The Birthday Ball Page 2

Now, Rafe supposed, as schoolmaster himself, he would have to punish misconduct. He dreaded the moment when he would be forced to place the dunce cap on the head of one of the fun-loving children who were to be his pupils.

He could hear them outside, the village children, playing with a ball in the path. Soon it would be time for school to begin. He was a little nervous now, on his first day at the job. He had studied Teaching Methods at the academy, and he had done well there, excelling at Inscribing and Declaiming. He considered himself very good at Games of the Imagination and moderately adept at Proverbs. But his Mathematical Calculations were a little weak, he knew, and he was very lacking in Stern Demeanor.

"You must try to curb your affability," the Teaching Methods professor had said at his evaluation. "Work at being stern."

"I do try," Rafe said.

The Birthday Ball

"Your face makes it difficult, I know," the professor said sympathetically.

"My face?"

No one had ever commented on Rafe's face before, except his mother. He remembered dimly that she had always called him the bonniest of her boys, a sweet little joke between them because he was her only son.

His face was actually fairly ordinary. His bright brown eyes were flecked with yellow, and he had a high forehead onto which his brown hair often fell, though he brushed it back so frequently with his hand that it had become a habit.

"A stern face," the professor explained, "requires that the mouth be set in a line. Like so." He demonstrated, setting his mouth by pulling it tightly against his teeth. He looked quite fierce, actually, when he did it, and Rafe was a little unnerved.

"And the forehead should be furrowed," the professor went on. "With the forehead furrowed, the eyebrows quite naturally fall into a state of increased bushiness. Like so."

He demonstrated again, this time setting his mouth and at the same time furrowing his forehead.

"It's an extremely stern look," Rafe agreed, feeling quite uncomfortable at the sight of it.

"Yes. Well. Work at it."

"Yes, sir."

"Your face falls into affable lines. The corners of your mouth turn up. Not good for a schoolmaster. It deceives the children."

"Oh, I certainly don't want to be guilty of deceiving the children!" Rafe had said. It was something he felt most strongly about.

Now it was his first day as schoolmaster, a day that had come upon him sooner than he had expected, because of the sudden retirement of the previous teacher, who had held the job for many years. Arranging his classroom, Rafe tried also to arrange his face. He furrowed his brow and set his mouth in a line. It was hard to hold it that way, because it ached a little, and

The Birthday Ball

though he didn't realize it, the corners of his mouth kept creeping out into the beginning of a smile.

Herr Gutmann, Rafe's own teacher from his childhood, had been gray-haired and bearded. Rafe, in contrast, was quite young—only eighteen. He had completed his studies and had been preparing for an apprenticeship in a distant domain when quite suddenly he had been called back to this village, the very one in which he had been born, because of the sudden departure of Herr Gutmann.

(He had not been told why Herr Gutmann had left. But it was rumored that the love of his life, a woman named Gertrude, had been widowed and had sent an imploring letter from the distant domain where she lived, saying she was now lonely.)

Thinking of it, Rafe wondered what it might be like to have a love of one's life. It had never happened to him. What was love, anyway? He wasn't certain. He thought of the females he knew well.

His mother? Oh, yes! He had loved her. He remembered her singing him to sleep when he was small. But she had died not long after giving birth to his little sister, when he was still a tiny boy. She was buried now in the churchyard down the lane from the schoolhouse. He had tipped his hat in her honor as he had walked past this very morning.

His sister? He had loved her, too. But sadly she also was lost to him forever. She had simply disappeared while he was away pursuing his studies. When Rafe, on returning from the teachers' academy, had asked his father about the whereabouts of his sister, the burly, loud-voiced man had wiped some breakfast grease off his beard with one hand and bellowed, "Useless things, girls! I sold her!" and would give no further explanation. So he had mourned his beloved younger sister ever since, and without even a grave toward which he could tip his hat.

Other females? Well. He had a cousin. But she was a dull girl who tended to talk too much, and aimlessly, telling long, tedious stories with no point to them.

Then there was Aunt Chloë, who worked as the cook at the castle. But she had whiskers and warts. Rafe knew that beauty was within. But when the without had whiskers and warts, it was hard to venture beyond.

Anyway, none of those, he thought, had anything to do with the love of one's life. It was a concept he would probably never understand. Rafe sighed and stopped thinking about love and what it might mean, realizing that it would probably never come to him. He would love teaching and would love his pupils; perhaps that would be enough. Carefully he stacked his papers on his desk in a tidy pile. He cleaned his fingernails one more time with a small knife that he kept in his pocket. Then he took out his handkerchief and wiped the dust once again from his shoes.

I will do my best to be a good teacher.

He said it to himself two more times.

I will do my best to be a good teacher.

I will do my best to be a good teacher.

Then he looked at the carved cuckoo clock on the classroom wall. (It had been his mother's, but he didn't want to think about that. It made him sad.) The clock told him that it was time. He took a deep breath and went to the doorway to ring the bell that summoned the village children to school.

3. The Chambermaid

"I don't see how you can be bored, miss, when you got so many lovely things."

Princess Patricia Priscilla frowned. "Nothing I want," she said to the chambermaid.

The freckle-faced girl picked up a silver-backed hairbrush. For a moment she looked at her own face reflected in the silver. She grinned at herself, and blushed.

"Not this, miss?" She held up the brush. "It's beautiful. If you like, I can brush your hair for you, a hundred strokes. I can count to one hundred, truly I can. And you can sit at the mirror and watch yourself while I do it."

The princess sighed. "We do that every day. I'm tired of it. I know! What if..." Her face lit up with interest.

"What, miss?"

"What if we turned things around and I brushed your hair a hundred strokes?" Princess Patricia Priscilla reached for the hairbrush.

But the chambermaid hastily returned it to the dressing table and backed away. "Oh, no, miss. That wouldn't do."

"Not allowed?"

"Not allowed at all."

"Punishable by torture?"

"Oh, I dunno. Maybe not torture, not for that. But punishment, for sure!"

The chambermaid paled and looked so genuinely alarmed that the princess sighed and gave up the idea. She picked up the brush and pulled it through her own hair a few times. "There," she said, with a sigh. "Now I should dress, I suppose. Have you chosen a frock for me for today?"

"I thought the blue organdy, miss? It matches your eyes."

Princess Patricia Priscilla groaned. "It scratches," she said, "and causes a rash on my shoulders."

"Then the yellow silk? It falls all smooth and soft."

Princess Patricia Priscilla made a face. "My cat slides off my lap when I wear silk," she pointed out, and then looked affectionately at her pet. "The yellow silk is inauspicious, isn't it, Delicious?" The cat yawned and tidily cleaned her whiskers.

The princess wandered to the window and looked down at the village again. The children were still playing in the path near the schoolhouse. She could hear their laughter.

"What is your name?" she asked suddenly, turning back to the chambermaid.

"Seventeenth chambermaid, miss." The girl curtsied.

"No, no—I mean your real name."

A blush darkened the chambermaid's freckled face. "Tess," she whispered.

"And you're a peasant girl, right? From the village?"

"Yes, miss. Born there."

"Did you play on that path?" The princess pointed through the window.

The chambermaid went to the window and looked down. She nodded. "Yes, miss," she whispered.

"And went to that school?"

"Till I was thirteen. Last year, that was."

"You're only fourteen? You're as tall as I am, and I'll be sixteen next Saturday."

"Yes, miss. I'm a great galoomph of a girl. My pa said I was tall as a tree, and should be cut off at the knees." The girl stood awkwardly, trying to shrink herself.

"Don't do that. Stand up straight and tall. That is a command."

"Yes, miss." The girl straightened her shoulders and bobbed in a curtsy once again.

"Stop that bobbing up and down. It makes me dizzy to watch it. I want you to tell me about your life, Tess."

"My life? But I haven't even got one yet!"

"Of course you do. Everyone does. Where were you born? Look down through the window. Can you see your house? Or I suppose it is called a hut, or a hovel?"

The chambermaid peered down. "Over there," she said, after she figured it out. She gestured. "Past the schoolhouse, past the graveyard, through them trees. You can see only the thatch of the roof from here. I was born in that very cottage.

"We call it a cottage, miss," she explained apologetically.

"Cottage, then. So you were born right there, and you have a father, I know, because you mentioned him—"

"Pa," the chambermaid said in a small voice.

The Birthday Ball

"And a mother? A ma, I suppose you'd call her?"

"Died," whispered the girl.

"Oh, pity. But I suppose you go back to visit your pa? Do you have days off from the castle?"

"I got my free day every second Tuesday. But I don't go back. Pa never wants to see me again. He said that." The girl lowered her head and sniffed.

"Oh, dear. I do hope you are not going to whimper. My head aches when people whimper."

"No, miss. I won't." The chambermaid bit her lip.

The princess picked up the hairbrush and began to brush her own hair again, absentmindedly. "So you were born right there and lived there for thirteen years, and went to school—"

"I did love school, miss."

"—and then you applied for the castle job—"

"My ma's brother's widow works in the castle kitchen, and recommended me."

"—and you left school, and your parents—"

"My ma was dead. Withered away when I was born."

"Oh, yes, sorry. I forgot that. Your mother died. Pity. And your pa said he never wanted to see you again and your knees should be cut off—"

"No. My legs. At the knees. 'Cuz I was a great galoomph and he didn't want me around."

"So you left school, and—"

"I was doing fine," the girl said earnestly. "Not like some. Knew all my letters and numbers. Could read good. And knew music, too! The schoolmaster said I sang like a lark."

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