Authors: Eva Ibbotson
‘The gentleman said it was very urgent, Madam,’ said the page – and Mrs Trottle got up sulkily and followed him, while Bruce moved closer to Raymond and Doreen shifted slightly in her chair.
Hans now entered the room. He had been incredibly brave and offered to have fernseed even in his eye so that he could be completely invisible and still see where he was going. His little finger was stretched out ready to bop Raymond, and it trembled because the ogre was very much afraid. Suppose he bopped too hard and brought the Prince to the Island with a broken skull? On the other hand, suppose he didn’t hit him hard enough so that he squealed when he was thrown into the cake?
If Hans was nervous, poor Gurkie was terrified.
‘Oh Mother, forgive me,’ she muttered. She had been to Fortlands and bought some of the stuff they used for black out curtains to make the last veil – the one she wore over her underclothes – and the underwear itself was bottle green chilprufe because her mother had always told her that it was what you wore next to the skin that mattered, so even if the lights didn’t go out at exactly the right time she would still be decent. All the same, as she stepped into the cake, Gurkie’s teeth were chattering. At least the girl who usually did the Dance of the Seven Ve ils was happy! She’d grabbed the money Cor had given her and even now was going up in a Jumbo on the way to sunny Spain.
‘Ready?’ asked the porter, coming to wheel her in.
‘Ready!’ squeaked Gurkie, from inside the layers of tissue.
The orchestra burst into a fanfare; balloons and streamers came down from the ceiling – and Gurkie burst out of the cake and began to dance.
Raymond didn’t recognize her because even her face was veiled, and the light was rosy and dim, but everyone felt that something beautiful was going to happen, and they were right. Feys have always loved dancing – they dance round the meadows in the early morning, they twirl and whirl on the edge of the sea, and of all the twirlers and whirlers on the Island, Gurkie was the best. She forgot that her mother would have turned in her grave to see her in the dining room of the Astor Hotel like any chorus girl, she forgot that any minute Raymond Trottle would land with a thump on top of her. And as she danced, the orchestra followed the way she moved . . . got slower when she went slowly and quicker when she went fast and there wasn’t a single person in the dining room who could bear to take his eyes off her.
Gurkie dropped the first of her seven veils on the floor. She was thinking of all the lovely things that grew on the Island and of her cucumbers and how she would soon be home, but the people watching her did not know that. They thought she was thinking of them.
And Hans had reached Raymond’s table. He was standing in the space left by Mrs Trottle. He was ready .
The sixth veil dropped. The music got even soupier. Now as she danced, Gurkie was strewing herbs into the room, the sweet-smelling herbs she had brought in her basket to make people sleepy , to make them forget their troubles.
By the back entrance, Odge Gribble was explaining to the porter that her father had to leave early .
‘My Mummy isn’t well,’ she said with a lisp – and he nodded and pinched her cheek.
In the lavatory which led out of the dressing room, the troll waited. He looked so like the double bass player that his own mother wouldn’t have known him. Ben, crouching on the top of the fire escape, kept his eyes on the waiting van.
Back in the dining room Gurkie dropped her fifth veil . . . her fourth . . . She still spun and whirled, but more slowly now – and the lights were turning mauve . . . then blue.
‘Coo!’ said Raymond Trottle as she danced past his table.
The third veil now . . . the second. And now Gurkie did begin to worry . What if the lights didn’t go out? Was her last veil
But it was all right. Hans’ little finger was stretched out over Raymond’s head.
The orchestra went into its special swirly bit. The lights went out.
And at that moment, Hans bopped!
The getaway van was parked in the narrow road which ran between the back of the Astor and the river. It had been dark for some time; the passing boats had lit their lamps and light streamed from the windows of the hotel.
The inside of the van was piled with blankets so that the Prince could be made comfortable on the way to the gump. All the rescuers’ belongings were there because they were driving straight to the station.
And Odge’s suitcase was there, carefully laid flat. The door of the van was open and plenty of fresh air reached the mistmaker through the holes that Odge had drilled in it, so he should have been content, but he was not. He was too old for suitcases; he was a free spirit; he was used now to being part of things!
Rustling about in the hay, complaining in little whimpers, he put his sharp front teeth against the fibre of the case and found a weak place where the rim round one of the holes had frayed. Getting interested, beginning to see hope, he began to gnaw.
The driver noticed nothing. He had his eyes fixed on the boy who crouched on top of the fire escape. As soon as Ben signalled with his torch he’d back up against the entrance.
In the dining room of the Astor, the guests waited for the cake; the orchestra played a tango.
‘It’s awfully hot in here,’ complained a girl at one of the tables, and called a waiter.
The mistmaker went on gnawing. He was pleased. Something was happening. The hole was getting bigger . . . and bigger . . . and bigger still. His whiskers were already through, and his nose . . .
Then quite suddenly he was free!
Trembling with excitement, he sat up on his haunches and looked about him. And at that moment, one of the waiters opened a window in the dining room, sending the sound of the orchestra out into the night.
Music! And what music! The mistmaker had never heard a full orchestra in his life. His eyes grew huge, his moustache quivered. Then with a bound he leapt out of the van and set off.
The driver’s eyes were still on Ben.
Lolloping along like a lovesick pillow, the mis-tmaker crossed the road, leapt on to the bottom rung of the fire escape, missed . . . tried again. Now he was on and climbing steadily.
‘Oom-pa-pa, oom-pa-pa,’ went the band. The violins soared, the saxophones throbbed . . .
Ben peered down the iron stairs, wondering if he had seen something white crossing the road. No, he must have been mistaken . . .
The Astor was beside the river and the river bank was full of rats. Large, intelligent rats who had dug paths for themselves into the hotel. Panting up the first rung of the fire escape, the mistmaker found a hole in the brick and plunged into it. It came out near the kitchens, behind a store cupboard, and from there another rat-run led into the pantry where the waiters set out the trays to carry into the dining room. He only had to cross a passage, run through an open door . . .
And now he was where he wanted to be – where he absolutely had to be, facing that wonderful sound! He had arrived just as the cake was wheeled away and the room was in darkness, but that didn’t matter because the band was still playing and it was a Viennese waltz!
The mistmaker made his way into the middle of the room and sat down. Never, never had he heard anything so beautiful! The fur on the back of his neck lifted; he shivered with happiness; his ear lobes throbbed.
‘Aaah!’ sighed the mistmaker. ‘Aaah . . . aaah!’
The waves of mist were slight to begin with; he was puffed from the climb and he was overwhelmed. But as the beauty of the music sank deeper and deeper into his soul, so did the clouds of whiteness that came from him.
At one of the tables, an old gentleman began to cough. An angry lady leant across her husband and told the man at the next table to stop smoking.
‘I’m not smoking,’ the man said crossly .
But as the lights came on again, the guests could see that something odd was happening. The room was covered in a thick white mist – so thick that the Trottles’ table could hardly be seen.
‘It’s smoke! The room’s full of smoke,’ shouted a girl in a glittery dress.
‘No, it isn’t. It’s tear gas!’ yelled a bald man and put his napkin to his face.
‘It’s a terrorist bomb!’ cried a fat lady .
Bruce was blundering round Raymond’s chair, feeling for the boy. Perhaps he was hiding under the table, trying to get away from the creeping gas? Clutching his gun, he dived under the cloth.
The mistmaker was upset by the ugly shrieking. He moved closer to the band which was still playing. A good orchestra will play through thick and thin.
Once more he gave himself up to the beauty of the music; once more he sighed. But he was getting thinner now; he was no longer pillow shaped. The whiteness that came from him was not so thick, and in a break in the mist, a woman in a trouser suit stood up and pointed: ‘Look! It’s coming from that horrible thing!’ she screeched.
‘It’s a poisonous rat! It’s a rodent from Outer Space!’
‘It’s got the plague! They do that, they give off fumes and then they go mad and bite you!’
The cries came from all over the room. A waiter rushed in with a fire extinguisher and squirted foam all over a group of Arabs in their splendid robes. One of the Astor’s own guards had seized a walking stick and was banging it on the floor.
And now something happened which put the mistmaker’s life in mortal danger. The band gave up. The music stopped . . . and with it, the supply of mist which had helped to hide and shelter him. Suddenly cut off from the glorious sound, the little animal blinked and tried to come back to the real world. Then he began to run hither and thither, looking for the way back.
And Doreen Trout reached for her knitting bag.
In the artists’ dressing room, Gurkie had climbed out of the cake. She had a bruise on her shoulder where Raymond’s chin had hit her, but she was being brave. The Prince looked crumpled, but his breathing was steady . Only a few minutes now and he’d be stretched out in the van where she could make him comfortable.
‘I bopped well?’ asked Hans who had followed her into the dressing room.
‘You bopped beautifully , ’ said Gurkie.
The troll came out of the toilet and opened the double bass case.
‘I’ll take the feet,’ he said, and Hans nodded and went to Raymond’s shoulders.
Everything was going according to plan.
It was at that moment that the door to the fire escape burst open and Ben, ashen-faced and frantic, rushed into the room.
‘The mistmaker’s escaped,’ he said. ‘He’s in the dining room. And they’re going mad in there. They’ll kill him.’
‘No!’ Hans let go of Raymond, who fell back into the cake. ‘Our duty is to the Prince. You must not go!’
Ben did not even hear him. Before the ogre could move to stop him, he had reached the other door and was gone.
In the dining room everyone was shrieking and joining in the hunt for the dangerous rodent from Outer Space. The Arabs whose robes had been squirted with foam were yelling at the waiter; a lady had fainted and fallen into her apple pie.
‘There he is!’ screamed a woman. ‘Behind the trolley!’ And Bruce aimed, fired – and hit a bottle of champagne which exploded into smithereens.
The mistmaker was terrified now. The shrieks and thumps beat on his ears like hammer blows; his head was spinning, and he ran in circles, trying to find the way out.
‘He’s got rabies!’ yelled a fat woman. ‘That’s how you tell, when they go round and round like that.’
‘If he bites you, you’re finished,’ shouted a red-faced man. ‘Get on a table; he’ll go for your ankles.’
The fat lady did just that and the table broke, sending her crashing to the ground. ‘Don’t let him get me!’ she screamed. ‘Squash him! Finish him!’
Bruce had seized a chair and was holding it above his head as he stalked the desperate little beast. Now he brought it down with a thump and one leg came off and rolled away.
‘He’s missed,’ moaned the woman on the floor.
Once again Bruce raised the chair, once again he brought it down, and once again he missed.
Doreen Trout had not screamed. She had not thumped. She had not picked up heavy chairs or reached for her gun. All she had done was take out her favourite knitting needle. It was a sock needle of the finest steel and sharper than any rapier. She had judged its length and it would skewer the animal neatly without any waste.
‘Get out of the way, oaf,’ she hissed at her brother. ‘I’m dealing with this. Just corner him.’
This was easier said than done. The mistmaker, caught in the nightmare, scuttled between the tables, vanished into patches of whiteness, skittered on the foam. But his enemies were gathering. The saxophone player had jumped down from the bandstand and shooed him against the wall; a waiter with a broom handle blocked him as he tried to dive behind the curtains.
And now he was cornered. His eyes huge with fear, he sat trembling and waited for what was to come.
‘Stand back!’ said Doreen to the crowd – and began to move slowly towards the terrified animal. ‘Come on, my pretty,’ she cooed. ‘Come to your Mummy . C o me and see what I’ve got for you.’
The room fell silent. Everyone was watching Doreen Trout, holding her needle as she moved closer, and all the time talking in a coaxing, wheedling voice.
The mistmaker’s whiskers twitched. He blinked; the delicate ears became flushed. Here was a low voice; a kind voice. He turned his head this way and that, listening.
‘I’ve got lovely things for you in my bag. Carrots . . . lettuce . . .’
More than anything, the desperate creature wanted kindness. Should he risk it? He took a few steps towards her . . . paused . . . sat up on his haunches. Then suddenly he made up his mind, and in a movement of trust he turned over on his back with his paws in the air as he had done so often when he was playing with Ben and Odge. He knew what came next – that moment when they scratched him so soothingly and deliciously all down his front.
Soft Parts Doreen looked down at the rounded, unprotected stomach of the little beast; at the pink skin still showing where his grown-up fur had not yet come.