Rosalyn’s cheeks burned with shame. She was at the mercy of these three women for without their help she had no idea where to start looking or whose assistance to enlist. She didn’t want to do anything or be anything that would put her out of favour with them. At the same time, she felt peeved at being made to feel like she was the odd one and that she might be shocking or offensive. She, Rosalyn, who was always praised for her schoolwork and her goodness, never broke rules or was impolite! It was ridiculous, and nerve-wracking.
Setting the breakfast dishes to soak in the deep kitchen sink, Marcella explained that she would go in first while Rosalyn waited in the hall. Following Marcella up the stairs, she understood the whole odd house in an instant when she saw her tiny guide take the small set of steps on the right. The varying heights of the countertops and hooks on the walls, the different heights of steps. The door within a door at the front of the house. But wait a minute. The larger set of steps on the left must mean that they could also get taller. Did they stretch up and become thin as toothpicks or get proportionately larger all over? In either case, it was one thing to be slightly taller among short people, but quite another be the short one among giants. It felt kind of fun to be taller than the adults, in fact. Looking down on the Marcella’s severe part made her feel less intimidated, less child-like. Perhaps today she could persuade them of the urgency, that the longer they waited the less chance for success there might be. On the other hand, maybe they would think she was a freak and not listen at all.
Marcella knocked on the half-open door of the dining room, gesturing with the other hand for Rosalyn to stay behind her, out of sight.
“Come,” said Gaétane’s voice, cold and authoritative. Marcella slipped into the room and closed the door behind her.
Rosalyn strained to hear, but realized the housekeeper must be whispering, softening the blow with soft tones. She heard Nora’s voice, though she couldn’t make out the words, and a loud “Humph” from Gaétane. For an eternity, she stared at the lines of intricately patterned trim on the door. When the doorknob began to turn, she took a hasty step back. Marcella said, “You may go in now, my dear.”
Even though she knew on some level the two women would be as small as Marcella, she was not prepared for the sight of tall, fierce Gaétane reduced to no more than four feet and delicate Nora, looking like a large doll, her blue eyes larger than ever in her small face. On seeing Rosalyn, Nora’s hand flew to her heart and Gaétane’s eyebrows flew half-way up her forehead. They looked her up and down and then Gaétane said, “Nothing to be done today anyway, so we’ll just sit tight.”
At those words, Rosalyn’s resolve to insist they start the search evaporated. Even in miniature, Gaétane was intimidating. She looked from one woman to the next, feeling more and more worried, seeing her anxiety reflected back at her in their faces.
“So you’re saying we can’t start searching for my brother today?” she finally managed to say.
“I know it may seem to you like the worst bad luck, but there is little we can do when we’ve rapetissied. Our legs are too short to go the distance to town. It would take us four times as long, you see, and we simply haven’t the strength to carry back the necessities from the market.”
“Don’t worry, though, my dear,” Nora added. “Market day is tomorrow and the skies will clear over night. Lord Bonvent’s barometer is always accurate. We’ll be able to ask everyone from miles around if they’ve seen or heard anything. Frustrating though this delay must be,” she said gently,“we understand your worry for a lost brother, we truly do.” She looked at Gaétane who did not return her gaze but blinked and stared fixedly at the candelabra.
Rosalyn’s eyes stung and before she could blink them away, two fat warm tears ran down her cheeks. She tried to wipe them away as discreetly as possible, but Nora had noticed and rose from her seat.
“Perhaps you’d like to keep me company today. I’ve a lot of lace to finish for tomorrow and you can tell me all about your brother while I work.”
Rosalyn only nodded, not trusting her voice.
Nora led Rosalyn into the room to the left of the one she had gone into last night, a light-filled room at the rear corner of the house. “This house has seen better days,” apologized Nora, pointing out a patch of flaking paint with specks of black and green on the plaster beneath. “Every time it rains like this, I half expect the whole corner to crumble. We’ve tried to clean the mold, but it’s a much deeper problem than a good scrubbing can solve. But we’ve barely the means to put food on the table, much less start re-building the house. And it’s not like we could get tradesmen to come here anyway.”
Apart from the disrepair of the one corner, it was a cheerfully cluttered room with spools of thread, mostly white, spilling off a set of shelves, bolts of plain and patterened fabrics leaning agains the wall, a work counter in the centre of the room with scissors of various sizes and pins and needles and rulers arrayed on one end. Near the work table a dummy, the right half of which wore half a dress in an undyed fabric, was decorated with lace flounces at the sleeve hems, the sides of the waist and the neckline. In front of one of the large windows was a piece of wood with fine nails, or large pins, sticking out of it in a geometric pattern. This odd contraption half-obscured a window seat, covered with a jumble of cut pieces of fabric. “Here,” said Nora, scooping the jumble to one side. “Have a seat in the window.” Rosalyn sat down and watched her bustle around pulling spools of thread off the shelves and stacking lace squares and strips in layers of tissue paper. This task complete, Nora pulled a stool in front of the pin-covered wooden board and perched herself on its high seat, resting her feet on the second rung of cross-bars at the front.
“I do my best work on rainy days,” said Nora. “The bobbins are just the right size for my hands. On sunny days things feel too small and I make more mistakes.” Her child-sized hands began a series of complex movements so quick that for a few minutes Rosalyn could only stare in amazement as the threads hanging off the pins crossed and knotted, their wooden bobbins clacking gently against each other as Nora overlapped them and swung them from hand to hand.
“How do you do that?” she finally said in awe.
Nora smiled. “It does look dizzying at first, doesn’t it? When I first watched my grandmother at work, I thought she merely grabbed the bobbins, shuffled them a few times and magically the lace would appear. What I am doing is making a series of knots or braids around the pins. The bobbins weight the thread and as I finish one section I simply move the pins toward me to make new knots.”
“But there are so many bobbins, how do you keep track?” There were thirty or so small pins in lines and clusters covering the middle of the bolster.
“I simply read the pattern. That is, I keep an eye on what I have already done and simply repeat what comes next. The first few thumb-lengths of the pattern are the hardest, but now it is only a repetition. Good thing, too, as I must have an arm-length finished by tomorrow.”
“It’s market day in the Haven (that’s the port town), and I always bring the lace I’ve finished in the week to Madame Fuseau who gives me the best price. Then we buy a few provisions and come home. I think I shall get a handsome price for this piece. It’s the latest style: do you see the knights and the angels?”
Rosalyn squinted at the strip of lace curving along the blue velvet bolster. “Yes,” she said, reaching out to trace the horse’s head.
“Don’t touch, please,” said Nora. “Our fingers are very oily. Even I wear gloves when handling the laces and here my fingers only touch the pins and bobbins.”
“Sorry. I didn’t know.” Rosalyn felt embarrassed. What a fussy house. “It’s beautiful.”
“Thank you,” said Nora, in complete agreement. “This should get us all the fine flour and butter Marcella could desire.”
“This little piece?”
“It’s not so little—days of work! The nobility are more than willing to pay for anything unique and labour-intensive. I can’t tell you how busy I’ve been since the queen started dressing her sleeves with lace. Now some people are confectioning entire dresses out of lace. Happily for me, my skill is all the fashion. Even four years ago when all this happened, I relied much more on dressmaking than lace-making…” Her voice trailed off. “Just a minute, this section requires my full concentration.” The tiny blond head bent closer to the pin-encrusted bolster and her deft fingers pulled several bobbins from the right side, swapping them over and under several more bobbins, before she finally leaned back and continued at her former speed, the wooden bobbins rhythmically tapping and swinging.
“So what exactly did happen?” asked Rosalyn, hoping that finally someone would give her more than a few vague hints. “Gaétane’s brother disappeared and no one would help you find him?” A strangely familiar problem.
“Yes, Ben and I were to be married in a few days, and he said farewell to me in such an earnest way. I didn’t think anything of it at the time—a man in love, you know—but afterward I wondered if he knew something was about to happen. I was still living in The Haven when Gaétane sent word he hadn’t come home so I packed a small case and came to keep her company and help with the search.”
“She would have been your sister-in-law?”
“Yes, and it’s a good thing I came when I did. You see, two days later I received word that my house had completely burned to the ground in the night. I wouldn’t have made it out alive. All I had left were the clothes and the few sewing tools I had brought with me. It has taken a long time to restock my workshop, but I’ve managed pretty well, I guess.” She waved a hand at the cluttered room and chuckled. “I can laugh now, but at the time, we felt like we were under a curse. I made it very clear to Gaétane that I would contribute to the household and was not be considered a guest.” She sighed. “I would have been coming to live here anyway, which I sensed Gaétane may have resented, me taking her place after she had been lady of the house since her mother’s death. But I never imagined coming here under such sad circumstances. It would have been a joy with Ben here, so good-humoured, one of the few able to make his sister laugh. With him we would have retained our place in society, but now we find ourselves outcast. If Gaétane seems moody from time to time it’s because she is lonely and can’t admit it.”
“Aren’t you lonely? I mean, you were going to marry him.”
“Yes and no. I have my own private theory about Ben’s whereabours, though I couldn’t go find him or even tell you why I suspect what I do. Bits and pieces of things he used to tell me started to form a pattern in my mind as I ruminated over them. I’ve had four years to try to become a little more philosophical about our woes. I shed my tears, to be sure, as I grieved the loss of home and husband. But I’m so much busier than Gaétane, which helps. Not that she doesn’t work hard in the garden and fishing for us and catching things, but there’s a lot more waiting. I on the other hand , make progress toward finishing my laces every day. I can see what I’ve done. She often returns empty-handed. I think she must mind terribly that I contribute more to our survival than she does. She hates to be dependent on me. But that’s the Bonvent pride. They’re all like that, even Ben. They just can’t allow anyone to do anything for them.”
“No, that’s different. They are paid to do their tasks. I mean free favours and help are difficult to accept.”
“But why does no one want anything to do with you anymore?”
Nora’s face darkened. “Politics. Lies.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Ben suspected someone at Court was trying draw the king into a bad business venture that might ruin him and lead to his overthrow. He hinted to me he thought he could expose this plot. It was something involving the young prince. It will be the annual Renewal of the Search ceremony in two days, marking four years since the poor child disappeared.”
“Four years, as well?”
“Yes, I don’t mind telling you my suspicion, since you’ve nearly guessed it anyway, that Ben’s disappearance and the little prince’s may be connected.”
“But how did he disappear?”
“Just a minute. I’ve got to do the knight’s hair and face.” The bobbins clacked more slowly and Rosalyn took the chance to stare out the window. The clouds were still low and heavy, the rain coming steadily down. A small Gaétane was bent over in the garden, wearing a brown oil cloth cape, pulling weeds and tossing them in a basket beside her. Even the rain couldn’t keep her indoors.