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HOME > Short Stories > A Cathedral Singer > CHAPTER II
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 That morning on the ledge1 of rock at the rear of the cathedral Nature hinted to passers what they would more abundantly see if fortunate enough to be with her where she was entirely2 at home—out in the country.  
The young grass along the foot of this slope was thick and green; imagination missed from the picture rural sheep, their fleeces wet with April rain. Along the summit of the slope trees of oak and ash and maple3 and chestnut4 and poplar lifted against the sky their united forest strength. Between the trees above and the grass below, the embankment spread before the eye the enchantment5 of a spring landscape, with late bare boughs6 and early green boughs and other boughs in blossom.
The earliest blossoms on our part of the earth's surface are nearly always white. They have forced their way to the sun along a frozen path and look akin7 to the perils8 of their road: the snow-threatened lily of the valley, the chill snowdrop, the frosty snowball, the bleak9 hawtree, the wintry wild cherry, the wintry dogwood. As the eye swept the park expanse this morning, here and there some of these were as the last tokens of winter's mantle10 instead of the first tokens of summer's.
There were flushes of color also, as where in deep soil, on a projection11 of rock, a pink hawthorn12 stood studded to the tips of its branches with leaf and flower. But such flushes of color were as false notes of the earth, as harmonies of summer thrust into the wrong places and become discords13. The time for them was not yet. The hour called for hardy14 adventurous15 things, awakened16 out of their cold sleep on the rocks. The blue of the firmament17 was not dark summer blue but seemed the sky's first pale response to the sun. The sun was not rich summer gold but flashed silver rays. The ground scattered18 no odors; all was the budding youth of Nature on the rocks.
Paths wind hither and thither19 over this park hillside. Benches are placed at different levels along the way. If you are going up, you may rest; if you are coming down, you may linger; if neither going up nor coming down, you may with a book seek out some retreat of shade and coolness and keep at a distance the millions that rush and crush around the park as waters roar against some lone20 mid-ocean island.
About eleven o'clock that morning, on one of these benches placed where rock is steepest and forest trees stand close together and vines are rank with shade, a sociable-looking little fellow of some ten hardy well-buffeted years had sat down for the moment without a companion. He had thrown upon the bench beside him his sun-faded, rain-faded, shapeless cap, uncovering much bronzed hair; and as though by this simple act he had cleared the way for business, he thrust one capable-looking hand deep into one of his pockets. The fingers closed upon what they found there, like the meshes21 of a deep-sea net filled with its catch, and were slowly drawn22 to the surface. The catch consisted of one-cent and five-cent pieces, representing the sales of his morning papers. He counted the coins one by one over into the palm of the other hand, which then closed upon the total like another net, and dropped the treasure back into the deep sea of the other pocket.
His absorption in this process had been intense; his satisfaction with the result was complete. Perhaps after every act of successful banking24 there takes place in the mind of man, spendthrift and miser25, a momentary26 lull27 of energy, a kind of brief Pax vobiscum, O my soul and stomach, my twin masters of need and greed! And possibly, as the lad deposited his earnings28, he was old enough to enter a little way into this adult and despicable joy. Be this as it may, he was not the next instant up again and busy. He caught up his cap, dropped it not on his head but on one of his ragged29 knees; planted a sturdy hand on it and the other sturdy hand on the other knee; and with his sturdy legs swinging under the bench, toe kicking heel and heel kicking toe, he rested briefly30 from life's battle.
The signs of battle were thick on him, unmistakable. The palpable sign, the conqueror's sign, was the profits won in the struggle of the streets. The other signs may be set down as loss—dirt and raggedness31 and disorder32. His hair might never have been straightened out with a comb; his hands were not politely mentionable; his coarse shoes, which seemed to have been bought with the agreement that they were never to wear out, were ill-conditioned with general dust and the special grime of melted pitch from the typical contractor's cheapened asphalt; one of his stockings had a fresh rent and old rents enlarged their grievances33.
A single sign of victory was better even than the money in the pocket—the whole lad himself. He was strongly {31}built, frankly34 fashioned, with happy grayish eyes, which had in them some of the cold warrior35 blue of the sky that day; and they were set wide apart in a compact round head, which somehow suggested a bronze sphere on a column of triumph. Altogether he belonged to that hillside of nature, himself a human growth budding out of wintry fortunes into life's April, opening on the rocks hardy and all white.
But to sit there swinging his legs—this did not suffice to satisfy his heart, did not enable him to celebrate his instincts; and suddenly from his thicket36 of forest trees and greening bushes he began to pour forth37 a thrilling little tide of song, with the native sweetness of some human linnet unaware38 of its transcendent gift.
Up the steep hill a man not yet of middle age had mounted from the flats. He was on his way toward the parapet above. He came on slowly, hat in hand, perspiration39 on his forehead; that climb from base to summit stretches a healthy walker and does him good. At a turn of the road under the forest trees with shrubbery alongside he stopped suddenly, as a naturalist40 might pause with half-lifted foot beside a dense41 copse in which some unknown species of bird sang—a young bird just finding its notes.
It was his vocation42 to discover and to train voices. His definite work in music was to help perpetually to rebuild for the world that ever-sinking bridge of sound over which Faith aids itself in walking-toward the eternal. This bridge of falling notes is as Nature's bridge of falling drops: individual drops appear for an instant in the rainbow, then disappear, but century after century the great arch stands there on the sky unshaken. So throughout the ages the bridge of sacred music, in which individual voices are heard a little while and then are heard no longer, remains43 for man as one same structure of rock by which he passes over from the mortal to the immortal44.
Such was his life-work. As he now paused and listened, you might have interpreted his demeanor45 as that of a professional musician whose ears brought tidings that greatly astonished him. The thought had at once come to him of how the New York papers once in a while print a story of the accidental finding in it of a wonderful voice—in New York, where you can find everything that is human. He recalled throughout the history of music instances in which some one of the world's famous singers had been picked up on life's road where it was roughest. Was anything like this now to become his own experience? Falling on his ear was an unmistakable gift of song, a wandering, haunting, unidentified note under that early April blue. He had never heard anything like it. It was a singing soul.
Voice alone did not suffice for his purpose; the singer's face, personality, manners, some unfortunate strain in the blood, might debar the voice, block its acceptance, ruin everything. He almost dreaded46 to walk on, to explore what was ahead. But his road led that way, and three steps brought him around the woody bend of it.
There he stopped again. In an embrasure of rock on which vines were turning green, a little fellow, seasoned by wind and sun, with a countenance47 open and friendly, like the sky, was pouring out his full heart.
The instant the man came into view, the song was broken off. The sturdy figure started up and sprang forward with the instinct of business. When any one paused and looked questioningly at him, as this man now did, it meant papers and pennies. His inquiry48 was quite breathless:
"Do you want a paper, Mister? What paper do you want? I can get you one on the avenue in a minute."
He stood looking up at the man, alert, capable, fearless, ingratiating. The man had instantly taken note of the speaking voice, which is often a safer first criterion to go by than the singing voice itself. He pronounced it sincere, robust49, true, sweet, victorious50. And very quickly also he made up his mind that conditions must have been rare and fortunate with the lad at his birth:blood will tell, and blood told now even in this dirt and in these rags.
His reply bore testimony51 to how appreciative52 he felt of all that faced him there so humanly on the rock.
"Thank you," he said, "I have read the papers."
Having thus disposed of some of the lad's words, he addressed a pointed53 question to the rest:
"But how did you happen to call me mister? I thought boss was what you little New-Yorkers generally said."
"I'm not a New-Yorker," announced the lad, with ready courtesy and good nature. "I don't say boss. We are Southerners. I say mister."
He gave the man an unfavorable look as though of a mind to take his true measure; also as being of a mind to let the man know that he had not taken the boy's measure.
The man smiled at being corrected to such good purpose; but before he could speak again, the lad went on to clinch54 his correction:
"And I only say mister when I am selling papers and am not at home."
"What do you say when not selling papers and when you are at home?" asked the man, forced to a smile.
"I say 'sir,' if I say anything," retorted the lad, flaring55 up, but still polite.
The man looked at him with increasing interest. Another word in the lad's speech had caught his attention—Southerner.
That word had been with him a good deal in recent years; he had not quite seemed able to get away from it. Nearly all classes of people in New York who were not Southerners had been increasingly reminded that the Southerners were upon them. He had {38}satirically worked it out in his own mind that if he were ever pushed out of his own position, it would be some Southerner who pushed him. He sometimes thought of the whole New York professional situation as a public wonderful awful dinner at which almost nothing was served that did not have a Southern flavor as from a kind of pepper. The guests were bound to have administered to them their shares of this pepper; there was no getting away from the table and no getting the pepper out of the dinner. There was the intrusion of the South into every delicacy56.
"We are Southerners," the lad had announced decisively; and there the flavor was again, though this time as from a mere57 pepper-box in a school basket. Thus his next remark was addressed to his own thoughts as well as to the lad:
"And so you are a Southerner!" he reflected audibly, looking down at the Southern plague in small form.
"Why, yes, M............
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