The Persephone Book of Short Stories: The Music Box by Malachi Whitaker


Before reading The Music Box, Malachi Whitaker was unknown to me. But according to the brief biographies at the back of the book, Malachi Whitaker was a renown short story writer in her time, dubbed “Bradford Chekhov.”

The story is centered around a young woman, Mrs. Morphett and her little boy, Henry. The mother and the son share a very close bond, probably because of the similarities in their character traits. Both of them are very timid and seem to be frightened of the man of the house, Mr. Theakstone Morphett, whom they call ‘t’father.’

Theakstone worked in a stone quarry as a trimmer, so the family does not have much money. Even if they could afford it, Theakstone does not seem like a man who would be interested in comfort or joy. So Mrs. Morphett or her boy do not have many things in life they would call delightful, except for the time they spend in the chapel listening to the harmonium played by an elderly woman. One day at the chapel the harmonium is left unattended, and the little boy gets excited and drags his mother along to listen him play it.

‘Listen!’ he cried.

He pressed down his feet and played his tune with confidence. Over and over again he played the first line of ‘Toiling on!’

His mother leaned near him like a young girl.

‘Wait a minute!’ she cried, ‘try this for the second line.’

Between the, miraculously, they found it. How happy they were. The noise grew louder, and their joy with it. When the door opened and Miss Altass – the playing lady – came in, there they froze into a picture of guilt, one sitting, the other half standing.

After touching the harmonium becomes forbidden to them, Mrs. Morphett decides to save up for a harmonium to keep alive the memory her boy cherishes. This becomes their little secret, hiding it from Theakstone. But after awhile the little boy becomes impatient, so they go see a music instrument broker. Obviously, what little they have saved is not enough to even pay for a second-hand harmonium, but the broker being a great salesman suggests they buy a music box. It plays a few tunes – including one that Mrs. Morphett had learned when she was in school, so entranced by the music they buy it.

When they go home, they play the tunes over and over again. Harmonium does not matter to either of them anymore. The mother and the son are overwhelmed with happiness like they have never been before. So when Theakstone returns home, will he finally join in their joy?

The Music Box is a sad story, however, when they say music can brighten up a gloomy day, I think they might have been referring to this story! 😉


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