Editor's note: A little cross-dressing never hurts in fairy tales. I mean, Puss is in boots, isn't he? That's species cross dressing. And here, we have a wolf and a hunter who both like fine fabrics. Liz Colter offers a fun tale with a few twists.
“My granddaughter, Liese, will be coming to visit this weekend. I’m afraid I must ask that you all find other diversions for a few days.”
The pronouncement was met with murmurs and oh’s, and at least one “of course” from the current smattering of painters and poets staying with Abigail. The house would feel quite empty once they all left; her home in the Vienna Woods was such an ideal setting for the artistic soul that Abigail couldn’t remember the last time she had been alone.
Messages were sent over the next two days and carriages came and went, ferrying her guests to their next retreat or inspirational destination. By Friday evening only Gino remained.
“I thought the Aumbreges were giving you a ride,”Abigail said, as she set a table of cold meats and cheese.
“Ah, the Aumbreges. Well, I thought three a crowd.”
Abigail wondered why he would think any such thing. They were an outgoing and lively couple with a carriage large enough to carry a small circus
“Do you have other transportation then?”
“Well... no. You see, I thought what harm in me staying on? I could be quiet as a mouse while you and your lovely granddaughter visit, and write just there by the fire.” He waved a ruffled cuff the general direction. “You will hardly know I am here.”
Gino had arrived three weeks ago, travelling with a man who had stayed often with Abigail. Introduced as the friend of a friend whom he had met by chance, Gino had chosen to stay on when his companion left. Abigail thought little of it at the time. Her daughter called her bohemian, but Abigail enjoyed the variety of people she hosted—from talented commoners to the esteemed George Sand—and she had found something to like in each one. Gino, however, might prove to be the exception.
Gino smiled a large, toothy smile and failed to rescue her from the embarrassment of not remembering his last name, though surely he had given it at some point. He had an unusually generous mouth, and she found the unfading smile disturbing.
“Gino,” she began again. “I’m afraid you must find other lodgings, at least for the weekend. I will leave you to pack and see to arrangements as I have a painting I would like to complete before Liese arrives.”
Abigail fairly hurried from the house out to her easel by the pond, suddenly uncomfortable at being alone with him. Since he had not taken advantage while people of more means were about, he would have to walk to town, but that was not so far. She stayed outside until dusk, giving him every chance to be thoroughly gone when she returned, and damn the formalities of farewells.
When twilight forced Abigail to return, she was dismayed to see candles burning in the windows. Opening the front door, she peered into the empty formal room and then into the parlor. A twinge of regret wormed through her for her long-standing argument against live-in help, as a burly gardener or butler would be quite welcome about now. Cracking the kitchen door she found that room also empty, though the food in the dining room was in disarray, as if an animal had been at it.
Abigail held her breath as she ascended to the upper level, but all seemed quiet there as well. She breathed a great sigh of relief when she saw Gino’s empty room. Doing a small pirouette of joy, she spun into her bedchamber and froze.
Gino was sitting at her vanity, powdering his face with her mink puff. He was wearing her lavender ball gown. His large, hairy feet were bare, though a pair of silk slippers lay nearby, stretched and misshapen. He smiled his toothy smile at her from the mirror. Standing, he turned for her to admire him. The dress came well above his ankles, as he was a tall man, and pulled across his broad chest, but hung where her more ample hips would have filled it out.
“Well?” he said, striking a pose for her, one hand flipped dramatically above his shoulder.
He was wearing her amethyst necklace and earrings. She looked to his trunk lying open on her bed and saw the rest of her jewels piled within, atop what appeared to be another of her gowns.
Abigail turned to run, but his strong arm caught her about the waist before she reached the bedchamber door.
*At mid-morning the knock came that Abigail had been dreading. Gino swept to the door, dressed for daytime now in her beige silk gown with pearl beading and matching pearl earrings, though still barefoot. He pulled the door open. Abigail, tied and gagged in the parlor, scooted along the divan until she could see.
Liese stood in the doorway, her mouth open at the sight of Gino. She was wearing her favorite red cloak and, shadowed by his imposing frame, looked too small to be fourteen years old. To Abigail’s horror, the footman was clucking up the horses and pulling away. Damn it all. Liese must have carried her bags herself, in imitation of Abigail’s own independent streak.
Liese stammered. “Is...is my grandmother here?”
“But I am your grandmother,” Gino said.
“No you’re not.”
“What a clever girl. Don’t I look like her though?” He struck the same pose he had for Abigail.
“No,” Liese said, “not one bit.”
“Ah,” he said with exasperation, “well she’s been waiting for you. And so have I.” He appraised her from head to foot. “My but you’re a tasty morsel.” He grabbed her by one arm and yanked her inside.
Abigail watched in astonishment as Argos, Liese’s enormous Irish Wolfhound, leaped into the room, growling at the affront to his mistress. Gino released Liese and jumped back from the dog with a snarl. Abigail nearly fainted with relief, though she might have known Argos would be with Liese as she and the beast were inseparable. Abigail thumped her feet on the floor to alert Liese to her predicament.
Her granddaughter took the situation in at a glance and shouted a command. The hound leaped at Gino, latching to a silk-covered leg. Gino yelped and bit the dog on the neck, winning a moment of freedom when the dog snapped at his face. He bolted out the front door with the huge hound on his heels, and made good time despite the gown, the bare feet and the injury.
“Oh, grandmamma!” Liese cried, and ran to untie her.
Abigail was free of all but the rope around her ankles when they both jumped at the sound of a musket shot.
Liese removed the last rope quickly, and together they hurried out the door to the edge of the woods. Liese called for Argos, and the big dog appeared from the trees at a run.
“Good beast,” Abigail said absently, patting the head that came nearly to her chest, while Liese hugged the dog. She scanned the woods for Gino and the source of the gunshot, but there was only silence.
“Try mixing a tiny bit of red with that,” Abigail coached.
Liese’s natural talent with watercolors had developed quickly over the past three weeks, even though Abigail only saw her at the weekends. Abigail wouldn’t have minded if Liese had the artistic aptitude of a three-year old; she was just grateful her granddaughter had been allowed to continue visiting following the debacle with Gino. In fact, now that Abigail was entertaining less often and far more selectively, she was seeing more of Liese than she ever had before. She thought it a fine trade.
Abigail poised her brush to highlight the bluebells on her canvas with small streaks of white, trying to duplicate the early morning light as it filtered through the trees by the pond. She touched the tip of the brush to the first flower, ready to apply the delicate stroke, when Argos gave a single, sharp bark, causing her to smudge white across her green blades of grass.
“Confound it,” she exclaimed. She glowered at Argos though, in truth, she had developed a soft spot for the dog. Paintbrush poised in the air, she looked beyond the pond into the trees where Argos stared unblinking and intent.
Liese stroked his shaggy head. “Quiet,” she instructed.“It’s probably a deer.”
A crashing sound came from the woods and Argos began a low rumble in his great chest that erupted through his curled lips. A moment later, a man, barefoot and wearing a woman’s lacy white nightdress, emerged from the trees at a run, skidding to a stop across the pond from them. Gino looked as surprised to see Abigail and Liese as they were to see him.
“Oh, blast,” Abigail heard him mutter as he spotted Argos. With that, he turned to dive back into the woods.
Argos seemed to recognize Gino as readily as Abigail had, and the dog lit out after him. Before Argos had closed the distance, another man burst from the trees, musket at the fore. The man fired a shot and Abigail saw a flutter of white cloth through the trees as Gino fell.
Liese called Argos sharply to her just as the woodsman spotted the dog. The hunter spun at the sound of Liese’s voice, seeing the women for the first time. He snatched his cap from his balding head and stammered an apology. “I didn’t realize I had come so far as your land, Ma’am, Miss. Please, don’t be alarmed.” He followed Abigail’s gaze to his musket, realizing it was now pointed at her, and quickly lowered it. “He was a thief and a rogue I was chasing. I’ll be glad to tell the magistrate so when he comes.”
“Have you killed him?” Liese asked the hunter. Abigail was impressed with her matter-of-fact tone.
Reminded that he hadn’t checked on his prey, the hunter hurried into the trees. He came back nodding. “Quite dead, Miss. But I assure you both, he was deserving of it.”
Abigail moved closer to Liese and put a comforting arm around her, unsure how Gino’s violent end might have affected the girl, but Liese seemed steady as a stone.
“I am all too well aware of his criminal inclinations,” Abigail replied. “I had quite hoped he was dead, or at least mortally wounded, when the wretch terrorized my granddaughter and myself a few weeks ago, but the magistrate’s men were unable to find any trace of him.”
Abigail had known that a widowed woodsman lived in a cabin nearby, and a scenario suddenly occurred to her. “Tell me, did you last shoot at this man about three weeks ago? He would have been wearing a beige gown at the time.”
The hunter reddened. “I confess I did, though I didn’t know as I was shooting at a man. I was following boar tracks when something brown and something grey ran through the brush right close to me. I’d thought it was two wolves.” He blushed a deeper shade of crimson as he looked at Argos, sitting obediently at Liese’s side.
“When I realized it was a man I had shot, I offered to care for him. I’d only winged him, but he seemed right grateful that I took him in.” The hunter grimaced and glared into to woods where Gino’s body lay. “Right grateful all the way up until this morning when I caught him trying to hide my dead wife’s silver and her wedding ring in his bag. When I saw what he was about, he turned on me with a knife.”
“I see,” Abigail said, and indeed she did. That the woodsman had taken Gino in was kind of him, but the fact that he had not objected to finding Gino in Abigail’s gown and appeared to have given the man his wife’s nightdress was something more than kindness explained. The widowed hunter must have been lonely indeed.
“Please, come inside,” Abigail said. “I’ll have Mary make us a pot of tea while I send my man to fetch the magistrate.” Having at last conceded to live-in’s, she might as well make use of them.
She turned, one arm still around Liese, and started for the house. The woodsman, given no chance to answer, followed. When they reached the side door, Abigail paused, looking back to the woods.
The woodsman’s first impression of Gino had been quite right. Gino had been a wolf indeed. A big, bad wolf.
Liz grew up on fairy tales, from the truly grim Grimm’s Fairy Tales, to fairy tales from other cultures, and loves both the classics and the modern re-tellings. News of her writing can be found at http://ecolwrites.blogspot.