Alyne de Winter
A strange Gentleman came to the village. He took over the decaying mansion on the hill and, in a few short months, restored it to its former glory. He spoke to no one, and those he did see came and went by only night. Once, it was said, he’d entertained the mysterious Count St. Germaine, inspiring rumors of arcane interests; that his library was filled with heretical books and cabinets with hidden springs, of potions, magic wands, scrying mirrors…. Blue orbs sometimes shone about the house, forks of lightening, tongues of flame. Local boys reported that they’d seen the statues in the garden step down from their plinths and walk.
One winter, the Gentleman died. His impoverished relatives flew up the tree-lined drive, their dark cloaks flapping in the cold breeze, to view the body. Golden-haired Helena was among them. At sixteen years old, she was still subjected to her mother’s moods, and her mad obsession with Uncle’s house, especially with his mysterious windfall of fortune.
“How did he do it, Helena? I’m sure he never earned it clerking,” she would say.
Unable to contain herself when Uncle died, Mummy was the first to arrive at his wake.
When Helena burst into tears at the sight of the coffin, Mummy escorted her into the library. There, Helena stood gazing out at the bare trees, at a pumpkin half-buried in the snow, the statue of a princess. She imagined a handsome gentleman riding up in a carriage. Naturally, he would fall in love with her on sight, and rescue her from her overbearing mother and that hovel they called home.
The clock gonged. There was an odd cricking sound as the figure of a girl wearing a cat’s skin came out of the clock, stopped, spun about, and went back inside. The clock was very tall and dark, carved to look like some monstrous tree from the forest. Helena hoped to see more figures emerge, but the second-hand jerked around the clock’s monotonous face, locking its denizens inside for another hour.
There was a glass cabinet filled with dolls. Two were identical, with red bouffant hair and beauty spots on their faces, dressed in extraordinary wasp-waisted gowns with layers of skirts over panniers. Tiny hats floated like sailboats in the tortuous waves of their hair. Their faces were plain and pinched as if their pointy scarlet shoes were too tight. Oddly, they held knives in their hands. Bloody knives.
A loud gust of wind drew Helena’s attention to the windows. The clock chimed the half hour. Hinges creaked. She turned around to see an object fly through the air into the fireplace.
A small, gray face looked up through the ashes. Helena bent down and lifted out another doll. In size and shape it was smaller than the twins, and what remained of its singed-off hair was blonde. The porcelain face was coated with soot as were the arms, hands. The doll’s dazzling, fur-trimmed ball gown was scorched and besmirched as were her little fur shoes.
I don’t imagine anyone wants it, she thought. I shall rescue it from the fire.
As the coach rocked them home, Mummy prattled on as if Helena wasn’t there.
“Oh, he was deep in it. Deep in it. Flasks, potions, coils, that dreadful oven shaped like a bull. Such wickedness. Wickedness! Telescopes, star maps, pictures of demons. Books written in blood. But what was most alarming were the dolls. All under bell jars. All of their faces well-known. Powerful, wealthy people. People from the Court. Even His Majesty was among them.”
Helena was amazed when Mummy reached into her bag and took out a large bell jar. Indeed, an exact miniature of their handsome, young King was inside of it. The expression on his face was strained as if he were in some terrible distress.
Helena washed the ashes off the doll. As the gray crust melted away, a beautiful face appeared, shining and serene; a face of fine porcelain with set-in eyes of hyacinth blue glass. Luckily, the doll had not been badly burned. Only her dress and her hair. Both went into the fie. Helena put the doll’s cleaned petticoat back on, and the fur shoes with their heels and long, pointed toes. Then she set the doll on the dressing table against the mirror.
When she got into her hard bed that night, and pulled the thin blanket up to her chin, Helena could not sleep, but lay awake for hours gazing at the doll.
Helena sat in her rocking chair holding the doll, imagining what kind of dress she should make for it. A plain muslin frock like her own, or something more grand? Her mother had ordered a bolt of silk the color of blue hydrangeas. Soon, a bolt of lace arrived, and another of creamy white silk. For under-things.
“Helena,” Mummy said barging through the door. “I want a gown fine enough to wear to Court. I’m to have an audience with the His Majesty. “
Helena recalled the poor King in the bell jar and was worried for him.
“Uncle knew what he was about,” Mummy continued. “Mark my words, I shall do the same for us.”
Mummy was almost never home after that. Helena suspected she went to Uncle’s house. She spent the day sewing her mother’s dress. By night, she used the same fabrics to make a magnificent gown for the doll. It was far lovelier than those of the two red-haired twins in the cabinet. And the cloudy bouffant wig, made from a lock of Helena’s own hair, was exquisitely adorned with tiny blue flowers. She kept the fur shoes as a reminder of the doll’s rebirth from the ash pile.
“You are now Princess Hyacintha. You shall return to the palace in time for the Grande Ball,” Helena said.
The full moon was at the window. So bright it was, that Helena woke inside a dream of flying through a blossoming garden in a magical coach. The rays of the moon shone upon the doll that in turn fell into shadow as its reflection in the mirror began to glow. Chandeliers of silver and crystal sparkled in the depths of the mirror. Lights glimmered there, whirling to the barely audible strains of a waltz. The doll’s reflection suddenly stood up and floated inwards, towards the lights.
He was smiling at her through a haze of moonlight. The music swelled and lifted them off the ground as they waltzed gracefully down the room. The man who held her was strong and handsome, dressed in fine clothes, a man of means. A man of the Court.
“Where did you come from?” he whispered in her ear. “You are the loveliest lady I have ever seen.”
The clock was striking the hour. Long and long it went, gonging out the time. A skeletal figure wrapped in a black cloak emerged, swung its scythe, then turned, and went back inside the clock again. Panic gripped her. She tore away and ran down the stairs, across the lawn, and through the woods to a low house with a sagging roof, where one window burned in the darkness.
Helena slept through the cockerel’s alarm. Finally the silence woke her.
The doll was sitting on the dressing table against the mirror. Helena touched the doll’s reflection in the glass, and pulled her hand away as if it burned. Somewhere, a clock was gonging. Had not Death appeared at the witching hour? Had she not seen those red-haired twins dancing together and leaving bloody footsteps on the floor? Had she herself, been dancing?
Mummy wasn’t home. The blue dress was gone.
She must have gone to Court today, Helena thought.
She waited all day and into the night, finally falling asleep in her chair.
The full moon shone in and struck the doll with its rays, igniting again her reflection in the mirror. Helena stirred in time to see that reflection stand up and float towards the lights, and reflections of those lights, shining deep within the glass.
She saw them through a haze of candlelight, all assembled in the ball room. His Majesty smiled as if he’d been waiting for her. The orchestra struck up a waltz that seemed especially composed for them. On and on it went, faster and faster, dizzy and wonderful. His eyes seemed to feast upon her face. Her heart grew hot.
The clock again. The incessant banging. Death coming out swinging. Oh, God, I must get away from here! As she ran down the stairs a red-haired twin stuck her foot out and tripped her.
Helena’s knee was bruised and sore. Mum was still not home. The doll sat on the dressing table. Helena cut a length of white silk and sewed a new gown for the doll. It was very becoming, especially with the veil that covered her from head to toe.
The full moon cast its last and brightest beams over the doll. She vanished into its light.
Helena floated into the mirror. A stiff wind blew her through the jeweled palace doors into the ballroom that sparkled with crystal and firelight. His Highness held her close, whirled her round and round. She could not look at him for fear her eyes would betray her heart.
“Where do you flee at midnight? You must stay,” he whispered. “For I love you.”
The clock gonged again. It was still gonging when she felt two sharp hands grip her shoulders. Torn from her lover’s arms, she screamed. Someone threw her hard down the stairs. There was a terrible crash. The red haired twins looked down at her, with their hands on their hips, laughing. Death looked down from the clock. His Majesty’s brow darkened and the palace filled with shadows.
“What are you doing all crumpled on the hearth, you lazy girl?”
Mummy was home.
“I don’t know,” Helena said.
“What is that shoe on your foot? It looks like cat skin.”
Helena looked at her right foot and indeed, she was wearing one of the doll’s fur shoes. The long toe curled up like a tail. Where was the other one?
“And that dress. Why are you all got up like a bride? It’ll do you no good to dream, Helena. Slavery is our lot in life. I have failed to crack Uncle’s secret. He’s taken it to his grave, and there’s nothing more I can do.”
“What of His Majesty?” Helena asked.
“When I offered to release him from the bell jar in exchange for a few gold coins, he had me arrested. That is why I’ve been gone for so long. Lucky for me, I’ve always had a quick wit and presented His Majesty to himself as a gift. He sent me home empty-handed as if allowing me to leave with my life was payment enough.” Mummy shook her head. “If only I’d known the secret, I would’ve made our fortune.”
Helena was pleased for the King.
“Well, get up and make us some dinner. I’ve had a long journey. Come on, get to work. And please, don’t put on airs.”
Mummy was unbearable after that. Helena was forced work harder as if everything was her fault.
“I shall go to the graveyard,” Mummy said. “And use necromancy to make him speak.”
Helena wished her mother would do just that and leave her alone. Soon Mummy was gone every night. Helena went out into the garden where the cat played and watched the moon.
The full moon was at the window shining into the mirror. Its brightness woke Helena from a dream of waltzing with the King. There was a knock on the door. At first. Helena thought it was a dream knock upon a dream door, but the knock came again and a shout in the wind, outside.
Helena got up and opened the door. Before her was a glittering entourage. Ladies and gentleman in jeweled robes were gathered on the doorstep.
A trumpet blared. The herald cried:
“His Majesty, King Orfeo, wishes for you to try this shoe.”
A page walked forward bearing a pillow and upon it was a tiny shoe made of fur.
His Majesty strode in through the door and looked Helena up and down as if he thought he recognized her but wasn’t sure.
“Miss, will you please try on this shoe?”
Helena dropped a curtsey, then shook her head. “It is a doll’s shoe, Your Highness. It will never fit on my big old foot.”
“Please,” said the King. “Try, for me.”
“Of course, Your Highness.”
Helena sat down. Astonishingly, the King fell on one knee before her. The shoe hung on her big toe for a second, then suddenly grew until it fit her foot exactly. Helena cried out in amazement. His Majesty rose joyfully and shouted.
“I have found my Queen!”
He kissed her foot then held out his hand for Helena to rise. “You do have the other one don’t you?”
“Indeed I do. Shall I fetch it?”
“If you please.”
When Helena put on the other shoe, her nightdress was instantly changed into a magnificent green gown trimmed with bright jewels. A dark fur-lined mantle rested on her shoulders, held with a clasp the shape of a cat’s head.
One by one the courtiers filed into Helena’s bedroom and, at her suggestion, stepped into the mirror. Grasping her hand, the King led her in towards the lights that were reflected in the hundred mirrors of the palace, there to make her his bride.
Helena’s mother sat on a sarcophagus besmirched with the dust of Uncle’s tomb. Two strange ladies came along the lane, leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind. Identical twins they were, with red bouffant hair and peculiar, elaborate gowns.
“What are you seeking?” asked one.
“That you disturb the eternal rest of the Magus?” said the other.
Helena’s mother rose to her feet in eager bewilderment. “The secret of his fortune,” she said. “Has he sent you to tell me?”
“He has sent us to fetch you,” said one.
The gong of a clock echoed eerily through the mist.
“It is time,” said the other. “To share a secret or two.”
“Give us your hand,” they said in one voice.
Helena’s mother gave one of her hands into each of their very cold ones.
They guided her through the door of Uncle’s tomb onto the tree-lined lane that led to the door of his mansion. There they left her to sit on the shelf of a glass cabinet.
In the dusty, old library a monstrous clock struck the last bell of midnight.