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NAN Killian was surrounded by mayhem. Deafening pandemonium.
Darkness shrouded her and her companions; they were nothing but a handful of insignificant observers in the cavernous, shadow-wrapped room full of people.
And all of them were screaming.
“Look behind you!” Nan shrieked at the top of her lungs. Beside her, her ward, little Suki, screamed the same thing. So did Sarah Lyon-White, her dearest friend—and John and Mary Watson sitting on the other side of Suki. Even Lord Alderscroft!
Everyone else in the theater shouted the same words, together, in a thundering, raucous chorus.
“Look behind you!” they all screamed with delight, as Aladdin, resplendent in blue and gold satin, tiptoed his way across the stage, with the black-robed Evil Magician Abanazer right behind him, about to pounce and steal his lamp.
It was a week to Christmas, and that meant it was time for that hallowed and beloved Christmas tradition known throughout all of England, when theaters and music halls gave over their usual schedules to the Panto. The cherished, silly, absurd, childish Christmas Pantomime, that everyone went to, and probably enjoyed to the hilt even when they were pretending not to. It was a chance not just to feel like a child, but to be a child again. A chance to be dazzled by tinsel and stage magic, to enjoy a sugarcoated story where the hero and heroine would live happily forever and, for the adults, a chance to catch naughty double entendres that flew right over the children’s
And here in London, Christmas Panto time meant you were absolutely spoiled for choice. Every theater had a different show, but Suki, Nan and Sarah’s “adopted” charge, had been very firm in her wish to see Aladdin, and only Aladdin, and only this Aladdin. When the papers began advertising the upcoming season, she had, it seemed, carefully perused the newspaper accounts of every production on offer, and she wanted this particular one, at the Britannia, which featured two stars this year, a ballet dancer (who was supposedly very famous) as the Princess, and a prominent Shakespearian actor as Widow Twanky, Aladdin’s mother. Nan had never heard of either of them, but Sarah had assured her that they were both very highly regarded, which was good enough for her. So plans were made, and then put in motion.
But then the plans changed, for the better.
A few days ago, when Nan had begged off the lecture John Watson had proposed for this afternoon, and she had explained why, Mary had perked up so much even John had noticed.
“My love, are you actually—” he began.
“Proposing we go to the Panto?” she responded, before he could finish the sentence. “Oh yes, please! I haven’t been since I was tiny—Father didn’t really approve of theater in any form, and we lived very quiet lives. Can we? I should like to play at being a child again for an afternoon!”
John Watson had been very surprised at this side of his wife, but Nan could tell he rather liked it. “Very well, my dear, if it’s all right with Nan, we’ll all go, and we’ll do the Christmas Treat properly. Luncheon at that tearoom you like so much, the matinee, then we’ll look at store windows until Suki is tired, or we run out of windows, then dinner wherever takes your fancy, and home in a jolly old growler.”
And the day had almost gone according to that programme—except that Lord Alderscroft had got wind of it, and nothing would do but he send his carriage and come along himself for the fun. So Alderscroft had picked them all up in his carriage, then luncheon had been in the tearoom. But dinner would be at his Lordship’s townhouse, which he had opened for the Christmas season although he usually lived at his club. And here they all were, in the best seats in the house, a private box, no less, with his Lordship himself next to Sarah, bellowing with everyone else, “Look behind you!”
If anyone had told Nan as a child that the cold, forbidding Lord Alderscroft would be sitting next to her at the Panto yelling at the actors, she would have said, “You’re barmy!”
This version of the Wizard of London was one she liked very much better than the one she had first been introduced to as a child. She was pretty certain he liked this version of himself very much better as well.
Mary and John appeared to be having the time of their lives.
Mary was pink with pleasure, and John Watson had thrown off the least inkling of stuffiness and was catcalling and cheering like one of the little boys sitting below their box.
Suki was nearly beside herself with happiness. She had almost all of her favorite adults with her, and they were all acting just like children in the best possible ways—shouting for the hero and heroine, hissing and insulting the villain, and screaming at the stage at all the right moments.
Nan and Sarah were no strangers to the Christmas Panto tradition; the entire Harton School—barring the ones too small—went every year. But the expense of procuring tickets for dozens of children, not to mention the expense of transportation for so many, had meant that they’d only ever seen the stage from what Sahib Harton inelegantly called the “pigeon’s seats,” from which vantage the figures on the stage looked like brightly colored insects, and you couldn’t properly see the magic tricks at all. Lord Alderscroft had taken over the expedition with his customary efficiency—or rather, his private secretary had—and so the private box was exceedingly comfortable, near enough to see everything clearly, but as his Lordship said, “Near enough to see the pips on the playing cards. Far enough away the tinsel looks like gold.” It was a little bit of a squash getting all six of them in a box meant for four, but they managed.
In the interval between acts, much to Suki’s joy, his Lordship bought them all refreshments, which were served to them by a girl in a black and white uniform, as elegant as Princes and Princesses. It all made Nan feel quite pampered, and Suki beamed.
And when Aladdin had triumphed, rescued his Princess (who had been given a very pretty selection of numbers to dance), and all the bows were taken, there was even a semiprivate staircase down to where the carriage was waiting. But of course, since they were in a private box, with no need to clear the way for others, they stayed a little while longer, waiting for the crowds to make their way to the street before they took their leisurely way down.
When they left the theater it was snowing, which made the shelter of the carriage all the more welcome. From the dark gray of the sky, the snow wasn’t going to end any time soon, either. When they had all piled into the carriage, and Nan had enclosed Suki in the shared warmth of her splendid sable cloak, the snow began to come down rather heavily. “Do you still want to look at shop windows, Suki?” Mary Watson asked the little girl with some concern. “That snow is getting deep.”
Suki stuck her little feet in their smart, red boots out from under the shelter of Nan’s sable cloak, and frowned thoughtfully. “I jes’ got these boots,” she observed. “I druther not ruint ’em.”
“Well then,” Alderscroft said, “I propose a nice drive through the Park instead of going directly there. And perhaps once we are at Harrod’s, we can drive past the shop windows slowly enough to enjoy them without leaving the carriage. I very much doubt there will be many window- shoppers between us and the display today.”
Nan moved so that Suki could sit next to the window to look out while the rest of the group chatted. Or rather they chatted, while Nan sat quietly, listening. She, Suki, and Sarah sat facing backward in the plush carriage, while his Lordship took one window seat and John Watson took the other, with Mary between them. While Suki gazed with great satisfaction at everything she could see from her window, Sarah, his Lordship, and the Watsons discussed rumblings and stirrings in both the occult and Elemental Magic circles of London. Once, when John Watson spotted a hot chestnut seller, his Lordship stopped the carriage and had the coachman get nuts for them all, including himself. Including the coachman in the warming treat would never have occurred to the old Lord Alderscroft—and probably wouldn’t have occurred to one in a thousand other wealthy men.
Lord Alderscroft looked like exactly what he was—at least in part. A titled and very wealthy peer, with a seat in the House of Lords and more than one property at his disposal. Unlike many men of his wealth, he did not allow himself to run to fat; his elegant clothing fit well on the body of a vigorous man of late middle age, and if he wore his sandy hair a bit longer than was strictly conventional, well, he was a nobleman, and noblemen were allowed their little eccentricities. The cane he carried was a formidable weapon, with a weighted, solid silver pommel, and doubled as a wizard’s staff of sorts—because he was, after all, the Wizard of London, in charge of the White Lodge of London Elemental Masters and Magicians, and held the magical safety of a great deal of Britain in his capable hands. Like the gentleman he was, he wore a modest top hat—not one of the towering pieces of parvenu vanity that made small, naughty boys ache to throw a snowball at it—and a long, soft black wool coat over his black suit. John Watson wore his gray coachman’s bowler and, over his second-best suit, a dark gray coat that was equal in length but a good bit more worn than Lord Alderscroft’s. Mary was enveloped in a sable cloak like Nan’s and Sarah’s; all three were the gifts of a grateful opera diva. Little Suki did not have a sable cloak, but Lord Alderscroft had equipped her—over the girls’ objections—with a black astrakhan cloak of her very own—much more practical for a little girl than fur.
Suki, having had little more than rags to wear before the girls rescued her, was quite the little fashion plate now and took a great deal of pride in looking like the illustration in a Kate Greenaway book. Today she was wearing an adorable brand-new military-style polonaise and skirt, both in red velvet and trimmed with gold braid, which went perfectly with her little red Hungarian boots. The outfit set off her dusky complexion and shining, curly black hair to such a good effect that she looked like a perfect little doll. This outfit was also a gift from Lord Alderscroft, who was perpetually amused at her innocent sartorial vanity and took every chance Nan and Sarah would give him to indulge her in it— and frequently “surprised” her with gifts before they could object.
Nan and Sarah had each worn the Christmas gowns that Lord Alderscroft presented them with every year. Nan’s was a deep garnet velvet, Sarah’s a midnight blue. Both of them were styled in the rather eclectic manner of the Aesthetic Movement, which borrowed liberally from nearly every medieval and Renaissance fashion possible. Such gowns would probably have raised eyebrows in more conventional circles. But given that they generally only wore such things in the presence of his Lordship or within his social group, such eccentricities were not only forgiven, but expected. Nan thought that this year’s gowns were very likely the best ever. Sarah’s sapphire gown complimented her blond hair and blue eyes so well she looked like a Christmas angel in a pageant. And while Nan was privately of the opinion that nothing save an entire change of heads would ever make her look beautiful, she rather fancied that in this garnet- colored gown she looked a bit handsome.
“Coo!” said Suki, nose pressed against the carriage window. They had come out on the other side of the park and were now just at Harrod’s. The traffic was such that the carriage was able to travel very slowly indeed, and Suki was able to gaze on the shop windows to her heart’s content without endangering her precious boots.
The adults exchanged indulgent smiles. “How long are you stopping with Nan and Sarah, Suki?” asked Mary Watson. “Does Memsa’b Harton give the usual Christmas holiday?”
“I go back t’the school a’ter—after the New Year,” Suki replied, with her face still pressed to the window. “I reely loik—like bein’ at school, on’y some of the lessons make m’head hurt.” Now she turned her face toward the rest of them for a moment, her expression one of pained distaste. “It’s so hard t’talk genteel-like! I druther talk Frenchy!”
They all laughed, and Nan dropped a kiss on Suki’s forehead, remembering her own struggles with the Queen’s English. “Believe me, I know exactly what you mean, darling. I know exactly what you mean.”