Maskerade Page 2

glare quite unlike the oil lamps of home. Beyond the light, the auditorium waited like the mouth of a very big and extremely hungry animal. From somewhere on the far side of the lights a voice said, 'When you're ready, miss.' It wasn't a particularly unfriendly voice. It just wanted her to get on with it, sing her piece, and go. 'I've, er, got this song, it's a-'

'You've given your music to Miss Proudlet?'

'Er, there isn't an accompaniment actually, it-'

'Oh, it's a folk song, is it?' There was a whispering in the darkness, and someone laughed quietly. 'Off you go then. . . Perdita, right?' Agnes launched into the Hedgehog Song, and knew by about word seven that it had been the wrong choice. You needed a tavern, with people leering and thumping their mugs on the table. This big brilliant emptiness just sucked at it and made her voice hesitant and shrill. She stopped at the end of verse three. She could feel the blush starting somewhere around her knees. It'd take some time to get to her face, because it had a lot of skin to cover, but by then it'd be strawberry pink. She could hear whispering. Words like 'timbre' emerged from the susurration and then, she wasn't surprised to hear, came 'impressive build'. She did, she knew, have an impressive build. So did the Opera House. She didn't have to feel good about it. The voice spoke up. 'You haven't had much training, have you, dear?'

'No.' Which was true. Lancre's only other singer of note was Nanny Ogg, whose attitude to songs was purely ballistic. You just pointed your voice at the end of the verse and went for it. Whisper, whisper. 'Sing us a few scales, dear.' The blush was at chest-height now, thundering across the rolling acres. . . 'Scales?' Whisper. Muffled laugh. 'Do-Re-Mi? You know, dear? Starting low? La-la-lah?'

'Oh. Yes.' As the armies of embarrassment stormed her neckline, Agnes pitched her voice as low as she could and went for it. She concentrated on the notes, working her way stolidly upwards from sea- level to mountaintop, and took no notice at the start when a chair vibrated across the stage or, at the end, when a glass broke somewhere and several bats fell out of the roof. There was silence from the big emptiness, except for the thud of another bat and, far above, a gentle tinkle of glass. 'Is. . . is that your full range, lass?' People were clustering in the wings and staring at her. 'No.'


'If I go any higher people faint,' said Agnes. 'And if I go lower everyone says it makes them feel uncomfortable.' Whisper, whisper. Whisper, whisper, whisper. 'And, er, any other-?'

'I can sing with myself in thirds. Nanny Ogg says not everyone can do that.'


'Up here?

'Like. . . Do-Mi. At the same time.' Whisper, whisper. 'Show us, lass.'

'Laaaaaa' The people at the side of the stage were talking excitedly. Whisper, whisper. The voice from the darkness said: 'Now, your voice projection-'

'Oh, I can do that,' snapped Agnes. She was getting rather fed up. 'Where would you like it projected?'

'I'm sorry? We're talking about-' Agnes ground her teeth. She was good. And she'd show them. . . 'To here?'

'Or there?'

'Or here?' It wasn't that much of a trick, she thought. It could be very impressive if you put the words in the mouth of a nearby dummy, like some of the travelling showmen did, but you couldn't pitch it far away and still manage to fool a whole audience. Now that she was accustomed to the gloom she could just make out people turning around in their seats, bewildered. 'What's your name again, dear?' The voice, which had at one point shown traces of condescension, had a distinct beaten-up sound. 'Ag- Per. . . Perdita,' said Agnes. 'Perdita Nitt. Perdita X. . . Nitt.'

'We may have to do something about the Nitt, dear.' Granny Weatherwax's door opened by itself. Jarge Weaver hesitated. Of course, she were a witch. Peopled told him this sort of thing happened. He didn't like it. But he didn't like his back, either, especially when his back didn't like him. It came to something when your vertebrae ganged up on you. He eased himself forward, grimacing, balancing himself on two sticks. The witch was sitting in a rocking chair, facing away from the door. Jarge hesitated. 'Come on in, Jarge Weaver,' said Granny Weatherwax, 'and let me give you something for that back of yours.' The shock made him try to stand upright, and this made something white- hot explode somewhere in the region of his belt. Granny Weatherwax rolled her eyes, and sighed. 'Can you sit down?' she said. 'No, miss. I can fall over on a chair, though.' Granny produced a small black bottle from an apron pocket and shook it vigorously. Jarge's eyes widened. 'You got that all ready for me?' he said. 'Yes,' said Granny truthfully. She'd long ago been resigned to the fact that people expected a bottle of something funny-coloured and sticky. It wasn't the medicine that did the trick, though. It was, in a way, the spoon. 'This is a mixture of rare herbs and suchlike,' she said. 'Including suckrose and akwa.'

'My word,' said Jarge, impressed. 'Take a swig now.' He obeyed. It tasted faintly of liquorice. 'You got to take another swig last thing at night,' Granny went on. 'An' then walk three times round a chestnut tree.'

'. . .three times round a chestnut tree. . .'

'An'. . .an' put a pine board under your mattress. Got to be pine from a twenty-year-old tree, mind.'

'. . .twenty-year-old tree. . .' said Jarge. He felt he should make a contribution. 'So's the knots in me back end up in the pine?' he hazarded. Granny was impressed. It was an outrageously ingenious bit of folk hokum worth remembering for another occasion. 'You got it exactly right,' she said. 'And that's it?'

'You wanted more?'

'I. . . thought there were dancin' and chantin' and stuff.'

'Did that before you got here,' said Granny. 'My word. Yes. Er. . . about payin'. . .'

'Oh, I don't want payin',' said Granny. '

'S bad luck, taking money.'

'Oh. Right.' Jarge brightened up. 'But maybe. . . if your wife's got any old clothes, p'raps, I'm a size 12, black for preference, or bakes the odd cake, no plums, they gives me wind, or got a bit of old mead put by, could be, or p'raps you'll be killing a hog about now, best back's my favourite, maybe some ham, a few pig knuckles. . . anything you can spare, really. No obligation. I wouldn't go around puttin' anyone under obligation, just 'cos I'm a witch. Everyone all right in your house, are they? Blessed with good health, I hope?' She watched this sink in. 'And now let me help you out of the door,' she added. Weaver was never quite certain about what happened next. Granny, usually so sure on her feet, seemed to trip over one of his sticks as she went through the door, and fell backward, holding his shoulders, and somehow her knee came up and hit a spot on his backbone as she twisted sideways, and there was a click- 'Aargh!'


'Me back! Me back!' Still, Jarge reasoned later, she was an old woman. And she might be getting clumsy and she'd always been daft, but she made good potions. They worked damn' fast, too. He was carrying his sticks by the time he got home. Granny watched him go, shaking her head. People were so blind, she reflected. They preferred to believe in gibberish rather than chiropracty. Of course, it was just as well this was so. She'd much rather they went 'oo' when she seemed to know who was approaching her cottage than work out that it conveniently overlooked a bend in the track, and as for the door-latch and the trick with the length of black thread. . .[2] But what had she done? She'd just tricked a rather dim old man. She'd faced wizards, monsters and elves. . . and now she was feeling pleased with herself because she'd fooled Jarge Weaver, a man who'd twice failed to become Village Idiot through being overqualified. It was the slippery slope. Next thing it'd be cackling and gibbering and luring children into the oven. And it wasn't as if she even liked children. For years Granny Weatherwax had been contented enough with the challenge that village witchcraft could offer. And then she'd been forced to go travelling, and she'd seen a bit of the world, and it had made her itchy- especially at this time of the year, when the geese were flying overhead and the first frost had mugged innocent leaves in the deeper valleys.

She looked around at the kitchen. It needed sweeping. The washing-up needed doing. The walls had grown grubby. There seemed to be so much to do that she couldn't bring herself to do any of it. There was a honking far above, and a ragged V of geese sped over the clearing. They were heading for warmer weather in places Granny Weatherwax had only heard about. It was tempting. The selection committee sat around the table in the office of Mr Seldom Bucket, the Opera House's new owner. He'd been joined by Salzella, the musical director, and Dr Undershaft, the chorus master. 'And so,' said Mr Bucket, 'we come to. . . let's see. . . yes, Christine. . . Marvellous stage presence, eh? Good figure, too.' He winked at Dr Undershaft. 'Yes. Very pretty,' said Dr Undershaft flatly. 'Can't sing, though.'

'What you artistic types don't realize is this is the Century of the Fruitbat,' said Bucket. 'Opera is a production, not just a lot of songs.'

'So you say. But. . .'

'The idea that a soprano should be fifteen acres of bosom in a horned helmet belongs to the past, like.' Salzella and Undershaft exchanged glances. So he was going to be that kind of owner. . . 'Unfortunately,' said Salzella sourly, 'the idea that a soprano should have a reasonable singing voice does not belong to the past. She has a good figure, yes. She certainly has a. . . sparkle. But she can't sing.'

'You can train her, can't you?' said Bucket. 'A few years in the chorus. . .'

'Yes, maybe after a few years, if I persevere, she will be merely very bad,' said Undershaft. 'Er, gentlemen,' said Mr Bucket. 'Ahem. All right. Cards on the table, eh? I'm a simple man, me. No beating about the bush, speak as you find, call a spade a spade-'

'Do give us your forthright views,' said Salzella. Definitely that kind of owner, he thought. Self-made man proud of his handiwork. Confuses bluffness and honesty with merely being rude. I wouldn't mind betting a dollar that he thinks he can tell a man's character by testing the firmness of his handshake and looking deeply into his eyes. 'I've been through the mill, I have,' Bucket began, 'and I made myself what I am today-' Self-raising flour? thought Salzella. '-but I have to, er, declare a bit of a financial interest. Her dad did, er, in fact, er, lend me a fair whack of money to help me buy this place, and he made a heartfelt fatherly request in regard to his daughter. If I bring it to mind correctly, his exact words, er, were: “Don't make me have to break your legs.” I don't expect you artistes to understand. It's a business thing. The gods help those who help themselves, that's my motto.' Salzella stuck his hands in his waistcoat pockets, leaned back and started to whistle softly. 'I see,' said Undershaft. 'Well, it's not the first time it's happened. Normally it's a ballerina, of course.'

'Oh, it's nothing like that,' said Bucket hurriedly. 'It's just that with the money comes this girl Christine. And you have to admit, she does look good.'

'Oh, very well,' said Salzella. 'It's your Opera House, I'm sure. And now. . . Perdita. . .?' They smiled at one another.

'Perdita!' said Bucket, relieved to get the Christine business over so that he could go back to being bluff and honest again. 'Perdita X,' Salzella corrected him. 'What will these girls think of next?'

'I think she will prove an asset,' said Undershaft. 'Yes, if we ever do that opera with the elephants.'

'But the range. . . what a range she's got. . .'

'Quite. I saw you staring.'

'I meant her voice, Salzella. She will add body to the chorus.'

'She is a chorus. We could sack everyone else. Ye gods, she can even sing in harmony with herself. But can you see her in a major role?'

Prev page Next page