by Cathrin Hagey
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Leonora was awakened in the morning by a smack of sunshine across her cheek when Violet abruptly drew the curtain.
“I’ve been told to keep the doll out of the sun,” said the maid, moving the infant cot to a shaded corner of the nursery. “Something about the wax getting soft.”
Leonora sat up and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, until Violet grabbed her roughly by the arm. “Hurry up,” said Violet. “A gentleman’s come to save your poor mother, and I’m to bring you to the sick room without delay. If we’re late, we’ll have to wait for that horrible Miss Brown to tell us what she saw.”
“Miss Brown isn’t—” Leonora was interrupted by a blow to the side of her head.
Leonora sprang from her bed, gulped her tea in a manner she knew would have displeased Mama were she to see it, took a few bites of bread, and then flew to the wardrobe to select a pinafore. She wasn’t fast enough to avoid another blow to the head.
Violet tapped her foot against the floor at the threshold of the nursery.
“Are we taking Isabel?” Leonora snuck a nibble of cheese.
“There’s no time.” Violet pushed Leonora ahead of her into the upper hall, in the direction of the sick room.
Professor Ludlow was a tall, thin man with a curl of hair under his nose that would only be called a mustache out of politeness. Leonora followed Violet into the sick room and studied the man’s face intently. His eyes were fierce black dots, and after gazing around the small room at all who had gathered there, he aimed them at Mama, as Leonora could tell from his posture.
“You may begin, Professor,” said Leonora’s father who was seated in the attendant’s chair. The attendant, a fat old nurse, had been demoted to the back of the room.
Professor Ludlow cleared his throat. He looked only at Mama as he said, “Everyone in this room must be silent, absolutely silent. I will attempt the healing of the lady of the house, and I have every chance of success if you do your part. Wish her well. Send her your love and regards. But do so without utterance.”
“What will you do?” said Leonora’s father.
Professor Ludlow slowly turned to face the man. “I can hardly explain to you, sir, what it is that I do. It is by the grace of God and the wisdom of Franz Anton Mesmer that I have learned how to exchange my animal magnetism for your wife’s spirit, a spirit that has, unfortunately, been defiled by a vile, fluid emanation.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to understand.”
Leonora alternately watched Mama’s almond eyes and the thin hair on the back of Professor Ludlow’s head. She glanced from one to the other, sensing the determination in the Professor, but seeing no change in Mama.
“Is it working?” Leonora whispered to Violet, who promptly pinched the girl on the tender skin of her inner arm. “Shut up,” said Violet.
There was nothing for Leonora to do but to wait for someone in authority, either her father or Professor Ludlow, to declare a victory for Mama. Or not.
Leonora saw that Miss Brown stood beside the fat nurse. She also saw that her beloved teacher wore her sternest look. There was Mama’s handmaid on the other side of Miss Brown. Her father’s manservant was also in attendance, near the entryway.
Leonora began to grow sleepy. The room was close, hot. Mama’s round cheeks were a deep crimson. Professor Ludlow’s head began to seep an oily substance. A smell, like the gray spots on old bread, arose from some quarter.
“Damn it, sir! Will you heal her or not?”
The outburst from Leonora’s father made everyone else in the room shrink back in alarm, all except the Professor. Even Leonora sensed the depth of the Professor’s outrage as he leaped to his feet, upsetting the chair on which he had sat for nearly an hour. The hard back of the chair thumped against the sick room’s thick carpet.
“Are you a doubting Thomas, sir?” barked Professor Ludlow.
Leonora’s father stood up and faced the Mesmerist. “Yes, sir. I am in this case. If you can heal my wife by the strength of your will, by some damned magnetic something or other, then you can bloody well do it in haste.”
“Are you accusing me of deception?” Professor Ludlow’s mustache limped down his cheeks. His eyes glowered.
“No, sir, I am accusing you of utter foolishness.”
More was shouted between the two men. Miss Brown led Leonora out of the sick room, and down the hall toward the schoolroom. “Will Mama get better?” said Leonora, when they were well beyond the scene of the dispute.
“We’ll say a prayer for your mother.” Miss Brown sat her pupil down on the schoolroom chair as soon as they arrived at that quarter.
Leonora soaked up Miss Brown’s warm smile as she would the noonday sun. “Do you think Mama will get well again? Will the professor help her?”
“I think she will get well again, but I don’t think Professor Ludlow has done her much good, though I believe he tried. Love your mother with all your heart, Leonora. Be a good girl. Guard her. That’s what will mend her.”
Though she feared the daily lessons or, more to the point, how the daily lessons confused her and had to be explained by Miss Brown repeatedly, Leonora enjoyed the governess’ melodic voice and small, childlike teeth. When the lessons were done for the day, Miss Brown sent Leonora back to the nursery, offering her a kiss on the cheek.
“Goodbye,” said Leonora.
“Have a lovely afternoon,” said Miss Brown. “Try not to worry about your mother. I believe that the doctor will be here soon.”
On reaching the nursery, Leonora took Isabel out of the cot, and she moved the doll to the most comfortable chair in the room, leaning it against the chair’s back. Isabel’s slipper-clad feet made two dimples in the velveteen cushion of the seat.
“Now, Isabel,” said Leonora, “I’m going to try to mesmer you. If I learn how, I might be able to help Mama.”
Isabel stared at nothing; her blue marble eyes held no inner light.
Leonora pulled a child’s hardback chair close to Isabel and sat down, facing the doll. “Now watch me,” she said. “Look in my eyes.”
Then Leonora concentrated as hard as she could. She thought of what Professor Ludlow had said and imagined a stream, like the one she had seen on holiday once. The stream foamed and laughed as it ran all the way to the sea. Miss Brown told her that’s where streams go. Leonora thought of an invisible stream pouring from her eyes and trickling and gurgling all the way to Isabel’s eyes, moving through the blue marbles to the other side.
She did not know what was on the other side of Isabel’s eyes. It might be a shadowy place like the grove where Violet often went to meet the stable boy. It might be as bright as the sun. But whatever lay beyond the doll’s eyes, Leonora imagined Isabel waking up, stretching out, and unfolding with life: a rose in bloom, a bee flitting through clover, a kitten after the cat’s milk.
Leonora stared into Isabel’s eyes, concentrating with all her might, wishing and hoping for a sign that some of her own spirit had seeped through the wax, deep into the doll.
And then, slowly at first, Isabel’s chest rose... and then fell. Leonora saw Isabel’s cheeks flame with a deeper shade of pink, and the eyes shine with new light, not a reflection of secondhand light from the nursery room, but a true beacon of the life stirring within the candle-perfumed figure.
“Isabel,” said Leonora, “do you see me? Can you hear me?”
Leonora put her hands on the doll’s silk-clad shoulders and kissed its warm cheek. “Please, Isabel. I know some of my spirit has gone into you. I can feel it. We have to help Mama. The doctor’s coming today, but if Mama’s not better, we’ll go to the sick room in the morning and mesmer her.” Leonora stroked Isabel’s sunny hair. “Don’t tell Violet.”
The two conspirators slept well that night, after an afternoon and evening of gazing out the nursery window, counting the buttons in the button jar, and playing peekaboo. They lay in Leonora’s bed, face to face. Leonora’s breath warmed Isabel’s pert lips and was drawn deep within the waxwork doll’s being, so deep that, come morning, Leonora felt lightheaded.
“Come, Isabel. We’re going to see Mama. Take my hand. Let’s go before Violet comes.” Leonora laced her fingers through Isabel’s and tiptoed to the nursery door, leading the doll to the threshold. “But it’s all right if we see Miss Brown. She’s our friend.”
Isabel nodded her head.
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Copyright © 2016 by Cathrin Hagey