A Beltane Extravaganza

Readers of these tales, and indeed, any article found in ‘The Vendetta’, would quite rightly come to the conclusion that Hopeless is a somewhat dismal and deprived sort of place, subject to all manner of horrors and privations. Having said this, it ought not to be forgotten that when you or I make such judgements, we do so through the lens of our current era, with its relative comforts and sophistication. For Doctor John Dee, however, the sixteenth-century alchemist recently deposited on the island, Hopeless, Maine revealed itself to be a land of comparative freedom and great wonders.

Although having lived a life of privilege as the Court Astronomer to Queen Elizabeth, John Dee walked as much in terror of torture and an agonising death as anyone else in Tudor England; maybe more so, as his interest in the occult was well known. He had narrowly avoided the flames when accused of heresy in the reign of Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s predecessor. So, while Hopeless can be inhospitable, nightmarish and terribly dangerous, the chances of being persecuted by someone for entertaining beliefs contrary to their own, are extremely remote. Well… on reflection, a bit remote, at least.

It was generally agreed that Doctor Dee’s stay on the island was probably going to come to an abrupt end at any moment, for although it was likely that he would be returned to his own era within minutes of his having left, history was not going to sit around forever twiddling its thumbs while Dee took an extended vacation in the future. Perusal of some dusty encyclopaedias, found in one of the attics of The Squid and Teapot, had made it fairly clear that the old alchemist had a lot of things still to accomplish in his remaining years (not that anyone told him this. He would be far too interested in wanting to know what the future held, and not all of it was particularly pleasant).  It was decided, therefore, to organise a festival, of sorts, as a send-off; something special to for the doctor to remember after he had returned home.  Inevitably, the task of putting together such a programme of events fell upon Philomena Bucket, aided, abetted and generally hindered by her faithful friend Drury, the Osseous Hound.

While Hopeless is not rich in resources, the islanders take full advantage of any bounty that the ocean might provide. Nothing goes to waste, and whatever is not immediately required often ends up being stored in The Squid and Teapot. The most prized of these items, to be produced only on the most prestigious of occasions, is the much-cherished Edison-Bell phonograph, and its attendant collection of wax cylinders. This entertaining piece of technology was, Philomena decided, to be the centre-piece of the festival, bringing with it the possibility of dance, song and no small amount of debauchery, if past experience was anything to go by. As the abysmal Hopeless winter had already shuffled itself seamlessly into a similarly abysmal Hopeless spring, and the month of May was looming, she decided to call the event ‘The Beltane Extravaganza’, which, she hoped, would appeal to Doctor Dee’s heretical nature.

At last the great day arrived and, thanks to Philomena’s efforts, everything was ready. The Town Hall was decorated, every spare chair on the island was commandeered, barrels of ‘Old Colonel’ and ‘Gannicox Spirit’ had been rolled into place and a variety of tables, while not actually groaning, complained quietly beneath platters piled high with steaming slices of Starry-Grabby pie. On walls and in alcoves tallow candles and oil-lanterns twinkled; for a few hours, the island of Hopeless, Maine seemed to shrug off its aura of gloom.

Norbert Gannicox, as Master of Ceremonies, introduced the various performers, starting with the Pallid Orphanage choir, who sang an Elizabethan madrigal, especially learned for the occasion. This was sung under the direction of the usually unflappable wraith, Miss Calder, who almost ruined the evening before it began, by inadvertently allowing her face to lapse into its skull-like aspect every time one of the children hit a bum-note. Act after act followed, some using music provided by the phonograph to back their efforts at singing or dancing. People tended to do their party-pieces; Seth Washpool sang a medley of Hopeless sea-shanties, accompanying himself on the spoons and Bartholomew and Ariadne Middlestreet sang ‘Barnacle Bill the Sailor.’

When ‘Les Demoiselles de Hopeless, Maine’ burst on to the stage Doctor Dee almost dropped his tankard of Old Colonel. The phonograph blasted out Offenbach’s ‘Infernal Gallop’ (more often known as ‘The Can-Can’ to most of us) and the five French girls, shipwrecked on the island just a few months earlier, went into their routine with unquenchable enthusiasm. Dee watched goggle-eyed and amazed as they high-kicked, whooped and wiggled their frilly-drawered derrieres in time to the music, much to the delight of the audience. The world that he knew had seen nothing like this, and would not for several hundred years to come. The room had grown suddenly warm and Dee flopped down in his chair, mopping his brow and fanning himself with his cap.

There was only one thing that could possibly follow Les Demoiselles and that was the song that had become Hopeless’ very own anthem. Philomena dutifully fixed the wax cylinder in place on the phonograph, and lowered the circular brass reproducer, with its sapphire needle, on to its surface.  There was an expectant hush, then the unmistakable nasal strains of a strangulated Irish tenor came through the speaker…

“In Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty…”

Drury’s tail began to wag and a collective smile spread over the faces of the audience. Doctor Dee had heard Philomena singing this, so was well prepared to lurch into the chorus with everyone else, and soon the strains of ‘Alive, alive-o’ were echoing around the room. Just one onlooker failed to join in, or even tap his foot. Durosimi O’Stoat regarded his fellow islanders with nothing short of contempt as they swayed and smiled as they sang.

“What small-minded fools,” he thought. “They have John Dee, one of the history’s greatest occultists, in their midst, and all they can do is try to entertain him with some idiot song about a fishmonger. The sooner I get him back to his own time, and I go with him, the better. All that I need to obtain his full attention is a little bit of leverage in the shape of that Bucket woman, who seems to have beguiled him, for some reason. Now where is she…?”

 The islanders filtered out of the building, many still singing and everyone happy. The evening had been a definite success. Philomena smiled to herself and reflected that, if Doctor Dee was to be suddenly whisked back to Tudor times, he would at least take with him a happy memory of the island. As she watched the last few stragglers leave she decided it would be a good idea to stay an extra half-hour and make sure that the precious phonograph and its cylinders were packed away properly. Ever economical, she doused most of the candles and worked quietly and methodically. Suddenly a movement in the shadows caught her eye.

“Who’s there?” she asked, wishing that Drury had still been with her. As soon as the concert was over he had clattered off to the House at Poo Corner, where Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man would be preparing to start his round.

A lone figure stepped into the dim pool of light cast by a single candle. It was Durosimi O’Stoat.

“Miss Bucket… a word with you, if I might.”

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