"I read in a newspaper that last year it rained a little less in London than in Paris, though-"
"Five days out of six," beamed Bérard. "Can you imagine?"
"Papa can't stand the rain," Madame Bérard told Stephen.
"And how have you passed this beautiful spring day, dear Madame?" said Bérard, again inviting a contribution from his hostess. This time he was successful, and Madame Azaire, out of politeness or enthusiasm, addressed him directly.
"This morning I was out doing some errands in the town. There was a window open in a house near the cathedral and someone was playing the piano." Madame Azaire's voice was cool and low. She spent some time describing what she had heard. "It was a beautiful thing," she concluded, "though just a few notes. I wanted to stop and knock on the door of the house and ask whoever was playing it what it was called."
Monsieur and Madame Bérard looked startled. It was evidently not the kind of thing they had expected. Azaire spoke with the soothing voice of one used to such fancies. "And what was the tune, my dear?"
I don't know. I had never heard it before. It was just a tune like... Beethoven or Chopin."
"I doubt it was Beethoven if you failed to recognize it, Madame," said Bérard gallantly. "It was one of those folksongs, I'll bet you anything."
"It didn't sound like that," said Madame Azaire.
"I can't bear these folk tunes you hear so much of these days," Bérard continued. "When I was a young man it was different. Of course, everything was different then." He laughed with wry self-recognition. "But give me a proper melody that's been written by one of our great composers any day. A song by Schubert or a nocturne by Chopin, something that will make the hairs of your head stand on end! The function of music is to liberate in the soul those feelings that normally we keep locked up in the heart. The great composers of the past were able to do this, but the musicians of today are satisfied with four notes in a line you can sell on a song-sheet at the street corner. Genius does not find its recognition quite as easily as that, my dear Madame Azaire!"
Stephen watched as Madame Azaire turned her head slowly so that her eyes met those of Bérard. He saw them open wider as they focused on his smiling face, on which small drops of perspiration stood out in the still air of the dining room. How on earth, he wondered, could she be the mother of the girl and boy who had been with them at dinner?
"I do think I should open that window," she said coldly, and stood up with a rustle of silk skirt.
"And you too are a musical man, Azaire?" said Bérard. "It's a good thing to have music in a household where there are children. Madame Bérard and I always encouraged our children in their singing."
Stephen's mind was racing as Bérard's voice went on and on. There was something magnificent about the way Madame Azaire turned this absurd man aside. He was only a small-town bully, it was true, but he was clearly used to having his own way.
Excerpted from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks Copyright © 1997 by Sebastian Faulks. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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