Isobel Spice stormed offstage after her scene at the top of Act Two, trembling with a combination of relief at having sung well and indignation at having had her personal space invaded.
"Who is that sitting on the edge of the stage?" she hissed to the stage manager, a stocky, attractive redhead named Louise.
Louise pulled back the black masking and peeked out discreetly. "Where? I don't see anyone."
Isobel squeezed in next to her and surveyed the compact stage of the Galaxy Playhouse, now doing duty as the Murgatroyd family portrait gallery on opening night of Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore. Andrew Conaston was alone onstage in the role of Robin Oakapple, an ingenuous country squire recently unmasked as Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, the Bad Baronet of Ruddigore. He was confessing his reluctance to submit to the family curse, which decreed that he must commit a crime every day or die a horrible death. Andrew stood downstage right, a few feet from the orchestra pit, in the exact spot where, a few moments earlier, Isobel had seen the man.
There was nobody there.
"Sunil!" She grabbed the arm of her friend, Sunil Kapany, who was playing the tenor role of Richard Dauntless. "You were out there with me. You must have seen him."
Isobel gave an exasperated sigh. "The guy. Some jerk was sitting on the stage, watching me. I saw him out of the corner of my eye. He was wearing a black jacket that was shimmering like velvet. With a ruffled shirt and a big, floppy bowtie."
Sunil wrinkled his nose. "Who dresses like that?"
She gave the tie of his sailor suit a tug. "You're a fine one to talk. Just look."
Sunil traded places with Louise, and a grimace distorted his exotically handsome features. "All I see is Andrew emoting. Badly."
Isobel squinted into the darkened house. "He must be sitting in one of the first few rows. But I swear, he was on the stage."
Sunil patted her head reassuringly. "It's just opening-night jitters."
She pushed his hand away and adjusted her wig of tumbled black curls. "I don't get opening-night jitters. I get audition jitters."
"Then it's probably just the lights playing tricks on you. What did he look like?"
Isobel frowned. "I don't really know. I mean, I noticed what he was wearing, but something kept me from looking at his face straight on." She gave a little shiver. "I was almost afraid to."
"Well, there's nobody out there now," Louise said crisply. She yanked the masking back in place. "He must have used the escape stairs and gone back to his seat. Okay, guys, I've got to call the next cue."
She returned to her board, and at her whispered command, the stage lights dimmed. Andrew, as Robin, cowered melodramatically.
Sunil grabbed Isobel's arm. "Come on, we have to watch this. It's the best part of the show!"
They moved downstage to get a better view. Like Sunil, Isobel loved this scene. The portraits of Robin's dead ancestors came to life and stepped from their picture frames to torment him for not committing satisfactory crimes. Gilbert's coup de théâtre was startling enough in 1887, and ever since, any production of Ruddigore worth its salt had worked out some miracle of stagecraft to provoke a thrill of excitement, as the painted silhouettes seemed to transform into flesh and blood.
There was an ominous cymbal roll, followed by a descending sequence of menacing string tremolos. Isobel squeezed Sunil's hand. He gave her an amused look, but she kept her eyes fixed on the action as the men's chorus intoned:
Painted emblems of a race,
All accurst in days of yore,
Each from his accustomed place
Steps into the world once more.
The male chorus, costumed as dead Murgatroyds from different eras, stood in readiness behind the scrim, the translucent curtain painted to match their costumes and poses. Isobel watched as the scrim flew up, and the actors stepped down. It truly seemed as if the paintings had sprung to life. There were gasps of delight from the audience as the ghostly forms circled Robin, warning him that if he can't be wicked enough, he will perish in agony:
Set upon thy course of evil,
Lest the King of Spectre-Land
Set on thee his grisly hand!
One portrait remained in its frame: that of Sir Roderic Murgatroyd. As befit his status as the most recently deposed baronet, he was separate from the others, who were ranged across the back wall of the set. Roderic's portrait frame hung on the angled side wall with its own, separate scrim. As the strings repeated their irregular chromatic descent, ending in a repeated ostinato, Sir Roderic sang out from behind his scrim in a booming bass:
Beware! Beware! Beware!
Except that he didn't.
Sunil and Isobel exchanged a surprised glance. Behind them, Louise whispered into her microphone, "Vaughn? Vaughn - that's you!"
Isobel looked at the conductor, whose hands were poised, ready to give the next upbeat. His arms and wrists were taut with controlled energy, his face tense. The silence stretched on.
"Vaughn!" Louise's voice grew louder. She pulled her headset closer to her mouth and moved a lever on her board. "Vaughn Jackson to the stage! Vaughn Jackson to the stage NOW!"
The conductor whispered to the players, "Measure 71. Repeat!"
The strings played the descending chromatics again and landed on the repeated low "A" for a second time.
"Hold Roderic's scrim!" Louise called.
The conductor wiped a thin moustache of sweat from his upper lip and lowered his arms to his sides, bewildered. Then, with the burst of renewed energy that comes from a flash of inspiration, he pointed his baton at Vaughn's understudy, Scott Seward, who was already onstage in the chorus. With a terse nod of understanding, Scott whirled around in a circle dramatically, his black cape cracking in the air as it flapped around him. He landed in a forward lunge, made a grand bat-like gesture, and assumed Roderic's role:
Beware! Beware! Beware!
Louise threw down her headset. "Goddammit, Vaughn! If you're drunk again, I swear to God, I'll..."
But Isobel and Sunil never heard what Louise would do, because she disappeared down the narrow wooden stairs to the dressing rooms below.
Isobel stepped cautiously around the rigging in the wings, heading for the back of the stage.
"Where are you going?" Sunil whispered.
She didn't answer. Some inexorable force, call it instinct, call it dread, was propelling her around the back of the set to the other side of the stage, giving no quarter to the unease that had put her senses on high alert. She heard Sunil following her, muttering under his breath. Onstage, Scott sang:
I am the spectre of the late Sir Roderic Murgatroyd,
Who comes to warn thee that thy fate
Thou canst not now avoid.
Isobel passed behind the empty platforms where, until a few moments ago, the other Murgatroyds had stood, and came out on the far side of the stage, with its comparatively cramped wing space. There was Vaughn's platform, with the scrim still lowered in front of it.
And there, seated on a high-backed chair of carved fake mahogany, was Vaughn.
"Vaughn?" Isobel whispered.
There was no reply. She approached slowly, carefully, aware that the heels of her mauve lace-up boots were making what, to her, sounded like a fearful clacking on the resonant floor. On the other side of the scrim, Scott and the men's chorus wailed:
Then is the spectres' holiday - then is the ghosts' high noon!
Then is the ghosts' high noon!
Isobel reached out to touch Vaughn's arm. His body slumped forward, and Isobel watched, immobile with horror, as gravity overtook it, and he tumbled off his chair, seemingly in slow motion. The painted scrim tore with a loud, ripping sound as Vaughn Jackson's dead body toppled through the netting, landing on the stage with an unceremonious thump. Screams filled the theater, none louder than Isobel's piercing shriek.