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Through the Vale, or, the Tribulations and Settlement of One Georgina Crusoe

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It was in the middle of another long day of pointless tidying at Funn Funerals when Georgie broke the silence with “Are you going to the auction tomorrow evening?”

Like unto a single unified owl, the twins looked up at her. “What auction?”

“Haven’t you heard?” In response to their shaken heads, “The Mayor’s decided to auction off his house, and a lot of what’s in it. He says he’s realized that, like a Vicar, a Mayor is meant to be a public servant, so if a Vicarage is normally built to house a Vicar and his family, and the Vicar hasn’t got a family, then it could certainly do to house both a Vicar and a Mayor, thus allowing the materials previously devoted to the needless maintenance of a mayoral lifestyle can be re-introduced to the community they were supposed to serve.” Her tone took on a mocking—albeit affectionate—quality as the quoted speech went on. “He’s even donating all the auction money Dr. Edgeware Says he needs “modern equipment and methods.”

“Is that so?” said Rudyard. “Well I’m sure that’s very noble of him, but if you mean to imply that we need to pick up cheap items at an auction, you are sorely mistaken. We may have found ourselves in a bit of a pinch, but the legacies of our ancestors remain, and we are not for the pawnbroker yet. There are better homes for another man’s old furniture than within our walls.” He paused. “Besides, we couldn’t afford anything anyway.”

“He’s also emptying out his larder in a big complementary spread. And word on the street is that nobody’s going to pay too much attention to how much food disappears into people’s mouths versus how much disappears into various transportable receptacles...”

“...For God’s sake why didn’t you open with that? Antigone, think, what sorts of things do we need?”

“Everything.”

“...Right. And what sorts of things have we got that I can carry food back in?”

“Well, most of my embalming jars are gathering dust at the moment, and they’re always cleaned quite thoroughly between uses, but...”

“Right! I’ll need all of them, and perhaps the cashbox...”

“Rudyard!”

“What?”

“Why are you talking as if you’re going to go alone?”

“...Because it wouldn’t be very polite to ask Miss Crusoe to help me with an evening event without due notice?”

“But what about me?”

There was an uncomfortably long silence.

“Antigone….when was the last time you went outside?”

“Erm….well….no, I’m sure there was….look that’s not the point! If there’s to be a grand event with lots of food and everyone in the village is going to be there and you’re going to be there then I see no reason why I shouldn’t be there as well!”

“But what if you catch hay-fever again?”

“I was nine years old! And I got better after a week. And….and I want to get out of this house and go to the blasted party!”

The brotherly instinct that compelled Rudyard to protect Antigone warred with the brotherly instinct that compelled him to let her have things that would make her happy. In the end, both were superseded by the brotherly memory of how precisely she could bite in their childhood squabbles. “Oh very well. But the minute you start sniffling, I want you back at home!”

“Do you want my help getting ready tomorrow?” asked Georgie.

“What?”

“Well like you’ve said, this is a big shindig, and the first one you’ve been to in quite some time.” She glanced over at Rudyard. “And I was planning on being there anyway. We could get ready together, and I could help you fix your hair, pick out jewelry, even put a little something or two on your face? If you’d like.”

Antigone’s eyes were wide. “W….E….Nng….”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you couldn’t do it yourself. If you’d rather not--”

“No! I mean, erm, that sounds delightful, yes, I would….love to have your assistance. Thank you.”

Georgie smiled so widely that both of the twins nearly fainted. “Wonderful! I’ll bring my evening dress over tomorrow morning; that way I won’t have to take the time to go back for it.”

xxx

The next day was just as uneventful as the past several had been, but rather than a miserable slog, the hours passed in a blur. At four-thirty in the afternoon, Georgie (quite redundantly) flipped the sign on the door to the “closed” position, pulled her best dress (green silk, peppered with glass beads) and pulled Antigone into her bedroom. “Alright, have you worked out what you want to wear?”

“Erm, yes. I think so, but….look, you’d better come up to the attic.”

They did so, and Georgie was immediately greeted by the sight of Antigone’s chosen gown.

It was gorgeous. The velvet undergown was black, and the dark purple satin overgown was covered with elaborate damask black lace. The ruffles at the ends of the sleeves were black, and the edges of the overgown were sewn with perfect fabric re-creations of white lilies. It was a work of art, a tribute to the stark beauty to be found in death and mourning. It was absolutely perfect for a woman of Antigone’s coloring and temperament.

Of course, it was also eighty years out of date.

“I don’t really have any nice dresses.” Antigone explained. “At least, not ones actually made for me. With never really going anywhere, I suppose there just never seemed to be much of a point. But there’s this—it was made for my grandmother as a thanks by some ridiculously high-class dressmaker after his cat happened to die while he was visiting Piffling for “rural inspiration” and Funn Funerals did the burial. I know it’s not exactly the latest fashion but it’s the nicest thing I have by far and I’ve checked and it does fit and….and….”

Georgie took a deep breath. “Do you have the right underthings to go with it?”

“Yes, and they fit too.”

Georgie looked at Antigone’s her wide grey eyes, full of stubborn pride and desperate hope. “Well then let’s get ready.”

Even with Antigone’s odd shaking every time Georgie’s hand brushed her skin, getting her into the dress wasn’t too difficult an affair. For some reason she couldn’t quite explain, Georgie was almost disappointed when Antigone opted to get into the appropriate undergarments behind a dusty old dressing screen, but at least she was able to be a help in putting on the gown proper. And of course in her case a change of underpinnings wasn’t needed, so it was just a matter of shucking off her day dress and—

“Are you alright?” she asked somewhat confusedly, in response to Antigone’s sharp intake of breath.

“What? Yes of course I am, hush, do you need any help in getting on your evening gown?”

“Well, it would be nice.”

But putting it on herself might have ended up being quicker, with how often Antigone’s grip on the fabric slipped. You might have mistaken her for three times her age with all those hand tremors. And yet, Georgie somehow found that she didn’t mind.

With both dresses on, they stood still for a moment, both cracklingly aware of how close the other one was, before Georgie broke the silence. “Hair! We still need to fix our hair.”

“Right. Yes.”

They did Georgie’s first, twisting most of it up with great effort and then pulling down a few curls to frame her face. “Wish I had something to put in my hair”, she reflected, half to herself.

Antigone started at that. “Oh! Come this way, come this way!”

“What?”

After a little digging, Antigone proudly produced a fine oak box. “There’s generations of jewelry in here. Rudyard doesn’t want to pawn them yet. I don’t really want to either, of course, but with the way things are at the moment….but certainly you’re more than welcome to use some tonight!” She paused. “Most of it may not exactly be your, erm, style, but my great-grreat-aunt Marie never quite, erm, assimilated quite as much as people who marry into the family usually do, and she had some excellent stuff….”

Well then Marie, reflected Georgie to herself as she put on the necklace and hairpiece made of golden leaves, You loved a Funn without letting go of what you were before. See if you can’t lend me that same spirit, eh?

Then it was Antigone’s turn to have her hair fixed up. This turned out to be much more difficult than Georgie had anticipated, but Antigone was unsurprised.

“My hair can never hold any kind of shape. Mother said it was too thin. And that it lacked ambition.”

“Ah, but it’s like silk! Isn’t that what a lady’s hair is supposed to be like? And the rest of them manage. Besides, after all these years of wrangling my own cloud of wires into something decent, you wouldn’t think I’d have any trouble with yours.”

“What are you talking about? Of course your hair is easier to shape—it’s got more character. Once you’ve got it in place, it wants to stay there. Mine just wants to fall down.”

“Well it’s pretty down.”

“But I can’t wear it down to the auction, can I?”

But the day was saved by the memory of the headpiece that accompanied Antigone’s chosen gown. A simple bun, held together with as many pins as it took, was all that was necessary to prepare the head for the crown of ivory lilies, from which a black lace veil hung down all around the head. Then it was on with the accompanying amethyst jewelry (Not, Georgie noticed, set in silver like one might expect, but in some highly-polished black metal. Iron would hardly feel appropriate for an ensemble as grand as this, but what else could it be?)

Now both fully dressed, the ladies contemplated each other for a moment. “You look lovely.” Antigone said softly.

“So do you.”

Heading downstairs, they met Rudyard, whose concessions to the upcoming party consisted of brushed hair, a hat, and an extremely overlarge overcoat, presumably stuffed to the gills with empty embalming jars. “Miss Crusoe”, he said “You look lovely. Antigone, you….” His initial impression of Antigone’s ensemble died under Georgie’s gaze “….look striking. So then, shall we?”

As I sat in one of the coat’s many pockets, quietly admiring the small piece of red ribbon Rudyard had so kindly been willing to tie around my tail for me, even I couldn’t help but buzz with excitement for the evening ahead.