THE HISTORIENNE'S TALE
by Amalie N Ingham
Content Warnings: None
Brightly painted canvas stands had been erected in the meadow, and Josephine was glad she’d have a canopy over her head when it inevitably started raining. The jousting carousel had been marked in the grass with flags on pegs, and the maypole in the centre had its rings dangling by light paper strips. The delicate paper made them all the easier to pull away when the jousters caught them on their lances, but also just begged for the rain to come and soak it and ruin the whole thing.
Josephine was fairly sure this was not how things had been done in the real medieval times, but it was better than people actually stabbing each other. Marginally. There had been a great renaissance (ha) for such events of late, in which young ladies would wear fancy dress a little like that of Arthurian times and drink historical beverages, and young men would wear replica armour and pretend to duel over them, and everyone would play pipes and dance silly old dances no one would ever dance seriously in 1873.
Josephine had done a fine job of doing herself up, if she might say so without vanity, with a cloth roll around her head, crossed with ribbons, her ashy-brown hair piled in the centre with a few curls allowed to escape over one side of the headdress. Her kirtle was decorated with modern machine-woven ribbon, of course, though she’d made it up into a five-strand braid to mimic an illustration of Tristran and Isolde, and she certainly wasn’t about to go uncorseted – she’d tried, once or twice, and ended up with aching shoulders halfway through the day. She’d taken an old corset of her mother’s that no longer fit and had altered it a bit to achieve the proper low-waisted silhouette without making herself too uncomfortable. She still felt a bit guilty about wearing one at all, as it wasn’t strictly accurate to do so, but her sleeves were voluminous shoulder to wrist, drawn in by a few ribbons, her skirt was held out only by petticoats, with nary a cage nor bustle, and she’d chosen a palette of soft blues very like the painting of Lady Guinevere that had hung in the parlour all her childhood.
Her sister, by contrast, had worn her usual fancy dress, which was not remotely medieval but rather inspired by a deck of playing cards, with a different suit appliquéd onto each panel of the skirt and little cards at the crest of each ruffle. It was a lovely dress, and Janie looked very fine in it, but Josephine couldn’t help but wish she’d at least come to her to ask for help, as she’d have gladly altered an old dress into something mediaevalesque for her. Pursuing historical accuracy was a hobby of hers, and if it gave her an excuse to sew something more interesting than a sampler or her mending, then all the better.
Honestly, she liked the preparation more than the festival. She’d make sketches from the books of Arthurian legend in the study, note down any reference to garb and copy the illustrations, then put them together into a functional design. She’d also read about what people ate and drank and read in that time, preparing for small talk she knew she’d hate having when it actually came around.
Janie was quite the opposite; she didn’t want to think about the festival for a single moment before it happened, but once the time came, she’d be bustling around in her little black boots, making grandiose and faux-old-fashioned curtseys at every gentleman she saw, handing out flowers picked from the hedge with abandon. Everyone said Janie would be a heartbreaker when she got older, but Josephine was of the opinion that Janie was just enjoying the brightness of her own pleasant nature, and if others broke their hearts on her, that was their own affair.
Josephine couldn’t have got away with giving anyone flowers from a hedge, even if she’d wanted to. When you were an innocent, you could, but from a girl of Josephine’s age they’d seem like a quiet judgment, damning with faint praise. No matter how lovely she thought wildflowers were, she wasn’t supposed to. She was expected to prefer neat florists’ roses, so everyone assumed she did.
Much like everyone assumed her general miasma of unfulfilled sadness had to do with her age. Twenty-seven, unmarried, and not terribly enthusiastic about the prospect of a husband, Josephine felt she’d be entirely happy as a spinster if only she had a Cause. If she could find something to truly care about, she wouldn’t at all mind being unmarried forever, but all she really enjoyed was historical research, and charities didn’t tend to need that.
She liked people – she even liked men; she just tended not to like them for long. Flirting, laughing, dancing was thrilling; the prospect of being kissed and becoming a wife approaching like a runaway train was terrifying. She didn’t like making a scene, she was dreadfully shy, and yet when she saw a way something should work, a way to make someone smile, she tended to act without thinking. It was part of why she so loved these fairs; if people were in the proper mood of courtly love, she could indulge in friendliness and poetry without anyone trying to get her behind a bush later.
Josephine found her sister wandering the grounds and coaxed her back to the stands with a cup of hot cider, trying to move and sit like an Arthurian maiden. The makeshift knights were emerging from the stables, preparing for the joust. She couldn’t tell who was who – even if she’d been any good at remembering the names of the lads in town, which she wasn’t, they all had helmets on that obscured their faces. It was too big of a town for her to have met everyone, despite having lived there all her life, but not so big that people didn’t talk about those who made particular impressions, and if she had been any good with names and faces, she might have suspected which of the most gossiped about lads were likely to be riding.
Most of them had done a decent job of putting something together that resembled armour – the one with what looked like a real suit was probably Earl Halbert’s son – with a few wearing loose grey knit masquerading as chain mail. It was a good effect, honestly, though it probably would have worked better if the audience were a little farther back.
Most of the helmets were papier-mâché, going by the way they moved. A slightly tighter strap could have kept them from shifting so much, helped with the illusion. Yes, papier-mâché indeed; there were the hints of newsprint on the interiors as the lads swept their helmets off to pay respect to the ladies. One knight kept his helmet on, though, merely flipping up the visor. Josephine wasn’t sure if she appreciated his attention to detail in making a visor that actually hinged or felt offended by his not removing his helmet.
He cut a striking figure, that one, with his papier-mâché breastplate painted to a fantastic shine, astride a mouse-grey mare, standing high in the saddle. The armour obscured too much for her to tell anything about his personal appearance besides dark eyes that crooked up in a smile when they landed on her, but that was enough for her to decide entirely on who she was rooting for.
Without thinking, she untied one of the ribbons from her sleeves and leant forward out of the stands, holding it out to him, hand outstretched. He took it and bent forward, touching his paper helmet to her hand in facsimile of a kiss, and tied her ribbon carefully to the armour fastening at his shoulder. She could see that he’d used little tin brads to hold the visor to the helmet – smart.
Janie was giggling at her, so she sat back down, flushed through the cheeks. Stupid, stupid. Whoever that man was, he’d remember this – just because she couldn’t see his face didn’t mean he couldn’t see hers. She’d let herself get swept up as though she were truly masked and had flirted.
She liked flirting, honestly, she just hated it when people came back and had more to say to her about it later. It would be all right, probably – everything was a little removed from reality at a fair or a masquerade, and she didn’t need to worry so much about expectations. Knights didn’t require anything of their ladies, and it was freeing; she wasn’t expected to marry anyone or kiss anyone or be alone with anyone here, she could just make them smile for a moment. She breathed deeply, reminding herself not to be so afraid.
Well, at least the joust was beginning now. Her knight’s lance was striped in blue and silver, and they were all to make the full loop and have one go at the maypole per round, to be taken whenever they reached it. Slowing down too much for the thrust was looked down upon by the reigning court – played this afternoon by Fenniman, who ran the textile factory up on the hill, and his daughters, as he’d mostly financed the thing. Josephine’s own family, who were all in banking, had contributed as well, but more out of a desire to get their daughters out of the house than any particular affection for the Arthurian period.
Presumably-Lord-Halbert was making a good go of it, having four rings lined up on his lance after four rounds. They were all different colours, though – ideally, each knight would aim for the rings wrapped in their own coloured paper, and only one of his was in the scarlet and gold he wore. The knight on the mouse-grey mare, though, had only three rings but all of his own colour and was coming up on a fifth round at the head of the pack.
Josephine realized she had half-risen out of her seat to watch properly. He was aiming, carefully, standing up straight in the saddle, before catching another silver and blue ring on the end of the lance, the paper ripping with a barely-audible sound almost like a sigh. Josephine bit back a thrilled crow. She didn’t usually care this much about a game that resembled a living merry-go-round.
She discovered she was leaning forward enough to be out from under the canopy when a raindrop landed, cold and sudden, right in the parting of her hair. She squeaked and dropped back into her seat, embarrassed and worried for the game – as the rain started to fall in earnest, the paper holding up the rings sagged, ready to melt into pulp.
Probably-Halbert had caught another ring – a blue and silver one – and the blue-and-silver knight caught one of Halbert’s colours, probably on purpose. The rings started falling from the maypole, dropping into the mud, and Josephine realized several of the knights’ breastplates and helmets were also starting to droop. The mystery knight’s was holding up fairly well – varnished, perhaps? The sturdier papier-mâché people made japanned furniture from was waterproof – but the costumes in general were going to suffer dramatically in the rain. Fenniman stood and called an end to the joust, awarding the win to Lord Halbert without really checking, and reminded everyone that there was plenty of hot cider and pasties in the pavilion.
Janie was tugging at Josephine’s belt, so she let herself be led back to the main tent, fancifully called ‘the pavilion.’ She snuck up to the urn and refilled both her and Janie’s mugs of hot cider – generally, women weren’t meant to get their own, but she didn’t want to bother with asking someone – and looked around at the turn-out. The differing amounts of trouble people had gone to with their costumes fascinated her. Fenniman’s daughters, recognisable by their matching gold curls, always looked stunning at these things, but she couldn’t really give them that much credit because she knew they had a seamstress of their own, along with easy access to the finest fabrics their father’s mill produced.
Some of the girls in town had really put in the effort, though. A fair-haired girl of about twelve – Josephine wracked her brain and only managed to remember that her name probably started with an ‘M’ – had altered an old apron to make her day dress look like it had panelling, and draped a scarf around her waist, buckled together in a V shape. Others, though, had either just wrapped scarves around their hair or not dressed up at all. A few had worn their usual clothes but used Arthurian fashions as an excuse to go without their foundational garments; far more had gone in the opposite direction and pasted medieval frippery on top of the fashionable silhouette. Josephine mentally compared the one to the other, the unlaced women from town versus the Fenniman sisters’ insistence on making their otherwise medieval gowns fit the current mode, and wasn’t sure which bothered her more.
Not that she’d tell anyone it bothered her; making fun of people’s costumes was never appropriate. She just quietly seethed and complimented the people who did well.
The knights were starting to filter back in, most of them having stripped out of their soggy papier-mâché. It was a shame, all that work gone to waste. Josephine hurried over to congratulate twelve-year-old Miss M on her costume before her knight noticed her there. The last thing she wanted was for her mysterious, handsome knight to turn into a real boy, who’d laugh at her books and talk over her if she ever got comfortable enough to talk at all.
Miss M – who Josephine learnt was named Mary – appreciated her comments and practically tripped over herself curtseying and asking if she knew Sir Gawain. Josephine laughed and asked if she could take a message for him from lovely Miss Mary.
‘You really know him?’ the girl asked.
‘I should say so,’ came a soft, amused, feminine voice. ‘You can’t tell that before you stands none other than Queen Guinevere herself? No one else is so lovely.’
Josephine turned to see who the mystery woman was, only to come face to face with the dark-eyed knight from before, armour removed but still wearing a painted tabard over trousers, blouse, and boots, Josephine’s ribbon in her hand. Out of the papier-mâché, her figure was unmistakable, and Josephine blinked repeatedly, trying not to say anything about the knight being a woman.
‘I wondered if I might give you a gift,’ she said, ‘in return for your favour.’
She held up the ribbon Josephine had given her, now tied in a pretty bow around six jousting rings – five blue and silver, one scarlet and gold.
‘I also have a scone from the refreshments table for you,’ she added, producing it from a pocket, wrapped neatly against crumbs in a clean, waxed paper. ‘So I’m not just giving back your present.’
Josephine took both ribbon-bow and scone in stunned wonder, vaguely aware that Mary was watching them suspiciously.
‘What is your name, Knight?’ she asked, once she’d regained her tongue.
‘I suppose it’s Otto today. Otto Acker.’ At Josephine’s blink, she added, ‘Usually it’s Ottilie, but we were low on knights today, and I offered to step in.’
‘Josephine Sidney,’ Josephine said, still a bit thrown.
‘All right, my Queen, I’ll keep your secret,’ Miss Acker said with a wink. ‘If you are Josephine Sidney today, you are Josephine Sidney today.’
Josephine giggled a little, surprising herself, and Mary scuttled off to fetch Janie from where Josephine had left her by the refreshments. Mary was that Mary, Janie’s friend! Josephine mentally scolded herself for forgetting, but she’d never been good with faces, and Janie kept her school friends away from her shy, serious-eyed sister anyway.
‘Well,’ she said, regaining her composure, ‘Sir Acker, I thank you very much for this gift.’ She affixed the bow to the breast of her gown with a pin appropriated from her hair and had a delicate bite of the scone. Miss Acker grinned, and it was a very good grin, full of teeth, making dramatic dimples appear in her cheeks. She swept another bow, an elegant, deep one, and then must have heard something from across the tent because she grimaced, made her apologies, and scurried away.
As though in a trance, Josephine turned to meet up with Janie and Mary, taking small bites of a stunningly wonderful orange currant scone that at any other time would have been astoundingly average. The jousting rings clacked ostentatiously as she shifted, but Josephine found that for once, she didn’t mind.
That evening, Josephine had great trouble keeping still and calm through dinner. Her parents wanted to know about the fair, and she told them about the canopy and the costumes while directing most questions to Janie. Partly it was to avert attention from herself, and partly to indulge Janie, who was still so excited to be eating dinner at table and not in the nursery. Josephine didn’t want to be at dinner, she wanted to be alone with her notebook.
It was a great secret of hers, the small book bound in cotton calico that she kept on her person at all times; on the rare occasion she’d admitted that names slipped her mind easily, people had taken her to be aloof or uncaring. She cared about people, very much; it was only that connecting a name to her mental library of someone’s history and then those to the image of their face was often difficult. Sometimes she could manage two, usually the latter two, but rarely all three at once.
She could manage for people she’d known well for a long time, like Janie or their parents, but it took so much longer to commit such things to memory than it seemed to for other people, and organizing information was satisfying anyway. Perhaps it had contributed to her shyness growing up; people were hurt when she stammered over their names, so she’d stopped talking much at all.
The book helped, though she couldn’t consult it when anyone was watching, which was why she needed to be alone to update it. She kept notes on people, what they liked and disliked – she remembered these things, but having them on the page next to someone’s full name and her own unskilled sketch of their face helped to connect the separate aspects of the individual.
She added a sketch to the page about Mary, having previously only had notes on her from what Janie had said. She made comments beside the drawings, too, in case her artistic skill failed her – for Mary, she noted her fair hair, the slight gap between her front teeth, and her oversized hands, though she also reminded herself these things might change as she aged.
She added a new page, too, for Miss Ottilie Acker. There was a great deal of blank space on the page because she did not know much about Miss Acker yet, but on an instinct, she wrote small and noted that she’d leave several pages free for Miss Acker. She was somehow certain she’d fill them up.
Miss Acker’s dark eyes she made particular note of, knowing she’d recognize them and the way they crinkled at the corners when she smiled. Her smattering of freckles, too, across her cheeks, and the edges of her dark curls that she’d seen despite them being pinned up very flat to fit under a helmet. Her charming nature, too, got a mention – ‘she seems to ever be looking for an opportunity to compliment. This comes across as joyful, not as presumptuous, and I am not certain how.’
She spent longer than usual on the sketch, and it was when she realized she was trying to remember the positions of her individual freckles rather than just giving her some freckles that Josephine decided she needed to meet Miss Acker again sooner rather than later.
She had errands to run in town anyway, and so it was only a few days after the festival that she found herself casually asking each shopkeeper and acquaintance she encountered if they’d met a Miss Ottilie Acker. Shopkeepers were better about it than acquaintances – those who knew her reputation as being desperately shy and bookish all somehow thought it was a good idea to tease the shy and bookish girl for ‘coming out of her shell,’ as though that wasn’t exactly what they’d all wanted her to do in the first place.
It was easier to talk to shopkeepers anyway because she had a script for herself. She knew what she was there to do, she knew how to make polite small talk, and her presence in their place of business made it much easier to recall their families and histories and what things it was and wasn’t kind to ask them about. Acquaintances were awful because you ran into them unexpectedly, and then they wanted to talk to you, and you weren’t ready. But she had a mission, so she kept asking.
No one did seem to know Miss Acker – not at the grocer, not at the bookseller, and not at the florist – until she went to buy a pretty ribbon for Janie, and the woman who ran the milliner’s knew her quite well.
‘Ottilie? Ottilie‘s a darling. She comes in here for bits and bobs, notions, trims, you know, for the costumes. She says it’s always better to refit than to remake, and then you can spend the money you’ve saved on a couple of really impressive things.’
‘She’s a seamstress, then – for her own sake alone, or as a profession?’ Josephine asked, wondering if her estimation of this woman would ever stop rising – to sew for yourself was one thing, everyone could do that, but to have the skill in details one needed in order to fit others?
‘She’s with the theatre, Josie,’ the milliner said, and Josephine couldn’t even be cross with her for the nickname or for how she put a pretty blue picot-edged ribbon in Josephine’s hands, cooing over how it would suit her eyes. She took it without thinking.
‘She’s with the theatre,’ she repeated, baffled.
‘The Lion and Lily, down on Seawright. Fancy you met her and didn’t know; she talks my ear off about whatever production they’re putting on.’
‘It sounded like a comedy of love,’ Josephine said, still reeling, ‘I saw a posted bill on my way here. “Nearly An Hundred Years Ago, Love Blooms in Pauper’s Eye, Lady’s Kiss.”’
‘Sounds dreadful,’ the milliner said cheerfully, ‘but they always do, and they usually aren’t. If your parents wouldn’t mind, you should go see the show; it’s a very respectable place, the Lion and Lily, you could meet some handsome and sensitive souls there. I imagine your family could afford a box, now and then, no trouble.’
‘You imagine we could afford a lot of things,’ Josephine said, pointedly putting the picot-edged ribbon back on the shelf and only getting the one she’d already picked for Janie.
But she did go to the theatre. She hadn’t bought anything perishable at the grocer’s, having decided what to go back for on her way out of town, so she snuck into the theatre through the side door like a woman possessed, hands trembling on her basket. Inside was ribbon, some dried currants for the pudding Janie wanted to make, a new set of charcoals so she wouldn’t be caught without when the nub she was drawing with crumbled, a cluster of multi-coloured lupins. She draped her cloak over this last, not wanting to catch the light in the darkened theatre, though her pale face was inescapable.
It didn’t stay dark for long. Once she’d wound her way out of the side corridor and into the audience, she found that the stage lights were on. It was strange to be in a dark place in the middle of the day, with only artificial light and no windows; it felt like she was a little bit outside the world. She was on the balcony level – she realized that the main audience must go down a set of stairs, as she’d come in on the ground floor. This end of town was hilly, after all; perhaps the theatre took advantage of the receding ground for its basements and mysterious traps.
Josephine realized she was ruminating on architecture in order not to think about what she was doing, which was trespassing. She hunkered down in the balcony, a little ways back; there were no lights on this level, so she was probably fairly invisible from the stage. A couple of young men were chattering on stage, in perfectly ordinary clothes except for their shoes, which had heels higher than any man wore these days and looked vaguely jester-like, with oversized bows at the insteps. Josephine wondered why they’d choose that particular part of their costumes to keep on.
Ottilie emerged, and Josephine’s breath caught when she saw that she was still dressed as a man. Well, not as a man, not quite – her hair was in a simple braided bun on top of her head, revealing that either she was wearing pin-ons or there was quite a lot of it when it wasn’t mashed down for a helmet, and her blouse was inescapably feminine, but she was in trousers and the same silly shoes as the men, and she was carrying three swords.
The swords were passed out. Each of the players mashed a palm against the rubber tips, apparently checking they were indeed not deadly, and the three of them slung on what Josephine had thought were a pile of sandbags in the corner but was apparently thin canvas armour just in case. It would probably be worn under their costumes for the show, Josephine thought, but was on top for rehearsal.
‘Pret!’ Ottilie announced, not making any attempt to sound French. The men faced each other from halfway across the stage, one in the centre and the other at one end. Ottilie was pacing, deeper upstage, watching.
The men declaimed their lines but weren’t projecting properly, so Josephine didn’t really catch them. Something about a duel for the honour of a girl called Emma. Ottilie made calls – parry, thrust, feint, three steps back, fumble, yes, thrust and disarm, backwards tumble – and the men followed her every word. The battle was at half-speed, it seemed, with Ottilie clapping a steady rhythm, sword tucked into her belt. It was as much a dance as a duel, with rounded steps and attacks carefully choreographed to move the pair across the entire stage. When the hero’s sword tucked between the villain’s arm and chest, and he fell to the floor from this fatal stabbing, Ottilie called scene, and the three of them burst into joyous laughter. Josephine could swear she could see Ottilie’s dimples from all the way in the balcony.
‘Better, better,’ she said, ‘but the final balestra didn’t have the punch it needs. Sniffy, aside, let me run it with Ed from two bars before.’ Her voice carried like she was projecting, even though both the people she was talking to were on the stage with her, the hero having calmly headed upstage to sit on a crate and watch. Ottilie whipped out her own sword, heading to insert herself where Sniffy had been, as Ed took his position where he had been two bars before whatever a balestra was. Ottilie raised her sword, Ed took a defensive position, and Sniffy called action.
Ottilie took three sharp steps forward, moving faster than Josephine had expected. Sniffy was clapping time now, at a greater tempo than before, and Ottilie was moving like a great cat, subtle and quick even in those ridiculous shoes. She parried Ed’s attack, then as he scurried backwards, she leapt, making the next thrust while still in the air, landing low with her knees bent and the rubber tip of her rapier in the centre of Ed’s chest.
‘There we go,’ she said. ‘I knew it was something. We’ll have the collapsible one for the show; I’ll be done fixing it by then, so go for the chest instead of the armpit.’
‘No, no,’ Ed said, ‘just because you can pull back and leave me without a bruise doesn’t mean Sniffy can.’
Sniffy stuck his tongue out at him.
‘But we’ll have the collapsible one for the show, so he’ll need to practice aiming properly... Keep doing it as you are for now, but I’ll make sure to fix the trick sword soon enough you’ll have a couple rehearsals with it. We don’t want to bruise that concave chest.’
It was Ed’s turn to stick out his tongue. These theatre people were certainly fond of that gesture.
‘Anyway,’ Ottilie said, ‘it’s not just that. Your landing doesn’t have enough impact, Sniffy, you’re too worried about letting your heels clack, so you wobble. Instead of focusing on keeping your heels off the ground, focus on getting the balls of your feet on the ground, then drop your heels as your knees bend. Let’s try it from the same spot, but I’ll stand in for Ed this time.’
And she did, and Josephine watched. Easily, Ottilie became the dashing hero or the nefarious cad, twirling an imaginary moustache or doffing a non-existent cap. The joy she had, apparently vibrating through her whole body, was nearly as impressive as her skill with the blade, her footwork quick and balletic as she sank into either role wherever she was needed.
Eventually, she clapped both the men on the back and headed off into the wings as another cluster of actors filled the stage to rehearse their scene. Josephine slunk back out of the theatre with a general feeling that the moment was over.
She was halfway down the street before she turned around, scrawled ‘for Miss Acker’ on the back of a calling card, and handed it to the lad at the stage door with one of the lupins – a blue one, like her jousting tabard.
Two days later, Miss Ottilie Acker came to call. When Janie tumbled up the stairs to tell Josephine she had a visitor, she nearly tripped over her own slippers getting up from her chair. She reached for the bundle of jousting rings hanging from the knob at the side of her mirror but restrained herself – to wear it now would probably be presumptuous or make her seem foolish. She wracked her brain for the Arthurian etiquette regarding favours. She had given the ribbon to Ottilie, who had obliged her by wearing it to joust; Ottilie had given her the rings, which she had worn proudly for the rest of the day.
Did it matter? The fair was over; chivalric notions had to be put away. Ottilie was a woman again and likely wouldn’t take well to Josephine’s doting.
But she had come to call.
Josephine tucked the jousting rings into her pocket, fluffed her skirt, and scurried downstairs.
Ottilie stood in the parlour, hat in her hands like a man, although for the first time in their admittedly brief acquaintance, she was in a gown. The bodice, Josephine was uncommonly delighted to note, had lapels like a man’s jacket, crisply tailored with shiny brass buttons. She was wearing the lupin in her buttonhole, still crisp and bright blue after those two days, looking strangely saturated in colour against her grey gown and dark hair.
‘Guinevere,’ Ottilie said, beaming with those dimples out in full force. ‘I’m glad to see you! It seemed a bit unfair since you saw me not so long ago.’
Josephine went white.
‘You knew I came by?’
‘Not until after. One of the lads saw you come in the side door and told me when I got off stage that my Guinevere had snuck in.’
‘You had told them we met?’
‘I couldn’t stop telling them about you. The braid on your kirtle was stunning, not to mention your impeccable manner.’
Josephine gasped softly, somehow even more moved by the compliment to her costume than she had been by the one to her personal beauty at the fair.
‘I braided it myself,’ she stammered, ‘from ribbon I bought in town. From the milliner on Firwood; she said she knows you.’
‘Oh, she’s a darling,’ Ottilie said, and Josephine giggled.
‘She said the same about you.’
‘I’m glad my reputation precedes me,’ Ottilie said with a wink. ‘What did you think of our rehearsal?’
‘I’m not sure why the other actors are there,’ Josephine said, emboldened suddenly, ‘when you could play all the roles so well yourself.’
Ottilie laughed, a sudden, strong bark of a laugh, surprised.
‘Miss Sidney, you flatter me,’ she said. ‘I could hardly play everyone, however. I must confess: no one would believe me to be the fair maiden.’
‘To me, you seem most fair.’
‘You shall have to come to our performance Thursday night,’ Ottilie said, ‘and our lead actress will remind you what a fair maid is, distracting you entirely from me.’
‘I doubt that,’ Josephine said, offering Ottilie a seat. ‘I saw the brads holding your helmet together at the joust, lightweight enough not to tear the papier-mâché, with the appearance of rivets from the outside. Genius. I don’t think I could be distracted from you by the whole world.’
They sat opposite each other, Ottilie’s hat on her lap.
‘I was glad you came to the theatre,’ Ottilie said after a moment. ‘I hadn’t been quite sure how to find you, and I’d wanted to ask you about that costume of yours. I spoke to Mrs Galwell, apparently after you did, and she told me you read a great deal and care particularly for history. Is that true?’
‘It is,’ Josephine said. ‘Did she also tell you I’m shy and dull and bad with faces?’
She wasn’t sure why she’d said it; some kind of self-defeat, perhaps, or fear, or a need to get it over with. Maybe it was just embarrassment borne of not having remembered Mrs Galwell’s name. Ottilie just smiled, a little sadly.
‘She was very complimentary, in fact. A requisite jab at your age, but she fusses at me for the same.’
‘I’m thirty in June.’
‘You don’t look it.’
‘Oh, I do. I just don’t look like a Punch drawing of a spinster. Neither do you. How did you convince your kirtle to lie so smoothly over your gown?’
Josephine blinked. ‘The gown was of a thinner fabric, and I folded it up a bit before tying the kirtle on top. I cheated, though, with an old pair of stays I altered to hold the proper silhouette. I know a medieval lady wouldn’t wear them, her dress itself would be fitted enough, but I—’
She cut herself off, mortified at almost mentioning her own need for proper support, and yet more so when she realized her hand had risen to her breast. She returned it to her lap so quickly she nearly slapped herself in the skirt. Even mentioning stays themselves had probably been a mistake with such a new acquaintance, but because she was answering a question about costume, the words had just spilled out. She wanted to make Ottilie happy, she realized, more than any stranger she’d ever smiled at or danced with before. She wanted to answer her questions and see her dimples, and it wasn’t quite the same as having a real Cause, a real purpose, but it was close.
‘Of course,’ Ottilie said. ‘But altering stays, that’s fiddly work. The boning, the layers of coutil; making them in the first place is specialized enough, but you changed the overall silhouette yourself?’
‘Jack of all trades,’ Josephine said, flustered, ‘master of none. I can do a bit of most things, so long as those things have come up regarding something I researched.’
Ottilie smiled, impressed, and it was a little more crooked than her grins before, bringing out only one dimple, the one on the left side.
‘You’re a wonder, Miss Sidney.’
‘You can sword fight.’
‘You can research.’
‘Why were the men on the stage wearing those funny shoes? You were too.’
As soon as it came out of her mouth, Josephine realized it was apropos nothing in their conversation. In her mind, discussion of their respective abilities had led to the moment she admired those abilities most markedly, and the odd footwear Miss Acker and the actors had worn at the time, but she hadn’t articulated that process, so—
‘Shoes are terribly important,’ Ottilie said, unbothered. ‘They change the whole way you carry yourself. Picking shoes early so the actors can rehearse in them is always important. Especially for something like the stage fight. You wouldn’t ask a ballerina to dance in a workman’s boots, would you?’
Josephine nodded, slowly. ‘But the bill on the wall said the play was set “Nearly An Hundred Years Ago.” Men hardly wore heels at all by 1750, much less 1770; the French Revolution in ’89 stopped it altogether apart from riding boots. I read about it when my father was spending time with a gentleman who had what he said were original Revolutionary tricolore cockades in his safe box at the bank. I don’t think they were real.’
Ottilie was staring, but it was a thrilled stare, like a pteridomaniac who had just spotted a new and rare fern.
‘I am devastated by my error and fascinated by your knowledge, Miss Sidney. We need you at the theatre.’
‘You do what?’
‘We need you at the theatre, Miss Sidney. Consider it. Come by once a week to start, talk with my director, maybe you can get some sense into the old man. You notice things everyone forgets, don’t you?’
‘I just like to read.’
‘You like to read and you remember,’ Ottilie said. ‘And you put things together. What are the standard parts of a medieval woman’s gown?’
‘Chemise, stockings, at least one kirtle, belt, mantle, and wimple or cap.’
‘Who did Sir Gawain marry?’
‘Dame Ragnell, the loathly lady.’
‘Who first built Westminster Abbey?’
‘Edward the Confessor.’
‘What would one drink with breakfast in Prussia?’
‘What period? Frederick the Great banned coffee in the 1770s.’
‘We need you, Miss Sidney,’ Ottilie repeated. ‘I came here to satisfy my own curiosity and because I found you wonderfully engaging. I much desire us to be better friends, Miss Sidney.’
Ottilie kept saying her name, and it was dizzying and exciting.
‘Your theatre would hardly want me fussing at them about historical minutiae,’ Josephine said.
‘That is precisely what we do want,’ Ottilie said. ‘Better to know before the curtain goes up than to read about it in the review! At the same time – though I speak only for myself in this – to hear you speak is wonderful. It enlivens the room, how thoroughly you have command of your subject.’
‘You’ve hardly heard me,’ Josephine began, but Ottilie shook her head.
‘I heard you talking to Miss Mary about her dress and about Sir Gawain. It was effortless. All the facts were at your command. Do you know what a dramaturg is, Miss Sidney?’
‘On that, you have stumped me.’
‘A dramaturg researches. A dramaturg reads the play before it’s put on, she looks up all the little things, ensures it is accurate in history and place. A dramaturg is a historian of the stage, and we desperately need one. We need a dramaturg, and I, as a woman longing for like-minded company, would like it to be you.’
The thought of research being her Cause made Josephine’s heart race, in a way not at all unlike looking at Ottilie did. Once a week, she thought, to start, like she’d said. She could come, talk through what she needed to learn about, and then go ahead and learn it, and they would want her to. They would want to know everything she could tell them.
As Ottilie awaited her answer, a curtain seemed to rise. Josephine felt rather like all the air had gone out of the room from the way those dark eyes fixed on her, the smile that narrowed them, made little lines at the corners.
‘Please come, Miss Sidney.’
‘Happily, Miss Acker.’
Amalie N Ingham:
Amalie N. Ingham has been writing all her life, from short stories and poetry to essays, songs and lately, novels. She is currently working on a YA about the monstrous feminine and corruption in the music industry. She is passionate about history, minority representation (especially queer and neurodiverse), and above all, engaging, character-driven stories.