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The sylph

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It was all very well, Nina thought, talking with Jacob about music, and going to listen to concertos with him; but on nights like tonight he was far more interested in talking romance than music, and even though she'd made it perfectly clear - oh, no! He'd successfully extracted himself from the conversation with Dr Aisliby and was casting an eye over the room, clearly trying to catch a glimpse of her again.

Nina looked around desperately. The party was full of music students and musicians and those who the girls at school would probably have called "artistic types" - dancers, artists, aspiring actors and not a few poetic hopefuls - but most of them were only acquaintances of hers, not friends. No one who would be willing to rescue her from Jacob! Then she caught sight of a curtain, swaying gently. Hadn't there been a room behind it earlier? Perhaps if she ducked in there for a little while Jacob would think she'd left, and then she could come back out and enjoy herself without worrying about him?

Jacob's attention had been caught by Marie, the little French flautist who had to stand on tiptoes to talk to him. Nina took the distraction and crossed the room quickly, lifting the curtain and stepping into the next room with a sigh of relief that he hadn't seen her. Then she realised that there was someone else in the room with her. "Oh, Gosh - sorry," she started to say, but the someone else was shaking her head.

"Don't worry - although you gave me quite a fright when you came in like that! I thought you were that Gary boy, discovering my hiding place!"

"Are you hiding too, then?" Nina asked.

"Yes - I didn't mean to, you know, but he would keep talking to me and I tried to get rid of him nicely, but he wouldn't take the hint! So I thought I'd just hide away a moment and he'd lose interest. Every time I peek out he's going around with this awful hungry look," she finished in a resigned tone, and Nina surprised herself by laughing. The other girl was such a mix of disgust, hopelessness and good humour that she couldn't help it; luckily, the other girl joined in. "It's a waste of a perfectly good evening, isn't it? I only came to see my friend Toni - Toni Rossini, you know, the choreographer - and he's not even here. What about you - who are you hiding from?"

Nina explained about Jacob, and the girl moved towards the curtain to "take a peek at him", she said. Something about the girl's movement struck Nina. She was clearly a dancer - her posture, grace, and stature said as much - but she wasn't exactly conventionally attractive, which had made Nina wonder why Gary Tisdall was interested. But now, watching her twitch the curtain aside, Nina understood. "Oh," she gasped. "You're the sylph!"

The girl turned, looking startled - at being recognised, perhaps? "I am - or at least, I was! That was in Switzerland last year though - you can't really remember it!"

Nina did, though. It had been during the summer hols, and her Embury cousins had been determined that she should go to as many concerts as possible, an idea with which she had only been to happy to acquiesce. She'd been less entranced at the thought of ballet - but Cousin Winifred had badly wanted to go out without her large family in tow for once, and Nina had been happy enough to listen to the music and ignore the stage. The first act, with its rather balletic interpretation of Scottish dancing, had made no great impression on her - but then, when La Sylphide began, she found her attention immediately drawn to the fairy-like creature who seemed to almost float across the stage. For the first time, she understood where composers like Tchaikovsky found their inspiration. Not that she felt she could say any of this to the sylph herself! Instead, she explained quickly about living with her cousins, and trying to get a good a musical education as she could before she came to London.

The sylph's eyes lit up when she mentioned the Academy. "Oh! Do you know Sebastian? Sebastian Scott - he's my sort of cousin, you know. He- he wrote Woodland Symphony a few years ago-" she stopped abruptly, but Nina didn't notice.

"I love his work - oh, it's brilliant! I can't imagine writing anything as - as glorious as that. My stuff is very good," she went on, in a way that would make most people draw their brows but which the sylph seemed to simply accept, "but it doesn't have the - oh, I don't know. The majesty. The inspiration."

"Do you want to compose as well as play?" the sylph asked with interest. "Even if you do, you can't really compare yourself to someone who thinks along different lines, you know - why, it's like people comparing me to Belinda Beaucaire!"

She twitched the curtains aside and pointed towards a beautiful young woman with deep red hair, who seemed to have a group of young men orbiting her. Her stance was just like the sylph's - another ballet dancer, then, one who the sylph obviously regarded as a rival. But apart from their posture, there was nothing to suggest they had anything in common. Belinda Beaucaire moved carefully, as though making sure her every gesture was to her best advantage. When she laughed, it was loudly; not because she wished to share the joke, Nina thought, but because she wanted everyone to know that she was laughing. She tried to imagine Belinda in La Sylphide, and was completely unable to see her as such a tender and ethereal creature.

"The Wicked Queen," she found herself saying softly. The sylph looked at her in consternation.

"I didn't mean that Belinda was wicked," she said. "In fact, she can be rather kind-"

"But don't you think she'd be perfect for her?" Nina said, suddenly gripped by enthusiasm - by inspiration, in fact. "In Snow White, I mean. She's commanding and beautiful but somehow she's, oh, produced, like a movie star. And then Snow White comes along, and she's natural, almost part of the forest, so the queen doesn't realise that she's a rival until her mirror tells her..." She could hear the flutes and oboe already, playing the soft, sweet melody that would be Snow White's theme. "And you'd be Snow White," she continued, a declaration which did not appear to embarrass the sylph at all, "running to the forest which is more home to you than the palace, fleeing from the prince you don't understand as well as the queen who wants to kill you..."

Her voice trailed off, and she realised that the sylph was staring at her - no, not at her, but at a distant point that only the sylph could see. She wondered if perhaps she had offended her after all, but then the sylph focused on her again, and smiled. "You must write it," she said. "I already know that it will be perfect. And - oh, I don't even know your name!"

"Nina Rutherford."

"And I'm Veronica Weston," the sylph told her. She impulsively tucked her arm into Nina's, and smiled again. "Let's go somewhere else to talk," she said. "If it's both of us we don't need to worry about being bothered by boys, anyway."

Nina was to make a name for herself for her choral music and concertos, not her ballets; but her Snow White, born on that warm August evening, was in the years to come danced by Veronica Weston - and later by Sylvia Swan - and later again by Annette Dancy. And while, in time, she and Sebastian Scott became great friends, none of her correspondence with the grand composer ever gave her the same thrill as the note she received from him during the interval of that very first opening night, which simply read,


You'd better be able to write this well without my wife as muse, because I'm not giving her up."