A/N: This chapter is my entry in Labyrinth's writing contest for August 2014 - a Gothic tale, using at least three elements from a list of ten that epitomize the genre. It is helpful, but not absolutely necessary, to have read the previous chapters to be familiar with the characters and story.
The Lord of Mondstein
The broad double doors to the balcony gave nearly as much light as the fire, the night sky being oddly pale with blowing snow. The wind whistled eerily through the copper gutters, like the cry of some fierce bird of prey, rising and falling with unnerving irregularity. The windows rattled, frosted and glowing, and the very walls seemed to groan, breathing in and out with the gusts from down the mountainside.
How glad I was that we were tucked in for the evening, warm and dry! I reminded Rosalinda that, as children, we imagined the cries of the wind at night as demons, or the souls of the damned. I shivered with more than just the cold, pulling my chair closer to the fire.
Fraulein Clothilde stood silhouetted against the glass, looking out upon the wildness of the night unmoved. The silver blue of her gown gleamed, fluttering in the drafts that clawed their way through each chink around the doors. "It was on a night such as this," she began, in a voice of cool detachment, "that I left the house in which I had spent nearly all the early years of my life."
"I hear a story in your voice, Fraulein." Rom-Paul's eyes glittered darkly. "May I ask how you came to leave that place?"
The lady laughed, a soft, low chuckle that I would grow to treasure in years to come. "How did I come to be wandering the countryside in the company of Gypsies, do you mean? Considering our incipient relationship, sir, that is a tale you have every right to hear."
She drew her finger across one frosted pane. "My guardian was the mistress of a school. My earliest memories are of wiping clean the slates upon which the older girls did their work, and by that method coming earlier to knowledge than those who played together in the yard. I was a solitary child," she said, "kept even more so by the distinction of a governess of my own. Most of my school fellows were daughters of gentlemen farmers from the countryside, but there were other girls such as I, kept ignorant of whose indiscretion had led to our birth until such time as we must make our way in the world. Madame Daguerre would brag to her friends that a marriage of advantage would surely be arranged for me, and so I had little anxiety for my eventual future. That was before the war, of course."
She was silent then, deep in her thoughts, then with a sigh continued. "It was late in December, in the winter of 1814. Madame Daguerre had received no disbursal of my funds for nearly a year. I was just turned sixteen, and teaching the younger girls myself to earn my keep, though our schoolroom was nearly empty. No one had money, that late in the war, to educate mere girls. Napoleon was fled, and Russian soldiers now occupied the land surrounding Cologne, even as far south as our little town of Bruhl. The French were bad enough. These men," she shook her head, her eyes hard and cold. "One by one, even those of us who had been raised within those walls began to - " she hesitated, "to disappear."
"Surely not!" My sister's eyes were wide. "Surely, their officers - "
"Their officers sent them to scour the countryside for anything of value," the lady said without rancor. "And they were not the only scavengers come to crawl those wretched lands. The Gypsies were often the only way news spread from town to town. One day I returned from the market to see an old woman at our kitchen door. 'Von Hesse?' I heard her say. 'He's dead, that one, and all his house. You'll get no more from him!' Curious, I hid myself and listened. It is such little sins as these, sometimes, that change our lives. Madame took what the old woman offered for me, and it wasn't much."
Unaccountably, Verity laughed. "What a fool!"
"Do not be so shocked, Rosalinda," Miss Drake replied. "What peddler asks his customer what his wares are worth? 'Why, nothing,' he'll reply, 'but I'll give you this pittance for them from the kindness of my heart!'"
Fraulein Clothilde's lips curved up in a rare smile. "A fool indeed! I ran like a French soldier," she laughed, "straight back along our garden path. The main road branched off into the woods; I had the idea that I could make my way north through them to Cologne and find a situation there," she shrugged. "I had the food in my market basket, and a coin or two of my own, and I hoped that one night's walk would see me to the other side. But it began to snow before I had gone more than an hour, a hard, blowing snow like this," she said, as a blast set the windows to rattling, "with the wind screaming like a wounded man. I took shelter in a wood rick, barely a roof over my head. I felt the fool then, for with the Gypsies I would at least have been warm and dry. My limbs were numb, and I wept, shivering, knowing I would surely die if once I gave in to the weariness that overcame me. But at last, I could endure no more," she said, "and I offered up my prayers before what I believed would be my final rest."
"Whatever did you do, Miss?" whispered Rosalinda, horrified.
"She died," said Verity in voice both solemn and saucy. "Did you not, Miss?"
"Perhaps I did," Fraulein Clothilde mused. "Perhaps I merely dreamed – who knows?"
"As you survived the night," Herr Rom said, rising, "it must have been a dream of great import." He filled the glasses but did not resume his seat.
"It was. I have a faint memory of a man's voice, begging leave to lift me in his arms and bear me to safety, but whether I was capable of an answer I do not know. I awoke to find myself wrapped in a blanket before a fire. 'So you wake at last', a woman said. 'Out of those wet things at once, young woman!'"
Herr Rom stopped beside Fraulein Clothilde at the balcony door. "Ah – the wife of your rescuer."
"His housekeeper. Frau Holzer – for that was her name – assisted me into a dry gown of great elegance but of a fashion not seen in my lifetime. I was too grateful to complain, of course. She told me that my rescuer was Tristan von Acheron, the Lord of Mondstein. His horse had taken lame on the post road from Bruhl. He'd risked the forest path hoping to arrive home before the storm."
"Mondstein," my Master said, perplexed. "How do I know that name?"
"It was not a name I knew," said the Fraulein, "but then again, I was a simple country girl of sixteen. I was embarrassed for my disheveled appearance, but Frau Holzer assured me that her Master had no guests in the castle that night to be shocked by damp and tangled hair. The good woman led me down the stair, lit only by the candle that she carried. I could hear the wind howling still, and feel the cold even through the thick stone walls, and was glad of the heavy weight of the old-fashioned gown and shawl.
"My host greeted me with solemn courtesy, enquiring most carefully as to my comfort and health. Lord Tristan was not an old man, to my eyes, but he, too, was dressed in a style I associated only with the portraits hanging in the museum in Cologne."
"Perhaps his family's fortunes had dwindled under the Corsican's rule."
"Perhaps." The lady shrugged. "His Lordship was a widower, and the father of two young children, who was at that time in contemplation of marriage to a woman of his acquaintance. The children were expected to return from visiting their late mother's people in the Low Country on the morrow. He had been to town to secure a new governess, but was sadly disappointed in all the candidates. I, of course, with all the gratitude and self-assurance of my sixteen years, at once declared his search to be at an end. Quickly I told him my tale, both of my birth and of the fate I had lately fled. He listened without a word, only nodding his head, his brows darkly knit as if some great and weighty decision must be made. At last he sighed, and said it should be so, if I and the children both agreed upon our better acquaintance. With that, he bid me goodnight, for he must arise and be away early to meet their coach."
"What," asked the saucy English maid, "had he no man to send, that he must ride out to meet them himself?"
"I must admit," the Fraulein said, "that struck me, too, as odd, but in those days and in that place even the finest homes might lack for good servants. Suffice it to say I felt nothing but the greatest excitement at my good fortune, for His Lordship was a fine looking man, his manners were all that one might wish, and his home well befit the station I had only a few short hours ago realized I might have been born to deserve."
There was no bitterness in her voice, only a sort of wry amusement at the vagaries of fortune. Once again I saw the look of understanding that passed between the two, Herr Rom and Fraulein von Hesse; two creatures equally dispossessed by the simple twists of fate.
"By morning," she continued, "the snow had ceased to fall, but the wind still railed and roared about in the most alarming manner. I broke my fast with a cup of chocolate, like the fine ladies in the tales I read in my schoolbooks, and I was determined to do all I could to make Castle Mondstein my home.
"Frau Holzer having left me to my own devices, I sought out the nursery, and was surprised to find it all over dust and snow, as if it had been unoccupied for many years rather than just since the summer past. The shutters had come open and let in all the dirt from the woods. Having put back on the sturdy wool that was my daily dress, I set immediately to work and soon had the worst of it out the window. I swept and scrubbed and set to rights all the day, continually surprised at the simplicity of the ornamentation, the lack of the new and the novel. The clothes were fussy and out of date, the books old and faded, and the toys were no better – and not as new – as any I had played with myself.
"I was, upon completion of my labors, startled to find myself the object of the keenest observation. A woman stood at the open door, the expression on her lovely face at once confused and affronted. She demanded to know who I was and why I was there.
"'Forgive me, Madam,' I said, 'but I am the new governess.' 'Oh!' she said, 'the new governess? Then I am to be congratulated!' she cried out, clapping and hopping about like a child. 'I must go to town at once to order wedding clothes! Stefan - the carriage!' And with that, she darted out of sight."
"The Lord of Mondstein's bride..." Herr Rom looked thoughtful.
"I called after her, for I had a lovely little sketch I'd found on a shelf that I set aside for His Lordship, but she was gone. So I brought the piece, a pen-and-ink of two children lying in their beds, asleep, to Frau Holzer."These children died many years ago, Fraulein,' she sighed. 'It would be best to leave it where it has lain.' But being full of myself and sure of my tastes, I endeavored to frame the pretty thing in a bit of stitched linen, and set it on the mantle in the nursery."
As the Fraulein had held us in the spell of her tale, the frost had grown on the wide glass panes of the door until it seemed she stood before a ghostly glass, her flickering shadow granting a moving aura to her reflection.
"His Lordship did not return that night," she said in the same low, distant voice. "I dined alone before the fire in the hall, but when I mounted the stairs to seek my chamber, I saw a light from the nursery door."
"Ah ha - the bride, at least, had returned," said Herr Rom.
"Indeed she had. In one hand she held a candelabra, and in the other a blade, with which she repeatedly stabbed the little drawing, cutting it to shreds. The two beds, that I had newly dressed in feather bolsters and damask spreads, were in ruins. The lady whirled about, laughing wildly, calling to her 'dearest Tristan' that he was free at last," she whispered hoarsely, "that they could be off to Paris in an instant, and be wed by special license. When she saw that it was me, the laughter turned to screams of rage. 'You!' she screeched. 'You - you're dead! I killed you! Why do you haunt me?' She flung the candelabra at my head, but I had already taken to my heels, down the stairs and through the door and out into the cold of the night. I ran, snow and ice be damned," she drained her glass, shivering, "until I reached that same half-roofed woodshed in which I had sheltered the previous night."
The Fraulein drew the velvet drapes against the wildness of the night. "Old Elvira, the Gypsy crone who bought me from Madam Daguerre, had not taken the loss of her acquisition lightly. Her sons and daughters were about the woods with their dogs, and flushed me out with ease."
"Out of the frying pan and into the fire," said Miss Drake.
"For that night and that night alone, I remained defiant. I was to be governess to the Lord of Mondstein's children, I insisted, and from my first month's wages would pay her twice what she had laid out to Madam Daguerre. I made light of Madam's claim that I was the child of the Grand Duke von Hesse, stating that I knew for a fact that my father was a tax collector from Bucharest."
"That must have cooled her interest," Rom-Paul laughed.
"For a time. At dawn, our wagons rolled through the wind-drifted snow north along the forest road towards Mondstein. I was sure that the housekeeper, at least, would vouch for me, and thought only of how best to break the news to Lord Tristan that his intended was a madwoman. But when we reached the rise at the edge of the wood upon which the castle stood, there was naught but an icy ruin of blackened stone. A bleak shell, burned and abandoned a lifetime ago."
"Mondstein!" My Master turned abruptly. "I remember now! But that was fifty years ago! Lady Marguerite von Acheron was found floating in the Rhine, a knife in her breast, the castle in flames - Lord Tristan and his children and all his household died in that fire!"
There was a moment of silence, broken only by the high whine of the wind and the rattle of the glass. "So I later learned," she answered. "By then, I had no will to further thwart my fate; when given the choice between a murderer's ghost or taking up the life of a Gypsy, I soon sorted out my priorities."
The fire had burned low while we sat, entranced by the Fraulein's tale. It was by then far later in the evening than would be advisable to build up the flames anew. At a sign from Herr Rom I rose, and Miss Drake collected our glasses.
"And what did Old Elvira think of your story then?" he asked, bowing over the lady's hand.
"She thought it a fine joke indeed," Clothilde replied. "It pleased her no end to think me so clever, so good an actress as to have fooled them all, even for one night. By the time our wagons were clear of the woods, she was full of plans for my future as a performer; a talent she nurtured in me ever since. It is strange," she said, her hand still in his, "Elvira said something, that first night, that I had forgotten until now."
"What was that, Miss?" Rosalinda asked.
"'Seven years', she said to me. 'Seven years, like any good apprentice, and then you'll go your way.' 'Free?' I asked her, 'After seven years, I may go free?' 'No,', she answered, her eyes fixed upon the fire before which she crouched. 'No - in seven years you shall be master of your trade.'"
With that, much to my Master's surprise, she reached up to brush a kiss against his pale, hard cheek. I watched his hand grip hers in response.
To be sure, they both knew it was a performer's life that they would lead, for many years to come.