The Second Saturday in May
Time was bound to get even with Tarrant, sooner or later.
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"I'm looking for a boy, he's about this high, brown eyes, lots of wavy hair, very yellowish; and I think he's wearing armor," the strange man said. "Though he usually wears a blue dress, and-"
"Wears a blue what?" interrupted Imogene.
"Blue dress," said the man, as though it were a perfectly logical thing for a boy to be wearing. "Though the last I saw him, it was definitely armor. Have you seen him?"
"No armor, and certainly no dresses," replied Imogene.
The man himself was dressed only slightly less strangely than the person he was describing. A dark-colored suit over a blue shirt, with a yellow spotted cravat and a profusion of red hair only partially contained by a large top hat wrapped around with a pale ribbon. Unremarkable bits of clothing in and of themselves, but the colors seemed too garish - as if someone had approximated a gentleman's dress, without quite entering into the spirit of how a respectable person's garments ought to look. The man was, Imogene thought, the most interesting thing to crop up in her garden in over a fortnight. (Much more interesting than the roses or the tulips, which Mama was forever telling her she ought to cultivate an interest in. Meaning that as Imogene was not particularly busy - which Imogene knew meant not particularly married - she ought to leap at the chance to become an unpaid servant in her own mother's home. Bother the tulips, was Imogene's reply to that. She'd rather try to catch lizards - much more fun than looking after something that doesn't ever move.)
The strange man began to walk back towards the house, but stopped as if with a sudden thought. "Are you quite sure you haven't seen him?" he asked her, turning round and looking at her closely. "He seems to be overlooked an awful lot of the time - even by caterpillars, and they have a reputation for noticing a great deal."
"I think I would have noticed a boy wearing armor, and I most definitely would have noticed one wearing a dress," replied Imogene.
"Do you know, that's what nearly everyone has told me, but I still think -"
Thinking that she had subjected herself to the ravings of a lunatic for quite long enough, Imogene began edging towards the path back to the house. Pulling her shawl closer around her, she tried for a decorous retreat. "Yes, well, I am terribly sorry, but I must be getting back to-"
"Do no boys here actually wear dresses?" he asked, beginning to sound frustrated. He was folding and unfolding the brim of his hat as he spoke; it snapped back and forth in a most unnerving fashion.
"No, they don't," said Imogene, still creeping past the hedge, but he was keeping pace with her, apparently intent on carrying on with the conversation.
"Not even any of those pleated little kilts?" The sincerity with which he asked this question caused Imogene to pause with her back to a particularly large trellis of roses.
"I suppose if they're Scottish, they might," Imogene told him. In the same tone that she might have said, I suppose if they're complete barbarians. "But for the rest of the civilized world, dresses are hardly an accoutrement of a gentleman's wardrobe."
"Perhaps he isn't!"
"Civilized?" asked Imogene, cattily. Not that she would be at all surprised - anyone this particular person was attempting to locate would likely be ready for a long stay in Bedlam. Both of them, actually. Imogene wondered if perhaps this was where they had met.
"No - perhaps he isn't a gentleman. Try this - a girl, about this high, brown eyes, wavy hair -"
"You mean to say you don't even know whether this person is a man or a woman?" hissed Imogene, quickly moving from outrage into complete shock.
"Does it matter?" asked the man, as though he were honestly confused that it did. "I mean, some bits are different, but that's hardly an insurmountable problem; in fact -"
"Yes, I should say it does matter," said Imogene, cutting him off, and blushing scarlet and thinking herself entirely scandalized. If this was lunacy, which it patently was, then it was also some of the most intriguing gossip she had heard in months. Though Imogene thought it likely that this gossip was so scandalizing, she would never be able to repeat it - not even to pester her older sister, who so disapproved of anything with even a whiff of impropriety.
"Well, then let's assume that he's a girl," the man was saying, "Because I certainly haven't been getting anywhere asking after a boy. Honestly, you would think he'd never been here before, and McTwisp assured me that he had -"
"All right, a girl," said Imogene, intrigued now, and the slightest bit curious to know who this character of indeterminate gender might be. If she could find that out, it would be the talk of London for at least the next fortnight. Maybe longer.
"A girl," the man agreed. "And he - she, rather, let's try she - she was at a garden party this afternoon, and McTwisp assured me that she would be coming back here directly. But she hasn't, and as near as I can tell, no one here has seen her all day. It's quite vexing. This is the second Saturday in May, isn't it?"
"Yes," confirmed Imogene. "It is. But - unless it's one of the servants, I'm not sure who you could mean. The only people who live here now are myself and Mama, now that Helen has married. You don't happen to know this person's name, do you?"
"That changes, too," the man said with a cross look. "No one ever seems to agree. But usually people call her Alice. Now, your Mama -" he continued with a speculative look.
"Is NOT who you are looking for," Imogene cut in hurriedly. "And I don't know anyone named Alice, and besides which no one else lives here, and the servants would hardly have attended a garden party."
"No Alices at all?" the man asked with a concerned expression. "Not even a Hardly Alice or two?"
"None," said Imogene, which wasn't entirely true, but that Alice couldn't be the one he meant.
"And you are the only other person who lives here, and servants do not attend garden parties." the man repeated, as if to make sure that he had it correctly.
"Yes," she confirmed.
"No, I don't think you'll do at all," said the man, now pacing around her in a circle, and the girl had the funniest sensation that this odd gentleman was inspecting her. "Very nice hair, and the eyes are right. Lovely proportions - you'd make a good dress model, do you know? - and you have the same look to your skin. You do look strikingly like him, all in all. It's only... well I am not sure quite what it is, but it seems to be very necessary and you simply haven't got it."
"Haven't got what?" the girl demanded, trying to decide if she should feel insulted at being dismissed out of hand by a lunatic. Was that a good sign for her marriage prospects, or a bad one? Granted, Helen had already married, and there were the babies now, but it couldn't be too much longer, could it?
"Muchness, perhaps." replied the man, although it sounded as if he still weren't sure that was the correct answer. "Or maybe it's that she is a Queen. Or, was a Queen. She's a Champion, now. But whatever it was, she had it before she became a Champion - so being a Champion by itself can't be it." The man grinned at this logical convolution. "You aren't yourself a Queen by chance, are you?"
"No," said Imogene, and if this character was running about her back garden looking for the Queen, he was a shade or two madder than she had previously suspected. Although this was more in line with the sort of scandalous gossip that she would be able to impart to acquaintances. The day that a madman wandered into her garden inquiring for the Queen. That was the sort of story she'd be able to repeat in salons for a number of weeks, Imogene was sure.
"Perhaps that's it," said the man, but he was frowning as he said it. "That's not terribly encouraging. If I can't ever find her - well, there simply aren't very many other Queens to choose from. Only two, in fact. One is the most cruel and terrifying woman ever to exist, and the other is," and here the man tapped the side of his head, "a little off, if you take my meaning. So you see, if I don't find Alice again - well, the windmill is terribly lonely now, you know. I don't know how else I might change that."
The man rubbed at his forehead as if he were thinking, or trying to dispel a headache. And in between the nonsense about Queens and windmills, Imogene had hit upon one salient bit of information.
"You quite fancy her, don't you?" she asked him, figuring that if he could talk about men wearing dresses, she was allowed to be equally as blunt. "This girl you're trying to find."
"Or boy," he corrected. "Whichever he is. And, yes, I rather think that I do."
Imogene wondered, a little unkindly, if the madman pictured himself as the King of England already, or simply a sort of hopeful suitor.
She was about to attempt to elicit more details about this supposed love affair with the Queen, when she heard Helen's voice shrilly calling her name.
"Imogene, dear - are you still out here?"
It sounded as though she were still at the other end of the garden; the man beside her had immediately perked up. Imogene was suddenly certain that her being found unchaperoned in a garden with a madman was something she emphatically did not wish her sister to discover. It would be deleterious to her marriage prospects, as Helen (and Mama) were forever reminding her.
"Yes, Helen, I am coming straight away," Imogene shouted back.
"I shall come along as well," the man was saying, falling into step with her. "Perhaps she shall know something about a boy in a blue dress."
"No, I am certain she won't - Helen!"
"I just have to nip back into the house," her sister called, "and you must make sure that Alice doesn't wander off again. It won't be but two seconds."
"No, don't leave," called Imogene, and heavens, the queer man was nearly running now, and then she was around the corner, and there was her sister, arms folded and a cross expression on her face. Both of them began talking at once.
"There is this awfully strange man wandering about in the garden -"
"I don't see why it is such a terrible inconvenience to expect you to watch the girls for five minutes -"
"-and he is looking for the Queen of England and I think it would be much better if we were to all -"
"-when you are already out here anyway, and you know that they get into the most terrific mischief if -"
Helen broke off, as she suddenly took proper notice of the man who had followed Imogene into the garden.
Little Margaret had also seen him walk in, and was looking him over with the frank interest of a six-year-old. Standing with her arms crossed, she appeared the perfect, miniature image of her mother. But the strange man was looking at Helen Kingsleigh's younger daughter with an expression of complete shock, slowly fading into a look of wry comprehension.
Alice, sitting cross-legged on the ground, was returning the look with equal curiosity. Removing her thumb from her mouth, the regal little girl condescended to address the stranger.
"You have very funny eyebrows," the girl declared. "What are you doing in my grandmama's garden?"
The man rubbed at his head again, as though the headache had returned with a vengeance.
"I suppose," he said, in a very tired sounding-voice, "That there are rather a lot of second Saturdays in May."
~Puffin's Note - Poor Tarrant. His visits to the aboveground world never quite work out the way he thinks they should...
This fic started out as a musing on who, exactly, Aunt Imogene's prince might be. Strangely enough, that bit didn't make it into the final version.
For those of you following Locked Rooms, I should have an update within the next day or two.