"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."