Fitze Fitcher was a thin, bright-eyed man who appeared to be in his forties. Although his features were attractive, he no longer had the flush of youth on his hollowed cheeks. He was still a fine sight, elegantly dressed in a fitted black suit, a brocade frock coat, ruffled silk shirt and scarlet cravat. His thick dark hair was swept up and away from his high forehead to reveal a widow’s peak. He kept his hair long as was the fashion in the lands he’d arrived from, and neatly tied into a plait behind his head. He waited eagerly on his front step. It was evening now. The sun had fully sunk behind the darkened trees, but the sky overhead was a blaze of orange and shimmering pink. From where he stood, the laneway disappeared into black shadows. He narrowed his eyes in that direction, trying to detect movement around where he knew the gate to be.
No one was coming yet. He returned indoors, careful not to trail even a speck of dirt onto the gleaming marble floor. Mr. Fitcher employed a butler and a cook in addition to the three brothers. Being a private man, he preferred a house where the upkeep was neglected on occasion in lieu of more staff hovering around. He’d been blessed; the men under him could do the work of forty when needed.
While his butler dusted dust-free ornaments and statues in the entryway, Fitcher resisted checking his appearance in the gilt-framed mirror one last time. He stepped outdoors again. The flower-scented breeze calmed his nerves. Now he could hear a far-off jingling somewhere deep in the woods. He stood erect and assumed the air of an aristocrat. Well-born, he was not. However a benefactor had taught him all the manners and ways he needed in order to mimic the nobler classes. His good health and groomed appearance turned out to be ample enough manifestations of good breeding to suit his purposes.
The sun sank lower behind the hills. The sky turned ablaze. Crimson and incarnadine streaked across greying clouds, the woods below nearly midnight black. He could hear a faint clattering, the sounds of hooves beating up the lane. Fitcher spotted the pale faces of Gunther and Lars Floating like ghosts towards him. The butler lit the lamp next to the entrance, casting the drive in a pale yellow light.
Fitcher’s heart fluttered in his chest at the sight of the approaching carriage. At last, Wilhelm was returning from the inn with his charge. Fitcher leaned closer to his Butler, who had joined his side. In a low voice Fitcher reminded him, “Hilde is her name. A peasant girl, but one of exceptional beauty. She may be tired, as she had a long journey behind her. However she assured me she sleeps as soundly as the dead. She will need little in the way of creature comforts.”
The carriage clattered to a halt in front of the house. The driver smirked at Fitcher as he pulled up the reins. He hopped down onto the gravel and hitched the horse to a post. Only Wilhelm was privy to some of Fitcher’s more delicate affairs, such as courting young ladies from far-off lands with promises he had no intention of keeping. The young man excelled at assuring certain matters remained within the stone walls of the Fitcher residence. As for the fate of the girls once Fitcher grew tired of them, Wilhelm knew not and preferred not knowing.
Lars and Gunther opened the carriage door, and bowed. Hilde, a doe-eyed girl of sixteen and dressed in a clean but very plain brown dress, emerged from the cab. She looked skittishly around the gloaming yard. She was indeed a young woman of exceptional beauty, with wide set eyes of blue the shade of a summer sky. Locks of bronze tumbled down around her shoulders, glinting in the torchlight. Her face was delicate and heart-shaped, with a flush to her cheeks.
Lars gaped at her in a rapture as though she were an angel who’d just descended from the heavens. Gunther swatted the side of his head. While Lars remained dumbstruck, Gunther took Hilde’s hand and helped her down onto the flagstone path. He escorted her up the steps to where Fitcher and the butler were standing, as though she were a small, frightened child being delivered back to its parents after being lost at the fair.
“Come in, my darling.” Fitcher smiled disarmingly. He held his hand out to her. He beckoned patiently for her to take it and at last, she did. “I feel as though I’ve been waiting forever for you to arrive, like a child awaiting Christmas morn already knowing what beautiful gifts have been brought.”
She smiled for the first time. A dimple pressed into her cheek. She clasped Fitcher’s hand and followed him inside with the nescience of a lamb being shepherded into the slaughterhouse.
Hilde staggered into the entryway and gaped up at the chandelier hanging high overhead. Having never seen such a sight in her life, she stood, dazzled, until her neck grew sore. Her eyes followed the grand staircase that swept down around the foyer. Giant tapestries and paintings hung on the surrounding walls. In the various alcoves, suits of armor stood glimmering under the brilliant lights. The halls leading off were wide and carpeted. She’d never witnessed such magnificence in her brief, hard-scrabble life. Filled with sudden shame, she looked down at her shabby frock. She bunched the rough brown skirts in her hands and bit on her bottom lip. She no more belonged here than a feral cat.
Fitcher slipped his arm around her waist. He tenderly kissed her forehead. “Don’t be nervous, my darling. Thorsten, my butler, will take you to your new room and find you something to wear. Anything you wish for, ask for it and it shall be yours.”
He watched the Butler lead her up the staircase. She gripped the finely carved wood banister as though fearful of tumbling back down at the first bad step. She’d seldom mounted a set of stairs in her life. All the way up to the second floor, she needed to be coaxed along. She was equally unsteady as she tiptoed along the corridor. The carpet was so soft beneath her feet and she was afraid of soiling it.
The Butler stopped at the threshold of Hilde’s new bedroom. He held the door open for her. Her eyes widened with delight and she gingerly took one step inside. The room was everything beautiful and luxurious, something the butler was long accustomed to. But for a peasant girl who’d grown up in a one-room shack, this was beyond the outer edges of her imagination. Even the shiny damask papering the walls above the wainscoting dazzled her eyes. To her right, the soft canopied bed was fit for a princess. The Butler wondered if she’d dare sleep on it. He suspected he’d find her curled up in a corner when he came to fetch her in the morning, the covers and pillows on the mattress undisturbed.
She ventured further in, to a room that was thrice the size of the house she had left days earlier. It could take her hours to examine the tapestries and paintings on the walls, and all the finely crafted furnishings. Meanwhile dinner and Mr. Fitcher awaited downstairs. Bemused, the butler watched her explore like an adventurer who’d found herself entering an enchanted realm. The girl was bolder than she had first appeared. She bolted across the plush carpet and up to one of two large windows. She pulled apart the heavy velvet drapes with the force of a maid tearing off used bed sheets. Although there wouldn’t be much to see outdoors at this late hour, she peered out all the same.
The Butler cleared his throat to get her attention. She turned, displaying no outer signs of sudden fright. He strode up to a large wooden wardrobe. He opened each of its doors. Inside were an assortment of beautiful dresses in a motley of colors and fabrics.
She came over to him and gasped. She stood frozen before the confusion of tints and hues, as though afraid to touch anything, as though unable to distinguish where one gown ended and another one began. Everything shimmered and shone like the contents of a treasure chest. The Butler selected a dress of hydrangea-blue silk. He held it up to Hilde’s chest. “The perfect color. Matches your eyes. If it doesn’t fit, there is another that shall.”
She hung her head as he draped it down her front. It was a simple shift dress, billowy, and meant for daily wear. She prodded the fabric with her finger. Soft as the fur of a small animal. The closest to this that she’d ever before possessed was a strand of pink ribbon. She kept it in an earthenware jar back home and would only bring it out when her hands were freshly washed. “It’s so beautiful.”
“Don’t be afraid to put in on. Unfortunately Mr. Fitcher has yet to acquire a maid for you, so I chose one that should be easy enough to slip over your head.”
“I’ll try,” she said, not making any further move to touch it.
“Here.” Losing patience, but trying his best not to reveal his inner distress through either facial expression or gesture, the butler bunched the hem of the dress with the neckline. He held the ring of fabric and eased it down over her head, leaving it to drape around her shoulders like a shawl. “Leave that to hang while you remove your dress from underneath, and then slip your arms into the sleeves as you would your own frock.”
Before he’d had a chance to turn around, she was stripping off her brown cotton dress. She wore no underthings. Shielding his eyes from her artless immodesty, he said, “Dinner will be served in the dining room shortly. Come down whenever you are ready.”
The Butler left, firmly closing the bedroom door behind him.
Half-dressed, Hilde went to a large walnut vanity next to the wardrobe. She pulled her new dress on as she pushed her older dress off like a snake shedding its skin, and with far less difficultly than the butler had presumed. Now she wore the simple though lovely dress as it was meant to be worn. The sleeves were short, with ruching that helped them cling to her arms. The ankle-length skirt billowed out from an empire waistline that made her look as though she were with child. That, she didn’t care for. Although the dress did make her eyes look so very blue.
She stared uneasily into her reflection in the mirror above the vanity, scarcely recognizing herself. A bell rang somewhere below. The dinner bell. For now her growling tummy overpowered her desire to acquaint herself with this finely-dressed stranger who had the same bronze locks as she.
* * *
Fitcher sat at one end of the long table in his dining hall. The place to his right was set for Hilde. The room was large and elegant, with sheer drapes covering tall, narrow windows. Moonlight seeped in between a crack. The chandelier overhead remained unlit. The butler set down a single candelabra between them, alight with five white candles. The rest of the room was in shadows. Fitcher hoped the darkness would make the room appear smaller, affording a sense of intimacy similar to curtains drawn around them.
He grinned broadly as he watched Hilde shuffle in from the corridor. She wore a delightful blue dress the shade of morning glories. She’d also found ribbon of a darker blue for her hair, which she’d pinned up and away from her face in long, bronze curls. Although some powders sat on the vanity in the bedroom, she hadn’t touched them. Nor did she need them; her cheeks were naturally rosy, her lips the color of apple blossoms. Make-up would have given her the painted aspect of a whore. She was far too lovely for that.
“I am so happy you came to join me. You are exquisite.” Fitcher rose to his feet to greet her.
Hilde blushed as he helped her into her chair. He watched her take in the room with such young and innocent eyes. The heavy wooden dining table before them was covered in a white tablecloth with a soft tight weave that now struck him as excessively fine. The silverware glinted under the candlelight, showering sparks on the ornate handles. Thorsten should have laid out a plainer setting. Her eyes landed on the cutlery in front of her. She gazed contemplatively at the various utensils for quite some time, as one would watch flames dancing in a fireplace.
The scents of beef and roast chicken filled the air. The butler had just entered. He set down various serving platters. All this for just the two of them. For a moment Fitcher was keenly aware of his embarrassment of riches. “The food smells so good,” Hilde gushed. “And it’s so beautiful here!”
“Only because of you, my darling. You are a second sun lighting up this depressing old place.” Fitcher lifted the lid off one of the serving platters to reveal an entire chicken, its skin crackled and golden, sitting atop a bed of carrots and potatoes. This alone was more food than she’d likely ever before seen in one sitting. He began serving her plate himself. “Tomorrow I will show you around. You must be exhausted from your journey.”
Hilde stared in awe at the spread of food on the table for just the two of them. She barely took notice of him uncorking a bottle of wine and filling a goblets for each of them. “Thank you,” she said in a daze, as though she were not really here, or thinking she was really sound asleep in her cot back at home and all this, an elaborate dream. Even as she savored the tender roast meat, she worried her dream would soon end and she would awake cold and hungry.