One evening the husband came home with a roll of music under his arm and said to his wife:
“Let us play duets after supper!”
“What have you got there?” asked his wife.
“Romeo and Julia, arranged for the piano. Do you know it?”
“Yes, of course I do,” she replied, “but I don’t remember ever having seen it on the stage.”
“Oh! It’s splendid! To me it is like a dream of my youth, but I’ve only heard it once, and that was about twenty years ago.”
After supper, when the children had been put to bed and the house lay silent, the husband lighted the candles on the piano. He looked at the lithographed title-page and read the Romeo and Julia.
“This is Gounod’s most beautiful composition,” he said, “and I don’t believe that it will be too difficult for us.”
As usual his wife undertook to play the treble and they began. D major, common time, allegro giusto.
“It is beautiful, isn’t it?” asked the husband, when they had finished the overture.
“Y–es,” admitted the wife, reluctantly.
“Now the martial music,” said the husband; “it is exceptionally fine. I can remember the splendid choruses at the Royal Theatre.”
They played a march.
“Well, wasn’t I right?” asked the husband, triumphantly, as if he had composed “Romeo and Julia” himself.
“I don’t know; it rather sounds like a brass band,” answered the wife.
The husband’s honour and good taste were involved; he looked for the Moonshine Aria in the fourth act. After a little searching he came across an aria for soprano. That must be it.
And he began again.
Tram-tramtram, tram-tramtram, went the bass; it was very easy to play.
“Do you know,” said his wife, when it was over, “I don’t think very much of it.”
The husband, quite depressed, admitted that it reminded him of a barrel organ.
“I thought so all along,” confessed the wife.
“And I find it antiquated, too. I am surprised that Gounod should be out of date, already,” he added dejectedly. “Would you like to go on playing? Let’s try the Cavatina and the Trio; I particularly remember the soprano; she was divine.”
When they stopped playing, the husband looked crestfallen and put the music away, as if he wanted to shut the door on the past.
“Let’s have a glass of beer,” he said. They sat down at the table and had a glass of beer.
“It’s extraordinary,” he began, after a little while, “I never realised before that we’ve grown old, for we really must have vied with Romeo and Julia as to who should age faster. It’s twenty years ago since I heard the opera for the first time. I was a newly fledged undergraduate then, I had many friends and the future smiled at me. I was immensely proud of the first down on my upper lip and my little college cap, and I remember as if it were to-day, the evening when Fritz, Phil and myself went to hear this opera. We had heard ‘Faust’ some years before and were great admirers of Gounod’s genius. But Romeo beat all our expectations. The music roused our wildest enthusiasm. Now both my friends are dead. Fritz, who was ambitious, was a private secretary when he died, Phil a medical student; I who aspired to the position of a minister of state have to content myself with that of a regimental judge. The years have passed by quickly and imperceptibly. Of course I have noticed that the lines under my eyes have grown deeper and that my hair has turned grey at the temples, but I should never have thought that we had travelled so far on the road to the grave.”
“Yes, my dear, we’ve grown old; our children could teach us that. And you must see it in me too, although you don’t say anything.”
“How can you say that!”
“Oh! I know only too well, my dear,” continued the wife, sadly; “I know that I am beginning to lose my good looks, that my hair is growing thin, that I shall soon lose my front teeth….”
“Just consider how quickly everything passes away”–interrupted her husband. “It seems to me that one grows old much more rapidly now-a-days, than one used to do. In my father’s house Haydn and Mozart were played a great deal, although they were dead long before he was born. And now –now Gounod has grown old-fashioned already! How distressing it is to meet again the ideals of one’s youth under these altered circumstances! And how horrible it is to feel old age approaching!”
He got up and sat down again at the piano; he took the music and turned over the pages as if he were looking for keepsakes, locks of hair, dried flowers and ends of ribbon in the drawer of a writing-table. His eyes were riveted on the black notes which looked like little birds climbing up and down a wire fencing; but where were the spring songs, the passionate protestations, the jubilant avowals of the rosy days of first love? The notes stared back at him like strangers; as if the memory of life’s spring-time were grown over with weeds.
Yes, that was it; the strings were covered with dust, the sounding board was dried up, the felt worn away.
A heavy sigh echoed through the room, heavy as if it came from a hollow chest, and then silence fell.
“But all the same, it is strange,” the husband said suddenly, “that the glorious prologue is missing in this arrangement. I remember distinctly that there was a prologue with an accompaniment of harps and a chorus which went like this.”
He softly hummed the tune, which bubbled up like a stream in a mountain glen; note succeeded note, his face cleared, his lips smiled, the lines disappeared, his fingers touched the keys, and drew from them melodies, powerful, caressing and full of eternal youth, while with a strong and ringing voice he sang the part of the bass.
His wife started from her melancholy reverie and listened with tears in her eyes.
“What are you singing?” she asked, full of amazement.
“Romeo and Julia! Our Romeo and our Julia!”
He jumped up from the music stool and pushed the music towards his astonished wife.
“Look! This was the Romeo of our uncles and aunts, this was–read it–Bellini! Oh! We are not old, after all!”
The wife looked at the thick, glossy hair of her husband, his smooth brow and flashing eyes, with joy.
“And you? You look like a young girl. We have allowed old Bellini to make fools of us. I felt that something was wrong.”
“No, darling, I thought so first.”
“Probably you did; that is because you are younger than I am.”
And husband and wife, like a couple of children, laughingly quarrel over the question of which of them is the elder of the two, and cannot understand how they could have discovered lines and grey hairs where there are none.