“A young man like you ought to have better things to do than sitting in here and drowning his sorrows.”
Philomena Bucket cast a not unkindly gaze over the dishevelled figure of Septimus Washwell. He had been in The Squid and Teapot, moodily brooding over a tankard of Old Colonel, for much of the day. He was not being a nuisance or taking up precious space; the inn was virtually deserted. It just irked the vivacious barmaid to see one so young seemingly give up on life so completely.
“Well, what can I do?” lamented Septimus. “I’m no scholar and dad won’t let me anywhere near the sawmills. He reckons I’d be short of an arm before the day was through… and he’s probably right.”
Septimus’ father, Seth Washwell, had been proprietor of the Washwell Sawmills and Joinery ever since a slightly rusty, and worryingly large, circular saw blade had washed up on the island of Hopeless, Maine. With a little ingenuity that married the salvaged drive belt from a capsized steamer with half a bicycle, a contraption was constructed, as outlandish as any devised by William Heath-Robinson. With relatively few mishaps and positively no fatalities, Seth soon had the blade spinning in the most alarming fashion. Being a pragmatic man, he figured that it was fine for those who chose to work for him to risk life and limb, especially limb, but not one of his own flesh and blood. He had fathered seven sons and had no wish to reduce that figure to six-and-a-half.
“You must be able to do something,” insisted Philomena. “Everybody has a skill of some sort. You might just have to search about to find what yours is.”
Septimus jerked his head and pointed to the bruise on his cheek and a purpling eye.
“I guess that this is what I’m good at!” he said, angrily. “I can brawl with the best of them. And for every black eye I’ve ever received, one of the Chevins has two.”
“Ah, you’ve been fighting with them Chevin lads again,” said Philomena. “So this is where your doldrums are coming from. What was it this time?”
“Caspar Chevin was badmouthing Mirielle…” he replied, a slight flush reddening his face.
“Badmouthing Mirielle? One of Les Demoiselles? And why would that be your problem?” Philomena allowed herself a brief pause, during which one could almost hear cogs whirring and pennies dropping into place.
“Oh, I get it,” she said at last, a grin on her face. “You have a crush on Mirielle. Does she know?”
“Of course not,” said Septimus. “How could she? I can’t even speak French to tell her. Besides… “
“Besides nothing!” interrupted Philomena, “Her English is as good a yours, so that’s no excuse. There’s always a way, if you’re keen enough. Les Demoiselles have been giving dancing lessons to some of the girls at the orphanage. There’s no reason why Mirielle shouldn’t teach you a few steps.”
“I can’t dance,” protested Septimus. “And… the Can-Can? Really?”
“If you can fight you can dance,” exclaimed Philomena. “What have you got to lose?”
Ever since the dance troupe, Les Demoiselles de Moulin Rouge, had found their tour of North America permanently terminated by a shipwreck off the coast of Maine, they had practised their art to the bemused residents of Hopeless at every opportunity. The five young ladies had at first shocked, then delighted the islanders with their saucy, high-kicking routine, performed to the strains of Offenbach’s ‘Infernal Galop’ (or the Can-Can, to most of us) played on the beloved and venerable Edison-Bell phonograph. Les Demoiselles were always happy to share their skills with any who wished to learn.
It was a thoughtful Septimus who made his way unsteadily from The Squid that evening. Dancing was one thing… but the Can-can?
A week or more passed before Philomena saw Septimus again. He had gone to The Squid to see if he could raid the attics for some unwanted clothing. She had to admit to herself that he looked much happier than he had previously. Maybe he had really taken up dancing, or dating, or even both. Time would tell.
“GRAND THANKSGIVING CONCERT – ALL WELCOME” read the poster. This was unusual. The islanders of Hopeless rarely celebrated Thanksgiving, mainly because no one had much reason to be thankful for anything. However, a celebration of any description was always welcome, especially if the Edison-Bell phonograph was to be involved; its wax-cylinders were treated with all the regard usually reserved for holy relics. Even Drury, the skeletal hound, became excited when he heard the strains of ‘Molly Malone’, and, since the arrival of Les Demoiselles, the ‘Infernal Galop’.
As expected, the Town Hall was packed to bursting. The audience had a good idea what the night was likely to provide, but it didn’t matter. There was free Starry-Grabby pie available, a generous amount of Old Colonel flowing and enough yellow light from the candle lanterns to lend the proceedings enough good cheer to warm the heart-cockles of the melancholiest spectator.
Most evenings of this sort would end with a rousing rendition of ‘Molly Malone’. By now the song was so well-known and loved that there was hardly any reason to play the wax-cylinder anymore; the strangulated tones of the Irish Tenor being completely drowned by a great wave of voices that displayed more enthusiasm than musical ability. And so, after the final strains of the Infernal Galop had died away, and Les Demoiselles scurried off, with much squealing and swirling of satin, and enthusiastic applause, an expectant hush fell. This, traditionally was when ‘Molly Malone’ would be played; the wax-cylinder changed, and with it the mood of the evening. The audience cleared their collective throats, bracing themselves for a few sentimental ‘Alive-alive-ohs’. Instead, to everyone’s consternation, a different tune emanated from the great brass horn of the phonograph – Valse des Rayons, again by Offenbach – as one of Les Demoiselles placed a placard against the wall, bearing the legend ‘APACHE’. As most islanders had been stranded on Hopeless for all of their days, the word meant nothing, but Philomena, a little more worldly than most, began to wonder if arrows would be flying through the air at any moment.
“They’ve got it wrong,” she thought to herself. “I think it’s more likely to be Passamaquoddy around here.”
To everyone’s surprise, Septimus Washwell swaggered on to the stage, resplendent in baggy trousers, flat cap, red neckerchief and a collarless shirt. From the other side swept in Mirielle in a short skirt, slit to the thigh. She stamped her feet in mock anger, and they met in the centre of the stage. There was an audible gasp (mainly from Septimus’ mother) as he pulled his moody partner roughly to him and gave her a hearty kiss, full on the lips. This was unexpected, but when he thrust her away at arms-length, and appeared to hit her, sending her skidding across the floor, howls of rage issued from the auditorium. Even Drury growled. It took a reassuring wave from Mirielle to let the audience know that this was all part of the act. Happy that all was well, they settled down to watch a dazzling display of mock-violence, energetic dancing and nothing short of gymnastic dexterity, as Septimus swung Mirielle between his legs, over his head, and spun her about like a rag doll, then tossed her to the floor. There he callously lifted her elegant leg and mimed striking a match on the sole of her shoe, to light a non-existent Gauloise (this gesture would have been so much more effective had he actually possessed a real match and cigarette, but this was Hopeless, so they had to make do). To the satisfaction of the audience, Mirielle quickly regained her feet, hit Septimus around a bit and left him lying on the ground, where she made a point of stepping on him as she left the stage.
The applause was rapturous. People stamped their feet and clapped until their hands were sore. Septimus and Mirielle were called back for four curtain calls. Much to the delight of Les Demoiselles, this looked as though as it might become part of their routine, as it had in Paris. It had certainly been worth hanging on to the Valse des Rayons wax cylinder.
Philomena smiled to herself. Septimus had at last found his true calling and, bizarrely, had become an honorary Demoiselle de Hopeless Maine.
Authors note: La Danse Apache (pronounced, in the French way, Ah-pash) evolved in the early part of the twentieth century in the bars frequented by the young members of the Parisian street gangs. These gangs were named after the North American Apache Indians, because of the savagery shown to their enemies.