CHAPTER FOUR

 

To Timothy's subsequent satisfaction, the long dinner table accommodated the seven guests and three members of the Handon family quite comfortably, leaving ample elbow-room to either side.  At the head of it sat Lord Handon, whilst on either side of him, to left and right along the table's length, sat Sarah and Timothy, the one directly opposite the other.  Next to Timothy was Sheila Johnston, the Scotch pianist, whilst opposite her the architect Nigel Townley eagerly spooned into his helping of duck soup.  Beside him sat young Geraldine Handon, who looked directly across, whenever she lifted her bright-blue eyes, at the moustached face of Lawrence Gowling.  Finally, to complete the table, Irene Myers, one of two late arrivals, sat facing the other - a portly middle-aged man by name of Girish O'Donnell, who was partly of Asian extraction.  Irene, a sculptress of some renown, was wearing a dark-green gown of fine silk which somewhat clashed with the bright-red dress favoured by Lady Handon, who sat facing her husband at the foot of the table.  But nobody seemed to mind who was wearing what or, indeed, to take much interest in the varieties of attire at this point, since they were all engaged on the first course of a projected three-course meal and sipped steadily of the steaming soup which the officiating manservants had shortly before placed before them.  Overhead, a large cut-glass chandelier flooded the dining area with dazzling light, whilst on the table itself two three-branched candelabra stood ready and waiting for subsequent use during the final course of the dinner when, as was his habitual wont, the viscount preferred a gentler and more natural lighting arrangement to the rather brash one currently in use.  But they had a long way to go before then, so, in the meantime, the chandelier ruled the soup!

     "And how are things getting along at the museum?" Lady Handon inquired of the portly gentleman to her right.

     "Oh, quite well on the whole, I'm delighted to report," O'Donnell replied.  "We're getting more visitors by the day."

     His hostess seemed pleased by this response and cast her husband, who happened to have an eye cocked in their direction, a complacent glance.  "Young or old?" she asked.

     "Oh, mostly schoolkids," O'Donnell obliged, momentarily desisting from the avid consumption of his duck soup.

     "Really?  And are they very noisy?"

     The portly gentleman chuckled softly.  "Not as a rule, thank goodness," he confessed.  "We try to discourage speaking as much as possible, which, in the circumstances, is rather ironic really."

     Lady Handon smiled knowingly and cast her husband a matching glance, to which he duly responded with a short, sharp laugh.  "Perhaps we ought to enlighten those of our guests who haven't heard about Mr O'Donnell's museum," he suggested, preparatory to imbibing a steady spoonful of soup.

     "Yes, do please tell us what all this is about," Sheila Johnston politely requested of him.

     The portly gentleman cleared his throat with a soft though evidently ironic cough and smiled esoterically upon the host, who duly said: "Well, as you will no doubt be surprised and delighted to hear, Mr O'Donnell is principal director of the world's first voice museum."

     "Voice museum?" Sheila echoed, visibly startled by this unusual information.

     "Quite," confirmed the principal director with a gentle nod.  "It is a rather novel concept, I'll admit.  But one which, in my opinion, was long overdue."

     "As would seem to be borne out by the growing curiosity it is apparently exciting from the public," Lady Handon commented.

     "But what exactly is this voice museum?" Sheila pursued, showing Scotch determination to get to the bottom of the matter.  She looked searchingly at Mr O'Donnell, but it was Lord Handon who elected to reply with: "Simply an institution in London's West End where tape-recordings of the human voice are stored for public appreciation.  It is divided into a series of rooms which each house a number of soundproofed transparent booths in which a recording of the speaker's voice is lodged.  By pressing a button outside the booth and entering it via an automatically sliding door, one is entitled to a couple of minutes' recorded speech from any given voice.  After which, the door opens again and one is free to leave."

     "Though some people like to re-enter the booth a number of times in order to listen to the same voice over and over again," O'Donnell remarked, a touch petulantly.

     "And then in spite of the fact that they'll only hear the same recording as before," Lord Handon rejoined sympathetically.

     The principal director nodded his curly-haired head.  "Quite," he confirmed.  "Though, in the case of voices like Marilyn Monroe's and Greta Garbo's, you can quite understand it."

     General amusement prevailed amongst the other guests, with the reception of this remark.

     "You mean to say you preserve the voices of famous film stars there?" exclaimed Sarah on a note of gratified incredulity.

     "Not only of film stars but of the famous in general," O'Donnell declared, before noisily swallowing his last spoonful of soup.  "We have quite a large room also dedicated to the voices of famous writers, composers, artists, politicians, sportsmen, war heroes, and so on.  And we shall shortly be opening a smaller room upstairs exclusively dedicated to the voices of infamous persons, including the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin."

     "Something to rival the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Toussaud's," Gowling suggested, smirking ironically.

     "Quite possibly," O'Donnell conceded.  "But such specific voices, for which the young queue like rush-hour commuters, are only a single aspect of the museum's facilities or, rather, exhibits.  There are other rooms in which anonymous voices may be heard remarking on some particular thing - one on the ground floor, for instance, exclusively dedicated to regional dialects of the British people, where the visitor can sample examples of the thickest Geordie, the highest Highland, the softest Scouse, the strongest Swansea, the broadest Mancunian, or what have you.  Then appended to this room is another, smaller one in which the emphasis is on class rather than simply regional differences, and where the visitor can sample anything from the most plebeian cockney to the most patrician Oxbridge.  An ear-opener if ever there was one!  For you're made comprehensively aware, if you take full advantage of our facilities, as to just how wide the range of speech variation actually is between the various classes, and of how many classes there in fact are throughout the length and breadth of the country.  Yet that room is merely an appendage to the dialect room, which covers a much wider range of tone."

     At this point there issued from the assembled guests a mixture of surprise and amusement, astonishment and incredulity.  Timothy Byrne, in particular, was quite astonished by these revelations, and inquired of the man responsible for them why it was necessary to collect and exhibit such voices?

     "My dear chap," Lord Handon interposed, deputizing for the hard-pressed O'Donnell, "it's simply the function of a museum to preserve a record of a given aspect of life, culture, society, or whatever, and our museum is no exception.  Here, for future generations no less than contemporary ones, is a record, well-stocked and equally well-preserved, of the twentieth-century human voice in all or most of its several manifestations.  For virtually the first time in history, we are enabled, by our technology, to preserve a record of that most elusive of things, the human voice, and that's precisely what the museum does."

     "Yes, and not only with regard to the British voice," O'Donnell confirmed, "but also with regard to just about every other national voice in the world, not to mention, in a majority of cases, the dialect and class divisions thereof."

     Timothy was virtually thunderstruck, and so, too, were most of the other guests, despite the distraction of dinner - the servants meanwhile having removed the empty soup dishes and brought in the main course, which included roast chicken and assorted vegetables, these latter being brought up to the table separately in Sevres china and deposited at regular intervals along its ample length.

     "For not only does the museum possess a British room," O'Donnell continued, ignoring the toing-and-froing of the busy servants, "but it also possesses European, Asian, North American, South American, African, and Australasian rooms, in which examples of the greatest diversity are to be found."

     "Especially in the European and Asian rooms, where the entire gamut of major national languages is represented," Lady Handon remarked, putting aside, for the moment, her preoccupation with food.  "In the European room one can listen to anything from Portuguese and Spanish to Greek and Russian, whilst in the Asian room one can go from Bengali to Cantonese or from Hindustani to Japanese all within the space of a few minutes."

     "Provided, of course, that the booths aren't in excessive demand," O'Donnell pedantically rejoined, helping himself to a generous portion of Brussels sprouts from a dish passed to him by the hostess.  "Otherwise one may have to stand in the queue for several minutes."

     Nigel Townley proffered his most understanding smile and admitted, in a light-hearted vein, that it all sounded rather fun.  Indeed, he was surprised, he confessed, that this voice museum thing was a British and not an American invention, since the Americans were usually quick, not to say keen, to exploit new possibilities, and already possessed more than a few museums of a decidedly unique character, including, he recalled, a museum dedicated exclusively to nuts.

     "Well, as a matter of fact, my father was American,” O’Donnell admitted with a wry smile.  "Though my mother was Asian and I was born and raised here.  So perhaps there's a degree of American initiative behind the Voice Museum, after all."  He passed the dish of Brussels sprouts to Geraldine on his right and proceeded to help himself to some roast potatoes of an agreeably crisp appearance from another dish, this time one handed to him across the table by Miss Myers, the plump sculptress.  "But although I was chiefly responsible for thinking up the idea," he went on, "it would never have been realized without the help and encouragement of Lord and Lady Handon, who not only brought pressure to bear on the Government to sanction the project but, no less importantly, generously donated funds towards its eventual establishment.  Without them, I'm convinced that it would never have seen the light of day, if you'll pardon the cliché."

     Timothy smiled esoterically upon the reception of this eulogistic information and cast their host a deferential glance, before commenting: "So now, should we ever be invaded by aliens from outer space, we're in possession of a building where an investigation of the extraordinary variety of human languages and accents can be carried out on-the-spot, and presumably free-of-charge - not that aliens would care to pay, of course."

     Fifty pence for old-age pensioners and schoolkids," the principal director revealed, "but £3.50p for everyone else, with the possible exception of, ah, aliens from outer space, who may not have the correct change," he added facetiously, for Timothy's benefit.  "Nevertheless, any visitors to our planet would certainly learn a thing or two about the human voice from our museum, assuming they weren't smart enough to go straight back from where they had come!  Though I need hardly remind you that it wasn't specifically designed to satisfy the anthropological curiosity of aliens, stupid or otherwise, but the vocal curiosity of human beings, both now and in the future."

     "Indeed," Lady Handon confirmed, waving away the servant who was about to pour some red wine into her glass and motioning for sherry instead.  "And one can quite imagine a time, you know, when people will be as interested to learn how mankind spoke in the twentieth century ... as we're now interested to discover how they wrote or built or dressed or whatever in the fifteenth century.  Time will add a new dimension, a certain historical charm, to the recordings currently on track there.  And, of course, the coming centuries should provide us with fresh recordings - possibly even a room dedicated to the voices of aliens, Mr Byrne.  After all, there's no reason why we should freeze the museum's exhibits at the present stage of lingual evolution or reality, is there?  We can always add new floors to the top one."

     "Quite," O'Donnell agreed, while crushing a delicious piece of roast chicken between his gold-plated molars.  "Or even extend the museum down deeper into the earth," he added, as an afterthought.

     "Is the visitor told anything about what he's likely to hear in whichever soundproofed booth he happens to enter?" asked Irene Myers, fixing an inquisitive gaze on the face opposite.

     "Oh yes," O'Donnell replied with alacrity, a piece of tender chicken transfixed on the sharp prongs of his silver-plated fork.  "There's a large white plastic plaque on each of the booths bearing, in crisp black print, information about the voice recording inside.  But most people don't bother to read them, partly, I suspect, through laziness, though also because quite a lot can be spoken within two minutes and, since a majority of the recordings last that long, the plaque can become rather prolix and tedious to read.  So most people, especially the slow readers, tend to studiously ignore it, so to speak, and take pot-luck with whatever the recordings contain.  However, largely as an ethical gesture, we find it expedient to provide details of the recordings in order to nominally preclude criticism from those who might otherwise be in some doubt as to their moral  integrity and consequently inclined to suppose they contained scurrilous or obscene language, which, of course, they most certainly don't do!"

     Lord Handon found O'Donnell's explanation highly amusing and duly infected the rest of the table and even the elderly butler, who was still officiating with the drinks and generally pottering about the diners in his rather genteel and overly deferential manner, as though dealing with hot-house plants.  It was now, as he received an extra drop of Cockburns port from the old bugger's unsteady hands, that Timothy realized he was at least partly deaf.  For he wore a tiny hearing-aid clipped to his left ear, and this in some measure sufficed to explain the rather strange proceedings in the drawing-room earlier, both in terms of Lord Handon's loud commands and of the butler's rather close proximity to them all in the region of the wine cabinet.  Presumably, if the old man was going deaf, he couldn't be allowed to stray very far from the scene of alcohol consumption, but had to remain permanently on duty there, like the proverbial sentry at his post.  There seemed little risk, to judge by the loudness of the viscount's orders, of his overhearing much anyway, and this further realization came as a slight relief to Timothy, who was unused to talking in the proximity of servants.

     "Unfortunately we've received a number of critical, not to say abusive, letters from various elderly members of the public who considered what they heard, in certain booths, to be of dubious propriety," continued the principal director, as soon as things had quietened down again.  "However, you can't please everyone, and I'm fairly convinced that such people would find something else to grumble about if not that."

     "Like, presumably, the brevity of each of the recordings, or the volume at which they're played, or the size of the booths, or the length of the queue, or something of that order, I should imagine," Geraldine suggested, before looking across her shoulder at the portly figure on her left.

     "Quite so," O'Donnell confirmed, with an abrupt and evidently peeved nod of his curly-haired head thrown-in for good measure.  "Yet I've no cause to endorse the criticism of dubious propriety myself, which, not altogether surprisingly, has mostly been levelled at the booths of the famous, particularly the writers and film stars, while those of the anonymous French, Italian, and Greek voices exhibited in the European room have borne the brunt of the remainder of such criticisms.  These latter recordings would appear to be obscene to some people simply because they're foreign and seemingly unintelligible, whereas with the former recordings ... well, perhaps it's just the tone-of-voice adopted or the way the words are handled ... that aggravates the ageing sensibilities of my foremost critics.  Still, one can hardly expect Marilyn Monroe or Greta Garbo to sound like sexless machines, can one?  And as for Henry Miller ... well, his mere inclusion in the museum is evidently sufficient grounds for hostility from some visitors, even though what he says is entirely restricted to himself and completely devoid of sexual epithets."

     There was a faint ripple of laughter around the table at this remark, and Geraldine, although by no means the most prudish of young females, saw fit to blush.  Lady Handon merely nodded her head and then sipped daintily at the sherry in her bony hand.  She was one of those who, albeit secretly, opposed the inclusion of Henry Miller herself.  Timothy, by contrast, was quite delighted with the mention of it, and inquired of the director what other writers' voices were to be heard there.

     "Oh, quite a number," came his confident reply.  "For example, Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound, G.B. Shaw, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell, Anthony Burgess - a few more of that sort.  We only exhibit the voices of those who are dead, as a rule, though we have recordings of various important authors who are still alive in stock, so to speak, for future use.  Also several tapes of authors - as, indeed, of other artists and famous people in general - who, although dead, are kept in reserve, pending a rise in their reputations.  Rather than being a 'dead' museum, where the same exhibits are on display year after dreary year, the Metropolitan Voice Museum, as it's officially called, is very much a 'living' one, with regular changes or variations in the exhibition material.  So you're not guaranteed of hearing T.S. Eliot again, assuming you went back to the museum after a couple of years expecting to do so.  And even if his voice was still there, you're not guaranteed of hearing it say exactly the same thing as before.  I like to ensure that there's sufficient recorded material in stock to enable us to vary the programme from time to time.  That way nobody gets bored, and there's always some fresh bait, as it were, to entice people back to the museum.... In point of fact, I'm seriously considering having the recorded programme we currently have of Aldous Huxley on exhibition replaced by a less philosophical and possibly more autobiographical one, since I recently received a highly critical letter from a senior churchman accusing the museum of propagating certain orientally-inspired mystical views prejudicial to the Christian faith.  It seems the good man was less than happy with, amongst other things, the term 'Clear Light of the Void', and would have preferred Huxley to speak in terms closer to the Western soul, such as the Holy Ghost."

     Timothy smiled appreciatively at O'Donnell before swallowing the thoroughly chewed remains of his last piece of roast chicken.  "I think he may well have a point there," he opined, when his throat was clear again.

     "Yes, well, I may replace the current orientally-biased recording with a less 'prejudicial' one in due course," O'Donnell sighed, "and thereupon run the risk of adverse criticism from someone who would prefer Huxley to be represented by his mystical views."  At which point the principal director of the world's only voice museum heartily cleared his throat and gulped down a welcome mouthful of sherry.  It appeared that he was resigned to anything and everything the public might throw at him!

     "Presumably in changing the current recording, you would have to change the information plaque on the outside of the booth as well?" Nigel Townley pedantically conjectured.

     "Naturally," O'Donnell confirmed.  "We could hardly allow those visitors who bother to read them to be misled.  It would therefore be necessary to have a new plaque printed."

     To everyone's surprise, Sheila Johnston's voice suddenly exploded into a sharp burst of high-pitched laughter.  "I must confess to finding it rather difficult to visualize these transparent booths, with their buttons and plaques and all the rest of it," she declared in her soft Scotch accent.  "Are they all arranged like soldiers on parade, or what?"

     "Mostly grouped together in rows of about 10-20 at a time," O'Donnell rejoined over the intervening arm of a servant, who was busily removing empty vegetable dishes from the table.  "But, really, you'd have to see the museum for yourself, to get a proper impression of things and ..."

     "A thing that we hope you'll all do quite soon, in any case," Lord Handon interposed.  "And not only as visitors.  Part of the reason for my having you here is to invite you to participate in the museum indirectly, that's to say, through the medium of a voice recording.  As you're all highly-distinguished young members of your respective professions, it seems not unlikely that one day you'll be eligible for inclusion in the museum's catalogue of famous people.  So a recording or two of each of you now, at this stage in your respective careers, would not be inappropriate, in my opinion."

     "And later on, we may wish to record you again," said O'Donnell, his sherry-wet lips curved into a gentle smile.

     There issued a number of gasps and raised brows from the other guests, who were completely astounded by the prospect of being included in the museum's arsenal of tapes.

     "How come you didn't mention this the last time we were here, Lord Joe," complained Lawrence Gowling, speaking principally for himself and Miss Johnston.

     "Oh, partly because I hadn't then discussed the possibility with Mr O'Donnell and felt that it was safer to wait until he agreed to your inclusion before putting the invitation to you," the viscount revealed, smiling.  "He won't allow just anyone with a name in the arts to record for him, you know.  Only the best are chosen, and after long and arduous discussion, we came to the conclusion that you're all eminently qualified for the honour, if I may so term it, of indirectly participating in the museum's catalogue of illustrious names."

     "How flattering!" cried Sarah, clapping her hands together in childish delight.  "And do you intend us all to record here, there, or what?"

     "Preferably in the recording-room on the top floor of our Piccadilly headquarters," the director answered, craning his neck round to the right, in order to address the opera singer in person.  "We would require less than an hour of your time to get your voice on tape in a suitably-polished and correct manner.  All you need do is to speak slowly and distinctly about either yourself or your professional activity for about fifteen-twenty minutes, so as to give us sufficient material for several short exhibits ... should we wish to vary the subject-matter from time to time.  And in about ten or twelve years' time, you can all come back to the recording-room again to advertise your more mature voices for an alternative airing."  He smiled benignly on the talented occupants of the table, before helping himself to another mouthful of sherry.

     "Well, do we have your consent?" Lord Handon asked, throwing his head back the better to scan the Voice Museum's potential prey.

     "Frankly, it all sounds a trifle bananas to me," Townley averred.  "But since you appear so serious about it, I shall have to consent."

     "Me too," Sheila agreed half-heartedly.

     And one by one the others - Irene, Gowling, Sarah, and Timothy - each volunteered to offer their voices, so to speak, to the museum.  There wasn't really any valid reason not to, especially in light of its appeal to one's professional vanity.

     "Excellent!" declared Lord Handon, with the facial self-satisfaction of one who has just pulled off some lucrative business deal clearly in evidence.  "I knew we could count on you all!  And, by the way, Mr O'Donnell will amply remunerate you for your services."

     "To the sum of £1,000 each," the director confirmed with his customary alacrity.

     Sheila Johnston raised her dark eyebrows in a show of horrified surprise.  "Oh, but you needn't do that!" she objected, speaking on her own behalf, but unconsciously including the others as well.

     "I insist," the director quite firmly rejoined.  "It's our policy.  And, besides, it will cover your travelling expenses."

     Clearly, Miss Johnston, despite O'Donnell's little joke, had no option but to accept whatever payment her services were due.  And the same applied to the rest of Lord Handon's guests, who sat in a kind of dream while the servants cleared away the dinner plates, preparatory to bringing in the third course, which, to everyone's delight, took the impressive form of apple crumble with Devonshire cream.  It was at this more advanced stage in the proceedings, curiously, that the viscount requested the substitution of candle light for electric light by summoning the services of a tall servant, who, with cigarette-lighter in hand, lit the six tapers on the two candelabra before switching off the light of the chandelier. 

     Not surprisingly, the sudden transformation in the room's lighting caused quite a stir among the guests who, with the exceptions of Gowling and Sheila, had never experienced any such arrangement before.  Sarah regarded it as a transformation for the better, whereas Timothy found himself reflecting on his preference for electric light.  Indeed, he always made a point of preferring the artificial to the natural on principle these days, regarding it as indicative of a higher and therefore less evil stage of evolution.  The spectacle of the six candle flames flickering in front of his port-drowsed eyes had a slightly depressing effect on him, making him conscious of what he took to be the close proximity of the Infernal, even if it was controlled and limited to a given, rather innocuous sphere of influence.  Somehow he couldn't avoid the connotation of flame with evil, or of the diabolic with the sun.  It was as if a tiny piece of the sun had been transported to the dining-room and placed on the wicks of each of the burning candles, so that the spectacle in front of his eyes was less candle flame than six miniature hells, six fragments of the Devil, burning in splendid isolation.  He shuddered with disgust!  But then, remembering where he was, simply pretended to feel cold and proceeded to gently rub his hands together under the table.  However, nobody appeared to be paying him any attention.  For, at that moment, Irene Myers was heard asking the man opposite her when he would like them all to turn-up for their voice recordings?

     "Oh, no hurry," O'Donnell replied, momentarily looking-up from his dessert, which now contained an especially large helping of cream.  "Of course, I'd be more than willing to open the recording studio to anyone who wanted to offer his or her services next week.  I don't require you all to turn-up at once however, but simply when it's convenient to you.  I shall be available on the premises from approximately 10am-6pm each weekday, so if you can arrange to come at some time between then, I'll be delighted to see you.  Delighted, too, to escort you round the museum and give you a chance to hear a number of the exhibits.  I know that, as a sculptress, Irene, you'll be particularly interested to hear the voices of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.  And I'm confident that Sarah will be interested to hear Maria Callas speaking rather than singing, for a change."

     "In which language?" the young opera star wanted to know.

     "English unfortunately," O'Donnell confessed.  "For I haven't as yet dared to include foreign languages in the room of the famous.  Though we're intending to open a separate room for the relatively or absolutely non-English speaking famous in due course ... possibly later next year.  That would enable us to include such illustrious names as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Hermann Hesse, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Pablo Picasso in the museum, thereby enhancing its growing reputation.  After all, it's still in its infancy, not by any means grown to full maturity, and, as such, there's certainly scope for improvement.  Yet that isn't to say the Callas recording is bad.  Au contraire, she handles her English very well, on the whole."

     "I have in fact heard her speak before," Sarah revealed, slightly to the director's disappointment.

     "Oh well, I'm sure you'll be delighted all the same, particularly since she talks about her social background rather than her work," he rejoined.

     There followed a short lull in the conversation, before Gowling inquired of O'Donnell whether his funny little museum happened to have a recording by Piet Mondrian on offer?

     "Alas, no!" the latter sighed.  "We're not aware that he ever made one and, besides, he died in the 1940s, so even if he had, it would more than likely be of poor sound-quality and therefore unworthy of continuous exhibition.  As a rule, we studiously avoid anything recorded before 1950."

     "A shame in one sense," Lady Handon opined.  "For it means that a lot of very important famous people are automatically excluded from public attention."

     "Quite so," O'Donnell conceded.  "But one has to begin somewhere, and voices from the second-half of the twentieth century, or at least from the 1940s, provide an excellent foundation upon which to build our future repertoire, so to speak.  No, we cannot lay claim to a comprehensive collection of famous twentieth-century voices because we're obliged to exclude those from early in the first-half of the century, which, as you say, is a shame, especially where the most famous and important artists are concerned!  But we're certainly doing our best to record everyone of any consequence who is currently alive, if that's any consolation to you?"

     "A little," the hostess drily granted.  "Although being, like my husband, a member of the older generation, there are one or two pre-war voices that I'd personally prefer to hear, in contrast to much of what is currently on offer, irrespective of the comparatively poor sound-quality.  Of course, I fully realize that the modern and, on the whole, more youthful public of today wouldn't share my preference.  But the museum might still profit, you know, from an extension of the existing range of recordings back into the early decades of the current century.  A kind of historical room of early recordings.  And I'm quite convinced that, in spite of gaps or omissions, there would be no shortage of material from which to choose.  However, this is only a suggestion, Girish, not an order!  I quite understand your reluctance to expand too rapidly.  Yet suggestions of this kind may prove useful, particularly if you should one day run into competition from foreign voice museums."  At which point she cast him a mildly quizzical glance, and then resumed eating her dessert.

     Having in the meantime ordered more drink for the table, Lord Handon nodded in agreement and began to expatiate on a rumour he had heard, only the previous week, that the French were seriously contemplating the establishment of a national voice museum, which would inevitably focus more exclusively on their own language and, in all probability, the regional dialects and class differences thereof, thus bringing the disparate accents of their loquacious nation firmly under one roof.  "And before long," he continued, "I shouldn't be at all surprised to see the Germans and, ahem, Italians following suit, and perhaps even the Americans - assuming they can get over the shock that someone else thought up the damned idea before themselves!"

     "So any aliens from outer space who wished to find out more about the human voice wouldn't necessarily have to go to London in the future, but could depend on the inhabitants of just about any major country in which they happened to land to provide them with the relevant information," Geraldine declared facetiously.

     "Indeed, they might even prefer to hear French or German voices to British ones," her father joked.

     "Yes, well, as yet no alternative voice museums actually exist," O'Donnell remarked, bringing a serious note back into the discussion, "so we needn't fear immediate competition.  I will of course bear your suggestion in mind, Pamela, and should we subsequently decide to expand in that rather retrograde fashion, I shall give you full credit for it ... as indeed for the suggestion you made, last time I was here, concerning the possibility of extending our range of vocal sound to include singing, shouting, laughing, whistling, crying, coughing, or whatever it was ..."

     "I would hardly have suggested crying or coughing!" Lady Handon protested, with a look of ironic reproof in her beady eyes.  "Although they might serve the curious purposes of an alien with no knowledge or experience of such things!  No, I was thinking, more specifically, of the human voice in various of its myriad occupational roles - you know, the opera singer, pop singer, regimental sergeant-major, schoolmaster, priest, and so on.  For I am convinced that a room dedicated to the immense variety of occupational contexts would further enhance the museum's growing reputation."

     "And prevent its future competitors from forcing it into an imitative role," her husband added, as he came to the end of his dessert.  "However, let's not burden our guests with any more talk of that.  I'm sure they're dying for a change of subject."

     "On the contrary, I find it a most fascinating one," Sheila blandly confessed.

     "Me too," Sarah seconded, her pretty face bursting into a reassuring smile.

     The other guests, however, remained verbally noncommittal.

     "Oh well, you'll all be able to sate your curiosity when you actually visit the museum," Lord Handon averred.  "In the meantime, and this evening in particular, I'd like you to feel free to enjoy yourselves in a less educative fashion ... principally by joining my wife and I in the small ballroom next-door for a spot of dancing.  After all, this is New Year's Eve, so we ought to celebrate it in style.  I trust you have no objections, ladies and gentlemen?"

     There were certainly more than a few slight qualms and alarms at the mention of this, but, since no-one seemed to mind, or to express verbal reservations if they did, the viscount took it that everyone was agreed on the suitability of his suggestion, and clapped his hands together in apparent satisfaction.  "Good!" he cried.  "Then as soon as you're all ready, we shall proceed to the ballroom."  And that, curiously enough, is what duly happened.

 

 

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