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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


The Bejewelled Newt

nce upon a time there was a bejewelled newt that sang in a mid-summer pond, “beautiful, strange…”

A music master used to spend his holidays in a rustic cabin nearby and of a mosquito-buzzing, star-filled night, he would go down to the pond to listen to her. The voice was indeed most unusual, not creaky like the croak of the frogs, but soft, low and a little mournful.

By night, the newt would sing but by day, she led an ordinary life. She was married to a woodcutter and she worked as a librarian. The frogs came into the library, wanting modern self-improvement books, but all she could give them were the old tales about turning into princes. “Reddit, reddit, reddit,” croaked the cynical frogs. They knew that the bejewelled newt sang at night but they advised her not to give up the day job.

All summer, the music master listened to her, enraptured. Her haunting alto seemed to be disembodied, for she was hidden in the dark water. When the time came for him to return to the city, he decided to speak his heart.

“Oh newt,” said he, “that is a very rare voice you have. Come back with me to the Conservatory and I will train you up to be a famous diva.”

It was a flattering offer and she accepted it without a second thought. She packed her case, tied a new ribbon to her tail and set off with him to the big city.

Who can say what her motivations were? Perhaps she was genuinely interested to study the possibilities of her voice; perhaps she was lured by the prospect of fame and gems more glittering than the shimmering obsidian of her own skin.

Who can say what his motivations were? Perhaps he honestly envisaged her upon a stage together with the song birds of the air; or perhaps he thought he could make a profit out of her.

The poor woodcutter was distressed. He thought the music master would distort the true voice of his subtly bejewelled wife but he did not stand in the way of her advancement.

When the newt first arrived in the metropolis, the music master treated her gently, dressed her in velvet and, at their first public performance, supported her on a cushion of his fabulous piano playing, so that she was almost an overnight success. The audience showered her with hothouse flowers in December.

Then to improve matters, the music master began to drum his techniques into her. “You are going to be singing in big halls now,” he said. “The audience simply won’t be able to hear you if you go on in your underwater way.”

He drummed and beat and bullied and coaxed and she did her best to follow his expert instructions but her sound just went from bad to worse.

“Your best is not good enough,” he said.

His Conservatory colleagues looked on aghast that he was wasting his time with such a hopeless creature.

The newt tried even harder but her sound just went from worse to worst. Finally, it became so awful that she gave up singing altogether. She started a love affair with him instead. It was not the first time a student had jumped into bed with her professor and it would not be the last.

Their sex was hot and a marvellous distraction for quite a long time, although both of them carried a heavy disappointment in their hearts. They had sacrificed much—he his professional reputation and she her old life with the woodcutter—in their attempt to bring the mysterious pond sound—“beautiful, strange”—to a wider audience.

The years passed and the music master worked with the birds of the air, struggling to enhance their trills, while the newt took comfort in books. The couple were happy enough on the surface but the newt’s wound was deep. She no longer had access to her pond but only a bath, full of bubbles, in which she soaked in silence. The poor newt had so lost her confidence that she did not even dare to sing in the bath!

Then one day, when the newt and the musician understood they were growing old and it was too late for celebrity and they had nothing left to lose, they decided to hold a Christmas concert for the pure joy of music-making. They would invite all the birds of the air—the stars and the amateurs and the students—and the newt would get back into vocal form as best she could and all would bring their gifts, rich or modest, to the Christ-Child at Bethlehem.

The music master invited an African nightingale to take part and she agreed readily until she heard that the famous Nightingale of Berkeley Square had also been offered the chance to sing. Then the African nightingale suddenly fell ill with an unfortunate green sickness and dropped out of the enterprise.

Plenty of others were keen to leap on the bandwagon, however. There was a parrot from Singapore, an American reed warbler, a charming little hornbill and a couple of common song thrushes, not quite up to the standard of the nightingales, perhaps, but alluring in their own way.

And there was the newt, perplexingly bejewelled, who got up her courage again and began to sing in her hushed and calming voice, “beautiful, strange…”

To be continued in next month’s edition

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