Maskerade Page 7


'Of course. I am sure she will welcome the suggestion. You may well have halved costs at a stroke.' Bucket beamed. 'Which is perhaps just as well,' said Salzella. 'There is, in fact, another matter that I've come to see you about. . .'

'Yes?'

'It is to do with the organ we had.'

'Had? What do you mean, had?' said Bucket, adding, 'You're going to tell me something expensive, are you? What have we got now?'

'A lot of pipes and some keyboards,' said Salzella. 'Everything else has been smashed.'

'Smashed? Who by?' Salzella leaned back. He was not a man to whom amusement came easily, but he realized that he was rather enjoying this. 'Tell me,' he said, 'when Mr Pnigeus and Mr Cavaille sold you this Opera House, did they mention anything. . . supernatural?' Bucket scratched his head. 'Well. . . yes. After I'd signed and paid. It was a bit of a joke. They said: “Oh, and by the way, people say there's some man in evening dress who haunts the place, haha, ridiculous, isn't it, these theatrical people, like children really, haha, but you may find it keeps them happy if you always keep Box Eight free on first nights, haha.” I remember that quite well. Handing over thirty thousand dollars concentrates the memory a bit. And then they rode off: Quite a fast carriage, now I come to think about it.'

'Ah,' said Salzella, and he almost smiled. 'Well, now that the ink is dry, I wonder if I might fill you in on the fine detail. . .'

'You make yourself useful, Esme Weatherwax,' said the voice from the bushes, 'by obligin' me and findin' any dock or burdock plants that might happen to be around out there, thank you very much.'

'Herbs? What're you plannin' with them?'

'I'm plannin' to say, “Thank goodness, big leaves, just what I need.” ' Birds sang. The wind rattled the dried seed-heads of moor land flowers. Granny Weatherwax poked in the ditches to see if there were any interesting herbs hereabouts. High over the hills, a buzzard screamed and wheeled. The coach stood by the side of the road, despite the fact that it should have been speeding along at least twenty miles away. At last Granny grew bored, and sidled towards a clump of gorse bushes. 'How're you doing, Gytha?'

'Fine, fine,' said a muffled voice. 'Only I reckon the coach driver is getting a bit impatient.'

'You can't hurry Nature,' said Nanny Ogg. 'Well, don't blame me. You was the one who said it was too draughty on the broomsticks.' Some distance from the bushes where Nanny Ogg was communing with Nature there was, placid under the autumn sky, a lake. In the reeds, a swan was dying. Or was due to die. There was, however, an unforeseen snag. Death sat down on the bank. NOW LOOK, he said, I KNOW HOW IT IS SUPPOSED TO GO. SWANS SING JUST ONCE, BEAUTIFULLY, BEFORE THEY DIE. THAT'S WHERE THE WORD 'SWANSONG' ORIGINATES. IT IS VERY MOVING. NOW, LET US TRY THIS AGAIN. . . He produced a tuning fork from the shadowy recesses of his robe and twanged it on the side of his scythe. THERE'S YOUR NOTE. . . 'Uh-uh,' said the swan, shaking its head. WHY MAKE IT DIFFICULT? 'I like it here,' said the swan. THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. 'Did you know I can break a man's arm with a blow of my wing?' HOW ABOUT IF I GET YOU STARTED? DO YOU KNOW 'MOONLIGHT BAY'? 'That's no more than a barbershop ditty! I happen to be a swan!'

'LITTLE BROWN JUG'? Death cleared his throat. HA HA HA, HEE HEE HEE, LITTLE- 'That's a song?' The swan hissed angrily and swayed from one crabbed foot to the other. 'I don't know who you are, sirrah, but where I come from we've got better taste in music.' REALLY? WOULD YOU CARE TO SHOW ME AN EXAMPLE? 'Uh-uh!' DAMN. 'Thought you'd got me there, didn't you,' said the swan. 'Thought you'd tricked me, eh? Thought I might unthinkingly give you a couple of bars of the Pedlar's Song from Lohenshaak, eh?' I DON'T KNOW THAT ONE. The swan took a deep, laboured breath. 'That's the one that goes “Schneide meinen eigenen Hals-”' THANK YOU, said Death. The scythe moved. 'Bugger!' A moment later the swan stepped out of its body and ruffled fresh but slightly transparent wings. 'Now what?' it said. THAT'S UP TO YOU. IT'S ALWAYS UP TO YOU.

Mr Bucket leaned back in his creaky leather chair with his eyes shut until his director of music had finished. 'So,' Bucket said. 'Let me see if I've got this right. There's this Ghost. Every time anyone loses a hammer in this place, it's been stolen by the Ghost. Every time someone cracks a note, it's because of the Ghost. But also, every time someone finds a lost object, it's because of the Ghost. Every time someone has a very good scene, it must be because of the Ghost. He sort of comes with the building, like the rats. Every so often someone sees him, but not for long because he comes and goes like a. . . well, a Ghost. Apparently we let him use Box Eight for free on every first-night performance. And you say people like him?'

' “Like” isn't quite the right word,' said Salzella. 'It would be more correct to say that. . . well, it's pure superstition, of course, but they think he's lucky. Thought he was, anyway.' And you wouldn't understand a thing about that, would you, you coarse little cheesemonger, he added to himself. Cheese is cheese. Milk goes rotten naturally. You don't have to make it happen by having several hundred people wound up until their nerves go twang. . . 'Lucky,' said Bucket flatly. 'Luck is very important,' said Salzella, in a voice in which pained patience floated like ice cubes. 'I imagine that temperament is not an important factor in the cheese business?'

'We rely on rennet,' said Bucket. , Salzella sighed. 'Anyway, the company feel that the Ghost is. . . lucky. He used to send people little notes of encouragement. After a really good performance, sopranos would find a box of chocolates in their dressing- room, that sort of thing. And dead flowers, for some reason.'

'Dead flowers?'

'Well, not flowers at all, as such. Just a bouquet of dead rose-stems with no roses on them. It's something of a trademark of his. It's considered lucky.'

'Dead flowers are lucky?'

'Possibly. Live flowers, certainly, are terribly bad luck on stage. Some singers won't even have them in their dressing-room. So. . . dead flowers are safe, you might say. Odd, but safe. And it didn't worry people because everyone thought the Ghost was on their side. At least, they did. Until about six months ago.' Mr Bucket shut his eyes again. 'Tell me,' he said. 'There have been. . . accidents.'

'What kind of accidents?'

'The kind of accidents that you prefer to call. . . accidents.' Mr Bucket's eyes stayed closed. 'Like. . . the time when Reg Plenty and Fred Chiswell were working late one night up on the curdling vats and it turned out Reg had been seeing Fred's wife and somehow-' Bucket swallowed -'somehow he must have tripped, Fred said, and fallen-'

'I am not familiar with the gentlemen concerned but. . . that kind of accident. Yes.' Bucket sighed. 'That was some of the finest Farmhouse Nutty we ever made.'

'Do you want me to tell you about our accidents?'

'I'm sure you're going to.'

'A seamstress stitched herself to the wall. A deputy stage manager was found stabbed with a prop sword. Oh, and you wouldn't like me to tell you what happened to the man who worked the trapdoor. And all the lead mysteriously disappeared from the roof, although personally I don't think that was the work of the Ghost.'

'And everyone. . . calls these. . . accidents?'

'Well, you wanted to sell your cheese, didn't you? I can't imagine anything that would depress the house like news that dead bodies are dropping like flies out of the flies.' He took an envelope out of his pocket and placed it on the table. 'The Ghost likes to leave little messages,' he said. 'There was one by the organ. A scenery painter spotted him and . . . .nearly had an accident.' Bucket sniffed the envelope. It reeked of turpentine. The letter inside was on a sheet of the Opera House's own notepaper. In neat, copperplate writing, it said: Ahahahahaha! Ahahahaha! Aahahaha! BEWARE!!!!! Yrs Sincerely, The Opera Ghost 'What sort of person,' said Salzella patiently, 'sits down and writes a maniacal laugh? And all those exclamation marks, you notice? Five? A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head. Opera can do that to a man. Look, at least let's search the building. The cellars go on for ever. I'll need a boat-'

'A boat? In the cellar?'

'Oh. Didn't they tell you about the sub-basement?' Bucket smiled the bright, crazed smile of a man who was nearing double exclamation marks himself. 'No,' he said. 'They didn't tell me about the subbasement. They were too busy not telling me that someone goes around killing the company. I don't recall anyone saying “Oh, by the way, people are dying a lot, and incidentally there's a touch of rising damp-” '

'They're flooded.'

'Oh, good!' said Bucket. 'What with? Buckets of blood?'

'Didn't you have a look?'

'They said the cellars were fine!'

'And you believed them?'

'Well, there was rather a lot of champagne. . .' Salzella sighed. Bucket took offence at the sigh. 'I happen to pride myself that I am a good judge of character,' he said. 'Look a man deeply in the eye and give him a firm handshake and you know everything about him.'

'Yes, indeed,' said Salzella. 'Oh, blast. . . Senor Enrico Basilica will be here the day after tomorrow. Do you think something might happen to him?'

'Oh, not much. Cut throat, perhaps.'

'What? You think so?'

'How should I know?'

'What do you want me to do? Close the place? As far as I can see it doesn't make any money as it is! Why hasn't anyone told the Watch?'

'That would be worse,' said Salzella. 'Big trolls in rusty chain mail tramping everywhere, getting in everyone's way and asking stupid questions. They'd close us down.' Bucket swallowed. 'Oh, we can't have that,' he said. 'Can't have them. . . putting everyone on edge.' Salzella sat back. He seemed to relax a little. 'On edge? Mr Bucket,' he said, 'this is opera. Everyone is always on edge. Have you ever heard of a catastrophe curve, Mr Bucket?' Seldom Bucket did his best. 'Well, I know there's a dreadful bend in the road up by-'

'A catastrophe curve, Mr Bucket, is what opera runs along. Opera happens because a large number of things amazingly fail to go wrong, Mr Bucket. It works because of hatred and love and nerves. All the time. This isn't cheese. This is opera. If you wanted a quiet retirement, Mr Bucket, you shouldn't have bought the Opera House. You should have done something peaceful, like alligator dentistry.' Nanny Ogg was easily bored. But, on the other hand, she was also easy to amuse. 'Certainly an interestin' way to travel,' she said. 'You do get to see places.'

'Yes,' said Granny. 'Every five miles, it seems to me.'

'Can't think what's got into me.'

'I shouldn't think the horses have managed to get faster'n a walk all morning.' They were, by now, alone except for the huge snoring man. The other two had got out and joined the travellers on top. The main cause of this was Greebo. With a cat's unerring instinct for people who dislike cats he'd leapt heavily into their laps and given them the 'young masser back on de ole plantation' treatment. And he'd treadled them into submission and then settled down and gone to sleep, claws gripping not sufficiently to draw blood but definitely to suggest that this was an option should the person move or breathe. And then, when he was sure they were resigned to the situation, he'd started to smell. No one knew where it came from. It was not associated with any known orifice. It was just that, after five minutes' doze, the air above Greebo had a penetrating smell of fermented carpets. He was now trying it out on the very large man. It wasn't working. At last Greebo had found a stomach too big for him. Also, the continuing going up and down was beginning to make him feel ill. The snores reverberated around the coach. 'Wouldn't like to come between him and his pudding,' said Nanny Ogg. Granny was staring out of the window. At least, her face was turned that way, but her eyes were focused on infinity. 'Gytha?'

Prev Next