The Good Neighbours
Once upon a time there was a little girl named Madeline. She and her parents, and their old wolfhound Argus, lived on a farm at the bottom of a mountain.
It was only a very little house, but Madeline liked it quite well. She also liked the cows and the sheep, indeed all the animals (though the chickens were a little silly), and she liked especially the big meadow behind her house that led to a little stream and gully. When the weather was good she could spend the entire day out there from sunrise to sunset, chasing alongside the water -- and this she often did, if her mother and father didn't need her, for in those days country girls didn't go to school.
It should have been a happy life, and most of the time it was. But Madeline, you see, was the only child for miles and miles in every direction, and she would sometimes grow sad for wanting friends her own age. So when a bad drought hit the farm and her father said they would have to move to the city, she was only a little sorry to have to leave behind her little house, and the animals, and Argus. In the city, she thought, there were sure to be many boys and girls her own age to play with.
When Madeline arrived at her new home, however, she changed her mind straightaway. The city was crowded, and new-fashioned, and full of sour smoke and exhaust from all the factories. There were no meadows -- in fact there was nothing green at all, besides sad little weeds in the pavement cracks -- and all the people, even the children, seemed busy and unkind. Madeline watched them from the window of their cramped new flat, where she sulked and moped and felt sorry for herself.
This lasted until the day all the things were unpacked and her mother said:
"Miss Madeline Mary, we are going to the shops, and I'll have no pouting about it."
So they went.
On their way back, they passed the railway station. Madeline was astonished to see a little clearing with grass there, and two children laughing and playing with a paper ball. Though Madeline pleaded and begged to join them, her mother said they must not let the groceries be too long in the sun; and so Madeline had to walk all the way back to the flat and put the eggs and milk away before she could run back to the station.
But when she got there, the two children were gone, and the paper ball was crushed flat and dirty on the ground. Poor Madeline sat beside it with her chin in her hands. She was just about to give up and go home when she noticed a brick path, very old and crumbling, that shed never seen before.
The railway line led out of the city, and when Madeline looked more closely she saw that the crumbling path led out of the city too. In fact it followed alongside the line for so long that, though Madeline shaded her eyes and squinted to see, it disappeared into a shimmering haze far in the distance.
It seemed perfectly sensible to Madeline that she would begin walking on the path to see where it went. As she was just walking beside the railway, she saw no harm in it.
But soon she found the path only followed the railway to the end of town. There, it curved away, to the ridge of a large hill in the distance. Madeline curved away, too, and followed the path to the very top of the hill.
And what should she see when she got there, but an endless field of green trees laid out before her?
Madeline had never before seen a forest, you must realise. In fact she had rarely seen two trees next to each other, and so the sight of such an enormous wood quite took her breath away. It was only to be expected, then, that her feet would take her toward it without her even knowing, right off the path and past a wooden sign so weathered and warped that the lettering on it could no longer be made out. (It wouldnt have mattered anyway, as Madeline couldnt read.)
But when she got closer, Madeline found the forest was not very welcoming. Nettles had made a thick and stinging carpet all about -- she had almost stepped on some, in fact -- and thistles grew among them, their pink heads peeking out from spiny leaves. But worst of all were the bramble bushes. They had neither flowers nor berries, only thorns as big as Madelines thumb, and they grew thick round all the tree trunks. Though she walked far in either direction, Madeline could find no end to them; they made an unbroken barrier as dense and deadly as the citys razor-tipped metal fences.
So it seemed that Madelines adventure had come to an end.
And the trees did look so pretty, she said to herself wistfully as she looked up at the branches. I would have liked to see them more closely, even for just a little while.
Who can say if someone was listening to her? For just at that moment, the leaves danced and shuddered in a sudden strong wind; and there, where she was certain thered only been more brambles, was a break in the trees and the brush just as high as her head. There were no nettles or thistles, only grass and a trail of dry leaves that led into the shadows of the forest.
Now, even Madeline knew that it is one thing for a girl to wander about the outskirts of town and quite another for her to enter a strange wood all by herself. She hesitated for a minute.
I can explore for a little while, she decided at last. "If I am very careful to walk straight ahead, and turn round and come back the exact same way I came, it will be no trouble at all.
And with that, she stepped into the forest.
Madeline meant to be cautious, she truly did. But here was a rabbit darting through gnarled roots, here wildflowers an amazing shade of violet, here a tiny stream like her gully back home; and soon all thought of walking straight ahead had left her mind. She clambered over rocks and pushed eagerly through undergrowth, and it wasn't until the sunlight that dappled the leaf-strewn ground had turned a pale orange that Madeline realised, with a sudden stab of fear, that she was deep in a strange and trackless forest.
"I know the way back," she told herself. But when she ran in what she thought was the right direction, she found only a dead end. When she tried again, she found not the forest's entrance but instead a huge and unfamiliar clearing with a sheer, moss-covered rockface and a wide shallow lake.
Dirty and exhausted, Madeline sank to the ground.
"Mum's going to be so cross," she said after a minute, and burst into tears.
She would have carried on like that for a good long time had a reflection on the water not caught her eye.
Madeline sniffed, and rubbed at her face with her sleeve. The lake looked strange, all of a sudden. It seemed to be made of something opaque, like melted silver, and it shimmered with all sorts of colours in a way Madeline had never seen water do. The grass, too, and the moss on the rock, were like the lake: shadowy and shiny all at once, and so deep a green that it hurt Madeline's tear-weakened eyes, and she had to close them for a minute. And then the grass felt so soft, and she was so tired, that she lay down. Soon she was fast asleep.
She had the most extraordinary dream. In it, she was still in the mysterious clearing, but it was now night-time. A huge silver moon rested in the blue-black sky; its twin danced and glittered on the surface of the lake. Hundreds of thousands of stars shone steadily above her -- far more than Madeline had ever before seen, or imagined the heavens could contain.
And you may wonder how Madeline could see this, as in her dream she was still lying in the grass, and with her eyes still closed. But she saw it.
Madeline wasn't alone. People were walking near her, talking in voices she couldn't quite hear, even brushing past her clothes once or twice. But whoever it was didn't seem to know she was there, and Madeline did not speak or move to let them know. And this was why:
Like the moon, Madeline could see these people through her closed eyes. But while sometimes it seemed that they were tall and graceful, kind and fair, so beautiful that it almost broke Madeline's heart to see them, other times they seemed exactly the opposite: cold and cruel, grotesque and savage, more like monsters than human beings. From one second to the next they seemed to change, and Madeline lay very still, feeling small and afraid.
But she also felt wonderful.
The clearing was growing brighter, as if day were dawning. Faintly, Madeline heard strange music -- or perhaps someone was singing. She breathed air warm and fragrant with the waters of the lake; her unbound hair mingled with the clover, and in the strange light shone as green as grass.
Then there was a flapping of wings, and something tickled her cheek.
"Oh!" Madeline said, and awoke.
For a minute she lay as she was. How strange and vivid her dream had been! Its presence in her memory was so close and clear that she felt that if she closed her eyes again, she might return to it at once, as though she had never left.
You may have supposed by now that Madeline had quite forgotten she was lost. Even though her face was still grubby and her eyes were still sore with tears, she did little but rub at them absently as she wandered out of the clearing and into the woods again. And whether it was simply good fortune that she turned a different way this time, or whether there was some other power at work, soon Madeline was walking through the gap in the hedge of thorns and onto the crumbling brick path.
It wasnt until she reached the railway station again that she remembered, with a start, how late she was.
Then how Madeline ran! Grabbing her skirts, she raced past the station and over the bridge; she darted through the crowds on the main road, ignoring their glares of annoyance. She ran past the pub and the penny-shop and the inn, and flung herself up all five flights of stairs to her flat.
She burst through the door, gasping for breath.
Im so sorry, Mama, she managed to say, as she held her heaving sides. I had a -- there was a --"
"Good heavens, Madeline," her mother said. "Must you always carry on so? You scared me half to death."
"But I only "
Her mother had already turned back to a pot boiling on the stove. "If you'd like to make yourself useful, instead, you might wash up and start peeling those potatoes. I'd like to have them ready for your father when he gets home."
Madeline was bewildered. Surely, she thought, her father was home already? Surely she'd been lost in the forest for hours? Hadn't her mother been worried?
Then Madeline glanced at the little water-clock on the mantle, and saw that only half an hour had passed since she'd left for the station.
"Madeline, don't dawdle," her mother scolded, when she'd been staring too long.
In a daze Madeline went to scrub her hands at the washbasin. How could it be? she wondered. She had been lost in the forest, hadn't she? She was sure she had. Or had she somehow dreamed that, too?
She was arguing with herself like this when, as she lifted her pinafore over her head, something bright fluttered out of the pocket.
It was a feather; a small feather, no bigger than a rose petal. But when Madeline held it up to the light, she gasped aloud -- for it was edged in gold, or something that shone like gold. Most wonderful of all, every tiny vein of down seemed to be made of a different jewel: sapphire and emerald, topaz and sunstone, ruby and amethyst; and though it gleamed as brightly as coloured glass, it was as soft and light as thistle-down.
She held the feather very gently to her breast. She knew, now, that her dream had been more than a dream.
Her mother called again, sounding impatient; and Madeline hastily put the feather in her breast pocket and ran to the kitchen.
Now, as it turned out, the very next day was Madeline's first day of school. She had already been terribly anxious to meet boys and girls her own age, and now, with an adventure in the forest to share with them, she could hardly keep from running the whole way, instead of walking carefully as her mother had instructed her.
She had on a new grey worsted wool dress with a starched white pinafore, black ribbed cotton stockings, and new, black, shiny shoes that rubbed at her heels dreadfully. Instead of pigtails, her mother had braided her hair into a grown-up chignon; and when she wasn't looking, Madeline had tucked the feather into the very base of it, near the nape of her neck. No one else would know it was there, she thought, with a shiver of delight.
Madeline may well have been close to bursting with excitement, but when she finally arrived at the schoolyard, there were so very many children -- children of all ages, laughing and talking, running and screaming -- that she suddenly felt timid and overwhelmed. She hesitated by the wrought-iron gate, clutching her dinner-pail.
Soon a girl ran up to her. "Hullo!" she said. "Are you new? You look new. Did you just move here? I'm Peony."
The girl talked so fast that it was quite dizzying to listen to her. But Madeline didn't want to seem unsociable, so she said:
"Yes -- we just got here last week. I'm Madeline."
"Madeline! I was new last term. Don't worry; I'll show you about. It's really not that bad once you get to know everybody."
Peony took her hand, and Madeline let herself be taken in a whirlwind tour round the schoolyard.
"There's Mr. Woodhope, the schoolmaster. You'll like him, he's nice. That's my sister Claire next to him. She's only in the second form, though. Ooh, do you see that boy? The one with the brown hair? That's Roger Donne; his father owns all the factories and half the city besides. He's even allowed to bring his butler to school, do you see?"
Madeline tried to look, but just then Peony pulled her close.
"Ugh," she whispered. "There's Greta Weiss. No, don't look up; she'll see you. She's a nasty one, she is. Best stay away from her if you can oh, there's Alice! Come on." She led Madeline over to where a group of girls were playing hopscotch.
"Good morning, Alice! How were your holidays?"
"Wonderful; we went to Maranda and saw the sea. How were yours?"
"Oh, they were terribly dull, as usual. Alice, this is my new friend, Madeline. She just moved here last week."
"Nice to meet you," Alice said, smiling at her. She was missing two teeth in front.
"Hullo," Madeline replied, shyly.
"Peony, have you warned her about everything?" said another girl. "Have you told her about the haunted madhouse?"
"Oh, yes!" Alice said eagerly. "And the graveyard, and the sealed wood?"
"I haven't yet," said Peony, just as Madeline said, "The wood by the railway?"
After they took a second to sort things out, Alice, looking disappointed, said, You've heard about it already, then?"
"No, but I've been there."
"Been there?" Alice frowned. "What do you mean?"
A crowd had begun to gather, and Madeline, feeling their eyes on her, grew excited again.
"Well," she began, "yesterday I went for a walk, and I saw the forest. It took me a long time to find a way in, but finally I did, and I saw, oh, so many wonderful things "
But she didn't get to finish, because Peony interrupted her.
"Madeline." She was looking at Madeline as if she'd said something terrible. "You must never go near that forest. Haven't you seen the sign?"
"That's where the Other People live," a boy told her quietly.
"The Fair Folk."
"The Good Neighbours."
"Hespers," whispered a little boy, the youngest there.
Alice slapped his wrist at once. "Quiet, Henry," she said sharply.
"But I think I've seen them!" Madeline burst out.
A hush came over the schoolyard then. The children stared at Madeline for so long that she began to feel uncomfortable.
"People in the forest," she went on, not at all sure of herself any longer. "There was a clearing, and a lake, and I saw them there "
"No, you didn't," said someone behind her. Madeline turned to see a girl with beautiful golden hair and a rather unfortunate long nose that she kept pointed in the air, as if she had a stiff neck. Peony had called her Greta.
"The Donnes made sure the entire wood is blocked off," Greta continued. "No one has been able to get in, not for years. Which means that you're a liar."
"I am not!" exclaimed Madeline, shocked at the accusation.
"Oh? So then tell us what they looked like, these forest people."
"Were they ugly?" Greta pressed, smirking.
"No -- well, yes. Sometimes."
"They didn't always look the same. I-I think," Madeline mumbled.
"What a perfectly terrible little liar," said Greta. "You can't even make up stories properly."
"I'm not making up stories," Madeline said, her face hot with anger, "and you are a beastly girl."
Greta looked outraged, but just then Mr. Woodhope called them to line up. As they walked into the classroom, Madeline saw all the children, even Peony, glance at her resentfully.
The day only got worse as it went on for Madeline. Remember, she had never been to school a day in her life; and so not only were the basic subjects, like reading and maths, impossible for her, she also couldn't perform the simplest task -- naming her letters, for example, or counting past twenty. What was worse, each form was expected to recite the lessons they had learned last term in front of the entire class.
She tried to keep up with the rest of the children her age, but she faltered and stuttered, and all the while heard whispers and snickers from Greta and her friends. At last, Mr. Woodhope gently told her to sit in the front row with the youngest children; and Madeline spent the rest of the day there, blinking back tears, her cheeks burning with shame.
Finally the bell rang. Madeline was gathering up her satchel and sniffing quietly when a boy stopped at her desk.
"Excuse me," he said.
Madeline looked up at him warily, but he didn't appear to be to making fun of her, like the others. In fact, he was smiling politely, and seemed quite kind.
He had dark, thick, soft-looking brown hair that curled a little at his ears, and deep blue eyes the colour of her mother's cobalt ring. His school clothes were all of fine fabrics, linen and muslin and merino wool, and dots of gold shone at his collar and cuffs.
At once Madeline looked down at her desk, blushing -- for she had never seen a boy so handsome.
"You just moved here, didn't you?" he continued. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I heard what you said this morning."
"About the sealed wood."
"Oh." Poor Madeline felt her eyes sting anew. "I wasn't lying. It really did happen. I was taking a walk in the forest, and I fell asleep, and --"
Then her voice cracked, and she couldn't finish.
"Oh, dear," said the boy. "Please don't cry. Here, Jonas." He signalled to another boy that Madeline hadn't noticed before. He was dressed in a black waistcoat with a blue cravat; and from his breast pocket he withdrew a clean white handkerchief, neatly folded, which he handed to her.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"You mustn't take Greta too seriously," the boy continued. "She sometimes needs to be reminded that she doesn't know everything. And all that other fairy tale nonsense -- why, it's superstitious rubbish."
"You mean you don't believe me," said Madeline miserably.
"No, not at all! I do believe you. My father says that when his workers tried to cut through the thorns, all manner of strange things happened but how rude I've been. My name's Roger Donne, and this is Jonas."
"Oh!" Madeline was amazed. Roger Donne! The one whose father owned all the factories! She hadn't recognised him from this morning. And that meant Jonas must be his butler, like Peony had said.
"Nice to meet you," she said to them both, remembering her manners in time. Jonas nodded silently in reply.
"So then you did see the creatures," said Roger Donne, sitting at the desk next to hers.
"Well, I-I think I did," said Madeline. "It was all very strange. I was asleep, I think; but I was awake too, and they were there."
"It must have been amazing."
"Oh, it was!" How wonderful it felt to be able to talk about it at last! For the first time that day, Madeline felt herself smiling. Then she had an idea.
"Mr. Donne," she began, hesitantly. "May I show you something?"
Carefully, Madeline reached behind her and withdrew the precious feather from her hair. When she showed it to Roger Donne, he gazed at it in wonder; but to her relief, he didn't ask to touch or hold it.
"Madeline," he said, "did they give this to you?"
"I don't know I think they might have."
"I am sure they did. You must treasure it, Madeline."
"I will," she said resolutely, as she tucked it back into her hair. When they both stood up to go, she suddenly felt shy again. "Thank you for believing me, and not that well, not Greta."
Roger Donne laughed and bowed. "I see you have quite the spirit, Miss Madeline. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow."
That afternoon, Madeline thought she might go back to the sealed wood, to see if she could find anything else to show Roger Donne; but though she circled the trees for hours, she couldn't find any gap in the thorns. At last, as the sun set, she walked sadly back home, where her mother scolded her soundly for missing supper. And Madeline, for her part, felt ashamed, as if all the children had seen her and were laughing; and so she never again went to the forest, after that.
Years passed. Madeline grew more used to the city, though she never learned to love it; and every day she woke up, washed her face, tucked the feather in her hair, and walked to lessons. There, she studied twice as hard as anyone else, enduring the snickers of Greta and her friends. By the time she was fifteen, she had almost caught up with the other children her age.
One day at recess, Madeline heard a group of girls giggling.
"Peter, I think," one of them was saying, eyes shining.
"Certainly not!" said another. "He's got thin shoulders. Arthur is a much better choice."
"Better for what?" asked Madeline.
At once the girls were quiet. None of them looked at her -- except Peony, who smiled uncomfortably. She and Madeline rarely spoke nowadays.
"It's only silliness," she explained now. "We were just choosing the boys that would make the best husbands." She turned back to her friends.
And Madeline, just as if she were thinking aloud, said, "What about Roger Donne?"
The girls whirled round, as if in shock. Then they began to laugh.
"Are you daft? Roger Donne!"
"You might just as well expect to marry a prince."
"He's as rich as one."
"Besides, he's going to marry Greta after she finishes school."
"Everyone knows that. They're always calling on each other."
"Their parents have had it arranged since they were babies."
"Oh," said Madeline quietly, feeling foolish.
Now, for a few months, Madeline's father had been complaining of a cough, and he wasn't able to work as often as he used to. So her mother had taken a job as a laundress for the quality, in the rich part of town; and one day Madeline had to deliver a pot of medicine to her.
Madeline was walking along, gazing wistfully at the beautiful brownstone mansions with their silver gates and elaborate topiary, when she heard a strange sound nearby: a sort of muffled, sharp yip.
It sounded like a dog. In fact, it sounded so much like her old wolfhound Argus that Madeline was curious to find where it was coming from. Cautiously, she followed the hedge of the nearest house, until she found a beautifully sculpted archway; and when she stepped through, she found herself in a huge, magnificent garden, with acres of soft green grass, and trees trimmed into the shapes of animals, and marble fountains running with sparkling clear water. There, by a copse, was a man struggling to keep hold of a muzzled dog.
"Mr. Donne?" said Madeline.
He stepped back abruptly; and the dog, suddenly freed, darted under a stone bench.
"Madeline," said Roger Donne, when he saw her. He looked flushed and exhilarated; his eyes were bright, his hair in disarray. "What an unexpected pleasure."
"I didn't mean to -- that is, I didn't know you lived here," Madeline said in a rush. She was distracted by the dog. It cowered under the bench, its sides heaving, the muscles twitching in its shoulders; and its muzzle, bound with leather, was flecked with grey-white foam. But though it growled quietly, it didn't seem dangerous. Indeed, it seemed somehow frightened instead.
"Is your dog all right?" she asked.
"You mean old Duke here? He's perfectly fine. We're just learning some tricks. Unfortunately, he's still rather spirited, and fancies a nip or two now and then don't you, old boy?" Roger Donne reached down, and the dog flinched away.
Madeline felt quite stupid all of a sudden. "I was just delivering this to my mother," she said. "I heard your dog, and -- I once had a dog, back where I used to live I'm sorry to have interrupted."
"It's perfectly all right, Madeline. You're quite welcome here." He smiled at her, and she felt warm all over. "You'll be in the fifth form next term, won't you?"
"So. You never gave up, and now look at how far you've gotten." Roger Donne was watching her with admiration. "Congratulations."
Shyly, Madeline tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. She didn't know what to say.
"Here now, I was just about to go for a stroll. Won't you join me? Jonas," he called, "bring a parasol from the carriage house."
As usual, Madeline hadn't noticed the butler; he had been watching from the shadows of a linden tree. "Of course, Master Donne," he said now, bowing. "But I do beg your pardon, sir. Remember that Miss Weiss plans to call at three."
"Oh, drat, you're right," Roger Donne said, looking disappointed. "Well, it will have to be a short walk, then. What do you say, Madeline?"
How Madeline wanted to say yes! But then she remembered the schoolyard, and the girls who had laughed at her; and already she felt so out of place amid such splendour. It was meant for a princess, or a duchess, or for someone like Greta; not for someone like her.
"Thank you so much, Mr. Donne," she said at last, "but I really must find my mother. You have a lovely garden."
With that, she hurried off; and when she was back on the street, she shook her head sadly, one hand resting gently on the nape of her neck.
It is a sad truth of our world that happiness often arrives with equal part sorrow, and so it was for Madeline. You see, it was a tradition at Madeline's school that one of the girls in the upper form be chosen, each year, to stay on and apprentice as a teacher, if she were not going on to university or getting married. And one day, in Madeline's last year of lessons, Mr. Woodhope took her aside to tell that the girl chosen had been she.
"You still have to study your geometry," he told her with a smile, "and your grammar. But you have remarkable discipline and enthusiasm, which I think are more important; and you will make, I am certain, a fine teacher."
Madeline was so overjoyed that she ran all the way home, just as if she had still been a little girl, and rushed into her flat.
"Mum," she cried, "you'll never believe it! Oh, it's the best thing that's ever happened to me! Mum? Where are you?"
But her mother, when Madeline finally found her, was sobbing quietly in the bedroom. And that was when Madeline learned that her father had died.
For the first time in seven years, Madeline missed a day of school. In fact, she missed nearly a week; and when she finally returned, she took her seat without wishing anyone good morning or explaining why she had been away.
Greta, who sat two desks away, sniffed when she came in. "I see we've finally been granted an audience with the high queen herself."
Madeline said nothing.
"In my opinion," continued Greta loudly, "those that can't afford truancy shouldn't practise it. Of course, not everyone places the same value on education as I do. Or on being able to read," she went on, when she got no retort. "Or add."
Her friends giggled. Madeline's eyes, to her horror, grew blurry.
"Shut up, Greta," she whispered to her desk.
"Oh, I'm quite sorry, but I don't believe I was talking to you. I would have used smaller words."
This time, a full half of the class laughed; and Madeline felt two tears run down her cheeks.
"That's enough, Greta."
It was Roger Donne.
"Oh, do be quiet, Roger," Greta muttered angrily. "You needn't be such a spoilsport."
At once the laughing stopped, and the class grew quiet.
"What was that, Greta?" Roger Donne said mildly, after a minute.
She flicked her eyes up, looking guilty. "Nothing." And then, to Madeline's amazement, she muttered, "I'm sorry."
Then Madeline looked up, and gave Roger Donne a weak, grateful smile.
Now it happened that after her father's death, Madeline and her mother found money very scarce indeed. Mr. Woodhope had heard of this, and as he was a sympathetic man he'd decided she could start her apprenticeship early, to benefit from the modest salary. And so Madeline was by herself that afternoon, grading exams by the window, when she heard voices from outside. Curiously, she pulled back one corner of the curtain.
Greta and Roger Donne were talking quietly behind the games-shed. Or rather, he was talking to her; Greta only stared at the ground without speaking.
"I asked you what you thought you were doing," Madeline heard Roger Donne say.
Still Greta said nothing.
"Greta?" he continued. "What did you think you were doing? Hm?"
And then Madeline's breath stopped, for Roger Donne struck Greta across the face.
He had used such force that she struck the games-shed and stumbled to her knees. "Hm, Greta?" he said again, and with one hand took her by the throat.
Greta didn't cry out, only gasped for breath as he lifted her; and still she would not look him in the eyes. She didn't fight back, either -- or at least not as Madeline would. She struggled only as an animal might: not with anger, only fear and pain, as if resigned to endure this terror.
Worst of all was the look on Roger Donne's face. He was watching Greta with great interest, biting his bottom lip slightly, and there was an expression of satisfaction, or pleasure, in his eyes.
But then Madeline could move again. She stumbled to the door, and out onto the lawn; and there Roger Donne was looking at her as if nothing had happened at all. His breathing was calm and steady, and his hands rested lightly in his pockets.
"Oh, good afternoon, Madeline," he said.
Madeline looked at Greta. She was staring at the ground still, swallowing, her mouth closed tightly. Then she flicked her eyes up for just an instant, and with a terrible realisation Madeline knew where she'd seen their expression before. They were the same haunted eyes of the dog in Roger Donne's garden.
At last Madeline found her voice. "Leave her alone," she whispered. "I saw what you did."
"I'm sorry?" he said, looking puzzled.
"I saw what you did. Don't try to pretend." Madeline was trembling. She took Greta by the shoulders. "Come, Greta, let's go home."
"Madeline," said Roger Donne with a little laugh of amazement, as though she were acting mad. He seemed unable to say anything besides her name. "Madeline."
"Don't ever touch her again," she said. "If you touch her again, I'll -- I'll tell everyone. I swear I will."
She feared, more than anything, that Roger Donne would try to stop them; but he made no movement, only watched as she and Greta walked away. When they rounded the corner, Madeline noticed a dark, silent figure in the shadows.
"Jonas," she said. "You knew, didn't you? And you let him do it?"
And for once, Jonas's long, solemn face was taken aback. He opened his mouth to reply, but seemed -- whether due to surprise, or to shame -- unable to speak.
"How could you?" she whispered, as they walked past him. "How could you?"
On the way home, Madeline asked Greta many questions -- how long had he been doing this? Had she told anyone else? -- but Greta just shook her head, as if she couldn't answer. When they reached the main road, she began to cry silently, the tears streaming into her mouth.
At last they arrived at Greta's house, and Madeline no longer knew what to do. They stood together at the door for a minute, in silence.
"We can talk again whenever you like, Greta," she said at last. "Tomorrow, perhaps. Or maybe we can tell Mr. Woodhope."
At this, Greta shook her head vigourously. A tiny sob had escaped her throat.
"Oh," Madeline said, alarmed. "Well, we don't have to, if you don't want to here, I'll get the door."
She pushed it open. And as Greta walked through, she whispered, in a voice so faint Madeline could hardly hear her:
Madeline did not sleep well that night, and in the morning, she felt so exhausted and ill that she could barely swallow her breakfast. When she arrived at school, Roger Donne was, to her relief, nowhere to be found.
But here was Greta, sitting with her friends and laughing as usual; and though she'd glanced up briefly when Madeline approached, now she would not even look at her. It was though yesterday had never happened.
For a moment Madeline hesitated, wondering if she should say anything. Then she slowly took her seat.
Every day after school, Madeline passed a low wall, made of stone and mortar; and that afternoon she was walking alongside it, trailing a finger over its bumps and grooves, as she thought again about what she'd seen. She was so lost in her thoughts, so confused and troubled, that she did not hear the footsteps behind her until it was too late.
Something slammed into her, and knocked her to the ground, before she could catch a breath. Hands grabbed at her, pinning her to the pavement, but Madeline was too shocked to cry out. For a moment, she saw a swarm of black school shoes and stockinged legs; then someone shoved her head down, and she could see nothing.
"Her hair," she heard someone hiss; "he said her hair."
It was Greta's voice.
Then the hands were tearing the pins from her hair, yanking her braids free, digging into her scalp with fingers that felt as sharp as claws. Black spots bloomed before Madeline's eyes, and when they faded, she found herself alone, curled up on the ground.
Littered all about her were crooked hairpins, broken buttons, scraps of ribbon and cloth -- and even one entire lock of Madeline's hair, snarled into a knot and bloodied at one end. But Madeline didn't notice, because by then she had seen the feather.
Slowly, for one of her legs was twisted, she crawled forward to look at it more closely.
It had been ripped into several pieces and strewn about the road. There was no shine to it anymore, whether gold or otherwise; and its down, no longer different colours, was now the same dull, lustreless grey of the city's pigeons. But the worst part of all was that Madeline could no longer remember whether it had always looked that way, and it had only ever been her own wish to see it otherwise.
Very gently, Madeline gathered up every piece she could find, taking care to shield them from the wind, and carried them all the way home, limping on her twisted leg. It took her nearly an hour to climb the five flights of stairs to her flat.
When she got there, she very carefully dropped the pieces in the dustbin, went to her room, and closed the door.
From that day forward, Madeline did not speak a word at school. Greta had made a nasty remark to her the next day, but Madeline had only stared at her until her friends' laughter quieted; and in the silence, Greta had cleared her throat and looked away. She did not bother Madeline again, after that. The same afternoon, Roger Donne had walked up to her after school, and greeted her warmly, but Madeline had wrenched her hand from his grip so hard he'd stumbled into the dirt.
And then it no longer mattered, for within a fortnight, school had ended.
The first official day of her apprenticeship dawned, to Madelines mind, the brightest any morning ever had. But she arrived at the schoolhouse, wearing a new blue blouse and with her books stacked in her arms, to find Mr. Woodhope slumped at his desk, holding his head in his hands. Before she could ask what was wrong, he looked up; and when he saw Madeline, he closed his eyes briefly, as if in pain.
"Madeline," he began quietly. "I -- There's no easy way to say this. I'm so sorry, Madeline, but your apprenticeship has been cancelled."
For a moment Madeline couldn't speak. Then she whispered, "What?"
"It's not your fault; it's no one's fault. Some of the school leaders didn't feel it appropriate to give the position to a student who had begun lessons so late. They were quite firm on the matter I'm sorry, Madeline. There's nothing I can do."
"Which school leaders?" she asked him, but he didn't answer. "Mr. Woodhope," she said, pleading now. "Please tell me. Was it William Donne?"
"It's out of my hands," was all he said. He would not look at her. "I'm sorry."
That night, Madeline did not return home until long after the sun had set, for she had spent the rest of the day walking the streets in a sort of daze, without knowing where she was going or why. Her mother had already begun to admonish her for being late, when Madeline told her what had happened.
"Oh," said her mother. "Oh." Her hands, gnarled from years of scrubbing and darning and spinning, came up to cover her face. "What will we do? What will become of us?"
And she began to weep.
Madeline, in desperation, said, "Don't cry, Mum. Please don't cry. I could -- I could become a governess. If no one will hire me here, then maybe we could go to another town. Maybe we could go back to the mountains --"
"Don't talk nonsense, Madeline," her mother said harshly, through her tears. "We're not in one of your fancies; we're in this world, whether you like it or not. Take a look at yourself! Who would hire you as a governess? You're a poor country girl who can barely read. And how on earth could we leave? -- we have nothing to take but the clothes on our backs. No," she said, shaking her head, "no, you'll have to take a job in the factory, like your poor father did. And even then, we may end up in the workhouse. Oh, God, I would die of the shame..."
How old her mother had grown already, Madeline thought suddenly, as she watched her break into sobs again; as weathered and bent-backed as an old crone, though they'd not even been in the city ten years. And soon, Madeline realised, she herself would look the same way: battered and worn by years of labor, as a stone is worn down by the punishing sea.
For of course her mother was right. Madeline would have to work in the factories: there was nowhere else for her to go.
She was hired at a paper mill two days later, and at once her life became an endless, numbing routine of boiling wood pulp, beating it to smoothness, peeling paper from the mould, and dropping into her bed at night so aching and exhausted that she could not even sleep, knowing she would have to begin all over again the next day. Things went this way for three months, until one windy day in late autumn the accounts-manager called her into his tiny office, looking grave.
"It's out of my hands," he told her as he handed Madeline her stamp-card and three coins' worth of severance pay. "It's from the higher-ups. All the Donne mills got the word, looking for someone of your name and description "
"I'm sorry, lassie," he finished awkwardly, patting her shoulder.
That night, Madeline's mother didn't cry. She only sat beside Madeline on the threadbare sopha and stared into the dying fire, her face frozen like a mask's. Outside, rain had begun to fall; wind howled and beat against the windows.
They were still sitting that way when someone knocked at the door. Madeline rose to answer it first.
Three men stood in the dim light of the corridor, identically and elegantly dressed in black waistcoats, which were dotted with raindrops at the shoulders, and blue cravats. Two held a box wrapped in white silk between them, while the third, in the lead, held a monogrammed letter in one gloved hand.
"Who is it, Madeline?" asked her mother, walking up behind her. Madeline heard her gasp softly. Never had anyone half so wealthy been seen in their entire neighbourhood, let alone at their door.
The man in the lead bowed smartly, and handed Madeline's mother the letter. "Madam," he said, "with the utmost respect, and with the blessings of his loving father and mother, young Master Roger Donne requests the honour of your daughter's hand in marriage."
He must have continued to speak, but Madeline could no longer hear what he was saying. Nor did she take any notice of her mother, whose hand had flown to her mouth in shock.
Undoubtedly, the world was still moving round her as it always had, slow and silent and steady; but it seemed to Madeline that she was no longer a part of it. She had slowly been fading away, ever since the moment she had seen Roger Donne strike Greta -- or perhaps earlier still, since her first day of school, or the day she'd left her meadow and stream. And now, she was someplace else entirely.
Then all at once Madeline could hear again.
"But how?" her mother was whispering. The letter was in her hand; but of course Madeline's mother couldn't read it. "How ?"
"It is my understanding," the man said, with a glance at Madeline, "that young Master Donne finds himself deeply enamoured of your daughter's fine spirit, I believe were his words. Shall I bring him a reply?"
"Oh, of course," her mother cried, "you must tell him we accept!"
At that Madeline turned round. "Mother "
"Thank you, madam," said the man in the doorway with a nod, "but the young master is particularly anxious to hear an answer from the young lady herself."
All eyes turned to Madeline.
"Why, of course she accepts too," her mother said, with a frown. "Go on, Madeline. Tell him."
But Madeline could not say a word.
"Master Donne understands the request he makes is enormous. The young lady may consider her decision overnight. Until then, he offers this gift as a token of his affection and devotion."
The man signalled to the others. They brought the box into the parlour, and when they opened it, its contents shone so brightly that it seemed, for a moment, that they were presenting Madeline and her mother with a miniature sun.
But it was not a sun. It was a dress -- a wedding dress.
The bodice was made of pure gold, and the petticoats were spangled with gold dust, and all the hem and sleeves and skirts were embroidered with shining gold thread. There were delicate golden slippers encrusted with diamonds and pearls, and a gold filigree tiara with a gold-brushed veil, and a heavy gold choker set with rubies at the throat.
After all had been laid out, the lead messenger gave one deep, final bow. "Master Donne awaits the young lady's reply in the morning."
When they had gone, Madeline's mother turned to her in wonder, her eyes bright with tears of joy.
"Madeline," she began, "how on earth -- how did you -- We'll never want for anything again. My dear girl!" She laughed out loud, and took Madeline into her arms, as she hadn't done for years. "My dear, clever girl! I can't believe it. How Lydia and Ruth will boggle!"
"Mother," said Madeline.
"The entire city will be in an uproar, and why not? My daughter, and the son of William Donne! I knew there was some reason God brought you to that school. I knew it."
"Mama," whispered Madeline.
"Come, darling, you must have a bath -- we can't have you looking like a ragamuffin tomorrow. Shall I comb your hair for you, as I used to? Come, now, we mustn't wait." And she gave her a kiss on the cheek, and took her to the washbasin.
That night, Madeline, dressed only in her thin cotton nightgown and with her hair still damp from her bath, sat on her tiny seat by the window long after her mother had fallen asleep. She was staring at the gold dress. Even in the moonlight, it glowed as if in full sun; and Madeline knew, as she'd known about the factory, that it would not be long before that dress was laced on her, those slippers on her feet, that choker round her neck.
Outside, through the sound of booming thunder and crashing rain, came the sound of faint laughter -- faint, and somehow familiar. Madeline strained to see through the dark wet glass, until finally she made out a group of men standing across the street, under the striped green awning of the pub.
They seemed to be enjoying themselves in spite of the weather, for they laughed and talked enthusiastically, drinks in their hands; and one of them, the tallest, seemed particularly merry. When he took a step to the side, lamplight glinted off his burnished brown hair and straight white teeth; and Madeline knew that Roger Donne was there waiting for her.
Madeline was running before she knew she was running. She ran past the gold dress and through the piles of mending her mother had brought home; she ran down the five flights of stairs and out into the storm. Barefoot she ran, her nightgown and her unbound hair whipping in the wind, past the inn and the penny-shop and the pub; and she did not stop running when she heard a shout of anger from Roger Donne, or when she heard his footsteps, and those of his men, close behind.
She did not stop when she reached the school, or the paper mill. She did not slow as she crossed the bridge, or as she passed the railway station. As if the wind and rain had granted her swiftness and sureness of foot, she did not falter once as she ran off the crumbling brick path, and to the sealed wood.
Roger Donne had followed her the entire way, nearly close enough to grab her streaming hair. And so when Madeline ran through a break in the wall of thorns, he was able to slip in just behind her.
One of his men, the one closest behind, shouted "Master Donne," and tried to follow -- but he let out a terrible cry, and fell to his knees. A thorn had pierced his palm clear through.
Roger Donne's other servants searched wildly for a way into the forest, but surely they were blinded by the raging storm; for, try as they might, they could not find the entrance in the brambles that had been there only a moment ago.
But then at last Jonas had caught up with them. He pushed the other servants aside and cupped his hands round his mouth to shout -- but it was not his master he called for.
Miss Branford, he cried into the woods. Miss Branford! Rain slashed his face, and the wind stole his voice away. He tried again. Madeline, please, come back! Madeline!
But she was never seen again.
As for Roger Donne, it was three days before they finally found him. He was crawling on all fours on the dirt path near the railroad station, his clothes torn to rags, his skin raw and bleeding, prattling nonsense. It was generally decided that he had lost his senses in the storm, after the unaccountable rejection from his beloved; and upon his parents' death, a year later, the government took possession of all his land and holdings.
There was still the question of what to do with Roger Donne himself. He had no family, or at least none that would claim responsibility of a penniless mad relative; and the institutions of the city were reluctant to take on such a young and tragic charge, as his story might upset the other patients. In the end, however, the perfect solution was found. Mrs. Frances Branford, a widow who had recently lost her only child, offered to care for the young man in return for a reasonable monthly stipend. The government gladly agreed.
They were given a small, quiet cottage at the outskirts of town, and in time the two of them became something like a family. In his own way, he seemed to regard her with affection, and on his better days called her "Mother"; she found in him a memento of the daughter she had loved, and cared for him with patience and tenderness. And they lived this way -- if not happily, then perhaps as happily as any of us truly can, in this world of ours -- ever after.
(Note: Madeline is the original Japanese name of Madonna, Terra's mother.)
All That Glitters Is Cold 3 Fanfic Competition
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