A Bird of Passage, and Other Stories

A Bird of Passage, and Other Stories

Beatrice Harraden
Beatrice Harraden

Author: Harraden, Beatrice, 1864-1936
English fiction — 19th century
Short stories
A Bird of Passage, and Other Stories







407-425 DEARBORN ST.






























It was about four in the afternoon when a
young girl came into the salon of the little
hotel at C. in Switzerland, and drew her
chair up to the fire.

“You are soaked through,” said an elderly
lady, who was herself trying to get roasted.
“You ought to lose no time in changing your clothes.”

“I have not anything to change,” said the
young girl, laughing. “Oh, I shall soon be dry.”

“Have you lost all your luggage?” asked
the lady sympathetically.

“No,” said the young girl, “I had none to
lose.” And she smiled a little mischievously,
as though she knew by instinct that her
companion’s sympathy would at once degenerate
into suspicion!

“I don’t mean to say that I have not a
knapsack,” she added considerately. “I have
walked a long distance–in fact from

“And where did you leave your companions?”
asked the lady, with a touch of forgiveness
in her voice.

“I am without companions, just as I am
without luggage,” laughed the girl.

And then she opened the piano, and struck
a few notes. There was something caressing
in the way in which she touched the keys;
whoever she was, she knew how to make
sweet music; sad music too, full of that
undefinable longing, like the holding out of one’s
arms to one’s friends in the hopeless distance.

The lady bending over the fire looked up
at the little girl, and forgot that she had
brought neither friends nor luggage with her.
She hesitated for one moment, and then she
took the childish face between her hands and
kissed it.

“Thank you, dear, for your music,” she
said gently.

“The piano is terribly out of tune,” said
the little girl suddenly, and she ran out of
the room and came back carrying her knapsack.

“What are you going to do?” asked her companion.

“I am going to tune the piano,” the little
girl said; and she took a tuning-hammer out
of her knapsack, and began her work in real
earnest. She evidently knew what she was
about, and pegged away at the notes as though
her whole life depended on the result.

The lady by the fire was lost in amazement.
Who could she be? Without luggage
and without friends, and with a tuning hammer!

Meanwhile one of the gentlemen had
strolled into the salon; but hearing the
sound of tuning, and being in secret possession
of nerves, he fled, saying, “The tuner, by

A few minutes afterwards, Miss Blake,
whose nerves were no secret possession,
hastened into the salon, and in her usual
imperious fashion demanded silence.

“I have just done,” said the little girl.
“The piano was so terribly out of tune, I
could not resist the temptation.”

Miss Blake, who never listened to what
any one said, took it for granted that the
little girl was the tuner for whom M. le
Proprietaire had promised to send; and having
bestowed upon her a condescending nod,
passed out into the garden, where she told
some of the visitors that the piano had been
tuned at last, and that the tuner was a young
woman of rather eccentric appearance.

“Really it is quite abominable how women
thrust themselves into every profession,” she
remarked in her masculine voice. “It is so
unfeminine, so unseemly.”

There was nothing of the feminine about
Miss Blake: her horse-cloth dress, her
waistcoat and high collar, and her billy-cock hat
were of the masculine genus; even her nerves
could not be called feminine, since we learn
from two or three doctors (taken off their
guard) that nerves are neither feminine nor
masculine, but common.

“I should like to see this tuner,” said one
of the tennis players, leaning against a tree.

“Here she comes,” said Miss Blake, as the
little girl was seen sauntering, into the garden.

The men put up their eye-glasses, and saw
a little lady with a childish face and soft
brown hair, of strictly feminine appearance
and bearing. The goat came toward her
and began nibbling at her frock. She seemed
to understand the manner of goats, and played
with him to his heart’s content. One of the
tennis players, Oswald Everard by name,
strolled down to the bank where she was
having her frolic.

“Good afternoon,” he said, raising his cap.
“I hope the goat is not worrying you. Poor
little fellow! This is his last day of play.
He is to be killed to-morrow for table d’hôte.”

“What a shame!” she said. “Fancy to be
killed, and then grumbled at!”

“That is precisely what we do here,” he
said, laughing. “We grumble at everything
we eat. And I own to being one of the
grumpiest; though the lady in the horse-cloth
dress yonder follows close upon my heels.”

“She was the lady who was annoyed at me
because I tuned the piano,” the little girl said.
“Still it had to be done. It was plainly my
duty. I seemed to have come for that purpose.”

“It has been confoundedly annoying having
it out of tune,” he said. “I’ve had to give up
singing altogether. But what a strange
profession you have chosen! Very unusual, isn’t it?”

“Why, surely not,” she answered, amused.
“It seems to me that every other woman has
taken to it. The wonder to me is that any
one ever scores a success. Nowadays,
however, no one could amass a huge fortune out
of it.”

“No one, indeed!” replied Oswald Everard,
laughing. “What on earth made you take
to it?”

“It took to me,” she said simply. “It
wrapt me round with enthusiasm. I could
think of nothing else. I vowed that I would
rise to the top of my profession. I worked
day and night. But it means incessant toil for
years if one wants to make any headway.”

“Good gracious! I thought it was merely
a matter of a few months,” he said, smiling
at the little girl.

“A few months!” she repeated scornfully.
“You are speaking the language of an
amateur. No; one has to work faithfully year
after year, to grasp the possibilities and pass
on to greater possibilities. You imagine what
it must feel like to touch the notes, and know
that you are keeping the listeners spellbound;
that you are taking them into a fairyland of
sound, where petty personality is lost in vague
longing and regret.”

“I confess that I had not thought of it in
that way,” he said humbly. “I have only
regarded it as a necessary everyday evil; and
to be quite honest with you, I fail to see now
how it can inspire enthusiasm. I wish I could
see,” he added, looking up at the engaging
little figure before him.

“Never mind,” she said, laughing at his
distress; “I forgive you. And after all, you
are not the only person who looks upon it as
a necessary evil. My poor guardian
abominated it. He made many sacrifices to come
and listen to me. He knew I liked to see
his kind old face, and that the presence of a
real friend inspired me with confidence.”

“I should not have thought it was nervous
work,” he said.

“Try it and see,” she answered. “But
surely you spoke of singing. Are you not
nervous when you sing?”

“Sometimes,” he replied, rather stiffly.
“But that is slightly different.” (He was
very proud of his singing, and made a great
fuss about it.) “Your profession, as I
remarked before, is an unavoidable nuisance.
When I think what I have suffered from
the gentlemen of your profession, I only
wonder that I have any brains left. But I
am uncourteous.”

“No, no,” she said. “Let me hear about
your sufferings.”

“Whenever I have specially wanted to be
quiet,” he said; and then he glanced at her
childish little face, and he hesitated. “It
seems so rude of me,” he added. He was the
soul of courtesy, although he was an amateur
tenor singer.

“Please tell me,” the little girl said, in her
winning way.

“Well,” he said, gathering himself together,
“it is the one subject on which I can be
eloquent. Ever since I can remember I have
been worried and tortured by those rascals.
I have tried in every way to escape from
them, but there is no hope for me. Yes; I
believe that all the tuners in the universe are
in league against me, and have marked me out
for their special prey.”

All the what?” asked the little girl, with
a jerk in her voice.

“All the tuners, of course,” he replied, rather
snappishly. “I know that we cannot do
without them; but, good heavens! they have no
tact, no consideration, no mercy. Whenever
I’ve wanted to write or read quietly that fatal
knock has come at the door, and I’ve known
by instinct that all chance of peace was over.
Whenever I’ve been giving a luncheon party,
the tuner has arrived, with his abominable
black bag, and his abominable card, which has
to be signed at once. On one occasion I was
just proposing to a girl in her father’s library,
when the tuner struck up in the drawing-room.
I left off suddenly, and fled from the
house. But there is no escape from these
fiends; I believe they are swarming about in
the air like so many bacteria. And how, in
the name of goodness, you should deliberately
choose to be one of them, and should be so
enthusiastic over your work, puzzles me
beyond all words. Don’t say that you carry a
black bag, and present cards that have to be
filled up at the most inconvenient time;

He stopped suddenly, for the little girl was
convulsed with laughter. She laughed until
the tears rolled down her cheeks; and then
she dried her eyes and laughed again.

“Excuse me,” she said, “I can’t help
myself; it’s so funny.”

“It may be funny to you,” he said, laughing
in spite of himself; “but it is not funny
to me.”

“Of course it isn’t,” she replied, making a
desperate effort to be serious. “Well, tell
me something more about these tuners.”

“Not another word,” he said gallantly. “I
am ashamed of myself as it is. Come to the
end of the garden, and let me show you the
view down into the valley.”

She had conquered her fit of merriment,
but her face wore a settled look of mischief,
and she was evidently the possessor of some
secret joke. She seemed in capital health
and spirits, and had so much to say that was
bright and interesting, that Oswald Everard
found himself becoming reconciled to the
whole race of tuners. He was amazed to
learn that she had walked all the way from
Z, and quite alone too.

“Oh, I don’t think anything of that,” she
said; “I had a splendid time, and I caught
four rare butterflies. I would not have missed
those for anything. As for the going about
by myself, that is a second nature. Besides,
I do not belong to any one. That has its
advantages, and I suppose its disadvantages;
but at present I have only discovered the
advantages. The disadvantages will
discover themselves!”

“I believe you are what the novels call an
advanced young woman,” he said. “Perhaps
you give lectures on Woman’s Suffrage or
something of that sort.”

“I have very often mounted the platform,”
she answered. “In fact, I am never so happy
as when addressing an immense audience.
A most unfeminine thing to do, isn’t it? What
would the lady yonder in the horse-cloth
dress and billy-cock hat say? Don’t you
think you ought to go and help her drive
away the goat? She looks so frightened.
She interests me deeply. I wonder whether
she has written an essay on the Feminine in
Woman. I should like to read it; it would
do me so much good.”

“You are at least a true woman,” he said,
laughing, “for I see you can be spiteful. The
tuning has not driven that away.”

“Ah, I had forgotten about the tuning,”
she answered brightly; “but now you remind
me, I have been seized with a great idea.”

“Won’t you tell it to me?” he asked.

“No,” she answered. “I keep my great
ideas for myself, and work them out in secret.
And this one is particularly amusing. What
fun I shall have!”

“But why keep the fun to yourself?” he
said. “We all want to be amused here; we
all want to be stirred up; a little fun would
be a charity.”

“Very well, since you wish it, but you must
give me time to work out my great idea. I
do not hurry about things, not even about
my professional duties. For I have a strong
feeling that it is vulgar to be always amassing
riches! As I have neither a husband nor a
brother to support, I have chosen less wealth,
and more leisure to enjoy all the loveliness of
life! So you see I take my time about
everything. And to-morrow I shall catch butterflies
at my leisure, and lie among the dear
old pines, and work at my great idea.”

“I shall catch butterflies,” said her
companion. “And I too shall lie among the dear
old pines.”

“Just as you please,” she said; and at that
moment the table d’hôte bell rang.

The little girl hastened to the bureau and
spoke rapidly in German to the cashier.

“Ach, Fräulein!” he said. “You are not
really serious?”

“Yes, I am,” she said. “I don’t want them
to know my name. It will only worry me.
Say I am the young lady who tuned the piano.”

She had scarcely given these directions
and mounted to her room, when Oswald
Everard, who was much interested in his
mysterious companion, came to the bureau
and asked for the name of the little lady.
“Es ist das Fräulein welches das Piano
gestimmt hat,” answered the man, returning
with unusual quickness to his account-book.

No one spoke to the little girl at table
d’hôte; but for all that she enjoyed her
dinner, and gave her serious attention to all the
courses. Being thus solidly occupied, she
had not much leisure to bestow on the
conversation of the other guests. Nor was it
specially original: it treated of the
shortcomings of the chef, the tastelessness of the
soup, the toughness of the beef, and all the
many failings which go to complete a
mountain-hotel dinner. But suddenly, so it seemed
to the little girl, this time-honored talk passed
into another phase; she heard the word
music mentioned, and she became at once
interested to learn what these people had to
say on a subject which was dearer to her
than any other.

“For my own part,” said a stern-looking
old man, “I have no words to describe what
a gracious comfort music has been to me all
my life. It is the noblest language which
man may understand and speak. And I
sometimes think that those who know it, or
know something of it, are able at rare
moments to find an answer to life’s perplexing

The little girl looked up from her plate.
Robert Browning’s words rose to her lips,
but she did not give them utterance:

“God has a few of us whom he whispers in the ear;
The rest may reason, and welcome; ’tis we musicians know.”

“I have lived through a long life,” said
another elderly man, “and have therefore had
my share of trouble, but the grief of being
obliged to give up music was the grief which
held me longest, or which perhaps has never
left me. I still crave for the gracious
pleasure of touching once more the strings of a
violoncello, and hearing the dear tender voice
singing and throbbing and answering even to
such poor skill as mine. I still yearn to take
my part in concerted music, and be one of
those privileged to play Beethoven’s string
quartettes. But that will have to be in
another incarnation, I think.”

He glanced at his shrunken arm, and then,
as though ashamed of this allusion to his own
personal infirmity, he added hastily:

“But when the first pang of such a pain is
over, there remains the comfort of being a
listener. At first one does not think it a
comfort; but as time goes on, there is no
resisting its magic influence. And Lowell said
rightly that ‘one of God’s great charities is

“I did not know you were musical, Mr. Keith,”
said an English lady. “You have
never before spoken of music.”

“Perhaps not, madam,” he answered.
“One does not often speak of what one cares
for most of all. But when I am in London
I rarely miss hearing our best players.”

At this point others joined in, and the
various merits of eminent pianists were
warmly discussed.

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