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A Reaping

A Reaping
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Title: A Reaping
Release Date: 2018-10-30
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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[Photoof E. F. Benson unavailable.]
E. F. Benson.

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A REAPING

BYE. F. BENSON

THOMAS NELSON AND SONS
LONDON, EDINBURGH, DUBLIN
AND NEW YORK

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TO
LADY EVELYN LISTER

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{9}{8}

A REAPING

JUNE

OF all subjects under or over the sun, there is none perhaps, evenincluding bimetallism, or the lengthy description of golf-links whichone has never seen, so utterly below possible zones of interest as thatof health. Health, of course, matters quite enormously to theindividual, but nobody with good health ever gives two thoughts (farless one word) to the subject. Nobody, in fact, begins to think abouthealth until his own begins to be inferior. But, then, as if that wasnot bad enough, he at once clubs and belabours his unhappy friends withits inferiority. It becomes to him the one affair of absorbingimportance. Emperors may be assassinated, Governments may crumble,{10} itmay even be 92 degrees in the shade, but he recks nothing of thosecolossal things. He ate strawberries yesterday, and has had a biliousheadache almost ever since. And the world ceases to revolve round thesun, and the moon is turned to blood, or ashes—I forget which.

But the real invalid, just like the man who enjoys real health, nevertalks about such matters. It is only to the amateur in disease that theyare of the smallest interest. The man who is well never thinks about hishealth, and certainly never mentions it; to the man who is really illsome divine sense of irresponsibility is given. He brushes it aside,just as one brushes aside any innate inability; with common courage—howlavishly is beautiful gift given to whomever really needs it—he makesthe best of other things.

These poignant though obvious reflections are the outcome of whatoccurred this evening. I sat between two friends at dinner, both of thempeople in whom one’s heart rejoices. But one of them is obsessed justnow with this devil of health-seeking. The other has long{11} ago given upthe notion of seeking for health at all, for it is not for her. Shefaces incurable with gaiety. So I have to record two conversations, theworse first.

‘Oh, I always have ten minutes’ deep-breathing every morning. It is theonly way I can get enough air. You have to lie on your back, you know,and stop one nostril with your finger, while you breathe in slowlythrough the other; and you should do it near an open window. There is nofear of catching cold, or if you do I can send you a wonderfulprescription.... Then you breathe out through the other nostril. I wishyou would try it; it makes the whole difference. No, thanks, caviare ispoison to me!’

‘Well, so is arsenic to me,’ I said. ‘But why say so?’

(It did not sound quite so brusque as it looks when written down, andnative modesty prevents my explaining how abjectly patient I had been uptill then.)

Then there came the reshifting of conversation, and we started again,with change of partners.{12}

‘I do hope you will come to see us again in August,’ said the quiet,pleasant voice. ‘I shall go up to Scotland at the end of the month. Yourbeloved river should be in order: there has been heaps of rain.’

But I could not help asking another question.

‘Ah, then they let you go there?’ I said.

She laughed gently.

‘No, that is just what they don’t do,’ she said. ‘But I am going. Whatdoes it matter if one hastens it by a few weeks? I am going to shortenit probably by a few weeks, but instead of having six tiresome months onboard a yacht, I am going to have rather fewer months among all thethings I love. Oh, Dick quite agrees with me. Do let’s talk aboutsomething more interesting. Did you hear “Tristan” the other night? No?Richter conducted. He is such a splendid Isolde! There is no one toapproach him!’

There, there was the glory of it! And how that little tiny joke aboutRichter touched the heart! Here on one side was a woman dying, and sheknew it, but the wonder and the pleasure of the world was intenselyhers.{13} There, on the other, was the excellent Mrs. Armstrong. She couldnot think about the opera or anything else except her absurddeep-breathing and her ridiculous liver. Nobody else did; nobody cared.Even now I could hear her explaining to her left-hand neighbour thatnext to deep-breathing, the really important thing is to drink a glassof water in the middle of the morning. Slowly, of course, in sips. Andshe proceeded to describe what the water did. Well, I suppose I amold-fashioned, but I could no more think of discussing these intimatematters at the dinner-table than I should think of performing my toiletthere. Besides—and this is perhaps the most unanswerable objection todoing so—besides being slightly disgusting, it is so immensely dull!

However, on the other side there was a topic as entrancing as the otherwas tedious, and in two minutes my other neighbour and I were deep inthe fascinating inquiry as to how far a conductor—a supremeconductor—identified himself with the characters of the opera.Certainly the phrase ‘Richter is such{14} a splendid Isolde’ was analluring theme, and by degrees it spread round the corner of the table(we were sitting close to it), and was taken up opposite, when a memberof the Purcell Society gave vent to the highly interesting observationthat the conductor had practically nothing to do with the singers, andwas no more than a sort of visible metronome put there for the guidanceof the orchestra. It was impossible not to retort that the lastperformance of the Purcell Society completely confirmed the truth ofthat view of the conductor. Indeed, the chorus hardly thought of himeven as a metronome. Or else, perhaps, they were deaf, which wouldaccount for their sinking a tone and a half; in fact there were flowersof speech on the subject.

But how extraordinary a thing (taking the view, that is to say, that aconductor conceivably does more than beat time) is this transference ofemotion, so that first of all Wagner, by means of merely black notes andwords on white paper, can inspire the conductor with that tragedy oflove which years ago, he wove out of the sunlight and lagoons{15} ofVenice; that, secondly, the conductor can enter into that mysterious andmystical union with his band and his singers, and reflect his own moodon them so strongly that from throat or strings or wailing of flutesthey give us, who sit and listen, what the conductor bade them read intothe music, so that all, bassoons and double-bass, flutes and strings,trumpets and oboes and horns, become the spiritual mirror of hisemotion. By means of that little baton, by the beckoning of his fingers,he pulls out from them the music which is in his own soul, makes itcommunicable to them. Indeed, we need not go to the Society forPsychical Research for experiments in thought-transference, for here isan instance of it (unless, indeed, we take the view of this member ofthe Purcell Society) far more magical, far further uplifted out of thesphere of things which we think we can explain. For the mere degrees ofloud or soft, mere alterations in tempo, are, of course, less than theABC of the conductor’s office. His real work, the exercise of his realpower, lies remote from, though doubtless connected with them. And ofthat we can explain{16} nothing whatever. He obsesses every member of hisorchestra so that by a motion of his hand he gets the same quality oftone from every member of it. For apart from the mere loudness and themere time of any passage, there are probably an infinite number of waysof playing each note. Yet at his bidding every single member of the bandplays it the same way. It is his thought they all make audible with ahundred instruments which have all one tone; else, how does that unityreach us sitting in our stalls?

That is the eternal mystery of music, which alone of the arts deals withits materials direct. It is not an imitation of sound, but sound itself,the employment of the actual waves of air that are the whistle of thewind, and the crash of breakers, and the love-song of nightingales. Allother branches of art deal only second-hand; they but give us animitation of what they wish to represent. The pictorial artist can do nomore than lay a splash of pigment from a leaden tube on to his canvaswhen he wishes to speak to us of sunlight; he can only touch an eye witha reflection in its corner{17} to show grief, or take a little from thesize of the pupil to produce in us who look the feeling of terror thatcontracts it. Similarly, too, the sculptor has to render the soft swellof a woman’s bosom in marble, as if it was on marble a man would pillowhis head. It is all a translation, a rendering in another material, ofthe image that fills us with love or pity, or the open-air intoxicationof an April morning. But the musician works first-hand; the intangiblewaves of air, not a representation of them, are his material. It is notwith a pigment of sound, so to speak, that the violins shiver, or thetrumpets tell us that the gods are entering Valhalla. Music deals withsound itself, with the whisper that went round the formless void whenGod said, ‘Let there be light,’ with all that makes this delicateorchestra of the world, no copy of it, no translation of it, but ititself.

And for the time being, while the curtain is up, the control of theseforces, their wail and their triumph, belongs to the conductor. He givesthem birth in the strings and the wind; he by the movement of a handmakes{18} them express all that sound expressed to the magician who firstmapped them on his paper. Indeed, he does more; he interprets themthrough his own personality, giving them, as it were, an extra dip inthe bath of life, so that their colours are more brilliant, more vitalof hue. Or is the member of the Purcell Society right, and is the manwho gives us this wonderful Isolde only a metronome?

It is often said that the deaf are far more lonely, far more remotelysundered from the world we know, than are the blind. It is impossible toimagine that this should not be so, for it is not only the sounds thatwe know we hear, but the sounds of which for the most part we areunconscious, that form the link between us and external things. Itcommonly happens, as in the dark, that we are cut off from all exerciseof the eyes, and yet at such moments we have not been very conscious ofloneliness. But it is rare that we are cut off from all sound, and theloneliness of that isolation is indescribable. It happened to me once inthe golden desert to the west of Luxor, above the limestone cliffs thatrise{19} from the valley where the Kings of Egypt lie entombed.

I had sat down on the topmost bluff of these cliffs, having tethered mydonkey down below, for the way was too steep for him, and for severalminutes observed my surroundings with extreme complacency. Below me laythe grey limestone cliffs, but where I sat a wave of the desert hadbroken, and

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