From A Balcony by Bret Harte

Story type: Literature

The little stone balcony, which, by a popular fallacy, is supposed to be a necessary appurtenance of my window, has long been to me a source of curious interest. The fact that the asperities of our summer weather will not permit me to use it but once or twice in six months does not alter my concern for this incongruous ornament. It affects me as I suppose the conscious possession of a linen coat or a nankeen trousers might affect a sojourner here who has not entirely outgrown his memory of Eastern summer heat and its glorious compensations,–a luxurious providence against a possible but by no means probable contingency. I do no longer wonder at the persistency with which San Franciscans adhere to this architectural superfluity in the face of climatical impossibilities. The balconies in which no one sits, the piazzas on which no one lounges, are timid advances made to a climate whose churlishness we are trying to temper by an ostentation of confidence. Ridiculous as this spectacle is at all seasons, it is never more so than in that bleak interval between sunset and dark, when the shrill scream of the factory whistle seems to have concentrated all the hard, unsympathetic quality of the climate into one vocal expression. Add to this the appearance of one or two pedestrians, manifestly too late for their dinners, and tasting in the shrewish air a bitter premonition of the welcome that awaits them at home, and you have one of those ordinary views from my balcony which makes the balcony itself ridiculous.

But as I lean over its balustrade to-night–a night rare in its kindness and beauty–and watch the fiery ashes of my cigar drop into the abysmal darkness below, I am inclined to take back the whole of that preceding paragraph, although it cost me some labor to elaborate its polite malevolence. I can even recognize some melody in the music which comes irregularly and fitfully from the balcony of the Museum on Market Street, although it may be broadly stated that, as a general thing, the music of all museums, menageries, and circuses becomes greatly demoralized,–possibly through associations with the beasts. So soft and courteous is this atmosphere that I have detected the flutter of one or two light dresses on the adjacent balconies and piazzas, and the front parlor windows of a certain aristocratic mansion in the vicinity, which have always maintained a studious reserve in regard to the interior, to-night are suddenly thrown into the attitude of familiar disclosure. A few young people are strolling up the street with a lounging step which is quite a relief to that usual brisk, business-like pace which the chilly nights impose upon even the most sentimental lovers. The genial influences of the air are not restricted to the opening of shutters and front doors; other and more gentle disclosures are made, no doubt, beneath this moonlight. The bonnet and hat which passed beneath my balcony a few moments ago were suspiciously close together. I argued from this that my friend the editor will probably receive any quantity of verses for his next issue, containing allusions to “Luna,” in which the original epithet of “silver” will be applied to this planet, and that a “boon” will be asked for the evident purpose of rhyming with “moon,” and for no other. Should neither of the parties be equal to this expression, the pent-up feelings of the heart will probably find vent later in the evening over the piano, in “I Wandered by the Brookside,” or “When the Moon on the Lake is Beaming.” But it has been permitted me to hear the fulfilment of my prophecy even as it was uttered. From the window of number Twelve Hundred and Seven gushes upon the slumberous misty air the maddening ballad, “Ever of Thee,” while at Twelve Hundred and Eleven the “Star of the Evening” rises with a chorus. I am inclined to think that there is something in the utter vacuity of the refrain in this song which especially commends itself to the young. The simple statement, “Star of the evening,” is again and again repeated with an imbecile relish; while the adjective “beautiful” recurs with a steady persistency, too exasperating to dwell upon here. At occasional intervals, a base voice enunciates “Star-r! Star-r!” as a solitary and independent effort. Sitting here in my balcony, I picture the possessor of that voice as a small, stout young man, standing a little apart from the other singers, with his hands behind him, under his coat-tail, and a severe expression of countenance. He sometimes leans forward, with a futile attempt to read the music over somebody else’s shoulder, but always resumes his old severity of attitude before singing his part. Meanwhile the celestial subjects of this choral adoration look down upon the scene with a tranquillity and patience which can only result from the security with which their immeasurable remoteness invests them. I would remark that the stars are not the only topics subject to this “damnable iteration.” A certain popular song, which contains the statement, “I will not forget you, mother,” apparently reposes all its popularity on the constant and dreary repetition of this unimportant information, which at least produces the desired result among the audience. If the best operatic choruses are not above this weakness, the unfamiliar language in which they are sung offers less violation to common sense.

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It may be parenthetically stated here that the songs alluded to above may be found in sheet music on the top of the piano of any young lady who has just come from boarding-school. “The Old Arm-Chair,” or “Woodman, spare that Tree,” will be also found in easy juxtaposition. The latter songs are usually brought into service at the instance of an uncle or bachelor brother, whose request is generally prefaced by a remark deprecatory of the opera, and the gratuitous observation that “we are retrograding, sir,–retrograding,” and that “there is no music like the old songs.” He sometimes condescends to accompany “Marie” in a tremulous barytone, and is particularly forcible in those passages where the word “repeat” is written, for reasons stated above. When the song is over, to the success of which he feels he has materially contributed, he will inform you that you may talk of your “arias,” and your “romanzas,” “but for music, sir,–music–” at which point he becomes incoherent and unintelligible. It is this gentleman who suggests “China,” or “Brattle Street,” as a suitable and cheerful exercise for the social circle. There are certain amatory songs, of an arch and coquettish character, familiar to these localities, which the young lady, being called upon to sing, declines with a bashful and tantalizing hesitation. Prominent among these may be mentioned an erotic effusion entitled “I’m talking in my Sleep,” which, when sung by a young person vivaciously and with appropriate glances, can be made to drive languishing swains to the verge of madness. Ballads of this quality afford splendid opportunities for bold young men, who, by ejaculating “Oh!” and “Ah!” at the affecting passages, frequently gain a fascinating reputation for wildness and scepticism.

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But the music which called up these parenthetical reflections has died away, and with it the slight animosities it inspired. The last song has been sung, the piano closed, the lights are withdrawn from the windows, and the white skirts flutter away from stoops and balconies. The silence is broken only by the rattle and rumble of carriages coming from theatre and opera. I fancy that this sound–which, seeming to be more distinct at this hour than at any other time, might be called one of the civic voices of the night–has certain urbane suggestions, not unpleasant to those born and bred in large cities. The moon, round and full, gradually usurps the twinkling lights of the city, that one by one seem to fade away and be absorbed in her superior lustre. The distant Mission hills are outlined against the sky, but through one gap the outlying fog which has stealthily invested us seems to have effected a breach, and only waits the co-operation of the laggard sea-breezes to sweep down and take the beleaguered city by assault. An ineffable calm sinks over the landscape. In the magical moonlight the shot-tower loses its angular outline and practical relations, and becomes a minaret from whose balcony an invisible muezzin calls the Faithful to prayer. “Prayer is better than sleep.” But what is this? A shuffle of feet on the pavement, a low hum of voices, a twang of some diabolical instrument, a preliminary hem and cough. Heavens! it cannot be! Ah, yes–it is–it is–SERENADERS!

Anathema Maranatha! May purgatorial pains seize you, William, Count of Poitou, Girard de Boreuil, Arnaud de Marveil, Bertrand de Born, mischievous progenitors of jongleurs, troubadours, provencals, minnesingers, minstrels, and singers of cansos and love chants! Confusion overtake and confound your modern descendants, the “metre ballad-mongers,” who carry the shamelessness of the Middle Ages into the nineteenth century, and awake a sleeping neighborhood to the brazen knowledge of their loves and wanton fancies! Destruction and demoralization pursue these pitiable imitators of a barbarous age, when ladies’ names and charms were shouted through the land, and modest maiden never lent presence to tilt or tourney without hearing a chronicle of her virtues go round the lists, shouted by wheezy heralds and taken up by roaring swashbucklers! Perdition overpower such ostentatious wooers! Marry! shall I shoot the amorous feline who nightly iterates his love songs on my roof, and yet withhold my trigger finger from yonder pranksome gallant? Go to! Here is an orange left of last week’s repast. Decay hath overtaken it,–it possesseth neither savor nor cleanliness. Ha! cleverly thrown! A hit–a palpable hit! Peradventure I have still a boot that hath done me service, and, barring a looseness of the heel, an ominous yawning at the side, ’tis in good case! Na’theless, ’twill serve. So! so! What! dispersed! Nay, then, I too will retire.

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