Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1183
In the large Latin Quarter studio that Taffy, Sandy, and Little Billee shared, the three students were hosts to Svengali, an unconventional musician, and Gecko, a fiddler. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. An artist’s model came in; she had heard music and decided to stop by. She wore a mixture of clothing—a soldier’s coat, a pair of men’s shoes, a frilled petticoat—and she carried her lunch. When she began to sing, her voice was so flat that the listeners did not know whether to be amused or embarrassed. Only Svengali realized the quality of her untrained voice.
One morning, Svengali went to borrow money from Sandy. Trilby was in the studio when he arrived. Because she complained of a headache, Svengali hypnotized her. Sandy was alarmed when she thought of the control Svengali might have over Trilby.
Trilby came more often to the studio. She cooked for the three Englishmen, darned their clothing, and joined in their meals and parties. In return, they taught her how to speak correct English and treated her as a highly respected sister. When Sandy fell ill, Trilby refused to let anyone else look after him.
Svengali had a stroke of luck when he was hired to appear in concerts. He was anxious to hypnotize the model again, but the three Englishmen would not permit it.
Because Trilby posed in the nude, Little Billee, who had fallen in love with her, became angry and left Paris. Unhappy at this turn of events, Trilby became a laundress. She began to take care of her appearance; when Little Billee returned, he was completely charmed by her. At Christmas time, Trilby promised to marry Little Billee; but a few days later, his mother and a clergyman arrived and made Trilby promise that she would not marry Little Billee. Trilby left Paris. Little Billee became ill, and he returned to England with his mother and sister.
Five years passed. Little Billee achieved success in London. Sandy and Taffy traveled on the Continent. When the three friends met again at a ball in London, there was much talk of old days in Paris. Word went around that Svengali had found a great pupil, that he had married her and was making a famous singer of her. Little Billee painted more pictures and fell in and out of love with a girl named Alice. The other two friends went their ways.
At last, the three met in Paris. During their stay, they attended the first performance of the famous La Svengali in Paris and discovered that the singer was their Trilby of earlier days. Under the hand of her master, she had gained a great voice that thrilled her audience. The three Englishmen were overcome.
When they saw Trilby and Svengali in the park the next day, Little Billee ran up to greet her. She looked at her old friends vaguely, listened to something that Svengali said to her, and then to their surprise glanced coldly at them as if she had never seen them before.
The next day, Little Billee encountered Svengali, who spat on him. A fight began in which the tall musician was more than a match for the small artist. Then Taffy appeared. With one hand, he seized Svengali’s nose; with the other, he slapped Svengali on the cheek. Svengali was only too glad to escape. A few days later, the Englishmen left for home.
When Svengali brought his star to London, she was the talk of the city. Little Billee and his friends bought tickets for Trilby’s first concert.
At the last minute, the concert was canceled. Svengali had scolded Trilby past the limit of Gecko’s endurance, and Gecko had attacked Svengali with a knife. At that moment, Trilby became imbecile in her manner. While Svengali remained ill, she was incapable of speech, and she spent all of her time with him. Svengali would not permit her to leave him either to practice or to sing her concert without him.
At last, Svengali recovered. Not well enough to conduct the orchestra, however, he was compelled to occupy a seat in a box facing Trilby as she sang. When Little Billee and his friends arrived, they saw Svengali rise from his place with a look of unalterable hatred on his face. Then he slumped forward. Trilby was led from the wings and took her place somewhat mechanically. She seemed to be looking for Svengali. The orchestra began her number. She remained indifferent and refused to sing. Again and again, the orchestra began to play. At last, she demanded in her old gutter French what they wanted of her. When they said she was to sing, she told the orchestra to be quiet; she would sing without an accompaniment. Then she began in the same flat voice with which she had sung for Little Billee and his friends years before. At once, catcalls shook the house. Trilby was terrified and had to be led away. The confusion increased when someone shouted that Svengali was dead in his box.
The three friends went to Trilby’s dressing room. They found her in a frightened state and took her to Little Billee’s lodgings, where the next day he and his friends called on her. Trilby knew nothing of her career as a singer, and she remembered Svengali only as the kindest man in her life. She was pale and seemed vastly aged.
She told them that Svengali had offered to look after her when she left Paris. He had not married her, however, for he already had a wife and three children. As Trilby talked, her mind seemed disturbed beyond recovery, and a doctor was called in. She gradually became weaker and weaker. There seemed little that could be done for her.
Gecko went to prison for striking Svengali. Svengali’s money, which Trilby had earned, went to his wife and children. Each afternoon, the three friends went to visit Trilby. She became more and more emaciated and could no longer rise from her chair. Only by smiles and gestures could she reveal to them the happy, carefree Trilby of other days in Paris.
One day, a large lifelike photograph of Svengali was shown to her. She began to sing and charmed her listeners to tears with the sadness of her song. Then she fell asleep. A doctor was summoned immediately and said she had been dead for a quarter of an hour or more.
Years later, Taffy and his wife, Little Billee’s sister, met Gecko in a cafe in Paris, and he told them of Svengali’s influence over Trilby. Svengali had hypnotized the girl and had made her a singing automaton of matchless voice. When the spell was broken, there was no Trilby, Gecko claimed, for Svengali had destroyed her soul. Taffy and his wife told him how Little Billee had died shortly after Trilby’s death. There was little any of them could say. They could only wonder at the strangeness and sadness of Trilby’s story.