Sunday, 15 March 2015

Guilty Pleasures

In the music room of the Waverley University Library, Pearl Vambrace had abandoned herself to a deplorable form of self-indulgence. If Mr Kelso, the lecturer of music, were to find her, he would certainly be angry. If Dr Forgie, the Librarian, were to find her he would be angry too, for although he had no ear for music he knew an idle assistant when he saw one. But the chances were good that nobody would find her, for Mr Kelso had cancelled his Music Appreciation Hour for that afternoon, and everybody knew it but Dr Forgie. So Pearl had seized her chance. It had been a hateful day, and it would undoubtedly go on being hateful. She sprawled in a large armchair, her head resting on one arm and her legs dangling over the other, and gave herself up to illicit, healing pleasure.

The phonograph in the Music Room was of the largest and most expensive kind; it would play a great many records without being touched. But it was temperamental, like so many great artists, and only Mr Kelso and Pearl, who acted as his helper during music lectures, were permitted to go near it. Under Mr Kelso's extremely critical eye, Pearl had learned to pick up recordings by their edges only, to wipe them with a chamois, and to place them on the spindle of the costly, fretful machine. She was permitted to act as Mr Kelso's handmaiden, and as nursemaid to the phonograph, because she had, in her own undergraduate years, been a particularly apt pupil in Music Appreciation; she could appreciate anything, and satisfy Mr Kelso that her appreciation was akin to, though naturally of a lesser intensity, than, his own. Play her a Georgian chant, and she would appreciate it; play her a Bartok quartet and she would appreciate that. And what brought a frosty and unwilling smile to Mr Kelso's lips was that her appreciation, like his own, was untainted by sentimentalism; she did not rhapsodise foolishly about music, as so many of his students did; she really seemed to understand what music was, and to understand what he said about it in his singularly unmusical voice. When Pearl, the autumn after her graduation, was taken on the Library staff, Mr Kelso had asked that she be allowed to help him in the Music Room, when he lectured there.

It would never occur to Mr Kelso that Pearl was a hypocrite, or that Music Appreciation as taught by him, was something which a stone-deaf student could learn and pass examinations in. But such was the case, and her post as bottle-washer to Mr Kelso and the machine gave Pearl occasional chances for indulging what she fully knew to be a base side of her nature.

Among the very large collection of phonograph records which the Library maintained were perhaps a hundred which Mr Kelso called his Horrible Examples. These were pieces of music which he despised, sung or played by people whose manner of interpretation he despised. Now and then Mr Kelso would play one of these, in order to warn his students against some damnable musical heresy. It had taken Pearl a long time to recognise and admit to herself that just as there were times when she had to buy and eat a dozen doughnuts in one great sensual burst, there were also times when the Horrible Examples, and nothing else, were the music she wanted to hear.

As she lay in the chair on the afternoon of November 1st, a bag in which there were still ten delicious greasy doughnuts was on the floor at her side and on the turntable of the phonograph was what she called, to herself, a Vambrace Mixed Concert. At present, in the concert hall of her mind, the world-renowned pianist, Pearl Vambrace, was playing Sinding's Rustle of Spring; as the cascades of sound gushed and burbled from the instrument the audience asked itself how it was that this frail girl could produce a body of tone which might have been (and in plain fact was) that of two players with a piano each; and the only reply that the audience could give itself was that this was the mastery vouchsafed to an artist who lived wholly for her art...Spring had ceased to rustle, the gramophone gave a discreet, expensive cough, and at once broke into the rather thin strains of I'll Sing Thee Songs of Araby, Pearl Vambrace, the contralto marvel of her age, stood by the piano, singing the sweet ballad with a melancholy beauty which suggested very strongly the voice of a once-great Welsh tenor...To cheat thee of a sigh, or charm thee to a tear...With heartbreaking loveliness, with ineffable romantic silliness, the exquisite voice mounted to the last note, and Pearl's eyes were wet as her hand stole down into the bag for another doughnut...This lot of records was nearly done. Only one more to be played. It was Sibelius' Valse Triste, which Mr Kelso was accustomed to call an aberration of genius, but which Pearl thought of in quite different terms. This time she appeared upon the stage of her imagination as Pearl Vambrace, the great ballerina, floating with pathetic grace through a dance of love and death. It was unbearably beautiful, and yet, somehow, it made life much more bearable. It made it possible, for instance, to think with some composure about Father.

Sherlock Holmes was accustomed to think of a difficult case as a three-pipe problem. In Pearl's life, Father was becoming more and more a dozen-doughnut problem. Without the greasy, bulky comfort of a dozen doughnuts distributed at various points through her digestive tract the Professor's daughter found it hard to think about him at all. His behaviour last night, for instance; his terrible rage, his rhetorical ravings after he had finished talking on the telephone with Dean Knapp; it was all that she could do bring herself to think of them. He had not been so much angry as amazed, to begin with, but gradually, over an hour's time, he had worked himself up to a pitch of shouting fury. And what a personal fury! Great as his rage was, it was only big enough for himself. She and Mummy might have been the culprits rather than sharers in any disgrace or scandal that there was.

Mummy had taken it, as always when there was trouble, incoherently and in tears, and finally in agonised prayer. That Mummy loved Father there was no shadow of doubt, and that Mummy loved God was equally apparent. But she seemed always to be so frightened and guilty before them both. Perhaps if Father had not forbidden Mummy to bring Pearl up a Catholic things would have been easier at home, Pearl knew, of course, that when they had married, Father had promised (but "as good as promised" was the exact phrase that Mummy used on the rare occasions when she spoke of it to Pearl) to join his wife in her faith, but he had refused to do so (or as Mummy always said, "had been unable to do so"). He had insisted that Pearl be brought up an agnostic, like himself. Nor was this done by neglect of religion, or silence about it; long before she could understand what he was talking about Father had lectured her on the nature of faith, of which he had a poor opinion. And as Mummy become more and more devout, and gave more and more of her time to meditation and spiritual exercises, Father's unbelief grew rawer and more aggressive. Home was not easy. But Pearl was a loyal daughter and it never occurred to her that home was, in many ways, a hell.

Last night Mummy had spent at least two hours in the prie-dieu in her bedroom, weeping softly and praying. Pearl had no such refuge. Father had paced the floor, his eyes glaring, and at one time foam, unmistakable foam, had appeared at the corners of his mouth. He had talked of a plot, on the part of a considerable number of unknown persons, to bring him into disrepute and mockery. He had been darkly conscious of this plot for some time; indeed it had begun before he had been done out of his rightful dignity as Dean of Arts. That was when the late Professor Bridgetower had been voted into the dean's chair. Bridgetower! A scientist, a geologist if you please, who would not even have been in the Arts faculty if the composition of the Waverley syllabus had not been ridiculously out of date! What if the man was called Professor of Natural Philosophy; in the present day such terminology was as ludicrous as calling a man Professor of Phrenology. They had been out to defeat him and they had done so. But, not content with that shabby triumph, they now sought to disgrace him through his family. Through his only child - a daughter! What would they have contrived, the Professor demanded of the world at large, if he had had a son?

The first part of the Vambrace Mixed Concert had come to an end, and Pearl rose to put a new pile of records on the turntable. But that which was uppermost in the group she had chosen was a violin rendition of The Londonderry Air, and she felt suddenly that she could not bear anything Irish, however good it might be. So she put on Tchaikovsky's Symphony Number Six, and in no time, in that vast imaginary concert hall, the great woman conductor, Pearl Vambrace was letting an enchanted audience hear how unbearably pathetic the Pathètique could be.

No, decidedly nothing Irish. Pearl was pleased, in a vague way, to be of Irish blood on both sides of her family, but she had had enough to Ireland last night. Professor Vambrace was strongly conscious of his own Irish heritage, and in periods of stress it provided him with two character roles which appealed deeply to his histrionic temperament. The first of these was the Well-Born Celt, proud, ironical and aristocratic of manner; was he not a cousin of the Marquis of Mourne and Derry? The other was the Wild and Romantic Celt, untrammelled by petty Saxon considerations of reason, expediency, or indeed of fact. When his intellectual disguise was on him he assumed a manner of talking which was not quite a brogue, but which was racy, extravagant and punctuated by angry snorts and hollow laughter. His mode of expression owed a good deal to the plays of Dion Boucicault, which the Professor had seen in his boyhood. It was a hammy performance, but Pearl and her mother were too near to it to be critical; they feared the Professor in this mood, for he could say very bitter things.

Last night the Professor had given one of his most prolonged and elaborate impersonations in this vein. He was, he said, being persecuted, hounded, mocked by those who were jealous of his intellectual attainments, of his integrity, of his personal dignity. People who hated him because he was different from themselves had found a new means by which they hoped to bring him low. Ha, ha! How little they knew their man! His letters to the City Council about garbage disposal had won him no friends; he knew it. His wrangle with the Board of Education, when he had refused to have Pearl vaccinated at their request, still rankled; no one needed to tell him that. He had spoken out at meetings of the faculty of the University; no man who attacked incompetent colleagues - in public, mind you, and not like a sneaking night-walking jackeen - need hope for popularity. His success as an amateur actor was bound to create jealousy; his performance as Prospero had been something of a triumph, in its small way, and every triumph created detractors. He had fought in the open, like a man, against stupidity, and Bumbledom, and mediocrity, and he knew the world well enough to expect a bitter return.

But that he should be attacked through his daughter! Even his realism had not foreseen that! A false announcement of an engagement when they all knew that no suitor had ever so much as darkened the door of his house! That was cruelty. That was catching a man in a place where he could be hardly expected to defend himself. He was, ha, ha, surprised that they could rise to cruelty, for cruelty on that level demanded a touch of imagination, and that was the last thing he had expected. If they could accuse his daughter of being engaged, they would next be spreading a report that his wife was a witch.

Tchaikovsky, filtered through this splendid machine, was dying by inches; his groans, his self-reproaches, filled the room with Slavic misery. Pearl's eyes were full of tears, and she reached for the second-to-last doughnut.

It had been Mummy who broke first, and went weeping to her room. Pearl knew that Mummy's unhappiness was for her, as well as for her husband. Of course Daddy didn't realise that it was painful to have it said so many times, and in so many different ways, that no young man had ever been interested in her. She didn't care for herself, but she supposed a girl had a duty to her family in such a matter; nobody likes it to be thought that their daughter lacks charm.

Once, by an odd chance, this same Solomon Bridgetower had taken her to the Military Ball, the great event of Salterton's social year. But that was when they were both in a play, and he hadn't meant anything by it. Anyway, it was four years ago and she had not spoken a dozen words to him since. And he was the recognised property, though low on her list, of that local heiress and beauty, Griselda Webster. It was queer that anyone should think of playing a trick in which her name was linked with his. Anyway, no young man had asked her to go anywhere with him since then.

No: that was not quite true. No young man with whom she could be bothered had approached her. She had been conscious, recently, that Henry Rumball, a reporter on The Bellman who came every day to the University, seeking news, was persistently attentive to her. But he was a joe among all the girls in the Library.

Solomon Bridgetower, however, was not. That morning she had been aware as soon as she put her coat in her locker in the staff-room that something was in the air, and that it concerned her. The first to congratulate her had been her great enemy, Miss Ritson, in Cataloguing.

"Well," said she, "aren't you the sly one? Carrying him off right from under Tessie's nose! No ring yet, I see. Or don't you choose to wear it at the daily toil? Congratulations, dear."

Miss Ritson moved away humming. It was an ironical hum, but it was lost on Pearl, whose father had been so determined that she must be an agnostic. For Miss Ritson was humming God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.

Tessie was Miss Teresa Forgie, daughter and principal secretary to the Librarian. She was of classic features (that is to say, horse-faced) and formidable learning. It was obvious that she would make a wonderful wife for any ambitious young professor, and it was well-known among her associates in the Library that she had chosen Solly Bridgetower as the recipient of this rich dower. But Miss Forgie was as high-minded as she was learned, and when she greeted Pearl no one would have guessed that she had cried herself to sleep the night before.

"I am so deeply happy for you, Pearl," she said. "There is so much that a man in academic life needs - so much of simple femininity, as well as understanding of his work." She glanced around, and continued in a lower tone. "So many needs of Body, as well as of Mind. I hope that I may continue to be a dear, dear friend to you both."

Pearl understood the import of this very well. She was in charge of Reference, and that included a locked section of the book-stacks only to be read on the spot, upon presentation of a permit signed by the Librarian. Tessie plainly thought that Pearl had won Solly by subtle arts learned from the Hindu Books of Love, and from Havelock Ellis' Studies in the Psychology of Sex.

All of the girls had congratulated her, in one way or another, within an hour of opening time. Some of them seemed genuinely glad that she was to make her escape from the Library. And Pearl had said nothing to arouse further curiosity. Was this wise? But with Daddy talking about lawyers and suits she did not know what else to do; there would be trouble enough in time. She had trembled, when she overheard some of the girls talking in whispers about arranging a shower for her.

A shower! She had intimate knowledge of these affairs, at which the friends of an engaged girl lavished everything from handkerchiefs to kitchenware upon her. What would she do if she suddenly found herself the recipient of twenty handkerchiefs, or a collection of candy-thermometers, lemon squeezers and carrot-dicers? As Tchaikovsky moaned his last, Pearl cowered in the armchair, licking the sugar from the last doughnut off her fingers, and sweated with fright.

Suddenly the light flashed on in the dark room. It was old Mr Garnett, the Library janitor, with his trolley of cleaning materials.

"Sorry. Didn't know anybody was here."

"It's all right, Mr Garnett. I'll just put away these records, and then I'll be through. Please go ahead with your work."

"O.K. Miss Vambrace. Looks pretty clean in here anyways."

"There wasn't any class this afternoon. I was listening to some music alone. You won't tell anybody, will you?"

"I never tell what ain't my business. You got a right to be alone, I guess. Won't be alone much longer, I hear."

"I'll put these records away at once."

"That's what they say about marriage. Never alone again. Well, that can be good, and it can be pure hell, too. Ever think of it that way?"

"I'll just throw this bag right into your wastepaper box, shall I?"

"What's the fella's name?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"The fella. The fella you're engaged to? Somebody mentioned it, but I forget, now. One of our fellas, isn't it?"

"Oh, you know how people talk, Mr Garnett."

"It was in the paper. That's not talk. When it's in the paper, you mean business. What's the fella's name?"

"Oh. I forget."

"What? How can you forget?"

"Oh-well-the name in the paper was Mr Solomon Bridgetower."

"Yeah. Yeah. Young Bridgetower. Well, I knew his father. I've seen worse."

Pearl had replaced the records, and she fled. On, what despicable weakness. She had named him, as her fiancé, to someone outside the family! What would Father say? How would she ever get out of this hateful, hateful mess?

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