Chapter 1: Our Fairy Laws
The Queen was sitting on a high branch, watching Iolanthe. The fairy was hanging lazily in a hammock of cobweb, rocked by the breeze. The golden evening light, shining through beads of rain caught on the spiders’ silk, dappled her skin with a hundred bright little pinpoints. A warm hazy halo glowed around her dark hair. She seemed, so the Queen thought, everything that a queen herself should be.
“Your songs and dances this week have been inspired,” the Queen told her fondly. “I should very much like to know how you happen upon so many wonderful ideas.”
Iolanthe smiled peacefully. “Thank you, your majesty,” she replied, “but ‘tis nothing any other fairy could not do, in the right circumstances.”
Iolanthe . Her name was almost a charm in itself. She was famous among fairies for her ingenuity. There was scarcely a step they danced or a tune they sung for which they did not have her to thank. She had an insatiable, magnetic energy that no-one could deny, least of all the Queen. Nature seemed to bend like a prism around her, refracting all its joy and brightness and wonder towards her.
If they had guessed her secret – the special power by which she had become the inventress of the fairy kingdom, known to all her sisters for her graceful steps, her lyrics and melodies and her delightful games – if they had guessed, it would have earnt her not fame but infamy.
It was getting late. Walter half-thought she wasn’t coming. It was a fear he often felt: there was something so strange and elusive about his beloved that he never quite believed his memory of her. Whenever she left him, she seemed to slip not just out of sight but out of the world entirely, so that even with both his eyes as sworn witnesses, he sometimes wondered whether he hadn’t just dreamt her up completely. More likely that, than that a girl so indisputably perfect could love him.
And yet, here she was, indeed! He clasped her hands in his and kissed them. “Iolanthe, my darling, I have the most excellent news for you!”
“Do tell me,” said Iolanthe, smiling radiantly. Just to be near her lover was a delight.
“In recognition for my legal work, I am to be made a Peer of the Realm.”
“Why Walter, that is excellent news!” Iolanthe embraced him, pressing herself tightly to him. His happiness was like ambrosia, and she wanted every drop of it.
“My darling, I knew you’d be pleased for my success. But I want to share it with you properly.” Walter looked steadily at her for a moment. Then, to Iolanthe’s amazement, he got down on one knee. “Iolanthe, my treasure, will you make me the richest young Lord alive?”
Iolanthe’s wings stirred nervously under her bodice.
In the silence, Walter’ face fell. “I’m sorry, perhaps I have mis-judged…”
“No, you haven’t.” Love made her reckless. “Nothing would make me happier!”
It is well known that fairies thrive on lover. A lover’s glances, sighs, tears, anxieties and delights are the very breath of life to fairykind. Iolanthe had a lover all her own, and Love had made its home in Iolanthe’s heart.
The wedding was a mortal affair. It took place indoors, in a church. Rings were exchanged, and vows sworn – both magical acts. Iolanthe spent the whole ceremony on edge, fearful that she might be seen. She tried to stay out of sight of the tall glass windows that stretched skywards. But no-one hides from nature. Nature loved Iolanthe, and nature, on this occasion, was jealous.
“Thank you for your help, Iolanthe. Your skill as a seamstress is rivalled by none.”
The Queen sat curled inside a nutshell beside Iolanthe, watching how her elegant hands led the gossamer threads in tiny shining stitches. The Queen had been dancing Iolanthe’s newest dance, and, caught up in the moment, had torn the hem of her dress. Now Iolanthe was stitching it back together.
“It’s no trouble,” said Iolanthe. “In truth, I should ask your pardon, your highness. I was carried away; the steps were too ambitious, not nearly dainty enough for a fairy measure.” It was true. The other fairies had been having trouble keeping pace with Iolanthe of late. They would hurry, lose their breath, trip and stumble and tumble hither and thither, while Iolanthe danced on for hours with inexhaustible energy and grace.
She was, the Queen thought, simply a better fairy. The thought didn’t trouble her – or at least, the ache in her heart was not jealousy.
Nestling near, the Queen watched contentedly as Iolanthe’s nimble fingers drew out the silk, and the ring flashed gold on her finger.
The ring flashed gold on her finger.
According to ancient law, the fairy who marries a mortal dies. All fairies know this (with the improbable exception of Fleta, who never paid attention in feegarten [a German word]).
Iolanthe knew it. The Queen certainly knew it.
Iolanthe cut off all ties to the fairy world and withdrew to her husband’s house. All the love in the world couldn’t ward off the fear she now felt. Luckily, she had realised her error before it was too late. She had seen the Queen’s eye fall on her wedding ring. For now, no fairy knew where she was, but it was only a matter of time.
Still, she would have thought it all worth it. The last short weeks of her life had been so full of feeling, and the world so rich and wonderful, that she felt she had never really lived before, in all the centuries of her existence.
But things were not so simple.
Iolanthe’s voice faltered and her eyes dimmed as she finally told her husband the secret she was bearing. Her stomach was lurching. She felt giddy with nervousness. Walter met her unusually pale countenance with a beaming smile.
“But, my love – that’s the most wonderful news!” Her husband enfolded her into his arms and tried to kiss her. Iolanthe flinched away. Walter frowned with concern. “Isn’t it wonderful news?”
“I suppose it is,” said Iolanthe.
Walter rocked her in his arms, and she let herself be comforted. As long as he was here…
“As it happens, I’ve a little news of my own. I’ve been called to my first session of Parliament,” Walter told her. “I shan’t be gone for long.”
The following morning – the morning of his departure – Iolanthe looked upon those beloved features, trying to memorise them. His presence was all that soothed her troubled heart, and she couldn’t bear to have it wrenched away. Walter kissed her once on the lips and once on the belly. “I love you both,” he said. And then he left her alone.
Not quite alone, in fact. Iolanthe found an unexpected friend in their chamber maid. The girl was honest and practical, albeit a little absent-minded. At twenty-two years old, she felt sorry for her master’s young, nervous, inexperienced bride; Iolanthe could be little older than seventeen, to judge from her fresh smooth face, her pale arms and narrow build, and Ruth felt a responsibility to care for her.
Her strange new mistress never left the house, preferring to keep the curtains drawn and confine herself to her own room. Ruth’s entreaties could not persuade her otherwise, so Ruth stayed in and kept her company. Sometimes they just talked, and sometimes she read to her from the newspaper or from one of the many books that lined the shelves of the master’s library. Iolanthe liked Dickens best, although she rarely ever laughed at his humour but instead asked question after question about the mundanities of his characters’ lives. Ruth had tried to read her some Andersen, thinking the tales would make good bedtime stories for her child when it was born, but Iolanthe went very pale and asked her to stop.
Ruth couldn’t quite make head or tale of this strange, ethereal girl. She seemed troubled and fanciful, but at the same time she didn’t seem to be mad. She was pale and thin, and yet not one of the ailments listed in the Household Book of Domestic Medicine described her condition. When they talked, she was capable of expressing all sorts of complex ideas and delicate distinctions in abstract that were quite too nice for Ruth’s understanding, and yet the subtleties and subtext of human interaction often left her clueless.
Nevertheless, Ruth became very fond of her curious charge. Iolanthe herself was desperately and wholeheartedly grateful to have somebody to trust. She didn’t know what she would do but for Ruth.
And so the days became months. Hours stretched, space shrank, and these four walls became Iolanthe’s world.
There was never any mystery. The Queen had always known where Iolanthe was. Had the fugitive been any of the other fairies, she might have hidden safe and undiscovered forever. As it was, the Queen’s heart was as good as any compass.
It was the wavering of that selfsame soft heart that had delayed her.
Well, she would be delayed no longer. What were hearts compared to laws? Laws must not be broken.
So, one morning, she slipped through a keyhole and into Iolanthe’s room.
Iolanthe was alone, asleep. Her head lay against the pillow, cheeks flushed, hair sprawling, lips parted, breathing just loud enough to hear. She was still, and yet the tension stood out on her spotless brow, locked in some peaceless parody of sleep.
The Queen stroked her hair. “Iolanthe,” she murmured. As Iolanthe woke, first her tense body seemed to soften at the gentle touch. Then, her waking mind recognised the voice, realised her peril. Her gut wrenched.
“Please, just be done with it quickly,” Iolanthe whispered.
The Queen sighed very long, very deeply. Finally, she spoke: “I cannot. I am too weak to do it. Iolanthe, I cannot sentence my dearest friend to death. But I cannot – cannot leave your offence unpunished.” Her voice was faltering. Iolanthe, in her own distress, hadn’t anticipated how distressed her Queen would be.
“Then what is my fate to be?”
“Exile for life.”
Iolanthe felt tears welling up in her eyes, a strange amalgam of loss and relief. “You are so kind!”
“Am I?” asked the Queen. Her voice went cold. “There is one condition: that you leave your husband, and never see nor communicate with him again in any way.”
What else did she expect?
“You won’t call me kind, I think.” The Queen spoke softly, sadly. “Your life will be nothing like it once was. But if you prefer to live, I shall not kill you.”
Chapter 2: He Was a Little Boy
There were two weeks to make preparations for her exile. Two weeks, before her husband must return to an empty house.
Iolanthe took Ruth into her confidence.
“Ruth,” said Iolanthe, “what would you say if I told you that I am in fact no lady?”
“I knew it!” said Ruth. “Even I can handle the cutlery better than you, and I being raised in Devon and all. But you needn’t be ashamed of it. The master’s making an honest woman of you, so you should count yourself fortunate.”
“That isn’t what I meant. I am a fairy.”
The girl laughed. “And I’m the infant son of the King of Barataria.”
A tiny wail rang out in Iolanthe’s chambers. The sound brought a smile to Iolanthe’s lips, which had almost forgotten how to smile in the last weeks. Strange that after so much sadness, this feeble, newly-formed cry should be the cause for rejoicing.
“A girl!” cried Ruth, also overcome with emotion. Iolanthe saw that her happy eyes were brimming with tears. “A beautiful baby girl!” Smiling at Ruth’s delight, Iolanthe let her scoop the child into her arms. “A beautiful, happy, healthy –” Ruth broke off. She was staring.
Unfolding themselves for the first time on the child’s back were a pair of tiny delicate wings.
“Ruth, I cannot thank you enough for your help.” Iolanthe stood on the doorstep of the cottage that she was now to call home. It was a rustic, run-down affair, one of the many attached to Walter’s various estates. This particular cottage was located on the edges of a stately home which he all but neglected for most of the year, save a week or two during hunting season. She and Ruth had chosen it because its location and state of disrepair meant it was unlikely to be disturbed. A dense copse obscured it from most angles, the paths were overgrown, and the idyllic bridge that once forded the river had collapsed in recent years, making approach difficult from the main road.
The house itself had long transformed from place of residence into picturesque ruin. The door was so stiff on its hinges that it seemed to grumble in pain when it was opened. Through its cracked wooden beams, woodworms had drilled so many holes that the light leaked through it like an elaborate constellation. The wind whistled amiably between gaps in the crumbling stone walls. The thatched roof was looking distinctly threadbare, raided over the years by many a jackdaw looking to build a nest.
Ruth looked about her in horror. “You ain’t going to live here, mistress, it’s in no fit state for a lady fairy such as yourself.”
Iolanthe laughed. “Why, I could happily live at the bottom of that stream,” said she, pointing through the glassless window. “But you,” she said fondly to the baby who lay asleep in her arms, still unaware of their new home, “you need a roof over your head, don’t you? Or over your legs, at least. Fear not, Ruth. We’ll make a home of this place soon enough.”
Indeed, Iolanthe knew that it would be many hours of magic and hard work combined to make this pretty ruin resemble a home, but she was looking forward to it. Iolanthe had been trapped in that bedroom for so many weeks, with hardly cause to lift a finger, and she’d hated it. She was restless. Even as a fairy, she had always been so full of energy. She had busied herself with the task of composing songs and dances for her fairy sisters, but after two hundred years even fun for its own sake had begun to lose its meaning. Things were different now. This beautiful, perfect child who smiled in its sleep and knew nothing of fear: she would do everything now for this child’s sake.
Ruth helped her carry in the the few pots and pans, blankets, shoes and clothes that they had gathered the day before. Iolanthe could fit her new life into two light boxes.
They said their goodbyes, which were not farewells. Ruth promised to come back whenever discretion would allow her, bringing with her food for the larder and news from home. They once more rehearsed the story she would tell. Iolanthe embraced her and thanked her, and her baby grasped Ruth’s little finger in a tiny, delicate fairy hand that seemed determined never to let go. That tiny hand had precocious strength for its two days of age. After smiles, and tears, and more smiles, Ruth departed, readying herself for the lie she must now tell.
Walter dashed home from Parliament the instant he received the telegram. He hurled himself aboard the mailcoach, caring nothing for first class seats but only wanting to be home as soon as any wheels would allow him.
His beautiful darling wife was sick. Dangerously so.
Walter stumbled into the hallway at several minutes past midnight, all confusion and panic. His voice was loud and trembling as he demanded to see Ruth, at the same time stumbling up the stairs into the bedroom where his wife should be lying-in. “Where is she? Where is she? ”
The bed was empty. Walter creased onto it, boneless, all the strength gone from his scrawny knees, arms falling limp. “Iolanthe,” he said. “Iolanthe.”
Ruth lingered at the door, fearful to intrude on this scene of grief. It was excruciating to watch, but her nerve must not fail her. She knew how much worse it would be if she faltered now.
Hot tears were pouring from her master’s eyes. He was drawing ragged breaths, as if each one were his last.
“I’m so sorry,” said Ruth.
“Is she – ” gasped Walter. “The baby too? ”
Ruth steeled herself. “Yes. I’m sorry.”
Ruth never managed to forget the wail that her master emitted on hearing the news, nor the sobs and cries that filled the weeks thereafter. He seemed a completely punctured man. His body sagged limply from his sad shoulders. His face hung drooping. Everything that had once animated him seemed gone. His eyes were red every morning from nights of sleepless tears.
In the weeks before the funeral, life in the house seemed to be mostly made of gaps. The silence where there should be conversation. The empty place at the table. There were no orders. Life for the servants ground to a halt. They polished the same pieces of silver from five in the morning to ten at night, swept the same hall spotless, then swept it again. Life was completely at a standstill.
Something had to give. And finally one morning, life began again.
It was the day after the funeral. Ruth had worried about this intensely. She knew that Walter would expect to see his wife’s body – had no idea what would happen. But the day came, and there was an unknown girl in the crowd. A young girl, dressed head to toe in black, whose figure suggested she could be no older than seventeen, although she kept her face veiled. And where Ruth saw an empty casket, Walter, along with every other attendee, saw his dead wife, her perfect face a smooth and deathly marble white.
That other-worldliness she always had , thought Walter, makes terrible sense now .
After that, reality seemed to condense the grief in Walter’s soul. He was no longer prone to cry, or to stare emptily for hours on end. He began to move mechanically through his duties once again. Gradually, he became consumed more and more by his work. Here was the one thing to which he could devote himself wholeheartedly, without betrayal to his wife’s memory. In his legal work, he became known for his fair-mindedness, his seriousness, his dedication to justice, and a level-headed, unemotional approach that would not be swayed by anything but firm evidence.
He locked the door to the room they had once shared. And in his own mind, he locked the door to thoughts of his wife. A year after her death, her name was unspoken in the house. Two years after her death, her name was practically forgotten except by Ruth and by the master himself.
Seven years after her death, he was appointed Lord Chancellor of England.
Ruth had not paid visits to the cottage as often as she wished. The journey was a difficult one to make on her low wages, and excuses were difficult too.
The master had kept her on in the household for a while, mostly out of honour to her closeness with Iolanthe, but it was clear that having her around unsettled him. She was the last visible reminder of the past. For this reason, Ruth had finally undertaken to find work elsewhere as nurserymaid to a brave and daring little lad of a tender three years old.
Today she was visiting the cottage for what might be the last time. She did not know where her new life would take her.
Iolanthe beamed on opening the door. “Ruth! Come, Strephon, it’s dear Ruth!”
A short, slightly stout figure appeared at her side, half-hiding behind his mother’s legs.
“She’s grown, hasn’t sh… He.” Ruth frowned as the child peeped out, growing daring as he recognised the voice. He was unmistakably a young boy – the scratches on his knees and the twigs caught in his short honey-brown hair attested it, as did the cheeky sparkle of his eyes. “Sorry, young master. The two words are… so very much alike.”
Strephon grinned and reached up to shake her hand. “Hullo Ruth,” he said.
“And how are you?” Ruth began, but the young man was off, running out into the yard and turning somersaults on the grass. “Goodness,” said Ruth to Iolanthe. “He certainly has the energy of a fairy.”
“From the waist up,” said Iolanthe. “His poor little legs get awfully tired.”
“This is lovely!” Ruth said, indicating the cottage. She was impressed at how bright and friendly it felt, now that the gaps in the wall had been filled and the old rotting wood replaced with smooth new beams. It felt full of life.
Iolanthe smiled sadly. “It’s a little too domestic for me,” she said. “A fairy belongs to the natural world, too much cultivation isn’t good for us.” She absent-mindedly pulled a strand of dried waterweed free from her hair. “I always come to miss the outdoors.”
Chapter 3: Dearly Treasured Yet
His new position agreed with Walter tremendously. Gradually, his sallow cheeks became pink again, his skinny frame became portly thanks to fine meals, and his seriousness dissolved into a joviality that became quite famous. He was a harmless, benevolent old man – yes, he was becoming old, too. His dark hair was threaded with white. He was full of a kindness and easiness that to most people suggested a completely carefree life. His frequent nightmares were the only thing that suggested turmoil beneath the surface of his peace-loving mind.
It was 24 years since that shadow fell over his life. Time, Walter thought, to move on.
The thought of taking another wife had, of course, crossed his mind. As Lord Chancellor, he was now guardian to a huge flock of highly eligible young ladies, and his failure to marry one or other of them often raised eyebrows. He dismissed this, remarking how much higher those eyebrows would be raised if he did permit himself to marry a ward. He was not entirely impervious to female charm, but, after Iolanthe’s incredible complexity of mind and beauty of figure, and that quite magical energy she had exuded, other people seemed mundane to him. He supposed that he could only truly fall in love once – and frankly, thank goodness. He had no wish to suffer love and all its terrible consequences again.
And yet, was that reason enough not to remarry? Walter was growing old. More and more, his thoughts turned to the familial. He wished not for a wife so much as for a son. Someone to whom he could bequeath his lands and fortunes. Someone who could enjoy all the benefits of his success after him – for, although he felt fulfilled by his career, he would not go so far as to say he enjoyed it himself. It was a lonely sort of success, when one had nobody else with whom to share it.
It was time to put the past to bed. After 24 years, for the first time since that fateful night, Walter unlocked the door to the room that had become Iolanthe’s.
Nothing had changed. It seemed even the spiders had had respect enough to spin their webs elsewhere. The flowers in their vase on the bedside table were dry and brittle, but somehow had not lost their colour. The air felt charged.
The sheets of the bed were still disturbed where Walter had fallen, shaken with sobs, that night. Now Walter felt a tremendous silent energy. He was not afraid. He crossed to the old cabinet at the foot of the bed, lifted its heavy wooden lid.
Here. White folds of the lightest, silkiest white gossamer gown. At the top of the pile lay her gloves, pressed between sprigs of fragrant dried lavender. He lifted them out of the box and pressed the between his steady hands. They were tiny: such delicate, tiny hands she had had!
Suddenly, Walter felt foolish. Why had he locked her away for so long? He had come here for permission; now, he felt her answer flowing through him. His Iolanthe had never wished him this. Years of unhappiness, on her account. And his Iolanthe could never be confined to a box. There was no lock strong enough to restrain her indomitable laughter and love of life, no keyhole through which her freedom-loving spirit could not (metaphorically) slip. What had he been thinking? The old man blushed.
“Thank you, my darling” he remarked to the air.
Walter knew the very girl. She was unlike the others – the only one among his wards who seemed to have anything approaching an independent spirit. She was a thoughtful girl, a pretty girl, a kind girl, a determined girl.
And if his own judgement were not enough to rely on, he had the opinions of the whole House of Lords to support it. He’d never seen them express so much unanimity as that summer, when they had all fallen for her en masse at his country estate. Why, even the damned local shepherd was infatuated with her, and had come to bother him that very morning singing songs for her hand and insinuating that Mother Nature herself would be most irked if the Lord Chancellor refused his request. These poetical types! But at any rate, it all seemed a resounding endorsement of his own opinion that if he were to marry anybody, it should be her.
The Lord Chancellor was just on his way to find her, when a strange apparition stopped him in his tracks. Before him stood a girl – a young girl, she can only have been seventeen or so – dressed head to toe in black, her face veiled. The sight seemed to recall some ancient memory in him.
The girl kneeled at his feet and spoke in a desperate voice, serious beyond her years: “My lord, a suppliant at your feet I kneel – Oh, listen to a mother’s fond appeal! Hear me to-night! I come in urgent need – ’Tis for my son, young Strephon, that I plead!”
Of course , thought the Lord Chancellor, as her notes rang out. This weird musical shepherd is sending his weird musical relatives. Precisely what I need today. But the girl continued.
Iolanthe’s song reached into his heart for its lyrics. She had come here without a plan. One thing only mattered. Her dear son Strephon, who in the blink of her fairy eye had grown from angelic toddler to handsome young man, was unhappy.
It was no wonder that the fairies outlawed marriage. Love of the kind Iolanthe felt, once for her mortal husband and now for her all too mortal son, had a power overwhelming beyond that of all her magical faculties. She had thought once, in the days when she waited for death in that suffocating room, that love meant only loss. But now she realised sharply and clearly that love never left you resourceless. At every step, love gave you something more to surrender. It was not for her own sake that Iolanthe had clung to her mortal life, but for her son’s, always. Love had gifted her one last thing to give up.
As she sang, the Lord Chancellor thought of that locked room where time stayed still. Her words had a tremendous power over him. As she sang, Iolanthe discovered, to her astonishment, how deeply she had been missed.
The song came to an end and the girl looked up. The Lord Chancellor could make out little of her features beyond that veil. He was cold all over.
“Impossible,” he said at last.
A shiver rose up in the world around him.
Slowly, deliberately, Iolanthe removed her veil.
Chapter 4: Epilogue
“Well, this is all most satisfactory!” The Lord Chancellor was standing in the hallway, about to lock up the old house for the last time. He fluttered his wings contentedly. “But one thing remains a concern to me: I can’t just leave Parliament empty.”
Iolanthe smiled. “I’m sure someone will take care of that.”
“My bill will see to it, father,” Strephon reminded him.
“When it comes into effect, yes. But in the meantime… I can’t just tell them I’ve lost a whole House full of noblemen.”
“If you’ll pardon the presumption,” said a voice from the doorway, “I’ve found some.”
Iolanthe looked past the Chancellor’s shoulder to the visitor as she stepped into view. Although her face was lined and her hair was grey, there was no mistaking her.
“Ruth!” Iolanthe flew into her old friend’s arms. “How wonderful it is to see you again!”
“Mistress Iolanthe! It seems I caught you just in time,” said Ruth. “But I couldn’t help overhearing…”
Behind her, a band of ruggedly handsome young men filtered into the hallway. One of them had a parrot on his shoulder.
“When your lords are gone, perhaps these young dukes, earls, counts, viscounts and barons could take their place. They are good lads: strong and healthy and no strangers to hard work, and all determined to make honest upper-class lives for themselves. Just don’t ask any questions about their teenage years.”
The Lord Chancellor turned to the young noblemen. “Are you prepared to do that?”
“We are!” they cried in unison.
“Woof,” said the parrot.