“We are gathered together today,” a baritone voice intoned, “to recall the tragedy that has afflicted the royal family. We are gathered to express our devotion to their majesties and to pledge our time and resources to the relieving of their affliction.” The speaker continued in this formal way for a few minutes, ending at last by introducing the pageant that would, he explained, cast further light on the events and guide the search for the coming year. The audience applauded politely.
From the far side of the stage, a single flute began playing a folk melody and a boy, probably ten years old but much shorter, came on stage, riding a cockhorse. A nursemaid said, “Come along, Charlie, it’s time for your fork practice.” She sat the boy down in front of a giant piece of cake and the audience laughed when the nurse ended up with more cake on her than Charlie got in his mouth.
A woman in a bright red dress entered, crowned with a sparkling tiara. She listened to the boy lisp the short speech he was to recite for the guests and coached his pronunciation and diction. From what Nora had explained, they seemed to be showing the little boy getting ready for his third birthday party. The woman broke into a song, declaring her affection and joy in her young son. It looked like the silly, giggling woman from the night before but she sang with such emotion Rosalyn had goosebumps.
The scene changed, and the music began to sound more ominous. A dark-haired man in a red jacket approched some sailors in striped jerseys and flared white pants. “I hear you just brought the Calmar to port,” he said.
“Yeah, and what if we did?”
“Was there a man named Ben aboard?”
“What’s it to you?”
Ben, remembered Rosalyn, wasn’t that the name of Gaétane’s brother and Nora’s husband-to-be? So who was the man in the red jacket?
“He’s a cousin of mine, and I heard he went off prospecting.”
“Did he return with you?”
“What’s it to you?”
The man in the red jacket gave the sailor a gold coin.
“He did take leave of us at Paladia, but on our return journey—“ The sailor stopped abruptly and held out his hand. Another gold coin fell into his palm. “He did return with us, yes. Wanted to come home and see his girl, he says. Planning to get hitched.”
“You’ve been most helpful. Have a drink and toast the good health of the Marquis of Scalamandre.” He dropped several more coins onto the sailor's palm.
The sailors stood up and slapped him good-naturedly on the back. “Aye, that we will.”
The scene changed again and a young couple were out on a moonlit night, arm in arm. The music was soft and romantic, but the woman’s face was downcast. “It doesn’t seem right, Ben, but I’ll do anything for you.”
That was corny, thought Rosalyn. If that was supposed to be Nora, they had her all wrong. She seemed soft and easily swayed, but she was not like that at all once you got to know her. Underneath all that lace and quiet way of speaking was a steely resolve. Nora wouldn’t allow someone else to make up her mind for her, just as she wouldn’t allow herself to be beholden to anyone.
The man broke into song, the gist of which was: “Remember the terrible secret I told you? The prince is fixed! It would be far better for the king and queen not to have a child than to have one so terribly deformed. I will save their honour. I will remove the child. I may be gone for years, but I promise I’ll return, won’t you wait for me?” In beautiful harmony, though trying to warn and dissuade him, the young woman pledged her devotion to him.
So that was why the Bonvent family had been cast out of society. Scalamandre had spread a rumour that Ben had kidnapped the prince and done away with him. No wonder they were afraid to go to the police—they’d been blacklisted. Still, nothing could be proved, hadn’t they said? But in cases like this, once your reputation was tarnished, it almost didn’t matter what the facts were. It seemed odd to her that the women hadn’t explained the details and it made her wonder if they even knew. Rosalyn remembered one time in Grade 6 when some girls had gossiped about her behind her back and for the longest time, though hurt that they seemed to be excluding her, she was only perplexed at her change in social status. However, when little Candace in Grade 5 finally whispered in her ear what they were saying about her, she was indignant at the blatant untruth of it all. She wondered, now, if the women would be able to contain themselves and not start heckling the actors. Gaétane would be furious, of course, as would Marcella. Those two women were so alike it was no wonder they couldn’t get along. Nora would appear to accept it calmly. Did that mean she really did know where Ben had gone? Could someone keep a secret for four years?
The audience applauded the duet and the scene changed back to the castle again. Ben was seen playing with the prince, who was played this time by a much taller man wearing baby clothes. Ben began singing again, “Little boy, I have a present for you. Something you’ve never seen before! You know you hate being cooped up in your chambers. Wouldn’t you like to go outside? You’ll see the world, fresh and wide.”
The little prince clapped his hands and jumped leapfrog over Ben. In a high falsetto, he sang:
“Yeth, I want to go outthide!
To play with the birdth and ride a bike!
I’ll go with you, wherever you thay.
I can’t wait for that marvelouth day!”
They exited to the right and the flute played a fanfare. The woman playing the queen came onstage and sang a song of welcome to the assembled courtiers. The king came in solemnly and a choreographed dance began, much like a ballet.
After the audience had clapped again, a seven-tiered cake was wheeled on stage by two young men wearing puffy white chef’s hats followed by a herald who came centre stage and announced, “His royal highness, the crown prince Charles.” There was a long pause. The stringed instruments played an eerie melody. Then, from the back of the tent, down the centre carpet, ran a young woman in a pink and white striped dress wearing the frilled cap of a nursery maid, calling, “He’s gone! We can’t find him anywhere!” She threw herself on her knees before the actors playing the king and queen and sobbed, out of genuine sadness and maybe fear for her own neck.
A black gauze curtain fell and behind it the king and queen could be heard, singing a duet of comforting words to each other while servants and knights rushed around, looking, calling, weeping. In front of the curtain, the actor who had spoken to the sailors came on stage. He was tall (even for an overcast day like today), wore a goatee and sported a red jacket with white trim. A long scabbard hung from his waist. He walked resolutely over to a rough wooden door that had been wheeled onto the left side of the stage. Rosalyn had an unobstructed view of the main action for the first time.
Knock-knock-knock. The door slowly creaked open and Ben’s character stuck out his head. His hair was an unwashed, uncombed mop, he was wearing a ragged, dirty shirt and he drawled, “Oh, s’you, Eddie. Whaddaya want? Howdja know I was here?” He was drunk.
Rosalyn thought she heard Gaétane say, “How dare he!” but the voice was quickly shushed. She couldn’t imagine how irate they all must feel at this portrayal of him.
“I think you know why I’m here,” Scalamandre’s character replied.
“No, can’t say I do. Hang on.” He shut the door for a moment and then came back out with a couple of stools and cups and a bottle of whiskey. “Have a drink, cousin.”
Scalamandre accepted a cup, rubbing the rim clean with his cuff. He seemed about to take a drink, then thought the better of it. “The crown prince has disappeared. All the evidence points to your involvement.”
Ben shook his head side to side slowly. “Now, why, Eddie, why would you say a thing like that? You know what that means.” He took a long drink and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
“Don’t call me Eddie.”
“All right. I won’t call you Eddie, Eddie.” He rose shakily to his feet. “But you have greatly instul-stinlult…offended me. So either you ask my pardon, or you fight.”
“You’re in no fit state to fight. You need to go to bed.” The Marquis was disdainful.
“So you won’t apologize? Very well.” He rose and nearly lost his balance, grabbing hold of the doorframe and practically falling headfirst inside. Scalamandre sighed and shook his head. The audience laughed. He moved to the far side of the stage and put his hand on the hilt of his sword. Ben reemerged with a drawn sword pointed at his cousin. “Watch out!” he bellowed and charged at him. The duel that followed was designed to make Scalamandre look as elegant and well-trained as Ben was clumsy and inept. Rosalyn heard someone growl in rage at the end of the table, followed by another shushing. Yes, Gaétane was fuming. She hoped she wouldn’t draw any further attention to herself. It could ruin the whole plan if she lost her temper and went charging toward Scalamandre like a crazy woman. He was bound to recognize her, given the family ressemblance. And he would be delighted he had further disgraced the Bonvent branch of the family, casting them as drunkards and deceivers.
Swords clashed and clanged, but Ben’s character was no match for the Scalamandre’s, who soon had his foe on the ground, the tip of his blade against his throat and his black knee-high leather boot on his chest.
“This is your last chance to tell me what you’ve done.”
Breathless, Ben said, “I sent the boy by ship to the mines. I didn’t hurt him, I swear. But it’s time for a new era of freedom for the people. The royal line must end. ”
The audience gasped.
“If the king doesn’t mind children as young as three going to work, then he won’t mind his own son doing likewise.”
“You’re out of your mind. The minimum age is seven.”
“Go see for yourself.”
“I will. And I’ll bring back his royal highness. And now, I will execute the traitor.” With a swish, he swung the sword in a full circle and sliced open the neck of the man lying on the stage. Bright red theatrical blood spewed all over the stage and the actor’s grubby white shirt. He clutched at his neck and screamed and then, with a final tremor, lay still. The audience cheered and jeered. It looked so realistic, Rosalyn was afraid for a moment that he had actually been killed. To her relief, she saw him get up as the black curtain fell and go offstage, clutching a handkerchief to his throat and wiping it off.
Another dance showed the passage of time with moons waxing and waning while the Marquis, covered in soot, wearing a miner's hard hat and headlamp, looked for the prince and a chorus sang, “He’ll never give up, no, not until he’s found the treasure he’s looking for. Sometimes you gotta dig, sometimes you gotta sweat, but if you persevere, you’ll strike gold.” The entire cast came on stage in twos and threes, until all of them were singing in harmony, “We’ll never give up, no, not until we’ve found him.” They went down on one knee and held out their arms to the real king and queen sitting in the front row. Applause and cries of “Bravo! Bravissimo!” broke out. The actors bowed and were applauded at length.
At the end of the curtain call, Scalamandre was called on stage to take a bow, as the playwright, and he held up his hands to quiet the audience. “If I may say a few words?”
The tablecloth concealing Rosalyn on the servant’s side was suddenly lifted up and Cookie’s face appeared. “Time to come out. Something tells me this is it. Just crouch down and get ready to run.” Rosalyn peeled herself off the ground, put the rucksack on and squatted beside the table. Now she had an even better view.