The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.
Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.
It happens in life that some things really must be considered more than others. It must be considered that Alice felt strange in a new place, and that she felt mixed twinges of doubt and excitement over travel. She did not know what was coming, but the darkening leaves in the cloistered front lawn gave her pause to recognize an air of duality about the place, of dreadful seclusion and delicious closeness. It must be considered that the March Hare was not well in his compact head and believed that the people at the other edge of his table were in league to make Rabbit Coq au Vin for the evening, when truly they only desired to play Baccarat but were unable to find a sixth deck of cards. It must be also considered that what the Mad Hatter kept in his hat was an inscrutable paradox; even now he was pulling a small cake made with Gouda from its interior and handing it to Alice, who was conveniently very hungry.
At this point the group of heads clustered in conference began to break apart and Alice could see distinct figures in their midst. Where there had first seemed to be nine ladies and seven gentlemen, she could now plainly see that there were five ladies and four gentlemen, which seemed more reasonable despite the remaining imbalance. The March Hare had taken to definitively ignoring them, although his attempts at putting his nose higher and higher into the air as time went on became increasingly ridiculous.
The Hatter, meanwhile, began to draw brightly frosted biscuits from beneath his cuffs and was tossing them about in his palm, apparently reading them like runes. The men from the table took as one their leave of the ladies and milled over to watch. As they ambled past her, Alice saw that the gentlemen were perfectly precise, striking their dark hair and handsomely vague features against the white-hot insanity of the two best friends beyond. Seeing that her guide and his compatriot would not perform their civil duties in introducing her to the ladies, she hovered nearby to watch and listen to their conversation.
The only apparent distinguishing feature amongst the women, besides their hair, seemed to be the color of their dresses Although they seemed individuals enough, their high and thinly curved eyebrows lent them an air of staged similarityas if they had been crafted from a single perfect idea of what a lady should be. Alice looked down at her own muddied blue skirts, plain and unsightly in contrast to the fine silk pin tucks and ruffles arranged so daintily about them. One of the ladies was admiring her reflection in a spoon while the others talked quietly, apparently undisturbed by this strange display. Alice thought this was odd, until a movement towards the far end alerted her to the fact that a sixth woman had been asleep with her head on the table. She sat up to yawn very in a graceful and ladylike fashion, and the four who were in conversation turned to her.
Do stop yawning so, said a very pale girl with black hair, I imagine I should-- and then she too put a pure white hand up to her mouth to politely yawn as well. A blonde girl in gray shook her head at both of them.
There you go again. It's your fault if you can't get enough sleep, you know, she said with gentle reproach. The recently awakened lady at the far end of the table, who was the tallest and blonde as well, measured her and spoke with quiet dignity.
You speak highly considering how late you stay out sometimes.
I have my limitations, you know, replied the shorter girl.
Which you flaunt shamelessly, was the answer with a bit of a smirk. The blonde in gray was looking slightly haughty until the the black haired girl spoke again with genteel authority.
I insist we not fight, I find disagreement so distasteful.Alice was about to turn away to rejoin the Hatter when the girl with the spoon lifted a thick red lock of hair out of her eyes and saw her standing there.
Who're you? she said curiously. Five other perfect heads swiveled simultaneously to gaze placidly upon the newcomer, who blushed deeply at the attention.
How do you do-- began Alice, dipping into a curtsy, but a second girl with black hair in a plait cut her off.
Is that the girl the Hatter said he was bringing back? She's so small, I hardly would have thought she'd have come back after what happened--
Don't stare at her, she could be shy, admonished the taller blonde, who was now making a strange motion by pulling her arm up above her head and snapping it down suddenly, apparently trying to exorcise something from it. It shimmered a vague blue in the dappled sunlight.
Who cares? She's new and exciting, said the redhead, plopping her elbows onto the table and giving Alice a good long look. The first black-haired girl, who wore a red ribbon, smiled kindly.
Another to join our ranks! Surely the Duchess will title you excellently, for she has confided to me that she has great faith in you. We are all princesses here, and the Duchess named us each. Alice wondered vaguely if this was the hostess of the assembly or if she had designated herself so; her giving away details to a total stranger like Alice made her seem both amiable and naively forward at once.
Title? But my name--
Do tell us a story, interrupted the only brunette, who had apparently not heard Alice speak. I'm sure you know so many, and they will be absolutely enthralling. We have already told each other all the stories we know. She leaned forward and looked at Alice with unconcealed enthusiasm.
Yes, do tell us a tale, said the blonde in gray, who had perked up considerably since the near-altercation.
What a thoughtful idea, my dear, said the taller blonde, who was frowning and adjusting her pink sleeve.
Of course, said the brunette in reply. It's only polite to entertain one's guests. After all, I like nothing better than an excellent storypreferably of grand love and heroic rescue. There was general consensus at this.
But we haven't even introduced ourselves yet, began Alice, feeling flustered. She did not care to argue the fact that she was more of a guest than they were at this point, and more importantly she felt it was uncommonly rude to demand stories of someone who was new at the table. Her efforts at beginning a pleasant and civil conversation were rapidly turning to memories of interruptions and abrupt scope shifts, and Alice did not feel she had the patience to deal with women who were probably very much like her sisters in their conversational subject matter.
That is no concern, said the girl with the black plait airily. She was dressed in green and had a kind, though lofty, air. The Duchess will give you a proper title when you meet her anyway, and it certainly isn't as if you don't belong here, you know. You cannot be unimportant if the Duchess has summoned you herself. But your story... They were expectant, and there seemed to be no immediate reprieve from Alice's guide, who was now juggling the biscuits and shouting at the Hare, who was catching them in his mouth with unconcealed delight. The gentlemen who had left the table had begun to talk amongst themselves and a few were ambling toward the white gate at the end of the lawn. Perhaps these women would make better companions for the present than that, she told herself.
Please, you must tell us a story, we do love stories, insisted the redhead with a charmingly innocent smile. The black-haired hostess pulled out a seat for Alice and settled her into it with ease. Seeing that there was no true alternative, Alice gazed at the faces around her and thought for a moment.
Well, this story begins--
No, you must start it properly, interrupted one of the ladies.
How shall I start, then?
Once upon a time, said the brunette as if this had been perfectly obvious from the outset.
Very well, said Alice.
Once upon a time, in a mysterious land very far away, there lived a very beautiful and very cold Princess. She was not cold because she lived in wintry climes: her chilly nature stemmed from a law of the land, which required that if a Prince wished to marry her, he must correctly answer three riddles she would offer or be risk a beheading at first moonlight.
The poor Prince of Persia had been the most recent man to vie for her heart, but he had failed, and the crowds outside of the imperial palace were clamoring to see the spectacle sure to unfold. Surging forward, the peasants there did not take notice of a blind old man who was pushed to the ground in the excitement. His slave girl cried out for help and gained the notice of a young man nearby, who recognized the old man as his own father, the deposed king of a nearby land.
The young prince and his royal father were overjoyed to have met once more, but the prince urged his father and companion not to speak of their aristocracy, for the very people who had seized and burned their homeland were none other than the royals living in the palace before them, and the young man feared his own capture as well.
Soon the crowd began to scream and shake the palace gates as the moon rose. The young Prince of Persia was brought out, and there was suddenly silence. He was handsome, very handsome indeed, and the crowd and the unknown prince among them were amazed at his beauty. Voices began to rise calling out to the Princess for clemency, begging her to spare the life of one so pure and perfect. The Princess herself stepped forward, and the prince in the crowd soon found himself calling out to her, for she was so pale and beautiful in the moonlight that he had fallen madly in love with her. But the Princess ignored their cries and let the execution continue, standing so very still that the prince could not take his eyes from her. He did not notice when the crowd wailed in unison: the Prince of Persia was dead.
The Princess was about to return to her palace when the unknown prince ran forward and smashed the gong at the palace gates, signaling that he would challenge the Princess for her hand in marriage. The palace advisors shook their heads cynically in the knowledge that another man would lose his head over the beautiful young woman, and the exiled king and his slave girl wept at the thought of losing their prince. However, the prince was much too in love with the Princess in the window high above, who only stared down at him in reply to the gong.
The next day the grand high emperor of the land warned the prince of the price he would pay for losing to his daughter and urged him to leave the palace with his head still attached, an offer which the prince refused. Soon the Princess entered, and spoke.
Many years ago, my ancestress was ravished and murdered by a foreigner, and as my revenge, I have sworn never to let any man possess me. You must correctly answer my three riddles or I shall have your head removed. I do not wish you good luck, for I know you will die as the others have before you. The prince did not reply to this, as he was enraptured by her beauty, which was even greater up close than it had been from the window outside.
My first riddle is this: What is born each night and dies at dawn?
Hope. The Princess did not blink.
What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire?
Blood. Now she was shaken, for no man had been able to answer this before. She steeled herself in anger, and spoke again.
What is like ice, but burns like fire? The prince paused to think, and the Princess smiled and began to taunt him, saying that she would enjoy the look of his head cleaved on one of the pikes outside her palace. His eyes wide, the prince suddenly cried out her very own name! The Princess screamed her anger in defeat and threw herself at her father's mercy, begging him not to let the stranger take her away. But the emperor admonished her, for she was bound to marry the man who had bested her riddles. The prince turned to the Princess and gave her a proposal. He knew her name, but she did not know his. Bring me my name before sunrise, and at sunrise, I will die. The Princess agreed.
All night, the heralds proclaimed the will of the Princess: that none should sleep, and death would be the penalty for all the citizens of the royal city if they could not bring her the name of her betrothed before sunrise. The prince awaited the dawn and his victory, knowing that the Princess herself would not sleep either.
Having seen the exiled king and his slave girl with the prince, the royal advisors dragged them forward to be threatened and tortured for his name. The slave girl proclaimed her knowledge of the name, and struggled against the cruelty of the advisors. But at last, she died nobly with her secret, stabbing herself before the Princess could defeat her master's son. The prince reproached the Princess for her cruelty, and kissed her despite her resistance.
You will love me, and I shall win, he told her. At first, the Princess felt disgust at his kiss, but soon found herself turning toward passion and affection for the young stranger who was so persistent. Soon the darkened sky began to lighten into gray. The night was ending, and still the Princess did not know her betrothed's true name. Finding herself in love, she asked him to take his secret and leave her city before he broke her heart, but the prince instead softly whispered his name into her ear. She could do what she would with his name noworder him killed as she had so many before, or spare his life and live in happiness with the first man she loved.
At dawn, the Princess led the prince toward her father's throne, declaring that she knew his name before all others. At the emperor's command to hear it spoken, the Princess cried, It is love! sending the crowds outside the palace into cheers of rapture for the two lovers.
Alice looked around her once more and saw that her audience was still looking at her, waiting.
That is the end of the story, she explained.
Oh! cried the brunette, sitting back in her chair, looking contemplative.
That was quite good, said the girl in green.
Bit of an abrupt ending, though, said someone.
How romantic, sighed the shorter blonde, I wish my prince would have told me his true name like that.
That was an excellent story, said the redhead to Alice, But don't you feel badly about all those other princes who were killed?
Yes, said the taller blonde, I wouldn't have expected them to die so harshly, you do seem like such a sweet girl.
I beg your pardon? said Alice. The princesses were growing slightly pedantic in their analysis of her yarn, and Alice felt that although she appreciated the finer points of literary criticism, she had not come to this world to have her stories picked apart.
In your tale you had so many people killed so... so gruesomely! said the hostess with black hair. Surely you see the joys of true love now that you and your prince have found one another.
It is a shame that so many other people had to die, but I'm sure it is no small comfort to her that true love conquers feelings of isolation and haughtiness, the girl in green was saying.
True; it would have been sad had she herself died in the end, replied the redhead thoughtfully.
I'm sorry; prince? said Alice again.
Yes, your prince from the story, said the brunette.
I have no prince. This had the effect of catching each of the royal ladies in various states of shocked pause around the table: the two blondes leaned together in suspended animation, one still fiddling with her blue sleeve; the redhead with her mouth popped open breathing foggily onto the spoon, and the brunette and girl in green goggling at her like fish. The hostess came to life first.
You are planning your wedding to him, then. He will be your prince. Her solution seemed to mollify a few of the concerned lovely faces.
I am afraid we do not understand; are you not the princess of your tale?
No, it was only a story, it wasn't real. This had an even greater effect than before, producing something akin to graceful and polite outrage.
Only a story! cried the brunette.
How could she say such a thing?
Well, a story that is worth discussing and considering, to be sureone could write endlessly on the subject of the female enduring conflict between domesticity and potential disillusionment, said Alice soothingly, for she did not wish to make so many strangers angry and she enjoyed well-crafted stories too, but it is a story nonetheless. It is not about me, I am--
My dear, said the black-haired hostess gravely, placing a smooth white hand upon Alice's arm, Stories are very powerful things. They are not to be treated so lightly as mere artifacts for study. They have a very real purpose, do you not see that?
They must entertain and amuse, and call us away from the constraints of daily life, pointed out the other black-plaited princess.
Tales of romance and adventure to inspire us toward greater stations in life, said the brunette. The taller blonde nodded.
Stories to remind us of our goals and help us in our persistence.
They explain other people's lives and motivations, the redhead murmured.
Sometimes they are the only things that support us in our hour of need, said the small blonde. There was a strange pause, and Alice felt as if she had cut to the very center of the princesses seated there. They too seemed to recognize that something had passed between all of them together, but it is impossible to retrieve the truth as it pours forth, and the hostess seemed to be futilely pushing back against a torrent of it now.
So you see, she said, It is rather strange to us that you would speak of your own story in such a way. Perhaps you are a humble sort of girl, she said at Alice's protestations, But truly, a princess deserves to have her tale repeatedwhy else would she be honored with such rewards as princessdom provides?
I suppose, yes.
I'm sure the March Hare has whole drawerfuls of ribbon inside his snug little house; surely he would not mind if we borrowed some. The six of them rose to Alice's bemused protestations, but they frog-marched her into the house in such a delicate fashion that she was in no state to reply. Indeed, there was little she could do but feel a keen sense of awareness of her station in life and the desire to be among these clearly revered and pampered ladies.
The interior of the March Hare's house, Alice realized as the brunette used a thin silver rod to button up a pair of small-turned boots onto her feet, was as one would expect. The doorways were low and narrow, and the interior, though somewhat dark and burrowy, did have a certain eccentric quality evident in the mixture of purple and yellow paint across the walls. The only room that did not seem to match what she had seen of the rest of the house upon her passing through was a serious looking library, which she could see a tiny sliver of through the end of the hallway. Its large and imposing features clashed dreadfully with the rest of the décor; somehow she preferred the Hare's garish style to the mysterious room there.
The six women and their full, filling skirts took more pressing places in her mind, particularly the speed and fashion with which they moved. As if her function were a game, the redhead was untangling Alice's sausage curls with an enthusiasm bordering on ferocity, and, she suspected, a tool other than a proper brush. The lady in green, however, had taken a cheesecloth to Alice's face, muttering about the smudges of dirt on her nose.
Gray, I think, said the taller blonde.
No, that is far too plain.
I think it is very mysteriousunexpected. What would you suggest?
Black. This was said with a clear smile in the hostess's voice.
Black? Why not white? Or is that too plain as well?
You're only saying that to make me cross.
Why must it be black? She would look equally handsome in white.
Let her wear her own apparel if she wishes; perhaps she would feel more as herself that way, said the smaller blonde from where she sat stitching a new lace border onto Alice's blue warp.
What do you think? said the distinguished blonde. Alice felt a brief flash of embarrassment over the scene: six obviously well cared for princesses actually working to bestow just enough veneer to make her passing. She suddenly wanted to return home very much to avoid answering.
She is working very hard to... mend the gown. If that is acceptable, I--
I think the Duchess will be pleased to have you in her House, said the dark-haired hostess, and wove a black ribbon into Alice's freshly released curls. At the very least, she ought to be grateful, since you look as fine as one of her courtiers.
Thank you, said Alice, feeling deceitful of the pale princess's approving gaze.
You don't understand now, the taller blonde told her quietly as they stood outside once more, But you will. No matter what happens, keep moving forward. A princess does not give up. Her freshly-made companion weighed her advice before speaking. It was a lie to leave these well-intentioned women in the dark, especially given their kindness, but her importance to the Duchess perhaps hung on the older woman's fleeting impression of Alice, and she wanted to give as little idea of being useless as possible. She looked at the princess and took a breath before putting forth an answer.
I feel very much obliged to you all, especially after you have treated me so well, Alice began, But you must know that I'm not a--
Not a what? A nascently pugilistic flamingo who had his heart set on barristerdom?
I had a bridge partner inflicted with that once. Alice turned to see that white-haired and white hared insanity were standing close at hand.
Certainly not an enviable issue, he would have a dreadful time committing himself to a right or left hook, said the Hatter, wrinkling his freckled nose. The biscuits were gone from his hands, and in their place were telling trails of crumbs up the Hare's collar and across his snout, while the Hatter's gloves remained frosty and busy with the lavender cup of tea he was holding.
There you are, said Alice, wondering if this was an interruption or salvation. When does Mr. Hare begin passing out hot toddys and room keys?
The Hare has no intention of ever letting any of us gothis is a perpetual party, you see, but it is conveniently mobile in that we simply pick up the conversation once more at someone else's house when their dishes happen to be clean and their supply of exotic jams reasonably stocked. Now watch this draught. He paused for a long pull of tea and the Hare nodded sagely.
A few of the women had broken away from them and Alice watched with her arms folded as they stooped in the thin waist-high lilies that grew in the lawn, taking up white paper lanterns from the grass and lighting them with long, whippy punks. The skimming glow as the flames came into being made their faces indistinguishable from anothermolds among countless carnations that held the same expression and shadows.
Well, I suppose we had better done, then. He tipped his hatwhich required more of a swing than a tipand quickly palmed the teacup. Good evening, princesses.
Good evening, Mr. Hatter, said the dark-haired hostess in her sweetly even voice. Do take care of our lovely friend here, she is such a sweet girl and we would not see any harm come to her.
Hang those lanterns high, said the Hatter by way of parting. He and the lady looked at one another momentarily. Her face, too, glowed in the distant lights, and though it was just before twilight, the stand of trees made the carved out hollows in her cheekbones smooth, but not quite free of worry, Alice could see. The Hatter seemed as though he was going to continue, but the lady before him smiled once more and murmured her farewell.
I will see you past the lane, said the Hare, and trippingly bounced ahead.
Goodbye, goodbye! they called out in their chorusing pretty voices to Alice as the Hatter took her arm once more and ambled them toward the gate. Alice waved politely and turned toward the road, the greenish twilight through the leaves marking their repeating angles onto her face.
Do you think the Duchess will approve of me? she said after a few steps.
Approve of you for what? Appointment to her agency for secret protection? That would never work, you are too obvious. You stick out like a purple bunionthough perhaps that is her secret motive. Put her where everyone can see her so they couldn't possibly suspect anything, said the Hatter thoughtfully to himself.
No, she wants you to investigate some goings-on, said the Hare casually with his paws folded behind his back. Something about someone missing-- He cut off screechingly as the Hatter bore down on him with a bulbous stare indicating the significance of this mistake. The Hare bared his teeth in an apologetic grimace and hid behind Alice's ample skirts.
Someone's missing? said Alice. He stared at the deeply violet sky and trees in a very obvious fashion to avoid looking at her. Her voice took on a higher pitch. Multiple people are missing?
Dear me, you were right about this one, she heard the Hare murmur. The Hatter's expression was supplicant and condoling very suddenly as he held up his palms at her.
It is nothing to be alarmed about, just a few souls here and there who've suddenly left their houses and worldly possessions in a perfect sort of frozen stasis while they've slattered away and haven't told anyone where they've gonemaybe, maybe! Maybe they've all gone off on a round-the-world tour and will be back with souvenirs soon enough. I bet I'll get a teapot, I always get a teapot, you know, never fails but I have a teapot from almost every country there is and I've got a whole room full of them and some of them are quite unique, one is shaped like an octopus and there's another that comes apart into quadrants even when the tea is inside which is supposed to be physically impossible so I think there might be cosmic interference--
I think I had better leave straightaway, said Alice firmly. The Hatter curled his outstretched hands into loose balls and cringed as the Hare took this brass opportunity to flash taupely away to his garden gate.