A BALLOON RIDE
It occurs to me now, Reader, that you may be wondering who I am and just what I am doing living in a theater.
My full name is Catherine Royal, known to almost everyone but the vicar and Mr. Salter as Cat. I am four foot four, have long red hair and green eyes, and not a penny that I can call my own. But I am not asking for your pity: I think I am more fortunate than those heiresses of many thousands a year that you read about in sentimental novels, for I live in the most exciting place in the whole wide world: the Theater Royal, Drury Lane, London. Forget everything you've heard about our rival house, Covent Garden, for Drury Lane undoubtedly has the best actors, backstage hands, musicians, and dancers. And I should know, for there is nothing that happens in our theater that I am not aware of--well, almost nothing, as my tale will show.
Why do I live in a theater? you ask. Why am I not at home with my mama and papa? Well, you see, I seem to have lost my parents, or rather, they lost me. Mr. Sheridan himself found the infant me on the theater steps one cold January night in 1780. Rather than hand me on to the Foundlings Hospital, where a scrawny scrap as I was then usually dies in the first few days, he decided to take me in. He even named me after his theater, which explains why my surname is Royal. Mrs. Reid, the head seamstress, says that Mr. Sheridan was drunk at the time or he would never have done anything so soft-hearted. This is probably true. But drunk or not, he picked me up, transported me over the threshold of his theater, and I have not left since. The theater has become my family, and I have become its Cat. It has fed and clothed me, taught me to read and write, and given me employment. There is many an abandoned child who freezes to death on the streets of London in winter--but I was lucky.
And what do I do in the theater? Well, Reader, you may think of it this way. The theater is a kingdom. Mr. Sheridan is our King George(without the fits of madness); Mr. Kemble his prime minister; the actors and actresses the royal family. The different departments in the theater are like the various ministries of government, providing costumes, scenery, music, and dance to keep the royal family in fine form. You could call me the mail coach, running messages about the kingdom. Johnny says I am more like the oppressed masses doing the jobs no one else wants for no wages. He told me to write down that he is the Archbishop of Canterbury as, in his role as prompter, he administers the word to those in need. I wasn't sure if this was blasphemous or not, but he instructed me not to be so lily-livered and put it down in any case.
This brings me to Johnny. Or Mr. Jonathan Smith, as I suppose I should call him if I am to make a proper job of the introduction. I first met him the day after the riot. He was waiting outside Mr. Kemble's office early the next morning when I came down from the Sparrow's Nest with a pile of washing. He was kicking his heels in the corridor and whistling "Rule, Britannia," just as Mr.Sheridan had the night before, with the difference that his rendition was far more tuneful. He did not see me, perhaps because I only come up to his chest, so he managed to trip me up as I passed.
"Clothead!" I squealed at him as the washing tumbled onto the floor with me on top of it. "Fool!" (You see that I was brought up in the politest society and know how to introduce myself to a gentleman in the most agreeable way.)
Johnny almost fell over himself in his attempt to right his wrong. He hauled me up and began to load me down with the clothes, practically burying me under Miss Stageldoir's smelly stockings.
"I am so sorry, I did not see you there, Miss ... ?"
I sniffed disdainfully, then regretted this immediately as it brought a rather overwhelming whiff of feet to my nostrils. "Miss Catherine Royal," I said with dignity.
"Miss Catherine Royal," said Johnny, making a low bow, his eyes gleaming mischievously as he squinted up at me. "Will Miss Royal ever forgive her humble servant?" He remained bent over, his face contorted, half-laughing, half-pleading.
I had to smile. "Of course," I said, trying to curtsy to show him that I too could be refined if I tried. Unfortunately, my bob sent the clothes tumbling back to the ground. We bent down together to pick them up. "But you'd better call me Cat, because no one will understand you if you call me Miss Royal."
"Your wish is my command," said Johnny, like the genie out of the Arabian Nights.
I took an instant liking to him: a tall youth with long black hair tied behind in a blue ribbon. His eyes were so brown they were almost black and seemed to dance with laughter. He was also very handsome. I guessed that the girls backstage would all be swooning over him before too long.
"And who are you?" I asked when he did not introduce himself.
"Mr. Jonathan ..." he hesitated for a moment, "Smith--at your service. Though you can call me Johnny" He gave me a wink.
"Well, Johnny, what are you doing here? Mr. Kemble doesn't usually get in this early."
He fortunately found my impertinent curiosity amusing. He laughed. "Oh, I have an appointment.You're looking at the new prompter." He stood up and gave another bow, this time as if to an imaginary audience.
"Oh good!" I exclaimed, thinking how angry Mr. Salter would be. "I'm so pleased they've appointed you."
Johnny gave me a queer look. "I'm glad to hear it. Thank you for your vote of confidence. From what Sheridan--Mr. Sheridan--told me, I have to secure your blessing if I am to succeed behind the scenes."
This made me wonder. It was strange to think that someone as important as Mr. Sheridan had thought to mention me to Johnny.
"I'd better get these to the carrier. I'll see you later," I said, a little embarrassed as I clasped the washing tightly to my chest.
"See you later, Catkin."
I could feel his eyes on my back as I made my way down the corridor. I had a warm glow inside, a wonderful sensation like being allowed near Mrs. Reid's fireside on a frosty day.
After sending the washing off on the carrier's cart to the laundress in the nearby village ofIslington, I slipped into the auditorium to see what the damage from last night's riot had been. Long Tom, the tallest of the stagehands, was sweeping up the debris left in the pit. There was a dank, unpleasant smell left by too many bodies crushed together down here night after night. It needed a good airing. How strange to think that somewhere among the squalid splendors of Drury Lane, Mr. Sheridan had hidden a treasure--a perfect diamond, a real jewel in her gilt crown. I wondered where he had put it. The stone would not be large; it could be almost anywhere.
"Much harm done, Tom?" I asked, clambering over the upturned benches to reach him.
"Morning, Cat," he greeted me, gesturing to the pile of rotten vegetables and crumpled-up playbills he had collected. "Not too bad. I'd say we got off lightly seeing what rubbish we inflicted on them last night. We'll be able to open tonight as usual."
I began to help him right the benches but then a door behind us banged open, and a white-haired man with a cloak lined with scarlet flapped down the central aisle. Enter Signor Angelini, musical director.
"Vivamente! Quickly now!" he called over his shoulder, clapping his hands rapidly twice.
"Buon giorno, Signorina Caterina," he said as he swept past me to the stage.
"Buon giorno, maestro." I bobbed a curtsy.
Behind him trailed the members of the orchestra, the cellists carting their instruments under their arms like reluctant dance partners. The orchestra strongly resented being made to rehearse before noon. I spotted Peter Dodsley, a tall, thin man, never seen without his immaculate white wig. He played first violin and was an old friend of mine. He gave me a wink and suppressed a yawn.
"You're up early," I teased. Peter would probably have slept for only a few hours after earning a little extra on the side playing at some fancy party until the small hours of the morning.
"Apparently," said Peter, nodding toward the maestro, "he has something special for us."
"I see," I grimaced back. We both knew that this probably meant that Signor Angelini wanted to inflict one of his own modern compositions onthe orchestra, some wild piece full of unrestrained emotion. He'd then spend the rest of the day trying unsuccessfully to persuade Mr. Kemble and Mr. Sheridan to let him play it that evening. He'd been turned down so often that they were said to shout "No!" as soon as they saw him darken their doorways holding a sheaf of music.
On this occasion, I heard raised voices coming from the stage. I turned from Peter to see Signor Angelini head to head with the stage manager, Henry Bishop, a powerfully built man with a shock of red hair peeping out from under his ancient wig.
"Absolutely not, sir!" Mr. Bishop was shouting. "You cannot rehearse now. I've got a hot-air balloon descent to practice for tonight's musical farce."
"Dio! You think spectacle of stupid balloon dropping from ceiling more important than music?" protested Signor Angelini, pointing at the flies, where the scenery and lighting were suspended.
Mr. Bishop put his hands on his hips and fixed the musician with his one good eye, the other being hidden by a leather patch, a casualty of a special effect with brimstone that went wrong a few yearsback. "Yes, I do. It's what the public wants and we're going to give it to them. After last night, we can't afford to disappoint them. Mr. Kemble has ordered that we prepare for the farce--and unless I get this contraption working, there will be hell to pay." He stared down the Italian so that even the usually indomitable Signor Angelini withered like a plant in the hot sun.
"Chiaro," the signor said, bowing to the stage manager's authority, "but I can practice down there, no?" He pointed to the cramped orchestra pit.
"Of course. You tootle away as much as you like--it won't disturb me and the men."
"If they are men, what are we then?" Peter whispered to me archly. "A bunch of daisies?"
With an irritable flick of his wrist, Signor Angelini directed his players to their places in the pit. Peter gave me a nod of farewell and settled himself down at his usual station at the front of the orchestra.
Behind him, ropes began to creak as Mr. Bishop's team started dropping and raising the mock air balloon, a copy of the amazing Montgolfier craftthat they say really flew over Paris in 1783. Imagine, Reader: men taking flight like a bird for the first time since Icarus! We are living in exciting times. The balloon was a sumptuous piece of scenery--a circular frame draped in blue and yellow silks over a large wicker basket which was to hold the actors. I was most desirous to have a ride in it ever since seeing it under construction, so I perched hopefully on the edge of the stage waiting to see if Mr. Bishop needed any volunteers for a test flight.
"So, maestro, where is the music?" asked Peter with a hint of resignation in his voice as he bowed to the inevitable.
"No new music," said Signor Angelini, rifling through his sheets, scattering them to the floor like seed corn. I jumped down to gather them up for him. "No, today we 'ave a new player to join us. "'E will be performing in the play."
Peter looked about him but could spot only the familiar faces of his colleagues.
"Where is he? What does he play?" he asked.
Signor Angelini did not answer; he clapped his hands twice again and barked, "Pedro, come!" Themain doors to the auditorium swung open and a small figure could be seen silhouetted against the daylight streaming in from outside. The newcomer made his way confidently down the aisle to the orchestra pit and bowed low to Signor Angelini. With lightning swiftness, he then undid the case he held clutched under his arm, took out a violin and bow, and stood, feet apart, ready to play.
The new player was a boy no older than me, but he had the darkest skin of any child I had ever seen. Dressed in yellow and blue livery, his skin gleamed like the ebony keys on the pianoforte. I realized then that he must be from Africa, one of the people taken forcibly from their homes to work as slaves on the plantations of the West Indies. You've doubtless read about them since the recent exertions of the Abolitionists to bring their plight to the public's attention. But how he had ended up in Drury Lane with a violin under his chin was anyone's guess.
"Who's the boy, maestro?" asked Peter dubiously, eyeing the violin as if it might explode at any moment.
"Is this a joke?" muttered the horn player, an unpleasant fellow who played his instrument most crudely (Peter has nicknamed him the brass-belcher but I would be grateful if you did not pass this on). "It's bad enough with those bare-legged hoydens flitting about in the ballet; surely you don't expect us to play with performing monkeys too?" He scowled at Pedro, but the boy did not flinch. Pedro kept his gaze fixed on the conductor, his posture confident and dignified, though from the tightening of a muscle in his jaw I could tell he was offended.
"Tcht!" hissed Signor Angelini, waving an angry finger at the horn player. "Enough of your rudeness, barbarian. The boy can play like an angel. Pedro, start at the first movement."
The horn player snorted scornfully. Now firmly on the boy's side, I watched with bated breath as he took a moment to compose himself. He then launched into the piece, making the notes dance and flutter about the strings in a cloud of butterfly melodies, wiping the sneer off the face of the horn player.
"Enough," interrupted Signor Angelini, cutting the stream of music off abruptly with a flick of his baton. "The opening of the second, if you please."
Pedro took a deep breath, eyes closed, and now made his violin sing with such sweet sadness that I felt a sob rise in my throat. After only a few passages, Peter wept unashamedly into his white handkerchief, his shoulders heaving with emotion. Even the noises from the stage crew had stopped as Mr. Bishop and his men stood still to listen to the performance.
"Now the end of the third," said the conductor, looking around at the subdued audience with a triumphant smile.
The boy raised his bow and set off at a terrific pace, a virtuoso dash through the music, taking every obstacle in his path like a thoroughbred horse. Sweat beaded on his brow as he came to the conclusion, making the bow fly so fast that it became a blur. He finished on three victorious notes and was rewarded by the spontaneous applause of the orchestra and stage crew, as well as myself.
"Very impressive!" said Peter loudly. "That was Mozart as he should be played."
Pedro, who had been studiously avoiding anyone's eye but Signor Angelini's, now shot a grateful look toward the first violin. The two musicians had come to a mutual understanding.
"Indeed, Mr. Dodsley," said the signor. "But, tristemente, Pedro will not be sitting with you to play Mozart. 'E will be playing the part of the Mogul Prince in the farce." The signor tapped his music stand with his baton. "Attention, gentlemen! Let us start at bar thirty."
The music rehearsal now properly under way, I drifted off to see how work on the balloon was progressing. The stagehands were groaning in the wings as they tugged like mariners hoisting a sail, making the machine rise and fall slowly. I approached Mr. Bishop with caution.
"Will it work?" I asked tentatively. I was never sure of my reception from Mr. Bishop. Mostly he tolerated me, but occasionally he would scold me as a useful vent for his anger if he was having a bad day.
Perhaps the music had mellowed him, but he appeared to be in a good humor.
"It might," he said, thoughtfully scratching his chin, examining the ropes and pulleys stretching up to the galleries above.
"Can I be of assistance? I mean, would you like to try it with someone inside?"
Mr. Bishop looked down at me, calculating my weight. "That's not a bad idea. You're a fraction of the weight of Mr. Andrews, so it would give the lads something to practice on before we try the full burden. In you go, Cat."
With a shout to his men, he lifted me into the basket and stood back.
"Take her away!" he ordered.
With a jolt, the basket began to move slowly up from the floor, ropes creaking in the blocks above. This must be what it is like to fly, I thought. I could see the will-o'-the-wisp lights of the orchestra in the pit below, the gleam of the whites of the African boy's upturned eyes as he watched me rise above him. Even the vast stage began to look verysmall. The white cross that marked the trapdoor in the floor looked tiny from up here.
"One more heave and that should do it!" bellowed Mr. Bishop, standing underneath to monitor my progress. I leaned over the side to give him a cheery wave.
It was my scream that echoed around the stage as the rope holding the front of the basket came away from its fastening, tipping its contents--me--out forward head over heels. As I fell, I just managed to grab onto a handle on the rim of the basket and ended up dangling twenty feet from the ground.
"Stop!" yelled Mr. Bishop.
The balloon lurched to a standstill. There was another jolt, and the tackle holding a second rope gave way, snaking to the floor like a whip. The orchestra ground to a dissonant halt.
"Hang on, Cat!" Mr. Bishop shouted quite unnecessarily. As if I was going to do anything else.
"Can you lower her?" he shouted into the wings.
"The block's jammed," Long Tom shouted back.
There was a hubbub of noise below me as people ran across the stage. Swinging like a pendulum, my skirts billowing in a most undignified manner, I clung on with my fingers, praying rescue would come quickly. Taking a terrifying glance downward I saw one of the stage crew running on with a big piece of canvas, passing it out to the rest to form a net to catch me. Half the orchestra had also climbed onto the stage and were grabbing hold of the canvas. I felt sick with fear. Surely it was too far for me to fall, even if they caught me?
Someone else must have been thinking the same thing, for a new voice piped up.
"She will break her neck if she jumps from there." It was the boy violinist. He leaped lightly onto the stage.
"He's right," chimed in Peter, climbing up beside him. "Don't you have a ladder?"
"Not long enough," said Mr. Bishop.
"No need for a ladder," said Pedro.
As I twirled in the air, I watched the boy bound across the stage, nimble as a squirrel, leap onto the rope Long Tom had used to haul the basket into the air, and begin shinnying up it.
"Somebody stop the boy. 'E'll kill 'imself!" shrieked Signor Angelini, but Pedro was far out of reach before anyone grabbed the rope.
He climbed right up into the roof to the jammed block of the pulley system and leaped across to transfer to the rope leading down to the basket. I gave renewed shrieks as the basket began to sway alarmingly, my grip sliding on the woven wicker. Calmly, Pedro slithered down the rope to stand on the upturned edge of the basket. Twisting one leg around the rope, he stretched over the side and held out his arm to me.
"Here, take my hand," he said, holding it out inches from mine.
"I can't!" I whispered, now almost paralyzed with fright. "I can't let go."
With an impatient whistle between his teeth, Pedro let himself slide a little farther over the edge so that he was now dangling upside down alongside me.
"Is that better?" he asked cheerfully, grabbing both my wrists in his hands. "Trust me now?"
"Yes," I gasped. I let go.
Like some bizarre circus act, we swung there for a few moments, Pedro upside down, me dangling in his grip, before he heaved me up onto the upright side of the basket.
"Here, hold on to this," he said, placing my hands on the rope. "I'll see if I can unblock it above."
Now that I was no longer hanging by my fingertips, my pride was returning. If Pedro could climb the ropes, then so could I.
"No, I'll follow you," I said, kicking off my leather shoes for a better grip. They tumbled to the ground, hitting someone in the crowd gathered below. The victim cursed loudly.
Pedro shook his head. "English girls don't climb," he said. "Sit still."
"This one does." Not waiting for him, I started to shinny up the rope as I had seen him do. It wasn't easy: I had to fight off the silk canopy of the balloon as it billowed around me. But I'd beenplaying backstage all my life, climbing over bits of scenery and scaling the odd rope, if never one so high, so I refused to be put to shame by this newcomer. After all, I was the girl who had perfected the one-armed cartwheel during many hours playing alone on the empty stage. I could do it.
Or perhaps not.
I had clambered up to the tackle and seen what was to come next. I bit my lip. The jump that Pedro had made looked a very long way from here. A one-armed cartwheel was one thing; a leap across this chasm another.
"Stay there, Catkin!" someone shouted below. "Don't do anything stupid."
But I could now feel Pedro's breath literally hot on my heels. For the national honor, I had to do it. I held out my arm over the void, preparing to leap.
"No good like that," Pedro panted below. "Swing closer."
The rope began to sway. I glanced down and saw Pedro hanging off it to make it move to andfro, each time bringing us closer to the rope at the side of the stage. Catching on quickly, I began to copy him. The balloon and basket creaked ominously below. I could hear Mr. Bishop clearing the stage in case something larger than my slipper fell on a head. But now the rope was almost within reach.
"Ready?" asked Pedro. "Next time, we go. I count to three--one, two, three!"
And we were off, both letting go with one hand to stretch across and hook the rope. Like acrobats, we hung straddled between the two ropes before swinging over to hold on to the one leading to the ground. Pedro slid down as if the rope was greased; I followed gingerly, having no desire to make a mistake at the last moment.
Mr. Bishop was waiting to lift me to the floor.
"I think you'd better not let Mr. Andrews try it just yet," I panted with relief as my feet hit firm ground.
Mr. Bishop scratched his head, pushing his wig onto the back of his head. "No, you're right there, Cat. Back to the drawing board on the ropes."
"I didn't notice that in the script," said Johnny Smith, coming forward to pat Pedro on the back. Johnny handed me my shoes with a rueful grin. I noticed that he had a red heel-shaped mark on his forehead.
Pedro shrugged; his face resumed its disengaged look. It made me think that he was probably used to being treated badly and found it safest to keep himself to himself. He didn't know yet that he was among friends at Drury Lane. As he turned to leave the stage, I darted forward and caught him by the arm.
"Thank you," I said, trying to coax a smile from him.
He looked at me with his large brown eyes and seemed on the point of saying something when the horn player blurted out:
"What did I tell you? Performing monkeys--and now we've got two of them. And one of them wears a skirt!"
"Hold your tongue, Harding," said Peter, his pale eyes flashing angrily at the offender.
I wheeled around, fists balled, ready to lash out at the horn player.
"I didn't see you risking your neck to save me," I said tartly. "At least there was one gentleman brave enough to do so."
"Gentleman! Pah!" mocked Mr. Harding, leering at me. "I saw no gentleman."
"Yes, gentleman," I said defiantly.
"She's right," chipped in Johnny from behind me. "It's the manners that make the man, not the color of his skin."
The other musicians murmured their agreement, forcing Mr. Harding to back down this time. He retreated to the orchestra pit, grumbling loudly. Satisfied that I had won this bout of verbal sparring, I turned back to speak to Pedro, but he had gone.