There was once a musician who owned two dogs.
The larger dog went “Woof… woof… woof.”
So the musician named that dog ‘Bach’.
The smaller dog was more excitable, and went “Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof, woof…”
And that dog he called ‘Offenbach’.
While that joke probably failed to have you rolling in the proverbial aisles, I am sure that you recognised it as being an attempt at humour. Maybe you even smiled. What is certain is, had you been a resident of the island of Hopeless, Maine, the joke would have sailed spectacularly over your head and out into the deepest reaches of space. Hopelessians have always been strangers to the goings-on of the opera house and concert hall, and this has been a source of deep regret to Miss Marjorie Toadsmoor, a governess at the Pallid Rock Orphanage. Since the day she first set foot upon the island, Miss Toadsmoor longed, above all else, to bring high culture to her fellow islanders.
Bartholomew Middlestreet and his wife, Ariadne, rushed down to the beach, where Philomena Bucket was already waiting for them. A worried expression was etched upon Philomena’s pale countenance.
“They’re over there,” she said, pointing. “I don’t know if they’re alive or no.”
The trio picked their way to where four bedraggled female bodies lay, face down in the dark sand.
A quick inspection by Ariadne verified that each was still alive.
“They’re young and strong,” she declared. “They’ll be fine after a night or two in The Squid.”
The Squid and Teapot had long had a reputation for hospitality, especially towards newcomers to the island, and within no time the four young women were safely tucked up in a large guest room on the first floor of the inn.
It was Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, who discovered their travelling trunk, caught among the rocks. Other, less scrupulous people, would have prised it open and taken anything worth having, but not Rhys. He was aware that there were newcomers up at The Squid, and the trunk had to belong to one, or more, of them. With years of practice behind him, the Night-Soil Man hefted it on to his back and carried it up to the inn, where he left it on the doorstep.
Bartholomew and Ariadne were at a loss to understand a word that the four young women uttered.
It was only when the front door was opened, revealing the travelling trunk, that any headway was made in communicating with them.
“Aah.. le coffre!” exclaimed one, happily.
“No, it’s not a coffin. It’s a chest.” explained Bartholomew, helpfully, eyeing the shipping labels festooned over its surface. Even Bartholomew’s limited geographical knowledge knew vaguely that somewhere, across the waves, there existed a place called France. When Philomena appeared she agreed that the newcomers may, indeed, be from there.
Philomena knew just, one sentence in French.
“Parlay vooz Fransays?” she enquired politely.
“Ah, oui, oui,” chorused the girls delightedly, and started to chatter away, expecting Philomena to respond in kind, but the barmaid felt suddenly totally lost. Then a plan formed in her head.
“I’ll get Marjorie over,” she thought aloud to herself. “ She’ll know what to say.”
“The girls are delightful,” gushed Marjorie Toadsmoor a few hours later. “They tell me that they are dancers, though I must admit to being a little confused, for they gave the impression that they worked in a red mill, somewhere in Paris. I can only think that they dance purely as a hobby, and for the entertainment of the other mill-workers. It appears that the orchestra who sailed with them, and indeed, everyone else on the ship, perished in a storm. All they have left is that travelling trunk, which contains their costumes and make-up, and also a wax cylinder upon which may be heard their music.”
“Why, that’s wonderful,” exclaimed Philomena. “We’ve got a phonograph here on the island,” adding silently to herself, ‘‘and it’ll make a welcome change from that lousy tenor going on about Molly-blasted-Malone all the time.’’
Over the next few days wheels and cogs spun endlessly in Miss Toadsmoor’s head. She would devise an entertainment for the islanders; a thank-you for taking her to their collective hearts. There would be recitals, music and poetry, and the crowning glory, a stately dance by the young ladies of the Red Mill.
To Miss Toadsmoor’s joy she had discovered that the music on the wax cylinder was an excerpt from an opera, no less, entitled Orpheus in the Underworld, by one Monsieur Jacques Offenbach. Although Marjorie was not familiar with M.Offenbach, or his work, she loved the Greek myths and was certain that the young ladies, dancing to his music, would provide a pearl of high culture in an evening of simple, homespun entertainment.
She could envisage them already, swathed in their pure white costumes, diaphanous but modest and tasteful. The music would surely be ethereal, as befitted the tragic myth. As each day passed and the programme of events arranged, it became difficult for her to contain her excitement.
The big night arrived and the Meeting Hall was packed. Word had soon spread that there was to be music and dancing, although when it was revealed that the main act included an excerpt from a French opera, more than one heart dropped. However, the islanders of Hopeless are a stoic and steadfast band, at least for much of the time. The promise of free beer and starry-grabby pie (generously donated by both ‘The Crow’ and ‘The Squid and Teapot’) concentrated minds and cemented loyalties. They could put up with a bit of prancing around as long as one or two of their number were prepared to make fools of themselves, and they were able to join in a chorus or three of that all-time favourite, Molly Malone.
Marjorie Toadsmoor stood in front of the assembled islanders and introduced the evening’s programme.
“… And after Mr Jones’ poem, we will be treated to a medley of folk-songs from the children of the Pallid Rock Orphanage; then there will be a display of shadow puppetry by Norbert Gannicox, followed by Mr and Mrs Middlestreet performing the song, ‘Barnacle Bill the Sailor’. Following that, I am reliably informed, you will all join in with a rendition, played on the phonograph, of the popular song, Molly Malone (this raised a roar of approval from the audience, interspersed with a certain amount of excitable barking). Then will come our grand finale, an excerpt from Orpheus in the Underworld, by Monsieur Jacques Offenbach, and danced by Les Demoiselles de le Moulin Rouge. I have not seen this dance myself, as yet, and I am as excited as you all must be. So, without more ado… ”
The evening went well. Even Reverend Davies and Doc Willoughby, sitting in the front row, appeared to be enjoying the entertainment. The children of the orphanage sat quietly beside the Reverend as soon as their act was finished, filling up the remainder of the available spaces.
Philomena was in charge of the phonograph, with the ever-faithful Drury by her side. When the time came, she gritted her teeth and played Molly Malone. The chorus of ‘Alive, alive oh’ was guaranteed to be popular, not least with Drury, who capered and gambolled like a puppy.
Marjorie groaned. She had no idea that the song Molly Malone was so popular. It was nothing short of an anthem to these people and anything which followed could only be an anti-climax. Oh, what a fool she had been! However, the die was cast and nothing could be done about it now.
Philomena Bucket looked at the container which held Les Demoiselles’ wax-cylinder. Stencilled upon its side were the words ‘J Offenbach: Galop Infernal.’ As mentioned earlier, Philomena’s grasp of the French language was flimsier than flimsy, but those words did not convey the sedate, ethereal music that Marjorie had imagined. It sounded much more fun. With a shrug of her shoulders she wound the handle of the Edison-Bell phonograph, fixed the cylinder in place, positioned the horn for best effect and lowered the circular brass reproducer, with its sapphire needle.
As the opening bars of Offenbach’s Infernal Gallop – commonly known to most people as the ‘Can-Can’ – filled the Meeting Hall, the four young ladies, clad now in short but full tricolour skirts, knee-length boots, low-cut basques and black stockings, came whooping on to the stage. Marjorie paled visibly and Reverend Davies, stony faced, suddenly developed a very noticeable pulse beat in a vein in his right temple. On stage, skirts were swirled coquettishly and legs were kicked provocatively high, revealing gartered, white thighs, above black stocking-tops. The dance grew ever more frantic and Doc Willoughby’s glasses seemed to be steaming up. The girls from the orphanage sat in awe, each one making a mental note to one day become dancers, just like Les Demoiselles. As for the boys… it’s probably best that we don’t enquire too closely.
“Well, at least it can’t get any worse,” thought Marjorie, consoling herself. It was then that the dancers turned away from the audience, leaned over and threw their skirts over their backs, exposing a fine view of four pairs of frilly drawers, each one wriggling its respective derrière suggestively.
Marjorie covered her face with her hands, completely missing the grand finale which featured the dancers doing the splits.
There was a moment of absolute silence when the music stopped, then suddenly the room exploded to a volley of applause, cheers, appreciative whoops, whistles and a few skeletal-sounding barks. There were also loud, insistent calls for more.
The dancers smiled and nodded to Philomena, who dutifully lowered the brass reproducer once more on to the cylinder, and the dance resumed. This time Les Demoiselles found themselves joined by several less-inhibited members of the audience, and Drury scampering around, in obvious ecstasy.
Reverend Davies left soon after, ushering the orphans before him and muttering that it was past their bed-time. Doc Willoughby was seen slumped on his seat, mopping his brow with one hand and fanning himself with the other.
A crowd gathered round Marjorie and the dancers, waxing lyrical with their praise and relegating Molly Malone to second place in their list of favourite tunes. The evening could not have been more successful.
There was just one question Marjorie wanted to ask Les Demoiselles; what, exactly, did they make at the Red Mill?