An Excerpt from The Dodo Knight
I have it on very good authority that a muse must have their heart broken six times before they can die. Apparently, they are mortally indestructible before such time as a deep hurt or ache penetrates their heart six times. Some people can withstand only one such occurrence before they crumble. Others might be able to withstand a dozen torments. There is a story of one woman with many children, who required more than fifty such trials before she let go. That woman was one hundred and one years, five months and a day when she finally passed away. Poor dear.
The reason why muses require six breakings is not clear to me. I did not make up the silly rule, and it is a silly rule in my opinion. It just is as someone set it about. Perhaps it was God or the Devil, who knows. If the whole thing were up to me, I would make sure no one was forced to endure such terrors as these. Well, that is not completely honest. The scoundrels of the world could have their trials, but the good, honest people should be rid of them, so says I.
Of course, that becomes complicated, does it not? Deciding who is honest and who is a scoundrel. Who will choose? Heresy or no, I could tell you the just from the evil. I often find myself able to make an accurate assessment of most people I meet ten minutes into a cup of tea with them. It is a gift to which I have no real outlet other than to amuse myself, so why not use it for a real purpose?
And just who am I to make such decrees? Well, I was once a muse. I am no longer, of course. The funny thing about existing as a muse is that you rarely know you are doing so until after the fact. But once, in my gilded youth, I was a muse for a creative man far too lovely for this world.
When truly creative souls try to exist in this horrid world of ours, they rarely make it much past childhood. Most children are lovely and creative and open to the possibilities of the wide world of fantasy and whimsy. As they grow, most of that is beaten down by figures and facts, and the world itself tells everyone that there is no real place for nonsense.
Every now and again, someone will breach the wall and light our tranquil, dull lives with the lamp fire of loveliness. Alliteration aside, their souls are so unique and beautiful that we are in awe of what they can create, and what they create could last lifetimes. Such souls are rarely understood and often criticized, as is usually the plight of the truly artistic.
I had the rare opportunity to know such a soul. He drifted in like a morning breeze and has lingered always on the periphery of my life. I was his little muse, and he was my friend. No, he was my Dodo, my Mr. Do-do-Dodgson. Most of the waking world knew him as Lewis Carroll.
Who are you, you might inquire? It seems I have been asked that question over and over again by so many. For the past several decades, my answer to that would have been, “I am Mrs. Hargreaves.” Still do not know me? No, I should think not. No one of consequence knows Mrs. Hargreaves as much other than an old widow, shut away in her house. Perhaps the children nearby think me a witch by now. I certainly hope they do.
Who are you? There it is again. Such a rude question, is it not? When my Dodo knew me, that answer was so very simple. And the answer, oh the answer gives me away, I think. Perhaps too soon? I will have to tell someday, will I not? I have been hiding for so long, the real story of what happened me, to all of us.
Who are you? The question doth persist, like a pesky fly I cannot seem to swat away. All right, I suppose I must be open and honest. After all, without honesty now, what is the point of doing this at all? You will know me most assuredly by my answer when the caterpillar asked me that very same question.
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar after removing the hookah from his mouth.
I shall offer the courtesy now that I never did with the actual caterpillar. He never was given my name, but I doubt he really ever cared to know it. Such is the manner of caterpillars.
“Why, I am Alice, of course.”
It was in late February of 1856 that we moved to our new home at Oxford. My father had been assigned a position as dean of Christ Church College, and we were to live in the lavish deanery on the campus grounds. My fondest memories were of that place, and still the mixed scent of old, yellowed pages with freshly trimmed gardens will recall the whimsy of my childhood. It is curious what might bring one back to a time and place in their history. I would always wrap myself up in the smells of libraries and gardens as though they were a warm blanket.
I had heard of Mr. Dodgson, of course, before we had been there long. My cousin Fredrika boasted that she had been sketched by “the most handsome and clever Mr. Dodgson”, and my older brother Harry had gone out a few times rowing with the man. Harry was young and not yet skilled at the task, and Mr. Dodgson was kind enough to offer him lessons shortly after we had arrived on campus.
Harry and Fredrika told me much about Mr. Dodgson. Apparently, he was the cleverest man they had ever met. He actually liked to talk to children, a concept most of the adults I knew were not fond of. At least, it seemed that way. Surely Mother would dote over the babies, but I often caused her an uproar as I was supposed to be silent and well behaved, a chore I found challenging at times.
“Do your lessons. Sit up straight. Do not pout so. Desist that annoying prattle, Alice.”
As soon as Mother employed Miss Prickett, our governess, she let her do the meddling while Mother took to the care of the house and garden. This seemed to relax her more, and she was more able to apply kind words to us since Miss Prickett was present for the discipline.
However, none of Mother’s kindness, even on her more spirited days, equaled that of the rumors of Mr. Dodgson. Harry and Fredrika both spoke of games he manufactured himself or riddles he had ready for them every outing.
I saw Mr. Dodgson once before I actually met him in the spring. He was with a man about his age, perhaps a little younger, and they were standing before the Christ Church Cathedral with a box on stilts draped in a large cape. Later, I learned that this was a camera. At the time, I was completely befuddled by the scene.
Mr. Dodgson in his professor robes flipped up the cape and hid beneath it like Ina and I did to Father’s robes when we were playing. He seemed to be fiddling around with something underneath, begging the younger man posing by the cathedral to hold perfectly still. I thought both men to be of a curious sort and continued to walk alongside Miss Prickett to avoid a good scolding, despite the urge to gawk.
Months later when the weather tuned from breezy to cold, the man came to our house and found it in a most disorderly state.
“Alice Liddell, return that teapot this instant!”
I had hidden myself away underneath the table clutching the teapot in question to my chest. It was a favorite teapot of mine with a small scene of ducks and rabbits painted on the belly. The horrid woman never used it, saying the spout poured terribly, but the instant she noticed its absence, she went on a rampage.
“Alice, where have you gone, child?”
She stomped past the table. I could see her heavy shoes beneath the table curtain as she passed. Miss Prickett was not an ugly woman, except when she was cross. By all accounts, she was handsome, with roundness in all the proper places. She had the look of a kind woman who would be warm to cuddle with on a cold day. On closer inspection, she was the type of woman who stomped like an elephant and roared when she was angry. Almost everything I did made her angry, it seemed.
I held the teapot close to me under the table. A tiny scratching sound came from within and then ceased. My body tensed, and I hoped Miss Prickett had not heard. A sudden rustling of the tablecloth spooked me, and I turned to see Edith’s tiny face and wide eyes peering at me from the other side of the table.
“What you doing, Ally?”
She was only two years old at the time, so “Ally” was the only incarnation of my name she could say. I was only four, but to me and Edith, we were a world of time and knowledge apart. The tiny thing followed me everywhere.
“Hush you! I’m hiding from Pricks.”
“I come too?”
“I’m not going anywhere. Just get in here before she sees you.”
Little Edith smiled like a conspirator and crawled under the table with me, snuggling up to my right side. She clutched the crook of my arm.
“Do not make a sound,” I whispered.
She nodded, and we huddled there together as Miss Prickett stormed past us again.
Just then, there came a rapping on the front door. Mother glided across the room to answer it, seemingly unaware of the drama playing out behind her in the dining room. She answered the door with her usual grace.
“Hello, Mr. Dodgson. Lovely to see you again. I will go tell my husband you are here,” she chimed.
She floated away, leaving the man standing awkwardly in our receiving room directly across from the dining table where Edith and I hid.
I knew his name, we all did. Harry spoke of him often and his silly games. Edith perked at the sound of his name and crawled out from under the table to get a better look. I tried to grab her foot, but it was as if she had greased herself with butter. She wriggled out of my grasp and headed for the receiving room. Miss Prickett saw her, and I knew my cover was forfeit.
“Alice Liddell, are you under that table?”
She was angry, and I had one choice in the matter to avoid a scolding. I only hoped the man was as benevolent as Harry made him out to be. In a quick burst, I dashed out from beneath the table, so startling Miss Prickett that she tumbled over a nearby chair.
“Alice!” she wailed.
Not a step did I miss, even at the sound of my name. I ran through the hall, past Edith who was spying from behind a doorframe, and into the receiving room where Mr. Dodgson stood astonished. He was pristinely dressed, wearing a tall hat and crisp gray-and-black gloves. I looked into his blue eyes in a pleading way, holding up the teapot.
“Please do not let her take it,” I said, nearly out of breath.
“Take what, my dear?”
I lifted the lid and held it out for him to look inside. He peeked in without hesitation to see a small, brown dormouse curled into a ball among various dried sticks and grasses. The tiny thing was asleep despite the raucous all around him. Mr. Dodgson smiled.
Miss Prickett burst into the room just as I replaced the lid and turned around to face her, the teapot clutched tightly to my chest. My mother was close behind her with a look of wonderment at all the commotion. Little Edith was still behind the doorframe, visibly trying not to laugh. I backed instinctively into the legs of Mr. Dodgson.
“What is happening here?” asked Mother, looking from me to Miss Prickett.
“Alice has stolen a teapot and decided to house vermin inside it,” answered Miss Prickett, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Alice, what sort of business is this?”
I looked to the floor and back to my mother. “No one was using it.” It was all I could manage. Vocabulary tends to leave children when they need it the most.
“Let me see,” commanded Mother.
I tipped the teapot and removed the lid to show her the dormouse inside. Mother made a sour face and bade me to cover it again, but she did not seem particularly angry.
Miss Prickett looked about to burst. “I went to collect a teapot, to make the children’s afternoon tea, and found this teapot hidden in Alice’s bedroom with the foul rodent inside!”
Everyone looked to me again.
“She usually uses the one with the roses on it. I thought it would not be missed.”
Miss Prickett scowled at me. I did not realize such a look could exist on such a young woman. I shrank back and found myself leaning into Mr. Dodgson’s legs.
“If I m-m-may interject,” he said shyly and with a slight stammer.
The women switched their gaze from me to him.
“Alice is just readying your t-t-teapot for latest fashion in the spring.”
“Oh yes. Such a trend is this now in London that all fashionable houses have at least three t-t-teapots housing d-d-dormice for the winter to be ready for the spring events. The little d-d-darlings are known to leave behind in the very p-p-porcelain a spice that cannot be reprod-d-duced in any way.”
Miss Prickett looked astonished, and Mother eyed Mr. Dodgson suspiciously. I turned to look back up at him, and he smiled at me with a wink.
“I had no idea such a thing even existed. Who ever heard of rodent-spiced tea?” said Miss Prickett, amazed at my apparent knowledge of fashionable trends.
“I think it’s a trend b-begun in India,” offered Mr. Dodgson.
The rest of us knew it was a lot of nonsense, even Mother, and I tried not to giggle. Perhaps, Miss Prickett was unaccustomed to nonsense in adults and therefore, took anything a young scholar like Mr. Dodgson said at face value. It was not a nice trick for him to play, but she did have a mind to kill my little friend in the teapot, so I reckoned one evened out the other. I was sure Mother would end the charade any moment, but she proved me wrong by letting it play itself out before her. A knowing smile was our only clue that she approved of this game.
This is an excerpt from The Dodo Knight, by Michelle Rene. Buy it now to keep reading!