BY FRANK B. MELVILLE.
The melodeon which for so many years had rendered feeble, but faithful, service to the church at Kipley’s Corners was about worn out; and the church had voted to buy a large cabinet organ. The selection of the new instrument was intrusted to the committee on music. After much comparison of catalogues and repeated visits to musical warerooms in the nearest town, the choice had been narrowed down to two makes, which we may call the “Empress” and the “Queen.” The committee consisted of five persons. Two favored the “Empress,” two the “Queen,” while the chairman, Deacon Wells, was unable to make up his mind. The chairman was a man who disliked responsibility, and he knew there was considerable “feeling” in the congregation over this organ question.
“The church hadn’t never ought to of put me on this committee,” he complained, at one of the committee meetings. “I know as much abaout music as a settin’ hen does—jest abaout. I’ve heerd them two organs time an’ agin, an’ I vum I can’t see no partic’lar diff’runce between ‘em. Listenin’ to the ‘Queen,’ it strikes me its a leetle more powerful, mebbe, than t’other one; but then, agin’ when I hear the ‘Empress,’ it kind o’ seems to speak up the smartest. So there we be—or, rather, we don’t git nowhere. I s’pose it’s time the matter was disposed of. The folks is grumblin’ because they don’t git their organ.”
“If you wuz to hear them organs one right after t’other,” said a member of the committee, “t’wouldn’t be no trouble to decide. They ain’t any more alike than a caowcumber an’ a Hubbard squash.”
“Brother Meech,” said the chairman, “your remark suggests an idee. Why not throw this hull matter right on to the congregation to decide? Hev the organs fetched aout here, an’ let somebody show ‘em off at the strawb’ry festival next week, an’ then jest give everybody a chanst to vote. They’re the intrested parties, I take it.”
“We might create a leetle fund for the organ by chargin’ five cents for a ballot,” said Amos Burritt. “Everybody’d be excited an’ want to vote.”
“Who’d show the instruments off for us?” asked the chairman. ” ‘Melia Wright, I s’pose. Seein’ she presides at the organ; she’s the most int’rested party, in one sense.”
“I’ve heerd it intimated,” said Brother Marsh, “that she’s too much int’rested. Ed. Landon’s wife told my sister that ‘Melia expects to git a commission from the ‘Empress’ folks if we buy their organ, an’ she said that was why ‘Melia’s workin’ for it so hard.”
” ‘Tain’t best to impute motives,” said the chairman, hastily. “I expect every member of this ‘ere committee is liable to be accused of takin’ bribes, an’ the chairman in partic’lar. However, we might as well leave it to the dealers to provide for showin’ off their respective instruments. They’re the parties most int’rested in hevin’ ‘em well played, I take it.”
The deacon’s plan was unanimously approved; the dealers agreed to the competition; notices were posted in all public places; and everybody went to the strawberry festival.
It was a queer setting for a musical contest. The box-like meeting-house was pervaded by the buzzing of voices and the odor of coffee, mingled with that of soot sent up by ill-trimmed kerosene lamps. From an anteroom maidens in white caps and aprons were bringing strawberries, ice-cream, cake, pickles, tea, coffee, and lemonade to people who sat at long tables, space for which had been made by piling up pews against the walls. Fathers and mothers in Israel gossiped in little groups. The minister moved slowly about, shaking hands and exchanging remarks with everybody. Children were running noisily along the gallery. Country swains exerted themselves to make the girls laugh, and found an unfailing topic for their sallies in the approaching contest.
In one corner hung a placard: buy your ballot for the organ competition here. five cents a vote. On the platform, with backs turned toward each other, stood the rival organs, each adorned with a bouquet and a tall lamp, and surrounded by a shifting crowd of gazers. The owners, Mr. Dobson and Mr. Jenkins, were industriously courting popular favor, ordering refreshments lavishly for the ladies, to whom they were presented. The poor old discarded melodeon was not even permitted to witness the choice of its successor, but stood in the anteroom covered with plates of cake—a mere table!
The eye of any stranger at the festival would have been at once caught by the face and figure of Amelia Wright. She was distractingly pretty; and, though not what is called a “queenly” girl, she had an air about her—a suggestion—of nobility at once of character and of descent, which, even more than her beauty, distinguished her from her companions. Being a girl of a determined spirit, Amelia necessarily exerted a good deal of influence, whether at Vassar, where she had finished her sophomore work some years before, or at Kipley’s Corners, where she was now detained by her duty to an eccentric, invalid father. It was one of the things to like in Amelia that being, as it were, imprisoned at Kipley’s, she entered heartily and with no spirit of condescension into all its affairs. There is no telling how many persons—not susceptible young men only—had resolved in advance to vote for the “Empress,” unable to resist the argument of Amelia’s personality. On the other hand, the “Queen” may have owed some votes to the jealousy which Amelia inevitably inspired.
“Who is that young man you brought with you?” she asked Dobson, as they sat eating strawberries and ice-cream.
“His name is Harry Conant. Just through Harvard. Going to Divinity School next year, I believe. Too bad to make a parson out of a born musician like him. He’s going to play my organ for me. Thought it would be a lark to come out here. He can play a reed organ better than any professional I ever heard.”
“And who will play Mr. Jenkins’s organ?”
“I don’t know. Jenkins himself, I guess. He considers himself an extra fancy player.”
“Well, you’ll hear him soon. Have another dish of cream.”
“No, thank you, but you might present Mr. Conant.”
“Certainly. Here he comes. I guess the same thought has struck him.”
After the introduction Dobson was summoned to a conference with the minister and Mr. Jenkins.
“Mr. Dobson tells me you are to exhibit his organ,” began Amelia.
“Yes. But judging from what I have heard said this evening, there was no need to bring in outside talent.”
“Oh, yes; I play pretty well; but it wouldn’t do for me to show off the organs, because I am biased in favor of the ‘Empress.’ I have one at home, and I am sure it’s the best make. As I am the organist, naturally I am trying to get the one I prefer. Is Mr. Jenkins a good player?”
“I never heard him. I am sorry you want the ‘Empress,’ Miss Wright, because I came out here to sell Dobson’s organ for him, if I could.”
“Now, Mr. Conant, of course, this idea of an organ contest at a strawberry festival is perfectly absurd, anyway. But since it is to be, I am determined to have it as fair a contest as possible. If Jenkins turns out to be much inferior to you,—and Mr. Dobson says you’re an artist,—then you must play the ‘Empress,’ too.”
But the minister had mounted the platform and was loudly calling for silence. Amelia at first thought of appealing to Dobson to permit his friend to play both organs; then she saw a better plan. Dobson might refuse privately what he would have to grant if asked in a public way.
The minister, having at length obtained silence, announced that the organ contest would now begin; each was to be played twice, and the “Queen” had been chosen by lot to lead off.
The modern reed organ is an instrument of no little musical worth in the hands of an artist, but no keyed instrument is so seldom played artistically. Few of Harry’s audience had ever heard such music as he drew from the “Queen.” Passing rapidly from one style of composition to another, from a German choral to a light-opera chorus or a quick march, yet expressing all in the idiom of the instrument, he brought out, without the least appearance of effort, all the varieties of tone and all the gradations of power of which the “Queen” was capable.
Hearty applause followed Harry’s first performance. It was now Jenkins’s turn. Amelia’s fears were at once realized. Jenkins at his best was a mediocre player. Though he absurdly overestimated his own skill, he knew that he could not equal the performance he had just heard. Disheartened by this knowledge, he miserably failed to do the “Empress” justice.
Amelia’s conscience did not allow her to join in the applause with which the “Empress” faction attempted to brazen out the poor showing made by its favorite; but she sent Harry a series of appealing looks which somehow confused his mind and made his heart beat too fast.
I do not believe that Amelia ever consciously used her eyes to captivate and bewilder; but it is a fact that when she had a favor to ask of a young man those eyes became so large and tender and soulful and reproachful and complimentary that he could not be as he had been before.
As soon as Harry finished his second illustration of the “Queen’s” good qualities, Amelia rose and addressed the minister.
“Mr. Stifler,” said she, “everyone must see that this is not a fair contest. Without any reflection on Mr. Jenkins’s playing, I should like to hear Mr. Conant play the ‘Empress.’ The point is this: the two organs ought to be played in the same style. Now Mr. Conant’s style is entirely different from Mr. Jenkins’s.”
“Gracious! I should hope so!” ejaculated a gruff voice somewhere. There was a general laugh at Jenkins’s expense.
“We should be pleased, I am sure, to have you play, Miss Amelia,” said the minister.
“No,” she replied, “the only fair way is to let Mr. Conant play the ‘Empress.’”
“Naow, Brother Stifler,” spoke up the squeaky voice of Amos Burritt, a strong partisan of the “Queen,” “this ‘ere competition is proceedin’ accordin’ to the agreement in this case made an’ pervided. It was ex-pressly understood that each agent should pervide for showin’ off his instrument. Naow, Mr. Jenkins has pervided for showin’ off his instrument, an’ Mr. Dobson has likewise pervided for showin’ off his’n. So its all fair an’ square an aboveboard, an’ Amelia hain’t no call to meddle.”
But now young Conant, impelled by a strong sense of justice and by the eyes of Amelia, said: “Mr. Stifler, I agree with Miss Wright that the contest would be fairer if both organs were played in the same style. But when Mr. Dobson engaged me to play his organ, it was like engaging an attorney in a law-suit. So I am in a dilemma. On the one hand, I dislike to be, in any sense, the means of an unfair decision; but, on the other hand, I have no right to go back on my contract with Mr. Dobson. If Mr. Dobson will release me .”
“O go ahead, Conant!” called out Dobson from the audience. “I don’t object. Of course, I supposed Mr. Jenkins would bring some first-rate player to show off his organ, but since he hasn’t done so, it’s only fair that you should play that organ, too. It won’t change the result,” he added, rising and addressing the people. “Mr. Conant, ladies and gentlemen, may make you think better of the ‘Empress’ than you do now, but he can’t make it equal the ‘Queen.’ It simply does not stand in the same class.”
Though Dobson could not have refused Amelia’s request without seeming to fear a fair contest, this speech sounded magnanimous and made votes. Moreover, people were impressed by Dobson’s confidence in the superiority of his instrument.
The “Empress” was really a very beautiful organ, in delicate effects surpassing the “Queen.” But it was inferior in volume, the quality of most importance for church use, and the one most readily appreciated by the judges.
After a brief preliminary study, for he was not well acquainted with “Empress” organs, Harry gave the most spirited and brilliant exhibition of the evening. He played con amore, often glancing at Amelia, whose pleased triumphant face would have been a prize for an artist in quest of a Saint Cecilia.
The competition being ended, preparation of ballots began amid a babel of voices.
Dobson went up to Harry, who was receiving Amelia’s thanks, and said: “I ought to drive back at once. Do you care to stay any longer?”
“Well, yes,” said Harry. “I want to see how the ballot comes out, you know. Never mind me. It’s a splendid night for walking.”
Dobson glanced at Amelia, laughed, and departed.
The ballot was presently announced: “Empress,” 104; “Queen,” 108.
Amelia’s disappointment at her defeat was very manifest. “If only you had played both times!” she said mournfully to Harry. “It’s a small matter, of course, but when I take sides I hate to be beaten. Well, good bye, Mr. Conant I have enjoyed your music so much, especially your playing of the ‘Empress.’”
“I am obliged to you for giving me the chance. You saved me from being a party to a fraud! But mayn’t I walk home with you?”
As Harry had said, it was a splendid night for walking—especially for walking with Amelia, along the fragrant country roads, beneath the moonlit sky of June.
Harry went away from home the next day and was absent two weeks. Almost the first person he met after his return was Deacon Wells. Upon Harry’s asking how the people were enjoying their new “Queen,” the deacon said, with a sheepish smile: “We’re still usin’ the old melodeon. Yes, sir; at church meetin’ the night after the strawberry festival ‘Melia Wright accused the committee of actin’ illegally in hevin’ that ‘ere competition. She spoke very ladylike, but she put her view of the case very clear an’ firm. I can’t help admirin’ ‘Melia. The pint she made was that the church hevin instructed the committee to select an instrument, the committee hedn’t no right to turn the selection over to a missellanyus passel of folks, includin’ boys, gals, an’ infants. She claimed, too, that the contest was unfair by reason of Jenkins’s playin’ creatin’ a prejudice agin’ the ‘Empress.’ I’m not givin’ you her words, but them were the idees. There was some talk back an’ forth, but the sentiment was agin’ us. ‘Melia hed been a-workin’ of it all day. I resigned from the committee right then an’ there, an’ so did two others, but the two that advocated the ‘Empress,’ they stuck.”
“So you are going to have the ‘Empress,’ then?” asked Harry, pleased at the thought that Amelia had won, after all.
“Well, at fust it did look that way. But I hear the committee voted last night, by 3 to 2, to accept of Ed. Landon’s proposition to sell his secon’-han’ ‘Princess’ organ at a low figger. He claims his wife’s rheumatism’s got to be so bad they hevn’t no use for the organ, an’ that’s why he’s willing to sell so low. But I don’t know-—Ed.’s a tricky feller, if he is a perfessor of religion.”
That evening Harry felt it his duty to call on Amelia and endeavor to console her for this second defeat. They passed two hours together most harmoniously, partly in conversation and partly in playing four-hand music on Amelia’s beloved grand—a form of musical contest in which they still often engage, to the delight of all who have admission to their home.