Banquets of the Black Widowers (The Black Widowers #4)

Chapter 5


"SIR RUPERT MURGATROYD," caroled Geoffrey Avalon, "his leisure and his RICHES; he ruthlessly employed in persecuting WITCHES – "

He was returning from the men's room and was clearly in a happy mood. His dark eyes twinkled and his formidable eyebrows twitched in friendly fashion.

Except that "caroled" is perhaps not the right word to use in connection with any attempt Avalon ever made in the direction of song. It was not that he was either flat or sharp, for on no occasion in the memory of any member of the Black Widowers had he ever struck a note close enough to the desired one to be either flat or sharp.

Thomas Trumbull turned on his heel as though he had been jabbed in some tender portion of his anatomy with a thumbtack. He said, "Jeff, shut up. Five years ago, when you last did this, I told you that any repetition of this vile noise you make, will induce homicidal mania in everyone and that I fully intended to beat them all to the punch."

"Come on, Tom," said Mario Gonzalo complacently, "the man is just in a Gilbert and Sullivan mood. Let's put him to some interesting use. If he doesn't do the words but just hums, we can all try to guess the tune."

"Except," said James Drake, thoughtfully, "that it would be a lost cause. If Jeff hummed 'Yankee Doodle' and then "Old Man River,' we couldn't tell them apart."

Roger Halsted said, "I don't think the experiment should be tried without earplugs."

Avalon would have drawn himself up, had not his natural stance placed him in a perpetual seventy – four – inch up – drawn position. His voice, in its natural rich baritone – when he was speaking – was distinctly aggrieved in tone as he said, "I had not intended to continue singing after I had emerged from the men's room, and I will cheerfully stop. But might I remind you that as tonight's banquet host I am within my rights in declaring myself permitted to sing?"

"To do something," said Trumbull, gratingly, "that someone, somewhere, at some time, in a state not too close to drunken insensibility can call singing, yes. That does not, however, include what you do."

Henry, that best of waiters, who had listened blandly as he completed the table setting, raised his voice without, somehow, seeming to, and said, "Gentlemen, please seat yourselves."

They did, and Emmanuel Rubin, who had been talking to Avalon's guest of the evening during the altercation, now drew the guest into the seat next to his.

Henry held the seat for the guest and said, "Welcome to the Black Widowers, Mr. Graff."

The guest looked up in surprise. "Do you know me?"

He was rather short, not much taller than Rubin, round – faced, with a generous mustache like that of a baby walrus, and thick graying hair that covered most of his ears.

Henry said, "I attended a lecture of yours at New York University about a year ago and enjoyed it very much."

Graff beamed. He said to Rubin, "See, who needs intellectuals? With waiters, I'm big."

Rubin said, "Don't dismiss Henry that easily, Graff. We intellectuals bask in his reflected glory."

Graff said, "Listen, do you guys talk like this all the time? I never heard such fighting. Over every little thing, too. With words. With whole sentences. – And call me Herb."

Rubin said, "You have to understand, Herb, that each of us spends most of his time with ordinary people. We can't pick on them; it wouldn't be fair. Once a month, we're here, and we can let loose."

"But you sound as though you're getting mad. Look at Jeff Avalon. In one minute, he'll take his knife and carve up everyone here."

"Not at all," said Rubin. "I give him five minutes and he'll be pontificating. Listen -"

Rubin waited five minutes and then, as the roast goose was placed before him, he said, "Of course, Jeff, it is really unjust to say Gilbert and Sullivan. It should be Sullivan and Gilbert. In any of the numerous parodies of the operettas, Gilbert's words are invariably changed but no one would dream of changing a note of Sullivan's music."

Jeff said, "You are quite wrong, Manny. There were other light – opera composers in Sullivan's time and after – Offenbach, Strauss, Lehar, Romberg, and so on. Many tunes of each one of these lives. But only in the case of Sullivan are any of the tunes ever sung by ordinary people. No one knows the words – except in the case of Sullivan, because only Sullivan had the greatest lyricist in the English language working with him."

His ill temper seemed to have evaporated. "Gilbert is the one lyricist who used the full strength of the English language and the full vocabulary. He rhymes 'executioner' with 'ablutioner,' "diminutioner,' and 'you – shun – her.' He -"

Rubin turned to Graff and said in a low voice, "See?"

Henry was making the rounds with the brandy bottle, and Avalon bestirred himself. Rattling his spoon on the water glass, he said, "Gentlemen, we come now to the important portion of the evening. Manny, since you were the one person who, earlier in the evening, refrained from needless pseudo – wit at my expense, and showed an odd and unaccustomed gentlemanliness of behavior – "

"Odd and unaccustomed?" said Rubin indignantly, his sparse beard quivering. "If you're intending that as a compliment, it's a hell of an ungracious way of doing it."

"Odd and unaccustomed is what I said," said Avalon, loftily. "And I am asking you to be in charge of the grilling."

"What grilling?" said Graff, looking startled.

"The question – and – answer period, Herb," said Avalon, in what was for him a low voice. "I told you."

Graff, recollecting, nodded his head.

Rubin intoned, "May I ask you, Herb, just how you justify your existence?"

Graff sat back in his seat and stared in astonishment at Rubin for a moment, before answering. "Justify my existence?" he said, with a strong upward inflection. "Listen, you step out into the street and take a look at the cockamamie people passing by. You ever get into an elevator and listen to them talking? Three things you hear. Three. 'What did you watch on television last night?,' "Where are you going to go on vacation?', 'You think the Mets will win today?' – That is, if they can talk at all. I should justify my existence? Let them all justify their existence, and I'll justify mine. Not before."

Rubin nodded his head. "There's something in what you say."

Trumbull interrupted. "You know, Jeff's right about you, Manny. Are you sure you're Emmanuel Rubin, or are you a lookalike sent here to drive us mad with unaccustomed sweetness?"

Rubin said, "I received word of a very nice paperback sale yesterday, so I'm in a good mood, but don't presume upon it. For instance, I'll just say politely once not to return to that subject. Now, Herb, putting the question of your existence's justification out of court, what is it you do?"

Graff said, "I'm a movie maven."

"A what?" muttered Gonzalo.

"Maven," said Rubin, "is from the Yiddish, for 'expert.'"

"You mean you make movies?" said Gonzalo.

"Not actually," said Graff. "I talk about them. I have, or I can get, almost any old movie that's been made and I show them, or I show clips, and I lecture on them. People like it. I give lecture tours, especially on college campuses, and I make a living. Henry, tell these guys about my lectures."

Henry's unlined, sixtyish face creased briefly into a gentle smile. "It was indeed an entertaining evening. I believe the audience, generally, enjoyed themselves."

Graff said, "There you are, an unpaid testimonial. But just the same, I might actually be making a movie, or helping make one, if I can only figure out how to handle the crazies."

"What kind of movie?" asked Rubin.

"Gilbert and Sullivan, actually," said Graff, with what seemed a trace of embarrassment. "I've been talking to Jeff Avalon about it on the way here and that's what put him into – you should excuse the expression – a singing mood."

"Is there money in Gilbert and Sullivan in the movies?" asked Drake skeptically. "I should think it just has a small cult following."

Graff said, "Bigger than you think, but you're right. You can't make a colossal extravaganza out of it. But then you don't have to spend ten million dollars on it. You can do it small – scale. It's been done. Kenny Baker sang Nanki – Poo in a movie version of The Mikado and was cut to ribbons by all the D'Oyly Carte types that supported him. The trouble is, you can't do much with Gilbert and Sullivan except photograph the stage play. You can't change the music or the words or the plot because as soon as you change anything it's not Gilbert and Sullivan and you're nowhere. So if you're just going to photograph the play, you're not taking advantage of the power of the camera and where are you?"

"Where indeed?" said Drake.

Graff said, "But these guys – I didn't tell you about these guys yet, did I? Two kids in their early twenties, but young as they are, they've really got it. You know, in any field of art, it's the young people who look at things with new eyes. These guys are a pair of crazies, of course, but you've got to expect that. Their names are Sam Appelbaum and Tim Mentz and they're pupils of mine. I give a course on movie making at the New School and that's how I met them. They want to do The Pirates of Penzance, one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, because they'd seen a performance by the Village Light Opera Group and were enthusiastic.

"They joined the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, which seems to be a very active group here in New York, and they met Jeff Avalon, who's a Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado. – Is that the way you pronounce the word?"

"Quite," said Avalon. "Though my singing voice may not be approved by all, I presume that not even the most captious will try to prevent me from listening to music and I know virtually all of Gilbert and Sullivan by heart."

Trumbull growled, "You may know Gilbert's words by heart, but if you know a single note of Sullivan's music – or anyone's – may I be struck by lightning right now."

"In any case," said Graff, "I met Jeff through Appelbaum and Mentz, and a couple of months ago we were talking about what strategy to use in making a movie of Pirates, and how limited we were in handling it, and Avalon suggested an animated cartoon. Appelbaum and Mentz fell over themselves to grab the idea. You have the voices, the words, the notes, and you have a free hand to be as fantastic as you want. Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are always overacted, anyway, on principle. I'm certain that if Gilbert and Sullivan had worked in the 1970s instead of the 1870s, they would have written the operettas for animation in the first place."

James Drake stubbed out his cigarette with a violent motion and said, "I think that's disgusting. You'll have a whole bunch of cutesie choruses dancing around Prince Charming Frederic and Snow White Mabel."

"No!" said Graff, earnestly. "What do you think? Disney is all there is? Besides, who can spend the money on the kind of animation that Disney used in the days of slave labor where you make a thousand different drawings to show Dopey picking his nose realistically. We're counting on surrealism. In fact, these guys are going to use the techniques of modern an to evoke humor and fantasy in a whole new way. I can't explain how it will work. After all, am I an artist? But when they're through, it will work and you'll see how it works. It will start a whole new fashion and, on top of that, it will make them trillionaires and it would make me a few shiny pennies, too. If they do it, that is."

"Why if?" said Halsted.

"Because they had a fight, that's why. And they're still fighting," said Graff. "And go try and settle it. They've got all the money in the world waiting to be scooped in and neither one will move unless the other gives in."

"What are they fighting about?" asked Rubin. "Are they both in love with the same soprano?"

Graff shook his head. "You don't know the crazies of this world, do you? Crazies don't fight over a woman or over anything sensible. That's for plain people like you and me. Crazies fight over things you can't imagine – like when did the action of the play take place. Appelbaum says the action begins on March 1, 1877, and Mentz says March 1, 1873, and neither one will give in.

"You see, you guys in the Black Widowers argue, but you forget, because you've got a million things to argue about, so you drop each particular argument in favor of another. I've been listening to you do it all through dinner. My two guys are big talents but they're limited. They've only got one thing to fight over so there's no chance of their forgetting. With them it's 1873, 1877, 1873, 1877, till you can get sick and die."

"I take it," said Halsted, "that Gilbert gives no indication which it is."

"No," said Graff.

Trumbull said, with clear contempt, "Does it make a difference?"

Graff said, "Actually, it does. The guys want to keep up a running set of montages dating back to Victorian times to keep pace with the words and music. These would be accompaniments and references to whatever was happening, sometimes so fast you couldn't really make out the details, but you would get it, uh, subliminally. – Is that how you say it? – It would be a kind of running visual gag, and it could start a cult. You know, people would say, did you see that picture of Disraeli, and who was the other guy with him and what was he doing, and they'd go several times just to try to pick up all the clues they could. Well, there are places where what you show would depend on whether it was 1873 or 1877."

Trumbull said, "Then let them pick one of the two years and get going. Who would care?"

Graff said, "They would care. Neither one will give in. It's life and death with them. Look, do you know the play?"

"I don't," said Trumbull, flatly.

Drake said, "I suppose Jeff knows it by heart, but I just know the Major – General's patter song, which is an example of what Jeff was talking about with its fancy vocabulary and ingenious rhymes." Rather surprisingly, he lifted his soft, hoarse voice in song, and with a fair approximation of the notes, went, " 'Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore, and whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense, Pinafore.' – Which shows," he added, "that Gilbert could make a little fun of himself, too, since Pinafore was his big early success."

Graff said, hastily, "Well, let me just outline the plot quickly, so you can see where the trouble is. Is that all right?"

"Go ahead, Herb," said Avalon, indulgently. "I'm host and what I say goes – or should go," and he bent his formidable frown at Trumbull, who shrugged and muttered something under his breath.

Graff said, "Frederic is a pirate – apprentice. It was all a mistake because his nursery – maid, Ruth, had been told to apprentice him to a pilot, but had misheard the word. Unable to return home and explain the mistake, she, too, joined the pirate band.

"As the play opens, Frederic has just turned twenty – one and entered his twenty – second year so his apprenticeship is over. As the slave of duty he has remained with the pirates, but now that he has served his term, he will abandon them and, because he is also the soul of honor, he will devote himself to their extermination.

"Ruth, a maiden of forty – seven, wants to go with him for she loves Frederic. But then they encounter the daughters of Major – General Stanley, and Frederic, realizing that Ruth is old and plain, falls in love instead with Mabel, the prettiest of the daughters.

"The pirates surprise them and make ready to marry all the daughters – anything but marriage being inconceivable to good old Gilbert – when their father arrives and sings the Major – General's song that Jim Drake mentioned. The Major – General persuades the pirates to give up their scheme for marrying his daughters by claiming, falsely, to be an orphan boy. The tenderhearted pirates burst into tears and the first act ends happily.

"In the second act, Frederic prepares to lead the police against the pirates. Before he can leave with his band, however, the Pirate King, together with Ruth, come upon him alone and tell him they have just remembered that he was born on leap day, February 29. The apprenticeship papers say he must serve till his twenty – first birthday and, strictly speaking, he has had only five.

"Frederic, the slave of duty, at once rejoins the band and, as a loyal pirate, now tells them of the Major – General's lie. The furious pirates attack the Major – General's estate and, in a battle with the police, emerge the winners.

"However, the police produce a Union Jack and demand the pirates yield in Queen Victoria's name. The pirates promptly do so, saying, 'With all our faults, we love our Queen.' As the pirates are about to be led away to jail, Ruth quickly explains that all the pirates are just noblemen gone wrong. The Major – General at once frees them saying, 'With all our faults, we love our House of Peers', and everything ends happily."

Graff beamed around the table and said, "It's actually a very funny and happy play. There's just one line that creates the problem. When Frederic finds out his apprenticeship goes by birthdays and not by years, he explains to Mabel, 'In 1940 I of age shall be." That means that on February 29, 1940, he'll celebrate his twenty – first birthday."

Drake nodded. He had lit a new cigarette and he blinked his eyes slowly. "On February 29, 1940, the New York Times ran an editorial on Frederic's being out of his indentures. I remember reading it."

Graff said, "All right, but if there's a leap day every four years – "

Roger Halsted interrupted. "But there isn't – "

Graff shook his head violently. "Just wait a minute. If there's a leap day every four years, then Frederic was eighty – four years old on his twenty – first birthday, and he was born in 1856. He was twenty – one years old in 1877, a year after his fifth birthday. He would have had to celebrate his coming of age on March 1, 1877, since there is no February 29 in that year and, Appelbaum says, that is therefore the day on which the action of the play opens."

"But – " said Halsted.

"But," said Graff, raising his voice, "apparently the year 1900 should have been a leap year but wasn't. There was no February 29, 1900. That's what you're trying to say, isn't it, Roger? I don't know why that should be. Some Pope arranged it."

Halsted said, "Pope Gregory XIII in – "

"That part doesn't matter," said Graff, impatiently. "The point is that one leap day is missing, so to get twenty – one of them, you have to move four years further back. Frederic would have to have been born in 1852 and become twenty – one in 1873, so that the action of the play opens on March 1, 1873. That's what Mentz says.

"The Pirates of Penzance opened in early 1880 so 1877 is the logical year, says Appelbaum, and Gilbert either forgot or didn't know that 1900 was not a leap year. Mentz says it is inconceivable that Gilbert would make a mistake about 1900 and that no true aficionado – yes, you told me I said it right – would think so for a minute, so the year was 1873. There they stand. Neither one will give in."

There was a silence around the table. Finally, Gonzalo said, "You really think there's a lot of money in the picture if they make it?"

Graff said, "Who can tell about public taste – but there's a good chance."

"Then can't you make up some argument that would convince them one year or the other was right? You know, something that sounds good?"

"Like what?" said Graff.

"The trouble is," said Avalon, sententiously, "that the world of Gilbert and Sullivan is not a real one and it doesn't lend itself to logical arguments. For instance, though it is clearly stated that Frederic has just turned twenty – one and that his birthday is on February 29, nevertheless the Major – General's daughters, when they first arrive on the scene, decide to take off their shoes and socks and paddle their feet in the sea. The scene is set in Cornwall, where the town of Penzance is located, and you can imagine what it would be like paddling in the English Channel in winter."

"Well," said Graff, "the daughters call themselves 'hardy little lasses' in their first chorus."

Gonzalo said, "Did the Major – General have any sons?"

"No," said Graff, "just daughters. In a full performance, there could be as many as twenty – four daughters, all pretty much the same age and no sign of any mother, either. It is unreal, so how are we going to find some way of deciding between 1873 and 1877 that will hold water?"

Trumbull said, "You have to think of something that sounds good. It doesn't have to be good, or sensible. Look, wasn't Queen Victoria Empress of India, too? – Henry would you be so kind as to go over to the reference shelf and look up Queen Victoria in the encyclopedia. Maybe it will say when she became Empress."

After some moments, Henry said, "The title was secured for her by Benjamin Disraeli in 1876, sir, and she was proclaimed Empress of India on January 1, 1877."

"Ah, perfect. The whole thing is solved and we can forget about this nonsense."

Graff looked doubtful. "How is it solved?"

"Easy. Victoria loved the new title. Anyone wanting to please her would go around calling her "Queen – Empress." You quoted the pirates as saying that, with all their faults, they love their Queen. Well, if the action opens on March 1, 1877, only two months after Victoria gained the imperial title, surely they would refer to her, with pride, as Queen – Empress. The fact that they didn't proves it was 1873."

Graff looked still more doubtful, " 'Queen – Empress' wouldn't rhyme or scan."

"Don't be an idiot," said Trumbull. "I told you the argument doesn't have to make sense. It just has to sound good. It's just a piece of gobbledygook designed to settle the matter."

"I don't think that would win over Appelbaum," said Graff.

"Well, then," said Avalon, "let's think up more arguments like that, but let's keep them all on one particular year, because if we think up ways of arguing for both years, that won't settle matters. What else is there we can use for 1873? It doesn't have to be sensible."

"Anything else about kings and queens?" asked Gonzalo. "Does the Pirate King represent anyone?"

"I don't know that he does," said Avalon, shaking his head slowly, "but there is some mention of kings in the Pirate King's opening solo. He admits he sinks more ships than a well – bred monarch ought to do, but then he says, 'Many a king on a first – class throne, if he wants to call his crown his own, must manage somehow to get through more dirty work than ever I do.' Now can he be referring to some particular king?"

Rubin stared up through narrowed eyes. "Let's see – Who were the first – class thrones in the 1870s? There was William I of Germany. The German Empire had just been established and there was a lot of chicanery there."

Drake said, "That was the chicanery of Otto von Bismarck, Manny. William I was just an old man who did what he was told."

Rubin said, "You're right there, Jim. – Francis Joseph of Austria was a dim son of monarch and Alexander II of Russia was not bad for a tsar. Those were the only ones whom Gilbert would have considered as sitting on a first – class throne."

Halsted said, "How about Napoleon III of France? Wasn't he ruling about that time?"

"No," said Rubin. "He got kicked out in the Franco – Prussian War in 1870, and France was a Republic in the 1870s and, in fact, ever since. Too bad, too, because Napoleon III was as crooked as a bolt of lightning. He was a conniver and an intriguer who made it to the imperial throne by lying and cheating and he could at no time be trusted to keep his word unless you kept a gun trained at him."

Gonzalo said, "When did he die?"

Rubin said, "I'm not sure. Not long afterward, I think. Henry, would you check that little matter."

Henry did so. "He died on January 9, 1873."

Gonzalo was enthusiastic. "That's perfect. Gilbert wouldn't make snide remarks against a sitting monarch, because that would create an international incident, but – "

Rubin said, "Listen, Gilbert would not hesitate to – "

"No, no, we're just building an argument," said Gonzalo, "so let's say he wouldn't. But a king who was dead would be fair game. If it were 1877, the Pirate King might not think of Napoleon III, but if it were 1873, Napoleon III would have died only two months before, there would have been obituaries and biographies, and he would be fresh in the minds of the pirates. Naturally, they would refer to the "dirty work' he did. So that's two arguments for 1873."

Avalon said, "That won't work, Mario. Napoleon III wasn't a king. He was an emperor. France, Germany, Austria – Hungary, and Russia were all empires in Victoria's time. So was Japan, for that matter. That was one reason why Victoria was so pleased with the imperial title. Without it, every other important monarch outranked her."

"So?" said Gonzalo.

"So," said Avalon, "Tom's argument is that it had to be 1873 because Victoria was called a Queen and not a Queen – Empress. But if you're going to be so picky about titles you can't have the Pirate King talk about kings when he is referring to Napoleon III, who was an emperor."

"On this point, Jeff," said Rubin, "I side with Mario. Gilbert, as a loyal Britisher, would certainly not abate one jot of the title of Victoria. However, he isn't going to worry about some French monarch. In Gilbert's time, France was still the traditional enemy of Great Britain through a series of wars stretching back to Henry II seven centuries before."

Graff nodded. "There's something to that. In Ruddigore, there's a song by the sailor, Richard Dauntless, which makes mild fun of the French and calls them 'froggies,' ' parley – voos,' and "darned Mounseers.'"

"Exactly," said Rubin. "Gilbert wouldn't worry about the precise title of a darned Mounseer, so that's two arguments in favor of 1873." Graff said, "Yes, but they're -" He wiggled his hand in a rapid roll.

"All right, then," said Avalon. "Anything else?"


Finally, Halsted muttered, "I wish I knew the play better. Listen, Herb, did you say the pirates were members of the House of Peers?"

"They have to be," said Graff. "When the Major – General hears that the pirates are noblemen gone wrong, he says, "No Englishman unmoved that statement hears, because, with all our faults, we love our House of Peers.' Then he goes on to say to the pirates, 'Peers will be peers, and youth will have its fling. Resume your ranks arid legislative duties -' So I suppose they're part of Parliament."

"Ah," said Halsted, "then that settles it. In the 1870s, Great Britain was the dominant economic power on earth. In particular, there were heavy British investments in the United States. If a bunch of notorious pirates were suddenly to flood into Parliament, that would make Americans feel pretty shaky about the status of the British investments. You can't trust pirates. They might withdraw those investments. That would unsettle the American economy and – "

"You would have the Panic of 1873," said Rubin, triumphantly.

"Exactly," said Halsted.

Rubin said, "That really does it. There was a Panic of 1873. It was the worst economic downturn the United States had up to the Great Depression of the 1930s."

Avalon said, "There you are, Herb. Three arguments in favor of 1873. Each one by itself is weak, perhaps, but surely all three combined have force. One: Victoria would have been referred to as Queen in 1873, but not in 1877 when she was Empress as well. Two: Napoleon III would have been referred to as an example of a royal conniver in 1873, soon after he died, but not in 1877 by which time he might have been out of mind. Three: the return of the pirates to Parliament could and did set off an American depression in 1873, while there was none in 1877."

Graff nodded gloomily. "Yes, that's very nice and I hope it works. Maybe it will work. Anyway, I want to thank you all very much. If I can get Appelbaum to see the force of these arguments – " He paused, then said wistfully, "There wouldn't be anything else you could feed me, would there? Something, I mean, that doesn't have all that subtle logic. Something simple."

His eyes went from one to the other and met only blankness.

Then Gonzalo said, "If you want something simple, we ought to ask Henry. He hasn't said anything yet."

Graff looked up at Henry curiously. "Don't tell me you go for Gilbert and Sullivan, too, Henry."

"Not quite, sir," said Henry. "I have heard selections from the operettas on occasion, but I have never attended a performance of any of them."

"Oh, well," said Graff.

"Nevertheless -" said Henry, and stopped.

Avalon said, "Go on. Henry. If you've got argument number four backing 1873, so much the better."

"That is the point, Mr. Avalon, I haven't. I admire the ingenuity of the arguments you have all presented and I am rather embarrassed to have to say anything against them."

"You mean we're all wrong, Henry?" said Rubin.

"I'm afraid so, Mr. Rubin. The dull fact is that 1873 is quite impossible as the time of the action, as one can very simply demonstrate on the basis of what has already been said."

Graff said, "Impossible? You mean all those logical arguments aren't any good."

"Completely useless."


Henry said, "Dr. Drake sang a couple of lines from the Major – General's song earlier in the evening. The Major – General, if I heard him correctly, boasted that he knew all the airs from that infernal nonsense, Pinafore."

"Damn!" said Rubin. "Of course!"

"Yes, sir. As Dr. Drake said. Pinafore was an early play of Gilbert and Sullivan's, earlier than The Pirates of Penzance. While I was checking the various points in the encyclopedia, as requested, I found, for myself, that Pinafore was produced in 1878. We might imagine that the Major – General, in view of his high rank, might somehow have gotten an advance look at the music when it was being written in 1877 and could have whistled the airs. No amount of twisting or logic chopping could explain his being able to whistle the airs in 1873."

Grafts round face had widened in a smile. "Of course. No argument any more, no logic, no fancy reasoning. The Major – General mentions Pinafore and that's it. The time of action has to be 1877 and Gilbert forgot, or maybe he didn't know, that 1900 was not a leap year. Mentz will have to give in, and we can go ahead. Thank you, Henry – but how is it I didn't see that?"

"Or I?" said Drake. "After all, I sang the verses."

Henry said, "I appear to be gifted with a simple mind, gentlemen – if you wish the simple explanation."


I have a number of wild enthusiasms, and one of them is Gilbert and Sullivan. I am a member of The Gilbert and Sullivan Society and occasionally I like to drag some G & S reference into a story. Finally, I managed to think of a plot in which a G & S angle is central and then you can bet that nothing could stop me from writing the story at once. Fred Dannay changed the title to "The Gilbert and Sullivan Mystery" but that struck me as too prosaic, so I kept my own title for this collection.

Incidentally, the character Herb Graff in the story is, in a way, a real person. He is a dear friend of mine in the Dutch Treat Club, another organization I belong to. He asked me to put him into a story, using his real name, description, and hobby. I was doubtful and asked him to give me a piece of paper with his signature on it, giving me permission to do so. He gladly did so.

I thereupon wrote him into "The Year of the Action" and gave him a copy of the January 1, 1981, issue of EQMM, in which the story appeared. That was at a Dutch Treat luncheon, something we have every Tuesday.

The following Tuesday I said, "How did you like the story?", for I thought he would be pleased at how well I had captured his essence (and he's really one of the nicest guys in the world – funny, intelligent, and with a heart of gold).

However, I had used a word he had disapproved of and that spoiled everything. He drew himself up, fixed me with a piercing eye, and said, "Plump???"

No word is worth hurting the feelings of a friend, so you won't find it in the version in the book. I have removed it.

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