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The Duchess's Evening Party

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Bernard answered his door one afternoon and was greatly surprised to find a messenger in the livery of the Duchess of Silversea.

“Master Bernard Cecilien?” asked the Duchess’s servant.

“Yes,” Bernard said, recovering from his surprise. The Duchess of Silversea was known to be very eccentric and very rich. For one who was making a living as a musician, though barely, the Duchess’s favor could make his fortune -- it could bring him substantial monetary rewards, but still more, recognition.

“The Duchess wishes to know,” the messenger intoned, “if you are capable of playing a great variety of instruments.”

“Of course,” he said, his mind racing. “I play a variety of instruments both antique and modern. Lute, mandolin, and harp; viola da gamba and da braccio; harpsichord, violin, and--”

“The Duchess wishes to judge your musicianship for herself. If she is satisfied, she will pay you well.”

“No one has ever found fault with my musicianship,” Bernard declared with more indignation than truth. There had been a dispute as to the proper manner of adding ornaments to a Baroque aria; but his opponent, the learned Signor Bagattella, was clearly in the wrong and knew no more of Handel than he did of the Outer Hebrides.

“Then you will please to accompany me. There is a coach waiting.”

 “What -- now?” He seemed to expect Bernard to follow him at that very moment.

“The Duchess expects prompt attendance,” the servant said, looking down his nose at Bernard. “She is holding a concert this evening.”

“This evening?” Bernard echoed. “But I must prepare -- my music -- my instruments--“

“The Duchess prefers to provide her own instruments. She is very particular on that subject.”

“I-- yes, very well,” Bernard returned, flustered. “Only give me a few moments to get dressed. I am hardly prepared to appear before a Duchess.”

He changed into his best clothing as quickly as possible, his fingers fumbling in his haste. His shoes with the rosettes, his hat with a plume -- a quick application of a comb to his hair, a glance in the mirror to make sure his beard and mustache were in order -- and he rejoined the Duchess’s servant with his head in a whirl. Bernard occupied the coach ride to the Duchess’s estate in trying vainly to guess what kind of music she wanted and why she was so particular about her instruments.

“The Duchess is in the East Garden,” a servant informed them gravely upon their arrival. Bernard was led along winding paths to a pleasant grassy area beside a large pond. Footmen in the Duchess’s green and silver livery solemnly carried pitchers of lemonade from the house, brought more cushions for the Duchess’s chair, or stood at attention, ready to obey her commands.

The Duchess herself was seated in state in the depths of a massive carved wooden chair that must have taken two of the footmen to carry outside; it had been made more comfortable by the addition of numerous silk cushions in a bewildering variety of hues, upon which the Duchess leaned at her ease. Her dress, of a dark grey-green color, descended into voluminous skirts, all covered in layers and layers of ruffles and a froth of lace. She wore pearls about her neck and more strands of pearls woven into her grey hair, which was piled on her head in a towering construction of elaborate braids and silver pins. Her eyebrows were formidable, her face wrinkled and frowning.

Bernard was presented by the servants. He made his bow and waited with some nervousness to learn what the Duchess would ask of him. He was confident in his musical abilities; if she disliked his playing, he told himself, it would be her poor taste and not his.

The Duchess surveyed him through her lorgnette. “Yes,” she said finally, “I suppose he’ll do. Bring him an instrument -- let us say, that one -- and we will hear whether he can play.”

Bernard looked in the direction of the Duchess’s gesture. He saw not a violin or harp, but a glass tank full of water, in which swam a large silvery fish. One of the footmen rolled up his sleeve, reached in, and extracted the fish by the tail in what seemed to be a practiced gesture. He solemnly brought it to Bernard.

Bernard stared at the fish, wondering if this was an example of the Duchess’s eccentric humor. “Your pardon, madam,” he said politely, “but I was under the impression you wanted me to play music to you.”

“I do, of course,” the Duchess said impatiently. “I was told you are capable of playing a wide variety of instruments.”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

“Then do so. What kind of a musician are you, if you can’t play upon a fish?”

The fish was wiggling slightly in the footman’s grasp. “It won’t hurt the fish,” Bernard stammered, “being out of the water?”

“Of course not,” said the Duchess in a tone which implied she had a poor opinion of his intelligence. “What kind of concerts could I have if I suffocated my instruments? The fish will be quite well while you are playing until it is returned to its tank -- that is, if you ever do start playing.”

Bernard eyed the fish, which gazed back at him mournfully with its round eye. At least it didn’t seem to be in distress or gasping for breath, as he thought a fish must do when left out of water. Rather gingerly, he accepted the fish from the impassive footman. The fish was dripping wet, cold and slippery, and smelled rather strongly.

Bernard turned the fish back and forth dubiously, at a loss how to obey the Duchess’s command. He lifted one of the fins and was surprised to discover that running along the fish’s side, there were strings like a mandolin’s, which had blended into the fish’s silver scales. Well, if it had strings, it could be played. Bernard would not let anyone say that he shrank back from a musical challenge.

Determined, Bernard grasped the fish as if it were a mandolin, with the body resting in the crook of his right arm and the fingers of his left hand upon its tail as if it were the neck of the instrument. He gave the strings an experimental strum, but winced at the resulting discord. “Your Grace, I fear your fish is out of tuna -- er, out of tune.”

“Then tune it,” the Duchess snapped.

“Yes, Your Grace!” Sure enough, the fish had tuning pegs. He sat down on a stone wall half overgrown with ivy, and tuned the fish.

Once he had done so, he found the sound of the fish’s strings to be unusual but not unpleasant, slightly muted and less bright in tone than a mandolin or guitar. He began a Vivaldi mandolin concerto, a sprightly piece that he hoped would please the irascible Duchess.

At the conclusion of the piece, he rose and bowed. If he had been hoping for praise, he was disappointed. The Duchess gave a small sniff. “Yes, I suppose you’ll do. You may join the others.”

“The others, Your Grace?”

“You don’t suppose that a single musician would be sufficient? I wish to have a proper evening of music.” She levered herself to her feet using the arm of her garden chair; a subdued young woman hastened to her side to take her arm. The Duchess gestured to her servants. “Bring him along.”

Bernard offered the fish to one of the ubiquitous footmen, who returned it to its tank. He was relieved to see it swimming back and forth in its tank, apparently none the worse for the experience.

The footman cleared his throat. Bernard saw that the Duchess was making her slow way toward the house, leaning on her companion’s arm and with her footmen following in procession. Bernard hastened to follow.

The house itself was grand, though decorated in a somewhat eccentric style. Walls painted with underwater scenes, massive silver candelabras in the shape of dolphins or seahorses, marble and bronze fish set everywhere on pedestals like the busts of poets . . . Bernard took it all in in quick glances as he passed, trying not to stare too obviously.

They stopped before the entrance to what was evidently the Duchess’s grand salon. Two of the footmen pulled the double doors open. The Duchess abandoned her companion’s arm and advanced into the room. Bernard’s view was at first blocked by her skirts and elaborately piled hair, but he peered around her to see four musicians seated on a raised stage in the configuration of a string quartet -- except that three of them had stringed fish tucked under their chins and the fourth held a large violet shell between his knees.

A liveried servant hurried to pull out a chair for the Duchess. She seated herself, taking some time to adjust her skirts and the cushions to her satisfaction. “I hope,” the Duchess said ominously, “that you have taken advantage of my absence to rehearse the passages that were giving you difficulty. Please remember that at measure 125, it is piano, con sardino. Begin!”

The quartet of musicians raised their bows -- which were strung not with horsehair but with fishing line -- and commenced playing.

Bernard hoped he would not be expected to play in such a quartet; the two higher-pitched fish each had a sharp-looking spike protruding from their snout. The musicians seemed used to it, and avoided the spike with agility when raising the fish to their shoulder. As for the sound -- it was like a standard string quartet, and yet not. There were odd overtones to it, like the wind whistling among hollowed stones. He was listening so intently that he almost forgot to applaud.

The Duchess nodded grudgingly.  “Not quite the way it should be played, but better. It will do. What will you play next?”

The musicians leaned towards each other for a whispered consultation. At last one of the players came forward and suggested tentatively, “Would Your Grace like to hear Bach’s double marlin concerto?”

“On the marlin?” said the Duchess. “Certainly not. I won’t hear of it.”

“But why not, Your Grace? I believe the style of music suits your taste--”

“A marlin,” the Duchess said forbiddingly, “is an ocean-dwelling fish, which lives in salt water. You cannot possibly expect it to be comfortable with Bach; that is entirely the wrong sort of environment. I do not allow my musical fish to be mistreated.”

The musicians, seemingly used to the Duchess’s whims, did not press the matter. Bernard, still puzzling over why a Bach concerto couldn’t be played on a marlin, missed the discussion over what piece to play next, until-- “Oh!” he said suddenly.

“Do you have something to say?” the Duchess demanded.

“No, Your Grace,” he stammered. “I only remembered that bach means a brook.”

“If you are finished with your linguistic digression, we have decided that we are to have the Trout quintet. I understand that you play keyboard instruments?”

“Yes, Your Grace,” he said hastily, eager to atone for his gaffe.

“Very well. You will play the trout, then. Where is the stringed bass? Edwards, you may sit down; you know quite well that the Trout quintet only needs one marlin.”

Two of the impassive footmen pushed in a water-filled tank containing a large trout. They extracted it with practiced ease and set it on a silver tray which in turn rested upon a table. A third footman carried over a piano bench. Bernard came closer to look at the trout and discovered, no longer surprised, that the scales along its side could be pressed down like a piano’s keys. He sat down and played some experimental arpeggios. He nodded distracted thanks when one of the footmen flipped up a section of the silver tray to form a music stand and set the sheet music down in front of him.

The other instruments turned out to be a single marlin; the deeper toned silvery fish from before, which he was informed was called a vimba; the violet shell; and a striped bass as tall as a man, standing upright on its tail. He waited until everyone was ready, silently counted a measure with his hand to bring them in, and they began.

His own part in the piece was meant to imitate the leaping of a fish from the water. Played on these strange instruments, it was more watery somehow, the sound more rippling. He had never before imagined that a fish gliding through water might make a sound that other fish could hear, but there was something of that quality in the sound the other players drew from their piscine instruments. The care and feeding of the creatures seemed like too much trouble on a regular basis, but he was beginning to see why the Duchess might prefer such music.

The piece wound gently to its end. The Duchess gave a slight nod of satisfaction, and Bernard released his breath in relief. At her command, they played one piece after another, using different combinations of fishes as their instruments.

At last the Duchess said, “That is enough rehearsal. Call in the guests and let us begin.”

Bernard stretched out his fingers. That was only the rehearsal? He had lost all track of time, but now that he was no longer intent on his playing, he was suddenly very tired. He stood, turning back and forth to ease his stiff muscles.

The doors of the hall opened. The Duchess’s footmen in their green and silvery livery filed solemnly in with chairs, which they set up to create rows of seating for the audience. The Duchess remained in her grand chair in the center.

“Bring the musicians some wine,” the Duchess called, “to refresh their spirits. But not too much!”

Bernard gratefully took the cup when it was offered to him. It proved to contain a wine dark as the sea, that tasted faintly of honey. He drank, and felt greatly refreshed; his weariness seemed to fall away, and the tension left his shoulders. His fellow musicians were drinking too, with quiet conversation and laughter. Bernard could see out of the corner of his eye that guests were filing into the hall, lords and ladies in bright clothing, but he did not pay close attention. He finished the cup of wine and found himself eager to play again.

The lights in the hall were extinguished, leaving only the candles that illuminated their music. Again the tanks containing the instruments were brought in, sloshing gently, so that Bernard felt as if he were on the shore of the sea. A grave servant offered him the tuna he had played first in the garden; he eagerly accepted and swept his hand across the silver strings.

“Begin,” the Duchess’s voice said with authority, “begin!”

And they did. It must be the fume of the wine, surely -- for the servants were assiduous in refilling their cups between pieces -- that made the entire hall seem wreathed in mist, until the gilded seahorses on the chandeliers swayed back and forth in time to the melody. It was surely only the wine and the lateness of the hour that made Bernard imagine that the hall was filled with water to the level of the stage, with the plumes of the ladies’ fans fluttering like some bright seaweed; that the ladies and gentlemen in the audience had not feet but tails ending in fins, that the solemn footmen in green dove back and forth with webbed hands and feet like frogs, and that even the Duchess’s green skirts were lifted slightly by the currents in the water to see that she too had a silvery tail like a fish.

Bernard could never remember afterwards all that he played; when he tried, the music slipped frustratingly from his memory. But he knew he had never played so well, the strings of his fish-instrument almost seeming to dance under his fingers. He heard the rustling of pleased murmurs from the audience, and even the Duchess, swaying her fins in time to the music, did not seem displeased. The strange concert continued, with one piece after another, and Bernard was almost sorry when it ended.

All the musicians were sent home at last in the early hours of the morning. Bernard was exhausted, with his fingers sore from playing, and his coat damp and fishy; but the Duchess also sent him off with a large purse of gold. Somewhat to his surprise, it was still there when he awoke in full daylight. He idly spun a gold coin back and forth to make it glitter in a ray of sunlight coming through his window. He was not quite sure how much had been a dream; but he thought if the Duchess summoned him to play for her again, he would go.