15. THE REHEARSAL
After a celebration at Ethelbert’s cottage, which consisted of apples for Rosy and a bottle of elderberry wine for Adrian and Ethelbert, the whole thing being accompanied (in a very cultural manner) by a spirited rendering by Ethelbert on his tuba of what he insisted was a fine old Irish ballad entitled “If I Were a Blackbird”, they had lunch and hurried back into the town.
They tethered Rosy in a big shed outside the back of the theatre where the scenery was stored, made her comfortable with some hay and some mangolds and then Ethelbert led Adrian into the theatre.
“I have never been back stage in a theatre,” said Adrian.
“Haven’t you, darling boy?” said Ethelbert. “But it’s such an experience. Come, I’ll show you.”
He danced away in the gloom and Adrian could hear the click of switches. Suddenly before him, glittering resplendent as a wedding cake, was the Sultan’s palace in all its cardboard glory. Adrian looked out into the centre of the stage and gazed into the dark auditorium what he could just dimly discern the rows of seats and boxes perched around the walls. He was amazed at the great flats and sheets of scenery held on ropes and pulleys high above the proscenium arch out of sight of the audience, presumably waiting to be lowered at the appropriate moment by some minions of the theatre.
“This,” said Ethelbert, joining him in front of the Sultan’s palace, raising himself on tiptoe and doing a little pirouette, “is the revolving stage. We have got three scenes on it, and it goes right round when they pull those levers over there: Saves an awful lot of mucking about.”
“It’s really fascinating,” said Adrian.
“Well, come along, darling boy,” said Ethelbert, and he fluttered once more into the wings and switched off the lights, plunging the Sultan’s palace into dusty gloom. He dived away through the scenery piled in corners and Adrian followed him.
Presently they came to a long narrow corridor, on either side of which was a series of doors.
“This,” said Ethelbert flitting down the corridor to a door and leaning against it decoratively, “this is my dressing-room, dear boy.”
He pointed to the door on which was a card that stated, rather startlingly, ETHELBERT CLEEP—CHIEP WIFE TO SULTAN. He opened the door and led Adrian into a tiny, rather dingy little room, most of one wall being taken up by a large mirror lit by gas lamps. There was a cupboard in one corner, the door hanging half open, and in it Adrian could see various exotic and eastern-looking costumes and a number of diaphanous veils.
Reclining on a horse-hair sofa on the other side of the room was an extremely large and statuesque red-head, clad (it was quite obvious) in nothing but a rather moth-eaten dressing-gown trimmed with ostrich feathers. She lay in the attitude of one who has been carved from stone and placed on top of a medieval tomb, but instead of her hands clasping to her bosom some item of ecclesiastical interest, she was holding a half-full bottle of gin. Her snores were loud and rhythmic, though lady-like in their way.
“Oh, dear,” said Ethelbert, “she’s at it again.”
He flapped across the room and removed the bottle of gin from its owner’s firm clasp and then started patting her cheeks daintily.
“Honoria, my dear, Honoria,” said Ethelbert, “do wake up.”
The lady, thus appealed to, stirred and muttered something derogatory under her breath.
“This is Honoria,” said Ethelbert glancing over his shoulder at Adrian. “Honoria Loosestrife. She’s our principal boy.”
“Principal boy?” said Adrian.
“Yes,” said Ethelbert, “she’s awfully good” Adrian sat down on a chair and studied Ethelbert carefully.
“Just let me get things straight. You are playing the Sultan’s favourite wife, and she,” He said pointing at Honoria, who was now displaying a vast expanse of pearly bosom, “she’s playing the principal boy?”
“But, of course,” said Ethelbert. “Silly boy, it’s always like that in pantomimes.”
“Oh,” said Adrian. “Well, it sounds very queer to me?”
“You’ll soon get used to it,” said Ethelbert. ‘It’s merely a question of adjusting.”
He went over to a jug and basin in the corner, wet a large flannel and proceeded to apply it to Honoria.
“Gerorf. Leavemealone,” she said indistinctly.
“Now, now, dear,” said Ethelbert. “You must be ready for rehearsals. You know what old cretinous Clattercup is like.”
He squeezed about a pint of water out of the flannel all over Honoria’s face and turned to Adrian.
“Such a nice girl,” he said, “but she has, how shall I put it, a slight penchant for stimulants.”
“Yes,” said Adrian, “I can see that. Rosy has too.” Honoria dragged herself upright on the couch and sat looking at them blearily. Her dressing-gown had now become disarranged to a considerable degree. Adrian hastily averted his gaze.
“There we are then,” said Ethelbert. “Feeling better?”
“No,” said Honoria in a deep mournful contralto that was somehow reminiscent of the lower notes of Ethelbert’s tuba, “I feel dreadful . . . dreadful.”
“Well,” said Ethelbert philosophically, “gin on an empty stomach is not the best way to start the day.”
“Nobody cares about me,” said Honoria lugubriously, and to Adrian’s intense embarrassment and alarm large tears welled out of her eyes, trickled down her cheeks and fell on her ample bosom.
“Of course they do, my love,” said Ethelbert. “Everybody simply adores you.”
“They don’t,” sobbed Honoria. “They’re jealous of me and my art.”
Ethelbert sighed and raised his eyes to heaven.
“Adrian,” he said, “would you be a dear and go along to the stage door and get a cup of tea for Honoria? It will make her feel better.”
“Nothing,” said Honoria sonorously, clasping her forehead and one breast in a dramatic gesture, “nothing, but death will make me feel any better.”
Her gesture had succeeded in disarranging her dressing-gown still further, so Adrian fled before any more of Honoria’s voluptuous figure was vouchsafed to him. He eventually found a little be whiskered gnome of a man sitting in what looked like a glass-fronted pay box full of keys, and managed, after some argument, to extricate a large mug of tea which he carried back to the dressing-room.
To his astonishment, there was no longer an air of drunken gloom. Honoria was rolling about on the couch, giving vent to great, rich gurgles of laughter at what appeared to be some joke that Ethelbert had been telling her.
“Oh, my soul,” she said sitting up and wiping her eyes, “Reely Ethelbert, you are terrible.”
“Never a dull moment,” said Ethelbert, thrusting the mug of tea into her hand.
She sipped the tea and eyed Adrian appraisingly, then she wrapped her dressing-gown closer about her and drew herself up majestically.
“Who is this?” she enquired.
“Adrian,” said Ethelbert. “He has joined the show with his elephant.”
“Tarrach!” said Honoria, with such ferocity that Adrian jumped. “That’s all we need, an elephant in this show. Already half my best lines are killed by that ridiculous clashing of cymbals that Clattercup insists on. That orchestra deliberately plays off key to put me out in all my best solo numbers, and now we are to have an elephant stumping about the stage and no doubt Leaving huge mounds of excrement wherever it goes.”
“No, no,” Ethelbert assured her earnestly. “It’s a very clean elephant.”
“As a matter of fact,” said Adrian, who was beginning vaguely to grasp the method of handling Honoria’s rather volatile nature, “as a matter of fact, Mr. Clattercup when he employed me said that he had got such a wonderful principal boy that nothing but the best in the way of um . . . er . . .”
“Props,” prompted Ethelbert.
“Props, that’s it,” said Adrian, “nothing but the best of props was good enough—to give her the right background.”
Honoria’s eyes opened wide.
“Honest? Did he say that?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Adrian, blushing slightly.
“Success,” sighed Honoria. “Success at last. Dear boy, of course you may use your elephant.” She bowed graciously to Adrian.
“Thank you,” said Adrian.
“And I promise to give it every consideration on the stage,” said Honoria.
“Thank you very much,” said Adrian, wondering how it would be possible for even somebody as magnificently endowed with temperament as Honoria to cramp Rosy’s style.
“Well, come on,” said Ethelbert. “We’d better go and see old Clattercup and find out what he wants you and Rosy to do.”
The rest of the afternoon was, to say the least of it, exhausting. Mr. Clattercup, as a producer, seemed to have only the haziest notion of what could and what could not be done on a stage, and the more he ranted and raved and tore his hair, the more confused things became. Fights broke out among the Sultan’s harem when it was discovered that Clattercup wanted half of them to stand behind a piece of eastern lattice-work, completely obscured from the audience. People exiting right would bump into people entering right, and, towards the end of the afternoon, everything became so confused that sometimes the principal girl (a fragile, fluffy-haired little creature who, although apparently no relative, was on fairly intimate terms with Mr. Clattercup) got positively hysterical and started singing the principal boy’s songs by mistake. This produced a magnificent display of apoplexy on the part of Honoria and the stage was in such confusion that Clattercup had to allow everybody to return to their dressing-rooms for ten minutes to regain their composure.
During this brief respite Clattercup called Adrian up on to the stage.
“Now, lad,” he said, “follow me. This is Sultan’s palace, see.”
He strode through the painted backdrops of the Sultan’s palace and into the next scene which was fairly plain, dominated by a large piece of extremely unsubstantial-looking rock surrounded by a regiment of drooping palm trees. The rock was supposed to open into Ali Baba’s cave, Mr. Clattercup explained.
“I’ll show you how it works,” he said proudly. “Ali Baba stands ’ere, jew see, and he presses this little button on the floor, jew see, and says ‘Open Sesame’.”
Mr. Clatttrcup suited action to words The rock remained obdurate.
“Where the bloody ’ell’s that props man?” shouted Mr. Clattercup. “Tell him to get this damned cave open.”
A harassed props man came and, after much fiddling with wires, succeeded in getting the rock to swing open with an ominous grinding and squeaking noise and Clattercup, still breathing stertorously, stalked through the hole into the next set which was the cave. Here there were piles of artificial jewels pouring out of great wooden chests and, of course, the indispensable forty great jars in which the thieves were to be incarcerated.
“That’s it,” said Clattercup. “No expense spared, jew see, boy?”
“Yes,” said Adrian, “it’s very impressive.”
“Now,” said Clattercup, leading the way back to the Sultan’s palace, “this is where you and that animal comes in. It’s when Sultan makes his first entry. I want your elephant to come in ’ere and go across there, and then just stand. She’ll be pulling a cart, of course, and the Sultan’ll be in the cart.”
“Forgive me,” said Adrian, “but wouldn’t it be better if he was in a howdah?”
“What’s that?” enquired Clattercup suspiciously.
“Well, it’s a sort of thing that is perched on the elephant’s back.”
Clattercup mused on this for a minute.
“No,” he said at length, reluctantly. “No, it’s too dangerous. That Sultan’s the best baritone this side of Winklesea. If he fell off and broke his leg or something, whole show’d collapse. No, it will ’ave to be a cart.”
“So I just lead Rosy from over there across the stage to here?” said Adrian trying to get things clear in his mind.
“No,” said Clattercup, “you don’t lead her, Sultan drives her.”
“Well, I’m not altogether sure that Rosy will agree to be driven by the Sultan. You see, she’s only used to me giving her orders.”
“Difficulties! said Clattercup bitterly. “I’ve ’ad more difficulties with this bloody show than anything else I’ve put on. But I don’t want you prancing all over stage. Can’t you stand over there and call ’er?”
“If the rehearsal’s anything to go by,” said Adrian, “I don’t think she would hear me.”
“Bloody ’ell,” said Clattercup.
He paced up and down the stage for a minute, casting ferocious looks at the Sultan’s palace, and then stopped.
“By gum, I’ve got it,” he said triumphantly. “We’ll put another gilded pillar ’ere. Sort of ’ollow, jew see, and we’ll put you inside it. There’ll be a little sort of peephole thing and you can shout to the animal from that. Jew understand me?”
“Er . . . yes,” said Adrian doubtfully. “I suppose that would do.”
He still had vivid recollections of Fenneltree Hall and was not at all certain about the success of this manoeuvre.
“Would you mind if we practised it first to make sure?”
“Of course,” said Clattercup. “Rehearsals are most important. I’ll get the pillar up in a jiffy and we’ll ’ave a go.”
Half an hour later a large and Ornate pillar had been added to the Sultan’s palace. Rosy, hitched to a small cart, was waiting in the wings and Adrian was inside the pillar keeping his fingers crossed and waiting for his cue. As the last chords of the opening number died away and the crowd all turned to the wings and shouted “Here comes the Sultan,” just in case the audience should mistake him for a rag and bone man, Adrian hissed from inside his pillar, “Come on, Rosy.”
Rosy flapped her ears, uttering a small squeak of pleasure and shambled out on to the stage. She knew where Adrian was, because she bad seen him go into the pillar and could hear his voice She shambled up to the pillar and patted it affectionately with her trunk.
“Stand still,” hissed Adrian.
Rosy obeyed, flapping her ears and blinking with pleasure at the brightly-lit stage. To Adrian’s astonishment the whole thing went off without a hitch, as indeed did the rest of the rehearsal, and Clattercup was so enchanted with the way Rosy had behaved that he even gave Adrian a cigar.
Jubilantly Rosy, Adrian, Ethelbert and Honoria made their way over the sand-dunes to the cottage, and having told Rosy how wonderful she was and given her a large feed and a pint of ale, they proceeded into the cottage where, with the aid of elderberry wine, gin, fresh oysters, plovers’ eggs and four pints of pink, plump shrimps, they made merry. It was not until after midnight that they stumbled to bed, but only after Honoria, accompanied by Ethelbert, had sung for the fourth time, “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls.”