Authors: Ellis Peters
A little lamp, heavily shaded, was burning on a small table beside the bed. It filled all the centre of the room, that bed, and its down quilt billowed like a white, bulbous cloud. Beneath the cloud a girl lay asleep.
She lay on her back, her arms relaxed at her sides, her pure profile bright under the gleam of the lamp. The face was motionless, withdrawn from the world. Long dark lashes lay on the pale cheeks, the soft lips were raised tenderly to the leaning air. Over the pillow, over the bed, her long, long, golden hair streamed unbound. She was more beautiful than I can ever tell you, she was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.
Her breathing was deep, regular, and slow, her face marble. She slept an unmoving, an enchanted sleep, there in the house of the enemy. And unless someone awoke her and took her away, there she would sleep for ever.
I had no doubts left in me at all. There was no part of that nightmare of the war between the ancient and the new races that I could not believe. There were places, there were times in the darkness, when the old world reached out after its revenges. There was magical death, and magical damnation. The loveliest, the youngest and best was always the desired prize.
So it was up to me. You can see that. And you'll understand why I unhasped the open window, and climbed into the room, and went and knelt beside the bed, touching her fingers, whispering into her ear, imploring her to awake before it was too late. No noise â there must be no noise. Even to touch her was dangerous. Supposing she should be startled and cry out, and
There was a perfume in her hair and about her skin that made my senses fail, and now that I was close beside her, her face was so beautiful that the tears came into my eyes. Are tears a waking magic? One actually fell on to her cheek, but she did not move. And then I remembered what I had to do. Of course, there is only one way, the old, the time-honoured way to awaken sleeping princesses.
I bent my head, and kissed her on the soft, uplifted mouth. It was like a little death. Everything I had been faded and declined in me, burning out, and something new and wondering and unsure, but clear and good, slowly generated and grew in me to replace it. And before I had lifted my lips from hers I felt the long lashes sweeping my cheek, brushing through my lashes. She opened her eyes, which were as darkly blue as gentians in an Alpine meadow, and looked at me, all dewy and astonished and direct as a child, and slowly, marvellously, she began to smile.
And I, drawing back a little from my too impious nearness to her, knocked over the table and the lamp together, and the lamp went out.
Beneath us there was a savage, alarmed outcry of voices and a clashing of doors, and feet thudded wildly on the stairs, heavy, hasty feet, as the dwarfs came raging to retrieve their treasure.
Groping through the darkness, crying to her to come with me, and I would save her, I caught at her hand, and for an instant I swear those soft, cool fingers folded gently upon mine. Then the door of the room burst open and they came swarming in, the powers of evil; small, heavy, loathsome, they poured over me, clinging about my legs, climbing up my body, battering at me, and screaming in harsh angry voices.
I fought my way across the room, trying to sweep them away from her bed, but their weight dragged me down, and their heat clinging to my sweating body was awful, unbearable. I tried to shake them off, but they dragged at my feet and brought me down, and then they were all over me, and I was stifling, dying. Something exploded inside my aching head. Even the darkness went out.
I came to life again, if it was life, lying on a stone floor. My body was ice-cold, but my head was filled with molten metal, so heavy that I could not move it even to ease the pain. At first I thought I was encircled by a ring of tiny fires, then I saw that they were eyes watching me. All the dwarfs were crouched round me, staring; and one of them, who sat beside my left shoulder, held a misshapen, veinous hand above my heart, poising a long, thin knife.
They did not move, nor often speak. They just sat there, and watched me. I kept my eyelids lowered, peering stealthily through my lashes, so that they should think me still unconscious, asleep, dead, whatever it was they conceived my state to be. I saw that the door of the room stood ajar, and that there were stars in the sliver of sky I could see beyond. I regained a tiny, feeble flickering of hope, because there were stars again. The world had not entirely abandoned itself to the ancient evil.
And I remembered her, the inexpressibly beautiful, the captive, the victim, charmed again to sleep in the room above, and knew that I had to get away from here alive, in order that she might live again. Whether I could or no, I had to escape and bring help for her.
I did not know yet if I could move, and dared not try it, because the least tension of my arm would be seen at once, and surprise was the one weapon I had. But between me and the door there was only the dwarf and the knife. If he would once look away from me I might attempt it.
I did not know what inspired in me the fiery and despairing calm with which I contemplated this act of hopeless defiance. I think it was her eyes, newly opened still in my mind's eye, that drowned in their deep blueness the fierce, thin blue of the knife blade. I waited, watching the slight movements it made above my chest, praying for it to be withdrawn, only for a moment.
Then the door was pushed open, and a giant came in out of the night. I felt no surprise. No prodigy could surprise me any more. Only the normal, only daylight, and traffic, and a man shaped like other men could have astonished me now. This man looked enormous, towering above me, towering above the dwarfs, talking to them in a deep, resonant voice, in some language I could not recognize even as German. He had a pointed beard, and high-arched brows, and a handsome, angry face like a devil's, famished and corroded with rage. He stared at me, and swept through to some inner room, and the door closed behind him.
One more apparition out of the submerged world, cast up through the rift of night and storm and solitude. But when he spoke they all listened, and when he had passed they turned to look after him. Even the dwarf with the knife. It was the only moment I could hope for, and I took it. I reached up and caught him by the wrists and, springing up, jerked him backwards off his perch, and jumped over him, and ran.
The shrilling of their voices and clutching of their hands were like a wind that blew me onward, and the pain that filled me was like a fire burning its way forward over a dry plain, and sweeping me with it. I hit the edge of the door blindly, and wrenched it open, and fell into the night; and ran, and ran, and ran, leaping aside from bushes, ducking under the branches of trees, jumping over sodden hollows, fending myself off with outstretched arms from the trunks of trees.
I heard the hunt pour out of the house after me, saw light streaming from door and window for a few minutes, and then sound and light fell far behind me, and I was running off the ground, floating, drifting effortlessly through a void, almost without pain any longer. For a long time it seemed. A very long time. An eternity.
After that I remember a road under my feet, quite suddenly, out of nowhere, and two lights gleaming like eyes on its wet, silver surface, and voices, and men tumbling out from the brain behind the eyes. I remember falling through miles of air into long arms, and gasping out my story and my appeal, between breaths that hurt me clean through to the heart, as though the knife had transfixed me at last. I remember a face above me, big white teeth and great, astonished eyes, and a deep, soft voice uttering sounds of reassurance in English.
âAll right, son. All right, now, take it easy!' the incredible voice was purring. And the face â it seemed only the last fantasy of the night to me that this face should be black.
I went down, fathoms deep, into the blueness of remembered gentian eyes, and in the depths there was darkness and silence.
When I came to myself, I was lying in a bed in an American military hospital in Aschaffenburg, where the black highway patrol had rushed me in the jeep that night; and Franz Eisner was sitting by my bed, as round and rosy and ordinary as ever, beaming at me through his thick glasses.
He patted my shoulder, and fed me grapes, and told me where I was, and how I'd got there. And all the time I wanted to know only one thing, the single thing that mattered.
âDid they find her?' I asked, hearing a thin voice that hardly seemed to be mine. âDid they get there in time? Did they find the girl?'
An odd, embarrassed smile flickered over his face, but he said soothingly, âOh yes, they found her.'
âSo I did manage to tell a straight tale before I passed out! Thank God! And she's all right?'
âShe's quite all right,' he said. âDon't worry about anything, everything's being taken care of. Miss Fordyce has gone home by plane â you've been here four days, you know, and only just missed pneumonia. You were running a tremendous fever when they brought you in. And the car's all right, don't worry about the car, I've got it in the office garage in Frankfurt. When they found it they found your briefcase and papers in it, of course, and that's why they sent for me. All you've got to do is lie still and get well, and leave everything else to me.'
âWhere is she?' I demanded. âI must see her!'
âYou said they found her!' I cried, alarmed again. âTemperature or no temperature, fever or no fever, I didn't make her up, or the dwarfs, either, or the giant.'
âYes, well â yes, Stephen, they did find her. And the â the dwarfs and the giant, too. You see, my dear Stephen,' said Franz, taking the plunge, âthe giant had sent for the police himself. He said some foreigner had broken into his daughter's bedroom and assaulted her, and then escaped from the dwarfs who were guarding him, and got away in the woods. But he calmed down when he heard that some half-delirious Englishman had been picked up by an American highway patrol babbling at them to go and rescue a princess who was being held captive by monsters in a hut in the forest.
âHe saw the joke,' said Franz gently, âand FrÃ¤ulein Ulla saw it, too. They dropped all charges against you at once. You've nothing to worry about.'
What he saw in my face I daren't guess, but he went on talking, which was kind of him. How I'd been unlucky in blundering on the inn from the forest side, how I would have seen the car park, and the telephone wires, and the parked wagons, and all the evidences of blessed, everyday modernity, if only I'd found my way to it by the village roadâ
dwarfs,' I cried, trembling, ânot above three feet high, any one of them! And the other man, the big one â he was tall as the ceilingâ'
a very tall man,' agreed Franz soothingly, ânearly two metres, I know, I've met and talked to him. And if you were lying on the floor, as it seems you were â¦ and of course, after the others he would seem enormous. They
be rather frightening, those midgets of his, seen without warning, offstage like thatâ'
âAnd the knife was real,' I persisted. âI touched it, I know it was real!'
âOh, yes, the knife would be real enough. They were genuinely alarmed, you know. Schmidt throws them â the knives, I mean. He runs Loeffler's Midgets and his own knife-throwing act. And FrÃ¤ulein Ullaâ'
I was getting the hang of it at last. I said flatly, âShe's the target.'
âWell, yes. But they wouldn't have touched you with it, you know, it was only meant to keep you quiet until the police came. The group always call in at that inn when they're heading for Frankfurt. Schmidt's sister keeps it. She's the widow of a lion-tamer who used to be with the same circus.'
He looked at me with sympathy, and didn't laugh; I've always been grateful to him for that. âThe little fellows don't look so bad by daylight,' he said, âand still better, of course, when they're dressed up for the ring. But they always give me the creeps, too, I don't mind admitting.'
âI seem to have made a complete fool of myself,' I said bleakly.
âOh, I don't know! Coming on them by accident, as you did, and in the state you were in, who could blame you?'
He hesitated, and then added somewhat constrainedly, âFrÃ¤ulein Ulla didn't. She sent you a letter.'
My hands were shaking so much I could hardly open it. The single sheet of notepaper was headed from Willy Isserstedt's Circus, Frankfurt, three days previously. It had her scent clinging to it, the breath of a rose, of a memory, of a true fairy tale. I had to ask Franz to translate the few lines for me.
, she had written,
the treasure you left with me I keep and guard for you until you return. Use these three charms I send you, and by day or by night you may come safely to me, and claim your own again. Ulla.
The three charms were three tickets for the circus. The performance at Frankfurt was already past, the one at Koblenz was too soon for me to hope to make it, but the ticket for Cologne I could have used. And three is always the magical number, the number of success. And the tone of her letter, its directness, its teasing, its tenderness, ought to have drawn me to her across a world. A daylight world or a dangerous nocturnal world.
But I didn't go. I was too young, too sore, too ashamed to be able to face her. So I made a bigger fool of myself than ever, and hurried back to England as soon as I was fit, and even tried for a little while to make up to Fordyce and Lilian for the way I'd let them down. But I couldn't have gone through with it, even if they'd encouraged me, and they didn't. There was a distinct chill in the air, young Stephen wasn't the white-headed boy any longer.
I left Fordyce's a few months later, and took a job with a firm that does even bigger business with Germany. And I'm learning German for all I'm worth. Some day I'll even be able to understand that outlandish Bavarian dialect.