My Bow Saves Egypt
THE third day of my convalescent leave in Nice drew to a close. I was toiling up many pairs of stairs, carrying a borrowed ’cello back to its home, when I was accosted by a stranger. He was a short person in a semi-military, semi-postman’s blouse, and a semipostman’s, semi-ecclesiastical cap. He fixed me earnestly with deep-set eyes. They were the eyes of an enthusiast, burning unquenchably behind small, steel-bowed spectacles.
‘Sir,’ he cried, ‘I demand pardon, but do you play that? ’
He pointed to what I held under my arm.
‘Mais oui, monsieur,’ I returned in my very choicest French.
‘Do you play it well?’
The little eyes flamed even more eagerly. It came to me that my crossexaminer was one of those engaging and radio-active souls whom one cannot choose but like from the first. I explained that, though my recent experience of the trenches had not conduced to the formation and maintenance of a technic comparable to that of Pablo Casals, yet —
And many good quartets and trios seen:
On many fiddling orgies had I been — ’
‘Hold, enough!’ cried the ecclesiastical stranger, stretching forth two fingers toward me as if in benediction. Decision dawned on the little face, and the pointed beard bristled determinedly.
‘My mind is made. Let me entreat you to come and save me from destruction!’
‘The poor fellow,’ thought I, ‘is mad. Much enthusiasm has addled his brain. Or perhaps it’s on account of the war.’ I began to realize that this was a dark and lonely stair, and that it would be as well to humor the stranger. So I said sympathetically, ‘Of course, I’ll save you from destruction — that is, if I’m up to it. You must tell me how the thing can be managed.’
‘Know, then,’ returned the little man, drawing himself up to his entire five-feet-four, ‘that I am the Abbé Quillper. On the morrow I produce and conduct, for the first time on the Azure Coast, the opera of Joseph in Egypt by the immortal Méhul. Alas! at this the eleventh hour, my violoncello lies stricken with the Spanish influenza.’
‘Is the flu, then, spreading to the instrumental world?’ I inquired soothingly. ‘I knew the ’cello was almost human, but really — ’
‘It is the instrumentalist,’ said the abbé hastily, ‘who lies stricken. Behold, I have ground to a powder the soles of my boots in running about Nice to find another ’cellist. Vain quest! All are either struggling in the throes of over-work, or lie in the clutches of the epidemic. I know not in which direction to turn. Voilà! ’
The abbé showed me the southern exposure of his off foot. He had spoken the truth. He was on his uppers! It occurred to me that perhaps the little man was not mad at all, only desperate. I leaned against the balustrade and summarized the situation. Joseph was a musical character whom hitherto I had encountered neither in nor out of Egypt. This astonishing stranger proposed that, as sole ’cellist of heaven alone knew what orchestra, chorus, and band of protagonists, I should read Joseph at sight, without rehearsing, and at the première performance. Truly a dubious proposal!
On the other hand, what untold possibilities it opened up in the line of vagabond musical adventure! Were the stranger mad or sane, here was a sporting proposition ideally calculated to inflame the imagination of the true fiddler errant.
‘Abbé,’cried I to the surprising Quillper, ‘I’m your man!’
Early the following afternoon, ’cello and I drove up to the appointed number. At the very outset I was forced to confess that the place looked more like a tenement than an opera house, and my fears for the sanity of Quillper were revived. Up many dingy flights I toiled, seeking for Joseph and fearing a sell. At length, on a door, I saw the abbé’s card.
A lady one hundred years of age answered my knock. She was bowed beneath the weight of at least fifty of them. I thought that she seemed a fit companion for the pyramids, and inquired if this were Egypt.
‘One little moment, monsieur, and I will conduct you thither.’
She donned a bonnet that would have done credit to the Sphinx, and tottered forth in the lead. A curious pair we must have looked, promenading down that chic boulevard, the Sam-Brownebelted six-feet-one of American officer clutching the exceedingly French chemise of an Italian ’cello, piloted by the four-feet-nothing of the Sphinx, who was bent double the better to
Curiously inspect her lasting home.
An apparently vast throng was struggling for admittance to a small building. ‘ Behold the opera house,’ said the Sphinx, and vanished.
I formed myself into what a football player would have called ‘ interference,’and preceded the’ cello into the interior. Four hundred of the natives of Nice were jamming a parochial theatre. The Abbe Quillper extricated himself and me from the mob, greeted me with mingled affection and relief, and installed me in the sharp angle made by the port railing of the orchestra.
We musicians were jammed together with such strict economy of space that my up-bow speared a second violinist painfully in the lumbar region, while my down-bow played the mischief with the other ‘cellist, a charming lad of seventeen. After the overture began, however, it became clear that, if I could manage to play my part with one continuous down-bow, it would be better for the musical quality of the opera. The more I interfered with the activities of my bull-fiddling colleague, the more would I contribute to the general well-being of Joseph in Egypt. For the lad could be counted upon with certainty to do only one thing — and that was to play the wrong note in the right place. As for playing the right note at any time, wrong or right, that ideal would be as unattainable for him as it would be for the Abbé Quillper to look old and apathetic, or for the Sphinx to appear young and sprightly.
I now saw that the abbé had spoken with a broadly, though not literally, prophetic vision in declaring that I would be the only ‘cellist in the orchestra. He might safely have gone further. Mine was the only bass voice in that shrilly treble throng of instruments — always excepting my colleagues. Throughout that memorable afternoon I spent my force in inducing him by veiled innuendo, entreaty, cajolery, and at last by threats of personal violence, to play only the rests. At length, to the vast improvement of the general effect, I succeeded. But the nice lad, far from resenting my efforts, turned pages for me, heaped coals of fire on my head, and then quenched them with bottles of beer which he brought me during the entr’actes.
Though candor compels me to refer to it as one speaks of the sick, the performance did almost as well as was to be expected under the circumstances. Only three times that afternoon, despite the Bolshevist activities of my side-partner, did we come to absolute grief, and cease and determine and gird ourselves anew for the fray, and begin back again at the letter Q.
There was a fourth time, though, when it would have been somewhat better had we ceased, or at least, determined. This was when the Children of Israel had to do a grand triumphal parade around a stage at least fifteen by twenty feet in expanse. The cornet led off all by himself with a truly brilliant fanfare. Taking their cue almost at once from the cornet, the Children of Israel, captained by the boy Benjamin, began, with the greatest confidence and resolution, to sing something in French, the purport of which I could not catch, probably because I was counting my rests.
Then we of the orchestra came in. But as soon as we took in the nature of the sounds we were emitting, we exchanged glances of dazed bewilderment, not unmingled with consternation. We were playing in a different key! Simeon, old villain that he was, winced painfully. The beard of the Patriarch Jacob palpitated with a profound emotion. The boy Benjamin grew paler by several degrees, but he did not falter. He glared down at us with an expression like that of the poilu in the poster who is saying, ‘They shall not pass!’
Prepared by previous painful experiences with amateur orchestras, I saw in a flash what had happened, and swore under my breath that no cornetist ought to be allowed at large without a keeper. This one, with the absentmindedness of true genius, had inserted in his instrument the short B-flat shank instead of the long A shank which had been prescribed for him by the immortal Méhul when inspiration from on high had guided his quill through the gross darkness of Egypt.
Anarchy now reigned supreme. I endeavored to become the man of the hour and jump into the breach. The plan I formed was to reconcile conflicting interests by transposing my part to the exalted key of the cornet and of Israel, and then, by a gradual subsidence, comparable to that of the primordial ocean when it sank, revealing the continents, to lead the vocalists down to the more mundane levels of the orchestra. At least, I hoped to find some grounds of compromise between the belligerents. That hope proved vain. And to this day I am sure that our audience is convinced that Méhul, when he really tries, can be fully as modern a composer as any Bloch or Schoenberg or Stravinsky of them all.
As became a stage under the direction of an abbé, the buskined boards remained entirely free from all authentic petticoats. When I found my way behind the scenes during the first entr’acte, I sought in vain for the gay Mrs. Potiphar, nor could I discover dancing girls or Nile maidens or a daughter of any of the Pharaohs. It was all strictly stag. But I distributed cigarettes Américaines with impartial hand to the children of light and of darkness, and noted that even the virtuous Joseph did not repulse the offer of an Egyptian Deity.
All the time I marveled more and more and was astonished in spirit at the versatility of that myriad-minded man, the Abbé Quillper. During the first act I had noticed that this maestro, whenever the music ceased for so much as ten measures in slow time, or twenty in fast, always instantly cast down his baton and doubled for the stage door with grim determination, elbowing aside, with a technique evidently begotten of long practice, the throng that blocked the side passage, a few of whom reposed habitually on the back of my neck. I now saw why this economy of time. The man was leading, not a double, but a quintuple life. If he had been a sea-faring person, he might well have claimed, in the words of the lamented Gilbert, —
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And the bo’sun tight, and the midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain’s gig.
I now perceived the nature of the activities he must have been engaged in during these brief excursions. When I first arrived in the wings, he was busily enveloping the chorus in flowing draperies of orange, scarlet, and royal purple. His poilu-postman’s coat of many colors had been cast aside, and he was now ‘transpiring’ so freely that his earnest little beard was quite moist. Then, moving so swiftly that the sight scarce could follow him in his flight, he made one convulsive leap, dragged a tall ladder from a recess, seized a hammer, armed himself to the teeth with tacks, and began tacking up a backdrop consisting of the Sahara Desert, the Pyramids, an obelisk or two, and a sphinx closely resembling the good lady who had conducted me thither.
From that eminence, breathing out threatenings and tacks, he successfully composed a difference that had arisen between Gad and the progenitor of the half tribe of Manasseh, in re the equitable division of a joint bottle of beer. (Bearing in mind a painful but quickly smothered commotion which occurred in the course of the ensuing act among the ranks of the bare-footed Children of Israel, I sometimes wonder now, recollecting these emotions in tranquillity, whether, before the curtain rose, all those tacks had been retrieved from the well-trod stage.)
With his own hands the good abbé clutched, carried, and set in position the bath-chair in the depths of which the Patriarch Jacob (aged 17) was to recline at the dramatic moment when his son Joseph (aged 19) would break to him the news of their mutual relation. No sooner was this a fait accompli than, purple and streaming, the great Quillper rushed forth with a play of elbows into the presence of the impatient groundlings, buttoning his poilu-postman’s raiment as he ran; seized and brandished the baton in a masterful manner — and the fun was on again.
I blushed. ‘And this,’ thought I with a pang of shame, ‘is the stupendous genius whom I put down for mad no earlier than yesterday afternoon!’ But after all, I was comforted by recalling that even Lombroso had also been misled into supposing Parnassus and Bedlam twin peaks.
When the curtain finally fell upon a scene of touching but triumphant composition of all conflicting claims, I reached out my hand for the chemise of my ’cello with a sigh of undeniable relief. For four mortal hours had I been pent in the stifling atmosphere of Egypt. I yearned for a breath of the vital airs of the Azure Coast. Besides, I was late for a tea.
‘Un moment,’ interposed my colleague. ‘ Do you not wish to await the Marseillaise?’
Why, of course I’d await it! Was n’t I the only American present, and in uniform besides?
At that point of the proceedings the Abbé Quillper showed still another facet of his versatile nature. He mounted a chair, and for some ten minutes harangued the crowd with unfailing fluency. Now, I can understand French fairly well when the speaker does not exceed twenty-five miles per hour. Alas! the abbé was hitting up a good sixty. All that conveyed itself to my straining intelligence was that a collection was about to be taken up in favor of some extremely worthy object, the precise nature of which I shall never know.
Then the abbé bounded like a young roe from off his chair, seized the postman’s ecclesiastical head-dress, and passed it personally to every man, woman, and child present. Since the fall of the curtain un moment nearly half an hour in length had elapsed. Wielding practised elbows, the abbé then rushed into the wings. From my position on the extreme flank of the orchestra, and endowed as I was by an all-foreseeing Providence with a long and adaptable neck, which I now craned, I beheld that myriad-minded man washing the grease-paint from the grubby countenances of the Children of Israel.
Back tore the abbé, leaving human eddies in his wake. He rapped so loudly for attention that he cracked his baton. He shouted hoarse and impassioned but precise directions to an invisible electrician. Everybody was on the qui vive. For at the foot of the programme, in heavy type, stood: —
APOTHÉOSE À LA FRANCE ET CHANT DE LA MARSEILLAISE
But when the curtain finally rolled up its full majestic height, we beheld the Allies grouped, each under his own flag. The ensuing performance of the French national hymn lacked volume, so completely were we all stupefied by the beauty and sublimity of the spectacle.
I reached for the chemise, but felt a detaining hand on my arm. ‘Encore la Marseillaise! ’ whispered my fellow ’cello.
‘ All right!’ I played with a will, faking an even richer bass than the first time, when I, too, had been slightly overcome by what I had seen on the stage. We made an end.
‘Now then,’ shouted the good abbé (I give the gist of his utterance), ‘all together, chant yet again the Marseillaise, and put your backs into it this time! ’
But when we were through putting our backs into it, I did not even make a pass for the chemise. I had lost hope. Nor was my state of mind unjustified. Eleven times, hand-running, by actual count, did we perform the national hymn of France!
At length the abbé, definitively casting down his ruined baton, made for the stage door at top speed. To my surprise and no small embarrassment, however, he did not burst as usual into the wings. Instead, he stopped directly behind me, leaned over the railing of the orchestra, flung his arms about my neck, kissed me on both cheeks and acclaimed me distinctly before the interested audience as the savior of Joseph, the Children of Israel, the science of four-part harmony, and the immortal Méhul. And, working up to an impassioned climax, ‘ Monsieur le Lieutenant Américain,’ said he, ‘will you not deign to bear me company around the corner? There, on the sidewalk before the Café de Monte Carlo, shall I invite you to join together with me in an apéritif. Thanks to you, Egypt is saved!’