The children's laughter echoes around the crowded hall as the puppet, beaming pathetically, dangles limp on the ends of the taut strings. The courtiers smile along, and I follow suit, grinning inanely down at the embroidered panel of my gown. It is difficult for me to feign approval of this pitiful mockery of a woman. It spins idly from the cords as I stare at it. So beautiful, and yet so empty. So charming, and yet so deplorable. So admired, and yet so pitiable. The ideal woman, as my husband has often preached to me in his drink-fuelled tirades. I suppose then it is not such a surprise that she has emerged in his works to ridicule me.
The perfect woman. I have seen him work on his new puppet for weeks now, noticing how he would storm off to his workshop every time I was at fault, every time I snapped back at him or defended myself. I never guessed what it was he was getting at then, foolishness I now cannot believe. Why did I not become suspicious when he stopped beating me for the first time in our marriage? In the four years since I had left my father's keeping and entered his, there had not been a week where I was not admonished for one thing or another. I did not realise then that he was merely trying a different tactic. In my witless understanding I had assumed that he might finally be allowing me to make my own decisions, but now I see that he is only trying a subtler approach.
I leave abruptly at the show's end, feigning ill health. With the troubled state my mind is in, I can hardly bear the thought of enduring an hour whiled away in what they call pleasant conversation. This conversation inevitably returns to society, a subject which always provokes me, and will never end well, especially in my current mood. Though I was brought up with these attitudes, somewhere along the path we diverged, and these ideas which once were the foundation of my life are now hailing down on me. Making my excuses to the other ladies and gentlemen of the court, I leave the chamber to meditate on this new understanding. Deep in thought and not concentrating on where my feet are taking me, I find myself in the palace gardens muttering feverishly to myself.
How dare he? How dare he mock me in this way? How dare he make such a pathetic creature, weak and shallow, and call her woman?
He is trying to get to you, Catherine, interrupts the cool voice of logic, cutting through the heated muddle of my thoughts. And look, he is succeeding. Look how you have risen to his bait. I, risen to his bait? I have mastered my humours over the years, and have learned to hold my tongue. There has been, is and will be no rising. Yes, just like the ideal woman, echoes my mind and I almost bristle with rage at the idea. The thought of becoming what I loathe and fear is unbearable. Then peace yourself, and it will not happen, the voice assures me, and I find myself almost immediately calmer. Serenity taking over, my mind numbs as I return to our quarters in the palace to prepare for my husband's eventual appearance.
* * *
I am tending to the baby, Margaret, when he arrives back from the celebrations. I have not bothered with any special preparations, as I know he will be inebriated once again after his new act's triumph. I smell him before I see him, the stench of the drink wafting into the chamber a good while before the stumbles and yells in the corridor reaches my ears. I retire to my chair, waiting motionless as the shouts slowly grow louder and louder, until the Devil himself in all his red faced glory is standing before me, bellowing and crooning and hiccoughing in one.
'Robert,' I greet him coolly. Unable to stare at him much longer, I divert my attention to the limp figure clenched in his left fist- the puppet herself, in all her glory, looking more pitiable than ever before. Her gown, in the fashion as I am even now wearing, is crumpled and stained; her hair tangled and her faultless skin blemished under the touch of the 'gentlemen' who have been pawing her figure. The strings of her manipulation trail behind her, winding their way through the chamber. Absorbed in the ruin of his perfect woman, I do not see the blow he deals me.
Ah, yes. This part is familiar. Sprawled on the ground, I lie immobile as he rains down scorn, strikes and spittle onto me. It is the old 'ideal woman' idea behind it again, although she herself is now lying abandoned in the corner of the chamber, his demonic intentions now focused on me. Her smile is still resolutely plastered on her face, and I have to chuckle at the absurd predicament the perfect maiden and I are now in together. This earns me all the more rage from my 'Lord' and husband, whose alcohol-driven fury seems to have no limits. His abuse goes on into the night, spilling out of our apartment and echoing through the hallways.
* * *
He is sleeping solidly when I pick myself off the cold floor. Quietly and delicately undressing, I inspect my pale skin for the shadows of his blows. Finding nothing more than the usual aches and bruising, I dress once more, quickly fastening the hooks on my plainest gown and drawing a dark, warm cloak around my shoulders. I take the candle and the key from the mantelpiece and make to leave the chamber when an ashen form in the shadowy corner catches my eye. Tucking the perfect maid into my cloak, I draw the hood over my head and noiselessly leave the chamber.
Reaching the workshop just minutes later, I survey the area. The building is far enough away from the main palace to avoid any awful accidents; the night is calm and there is no-one around. I withdraw the key from my cloak, shivering as the chill hits me, and silently unlock the door. Swiftly entering, I study the interior. It is perfect for what I need to do. The puppets lie abandoned in a heap on the chamber floor, foolishly left in front on what used to be a roaring fire. Smiling bitterly, I pile them neatly onto the remains of the firewood. I hesitate for a moment, then remove the bedraggled figure of the ideal woman from my robe and hold her up to the light. In the dim glow, her form is shadowy, her scars exaggerated. She was always too good for this world.
Placing her gently on the top of the pile, I rekindle the fire and glide rapidly towards the exit. I look back as I reach the threshold to see the flames engulfing her form, the smile still resolutely in place despite her fate. Shuddering slightly at the cold, I draw my cloak tightly around me once more before continuing on into the night.