eugenie took a sip of the tea which the comtesse had poured for her. she found it excellent, though a little hot for her liking.
"before we go on, aunt, let me say that although you may find the details of my story to be of little interest to you, the upshot of it may be."
"oh? and what might that be?"
"that i am being hunted by the police of eight continents."
"oh, the police never come here. nobody comes here."
"but what if they did?"
the comtesse shrugged. "i suppose we will find out when they come. and find out how much they want. i assume you have enough for a reasonable bribe."
"actually i do not. i do not have anything - except the proverbial clothes on my back. and besides, if bribes were all it took, i would not be here."
"why?" the comtesse took a sip of her tea.
"why? because i am being hunted by police who can not be bribed."
"pooh! in that case, why were they hired in the first place?"
"i did not hire them myself."
"but surely you have connections to the people who did."
eugenie smiled politely. although she was wanted by the police of eight continents for her activities as a bomb-tossing anarchist, she never forgot her good breeding. she chose her words carefully.
"i am not sure that i do. i am not sure that anybody has connections to inspector macgougal of the special squad. except perhaps the crowned heads of europe and asia. in any case he has a reputation for being quite above bribes."
the comtesse did not reply, but turned and looked out the window. the day was darkening. after a while she said, "how long did you plan on staying here?"
"as long as i am not intruding, dear aunt."
"oh in that case, stay as long as you like."
"that is very generous, dear aunt. i don't know how to thank you."
the comtesse looked out the window again and suppressed a yawn. "you can thank me by amusing me. did you say something about telling me a story?"
"of course. i would be happy to tell you a story. what kind of story would you like?"
"i am not some kind of monster, i like the kind of stories everybody likes - stories about beautiful young princesss who live happily ever after."
the comtesse looked up as jeanette, the maid, entered the room.
"is everything satisfactory, madame?"
"more or less. you have come at an opportune time, jeanette, mademoiselle here is going to tell a story. you enjoy stories."
"oh, yes, madame, very much."
"then make yourself comfortable. i trust you are not too busy to do so."
"oh no, madame. thank you, madame, you are too kind."
"and what sort of stories do you like?", eugenie asked jeanette.
"oh, i am not a monster, i like stories about beautiful and bold young heroines who live happily ever after."
"very well, then." eugenie fortified herself with another swallow of the hot tea. "let us begin then. " she put the teacup down.
"once upon a time there was a beautiful young princess. she lived in a faraway castle on the edge of a faraway sea. but although the castle was far away , it was not far enough away to shield it from the intrigues and turmoils of the world.
some years before, the princess's mother, the queen, had had a spell placed on her by a wandering magician and been turned into a tarantula. a series of lord chamberlains had made every effort to apprehend the magician - or discover whose employ, if any, he had been in - but at the point at which our story begins, they had had no success.
the tarantula, meanwhile, was kept in a comfortable, airy and well lit room in a strategic part of the castle, where a specially trained retinue of servants kept it well fed and well groomed. the former servants and attendants of the queen had all been arrested on suspicion of complicity with the wandering magician, and were languishing in a dungeon deep beneath the castle.
the princess was permitted to visit the tarantula every day. she brought it little treats from the castle's excellent bakery, such as blueberry scones or strawberry cakes, of which it was especially fond.
one morning as the princess was returning to her chambers from a visit to the tarantula she was informed by one of the palace guards that the lord chamberlain wished to see her.
the princess had seen numerous lord chamberlains come and go and she had grown accustomed to their often whimsical and arbitrary ways. some were cold and dignified and concerned only with matters of grave import, others given to retailing little jokes and stories meant to amuse her, although the princess had a sensitive and romantic nature and was not so easily amused. one particularly jovial fellow had made a habit of pinching her cheeks - he was the only one she had personally had removed.
none of the lord chamberlains had ever changed the furniture or decor of the lord chamberlain's chambers - a spartan suite of rooms within easy distance of the dungeons.
'yet another one,' thought the princess without surprise as an unfamiliar face looked up at her from the divan in the innermost sanctum of the chambers. the new lord chamberlain - a self satisfied looking individual neither old nor young - rose with what she regarded as an unseemly lack of alacrity and bowed, none too deeply.
'we meet again, your highness.'
'again? i do not recall having had the honor.'
'your highness was but a child on our previous encounter. '
'then no doubt it passed pleasantly enough. please, be seated, sir.'
the princess seated herself in the high chair reserved for her use.
the lord chamberlain smiled. 'my name is b------. i am sure we will have a pleasant relationship. hopefully not too long as your parent will no doubt be restored to her former condition. the full resources of the kingdom are even now being tasked to bring about that happy conclusion. and - i am happy to say we have enlisted the cooperation of a number of other kingdoms and principalities in the effort.'
'the supposed cooperation.'
'of course. what else would you have?'
'thank you, my lord, for this information. had you anything else for me today?'
'oh, yes. more, much more. very important matters indeed - matters directly concerning your self.'
'and what might those be?'
the lord chamberlain rubbed his hands together. 'these are difficult and dangerous times. in times such as these it becomes imperative - imperative - that we forge strong alliances with such of our neighbors as - as we can forge strong alliances with. do you understand what i am saying?'
'get to the point, please , sir.'
'very well. negotiations have been begun to have you marry the prince of w---------.'
the princess laughed. "i am sorry, sir. perhaps you have not yet had time to read the memoranda i am sure your numerous predecessors have left behind. i have made it as clear as possible that i will not be party to any such proceedings.'
'i am aware that your highness has indeed made known her feelings on the subject. hitherto there has been no reason to press the point or to be so rude as to offer any contradiction. but now the time has come - the time has come.'
'i will marry whom i please - if at all.'
'no doubt this comes as a shock. but surely your royal highness has always known this day would come.'
' i have two younger sisters. i can not speak for them - but they might be more amenable to your plans.'
'the prince of w------- would regard it as an insult to be offered a younger sister. besides, it is you who are heir to the throne.'
'i have made it clear - i will renounce my claim to the throne, if necessary.'
'i am sorry but that is not an option. but there is no hurry. take an evening to think about it - in the morning all will be clearer.'
'i will tell you what i will take an evening to think about - having you thrown into the dungeon and replaced.'
'oh? i do not think so, mademoiselle. it is i who will have you put away, if it comes to that.'
'i will call the guard now. they will obey me.'
'do you think so? call them - we shall find out'. "
eugenie paused, and picked up her cup of tea.
the comtesse had fallen asleep. behind her the windows were washed with the returning rain.
jeanette was sitting up in her chair attentively. "shall i continue?'" eugenie asked her.
"oh, by all means, mademoiselle. if you please. would you like some more tea?"