The Shagganappi

by Emily Pauline Johnson



The Broken String


    ARCHIE ANDERSON was lying on the lounge that was just hidden from the front room by a bend of the folding doors. He was utterly tired out, with that unreasonable weariness that comes from what most of his boy chums called “doing nothing.” He had been standing still, practising for two hours steadily, and his throbbing head and weakening knees finally conquered his energy. He flung himself down among the pillows, his violin and bow on a nearby chair. Then a voice jarred on every nerve of his sensitive body; it was a lady’s voice in the next room, and she was saying to his mother:
    “And how is poor Archie to-day?”
    “Poor Archie!” How he hated to be called “poor” Archie!
    His mother’s voice softened as she replied: “Oh, he’s pretty well to-day; his head aches and he seems to be weak, but he has been practising all the morning.
    “He must be a great care and anxiety to you,” said the caller.
    Archie shuddered at the words.
    “Only a sweet care,” said his mother. “I am always hoping he will outgrow his delicate health.”
    Archie groaned. How horribly like a girl it was to be “delicate.”
    “I think,” went on the caller, raspingly, “that a frail boy is a care. One depends so on one’s sons to be a strength to one in old age; to help in their father’s business, and things like that—unless of course one has money.” [Page 147]
    The harsh voice ceased, and Archie felt in his soul that the speaker was glancing meaningly about the bare little parlor of his father’s house. He could have hugged his mother as he heard her say: “Oh, well, Trig and Dudley will help their father; and none of us grudge Archie his inability to help, or his music lessons either.”
    “I should think his violin and his books and lessons would be a great expense to you,” proceeded the caller.
    “Nothing is an expense that fills his life and helps him to forget he is shut away from the other boys and their jolly sports, just because he is not strong enough to participate in them,” replied his mother, with a slight chill in her voice at her visitor’s impertinence.
    Presently the caller left, and Mrs. Anderson, slipping through the folding doors, saw Archie outstretched on the pillows. She bent over him with great concern; her eyes read every expression of his face, every attitude of his languid body.
    “Archie, you didn’t hear?” she asked, pleadingly.
    “I’m afraid I did, motherette,” he said, springing up with unusual spirit.
    He stood before her, a head taller than herself, his thin form frail as a flower, his long, slim fingers twitching, his wonderful, wistful eyes and sensitive mouth revealing all the artist nature of man of thirty, instead of a boy of fourteen. He was on the point of flaring out with indignation against the visitor, but his lack of physical strength seemed to crowd upon him just at that moment. He sank upon the lounge again, and with his face against Mrs. Anderson’s arm, said: “Thank you, motherette, for fighting for me. Perhaps even with all this miserable ill-health of mine I can fight for you some day.”
    “Of course you will, dear,” she replied cheerily. “Don’t you mind what they say; you know ‘Hock’ always stands by you, and he’s as good as your mother to fight for you.”
    “Dear old ‘Hock!’ Decent old ‘Hock!” he said admiringly. [Page 148] “He’s the best boy in the world, but he is not you, motherette.”
    “There he is now!” said Mrs. Anderson, as a piercing whistle assailed the window, followed by a round, red face, a skinning sunburnt nose, and an assertive voice, saying, “I’ll just come in this way, Arch.” And a leg was flung over the window sill. “It’s easier than goin’ round by the door.”
    “Hock” prided himself on being a “sport,” and he certainly looked one—thick-knit legs, sturdy ankles, a short, chunky neck, hands with a grip like a vise, a big, good-natured dimpling mouth, eyes that were narrow and twinkling, muscles as hard as nails, and thirteen years old, but imaging himself eighteen. He had been christened “Albert Edward,” but fortune smiled upon him, making him the champion junior hockey player of the county, so the royal name was discarded with glee, and henceforth he was known far and wide as “Hock” McHenry.
    The friendship between Hock and Archie was the wonder of the town. Some people said, “Hock is so coarse and loud and slangy, I don’t see how Archie Anderson can have anything to do with him.” Others said: “Archie is so frail and sensitive, and so wrapped up in his music, how can Hock find anything in him that is jolly, and boyish, and congenial?” But Hock’s people and Archie’s people knew that one supplied what the other lacked. For so often this conversation between the two boys would be overheard. Archie’s plaintive voice would say: “Oh, Hock, it is so good to have you around; you make me forget that I can’t play hockey and football with the rest of the kids! You play it for me as well as for yourself. I’m such a dub; laid up sick half the time.”
    And Hock would frequently be heard to remark: “Say, Arch, do you know if it weren’t for you I’d grow into a regular tough. You kind of keep me straight, and—oh, well, straight and all that!”
    And so the odd friendship went on, Hock attending [Page 149] his school daily—the acknowledged leader of all the sports and mischief that existed; Archie getting to school about two days out of every five, yet managing through his hours of illness to mount week by week, month by month, up, up, up in his music.
    “I won’t always be an expense at home, and have dad keep me as if I were a girl,” Archie would tell himself on his good strong days when he felt he had accomplished something with his violin. “I can feel the music growing right in my fingers. I feel I’ll play to thousands yet—thousands of people and thousands of dollars.” Then perhaps a fit of coughing would come on, and the boy would grow discouraged again, but only until Hock appeared on his daily round, and plumping his sturdy person into a chair would tell all the news, and finish with, “Say, Arch, fiddle for a fellow, won’t you?”
    And while Archie played, Hock would sit quietly looking out of the window, vowing to himself he would give up slang, and go to Sunday-school regularly, and not shoot craps any more behind the barn with boys his father had expressed a wish not to have around the place. In after years Hock knew what made him have these good impulses while he listened to Archie’s playing. He knew that a great and beautiful art—the art of music—was inborn in his chum; that the wild, melancholy voice of the violin was bringing out the best in them both.

*         *         *         *         *         *

    It was summer time. The little Canadian city where they lived, which stretched its length along the borders of the great lake, became a very popular resort for holiday makers, and many Southerners flocked to the two large hotels, seeking the cooler air of the North. Ball and tennis matches and regattas made the little city very gay, and the season was swinging at its height when one night Hock’s burly voice heralded his legs through the window of the Anderson parlor. Evidently he was greatly excited, for he shouted at the top of his lungs that the east [Page 150] end factory was on fire, with a dozen operators cut off from the stairs and elevators, and that his father, who was foreman, was begging on all sides for volunteers to rescue the people from the top story. In the twinkling of an eye Hock was off again with crowds of running men and boys; the fire engines went clanging past with the rattle and roar of galloping horses and shouting men. Never had Archie Anderson felt his frailty as he felt it at this moment. The very news made him almost faint, but he started to run with the crowd until his shortening breath and incessant coughing compelled him to return home, where he flung himself down on the doorstep, burying his throbbing forehead in his hands and saying: “Oh! I’m no good! I can never hope to be a man! I’m not even a boy! I seem to myself like a baby!”
    Late at night his father and brothers returned, all begrimed with soot and ashes. They had worked valiantly with the firemen and rescuers, saving life after life. But with all their courage and pluck they could not save big Tom Morris, who perished in the flames just because he insisted upon others and weaker ones being saved first.
    For days the town was plunged in gloom. Everyone liked Tom Morris, and everyone’s heart ached for his little widow and her three small children, left penniless. Then the only pleasant thing in connection with the disaster occurred. The kindly visitors at the summer hotels began getting up a huge benefit concert, the proceeds of which were to be presented to Mrs. Tom and her babies. Hock heard of it first—nothing ever escaped his lynx-like ears. Astride the window-sill he communicated his gossip to Archie something in this fashion:
    “Say, Arch, they’re going to have the best performance. Miss Van Alstine from New York is going to sing, and some long-haired fellow at one of the hotels is going to play the piano—they say he’s great; and oh! say, Arch, did you ever hear of a great fiddler name Ventnor?” [Page 151]
    “Only the world-renowned Ventnor,” said Archie. “Why do you ask, Hock?”
    “Well, he’s the one! ‘Greatest on earth,’ they say. Gets thousands of dollars every night he fiddles. He’s staying at the Lake View Hotel, and—”
    “Ventnor here!” fairly screamed Archie. “The great Ventnor! Oh, Hock, is he going to play?”
    “Yes, he is!” said Hock, smacking his lips together with glee that something had at last taken Archie out of himself and made him forget his frailty, if only for a moment, “Yes, siree,” continued Hock. “He’s going to play three times. Heard him say so myself when they asked him on the beach this morning. He speaks the tanglest-legged English you ever heard. He said, ‘Me, I holiday; me, I not blay when I holiday.’ Then a batch of ladies tried to explain things to him, and when his Russian-Italian-French brain got around things, he up with his hands and ran them through his long gray hair and wagged his head, and said, ‘Me, I understand! Me, I don’t blay money when I holiday, but me, I blay for unfortunate beeples. I blay dree times.’ Oh, it was funny, Arch!”
    “Funny!” said Archie. “Funny! Hock, I’ll knock you down if you call Ventnor ‘funny.’ Why, it’s the most beautiful thing in the world for him to do. Oh, Hock! and to think that at last I will hear him!”
    “I never heard tell of him before,” observed Hock, with evident pride in his ignorance.
    “There’s no greater violinist in the world, Hock,” replied Archie with enthusiasm. His cheeks were scarlet, his eyes sparkling, his thin hands trembling with excitement.
    “Well, I’m not keen on hearing anyone fiddle any better than you do,” Hock answered soberly. “Whenever you fiddle you just give me the jim-jams, with the creeps going up and down my back; and what’s worse, I always have to blow my nose when you get through.” [Page 152]
    “What a good chap you are, Hock! You make me believe in myself. Perhaps I really will amount to something some day,” replied Archie, warmly.
    “Betcherlife!” said the sturdy one. “Well, so-long! I’m glad you’ll hear the big violin player, Arch, if you really have been wanting to.”
    Wanting to! Archie Anderson had longed to hear Ventnor ever since he first drew a bow across the strings. He could hardly wait until the night of the great concert. Owing to the extreme heat of the summer he had been taking his lessons late in the evening, but on this eventful night his teacher, himself anxious to go, told Archie to come at seven o’clock; he could then give him a full hour, and the lesson would be over in plenty of time for them both to attend the concert at half-past eight. The lesson was trying and the excitement was beginning to tell on the boy, so, without returning home, he went straight to the hall, his violin case tucked under his arm. Purposely he had engaged a seat in the very first row; he wanted to watch the great master’s marvellous fingers, as well as drink in the music they made. Even at eight o’clock the hall was so packed that he could hardly get through the aisles. The excellence of the programme, as well as the charitable object, had drawn out the entire town, and Archie took his seat fearful that the overpowering summer heat and crowded hall would be his undoing. He did no even hear the opening piano solo by the “long-haired fellow,” as Hock had called him, nor did he rhapsodize over handsome Miss Van Alstine, whose wonderful gown and thrilling voice captured the audience. It was only when a slender, dark, elderly man stepped down to the footlights with a violin in his long, thin hands that Archie sat bolt upright, his eyes blazing with excitement, his breath catching in his throat.
    The great man’s face was fine as an engraving, with a melancholy mouth, and eyes that burned like black fires. He stood a brief second, gave his head, crowned with [Page 153] long, gray hair, a quick, nervous toss, and drew his bow across the strings softly, sweetly, with a heart-breaking sound that fell on his listeners like the sob of a thousand winds. For five minutes he held them spellbound. It was only when he half smiled and stepped into the stage wings that they realized that it was over. Then with one accord the entire audience broke into a storm of applause—all but Archie, who sat with locked fingers and tense face; for the life of him he could not move a single muscle—he was simply paralyzed with pleasure; at last he had listened to music!
    It was nearing the end of the programme, and Ventnor had stepped forth to play his last number. It was a wild, eerie Hungarian air, that wailed and whispered like a lost child, then mounted up, up, louder, louder, a perfect hurricane of melody, when—suddenly a sharp crack like a pistol shot cut the air. The music ceased—one of the violin strings had snapped. At another time the great man would have finished the number on the three remaining strings, but the heat, the lax practice of a holiday season—something, or perhaps everything combined, for the instant overcame him. He stood like an awkward child, gazing down at the trailing, useless string.
    Instantly Archie’s sensitive brain grasped the whole situation. Ventnor’s business manager was not with him; he had not brought a second violin. Like a flash Archie whipped his own out of its case. He had just come from his lesson; it was in perfect tune. Before the shy, frail boy knew what he was actually doing he was beside the footlights, handing his own violin up to the great master, whose wonderful eyes gazed down into the small, pale face, and whose hand immediately reached out, grasping the poor, cheap little fiddle that Archie had learned his scales on. The audience broke into applause, but with a single glance Ventnor stilled them, and dashed straight into the melody precisely where he had left off.
    Archie could hardly believe his ears. Was that his old [Page 154] thirty-dollar fiddle? That marvellous thing that murmured, and wept, and laughed under the master hand! Oh! the voice of it! The voice of it!
    They would not let Ventnor go when he smiled himself off the stage. They called and shouted, “Encore!” “Encore!” until he returned to respond—respond, not with his own priceless instrument, but with Archie’s, and with a grace and kindliness that only a great man possesses. He played a good-night lullaby on the boy’s cheap little violin, and, moreover, played it as he never had before. Archie remembered afterwards that he had presence of mind enough to get on his feet when they all sang “God Save the King,” but it really seemed a dream that Ventnor was shaking hands with him and saying, “I t’ank you, me; I t’ank you. You save me great awkwardness.” And then, before he knew it, he had promised to go to the hotel the next day and play for Ventnor.
    All the way home he was thinking, “Fancy it!—I, Archie Anderson, asked to play before Ventnor!” Then came the fuss and the delight of the people at home over his good fortune, but he soon slipped away to bed, exhausted with the evening’s events. His mother, coming into the room later to say good-night, saw that close to his bed, on a table where he could reach out and touch it during the night, lay his violin.
    “Motherette,” he smiled happily, “I feel that it is consecrated.”
    “Keep it so, little lad of mine. Keep both your music and your violin consecrated.”

*         *         *         *         *         *

    Never had Archie played so well, for all his shyness and nervousness. He seemed to gather something of the great man’s soul as he played before him at the hotel the following day.
    Ventnor became greatly excited. “Boy, boy!” he cried, “you have a great music in you! You must have [Page 155] study and work, like—what is it you Canadians say?—like Sam Hill!”
    “Yes,” said Archie, quietly; “rainy days and east wind days, when I coughed and could not go to school, I worked, and—well, I just worked.”
    “Me, I should t’ink you did! Why, boy, I will make you great. I will teach you all this summer.”

    “I’m afraid my father can’t afford that,” faltered Archie.
    “Me, I tell you I holiday now. I take no money in my holiday. I teach you because I like you, me,” replied the master, irritably.
    “But I can never repay you,” answered Archie.

    “Me, I will give to the world a great musician; it is you! That’s repay enough for me—the satisfaction of making one great violinist. That’s repay.”
    And so it all came about. Day after day Ventnor taught, trained and encouraged Archie Anderson. Day after day the boy drew greater music from the heart of his fiddle. He seemed to stride ahead under the power of the master; and as for Ventnor, he seemed beside himself with joy at what he called his “find.” They grew to be friends. Archie confided his great discouragement of ill-health, his inability to attend school.
    “Me, I fix all that,” answered Ventnor. “Me, I go see to-night your parents. I talk to them.” And he did, but his “talk” amazed even the boy. He wanted Archie to go with him to California, where his autumn season began. He wanted to adopt him, to take him away for two years. He gesticulated, and raised his eyebrows, and talked down every objection they had.
    “I tell you I want him. I make a virtuoso of him. He is my boy. I discover him. He’s good boy; he work, work, work. Never do I see a boy work like dat. He is in earnest. Dat is de greatest t’ing a boy can have, to be earnest. It make him a great, good man. He’s not selfish either. He not t’ink of himself, only other beeple. I meet with misfortune. I break my string. [Page 156] He lend me his violin. Me, I’m selfish. I don’t lend my violin to not a person. No, not even the King of England. Den, too, Archie, his throat and lungs, and his physique, it is not strong, not robust. I take him hot country, warm California. He get strong.”
    This last argument was too much for Archie’s family. They yielded, and when Ventnor left for the West the boy went with him. He never missed a week writing home or to “Hock,” and at the end of two years he returned. In his pocket was a signed contract as “first violin” in the finest orchestra of a great Southern city. He had left his cough with his short trousers in California, and had outgrown as much of his frailness as a boy of his temperament ever can. The day he left to fill his engagements the lady called who used to speak of him as “poor Archie, he’s such an expense to his parents,” and sat talking to Mrs. Anderson in the little parlor. Trig had just secured a “situation,” and the caller was asking about it.
    “Yes,” replied Mrs. Anderson, “Trig has done very well. He gets six dollars a week now, and Dudley, you know, gets ten.” Then with pardonable asperity she added:
    “Archie is doing a little better, however; he’s getting seventy-five dollars a week to start on. He has already paid his father back every copper ever spent on his tuition.”
    “Archie! Seventy-five dollars a week! Why, he is hardly seventeen! How ever did he do it?” exclaimed the visitor.
    “Hock, dear loyal old Hock, says it’s because Archie is the very best boy in the world,” replied Mrs. Anderson, laughingly, “but I say it was the result of a broken string.” [Page 157]