The Devil’s Music

The two girls, even if they’d saved their pin money for months, couldn’t have afforded box seats.


The two girls, even if they’d saved their pin money for months, couldn’t have afforded box seats. Elaine — the eldest, having just turned seventeen — turned to their chaperone and benefactor, her grey eyes shining and wide. “Oh Doña Absalom, thank you again for bringing us with you. I think Gillian and I will be grateful to you absolutely until the end of time.” The older girl applied a gentle elbow to the ribs of the younger, bringing Gillian’s awestruck gaze from the opera hall to the bemused carmine smile of the Doña.

Abstractedly pushing back loose auburn curls, Gillian licked her lips before chiming in. “I honestly think I may faint. Or be sick.”
“Jilly!” Elaine spat, embarrassed but feeling the same way herself.
“It’s true. I am so terribly a bundle of nerves that I cannot bear it.” She smiled weakly, though her eyes blazed. “I will try to choose fainting, if it comes to a choice.”

Doña Absalom threw back her head and laughed, her dark eyes sparkling and framed by the faintest of lines from years of joy. “It’s perfectly understandable Gillian. And Elaine, you are truly welcome. As I told you earlier, if I hadn’t your company I would have had to attend alone — and it is no fun to take in beauty alone.” On the word “beauty” something in the girl’s expressions melted and they turned as one to the curtain. The Doña leaned back, settling more comfortably in her chair.

Nearly the first day they’d settled into their new home the Doña and her husband, a mining company director of some note, had many curious visitors eager to make the acquaintance of the mysterious and rich strangers from the southern coast. Most notably, the girl’s parents, during their welcoming visit to the newcomers had — in between sympathising about the ever-present rain of the season — offered their daughters as lady’s companions. Doña Absalom guessed their reasoning, her conspicuous lack of children indicated to them some level of boredom, emptiness and extra funds.

Though she was far from bored, the Doña agreed. She was pleased to find the girls bright, curious and not yet settled into the restrained Protestant mould of their parents.

By the time the reputation of the Absalom’s former society had caught up with them, the three women were firm friends, despite a decade’s difference in age. The girl’s parents weighed the wild stories of gypsy artists and lady pilots against the irrefutable proof of the Doña’s status, the allowance she provided and the clear love the three shared. After what seemed to the girls an interminable time of uncertainty, they were allowed to continue seeing the Doña.

As though there’d been no pause or question, she continued introducing the girls to society. Balancing balls and garden parties with devilish demonstrations at scientific salons and bohemian meat teas with impassioned discussions of modern morality, the Doña was dedicated to their education.

Gillian and Elaine took it all in with the wide-eyed credulousness of youth, their excited chatter at the end of the evening reigniting for the Doña an enjoyment that had been lost in the routine debauchery of the sprawling desert city she’d left.

Even with her love of music, Doña Absalom might have passed up this concert if Elaine hadn’t seen a “simply fantastic” poster for it and made Gillian pump the between maid for the latest gossip. Dear, rough Bonnie; perfectly scandalous and equally competent, she’d held her position for years with Gillian’s family through sheer force of ability and her skill in handling the infighting between butler and cook.

When the Doña had offered the girl a seat in the box, Bonnie had laughed and, with a telling swish of her hips, said she’d planned for “more exciting sort of company, if you know what I mean.”

The girls were ostensibly staying with the Doña in the city while shopping for the upcoming season. It was expected that she would take them to the theatre, but their parents remained comfortably ignorant of what theatres and what shows.

“I believe it’s starting!” Elaine interrupted the Doña’s musing. The girl was dressed in a bicycling outfit that would have her parents rending their hair and she was practically glowing. Gillian made shushing movements and the Doña drew her chair forward to join the girls in watching the stage as the house lights dimmed.

A swell of strings buoyed by an undercurrent of haunting electrics brought the curtains open. Elaine and Gillian’s gasps at the set were lost in an encroaching drum. The Doña recognised the set as the mechanics of the centrepiece of the last world’s fair, interpreted as a madman’s fairyland, giant clockwork grown from vines, struts of trees, flowered springs spiralling across the boards.

To thrums of bass that stirred the heart, the performer they’d come to hear was illuminated.

Trim waist, coat flaring at the hips, with biblically angelic features, like a devilish Louis XIV androgyne, his voice drew the audience in. The girls’ cheeks were flushed, Gillian’s lips parted as though she was trying to breathe the music. From stirring deep notes to a heartbreaking falsetto, he built them a world of clockwork men trapped in a machine.

It was, the Doña thought in a moment between numbers, wildly different than steam organs and brass and European operas. She looked at the girls, their faces aglow as they strained against the railing, standing in applause. A new song eased forth, dark rococo sweetness blending the best aspects of Mozart and Wagner into something more. Looking into the stalls below, the Doña saw a sea of youthful faces of all classes turned up to the music.

The lyrics were no more bawdy than the latest tours from France, but there was something insidious about the bass line that pulsed through the veins, tearing open a place for the words. The girls’ parents, the Doña thought with a smile, would think it hellish.

By the end of the show the Doña was as converted as the girls. They filed down the stairs to their carriage, chattering high-voiced with excitement. The cool evening air and stars seemed sweeter, clearer, as seen through a new glass. The three fell into silence as they were driven home, each still encapsulated in a crystal bubble of sound. The Doña looked at Elaine and Gillian, her girls, their eyes full of new ideas and blood astir. Music like that, she thought, could change the world.

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