The Piano Next Door
by Elia W. Peattie
BABETTE had gone away for the summer; the furniture was in its summer linens; the curtains were down, and Babette's husband, John Boyce, was alone in the house. It was the
first year of his marriage, and he missed
Babette. But then, as he often said to himself,
he ought never to have married her. He did it from pure selfishness, and because he
was determined to possess the most illusive,
tantalizing, elegant, and utterly unmoral little
creature that the sun shone upon. He wanted
her because she reminded him of birds, and
flowers, and summer winds, and other exquisite
things created for the delectation of mankind. He neither expected nor desired
her to think. He had half-frightened her into
marrying him, had taken her to a poor man's
home, provided her with no society such as
she had been accustomed to, and he had no
reasonable cause of complaint when she answered the call of summer and flitted away,
like a butterfly in the morning sunshine, to
the place where the flowers grew.
He wrote to her every evening, sitting in
the stifling, ugly house, and poured out his
soul as if it were a libation to a goddess.
She sometimes answered by telegraph, sometimes
by a perfumed note. He schooled himself not to feel hurt. Why should Babette write? Does a goldfinch indict epistles; or
a humming-bird study composition; or a glancing, red-scaled fish in summer shallows
consider the meaning of words?
He knew at the beginning what Babette was
-- guessed her limitations -- trembled when
he buttoned her tiny glove -- kissed her dainty
slipper when he found it in the closet after
she was gone -- thrilled at the sound of her
laugh, or the memory of it! That was all.
A mere case of love. He was in bonds. Babette was not. Therefore he was in the
city, working overhours to pay for Babette's
pretty follies down at the seaside. It was
quite right and proper. He was a grub in
the furrow; she a lark in the blue. Those
had always been and always must be their
Having attained a mood of philosophic calm, in which he was prepared to spend his
evenings alone -- as became a grub -- and to
await with dignified patience the return of
his wife, it was in the nature of an inconsistency
that he should have walked the floor of
the dull little drawing-room like a lion in
cage. It did not seem in keeping with the
position of superior serenity which he had
assumed, that, reading Babette's notes, he
should have raged with jealousy, or that, in
the loneliness of his unkempt chamber, he
should have stretched out arms of longing.
Even if Babette had been present, she would
only have smiled her gay little smile and coquetted
with him. She could not understand. He had known, of course, from the first moment,
that she could not understand! And so, why the ache, ache, ache of the heart!
Or WAS it the heart, or the brain, or the
Sometimes, when the evenings were so hot
that he could not endure the close air of the
house, he sat on the narrow, dusty front porch
and looked about him at his neighbors. The
street had once been smart and aspiring, but
it had fallen into decay and dejection. Pale
young men, with flurried-looking wives, seemed
to Boyce to occupy most of the houses. Sometimes
three or four couples would live in one
house. Most of these appeared to be childless.
The women made a pretence at fashionable dressing, and wore their hair elaborately
in fashions which somehow suggested boarding
-houses to Boyce, though he could not have told why. Every house in the block
needed fresh paint. Lacking this renovation,
the householders tried to make up for it by
a display of lace curtains which, at every
window, swayed in the smoke-weighted breeze.
Strips of carpeting were laid down the front
steps of the houses where the communities of
young couples lived, and here, evenings, the
inmates of the houses gathered, committing
mild extravagances such as the treating of each
other to ginger ale, or beer, or ice-cream.
Boyce watched these tawdry makeshifts at
sociability with bitterness and loathing. He
wondered how he could have been such a fool as to bring his exquisite Babette to this
neighborhood. How could he expect that
she would return to him? It was not reasonable.
He ought to go down on his knees with gratitude that she even condescended to
Sitting one night till late, -- so late that the
fashionable young wives with their husbands
had retired from the strips of stair carpeting,
-- and raging at the loneliness which ate at
his heart like a cancer, he heard, softly creeping
through the windows of the house adjoining
his own, the sound of comfortable melody.
It breathed upon his ear like a spirit of
consolation, speaking of peace, of love which
needs no reward save its own sweetness, of
aspiration which looks forever beyond the
thing of the hour to find attainment in that
which is eternal. So insidiously did it whisper
these things, so delicately did the simple
and perfect melodies creep upon the spirit --
that Boyce felt no resentment, but from the
first listened as one who listens to learn, or
as one who, fainting on the hot road, hears, far
in the ferny deeps below, the gurgle of a spring.
Then came harmonies more intricate: fair
fabrics of woven sound, in the midst of which
gleamed golden threads of joy; a tapestry of
sound, multi-tinted, gallant with story and
achievement, and beautiful things. Boyce,
sitting on his absurd piazza, with his knees
jambed against the balustrade, and his chair
back against the dun-colored wall of his
house, seemed to be walking in the cathedral
of the redwood forest, with blue above him,
a vast hymn in his ears, pungent perfume in
his nostrils, and mighty shafts of trees lifting
themselves to heaven, proud and erect as pure
men before their Judge. He stood on a mountain at sunrise, and saw the marvels of
the amethystine clouds below his feet, heard
an eternal and white silence, such as broods
among the everlasting snows, and saw an eagle
winging for the sun. He was in a city, and
away from him, diverging like the spokes of
a wheel, ran thronging streets, and to his sense
came the beat, beat, beat of the city's heart.
He saw the golden alchemy of a chosen race;
saw greed transmitted to progress; saw that
which had enslaved men, work at last to their
liberation; heard the roar of mighty mills,
and on the streets all the peoples of earth
walking with common purpose, in fealty and
understanding. And then, from the swelling
of this concourse of great sounds, came a
diminuendo, calm as philosophy, and from
Boyce sat still for a long time, listening to
the echoes which this music had awakened
in his soul. He retired, at length, content,
but determined that upon the morrow he would watch -- the day being Sunday -- for
the musician who had so moved and taught
He arose early, therefore, and having prepared
his own simple breakfast of fruit and coffee, took his station by the window to
watch for the man. For he felt convinced
that the exposition he had heard was that of
a masculine mind. The long, hot hours of
the morning went by, but the front door
of the house next to his did not open.
"These artists sleep late," he complained.
Still he watched. He was too much afraid
of losing him to go out for dinner. By three
in the afternoon he had grown impatient. He
went to the house next door and rang the
bell. There was no response. He thundered
another appeal. An old woman with a cloth about her head answered the door.
She was very deaf, and Boyce had difficulty
in making himself understood.
"The family is in the country," was all she
would say. "The family will not be home
"But there is some one living here?" shouted Boyce.
"_I_ live here," she said with dignity, putting
back a wisp of dirty gray hair behind her ear. "It is my house. I sublet to the
But the old creature was not communicative.
"The family that lives here," she said.
"Then who plays the piano in this house?"
roared Boyce. "Do you?"
He thought a shade of pallor showed itself
on her ash-colored cheeks. Yet she smiled a
little at the idea of her playing.
"There is no piano," she said, and she put
an enigmatical emphasis to the words.
"Nonsense," cried Boyce, indignantly. "I
heard a piano being played in this very house
for hours last night!"
"You may enter," said the old woman, with an accent more vicious than hospitable.
Boyce almost burst into the drawing-room.
It was a dusty and forbidding place, with ugly
furniture and gaudy walls. No piano nor any
other musical instrument stood in it. The
intruder turned an angry and baffled face to
the old woman, who was smiling with illconcealed
"I shall see the other rooms," he announced. The old woman did not appear to be surprised at his impertinence.
"As you please," she said.
So, with the hobbling creature, with her
bandaged head, for a guide, he explored every
room of the house, which being identical with
his own, he could do without fear of leaving
any apartment unentered. But no piano did
"Explain," roared Boyce at length, turning
upon the leering old hag beside him. "Explain
! For surely I heard music more beautiful than I can tell."
"I know nothing," she said. "But it is true I once had a lodger who rented the
front room, and that he played upon the
piano. I am poor at hearing, but he must
have played well, for all the neighbors used
to come in front of the house to listen, and
sometimes they applauded him, and sometimes
they were still. I could tell by watching their hands. Sometimes little children
came and danced. Other times young men and women came and listened. But the
young man died. The neighbors were angry.
They came to look at him and said he had
starved to death. It was no fault of mine.
I sold his piano to pay his funeral expenses
-- and it took every cent to pay for them too, I'd have you know. But since
then, sometimes -- still, it must be nonsense,
for I never heard it -- folks say that he
plays the piano in my room. It has kept me
out of the letting of it more than once. But
the family doesn't seem to mind -- the family
that lives here, you know. They will be back
in September. Yes."
Boyce left her nodding her thanks at what
he had placed in her hand, and went home to
write it all to Babette -- Babette who would
laugh so merrily when she read it!