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ONE day about the first of February, Catherine Edwards made the rounds of the neighborhood with a subscription paper to get singers for a singing school. A veteran "singing master" Seth Clark, well known throughout the country had offered to give the young people of the place a course of twelve evening lessons or sessions in vocal music, at four dollars per evening; and Catherine was endeavoring to raise the sum of forty-eight dollars for this purpose.
Master Clark was to meet us at the district schoolhouse for song sessions of two hours, twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday evenings at seven o'clock. Among us at the old Squire's we signed eight dollars.
The singing school did not much interest me personally, for the reason that I did not expect to attend. As the Frenchman said when invited to join a fox hunt, I had been. Two winters previously there had been a singing school in an adjoining school district, known as "Bagdad," where along with others I had presented myself as a candidate for vocal culture, and had been rejected on the grounds that I lacked both "time" and "ear." What was even less to my credit, I had been censured as being concerned in a disturbance outside the schoolhouse. That was my first winter in Maine, and the teacher at that singing school was not Seth Clark, but an itinerant singing master widely known as "Bear-Tone."
As opportunities for musical instruction thereabouts were limited, the old Squire, who loved music and who was himself a fair singer, had advised us to go. Five of us, together with our two young neighbors, Kate and Thomas Edwards, drove over to Bagdad in a three-seated pung sleigh.
The old schoolhouse was crowded with young people when we arrived, and a babel of voices burst on us as we drew rein at the door. After helping the girls from the pung, Addison and I put up the horses at a farmer's barn near by. When we again reached the schoolhouse, a gigantic man in an immense, shaggy buffalo coat was just coming up. He entered the building a step behind us.
It was Bear-Tone; and a great hush fell on the young people as. he appeared in the doorway. Squeezing hurriedly into seats with the others, Addison and I faced round. Bear-Tone stood in front of the teacher's desk, near the stovepipe, rubbing his huge hands together, for the night was cold. He was smiling, too a friendly, genial smile that seemed actually to brighten the room.
If he had looked gigantic to us in the dim doorway, he now looked colossal. In fact, he was six feet five inches tall and three feet across the shoulders. He had legs like mill-posts and arms to match; he wore big mittens, because he could not buy gloves large enough for his hands. He was lean and bony rather than fat, and weighed three hundred and twenty pounds, it was said.
His face was big and broad, simple and yet strong; it was ringed round from ear to ear with a short but very thick sandy beard. His eyes were blue, his hair, like his beard, was sandy. He was almost forty years old and was still a bachelor.
"Wal, young ones," he said at last, "reckonin' trundle-bed trash, there's a lot of ye, ain't there?"
His voice surprised me. From such a massive man I had expected to hear a profound bass. Yet his voice
was not distinctly bass, it was clear and flexible. He could sing bass, it is true, but he loved best to sing tenor, and in that part his voice was wonderfully sweet.
As his speech at once indicated, he was an ignorant man. He had never had musical instruction; he spoke of soprano as "tribble," of alto as "counter," and of baritone as "bear-tone" a mispronunciation that had given him his nickname.
But he could sing! Melody was born in him, so to speak, full-fledged, ready to sing. Musical training would have done him no good, and it might have done him harm. He could not have sung a false note if he had tried; discord really pained him.
"Wal, we may's well begin," he said when he had thoroughly warmed his hands. "What ye got for singin' books here? Dulcimers, or Harps of Judah? All with Harps raise yer right hands. So. Now all with Dulcimers, left hands. So. Harps have it. Them with Dulcimers better get Harps, if ye can, 'cause we want to sing together. But to-night we'll try voices. I wouldn't wonder if there might be some of ye who might just as well go home and shell corn as try to sing." And he laughed. "So in the first place we'll see if you can sing, and then what part you can sing, whether it's tribble, or counter, or bass, or tenor. The best way for us to find out is to have you sing the scale the notes of music. Now these are the notes of music." And without recourse to tuning fork he sang:
"Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do."
The old schoolhouse seemed to swell to the mellow harmony from his big throat. To me those eight notes, as Bear-Tone sang them, were a sudden revelation of what music may be.
"I'll try you first, my boy," he then said, pointing to Newman Darnley, a young fellow about twenty years old who sat at the end of the front row of seats. "Step right out here."
Greatly embarrassed, Newman shambled forth and, turning, faced us.
"Now, sir," said the master, "catch the key-note from me. Do! Now re mi," and so forth.
Bear-Tone had great difficulty in getting Newman through the scale. "'Fraid you never'll make a great singer, my boy," he said, "but you may be able to grumble bass a little, if you prove to have an ear that can follow. Next on that seat."
The pupil so designated was a Bagdad boy named Freeman Knights. He hoarsely rattled off, "Do, re, mi, fa, sol," all on the same tone. When Bear-Tone had spent some moments in trying to make him rise and fall on the notes, he exclaimed:
"My dear boy, you may be able to drive oxen, but you'll never sing. It wouldn't do you any good to stay here, and as the room is crowded the best thing you can do is to run home."
Opening the door, he gave Freeman a friendly pat on the shoulder and a push into better air outside.
Afterwards came Freeman's sister, Nellie Knights; she could discern no difference between do and la at which Bear-Tone heaved a sigh.
"Wal, sis, you'll be able to call chickens, I guess, because that's all on one note, but 'twouldn't be worth while for you to try to sing, or torment a pianner. There are plenty of girls tormentin' pianners now. I guess you'd better go home, too; it may come on to snow."
Nellie departed angrily and slammed the door. Bear-Tone looked after her. "Yes," he said, "'tis kind of hard to say that to a girl. Don't wonder she's a little mad. And yet, that's the kindest thing I can do. Even in Scripter there was the sheep and the goats; the goats couldn't sing, and the sheep could; they had to be separated."
He went on testing voices and sending the "goats" home. Some of the "goats," however, lingered round outside, made remarks and peeped in at the windows. In an hour their number had grown to eighteen or twenty.
Dreading the ordeal, I slunk into a back seat. I saw, my cousin, Addison, who had a fairly good voice, join the "sheep," and then Theodora, Ellen, Kate and Thomas; but I could not escape the ordeal forever, and at last my turn came. When Bear-Tone bade me sing the scale, fear so constricted my vocal cords that I squealed rather than sang.
"Sonny, there's lots of things a boy can do besides sing," Bear-Tone said as he laughingly consigned me to the outer darkness. "It's no great blessing, after all." He patted my shoulder. "I can sing a little, but I've never been good for much else. So don't you feel bad about it."
But I did feel bad, and, joining the "goats" outside, I helped to organize a hostile demonstration. We began to march round the schoolhouse, howling Yankee Doodle. Our discordant noise drew a prompt response. The door opened and Bear-Tone's huge form appeared.
"In about one harf of one minute more I'll be out there and give ye a lesson in Yankee Doodle!" he cried, laughing. His tone sounded good-natured; yet for some reason none of us thought it best to renew the disturbance.
Most of the "goats" dispersed, but, not wishing to walk home alone, I hung round waiting for the others. One window of the schoolroom had been raised, and through that I watched proceedings. Bear-Tone had now tested all the voices except one, and his face showed that he had not been having a very pleasant time. Up in the back seat there still remained one girl, Helen Thomas, who had, according to common report, a rather good voice; yet she was so modest that few had ever heard her either sing or recite.
I saw her come forward, when the master beckoned, and sing her do, re, mi. Bear-Tone, who had stood waiting somewhat apathetically, came suddenly to attention. "Sing that again, little girl," he said.
Encouraged by his kind glance, Helen again sang the scale in her clear voice. A radiant look overspread Bear-Tone's big face.
"Wal, wal!" he cried. "But you've a voice, little one! Sing that with me."
Big voice and girl's voice blended and chorded.
"Ah, but you will make a singer, little one!" Bear-Tone exclaimed. "Now sing Woodland with me. Never mind notes, sing by ear."
A really beautiful volume of sound came through the window at which I listened. Bear-Tone and his new-found treasure sang The Star-Spangled Banner and several of the songs of the Civil War, then just ended ballads still popular with us and fraught with touching memories: Tenting To-night on the Old Camp Ground, Dearest Love, Do You Remember? and Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys Are Marching. Bear-Tone's rich voice chorded beautifully with Helen's sweet, high notes.
As we were getting into the pung to go home after the meeting, and Helen and her older sister, Elizabeth, were setting off, Bear-Tone dashed out, bareheaded, with his big face beaming.
"Be sure you come again," he said to her, in a tone that was almost imploring. "You can sing! Oh, you can sing! I'll teach you! I'll teach you!"
The singing school that winter served chiefly as a pretty background for Bear-Tone's delight in Helen Thomas's voice, the interest he took in it, and the untiring efforts he made to teach her.
"One of the rarest of voices!" he said to the old Squire one night when he had come to the farmhouse on one of his frequent visits. "Not once will you find one in fifty years. It's a deep tribble. Why, Squire, that girl's voice is a discovery! And it will grow in her, Squire! It is just starting now, but by the time she's twenty-five it will come out wonderful."
The soprano of the particular quality that Bear-Tone called "deep tribble" is that sometimes called a "falcon" soprano, or dramatic soprano, in distinction from light soprano. It is better known and more enthusiastically appreciated by those proficient in music than by the general public. Bear-Tone, however, recognized it in his new pupil, as if from instinct.
The other pupils were somewhat neglected that winter; but no one complained, for it was such a pleasure to hear Bear-Tone and Helen sing. Many visitors came; and once the old Squire attended a meeting, in order to hear Bear-Tone's remarkable pupil. In Days of Old when Knights were Bold, dear old Juanita, and Roll on, Silver Moon, were some of their favorite songs, Still a "goat," and always a "goat," I am not capable of describing music; but school and visitors sat enchanted when Helen and Bear-Tone sang.
Helen's parents were opposed to having their daughter become a professional singer. They were willing that she should sing in church and at funerals, but not in opera. For a long time Bear-Tone labored to convince them that a voice like Helen's has a divine mission in the world, to please, to touch and to ennoble the hearts of the people.
At last he induced them to let him take Helen to Portland, in order that a well-known teacher there might hear her sing and give an opinion. Bear-Tone was to pay the expenses of the trip himself.
The city teacher was enthusiastic over the girl and urged that she be given opportunity for further study; but in view of the opposition at home that was not easily managed. But Bear-Tone would not be denied. He sacrificed the scanty earnings of a whole winter's round of singing schools in country school districts to send her to the city for a course of lessons.
The next year the question of her studying abroad came up. If Helen were to make the most of her voice, she must have it trained by masters in Italy and Paris. Her parents were unwilling to assist her to cross the ocean.
Bear-Tone was a poor man; his singing schools never brought him more than a few hundred dollars a year. He owned a little house in a neighboring village, where he kept "bachelor's hall"; he had a piano, a cabinet organ, a bugle, a guitar and several other musical instruments, including one fairly valuable old violin from which he was wont of an evening to produce wonderfully sweet, sad strains.
No one except the officials of the local savings bank knew how Bear-Tone raised the money for Helen Thomas's first trip abroad, but he did it. Long afterwards people learned that he had mortgaged everything he possessed, even the old violin, in order to provide the necessary money.
Helen went to Europe and studied for two years. She made her début at Milan, sang in several of the great cities on the Continent, and at last, with a reputation as a great singer fully established, returned home four years later to sing in New York.
Bear-Tone meanwhile was teaching his singing schools, as usual, in the rural districts of Maine. Once or twice during those two years of study he had managed to send a little money to Helen, to help out with the expenses. Now he postponed his three biweekly schools for one week and made his first and only trip to New York the journey of a lifetime. Perhaps he had at first hoped that he might meet her and be welcomed. If so, he changed his mind on reaching the metropolis. Aware of his uncouthness, he resolved not to shame her by claiming recognition. But he went three times to hear her sing, first in Aida, then in Faust, and afterwards in Les Huguenots; heard her magic notes, saw her in all her queenly beauty but saw her from the shelter of a pillar in the rear of the great opera house. On the fifth day he returned home as quietly as he had gone.
Perhaps a month after he came back, while driving to one of his singing schools on a bitter night in February, he took a severe cold. For lack of any proper care at his little lonesome, chilly house, his cold a day or two later turned into pneumonia, and from that he died.
The savings bank took the house and the musical instruments. The piano, the organ, the old violin and other things were sold at auction. And probably Helen Thomas, whose brilliant career he had made possible, never heard anything about the circumstances of his death.