"Vile calumnies," said Hilda Tablet, switching off the wireless in one decisive motion. "The Private Life of Hilda Tablet indeed."
She leaned back, her leather armchair creaking a faint accompaniment, and glanced over to her companion. Elsa Strauss was stretched out full length on the chaise longue, and her length was considerable. Tumbling honey-gold locks and a peach silk dressing gown made her seem one of the palmiest of romantic heroines. In Hilda's eyes at least. Far from appearing dismayed at the radio broadcast to which they had just listened, she was carefully consuming a chocolate eclair.
"Don't listen to it, darling," she said, mouth full, "if it upsets you."
"I had a call from Liz Lutyens just the other day. She says she'll sue."
"Does she now?"
"Only I told her that it would do no good."
Elsa pondered the notion while wiping a stray smudge of chocolate from her lips.
"It was far more of you than of anyone else, I thought," she offered.
"Perhaps so." Filled with pride at the notion of winning out over her rivals, even in fiction, Hilda softened her tone somewhat. "Fancy Mr. Reed writing me up like that. If he didn't want to write my biography, he need only have said so! That is the very last time that I invite him for tea. And it's not for oneself that one says this, you understand."
"I think only of your own position in the musical world," Hilda continued.
"I did distinctly tell him that I had only spent a year and a half in Vienna. Didn't I, Hilda?"
"Naturally you did. He didn't listen. These authors never do. Just like librettists." Hilda shook her head. "They write just what they please and damn the consequences."
Elsa stretched with the weary air of one who was fated to be perpetually misunderstood. It was a pose that suited her perfectly.
"Still I suppose that Vienna has more of an air of romance than Guildford. After all Schoenberg never was in Guildford."
"But you were!" replied Hilda passionately, unable to hear the slightest critique of her leading lady.
"And I left as soon as I could manage, my dearest Tabby, which is why we met on the Ringstrasse and not on the High Street."
Together they were lost in contemplation, memories dancing in their heads of continental opera houses, the sounds of the Neue Wiener Schule and (in one case at least) the pastries of the Cafe Frauenhuber.
"Nothing like coal smoke and the dust of the road to develop the mind and the fingers," Hilda declared. "Ben never learnt that one. If only his parents had let him go to Vienna. He might have been a good composer."
"And what did Ben think of the radio programme? Have you heard?"
"Dear little Benjie," said Hilda dismissively, as if he were a family pet that had seen better days. "Never a peep. Tucked up in cotton wool in Aldeburgh with Peter looking after him. And Imogen, of course. Imo has him well in hand."
There was a moment of respectful silence while they pondered the distant object of affection.
"If only he realised what he had in her," Hilda said wistfully.
"If only she realised what she could have had in Hilda Tablet. Foolish woman."
Both of them knew very well that Imogen far away was a safer thing than Imogen near. Though Elsa cordially refused to rule her partner's barlines for her, it could not have been expected that she would stand for anyone else doing so. She had heard the stories of those romantic, long-ago days at the Royal College of Music when Hilda, a fiery young modern composeress with corduroy trousers and an Eton crop, had sighed after the fair and willowy Miss Imogen Holst. Naturally Hilda, so forthright in every other endeavour, had made a hash of the thing and after upsetting half a pot of lukewarm tea into the lap of her beloved had been forced to concede the field. Perhaps it had been just as well.
Now it was twenty-five years later. Hilda's hair, although only a couple of inches longer, was streaked with silver, and she wore a pair of wire-rimmed specs that were always threatening to slide off the end of her nose just when she had reached a pivotal point in scoring a solo for timpani and contrabassoon. Elsa could not have done without her.
"In any case," said Hilda, warming again to her theme, "I shall write to that Reed fellow. I can't bear to hear you traduced."
"You forget that I'm a soprano." Elsa drew herself up to her full height. "We soon become inured to envy and malice."
"I could never forget!"
"My handsome Hilda," said Elsa fondly.
She rose from her chaise longue, a vision that would have been as majestic as Venus rising from the waves if Venus had been clothed in a peach silk dressing gown out of which she was busily brushing bits of crumbs. Elsa was a beauty, five feet ten inches of warm, capacious curves, capable of bursting stays with a single heave of her mighty diaphragm. Whatever the size of her clothing she looked perpetually on the verge of spilling out of it.
"Bedtime?" she said, leaning down to put a hand on Hilda's shoulder.
"Not just yet. If you'll find me my protractor, I must get on with orchestrating..."
"Orchestrating at ten o'clock at night?" said Elsa, rising without the slightest hint of vocal strain into her head voice. "I think not. Get yourself to bed, Tabby. I'll follow just as soon as I put on some Schoenberg."
Without objection, Hilda complied. For her there was as much erotic charge in one of the master's string quartets as others might find in a thousand lieder and arias. Every rule of harmony broken was yet another thrill of transgression. She went to bed and laid there, tingling to her toes with anticipation.
And then, just as the scratchy sounds of the Kolisch Quartet began to drift in from the sitting room, the telephone rang. Elsa picked it up in the hallway.
"Why, hello Benjamin," she said, intoning a recitative into the instrument. "We were just talking about you."
"Speak of the devil," said Hilda, sotto voce Then, louder: "the phone, if you please."
Its long cord just reached into the bedroom from the hall. Having brought the phone, Elsa sat on the edge of the bed, her head tilted to one side as she listened to Hilda's side of the conversation.
"Hello there, Ben, old chap. Yes... yes... oh dear... no... no... of course... well naturally... I can think of just the piece."
Covering the receiver with her hand, she mouthed one word: "festival!" Then she returned to her conversation.
"Tomorrow morning? We shall catch the very first train... Delighted to step into the breach, absolutely delighted... Pneumonia is so very inconvenient, isn't it, especially in a singer?... How inconsiderate of her... Give all my love to Imogen... and to Peter of course... Toodle-oo!"
Unable to decisively hang up the phone, she thrust it back into Elsa's hands.
"We're going to the Aldeburgh Festival, my girl."
Elsa could have looked more enthusiastic at the news. "Why does nobody ever ask me to come to Bayreuth?" she asked mournfully.
"Lack of taste. It can be nothing else. But never you mind."
Elsa, who had always fancied herself as Brunhilde, nodded sadly.
"Ben may be an old stick-in-the-mud but occasionally he has a spot of good sense. His perishing lead soprano, whoever she is, has had the cheek to come down with pneumonia at the very last moment. I never thought much of the English Opera Group. He hasn't anyone else who could do it. It's only Acis and Galatea. I told him we would be delighted to oblige."
"You, my little cupcake, you and your glorious voice."
"A week from now?"
"When else?" said Hilda. "Buck up, Elsa, it's only Baroque. You could sing it in your sleep. And the beauty of the thing is that he's invited us to perform my Song Cycle as well. That's one in the eye to the Wigmore Hall, don't you know? It's the only reason that I said yes."
"That and the fact that Imogen will be there."
"That and the fact that... oh Elsa," said Hilda reproachfully.
"It's true, isn't it?"
"Yes, but I don't see what that's got to do with anything."
Elsa sighed. "Never mind. We leave tomorrow morning?"
"Tomorrow morning," Hilda confirmed. "In the mean time, dearest... shall we have the Schoenberg again?"
Hilda and Elsa stepped off the Aldeburgh train with such self-possession that a welcoming brass band and civic delegation would not have seemed amiss. It was a quiet station and, as the train pulled away in a hiss of steam, they were left nothing but the chirping birds and the distant scent of the sea. The stationmaster tipped his cap and fetched them a trolley as Hilda struggled with their luggage. Elsa, the soloist, could never be asked to carry such things for herself.
They sent the luggage on into town with a generous tip for the young man who accompanied it in a taxi. It was such a fine day, white clouds floating gaily overhead, that they decided to take the pleasant stroll downhill into town. The sun was warm for late May, and Elsa wore a straw hat fastened rakishly to her head with two or three lethal hat pins. As they walked past a homely garden, Hilda reached out to snap off a sprig of the lilacs that overhung the garden wall.
"Goes perfectly with your dress, don't you know," she said, presenting the flowers to her lady.
"My dress is blue, you know, Hilda," said Elsa, fastening the lilac sprigs to her straw hat with yet another hat pin. (Heaven only knew where she kept them all.) "Not lilac."
"Stuff and nonsense," said Hilda affectionately.
Down the road a ways there came a faint sound that was neither gulls nor waves.
A small figure waved her arms with graceful abandon, signaling their entrance into the town as if she were directing an overloaded lorry into a narrow drive. As she came nearer, toiling up the steep hill, her identity became clear. It was Imogen Holst.
"Imo, old girl," said Hilda in her heartiest tones, "I was wondering where you'd been hiding yourself."
"I'm so sorry Hilda," said Imo breathlessly. Beads of sweat were standing out on her pale forehead but her eyes were just as blue as ever. "I came just as soon as I could, and I thought I'd beat the train but I just had a few more corrections to make in the score and..."
Her helpless gesture had enough artistry in it that Elsa imitated it behind Imo's back, filing it away for future use on the stage.
"Least said soonest mended," said Hilda, linking arms confidentially with her old friend.
"So good to see you again, Imo," said Elsa archly.
It was no use. The two former ARCMs were already chattering gaily away to one another as they tripped down the street into town. One would not have thought that Hilda could chatter gaily but she sounded just like a schoolgirl, decades falling away in her voice as she began to reminisce.
"Is the sun over the yardarm yet, Imo?" she asked finally. "Shall we go and have a drink and pore over your latest string quartet?"
"I haven't written a string quartet in years," said Imo with an embarrassed giggle. "You know that very well."
"I don't believe it. It can't be true. Do you see this one, Elsa? Modest as well as beautiful."
"Hilda!" said Imo.
Imogen dimpled fetchingly, casting her eyes down to the pavement.
"If not string quartets," Hilda continued, "then what? Could it be she's writing operas? Or perhaps a collection of studies for solo contrabassoon? I shall winkle the truth out of you, Imo, see if I don't. Now where is that drink you promised me?"
"There isn't time, Hilda. We mustn't keep Ben waiting. He's very eager to start work, you know. We have only a week before the festival and there's his children's piece to organize as well as Acis and Galatea..."
"And my song cycle," said Hilda with a warning note in her voice.
"And your song cycle," Imogen agreed but it was clear that her mind was fixed upon the glories of all things Britten. It was not the sort of thing that Hilda liked to hear.
"You never answered my last letter, you know…"
"Oh, Hilda, I'm sorry, but I've been so busy, you can't imagine..."
"With Ben," said Hilda flatly.
"With Ben," Imogen confirmed.
Hilda sighed an angry sigh.
"If it turns out he's been retarding your development as a composeress, I shall thrash him."
"There's more to life than composing, Hilda."
"More to life than composing!" Hilda exclaimed. "What tosh!"
A passing fisherman shook his head at the follies of the summer visitors. A well-dressed woman slowed as she hurried by, offering a look of recognition and an expectant smile. She was carrying a pile of choral scores. Imogen took a quick breath and moved her guests quickly along.
"Elizabeth Sweeting," she said in an undertone once the woman was out of earshot. Elsa had to lean closer in order to hear. "Festival director, or so it says on the programmes, but Ben can't work with her. Simply can't. Naturally he won't hear a word said against her but the situation has become quite impossible. Something must be done."
Elsa turned to see Elizabeth's back receding up the hill. Under her tailored, sensible brown suit jacket it was set rigid with emotion. It seemed that there was far more to the story than Ben's displeasure. If, indeed, Ben's feelings came into the matter at all.
Another subject for Elsa and Hilda to talk over in the evening. These small towns were hotbeds of gossip and intrigue: every conflict seemed operatic in scale when set on such a small stage. Thank heavens for cities like London and Vienna and all of their delightful ways. Elsa and Hilda never were bohemian, not really; merely the possibility of bohemianism was enough to allow them to breathe freely.
Through a gap in the buildings ahead one could see the North Sea, rippling gaily in the lowering afternoon sun, an incongruous little slice out of the line of High Street shops. After crossing the quiet street they found themselves standing on Crag Path, looking out across the expanse of water. Fishing boats lay pulled up on the shingle, fishermen sitting out and mending their nets.
"Very scenic," said Hilda approvingly.
"Isn't it just?" Imogen replied.
They marched onwards.
Ben and Peter had a house right on the sea front, spacious and inviting, painted a pale pink like so many other Suffolk houses. Its white curtains fluttered in the breeze through wide open windows. Over the sound of waves one could hear voices from the front garden. Imo stopped at the garden gate with her hands clasped tightly in anticipation, looking over the low wall. Within, Ben and Peter were lingering over breakfast at a small folding table that was covered with remains of croissants, teapot, apple cores, cutlery just set aside. Both men were shirtless, browning in the unaccustomed sun of the brief Aldeburgh summer.
Imo's face was pink with happy appreciation. She stood there silently, still clasping her hands, until a wistful little sigh escaped her at the contemplation of her idol. Thankfully there was the waiting taxi to occupy Hilda's attention. It was only once all the bags were piled neatly on the pavement that she turned her attention to the men in the garden.
"Hello there boys, here we are!" she shouted, reaching past her friend to unlatch the gate and let herself in. "Quarter past nine train, bang on time. Ready to get to work?"
"Hilda," replied Ben, thin lips and thin voice, a spare ascetic even in the summer sunshine. "It was so good of you to come on such short notice. Will you sit down to tea? I do believe this pot has gone cold but if Mrs Hudson will bring us some fresh water and cups...?"
Peter got to his feet to summon their housekeeper from within, but Hilda swept past him with a dismissive gesture and seated herself at the table.
"No need to trouble yourself, we brought buns and a thermos for the train."
A crumb or two from the buns still adhered to her tweed jacket; Hilda had never had much reverence for her own appearance even though she cared passionately for that of other women, Elsa in particular.
"And how are you both?" said Ben.
"No complaints," said Hilda. "Elsa had a superb run at Covent Garden last month. Superb, if I do say so m'self. (And indeed I do.) Fell off the stage in rehearsal but luckily her fall was broken by a cellist in the pit."
Behind Hilda's back, Elsa and Peter greeted one another with a sober handshake and nods of the head. Two satellites of greatness, they had a sort of understanding for one another that could not be reduced to productions shared or words exchanged backstage. There was little that needed to be said. He pulled out a chair for Elsa, who sunk into it with perfect timing.
Nearby Imo fluttered, waiting to be called upon. No one offered her a chair and she expected not a morsel.
"We should go inside where we can spread out," declared Hilda vigorously. "I don't propose to have my music paper blow into the sea. And picnicking is all very well until wasps start crawling about in one's sugar bowl."
"We never get wasps here," said Ben but by then the move was already underway. Peter, gentlemanly to a fault, carried the ladies' luggage. Hilda hefted her own carpet bag filled with scores and manuscripts. Ben carried himself along, followed by Imo with the tray filled with all the tea things. A single wasp, buzzing around the rim of Ben's teacup, joined them until Imo gave it the slip at the door.
They settled in the sitting room, all upholstered couches and 'chintzy cheeriness.' Paintings hung on every wall and the big picture windows seemed placed just to frame the seascape outside. The only thing more obtrusive than the harpsichord was the grand piano. It was a good thing, perhaps, that Peter did not play an instrument of his own.
Unbidden, the housekeeper produced a much larger pot of tea and cups for all. After that she sensibly stayed out of the way. Everyone gathered round for a conclave. Imogen scribbled down notes while Ben and Hilda hashed out the details. Every once in a while Peter or Elsa made their thoughts known. Although the conversation began with Acis and Galatea, it drifted before too long towards the needs of Hilda's song cycle.
"We'll want a Steinway for our performance," Hilda insisted. "Nothing else will do."
"Naturally," said Peter. "There's one in the Jubilee Hall. It will be at your disposal, as we're using a harpsichord for the Handel."
"It will need preparation."
"I daren't ask," said Ben.
"Hilda, perhaps you might just..."
But Imogen was not allowed to presume on their long acquaintance.
"You did invite us," said Elsa querulously. "Hilda has been able to talk of nothing other than our premiere. We had every assurance that we would be able to present it with..."
"Elsa, my dear, if you'll simply allow me to..."
"Mr. Britten, perhaps you'll do me the courtesy of addressing me as Miss Strauss?"
"Of course, Miss Strauss," he replied with exaggerated politeness.
Hilda harumphed with a faint sound of satisfaction.
"Perhaps, Miss Strauss," said Peter, who always did a better job of making himself sound agreeable, "you would like to go for a walk along the sea front? The tide is just going out. We could leave the composers to their work and discuss a few interpretive ideas of our own."
"My ideas are all Hilda's," said Elsa loyally but got to her feet regardless.
Hilda was so busy with her negotiations that she hardly noticed when Imogen slipped into the seat that Elsa had just vacated, the better to peer over Ben's shoulder at his notes. Imogen was faded and unassuming in her middle age, her hair tied back with a bit of string, but her eyes were still a bright cornflower blue. When Hilda finally turned to her friend she felt a touch of the old frisson. A touch and a half perhaps.
"If it's all too much for you Ben," Hilda said heartily, "I'm sure Imo here can step into the breach and do a spot of conducting. After all, you've got your--canticle, is it?--"
"Parable," said Imo and Ben together.
"Church parable," Ben confirmed.
"You've got your church canticle to be getting on with, haven't you?" continued Hilda, undeterred by accuracy. "More than enough for any man, I should say."
"I'm not sure..."
"I am," said Hilda.
Thankfully their contretemps was interrupted by the return of Peter and Elsa from their walk along the strand. Elsa, clutching at her straw hat, looked distinctly windblown. Her lilac drooped sadly over the hat's brim.
"I'm not sure that the sea agrees with me," she said, and sneezed.
Forgetting Imogen, Hilda jumped to her feet and put an arm around her beloved's shoulders.
"Have you caught a chill, my dear?"
"It's nothing to speak of," said Elsa bravely and coughed into her handkerchief.
Sensing the looming prospect of another ill soprano, Ben's face darkened like an approaching thundercloud. The sitting room door opened. Mrs Hudson, the housekeeper, poked her head around it.
"Lunch will be on the table in fifteen minutes if you can find a stopping place."
Elsa brightened considerably. "I do think I could manage a little lunch."
Peter cleared his throat as if he, too, had caught a frog.
"Anyone for a bottle of wine?" he offered finally. "Or three?"
"Oh ho, yes," said Hilda.
At the dining room table there sat a tousle-headed boy reading solemnly out of Peter Pan. As the adults entered he looked up as if it were they, and not he, who were intruders.
"I'd wondered where you'd got to," said Ben. "Hilda, Elsa, this is my young friend Miles."
Hilda was one of those people who felt that children were a joy best left to other people. Dimly she recalled having been a child herself but denied that this had any bearing on the matter.
"And to whom does he belong?" she enquired perfunctorily.
"Us," said Ben.
"His parents are in Bournemouth, you see." Peter said it as if it explained everything. "Miles, this is Miss Tablet, a composer--"
"Composeress," corrected Hilda.
"--and this is Miss Strauss, a soprano."
"How do you do, Miles," said Elsa, bending to solemnly shake his hand.
"Not another of your composing prodigies?"
"Miles is also a soprano," said Ben to Elsa.
"Of a very different sort!"
"To be sure," Ben agreed.
"Is it time for lunch yet?" asked Miles.
Night had finally fallen over Aldeburgh but down in the garden someone was stirring. A faint sound of bushes rustling and then a deep bass chuckle. Hilda went to the window of the guest bedroom and, with some effort, wrenched the stiff hinges open.
Moonlight played on the waves of the sea. All was peaceful. And then a lithe figure, his bare skin palely lit by the lowering moon, ran across the road and into the surf. It was Ben, who bathed just as he conducted, con risoluto. A second figure was smaller, childish and more hesitant. And then a third, with broader shoulders and rather stout about the middle. All three were as naked as the day they were born.
"Will you look at that," said Elsa, coming up to stand at Hilda's shoulder.
"I should rather not," said Hilda. "And I certainly don't intend to stand about waiting to admire the view on the return trip."
She sharply tugged the window closed again and drew the curtain.
"It's cold!" came the faint cry from without.
A brisk breeze blew off the sea the next morning, sweeping aside the warm air of the previous day. Women in sensible brown cardigans shivered as they marched along the sea wall. Gulls cried reproachfully overhead.
Jubilee Hall was a small, respectable brick edifice only a little way down Crag Path, which looked far too small to contain all the music that awaited. Inside it had the musty, slightly stuffy wholesomeness of the village hall. Wooden benches scraped on the floor as they were moved aside in preparation for the arrival of folding chairs. Lighting rigs were being moved into position. Elizabeth Sweeting was everywhere and nowhere at once, depending on whom you asked. Everyone had a question and no one was satisfied.
On stage, Hilda and Peter were having words over the grand piano.
"It's a song cycle you see," said Hilda, brandishing a thick sheaf of manuscript paper with a crisp snap of her wrist. One half expected loose notes to fall out. "For soprano and--"
"Soprano and piano accompaniment," echoed Peter. His voice had a note of weariness even though it was still early in the day.
"Prepared piano accompaniment. Prepared piano."
"But all the.. the washers, and screws, and thumbtacks... are they really what you might call necessary for the effect?"
Weariness was now beginning to be transmuted into a sort of prevaricating despair. The grand piano in the Jubilee Hall--exposed as it was to the best of stuffy steam heating, icy North Sea gales and February high tides--had never been up to the standards of a London concert hall. Now, under the influence of Hilda's determined and early-rising hands, its inside looked rather like the drawers of a well-stocked ironmongers. Strings were garnished by glittering bolts of metal and strange contraptions lurked in the depths.
"Naturally," said Hilda. She sat herself down at the piano stool as if the conversation were over. "Effect is all we aim for."
"And that effect would be?"
"Art, my dear boy. Art, don't you know?"
Hilda had large, sinewy hands that could span well over an octave. She had a way of throwing herself at the keyboard as if she could force them to span two by sheer force of will. From the tortured piano there emerged a terrible clanking and thumping that sounded as if a damned, ghostly orchestra were shaking its chains in unison. It was the music of madness. A beatific smile spread across Hilda's face as she played.
"Do you see?" she shouted over the din. "Isn't it marvellous?"
Peter mumbled an indistinct acknowledgment.
"Now," Hilda continued, "all I need is..."
Trailing to a halt, she searched the hall with her gaze. "Sweeting!"
"Yes, Tabby?" said Elsa, appearing in the doorway with Ben by her side.
"Not you, Elsa dear." Another bellow: "Elizabeth!"
But Elizabeth Sweeting was nowhere to be found. Hilda shook her head and sighed.
"The trials I face," she said. "No matter. Shall we rehearse?"
Elsa strolled onstage, taking her place alongside the piano and laying a hand lovingly along its polished surface. After a brief piano introduction--more lugubrious clanking--she began to sing.
Hilda's playing came to a sudden halt.
"Remember what I said about your tonal centre," she chided.
"Diffuse," said Elsa mournfully. "It must be diffuse."
"Good girl! Onwards."
And so the clanking resumed. Elsa raised her voice in a melody that was, much like the piano, pitched in no distinct key. Or tuning system.
Susan knows she is a Siren
And at a word from her Emily
Would forfeit righteousness--
"What on earth is that?" said Ben, sotto voce, at Peter's side.
"It's her prepared piano."
"Pickled piano, more like."
"Perverted piano," said Peter.
Ben glared at him. "But I was asking about the text, Peter."
"From the letters of Emily Dickinson," said Peter as if Ben ought to have known.
"Of course, Peter."
An accord between singer and piano having finally been reached, the piece ended abruptly with few decisive basso thumps and a lingering rattly buzz from somewhere inside the mechanism. It had the air of a death rattle.
"It's the very latest thing at Darmstadt," Hilda declared.
"One ought to have known," said Ben. He paused. "It does have a certain air of gamelan music, actually."
"Oh," said Hilda indifferently. "I suppose so."
She had once been as far east as Hungary, considered it inferior to Austria in every way, and never had ventured further.
"Reminiscent of Colin McPhee, perhaps?" pursued Ben.
"Had it from a young American chap... what was his name, Elsa?"
"Coop," said Elsa, taking a drink from a mug of tea given her by the returned Elizabeth Sweeting.
"Coop? John Coop? Something along those lines. Anyhow, this chap had the idea, why should we be shackled to the mechanisms of our forefathers (and mothers)? Why, when Elsa here can sing any microtonal pitch under the sun (when she tries!), must I be left to plough tone rows planted with the same twelve hothouse flowers that others have been cultivating for generations? Pardon the metaphor."
"Quite all right," said Peter.
"By bedecking our instruments with nuts and bolts, you see, we symbolically cast off our chains."
"I expect it's a sort of protest against the capitalist system," said Ben weakly.
"I had thought of the suffragettes myself but I suppose one could see it that way."
At Ben's elbow, Elizabeth offered him a fresh cup of tea.
"Perhaps a touch of something stronger if you could...?"
Elizabeth went away again, shaking her head silently. She sipped from the cup of tea herself.
"John Cage," said Hilda. "That's the chap."
"Have you quite gone off Schoenberg then?" Peter asked.
"Gone off Schoenberg?" echoed Elsa, shocked.
Hilda broke into a hearty peal of laughter.
"What a thing to ask! For a moment I almost thought you were serious."
There was nothing one could say in reply to that. They shared a moment of respectful silence.
"And what about your old musique concrete reinforcee?" Peter pursued, still hoping against hope for a change in programme. "Used to have to bring your own equipment for that one. Gave the stage managers palpitations."
"Don't even think about it," said Elizabeth in passing, her arms full of coiled rope.
Many still remembered the great four-track tape Proms debacle of the preceding year. The sensitive and weighty equipment, flown in specially from Germany for the event, had seized up instantly in the inhospitable environment of South Kensington. A hall filled with adventurous late night Prommers--one could detect a faint note of marijuana in the air--had instead been treated to an hour of Elsa's renditions of Strauss. Hilda had been mortified. Privately Elsa still considered it one of her best concerts.
"Although I shall never cease to be personally inspired by the sound of Elsa's zip," said Hilda whilst Elsa gave her a feeling look, "I reluctantly concluded that I could not expect the audience to feel the same way with regard to such intimate associations. Even with the mediating influence of audio tape. And I fear that the Proms audiences are not yet ready for the sound of a brassiere being unhooked. I'm sure you understand."
"I'm sure I don't," said Ben.
"Don't you find the sound of zips inspiring, Ben? On a personal level?"
"I'm sure I've never thought of it."
Peter cleared his throat. The look that he gave Ben suggested that one of them had thought of it.
"Nasty cough," said Hilda instantly. "Better gargle with some hot salt water. Don't want to be passing that to Elsa, my boy."
From outside came the sound of someone hammering hard on a metal pipe, whistling as he worked. Hilda cocked her head to one side.
"Sonata for pennywhistle and pipe percussion," she said meditatively.
"And pickled piano," Ben muttered.
"No, not piano. We would want a far purer sound."
"Purity would not be the word I would use."
His tone of voice suggested that his toes had just been stepped on, and hard. Elizabeth came past again, tapping on her watch and giving them a despairing look.
"Perhaps we'd better let you be getting on with the rehearsal then," said Peter.
Sensing that the battle had been won, Hilda pressed their advantage home.
"Only we'll be needing more thumbtacks for the piano. Also hairpins. Where did Sweeting get to? Drat that woman."
"Hairpins?" said Ben.
Elsa tucked a stray honey-coloured lock behind her ear.
"I had it set two days ago but it simply won't stay," she explained. "And I cannot perform like this! It must be the sea air."
"Elizabeth will be able to get you whatever you need," said Peter, ungallantly passing on responsibility. "Whenever you find her."
And Ben and Peter turned to go.
"Thumbtacks?" said Ben in an undertone to his partner. "Thumbscrews more likely." He paused for a very deep breath. "That woman..."
"Now Ben, it's only three more days..."
Hilda and Elsa had already set back to work. Hilda screwed the piano stool up by a couple of vigorous turns and then stopped it by the simple expedient of sitting down. She poised her hands over the keyboard and then gave a sharp look to Elsa, who was in the middle of polishing off a custard cream.
"Now my dear, take your cue from the delicious music outside. (No, not the custard cream, Elsa!) Imagine that the piano is a pipe and you are the hammer. You have only to swing yourself at the note."
Biscuit demolished, Elsa was twisting from the waist, turning one way and then the other with hands on hips. Amazonian, she wasn't quite the image of schoolgirl calisthenics.
"Not like that, Elsa."
Pausing midswing, Elsa stared at her partner over her right shoulder.
"You know I can't stop singing for long with this sort of chill. I seize up!"
"I know, I know," said Hilda. "I'm sure it's the sea air, isn't that right?"
Intent on her exercises, Elsa did not answer.
"Nothing like a good bit of vigorous coloratura to warm a girl up, that's what they always used to say at CLC. Or if they didn't, they should have."
Elsa tried to touch her toes and conspicuously failed. She sighed.
"On the count of seven, Elsa my flower."
And together soprano and piano rang like a thousand bells.
After the rehearsal was completed, Hilda and Elsa found themselves set loose in Aldeburgh. The Jubilee Hall was filled with lighting technicians, set designers, Elizabeth Sweeting and--God forbid--other musicians. There was no other prepared piano on which they could practice and Hilda flatly refused to have any truck with Ben's immaculately maintained Steinway in the sitting room at Crag House. She tried a chord or two on his harpsichord, then retreated with a noise of disgust.
Elsa quickly made her way back to their bedroom, ostensibly to continue her stretching exercises but actually in order to take to bed with a box of chocolates and Peter's well-thumbed copy of The Charioteer. Reading of other's misfortunes was something that she always found terribly consoling on the eve of a concert.
Hilda ranged further afield. Finding the Aldeburgh shops unutterably dull, she had almost exhausted her resources when she came upon Imogen Holst emerging from the Co-op.
"Imogen!" said she with a cry of delight. "I thought I might find you here."
"What a pleasant surprise," said Imo, swinging a string bag over her shoulder with one graceful motion. "Only I just came out to buy a few onions for stew..."
"Splendid! Very fond of onions m'self. Elsa doesn't believe in anything that takes longer than an hour to cook but I say that's nonsense. Have you seen that the tide is out? Funny thing you just coming along to buy onions, because I came out to find you and take you on a walk along the strand."
Relieving an unwilling Imo of her bag, Hilda swept her friend towards the sea with all the firmness--and all the subtlety--of an undertow.
"Shall we talk? Talk to me, dearest Imo. Talk to me about anything under the sun, anything your heart desires as long as it's not Ben."
"And why shouldn't I talk about Ben?" said Imo tartly.
"Because it's Ben all the perishing day!" Hilda exclaimed. "No string quartets, not even a little etude or two to call your own, nothing but Ben and his perishing barlines! I said I would thrash him if he was retarding your development as a composeress and I meant it, my dear."
"Ben has been very kind to me."
"It always pays to be kind to a source of unremunerated menial labour, don't you know."
Imogen set her thin lips. For a beat or two they walked in silence. Then Imogen seized the offensive.
"Funny you should mention that," she said. "Back at the RCM I distinctly recall a fellow who used to rule your barlines for you..."
"Did he now?"
"He did," Imogen pursued. "We used to go out Promming and there he would be sitting in lodgings, bent over one of those great cantatas of yours, his fingers all black with ink."
"Imogen Holst, I can't think what you're insinuating! He practically begged me to let him help me with my manuscripts. Said no one else could possibly bring such a note of native English lyricism to the severity of the Second Viennese School. (Thought that was a load of tosh myself but the chap was very insistent.) How was I to know that he had designs of that sort upon me? He was terribly wet. I'm sure he was a Tory."
"He was madly in love with you, Hilda. He told me. Repeatedly."
"And I say again, how is a woman to know? Especially if a chap never tells her?"
"Hilda, he got down on his knees and asked you to marry him in the middle of the Arena."
"Well, apart from that," said Hilda dismissively. "Love is a spiffing thing but it can also be such jolly rot. We were never silly like that, were we Imo dear?"
"No, Hilda, but then we never were..."
"I remember how we used to stroll arm in arm through Hyde Park. One-two-three, one-two-three," Hilda reminisced, her steps falling into a sort of bastard waltz time. "And they told us that you couldn't walk in three but we proved them wrong, eh? You conducting with your right hand and I with my left."
"In retrospect I think they may have been right about the walking in three..."
"Nonsense," said Hilda affectionately. "And I remember how we would stay up late drinking tea and reading Radclyffe Hall."
"You were reading Radclyffe Hall, Hilda. I was reading Winifred Holtby."
"And how you wrote me all those dotty lovesick letters from Cambridge about that folk dancing chap and I told you to drop it, because he wasn't worthy of you and anyway you were sublimating your true feelings?"
Imogen sighed. "And now he's married to a lovely woman and has three beautiful children."
"Which just proves my point," said Hilda.
Together they made their way arm in arm along the treacherous shingle, rounded pebbles shifting under their feet. Seagulls cried unheeded overhead.
"And remember how we used to go to the Proms," Hilda continued rapturously. "You would pack the sandwiches and I would pack the scores and then we would forget both and just stand there in the midst of the crowd, clutching one another and trembling in ecstasy!"
"What I remember is that time that we couldn't eat our sandwiches because you had sat on my satchel while we were queuing."
"Imo!" said Hilda reproachfully.
"Hilda!" replied Imo in the same tone. "What would Elsa say?"
"Elsa and I have an understanding."
Hilda's dismissive wave, far from implying affairs of the heart, was the sort of gesture that a conductor might have used to wave off an oboe section that had come in six measures too early.
"Yes. We both understand that I go off the lead now and then."
Imogen paused with an expression of careful thought.
"I talk over Ben's music with him," she said finally. "He tells me--though I hardly believe it--that I do things for his work that no one else can do. But through it all I know that Peter is, and must be, his support, his refuge and his anchor." She paused again. "And Hilda, Elsa is the same for you. You needn't look any further."
"She's a silly little dotty."
"But she's your own silly little dotty."
"Think of what we could have had, Immie."
"A jolly friendship, Hildy, which is just what we have had."
"I suppose so." Hilda sighed. "I suppose I should thank you for letting a girl down easy."
Imogen laughed nervously.
"You know I've always been very fond of you, Hilda."
"Just not fond enough, eh? --No, don't answer that. Not for pity, as the man said. I'd rather not know."
Hilda sighed and plunged her walking stick rather desperately into the muddy, pebbly ground right at the verge of the lapping waves. It stuck firmly. Together the two women gazed out to sea.
"I say," said Hilda finally. "That reminds me--d'you have any hairpins?"
Imogen blinked. One hand drifted to touch the smooth surface of her pale brown hair, which was tied back into a ponytail with a frayed bit of twine.
"I don't believe so," she said cautiously. "Why?"
"As plain as a Quaker." Hilda shook her head. "Never mind, it was just for Elsa."
It took Hilda both hands to pull her stick out of the Suffolk clay once more. With her toes imperiled by the rising tide, she leaned forward to rinse it in the salt water. Then she turned back to Imogen.
"Now tell me, Imo... what else is there to see in this godforsaken town?"
Somehow their steps turned up the hill towards the church. After a cold and unpromising start it had turned to a hot, clear day. The sky was a vivid indigo and the sun beat down until every geranium head in every garden plot was blazing with colour. Imogen toiled uphill, her string bag with its onions bumping at her knees. Hilda was occupied in rubbing the rapidly-drying mud from the end of her walking stick, seizing upon every passing opportunity--first the edge of the kerb, then a convenient patch of grass, then finally a bootscraper outside a grand house, marring its glossy black paint with a smear of Aldeburgh mud.
"Ben will be rehearsing his parable," said Imogen, only slightly more breathless than usual. "If we hurry we might just catch the end."
"Good good," said Hilda compliantly. "Haven't you heard it before?"
"Oh, I never get tired of hearing Ben's work."
Imogen sighed a lovesick sigh which Hilda ignored.
"Don't listen to much music myself. Clouds the ear. Confuses the mind. But here I am on holiday, so whyever not? Let's go and see what old Ben has pulled out of his hat."
In the churchyard tired children were sitting like fading flowers, leaning against gravestones or lying full-length on the few shady patches of grass. The main door to the church was thrown open and from within there came a great blaring of an organ and crashing of cymbals.
Hilda nodded with approval.
"Werkmeister. One gets so tired of equal temperament sometimes."
As they came to the threshold they could hear Ben's distinctive voice speaking over a clamour of childish restlessness.
"Just fifteen minutes, mind you! I can tell the difference between fifteen and twenty, and I'm sure that all of you can do so as well. Don't go far. If I have to come in search of any one of you I shall be very cross."
Now the trickle of departing children turned into a flood. Hilda and Imogen were trapped where they stood in the church porch, right by the notice board. Tattered notices for the church fete and Lady Cranbrook's benefit tea warred with typewritten lists of parish council members and regulations for the reading of banns. The corners of some of the notices drooped forlornly. There were thumbtacks missing.
One could not have guessed that there were so many children in the whole of Suffolk, dark and fair, nut brown and cherry red, skinned knees and sparkling eyes and little voices still humming little snippets of tune. Fighting their way against the tide, Hilda and Imogen found even more children inside the small church. Young musicians were setting their diminutive string instruments aside and casting envious or proprietorial glances over hanging teacups that were strung from pillar to post. Hilda looked upon this scene with dismay.
"Trebles all round!" she exclaimed.
"Ben is very much inspired by children's choirs," said Imo, smiling down at one little urchin who was wielding a weighty handbell.
"I should expect he is."
"I've never met another composer who dealt with them so naturally," Imogen continued, ignoring the implication, "who could understand them, their sound, their needs, their mentality, as he does."
"Spiritually he's thirteen, is that it?"
Hilda chuckled dryly. "Always did think so."
"Haven't you ever considered composing for children?" Imogen asked.
"Oh no, not for me, thank you. Don't have the volume, you see."
"Volume. Lung capacity." Hilda took a mighty demonstrative breath and held it in, straining at the seams of her tweed blazer. "What I require above all else is vocalists who can sing out. From the very first, the compass of Elsa's chest called to me. It said, Hilda, here is material with which you can work. Here is your muse."
Her conductor's hands eloquently traced out the shape of the inspiration.
"Surely there's more to music than volume, though..." said Imogen.
"Oh certainly, but it takes amplification to sort out the fine points." Reaching out, Hilda rang a hanging bell with a flick of her fingernail. She turned to her companion. "Up until now, Imo, classical music has utterly failed to meet the challenge of the twentieth century. It's been outclassed, in fact. Decisively. By those perishing transistor radios. And this in spite of the fact that classical music has been getting louder and higher for centuries now. How long have we have a 440 A?"
"Not long," Imogen admitted.
"There you have it. Onwards and upwards! And now we have amplifiers! This is no time for composers to quail in the face of the future. We can't stop progress dead."
"One never thought of it as progress as such...."
"Eventually of course we'll arrive at music that only dogs can hear, and it will probably deafen them into the bargain, but that will be a problem for another generation."
Nodding briskly, Hilda strode forward into the heart of the maelstrom, where Ben stood by his conductor's podium. He wore a shapeless grey cardigan that looked as if it had once belonged to Peter, and was signing autographs for a collection of young admirers who had probably not even been conceived when Peter Grimes had first been put upon the stage.
"Is he quite safe with them?" she asked, turning back to Imo in a doubtful undertone.
"Oh, they're frightfully well-trained. Apart from that time that one of the choirboys knocked over a candle stand--and he got tangled up in his surplice, poor chap--we haven't had any problems."
"That's not quite--oh, hang it all."
Putting doubts and cavils to one side, Hilda waved emphatically at her fellow composer.
"Hi, Ben! Good show! Marvelously virile sound, old cock."
Ben nodded to her with well-practiced graciousness then returned his attention to the choirboys.
If the evening had not been well-lubricated by spirits, things might have been disastrous. A rather desperate plea had been made in the foyer for Imogen to stay after dinner and she, unable as ever to resist Ben's boyish charms, had reluctantly acquiesced. Now she sat on a hassock with her skirt tight over her knees, handing round glasses of brandy with a rather determined expression of jollity on her face.
"Imo," said Ben, gingerly taking a sip from an overfull glass, "did Elizabeth speak to you about her scheme for ticket distribution...?"
"To be honest, Ben, I was so busy today that I don't even think I saw her."
Her mouth was now set in a tight smile that promised no jollity at all.
"Well, you'll have to see her between now and Friday," said Ben, discomfited.
"Should I talk to her, perhaps?" Peter offered. "That would be best, don't you think?"
"I won't say what I think would be best," said Imogen. She poured herself more brandy.
"Now, now," said Ben, "we must all work together."
"Too right," put in Hilda.
By the fire, curled happily in an arm chair, Elsa bit decisively into another stilton-topped biscuit. Her rather muffled murmur of pleasure might have been taken as agreement.
Outside there were waves breaking on the shore. Peter's carefully chosen curtains fluttered in the half-opened windows, setting off the sky which was cooling to a luminous, persistent indigo. There was no music but the faint twittering of birds. After the previous evening's disastrous excursion into madrigal singing, no one had had the nerve to suggest another go.
Instead Ben got to his feet to summon his young protege downstairs and the five adults and one child embarked upon a game of Happy Families.
"Rather odd cards these," said Hilda, offhandedly tossing one onto the small table. It slid right off onto the carpet near the hearth, where it remained until it was discovered by the housekeeper the following week.
"Oh yes," said Imogen, colouring slightly. "Miles seems to have brought down the Aldeburgh set, haven't you Miles?"
Miles, a young man of more charm than words, offered a shrug and a cheeky smile. He sat himself down on the rug by Elsa and occupied himself picking the last crumbs of Stilton out of the rind. Elsa conceded defeat with an ungracious little shift of her shoulders, pulling her wrap more closely around her.
Hilda peered down at the cards, straightening her wire-rimmed spectacles before they slid off the tip of her nose. The caricatures on the hand-drawn Aldeburgh set clearly represented acquaintances who were familiar to their owners.
"Given that neither of you are locals I can't see that it will do any harm," said Ben, "but I must beg you not to discuss these cards outside of Crag House. Our position in the community, you understand, is a delicate one..."
"Mum's the word," said Hilda. She tapped the side of her nose and offered a conspiratorial wink. "Enough said, old boy. Grew up in a village myself, hard though it may be for you to believe. Terrible place. All that rural charm."
Ben just shook his head. They set to the game. Ben and Miles, old hands, played with intense concentration. Elsa, half asleep, passed almost every turn with a wave of her hand. Peter maintained a polite interest in the game but after Ben had won two rounds in succession he seized the moment to bring up a question that had obviously been preying upon him for some time. Raising his chin, he stared down his beaky nose at his guest.
"What's this I hear, Hilda, about your sudden interest in the castrato voice?"
"I've always taken an interest in castrati," said Hilda defensively. "No one can accuse me of lacking historical scope."
Elsa opened one eye. "What Hilda was saying about the idea was only a proposal, really. She's been terribly misquoted."
"I should hope so," said Peter.
"Nonsense, Elsa, we're friends here." Hilda waved a hand and drew breath for a long soliloquy. "Naturally we don't expect chaps to flock to the idea immediately. Conservatism, the prejudices of the age, a certain attachment to the old instrument, know what I mean, say no more."
"I should say so," replied Peter rather more vigorously. He unconsciously crossed his legs.
"But if one looks at it from a more objective--which is to say female--standpoint, one can see that the benefits to music really are incalculable."
"Well, but what are the benefits actually?" said Ben. He peered at Hilda over his hand of cards. "If one wants woman singers one can have them. No shortage at all; quite the opposite, I should say. There's no end to them."
Elsa was about to speak but Ben continued.
"And if one desires, dare I say, a tone that is more pure, more easily moulded, then one has only to look to the boy soprano or treble to satisfy one's every need."
"But there's such wastage, isn't there?"
"What do you mean?"
Ben leaned forward, clasping his thin, long hands in his lap. It was a tennis match between the two great composers of their generation; tensing every nerve, he awaited the next volley. Peter, Elsa and Imogen watched entranced. Miles busied himself with poking the fire, which was burning away quite happily without his intervention.
"Just this," said Hilda, "spend five years over a kid, whip him into a chorister, get him singing with a bit of style, and what does it get you?"
"What does it get me?" Ben echoed, confused.
"I'll tell you what it gets you! A chap who's fully grown--playing rugger at Teddy Hall, probably sighing over some girl from LMH--and can just about sing all four notes of the Eton Boating Song."
"May I just say," Peter put in, "that I resent the notion that sportiness is incompatible with good singing."
"Not a bit of it, my dear boy. Not a bit of it. Quite fond of badders m'self."
But Ben had suddenly grasped hold of the thread of her argument. He leaned forward even further, wringing his hands tightly together until his knuckles went white.
"And what you're saying is that all that... all that could be avoided?"
"Got it in one, old boy! A little snip here and a little snip there..."
"..few days with an ice pack and there you have your treble. For life. Not just for Christmas."
It was then that the penny dropped. Ben gazed, fascinated, at an oblivious Miles. Peter gazed, horrified, at an oblivious Ben. And then he quickly got to his feet.
"I should say it's time for bed," he said, taking Miles by the shoulders and ushering him firmly out of the room. "Long past time for bed, in fact."
"Poor chap will probably have nightmares now," said Imogen sympathetically.
"Which one?" said Elsa.
"It was only a proposal," said Hilda.
"For life..." said Ben, sounding slightly dazed.
When Peter returned he briskly picked up the Happy Families set, returning the cards to their box and the box to its cupboard. Nothing more was said on the matter.
"Perhaps I should go," said Imogen, gathering herself to depart.
"Wait!" said Hilda. "What about a little bedtime dip? Isn't it that time of the evening? Never used to swim in the altogether back in m'school--can't think what Miss Beale would have said--but I've never been accused of not being willing to try new things."
Imogen turned bright red. Ben muttered something unintelligible. Eventually it was Peter who managed to achieve something approaching coherence.
"We hadn't... well... it's rather too cold now, isn't it?"
"Nonsense," said Hilda. "It will be bracing. Elsa often has cold baths. I rehearse her in there, for the acoustics don't you know, and one loses all sense of time."
"Really it is late..." said Imogen. She got to her feet and began looking hurriedly for her cardigan.
"And Miles has gone to bed already," said Ben mournfully.
"Perhaps another day," said Peter. "Come along Ben. It's high time we were in bed ourselves."
At breakfast everyone was busily engaged in pretending that they had not heard the bumps in the night, nor the private excursions to the seafront. All was water under the bridge, thank you very much, and could you please pass the toast?
Elsa munched determinedly away. Peter hummed a tuneless nothing, his chair squeaking under him as he shifted position.
"I like that," said Hilda suddenly, decisively rearranging the disarranged doily under the butter dish.
"That hum. You've got talent old boy, there's no denying it. Don't let Ben keep you down."
"I beg your pardon?" said Ben. Up until that point he had been absorbed in the folded Times at his shoulder, something about David Maxwell Fyfe and vice.
"You're always telling me to stop humming," said Elsa.
"That's because you haven't any talent Elsa dear, there would be no point in my saying otherwise. Composition is not something that can be taught."
"Composition?" echoed Peter.
"What did you think I was discussing, my dear boy? Archery? Now be honest with your Aunt Hilda. I'd bet anything that you have a cantata or three tucked away in your sock drawer."
"That's the best place for them," Peter said modestly.
"You never told me..." Ben began.
"I wrote a song for Anne Wood. Perhaps two. I did tell you."
"You most certainly didn't."
"You weren't listening."
Ben glowered. Peter sighed, his spoon clattering against the cup as he stirred his lukewarm tea. Seeing an opening Elsa helped herself to the last of the toast.
"Now now boys," said Hilda. "Don't let's fight."
"Fighting was the furthest thing from my mind." Ben's forehead was pitifully furrowed.
"Now, Bee," said Peter gently, "you know that I'd never..."
"I do know, it's just..."
They trailed off in silent, soulful communion across the breakfast table.
"Pax?" said Peter.
"Pax," said Ben.
A beatific smile spread across Elsa's face. She leaned back from the table.
"I do so like to see harmony prevail," she said.
Now it was Hilda's turn to look discomfited.
"I do wish that people wouldn't use 'harmony' as lazy shorthand for all that is good in this world. It's only when dissonance is admitted to full equality in the mind of the man on the street that the nation will truly be ready to appreciate modern music."
"So we're told," Ben grumbled.
"Perhaps it's time we cleared the dishes," put in Peter.
Naturally the two composers took no part in this. Vacating the morning room, Ben and Hilda left the other two to busy themselves with teacups and with plates sticky with egg. Together they wrestled the things into the kitchen. It was the housekeeper's day off.
"I rather like harmony," said Elsa. With her arms plunged up to the elbow in the bubbles of the kitchen sink, she looked rather like a sturdy peasant milkmaid or a Rhine maiden.
"So do I," Peter confessed. "In this day, that's saying something."
"It will be our secret," said Elsa solemnly. She paused, shaking the soap suds from her hands. A tiny bubble sailed gaily into the air then flew into the cheerful yellow curtains. It disappeared with a pop. "Do you like Beethoven as well?"
"Who could dislike Beethoven?"
"You would be surprised, Peter."
"Ah well, when you come down to it I suppose I wouldn't be."
"Let me just say that I respect anyone who possesses forbearance sufficient to live and work with Hilda Tablet."
Elsa gave him a curious look. "Fancy you saying a thing like that."
"Whatever do you mean?"
Silently she tilted her head towards the open door, through which came the sound of Ben's voice upbraiding Hilda for a small fault--in his eyes--in the orchestration of her Three Fragments from Cnossos. A chord sounded, corrected itself, then sounded again.
"But that's completely different," said Peter.
He stammered a bit and then it was as if he had found the score. Ben was a treasure, he said, a dear, a delight, and every moment they spent together was a joy and a privilege. Peter's declamation was note perfect.
"You make him sound as if he were a national monument," said Elsa, amused. "Don't you ever just want to hit him?"
Peter's eyebrows went up and stayed up. Then he laughed. "Once I threw a glass of wine in his face at a dinner party."
"What had he done?"
"Oh, I've long forgot what it was." He waved a dismissive hand in the air. "Perhaps I didn't like the way he was eating his asparagus."
"I'm sure he deserved it though," said Elsa. "You've done me one better. I've only ever dreamed of doing such a thing to Hilda."
"I shouldn't like to get on Hilda's bad side. She looks as if she could beat me black and blue without the slightest bit of trouble."
"She wouldn't, I'm sure."
"She's far too considerate for that," Peter agreed.
But Elsa still looked as if she had a thought on the tip of her tongue. She carefully placed the teapot upside-down on the draining board.
"I simply must know, Peter... what happened after you threw the glass of wine at him?"
"Not very much. It was only the wine and not the glass, you know. And naturally it was white and not red. If it had been red I never would have gone through with it."
"Of course not," Elsa agreed.
"And Ben forgave me straightaway. He is a saint, you know."
And this time Elsa did not contradict him. With conspiratorial looks at one another they went to rejoin their other halves.
Late into the night Hilda sat at the little desk in the guest bedroom, working at her latest composition while the white curtains blew around her face. Tongue firmly between her lips, she plied her india rubber with indefatigable energy. How remarkable Medea would be, with Elsa in the title role, if only she could find the venue willing to take a chance on staging it. Perhaps, she thought, she would be able to buttonhole Ben tomorrow and have words about his plans for the upcoming festival.
Hilda picked up her pen and shook it, producing a splatter of ink all over her carefully pencilled composition draft. Undeterred, she spoke up at a volume that would have been more appropriate several hours earlier in the evening.
"I say, wouldn't it be jolly to have a festival?"
There was a stirring from underneath the pile of bedclothes. Elsa had fallen asleep reading Mary Renault, propped up against a great wall of feather pillows and cozied under eiderdown. It was not that cold but Elsa too could be implacable.
"Mmmm?" she enquired.
"Wouldn't it be jolly to have a festival of one's own?"
"You wouldn't like it," came the reply in a voice slightly muffled. "Publication is the auction of the mind and all that."
Hilda paused for thought.
"You're quite right," she said briskly and set back to work.
"Dear Emily said so, after all," she added some fifteen minutes later. The bedclothes twitched in agreement.
Half an hour after that, the composer announced her completion of another scene with a clearing of the throat. Elsa, who had given up sleep as a bad cause, looked up from her book.
"Time for a midnight snack?" asked Hilda encouragingly. "A little tea and toast while you hear all about what I've written?"
"Perhaps," said Elsa, equivocating in a way that was almost unthinkable for her when food was at issue. "Perhaps not. I'm feeling a bit off. Mightn't I just stay in bed?"
Putting her pen down, Hilda marched over to the bed and sat firmly upon the corner.
"Now, what's this then? Don't want toast? Tell your Aunt Hilda everything."
"Can't a woman lie in bed and read without an inquisition?" Elsa enquired.
"Oho," said Hilda. "Now I know something is up. Golly, it's just like being back at CLC. Do tell. Is it a pash? Is it a rave? Can you think of nothing else?"
"Might be. Only a tiny one though."
"Thought so." She patted Elsa's hand. "No shame in that. No shame at all. One wonders that the whole of the town isn't running after Imogen, such are her manifold charms."
"Imogen?" Elsa made a faint noise under her breath that might have been amusement. "Oh no, it isn't Imogen."
"Who's the lucky girl, then? Don't tell me it's that Sweeting woman."
"That's the thing, Hilda..."
"Peter," said the unhappy woman finally.
"Peter?" echoed Hilda, horrified. "You silly little dotty!"
(And she added in an undertone: "Not a bit like CLC.")
"I know, I know. He's pledged to Ben." Elsa sighed deeply, with the tragic note of a romantic heroine who has had extensive stage training. "It isn't as if I thought anything would come of it."
"I should hope not!"
"It's just that I'm rather fond of him, that's all. I haven't lost my heart, only my appetite."
"Elsa, my dear, my little frosted cupcake, hadn't you noticed that he is... how can one put this delicately, without causing offence... of the masculine gender?"
"One could hardly avoid noticing it."
"Exactly my point! One can hardly avoid noticing it!"
"It's not his fault?" Elsa offered tentatively.
"It's all very well to be sympathetic to the afflicted, my girl, but there are limits. I understand what this is."
"It comes of all this Acting. Miss Beale never would have approved. Led girls astray, she used to tell us. And she was right. You're mixing yourself up with Galatea, don't you know. If he weren't your Acis, you'd never give the chap a second glance."
Elsa sighed again and laid her book aside. "You're very wise, Hilda."
"Of course I am. Now come along. Ben and Peter have already turned in for the night and its time we raided the larder. There's very little that toast and tea won't fix."
And Elsa had, after all, to agree.
If Elsa's foredoomed passion weighed upon her the next morning, she did not show it. The day dawned clear and cloudless and the whole household rushed about getting ready for the first day of the Aldeburgh Festival. Nothing and no one was where they were wanted. Elsa left her shoes halfway down the landing, where Ben tripped over them. Hilda sailed up and down the first floor hallway clad only in a towel and Peter retreated to the master bedroom until such time as she was decently clothed. Miles was always and everywhere underfoot and yet managed to disappear entirely when the time came for loading picnic baskets and supplies into Ben's shining open-topped Rolls Royce.
It was time for Music on the Meare. Thorpeness was miles away and they were late already so they flew down Thorpe Road, stopping only to collect Imogen from her little seafront cottage. Ben beamed, one hand laid lazily on the wheel, with Peter in the passenger seat and Miles wedged happily between the two of them. In the back seat were the three women. Elsa held tight to her straw hat while Imogen and Hilda shouted to one another in an effort to be heard over the whipping of the wind.
"I said, SINCE YOU'LL BE CONDUCTING... oh, hang it all, never mind."
"Pardon?" said Imogen.
Ben's driving had finesse to go along with its enthusiasm but when he let Miles take a turn with the wheel, Elsa began to turn distinctly green.
"I'm sure it's just the sea air," she said faintly but no one heard her.
Before long they were at the Meare. The six passengers stumbled out of the car, exhilarated and cramped and queasy by turns.
"Why go on a fairground ride, that's what I always ask myself," said Hilda, "when you can go for a ride in Ben's Rolls?"
"Can I steer on the way back too?" said Miles.
"What was that you were saying about conducting?" said Imogen.
"Won't someone take the other end of the picnic basket?" said Peter.
"I wouldn't have minded so much if I hadn't got to sing today," said Elsa plaintively.
"And here," said Ben, placing a period where before there had been all comma, "we are."
Everyone fell silent except for Hilda.
"Don't drive m'self," she continued gamely, "but Evelyn always tells me that one should... what's that Ben?"
"--we're here," finished Peter.
"And so we are, dear boy. So we are."
Taking Imogen's arm she led her friend off towards the boathouse and Elsa followed, leaving the men to deal with the accoutrements of the outdoor lifestyle. Elsa's one concession was to hoist her own parasol. She sailed off in the rising breeze, glancing cautiously past the parasol's edge at the dark clouds that were piling overhead from out of the west.
The banks of the mere were already thronged with spectators, gathering in deckchairs or on picnic blankets, pulling cardigans more closely around their shoulders. Pulled up to the dock were the punts into which members of the Aldeburgh Chorus were unsteadily clambering.
"Antony and Cleopatra!" exclaimed Hilda delightedly. "The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne, burn'd on the water... etcetera etcetera... there's a bit about the poop in there, never understood that... It's my next opera but one, you know. Only I rather fancy that in mine Cleopatra will live. Elsa doesn't hold with portraying suicides. Had a bad experience with Tosca in her youth, poor lamb. Overstuffed mattress."
"Is that so?"
Imogen was rather distracted, leafing through her armful of conducting scores in search of the elusive opening piece. She pulled a pencil from behind her ear to mark one last point.
"Can't figure out how to work it yet but I'm sure it will come right in the end," Hilda continued. "Elsa's a dab hand at plots. Comes of reading all those romances."
"Mmmm," said Imogen.
"Just tell me where you want me, my dear, and I'll climb aboard."
Imogen looked up. "Pardon?"
"Or shall I just pick a barge?" said Hilda gamely.
"Oh." Imogen's hands fluttered in that graceful way that she had when nonplussed, as if she were a slightly ruffled bird. "Only the choir are in the punts, Hilda. Everyone else is on the shore, you see."
Hilda laughed heartily. "Being a composeress, I hardly think that I qualify as a member of the audience! M'not half shabby as a tenor, come to that, though I promise you shan't hear a peep from me unless I see that lovely baton of yours pointing my way. I'll just shove in next to Elsa, shall I? I can turn over her pages for her."
And Imogen hadn't the heart to contradict her.
So the little flotilla of singers set to sea with Elsa and Hilda tucked into a punt alongside one of the Aldeburgh Singers' more heroically-figured sopranos. Together the three of them were rather broader in the beam than the punt but they made a companionable party. Particularly once Hilda's flask of whisky began making the rounds.
From the punts, all that the singers could see was the clear blue skies to the east. Over their heads dark clouds were gathering and if the conductor's eyes, as well as those of the audience, occasionally strayed apprehensively upwards, such a thing could be forgiven. True to her promise Hilda sang not a note, merely sat at Elsa's side turning over two-page madrigals and admiring the elegance of Imogen's conducting. Imogen sat on the deck of their punt, the rhythm of her motions gently rocking it to and fro. The voices of the madrigalists intertwined and floated delightfully heavenwards.
It was Elsa who spotted the swan. A perfectly straightforward E-natural came out as a squeak and earned her an elbow in the ribs from Hilda. She had to wait for a measure's rest in order to explain herself.
"Hilda," she said in a stage whisper, "the swan."
It was indeed approaching with intent, large, lazy, magnificently snowy white and perfectly capable of breaking a man's arm with a well-timed flap of its spreading wings. Elsa's eyebrows rose higher and higher over her music sheet and the cause--for once--was not the vocal demands of the rather sedate piece through which they were currently making its way. Her next measure of rest could not come soon enough.
"Hilda," she repeated, ad libitum, "the swan!"
Grimly Hilda hoisted a paddle, ready to do battle on behalf of her muse. Murky water dripped down its length and into a punnet of fresh strawberries by her knee. An unscored cry of dismay came from one of the altos. Peter was just raising a staying hand to the paddle when the swan serenely changed its course, drifting untroubled downstream and away from the boat. It left only the smallest of ripples in its wake.
Five minutes later the first drops of rain began to disturb the calm surface of the mere.
And then came the deluge.
"It's the Fludde!" sang Miles delightedly in his clear treble, spinning in giddy circles on the suddenly-sodden grass.
Torrents of audience members and singers, mixed promiscuously together, rushed for shelter. Although the singers had first to clamber out of their boats, they somehow managed to arrive ahead of the others under the overhanging eaves of the boathouse, leaving far more august personages to hurry further afield. Sitting happily together under Elsa's parasol in the now-emptied punt, Hilda and Elsa observed the scene with interest.
Hilda put her arm around Elsa's shoulder. "Rather jolly, isn't it, old girl? Just the two of us."
Elsa nodded vigorously. "I don't think swans like the rain."
Tipping the parasol to conceal them from public view, Hilda kissed the tip of Elsa's nose.
"You are a silly little dotty, don't you know?"
"You always tell me so," said Elsa and leaned closer.
Together they listened to the rain falling. Dimly, from a great distance, they could hear the sound of Ben and Peter cursing as they tried to raise the top of the Rolls Royce.
Even Hilda's prepared piano brought throngs of festival-goers out to the Jubilee Hall. They clustered in twos and threes by the entrance on a grey and sullen morning that had still not swept away the clouds of the previous evening. Everyone carried an umbrella.
Elsa was yawning as she and Hilda went round to the stage entrance. It had been a night of thunder and of earnest discussions under the covers long after the night had closed in. Hilda did not believe in being well-rested so much as she believed in the ability to resist fatigue by sheer force of will. Elsa, on the other hand, was much like a cat: she had never met the nap she didn't like.
"Wake up!" said Hilda.
"I'm perfectly awake."
"You mutter that in your dreams, old girl, just as clear as anything. 'I'm awake, Hilda, really I am.' And then you start to snore. If you don't mend your ways, one of these days I shall record you on my reel-to-reel just to prove it. And then I'll turn you into musique concrete."
"You did that--" Another yawn. "--with my zip already."
Hilda waved a hand. "Oh, don't let's quibble. Come along."
It was one of those mornings where everything was at sixes and sevens. Fifteen minutes before the concert and the front doors were still closed. Stacks of programmes sat neatly on tables waiting to be sold. The prepared grand piano sat by itself on the stage, its lid still locked shut. The hall was being turned upside down in a frantic but so far unsuccessful search for the key. Imogen fluttered as only Imogen could do. Elizabeth Sweeting searched determinedly, her lips set. Ben looked quite green even though he was meant to be merely an audience member for this part of the production. Miles sat on the edge of the stage swinging his legs and playing with a bit of string.
"One simply can't organize a festival and let the most basic things go," Imogen was saying, obviously a continuation of an older argument. "One must have responsibility, a chain of custody. One must plan ahead..."
"It's all very well saying that in retrospect," said Elizabeth. "If one has a need for things to go perfectly, one shouldn't be in the theatre business in the first place. Haven't you ever lost a key before, Imogen?"
"Haven't you ever made a spare before, Elizabeth?" retorted Imogen acidly.
"Not to worry, Imo," said Hilda. "Perhaps I could just bang on the lid of the piano instead. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that."
"Perhaps I could sing some Strauss," said Elsa, brightening at the thought of a reprise of her Proms triumph of the previous year. "We could roll in the upright from backstage..."
"Perhaps someone could find the key," said Ben.
Elizabeth sat down on the bench and put her face in her hand. "If I could just think for a moment. It was in the same spot it always was, on the shelf by the main lights. Until..."
Silence. It was as if she was awaiting a prompt that never came. One could hear voices outside, and the sudden drumming of fresh rain on the roof.
"What, you mean this key?"
Everyone looked at Miles.
"This key?" he repeated, combining the perfect clarity of innocence with choirboy training. He held up a small silver key hanging on a faded maroon piece of ribbon.
"That key," said Elizabeth slowly. She held out her hand.
"No one was looking after it so I just... picked it up."
He gave a little shrug, then dropped it into her waiting palm. Then he jumped down from the stage and wandered off behind the curtain in search of fresh mischief.
"Easy to take," said Ben thoughtfully.
"Well, that's settled," said Hilda. "On with the show. Open the doors and let the hordes descend... where's Elsa got to?"
They all looked around them.
"Chocolate!" came Miles' voice from backstage. "Miss Strauss, may I have a piece?"
"No, you may not!" Hilda shouted. "And Miss Strauss mayn't either!"
Ben chuckled despite himself and shook his head.
"The preserved piano is all yours, Hilda," he said, retreating to a seat in the first row of the hall. Imogen followed and sat pointedly down beside him. "Elizabeth, I think it's time we added an audience to the mix...?"
"Far past time," said Elizabeth.
When Elsa and Hilda appeared onstage once more as performers, there was not a trace of the worries of the previous minutes. Together they bowed in perfect unison to acknowledge the audience's applause. Elsa had thrown off her Burberry raincoat and was dressed in a floor-length white satin evening gown, more appropriate to Covent Garden than to a small parish hall in the morning. Her hair was swept into an implacable updo, studded so thickly with hairpins that it allowed no possibility of disarrangement. Hilda, standing discreetly a few feet back from her soprano, was in tails. Her bow tie, which sat at a rakish angle, was a rich gold.
"Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking," she began, her voice carrying easily through the hall without benefit of amplification, "I shall just say a few words on behalf of myself and Miss Strauss. We should like to thank Ben and Peter for inviting us to your jolly little festival. It's been just ripping, swans and rain and missing keys and all. If you carry on with your openness to truly modern music, you will soon have something very worthwhile here in darkest Suffolk."
Ben glowered but in an almost affectionate way.
"Above all," Hilda continued, "we should like to thank Imogen, whose manifold virtues I could not even begin to list in public, but which are known to her and to me. Possibly also to Elsa but there I really couldn't say."
A scattering of somewhat confused applause, which turned into a more respectable round when Hilda sat down at the piano, arranging her tails behind her, and opened the music. Elsa took a very deep preparatory breath. Her dress creaked warningly but held. Ben averted his eyes from the conspicuous display of decolletage. (Elsa's bosom was a trial to costumers everywhere. Like its owner, it yearned to breathe free.)
At a glance from Hilda the music began. A slight frisson ran around the hall at the sound of the ringing, buzzing piano. Another at the sound of Elsa's voice, which combined a maximum of power with the minimum of what one might call tonal clarity. Aldeburgh audiences were, however, used to hearing--and pretending to admire--the singing of Peter Pears. This too they could endure.
The lyrics that Hilda had chosen to set were, to say the least, picturesque. One might even call them quaint.
Adown the Lesbian vales
When spring first flashes out
I watch the lovely rout
Of maidens flitting 'mid the honeybees...
Ben rattled his programme with a certain uneasy impatience. Michael Field had never been his thing. Only three more songs to go.
At the interval there was a general rush for the bar. Drinks began to circulate, passed overhead by the lucky to their friends further back in the crowd. And still people pressed forward, shouting their orders to the overwhelmed staff.
"And to think it's an afternoon concert," said Elizabeth to Peter as she made quick work with a corkscrew. "I've already sent someone down to the Coop for more gin. I can't understand it."
"I can," said Peter. "Will the gin be here soon?"
Unwilling to be patient, Hilda pushed her way towards them through the throngs with more enthusiasm than subtlety.
"Excuse me! Excuse me! Pardon me, madam, your hat is blocking my route. Most rude. Composeress here, don't you know. My Muse requires liquid refreshment."
At the bar a very young man turned round, replacing his silk scarf around his neck as he sipped from a glass of bubbly. He smiled and bowed slightly.
"If it isn't my mistress," he said. "Smashing show!"
"Evelyn!" exclaimed Hilda. "What's a nice boy like you doing in a place like this? Thought you couldn't get away until tomorrow. Plans for the weekend, what?"
"They fell through." Evelyn made a doleful face. "What is the point of being a Guardsman if you're always to be sent off on tiresome parades? He said he had a duty to the Queen. I said darling, I know that, here I am. And yet it did no good."
It was one of those moments when a sudden lull seemed to fall over the conversation in the vicinity.
"But I'm forgetting my manners!" Hilda exclaimed, turning to her friends. "This is my private secretary, Evelyn Baxter. Evelyn, Elizabeth Sweeting. Evelyn, Peter Pears."
Starting at Peter's feet, Evelyn's gaze drifted upwards and got stuck halfway.
"Hel-lowe," he said. "What lovely trousers you have."
"Hello," echoed Peter. "These old things? You should see me in my tights tomorrow..."
As if summoned by magic, Ben appeared with some urgency at Peter's elbow.
"Wasn't there someone I wanted you to meet?" he said to his partner, showing all the interest in Evelyn that he usually showed to young men of twenty-five. (Which was to say, none at all.) "I feel quite certain there was. If you'll excuse us, Evelyn? Come along, Peter..."
Evelyn wiggled his fingers sadly in the direction of the departing Peter. "Toodle-oo. Come up and see me sometime."
"Be a good boy, Evelyn, and get me a drink," said Hilda. "Or two, if you please. In the same glass."
Breakfast the next morning was a fair gayer affair with all the stresses and strains of the festival drawing to a close at last. Mrs Hudson had made omelettes and even Ben was tucking in. From the open windows floated the cheerful voices of people strolling on the promenade. One could faintly overhear them talking of this and that. Bayreuth and Covent Garden and La Scala. Who was good and who was better. Who was going to dinner with Ben and who most emphatically was not. In short, of all the joys and jealousies of a summer music festival. For once not too many of them were attempting to peer into Ben and Peter's garden.
"What should we do for next year's festival?" Peter asked, taking another piece or two of bacon. "What do you think, Ben?"
"I think we should wait until this year's programme is finished before we go thinking about next year's."
"I should be happy to offer my Medea," Hilda offered, "if you're short an opera."
Ben shuddered. "I'm sure I shall manage to write one by then."
"Peter?" she persisted, as if she were offering to pass the catsup. "Medea?"
"I was thinking more Oedipus Rex, actually."
Now it was Hilda's turn to shudder. "I wouldn't write that sort of thing, I'm sure."
"Stravinsky, you know."
"Nasty man. You'd be better with my version, if I wrote one, which I shan't."
Peter had turned already to Elsa. "What do you say, Miss Strauss? Would you like to play my dear old mum?"
"Charmed, Mr Pears, I'm sure," said Elsa, adding a little flutter of eyelashes.
"I've never understood," Hilda put in, interrupting the tete a tete, "why so many men are obsessed with the notion of sleeping with their mothers. Very fond of m'mother, very fond indeed, but I never felt the need to take her to bed."
"It's not about sleeping with one's mother," said Peter. "Nothing so crude as that. Rather, it's to do with the notion of possessing her."
"Oh, I'm sure that makes things so much better," Hilda scoffed.
"It's not the same thing at all," insisted Peter. "It's metaphorical."
And that was the end of the matter. Firmly, Hilda did indeed put her foot down, just missing the tail of the tiny daschund who had been begging for food under the table. Giving Hilda up as a lost cause, Clytie moved down the table to Miles.
"Is there any more omelette?" asked Elsa hopefully. "Just a little taste is all one desires."
Peter leaned back from the table. "I'm just about to burst. Save my poor waistline; take all you like."
"And you an opera-singer," said Elsa. "Too much self-denial weakens the voice."
"Who told you that?" Ben asked snidely. "Maria Callas?"
"John Pritchard at Glyndebourne. He made me the woman I am today."
"I can see that."
"Ben," put in Peter, "is what you might call a bit of a Puritan when it comes to such things."
"Is he really." Hilda leaned forward with mock-gravity. "There's the stalls and boxes at Covent Garden empty if that were to come out. Farewell, Rape of Lucretia; hello, Perfectly Jolly Marriage of Lucretia. Perish the thought."
Ben threw up his hands. "Oh, come now. Even if one doesn't like the term 'Puritan'--and I can't say I do, Peter--one can surely acknowledge the importance of discretion and good sense."
"Particularly if one is in, if I may call it so, our position." Peter glanced cautiously at the boy, who had a fine habit of not appearing to be listening when he wasn't wanted.
"I wouldn't call it our position," said Hilda, "if that is the position to which you're referring."
"It is," said Peter. And then: "Wouldn't you?"
She drew herself up in triumph. "My dear man, nothing we do is illegal."
"Quite so," said Peter, deflated. "Quite so."
There was a grand pause. Peter glanced over to the boy again.
"Miles, you mustn't give the bacon to Clytie. No matter how she begs."
"But she wants it," said the boy sulkily.
"It doesn't matter if she wants it." He took the platter away and offered it to Elsa. "Miss Strauss, will you take some more?"
"I don't mind if I do," said Elsa. She did so.
Chewing idly on a piece of bacon, she gazed out the window at the waves.
"It isn't easy being a diva," she said finally, apropos of nothing.
"Not easy at all," Peter agreed.
Hilda never did like the Baroque. Nor the Classical, come to that. Nor English composers, nor composers whom the English merely liked to pretend were English. Elsa's protestations that Handel was, after all, German had weighed very little with her.
Acis and Galatea was not for Hilda Tablet. The Overture oppressed her with its relentless tonality. The harpsichord oppressed her with its banality. But Hilda did not long allow herself to be oppressed.
"It's all a lot of twaddle," she muttered to herself as she sat in the front row of the packed Jubilee Hall between Evelyn and Imogen.
Imogen leaned a bit closer but she was lost in her own raptures. "Have you ever seen anything as wonderful as Ben's conducting?" she whispered.
"Yours would be better," suggested Hilda in a clearly audible voice.
"Shhh," suggested someone in the third row.
Folding her arms, Hilda subsided into a restless half silence. Tapping her foot impatiently, she awaited the arrival of Elsa onstage. She sighed and checked her watch. Thirty seconds more harpsichord at the very least.
One might not perhaps have imagined Elsa in the guise of a graceful nymph. One might not perhaps have imagined Peter in the guise of a youthful shepherd. Yet once one got past the rustic drapery and the faintly embarrassing tights it was... still Handel, to be sure.
Elsa sang with a gusto far outmatching the courtliness of the harpsichord. Peter's highest notes cracked uncertainly. And yet once one got past all that it was... still Handel. Quite.
After all of it was through, Hilda applauded more warmly than anyone in the hall.
"Never thought I would like Handel," she declared to anyone would listen as the audience filed out of the hall. "Never thought I would. Didn't like it, as it turns out, but it was a very near thing!"
"Wasn't Ben marvelous?" said Imogen, still glowing with the joy of it. "A remarkable interpretation."
"Remarkable's the word for it, my girl. No end of people remarking on it. But wasn't Elsa marvelous? I could think of nothing else."
"Wasn't Peter marvelous?" said Ben in reply to a passing well-wisher.
"Weren't those tights marvelous?" said Evelyn to himself.
And so every nymph had his or her swain, and all was well.