"well, here we are together again, duck." her eyes widened. "but under such circumstances! what a situation!"
"yes, yes indeed. i tried to give you some idea in my letters, but i had to be circumspect. of course you got all the official correspondance, like the rest of the girls."
"oh, yes. we have a year to write a novel, of what - about 130,000 words? that shouldn't be too difficult - if we have nothing else to do all day."
"actually it is 133,225 words. we can discuss all that later."
"and it is to be about what - anything i choose?"
"yes, my dear - you - you can write just about anything you like. you see, your theme - picked by lottery - is "universal" -
"ha ha! yes, i guess that is just about anything."
"and i was able to save it for you."
"oh my dear, and how did you do that?"
miss prue picked up the two pieces of folded paper in front of her. "my little scheme wasn't foolproof but it worked. i put just a smidgin of clear glue on these papers and stuck them to the bottom of the hats they picked from. of course one of them could still have picked one or both but they didn't."
"my, such a trickster."
"i had a good teacher."
by celine de courtot
illustrated by rhoda penmarq , roy dismas and konrad kraus
special thanks to Prof. Dan Leo for his editing efforts
the comtesse souvine de x----------- had been forgotten for years, following a scandal which had itself been long forgotten. she had lived alone, with only nine or ten servants, in a castle in the eastern marshes which she had inherited from a barely known cousin of her mother. so it was with some surprise, and a small tremor of anticipation, that she received the news one morning from her personal maid, that a visitor - a woman no longer quite young - had arrived the evening before, claiming to be a niece.
"and this person gave her name?"
"i am sure she did, madame, but you know i can never remember names so i did not enquire after hers. i am sure william can enlighten you on that score."
"and she was placed where?"
"arette told me that william put her in the west tower, and assigned little margaret to her."
"assigned little margaret to her? surely she had her own servant?"
"apparently not, madame. she arrived without one."
"i hardly know what to think. and william accepted her claim to be my niece?"
"i think he will leave it to you to decide who she is. it was very late, and we all know madame does not like to be disturbed."
"no... no, of course not. it is very curious."
"will madame go downstairs at her usual time?"
"of course. why would i not?"
"and of course there is no guarantee that the young woman will arise any time soon."
"young woman? i thought you described her as 'no longer quite young'"
"madame is so particular. and so quick to notice the most minute discrepancies in the most innocently intended statements. i would describe her as neither young nor old - perhaps young but mature for her years. "
"so you saw this person yourself?"
"indeed i did."
"and she arrived when?"
"just after midnight."
"and you were up and about?"
"oh yes, i had been awakened by the most frightful storm."
"it did not awaken me."
"madam always sleeps soundly."
"i should hope so. i should hope no one gives me cause to do otherwise." the countess got up and walked to her window. it was day, but there was no sign of either sun or rain. "a frightful storm, you say?"
"oh, yes, madame. the wind howled, the trees bent, the rain beat on the windows, and all that. it was nasty."
"and this purported niece of mine - she had arrived in a carriage?"
"i assume she did. she would have been in a sorry state had she been walking through the forest."
"but you did not see the carriage?"
"no. but william probably did. or the stable boy."
"and the young - or mature young woman - or whatever she is - she was dressed in a style that gave confidence that she was of the class she professed to be?"
"she carried herself like a duchess, i can say that. as for style, both you and i have been so long away from the centers of such things that i am sure i can have no reference or opinion on the subject."
"bah. i will always know good taste when i see it."
"then no more need be said."
"and despite the raging storm, this person did not have a hair or thread out of place, is that what you are saying?"
"that is what i said. what is madame implying?"
"do you think a supernatural agency might be at work?"
" you mean do i think the young woman is a werewolf or a vampire or a demon? ah - no. i do not entertain such possibilities."
the countess smiled, and turned from the window. "you are still the skeptic, jeanette. twenty years here in this dark and brooding forest have left no mark on you."
"none at all. i am still the child raised by freethinkers in the shadow of the pantheon. my poor parents spent their lives handing out leaflets in the parc montsouris. if madame wants stories of goblins and werewolves there are women in the village, old and young, who could surely oblige her."
"come, jeanette, it is too early in the morning for your lectures. but, who knows, our mysterious guest might enjoy such tales . perhaps you should seek out one of these local sibyls - it might provide our guest - and ourselves - some amusement."
"if madame wishes."
"well, enough of this for now. come, let us get me dressed. after all, it is just another day."
from renaldo, marquis of y----------, to daphne, countess of v--------------:
my dearest friend - the delight i feel on hearing from you is sorely tempered by the distress i feel on your behalf. and on poor colin's and clovis's behalf! i recall many happy hours spent with them. please assure them, and the other swains and shepherdesses, of my most heartfelt sympathies.
p s inspired by their plight, i was moved to compose this attempt at verse in a centuries old tradition. i fear we may be entering a new dark age, in which such civilized amusements are no longer even attempted, and i lay this humble sprig upon the pyre of art and beauty.
sunset: a pastoral
see how the little bumblebee flits from flower to flower all too unsuspecting this is his final hour
before the fleecy cloud above has crossed the placid sun our industrious little friend his labors will have done
ah colin! as you pipe your tune cast your wandering eye upon your humblest companions beneath the cerulean sky
and sigh to know and sigh to sing the pitiless truth the setting sun will bring
from daphne, countess of v--------------, to renaldo, marquis of y-------------- :
my dear friend, thank you so much for your lovely verses and the sentiments that produced them. i would have shared them with poor colin and clovis, but alas - the poor boys have seen fit to flee the area, rather than submit to the martial embrace of the recruiting sergeant - the fellow i wrote of before. they came to me the morning after the night i described to you, to bid me farewell, and of course, they were nowise loath to beg a few coins from me, as well a few handkerchiefs and other trinkets i had in my pockets. i pointed out that possession of such things was as likely to get them hanged as thieves as do them much good as barter, but they persisted so piteously that i relented, and waved then on their way - wherever that may be.
i do not believe either of them has ever been out of the valley in their lives, and they would seem to be easy pickings as wandering innocents even in times of peace... i say no more. good luck to them, and of course i will miss them both.
on the afternoon of that same day, i encountered the fearsome soldier again in the drawing room of the duke. i could not forebear twitting him about the defection of colin and clovis - and others? - omitting any mention of providing them with funds - but he seemed to find more amusement than frustration in the situation. he exhibits little - in fact no - sympathy for the victims and intended victims of his depredations , at the same time he makes no pretense of being a firebreather or anxious to return to the toils of war, but is openly content to relax on the duke's cushions and drink the duke's wine and brandy. i inquired as to the success of his enterprise:
... and so, sir, you have found enough children to feed into the maw of mars to justify your enterprise?
perhaps, madam. that is for my superiors to say - assuming that i can find them again, or they me.
ah! do i understand then, that you do not even know where to deliver your captives?
i know where i am supposed to deliver them. whether i find anyone there to deliver them to - that is the fortune of war.
this war - it seems a very inexact science. how much more satisfactory would it not be to reap the predictable fruits of peace.
oh, it is not so inexact as that. i was speaking generally. in the present circumstances i fully expect to find my battalion. if we were meeting more resistance... (he shrugged, and helped himself to more wine)
so you would welcome more resistance?
i do not welcome anything, except sitting on this excellently soft divan, sipping this noble wine, and listening to the music of your voice, madam.
not exactly the sentiments of a hector or an achilles, sir. perhaps you should follow after colin and clovis, and take up the trade of wandering minstrel.
is that what they told you they were going to do? ha, ha! wandering chicken thieves, more like it. i hope you gave them enough to get a few miles down the road before being impressed or hanged.
why, sir, i would never dare to defy the noble conqueror by abetting such behavior. but i can not help but hope the poor things do not come to too much grief.
oh i wish them no harm myself, madam. no harm at all ...
at this point he lapsed into a moody silence. i had expected him to take up the charge of his previous attempts at gallantry, but instead he finished his glass, stood up abruptly, made some excuses about writing letters, took his leave of our host, and exited. well! an unpolished fellow, but considering the tedium i find myself wilting in, his company was not completely without amusement of a sort.
i will write more later, if anything worth writing about transpires...
"zenith" mean high point, i believe. i am never sure about such things. words and abstract definitions are not among my strengths. in any event, the sun was high in the sky. it was hot. i was suddenly very thirsty. my feet were sore. my walking stick felt heavy in my hand, to the point that i was tempted to throw it away. i had absolutely no idea where i was going or why i was going there. i was thoroughly miserable. all in all, a typical day of my so-called existence.
at least, i thought, i was rid of costermayne and fenwick. i could now barely hear the echoes of fenwick's angry shoutings and costermayne's desperate whimperings . and another sound. the sound of a walking stick on thrashed human flesh? a hot wind had sprung up and was blowing in my face. it seemed to be blowing their noises away from me also. perhaps i had not left them so far behind as i thought? i was afraid to look back, lest this fear prove too well founded, and i increased my pace as best i could.
my curiosity about fenwick , which had brought me to this wretched pass, had more than totally evaporated, and i rued the day i had ever seen or thought about him. i set to walking with a will so as to put more distance between them and myself. yes, first one foot, then the other, one foot, then the other. i relaxed just a bit, falling into the comfortable, familiar rhythm. one foot, then the other, one foot, then the other, just as nature intended. if only nature would show a little mercy in regards to the blasted sun, beating down on the my beleaguered carcass .
ah, blind self-deluding folly ! for now i heard wheezing, slapping sounds behind me. then right behind me, not to be denied. i turned and there, of course, was the unfortunate costermayne, redfaced and hatless, running up the road as best he could on his flat feet. and fenwick in the distance behind him, not running, but coming on methodically, with his sneer on his face, knowing costermayne could not possibly escape him.
how tiresome! costermayne looked at me imploringly as he approached, then collapsed on the road at my feet. he burbled something unintelligible, no doubt "help me ' or "for the love of god" or something equally futile and meaningless. it occurred to me to simply turn and be on my own way, but something about fenwick's purposeful stride held me - i did not care to turn my back on him. as he got nearer, i saw he had his pistol held at his side.
costermayne's piteous noises subsided to barely audible squeaks as fenwick reached him and stood over him.
"look here," fenwick announced. "let's put an end to this nonsense, shall we?" and he put a bullet into costermayne's forehead. the single shot echoed up and down the road.
i am, i admit it, often - usually - at a "loss for words" in even the most civilized and familiar surroundings, with the most routine and ritualized behaviors. and besides being at a "loss for words" i usually do not know "what to think" in even the most everyday encounters. nevertheless i felt impelled to say something, and what i said was "a bit harsh, eh?"
"a bit harsh? the fellow was a blackguard. he was following me. " fenwick looked me in the eye. he still held his pistol at the ready. he laughed. "surely you don't approve of such behavior, eh?"
"oh no, no."
"were you familiar with this individual? he spoke to you as if he knew you. if you do not mind my asking?"
"we were together at school. i have hardly seem him since."
fenwick gave costermayne's corpse - i assumed at that point that it was a corpse -a short kick. "and what sort of chap did you find him?"
"the most disagreeable sort imaginable."
"well, there you are. good riddance to bad rubbish, and all that." fenwick put his pistol away beneath his coat. "here, help me drag him to the side to the road."
i looked around. the road at that point was particularly narrow, with the scrawniest and least shade-bearing trees imaginable lining both sides.
"the road hardly has a side," i noted.
"all roads have sides, sir." fenwick looked at me curiously. "what sort of statement is that? you are not a philosopher, are you?"
"oh no. in fact, i am - i am hardly capable of thought at all."
"good man! thinking never did anyone any good. come now, let us get him to the side of the road, or into the bush, or however you care to phrase it."
there seemed nothing else for it. i grasped costermayne's right hand - and it seemed to grip mine!
"are you sure he's dead?" i asked fenwick.
"i shot him at point blank range. are you gainsaying my markmanship?"
"of course not - it's just that -"
"look here, just get him behind these bushes. there we go. "
"shouldn't we what? give him a good christian burial? ha, ha, ha! no, the vultures and jackals will take care of him in no time."
i was by now feeling quite disoriented. "vultures and jackals?," i protested feebly. "there are no vultures and jackals in the village of a----------"
"nonsense! there are vultures and jackals of one sort or another everywhere. they are mother nature's most faithful servants. besides, we are not in the village of a--------, are we? we are on the high road to b-------------, as i am sure you are well aware, given your determined though not terribly energetic stride, eh?"
"shouldn't we notify the authorities?"
"the authorities? what are you, some kind of bloody parson? what next, will you be handing me a temperance leaflet?"
i had no answer for that. i tried to step away into the center of the road, but costermayne's hand gripped my ankle and and almost sent me sprawling.
"i - i'm afraid he's still alive."
"nonsense, he's just twitching. perfectly natural, especially in this heat. " fenwick slashed at costermayne's hand with his walking stick - dealing a ferocious blow to my ankle in the process - and the hand relaxed its grip. "you looked a bit peaked, sir. the sun, eh?"
"yes, yes, the sun. the sun."
fenwick looked up at that object in the sky. "hardly any sun at all, really. look here, we'll be in b------------ soon enough.
enjoying a glass at the hostage and crawfish. you're familiar with it, eh? everyone who goes to b------------ knows it. in fact, there is hardly any other reason to go to b-------------, is there?" he looked me in the eye. and although i would sincerely resent being described by any such adjective as "shifty", i am not the easiest person to look in the eye.
"hardly any reason - unless you were following a chap, eh?"
"quite. quite," i managed to mutter.
"well, then. i will see you there. i don't mean to be rude, but you can hardly expect me to try to keep to your pace. i noticed it, and - ha, ha - you almost seem to be moving backwards." he gave me a last stern gaze, saluted me with his stick and headed back up the road to b-------------. at least, i thought, there must be such a place as b-------------- and it is up ahead.
fenwick disappeared from view again, leaving me with the sun and the dust and the twitching carcass of costermayne barely hidden in the bushes.