ... I don’t know just when, but someday, I hope to . . . to . . .” Mr. Davies was so nervous! Mr. Davies was so excited!
“It’s odd that you don’t compose,” said Mrs. Howard. “Because I have dreamed of you more than once. It’s always the dream of ... I dream that you are composing a melody for my Valencia. When you’re very ill, they say the future goes by in the form of a dream. And I believe it,” she said.
But young Mr. Davies was deeply calm once more. He was his own smiling self once again now, and as he smiled it could be seen that he had long, unattractive, rodent-like teeth. He had a rabbit’s teeth.
But if, when he smiled, it could be seen that he had long and ugly rabbit-like teeth, why was it, then, that until the day — until the very day of the unfortunate incident — why did Valencia sympathize with him? Why did he interest her so? What did she see in him?
“Valencia, you must be very careful,” said her father. Her mother’s illness had begun to weigh heavily on him, and he usually lounged about all day long in linen slacks, and old white tennis shoes, sipping his whiskey and water. Sometimes he would sit for hours in the music room, listening to Valencia play, still sipping his whiskey and water. He went to bed fuddled and glassy-eyed. But on beautiful days, when they went to the beach and her father stripped down to his bathing trunks, he looked much younger than his age. He would go in the water a middle-aged man and come out with his hair wet, over his eyes, looking as handsome as a boy.
“I give you fair warning now, Valencia,” he said. “You’re treading on dangerous ground with Mr. Davies. Unless you want to get involved . . .”
“I certainly don’t see anybody falling in love with him,” said Luana. Lately Luana went with them to the beach because Mrs. Howard was always too ill and tired to go. And lately Luana had frequent talks, late in the evening, with Mr. Howard in the garden. “Haven’t you ever been in love with anybody? What’s his name?” insisted Luana. “I mean his first name. Don’t you even know the man’s Christian name?”
But Mr. Davies was not the kind of person you would imagine to have a first name. Nor would you be tempted to wonder how he might look with his hair disheveled, or eating, or taking a bath. By what fantastic power, then, did he manage to keep her after her music lesson was over, listening to him talk about the seashore, or his collection of queer pencils, or a book he had read?
Or another time, “ What is love, between friends ?” Mr. Davies would say. That was his central topic, his theme song, so to speak. “I love Robert, and often I wonder what it would be like if he were to go away, or I. The future, don’t you see. Every day I’d expect him to return, no matter how long, you see.”
Or, “Of course we share just one room between us.”And Mr. Davies seemed to blush slightly, but there was no need. No one would ever be tempted to wonder what that room was like. “ We’ve roomed together since we were fifteen, in boarding school,”he said. “We started as roommates, but Robert . . . recently . . . Robert was away for a while. Recently he was . . .”Why must Mr. Davies always get just to that point and suddenly become so excited? So terribly excited!
When Valencia told Mark and her father about it they laughed and winked at each other. “I knew it! I knew it!" sang the precocious Mark. Mark and her father suggested their meaning, just by the way they laughed. They even made her laugh.
“Well,”said Mr. Howard. “This explains why he’s so . . . so . . . delicate,” he said. And he made as if to flutter his eyelids, in an imitative gesture. “You mustn’t repeat it to your mother, Valencia. That would worry your mother terribly. And, oh, I’ve seen them before,” said Mr. Howard. “One year there was a group of them who came down to the beach. One summer,”he said. “But of course since he’s that way ... I mean, he won’t make any advances, Valencia. So you needn’t worry about that. If he ever begins to talk that way again, about this friend of his, tell him that you don’t want to hear it. Say that you definitely do not want to hear about it. Do you understand, Valencia ?”
“Yes, I understand,”she said. But if she really understood, why did she think about it every hour? Why did she always think about him? “Robert,”she would say to herself, while she was playing a soft prelude. “Robert,” she would say, under her breath: this beautiful Robert. Mr. Davies had described him to her as “beautiful,”which is a daring way for one man to describe another. It was embarrassing to hear. It was so embarrassing, in fact, that she fell almost as if she were dreaming, and undressed, with Mr. Davies looking on. And yet.
She thought about it constantly, every hour. She thought about all sorts of things, because there were some things that she could not resist. “Are you ever lonely, Mr. Davies, with a friend like him?”
“Oh yes,”he said. “Yes, I’m lonely. Dear Lord, yes,”he said. “The time when you’re loneliest is when you are so close to someone that you . . . Sometimes I’m so lonely that I can’t sleep at night. Sometimes I become so upset.” Mr. Davies stared at her with his eyes narrowed, and his eyebrows leapt up. Strange Mr. Davies! He was like a piece of sky through a rip in a cloud. He stared at Valencia so intently, she wondered if he might be slightly out of his mind. Slightly “off” in the head. But the thing that excited her, the thing that set her on fire: “You see, Robert has been away,” said Mr. Davies. “For a while he was in a madhouse. Oh, I know it is politely called a rest home. But I know what it is, you see. I know, Valencia.” It was the first time he had ever called her by her Christian name. “It was a madhouse, and there’s no debate about that,”said Mr. Davies. “But now that Robert has come back to me, all will be well. He knew people there, and some of them are even allowed to write letters to him. But such strange letters you have never seen, Valencia. Never, in your young life. And yet, do you know what he sometimes says? He says that he wants to go back. Back there, because he has no friends and is so lonely. Except for me, of course. He has me,” said Mr. Davies. “I won’t let him go back, Valencia. I promise, I’ll never let him go back to that rest, home again!” Strange Mr. Davies! He captivated her. He confused her so, she did not know whether to laugh or cry.
But not to worry. There was Robert. All the time, Robert was at the very heart of her thoughts.
“If that Mr. Davies was like other men,” said Luana, “there’d be only one thing that he’d really want. You’re still young, Valencia, so I guess I won’t name what that thing is.” Luana, who somelimes took late-evening walks with Mr. Howard, through the flower beds in her stocking feet.
BUT Mr. Davies did not matter. It was Robert, and Robert alone. And that was why, on the last day, on the day when all things were conducive — a week before Mrs. Howard died — that day when all was indecisive, Valencia felt a sudden thrill when she saw Mr. Davies from the windows of the music room, He was walking up the driveway, he was coming through the garden. She could not resist : she put on a yellow dress, in anticipation of Robert.
“What is his name, Mr. Davies?” she asked as she sat down at the piano that day. “His other name, I mean. His surname. Someday I would like to see him.”
“His name is Robert Flinton,”he said.
“I would like . . .” said Valencia. “Someday, couldn’t I meet him?”
But it was the middle of the summer, and for some reason Mr. Davies suddenly seemed to take on new life. What had she said to make him suddenly so warm, so intimate? Mr. Davies took off his seersucker jacket. Slowly, he began to inch his chair closer to the piano. Valencia sensed it. She sat playing her preludes and fugues with her back absolutely straight, looking neither to the right nor to the left.
But next Mr. Davies would touch her hands! “ Your wrists,”he said, almost in a whisper, “must be arched like this. Do you see, Valencia? And your fingers must hit precisely, like little hammers. Especially for Bach.”And now he was actually holding her fingers!
“Oh, that’s all right,”she said nervously. “You don’t have to go to that much trouble, just to show me ...”
“But I want to show you how,” he said.
Why did she suddenly smile that way ? Perhaps he would not have been tempted, had she not smiled.
“I’m . . . I’m somewhat upset today,” he said. He was trying to be gentle, but instead he stammered, he fumbled. He himself was scarcely more than a boy. “My friend — Robert — would like you.”he said nervously, coming closer and closer. And now Mr. Davies was touching her shoulders! “Valencia, Robert would like the way your hair is tied behind your neck. Valencia! Robert would like the way your arms are so smooth!" As he tried to kiss her, as he tried to steal a kiss, so to speak, she of course fought him away.
She was trying hard to control herself, but she was about to burst into tears.
“Oh,”said Mr. Davies suddenly. “I must, be greatly overstepping my bounds.”There was a great silence in the music room. It was enough to make one laugh — “overstepping.” “Yes . . . overstepping . . . oh, please, excuse me,”he said. “Will you excuse me this time? Just. this time? You see, I was trying to be gentle, and now I’ve overstepped . . .”
But she was trembling. Tears were rolling down her cheeks.
“I didn’t think you would take it in that way,” he said. And he smiled the most fantastic smile. It was the smile of a demented person: beautiful, in spite of ugliness. Very beautiful, in spite of yellow, rabbit-like teeth.
“How else did you think I’d take it, Mr. Davies! I was trying to be kind. Just trying to be kind to you,” she said. “But nobody can be kind to you. What made you think I’d ever want a kiss from you!”
“But it was Robert,” he said, “who . . .”
She did not let him finish. She was not going to be played with any more. Fortunately, she remembered her father’s words, just at the nick of time; otherwise, who knows what he might have said ?
“I don’t want to hear it.”
That was the last thing she ever said to him. because he did not come back again, ever. But after all, it was not him she cried for. It was certainly not him, no indeed. She was crying for someone she would never even meet. This person. This Robert. Robert Flinton. She would remember Robert Flinton long after she had forgotten Mr. Davies. Even if Robert Flinlon had never existed, she would think about him. Even if Mr. Davies had invented it all, to . . . to trick her! Repulsive Mr. Davies! Valencia did not go to the windows to watch him as he went down the driveway.
Mrs. Howard was perplexed. She was sitting in her lounge chair on the terrace, and she called out to Mr. Davies as he was leaving, but he did not look her way. She raised her hand and waved. “Mr. Davies,” she said. Well, not to worry: she would see him again very soon. Next week, next music lesson. And yet Mrs. Howard was alarmed. “Mr. Davies!” If, at that particular moment, she had known his Christian name, she would have called him by it. He was walking straight ahead, down the driveway, and Mrs. Howard’s question suddenly came back like a dream: Whatever could have been the nature of his supposed illness? Could it have been physical or mental?
“Mr. Davies!” she said, and tears came to her eyes. Why didn’t he answer her! “Mr. Davies, what do you think of this weather?” But still, apparently he neither saw nor heard. Mr. Robert Flinton Davies went past her like the future, and in less than a week’s time she was dead.