"The Singing Lesson." by Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)
WITH despair–cold, sharp despair–buried deep in her heart like a wicked knife, Miss Meadows, in cap and gown and carrying a little baton, trod the cold corridors that led to the music hall. Girls of all ages, rosy from the air, and bubbling over with that gleeful excitement that comes from running to school on a fine autumn morning, hurried, skipped, fluttered by; from the hollow class-rooms came a quick drumming of voices; a bell rang; a voice like a bird cried, "Muriel." And then there came from the staircase a tremendous knock-knock-knocking. Someone had dropped her dumbbells.
The Science Mistress stopped Miss Meadows.
"Good mor-ning," she cried, in her sweet, affected drawl. "Isn't it cold? It might be win-ter."
Miss Meadows, hugging the knife, stared in hatred at the Science Mistress. Everything about her was sweet, pale, like honey. You wold not have been surprised to see a bee caught in the tangles of that yellow hair.
"It is rather sharp," said Miss Meadows, grimly.
The other smiled her sugary smile.
"You look fro-zen," said she. Her blue eyes [Page 202] opened wide; there came a mocking light in them. (Had she noticed anything?)
"Oh, not quite as bad as that," said Miss Meadows, and she gave the Science Mistress, in exchange for her smile, a quick grimace and passed on. . . .
Forms Four, Five, and Six were assembled in the music hall. The noise was deafening. On the platform, by the piano, stood Mary Beazley, Miss Meadows's favourite, who played accompaniments. She was turning the music stool. When she saw Miss Meadows she gave a loud, warning "Sh-sh! Girls"! and Miss Meadows, her hands thrust in her sleeves, the baton under her arm, strode down the centre aisle, mounted the steps, turned sharply, seized the brass music stand, planted it in front of her, and gave two sharp taps with her baton for silence.
"Silence, please! Immediately!" and, looking at nobody, her glance swept over that sea of coloured flannel blouses, with bobbing pink faces and hands, quivering butterfly hair-bows, and music-books outspread. She knew perfectly well what they were thinking. "Meady is in a wax." Well, let them think it! Her eyelids quivered; she tossed her head, defying them. What could the thoughts of those creatures matter to some one who stood there bleeding to death, pierced to the heart, to the heart, by such a letter–
. . . "I feel more and more strongly that our [Page 203] marriage would be a mistake. Not that I do not love you. I love you as much as it is possible for me to love any woman, but, truth to tell, I have come to the conclusion that I am not a marrying man, and the idea of settling down fills me with nothing but–" and the word "disgust" was scratched out lightly and "regret" written over the top.
Basil! Miss Meadows stalked over to the piano. And Mary Beazley, who was waiting for this moment, bent forward; her curls fell over her cheeks while she breathed, "Good morning, Miss Meadows," and she motioned towards rather than handed to her mistress a beautiful yellow chrysanthemum. This little ritual of the flower had been gone through for ages and ages, quite a term and a half. It was as much part of the lesson as opening the piano. But this morning, instead of taking it up, instead of tucking it into her belt while she leant over Mary and said, "Thank you, Mary. How very nice! Turn to page thirty-two," what was Mary's horror when Miss Meadows totally ignored the chrysanthemum, made no reply to her greeting, but said in a voice of ice, "Page fourteen, please, and mark the accents well."
Staggering moment! Mary blushed until the tears stood in her eyes, but Miss Meadows was gone back to the music stand; her voice rang through the music hall.
"Page fourteen. We will begin with page four- [Page 204] teen. 'A Lament.' Now, girls, you ought to know it by this time. We shall take it all together; not in parts, all together. And without expression. Sing it, though, quite simply, beating time with the left hand."
She raised the baton; she tapped the music stand twice. Down came Mary on the opening chord; down came all those left hands, beating the air, and in chimed those young, mournful voices:–
Fast! Ah, too Fast Fade the Ro-o-ses of Pleasure;
Soon Autumn yields unto Wi-i-nter Drear.
Fleetly! Ah, Fleetly Mu-u-sic's Gay Measure
Passes away from the Listening Ear.
Good Heavens, what could be more tragic than that lament! Every note was a sigh, a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness. Miss Meadows lifted her arms in the wide gown and began conducting with both hands. ". . . I feel more and more strongly that our marriage would be a mistake. . . " she beat. And the voices cried: Fleetly! Ah, Fleetly. What could have possessed him to write such a letter! What could have led up to it! It came out of nothing. His last letter had been all about a fumed-oak bookcase he had bought for "our" books, and a "natty little hall-stand" he had seen, "a very neat affair with a carved owl on a bracket, holding three hat-brushes in its claws." How she had smiled at that! So like a [Page 205] man to think one needed three hat-brushes! From the Listening Ear, sang the voices.
"Once again," said Miss Meadows. "But this time in parts. Still without expression." Fast! Ah, too Fast. With the gloom of the contraltos added, one could scarcely help shuddering. Fade the Roses of Pleasure. Last time he had come to see her, Basil had worn a rose in his buttonhole. How handsome he had looked in that bright blue suit, with that dark red rose! And he knew it, too. He couldn't help knowing it. First he stroked his hair, then his moustache; his teeth gleamed when he smiled.
"The headmaster's wife keeps on asking me to dinner. It's a perfect nuisance. I never get an evening to myself in that place."
"But can't you refuse?"
"Oh, well, it doesn't do for a man in my position to be unpopular."
Music's Gay Measure, wailed the voices. The willow trees, outside the high, narrow windows, waved in the wind. They had lost half their leaves. The tiny ones that clung wriggled like fishes caught on a line. ". . . I am not a marrying man. . . ." The voices were silent; the piano waited.
"Quite good," said Miss Meadows, but still in such a strange, stony tone that the younger girls began to feel positively frightened. "But now that we know it, we shall take it with expression. As [Page 206] much expression as you can put into it. Think of the words, girls. Use your imaginations. Fast! Ah, too Fast," cried Miss Meadows. "That ought to break out–a loud, strong forte –a lament. And then in the second line, Winter Drear, make that Drear sound as if a cold wind were blowing through it. Dre-ear! " said she, so awfully that Mary Beazley, on the music stool, wriggled her spine. "The third line should be one crescendo. Fleetly! Ah, Fleetly Music's Gay Measure. Breaking on the first word of the last line, Passes. And then on the word, Away, you must begin to die . . . to fade . . . until The Listening Ear is nothing more than a faint whisper. . . . You can slow down as much as you like almost on the last line. Now, please."
Again the two light taps; she lifted her arms again. Fast! Ah, too Fast. ". . . and the idea of settling down fills me with nothing but disgust–" Disgust was what he had written. That was as good as to say their engagement was definitely broken off. Broken off! Their engagement! People had been surprised enough that she had got engaged. The Science Mistress would not believe it at first. But nobody had been as surprised as she. She was thirty. Basil was twenty-five. It had been a miracle, simply a miracle, to hear him say, as they walked home from church that very dark night, "You know, somehow or other, I've got fond of you." And he had taken hold of the end [Page 207] of her ostrich feather boa. Passes away from the Listening Ear.
"Repeat! Repeat!" said Miss Meadows. "More expression, girls! Once more!"
Fast! Ah, too Fast. The older girls were crimson; some of the younger ones began to cry. Big spots of rain blew against the windows, and one could hear the willows whispering, ". . . not that I do not love you. . . "
"But, my darling, if you love me," thought Miss Meadows, "I don't mind how much it is. Love me as little as you like." But she knew he didn't love her. Not to have cared enough to scratch out that word "disgust," so that she couldn't read it! Soon Autumn yields unto Winter Drear. She would have to leave the school, too. She could never face the Science Mistress or the girls after it got known. She would have to disappear somewhere. Passes away. The voices began to die, to fade, to whisper . . . to vanish. . . .
Suddenly the door opened. A little girl in blue walked fussily up the aisle, hanging her head, biting her lips, and twisting the silver bangle on her red little wrist. She came up the steps and stood before Miss Meadows.
"Well, Monica, what is it?"
"Oh, if you please, Miss Meadows," said the little girl, gasping, "Miss Wyatt wants to see you in the mistress's room."
"Very well," said Miss Meadows. And she [Page 208] called to the girls, "I shall put you on your honor to talk quietly while I am away." But they were too subdued to do anything else. Most of them were blowing their noses.
The corridors were silent and cold; they echoed to Miss Meadows' steps. The head mistress sat at her desk. For a moment she did not look up. She was as usual disentangling her eyeglasses, which had got caught in her lace tie. "Sit down, Miss Meadows," she said very kindly. And then she picked up a pink envelope from the blotting-pad. "I sent for you just now because this telegram has come for you."
"A telegram for me, Miss Wyatt?"
Basil! He had committed suicide, decided Miss Meadows. Her hand flew out, but Miss Wyatt held the telegram back a moment. "I hope it's not bad news," she said, so more than kindly. And Miss Meadows tore it open.
"Pay no attention to letter, must have been mad, bought hat-stand to-day–Basil," she read. She couldn't take her eyes off the telegram.
"I do hope it's nothing very serious," said Miss Wyatt, leaning forward.
"Oh, no, thank you, Miss Wyatt," blushed Miss Meadows. "It's nothing bad at all. It's"–and she gave an apologetic little laugh–"it's from my fiancésaying that . . . saying that–" There was a pause. "I see," said Miss Wyatt. And another pause. Then–"You've fifteen minutes [Page 209] more of your class, Miss Meadows, haven't you?"
"Yes, Miss Wyatt." She got up. She half ran towards the door.
"Oh, just one minute, Miss Meadows," said Miss Wyatt. "I must say I don't approve of my teachers having telegrams sent to them in school hours, unless in case of very bad news, such as death," explained Miss Wyatt, "or a very serious accident, or something to that effect. Good news, Miss Meadows, will always keep, you know."
On the wings of hope, of love, of joy, Miss Meadows sped back to the music hall, up the aisle, up the steps, over to the piano.
"Page thirty-two, Mary," she said, "page thirty-two," and picking up the yellow chrysanthemum, she held it to her lips to hide her smile. Then she turned to the girls, rapped with her baton: "Page thirty-two, girls. Page thirty-two."
We come here To-day with Flowers o'erladen,
With Baskets of Fruit and Ribbons to boot,
To-oo Congratulate. . . .
"Stop! Stop!" cried Miss Meadows. "This is awful. This is dreadful." And she beamed at her girls. "What's the matter with you all? Think, girls, think of what you're singing. Use your imaginations. With Flowers o'erladen. Baskets of Fruit and Ribbons to boot. And Congratulate." Miss Meadows broke off. "Don't look so doleful, girls. It ought to sound warm, joyful, eager. [Page 210] Congratulate. Once more. Quickly. All together. Now then!"
And this time Miss Meadows' voice sounded over all the other voices–full, deep, glowing with expression.
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