In the course of this entertaining adventure, eccentric Oxford don and amateur sleuth Gervase Fen has to unravel two murders, cope with the unpredictability of the artistic temperament, and attempt to encourage the course of true love.
"A splendidly intricate and superior locked-room mystery." - New York Times
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There are few creatures more stupid than the average singer. It would appear that the fractional adjustment of larynx, glottis, and sinuses required in the production of beautiful sounds must almost invariably be accompanied – so perverse are the habits of Providence – by the witlessness of a barnyard fowl. Perhaps, though, the thing is not so much innate as a result of environment and training. This touchiness and irascibility, these scarifying intellectual lapses, are observable in actors as well – and it has long been noted that singers who are concerned with the theatre are more obtuse and trying than any other kind. One would be inclined, indeed, to attribute their deficiencies exclusively to the practice of personal display were it not for the existence of ballet-dancers, who (with a few notable exceptions) are most usually naïve and mild-eyed. Evidently there is no immediate and summary solution of the problem. The fact itself, however, is very generally admitted.
Certainly Elizabeth Harding was aware of it – perhaps only theoretically at first, but with a good deal of practical confirmation as the rehearsals of Der Rosenkavalier ran their course. She was therefore relieved to find that Adam Langley was considerably more cultured and intelligent, as well as more svelte and personable, than the majority of operatic tenors. It was her intention to marry him, and plainly the quality of his mind was a factor which had to be taken into account.
Elizabeth was not, of course, in any way a cold or calculating person. But most women – despite the romantic fictions which obscure the whole marriage problem – are realistic enough, before committing themselves, to examine with some care the merits and demerits of their prospective husbands. Moreover, Elizabeth had gained by her own talents a settled and independent position in life, and this was not, she had decided, to be abandoned improvidently at the behest of mere affection, however strong. She therefore reviewed the situation with characteristic thoroughness and clarity of mind.
And the situation was this, that she had fallen explicably and quite unexpectedly in love with an operatic tenor. In her more apprehensive moments, in fact, infatuation suggested itself to her as a more accurate term than love. The symptoms left her in no possible doubt as to her condition. They showed, even, so strong a resemblance to the tropes and platitudes of the conventional love-story as to be vaguely disconcerting. She thought about Adam before she went to sleep at night; she was still thinking about him when she woke up in the morning; she even – the ultimate degradation – dreamed about him; and she hurried to the opera-house to meet him with an eagerness quite inappropriate to a reserved and sophisticated young woman of twenty-six. In a way it was humiliating; on the other hand, it was decidedly the most delightful and exhilarating form of humiliation she had ever experienced – and that in spite of a sufficiency of practice in love and rather too much theoretical reading on the subject.
How it came about she was never able clearly to remember, but it seems to have happened quite suddenly, without gestation or warning. One day Adam Langley was an agreeable but undifferentiated member of an operatic company; the next he shone alone in planetary splendour, amid satellites grown spectral and unreal. Elizabeth felt, in the face of this phenomenon, something of the awe of a coenobite visited by an archangel, and wasstartled at the hurried refocusing of familiar objects which such an experience involves. 'Fallings from us, vanishings ...' She would certainly have resented this gratuitous upsetting of her normal outlook had it not been for the unprecedented sense of peace and happiness which it brought with it. 'Darling Adam,' she murmured that night to a hot and unresponsive pillow, 'darling ugly Adam' – a form of endearment which its object would probably have greatly resented had he known of it. There was more to the same effect, but such ecstasies make a poor showing by the time the printer has finished with them, and the reader will either have to take them for granted or imagine them for himself.
The epithet was as a matter of fact slanderous. Adam Langley was entirely presentable, being thirty-five years of age, with kindly, regular, undistinguished features, thoughtful brown eyes, and a habit of courtesy which served admirably as a defence to his natural shyness. His chief defect lay in a certain vagueness which amounted sometimes to the appearance of aimlessness. He was trustful, modest, easily startled, and innocent of all but the most venial misdemeanours, and though at one time and another he had been moved to a gentle and – if the truth is to be told – rather clumsy amorousness, women had played no very important part in his peaceful and successful life. It was perhaps for this reason that he remained for so long totally unaware of Elizabeth's feelings for him. He regarded her, at all events in the first instance, simply as a writer who had gained admittance to the rehearsals of Der Rosenkavalier in order to study the operatic background required for an episode in a new novel.
'But schön!' Karl Wolzogen hissed at him during a break in one of the piano rehearsals. 'If she could only sing – ah, my friend, what an Oktavian!' And more out of courtesy than because he was impressed by Karl's enthusiasm – which tended, in truth, to be indiscriminate – Adam studied Elizabeth properly for the first time. She was small, he saw, exquisitely slender, with soft brown hair, blue eyes, a slightly snub nose, and eyebrows which were crooked and hence a trifle sardonic. Her voice – she was speaking at this moment to Joan Davis – was low, vivid, and quiet, with a not unattractive huskiness. Her lipstick had been applied with a rare competence, and of this Adam greatly approved, since it seemed to him that the majority of women must perform this operation in front of a distorting mirror or during an attack of St Vitus's Dance. She was dressed soberly and expensively, though with a little too much masculinity for Adam's taste. And as to character? Here Adam became a little bogged. He liked, however, her disciplined vivacity and her poise – the more so as there was no hint of arrogance about it.
Subsequently he was in the habit of attributing their marriage to the independent purposes of Herren Strauss and Hofmannsthal. The chief singing parts in Der Rosenkavalier are for three sopranos and a bass. Adam, being a tenor, had been fobbed off with the small and uninteresting role of Valzacchi, and this left him, at rehearsals, more often unoccupied than not. It was inevitable that he and Elizabeth should drift together – and so far, so good. But here an obstacle presented itself, in that it never for one instant occurred to Adam that Elizabeth might wish their relationship to rise above the level of disinterested affability on which it had begun. On this plane he obstinately remained, blind to winsomeness and affection, deaf to hints and innuendoes, in a paradisaically innocent condition of sexlessness which exasperated Elizabeth all the more since it was obviously natural and unconscious. For a time she was baffled. An open declaration of her feelings, she saw, was far more likely to put him on guard than to encourage him – and moreover her own characteristic reserve would invest such a declaration with a perceptible air of incongruity and falsity. It says much for the semi-hypnosis in which her mind was fogged that the obvious solution came to her only after a considerable time: plainly some third person must be found to mediate between them.
They had no mutual acquaintance outside the opera-house, and inside it there was only one possible choice for such a delicate mission. A woman was indicated – and a woman, moreover, who was mature, worldly, sensible, and friendly with Adam. So one evening, after the rehearsal was over, Elizabeth went to visit Joan Davis (who was singing the part of the Marschallin) at her flat in Maida Vale.
The room into which an elderly, heavy-footed maidservant ushered her was untidy – so untidy as to suggest the aftermath of a burglary. It soon became apparent, however, that this was the normal condition of Miss Davis's belongings. The maid announced Elizabeth, clucked deprecatorily, made a half-hearted foray among a welter of articles on the sideboard, and then departed, tramping vehemently and muttering to herself.
'Poor Elsie.' Joan shook her head. 'She'll never reconcile herself to my slatternly ways. Sit down, my dear, and have a drink.'
'You're not busy?'
'As you see' – Joan waved a needle, a shrivelled length of silk, and a mushroom-shaped object constructed of wood – 'I'm mending. But I can quite well go on with that while you talk to me ... Gin and something?'
They chattered of commonplaces while they sat and smoked their cigarettes. Then, with some misgiving, Elizabeth broached the reason for her visit.
'You know Adam,' she began, and was taken aback at having made so idiotic a statement. 'That is to say –'
'That is to say,' Joan put in, 'that you're rather taken with him.'
She grinned disconcertingly. She was a tall, slender woman of about thirty-five, with features which, though too irregular for beauty, were yet remarkably expressive. The grin mingled shrewdness with a cynical, impish vivacity.
Elizabeth was frankly dismayed. 'Is it as obvious as all that?'
'Certainly – to everyone except Adam. I've thought once or twice of letting even him into the secret, but it hardly does for an outsider to interfere in these things.'
'As a matter of fact' – Elizabeth blushed slightly in spite of herself – 'that's exactly what I came here to ask you to do.'
'My dear, what fun. I shall enjoy it thoroughly ...' Joan paused to reflect. 'Yes, I see now that it's probably the only way. Adam is not, in our grandparents' phrase, a "person of much observation". But he's a good-hearted creature, all the same. Blessings to you both. I'll tackle him tomorrow.'
And this she did, carrying Adam off, in a suitably idle moment, to the green-room. What she had to tell him took him completely unawares. He expostulated, feebly and without conviction. Subsequently Joan left him to meditate upon her words and returned to the rehearsal.
His initial surprise gave place almost at once to an overwhelming sense of gratification – and this by no means for reasons of vanity, but because an obscure sense of dissatisfaction from which he had recently suffered was now entirely dissipated. For him, too, there was a refocusing, as though the pattern of a puzzle had at last become apparent – become, indeed, so self-evident that its previous obscurity was almost incomprehensible. Beatitude and embarrassment clamoured equally for recognition. Ten minutes previously he had regarded Elizabeth as a pleasant acquaintance; now he had not the least doubt that he was going to marry her.
He was recalled to the stage, and there participated with decided gusto in the discomfiture of Baron Ochs von Lerchenau.
But when actually confronted with Elizabeth his shyness got the better of him. During the week that followed, indeed, he went so far as to avoid her – a phenomenon which filled Elizabeth with secret dismay. She came to believe, as the days passed, that the news of her feelings must have offended him, though as a matter of fact the reason for his unsociability lay in a sort of coyness, for which he severely reproached himself, but which for some time he was quite unable to overcome. In the end it was his growing impatience with his own puerility which brought him to the point. It happened towards the close of the first dress-rehearsal. Bracing himself – in a fashion more appropriate to some monstrous task like the taking of a beleaguered city than to the wooing of a girl whom he knew perfectly well to be fond of him – he went to speak to Elizabeth in the auditorium.
She was sitting, small, demure, cool, and self-possessed, on a red plush seat in the centre of the front row of the stalls. Framed in the large rococo splendours of the opera-house like a fine jewel in an antique setting. Tier upon gilded tier of boxes and galleries, radiating on either side from the royal box, towered into the upper darkness. Callipygic Boucher cherubs and putti held lean striated pillars in a passionate embrace. The great chandelier swayed fractionally in a draught, its crystal pendants winking like fireflies in the light reflected from the stage. And Adam paused, daunted. The miseen-scène was by no means appropriate to the intimate things which he had to say. He consulted first his watch and then the state of affairs on the stage, saw that the rehearsal would be over in half an hour at most, and invited Elizabeth out to a late dinner.
They went to a restaurant in Dean Street, and sat at a table with a red-shaded lamp in a stuffy downstairs room. A small, garrulous, mostly unintelligible Cypriot waiter served them. Adam ordered, with stately deliberation, some very expensive claret, and Elizabeth's spirits rose perceptibly. Since it was obvious that the well-intentioned nagging of their waiter would be unpropitious to confidences, Adam deferred the business of the evening until the arrival of coffee forced the waiter at last to go away. He then embarked on the subject overhastily and without sufficient premeditation.
'Elizabeth,' he said, 'I hear – that is to say, I understand – that is to say that my feelings – what I mean is –'
He stopped abruptly, dumbfounded at so much feebleness and incoherence, and drank the whole of his liqueur at a gulp. He felt like a man who has incomprehensibly lost his nerve on the middle of a tight-rope. Elizabeth experienced a transient exasperation at being kept for so long in suspense; certainly the omens were favourable, but one could not be completely sure ...
'Adam dear,' she replied gently, 'what on earth are you trying to say?'
'I am trying to say,' Adam resumed earnestly, 'that – that I'm in love with you. And that I should like you to marry me. To marry me,' he repeated with unwarranted ferocity, and sat back abruptly, gazing at her with open defiance.
Really, thought Elizabeth, one would imagine he was challenging me to a duel. But oh, Adam, my darling, my unspeakably shy and precious old idiot ... With the utmost difficulty she resisted the temptation to throw herself into his arms. She soon observed, however, that the Cypriot waiter was once again looming, toothily affable, on to their horizon, and decided that the situation had better be dealt with as quickly as possible.
'Adam,' she said with a gravity which she was far from feeling, 'I wish I could tell you how grateful I am. But you know, it isn't the sort of thing one ought to decide on the spur of the moment ... May I think about it?'
'Any more liqueur, eh?' said the waiter, materializing suddenly beside them. 'Drambuie, Cointreau, Crème-de-Menthe, nice brandy?'
Adam ignored him; now that the worst was over he had recovered much of his self-possession.
'Elizabeth,' he said, 'you're being hypocritical. You know perfectly well that you're going to marry me.'
'Green Chartreuse, nice Vodka –'
'Will you go away. Elizabeth, my dear –'
'You like the cheque, eh?' said the waiter.
'No. Go away at once. As I was saying –'
'Oh, pay the bill, darling,' said Elizabeth. 'And then you can take me outside and kiss me.'
'Kiss 'er 'ere,' said the waiter, interested.
'Oh, Adam, I do adore you,' said Elizabeth. 'Of course I'll marry you.'
'Nice magnum of champagne, eh?' said the waiter. 'Congratulations, sir and madam. Congratulations.' Adam tipped him recklessly and they departed.
For their honeymoon they went to Brunnen. Their rooms at the hotel overlooked the lake. They visited the Wagner-museum at Triebschen, and Adam, in defiance of all the regulations, played the opening bars of Tristan on Wagner's Erard piano. They purchased a number of rather risqué postcards and sent them to their friends. Both of them were blissfully happy.
They stood on their balcony gazing across the water, now amethyst-coloured in the fading light.
'How nice,' said Elizabeth judicially, 'to have all the pleasures of living in sin without any of the disadvantages.'
Excerpted from "Swan Song"
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