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Cheltenham Tragedy

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"Where the bloody hell is Sylvia?" Eiluned demanded, appearing from nowhere.

 

"Backstage, I suppose," Harriet said, looking up from her programme, which was, to say the least, ill-conceived. She nodded at the two seats next to her, covered in Eiluned and Sylvia's coats; although shabby around the edges, the seats were comfortable, and - like the rest of the theatre - bore the marks of late Victorian grandeur. "You took your time."

 

"There was a queue," Eiluned said, taking her seat rather gracelessly and folding her coat. "And we will not speak of the plumbing. I thought Sylvia was coming back here."

 

"So did I." Harriet sighed. "Eiluned, please remind me what I'm doing at a modern-dress production of The Gondoliers?" She paused, flipped to the photograph at the front of the programme, and added: "If you can call that modern dress."

 

Eiluned gave the photograph, and the leading lady's outlandish costume, a cursory look. She shrugged. "You're here because it's the second anniversary of your being cleared of all charges, and you want distracting."

 

"With Gilbert and Sullivan?" Harriet said, with a crime novelist's disdain for plot holes. She laid the book she was reading down on her lap, a thumb tucked into its pages; it was a review copy, and suffered from the same incoherency she feared she was about to see on stage. She was also having some difficulty concentrating on it. Although the anniversary of Phil's death or her arrest might be expected to act more powerfully on her, Harriet found that the anniversary of her exoneration always brought back an unpleasant echo of the shattering nervous exhaustion that had felled her once it was all over. Eiluned and Sylvia were right that she needed distracting from that, even if their methods were dubious.

 

"With Sylvia's beautiful sets and props."

 

"Eiluned, why did Sylvia take this job? And why was she making scenery and props when she's a sculptor?"

 

"Filthy lucre," Eiluned said, with brutal cheer. "There's a rich and eccentric backer. And she wasn't standing around painting flats, Harriet, don't be stupid - she only designed most of it."

 

"She's probably gone for a look at her work before the play starts," Harriet said.

 

"Ha," Eiluned said. "Aubrey! Watch these seats for us, would you? We need to find Sylvia."

 

"Eiluned!"

 

"You know what Sylvia's like," Eiluned said, already striding purposefully away. "She'll lose track of time and miss the start of the play."

 

Harriet bit her lip hard, closed her eyes, and drew in a long and calming breath; then she released it, and instead of swearing and staying put stuffed her things into her handbag, thanked Aubrey, and hurried after Eiluned. Eiluned was already halfway to the backstage warrens when Harriet caught up with her, and Harriet followed her lead past a couple of laughing stagehands and straight through a flustered dresser, making silent notes as she went. She had seen plenty of plays, some more professional than others, and had even taken part in amateur theatricals, in a minor role or two when no-one else could be found; but she'd never been backstage at a proper theatre before, and it struck her that the chaos, the tight deadlines, and the requisite role-playing would make a fine setting for a novel.

 

Eiluned let out a noise quite beyond Harriet's comprehension. Distracted, she glanced over her companion's shoulder, and was startled to see that Sylvia was presently backed into a corner and surrounded by a couple of young male actors in costume and the stage manager, who were all trying to prise a wailing woman in trailing grey skirts and a lot of greasepaint off Sylvia.

 

"Oh, God," Harriet said, quite spontaneously.

 

"Help!" Sylvia said, half-laughing, half-distressed. "Mrs Stanton - Amelia - I'm not your daughter!"

 

"Sylvie!" cried the lady in question, clutching at Sylvia's shoulders. She bore a superficial resemblance to Sylvia, but not a particularly striking one. "My heart's darling! Come back to me after all these years!"

 

"What the bloody hell is going on here?" Eiluned exploded.

 

"Eiluned!" Sylvia exclaimed, with obvious relief.

 

"Harpy!" her captor bawled.

 

Harriet hiccuped a wholly inappropriate giggle and retired behind a large piece of scenery to lean against it and cry with laughter until Eiluned reappeared, bearing a dishevelled Sylvia and bombarded with shrieks of "Thieving wretch! Vile betrayer! Vicious, evil, evil -"

 

"Now, now, Mrs Stanton!" said the stage manager. "The show must go on!"

 

Harriet suffered a relapse.

 

 Eiluned said something brusque and Welsh, seized her by the arm, and propelled both Sylvia and Harriet back to their seats, where she sat Sylvia firmly down and put a hip flask into the other woman's trembling hands.

 

"Who the hell was that?" Eiluned demanded, as Harriet took her own seat and dabbed at her streaming eyes.

 

"Well," Sylvia said, taking a healthy swig. "Mrs Stanton plays the nursemaid."

 

"And?"

 

"And when she was touring twenty years ago - playing Princess Ida, incidentally, not a nursemaid - she mislaid her daughter, who was travelling with the company, and whose name happens to have been Sylvia, and who happens to be a bit similar to me."

 

"Poor woman," Eiluned said, with a marked lack of sympathy.

 

"Not really," Sylvia said. "I mean, Miss Sylvia ran away to stay with her Methodist aunt and was located less than twelve hours later. And she hasn't abandoned her mother. Except in the sense that she stayed with the aunt, then married a missionary and moved somewhere obscure in Africa. Mrs Stanton knows that when she hasn't been at the sherry... Or so I'm told."

 

Harriet clapped her handkerchief over her mouth and doubled over. Sylvia eyed her with marked disfavour.

 

"I'm glad you can see the funny side, at least. If this turns up in a novel, Harriet, I'll -!”

 

"No promises!" Harriet croaked. "Oh. I haven't laughed this hard in years!"

 

Eiluned gave her a critical look. "Hysterical reaction," she decided, and clapped Harriet bracingly on the back. "Let it all out, there's a good girl. Before the curtain goes up - this production doesn't need your help to be ridiculous."

 

"Thank you very much," Harriet said, straightening, wiping her face again and taking a steadying breath. "I'll bet you a bottle of champagne the play doesn't get any funnier than this, comic opera or not."

 

"Done," Sylvia said promptly. "I don't mind telling you, Harriet, I could use it!"

 

Eiluned passed her the hip flask again.

 

Ten minutes before the end of the operetta, the nurse tottered on stage. Eiluned sat up straight, and exclaimed, in characteristically carrying tones: "That's not Mrs Stanton! That's the stage manager!"

 

"Well, he's doing all right in the role," Harriet said appraisingly, watching the stage manager balk at this unexpected heckle and then manfully pursue his next line.

 

"He's doing a better job than Mrs Stanton, anyway," Sylvia said, a little vindictively. "I expect she's flat on the floor by now."

 

Two minutes later, the doorman ushered them out of the theatre.

 

Harriet bought a bottle of champagne, and they drank it, laughing; and for a few hours, Harriet forgot how cold the shadow of the gallows had been on the back of her neck, and the way her bones had ached when that shadow was finally lifted.