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The Plain Old Man
A Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
"He's ugly and absurdly dressed, and sixty-seven nearly. He's everything that I detest, yet if the truth must be confessed, I love him very dearly."
Sarah Kelling, who was now in fact Sarah Bittersohn but had found one didn't get out of being a Kelling through a mere nuptial technicality, sang because she was happy. Sloshing bucketfuls of paint on yards and yards of canvas was glorious work. This was going to be a shrubbery in front of which the vicar would pour his pretty stiff jorum of tea. Sarah decided she'd try her hand at a Prunus glandulosa as soon as she'd finished the Lagerstroemia indica. She was using one of Aunt Emma's seed catalogs for a reference, and it was having the usual heady effect. The glorious difference here, though, was that a scene painter could make her shrubs bloom as grandly as the ones in the photographs, while a gardener seldom could.
"You very plain old man, I love you dearly." Had her husband, Max, been around, he could have deduced that the Pirates of Pleasaunce were doing The Sorcerer this year. As it happened, Max had just set off for Belgium on the trail of a purloined Picasso when Emma Kelling sent out her distress signal. Emma was Lady Sangazure this time around. Last year she'd been Katisha in The Mikado. The year before that, she'd been the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe. And she'd been great. She always was.
Emma Kellings contralto voice was like her person, rich and full-bodied. She'd been a handsome young woman when she'd married the late Beddoes Kelling. She was a handsome woman still, and meant to stay that way.
"I tell myself," she observed to Sarah, "you're not getting older, you're merely getting blonder. Is my bustle on straight?"
Emma rather went in for innovative costuming. She'd played Little Buttercup in a middy blouse and black sateen gym bloomers, she'd played Lady Jane in a batik tutu and the Duchess of Plaza Toro in a court train eight yards long that had created no end of problems among the chorus; but she'd never sung Lady Sangazure in a bustle before, and felt it was high time she did. Sarah couldn't have agreed more.
"It's superb. That huge purple bunch over your behind will strike the perfect balance beside Sir Marmaduke's paunch."
Emma had never quite lost her schoolgirl giggle. "Jack Tippleton has put on more than a bit over the winter, hasn't he? For goodness' sake don't let on you've noticed or he'll stalk off in a huff and then where shall we be?"
"Right where we are now. Surely you don't believe for one second that Jack would give up a chance to swank around in a velvet coat onstage and show off his profile?"
As far as Sarah knew, John Armitage Tippleton had spent his entire sixty years and then some standing around looking handsome. If he hadn't been cursed with money and position, he might have become a movie star. However, on those relatively few occasions when Sarah had seen him, he'd never appeared other than totally satisfied with being John Armitage Tippleton.
Sarah wasn't so sure about Martha Tippleton. This was the first time she'd been involved with Aunt Emma's coterie on a level where she could get to know them as individuals instead of just hands holding cocktail glasses or teacups at Emma's innumerable parties. Jack's wife was cast this time as Dame Partlett. Sarah wondered how long Martha had been playing that role.
"She will tend him, nurse him, mend him, air his linen, dry his tears."
And while Martha was doing all those useful tasks, Jack would be off in a corner with the sweet young thing who was playing Dame Partlett's daughter, Constance, making a horse's necktie of himself. Max wouldn't have said necktie. Sarah began painting little pink hearts on her bush in place of blossoms.
"What a charming touch, dear," said Emma. "Absolutely right for the betrothal scene. You might do them a weentsy bit larger so the people in the back rows will be able to see they're hearts. We do manage to fill the hall, as a rule."
She didn't have to tell Sarah that. To begin with, most of the Kelling clan always showed up. Counting the sisters and the cousins whom they numbered by the dozens, not to mention the brothers and the uncles and the aunts, they made a fair-sized crowd in themselves. Sarah herself had been coming to see the Pirates ever since she could remember, walking over to North Station with her parents to catch the train for Pleasaunce and be picked up at the station by some relative or other, or riding in Great-uncle Frederick's Marmon—Kellings never parted with their cars until they absolutely had to and often not then—with Cousin Dolph sweating at the wheel and Great-aunt Matilda doing the driving from the back seat. Later, she'd gone in the Studebaker, alone in the backseat while Aunt Caroline rode up front with Alexander. Year before last she'd come by herself, a widow with a broken arm. Last year had been the best. Max had driven her out in his elegant car, singing excerpts from The Mikado all the way. He'd made an unconvincing Yum-Yum, but his "Tit-Willow" had been magnificent.
Sarah hoped desperately that Max would make it back with the Picasso in time for the performance. Only three days to go, and the scenery not even finished. This was an unheard-of situation. Normally Aunt Emma would have everything ready to roll by now. However, the production had been visited by a string of calamities. A week ago the barn in which the Pirates had been storing their scenery for eons past had been struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then Henry Hoist, who'd painted most of the flats in years gone by, had begun complaining that he was too old to climb ladders any more, and proved it by falling and spraining his thumb with half the windows in Sir Marmaduke's mansion yet to go. Aunt Emma had called Max's departure for Belgium an act of Providence and demanded that Sarah come at once to finish the mansion and do the landscaping.
Sarah had meant to spend the time landscaping her own mansion, or at least going out to ponder yet a while on what, if anything, could be done with the white elephant she'd fallen heir to at Ireson's Landing. Since she loved Aunt Emma dearly, however, she'd borrowed a pair of overalls from Cousin Brooks and hastened to oblige. This time she'd driven herself so that she'd have a means of getting back to Boston in a hurry if Max came home and wanted her there, or if the atmosphere at Aunt Emma's became too fraught, as it sometimes did at rehearsal time.
The Pirates' actual performances were always held in a rented auditorium. However, it was in Emma Kelling's Late Robber Baron mansion with its sixty-foot drawing room that preparations went on, sometimes for months, until the costumes were fitted, the props collected, and the cast rehearsed.
The orchestra was never a problem to Mrs. Kelling. Beddoes Kelling had formed his own years and years ago so that he'd have an excuse to go on playing the tuba after graduation forced him out of the Harvard Band. After his untimely and still-much-lamented death, Emma had kept the group together as darling Bed would have wanted her to.
They weren't a highbrow lot. They were none of them all that fussy for Brahms and Debussy, but liked best to play Strauss and Lehar for Waltz Evenings, or to tootle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore, or Ruddigore, or The Yeoman of the Guard or, needless to add, The Sorcerer. At the moment, Emma's Bechstein was half buried under flutes and clarinets, nor could you get at the keyboard without first tripping over a bass viol, a concert harp, or Beddoes Kelling's own tuba, played these days by his son and namesake as an act of filial piety but kept at Emma's house out of consideration for Young Bed's own wife and family.
Over the years Emma had worked out her own ways of coping with the multifarious details of putting on a Gilbert & Sullivan production. As it happened, the bedroom Sarah always had when she came to visit was also the one in which certain costumes were hung after they'd been taken out of their boxes, and pressed. It would have been unthinkable to object to Aunt Emma's filing system, so Sarah ducked meekly to her bed each night under a clothesline strung with lengths of phosphorescent muslin in which the fiends of flame and fire would be draped when the sorcerer conjured them up. She didn't mind; she only hoped the trapdoor wouldn't stick when he had to disappear in the final scene.
That had happened once when she was about seven. With the necromancer trapped halfway through, she'd screamed out, "Squish him down," to the delight of the audience and her ever-after embarrassment. Kellings believed in getting full value out of their jokes as well as their clothes and their cars; she wondered how many of the relatives would ask her if she meant to squish down the Sorcerer this time. Cousin Dolph already had, of course, twice.
Well, these things were sent to test us, as Cousin Mabel was wont to say. The rest of the family were more inclined to assume Cousin Mabel had been sent to test them.
Mabel would be at the performance, no doubt. She'd never missed one yet, nor had she ever said a kind word about it afterward. Too bad Mabel couldn't be given a swig of J. W. Wells's all-purpose love potion.
"Give me that love that loves for love alone," Sarah caroled, reaching for a different bucket of paint.
"Why love for love alone?" her aunt wondered.
"I was thinking of Cousin Mabel," Sarah explained.
"How noble of you, dear. I always try not to. Oh glory be, here comes Charlie. And Gillian's nowhere in sight, after she'd promised faithfully to be here on the dot of four. I can't for the life of me see why people come panting after parts and then won't ever bother to be on time for rehearsals. Give her a buzz, will you, and see if she's on her way? I'll take Charlie through his stage business in the meantime so he won't feel abused and neglected."
Charlie—Charles Daventer, to give him his due—didn't have a great deal to do in his role as the Notary, except to get Aline and Alexis duly signed and sealed and to be fallen in love with temporarily by Constance Partlett. Charlie would much rather have been fallen in love with by Emma Kelling, for whom he'd nursed a hopeless but on the whole agreeable passion since the spring of 1937. However, he was willing enough to submit to Constance's unflattering blandishments, since Emma wanted him to.
The Notary didn't have to sing well. A croak would suffice, but the croakings had to come in the right places, and therein lay the rub. Shortly after rehearsals began, Charles Daventer had been laid up with a bad go of gout in his left big toe. Emma's man, Heatherstone, had been conscripted to understudy the Notary's role, which he'd read from the book in a careful monotone, pending Charlie's recovery. That was all right for the other players, but of no earthly use to Charlie. He'd kept insisting he'd be well in time to do his part, so Emma hadn't dared replace him with one of the men from the chorus; and in fact there was none of them dry and snuffy, dim and slow, ill-tempered, weak, and poorly enough to have handled the role convincingly. Now here he was, back in trim and raring to go and where was their Constance? Really, it was annoying of Gillian.
Sarah let the phone ring, but Gillian/Constance didn't answer, so they had to suppose she must be on her way. Emma gave Charlie a sisterly kiss and a weak whiskey and water and started running him through his lines for the betrothal scene, of which he had precisely four. Sarah, painting her bushes amid a sea of tarpaulins in the vast, glassed-in room that Emma called her sun parlor, could hear them pegging away. Now they'd gone on to the chorus that followed, Emma singing most of the parts while Charlie made frog noises half a beat behind. At last, when her own voice began to wind down from the strain of doing soprano, alto, tenor, and bass all at the same time, Emma called, "Sarah, come in here."
Sarah stuck the brushes she'd been using into a can of water so the acrylic paint wouldn't dry in the bristles and break Henry Hoist's heart, and obeyed. "What is it, Aunt Emma?"
"Charlie wants to do 'Dear friends, take pity on my lot.' I'll be the orchestra, you sing Constance's part."
"Me? I'm no singer."
"Nonsense. You've been warbling it to yourself all afternoon. You know the lyrics better than Gillian does. Here." She thrust the score into Sarah's reluctant hands and fought her way between the harp and the tuba to the Bechstein. "And a one and a two."
The duet between Constance and the Notary was one Sarah particularly liked. The melody made no unreasonable demands on her modest vocal endowment, and the words appealed to her sense of the absurd. She gave it her best shot. Charlie came in right on the button, with due lugubriosity. Emma was impressed.
"Capital, both. You've caught it nicely. Shall we try it again?"
"Why not?" said Charlie. "I was pretty good, wasn't I?"
Sarah was reminded of Tartarin de Tarascon singing the role of Robert le Diable. Oh well. Her arms were tired from painting, anyway.
"Dear friends, take pity on my lot. My cup is not of nectar. I long have loved, as who would not, our kind and reverend rector."
"Why, Sarah, what a delightful surprise." The voice was a well-modulated baritone. "I never knew you cared."
Emma banged her hands down on a C-major chord. "Sebastian, sit down and shut up. We were going along nicely till you barged in. Let's start again, Sarah."
Sarah didn't much relish having to perform in front of Sebastian Frostedd. She couldn't think of much about him she did relish, for that matter, even though he was easily the best voice in the company. He might well be the best actor, too. If even a few of the scurrilities Dolph and Uncle Jem had told her about him were true, Sebastian was grossly miscast as the Vicar. Still, he carried off the role as if he'd been in churchly orders all his life.
His role seemed not to be the first thing he'd carried off. According to Dolph, some of Sebastian's so-called business deals ought to have landed him in jail ages ago, if his relatives hadn't kept bailing him out. There was the Frostedd name to think of. Besides, as Dolph pointed out, no matter how black his other crimes, Sebastian could always be counted on to vote the straight Republican ticket.
Perhaps it was part of Sebastian's stock in trade to look more like a clergyman than a crook. He was a smallish, roundish man with a little mouse-fine grayish hair surrounding a shiny pink pate and a blandly agreeable face. He wore thin beige or gray cashmere vests under his discreet sports jacket at rehearsals and could have passed himself off, if not as a man of the cloth, at least as the assistant headmaster from one of the better girls' boarding schools. Maybe he had, for all Sarah knew. She personally would never trust any daughter of hers, assuming she were to have one, with a man like Sebastian Frostedd. She turned her back on him, making sure she'd got the concert harp between them, and went back to bar one.
By the time she and Charlie Daventer got through their number, they'd accumulated quite an audience. Alexis the brave and the lovely Aline, also known respectively as Parker Pence, son of the second flute and the kettledrums, and Jenicot Tippleton, daughter of Sir Marmaduke and Dame Partlett, had arrived. Parker was a nice boy, Sarah thought. He was following in the parental as well as the aval footsteps by playing glockenspiel in the Harvard Band. He also sang tenor with the Glee Club and was seriously considering a career with the Handel and Haydn Society plus a bit of investment brokerage on the side. The side that liked to eat, presumably, the rewards for choral singers being more aesthetic than financial as a rule.
Sarah thought Jenicot something of a brat, perhaps out of jealousy, as Sarah herself had never been given the chance to be bratty. Jenicot was a natural redhead, though she'd be playing Aline in a marvelous blond wig that was even now perched on a block in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Not Sarah's this time. Her costume was there, too: a birthday cake of mauve ruffles, pink rosebuds, and baby-blue satin ribbons. Jenicot had the willowy height to carry it off. She hadn't had the requisite candy-box prettiness to start with, but she would have by the time Emma Kelling got through with her. Already she'd acquired enough decorum to sit still on the sofa and applaud with the tips of her fingers as they left the piano.
"I didn't know you were doing Constance, Sarah. What's happened to Gillian?"
Excerpted from The Plain Old Man by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1988 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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