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Out of Oz, Page 12

Gregory Maguire


  Miss Murth and Rain were huddled together on a settee. Miss Murth’s face had been wet but was now dry as if permanently. Her grim strength had an aspect of fleckstone about it.

  “This is a furniture warehouse,” said Glinda. One could get about the room by climbing on top of the wardrobe, dressers, chairs. A cat would love this room, leap up and never descend again. But there was hardly enough floor space to do her daily kick-ups to keep her bottom pert. “We can’t live like this. Murthy, what happened?”

  “You weren’t gone half an hour, Lady Glinda, before they beefed their way through the door. General’s orders, they said. They locked us in this room till they’d cleared out. Puggles tried to stop them, but they’d have none of it. There were almost a dozen of them, and all young men, showing no respect for a man of his age. They took him up the stairs to the parapet to get him out of the way. I don’t know what happened next. They told me he broke away and fell over the balustrade. Dreadful liars, the lot of them. What will become of us?”

  “You will have to sleep on the settee. Rain, can you settle down?”

  But Rain had become a cat. She had climbed up a chest of drawers and crossed on top of the escritoire and scrabbled aboard the wardrobe. “I can sleep up here!” she crowed. For her, this was fun. Well, Glinda thought, perhaps it felt to her like having a family. Which is less fun than is generally acknowledged in the popular press.

  “You’ll do no such thing. Get down from there. You’ll be the next one to bash your skull.”

  Murth fussed. “Oh, Mum, is that what happened to Puggles?”

  “He’s alive, at least he was when I left him. I don’t know his condition. I think they’re sending for Dame Doctor Vutters.”

  Rain said, “Did your supper get all et up?”

  “How kind of you to remember.” Under the circumstances, Glinda was touched. “It was as well received as I might have hoped for.”

  Murth set her straight. “She means, is there any left. We didn’t get a meal, what with the invasion of the furniture snatchers.”

  “I’ll see to it at once.” The queen of the kitchen now, she sallied forth from her room. But in her large salon she was stopped by four soldiers in dress habillard. They carried rapiers, ceremonial but sharp. None of them was Zackers.

  “Curfew, Lady Glinda,” said one. “Apologies from the General.”

  “But I’m peckish. I’m off to collect myself a little pick-me-up.”

  “We’re here to be of service.”

  “Nonsense. What, are you going to remove the night soil as well? Sing us to sleep if we have a bad dream? Boys. Out of my way.”

  “Orders, Lady Glinda. We’ll dispatch to the commissary for what you need. Will bread and cheese do?”

  “Rye brisks. And milk. I have a child, don’t you know.” And how odd to make that statement. “I have a lady companion as well. So a bottle of savorsuckle brandy while you’re at it.”

  Returning to her room, she felt defeated. When the door closed behind her, Rain and Miss Murth glanced up with eyes like sunken puddings. (For the rest of Glinda’s life, would everything look like spoiled food? A sad commentary.) She had nothing to say. But thunder outside the house, nearer this time, said it for her. “Let’s open the curtains and raise a window. The air is stuffy in here with the three of us. At least two of us ought to have bathed more recently, had we known we’d be lodging together.”

  She directed Miss Murth to the sash, and in doing so realized that they’d been crowded into a room with windows that looked only in one direction—east. Glinda had always preferred sleeping in a room served by the sunrise, but now that she was exiled from other chambers, she had no view of the front gardens, and none of Restwater except the distances toward Haugaard’s Keep. A flotilla sailing in from the Gillikin River and western Restwater could be approaching the boathouses and she’d never see them till they passed—or arrived.

  “Thunder, but no sign of rain,” said Miss Murth. “The night is cloudless.”

  “This is what fun is like,” said Rain, almost to herself.

  “Get in your nightdress,” snapped Glinda.

  “It’s in my trunk. Up in the attics, where I sleeps.”

  “You’ll have to borrow something of mine. Miss Murth, find her a camisole. Something.”

  After a light supper that was rather like a picnic—they all sat on Glinda’s bed and got crumbs everywhere—they made their good nights and Miss Murth blew out the candle.

  “Miss Murth. Are there evening prayers for a child?”

  “Lady Glinda,” said Murthy through the dark, “you never assigned me the task of raising this child. Give her whatever childhood prayers you remember. My own prayers are private ones.”

  “I know, you’re praying for my immediate death, by my own hand, food poisoning myself. Very well. Rain, here is what we said in the Pertha Hills, when my mother would tuck me in.”

  The memory, like ice forming, was slow to arrive. In the end, Glinda said,

  Sweet and sure the lilacs bloom,

  And the heather, and the broom.

  Every mouse and mole rejoices

  When the sparrows raise their voices.

  “That’s not a prayer, that’s a nursery rhyme, and you’ve got it all wrong,” snapped Murthy.

  “God bless us, every one. Except you,” said Glinda.

  20.

  The weather remained clear but stifling. Glinda and Miss Murth were allowed to sit in the parlor daily and play cards in the presence of four armed men. Rain was called once or twice for her lessons.

  “Can you read enough to find out what’s happening?” Glinda whispered before Rain left. “Snoop a bit?”

  Rain rolled her eyes and didn’t answer.

  On the third night of the intolerable situation, Rain waited until lights were out. Then she interrupted Glinda’s continuing attempt at devotional doggerel by saying, “The teaching man was called away while we was doing our letter writing and no one else was in the room. Somefin was happening so I creeped to the door and then snucked out. I went round by the barns. No one saw me.”

  “Entirely too dangerous. Don’t do that again or I’ll slap you. What did you see?”

  “That weren’t no thunder we hear at nights. It’s dragons in the dairy barns up the slope.”

  Glinda sat straight up in the dark.

  “It’s true. They got dragons for them boats I think. I heard Cherrystone yelling at someone for treating one of ’em beasties wrong. The lad got his foot crushed and they had to cut it off. Dame Doctor Vutters is living there now, like us. In the shed with the mattocks and grub hoes and stuff. It’s her surgery.”

  “Dragons!” Miss Murth sounded as if she would have wept had she been less desiccated. “Lurline preserve us!”

  “They’re big as houses,” said the girl, “and they glint gold even in the shadows. But they stink and they spit and strike out like catses.” She pounced a forearm and made the cry of a shrike.

  Glinda plumped her pillows up in the dark. “It’s beginning to make sense. Why we’ve been crowded into a room that faces only east. And why they burned down the fields around here. They don’t want news of the dragons getting out to the Munchkinlanders.”

  “And why Cherrystone was so angry after that puppet show, with the dragon in the lake!” said Murth excitedly.

  “I thought you weren’t watching. You were supposed to be minding the girl.”

  “We peeked. So put us in prison.”

  “We’re already there.” Glinda bit her lip. “I assume they’re flying dragons—I’ve never seen a dragon, so I don’t know if there are other varieties. Do they have wings, Rain?”

  “Like great sloppy tents. When they stretches ’em, they goes to the ceilings of the barns! They disturb the pigeons, who poop on ’em. Then they eats the pigeons.”

  “Perhaps this makes sense of the vessel designs as well,” added Murth. “Those stumpy masts, and the odd twin prows. They may not be entirely sailboats, b
ut boats to be pulled by dragons in harness. The dragon may slot between the double-breasted prow.”

  “How ingenious.”

  Glinda knew she had to get to the Grimmerie again, but she didn’t dare do it with Miss Murth hovering about. Rain was taciturn to the world, but Miss Murth might gabble if cornered. “Rain,” said Glinda, “I think we’d better cancel your reading lessons now. The point has been made. You are not incapable of learning your letters.”

  Rain’s mouth made an O. “But I’m nearly reading, real reading! Cherrystone keeps bringing me old papers and training me up on them, and I’m getting the hang of it.”

  It was as if the ice Glinda could form in a glass of wine had begun to cloud the blood in her veins. “What pages are those?”

  “I can’t say. Old magicks, I think, but I can’t get ’em yet.”

  So he knew who she was. Pure peril now and no mistake.

  “Not another word,” said Glinda, “it’s sleepytime. If you blather any more I shall subject you to more nursery verses.”

  The room fell silent, and soon Murth was snoring, and Rain’s breath had silenced to below the level of hearing. But Glinda did not sleep.

  The next day she requested an audience with Cherrystone. He didn’t reply until late in the day, and said he’d be up to see her at sunset. Through the intermediary, she asked for permission to allow Rain and Miss Murth to take the air in the herb garden—which she knew was sufficiently hidden from both barns and lakeside not to alarm the Menaciers—so that she and Cherrystone could have some privacy in her room. This he allowed, said his emissary.

  He arrived on time, looking more worn than before.

  “You’ve finally beaten my resistance,” she told him. “Here I am, General, entertaining you in all but the very bed in which I sleep.”

  “I apologize for the inconvenience.” He had grown more courtly and more distant. “How may I be of service?”

  “I need to know about Puggles.”

  He looked confused.

  “Po Understar. Puggles. My butler.”

  “Oh, yes. Well, he is hanging on. He’s recovered consciousness, somewhat, but not his language.”

  “What does Dame Doctor Vutters say?”

  “A broken spine.”

  And to think he might have left with the others had she not required a butler.

  “General, I would like to talk with the doctor, and to see the patient.”

  “I’ve dismissed the doctor. She’s done all that can be done, she says.”

  “Where is Puggles?”

  “He’s been made a chamber in a closet under one of the staircases.”

  Glinda stood and began to walk toward the door. Cherrystone stood and said, “I can’t allow this.”

  “Then stop me forcibly. You ought to enjoy that.” She brushed past him, angry, alert, sensitized to her earlobes and toes. He didn’t touch her.

  She swept past the Menaciers in the next room with their rapiers raised. “Gentlemen,” she said. Behind her, Cherrystone must be signaling that she be allowed to pass.

  She hadn’t known there was a cupboard under the west staircase. It reeked of rising damp. Mouse droppings dotted the unpainted floor. Puggles was swathed in a crude overshirt and his knees were exposed. He didn’t move to cover them when he saw her. He did see her—she was sure of that, by the tracking of his eyes—but he couldn’t move his hands. Or he no longer cared about whether he was exposing his knees to his superior.

  “Oh, Puggles,” she whispered. She sat right on his bed and took his fingers in hers. Clammy and lifeless, but not cold. “Can you tell me anything about what happened? Can you talk?”

  He blinked. The skin at his lower eyelids pouched, shadowy grey.

  “I know you were behaving in proper service. I shall see you are tended to as you deserve, to the best of my ability. I want you to know that.” She swallowed. “Po. Po Understar. Do you understand?”

  There was no way of knowing if he did. She sat there, stroking the top of his hand, and then left him. Her escort returned her to her room. At least she was alone for a moment, for Murth and Rain were still enjoying the herb garden. She should have gone to join them, but ten minutes of solitude was bliss itself.

  She took up the Grimmerie and hoped, with the success of her little exercise in ice generation, that it might relent and allow her access to other pages, other spells, but as usual it kept its own counsel. She wanted to throw it out the window, but knew better.

  After lunch, when Glinda was having a little lie-down with the shades drawn, Rain flapping a palmetto fan to keep the flies away and provide some breeze, a knock came at the door. One of the Menaciers handed Miss Murth a letter from Cherrystone to Lady Glinda. “I’ll look at it later, Murth,” said Glinda, and she drifted off into a troubled rest. For a moment, or ten, she was back in Shiz, darting up some alley of flowering quinces, racing Elphaba to the fountain at the back of the quad. Elphaba was glowing with the effort—glowing emerald!—and Glinda, in her dream, was almost absent to herself, caught up in admiring her friend. It happened so seldom, vacating the prison of one’s limited apprehensions. Even dreams seemed ego-heavy, she thought as she was waking. But oh, to see Elphaba, even in dreams, is both reward and punishment, for it reminds me of my loss.

  “Where’s Murth? I mean Miss Murth?” she asked Rain.

  “Dunno.”

  Thunder came up—real thunder, not dragon cry—and the long delayed cloudburst pummeled the house. Rain leaped to help Glinda slam the windows closed. She hoped someone downstairs would remember to shutter the windows to protect the parquetry, but with Murth called away and Puggles incapacitated, the floor would probably be drenched and need refitting in the fall. Damn damn damn.

  They played cards. The rain continued.

  As long as Miss Murth was taking her time, they checked the Grimmerie. Again Rain could open it while Glinda could not, but as usual they could turn to no other page than the one that the Grimmerie seemed inclined to let them see.

  By teatime Glinda suffered the throes of a snit gunning to become a rage. “I am expected to do everything around here?” she said to Rain.

  “I’m a parrot,” said Rain from the top of the wardrobe. “Tweetle twee.”

  When the fellow arrived with afternoon tea, Glinda accosted him. “Where is Miss Murth? Find her and tell her to stop gallivanting. She can’t be outside; she’s not allowed. Furthermore, it’s bucketing barrels out there.” She paused. Perhaps Miss Murth was tending to Puggles. Was there a tenderness between them?

  No. Impossible. Not Murth. She wasn’t capable of that fine a feeling, and she wouldn’t inspire it in anyone else, either.

  “Is Miss Murth with Puggles?” she snapped.

  “I’m just doing your tea, Mum,” he said.

  “Are you all imbecilic? Is that a requirement of enlisted men? It’s Lady Glinda!” She was losing it, big time. “Get me Murth!”

  At sundown, when the rain had finally passed over and the heat returned as if the drenching had never happened, Zackers appeared. He had his cap twisted in his hands as if he was paying a social call.

  “What is it, Zackers?”

  “You asked about Murth, Mum, and the General doesn’t understand.”

  “What are you chattering about?”

  “The note that the General sent you just after lunch, Mum.”

  “There was a note,” said Rain helpfully, leaping from wardrobe to the bed like a demented bandit monkey. The bedclothes flew up. “Isn’t it still over there, under the what-chit?”

  A paper folded beneath the decanter of sherry. Glinda hurried to look.

  Lady Glinda,

  I regret the further inconvenience. In pursuance of your request to be allowed to name what member in your service might be released due to mounting pressures upon the household, I would like your recommendation. I would suggest the girl, as she must be of less service to you than your lady-in-waiting. I could use her somehow.

  Cordially,<
br />
  General Traper L. Cherrystone,

  Hx. Red., Advanced

  “This makes no sense to me. I did not receive it. I was napping.”

  Zackers looked distinctly uncomfortable. “The General acted upon your suggestion.”

  “I made no suggestion. I was napping, I tell you.”

  He handed her a folded page of her own stationery.

  General:

  Under the circumstances, I shall release Miss Murth.

  Lady Glinda of Mockbeggar Hall

  Arduenna of the Uplands,

  Dame Chuffrey,

  Throne Minister Emerita,

  Honorary Chair of Charities,

  Patron of Saint Glinda’s in the Shale Shallows, etc., etc.

  Murth had brought Glinda’s signature to too fine a facsimile.

  2I.

  She went to shove past Zackers as she had done past Cherrystone, but he blocked her way. “En’t allowed, Mum,” he said. “Quarantine.”

  “Quarantine? What are you on about?”

  “That’s what I’m told. You’re confined to your room. Meals will be supplied.”

  “What’s been done with Miss Murth?”

  “I’ve got my orders.” Suddenly his pimples seemed a disguise; he was a man holding on to the scabby shield of youth to use it to his advantage. “You’d be wise to return to your room, Lady Glinda.”

  She fixed as spirited and venomous a look upon him as she could, but even within a moment she softened it. “Zackers. I don’t want to make trouble for you. Send for your commanding officer and we’ll sort this out.”

  “The General has given orders not to be disturbed.”

  So she went into the room and closed the door. Rain had been jumping on the bed, and sat down flump with her legs outstretched. “Where’s Miss Murth gone off to?”

  “Never you mind about that.” She went to the window and threw up the sash. Was there any way to escape? Her own windowsill extended to join a sort of stone rim or lintel, some three inches wide, that ran around the building, connecting all the windows on this level. She could not hope to get a purchase on a ledge that narrow.