Victoria Holt

The Mask of the Enchantress

Three Wishes in an Enchanted Forest

I am trapped. I am caught in a web, and it is small comfort to me that that web is of my own weaving. When I think of the magnitude of what I have done I am overcome by a numb terror. I have behaved in a wicked manner, I know, perhaps a criminal manner; and every morning when I wake there is a heavy cloud over me, and I ask myself what fresh disasters there are in store for me this day.

How often have I wished that I had never heard of Susannah, Esmond and the rest—particularly Susannah. I wish that I had never had that glimpse of Mateland Castle, so noble, so gracious, with its massive gatehouse, its gray walls and battlements like something out of a medieval romance. Then I should never have been tempted.

In the beginning it had all seemed so easy and I had been desperate.

"Dat ole Debil be at youse elbow tempting you," my old friend Cougaba on Vulcan Island would have said.

It was true. The Devil had tempted me, and I had succumbed to temptation. That is why I am here in Mateland Castle, trapped and desperate, seeking a way out of a situation which every day is becoming more and more dangerous.

It all goes back a long way—in fact it started before I was born. It is the story of my father and mother; it is Susannah's story as well as mine. But when I first began to be aware that there was something unusual about me, I was just six years old.

I spent those early years in Crabtree Cottage on the village green of Cherrington. The church dominated the green and there was a pond in the center where every fine day the old men would take their places on the wooden seat there and talk the morning away. There was a maypole on the green, too, and on May Day the villagers chose a queen and there were wonderful celebrations which I used to watch through the slats in the wooden Venetian blinds at the parlor window if I could escape the stern eyes of Aunt Amelia.

Aunt Amelia and Uncle William were very religious, and they said that the maypole should have been removed and such pagan ceremonies done away with; but I was thankful to say that that was not the view of the rest of us.

How I used to long to be out there, bringing in the green from the woods, and taking one of the strands and dancing round the maypole with the May Day frolickers. I thought it must be the height of bliss to be chosen as the May queen. But one had to be sixteen at least to qualify for that honor, and at the time I was not yet six.

I accepted the strangeness of my life and I suppose would have gone on doing so for a while if it had not been for the nods and hints going on around me. Once I heard Aunt Amelia say: "I don't know if we did right, William. Miss Anabel begged me and I gave way."

"There's the money," Uncle William reminded her.

"But it's condoning sin, that's what it is."

Uncle William assured her that no one could say they had sinned.

"We've condoned a sinner, William," she insisted.

William replied that no blame could be attached to them. They had done what they were paid to do and it might be that they could snatch a soul from hellfire.

"The sins of the fathers are visited on the children," Aunt Amelia reminded him.

He just nodded and went out to his woodshed where he was carving a crib for the church at Christmas.

I began to realize that Uncle William was less preoccupied with being good than Aunt Amelia was. He smiled now and then —true, it was rather a twisted sort of smile as though he was ashamed of it, but it sometimes threatened to emerge; and once when he had found me looking through the blinds at the May Day celebrations he had gone out of the room and said nothing.

Of course I am writing after a lapse of years, but I think I very soon began to realize that there was speculation about me in the village of Cherrington. Uncle William and Aunt Amelia were an incongruous pair to have charge of a young child.

Matty Grey, who lived in one of the cottages on the green and used to sit at her door on summer days, was what was known as a "character" in the village. I liked to talk to Matty whenever I could. She knew it and when I approached she would make strange wheezing noises and her fat body would shake, which was her way of laughing. She would call to me and bid me sit at her feet. She called me a "pore little mite" and bade her grandson Tom be kind to little Suewellyn.

I rather liked my name. It was derived from Susan Ellen. The to, I think, was put in because of the two e's coming together. I thought it was a good name. Distinctive. There were Ellens in plenty in our village and there was a Susan called Sue. But Suewellyn was unique.

Tom obeyed his grandmother. He stopped other children teasing me because I was different. I went to the dame school, which was run by a lady who had been a governess at the manor house where she had taught the squire's daughter, but when that young lady no longer required her services she had taken a small house not far from the church and opened a school to which the village children went, including the squire's daughter's son, Anthony. He was going to have a tutor when he was a year or so older and after that he would go away to school. We were a mixed community who gathered in Miss Brent's front parlor and scratched out letters in trays of sand with wooden sticks and chanted our tables. There were twenty of us from the ages of five to eleven and of all classes; some would finish their education at the age of eleven; others would go on to further it. In addition to the squire's heir, there were the doctor's daughters and three children of a local farmer; and then there were those like Tom Grey. Among them I was the only one who was unusual.

The fact was, there was some mystery about me. I had arrived in the village one day, already born. The coming of most children was a much-discussed event before the newcomer actually put in an appearance. I was different. I lived with a couple who were the most unlikely pair to have the charge of a child. I was always well clothed and sometimes wore garments which were more costly than the status of my guardians warranted.

Then there were the visits. Once a month She came.

She was beautiful. She arrived at the cottage in the station fly, and I would be sent into the parlor to see her. I knew it was an important occasion because the parlor was only used at very special times—when the vicar called, for instance. The Venetian blinds were always drawn to keep out the sun for fear it might fade the carpet or damage the furniture. There was a holy atmosphere about it. Perhaps it was the picture of Christ on the cross or that of St. Stephen, I think it was, with a lot of arrows sticking in him and blood trickling from his wounds, side by side with a portrait of our Queen when young, looking very stern, disdainful and disapproving. The room depressed me and it was only the lure of such occasions as May Day which tempted me to peer through the slats at the frolicking on the green.

But when She was there, the room was transformed. Her clothes were wonderful. She wore blouses that always seemed to be adorned with frills and ribbons; she wore long bell-shaped skirts and little hats trimmed with feathers and bows of ribbon.

She always said: "Hello, Suewellyn!" as though she were a little shy of me. Then she would hold out her hand and I would run to her and take it. She would lift me up in her arms and study me so intently that I wondered if the parting of my hair was straight and whether I had remembered to wash behind my ears.

We would sit side by side on the sofa. I hated the sofa at most times. It was made of horsehair and tickled my legs even through my stockings; but I did not notice this when she was there. She would ask me a lot of questions, and they were all about me. What did I like to eat? Was I cold in the winter? What was I doing at school? Was everybody kind to me? When I learned to read she wanted me to show her how well I could do it. She would put her arms round me and hold me tightly, and when the fly came back to take her to the station, she would hug me and look as if she were going to cry.

It was very flattering, for although she did talk awhile to Aunt Amelia, when I would be sent out of the parlor, it did seem as though her visits were especially for me.

After she had gone it would seem different in the house. Uncle William would look as though he was trying hard to stop his features breaking into a smile; and Aunt Amelia would go about murmuring to herself: "I don't know. I don't know."

The visits were noticed in the village of course. James, who drove the fly, and the stationmaster whispered together about her. I realized later that they drew their own conclusions on the matter, which could hardly have been called obscure, and I have no doubt that I should have learned earlier but for Matty Grey's injunction to her grandson to look after me. Tom had made it clear that I was in his charge, and anyone offending me would have to answer to him. I loved Tom though he never deigned to speak much to me. For me, however, he was my protector, my knight in shining armor, my Lohengrin.

But even Tom could not stop the children putting their heads together and whispering about me, and one day Anthony Felton noticed the mole just below my mouth on the right side of my chin.

"Just look at that mark on Suewellyn's face," he cried. "It's where the Devil kissed her."

They all listened with wide eyes while he told them how the Devil came at midnight and picked out his own. Then he kissed them and where he had touched them there was left a mark.