They walked out onto the stage, their hard-soled tread upon the boards echoing into the upper reaches of the building and out into the vast space of the auditorium. Antonia, who had been gawking at the rigging and machinery, stepped to the edge of the stage and peered over the footlights powered, according to Thackery, by electricity.
"Electricity?" Inez exclaimed.
He preened. "The Grand is exceedingly modern and employs the latest in technology."
Antonia commented, "There are sure a lot of chairs out there."
"We can seat three thousand souls," said Thackery. "Only two theaters in the United States have larger auditoriums."
The stage itself was mostly empty, save for the grand piano, right of center. The ghostly notes from the arias recently played seemed to swirl around it, calling to Inez. Her fingers tingled in her gloves, longing to recreate what she had just heard. Unable to resist, she headed toward the piano.
"A magnificent instrument," said Thackery, pacing her. "We are so grateful your music store had a Broadwood in stock. We usually use Steinway, but Mrs. Drake, she, ah..."
Inez spared a glance his way as his chatty stream of words dried up. He was visibly uncomfortable, seeming to be seeking a way forward. He finally finished with "Mrs. Drake preferred a Broadwood."
"They are certainly well suited to such surroundings," Inez replied, as much to ease his discomfort as to reassure him that Mrs. Drake's preference was completely understandable. Inez smoothed a gloved hand over the curve of the open lid, marveling at the silky sheen. She had another Broadwood that took "center stage" in the music store, but here in the opera house, the instrument was in its element. Unconfined by pressing walls nor dulled by carpets on the floor, open to the vastness of the auditorium, it stood upon the stage as aristocratic as any diva.
More than anything, she wanted to touch the keys, hear the notes pour out from her fingers to the keys and hammers, out over the orchestra pit, and experience what it was like to send music over the now-empty seats. "Mr. Thackery, may I?"
The toothy smile broke through again. "Of course, Mrs. Stannert. It does have a lovely tone, as I'm certain you know." Inez settled onto the bench, taking care she wasn't sitting on the tassels of the mauve satin sash decorating her overskirt and that the long, knife-pleat underskirt stayed untangled from her satin shoes. She removed her gloves, lifted the fallboard to reveal the keyboard, and set her fingertips upon the smooth, cool ivory keys. She pondered. What to play? What would be a proper offering for such a musically sacred setting?
A short reflection, and the choice was obvious. Simplicity, and a nod to the amazing purity of Mrs. Drake's voice.
Inclining her head over the keyboard, Inez half closed her eyes, pulling up from memory "Ave Maria."
The flowing melodic line wrapped around her. Antonia, Mr. Thackery, the stage, everything else disappeared, becoming mist to the music.
The last notes had not yet died when a touch on her shoulder startled her.
"Perfectly and impeccably exquisite."
Inez twisted around at the euphonious female voice. The prima donna, Theia Carrington Drake, stood close behind her.
Mrs. Drake was still dressed in the shimmering gold-and-silver gown from her performance, a smile gracing her heart-shaped face. A small gold bird with black markings on its head, wings, and tail perched on a gloved finger, raised up and to the side. The opera star's feathered companion cocked its head as if listening to an echo of the final chords. A delicate gold chain linked one tiny leg to an intricate, finely braided bracelet encircling the singer's wrist. The slender tether glittered and swayed as she extended her free hand in greeting. Light glinted off her gloves, white kid with the backs richly worked with seed pearls and silver and gold beads. Inez rose. "Madame Drake. Thank you for your kind words. I did not know you were listening. It's an honor to meet you." She took the diva's hand, feeling awkward without her own gloves.
The footlights behind them cast a halo about the diva's upswept light-brown hair. "And you are Mrs. Inez Stannert? Or so Mr. Thackery told me. You do this wonderful instrument justice. Would you consider playing 'Ave Maria' again? For me, this time?" Theia turned to Antonia, still frozen near the footlights. "Come here, child. What is your name? Do you like birds? This is my pet, Aria. Would you hold him while I sing?"
Inez held her breath, praying that Antonia would hold fast to her manners and not burst out with something rude or outré, such as "Those high notes almost made my ears bleed."
Antonia mumbled her name, adding a stilted "If you please, ma'am, I would very much enjoy holding your bird."
Inez exhaled with relief.