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Full Online Book HomeEssaysVariations Upon Whitebait
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Variations Upon Whitebait Post by :stephe1 Category :Essays Author :Richard Le Gallienne Date :August 2011 Read :3457

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Variations Upon Whitebait

A very Pre-Raphaelite friend of mine came to me one day and said _a propos_ of his having designed a very Early English chair: 'After all, if one has anything to say one might as well put it into a chair!'

I thought the remark rather delicious, as also his other remark when one day in a curiosity-shop we were looking at another chair, which the dealer declared to be Norman. My friend seated himself in it very gravely, and after softly moving about from side to side, testing it, it would appear, by the sensation it imparted to the sitting portion of his limbs, he solemnly decided: 'I don't think the _flavour_ of this chair is Norman!'

I thought of this Pre-Raphaelite brother as the Sphinx and I were seated a few evenings ago at our usual little dinner, in our usual little sheltered corner, on the Lover's Gallery of one of the great London restaurants. The Sphinx says that there is only one place in Europe where one can really dine, but as it is impossible to be always within reasonable train service of that Montsalvat of cookery, she consents to eat with me--she cannot call it dine--at the restaurant of which I speak. I being very simple-minded, untravelled, and unlanguaged, think it, in my Cockney heart, a very fine place indeed, with its white marble pillars surrounding the spacious peristyle, and flashing with a thousand brilliant lights and colours; with its stately cooks, clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, ranged behind a great altar loaded with big silver dishes, and the sacred musicians of the temple ranged behind them--while in and out go the waiters, clothed in white and black, waiters so good and kind that I am compelled to think of Elijah being waited on by angels.

They have such an eye for a romance, too, and really take it personally to heart if it should befall that our little table is usurped by others that know not love. I like them, too, because they really seem to have an eye for the strange beauty and charm of the Sphinx, quite an unexpected taste for Botticelli. They ill conceal their envy of my lot, and sometimes, in the meditative pauses between the courses, I see them romantically reckoning how it might be possible by desperately saving up, by prodigious windfalls of tips, from unexampled despatch and sweetness in their ministrations, how it might be possible in ten years' time, perhaps even in five--the lady would wait five years! and her present lover could be artistically poisoned meanwhile!--how it might be possible to come and sue for her beautiful hand. Then a harsh British cry for 'waiter' comes like a rattle and scares away that beautiful dream-bird, though, as the poor dreamer speeds on the quest of roast beef for four, you can see it still circling with its wonderful blue feathers around his pomatumed head.

Ah, yes, the waiters know that the Sphinx is no ordinary woman. She cannot conceal even from them the mystical star of her face, they too catch far echoes of the strange music of her brain, they too grow dreamy with dropped hints of fragrance from the rose of her wonderful heart.

How reverently do they help her doff her little cloak of silk and lace! with what a worshipful inclination of the head, as in the presence of a deity, do they await her verdict of choice between rival soups--shall it be 'clear or thick'? And when she decides on 'thick,' how relieved they seem to be, as if--well, some few matters remain undecided in the universe, but never mind, this is settled for ever--no more doubts possible on one portentous issue, at any rate--Madame will take her soup 'thick.'

'On such a night' our talk fell upon whitebait.

As the Sphinx's silver fork rustled among the withered silver upon her plate, she turned to me and said:

'Have you ever thought what beautiful little things these whitebait are?'

'Oh, yes,' I replied, 'they are the daisies of the deep sea, the threepenny-pieces of the ocean.'

'You dear!' said the Sphinx, who is alone in the world in thinking me awfully clever. 'Go on, say something else, something pretty about whitebait--there's a subject for you!'

Then it was that, fortunately, I remembered my Pre-Raphaelite friend, and I sententiously remarked: 'Of course, if one has anything to say one cannot do better than say it about whitebait.... Well, whitebait....'

But here, providentially, the band of the beef--that is, the band behind the beef; that is, the band that nightly hymns the beef (the phrase is to be had in three qualities)--struck up the overture from _Tannhaeuser_, which is not the only music that makes the Sphinx forget my existence; and thus, forgetting me, she momentarily forgot the whitebait. But I remembered, remembered hard--worked at pretty things, as metal-workers punch out their flowers of brass and copper. The music swirled about us like golden waves, in which swam myriad whitebait, like showers of tiny stars, like falling snow. To me it was one grand processional of whitebait, silver ripples upon streams of gold.

The music stopped. The Sphinx turned to me with the soul of Wagner in her eyes, and then she turned to the waiter: 'Would it be possible,' she said, 'to persuade the bandmaster to play that wonderful thing over again?'

The waiter seemed a little doubtful, even for the Sphinx, but he went off to the bandmaster with the air of a man who has at last an opportunity to show that he can dare all for love. Personally, I have a suspicion that he poured his month's savings at the bandmaster's feet, and begged him to do this thing for the most wonderful lady in the world; or perhaps the bandmaster was really a musician, and his musician's heart was touched--lonely there amid the beef--to think that there was really some one, invisible though she were to him, some shrouded silver presence, up there among the beefeaters, who really loved to hear great music. Perhaps it was thus made a night he has never forgotten; perhaps it changed the whole course of his life--who knows? The sweet reassuring request may have come to him at a moment when, sick at heart, he was deciding to abandon real music for ever, and settle down amid the beef and the beef-music of Old England.

Well, however it was, the waiter came back radiant with a 'Yes' on every shining part of him, and if the _Tannhaeuser_ had been played well at first, certainly the orchestra surpassed themselves this second time.

When the great jinnee of music had once more swept out of the hall, the Sphinx turned with shining eyes to the waiter:

'Take,' she said, 'take these tears to the bandmaster. He has indeed earned them.'

'Tears, little one!' I said. 'See how they swim like whitebait in the fishpools of your eyes!'

'Oh, yes, the whitebait,' rejoined the Sphinx, glad of a subject to hide her emotion. 'Now tell me something nice about them, though the poor little things have long since disappeared. Tell me, for instance, how they get their beautiful little silver waterproofs?'

'Electric Light of the World,' I said, 'it is like this. While they are still quite young and full of dreams, their mother takes them out in picnic parties of a billion or so at a time to where the spring moon is shining, scattering silver from its purse of pearl far over the wide waters,--silver, silver, for every little whitebait that cares to swim and pick it up. The mother, who has a contract with some such big restaurateur as ours, chooses a convenient area of moonlight, and then at a given sign they all turn over on their sides, and bask and bask in the rays, little fin pressed lovingly against little fin--for this is the happiest time in the young whitebait's life: it is at these silvering parties that matches are made and future consignments of whitebait arranged for. Well, night after night, they thus lie in the moonlight, first on one side, then on the other, till by degrees, tiny scale by scale, they have become completely lunar-plated. Ah! how sad they are when the end of that happy time has come!'

'And what happens to them after that?' asked the Sphinx.

'One night when the moon is hidden their mother comes to them with treacherous wile, and suggests that they should go off on a holiday again to seek the moon--the moon that for a moment seems captured by the pearl-fishers of the sky. And so off they go merrily, but, alas! no moon appears; and presently they are aware of unwieldy bumping presences upon the surface of the sea, presences as of huge dolphins; and rough voices call across the water, till, scared, the little whitebaits turn home in flight--to find themselves somehow meshed in an invisible prison, a net as fine and strong as air, into which, O agony! they are presently hauled, lovely banks of silver, shining like opened coffers beneath the coarse and ragged flares of yellow torches. The rest is silence.'

'What sad little lives! and what a cruel world it is!' said the Sphinx--as she crunched with her knife through the body of a lark, that but yesterday had been singing in the blue sky. Its spirit sang just above our heads as she ate, and the air was thick with the grey ghosts of all the whitebait she had eaten that night.

But there were no longer any tears in her eyes.


(The end)
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Variations Upon Whitebait

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