"I wonder what this could be!"
The pupils all called out guesses. "Maybe a notice that you forgot to pay yer rent!" called Fred.
"No, part of my salary for being schoolmaster is the room where I live," the schoolmaster explained.
"Announcement of a traveling circus comin' around?" suggested Nell hopefully, for there had been one once, and she remembered all of it: the ringmaster in a bright red costume with gold buttons, a monkey wearing a hat, and a white dog that danced.
"Usually," the schoolmaster reminded them, fingering the rolled message, "a traveling circus is announced by jesters who come cartwheeling through the village the day before, selling tickets."
"Maybe it's an order to witness a whipping!" was Mick's hope, for he was interested in violence, always, so long as he was not on the receiving end. There had not been a public whipping in a long time, not since the day a very bad-tempered village woman had smashed all of her neighbor's best pots in a fit of anger after an argument about who made the best stew. It hadn't been much of a whipping, either, just a few taps to remind her to hold her temper in check.
The little orphan, Liz, scratched her mosquito bite, smeared now with lotion that the princess had provided. She leaned forward and tried to peer at the mysterious paper. Then she closed her eyes tight and held her breath, the ritual for making a wish. "Oh, I do hope a circus," she whispered. "I never once seen one."
"It's an invitation," the princess said under her breath. She watched while the schoolmaster unrolled the message.
The Birthday Ball
Birthday Banquet and Ball!
For the Princess Patricia Priscilla!
Saturday Night at the Castle
Food • gifts • Music • Suitors
The schoolmaster held it up so that the children could see, and they called out the words.
"What's a suitor, sir?"
The schoolmaster explained the concept of suitors, and they all wrinkled their noses.
"What's gifts?" asked Liz.
So he explained gifts. None of the pupils had ever received a gift. Their eyes grew wide. "Blimey," said Nell. "They gives you sumpthin'? And you don't got to work for it?"
"I expect it will be just a small gift," the princess said. "I mean, because we're poor miserable peasants and all. Perhaps just a small candy, or a toy?"
"A candy? A toy?" the children shouted.
"What's a toy?" asked little Liz.
"When's Saturday?" asked Ben, who could never remember such things.
"Day after tomorrow!" everyone cried out in delight. "Day after tomorrow!"
The princess lingered after school was dismissed for the day. She had begun to dread returning to the lonely castle, and so she volunteered to sweep the floor and arrange the books and papers in order. Tidying things, she glanced surreptitiously at the schoolmaster, who sat at his desk, correcting the spelling tests they had done that morning.
He looked up at her. "Will you be attending the Birthday Ball, Pat?" he asked.
She sighed. She knew that Saturday would mean the end of her schoolhouse life, the end of her days posing as a peasant.
"Yes, sir," she said. "And you, sir?" she asked. "Will you be going, and getting a gift? Blimey, I suppose you never got no gift before, sir." She made the observation slyly, knowing that the schoolmaster was really not a common peasant at all, because the chambermaid had told her of the high origins of Herr Gutmann. She wondered if he would confess to her now who he was.
But he did not. "No," he replied. "There have been no gifts in my life."
She teased him a bit. "Aw, sir, surely your ma gave you sumpthin'? A play horsie carved of wood?"
His look was sad. "My ma died when I was just a small boy," he told her.
"Oh, sir! A pity, that! Was she killed like my ma, by a—what was it, then? A wild dog?"
"You once said a boar, Pat, and that it was your pa who died."
"Oh! I did indeed, and it was that, a boar killed my pa. I forgot for a minute. A boar killed my pa, and my ma does laundry, and that's the truth."
"My mother died after giving birth to my sister," the schoolmaster said, "and my little sister is gone as well—my pa sent her away—so I have lost them both."
"Blimey, that was cruel of yer pa!"
"I no longer think of him as Pa. He disowned me when I went off to become a teacher. Too uppity, he said. Putting on airs, he called it."
"But, sir!" She caught herself. She had almost revealed that she knew of his noble origins. Something stopped her. He looked too sad.
"I'm finished here, sir. I'll be off now."
He nodded, looking down again at the spelling papers. She hoped that her careful misspellings looked real and that he—for one more day, until the ball, which she so dreaded—would continue to think her an uneducated girl, a humble peasant in need of his teaching.
Outside the schoolhouse, the princess called to her waiting pet. She had been feeding Delicious extra sardines so that the cat would not sadden the orphan by eating birds. Now she could see, as Delicious woke up and rolled over, in response to her call, that the additional rations were having an effect. The cat was developing quite a tummy.
"Your size is ambitious, Delicious," she said, but her mind was really elsewhere and the fun of her own wordplay was diminished. She walked slowly back to the castle, the cat at her heels, thinking about how the village world would be lost to her after the ball. Briefly, too, she thought with despair about the impending arrival of the suitors.
13. The Kitchen
The huge kitchen and its anterooms were alive with bustle and noise. There was no music now, except for the quiet sounds from a pantry corner where the three serving girls, exempted from their regular duties, were working on the song they'd been commanded to prepare for the ball. Today it was the clank of kettles and the clatter of plates, the thunk of knives, the roar of the cooking fires, and the hurried footsteps of the many servants, all of it orchestrated by the barked commands of the cook.
"You! Pulley Boy!" she shouted.
"Yes, Cook?" The boy looked in from the hallway where he always positioned himself near the pulley door. He was a tall boy with curly hair and bright blue eyes.
"Take a helper and go bring in the pigeons! There's two hundred of them waiting out by the back entrance, all of them with their necks fresh wrung."
"Necks wrung, Cook?" The pulley boy gulped. He liked birds, had even kept a few as pets back in the village, before he took this job.
"We can't eat 'em with their wings flappin', now can we?" she replied with a wide grin.
"Well, no, I guess not," the pulley boy acknowledged, though to himself he was wondering why anyone had to eat them at all. If he had his way, he would eat nothing but carrots and beans and bread. Maybe a fish now and then. He didn't like the thought of poor creatures becoming food. If any living thing had to have its neck wrung, he wished it were the princess's large yellow cat, which tended to hide behind draperies, then leap out and scratch the servants. Luckily the pulley boy rarely had call to go above-stairs. But he knew chambermaids with long scratches on their ankles from the claws of the cat.
"Delicious, you are so capricious," the princess had been heard to say fondly, picking up the cat after it had attacked a footman one day.
"Blimey, that critter's savage," one pudgy girl had complained, returning to the kitchen with blood on her stockings.
Too bad we can't roast and eat cats, the pulley boy thought as he looked around for someone to help him bring in the birds. All of the regular kitchen staff was hard at work, chopping and simmering and parboiling and plucking. Some were counting pink salmon that were contained in a huge tub of water. One young chopping lad, an apprentice still, was doing nothing but truffles, mincing them into a large pile. Another had been assigned to peel asparagus and stood behind a mountain of green spears hardly knowing where to begin. Others were polishing silverware from enormous deposits on a long table.
The pulley boy was about to call on his little brother, who was playing with a marble near the bell wall, when a tall, freckled girl wearing a shabby dress under her apron volunteered shyly.
"I could go with you," the girl said.
"Get them goats on the spit!" Cook bellowed to the staff. "They have to cook all day and through the night!" She turned back to the kitchen, and the elderly serving boy, who usually tended only pets, shuffled reluctantly over to help lift the large goats that would be roasted for the banquet.
The pulley boy looked at the freckled, eager girl. He recognized her as the seventeenth chambermaid, the one who tended the princess and who sometimes, in the kitchen, joined in the singing with a sweet, clear voice. Then he looked at his brother, who continued to roll his green marble back and forth on the floor. "I suppose he should stay in case a bell is pulled," he mused, "though that girl—the princess?—she's off for the day somewheres. She hasn't called for lunch all week. And I already sent the queen's lunch aloft, and the king is in his counting house, so I don't think—"
"Your brother had better stay," the chambermaid said, "in case the butler pulls a bell cord or sumpthin'."
"Right, then. Come along." He gestured, and the girl followed him through the hall, chattering happily as they went. "Creamed pigeons, she's making," she told him. "Can you believe it? For two hundred! And some of them villagers, not nobility! I lived in the village once, and I never heard of a creamed pigeon—"
"I remember you did." He pushed open the heavy door.
"Remember I did what? Heard of a creamed pigeon? I never!"
"No. I remember you lived in the village. With your pa. I remember he beat you. Everyone knew."
The chambermaid grew flustered. "Well, he said I was a useless great galoomph, and I suppose I was."
"But you went to school. I used to see you going to the schoolhouse and your pa yelling after you, and throwing things sometimes."
The chambermaid nodded. "I did. I wanted to learn to read, and the schoolmaster taught me. He was very strict and rapped your knuckles if you didn't pay attention, but he taught me my letters and how to read! And now I'm reading the best book, about a girl named Alice, who has adventures you wouldn't believe! Maybe you could borrow it when I'm done!"
"Look: here they are. We should load them in the barrow, I suppose." They had stopped at the large pile of dead pigeons. The boy picked one up and looked at its staring eyes. After a moment he dropped it into the wooden wheelbarrow standing nearby. Then he sighed and reached for more. "I can't read. Worked all my life since I was a tot. Never went to school," he said. "Here: grab some. You said you'd help. Don't just stand there."
"Poor pidgies—they look like sumpthin' you'd feed the cat. Maybe with cream sauce, though..." The chambermaid leaned over, filled her apron with limp birds, and walked to the wheelbarrow. "My name's Tess," she told him, spilling the birds into it. "I could teach you, Pulley Boy."
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