Copyright is held by the author.
LANCE CHUCKLED to himself when he first laid eyes on it. By the time the bidding started, he was having trouble keeping a straight face. The minute the auctioneer’s gavel declared it sold he grabbed his treasure and dashed out the tavern door. As he loaded the burlap-wrapped parcel into the back of the small wagon, he burst out laughing smack dab in the middle of the street. He slapped his thighs and leaned against the wall of the Swan and Thistle to keep from collapsing.
A gaggle of old women with black, bobbing bonnets chose that moment to pass by. Clutching his aching sides, the best Lance could do was blurt, “Afternoon ladies.” They tutted and clucked their condemnation, then gave him a wide berth. He watched their wide muslin backsides sway to and fro as they hastened across the cobblestones in search of a warm kitchen and a comforting pot of tea.
“Bunch of old hens,” he muttered and laughed even harder. He couldn’t stop. Every time he imagined the look on his beloved’s face as she unwrapped his gift, fits of uncontrolled mirth seized him. He doubled over, tears streaming from his eyes.
“Are you alright sir?”
Lance looked up from his crouched posture to see a gray-haired stranger peering at him. “Oh dear, oh dear me,” He tried to rein in the silliness. “I do apologize sir, but it’s just so dashed funny.” Under the old man’s solemn gaze Lance tried to collect his thoughts.
“I beg your forgiveness for my unseemly behaviour. This is most unlike me.” He stifled another guffaw and bit his lower lip to ward off those that threatened to follow.
The stranger’s eyes took in the tavern behind him. “That often happens when one imbibes.”
Lance stopped laughing. “Sir I assure you I’m quite sober. But even if I wasn’t, what business would it be to someone like you?” He drew himself up to his full height and looked down his nose at the stranger’s frayed collar, faded brocade vest, threadbare woollen coat, and whiskers in need of a barber.
“I meant no offense sir. I just wanted to be of assistance. I’ll take my leave.”
Lance took a second look at the man and experienced a small twinge. I’ve spoken in haste, he thought. After all, the man only wanted to be helpful, and I’m being churlish, turning him away in such a fashion. Besides, what harm would it do to share some conversation? I’ve lots of time. The sun was still high and so were Lance’s spirits. He had a story to tell, so why not? He called after the older man and offered a cautious smile.
“Sir, forgive my rudeness. I’ll be happy to explain my unusual behaviour if you have the time to listen.” The man nodded and Lance began.
“You see, I came to town searching for a birthday gift for my fiancée. I have been in a quandary for days wondering what I could get for her as, well to put it bluntly sir, my finances are a bit stretched at this time. In fact, I had to borrow my intended’s cart and mare to make the journey.” Lance made a face. “I feel a right chump driving a cart, and just look at that ridiculous getup.”
He pointed to the small bay mare sporting a bright red and blue plaid shawl draped over her back, and a black felt hat perched between her ears. “My love insisted on putting her own cloak and hat on the animal before she left the stable. She claimed there’d be a storm before the day was out.” Lance looked up at the clear blue sky and rolled his eyes.
“I humour her little quirks for now, but I assure you sir, when I’m head of the house there will be no little carts for me. I’ll have a proper coach and four. This animal,” he waved a dismissive hand toward the mare, “will be for the glue factory.”
The old man smiled, ran his hand along the mare’s neck, and spoke a few quiet words into her ear before turning back to Lance. “Pray tell me sir, were you successful in your quest for the perfect gift?”
Lance grinned and pointed to the sign of a black swan entwined with a purple thistle hanging over the tavern door, “Well, I chanced upon an auction here at the inn where I found this item.” He placed his hand on the parcel in the wagon. “As luck would have it, they took my bid, which if I may be honest, was frightfully low.” He chuckled at the remembrance. “Now I’m taking it home to my lovely fiancée.” Lance gave an undignified squawk as his laughter erupted again. The man stared up at him, puzzled.
Lance composed himself. “You see, my fiancée, she’s well, quite a plain woman. Some might even call her ugly.” It was shocking to think he was saying these words to a stranger, but at the same time a burden lifted from his shoulders. How could it be wrong to say the truth?
“But her prospects are excellent you see. Her father is quite a successful merchant: imports, exports, warehouses, ships, and so forth. His business keeps him away from home much of the time leaving his daughter without company. So, I guess you could say I saw an opportunity and I seized it. I mean someone has to marry the homely ones, right? And who better to reap the rewards of her father’s hard work than me? After all I must have some recompense for taking the poor thing off his hands. And I’m sure his gratitude will be reflected in a most generous allowance.”
The old man drew his bristly brows together. “But I fail to see the connection to your exceeding good humour.”
“Well you see, I have a nickname for my fiancée when we’re alone. She thinks it’s a term of endearment and I’m happy to let her go on believing it is.”
“Oh, and this endearment is somehow linked to your gift for her?”
“And the young lady, what did you say her name was? Will she share your humour when she sees the gift?”
“Yes, yes.” Lance began to fidget under the steady gaze of his new confidant. He’s a bit too nosey for my liking, he thought, scanning the village looking for a way out of this awkward social dilemma. A jolt rippled through him; the square was empty. The entire village was silent and deserted. It was as though Lance, his companion, and the mare were the only living beings left in the village. Taking another look around, Lance saw the sun sitting low on the horizon. How long have I been standing here?
A raven broke the silence with harsh, insistent cries as she waddled along the churchyard wall flapping her blue-black wings. A shiver formed at the base of Lance’s spine. He looked at the shabby man beside him and felt his merriment give way to impatience. He sighed to let his acquaintance know that their conversation was winding down.
“Lydia. Her name is Lydia Fowler. Now sir, I must be going.”
The sun disappeared below the horizon and a brisk wind blew in to take its place. The sign of the Swan and Thistle swayed on rusty hinges with a screeching that set Lance’s teeth on edge. The branches overhead clacked like dry bones. The horse’s warm breath condensed in the air as she snorted and pawed the ground. Lance pulled his thin coat tighter to him. He’d had enough of this of this place and the ragged busybody standing next to him.
“Sir, I have a long way to go so I’ll bid you farewell.” He climbed up on to the wagon.
“But you didn’t tell me what the nickname is.”
Lance looked down from his seat. “Pardon?”
“Your nickname for Miss Fowler, what is it?”
“Monkeyface. I call her Monkeyface.” Lance could no longer keep the irritation out of his voice. He picked up the reins and made ready to leave.
“May I see what it is that has given you such pleasure?”
The request caught Lance off guard. “Sir, it’s late and I have a goodly distance to travel.”
“Please.” A tear rolled down the stranger’s wrinkled cheek. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and gave his nose a blow that reverberated around the empty tavern yard. “It would be so nice to share a good chuckle with someone as jovial as yourself. What do you say? Can you spare a few more moments to impart a little of your happiness to this old man?”
Lance weighed the wisdom of lingering against the opportunity of sharing the brilliance of his purchase. “Oh, very well.”
He jumped down from the wagon and a gust of wind threatened to toss his battered stove top hat across the yard. He blew on his hands before reaching up and pulling the cover from the treasure. Looking at his purchase again he began to chuckle. “Is it not the best gift in the world for my little Monkeyface?” The inquisitive stranger removed his spectacles and examined the gift.
“Well?” Lance looked from the man to the gift and back again. “Sir, you have claimed much of my time, and on your account, I’m running behind schedule. At the very least you should be kind enough to offer me your opinion.” Lance shifted from one foot to the other as the man continued to study the item in silence. His patience reached an end and his voice sharpened. “You do see the humour, don’t you?”
“The humour, the irony, you see that, surely. Are you not amused?” He snorted in disgust. “I’ll waste no more of my time with you.”
“I do beg your pardon, young master. It is a most exemplary piece and I do see your jest. And if, as you say, your beloved is of the same mind as you and will not be offended by receiving a statue of a monkey for her birthday, then it is indeed a most singular purchase.”
Lance forgot the sense of urgency that had so recently possessed him. “Offended? Heavens no, not Lydia. She will no doubt see it as just another delightful trinket and be suitably diverted. My fiancée is not blessed with a powerful intellect; she does not seek the deep or the profound. She is alas, a simple, unpretentious creature that, I have no doubt, will grow on me more and more as time goes on.”
“And she has come into her inheritance?”
Lance smiled. “I see we are of similar minds after all.”
“Oh yes. I think I have taken your measure pretty well.”
“I only mean that as I have not had the pleasure of the lady’s acquaintance, I am unable to appreciate the likeness. If you say she will be thrilled with this piece of statuary, then I’m sure you’re right.”
Lance laughed out loud and shook his head. “I’m quite positive that if you were to meet Lydia, you would share my feeling. I must confess, I still can’t look at it without laughing.”
“Indeed, it is quite extraordinary. Have you noticed how the eyes seem to follow you around?
“Poppycock, it’s a statue; the eyes don’t move.”
Superstitious fool, Lance thought, trying and failing to keep the distain out of his voice.
The raven gave a harsh cry and rose from the graveyard wall into the darkening sky. It circled overhead then disappeared among the moss-covered stones. Beads of perspiration popped out on Lance’s forehead.
“Sir, I must leave now.” As he reached to throw the burlap cloth over the monkey, he gasped and jumped back, bumping heavily into the older man.
“Good Heavens young man, are you quite alright?”
“Did you see that?”
“See what sir?”
“I thought, well, never mind.” Lance heard himself stammering. Balderdash, he thought, running his hand across his eyes. I’m tired and my eyes play tricks on me. He turned to re-wrap the statue. The monkey’s black eyes glittered and danced in the darkness, its black leathery lips pulled back in a mocking grin revealing long, yellow teeth. Lance’s eyes grew wide as the smirk turned to a scowl. He cried out and fell to the ground.
The old man bent over him. “Please let me help you sir. You seem unwell.” He rested his hand on Lance’s forehead. “And feverish too, if I’m not mistaken. Perhaps you should spend the night at the tavern and set out tomorrow when you are fresh. No doubt you are overcome by the excitement of the day.”
“I’m not overcome. Even if I was, I’ve no money. I spent it all on this, this monstrosity for that dull, stupid woman I’m doomed to marry, so of course I can’t stay at the inn.”
What’s happening to me, Lance wondered. Am I unwell? No. This man’s prattling is wearing on my nerves. I’ve been too nice as usual. Well no more, I’m leaving.
He scrambled to his feet, pulled his green knit scarf tight to his neck and wished he owned a warmer coat. No matter, he thought, one day soon I’ll have the best coat money can buy. Right now, though, he just wanted to be far away from this village and the peculiar little man standing next to him.
“Get out of my way old man, I’m leaving here now.” He made his way to the front of the wagon and climbed aboard.
“Will you not cover up your gift? It could be damaged in the weather.”
Lance turned around to face the man on the ground. “I don’t give a damn about the ugly statue or the monkey I bought it for.”
As he spoke Lance brought the reins down hard on the mare’s hindquarters. His body jerked as she lunged ahead before settling into a brisk trot.
The storm started as cold drizzle soon after he left the village. Before long it morphed into ice, driven by howling wind. It did not take long before Lance was wet and shivering. He kept his chin tucked low into his scarf and squinted against ice pellets that stung his face. Ahead of him, the little mare trotted on, cozy under the red and blue shawl. Resentment brewed and fear simmered. Lance had lost his sense of humour.
“I should tear that blanket right off your back. What do you need it for anyway?” He shouted, but the howling wind gobbled up his complaints before they got very far. Lances face formed an angry pout.
“Since you’re the one dressed for the weather, I think you should find the way home. Horses are supposed to be good at that sort of thing, aren’t they?” He let the reins go slack and tucked his cold hands into his pockets.
In spite of his discomfort, Lance was lulled by the sound of hooves crunching through the icy surface, and the creaking of the frozen wagon. He slipped into a weary half-sleep, plagued by strangers, ravens, and sneering monkeys.
The cart came to a sudden stop, jolting Lance back from his haunted stupor. Relief washed over him and visions of a roaring fire and the hot toddy brought a smile to his face. He opened his eyes he called out, “Lydia, I’m home. I’m here at last, darling.” The smile faded.
All around him, ice-laden trees creaked and groaned under the weight of the ice. Branches snapped and fell, sending shards of ice and wood gliding across the frozen forest floor. The narrow roadway, not much more than a path at the best of times, had disappeared into the dark, shimmering landscape. Lance was lost.
“I just need to get my bearings and I’ll be fine.” Lance reassured himself with a dry mouth and shaky voice. But his sense of time and space abandoned him. Fighting panic, he twisted and spun, frantic to find something familiar, but all he saw was the monkey statue grinning back at him in the dark.
He called out to the howling winds and the crystalline trees that loomed all around him. He cursed the mare for getting him lost, the stupid old man who delayed his departure and the ugly woman that waited for her gift, safe and dry in her beautiful home. Yes, this was all her fault. Oh, how he wished he’d never set eyes on the dull, hideous Lydia Fowler.
“Get a move on you lazy nag.” Lance grabbed the whip and raised it high. As he did so a violent wind gust yanked the scarf from his neck and the hat from his head. He whirled around to catch hold of his belongings and came face to face with the statue. It was right behind him and now it was wearing a green scarf and a top hat, set at a jaunty angle just as Lance liked to wear his. Its glittering eyes and long yellow fangs grinned back at him.
The whip fell from Lance’s hand. His cries evaporated into the nothingness of the night. He clutched at his bare neck and head. The statue is wearing my clothes. He sobbed and heard the panting gulps of his own breathing. No, no, not possible, he thought, wiping tears from his frozen cheeks. I’m so cold and tired. Perhaps I’m seeing things. Yes that’s it, I’m hallucinating. Or maybe I’m still asleep, having a nightmare. Lance had no intention of turning around again to confirm his theories. He called out to the horse. “Move!” But it came out more a pitiful squawk than a command.
The sound of wood splintering and ice shattering interrupted his terror. A tree, unable to bear the weight of the ice and the force of the wind, came down and landed right in front of him, separating the cart from the horse. Lance gazed down in horror at the mangled mess of harness and crushed shafts beneath the fallen tree. There was a light touch on his shoulder and his head swivelled. Lance counted four black wrinkled fingers and one thumb resting on his shoulder.
His scream rose above the wind as he jumped down from the cart. His feet flew out from under him and he landed hard, his head making a resounding crack on the ice. Dazed, Lance staggered to his feet and pulled on the fallen tree, but all attempts to move it proved futile. He slipped and stumbled to the front of the horse, grasped the bridle and pulled for all he was worth, never once allowing himself to look up at the cart. He grunted and groaned. He hauled and heaved. He begged and swore, but to no avail. Lance wanted to cry, but beat the horse instead, using dark, swollen hands. All the while he could feel the black brown eyes laughing at him.
Lance could not remember feeling so miserable. Even my teeth hurt, he thought, running frozen hands over his face. It felt swollen and it ached with the cold. He opened his jaw wide and stretched his face in different directions in a vain attempt to thaw it out. He ran his tongue over his teeth. Then with shaking hands and tears running down his cheeks he reached into his mouth with his frost-bitten fingers. Through panicked eyes Lance looked up at the monkey who was sitting warm and smiling on the driver’s seat, showing off his brand new small and very white teeth.
Lance’s heart beat against his ribs as if looking for a way out, and there was something wrong with his breathing. He closed his eyes and slipped to the ground, the reins dropping from his blackened finger tips. His head throbbed. I’m just going to close my eyes for a moment, he thought; a bit of rest is all I need. He slumped back onto the frozen ground. Ice clung to him like sugar candy transforming his shabby tweeds to cloth of silver. His eyelids were heavy, weighed down by ice crystals and pain. He sparkled and twinkled in the darkness.
A woman’s voice was calling to him. Lance struggled in vain to sit up. Through swollen slits, Lance saw a beautiful woman kneeling beside him. He forced his eyes open wider. Yes, she was smiling down at him with full red lips and dancing blue eyes. Lance was sure he could feel her long, black curls brush across his face. And was that lily-of-the-valley he smelled? That was Lydia’s favourite scent. Lydia? Lydia Fowler? His Lydia Fowler? Dearest Lydia had come to rescue him. Through cracked lips, he whispered, “Monkeyface?”
Ignoring the pain, Lance used up the last of his strength to lift his head. He had to make sure it was his Lydia. Yes, yes, it’s Lydia. I’d know that red and blue paid shawl and little black felt hat anywhere. He felt puzzled, but none of that mattered now that Lydia had come to take him home. Lance blinked to clear his vision and did his best to smile up at his true love. She stood up and his smile faded.
In her arms, she carried the statue of a handsome young man. He was sporting a bright green scarf and a top hat that was covered in sparkles. His smile was wide as he grinned down at Lance. The sound of their laughter grew faint and the crunching of her feet on the ice became muffled.
“Don’t leave me, please don’t leave me.” Lance was sure he was calling out loud, but she didn’t seem to hear. As his fiancé walked away, the statue tipped his hat and gave Lance a wink.
“Damn you,” Lance whispered, as his vision dimmed and the world faded away.
The following morning, two woodcutters, clearing the road of broken limbs, came across the frozen body of a young man. They dug him out of the ice and loaded his body onto their wagon to take him back to the village.
“Blimey, jus’ look at ‘is face. You figure ‘e was born that way?”
“Face only a mother could love.”
“Looks like some kind of ape, doan ’e?”
“Yep, a real Monkeyface. Wait til they ‘ear this down at the Swan and Thistle.