I wish to stress that I am in no way hostile to musicians. Yes I might regard some of them as louche wastrels, a collection of over-remunerated incompetents with the moral compass of a pimp’s bully, but this is merely an observation based on bitter experience; it is not a sign of hostility.
Still fate prescribes that I must work with these people and I am experienced enough not to kick against the machineries of fate. After all, if the patron I attend upon is shallow enough to prefer melodic artistes to the purveyors of the true arts, it is surely my task to tutor and enlighten them. Indeed if I made a habit of contentiously foisting my opinions upon the unwilling, I would merely end up experiencing penury more dire than that which is currently my lot.
Still I have been able to do my bit. I have from time to time been able to displace a posse of charlatans and have thus allowed peace and tranquillity to flourish; thus creating an environment in which the higher arts may work their magic. One such occasion was when I was invited to perform by Madam Rosamie. On this occasion we were due to visit the country estate of Madam Rosamie’s mother, known universally as ‘The Dowager.’ This formidable lady’s consideration for this guests can be seen by the way she had dragged us all out of the city when there was snow on the roads and the weather fluctuated between unpleasant and foul. Indeed I had no doubt that Madam Rosamie had been invited so that her mother could make denigrating remarks about her dress sense, her figure and her poet. I went along more to provide moral support than because I felt my poetry would be appreciated.
Indeed when I arrived, I realised that I had underestimated the Dowager. Not only had she invited her daughter purely to humiliate her, she seemed to have chosen her guests to ensure that she could offend, inconvenience and demean them. When I finally slipped below the stairs to talk to the Housekeeper, I realised that the Dowager loathed the staff at the country house as well. It had belonged to her late husband. He had been brought up there as a child and to him it was home. Given that many of those employed on the estate had been his childhood playmates, there was little standing on ceremony, and a degree of informality reigned. Apparently his new bride disliked this, feeling that the lower orders should keep their place. After his death, she visited the place occasionally, purely to discomfort those employed there.
Thus it was that when we were gathered in the grand salon, the entertainment started with musicians. This, to be fair, is common enough and in a small way I approve. After all, they make enough noise to ensure that the audience realise that the entertainment is underway. If, as a poet, you are first to perform, you’re forced to either speak unnaturally loudly, or failing that, you’re required to wait until the chatterers, deaf to anything but their own inane prattle, shut up.
The problem is that this ‘combo’ was playing a work of their own devising. It seemed to go in sections. First one of the musicians would play a tune of the hydraulis or water organ. Then another of the musicians would take this tune and play a variation upon the theme set forth by the first player. Then the water organ would take up the theme again, repeating it before being joined by another instrument.
I suppose the idea had merit, but alas the theme had none and the execution was lamentable. The theme was a dirge and the supporting instruments, a combination of various horns and stringed instruments, added nothing of their own but volume to the cacophony. Not only that, but there appeared to be no end to the torment. I had assumed that the musicians would play it through once, so each had their transient moment of glory, before coming together in a finale. But after they had all played their version of the first theme, the hydraulis added a second theme, even more tedious than the first. Ponderously and inevitably, the other musicians reprised their previous role. The dowager appeared entranced, her guests fought gallantly not to groan.
I was standing at the back, as befitted my status as the next performer awaiting the call to step forward. I sensed a presence at my elbow, I looked round to see the butler. He hissed to me, “The dinner is ready. Cook is frantic. I’ll have to ask Madam to bring her guests through.”
I wished him luck and he made his way towards his mistress. As he bent towards her to pass on his message, she merely gestured him away, and then as if reconsidering, passed him her empty glass to be refilled. Fuming visibly he came back towards me. As he passed me and went to the butler’s pantry I joined him. “What is she drinking?”
“Some sweet sickly concoction she brings from the city.” The contempt in his voice was obvious.
As if stating something totally unrelated to the matter in hand, I commented, “Three guests have already fallen asleep.”
“I confess to not being surprised by this.”
“If she were to fall asleep, then we could dispose of the musicians.”
On the top shelf was a large bottle of poppy syrup that he kept for medicinal purposes. He joined me in gazing at it thoughtfully.
I returned to where I had been standing. The music, such as it was, played interminably on. The dowager maintained her pose of rapt attention, her guests sprawled in growing discomfort. The butler reappeared and handed the dowager her glass. She sipped, sparingly, from it.
The musicians played on, the hydraulis was now on the fourth theme. The other musicians, with no sign of verve or enthusiasm, wove their tedious variations, and a majority of the audience were now fast asleep. At one point I had to step forward and gently prod Madam Rosamie who had started to snore.
As the music continued I heard a distant commotion. I tiptoed out of the salon and discovered four servants desperately trying to restrain the cook. She, a slim lady with a wild look in her eye, was brandishing a cleaver in her right hand. The butler was clinging desperately to her right arm, the housekeeper had a towel across the cook’s mouth to try and mute her, and two kitchen maids were clinging desperately to her legs. I extracted the cleaver from her hand and helped manoeuvre her back into the kitchen. At this point she burst into tears and as she was being consoled by the housekeeper the butler desperately tried to straighten his shirt and jacket. “The bastards have been playing for over an hour!”
“Fetch the gong, we’ll see if your mistress is asleep yet.”
I tiptoed back into the salon, and to my relief the dowager was sprawled in her chair, the hand holding the empty glass dangling down. Nobody seemed to have noticed; the guests because they sat slumped and miserable whilst the musicians were so engrossed in their perpetual performance that I doubt they would have noticed anything. I surveyed the scene. The hydraulis had a large wooden case which was obviously lowered to protect the instrument when it was not in use. On seeing the butler arrive with the gong, I walked quietly forward and undid the catch which held the hydraulis case out of the way. It dropped and the musician playing the instrument was forced to dive out of the way to avoid being struck by it. As the music dissolved into discord the butler started hammering the gong and announced that, “Dinner is served.”
An almost instantaneous change came over the room, immediately the guests, trapped for so long, leapt to their feet and fled in the direction of the dining room. Within the matter of a minute or so there was nobody left but the butler, the Dowager, Madam Rosamie, the musicians and myself. We got the Dowager to her feet and with Madam Rosamie and I supporting her, we got her into the dining room and seated her, gently snoring, at the head of the table. From the salon I could hear a dull ringing tone as the butler laid about him with the gong and enthusiastically ejected the musicians from the premises.
Should you wish to know more of life in Port Naain, then you will doubtless enjoy
As a reviewer commented, “If you wonder what comprises the life of a jobbing poet in the town of Port Naain, this little collection of stories will give you some idea. Tallis has a finger in many a pie, arranging soirees for ladies, helping to write and distribute literary journals (and their rivals!). He assists in redistributing the town’s abundance of food and arranges for a man to experience a haunting when he’s accepted the challenge to stay overnight in a disused tower. And that’s just some of it!
Reading these stories of Jim Webster’s is like putting on your slippers and picking up a cuppa. Comfortable, and they make you smile.”