Disturbing Charm


21. 2-4 The Voice Of The Charmer

"She is singing an air that is known to me;
A passionate ballad gallant and gay,
A martial song like a trumpet's call."


All that had been in November. It was now January--which brings me back to the Phoenix Hut, where Golden van Huysen was preparing to sing.

Advancing to the edge of the platform, she said, smiling, but as quietly as if she'd been proposing a game in a room full of children:

"What'll I sing you, boys?"

An instantaneous chorus of men's voices answered her, and she laughed. Evidently she had heard, though Olwen hadn't caught a word of which song it was they all wanted.

It was "the" sentimental song of the moment, that song whose name varies from season to season. As I write, it is called differently from what it will be called by the time you read. Once it was "Until," once "Roses of Picardy." The soul of it remains the same. "Cheap and common," smile the superior. Yes! Cheap as the air we breathe. Common as sunlight.

Golden van Huysen pronounced its present name to the accompanist, who struck four cords on the piano. Then, into a dead silence, her voice stole out.

It might have been the gushing of honey from a suddenly broken comb. Already her speaking voice could set Olwen's heartstrings vibrating in response to the sound, but Golden's singing voice (a rich mezzo-soprano) was almost more than her little Welsh friend could endure for pleasure. It cleft the middle of the note, the middle of the heart. Olwen sat, her hands clenched under those furs, listening, listening. She could not have told you what the words were about. She only knew that when the immortal nightingale sang to his rose, it must be in some such song as this.... The two verses of the song ended, and the applause that followed them was as much a murmur of deep voices as it was a clapping of hands from Americans, British tars, Canadian, kilties.... Without a pause, the singer whispered to her accompanist. The wonderful voice rose in a second song, of which the words might have been trivial, but which were music because of their singer. Not a man or woman in that hut made a movement.... In all she sang three songs.

Just before her last song she took a couple of steps backward, and stood, tall and resplendent, between the two flags with a hand upon each.

She had not sung three notes before the audience had risen to their feet, with every soldier and sailor in the hall standing to attention. For it was "The Star-Spangled Banner" that Golden van Huysen was singing now.

There are some songs that never age. Of these are those a mother sings to her child; of these, too, are those a Motherland sings to her absent sons. This one----Well, all in that hall had heard it a thousand times before, yet this might have been the first time. Golden sang it as once Sims Reeves sang "Maud," as Patti sang "Home, Sweet Home"--in the perfection of simplicity.

At the end she neither bowed nor smiled. She just backed out, as before some Royalty of emotion, between the English and the American flags.

With a deep breath the audience felt that it was as though a light had been put out....

It was this radiant personality of hers, as well as her power of holding her hearers spellbound in hut, hospital, theatre, and soldiers' club, that had gained her the name by which half London knew her now--"that wonderful American they call the Sunburst Girl."