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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWeighed And Wanting - Chapter 9. Songs And Singers
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Weighed And Wanting - Chapter 9. Songs And Singers Post by :KeisEnt Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :2290

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Weighed And Wanting - Chapter 9. Songs And Singers

CHAPTER IX. SONGS AND SINGERS

The evening before the return of Cornelius to London and the durance vile of the bank, Vavasor presented himself at the hour of family-tea. Mr. Raymount's work admitting of no late dinner, the evening of the rest of the family was the freer. They occupied a tolerably large drawing-room, and as they had hired for the time a tolerably good piano, to it, when tea was over, Hester generally betook herself. But this time Cornelius, walking up to it with his hands in his pockets, dropped on the piano-stool as if he had taken a fancy to it for a seat, and began to let his hands run over the keys as if to give the idea he could play if he would. Amy Amber was taking away the tea-things and the rest were here and there about the room, Mr. Raymount and Vavasor talking on the hearth-rug--for a moment ere the former withdrew to his study.

"What a rose-diamond you have to wait on you, Mr. Raymount!" said Vavasor. "If I were a painter I would have her sit to me."

"And ruin the poor thing for any life-sitting!" remarked Mr. Raymount rather gruffly, for he found that the easier way of speaking the truth. He had thus gained a character for uncompromising severity, whereas it was but that a certain sort of cowardice made him creep into spiky armor. He was a good man, who saw some truths clearly, and used them blunderingly.

"I don't see why that should follow," said Vavasor, in a softly drawling tone, the very reverse of his host's. Its calmness gave the impression of a wisdom behind it that had no existence. "If the girl is handsome, why shouldn't she derive some advantage from it--and the rest of the world as well?"

"Because, I say, she at least would derive only ruin. She would immediately assume to herself the credit of what was offered only to her beauty. It takes a lifetime, Mr. Vavasor, to learn where to pay our taxes. If the penny with the image and superscription of Caesar has to be paid to Caesar, where has a face and figure like that of Amy Amber to be paid?"

Vavasor did not reply: Mr. Raymount's utterance may perhaps seem obscure to a better thinker. He concluded merely that his host was talking for talk's sake, so talking rubbish. The girl came in again, and the conversation dropped. Mr. Raymount went to his writing, Vavasor toward the piano. Willing to please Cornelius, whom he almost regarded with a little respect now that he had turned out brother to such a sister.

"Sing the song you gave us the other night at our house," he said carelessly.

Hester could hardly credit her hearing. Still more astonished was she when Cornelius actually struck a few chords and began to sing. The song was one of those common drawing-room ones more like the remnants of a trifle the day after a party than any other dish for human use. But there was one mercy in it: the words and the music went together in a perfect concord of weak worthlessness; and Hester had not to listen, with the miserable feeling that rude hands were pulling at the modest garments of her soul, to a true poem set to the music of a scrannel pipe of wretched straw, whose every tone and phrase choked the divine bird caged in the verse.

Cornelius sang like a would-be singer, a song written by a would-be poet, and set by a would-be musician. Verve was there none in the whole ephemeral embodiment. When it died a natural death, if that be possible where never had been any life, Vavasor said, "Thank you, Raymount." But Hester, who had been standing with her teeth clenched under the fiery rain of discords, wrong notes, and dislocated rhythm, rushed to the piano with glowing cheeks and tear-filled eyes, and pushed Cornelius off the stool. The poor weak fellow thought she was acting the sentimental over the sudden outburst of his unsuspected talent, and recovering himself stood smiling at her with affected protest.

"Corney!" she cried--and the faces of the two were a contrast worth seeing--"you disgrace yourself! any one who can sing at all should be ashamed to sing no better than that!"

Then feeling that she ought not to be thus carried away, or quench with such a fierce lack of sympathy the smoking flax of any endowment, she threw her arms round his neck and kissed him. He received her embrace like the bear he was; the sole recognition he showed was a comically appealing look to Vavasor intended to say, "You see how the women use me! They trouble me, but I submit!"

"You naughty boy!" Hester went on, much excited, and speaking with great rapidity, "you never let me suspect you could sing any more than a frog--toad, I mean, for a frog does sing after his own rather monotonous fashion, and you don't sing much better! Listen to me, and I will show you how the song ought to have been sung. It's not worth a straw, and it's a shame to sing it, but if it be sung at all, it might as well be sung as well as it might!"

So saying she seated herself at the piano.

This convulsion was in Hester's being a phenomenon altogether new, for never before had she been beside herself in the presence of another.

She gazed for a moment at the song on the rest before her, then summoned as with a command the chords which Corney had seemed to pick up from among his feet, and began. The affect of her singing upon the song was as if the few poor shivering plants in the garden of March had every one blossomed at once. The words and music both were in truth as worthless as she had said; but they were words, and it was music, and words have always some meaning, and tones have always some sweetness; all the meaning and all the sweetness in the song Hester laid hold of, drew out, made the best of; while all the feeble element of the dramatic in it she forced, giving it an expression far beyond what could have been in the mind of the writer capable of such inadequate utterance--with the result that it was a different song altogether from that which Cornelius had sung. She gave the song such a second birth, indeed, that a tolerable judge might have taken it, so hearing it for the first time, for what it was not--a song with some existence of its own, some distinction from a thousand other wax flowers dipped in sugar-water for the humming-birds of society. The moment she ended, she rose ashamed, and going to the window looked out over the darkening sea.

Vavasor had not heard her sing before. He did not even know she cared for music; for Hester, who did not regard her faculty as an accomplishment but as a gift, treated it as a treasure to be hidden for the day of the Lord rather than a flag to be flaunted in a civic procession--was jealously shy over it, as a thing it would be profanation to show to any but loving eyes. To utter herself in song to any but the right persons, except indeed it was for some further and higher end justifying the sacrifice, appeared to her a kind of immodesty, a taking of her heart from its case, and holding it out at arm's length. He was astonished and yet more delighted. He was in the presence of a power! But all he knew of power was in society-relations. It was not a spirit of might he recognized, for the opening of minds and the strengthening of hearts, but an influence of pleasing for self-aggrandizement. Feeling it upon himself, he thought of it in its operation upon others, and was filled with a respect rising almost to the height of what reverence he was capable of. He followed her swiftly to the window, and through the gathering shadows of the evening she saw his eyes shine as he addressed her.

"I hardly know what I am about, Miss Raymount," he said, "except that I hear my own voice daring to address the finest non-professional singer I have ever yet heard."

Hester, to her own disgust and annoyance, felt her head give itself a toss she had never intended; but it was a true toss nevertheless, for she neither liked having attracted his admiration by such a song, nor the stress he laid on the word _non-professional_: did it not imply that she was not songstress enough for the profession of song?

"Excuse me, Mr. Vavasor, but how do you know I am not a professional singer?" she said with some haughtiness.

"Had you been," answered Vavasor with concealed caution, "I should have learned the fact from your brother."

"Have you learned from him that I could sing at all?"

"To confess the strange truth, he never told me you were musical."

"Very well?"

"I beg your pardon."

"I mean, how then do you know I am not a professional singer?"

"All London would have known it."

This second reply, better conceived, soothed Hester's vanity--of which she had more than was good for her, seeing the least speck of it in the noblest is a fly in the cream.

"What would you say," she rejoined, "if Corney were to tell to you that the reason of his silence was that, while I was in training, we judged it more prudent, with possible failure ahead, to be silent?"

"I should say you cherished a grand ambition, and one in which you could not fail of success," replied Vavasor, who began to think she was leading him gently to the truth.

But Hester was in a wayward mood, and inclined to _prospect_.

"Suppose such was not really Corney's reason," she resumed, "but that he thought it degraded him to be the brother of an intended professional--what would you say to that?"

"I should tell him he was a fool. He cannot know his Burke," he added laughingly, "to be ignorant of the not inconsiderable proportion of professional blood mixed with the blue in our country."

It was not in Vavasor's usual taste: he had forgotten his best manners. But in truth he never had any best manners: comparatively few have anything but second-best, as the court of the universe will one day reveal. Hester did not like the remark, and he fancied from her look she had misunderstood him.

"Many a singer and actress too has married a duke or a marquis," he supplemented in explanation.

"What sort of a duke or marquis?" asked Hester, in a studiedly wooden way. "It was the more shame to them," she added.

"Pardon me. I cannot allow that it would be any shame to the best of our nobility--"

"I beg your pardon--I meant to the professionals," interrupted Hester.

Vavasor was posed. To her other eccentricities it seemed Miss Raymount added radicalism--and that not of the palest pink! But happily for him, Cornelius, who had been all the time making noises on the piano, at this point appeared at the window.

"Come, Hetty," he said, "sing that again. I shall sing it ever so much better after! Come, I will play the accompaniment."

"It's not worth singing. It would choke me--poor, vapid, vulgar thing!"

"Hullo, sis!" cried Cornelius; "it's hardly civil to use such words about any song a fellow cares to sing!"

Hester's sole answer was a smile, in which, and I am afraid it was really there, Vavasor read contempt, and liked her none the worse for it. Cornelius turned in offense, went back to the piano, and sang the song again--not one hair better--in just the same nerveless, indifferent fashion as before; for how shall one who has no soul, put soul into a song?

Mrs. Raymount was sitting at the fireside with her embroidery. She had not spoken since tea, but now she called Hester, and said to her quietly--

"Don't provoke him, Hester. I am more than delighted to find he has begun to take an interest in music. It is a taste that will grow upon him. Coax him to let you teach him--and bear with him if he should sing out of tune.--It is nothing wicked!" she added with a mother-smile.

Hester was silent. Her conscience rebuked her more than her heart. She went up to him and said--

"Corney, dear, let me find you a song worth singing."

"A girl can't choose for a man. You're sure to fix on some sentimental stuff or other not fit to sing!"

"My goodness, Corney!" cried Hester, "what do you call the song you've just been singing?"


In the days when my heart was aching
Like the shell of an overtuned lyre.


"Ha! ha! ha!"

She laughed prettily, not scornfully, then striking an attitude of the mock heroic, added, on the spur of the moment--


"And the oven was burning, not baking,
The tarts of my soul's desire!"


--for at the moment one of those fumes the kitchen was constantly firing at the drawing-room, came storming up as if a door had been suddenly opened in yet lower regions. Cornelius was too much offended and self-occupied to be amused, but both Mrs. Raymount and Vavasor laughed, the latter recognizing in Hester's extemporization a vein similar to his own. But Hester was already searching, and presently found a song to her mind--one, that was, fit for Cornelius.

"Come now, Corney," she said; "here is a song I should like you to be able to sing!"

With that she turned to the keys, and sang a spirited ballad, of which the following was the first stanza:


This blow is for my brother:
You lied away his life;
This for his weeping mother,
This for your own sweet wife;
For you told that lie of another
To pierce her heart with its knife.

And now indeed the singer was manifest; genius was plainly the soul of her art, and her art the obedient body to the informing genius. Vavasor was utterly enchanted, but too world-eaten to recognize the soul she almost waked in him for any other than the old one. Her mother thought she had never heard her sing so splendidly before.

The ballad was of a battle between two knights, a good and a bad--something like Browning's _Count Gismond_: the last two lines of it were--


So the lie went up in the face of heaven
And melted in the sun.


When Hester had sung these, she rose at once, her face white, her mouth set and her eyes gleaming. Vavasor felt _almost as if he were no longer master of himself, _almost as if he would have fallen down to kiss the hem of her garment, had he but dared to go near her. But she walked from the room vexed with the emotion she was unable to control, and did not again appear.

The best thing in Vavasor was his love of music. He had cultivated not a little what gift he had, but it was only a small power, not of production, but of mere reproduction like that of Cornelius, though both finer and stronger in quality. He did not really believe in music--he did not really believe in anything except himself. He professed to adore it, and imagined he did, because his greatest pleasure lay in hearing his own verses well sung by a pretty girl who would now and then steal, or try to steal, a glance at the poet from under her eyelids as she sang. On his way home he brooded over the delight of having his best songs sung by such a singer as Hester; and from that night fancied he had received a new revelation of what music was and could do, confessing to himself that a similar experience within the next fortnight would send him over head and ears in love with Hester--which must not be! Cornelius went half way with him, and to his questions arising from what Miss Raymount had said about the professional, assured him, 'pon honor, that that was all Hester's nonsense!

"_She in training for a public singer!--But there's nothing she likes better than taking a rise out of a fellow," said Cornelius. "She would as soon think of singing in public as of taking a bar-maid's place in a public-house!"

"But why did you never tell me your sister was such an awful swell of a singer?" asked Vavasor.

"Do you think so? She ought to feel very much flattered! Why I didn't tell you?--Oh, I don't know! I never heard her sing like that before. Upon my word I never did. I suppose it was because you were there. A brother's nobody, don't you know?"

This flattered Vavasor, as how should it not? and without the least idea of whither the spirit in the feet of his spirit was leading him, he went as often to the Raymounts' lodging as for very shame of intrusion he dared--that is, all but every night. But having, as he thought, discovered and learned thoroughly to understand her special vein, as he called it, he was careful not to bring any of his own slight windy things of leaf-blowing songs under Hester's notice--not, alas! that he thought them such, but that he judged it prudent to postpone the pleasure: she would require no small amount of training before she could quite enter into the spirit and special merit of them!

In the meantime as he knew a good song sometimes when he saw it, always when he heard her sing it, never actually displeased her with any he did bring under her notice, had himself a very tolerable voice, and was capable of managing it with taste and judgment, also of climbing upon the note itself to its summit, and of setting right with facility any fault explained to him, it came about by a scale of very natural degrees, that he found himself by and by, not a little to his satisfaction, in the relation to her of a pupil to a teacher. Hester in truth gave herself a good deal of trouble with him, in the endeavor, by no means an unsuccessful one, to improve the quality of his singing--his style, his expression, and even his way of modeling his tones. The relation between them became therefore one which, had it then lasted, might have soon led to something like genuine intimacy--at least to some truer notion on the part of each of the kind of being the other was. But the day of separation arrived first; and it was only on his way back to London that Vavasor began to discover what a hold the sister of his fellow-clerk had taken of his thoughts and indeed of his heart--of the existence of which organ he had never before had any very convincing proof.

All the time he had not once brought his aunt and the Raymounts together.

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