Miss Frost was an eminently practical woman. She had never been much given to flights of fancy, nor to the wild surmises of imagination. But when Mildred first showed the object to her, she could not suppress the smallest of shivers that seemed to run up her arms and down her spine.
Mildred tutted at her mildly. “I see you sense it too.”
Neither was Miss Frost given to prevarication. “There does seem to be something… unusual about the object, certainly.”
Picking a neatly-folded serviette up off the club’s table, she dragged the object closer to her. It was made of metal, rounded like a candy dish, but too small to hold more than a few peppermints, perhaps. Jewelry holder? A series of engraved rings encircled the bowl’s insides, but otherwise it was empty of decoration.
It almost seemed to vibrate under her hand as she ran a cautious, cloth-covered finger along the edge.
“Well, an investigation must be made.” She took out her ivory wand, and with no further ado began to run through the standard series of diagnostics to uncover curses.
After a half-hour’s work, she conceded that if the object were cursed—or had any enchantment laid upon it whatsoever—it was none she could discover. It was a perfectly ordinary bronze bowl. That vibrated to the touch and each of whose owners had died under mysterious circumstances.
Cursed, certainly. But how? Miss Frost wasn’t sure.
Mildred wasn’t entirely happy with the idea, but she eventually acceded to Miss Frost’s wishes and left the bowl for now in her eminently capable hands.
“And for goodness’ sake, don’t run off and get into any trouble,” she admonished her friend. Mildred had always had a tendency to act first and think later; that affair with the self-answering grammar book at school would pop into one’s mind from time to time…
Later that evening, Miss Frost, having left the warm embrace of her club, made her way back to the simple rooms she shared with her elderly mother. She picked up a bit of supper on the way, a meat pie and some mashed swede, as well as some cream for the cat.
“Hello?” she called out, after drawing the appropriate sigil on the lock. “I’m home, Mama.”
Leaving her shawl and hat on the stand, she proceeded on to the kitchen, knowing her mother would consider it beneath her dignity to shout back. As she’d expected, her mother was sitting at the table with a cup of tea. “I’m home,” she repeated.
“And not beforetimes, either,” muttered her mother darkly, but Cordelia paid her little attention, bustling about instead to drop off her things. She set the pie and swede on the table, then poured the cream into the cat’s saucer on the floor. As usual, the graceful feline appeared as though summoned by some otherworldly force—and if that wasn’t proof enough that animals could possess as much metaphysics as some so-called practitioners, Cordelia wasn’t sure what would.
“Bastet’s looking well,” she observed, noting the cat’s intense absorption in her task as she lapped up her treat. Her mother merely harumphed, but she eyed the paper-wrapped object Cordelia still had.
“What’s that then?”
“Oh, this? Something Mildred Carlton asked me to take a look at. A cursed bowl.”
Her mother’s expression was clear enough on what she thought of that. Oh, her mother liked household enchantments well enough and was happy to have the latest automata take the place of domestic work, but Cordelia knew she would’ve been better pleased if her daughter had pursued nothing more esoteric than beauty charms.
Cordelia herself, however, had aspirations much greater than shiny hair or non-wrinkling skirts, and although the money left to her upon her father’s early death had not been much, it had been sufficient to see them settled in this small flat in a none-too-fashionable district of the city and to allow her to pursue studies at the London School of Metaphysics for Women. And while her mother did not approve of her job as a clerk (“typewriter girl,” as some called it; but Cordelia knew better) for metaphysician Mr Ned Mathey, she certainly appreciated the greater comforts that Cordelia’s salary could bring them.
As for Cordelia herself, she had not yet dared to articulate to her mother her greater dream of setting up her own practice, but doing small things, favors for lady friends or club acquaintances, might be just the way to get started. The law currently forbade her from hanging out a shingle—d***ed unfair, if you asked her, given that her studies were every bit as thorough as some of those plodders’ up at Commons—but everyone knew that the law also tended to look the other way when a female used a bit of metaphysical knowledge to treat ladies’ problems—and after all, wasn’t Mildred a lady, and therefore her cursed bowl a lady’s complaint?
She already was forming a few ideas about the nature of the enchantments upon the bowl—if it could not be revealed under the standard tests, than either the curse itself was non-standard or the tests needed to be (or both).
The pie and swede were very, very good.
Miss Frost brought the bowl with her when she went to their office the next day. She didn’t intend to ask Mr Mathey’s help unless she had exhausted all other alternatives (and Miss Frost did, in fact, know a lot of other alternatives). After sorting through the correspondence that had arrived by the first post—three bills and one, rather overdue and thus quite welcome payment, as well as the latest copy of The Metaphysician—she organized Mr Mathey’s appointments for the day and began replies to some inquiries from the previous day. His great success in solving the Nevett murder some months previous had had a marked effect on their business; some old clients dropping him in favor of a less “notorious” practitioner, some new ones who simply wanted to retain the unmasker of murderers and had little paying work for him to do. A wash, really, in Miss Frost’s opinion, but she had never fooled herself into thinking a staid or old-fashioned man would have hired her in the first place.
Having dealt with the business and readied for the day, she examined the bowl again while waiting for her employer’s arrival. (Mr Mathey had taken to arriving later and later since finding new, shared lodgings with Mr Lynes. Miss Frost couldn’t help but approve of their increased happiness, if not the lack of punctuality itself.)
It still projected a vaguely menacing, sinister aura of some sort. She had thought to try a series of tests based on the idea that the bowl might be eastern in origin, and, not yet seeing any sign of Mr Mathey, got out her wand and prepared the first square.
By the time Mr Mathey arrived, the second post had, as well, and nothing in her trials had yet yielded a positive result—it was as though there was no enchantment at all, in any grammar she was familiar with, despite the obvious aura of the object that practically boasted of its metaphysical nature. She had set her puzzle aside when one of the boys hanging about the Commons had spotted her employer alighting from the omnibus and rushed to tell her of his imminent arrival (she’d made sure some months back that the boys all knew there was a penny in it for them any day they should be so observant, and now she was always ready with Mr Mathey’s tea as soon as he appeared at the threshold; much magic could be ascribed to simple preparedness, she’d always found).
It was some days before she could pick the bowl up again. If not metaphysics in a foreign grammar, then what? What could be keeping her from being able to reveal the enchantment?
She ran the standard tests again, and then a third time, for good measure.
Nothing. The vague sense of unease was as strong as ever, but no enchantment, in any grammar at all, was to be seen.
There was nothing else for it; she would have to ask Mr Mathey’s opinion.
That afternoon, Mr Mathey had no clients scheduled, nor cricket matches to attend, and before he could settle down with the sporting papers, she (reluctantly, to be sure) took out the bowl from a drawer in her desk.
“If you’ve got a minute, Mr Mathey, I wondered if you could look at a bit of a puzzle for me.” She handed him the bowl. “I don’t want to prejudice anything by saying more, but what do you think of it?”
Mr Mathey took it from her, being careful not to lay bare hand on it. He set it back down upon the desk rather quickly.
“Odd,” he muttered.
“Quite,” she replied.
“I’m sure you’ve run all the standard ‘reveal’s on it,” he said.
“And all the non-standard ones I could think of,” she confirmed. “Still, if you wouldn’t mind—"
“No, glad to run through them for you,” he said. “No trouble at all.”
His investigations had no different result from hers—there was no visible enchantment anywhere upon the clearly-metaphysicked bowl.
“Most odd,” he finally said. “I suppose you tried other grammars as well?” He was aware of how keenly she followed the latest research into foreign traditions.
“Not a thing on it. Just the—sensation. And the slight vibration.”
Mr Mathey looked at her a bit helplessly. “I’m afraid I haven’t any other ideas then. You could activate the curse—I assume it’s by touch?—and wait to see what happens?”
“Since it’s supposed to be lethal, I’d prefer to avoid that just yet.”
“You’re a sensible girl, Miss Frost. I’ll certainly think on it.”
She sighed and put the bowl back in its drawer. There was a solution here, if only she could think what it was.
That afternoon she met Mildred for tea at the club. Perhaps knowing more about the bowl’s provenance would be of some help.
Unfortunately, there was not a lot her friend could tell her. She had picked the bowl up at some curiosity shop or other, and the proprietor had warned her that it had a nasty history of its owners turning up dead.
“Which I shouldn’t like at all!” Mildred said, giggling. Couldn’t she be serious for two minutes altogether at a time? Miss Frost had skipped the weekly women’s rights group for this (she hadn’t been joking at all when telling Mr Mathey that the members used the club as a place to plot the overthrow of society, merely stating the truth as many would see it), after all.
“But what is it for? What kind of bowl is it? Where is it from?”
And then Mildred giggled again, d*** her. “Surely you’re not serious, Cordelia.”
“Whyever not? What are you giggling at, Millie? What is the d****d thing?”
“It’s a cosmetic keeper,” her friend finally explained, when she at last realized Miss Frost really had no idea what it was. “You mix powders in it. I don’t know where it’s from, though.”
Thinking back, Miss Frost decided she could remember similar small bowls sitting on some of the other girls’ bureaus or desks at school. But she had never taken an interest in them herself. They had always been empty, anyway.
“How can you tell that’s what it’s for?” she asked.
Mildred held the bowl up between her gloved thumb and forefinger, so that Miss Frost could see into it. “See those rings running all along the inside?”
“Yes?” She’d noted them earlier, but not known of any significance beyond the decorative.
“All cosmetic keepers have them. It’s what makes the enchantments work.”
Miss Frost thought she might just throw the dregs of her tea at her old friend. “The enchantments.”
“Well, yes.” Mildred looked at her again, as though she still couldn’t believe Miss Frost was unaware of how the bowl worked. “The ones that make the powders invisible.”
“Could you perhaps explain to me exactly how these bowls work?”
“You put the powder you want to use—face powder, you know, that sort of thing—inside the bowl. Then it disappears. And when you put a puff in later and powder your face, it’s glamoured so that the powder is impossible to see, but it still perfects the complexion, naturally.”
“Naturally. And the rings accomplish that?”
“I suppose.” Mildred never had cared much about the hows or whys of metaphysics, only the results.
Armed now with that knowledge, Miss Frost excused herself from tea, promising that she would make up her rudeness to Mildred with quick results, and took an upstairs study carrel in the club’s library. Despite the protests of some on the advisory committee (including herself), the library maintained an extensive collection of works on women’s beauty charms, and Miss Frost began to see that there was some wisdom in it after all.
It took her but a few tries to find a book that described exactly the sort of bowl she had.
“Got you,” she murmured triumphantly, studying the diagrams. It was ingenious, frankly. Just as Mildred had said, anything put into the bowl was held by the enchantments in the rings, with its fundamental properties maintained, but the results (and the contents) turned imperceptible, even to the skilled metaphysician.
In other words, all of her reveal commands had worked, but the results themselves had been metaphysically—and physically—invisible.
“It’s brilliant, really.” She turned the page, thoughtfully. “Must be a way to undo it; even invisible powders need to be cleaned sometimes.”
Sure enough, a metaphysicked cleaning cream was recommended by the book. It warned the sensitive lady to be sure to only wash away the bowl’s contents when no gentlemen were likely to be around.
“Hmmm,” said Miss Frost.
She decided to ignore the book’s well-meaning advice and invited not only Mildred, but Mr Mathey, and for good measure, Mr Lynes, to tea at the club the next day. They sat in one of the front parlors reserved for those members who would insist on entertaining gentlemen.
After a not disappointing spread of cucumber sandwiches and small cakes, Miss Frost got down to business.
“I wanted you all to witness the final solution,” she said, drawing their attention to the small bowl, which sat on the table’s center, as though presiding like a malevolent queen over the plates.
“First, I shall demonstrate how the object works,” she said, taking a spoonful of sugar from the tray. She dropped it in and, sure enough, the sugar vanished from their sight.
She explained that the now-enchanted sugar was still within, merely invisible, and having dipped the spoon back and stirred it into a cup, asked for a volunteer to taste it.
“I’ll do the honours, if you wish, Miss Frost,” Mr Lynes volunteered. “I quite fancy some evil sugar.”
She handed him the cup, and he confirmed that it was, in fact, sweet. Everyone agreed that the sugar itself was nowhere to be seen.
“Ingenious,” Mr Mathey said. Miss Frost rather agreed with him.
“But is that it?” asked Mildred. “What about the curse on its owners?”
“Yes, I was just getting to that,” Miss Frost said. “Now, when I—and Mr Mathey, of course—tried to reveal its enchantments earlier, the rings did exactly what they always do, took the sigils in and made them invisible. So the curse was revealed, but not visibly.”
“Ingenious,” Mr Mathey said again. “And you say all women’s cosmetic bowls can do this?”
“All the metaphysicked ones, anyway,” Mildred answered. She didn’t sound at all sure that she thought gentlemen should be aware of it, though.
“So how can we see the curse?” asked Mr Lynes, who had finished his (evil) tea and was at least looking none the worse for it.
“The same way a lady would remove the cosmetic,” answered Miss Frost. “Cold cream.”
She took a small jar out of her reticule. Removing its lid, she then dipped her handkerchief into it and spread the cream on the bowl’s bottom. It vibrated slightly, but the cream remained visible. Now sure it would work (not that she had had many doubts), she traced the words of the square of Venus into the cream with her wand.
Sure enough, a bit of sugar flew back up out of the bowl (hitting Mr Mathey a bit in the face; he was leaning very close) and a mix of other powdery substances (everyone had moved back a bit by then), and then—yes!—a red-glowing square.
The grammar was not sophisticated, but then, it hadn’t needed to be—a fairly straight-forward malediction on anyone (the hook was open) who touched the bowl with bare skin.
“Presumably, ladies who only used a puff and could keep their fingers from the powders were perfectly safe,” she explained. “But otherwise…”
Mildred looked rather disconcerted. “So it is cursed.”
Miss Frost nodded. “Easy enough to remove, though. A second square of Venus in the cream at the bottom of the bowl will have it out in no time.” She proceeded to draw the sigils, and the red of the curse faded to nothing.
“Well done, Miss Frost!” Mr Mathey exclaimed. “Very good work!”
She flushed, pleased at the compliment. “Nothing to it once I knew how the bowl was enchanted.”
But Mr Lynes was nodding vigorously, agreeing with his friend. “Yes, you simply must write it up for The Metaphysician. The construct with those rings is quite fascinating.”
“I’ll consider it, then,” she promised. A bit of attention in the journal could only do her good, surely.
All in all, it was a promising start to her future career as a metaphysician. And she thought she might just keep the bowl around. Perhaps its air of menace would be good for keeping the mice—or at least Bastet—from the sugar.