16. FIRST NIGHT
The next three days were fully occupied with rehearsal after rehearsal and Adrian’s spirits rose, for, contrary to his expectations, Rosy behaved in the most exemplary fashion. In fact (owing to Mr. Clattercup’s rather extraordinary methods of rehearsal) Rosy was sometimes the only one on the stage who knew what she was doing.
Honoria had formed a deep and abiding passion for Rosy who, she said in her more lachrymose moments, was the only person who really understood her, and she spent a lot of time feeding Rosy on sugar lumps and telling her about her past life.
At length the opening day arrived and the whole theatre was full of bustle and activity. Towards evening, just before the first performance, Ethelbert, Honoria and Adrian sat in the dressing-room awaiting their cues, Honoria had been imbibing fairly steadily since early morning in order, as she put it, to celebrate their first night. Ethelbert had pointed out that they had not had the first night yet, and weren’t liable to if she got sloshed, at which Honoria drew herself up to her full height and said, “I know we haven’t had the first night, but it’s the spirit of the thing that counts.”
In her bespangled garb as Ali Baba, she had draped herself on the couch in the dressing-room, her turban slightly askew, and was making steady inroads on a new bottle of gin.
“Honoria, darling,” said Ethelbert, “you really shouldn’t. After all, it might affect your performance.”
“Nothing,” said Honoria stifling a small belch, “has ever affected my performance.”
“And don’t forget,” Ethelbert continued, “you haven’t got an understudy.”
“Understudies,” said Honoria in tones of great scorn. “True artists don’t need understudies. The show must go on.”
The bottle gurgled musically as she held it up to her mouth.
“I think I’d better go and see how Rosy’s getting on,” said Adrian. “She might be suffering from first night nerves as well.”
“Darling boy, don’t be nervous,” said Ethelbert, “after all, it’s all right for you—you’re inside a pillar.”
“That’s true,” said Adrian, “but I’m still nervous, nevertheless.”
“It’s getting fairly near time,” said Ethelbert. “Would you be a sweetheart and stick this jewel in my navel? It tickles me so, I can’t do it myself.”
Solemnly Adrian attached a large, glittering false diamond to Ethelbert’s navel with the aid of some spirit gum.
“There,” he said, “now I must go and see Rosy.”
“I’ll go and see Rosy,” said Honoria, rising somewhat unsteadily to her feet. “After all, she and I are the stars of this show. It’s fitting that I should wish her luck on her first night.”
She wandered somewhat unsteadily out of the dressing-room and closed the door behind her.
“Do you think she’s going to be all right?” asked Adrian.
“Oh, yes,” said Ethelbert. “If she’s not unconscious by this time, she’ll go on and do her stuff all right. Do you think this yashmak does things for me?”
Adrian surveyed the yashmak with care.
“What sort of things?” he asked cautiously.
Ethelbert blushed, “Well, do you think it makes me look sort of more attractive?” he said.
“Well,” said Adrian, not wishing to get involved, “I’m sure it will make you look more attractive from the audience’s point of view.”
Ethelbert continued finicking with his costume, while Adrian watched him. Presently Adrian, with a start, remembered Rosy.
“Honoria’s been gone a long time,” he said.
“She’s probably trying out her first number on Rosy,” said Ethelbert, delicately adding still more mascara to an already overloaded eyelash.
“I think I’d better go and see,” said Adrian. “After all, we are due on in ten minutes and I want to make sure that Rosy hasn’t eaten her costume or done something silly.”
Leaving Ethelbert, he made his way down the dingy, dusty corridors, and out into the great shed at the back in which Rosy was housed amid piles of faded scenery. He found Honoria sitting on a bale of hay, singing softly in her rather tremulous contralto:
“She’s my elephant, she’s my ele’ elephant,
She’s no one to go and pinch a scene,
She’s the only queen, that we all know . . .”
Rosy, swaying gently from side to side, was listening enraptured to this song, clasping affectionately in her trunk the empty gin bottle.
“Honoria!” said Adrian, horror-stricken, “you haven’t gone and given her gin?”
“Hello, Adrian,” said Honoria, smiling charmingly, “is it time to go on yet?”
“Have you given Rosy gin?” barked Adrian.
“Just wet her whistle to shelebrate,” said Honoria. “What the French call a soup spoon.”
“But you know what drink does to her,” said Adrian in anguish. “How much has she had?”
He had snatched the bottle away from Rosy and was holding it up in front of Honoria. She fixed her eyes on it blearily.
“Just a nip,” she said indistinctly, pointing a finger approximately half way down the bottle “I must say she’s a most convivi . . . conviv . . . charming drinking companion.”
Adrian surveyed Rosy and she beamed back at him, whisking her ears in a skittish manner and curling and uncurling her trunk coyly. She looked all right. She didn’t look anything like she had looked on the night of the terrible d'eb^acle at Fenneltree Hall. Perhaps Honoria’s intake of gin had been greater than Adrian though; and Rosy had literally had the soup-spoonful that Honoria insisted she had given her.
“Come,” said Adrian seizing Rosy’s ear, and he marched her round and round the shed, watching her reactions critically. She could certainly walk straight and, apart from a roguish glint in her eye and a vague skittishness of bearing, she appeared to have suffered no ill effects.
“Honoria you had better get into the wings,” said Adrian. “You’ll be on in a minute.”
Dimly they could hear the sound of the orchestra (consisting of three elderly and rather decayed-looking musicians) playing a rousing march, the end of which was the signal for the rise of the curtain. Honoria, after one or two efforts, rose from the bale of hay and made her way backstage, followed by Adrian leading Rosy. In the wings he found the glittering cart that Rosy was supposed to pull, and the Sultan.
“’Ere,” said the Sultan, “where the ’ell ’ave you bin?”
“Sorry,” said Adrian, hastily hitching Rosy up to the cart.
“Thought you weren’t going to make it,” said the Sultan.
“Proper bunch out there to-night,” he added jerking his finger at the curtains, “’arf the bloody island’s ’ere.”
He climbed into the back of the cart and settled himself comfortably.
“Are you all right?” said Adrian.
“Yus,” said the Sultan “Right as rain.”
Adrian made his way out on to the stage to take up his position in the pillar. The orchestra was just coming to the end of its discordant rendering as he climbed inside it and shut the door behind him. Then, with a whoosh, the curtain rose and he could feel the wave of enthusiasm that flooded on to the stage over the footlights; the rustles, gasps, coughs and little movements like sounds in a forest at nigh; which indicated that out in the darkness, beyond the orchestra pit, there were some four hundred people packed shoulder to shoulder and waiting.
The orchestra struck up and, to a burst of applause like a crackle of musketry, Honoria strode somewhat unsteadily on to the stage and sang her first song. At the end of this first number, it was Rosy’s cue. By now Adrian had passed from being merely nervous into a state of acute panic.
“Here comes the Sultan,” shouted everybody just as they had done at rehearsals, and Adrian, finding that his voice had somehow turned into a falsetto squeak like that of a very tiny bat, shouted, “Come on, Rosy!”
To his astonishment, Rosy ambled on to the stage and up to the pillar as beautifully as she had done at rehearsals. There was an immense and immediate reaction from the audience. An “Ahh” like the sound of a huge wave was wafted over the footlights. Rosy, enchanted by this adulation, lifted her trunk and gave a short, shrill trumpet.
“Good. girl,” said Adrian. “Stand still.”
Rosy stood there throughout the scene that ensued, occasionally swaying gently from side to side and periodically putting her trunk up to Adrian’s peep-hole in the pillar and blowing a friendly, gin-laden breath at him. The climax of the scene had been reached safely and Adrian sighed with relief because now they would turn the stage to form a new scene and he could take Rosy into the wings. She did not have to reappear until the finale. He wiped the sweat from his brow. Honoria was just going into her scene-changing speech . . .”
“And sho my love,” she said stentoriously to Mr. Clattercup’s girl friend, “I’ll go and find our fortune and return to claim you as my bride.”
So saying, she walked towards the right-hand side of the stage. As she did so, the stage started to revolve slowly and the moment he felt it move, Adrian knew he was doomed. It had never occurred to him to try Rosy out on the moving stage. Rosy woke out of her gin-soaked reverie to find the floor in some miraculous fashion moving backwards. She gave a small, slightly alarmed squeak and moved forward two or three paces.
“Stand still, you fool,” hissed Adrian, but by now the stage was revolving quite fast and Rosy, losing her head, started to run to keep up with it. The result was that she and Honoria reached the next scene simultaneously, and half way across the set Rosy overtook her. The Sultan, panic-stricken, was clutching the sides of his vehicle and wailing “Bloody ’ell, bloody ’ell, bloody ’ell,” in a mournful monotone that sounded like some curious form of prayer. The little man in charge of the massive levers that operated the stage completely lost his head at the sight of Rosy apparently running berserk, and threw the levers into reverse. The stage started to revolve in the opposite direction and Rosy, not to be outdone, turned adroitly to run with it. The result was that the shafts of the Sultan’s carriage snapped like match-sticks and the carriage performed a short but very elegant flight before it crashed down on the stage operator and the levers. Now everybody lost his head. The stage, apparently damaged by the application of the Sultan’s carriage to its mechanism, started to revolve faster and faster and Rosy ran faster and faster with it. She galloped through the desert scene, knocking palm trees in all directions, she shouldered her way through the market place, wrecking the stalls, she ran through the Sultan’s palace, knocking down several pieces of oriental lattice work and the pillar in which Adrian was trapped.
Honoria, who had at first attributed the movements of the stage to the quantity of drink she had consumed, now became panic-stricken and ran in the opposite direction to Rosy. The hushed and spell-bound audience were treated to three scenes in rapid succession, all of them containing Rosy and Honoria running ineffectually in opposite directions and achieving no result whatsoever. Adrian had managed to extricate himself from his pillar and started running after Rosy. The stage, living, up to its maker’s reputation, was by now travelling at some thirty miles an hour, and as it whirled round various looser props were whisked off. A member of the orchestra was hit by a palm tree and several bits of the Sultan’s palace crashed into the front row of stalls. Adrian’s pursuit of Rosy was hampered by the fact that periodically he would run full tilt into Honoria and by the time they had picked themselves up, Rosy would have got a fair lead on him. Up to now Mr. Clattercup had been standing in the wings paralysed with rage, but the sight of his principal boy, Rosy and Adrian indulging in what appeared to be a marathon race was too much for him. He leapt on to the revolving stage and grabbed Adrian as he passed.
“Stop her!” he roared at Adrian.
“What the hell do you think I’m trying to do?” snarled Adrian, pushing him away and setting off once again in hot pursuit of Rosy. Clattercup, apoplectic with rage, seized a short, stout piece of wood that had once been part of the Sultan’s palace. He ran round the stage in the opposite direction to that taken by Adrian and, as Rosy appeared, lifted his weapon and hit her on the trunk. It was, to say the least, an unwise action. Rosy had been doing her best to keep up with what had suddenly become an extremely rapidly moving world and now here was a strange man beating her over the trunk with a large lump of wood. It took a lot of concentration to keep up with the stage, and she was not in any mood to have anything extraneous interfere with her task. So she simply picked up Mr. Clattercup and threw him into the orchestra pit where his sudden arrival knocked the orchestra leader unconscious for the second time, and disastrously damaged the drum and double bass.
Meanwhile, three stage hands had been making valiant attempts to remove both the Sultan and his vehicle from the machinery that controlled the stage, and at last they succeeded. However, their manipulation of the gears, though well intended, merely had the effect of making the stage revolve still faster. Rosy was now on the outer periphery of the stage and the increased speed shot her off it like a bullet from a gun. Fortunately, she was not aiming in the general direction of the audience when she went off, but crashed into the wings, bringing down curtains, ropes, pulleys, and six spot lights. So swift and complete was Rosy’s disappearance that Adrian ran twice through the remains of the Sultan’s palace, the desert scene and the market scene before he realised she was no longer on the stage. He then took a flying leap that landed him in the wings, and started searching frantically for her. The thought of her rampaging about the streets of the town was too awful to contemplate, and to his relief he ran her to earth in her stable, where she was standing trembling and out of breath, hopefully holding the empty gin bottle to her mouth. Adrian sank down on the bale of hay and put his head in his hands. Everything was ruined. Dimly he could hear the screams and shouts of the audience and the clank and wheeze of the ever more rapidly revolving stage. His hopes that Rosy could join the Thespian ranks of Mr. Clattercup’s company had now vanished, and not only this; he had also added one more crime to the list that he had committed since he inherited her. He wished with all his soul that Samantha were there to comfort him. Suddenly Ethelbert appeared, panting for breath, his yashmak torn and the jewel missing from his navel.
“Darling boy,” he gasped, “what an absolute tragedy. I know it wasn’t your fault or dear Rosy’s, but I think you’re going to have a very hard time persuading Clattercup of this. He’s recovered consciousness, so I suggest that you both simply fly.”
“What’s the use?” said Adrian dully. “Where could we fly to anyway?”
“Dream child,” said Ethelbert in agony, “don’t be silly. Get out of here while you have still got a chance. If you get down to the docks right away, you might just catch the Queen back to the mainland. Don’t worry about your things, I’ll send them later.”
“But what’s the point?” said Adrian miserably. “I might just as well stay here and be arrested.”
“Listen,” said Ethelbert. “You might at least have some thought for that elephant.”
“Why should I?” said Adrian bitterly. “She’s never had any thought for me.”
“Do you want her shot?” enquired Ethelbert.
“Shot!” said Adrian startled. “They wouldn’t shoot her, would they? I mean, it wasn’t her fault.”
“They will shoot her,” said Ethelbert pressing his advantage dramatically. “Probably at dawn, unless you get out of here right away.”
“But that’s iniquitous,” said Adrian. “They can’t possibly think for one minute that she was responsible . . .”
“Will you stop arguing and get out of here?” hissed Ethelbert.
“Yes,” said Adrian.
He rushed and opened the doors of the scenery store, then, grasping the top of Rosy’s warm ear in his hand, he urged her forward at a brisk walk.
“Good-bye my love,” said Ethelbert waving extravagantly. “I’ll send your things on. Don’t worry.”
So, leaving the wrecked theatre behind them, vibrant with the noise of pandemonium, Rosy and Adrian made their way swiftly through the deserted streets to the docks.