"No, no, no," Rupert Winston cried, silencing the piano and vaulting up onto the stage with all the spry grace of a much younger man. Rupert tugged at his turtleneck, a habit he had when not particularly pleased. Which, in Cora Felton's humble opinion, was almost all the time. In the few rehearsals she'd had, Cora had come to detest the "innovative and gifted" director, as the Bakerhaven Gazette had termed him, who had left the "stifling constraints of the Broadway stage" in order to "ply his craft in the liberating atmosphere of an enlightened village."
Although no linguist, Cora Felton didn't have to be hit over the head with a condescending remark to recognize one. Rupert
Winston had Cora's back up before she'd even met him. Being tapped to appear in Rupert's Christmas pageant was the last thing in the world Cora Felton wanted. Had she been able to think of any polite way to get out of it, Cora would have done so.
Had she known what rehearsals would be like, an impolite way would have sufficed.
"Miss Felton." Rupert Winston extracted his hand from his black turtleneck, entwined his long, slender fingers together, and rolled his steel-gray eyes to the heavens, as if invoking the deities to witness his tribulations in dealing with mere mortals, and inferior ones at that. "You are a milkmaid. A hearty, robust milkmaid, fresh from the fields, sunny and bright and imbued with a lust for life. If you are to sing the solo line, I have to hear the solo line. You cannot mumble it into your sleeve."
Cora Felton set down her wooden milking stool, fixed the director with an evil eye. Rupert Winston was, in Cora's humble opinion, one of those marginally famous men who affected rudeness as a sign of genius. The good citizens of Bakerhaven might be taken in, but not Cora. Particularly since Rupert invariably singled her out for abuse. Cora, who appeared in breakfast cereal commercials as the Puzzle Lady, suspected this was largely because she was on TV and he wasn't.
Cora was sorely tempted to remind Rupert that she hadn't got a sleeve, this wasn't the dress rehearsal, and her milkmaid costume had yet to be sewn. She stifled the impulse and glanced around the stage, where the seven other maids a-milking stood holding their stools. "You're absolutely right, Rupert," she said sweetly. "I'm totally wrong for this part. I'm sure any of the other milkmaids could do better. I understand completely why you'd wish to replace me."
Rupert Winston looked shocked. "Miss Felton. Did I say any such thing? Of course not. You're perfect for the part. It's just a question of pulling a performance out of you."
Cora bit back a groan. Were there any way to agree with this fool and get on with it, Cora would have done so, but she knew from experience Rupert loved to pontificate. Under the guise of giving direction, he could run through his entire Broadway resume at the drop of a hat. Already, she could see the other actors emerging from the wings to listen. They soon filled the stage. The piece was The Twelve Days of Christmas, complete with pipers piping, drummers drumming, and so on. Cora could barely calculate how many actors were in the show, let alone the odds of all of them ever doing it right.
"I'm not perfect for the part," she protested. "I'm dead wrong for the part. I'm way too old. Just like the rest of your milkmaidsno offense, ladiesbut your maids a-milking should be rosy-cheeked country girls in fetching peasant blouses."
"You're saying you can't work without your costume?"
"No, I'm saying someone else should be wearing it. It's just bad casting." Cora pointed stage left, where her niece, Sherry Carter, stood in a cluster of nine attractive young women. "Look at your ladies dancing. They're all young and pretty. They should be the lusty milkmaids, and we old biddies should be the refined ladies dancing."
Rupert didn't get mad. The director never got mad. Instead, he exhibited, as he always did, a tolerant amusement at the misguided views of the unenlightened.
"Yes, Miss Felton," he replied. "That is how it is usually cast. Which is precisely why I have not done so here. This skit is deliberately 'miscast,' as you would characterize it, for, one would hope, humorous effect. Which, as you might have gathered, is the same reason for so many entrances and exits. Which is also why rehearsal time is so crucial. I hope I don't have to spend too much of it reassuring you that you are right for your part."
"I thought you were the one telling me I wasn't doing it right," Cora countered.
Rupert Winston chuckled. "Well, there is a huge difference between not doing it right and not being right for it. Trust me, you're right for it."
Harvey Beerbaum stuck his oar in, as the annoying, pedantic cruciverbalist was wont to do. "Come on, Cora," he chided. "If I can be a lord a-leaping, surely you can be a maid a-milking."
That was hard to argue with. The sight of bald, portly Harvey leaping about the stage was so ridiculous, if he was willing to make a fool of himself, how could anyone else object?
"Can we get on with it?" Becky Baldwin griped. "I'm meeting a client in half an hour."
"Did you hear that?" Rupert Winston said. "Becky has only a half an hour. So this is hardly time to be worried about our motivation."
Cora Felton bit her lip. She hadn't said a damn thing about her motivation, but she couldn't point that out to Rupert without starting another argument, which would seem boorishly insensitive and inconsiderate, since Becky had to go.
Cora resented that too. Becky Baldwinyoung, attractive, and as fashionable as ever in a scoop-neck sweater and pale blue skirt and vestmight have actually had a client, but as far as Cora was concerned, Becky's pointing it out served only to remind everyone that she was a lawyer on the one hand, and a Star on the other.
Which, in the pageant, she was. Becky had been cast as the young woman in the song, the one who receives all the season's bounty. In Rupert Winston's version of the piece, Becky started each verse alone on stage, singing "On the whatever day of Christmas, my true love gave to me," and then reacting to the stampede of gifts that surrounded her. A plum role, one that Cora felt should by rights have gone to her niece. But, as always happened between Sherry and Cora, Cora was the one pushed out front.
Rupert turned to the piano, where Mr. Hodges, the high school music teacher, was dutifully waiting to play. "You don't have to go anywhere, do you?"
"I have a chorus rehearsal at four-thirty."
"Oh, for goodness' sakes!"
Mr. Hodges, a thin-faced, sallow man with a hawk nose, did not take kindly to the suggestion that he would be responsible for breaking up rehearsal. "The Twelve Days of Christmas is not the only piece in the pageant, you know," he retorted huffily. "The bulk of the show still happens to be the school choir."
"Yes," Rupert snorted. "Standing and singing. They don't move. What's to rehearse?"
Mr. Hodges had no desire to get into that argument. "We lose the gym at four-fifteen anyway for varsity practice," he pointed out acidly.
The Christmas pageant was being performed on the stage in the Bakerhaven High gymnasium, where it shared the space with the basketball team. It also shared the stage with the upcoming high school production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, so the English village square Becky Baldwin was performing in looked suspiciously like a Russian country manor. In a corner of the gym, the Bakerhaven High tech director, a wiry young man in splattered overalls and work shirt, was diligently if somewhat messily painting scenery flats to transform one into the other.
"Then we can't be wasting time now," Rupert declared virtuously, as if he hadn't been the one prolonging the squabble. "Let's take it from the twelfth day, get a look at everyone. Aaron Grant? Where's Aaron Grant?"
The young Bakerhaven Gazette reporter, who was standing onstage beside Sherry Carter, put up his hand and said, "Here,
"Aaron, we're going to take it from your line, the twelve drummers drumming. Do you have your drummers ready?"
"I've got nine of them."
"That's the trouble with afternoon rehearsals," Aaron said. "People have to work."
"Well, then," Rupert said with heavy irony, "are your nine drummers drumming ready?"
"Yes, except we haven't got the drums yet."
"I know you haven't got the drums yet. This is for choreography." Having made that pronouncement, Rupert instantly contradicted it by demanding, "What props do we have? I know we don't have the swans and the geese, but at least we have the pear tree."
Rupert looked around and spotted Jimmy Potter, the librarian's son, sitting on the apron of the stage, listening attentively. Jimmy, a tall, gawky boy of college age who had always been a little slow, was just thrilled to death to be part of the pageant, and he had, as usual, a goofy grin on his face. However, he had nothing in his hands.
"Jimmy!" Rupert cried. "Where's your pear tree? How can you play your part without your pear tree?"
Edith Potter, the librarian and one of the maids a-milking, pushed out of the pack to defend her boy, but Jimmy wasn't upset.
"It's offstage, Mr. Rupert." Jimmy pointed stage left. "You want me to get it?"
"No, Jimmy. I just want you to have your tree for the run-through. I want you to come on carrying it, so you get used to carrying it. Okay, places, please, people. Let's take it from the top of the last verse, starting with Becky's line."
The actors took their positions in the wings.
Rupert called, "And, Miss Felton. Project, project, pro-ject!"
Cora, in the wings, raised her prop and muttered to Sherry, "I'd like to pro-ject this milking stool. Can you guess where?"
"Cora! Think of your image."
"I'm thinking of his image. And how I could change it with this damn stool."
"Are we ready?" Rupert Winston yelled from out front. "And . . . begin!"
The pianist played a note.
Becky Baldwin, alone on stage, rolled her eyes toward the piano. Becky was, Sherry had to admit, quite good. The expression on her face in response to that lone note was priceless. This being the twelfth day of gifts, one could scarcely wonder what her lunatic lover had sent her now. In a voice tinged with resignation and dread, Becky sang, " 'On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,' " then with hands upraised, shrank back from the onslaught.
Aaron and eight other men entered from stage left, pantomiming drums.
" 'Twelve drummers drumming,' " sang Aaron.
The drummers marched on Becky Baldwin as if she were Richmond, then turned and sang in chorus, " 'Eleven pipers piping.' "
The pipers, eight strong without pipes, marched on from stage right, singing along with the drummers.
Ten lords a-leapingactually eight, not leaping very highemerged from all sides of the stage. Had it been the tenth day of Christmas, the solo would have been sung by Harvey Beerbaum. As it was, the lords sang in chorus along with the pipers and drummers.
Nine ladies dancing, led by Sherry Carter, waltzed on from stage left.
Eight maids a-milking swooped in from stage right, sat on their stools, and had just begun to pantomime milking when the seven swans a-swimming (six men who would be carrying cardboard cutout swans, which had not yet been made), followed directly by the six geese a-laying (five in number, not laying, and without geese), sent the milkmaids diving for cover.
As always, everyone got a breather during the retarded line " 'Five golden rings.' " The rings, presented on velvet pillows borne by liveried servants (pillows, rings, and livery yet to come), were paraded in a circle around Becky Baldwin. She broke free just in time to be confronted with four calling birds, three French hens, and two turtledoves (birds, hens, and doves to be made later).
The chorus reached a crescendo. All turned toward stage left.
" 'And a partridge in a pear tree!' " everyone sang lustily.
Jimmy Potter, pleased as punch, marched onstage, carrying the pear tree. It was actually a small artificial fir tree with papier-mache pears, but Jimmy couldn't have been prouder. He strode up to Becky Baldwin and presented her with it.
He certainly wasn't prepared for what happened next.
"Jimmy!" Rupert Winston shrieked. "Where's the partridge? Don't tell me you've lost the partridge! It's the only bird we've got!"
Jimmy, completely taken aback, gawked at the pear tree. "Gee, Mr. Winston. It was right here."
Rupert Winston leaped onto the stage. "All right!" he cried. "Who's been screwing around with our props?"
"I . . . I . . . I . . ." Jimmy Potter stuttered.
Rupert ignored him. "Jesse!" he bellowed. "Where the hell is my tech crew!"
Jesse Viridian, the paint-smeared tech director who had been working on the flats, put down his brush. "Whaddya want?" he said, sauntering up.
"What do I want?" Rupert stormed. "You're my stage manager. Where the hell's my prop?"
Jesse shrugged. "Dunno. Been out here painting. Never went backstage."
"Well, who did?"
Alfred, a gawky teenager with black-rimmed glasses and an unfortunate nose, emerged from the wings, protesting as he came, practically stuttering in his desire to distance himself from the theft. "I didn't see anything, Mr. Winston. I was in the light booth. I never saw the tree."
Cora Felton pushed forward. "Wait a minute. What's that?"
There was something red among the green pine needles.
Jimmy turned the tree.
Hidden among the branches was a red envelope. It was greeting-card size. The back was facing out, and the flap had been tucked in.
Jimmy Potter blinked at it in amazement.
"What the hell is that?" Rupert scoffed. "A ransom note for the partridge?"
Cora lifted the red envelope off the branch. She opened the flap, reached inside.
Sherry, at her elbow, said, "What's the matter?"
Cora pulled the contents from the envelope. It was not a card. Just a folded piece of paper.
Cora unfolded it.
"Well, what is it?" Rupert demanded.
Cora turned the paper around for them to see.
Harvey Beerbaum sucked in his breath. "Cora, look what that is."
Sherry, realizing it was entirely likely her aunt had no idea whatsoever what the puzzle was, jumped in. "Look, Cora. An acrostic. You've never created an acrostic, have you?"
"Can't say as I have," Cora said smoothly, grateful for the hint. "How about you, Harvey?"