By Sarah Levesque (Rated G)
When I was a child, my father was the man in charge of the stables of the king’s summer palace. He was a good man, and a good father, but my mother had died and I had no siblings and no real friends, as the only other children at the castle were either servants who had no time to play, or noble children who were not allowed to play with me. I know this because they would come to the stables to go riding, and sometimes we could exchange a few sentences, both of us looking over our shoulders nervously. I was glad I wasn’t a noble, I soon discovered. I could see my father whenever I wanted, I could be with the horses that I loved, and I did not have to wear the layers of foppish clothes that they did, especially the girls – what extreme dresses, even to go riding! Most importantly, I could do nearly whatever I wanted, within reason. Of course, I couldn’t go into the castle itself, not unless I dressed like a servant, which I did on occasion, allowing me to get to know the servant children a bit. Then, one day in early summer, my world changed.
That day, a slip of a girl wandered into the stables. She was somewhere between six and ten, I guessed, but I couldn’t tell. She was not dressed like a servant or a noble, and I didn’t know what to make of her.
“Hullo,” I said. “I don’t think we’ve met before. I’m Samuel.”
“Hullo,” she said back, “I don’t think we’ve met before, either. I’m… I’m Elsie.”
“No, you’re not,” I told her. “You hesitated.”
To my surprise, she stuck her tongue out at me.
“I like to be called Elsie,” she said. “My nurse used to call me that, before they made her leave.”
“Who? Your parents?” I asked, trying to figure out how this girl fit into castle life, with a simple dress, but with a nurse.
The girl shrugged. “I don’t even know. One day, when I was five, she was just gone. I got a governess instead.” She made a face.
“How long ago was that?” I wanted to figure out how old she was – she was tiny, but she talked as if she was nearly my age.
“Three years, two months and seven days,” she replied promptly.
I nodded, surprised by the precise answer.
“I wish I could stay with the horses all day, and my father, too!” she burst out.
My eyebrows shot up. She knew all about me. But I shrugged. “All the other children are either nobles or busy serving them. It can be lonely to be me,” I admitted.
“Still, your father talks to you. I’d give anything for that.”
“Alright, Elsie, where’d you get the dress?” I asked softly, sure she was a noble now, and smiling to try to keep her calm.
“What do you mean?” She drew herself up stiffly, and narrowed her eyes at me, but I wasn’t afraid of anyone, much less a tiny girl.
“You’re obviously the daughter of a nobleman who has snuck out to get some air, some real conversation, and maybe some fun.” I shrugged again. “I don’t mind. Actually, I’d like some company, and I might be able to help you.”
“Really?” She sounded so hopeful.
I nodded. “Really.” And I meant it.
“Oh, thank you!” she cried, and she threw her arms around me. Surprised again, I awkwardly hugged her in return. Then she broke away, her eyes full of excitement.
“Can we ride the horses?”
I nodded. “Certain ones, anyway. Some nobles are very finicky about being the only ones to ride their horses. And, of course, no one is allowed to ride the king’s horse except the king himself.”
“Alright. So let’s get some horses and go!”
Elsie craved excitement. Apparently, the life of a noble girl was tedious and boring in the extreme. So we rode the fastest horses, jumped the highest obstacles, climbed the tallest trees. I taught her how to play catch with an abandoned leather ball I had found, and we played follow the leader over meadow, brook, and outbuilding. We fenced with sticks until we thought we were pretty good, and I stole two wooden practice swords from the armory. Then we really learned. I enjoyed seeing the concentration on Elsie’s face as we fought, but I was concerned about the bruises I gave her. When I brought it up, she laughed.
“Have you seen how much clothing we’re supposed to wear?” she asked. “I have to wear gloves indoors, and all the ladies would swoon if they knew I was sword fighting with the stable boy in my bare feet!”
So I didn’t worry about it, or at least not until we began using blunted metal swords. But that wasn’t until we were a bit older, and I had learned to keep my worries to myself.
We taught ourselves archery, too, and swimming; she plunging into the water fully clothed, and I stripped to the waist. We had good times, but as the months turned into years, we saw less and less of each other. My father was giving me more and more responsibilities in the stables, and Elsie found it harder to slip away from her own boring duties. But we still managed to see each other about once a week.
She taught me how to dance, and when I was sixteen and Elsie was fourteen, she came into the stables practically skipping with excitement. I couldn’t help smiling at her.
“What is it?” I asked, getting straight to the point.
“A ball!” she told me. “We’re having a ball! And I’m finally allowed to be there!”
“That’s great!” I said, knowing just how much that meant to her. There was a part of me, though, that wished I could go too – I did enjoy dancing.
“There’s more!” she said, trying to calm herself and make me guess, but I had seen this before, and I waited her out. Finally, she could resist no longer and burst out, “It’s not just any ball – it’s a masquerade, so you can come too!”
“Me?” I said stupidly.
Elsie rolled her eyes. “No, the other blockhead in this stable,” she shot back sarcastically. “Yes, you!”
“What in the world do you wear to one of these masquerade things?” I asked.
Elsie shrugged. “All kinds of things. But don’t worry – I’ll find you something. Say you’ll come!”
“When is it?”
“Not till next week – there’s plenty of time.”
“Yes, then.” I smiled at my incorrigible friend.
“Hurray!” Elsie capered around the stable, just quiet and graceful enough not to startle the horses – one of the first things I had taught her.
“How will you make sure my costume fits me?” I asked.
Elsie laughed. “Cousin Rupert always gets two different costumes made, the fop. You’re about his size, so I’ll just take the one he’s not using and get it to you.”
“Ah. Do you know what you will be wearing?”
“Not yet. But I’ve got to go before they realize I’m not there.” And she was gone.
I smiled. It was usually like that, now. She would be here for only a few minutes, then be gone again, so she wouldn’t be missed. It was not nearly as satisfying as the time we had spent together as children, but it was better than nothing.
The day of the ball, I discovered a cloth-wrapped package in an empty stall in the stable, so I took it home. Inside, there was a bundle of clothes in bright red and blue, and a note.
Here is your costume. I will be wearing a butterfly costume that is ridiculously orange and black. Come find me at the ball.
I smoothed the note and placed it under my pillow, after reading it a second time. Then I went back to the stable to wait. I realized that I couldn’t send a note back to her – I knew everything about her except her real name.
That evening, I put on the outrageous blue and red costume – Elsie had done well, and it fit me just right. I felt like an idiot wearing the crazy colors and the mask that covered the top half of my face, but when I slipped into the ballroom, it seemed that all the men were wearing similar outfits, while the ladies were mostly dressed like animals. I began to dance with a squirrel, I think, looking out for Elsie. My dance partner seemed to be looking for someone as well, and we parted after the first dance, she moving to dance with a man in bright yellow. I was glad that my costume was not quite that loud. I was also glad that my dancing had measured up to the standards of the squirrel, who had remarked on how nice it was to dance with someone who could do it well.
Now, I saw a lovely orange and black butterfly glide down a side staircase, and I went up to meet her. Elsie’s eyes sparkled from behind her full-face mask.
“You came!” she breathed as I swept her into the dance.
“Did you doubt it?” I asked.
“Not really. I thought you’d find a way. But still…”
“The costume fits,” I remarked, “though it’s a bit bold for my liking.”
“That’s Rupert for you.” Elsie shook her head, rolling her eyes.
“Out of curiosity, is Rupert that fellow in the yellow?” I asked, nodding towards the man dancing with the squirrel.
“Fellow in yellow – I like it! And yes, that’s Rupert. How did you guess?”
“Not too hard, really, from your description.”
“Ah…” Elsie nodded, and I wished I could see her smile instead of the painted smile of her mask.
The night passed pleasantly. Elsie and I danced together as often as we dared and, on my part, when I was dancing with another lady, I had to work to keep my eyes on my partner and my ears listening to her, instead of looking and listening for Elsie.
No one left until midnight, and many people stayed long past. But the crowd began to thin, and I began to worry that someone would notice how often Elsie and I danced together. So, the next time she came back to me, I told her that I had to leave after this dance. She nodded solemnly.
“You still have to get up in the morning,” she said. “I guess that none of these people will get up until noon. Some maybe later, like Rupert.” Her eyes danced as she nodded at her yellow cousin.
I had not even thought of that, but I let her believe that was my reason. And when the dance ended, I bowed, she curtseyed, and I slipped back home. My father was sound asleep when I came in. He was a deep sleeper, and he was used to me riding at night, so he did not stir.
The next morning I was in the stable at dawn, as always. I had returned the costume to the corner where I had found it, with a simple note of my own.
Thank you for a wonderful night. I enjoyed every minute of it, but especially the dances I shared with you.
As I brushed and exercised horses that morning, I couldn’t get the songs from the ball out of my head, and had to make a conscious effort not to hum them. No one else could know that I had been there.
One day, not too long after the masquerade, Elsie came into the stable and beckoned me away. I excused myself and followed her down to a secluded brook. She looked troubled.
“What is it?” I asked softly.
She sighed. “I’m sure you know that the king is moving to his winter castle in two weeks. This time, I must go too, with the other nobles.”
I was silent as I digested this information, staring at the water.
“Say something, Samuel.” Her eyes were full of unshed tears.
I looked at her. There was a lump in my throat, but I managed to speak. “I’ll miss you.”
She nodded. “Me, too. Dreadfully. I feel like you’re the only one who knows me.”
“I wish you had some other friend who could go with you,” I said. “I don’t want you to be alone.”
She shrugged. “That can’t be helped. They can’t know who I really am, or I don’t know what would happen.”
I nodded. She had told me enough about the other ladies at the court that I understood.
“Just don’t forget me, and remember who you really are,” I told her.
“I couldn’t ever forget you, Samuel,” Elsie whispered.
She was so close to me. The breeze blew softly, moving her long hair gently. She was nearly a foot shorter than me. Without any conscious thought or effort, I bent and kissed her. She threw her arms around my neck, and mine went around her as she kissed me back. Then she broke away, the tears streaming down her cheeks, and she ran away. I watched her go, as I had so many times before, and as my own tears fell, I wondered if I would ever see her again.
For three years, I buried myself in my work, seeing and hearing nothing of Elsie. Each summer, the king returned with many nobles, and my hope would rise anew, but Elsie didn’t come. And I had no name by which to ask of her. Finally, the third summer came and soon after the king arrived, I found a note with my name on it slid under the stable door. The handwriting was Elsie’s, and my heart leapt into my mouth. I found a secluded spot in the stable and tore it open.
I have returned, finally, but with the most awful news. My father has promised me in marriage to a man probably three times my age. I don’t want to marry him. Aside from his age, he is fat and oily and he ignores me when I am forced to dine with him. The wedding is to be in a month, on July 14th. I hope you will not be mad that I never told you who I am before, but I know you’ll know now. Please help me escape this dreadful fate. I have some ideas. Meet me by our brook at twilight.
As I read, my blood curdled at the thought that her father would marry her off to a man she didn’t know, and I cringed at her description of him. My heart leapt again when she asked for my help, and I began to think of ways I could assist her. I reread the note and wondered what she meant when she said I would know who she was now. I looked at the date again, and alarm bells began to clang discordantly in my head. Everyone knew of the wedding to be held on July fourteenth – the wedding of the youngest daughter of the king. I had kissed the Princess Mabel Elissia. I leaned against the wall, trying to understand. Her words rang in my head: “I hope you will not be mad that I never told you who I am…” “They can’t know who I really am, or I don’t know what would happen…” At least your father talks to you. I’d give anything for that….”
I thought of what I had heard about the man Princess Mabel Elissia would marry. Apparently he was a noble who had won a great favor for the king, though no one seemed to know what. It’s not like it was a prince from another country who could wage war against our kingdom if he felt he had been tricked. The marriage would not help the kingdom. Stopping it wouldn’t hurt the kingdom. The king’s other children had been married already, so one princess disappearing wouldn’t keep any siblings from getting spouses. If I helped Elsie, nothing would happen to the kingdom. If I didn’t, we would both be miserable for the rest of our lives. If I didn’t – as if I wouldn’t! Princess Mabel Elissia or not, Elsie needed my help, and I was going to do whatever I could.
I went to the brook before twilight and sat staring at the water. As the sun went down, I watched for Elsie. Finally I saw her, running barefoot through the meadow in the dark. I stood, and she ran into my arms, burying her head in my shoulder.
“You’re here,” she said, her voice muffled by my shirt.
“Of course. I never want to let you down,” I replied. I put my chin on her head and wished that we could stay this way for eternity. But, eventually, Elsie moved away, just far enough that I could see just how much she had grown in three years. As I drank in the sight of her, I knew she was surveying me as well.
“You’ve gotten so tall,” she said, in a wondering tone.
“And you’re not a girl anymore,” I returned.
“I suppose not – I’m a lady old enough to be married off against my will,” she said, with some bitterness.
“I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen,” I told her.
“Oh, good,” she said, sounding relieved. “You don’t know how comforting that is.” She looked up at me suddenly. “You don’t mind, do you, that I never told you…” she trailed off.
I shook my head. “How could I? You didn’t want to be Princess Mabel Elissia. You wanted to be carefree Elsie. And I’m so glad that I know Elsie, who can say and do whatever she wants, and not boring Princess Mabel Elissia.”
“I was hoping you’d say that,” she said softly.
“It shouldn’t be too hard to escape your father,” I returned to the important issue. “You slip off like you’ve always done, and we’ll go. No one knows what you look like outside the palaces, but we could dye your hair, maybe even cut it and give you a peasant boy’s outfit, though I think it might be a bit harder for you to pass as a boy now that I’ve seen you. But if you take one horse from the stable, they’ll look for one girl. I’ll buy a horse and appear to leave a week before you, but I’ll stay right around here. We’ll go together – they won’t be looking for two people, especially two boys, if that’s what we decide to go with. No one will suspect us, especially if we sell the horses in the first village we come to and walk from there. Wherever we decide to go.”
Elsie giggled. “You know, I had a similar idea.”
“Great minds think alike,” I quipped. “Now, if I pretend to leave in two days, could you meet me here a week later? I’ll have the clothes, and scissors to cut your hair, if that’s what we decide to do.”
“I can be ready,” she said.
“Are you alright with leaving everything you know behind you?” I asked, hesitantly.
She looked at me frankly and shrugged. “I’d have to either way, but I’d much rather travel into the unknown with a man who knows me than with a man who doesn’t and is old and fat, besides.”
I smiled. “That’s my Elsie,” I said, not quite meaning to.
“I’d like that,” she said, looking down.
I didn’t follow her. “You’d like what?”
“To be your Elsie.”
My heart pounded in my chest. I didn’t know what to say.
“Really?” I croaked.
“You haven’t seen me in three years,” I reminded her.
“I grew up with you,” she said, her eyes flicking up to mine and lowering again. “I’d know by now if you had changed.”
Feeling like the heavens had suddenly smiled upon me, I fell to my knees and grabbed her hands. Looking up into her eyes, I opened my heart to her.
“I’ve loved you since you walked into my stable the first time. I nearly died when I heard nothing of you in three years, and I wanted to burst with happiness when I saw my name written on that note in your handwriting. I always imagined you being near me for the rest of our lives, and I’ve never wanted to imagine it any other way. Princess Mabel Elissia – no, Elsie, my Elsie – will you marry me?”
She smiled at me tenderly. “Of course I will. It’s all I ever wanted.”
Exuberant, I bounded to my feet and swept her into my arms. I spun her around and kissed her, and she kissed me back. It was all I knew, and all I needed to know.
As before, she was the first to break away.
“I’ve got to go,” she said.
I nodded. “Nine days, at midnight,” I reminded her.
She nodded. “Only nine days, and I’ll be yours.”
I kissed her again, then she turned and ran back to the castle. I returned home, walking on air. My father was sitting at the table when I walked in, so I said to him, “Father, I’m leaving in two days.”
He nodded. I had never seen anything upset him, and tonight was no exception.
“Do you have a plan?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, stretching the truth a bit.
“And is there a girl?”
Red-faced, I nodded. “How did you know?”
My father looked at me. “You’re my son, Samuel, and I’ve watched you grow up. Besides, you have the same look in your eye I saw in the mirror when your mother said she would marry me, God rest her soul. Your girl come back with the king’s party?”
I nodded. “She’s been gone for three years.”
“And you’re going to marry her before anything else, right?”
“Of course, Father! I’d never think otherwise!” That was the full truth.
“Then you have my blessing. Try to come back and visit me sometime, eh? I’d like to meet her, and I’d love to pass my job on to you, someday.”
“Thank you, Father.” On impulse, I hugged him, and he hugged me back. I could feel his strength flowing through me, and I felt that, with his approval and Elsie’s love, anything was possible.
Nine restless days later, I met Elsie at the brook. I cut her hair to the length of a peasant girl and we dyed it. Then, we rode to the nearest village, where we woke up the village priest and exchanged our vows. Then we journeyed into the night.
Years later, long after the king and court had given up on finding Princess Mabel Elissia, Elsie and I returned to the king’s summer castle. I was finally able to introduce my father to Elsie, and to our two small sons, as well. My father retired, and I took his place, teaching my children as he had taught me. No one ever made the connection between the missing Princess Mabel Elissia and the stablemaster’s wife Elsie, and our lives were marked by more happiness than sadness, and more sweetness than pain, because it was always Elsie and I, together.