Adrian, to his surprise, thoroughly enjoyed their short voyage on the Sploshport Queen. He had Rosy securely shackled to a massive steel bollard and felt reasonably sure that she could not get into trouble. He went below to the dining-saloon and bought them each a pint of ale, some buns for Rosy, and some sandwiches for himself and then, while they were sharing this meal, he leant on the rail and admired the sunset and the way its light seemed to smooth out the surface of the waves so that they looked like great bales of silk, unrolled across a draper’s counter.
Rosy took to this new experience with her normal equanimity. She at first evinced a great interest in the sea; presumably, Adrian thought, because the sight of so much liquid forced her to the conclusion that it was drinkable and possibly intoxicating. However, finding it unobtainable from the deck, she soon gave that up and settled down to her normal rhythmic swaying from side to side, with her eyes half closed.
It was quite dark by the time they reached the Island of Scallop and, having disembarked, Rosy and Adrian made their way along the narrow cobbled streets of the town, pausing now and then to ask directions from strangers.
Eventually the road led them out of the town, over some sand-dunes, and there in the middle of the dunes like an extraordinary piece of flotsam was a small cottage constructed entirely from weather-beaten planks and bits of wood that must, at one time or another, have been cast up by the sea. Lights peered but of the windows and above the sigh of the sea Adrian could hear wafted to him the mournful sounds of a tuba in inexperienced hands, picking its way through what he, with difficulty, recognised as “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose.” The sand-dunes stretched away in every direction without a sign of any other habitation, and Adrian decided that this must be the house of Ethelbert Cleep. He and Rosy scrunched their way across the dunes and knocked on the door. The tuba uttered a discordant bellow like a bull and fell silent. After a moment, they could hear footsteps approaching the door.
“No artistry,” shouted a voice from behind the door. “Bloody Philistines, banging and crashing when I’m in the middle of practice. Who is it? Who is it?”
Adrian cleared his throat.
“I’m Adrian Rookwhistle,” he shouted.
“Adrian, did you say?” enquired a voice from behind the door. “A boy?”
“Yes,” said Adrian, for want of a better reply.
The door was flung open and there stood a little man as tiny and as fragile as a sparrow. Adrian surveyed him incredulously. He was dressed in a long, thick, mustard-coloured cardigan which stretched almost to his knees and was done up with a series of enormous, bright gold, heavily embossed buttons; pearly grey velveteen trousers and a pair of black and white boots of weird design completed his ensemble, He had a mass of straw-coloured hair arranged in a style that made it look like an exceptionally wind-blown haystack, and he was wearing a pair of the most enormous pearl earrings that Adrian had ever seen. His thin, pale face was dominated by his eyes which were dark and shrewd and as restless as butterflies. This apparition leant provocatively against the door and surveyed Adrian.
“Darling boy,” it said at last, “what did you say your name was?”
“Adrian, Adrian Rookwhistle. I was told to come and see you by Black Nell.”
“Darling Black Nell,” said the apparition. “A woman who really understands a man’s needs. How thoughtful of her.”
“You are Ethelbert Cleep, aren’t you?” said Adrian.
“Yes,” said Cleep archly. “My friends call me Ethel. Don’t let me keep you standing here, chilling yourself to the bone. Come in, Come in.”
“Well, there’s Rosy,” said Adrian.
“Rosy?” said Cleep. “Surely you don’t mean to say you have had the bad taste to bring a woman with you?”
“No,” said Adrian gesturing at the sands outside, “this is Rosy.”
Ethelbert Cleep peered out of the door and at that moment Rosy, whose manners were always impeccable, lifted up her trunk and uttered one of her falsetto trumpetings. Simultaneously Ethelbert deep uttered a squeak of surprise which was almost identical in timbre, and retreated into the passageway.
“What,” he enqired in a hushed whisper of Adrian, “is that?”
“It’s Rosy,” said Adrian. “She’s my elephant.”
Ethelbert Cleep was holding a fragile heavily beringed hand to his chest as though in danger of suffering a heart attack.
“Is it for me, darling boy?” he asked. “If so, although I am overwhelmed by your generosity, I really feel I must refuse such a lavish present.”
“No, no,” said Adrian. “If you’ll just let me come in a moment, I can explain everything to you.”
He tied Rosy up and made his way into the Cleep establishment.
The whole cottage was one big room. At one end a staircase led up to a half-loft where, behind discreetly drawn chintz curtains, were Ethelbert’s sleeping quarters. The whole room was full of chairs covered with antimacassars, tiny tables on which were precariously balanced glass domes full of decaying-looking stuffed birds and similar trinkets presumably dear to Ethelbert Cleep’s heart, so that it made it almost impossible to move without knocking something over. Over the years, apparently, Ethelbert Cleep had developed a sort of bat-like system for avoiding damage to his objets d’art, and he flitted through the room with the greatest of ease, seated himself on a sofa and patted the cushion by his side.
“Come and sit down, darling boy, and tell me everything,” he said.
Adrian picked his way carefully through the forest of bric-`a-brac and lowered himself into a chair at a convenient distance from Ethelbert Cleep.
“Well,” he began, “its like this . . .”
“Er, wait,” said Cleep holding up a long forefinger. “A little refreshment.”
He fluttered across the room and disappeared behind a Japanese screen covered with enormous dragons that looked as though they were in the last stages of thyroid deficiency. He reappeared carrying a decanter and two glasses, poured out a drink for Adrian, pressed it into his hand, and patted his cheek.
“Now then,” he said as he seated himself on the sofa. Adrian sniffed the wine and it seethed innocuous. “My own, dearest heart,” said Ethelbert Cleep, “I make it every year out of elderberries from the headland. Incredibly nourishing. Now, tell me your story. I’m sure I shall find it absolutely riveting.”
So Adrian told him his adventures, and Ethelbert Cleep proved an exemplary audience. He sat with his eyes growing rounder and rounder, the glass forgotten in his hand, occasionally giving a little nervous giggle of laughter like a schoolgirl.
“Dear boy,” he said when Adrian had finished, “an absolutely fascinating story.”
“Well, it may sound like one, but it isn’t when you live through it,” said Adrian bitterly. “Anyway, Black Nell said I was to tell you all about it, and then to rely on your advice.”
“My advice in everything, I hope,” said Cleep archly, “but let me think, let me think.”
He finished his wine, then produced from the interior of his repulsive cardigan a heavily embroidered smoking cap with a long silk tassel, wedged it firmly on his mop of hair, closed his eyes and leaned back.
“You see. . .” began Adrian.
“Hush,” said Cleep without opening his eyes.
For some five minutes or so Adrian sat there finishing his wine and watching Cleep who appeared to have gone into a trance. Adrian was beginning seriously to wonder whether Black Nell had been right in sending him to this extraordinary little man. It looked as though he was more liable to get himself into further trouble than anything else.
“Got it!” said Cleep suddenly, removing his cap and putting it back in his cardigan. “Down in the town, darling boy, they have a theatre. It is, in actual fact, quite posh. You see, this place is becoming more and more of a resort.”
He shuddered faintly at this thought and poured himself another glass of wine. “I assure you, darling boy,” he continued, “that the droves and droves of hideous, purple-faced families that come flocking here are something that have to be seen to be believed.”
“Yes, but what about the theatre?” said Adrian.
“Well,” said Cleep, “it has only recently been built by one Emanuel S. Clattercup, a bovine and repulsive individual who, having spent the greater part of his life swindling the masses, has now decided that it is time to inflict some culture on those same unfortunate beings. Needless to say, culture at a profit.”
He sipped his wine and beamed at Adrian.
“But, what has this got to do with me?” asked Adrian.
“Wait,” said Cleep. “You might have thought that dear Clattercup, having gone to all the trouble of building a theatre in order to disseminate culture, would choose, as his first offering, something that a professional Thespian like myself could really get his teeth into. Athello, for example. My Desdemona is exquisite.”
“That,” said Adrian, “I can well imagine.”
“Or,” said Cleep, “Romeo and Juliet. They always said my Juliet was one of my best things, and also it used to save the company a lot of money because—not being exactly a heavy man—they didn’t have to reinforce the balcony. However, this Clattercup Philistine has seen fit to start the season with, of all things, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
“I should have thought,” said Adrian, “that for a holiday resort that would have been an ideal thing to start with. After all, it would be sort of gay and bright.”
“Dearest and sweetest Adrian,” said Cleep closing his eyes in pain, “I may call you Adrian mayn’t I? There’s a great difference between culture and gaiety. The two things are not synonymous at all.”
“Well, I’m afraid I don’t know very much about these things,” said Adrian. “I, just thought that probably the children would enjoy it. But I still don’t see what it’s got to do with me.”
“Listen,” said Cleep, “this cretinous Clattercup is about as altruistic as a brace of vultures. Now, if you could get him to include Rosy in the show and she was a success, and you then offered him the five hundred pounds—or what is left of it—I’m sure he would take her off your hands.”
“I say,” said Adrian enthusiastically, “what an excellent idea.”
“I’m always having them, darling,” said Cleep. “Now, what I suggest you do is to spend the night here and then tomorrow I will take you down to see Clattercup.”
“Wonderful,” said Adrian. “Thank you very much indeed.”
“I myself,” said Ethelbert reddening slightly, “am playing a minor part in the show. Not that I approve of it, you understand, but, dearest heart, one must live.”
And so Adrian and Ethelbert got Rosy into the lean-to shed where Ethelbert made his elderberry wine, having first carefully removed anything that had the slightest alcoholic content. Then, going back into the house and up to the loft, Ethelbert drew back the chintz curtains displaying on one side an enormous brass double bed with a canopy over it, and at the other end an extremely uncomfortable-looking trestle bed.
“You may take your choice,” he said, “but I always sleep in the double bed.”
“Thanks,” said Adrian. “Um, actually I’m a very bad sleeper, so I think I’ll take the other bed.”
“As you like,” said Ethelbert cheerfully, “as you like.” Adrian decided, as he was dropping off to sleep, that the sight of Ethelbert Cleep in a long white nightshirt, a Japanese kimono and a night-cap with a tassel, was one that would live with him for many days to come.
The following morning when Adrian awoke, he found that Ethelbert had been up for some time and had prepared a substantial breakfast. An enormous, volcanically bubbling pot of porridge with thick cream and sugar, and a huge plate of bacon as brown and as crisp as autumn leaves and just as fragrant, almost covered with great golden fried eggs and piles of large mushrooms like strange fleshy edible umbrellas running with black juice.
“I think it always advisable to start the day with a good breakfast,” said Ethelbert earnestly. “After all, one must consider one’s art, and it requires a lot of both mental and physical energy to get inside the part that you are playing.”
“Incidentally,” said Adrian, with his mouth full, “what part are you playing?”
“One of the Sultan’s harem,” said Ethelbert without batting an eyelid. “It’s a very exacting part.”
Later, when they had done the washing-up, Ethelbert dressed himself in his outdoor clothes, which consisted of an Inverness and a deer stalker cap of mammoth dimensions. Then they hitched Rosy to the trap and made their way into the town.
Adrian was astonished when he saw the theatre. Although Ethelbert had told him that it was a large one, he had no idea quite how large, and the facade with its Doric columns, its flying buttresses and Gothic windows, argued that Mr. Clattercup must have acted as his own architect.
“I told you it was big,” said Ethelbert in triumph, delighted at Adrian’s astonishment “Darling boy, it’s something they’d be pleased to have even in the city, and I’ll let you into a secret.”
He paused and looked round furtively. There was nobody within earshot apart from Rosy, so he leant forward and whispered in Adrian’s ear:
“It’s got a revolving stage!”
He stepped back to see the effect his words would have on Adrian.
“Revolving stage?” said Adrian. “The man must be mad.”
“He is, darling boy,” said Cleep. “It’s a deadly secret. We are going to astonish the audience on the first night, so don’t tell a soul.”
“I won’t,” said Adrian, “but I still think he’s mad. It must have cost him a lot of money.”
“This,” said Cleep, waving his hand at the architectural conglomeration that confronted them, “Is Clattercup’s last great work. This is the monument that he has built for himself so that he will go down in history. Now, you wait here with Rosy, dear boy, while I go in and see him.”
Adrian and Rosy waited patiently out in the road for half an hour or so until out of the theatre flitted Ethelbert, followed by a tubby little man dressed somewhat incongruously in a cutaway coat and striped trousers.
“Adrian,” said Ethelbert, “this is Emanuel S. Clattercup, our mentor.”
“Oh, aye,” said the mentor. “’ow do?”
“I am very well, thank you,” said Adrian, slinking hands. “Understand you want a job,” said Clattercup, peering somewhat nervously at Rosy.
“Well, yes, if it were possible,” said Adrian. “I thought that since you were doing Ali Baba a little bit of Eastern pomp might be in keeping, and Rosy’s quite used to wearing trappings and so on.”
“Aye,” said Clattercup, “well, she would be, wouldn’t she, coming from er . . . from eh . . . coming from where she does.”
“She behaves,” said Adrian, colouring slightly at the falsehood, “extremely well and I’m sure that she would lend a certain something to your show.”
“Je ne sais quoi?” suggested Ethelbert.
“What’s that?” asked Clattercup suspiciously.
“It’s French for I don’t know what,” explained Ethelbert.
“What jew mean, you don’t know what?” said Clattercup.
“What I mean,” said Ethelbert, “is that it’s French, meaning ‘I don’t know what’.”
Clattercup stared at him wall-eyed for a minute.
“I ’aven’t the least bloody idea what you’re talking about,” he said at last.
Ethelbert raised his eyes to heaven.
“And some fell on stony ground,” he said.
“Well, ’ow much would you want?” enquired Clattercup of Adrian. “These cultural shows take a lot of brass to get ’em on. I’m not made of brass, jew understand?”
“Well, I was just thinking in terms of a modest salary, enough to cover my own expenses and the expense of feeding Rosy,” said Adrian.
“And of course you would provide the costumes,” said Ethelbert.
Clattercup lit a large cigar and pondered for some minutes behind a cumulus of acrid smoke.
“Does she cost much to feed?” he said at last, jerking his thumb at Rosy.
“Er, a fair amount,” said Adrian.
“Well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” said Clattercup, “and I can’t say fairer than this. I’ll pay for her food and I’ll pay for your keep until we see how you are going on. Then, if you are a success, we can discuss it further.”
“Right,” said Adrian, delighted, “that’ll suit me perfectly.”
“I shall want you for rehearsals at two o’clock this afternoon,” said Clattercup.
“Fine,” said Adrian, “I’ll be here.”
“All right,” said Clattercup. “Tara.”
Turning on his heel, he walked back into the theatre.
“Darling boy,” said Ethelbert, “isn’t that wonderful? Now we’ll go back to the cottage and have a celebration, and then we’ll get back here a little before two and I’ll show you round the theatre.”