'There is a certain piquancy, I must say,' said the director of music. 'How about you, Senor Basilica?'
'I don't mind if I do,' said Granny, passing her plate across. 'I'm sure I detect a hint of cinnamon,' said the interpreter, a brown ring around his mouth. 'Indeed, and possibly just a trace of nutmeg,' said Mr Bucket. 'I thought. . . cardamom?' said Salzella.
'Creamy yet spicy,' said Bucket. His eyes unfocused slightly. 'And curiously. . . warming.' Granny stopped chewing, and looked down suspiciously at her plate. Then she sniffed at her spoon. 'Is it, er. . .is it just me, or is it a trifle. . . warm in here?' said Bucket. Salzella had gripped the arms of his chair. His forehead glistened. 'Do you think we could open a window?' he said. 'I feel a little. . . strange.'
'Yes, by all means,' said Bucket. Salzella half-rose, and then a preoccupied expression suffused his features. He sat down suddenly. 'No, I rather believe I'll just sit quietly for a moment,' he said. 'Oh, dear,' said the interpreter. There was a hint of vapour around his collar. Basilica tapped him politely on the shoulder, grunted hopefully, and made pass-it-here motions in the direction of the half-finished dish of chocolate pudding. 'Mmmf?' he said. 'Oh, dear,' said the interpreter. Mr Bucket ran a finger around his collar. Sweat was beginning to roll down his face. Basilica gave up on his stricken colleague and reached across in a businesslike way to hook the dish with his fork. 'Er. . . Yes,' said Bucket, trying to keep his eyes away from Granny. 'Yes. . . indeed,' said Salzella, his voice coming from a long way away. 'Oh, dear,' said the interpreter, his eyes watering. 'Ai! Meu Deus! Dio Mio! O Goden! D'zuk f't! Aagorahaa!' Senor Basilica upended the rest of the Special Secret Sauce on to his plate and carefully scraped out the dish with his spoon, holding it upside-down to reach the last little bit. 'The weather has been a little. . . cool of late,' Bucket managed. 'Very cold, in fact.' Enrico held the sauce-dish up to the light and regarded it critically in case there was any drop hiding in a corner. 'Snow, ice, frost. . . that sort of thing,' said Salzella. 'Yes, indeed! Coldness of all descriptions, in fact.'
'Yes! Yes!' said Bucket gratefully. 'And at a time like this I think it is very important to try to remember the names of, say, any number of boring and hopefully chilly things!'
'Wind, glaciers, icicles-'
'Oh,' said the interpreter, and slumped forward into his plate. His head hit a spoon, which cartwheeled into the air and bounced off Enrico's head. Salzella started to whistle under his breath and pound the arm of his chair. Bucket blinked. In front of him was the water jug. The cold water jug. He reached out. . . 'Oh, oh, oh, dear me, what can I say, I seem to have spilled it all over myself,' he said, through the rising clouds of steam. 'What a butterfingers I am, to be sure. I shall ring for Mrs Ogg to bring us another one.'
'Yes, indeed,' said Salzella. 'And perhaps you would care to do it soon? I am also feeling very. . . accident-prone.' Basilica, still chewing, lifted his interpreter's head off the table and carefully tipped the man's unfinished pudding into his own plate.
'In fact, in fact, in fact,' said Salzella, 'I think I shall just. . . have a brisk. . . have a nice cold. . .if you would excuse me a minute. . .' He pushed back his chair and fled the room in a kind of crouching gait. Mr Bucket glistened. 'I'll just, I'll just, I'll just. . . be back quite shortly,' he said, and scurried away. There was silence, broken only by the scrape of Senor Basilica's spoon and a sizzling noise from the interpreter. Then the tenor belched baritone. 'Whoops, pardon my Klatchian,' he said. 'Oh. . . damn.' He appeared to notice the depleted table for the first time. He shrugged, and smiled hopefully at Granny. 'Is there a cheeseboard, do you think?' he said. The door flew open and Nanny Ogg burst in, holding a bucket of water in both hands. 'All right, all right, that's-' she began, and then stopped. Granny dabbed primly at the corners of her mouth with her napkin. 'I'm sorry, Mrs Ogg?' she said. Nanny looked at the empty dish in front of Basilica. 'Or perhaps some fruit?' said the tenor. 'A few nuts?'
'How much has he had?' she whispered. 'Best part of half,' said Granny. 'But I don't reckon it's having any effect on account of not touching the sides.' Nanny turned her attention to Granny's plate. 'How about you?' she said. 'Two helpings,' said Granny. 'With extra sauce, Gytha Ogg, may you be forgiven.' Nanny looked at her with something like admiration in her eyes. 'You ain't even sweating!' she said. Granny picked up her water glass and held it at arm's length. After a few seconds, the water began to boil. 'All right, you're getting really good, I've got to admit it,' said Nanny. 'I reckon I should have to get up real early to put one over on you.'
'I reckon you should never go to sleep,' said Granny. 'Sorry, Esme.' Senor Basilica, at a loss to follow the conversation, realized with reluctance that the meal was probably over. 'Absolutely superb,' he said. 'I just loved that pudding, Mrs Ogg.'
'I should just jolly well expect you did, Henry Slugg,' said Nanny. Henry carefully removed a clean handkerchief from his pocket, put it over his face, and leaned back in his chair. The first snore occurred a few seconds later. 'He's easy to have around, isn't he?' said Nanny. 'Eat, sleep and sing. You certainly know where you are with him. I've found Greebo, by the way. He's still following Walter Plinge around.' Her expression became a little defiant. 'Say what you like, young Walter's all right by me if Greebo likes him.' Granny sighed. 'Gytha, Greebo would like Norris the Eyeball-Eating Maniac of Quirm if he knew how to put food in a bowl.' And now she was lost. She'd done her best not to be. As Agnes had walked through each dank room she'd thoughtfully taken note of details. She'd carefully remembered right and left turns. And yet she was lost. Here and there were steps down to lower cellars, but the water-level was so high that it was lapping at the first step. And it stank. The candle burned with a greenish-blue edge to the flame. Somewhere, said Perdita, there was the secret room. If there wasn't a huge and glittering secret cavern, what on earth was life for? There had
to be a secret room. A room, full of. . . giant candles, and enormous stalagmites. . . But it certainly isn't here, said Agnes. She felt a complete idiot. She'd gone through the mirror looking for. . . well, she wasn't quite prepared to admit what she might have been looking for, but whatever it was it certainly wasn't this. She'd have to shout for help. Of course, someone might hear, but that was always a risk when you shouted for help. She coughed. 'Er. . . hello?' The water gurgled. 'Er. . . help? Is there anyone there?' A rat ran over her foot. Oh, yes, she thought bitterly with Perdita's part of her brain, if Christine had come down here there probably would have been some great glistening cave and delicious danger. The world saved up rats and smelly cellars for Agnes, because she had such a wonderful personality. 'Um. . .anyone?' More rats scuttled across the floor. There was a faint squeaking from the side-passages. 'Hello?' She was lost in some cellars with a candle getting shorter by the second. The air was foul, the flagstones were slippery, no one knew where she was, she could die down here, she could be- Eyes glowed in the darkness. One was green-yellow, the other pearly white. A light appeared behind them. Something was coming along the passageway, casting long shadows. Rats tumbled over themselves in their panic to get away. . . Agnes tried to press herself into the stone. 'Hello Miss Perdita X Nitt!' A familiar shape juddered out of the darkness, just behind Greebo. It was all knees and elbows; it carried a sack over one shoulder and held a lantern in its other hand. Something fled from the darkness. The terror leached out of it. . . 'You don't want to be down here Miss Nitt with all the rats!'
'Got to do Mister Pounder's job now the poor man is passed away! I am a person of all jobs! No peas for the wicked! But Mister Greebo just hits them with his paws and they're off to rat heaven in a jiff!'
'Walter!' repeated Agnes, out of sheer relief. 'Come for an explore have you? These ole tunnels goes all the way to the river! You have to keep your wits about you not to get lost down here! Want to come back with me?' It was impossible to be frightened of Walter Plinge. Walter attracted a number of emotions, but terror wasn't among them. 'Er. . . yes,' said Agnes. 'I got lost. Sorry.' Greebo sat down and started to wash himself in what Agnes considered to be a supercilious way. If a cat could snigger, he would be sniggering. 'Now I've got a full sack I have to take it to Mister Gimlet's shop!' announced Walter, turning around and loping out of the cellar without bothering to see if she was following him. 'We get a ha'penny each which is not to be sneezed at! The dwarfs think a rat is a good meal which only goes to show it would be a strange world if we were all alike!' It seemed a ridiculously short journey to the foot of some different stairs, which had a well-used look to them.
'Have you ever seen the Ghost, Walter?' said Agnes, as Walter put his foot on the first step. He didn't turn around. 'It is wrong to tell lies!'
'Er. . . yes, so I believe. So. . . when did you last see the Ghost?'
'I last saw the Ghost in the big room in the ballet school!'
'Really? What did he do?' Walter paused for a moment, and then the words came out all together. 'He ran off?' He stamped up the stairs in a way that suggested very emphatically that the exchange was over. Greebo sneered at Agnes and followed him. The stairs went up just one flight and came out through a trapdoor backstage. She had been lost only a door or two from the real world. No one noticed her emerge. But then no one noticed her at all. They just assumed that she'd be around when she was needed. Walter Plinge had already loped off, in something of a hurry. Agnes hesitated. They probably wouldn't even notice she wasn't there, right up to the point when Christine opened her mouth. . . He hadn't wanted to answer, but Walter Plinge spoke when spoken to and she had a feeling that he wasn't able to lie. Telling lies would be being bad. She'd never seen the ballet school. It wasn't far backstage, but it was a world of its own. The dancers issued from it every day like so many very thin and twittering sheep under the control of elderly women who looked as though they breakfasted on pickled limes. It was only after she'd timidly asked a few questions of the stage-hands that she'd realized that the girls had joined the ballet because they'd wanted to. She had seen the dancers' dressing-room, where thirty girls washed and changed in a space rather smaller than Bucket's office. It bore the same relationship to ballet as compost did to roses. She looked around again. Still no one had paid any attention to her. She headed for the school. It was up a few steps, along a foetid corridor lined with notice-boards and smelling of ancient grease. A couple of girls fluttered past. You never saw just one: they went around in groups, like mayflies. She pushed open the door and stepped into the school. Reflections of reflections of reflections. . . There were mirrors on every wall. A few girls, practising on the bars that lined the room, looked up as she entered. Mirrors. . . Out in the passage she leaned against the wall and got her breath back. She'd never liked mirrors. They always seemed to be laughing at her. But didn't they say it was the mark of a witch, not liking to get between two mirrors? It sucked out your soul, or something. A witch would never get between two mirrors if she could help it. . . But, of course, she very definitely wasn't a witch. So she took a deep breath, and went back into the room. Images of herself stretched away in every direction. She managed a few steps, then wheeled around and groped for the doorway again, watched by the surprised dancers. Lack of sleep, she told herself. And general over-excitement. Anyway, she didn't need to go right into the room, now that she knew who the Ghost was. It was so obvious. The Ghost didn't require any mysterious nonexistent caves when all he needed to do was hide where everyone could see him. Mr Bucket knocked at the door of Salzella's office. A muffled voice said, 'Come in.'