Between ourselves I’m not sure I’ve got the right term. I know that there’s light opera, so surely the very existence of the term supposes something heavier? Yet I’ve never heard anybody use the term ‘heavy opera’ so I’ve entitled this anecdote ‘travelling opera’ instead. To be fair Madam Fenisque was involved with a very heavy opera (should such a term exist) indeed. She had, for a number of years, staged the opera Theraspus and Iokelei! This is one of the great tragic operas, a five act drama which contains passion, tragedy, farce and ‘six of the greatest arias ever written’.
Now you might well consider this a reasonable pastime for a wealthy and music-loving lady. But firstly she insisted on the opera being performed out of doors. To be fair, with Theraspus and Iokelei you can get away with it. There are plenty of good solid choruses and the arias are written for singers with decent, strong, voices. No high warbling or painful trills. You might wonder about the weather, but you forget, this was Madam Fenisque. She merely advertised that the opera would be performed on the first fine evening of the month. People tended to keep their diaries flexible during the period.
The second serious issue was that she wanted each act performed at a different venue with a different natural backdrop. Even if you had five stages you’d have to transport orchestra and cast (plus costumes, dressers, stagehands and the paraphernalia of the modern theatre), around the city.
The first year she staged the opera this was tried. In all candour it was not a success. But at that point a gentleman admirer stepped in. He pointed out that the obvious thing to do was to have a mobile stage which could be pulled between venues, taking cast and impedimenta with it. Madam Fenisque was somewhat sceptical. She had calculated it could take a dozen horse drawn drays. Her admirer, Nalthus Yardcob, begged to differ. He was sure that a brontothere team could pull everything needful on one dray. And of course he happened to have such a team and the inordinately large dray that they would pull.
For those of you who have not come across this remarkably useful animal it is perhaps the supreme beast of burden. It is large, perhaps twice the height at the shoulder of an ordinary horse, but three times as broad and twice as long. It has a long head which does rather look like a horse’s head.
The brontothere was created in the vats of some mage thousands of years ago. I have been told by those with an interest in thaumaturgy that the creature is a classic example of painstaking craftsmanship. The brontothere is, apparently, ‘how it should be done.’ The matrix combines a number of different creatures, but unusually for a vat creature, the creator kept demonic elements out of the mix. Here I merely parrot what I have been told, having no real experience in these matters. Still it appears that the nature of demons is to mate with anything, and this means that when setting out a matrix, if you include demonic elements it will allow you to blend pretty much any other creature into the final result.
Amongst those who seek mastery in this art, adding demon to the combination is regarded as cheating. It is merely using a shortcut to circumvent problems that could also be tackled by doing the job properly. Yet (and here I speak without personal animus) it can save a lot of time and they all do it. But the problem with allowing a demonic admixture is that the demonic comes out in the final creature. Often in the temperament, sometimes in the propensity the creature has to fangs, horns or anthropophagal tendencies. Obviously the effect is roughly proportional to the amount added, but still it can lead to unfortunate side effects. So, for example, having a riding mount that mocks people as you pass can cause no end of problems.
But the brontothere, build by a master, has no demonic elements. It has a very placid temperament, is strong, hardworking, and survives happily on large quantities of comparatively poor quality forage.
Now to be fair you don’t need a lot of them. Two, properly yoked, will pull most things. It is rare to find more than one team working in the city at any one time. Nalthus Yardcob calculated that they would be able to pull the mobile theatre. In this he was correct. They could. From the purely logistic point of view the operation was a complete success.
The problem with the brontothere is the whole issue of eating large quantities of comparatively poor quality forage. It takes a lot of breaking down. Brontotheres also tend to drink a lot, probably because they need the water to aid digestion. Hence, I suspect you can see where I am coming from here. All that water and forage has to go somewhere. Also, brontotheres are flatulent to an extreme. Not only that, but as they digest their food the gurgling that comes from their guts can be heard some distance away. Then there is the sheer quantity of waste. I once heard a brontothere pissing on a steel sheet and it sounded like a thunderstorm. So whilst you can pull a theatre with a pair of brontotheres, you honestly struggle to perform when close to them. Also if you unhitch your team, make sure you take them downhill of the stage and not in the direction you intend to travel.
Now it happened that Madam Fenisque had other gentlemen who were, as it were, lobbying to be promoted to the position of ‘gentleman admirer.’ One of these was Balshat Crany. He pondered the brontothere problem and realised that here was his route to displace Nalthus Yardcob in the lady’s affections. Obviously it was possible, at least in theory, to re-engineer the brontothere. The problem with this is that there were probably fewer than three people living who had the requisite knowledge to do this. Even if they could be interested in the project, was it possible to undertake such major changes to the plumbing without undermining the creature’s good points? Indeed most of those who worked with brontotheres regarded their diet as a positive benefit, it was cheap and economical. The side effects, flatulence and the rest, were not even considered to be problems. But there again they were not trying to play a flute solo to that particular accompaniment.
Still, Balshat Crany was not going to abandon science altogether. It occurred to him that the steam engine has won itself a place at sea. Why could it not work just as well on land? It has to be admitted he is not the first to propose this. Barely a decade goes by without some half-crazed inventor claiming he is going to build a steam powered death machine that will drive into the midst of our enemies and deal death and destruction upon them. To be fair, looking at the results of the various trials that have been undertaken, the death and destruction are entirely possible. Should our enemies be so ignorant as to cluster around the smoke billowing monstrosity then when it explodes, (as such things inevitably do) there will inevitably be heavy casualties.
Still Balshat felt that if he started with something less ambitious he could produce a mechanism that was both safe and reliable. Apparently he designed his contrivance from scratch. He put the engine at the very front. This was for two reasons. The first was that this left the rest of the vehicle for the opera company. The second was that he had decided that curtain that hung in the wings of the stage nearest to the engine would screen a thick steel sheet which he trusted would protect the stage from any unexpected blast.
There were problems. When he built a prototype it was discovered that having the engine weight bearing down entirely on the front wheel made it remarkably difficult to steer. Also because there was nowhere to stand, the only way to put more coal into the firebox was by walking alongside, shovelling fuel out of a wheelbarrow somebody else was pushing. Still, to be fair, the damned thing never really got above walking pace so this was less of a problem than it could have been. Finally after several months’ of effort and expense, he proposed his new system to Madam Fenisque.
She was very charming about it but explained that another gentleman, Bayton, had suggested to her that rather than moving between locations in Port Naain, she have a ship fitted out as a theatre and move the entire production up and down the river. This would allow her to present the entire play several times at various locations starved of high drama. Given that he had just acquired, at a knock-down price, a stern-wheeler, he offered to fit it out for the coming season.
Madam was overwhelmed by his generosity and together they planned the venture. They spent hours, days, even weeks in each other’s company as the ship blossomed forth into its new form. Indeed when the ship sailed, Madam and her new husband, Bayton, shared the Captain’s cabin and the expedition is remembered as ‘the honeymoon tour.’
As for Balshat, he was left with his contrivance. He did endeavour to take it forward and make a commercial success of it, but fortunately one day it just exploded for no particular reason and he was thus able to honourably abandon the project and get on with his life.
Should you wish to learn more about Tallis Steelyard, Port Naain, and the cutting edge of modern technology…
Instead of his usual collection of anecdotes, this time Tallis presents us with a gripping adventure. Why is Tallis ‘run out of town’ by hired ruffians? Why does a very sensible young woman want his company when plunging into unknown danger? Who or what was buried in the catacombs? And why has there been so much interest in making sure they stay dead? Also featuring flower arranging, life on the river, and a mule of notable erudition.
As a reviewer commented, “Runaway Poet, Flat Boat Sailor, Master Gunner, Flower Arranging Judge, Adventurer and Escort of a beautiful young Lady, are only a few of the skills exhibited by Tallis Steelyard in this extraordinary story.
In my opinion, the world and characters from Jim Webster’s mind would make a wonderful TV series, starting with this one.”