A Village Stradivarius by Kate Douglas Wiggin
"Goodfellow, Puck and goblins,
"Find the three hundred and seventeenth page, Davy, and begin at the top of the right-hand column."
The boy turned the leaves of the old instruction book obediently, and then began to read in a sing-song, monotonous tone:
"'One of Pag-pag'" -
"'One of Paggernyner's' (I wish all the fellers in your stories didn't have such tough old names!) 'most dis-as-ter-ous triumphs he had when playing at Lord Holland's.' (Who was Lord Holland, uncle Tony?) 'Some one asked him to im-provise on the violin the story of a son who kills his father, runs a-way, becomes a high-way-man, falls in love with a girl who will not listen to him; so he leads her to a wild country site, suddenly jumping with her from a rock into an a-b- y-s-s'"
"'--a--rock--into--an--abyss, where they disappear for ever. Paggernyner listened quietly, and when the story was at an end he asked that all the lights should be distinguished.'"
"Look closer, Davy."
"'Should be extinguished. He then began playing, and so terrible was the musical in-ter-pre-ta-tion of the idea which had been given him that several of the ladies fainted, and the sal-salon-sAlon, when relighted, looked like a battle-field.' Cracky! Wouldn't you like to have been there, uncle Tony? But I don't believe anybody ever played that way, do you?"
"Yes," said the listener, dreamily raising his sightless eyes to the elm-tree that grew by the kitchen door. "I believe it, and I can hear it myself when you read the story to me. I feel that the secret of everything in the world that is beautiful, or true, or terrible, is hidden in the strings of my violin, Davy, but only a master can draw it from captivity."
"You make stories on your violin, too, uncle Tony, even if the ladies don't faint away in heaps, and if the kitchen doesn't look like a battle-field when you've finished. I'm glad it doesn't, for my part, for I should have more housework to do than ever."
"Poor Davy! you couldn't hate housework any worse if you were a woman; but it is all done for to-day. Now paint me one of your pictures, laddie; make me see with your eyes."
The boy put down the book and leaped out of the open door, barely touching the old millstone that served for a step. Taking a stand in the well-worn path, he rested his hands on his hips, swept the landscape with the glance of an eagle, and began like a young improvisator:
"The sun is just dropping behind Brigadier Hill."
"What colour is it?"
"Red as fire, and there isn't anything near it--it's almost alone in the sky; there's only teeny little white feather clouds here and there. The bridge looks as if it was a silver string tying the two sides of the river together. The water is pink where the sun shines into it. All the leaves of the trees are kind of swimming in the red light--I tell you, nunky, just as if I was looking through red glass. The weather vane on Squire Bean's barn dazzles so the rooster seems to be shooting gold arrows into the river. I can see the tip top of Mount Washington where the peak of its snow-cap touches the pink sky. The hen-house door is open. The chickens are all on their roost, with their heads cuddled under their wings."
"Did you feed them?"
The boy clapped his hand over his mouth with a comical gesture of penitence, and dashed into the shed for a panful of corn, which he scattered over the ground, enticing the sleepy fowls by insinuating calls of "Chick, chick, chick, chick! Come, biddy, biddy, biddy, biddy! Come, chick, chick, chick, chick, chick!"
The man in the doorway smiled as over the misdemeanour of somebody very dear and lovable, and rising from his chair felt his way to a corner shelf, took down a box, and drew from it a violin swathed in a silk bag. He removed the covering with reverential hands. The tenderness of his face was like that of a young mother dressing or undressing her child. As he fingered the instrument his hands seemed to have become all eyes. They wandered caressingly over the polished surface as if enamoured of the perfect thing that they had created, lingering here and there with rapturous tenderness on some special beauty--the graceful arch of the neck, the melting curves of the cheeks, the delicious swell of the breasts.
When he had satisfied himself for the moment, he took the bow, and lifting the violin under his chin, inclined his head fondly toward it and began to play.
The tone at first seemed muffled, but had a curious bite, that began in distant echoes, but after a few minutes' playing grew firmer and clearer, ringing out at last with velvety richness and strength until the atmosphere was satiated with harmony. No more ethereal note ever flew out of a bird's throat than Anthony Croft set free from this violin, his liebling, his "swan song," made in the year he had lost his eyesight.
Anthony Croft had been the only son of his mother, and she a widow. His boyhood had been exactly like that of all the other boys in Edgewood, save that he hated school a trifle more, if possible, than any of the others; though there was a unanimity of aversion in this matter that surprised and wounded teachers and parents.
The school was the ordinary district school of that time; there were not enough scholars for what Cyse Higgins called a "degraded" school. The difference between Anthony and the other boys lay in the reason for as well as the degree of his abhorrence.
He had come into the world a naked, starving human soul; he longed to clothe himself, and he was hungry and ever hungrier for knowledge; but never within the four walls of the village schoolhouse could he seize hold of one fact that would yield him its secret sense, one glimpse of clear light that would shine in upon the darkness of his mind, one thought or word that would feed his soul.
The only place where his longings were ever stilled, where he seemed at peace with himself, where he understood what he was made for, was out of doors in the woods. When he should have been poring over the sweet, palpitating mysteries of the multiplication table, his vagrant gaze was always on the open window near which he sat. He could never study when a fly buzzed on the window-pane; he was always standing on the toes of his bare feet, trying to locate and understand the buzz that puzzled him. The book was a mute, soulless thing that had no relation to his inner world of thought and feeling. He turned ever from the dead seven-times-six to the mystery of life about him.
He was never a special favourite with his teachers; that was scarcely to be expected. In his very early years, his pockets were gone through with every morning when he entered the school door, and the contents, when confiscated, would comprise a jew's-harp, a bit of catgut, screws whittled out of wood, tacks, spools, pins, and the like. But when robbed of all these he could generally secrete a fragment of india-rubber drawn from an old pair of suspenders, and this, when put between his teeth and stretched to its utmost capacity, would yield a delightful twang when played upon with the forefinger. He could also fashion an interesting musical instrument in his desk by means of spools and catgut and bits of broken glass. The chief joy of his life was an old tuning-fork that the teacher of the singing-school had given him, but, owing to the degrading and arbitrary censorship of pockets that prevailed, he never dared bring it into the schoolroom. There were ways, however, of evading inexorable law and circumventing base injustice. He hid the precious thing under a thistle just outside the window. The teacher had sometimes a brief season of apathy on hot afternoons, when she was hearing the primer class read, "I see a pig. The pig is big. The big pig can dig"; which stirring phrases were always punctuated by the snores of the Hanks baby, who kept sinking down on his fat little legs in the line and giving way to slumber during the lesson. At such a moment Anthony slipped out of the window and snapped the tuning-fork several times--just enough to save his soul from death-- and then slipped in again. He was caught occasionally, but not often; and even when he was, there were mitigating circumstances, for he was generally put under the teacher's desk for punishment. It was a dark close, sultry spot, but when he was well seated, and had grown tired of looking at the triangle of black elastic in the teacher's "congress" shoe, and tired of wishing it was his instead of hers, he would tie one end of a bit of thread to the button of his gingham shirt, and, carrying it round his left ear several times, make believe he was Paganini languishing in prison and playing on a violin with a single string.
As he grew older there was no marked improvement, and Tony Croft was by general assent counted the laziest boy in the village. That he was lazy in certain matters merely because he was in a frenzy of industry to pursue certain others had nothing to do with the case, of course.
If any one had ever given him a task in which he could have seen cause working to effect, in which he could have found by personal experiment a single fact that belonged to him, his own by divine right of discovery, he would have counted labour or study all joy.
He was one incarnate Why and How; one brooding wonder and interrogation point. "Why does the sun drive away the stars? Why do the leaves turn red and gold? What makes the seed swell in the earth? From whence comes the life hidden in the egg under the bird's breast? What holds the moon in the sky? Who regulates her shining? Who moves the wind? Who made me, and what am I? Who, why, how, whither? If I came from God but only lately, teach me his lessons first, put me into vital relation with life and law, and then give me your dead signs and equivalents for real things, that I may learn more and more, and ever more and ever more." These were the questions his eager soul was always asking of the outer world.
There was no spirit in Edgewood bold enough to conceive that Tony learned anything in the woods, but as there was never sufficient school money to keep the village seat of learning open more than half the year, the boy educated himself at the fountain head of wisdom and knowledge the other half. His mother, who owned him for a duckling hatched from a hen's egg, and was never quite sure he would not turn out a black sheep and a crooked stick to boot, was obliged to confess that Tony had more useless information than any boy in the village. He knew just where to find the first Mayflowers, and would bring home the waxen beauties when other people had scarcely begun to think about the spring. He could tell where to look for the rare fringed gentian, the yellow violet, the Indian pipe. There were clefts in the high rocks by the river side where, when every one else failed, he could find harebells and columbines.
When his tasks were done, and the other boys were amusing themselves each in his own way, you would find Tony lying flat on the pine- needles in the woods, listening to the notes of the wild birds, and imitating them patiently, till you could scarcely tell which was boy and which was bird; and if you could, the birds couldn't, for many a time he coaxed the bobolinks and thrushes to perch on the low boughs above his head, where they chirped to him as if he were a feathered brother. There was nothing about the building of nests with which he was not familiar. He could have helped in the task, if the birds had not been so shy, and if he had possessed beak and claw instead of clumsy fingers. He would sit near a beehive for hours without moving, or lie prone in the sandy road, under the full glare of the sun, watching the ants acting out their human comedy; sometimes surrounding a favourite hill with stones, that the comedy might not be turned into tragedy by a careless footfall. The cottage on the river road grew more and more to resemble a museum and herbarium as the years went by, and the Widow Croft's weekly house-cleaning was a matter that called for the exercise of Christian grace.
Still, Tony was a good son, affectionate, considerate, and obedient. His mother had no idea that he would ever be able, or indeed willing, to make a living; but there was a forest of young timber growing up, a small hay farm to depend upon, and a little hoard that would keep him out of the poorhouse when she died and left him to his own devices. It never occurred to her that he was in any way remarkable. If he were difficult to understand, it reflected more upon his eccentricity than upon her density. What was a woman to do with a boy of twelve who, when she urged him to drop the old guitar he was taking apart and hurry off to school, cried, "Oh, mother! when there is so much to learn in this world, it is wicked, wicked, to waste time in school."
About this period Tony spent hours in the attic arranging bottles and tumblers into a musical scale. He also invented an instrument made of small and great, long and short pins, driven into soft board to different depths, and when the widow passed his door on the way to bed she invariably saw this barbaric thing locked to the boy's breast, for he often played himself to sleep with it.
At fifteen he had taken to pieces and put together again, strengthened, soldered, mended, and braced, every accordion, guitar, melodeon, dulcimer, and fiddle in Edgewood, Pleasant River, and the neighbouring villages. There was a little money to be earned in this way, but very little, as people in general regarded this "tinkering" as a pleasing diversion in which they could indulge him without danger. As an example of this attitude, Dr. Berry's wife's melodeon had lost two stops, the pedals had severed connection with the rest of the works, it wheezed like an asthmatic, and two black keys were missing. Anthony worked more than a week on its rehabilitation, and received in return Mrs. Berry's promise that the doctor would "pull a tooth" for him some time! This, of course, was a guerdon for the future, but it seemed pathetically distant to the lad who had never had a toothache in his life. He had to plead with Cyse Higgins for a week before that prudent young farmer would allow him to touch his five-dollar fiddle. He obtained permission at last only by offering to give Cyse his calf in case he spoiled the violin. "That seems square," said Cyse doubtfully, "but after all, you can't play on a calf!" "Neither will your fiddle give milk, if you keep it long enough," retorted Tony; and this argument was convincing.
So great was his confidence in Tony's skill that Squire Bean trusted his father's violin to him, one that had been bought in Berlin seventy years before. It had been hanging on the attic wall for a half-century, so that the back was split in twain, the sound-post lost, the neck and the tailpiece cracked. The lad took it home, and studied it for two whole evenings before the open fire. The problem of restoring it was quite beyond his abilities. He finally took the savings of two summers' "blueberry money" and walked sixteen miles to the nearest town, where he bought a book called "The Practical Violinist." The supplement proved to be a mine of wealth. Even the headings appealed to his imagination and intoxicated him with their suggestions--On Scraping, Splitting, and Repairing Violins, Violin Players, Great Violinists, Solo Playing, &c.; and at the very end a Treatise on the Construction, Preservation, Repair, and Improvement of the Violin, by Jacob Augustus Friedheim, Instrument Maker to the Court of the Archduke of Weimar.
There was a good deal of moral advice in the preface that sadly puzzled the boy, who was always in a condition of chronic amazement at the village disapprobation of his favourite fiddle. That the violin did not in some way receive the confidence enjoyed by other musical instruments, he perceived from various paragraphs written by the worthy author of "The Practical Violinist," as for example:
"Some very excellent Christian people hold a strong prejudice against the violin because they have always known it associated with dancing and dissipation. Let it be understood that your violin is 'converted,' and such an objection will no longer lie against it . . . Many delightful hours may be enjoyed by a young man, if he has obtained a respectable knowledge of his instrument, who otherwise would find the time hang heavy on his hands; or, for want of some better amusement, would frequent the dangerous and destructive paths of vice and be ruined for ever. I am in hopes, therefore, my dear young pupil, that your violin will occupy your attention at just those very times when, if you were immoral or dissipated, you would be at the grogshop, gaming-table, or among vicious females. Such a use of the violin, notwithstanding the prejudices many hold against it, must contribute to virtue, and furnish abundance of innocent and entirely unobjectionable amusement. These are the views with which I hope you have adopted it, and will continue to cherish and cultivate it."