by Robin Gordon
Part I: Dr Pimple and the Sleeping Beauty
Chapter 1: The Royal Ball
© Copyright Robin Gordon, 1996/2004
"Now look here, Pimple," said the King, "you're a clever fellow, what's to be done, eh? That's what I'd like to know. What's to be done?"
"Well, perhaps if Your Majesty were to tell me about the problem," murmured Dr Pimple, placing his little brown bag carefully on the sofa.
Arthur, by the Grace of God, King of New Zephyria, Lord of the Islands, Keeper of the Southern Seas, Protector of the People of the Sea, Friend of the Unicorn and Grand Commander of the Knights of Zephyrus, waved him to sit down. "It's Bertie," he said.
"Dear, dear," said the doctor sympathetically. "Not pains in the bread-basket again?"
"Nothin' so simple," replied the King. "No, the trouble is, that he's just mopin' about all over the place, no good to man nor beast. He's bored, and he doesn't know what to do about it. Mopes round all day then goes out at night gettin' up to all kinds of mischief with those friends of his."
"I can't imagine what he sees in them," Queen Elizabeth said. "Some, I suppose come of good families, but their behaviour is most undignified."
"Puerile horseplay!" roared the King. "If Bertie wasn't a prince he'd have been thrown in clink. Stealin' garden gnomes, swoppin' gates, playin' silly jokes, fightin' and throwin' other young chaps in fountains - bored, bored, bored out of his minuscule mind. What he needs is a wife, but we've invited princesses from all over the world and he doesn't like any of them."
"What about girls who aren't princesses?" Dr Pimple asked.
"We've had 'em all to stay at the Palace," said the King. "Dukes' daughters, earls' daughters, viscounts' daughters, the lot, even baronets' daughters."
"What about ordinary girls?" asked the doctor.
"Ordinary gels?" said the King. "Don't quite follow you."
"Are you suggesting, Dr Pimple," said the Queen with icy dignity, that the Prince should marry a commoner?"
"Well," said the doctor, "it has been done before you know."
"Not in my family," said the Queen.
"I've never heard of such a thing," muttered King Arthur, "but I suppose it might work. What do we do? Advertise in the papers? Wanted: wife for Prince Egbert. Applicants should be aged between seventeen and ... what shall we say ... twenty nine ..."
"... and of good family," interjected the Queen.
"... able to speak Mistralian, play the piano, etc., etc." continued King Arthur. "All applications to be sent to the King and Queen at the Palace by ... um, let's see ... by the end of the month."
"Then I suppose we interview them," said the Queen.
"Ah! Ahem, er-herumph. How many d'you think there'd be, Liz?" asked the King, scenting a snag.
"Hundreds, I suppose."
"Hundreds?!" said the King.
"Or thousands," said the Queen.
"Are there that many ordinary people?"
"Oh yes, so I've been told."
"Good gracious," grumbled King Arthur. "But I've got m' roses to see to, and lot's of huntin', shootin' and fishin' to do, and the Prime Minister's always botherin' me about affairs of state and presentin' things for m' signature. Then there's m' stamp collection to sort out, and when am I ever goin' to find time to read m' library books? Oh no, that won't do at all."
"I think," said Dr Pimple, "the traditional way is to hold a grand ball. Then all the prettiest girls will put on their best clothes and come to the palace. After that you just leave it to Prince Egbert. If the right girl's there he'll be sure to find her."
"Do you think so?" said the King.
"Think of the expense," objected the Queen.
"Hang the expense!" cried the King. "You're beginnin' to sound like the Prime Minister, Old Girl. No, if we can find a wife for Bertie I don't care what it costs. Well done, Pimple. I knew I could rely on you to find the solution."
* * * * *
The Prime Minister complained, of course; so did the Chancellor, the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl Marshal, the Comptroller of the Royal Household, and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The Foreign Secretary was sure that the Kings and Queens of every friendly monarchy under the sun would be offended if the Prince chose a commoner in preference to one of their daughters, and the whole Government came up with one objection after another. They had to see reason eventually: Prince Egbert needed a wife - and a child to be King or Queen after him. - Besides, as the Lord Chief Justice quietly pointed out, a matter like that could be settled by Royal Decree and was quite beyond the competence of Parliament.
"Is it, b' Jove?" said the King. "Then by Royal Decree I hereby proclaim a Grand Ball, to be held in the ballroom at the Palace on Midsummer Eve - and all the girls in the Kingdom are invited."
So it was decided. The proclamation was read in the main square of every town in the Kingdom, and copies were stuck up on all the public notice-boards. It was read out in all the churches for the next three Sundays, published in all the newspapers, and broadcast and discussed on radio and television. Everybody got to hear about it.
Prince Egbert, finding himself the centre of attention, with everyone speculating about his future and how he would settle down to married life, kept to his room all day and refused to give interviews. At night he slipped out of the palace by the secret passage that led to an old smuggling inn, met his cronies, and worked off his frustration in an orgy of pranks. They changed the times on the public clocks. They changed the signs on the one-way streets. They filled the main square with hundreds of kidnapped gnomes. They clothed statues in oddly unsuitable garments and they put dustbins, bicycles, small cars and grand pianos in impossible positions on roofs and ledges.
The newspapers loved it.
* * * * *
A little way outside the capital city, on the edge of the village of Nether Touchstone, stood a grand house of the most splendid appearance. Handsome gates, which stood open all day and all night as if in perpetual welcome, admitted visitors to a long, curving, gravelled drive, which was always neatly raked. This was flanked by evergreen shrubs which concealed from view the private gardens. But behind the shrubs, within the solid walls that surrounded the grounds, where there should have been spacious lawns, beautiful borders, formal rose beds with pergolas, arbours and fountains, there was nothing but a jungle of tangled briars and brambles. Ground elder, couch grass, nettles and weeds of all kinds had taken over the gardens and grew in unchecked riot.
The whole place was in disorder and disarray. Even the grand gates stood open day and night only because their hinges had rusted away and they could not be closed. One gate had sagged away from its post and would have fallen but for the branches of an overhanging tree, which had caught it and now held it more or less upright.
The house itself, though splendidly proportioned had lost almost all the fine furniture that once graced its elegant reception rooms. It had all been sold to provide the owners with money, and with scope to exercise their own talents for redecoration. As the years passed they adopted styles and colour-schemes that had been declared fashionable by the trendiest of designers, and, with their exceptional sense of colour and form, they blended them to create a total experience which all true connoisseurs of beauty would have unanimously declared to be uniquely horrible.
It was, however, entirely in keeping with the owners themselves. They were two unmarried sisters. The elder called herself a fine-looking woman. What she was, in fact, was fat. The younger saw herself as elegantly slim and palely interesting. She was a long, skinny streak of misery with a bilious yellow face.
They did no work themselves, and they had no servants. They were so hideously ill-tempered that none would stay, even if they had not been too mean to pay proper wages. They lived all alone except for one other person. It was she who did all the cooking, washing and cleaning, and raked the gravel every time anyone walked or drove on it. She also undertook the painting and papering every time the sisters decided to redecorate one of their rooms, and in her spare time she grew vegetables for their meals in the one little patch of garden that had not been engulfed by weeds.
She only stayed because she had always lived in the house and had never known any other home. It had once belonged to her father, but he had died shortly after his second marriage. A happy release, some people said. His widow inherited the house, and when she too shuffled off her mortal coil as a result of over-indulgence in baked sweetmeats, her daughters inherited their step-father's property. They treated his only daughter as a slave, forced her to sleep in the scullery-maid's room behind the kitchen, and mocked her unhappiness by calling her Cinderella.
* * * * *
"No!" said Bulkomia. "You certainly can't go to the ball. It is for young ladies, not for skivvies."
"The very idea," moaned Araxia. "I suppose she thinks she's going to marry the Prince."
Bulkomia laughed till her fat sides shook like mountains in an earthquake, and even Araxia managed a crooked smile at her own joke.
"But it says every unmarried girl," sniffed Cinderella.
"Don't sniff!" snarled Bulkomia, giving her a cuff about the ears which sent her sprawling against Araxia. The thin sister pinched her arm.
"Do you suppose," continued Bulkomia, "that we can afford to spend money on buying finery for a kitchen maid?"
"We shall need new outfits ourselves," said Araxia. "Ball-gowns aren't cheap."
"Get back to work, Cinderella," cried Bulkomia, and drove her back to the kitchen.
* * * * *
All that day and most of the night Araxia and Bulkomia were occupied in going through their clothes. But, of Araxia's two hundred and thirty dresses, ninety-five trouser suits, and forty seven assorted outfits that were neither one thing nor the other, not a single one satisfied her. Bulkomia's wardrobe was equally extensive, but, though each and every item had been chosen to reflect the unparalleled fashion-sense of its owner and to show off her fine-looking figure to advantage, not one would do for the Royal Ball.
Next day a taxi was summoned - the telephone was one of the essential services they did not deny themselves - and the sisters were swept away on a whirlwind tour of the finest and most skilful fashion designers and dressmakers of the capital. Everyone wanted new clothes for the ball, so naturally the shops had almost all sold out, even at double or triple their usual prices, but Bulkomia and Araxia did not even glance at their depleted stocks. Rarely did they ever find anything to suit their uncommon figures and tastes among the ready-made clothes designed for the mass-market. The dress makers were all extremely busy, but, by offering five times the normal fee, they were able to persuade one of the top fashion houses to provide them with new outfits. Being ladies of such unusually distinguished taste they contributed many of their own ideas to the design - and, when they tried on the finished articles a few days later they knew that there was not the slightest doubt that they would stand out from the crowd.
* * * * *
The two sisters would have liked to have had a limousine each on the night of the ball, but, even if they had sold all the remaining fine furniture in their house, it would have been impossible. All the cars were booked. As it was they had to pay quintuple fare to get a quite ordinary little cab to come out of town for them - and they had to share with a young person who was not at all the kind of young person they would have wished to associate with - and the taxi-driver grumbled so much about the distance that they had to promise to pay him twice as much to take them home again.
Even so, it was worth it. Their entry caused a sensation. They saw the King and Queen staring at them in a way that would have been extremely rude in any ordinary, common person, but since the starers were the King and Queen they felt quite flattered. It was perhaps a little disappointing that Prince Egbert did not come straight over to ask one of them to dance, but, as Bulkomia pointed out, when one is eating a birthday cake, one always saves the icing to the end.
Araxia, whose acquaintance with cakes was less happy than Bulkomia's, did not quite understand, but she offered as her own explanation that the simultaneous appearance of two such charming beauties must have presented the Prince with a dilemma: which should he approach first? It was quite clear that he would have to take refuge in dancing with some of the ordinary girls to recover his scattered senses. The fact that Prince Egbert cast frequent glances in their direction, and seemed considerably cheered each time he did so, seemed to confirm the opinions of both ladies. They each determined to refuse all invitations to dance so as to be free for the Prince as soon as he collected his scattered wits enough to be ready for the sweetest of the sweet.
One disadvantage of a ball to which all the girls but not all the boys had been invited was that there were far too many ladies and not enough men. Elderly courtiers and young noblemen were constantly on the dance floor with their chosen partners while the remaining ladies waited patiently for their own turn to come. Among them Araxia and Bulkomia waited for their Prince. Luckily the courtiers, with their well-bred sense of what is fitting and proper, realised exactly what the situation was and left the two outstanding beauties entirely undisturbed and fully at the disposal of the Heir to the Throne of New Zephyria. Even so the sisters could not but be aware of the admiring looks they received, and of the way their own winks and simpering smiles gladdened the hearts of all their distant admirers.
"All the other ladies will be tremendously jealous," whispered Araxia.
"Not at all," replied Bulkomia, fluttering her eyelids at a passing duke - not her eyelashes, for she had very few, and those she did have were short and so pale as to be almost invisible from a distance - "Not at all. We are such very peculiar phenomena of extraordinary beauty that all who see us, whether men or women, are instantly cheered and feel their hearts rising within them."
"Sister, you are right," Araxia gloated in feeble delight, for the ladies of the court were glancing at the two of them every bit as happily as the gentlemen, and even the ordinary, insipid, rather commonplace girls waiting to meet the Prince seemed uplifted rather than downcast by their appearance.
* * * * *
Back in the darkened kitchen of the sisters' splendid home, Cinderella knelt on the floor - there were no chairs in the kitchen, that would have been an expense Bulkomia and Araxia would never have tolerated - and wept over her fate. She had thought that if she had gone to the ball, even if the Prince had never noticed her, there might have been someone, someone to love her and care for her, someone to marry her and take her away from her life of misery and drudgery.
"Ah," she sighed, "if only this were a fairy tale my fairy godmother would appear before me and say You shall go to the ball, and my ragged clothes would turn into a sparkling ball-gown, and I would drive off in a pumpkin coach ... but what's the use of dreaming? I'd better get up and rake the tyre marks off the gravel before my sisters come home."
Just then she heard a car turn in at the magnificent gates and scrunch across the gravel.
"Oh no!" she cried. "They can't be back already! They can't even have reached the Palace yet."
She heard someone walking steadily along the path that led to the kitchen door. Then came a knock.
"Come in!" she cried, thinking "Can this be my fairy godmother?", though the only godmother she had ever met was a rather stout lady who kept Skironian lapdogs and lived very comfortably, and in a most unfairylike style, in one of the best streets in town - and Cinderella hadn't seen her since her father had died.
"Ah, there you are," said her visitor, who did not look in the least fairy-like either.
It was Dr Pimple.
"Been crying, I suppose," he said, looking at her tear-stained face. "Not going to the ball?"
"Oh, Dr Pimple, whatever shall I do?" wailed Cinderella, the tears flowing freely down her cheeks.
"Well, the best thing to do," said he, "is to give your old phizzog a good wash, then tell me all about it."
When he had heard her story he tutted sympathetically and told her he hoped her stepsisters would be taught a lesson, but although she suddenly felt sure that he would help her to get to the ball, all he said was:
"What you need is what we call a sedative. It'll calm you down. Now luckily I happen to have the very thing in my bag. Perhaps you could fetch a glass of water?"
She brought a cup and he mixed into the water a couple of drops from a small greeny-brown bottle. She drank it, and before she knew what was happening she felt so tired that she had to sit down on the floor. The next moment she was fast asleep.
"The poor child is tired out," murmured Dr Pimple. "She couldn't have gone to the ball even if her stepsisters had permitted it. Now where ...?"
He wandered through into the hall, opened a couple of doors, peered into the rooms, then returned to the kitchen, picked up the sleeping girl, and carried her through into a sitting room. There he laid her comfortably on a couch and covered her with a hideous purple and yellow table-cloth.
"Colours don't go with the pink and magenta couch at all," he murmured, "but she won't notice as long as her eyes are closed. I expect the poor little thing is used to it by now anyway."
Then he gently closed the door, which Araxia had had decorated in python and flame, though to him it looked like a muddy green and a ghastly orange. He collected his bag from the kitchen and drove off, thanking his stars that neither he nor anyone in his family had been born with the aesthetic flair of Cinderella's stepsisters.
* * * * *
When the two ladies returned they were in foul tempers. Bulkomia's rage was violent and thunderous, Araxia's was splenetic and bilious. They paid the taxi driver with ill grace and only because he threatened to call the police. As he left, they screamed abuse at him in a most unladylike manner. Then they stalked indoors vowing that Cinderella should pay for their disappointment.
The Prince had not danced with them at all. It is true that after surveying them from a distance he had winked at one of them over his dancing partner's shoulder, and a spasm of pure joy had spread over his handsome face as they had replied with a flurry of smiles, winks and twitches.
The two sisters had almost come to blows over that wink, each claiming that it was directed at her alone, but they remembered their dignity in time and did not deign to lower themselves to brawling before the ladies and gentlemen of the court, whose attention seemed even more rapt than before - the effect, doubtless, of Bulkomia's heightened colour and the intriguing greenish tinge that Araxia's yellow complexion invariably assumed in moments of stress. Controlling themselves - with difficulty - they agreed the Prince had probably not yet made his choice, and that his longing wink had been intended equally for both.
They were quite right. Prince Egbert did intend his wink for both, and he repeated it - several times in fact - and the glee on his face increased each time they replied, competing with each other in frenzied winks, nods, smiles, simpers and eyelid flutterings. In the matter of eyelashes Araxia had a slight advantage. While Bulkomia's were short and fair, Araxia's lashes, though rather sparse and uneven, were long and dark - at least, those around her right eye were. The left was fringed with greyish ginger.
Still the prince did not come any nearer, although they saw him looking at them and whispering to his friends. Soon some of these gentlemen began to wink at them too. Araxia fluttered her eyelashes at them half-heartedly, not knowing quite what to do - but Bulkomia assumed a haughty expression and turned away. "These fellows," she seemed to say, "are beneath my notice. How dare they presume to wink at the Prince's bride?" Seeing this, Araxia too began to look contemptuous and to sneer at the winking gentlemen. Then a peculiar pantomime began. First the Prince would wink, then a courtier, then the prince, then another courtier, so that Araxia and Bulkomia were forever changing from simpering, smiling, winking and nodding to anger, coldness and sneers - and once Bulkomia even stuck out her tongue.
She realised her mistake at once. There was a burst of laughter all around the room, and that was when it dawned on the sisters that Prince Egbert was making a game of them. He had no intention of marrying either of them - he was simply holding them up to the mockery of his friends.
It might then have gone ill for the Royal House of New Zephyria, for Bulkomia, fine figure of a woman that she was, determined to crush the instigator of her humiliation and to trample his broken body beneath her feet. She was certainly strong enough to have crushed the Prince, and furious enough to have tried, royalty or no royalty, but at that moment the pace of life proved to much for Araxia's insides. Illness came upon her and she vomited - all over her sister's skirts.
With a scream of rage, louder than that of the fabled oliphaunt, Bulkomia turned her wrath on the miserable defiler of her garments, and Araxia fled, pursued by the lumbering bulk of her sister. The cheers, jeers and laughter of the whole court pursued them as they left the Palace.
"At last we've got rid of those two frights," grumbled King Arthur, "now perhaps Bertie will remember the purpose of this ball and set to to look for a wife."
But Prince Egbert and his cronies had had such a splendid time making fun of the two sisters that they had quite forgotten the other girls. They slipped out of the Palace and drove off into the night. They found the streets full of disgruntled youths mooching about in boredom without their girlfriends. It was easy for practised pranksters like the Prince and his friends to provoke them into chases, confuse them, separate them and ambush them. Defeated youths slunk home, and the next day, to the delight of the popular press, the pinnacles of Parliament were festooned with stolen trousers.
* * * * *
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