In looking over a trunk containing old letters a few days ago, I found a package carefully tied with ribbon and marked, “From Nellie, the Music Teacher, 1863.”
The envelopes were of every hue, shape, and size imaginable, an indication of the mood of the writer at the time they were sent. Instantly memory rushed back over the many years, to the days when Nellie Phillips and I were room mates in a large boarding school near Philadelphia, and I seemed to see her in her rôle as prima donna as plainly as though she stood before me.
The following letters were written several years after we had left school, and perhaps will prove amusing to some of the “weary and worn” teachers who have passed through ordeals as trying as did the fun-loving teacher of music some thirty years ago.
To fully understand the letters, a brief description of Nellie when at school will be necessary.
She was generous, amiable, without a particle of jealousy in her disposition, and was a favorite with both teachers and schoolmates, but her chief charm lay in her musical ability.
There were several in the senior class that could play more difficult music, but none could vie with Nellie in song-singing, imitating others, or improvising. Many were the concerts she was coaxed into giving in the large dancing hall of the school, when she would impersonate the noted musicians she had heard—Jenny Lind, Madame Sontag, Parodi, and many others.
Then a “Guess Who?” concert would be given, and Nellie would imitate the music pupils in our school, and it was seldom we made a mistake in guessing the right one.
I have one of these laughable entertainments in mind now, when Nellie came running on the stage with music in one hand, a large stick of candy in the other, overturning the music stool, and placing the music bottom side up in her haste. Then, taking a bite of candy and placing the remainder on the piano, she slowly picked up the stool and, seating herself, played several strains of the piece without glancing at the notes, then suddenly, seeming to forget, looked at the upside-down piece in a blank sort of way, took another bite of candy, and commenced playing “Pop goes the Weasel.” Instantly there came a shout, “Jennie Ellis,” from the audience, at which Nellie made one of Jennie’s characteristic bows and danced off the stage.
In a few minutes a stately young lady, dressed in pink silk with long train, hair Pompadour, eye glasses, fingers sparkling with diamonds, moved majestically across the stage to the piano, giving us a very supercilious glance as she did so. After deliberately taking off her rings, smoothing the lace at her wrists, rubbing her hands together, she played a few minor chords, then, with a frown upon her face, began the “Moonlight Sonata.” We all knew that Miss R., of Boston, one of the senior pupils, was being represented, but we stood so much in awe of her that no one dared speak the name. Nellie, understanding our silence, after playing the first movement, said in the deep contralto voice that no one could distinguish from Miss R.’s:—
“Young ladies, you have failed in announcing the name, but of course you cannot penetrate the future far enough to see that this is Miss Phillips, the music teacher that is to be, when she lives in Boston.” And still frowning upon us, she left the stage.
We had scarcely recovered from this explanation when a young girl in white muslin, hair in braids, came on the platform. She closed the door and carefully locked it, tip-toed to the piano, placed a large book on the soft pedal to keep it down, then, after looking first over the right shoulder, then the left, to be certain there was no one around, began improvising. For about fifteen minutes we sat spell-bound, and thoughts of father, mother, and all the loved ones in the home nest came to us as we listened to the sweet, soulful melodies. There were tears in many eyes as Nellie struck the last chord, but we found voice to say “Neita Gale.” Neita was a special pet of Nellie’s, and a sweet little child, but so timid she always reminded one of a frightened bird. She played beautifully, but no amount of coaxing would tempt her to play before others, and we could only hear her through closed doors.
The last piece on the programme the evening I allude to was a “take off” on the writer of this.
Nellie appeared dressed as the Goddess of Liberty, standing under a tent made of red, white, and blue, and sang “The Gypsy’s Warning,” keeping time with a large American flag. Before she had finished the first line, shouts of laughter, and cries of “The Great American Gypsy Countess” were heard all over the room.
I rushed upon the stage and bribed Nellie to stop by promising to treat all the girls—herself included—to candy and cake.
A few weeks before, we had been asked to sing “The Gypsy Countess” at an entertainment, Nellie taking the Count’s part and I that of the Gypsy. I unfortunately neglected to find out what my costume should be, and at the last moment, without consulting any one, donned a suit I had worn as the Goddess of Liberty at the previous fourth of July celebration.
Nellie was dressed in great splendor as a Count, and when I emerged from the dressing room just before our song was called and asked anxiously if I were all right, Nellie gave me one look, and the next moment was lying on the sofa doubled up in spasms, I thought, not dreaming my costume was the cause of the sudden collapse. I called for water, and camphor, and the girls in the dressing room were greatly alarmed, and the Count had a narrow escape from being deluged with water, cologne, and cosmetics.
Nellie recovered sufficiently to say, “Don’t, girls! It was only the Gypsy’s dress that overpowered me.”
I went through my part of the song very creditably, but when the Count sang the lines, “And a coronet, Zillah (my great American Gypsy Countess), thy brow shall entwine,” it brought down the house, and I left the stage mortified, angry at everybody and at myself in particular.
Nellie soon made me see the fun in it all, however, and tried to comfort me by saying “Gypsys ought to dress in red, white, and blue, and now that you have set the fashion perhaps they will. I am certain they would if they could see you now,” and off she went in spasms of laughter again.
The title clung to me during the remainder of my school days, and letters from Nellie always contained some part of it, if not all. I have not heard that the “first pupil” described in the following letter ever became a celebrated pianist.
G. A. C.