DR FRANK JACKSON 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
Morag finds herself with a new assignment, that of nursing a new play through its first performance, on the occasion of Annie’s forthcoming wedding. But nothing goes smoothly. She is aiding Petrina, a highly talented young girl who has written the play, but who lacks the experience necessary to carry it through. Morag must find a way of overcoming the obstacles in their path, to ensure a successful first performance. To make matters worse, they have no cast of actors. They face the task of having to find one, and then rehearsing them. It seems a formidable task.
The actors stood listlessly around the large stage. Morag stood in the wings, her heart sinking. The actors had learnt their lines, but plainly did not know how to act them. They had read their lines woodenly, without expression, and to Morag’s mind, it all looked like a shambles. But Petrina did not seem perturbed at all. She ran around the stage, prompting each actor to deliver his or her lines at the right time. But as yet there was no shape, no structure to the play. No-one as yet, apart from Petrina, had any sense of the play as a whole, still less the ability to act it. But Petrina was not deterred. She patiently rehearsed players in their characters they were to act, and their entrances and exits during the course of the play.
Morag was seriously impressed by the girl’s skill and determination, but not much by the actors’ s prowess. They had done little but read their parts, and she seriously doubted their ability to make the play come alive. But Petrina remained optimistic. ‘It is but early days yet, Morag. In truth, I did not expect more from a first rehearsal. But they have learned their lines, and now know when to leave or enter the stage. They have also made themselves familiar with the stage itself, so that it holds no fears for them’.
‘Is that important? Morag asked, curiously.
‘Yes. It has been known for actors who have rehearsed off-stage to dry up completely on a real stage.
‘What do you mean, dry up?’
‘They forget their lines completely’.
‘I can’t think of anything worse’. Morag said, frankly. ‘To dry up like that in front of an audience must be terrible. It would be a nightmare’.
‘It is. It is an actor’s worst nightmare. But I do not think it will happen here. The actors are happy with the stage, and they are used to it now. It is all going so well, Morag!’
‘If you say so’. Morag replied. Privately, she was thinking ahead as to what might go wrong. She had too jaundiced a view as to believe that everything would go right. She looked around.
They finished the rehearsal at midday, and broke off for a meal.
‘Petrina, what makes you so sure that you will be able to produce your play out of all that shambles?’
The young girl’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Do you doubt me too, Morag?’
‘No, I don’t!’ Morag said, hastily. ‘But it is difficult for me to see a play emerging from that lot!’
‘Wait another two weeks, and you shall see it! I promise you, Morag!’
Petrina’s lips had set in a hard line. Morag had to admire the girl for her stubbornness.
‘You’re just like your father, you know’. She remarked, conversationally.
She was not prepared for Petrina’s reaction. ‘I am nothing like my father! How dare you suggest that! I am my own person! I do not borrow from my father!’ She stood up from the table in her anger.
‘Sit down!’ Morag shouted. ‘At once!’ The girl immediately sat down, intimidated by Morag’s sudden wrath, on the verge of tears.
Morag looked at her with compassion. She had realised just how much emotional weight this young girl was bearing on her frail shoulders, and the weight of expectation laid upon her. ‘I simply meant that you have something of your father’s determination and stubbornness! I wasn’t trying to insult you’.
‘Oh’. Petrina said, suddenly deflated. ‘I didn’t realise….’
Not for the first time, Morag cursed herself for not remembering that faerys sometimes took human remarks literally. But they finished their meal in a more companionable silence.
Over the days that followed, Petrina tirelessly rehearsed her actors, often through most of the day. But such concentration paid off. They were now acting their parts, to the extent that they competed against each other to act their roles. Petrina often had to rebuke them for trying to upstage each other, but each actor was now firmly committed to the play, and was determined to make it a success. Morag was amazed at the difference in Petrina. She was positively glowing with enthusiasm, as she shouted directions at her actors. They all seemed to have a sense of purpose and a pride in their play.
Acta, the theatre manager, looked up and gestured for those up in the flies to lower the dungeon box. But it did not go as planned. The box did begin to come down but much faster than it should. In fact, it dropped from a great height towards the stage at a considerable rate of descent. It was Morag who perceived the danger. ‘Back! Into the wings!’ She shouted.
The actors scattered. Morag seized the stage manager by his collar and dragged him to safety. The dungeon box stopped suddenly about six feet from the stage floor, one end hanging down, scraping across its surface.
‘Level it up!’ Yelled Morag, up at the flies. ‘Do it, you idiots!’
In response, the end hanging in the air came down suddenly with a crash, onto the stage. A thick cloud of dust rose up. But at least the dungeon was down on the stage floor.
Morag was furious. Not only had those idiots up in the flies nearly killed people on the stage, but they had almost jeopardised Petrina’s play. She seized Acta and asked him through gritted teeth, ‘Where’s the way up there?’
‘There’. He said, pointing at a rickety staircase in the wings. ‘But it is not safe, Morag!’
Morag took no notice. She bounded up the staircase, ignoring the fact that it swayed under her weight, and that the treads bent under her feet. It was only when she was halfway up that she began to feel afraid. The whole staircase felt treacherous, as if it would collapse at any second. She slowed down and began to move her feet more carefully, distributing her weight as equally as possible. The whole staircase shuddered and swayed beneath her, suspended as it was, by no more by two thick ropes at top and bottom. There was only another thick rope running along one side to act as a handrail. Beneath her, there was a sheer drop to the floor of the stage and auditorium. Her face and hands were now damp with fear, and it was with an audible sigh of relief, that she swung herself onto the wooden platform at the top.
She stood up, looking down the flies. She saw a long wooden walkway, running parallel to the stage below. Along it were ranged two metal windlasses, bolted to the wooden gangplank, presumably the machines responsible for lowering the ill-fated dungeon. At the back of the walkway was a mass of ropes and pulleys, for raising or lowering other pieces of scenery. But it was dark up here; There were pools of light from the apertures in the domed roof above, but no candles were lit to give additional light. Morag peered into the gloom. ‘Is there anyone here?’ She called. She saw what appeared to be two white blobs rise up from behind the windlasses. She realised that these two ghostly apparitions were, in fact, heads and faces belonging to two very small men, who seemed to be terrified of her. ‘Come on out! Show yourselves!’ She shouted, her voice loud in these upper regions of the theatre.
The two little men stepped out hesitantly into the light. With a start, Morag saw that they were small dwarfs, no higher than her waist. Their faces, round and vacuous, seemed too big for their bodies. Their hair was sparse and trimmed close to their skulls. Their mouths were small and tight, quivering with emotion.
‘What are your names?’ She said, sharply. She had not forgotten the episode with the dungeon. ‘Bacillus, my lady’, the nearer of the two said, ‘And this is my brother, Mo’.
‘Why is he called Mo?’
‘Cos’ he never says anything else’.
Mo beamed at her. ‘Om ‘. He said, proudly.
‘That’s the only other word he speaks’. Explained Bacillus.
‘And what did you mean by nearly dropping that box on all of us!’ Morag said, angrily. ‘I’ve a good mind to get the theatre manager to sack you for criminal negligence!’
The effect was instantaneous. Bacillus burst into tears and buried his face into his hands. Mo immediately followed suit. Morag felt dismayed by the results her words had had upon these two little men.
‘You mustn’t do that, lady!’ Cried Bacillus, tearfully.
‘Because we have nowhere to go! None of the rooming houses or taverns would take us, because we’re dwarfs!’ Bacillus wailed. ‘No- one wants us! That theatre manager, he said that if we wanted to stay, we’d have to go up here, and stay here, if we wanted to stay in this country. So we did’.
Morag was horrified, at the treatment these two little men had received. ‘Where do you sleep?’ She asked.
‘Down there, lady’. Bacillus pointed down the long walkway. ‘At the other end. There are hooks there, on which we can hang our hammocks’.
‘No, lady. The manager said that because we was illegal, right, we weren’t entitled to anything’.
‘We’ll see about that! What do you do about food?’
‘We go hungry most of the time, lady. But mistress Anne, who works in the theatre cantina, saves some of the left-overs, and puts them in a basket for us, which we haul up. They’re enough to get by on’.
‘But what about water and toilets and all that sort of thing?’
‘There’s a stand-pipe at the end, and a latrine which does for us’.
‘Is that all?’
‘Yes, but we can’t make a fuss, lady. He’d throw us out, and then where would we go?’
‘No, he won’t. I’ll see to that. But first you both have to promise me something’.
‘Anything, lady’. Bacillus said, ingratiatingly.
‘Lower that box and raise it again as quietly and gently as possible at every performance. Think you can do that?’
‘Course we can, lady. Ready, Mo?’
‘Right. Now bring the box up. Gently!’
This time, Mo followed his brother’s rhythm in winding up the windlass, keeping his eyes on his brother’s hands. The result was that the box rose smoothly upwards, until it fitted against the rail alongside the walkway. Morag was satisfied.
‘That’s much better’. She said, approvingly. ‘Now I want you to lower it onto the stage again. Properly, this time’.
The two little men grumbled, but they succeeded in lowering the box smoothly onto the stage without further mishap. Morag looked over the balustrade down onto the stage to make sure.
‘Right! Now you’re both coming down with me, now!’
The two little men looked at her with frightened eyes. ‘Down there? Down that rotten staircase?’ Bacillus blurted.
‘Yes! Down there! If I could get up here, the three of us should be able to go down it! In any case, it’s the only way! Unless you two want to stay up here for the rest of your lives? Now follow me, and don’t look down!’
Moaning in fear, the two little men followed her to the top of the staircase where it joined the wooden platform. She looked down it with far less confidence than she had expressed. It looked frail and rotten. But it was the only way down. She swung herself over the edge of the platform and onto the staircase. Behind her, she heard Mo groan in terror.
She plodded her way slowly down the staircase, listening to the footsteps of the little men behind her. They were hesitant and uncertain, as she had expected. But they were descending slowly down the rickety staircase. There was a loud ‘Snap’ as her foot broke one of the wooden treads. The little men froze behind her. Mo whimpered. ‘It’s all right’. She said. ‘It’s just a broken tread’.
They continued down the staircase, Thankfully, no more treads broke. But Morag’s temper was seething. She decided to confront the stage manager as soon as possible. Eventually she stepped down on to the solid stage floor, much to her relief. She allowed herself a momentary gasp, then looked around for Bacillus and Mo. They were just behind her on the staircase and unharmed.
‘Morag, what is happening? Who are these two little men?’ It was Petrina’s voice, speaking to her urgently. ‘Just a moment, Petrina. I’ve got some business to settle with a certain gentleman’.
‘That man over there’. Morag strode over to him and struck him hard across the face. ‘Oww!’ He yelled.
‘What are you doing, Morag?’ Petrina cried.
‘Settling a few scores, that’s all, Petrina. This bastard exploited these two disgracefully’. She told Petrina about how Bacillus and Mo had been treated by the theatre manager, who crouched on the floor nursing his face where Morag had struck him. The actors, who had gathered round, muttered angrily. Morag introduced Petrina to Bacillus and Mo. ‘These are your two fly masters’. She announced.
‘Welcome, gentlemen. I trust you will give good service’. Said Petrina with dignity.
‘We will, my lady’. Said Bacillus, his face almost split by a smile that was obviously meant to impress. He nudged Mo.
‘Bow to the lady’. He said in a loud whisper.
‘Om?’ said Mo, in bewilderment. Then he seemed to understand, and bent down in a bow, which almost toppled him over.
‘Gladly, lady’. Bacillus said, excitedly. ‘Om’ said Mo, eagerly.
They followed Petrina and the rest of the cast to the theatre cantina, where, to their eyes at least, a veritable feast awaited them. They sat down as if in a dream.
Bacillus rapped his spoon hard on Mo’s hand, which was stealthily creeping towards the food. ‘Not until the lady tells
‘I’m not surprised’. Morag said, after finishing her mouthful. ‘They’ve only had kitchen scraps for the last few months!’
‘What!’ Petrina cried, scandalised. ‘Is Acta responsible?’
‘Yes, he was’. Morag said. maliciously, but with good reason, so she thought. Neither Mo or Bacillus were exactly imbued with intelligence, but they were still human beings and did not deserve to be callously abandoned in the flies and left to starve. Petrina obviously thought the same. Her pale cheeks flamed with anger. ‘Nobody will starve in my company!’ She shouted, and struck Acta across the face with a vicious back-handed slap. Acta whimpered and fell on the floor.
‘The lady Gloriana shall hear of this!’ She shouted again.
‘No! Please no!’ Pleaded Acta. ‘She will have me executed!’
‘That’s true’. Morag said thoughtfully.
‘Serve him right!’
‘But if Acta were to make recompense for his actions….’
‘Then we might reconsider. I understand you, Morag’.
‘Right then, Acta! The first thing you will do is to arrange a proper salary for these two little men so they can afford to buy some necessaries. Secondly, you will arrange some suitable accommodation for both of them, so they don’t have to live on the job, so to speak. Thirdly, they will be eating with us and the rest of the cast from now on. Fourthly….’
‘There’s more?’ Groaned Acta.
‘Yes. There is. You can get your workmen to mend those stairs up to the flies! I don’t want to break my neck on them and neither do they!’ She indicated Mo and Bacillus. ‘So get them seen to, this afternoon!’
‘Yes, lady!’ groaned Acta, and rushed off to do her bidding, already a broken man. Morag watched him go, and turned to the two little men. ‘Will that suit you?’
‘Indeed it will, my lady’. Said Bacillus. ‘Won’t it, Mo?’
‘Om’. Said Mo. His small, round face beamed with delight.
‘Good!’ said Petrina. ‘This afternoon we can at last rehearse the dungeon scene’.
Morag was intrigued by what Petrina was planning to do, so much so that she resolved to stay downstairs and watch the rehearsal for herself. She settled down with the rest of the cast to enjoy the scene. The curtains opened. They all gave a collective gasp. The stagehands had doused all the candles on the stage, and it was entirely black, except for a small, guttering candle in the cell itself. standing in a candle-holder, on a rickety table. It was enough to illuminate Florizel. the lost prince of the play. He looked up as he heard the jangle of keys at the door of his cell. The heavy-jowled jailer ushered the visitor into the cell, and clanged the door shut. Florizel had half-risen from his chair at the sight of his visitor, who stood tall and hooded. Suddenly the visitor threw back its hood, revealing her long fair hair. ‘Perdita!’ Florizel cried in joy, and sprang forward to embrace her, passionately. It was a moving scene and Morag stifled a quiet little sob, as she thought of her own husband, many miles away in Druard. She missed him dreadfully, trapped in this play.
But she soon forgot her woes, as she became absorbed in the delicate love scene in the dungeon. It was tenderly, and skilfully, acted by both characters: the other actors, watching it, fell silent in admiration. Morag had never seen such a piece delivered with such eloquence and beauty: she fell silent like the others. As the scene finished with the return of the taciturn jailer, the whole cast burst into spontaneous applause.
The rehearsal was a success, everybody was euphoric on the strength of it. Petrina, beaming, announced a short holiday for everyone. ‘I do not want to over-rehearse you’. She said, cheerfully. ‘Besides, the costumes are arriving the day after tomorrow. So our next rehearsal will be in full dress’. There was a great cheer from the cast. At last, the play was taking shape and becoming a reality.
Morag felt someone plucking at her sleeve. To her surprise, she saw it was Petrina, who looked anxious. ‘Morag, I have taken a great liberty’. She said, nervously. ‘What liberty?’ Morag asked, bewildered. ‘I have written to my father to ask him to invite your husband to Elsace to keep you company. Oh, Morag, I saw your face while you were watching the dungeon scene, it bore the imprint of sadness! I do not want to see you sad, Morag, I thought it best that your husband should rejoin you. I am sorry if I made you angry by doing so’.
Morag smiled at her. ‘On the contrary, you’ve made me very happy. It’s the best news I’ve had for a while’.
‘If my father has told him in time, he should be here tomorrow. Is that suitable, Morag?’
‘Of course. And thank you, Petrina. That was good of you. Do you want to walk back with me to the palace, to get something to eat? We can’t do much else at the theatre now’.
‘Yes, thank you, Morag’.
Petrina trotted alongside the taller figure of Morag. There was an easy silence between them. Neither young woman felt the need for further conversation, Both were wrapped in their own thoughts, as they crossed the busy main avenues of the capital, and walked towards the palace.
They entered the main doors of the palace without being challenged by the sentries, who knew them well, and ascended the main hall stairs to the common apartment they all shared. It always reminded Morag of her days as a police cadet, when they were sent on courses at university. They were not happy memories and she banished them from her mind. At least here, she was amongst friends. She looked around. Where was everybody?
Simon came out of the bedroom he shared with Ragimund, his faery wife. ‘Well, well! The return of the prodigal daughters!’
‘Oh, shut up, Simon! Where is everyone?’ Morag was in no mood for Simon’s flippancy.
‘Gone out shopping. For Annie’s wedding. Gone to buy yet more dresses’. Simon replied, somewhat tersely.
‘What! More dresses!’ Morag cried, incredulously. ‘Haven’t they got enough already!’
‘Well, Indira hasn’t apparently’. Simon replied, with a grimace.
Morag groaned. She knew how profligate Indira was in terms of spending.
‘So long as it keeps her out of mischief’. She muttered.
Christine was doing the ironing when a dragon walked in nosing the door open with his nose. Christine shrieked with fright. The dragon was small and regarded her with a benevolent expression. ‘I am sorry, my lady, I did not wish to startle you. My name is Smeffit. I am a friend to Annie and Simon. I have a message for you. It is…..’
‘John! JOHN!’ Her husband came running down the stairs and burst into the kitchen, to be confronted by the sight of his wife, crouched behind her large ironing-board, brandishing a hot iron as an impromptu weapon. He looked down. A small green dragon was crouched on the floor, looking very nervous. ‘Hello, Smeffit’. He said pleasantly. Smeffit looked up. ‘Good afternoon, Mr Wheeler. I am afraid that I have rather disturbed your wife’.
‘Never mind that. What are you doing here?’
‘I am afraid that that is my fault’. A soft voice said behind him.
Annie’s father spun around in confusion. ‘Leila!’ He recognised her from his son’s wedding in Hyperborea. ‘Of course! But what brings you here?’
‘I volunteered to bring your invitations to your daughter’s wedding in Elsace in two weeks time. Annie asked me, because I am her dragon-sister’.
‘Her dragon-sister!’ Christine exclaimed. ‘So you’re the missing sister, the one that I have never met! I must say you are the most beautiful dragon that I’ve ever seen! In fact, the only one I’ve ever seen!’
‘Christine! I think we are forgetting the laws of hospitality!’ John said, hastily. He had no wish to let his wife prattle on.
Leila merely bowed her head in acknowledgment of the compliment, showing her rows of neat white teeth, in what Christine hoped was a dragon smile. ‘Thank you’. She said, disarmingly.
‘Would you and your companion like to stay for lunch?’ Christine offered, with an apprehensive glance at Smeffit.
‘That would be delightful’. Leila replied.
Christine was relieved. At least her household gods of hospitality would be appeased.
They arranged lunch. ‘What is lunch, in human?’ Leila asked, puzzled.
‘It’s the meal we normally take in the middle of the day’. John explained, helpfully.
‘I see, for sustenance at that time. But what are these pieces of wood that close off your chambers?’
‘Privacy? What is privacy?’
‘Well, when someone wants to be on their own, without interruption, they close the door’.
‘But why should you wish to be on your own?’
‘Well, for various reasons….’John began, helplessly.
‘It does not matter. But I do not think I will ever understand humans’.
John and Christine were left staring helplessly at their empty plates.
‘Why do you not look at your invitations?’ Leila said, encouragingly.
John untied the string around one of the two small scrolls that Leila had given to him, and spread it out on the table. It read:
You are warmly welcomed to the marriage of Annie Wheeler and Helios, a native of Hyperborea, on the first of August, outside the Palace of Art in Elsace, at 12.oo noon and afterwards at the wedding feast. In addition to the festivities, there will be a special performance of a play, entitled “The Lost Prince”, in honour of the bridal couple in the Theatre of Saturnalia, at 7 of the evening. It is hoped that you can all attend. It is the first play of its kind to be performed in Hyperborea, and if it is received well, could lead to many more. We look forward to seeing you again. Best wishes.
Gloriana, chief governor of Hyperborea.
‘Well, that’s the next best thing to an order from the faerys!’ John commented. ‘They must want to promote playacting! What’s the matter, Christine?’ Christine was quietly sobbing through her twined fingers, holding them across her face. ‘Oh, John! Our children are all gone from us! First Simon and Morag, and now Annie! The house feels so empty without them!’
‘They’re not gone, Christine. They’re only a dimension away, and the portal is nearby. They can visit us, and we can visit them perfectly easily. So set your mind at rest’.
‘I suppose so’. Christine replied dismally, ‘But I still miss them!’
‘Why don’t we arrange a reunion every couple of months, then, either here or in Hyperborea, so that we can all catch up on news?
‘That’s a really good idea, John’. Said Christine, pleased with the suggestion. ‘We could send them a message through the Watchers’.
‘Problem solved. That’s what we’ll do’. Replied John.
In Elsace, Morag wished she could say the same. The actors were now in full costume and she had to admit it had made a difference to their morale. The rustics, in their rude tattered costumes, made a sharp contrast to the swaggering evil courtiers, with their brocaded doublets and their swinging rapiers at their sides. But both sets of actors now performed their roles with more panache, and with even more determination. They really knew their roles now, and for the first time, Morag could see the shape of the play as it was to be performed. She realised that the play was about the battle between good and evil, the strife between wicked despotism and true love, in which the love affair between Florizel and Perdita played a central role. In addition, the plots and sub-plots of the rustics and the courtiers made up part of the extra main plot. It was a very satisfying ensemble, and Morag was happy with it. She hoped Petrina was, as well. She said so, as she and Petrina walked back to the palace after the rehearsal. But Petrina shook her head.
‘There is much to be done yet’. She retorted. ‘The actors still have to hone their roles. I want to it to be as perfect as possible’.
Morag wondered whether Petrina was being too perfectionist with such a new and untried troupe of actors, but she seemed to know what she was doing. As they came into the common room they shared with the others, she gave a shriek of joy. A familiar figure had arisen from one of the chairs, and was holding out his arms to her. ‘Demos! You came!’ They hugged and kissed each lovingly. ‘I had no choice’. Said Demos, grinning. ‘Ezekiel virtually ordered me to come’.
‘Well, I’m very glad he did’. Morag said, smiling at him. ‘I’ve missed you very much. Petrina, come and greet my husband’.
Petrina obediently got up from the window seat to which she had tactfully withdrawn, and trotted across to them at the central table. As before, her mouth dropped open when Demos smiled at her, and she blushed a deep scarlet. Morag was used to the effect that her husband could have on other women. She had seen it before. Fortunately, Demos was completely oblivious of his capacity to arouse desire in other women. But she was amused to see that even Petrina was not immune. ‘I’m sure Petrina has other things to do’. She said hastily. ‘Let’s leave her in peace’. Petrina looked grateful. She took Demos’s arm. ‘Let’s go out for a walk, just you and I’.
‘Very well. Where to?’
‘Let’s just have a walk around Elsace. Please, Demos!’
‘All right. Where do you want to go?’
‘Down the Path of Mars. We can have a drink in one of the cafes there’.
In truth, Morag wanted her husband all to herself for a change. She was tired of the hothouse atmosphere of the theatre, and wanted to escape it for a while, to spend more time with Demos, and explore the delights of Elsace with him.
They found a small table at an outdoor café that Demos knew, sat down and ordered what the faerys knew as “kaffey” or coffee, as Morag knew it.
Sniffing her delicious beverage, Morag told her husband about the progress of the play. Demos listened in silence, not interrupting her. He was a good listener, which she appreciated.
Morag sighed, and sipped her coffee. ‘Yes, I know, but I can’t stop thinking about what might happen if things suddenly start going wrong?’
‘Do not anticipate things before they happen, then deal with them accordingly if you have to. It causes needless worry’.
‘I suppose you’re right’, admitted Morag. ‘It’s probably because I’m a cop. But I don’t want to see Petrina disappointed’.
‘There is no reason to believe that she will be. Faery audiences are well-known for their appreciation of good acting and new things. Trust me, Morag, they will enjoy this play’.
‘I hope you’re right, after all this work’.
But she was reassured. After they finished their coffee, they strolled back to the palace, attracting covert glances of admiration on the way. They made a fine couple, as they walked along the pavement, she tall, dark and slim, with long, shapely legs, and he, with his fine physique, and finely chiselled features, both in the fine pitch of health.
An elderly faery matron bent down to her grandson. ‘Do you not recognise them?’ She whispered in the child’s ear. ‘It is the Lady Morag, daughter of Moran, with her faery husband. They are companions of Annie and Simon, of whom I have already told you. They, too, are mighty daemon slayers. The Lady Morag even fought in the great sea battle against the Circlassian invaders, for our land’.
The child’s eyes widened. So did Morag’s, as she overheard this.
‘Did you hear that? I’m famous!’
‘Of course. News always travels quickly by word of mouth in Hyperborea’.
‘Does that mean I’m a hero or something?’
‘If you want to be, you are’.
‘All I want to be is a bloody good marshal!’
‘Thank you, Demos. You always manage to say the right thing’. Morag said, gratefully.
They continued on their way back to the Palace. Morag desperately wanted to see Annie. She knew that being married, even to someone she loved dearly, was a major step for Annie, after years on her own, and she wanted to reassure herself that it was the right thing for her new sister. Apart from that, she had not seen Annie for over two weeks, since she had started work on that wretched play. She was eager to see her again. She hoped she would be at the Palace. But it was not to be.
Annie was nowhere to be seen. At last, she knocked on Simon’s door, who opened it in person. ‘At last, the stranger returns!’ He cried. Morag managed to compose her face into a smile. ‘How are you, Simon?’ She asked, politely.
‘Bored out of my head! I tell you, Morag, I’m surrounded by harpies here! Thank goodness you’ve brought Demos – some male company at last!’
‘Just calm down, Simon. Where’s Annie?’
‘Haven’t a clue. Probably out shopping again with her fellow harpies. Or sightseeing with my lovely Ragimund’.
‘Go and talk to Demos. He’ll take you out for a couple of beers. I’ll wait for Annie’.
She sat down and waited for Annie. It grew dark as the candles burnt down in the room. She fell asleep as it darkened. She awoke with a start at the sound of voices outside the outer door. Then it opened. She saw two or three black figures silhouetted in the doorway, against the lantern light in the corridor outside.
‘Annie?’ She said, hesitantly.
‘Morag!’ One of the dark figures darted forward, and caught her in a crushing embrace. ‘Morag, I was worried that you had forgotten me!’
‘I’ll never forget you’. Morag said, sincerely. She had not forgotten all the debts that she owed Annie over the past few years, even though Annie had behaved badly to her on occasions. As if reading her thoughts, Annie suddenly said, ‘I know what you’re thinking. I’ve been really bad to you in the past, I know. But I’ll make it up to you, I promise’.
Embarrassed, Morag decided to change the subject.
‘What did you learn from your travels abroad in our world, Annie?’ She wished she hadn’t asked in the next moment.
‘I’ll tell you what I learnt!’ Annie said, viciously. ‘I learnt that our world is sinking under a tidal wave of greed, corruption and filth, while fat entrepreneurs and bloated industrialists are exploiting whole communities. The bastards! It’s not just about rainforests or other exploitation, Morag, they’re destroying our world! Our communities, our habitat, everything!’
‘But, Annie, our whole history is based upon greed and exploitation! We both know that!’ Said Morag, taken aback by Annie’s vehemence.
‘It doesn’t mean we have to accept it!’ Annie retorted, heatedly. ‘Anyway, I don’t want to live in our world any longer. I’m too disillusioned’.
Morag was dismayed at hearing this from Annie, whom she had always known for her cheerfuless and exuberance. Now she sounded bitter and morose, quite unlike the Annie she thought she knew. Annie seemed to read her thoughts again.
Morag was too moved to reply immediately. Why was Annie so desperately upset? What had she seen to make her so despondent? However, she resolved to be positive, for Annie’s sake. She decided to tell Annie about the play. ‘Annie, I think you should know. I’m looking after a play, which we’re staging for you on your wedding day. It’s called The Lost Prince and it’s dedicated to you. It’s about a romance between two lovers who are not what they seem. There’s also quite a lot of political machination and slapstick and humour as well. I can’t tell you any more, because it would spoil the plot for you’.
‘No, that’s enough. But, Morag, does it have a happy ending?’
Morag smiled at her. ‘Yes, it does. Good triumphs over evil in the end’.
‘Then that’s good enough for me. Oh, Morag, I shall look forward to it! It’s just what I need!’
Morag smiled again. She had caught a glimpse, just a glimpse, of Annie as a child again, in her enthusiasm.
‘I hope you enjoy it, Annie’.
‘I’m sure I will. Thank you for cheering me up, Morag’.
‘That’s what sisters are for. Here’s Simon and Demos, back from the tavern’.
‘I’ve just rescued your husband from the claws of the demon drink’. Simon announced.
‘No, you haven’t. It’s more likely he rescued you!’
‘Simon, Morag’s just told me about this play she’s involved in’.
‘The play that’s going to be performed on my wedding day’.
‘Oh, that play!’
‘Wait a moment, How did you know about it?’ Morag said, now alarmed.
‘Everyone knows about it. It’s an open secret’.
Morag groaned inwardly. This put yet more pressure on the beleaguered theatre group.
She made her excuses and left, intending to return to the theatre to warn Petrina and the others of this new development. Demos accompanied her, to give moral support.
Petrina was on stage, still directing the actors. She saw Morag. and hurried over anxiously. ‘Is there something wrong. Morag?’
‘Only that someone has spread the news of the play around! It means that we are going to get half of Hyperborea in on the opening night! We’re going to have a huge audience! That increases the expectations of us! We’ve got to get it right, Petrina!’
Petrina looked horrified, but then rallied. ‘It will not matter! We have an audience! You hear that, everyone!
Far from looking gratified, the faery cast looked anxious and worried. Fear and unease hung in the air like a cloud. Morag looked around, puzzled. She had expected them to be delighted with her news, but instead they looked almost…frightened.
‘What’s the matter with them?’ Morag whispered in Petrina’s ear. ‘They have got stage-fright. They have never performed in front of a large audience before. Morag, there is something else. Acta has disappeared!’
‘What do you mean, disappeared?’
‘He is not in the theatre. I do not know where he is!’
‘In the nearest tavern, most likely!’ sniggered one of the actors.
Morag groaned again. ‘Now we have no stage manager! Things can’t get worse! Or can they?’
Petrina dismissed the players until the following day, the day of the final dress rehearsal, and walked back to the palace with Morag and Demos. She was doleful. ‘What can we do without a stage manager?
‘I have an idea’. Demos said. ‘Why should not Morag take over that role, until such time as you have delivered the first performance? I would be willing to assist her’.
‘Oh, thanks very much, husband.’ Morag said venomously. ‘Just what I wanted’.
‘But it is merely a continuation of what you are already doing’. Demos pointed out, reasonably. ‘And it means that you will be credited in the overall production’.
‘If it ever gets produced’. Replied Morag, gloomily.
‘It will’. Petrina said, confidently. ‘Please, Morag, I do need your help’.
‘Oh, all right then’, She said rather ungraciously. ‘Not that it will make any difference’.
‘Thank you, Morag’. The girl said sincerely.
But the following day proved to be anything but optimistic.
It was the day of the final rehearsal. Tomorrow was Annie’s wedding day, and the date of the first performance of the play itself. Morag and Demos went to the theatre early. But things went from bad to worse. They found the actors almost in a state of revolt, sullen, and unresponsive to their cajolements. Morag wondered what had happened to their good spirits. ‘What has happened?’ She asked one of the actors.
‘Acta has told us that the play is cursed. That is why he has run away. He says that he does not want to be associated with a cursed production’,
‘And you believed him?’ Morag scoffed. ‘He was just covering his tracks after he abandoned you! He’s deliberately sabotaging this play! Don’t you see that?’
‘I do see that, lady, but there is another reason for our discontent’.
‘What is that?’
‘We are worried about the audience, lady. It is so large! We, who have never before performed in public, how can we satisfy such an audience? It is beyond our ambitions and our abilities!’
‘You can and you will. Understand!’ Morag snapped.
‘Yes, my lady’.
Later, Morag wished she hadn’t spoken so sharply. But it had made no difference. The rehearsal was a hideous disaster, made worse by Mo and Bacillus nearly dropping the dungeon on the cast below, at one point nearly tipping it on it’s end.
Worst was to follow. One actor after another fluffed their lines, or else forgot them altogether. It got so bad that Morag abandoned the rehearsal. ‘What are you doing!’ She shouted at the assembled actors. ‘Are you trying to sabotage this play too?’ The actors were silent. One or two even hung their heads. ‘Well? Have you got nothing to say for yourselves?’
The faery she had spoken to before, answered first. ‘It is as I explained before, lady. We are stage-frighted by the thought of that audience out there. None of us has ever performed before such a large audience. It is small wonder that we are apprehensive. We do not want to fail, lady, but we are frightened by that prospect’.
‘But that’s the whole point of a play!’ Morag cried. ‘To perform it in front of an audience! Don’t you realise that? Listen’, She lowered her voice, deliberately. ‘Listen, you lot. You’ll be performing this play in front of your own countrymen and women, not to mention your families and friends. Do you want them to see you fail? Do you?‘
‘You harangue us, lady, but rightly’. A young voice said, hotly. Morag turned to see who it was. The voice came from a young faery girl, one of the youngest members of the cast. Her face was dirty, and she was clad in a grubby, patched dress, as befitted her part, as a serving wench, and best friend of Perdita, the heroine, in the play. But now, she stood, hands on hips, glaring at the rest of the cast. ‘I am not afraid of an audience, if you are! Bring this audience on, lady, for I will be here, at least!’
‘Thank you…. I don’t know your name’.
‘It is Elisha, my lady’.
‘Thank you again, Elisha. What about the rest of you?’
‘We will be here for the first performance, lady’. The faery actor who had first spoken to her said, quietly. He turned to the others. ‘Will we not?’
The others all nodded. Morag felt gratified at having secured
‘I’ll deal with them’. Morag said, grimly. She set off upstairs to the flies, up the same stairs as before. This time, the steps and the staircase felt safer and sturdier than before. Acta had kept his word about repairing them. They had been reinforced with extra stout ropes, and were now far more stable. Morag was thankful for this as she clambered up.
As she mounted the wooden platform at the top, she called out.
The two little men shuddered. Mo whimpered. Bacillus stuttered, ‘We will, my lady’.
‘Good. That’s settled, then’. Morag said, sharply. She hated herself for bullying them. But she wanted the first performance to go well, for Annie’s sake. She rejoined the others on the stage. After a while, Petrina joined them, eyes red-rimmed from crying, from her small backstage room. She had retreated there in despair when the rehearsal was abandoned. ‘Are you all right, Petrina?’ Morag asked, putting her arm around her frail shoulders. ‘Yes, I am now. Morag, is it true that you have solved the problems of this ill-fated rehearsal?’
‘I think so, yes. But we won’t know till tomorrow’.
‘I really do hope so, Morag’.
‘It’ll be all right on the night, Petrina’. Or so she hoped.
She walked with Petrina back to the palace afterwards, to prepare for Annie’s wedding. She wished she could say something more to reassure the girl. But she could not. It was in the lap of the gods now.
As she entered the bedroom she shared with her husband, she saw the dress she had purchased for the wedding laid out across the bed. She had bought it to prove to Indira that she did possess more than one dress, and she had loved this one, that she had had specially made for her. It was canary-yellow, and laced up at the back. The long skirt was split at the sides to make it easier to walk in. It was a lovely, comfortable dress and it fitted her like a glove. She undressed and tried it on, but try as she might, she could not lace up the back on her own. ‘Drat!’ She muttered.
‘Gladly, Morag’. He said, in delight at seeing her. He sat down behind her and began deftly to lace up her dress, finishing with a neat bow at the back of her neck. She stood in front of the mirror and twirled around to see herself. ‘Do you like me in this dress?’ She said, shyly. It mattered to her that her husband would like it. ‘I think you look wonderful in it’ Demos said, sincerely. She smiled at him. ‘Thank you, Demos’. She said. But it was more than that. She really valued the compliments she received. She was not vain, but she enjoyed the compliments she received, because she had received so few of them during her previous life. During her police training, she had been subject to persecution of all kinds, mainly verbal. Due to this, she treasured compliments as comments to be cherished and treasured, to live in her memory.
When Annie knocked on the door and came in, she couldn’t bear it. She burst into tears. ‘Well, I didn’t expect that reaction’. Annie said. ‘Is it really that bad?’
‘What?’ Morag said, surprised.
‘My dress, of course. That’s why I came to show you and ask you what you thought. I didn’t expect to reduce you to tears!’
‘Oh, I’m really sorry, Annie! I was just thinking about the past! I think your dress is wonderful, I really do, and I think you look so marvellous in it!’
‘Thank you. And now tell me the real reason why you just burst into tears. Is it about this play?’
‘No, I was just thinking about the past when I was learning to be a police officer. All the insults and bloody sexual propositions I had to put up with. They made my life a misery!’
‘And all because you wanted to be a police officer’. Annie said, gently. ‘Tell me about it’.
So Morag told Annie and her husband about the petty insults, the humiliations she had had to endure, the seedy invitations to have sex in return for favours granted, and the machinations of Melrose, otherwise known as Doctor Wrist, and her illegitimate father. She had fought them all off, and eventually became a police officer, at top of her class. But it had cost her dear, emotionally.
Annie hugged her. ‘I’m proud of you, Morag’. She whispered.
‘For sticking to your ambition despite all the odds against you. Here you are, one of the best marshals in Hyperborea, which you fully deserve to be. And managing a play as well!’
‘Speaking of which, I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, Annie. Today was a disaster’.
‘Never mind. They always say that a bad dress rehearsal always precedes a successful production’,
‘I hope that’s true’. Morag said, sadly.
‘It is true. I know, because I’m always right’.
Morag burst out laughing. ‘Oh, Annie you are incorrigible! But thank you for the support’.
‘You’ll see’. Annie said, confidently. ‘I know it will work. You’ll see. I hope you’re both coming to our wedding tomorrow’.
‘Of course. I wouldn’t miss it for the world!’
With that she departed after kissing them both goodnight. But Demos was wrathful at the treatment of his young wife. ‘I will have their heads for this!’ He said, vehemently.
‘Those people who tormented you so!’
‘No, you won’t! They’re all policemen and women now, and you’d get yourself into trouble. Besides that, it’s all in the past now, and best forgotten about. Please forget about it, Demos! It’s over now!’
‘Even so!’ Demos muttered rebelliously. But Morag eventually persuaded him it was not a good idea to seek revenge on those who had wronged her. She felt exhausted at the end of this emotional conflict, and longed for her supper. Eventually, they came out for their meal. Morag caught Demos’s arm. ‘Don’t be angry with me’. He stared at her. ‘I am not angry with you, my love. Only with those who have persecuted you in the past. I cannot bear to think of why they have made you so unhappy’.
‘I told you, it’s all in the past. Don’t be angry, Demos. We’ve got other things to worry about, like this play. That’s the only thing on my mind at the moment’.
‘Why is this play so important to you, Morag?’ Simon demanded, as they all sat down around the communal table for their evening meal. ‘I don’t know. I just can’t let Petrina down. She’s just such a wonderful playwright! Besides, I made her a promise that I’d get her play performed’.
‘Oh, a faery promise! I suppose I’d better let you get on with it, then’. Simon grinned at her.
‘Are you sure that the cast will be there tomorrow?’ She asked Morag, anxiously.
‘I don’t know honestly. But we’ll find out tomorrow’.
‘Tomorrow!’ exclaimed the girl, in dismay. ‘But surely that would be too late! We will have to cancel the play!’
‘No, we won’t. We’ll go to the theatre tomorrow and see if they’ve turned up. If they have, we’ll proceed with the performance as we planned. If not, then we’ll have to cancel’.
‘I suppose so’. Petrina muttered, dolefully. All her bright hopes for her play had been dashed.
There the matter was left until the next day.
The next day dawned. It was bright and sunny, with the promise of warmth to come. Morag got out of bed, and stood, naked, at the window, savouring the promise of the day ahead. Then she remembered the play, and her face fell. ‘Damn!’ she said aloud. ‘What is it, my love?’ Demos called from the bed, where he was still lying. ‘Drat, I just remembered the play we’ve got to perform this evening’.
‘It will be all right’. Demos said, comfortingly. ‘The play will go ahead as planned, and you will have nothing to fear. Trust me’.
‘I hope so’. Morag replied, dismally. ‘I don’t want to ruin Annie’s wedding day’.
They bathed together, then went to the common room for breakfast with the others. Indira was full of glee at having the opportunity to show off one of her new dresses. ‘We ought to have weddings every day!’ She proclaimed. ‘So I can use up my stock!’
Everybody groaned. ‘How many dresses have you got, Indira?’ Asked Morag, incredulously.
‘She has to have an audience for each one!’ Her friend, Pei-Ying complained. ‘She has a lust for dresses!’
‘No, I haven’t!’ retorted Indira. ‘I just like one for every occasion’.
Morag shook her head in despair. She knew how profligate Indira was in spending money. But it was none of her business. At that moment, Annie walked in, still clad in her customary breeches and tunic.
‘Haven’t you changed yet?’ cried Indira, sounding scandalised.
‘No, Why should I? There’s lots of time before the wedding’.
But what about putting on your face, and all that?’
‘I don’t wear make-up, if that’s what you mean’. Annie replied, coldly. ‘What I came for is to tell Morag, that if Petrina, her playwright, should like to come to our wedding, she’d be more than welcome. I’m really looking forward to seeing her play. It’ll take me back to my childhood again’.
Morag groaned, inwardly. It was the last thing she and Petrina wanted. But she understood that Annie badly wanted to see the play performed. ‘We’ll do our best, Annie’. She said, quietly.
Annie left as quickly as she had entered. Morag whispered into Demos’s ear quickly, ‘I’m going to find Petrina’. He nodded. She slipped out of the room without the others noticing, and hurried down the corridor to Petrina’s chamber and knocked on the door. ‘Petrina!’ she called. The girl appeared at the door, looking at Morag in bewilderment. ‘What is the matter, Morag?’ She gasped. ‘Nothing’. Morag replied, trying to calm the young woman. ‘Except that Annie’s invited you to her wedding, and she’s looking forward to seeing your play’.
She was not prepared for the young girl’s reaction. Petrina leapt to her feet, horrified, then collapsed at the table, sobbing, her head in her arms. Morag, alarmed at this outburst, did her best to comfort her. ‘How can I go to the lady Annie’s wedding, when I have no play to perform for her?’ Petrina cried, tearfully. ‘You don’t know that yet. Listen, After the wedding banquet, we’ll slip away and go to the theatre to see what’s happening. We can decide then what we can do. How about that?’
Petrina sniffed and wiped her nose. ‘But what if the actors have not appeared?’
‘We’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it’. Morag said, not sure whether Petrina would understand. ‘I mean, that we’ll have to see what happens. But you are coming to Annie’s wedding. She asked you specially’. She was worried about this young girl, with all the pressure on her. She looked miserable and forlorn.
‘Come on. It’ll cheer you up’. She said, as brightly as she could.
‘I suppose so’. Petrina muttered.
‘It will’. Or at least she hoped. She made her exit as quickly as she could, to allow the girl to change into her wedding dress and prepare for the ceremony. She could do little else to help the girl. She went back to her own room to change into her own dress, to find Demos already changed and waiting for her. She hastily perfumed herself, applied a little make-up and put on her new dress, calling for Demos to come and lace her up. When he had finished, they both got up and went downstairs to the entrance hall, where the others were waiting. There was Gloriana, in a long pale yellow dress, and her sisters similarly attired. Indira wore her usual low-cut fanciful creation, to show off her ample bosom, while Pei-Ying wore a more decorous blue dress. They gathered in the hall like a flock of multi- coloured butterflies. ‘Where is our young playwright?’ demanded Gloriana. ‘She must join us’.
‘Here she is’. said Morag, in relief. She had suspected that Petrina might not have the courage to leave her room. But she descended the stairs shyly, and diffidently stood before Gloriana.
‘Greetings, Petrina’. Said Gloriana, smiling at her. ‘How is your play progressing?’ Petrina could find no words to say. Instead, she looked at Morag appealingly, who came to her rescue to save her from further embarrassment. ‘Well, we have had a few minor technical difficulties, but I’m sure we will overcome them’. She said, glibly.
‘I’m sure’. Gloriana replied, smiling at them both. ‘Ah, here come Annie and Helios at last’, The couple descended the stairs, Annie looking radiant in her white dress. They came down and greeted the others. ‘Annie, let me introduce you to Petrina’. Morag said, quickly. ‘She’s the author of your play’.
‘Hello, Petrina. Annie said, brightly. ‘I’m really looking to seeing it. No-one’s ever written a play for me before’. It was the wrong thing to say to Petrina at that moment. She looked down at her feet and gulped. She was on the edge of tears again, so Morag put her arms round her shoulders and quickly hustled her away. ‘I’m sorry, Annie!’ She called back over her shoulder. ‘It’s first-night nerves!’
‘Oh, poor girl!’ Annie said, compassionately. ‘It’s bad enough writing a play, let alone directing it. Let’s hope she’s all right this evening’.
‘So do I’. Morag muttered under her breath.
‘Annie! We must go! It is nearly time!’ Gloriana ordered. They moved off towards the palace entrance, Morag dragging a reluctant Petrina with her.
‘Oh, Morag, I cannot lie to them!’ Wailed Petrina, as they walked towards the Path of Mars, which they had to cross. ‘Who said anything about lying!’ Morag snapped. ‘We don’t know what the situation is yet! Let’s just enjoy this wedding’.
Petrina trotted miserably alongside Morag, raising the hems of her green long-sleeved dress as she did, to walk more easily. She was pessimistic about the play, and wondered how she would explain her failure to her beloved father. Morag sensed her misery, took her hand and squeezed it softly. She looked up at her gratefully. At least, Morag had been kind to her.
They arrived at the art gallery just in time to join the wedding procession behind the happy couple. They progressed between the dancing girls, by the late sculptor, Meridias, towards the tent at the end where the recorder of marriages awaited them. ‘Who are they?’ Petrina said, pointing at several familiar figures. ‘That’s Sister Teresa. She’s a member of our Brotherhood. And the man in the white suit next to her is Pat, who is a great Celtic scholar. He’s also a member. And right next to them is….I can’t believe it!’
‘What?’ Petrina said, blankly.
‘The four Fingers! They’re here!’
‘Who are they?’
Morag took a deep breath. ‘They are the founding members of the Brotherhood, and Sisterhood of the Hand. It’s a kind of detective club, dedicated to solving mysteries. At least, that’s how it started. But then it became an organisation devoted to fighting evil, notably the Wrist family, possibly the most evil family in the world. Eventually, we eradicated them, but not before Annie and Simon were nearly killed, in doing so!’
‘Heavens!’ exclaimed Petrina in horror. ‘What danger there was!
‘Yes , there was’. Morag continued soberly. ‘Only a year ago, Simon and Annie were nearly blown up by a bomb blast in Rhuan, and previously by a bomb in our home town of Brighton. They survived both, by a miracle’.
‘Oh, goodness! How trifling my play must seem to you after that!’
‘Not at all. You see, I believe that we’ll find all the cast will have turned up this afternoon and we’ll have a play after all’.
‘I hope you are right, Morag’.
‘I know I’m right. You’ll see’. She said, optimistically. She hoped she was.
By this time, Annie and Helios were standing in front of the recorder and were exchanging their wedding vows. Morag watched for a while, pleased to see how happy and radiant Annie looked. All the woes and strife of the past four years seemed to have slipped away, and she looked like a young girl again. She heard a distant thrumming in the sky above and looked up. ‘ Look, Petrina, the dragons are here!’
‘Dragons!’ Petrina cried fearfully. ‘They are terrible creatures! What are they doing here?’
‘They’re not terrible! You’re just prejudiced like everyone else!’
‘I know. Oh, Morag, please don’t be angry with me! I could not bear it!’
Poor Petrina was on the edge of weeping again. Morag took pity on her.
‘Please don’t cry. I promise I’ll come to the theatre with you this afternoon and we’ll sort this out. How about that?’
‘That would be wonderful, Morag’.
‘But first you must meet Leila, my dragon-friend and Annie’s dragon-sister. Then you can see for yourself how gentle and civilised dragons really are’.
‘Oh, no, I cannot, Morag!’
‘You can and you will! Come with me!’ She dragged an unwilling Petrina over to where Leila was crouched, talking to the now-married Annie and her new husband. ‘Congratulations, Annie, are you really happy now?’
‘Thank you, Morag, yes, I am. Truly happy. I never thought it, but I am. It’s a wonderful feeling!’
‘I’m really glad for you, Annie. I’ve always wanted you to be happy again. Can I borrow Leila from you for a few moments?’
Leila gracefully uncoiled herself from her sitting position and came over to Morag and a quaking Petrina.
‘Greetings, dragon-friend!’ Her eyes were alight with pleasure at seeing Morag. ‘Greetings, Leila! Leila, I want to introduce you to my friend, Petrina, who has written this evening’s play’.
‘Ah, so this is the talented young woman that Annie has been telling me about! Greetings, Petrina, I am looking forward to seeing your play tonight’. Petrina just looked miserably down at her feet.
‘What is the matter, child?’ Asked Leila, concerned. ‘Nothing’. Morag said hurriedly ‘She’s just got first-night nerves, that’s all’.
‘It is hardly nothing! The poor girl is frightened! What is troubling you, my dear?’ Leila’s tone was gentle. ‘Do I frighten you?’
Petrina looked up at Leila’s dark luminescent eyes. ‘No, my lady. What frightens me is that I might have no actors for my play tonight’.
Leila gave a high trickling laugh. ‘Nonsense! I have yet to meet an actor that does not want an audience! They will be there, Petrina, you mark my words!’
‘There! What did I tell you?’ Morag said, severely.
‘I know. But what if the actors do not turn up? A reluctant actor is a bad actor’.
‘But they won’t be reluctant. They’ll only be too happy to get on a stage in front of an audience!’
‘I am right, Petrina. Trust me’.
On that note, they rose and went to Annie’s wedding banquet, to escape their woes for a while, at least. Annie had arranged it so that a circle of tables within the circle of Meridias’s dancing girls had been prepared for her intimate guests, of which they were members. Leila joined them at their table, and Petrina was surprised at how daintily she ate and drank, unused to dragon ways, as Morag had been.
For a while at least, all was conviviality and good cheer. But Petrina grew restless, and at last, plucked at Morag’s sleeve. ‘We must go to the theatre’. She whispered, urgently. ‘It is nearly mid afternoon’. ‘All right’. whispered Morag back. ‘We’ll steal out when no-one’s looking’.As soon as they could, they ran from the revelry, hoisting up their long skirts to make quicker progress. As they crossed the Path of Mars with some difficulty because of the volume of traffic, they drew wolf- whistles and raucous comments from the wagon-drivers which made poor Petrina blush. But Morag ignored them, intent on getting to the theatre as soon as possible. They passed the palace and soon the theatre came into sight. They noticed something peculiar. The main theatre doors were ajar. ‘That’s odd’. Morag said, under her breath. They passed into the auditorium which they had, privately at least, expected to be silent and deserted.
It was not. Behind the closed curtains on the stage, was a hubbub of voices and hammering. They had not expected this. They poked their heads through the gap in the curtains. They saw all the actors rapidly rehearsing their parts, and the stagehands putting the finishing touches to the scenery. Petrina was delighted. ‘They have come!’ She exclaimed, happily. One of the actors noticed them, and came across, doffing his hat in a magnificent flourish. ‘Welcome, ladies! These,’ indicating the rest of the cast with a wide flourish, ‘are our final rehearsals before the performance this evening’.
‘You are going to perform my play?’ Petrina said, excitedly.
‘Of course, my lady. We are actors, and actors do not spurn an audience’.
‘Oh, that is wonderful!’ Cried Petrina in relief. She had recovered all her original enthusiasm and energy. Morag was pleased about that. She decided to see the flymen again, to make sure they knew their job. Once again she ascended the rickety staircase, hopefully for the last time. When she got to the top, she looked around for the two little men. ‘Mo! Bacillus! Where are you? I know you’re up here! Come on out!’
Two little pale frightened faces appeared behind the windlasses used to hoist up the dungeon box. ‘Have you come to chastise us again?’ asked Bacillus, timidly.
‘No, I haven’t. But I did come to warn you that we have an audience tonight, so everything had better go right. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, my lady. Don’t we, Mo?’ Bacillus said, looking at his brother. ‘Om’. said Mo, nodding his head enthusiastically, so much so, that Morag felt frightened his head might come off. But at least these two little men seemed to understand what was expected of them. So she bade her farewells and descended the stairs again hopefully for the last time.
She reached the stage just as Petrina was giving her actors final instructions. ‘You must remember your cues so that the momentum of the play is kept up, to keep the audience engrossed’. She was explaining to the actors gathered around her. They looked, for the first time, both confident and excited, and Morag realised that a new play was about to be born.
‘That’s good. I was afraid that it might all fall apart. I don’t think I could bear that’.
‘Why is this play so important to you, Annie?’ Morag asked out of curiosity.
‘Because I hope it can help me retrieve my childhood again. I don’t want to go through my married life without having some childhood memories. I just want to be able to go out and enjoy things as a child again, to see them as a child’.
‘Well, we’ll do our best’. Morag said, diplomatically.
She decided to return to the theatre as soon as possible to make sure there were no mishaps at the last moment. Demos volunteered to go with her, for which she was grateful. As soon as they could, they left the assembly and hurried back to the Theatre of Saturnalia, with only half an hour until the opening of the play.
All the actors were still on stage, behind the drawn curtains, rehearsing their lines. The audience was already filing into the auditorium, chattering excitedly among themselves. They had never seen a play like this one, and they were looking forward to it. Morag hoped they would not be disappointed. Annie and Helios arrived, together with Gloriana and her sisters. The rest of them followed, taking up an entire aisle in the centre of the theatre. She saw Demos, who seated himself on the end of the aisle, with an empty seat beside him. She realised he was keeping it for her. ‘Bless you’. She muttered to herself.
The theatre filled up quickly, so much so that the latecomers had to stand at the back, There was a buzz of excited conversation amongst the audience, waiting for the play to start. Petrina looked around at the actors assembled at the back of the stage.
‘We are ready to start’, She whispered, in case the audience heard. ‘Prologuer, start the play’.
The actor, who had spoken to them earlier, strode out bravely across the stage, and disappeared through the drawn curtains to confront his audience. They could hear his voice declaiming th the audience the previous history of what had gone before the commencement of the play, and the enthralled gasp of the audience. He returned, flushed and excited. ‘It is a good audience, lady! They are already excited at seeing a play fir the first time!’
‘Good’. Petrina said calmly. ‘Give the signal to open the curtains and then we shall begin’.
The curtains parted smoothly, and the audience gasped. They had never seen a stage set before. It was open on three sides, with a wooden, beer-stained bar at the back, with three large barrels of beer mounted on their sides behind it, from which the landlord and his wife filled their customers’ brimming tankards. The half- timbered wall behind the barrels, was infilled with plaster, stained brown with tobacco stains. It was a very accurate depiction of a poor rural inn, and the scene for most of the play. The rest of the stage was partly filled with large rough wooden tables, around which were grouped rickety rush-seated chairs for the benefit of customers. But before their arrival, the first actor entered.
It was the girl Morag knew as Elisha, in a grubby patched dress, carrying a broom over her shoulder. She was playing the part of Bess, one of the serving wenches. She stopped for a moment, and surveyed the audience, then shrugged and started sweeping the floor vigorously. She paused again, leaning on her broom and then began to sing, in a clear and sweet voice.
‘Summer is icumen in,
‘Hush that caterwauling, wench!’ Snarled the landlady, coming in at that moment. ‘Get on with your sweeping!’
Bess sighed, then took up her broom again, but not before she had given the audience a broad wink. She waited until her mistress’s back was turned, then turned halfway, and stuck her tongue out at the landlady’s back. The audience, delighted at her impudence, laughed and applauded. Bess waited for a few moments until her mistress was out of the room, and sang another verse of her little ditty, loudly this time, then resumed her sweeping, before departing through one of the doors at the back of the stage. Another burst of applause followed her. The audience had warmed to the young woman and the character she played, and now they were receptive to whatever came next.
The rest of the play proceeded smoothly, with no mistakes. The other actors had gained in confidence with Bess’s success, and they were determined to prove themselves. The rustics came in ones and twos and settled down around the tables, which soon became the centres of the subplots of the play. One concerned the progress of Peter, a tall, lanky youth, in his wooing of Ann. another serving wench, who was playing hard to get. His friends gave him encouragement and ridicule in equal measure. At another table, a group of card-playing cronies were determined to settle scores with Tobias, a well-known cheat at cards. The serving wenches, of which Perdita was one. moved around these groups, serving tankards of ale and various sardonic and perceptive comments on life and the failings of men.
But Morag was still tense. The dungeon scene was coming up, now that Florizel had been arrested, after his attempted duel with the courtier who had tried to seduce Perdita. She desperately hoped that the little men upstairs would not let her down, now that the play was going so well.
She need not have worried. The dungeon descended smoothly with hardly a bump on the stage as it came down. Instantly, the stagehands swarmed inside, to set out the rudimentary furnishings whilst others doused the candles on the stage. The scene was ready.
The curtains were slowly drawn back. The faery audience gasped again. They had not expected to see such a dramatic scene change. The stage was in complete darkness, apart from the single guttering candle in the dungeon itself. The figure of Florizel could be seen, sitting, writing at the small table. There was a jangle of keys at the door, and Perdita entered the small cell. The jailer clanged the door shut behind her, and locked it. The two lovers had met to comfort each other, and their love scene was both tender and moving. So much so, that some of the audience, mainly women, were moved to tears by its pathos.
The scene ended and the curtains closed. The audience cheered and applauded. The dungeon rose up smoothly and swiftly on the ropes that had descended, and disappeared up into the flies above. The stagehands relit the candles they had previously snuffed, so that, when the curtains parted again, the country inn was back to its normal self.
But not for long. This time the courtier, who was named Boqo, had tried to seduce Perdita again. Her cries for help were heard by the rustics, who came to her rescue, led by Bess. They set about the courtiers with whatever came to hand – warming-pans, saucepans and frying-pans, in a desperate battle in the tavern.
But it proved fruitless for the rustics. They were overwhelmed by the rogue courtiers with their rapiers, and threatened with hanging from the nearest tree. But a new party arrived at the inn to prevent this.
It was at this point that Morag decided to join the audience, to see for herself what their reactions were, and to see the conclusion of the play from their point of view. So she crept out from backstage, and up the aisle to where Demos had kept her an empty seat. She looked around. She had never seen such an attentive audience. Some of the faerys were literally sitting on the edge of their seats, so absorbed were they in the play. She noticed that they seemed to be listening to every spoken word, and were entranced by the wonderful language. They were silent, except to applaud at the end of each soliloquy uttered. They were utterly beguiled by the language and the action of the play.
She looked across at Annie. To her delight, she saw Annie as a child again. She looked about eight years old, with her finger wedged in the corner of her mouth. Next to her, Gloriana sat, equally spell-bound. the years seeming to have fallen from her. She looked like the youthful Gloriana that they had seen on their “pic-nics”. Morag nudged Demos. ‘Look at Annie’. She urged.
‘They have indeed! Just what I hoped!’ Let’s watch the rest of the play!’ The once-deposed king had returned in search of his missing son, On learning that he had been imprisoned, his anger knew no bounds. He summoned his soldiers to release his son and escort the villainous courtiers to prison in his stead. Then followed the tearful reunion of the lovers, the revelation of their secret identities, and the corresponding tearful welcomes of both fathers and their children. But the play ended on an optimistic note, with all parties fully reconciled. A note of comedy then ensued. Tobias the card-cheat, had taken the opportunity at the last, to make mischief. He spoke of Bess.
‘If only she were an army! Her bombast, of cannon crammed to the muzzle with her grape of wit, would roar into our enemies, and shatter them all into pieces. She truly is a monstrous cannon! They would call her “Bad Bess”!’
‘Call me a monstrous cannon, would you? I’ll have at you, that I will! You varlet, you rogue! I’ll prick your buttocks for you, that I will!’ Bess, played by Elisha, shouted. She seized Tobias’s own pitchfork and ran at him with it. Tobias beat a hasty retreat into the back of the stage, hotly pursued by the irate Bess, with her pitchfork. The audience roared with laughter.
The actors turned and walked off the stage. But the prologuer came to the front.
‘Alas, our revels now are ended,
‘Musicians! Strike up! We shall have a burgomasque!
The band in their balcony above the stage immediately broke into a gay tune, with drum and wind instruments. The actors flooded back onto the stage, and began an impromptu dance, with the unlikeliest of partners, breaking off at intervals to take their bows to the audience. When Bess came back on, and took her bow, the audience rose on their feet and applauded her. They had clearly taken her to their hearts. In all, the players took three encores from an enthusiastic audience.
On the last encore, Petrina herself came out to take her bow. She was led on by Florizel and Perdita, who held her outstretched arms between them. The faerys gave her a great ovation, even throwing small bouquets of flowers onto the stage. She caught one and held it against her waist, looking small and quite frightened at her own success. Just at that moment, a great bellow sounded from behind her. ‘Petrina, my daughter!’ It was Ezekiel, with his wife beside him. Both were clapping loudly, but Ezekiel stopped and beckoned his daughter to him. Petrina ran down the steps from the stage and up the aisle, holding her skirts up. She ran to her father, who gathered her in a crushing embrace. ‘I am proud of you, my daughter’ He said, and kissed Petrina on the top of her head.
‘Go now, and join your comrades on that….stage. We will see you at home’. Petrina turned and ran back to the stage, to join in the final encore.
Morag grasped Demos’s hand. ‘Come on, let’s go backstage to join in the celebrations’. They ran down the aisle together against the tide of faerys that were now leaving the theatre. Battling their way through, they reached the backstage area, where they stopped in astonishment. Gloriana was there, talking to Petrina and the rest of the cast. Annie was with her, still looking like a small child. Gloriana turned around and saw Morag. ‘Ah, Morag, I am glad you are here. I have a proposition to put to Petrina and her friends’. She paused. ‘I want to establish a permanent theatre company here in this theatre. It will be called Gloriana’s Players, and will put on productions written and directed by Petrina here, who will be in charge. I realise that many of you have commitments elsewhere, but what say you to my proposal?’ Some of the players or raised their hands. ‘I’m in!’ said Elisha, defiantly. Petrina looked around at the players who had elected to stay. ‘There are enough here’. She said, bravely.
‘Good. Now, I invite all of you to the palace for a pic-nic’. Gloriana said, mysteriously.The actors looked mystified but cheerful.
Just then, a guard came up and whispered in Morag’s ear. ‘What! Where is he? Show him in at once!’
She looked around at the others. ‘It appears that I’m on duty again’.
Frank Jackson – 11/01/ 2017 – Word count - 13575