CHAPTER SIX

 

Yes, it was New Year's Day, and as he mounted the red-carpeted stairs, a few minutes later, Timothy Byrne wondered whether the New Year would prove kinder to him than the old one had, and, if so, in what ways.  Indeed, he was so engrossed in speculation on this point that it quite startled him to hear Sarah inquiring over his shoulder, as he reached the door to his bedroom on the guest wing, what kind of accommodation he had been allocated for the night.  He turned abruptly in the thickly-carpeted corridor and confronted his questioner with a blank face.  "Oh, forgive me!" he cried, blushing as he recognized her.  "I hadn't realized you were following me."  His voice sounded quite leaden with drink and he almost lost his physical balance as he turned fully towards her.  "Have they put you in this part of the house as well?" he foolishly asked.

     Sarah returned him one of her characteristically-endearing smiles.  "Just a little farther along the corridor," she replied, pointing with her index finger.

     "I see," he responded, vaguely turning his head in the direction indicated.  He seemed indecisive as to his next move or remark and was on the verge of saying goodnight ... when the opera singer requested to see the interior of his room.

     "Certainly," he impulsively replied, and, just as impulsively, opened the door and pushed his way in, flicking on the light switch as he went.

     "Ah, how pretty!" exclaimed Sarah, following him inside.  "It's more cheerful than mine," she added, with a look at the light-blue wallpaper which clothed the walls of the brightly-lit, box-like room.  "And the curtains!"  She advanced a pace towards the maroon velvet curtains, which hung down to within a few inches of the floor, and clapped her hands in admiration of the harmony they formed with the wallpaper.  "Let's swap rooms," she playfully suggested.

     For a moment Timothy thought she was being serious. "What's wrong with yours?" he asked.

     "Oh, nothing really," giggled Sarah.  "Or, rather, it's just that the colours aren't quite so much to my taste."  She turned towards him and smiled briefly, before adding: "Come on, I'll show you it, if you're interested."

     It wouldn't have been very polite of him to say he wasn't, so he obligingly followed her out through the half-open door, automatically switching off the light, and made his way, with some difficulty, along the corridor to the room next-door.  He felt a trifle guilty and foolish about this, and was almost afraid that someone would see him.  But ahead of him the corridor was deserted, while behind ... he glanced back over his shoulder and saw no-one - at least not at that moment.  For just as he reached Sarah's door the distinctive voice of Girish O'Donnell was sounding at the top of the stairs, and, before he could disappear into her room, the portly figure of the Voice Museum's principal director had appeared in the corridor and was advancing towards them, accompanied by Irene Myers.  There was a faint hint of recognition from O'Donnell but, rather than acknowledging it, Timothy hurried into Sarah's room as fast as he could, under the circumstances of his inebriation, and shut the door behind him in a panic, fearing they might have seen Sarah going in as well.  Not that any such thing was guaranteed.  For she had been in front of him, after all, and was in the process of opening her door when they rounded the corner.  And, anyway, even if they had, so what?  Did that necessarily mean ...?  He cast the thought from his mind and advanced unsteadily towards the centre of her room, newly reminded of the purpose of his visit, which, on the surface at least, seemed perfectly innocent.

     For her part Sarah had sensed nothing of his panic and now stood to one side, pointing out the colours she apparently found less cheerful than those in her neighbour's room.  "You see?" she sighed, with a slight air of constraint.

     He looked about him, like a connoisseur of fine art, and nodded his head in apparent sympathy.  Though, in reality, he couldn't see anything amiss, since the dark-blue wallpaper and silver-grey velvet curtains were quite to his taste.  If anything, he preferred this combination to the one in his own room, which was suggestive of some football team, and would have said so, had not discretion or something analogous prevailed upon him to hold his tongue.  Finally he decided on a compromise by conceding that, although her room was probably a shade less cheerful, it was nonetheless just as brightly lit and no less spacious.  "Not really that bad at all," he concluded, involuntarily including the silver-quilted double bed which stood a few feet to his right.  "At least you won't have to sleep in it longer than tonight."

     She smiled in acknowledgement of this obvious fact and sat down on the corner of the bed, nearest to where Timothy was standing.  "No," she agreed, "that's one good thing."  Then, abruptly changing track, she asked him what he thought of the dance earlier?

     "Oh, quite amusing on the whole," he remarked, grinning.  "Not that I'm a particularly accomplished dancer, as you doubtless realized.  I hope you'll forgive me for having trodden on your toes so often."

     She glanced down at her pale-stockinged toes and confessed that, but for a little wear, they had survived quite well, considering that her dancing partner had been wearing some kind of newfangled boots.  "Besides," she added, smiling anew, "I must have committed more than a few choreographic indiscretions myself, not being used to that kind of dancing.  So perhaps it's I who ought to be apologizing to you."

     He blushed slightly in spite of himself, wondering what she could be referring to, and sought distraction in a small stucco carving of a cherub which graced the top of a circular table just in front of where he was still standing, hands bashfully tucked inside front pockets.  Yet she was looking at him with a curious interest when next he dared face her, much as though he were a work of art worthy of a certain critical appraisal.  What could be on her mind, he wondered?

     However, before he could wonder anything else, he heard her say: "I quite liked what you were saying about your latest religious beliefs, before dinner."

     "Oh, really?" he responded, somewhat surprised and not a little ashamed of his current wine-intoxicated condition.  Or was it the fact of his religious beliefs?

     "Yes, I think there must be some truth in it," Sarah declared.  "Quite a lot of truth in fact, in spite of your predilection for sweeping generalizations of the debunking sort, which are doubtless more expedient than pedantic, suggesting a degree of literary licence which, though arguably objectionable from a more objectively philosophic standpoint, at least has the merit of simplifying things and of obliging one to rethink accepted positions."

     A smile of gratitude overcame him with the mention of this.  "I'm glad you think so," he admitted, though he didn't fully understand the latter part of her remark.  "However, I'm aware that Lady Handon wouldn't agree with such an opinion."

     "No, she appears to be something of a religious conservative," Sarah confirmed, wrinkling-up her brows in evident disdain.  "Still, one can't win them all.  What she believes in is obviously right for her."

     "Indeed," Timothy conceded with a hint of weariness in his voice.  "Nevertheless, for people like you and I, such traditional criteria as she apparently subscribes to are far from right.  They would simply keep one moored to the Diabolic Alpha at the expense of the Divine Omega, binding one to the Creator in worshipful subjection to theocratic authoritarianism, and thus preventing the achievement of religious freedom in self-realization.  For without freethinking, there is only enslavement, and the freer and more advanced the thinking, the more will the Alpha appear diabolic and only the Omega divine."  He turned round and was on the point of returning to his room, when Sarah's voice halted him in his tracks.

     "Do you like opera?" she asked.

     "Some of it," he replied, smiling faintly.  "French opera, in particular."

     A look of gratified surprise came into the opera singer's large eyes.  "And have you ever heard me sing?"

     "Yes, once, in Manon at Covent Garden."

     Her look of gratified surprise blossomed handsomely into a smile of relief.  "And did you like it?" she wanted to know, her dark-brown eyes sparkling gaily in the reflection of the light from the small chandelier overhead.

     "I did indeed," he admitted, blushing slightly in spite of his semi-drunken predicament.  "As it happens, you reminded me quite a lot of Beverly Sills, not only as regards the way you sang but also with regard to your appearance.  It was through a recording of Manon by Sills and Gedda that I first got to know of the opera, actually."

     "Yes, one of the classic recordings," Sarah opined in a tone of undisguised enthusiasm.

     "I guess it would have to be, what with Gedda in it," Timothy rejoined, smiling appreciatively.  "He's still my favourite tenor.  However, I was keenly appreciative of Souzay as 'Lescaut' and Castel as 'Gillot', too.  Not to mention Bacquier as 'Le Compt de Grieux', for that matter.  His voice is unforgettable!  But the bass part which has given me most pleasure to-date is undoubtedly Boris Christoff's rendering of 'Mephistopheles' in a recording of Gounoud's Faust.  What power!  What brilliance of execution!  There are times when one's hair virtually stands on-end!"

     "I quite agree," Sarah responded.  "He is one of the great masters.  And he was with Gedda in the recording you allude to, wasn't he?"

     "Indeed he was!" Timothy smilingly confirmed.  "Gedda and Victoria de los Angeles.  Unforgettable!  Quite the best French opera I've ever heard.  At any rate - forgive me for appearing unduly opinionated in this matter - my responses so far have led me to the conclusion that there is a kind of decline in the French operatic masterpiece from Gounoud to Debussy.  I mean, if you take the greatest work from each major composer, you find that Faust tops the list, followed, in a descending order of merit, by Carmen, Manon, and Pelléas et Mélisande."

     "You forgot to mention Offenbach's Orpheus somewhere in between," Sarah commented, frowning slightly.  "But, basically, I would have to agree with you.  Of course, there are people who maintain that Manon isn't a masterpiece of the first rank, and that France had to wait some forty years for a worthy successor to Carmen.  Frankly, however, I don't go along with them.  Massenet's greatest work contains such a plethora of beautiful melodies and is so imaginatively orchestrated, that it's difficult if not impossible to see how it could possibly be anything less than a masterpiece."

     "Yes, and then the libretto is very good, which is more than can be said, in my opinion, for Pelléas et Mélisande, especially where the tedious reiteration of 'petit père' is concerned!  That just about drained my patience, I'm afraid."

     Sarah graciously admitted to finding that part of the opera a bit trying herself.  Then, realizing that Timothy was still standing in the centre of the room with hands in pockets, she invited him to sit beside her, so that they could discuss opera in comfort.  There was no reason, she said, why he should tire his legs standing there when a soft bed was conveniently close to-hand.

     Although he was somewhat mentally fatigued and mindful, at this juncture, of the lateness of the hour, he complied with her invitation - more from a relief to be off his feet at last than from anything else.

     So they sat side-by-side and discussed opera, Timothy relating his experiences of a variety of recordings, Sarah, for her part, merely content to comment upon them and offer a professional opinion from time to time.  She confessed to having sung in all the major French operas and to preferring her role as 'Carmen' to either that of 'Margueritta' or 'Manon', though each of these she found preferable to 'Melisande', which was less inspiring.

     "And Werther?" asked Timothy, becoming doubly inebriated by the sweetness of her perfume and the graceful flow of her conversation.

     "Yes, I was 'Charlotte' in a recent production of that," she revealed, smiling anew.  "Massenet at his sweetest.  But my 'Werther' was the tenor Adrian Tanner, whom I don't much care for."

     "As a singer or as a person?" Timothy queried.

     "As a person," Sarah confessed.

     The writer chuckled softly and offered her a gentle look of commiseration.  "My only experience of Werther came via Nicolai Gedda and Victoria de los Angeles, whose 1969 recording I recently heard."

     "You seem to prefer listening to records than actually visiting the opera," Sarah deduced.

     "In point of fact, I do," Timothy admitted, "though that's partly because what I'd like to hear isn't always available when I want it, and partly, too, because I'm able to borrow records from the local library and thus sate my musical curiosity free-of-charge, in the privacy of my flat."  Here he felt like adding a word or two about his preference for the spiritualization of art through reproductions or recordings, but decided not to risk either offending Sarah by or burdening himself with the corollary of a detailed explication of his philosophical position - a position which Lord Handon's guided tour of the library, billiards room, etc., had earlier made him freshly conscious of, and with a vengeance!  For, as a rule, he preferred the elimination of the material factor in opera, which recordings provided, to the actual live performance itself.  Just as he preferred a colour photograph, or photographic reproduction, of a statue to the statue itself.  It was all part of his transcendentalism and the modern trend towards a greater spiritualization of art and life generally.  The disembodied voices which assailed or charmed the ear were spiritual presences merely, abstractions of real people - like, for that matter, the actors and actresses who graced the cinema screen.  Nothing tangible or material about them - ghostly presences, rather, which attested to the higher spiritual culture of contemporary man.

     If one went to the cinema it wasn't to see real bodies moving about on screen but, on the contrary, the cinematic reproduction of such bodies.  It was analogous to looking through glossy art books at the photographic reproductions of paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and the like.  At its best, cinema was undoubtedly a higher and more spiritual art-form than, say, theatre, which, by contrast, dealt in real presences, no less tangible than material.  Admittedly drama could be spiritualized through the medium of film, and so, too, could opera, as had occurred in a number of memorable productions, including Tosca.  Perhaps this was the best way to experience drama or opera in-the-round these days - simply by sitting in front of a colour television with good quality hi-fi?  Although if one valued the music and singing above the stage scenery, costumes, lighting, singers, and action, then a good quality stereo would doubtless serve one's purposes better.  The primary ingredients of opera, viz. music and singing, would be catered for on a superior level than what they would receive from a televised performance in-the-round, where the sound reproduction was likely, as a rule, to be less good.  Yet whatever one's bias, it seemed not improbable that cultural progress was being manifested through these electronic media, which transformed an initially dualistic material/spiritual performance into one of spiritual one-sidedness.  The closer men drew to the Omega Point, the more spiritual their art would become.  Film projector, television, video recorder, cassette recorder, stereo, camera - these were the kinds of media through which Timothy believed culture could be experienced in the highest way, detached from the physical, the natural, the sensual.

     Yes, he would rather watch opera on film or listen to it on disc than experience an actual performance of it in public, and, confessing as much to Sarah, he smiled to himself, reminded of his reasons for doing so.... Not that he was completely consistent in this respect, since he had of course visited the opera on occasion, when the need for a little materialistic reassurance presented itself.  In an age of transition from the mundane to the transcendent, the natural to the artificial, one couldn't be blamed, after all, for the occasional backsliding into traditional criteria.  Unless one had been blessed with a consistently progressive or spiritually-advanced mentality, it wasn't expedient to be too transcendental.  One could risk or even succumb to a serious brain injury somewhere along the over-idealistic line.

     Be that as it may, Sarah seemed a twinge saddened by his preference for recorded performances and asserted, with a mischievous gleam in her eyes, that while discs, tapes, etc., were wonderful inventions, it was still good to get a taste of the real thing from time to time, in order to be brought into closer contact with what actually prompted the singing.  "After all, a disembodied voice isn't the best key to the lock of love in which the principal characters are trapped," she said, with another of those subtly-endearing smiles on her lips.

     "No, I guess not," conceded Timothy, who was conscious, as never before, of the extremely close proximity of the opera singer to him at this moment.  "One must see it in the flesh as well," he found himself saying, half-hypnotized by her stare.

     "And, if possible, touch it," she murmured.

     "As well as smell it," he rejoined, mindful of her scent and the complementary freshness of her skin, a mere couple of inches from the tip of his nose.

     "And thereby experience it personally," she concluded, gently closing her eyes against the kiss which, at that moment, Timothy felt impelled to bestow upon her lips in response to the brazen cue just offered him.

     Amazingly, a single kiss was sufficient to precipitate them into each other's arms and initiate a series of more ardent kisses, which duly led to Sarah firmly closing her eyes against Timothy's carnal onslaught and meekly submitting to his physical objectives - objectives which were to encompass far more than her lips ... as he gently pushed her down on the bed and climbed over her reclining form, the better to achieve them.  Now he wanted to get more closely involved with her than he had done in the ballroom before midnight; to get so closely involved with her, in fact, as to make the rhythmic posturings of their dancing routines appear comparatively superficial.  Now there would be no clothes or fellow-dancers between him and his movements.  It would be a direct communion of flesh to flesh, a return to the primeval life-urge, a fitting climax to the New Year's Eve festivities.  He had been so well-juiced for it, this ultimate sensual communion, that it didn't really matter to him now whether or not he subsequently got back to his own room again.  If sleep overtook him he would stay where he was, wrapped in the tight embrace of Sarah's arms - submerged in sensual abandon.

 

 

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