Straw Into Gold
I was born on a farm in the Engadin Valley, where the River En lies like a silver chain upon the bosom of the Alps. At times our lands belonged to one king, at times another; we common folk cared little. Our allegiance was to our local lord, alone.
I recall a morning when, barely old enough to follow my mother about her chores, I was startled by the sound of every church bell in the town below us suddenly pealing out. Mama lifted her head and listened, taking meaning from the pattern.
"Praise God," she said. "The Baroness has been delivered of a son!"
"They will want butter at the castle tonight." Papa emptied the milk pail into my 'horse', a rocking churn with a head, reins, and tail. "Come, Sandro," he said, lifting me into the saddle. "You must ride far into the hills today, little one."
Then, just as the echoes died and the birds resumed their chatter, it began again.
"Two?" Papa whistled.
"You are surprised?" Mama loaded all the cheeses fit to sell into her market basket. "The poor girl could barely stand upright with such a belly."
The two brothers were so alike at birth that the nurse tied a string around the foot of the elder that all might know him as the heir. Rom-Paul he was christened, for St. Romedius and St. Paul, and the younger Paul-Rom.
When I was of an age to serve, being youngest and not needed on the farm, my mother pledged me to the Baron's house. I was a useful child, quick on my feet and well spoken for such breeding as I had, and soon became more playfellow than servant to the young lords. It was near Christmas when I was but ten and two that my role began to change.
We'd come in from playing snowballs, and Herr Rom was complaining of the cold. The old nurse had charge of the boys, their tutor being off on holiday, and she called for him to rub his hands before the nursery fire. I heard her let out a little shriek - my poor Master's fingers were blue, the skin thick and hard. More patches of hard, waxy skin were found on his face, shoulders and arms.
At first, frostbite was feared. One doctor was summoned, then another. They came with solemn, learned faces – tsk'ing and blinking over their volumes of Hippocrates and Agineta.
"Not frostbite," they concluded, "but 'still-skin'; in the Latin, sclera-derma. Woe betide the child," they said, wagging their beards, "for if it settles in his heart, or his lungs – "
The poor Baroness gasped, her hands to her pretty face.
" – and even if he lives, it may affect his - manhood…" one said delicately, nodding meaningfully at the Baron. "It is as well, Herr Baron, that you have another son."
From that day forth, it was Paul and not Rom who followed his father about on business; Paul, not Rom, who stood beside him to judge pleadings in the bailey; Paul, not Rom, had a new pony in the spring, and a little sword to play at knights and brigands. Herr Rom-Paul, it was said, was too delicate for such play; my young Master was kept indoors, away from the public eye. The work of being forgotten had begun.
Many years passed in this manner. Before, the brothers had been as like as two forks on the table; now they grew in very different ways. Herr Rom became a learned man, graceful in manner and form, simple in his needs. Disfigured and dispossessed, he remained a gentleman in every sense of the word.
Baron Paul was none of these things. Boorish and grasping, he grew only more vulgar over time, greedy for gold and for pleasure, at board and bed (though the word among the gentler courtesans of our acquaintance was that his head was so often befuddled with spirits that there was little pleasure to be had). At thirty years of age he remained unmarried, for no family of rank would tolerate him.
The castle keep was built upon an outcropping high above the town. A winding road rose up through open meadow past a pretty wood that hid a postern gate cut into the living rock. Caves there were, too, beneath the rock; some as Nature made them, others planned and planed by the hands of men long past. In some - where once the early monks had mortified their flesh - were prison cells; in others, the quarters of a forgotten Lord.
Our little town had grown and prospered, and with prosperity came those who sought to profit from it. With the harvest one year, a train of Romany wagons came to town, curiously painted and hung about with bells. Straight through the market square they came, and settled in the new-cut meadows below the keep.
My Master and I, caped and masked (in those days, a not unknown fashion for gentlemen in the evening) descended that night to the gypsy camp. Musicians played and dancers whirled and the wine poured freely – for a price. The town folk gaped at the parlor tricks they played upon their makeshift stage, but my Master and I (for we had traveled the great cities of Europe together) were too worldly to be so easily fooled.
At last a young woman ascended the platform steps, led by a bent and wizened crone. "That one," whispered my Master, "has more of the blood of Freya than of Roma in her veins."
And indeed, while the lovely gypsy girls let their coal-black curls fall loose upon their shoulders, this woman wore her crown of gold bound back in a simple twist. She spoke no word, eyes downcast with becoming modesty, as she took her place.
What claims the old woman made I can scarce recall, for my eyes were soon full to dazzling by what happened next. In one hand the maiden held a drop spindle, such as my sisters carried to the fields that their hands might not be idle even if far from a spinning wheel. But instead of wood or stone for a whorl, from this spindle twirled an object of pure light. It flashed and sparkled, and bits of the rainbow flew out into the crowd.
"Rock crystal," my Master whispered above the astonished cries. "Lovely – and distracting. Watch her hands, not the light."
In the maiden's other hand she held a small sheaf of new-cut straw. Concealed within it must have been a hank of carded wool, for a thread emerged between her dainty fingertips and wound itself around the spindle as it spun. Violins played, and rainbows raced across the crowd. One by one, the straws slipped down her open sleeve until, with a flourish, all were gone.
"Well done," said Herr Rom-Paul, nodding his approval while the crowd cheered. "It took work, indeed, to time that properly!"
But the finale was yet to come. As dancers whirled distractingly about, the spinner reached up to pull the combs from her hair. She ran her fingers through the glimmering waves, letting the straw fall, unnoticed, at her feet. I felt, rather than heard, my Master's chuckle.
"Watch her left hand," he murmured. "She pulled something from her hair, and hid it in her palm."
Indeed, for that hand stayed folded, now, demurely against the other. The crone offered her another bundle of straw, smaller even than the first.
"She does not reach to take it," my Master observed. "She expects – ah, yes, of course."
A farmer in the crowd, sharper eyed (or more sober) than the rest, asked to see the straw. "Ye had yer wool tucked in't, now," he said stoutly. "An' ye will agin."
The sheaf was offered up for his inspection. "Had he not spoken, no doubt one of their own was planted in the crowd to cry for proof," Rom-Paul said.
Even as he spoke, the crowd parted – or was pushed aside – and the Baron moved into the circle of the firelight, passing but an arm's length from us. Whether he saw his brother there and chose to ignore him or – as was more likely from the smell – was too deep within the grasp of Bacchus to notice us, it is not a servant's place to speculate.
The inspection having satisfied the onlookers, the maiden accepted the bundle. The gypsy crone threw a handful of some powdered substance into the fire, which sparked with color. From the maiden's hand a thread appeared, winding about the spindle post. The thread gleamed like metal in the flashing light.
"My goodness," Rom-Paul whispered, "how very lovely…"
"Gold!" A voice cried out. "It is gold! She has spun the straw - "
Baron Paul pushed his way past the crone, reaching the woman as the last straw vanished into her sleeve. She shrieked as he made a clumsy grab for her, catching at the chain of little brass bells she wore about her neck. It broke, and clattered to the straw-covered boards at her feet.
Romany women are a free lot. 'Unfettered by convention', my Master calls it in his kind and liberal way. Free or fettered, no man of Roma will tolerate insult to a sister of his house. Only the miscreant's rank – and the quick intervention of the Constable – kept the swiftly drawn knives pointed low.
The next morning, I returned from the market with news to serve with our bread and cheese.
"Gone," I said. "Every last wagon."
"Hm," my Master snorted. "And my brother let them go?"
I sliced the cheese over the baguette and set it before the coals to warm, for the morning had come up chilly. "The men folk, yes, and the crone," I said, "but not, unfortunately, the young lady. The cobbler claimed the Baron bought her outright from the old woman, but the baker's girl says not, and she heard it all with her own ears."
I turned the bacon in the iron skillet while Herr Rom-Paul poured the tea.
"And what secrets did the baker's girl hear?" he asked. There was an oddly casual note to his voice that I associated with the gambling hall, and I knew that he was more interested than he would like to appear.
I hesitated. Even knowing as I did that there was little of brotherly affection between the two men, I knew that what I had to say must give my Master pain. "The baker's girl heard Herr Paul importune the young woman, before the Constable and her kin, in a manner - not likely to convey the utmost respect," I carefully said.
Herr Rom barked a laugh. "Imagine my surprise."
"Just so," I continued, "and the lady refused him outright. Then he – your brother – told her – told them all – that he would not tolerate liars and tricksters in his lands. He said that she – the young lady – would have until sunrise tomorrow to spin an entire bushel basket of straw into gold from a cell in the donjon, and that if she could not, that her life – all of their lives," I said pointedly, "would be forfeit."
My Master swore, long and low. He rose and paced the Turkish carpet that lay on the floor of the chamber, lighting at last on the smooth stone of the sill. The shutters stood open into the yard around the springhouse, where the rowan trees waved red and gold in the autumn breeze.
"My father would die of shame, were he not dead already," he said in disgust. Rom-Paul's mask was laid aside in the privacy of our rooms, but I was used to the unmoving hardness of his face. While most men speak volumes with their eyes, my Master's were nearly mute. It was his voice that conveyed his honest feelings, as did the sensitivity of the mouth and chin, which did their best to make up for the expressionless land above them. He cradled his cup in the stilted claws that served for hands, not yet clad for the day in leather gloves.
"The lady remains defiant, so I'm told." I offered what comfort I could. "When the Baron pronounced his judgment, she did not cry, nor plead, nor seek to change her answer one wit. 'And what will you give me,' she asked, bold as brass, 'if I do?'"
"Did she now?" he smiled in admiration. "And what did the bastard – the Baron," he corrected himself, "say to that?"
"Well," I said, setting the board upon the table and dishing forth the plates, "so I am told, he promised to wed her in the church, endow her with all the rents and tributes north of the river, and make her his Baroness."
"Did he indeed; such courage deserves no less than ennoblement."
At last, with a sigh, he set himself down to eat as best he could. The malady of still-skin affected his digestion; if he did not eat slowly and sparingly, he would keep nothing down. I kept his tea cup full to aid the process, and soon needed to fetch more water from the springhouse in the yard.
The postern guard was an older lot. They did us such kindness as was in their power and saw to it that Herr Rom-Paul was not in want, but for the most part they, like anyone else who realized our presence in the household, would bow and turn the other way on our approach. This morning, the Captain stood conspicuously idle by the scullery door, as if awaiting my appearance. I filled my kettle, and rummaged for my pipe and tobacco.
"Captain," I called jovially, "have you a light?" Provided with a reason to be seen speaking with the guard, I approached.
In as brief, uncomfortable, and yet courteous a way as he could, the Captain informed me of the existence of a prisoner in the old cells past the smoke kitchen. Such information I passed on to my Master.
"His actions do him credit as a man, but for what does he hope?" Herr Rom-Paul asked. "Shall I provide for her escape?"
"Perhaps he means for us to spin the straw to gold ourselves," I said facetiously.
My Master's hand froze, cup halfway to his mouth. "Perhaps, my dear Sandro, he does…"
The roots of the keep, as I have said, are sunk deep into the mountainside. Natural caves, connected by tunnels large enough for the passage of a man, store provision enough to keep the entire town fed in time of siege. Other chambers hold the wealth of past generations, more than any distant king knows we possess. More, perhaps, than even the Baron is aware. That night, with covered lantern and bushel basket in hand, we peeled the cracking leather wrappings from a wooden spool of jewelers' chain the size and weight of a pail of milk. I wound the gleaming mass back and forth around my Master's hands until he held a twisted skein of unparalleled price.
The guard turned deliberately away at our approach, leaving his iron keys hanging from the rack while he took the air in the springhouse yard. The lady blinked in the sudden light, her hair – tangled about her as it was – gleaming with greater glory than the earthly treasures that we bore.
It was as my Master suspected – no Roma, she, but the natural child of a northern lord put out to gently raise and then, in course of time and in result of war, forgotten.
"When no more support was forthcoming, and with the hardness of the times," she shrugged, as if being sold to gypsies were a matter of no more import than a lack of sugar in the market. "I have never been ill-treated or misused," she assured us. "Indeed, I have profited greatly from their instruction," she said with a graceful gesture indicating her surroundings.
"Indeed." My Master could not help but smile – so brave a humor touched him, as one survivor to another. "But it appears your guardians have granted your emancipation."
She took breath to answer, but could not. Somewhere in the darkness, a cricket chirped. At Herr Rom's nod, I uncovered our basket.
"At least they arranged a fortunate match for you before departing," he said. "His Excellency's proposal was made before the Constable, was it not?"
The maiden looked at the basket of gold before her, then at my Master. She rose from her stool, still unable to speak.
"With this," he continued gently, "you may claim the rank he offered you - or decline and depart, no doubt. The gold I give you freely," he said, "but, if you choose to accept him, I ask a favor in return."
"Good sir," she said, her voice hoarse with emotion. "I can refuse you nothing."
"Make me no such assurance until you have heard my wish," he said grimly. "Do you know who I am?"
"No, but I have heard enough of a brother dispossessed to make a fair guess," she said cautiously. "You are Herr Rom-Paul, the Still-Skin, are you not?"
"I am." My Master removed his gloves, hat, and mask, standing barefaced before her in the lantern light. "And the favor I ask is this: wed the Baron – the rightful Baron - and give him a child."
There is a moment when eyes meet eyes and two souls recognize each other for what they are. It is a moment of understanding, of revelation, as if upon a page of ancient and unreadable script one suddenly sees one's own name written there. Just such a moment I was privileged to witness.
The bargain was struck. "Yes," she said, holding out her hand. "Tell me how this can be done."