by B. Gordon
After the debacle of his latest marriage–never again would he wed a woman with brothers–Bluebeard fled the country. The duplicity of his wife had wounded his spirit worse than the swords of her brothers had wounded his body: no sooner out of his sight than she had taken the golden key and unlocked his forbidden chamber, discovered the fate of his other disobedient wives. Discovered but escaped it: his flesh butchered, not hers.
Unjust Fate! No, he said to himself as he combed out his curling beard to hide the red welt of scar across his throat. No more families. No more sisters peeking and prying, sending for their brothers. Most particularly, no more succumbing to sparkling eyes and a lively glance. Obedience was what he wanted. A downward gaze, a meek answer. But he must have a wife. A man cannot live alone.
His investments and acquaintances in the spice trade were many and diverse, so he had no great difficulty establishing himself under the name Ottavius Blaubart. His man of business found him a house in a formerly fashionable district become merely respectable. “A quarter where neighbours do not peer from behind curtains,” said the estate agent, unlocking the barred doors. “You need do no more than nod and wish a good morning.”
“The kitchen, if you please,” Bluebeard said. “And attics.”
The agent drew his mouth up in a pinched smile. “Your lady wife will be pleased with the kitchens.” He pushed through the green baize door and gestured to the sturdy chopping block, the strong hooks above the hearth.
“I am not at present married.”
To reach the attic, they climbed a steep narrow stair. Bluebeard had to crouch to open the low door. He pictured a too-curious wife, burdened by her great ring of keys, hunched furtively at the latch, trying one, another, and at last the little golden key, forbidden–
“Sir? Will you be engaging servants?”
He started, and knocked his head against a ceiling beam. “Tell me, are these walls thick? I have no wish to be disturbed by the chatter of underlings.”
The agent eyed the room, knocked on the scuffed panelling and bare floorboards. “The walls, certainly. The floor, well, should your servants prove quarrelsome, some noise might penetrate it.”
“It is good of you to be honest. When I come to hire, perhaps you can recommend to me a reputable agency.”
The agent inclined his head, understanding that money might flow in more directions than one, and a ready pocket might receive its due.
Thus Ottavius Blaubart entered society, not for the first time. His fine clothes and air of mystery, even of secret sorrow, caused him to be sought after, and families with more daughters than wealth were eager to scrape acquaintance. Yet again and again he was disappointed. The young ladies were not content to listen and admire. When he paused, they questioned him, asked where he had come from, was it not true he had been married before? How sad to have loved and lost!
He frowned and turned from them, saying curtly that he did not care to speak of the matter. When he looked back, they were whispering behind fans, casting sidelong glances at him from behind lace edgings or spread feathers.
“From women’s tongues comes all manner of ills,” he observed as he sat at the card-table.
“Come now,” said a sleek-haired cavalry officer. “Only if one attends to their words. Consider it the sweet calling of birds and it makes a pretty noise.”
Bluebeard shook his head. “Could I only have a wife quiet and obedient!”
“Go among peasants if you wish a placid mare for the plough. Here you’ll find only high-bred carriage-horses.”
“I have a mind,” he said heavily, “to do as you suggest.”
The officer laid his card down and drew another, sighing. “I pity the wench, dragged from the pigeons and barnyard fowl and cast bewildered among the peacocks and popinjays of society.”
Alone, Bluebeard thought with satisfaction. Without her gossips or her sisters. No one to chatter to. No one to teach her to question her husband.
The next day he ordered his coach and coachman, and went into the country. At each inn he gave due attention to the maidservants, but found them sly and ever-watchful for the chance of a coin. He attended village dances and fairs, and found the merchants’ daughters no better than those he had left, only clumsier with their fans and more inclined to laugh and squeal.
He had been nearly a month on the road when the wheel came off his carriage on a rutted farm-track, and he was forced to wait while his coachman made repairs. A stammering farmer led him to the best parlour, apologising that it had been neglected since his wife’s death, “But still the best chamber we have, master.”
A young woman brought him tea on a lacquered tray. As he heaped glossy clots of cream onto steaming, floury scones, she poured tea into a porcelain cup.
“Only one cup?” Bluebeard asked. “Will you not drink with me?”
She kept her eyes on her hands and the tasks they accomplished. “Begging your pardon, master, ‘twouldn’t be fitting.”
Under the loose smock her form was straight and buxom. He too watched her hands, callused but not ill-shaped, moving deftly. “Are you the daughter of the house?”
She did not look up, but the cheek he could see flushed pink. “That I am, master.”
“And your name?”
“Will you look at me, Eva? Come, I am no ogre.”
Eva lifted her face to him. No great beauty, with hair straw-yellow and eyes pale blue, but a country girl’s fresh complexion. Dress her well and he’d not be ashamed to bear her on his arm in the ballroom.
“Send your father to me, Eva.”
The farmer twisted his cloth cap in his hands, and answered like a schoolboy. No, he had no sons, none but the one daughter. Yes, it was no easy life, for him or for her. Did any young man court her? No, she was a good quiet lass and knew her duty. Aye, had he money enough he’d dower her, and buy a new heifer and an ox for the plough, but what use wishing for gold to fall from the sky?
So it was settled between them, that Ottavius Blaubart would take Eva to the city as his wife, and settle a sufficient sum on her father to compensate for the loss of her labour.
Bluebeard handed his bride up into the carriage, and his coachman tossed her shabby trunk and single hatbox into the boot. As the carriage lurched out of the farmyard, he asked, “How did you come to be named Eva, my dear?”
“I don’t know, master.”
“You may call me husband, or Ottavius, as you prefer. You are named after the mother of us all, Adam’s Eve, whose sin shut us out of Paradise. What sin was that, Eva?”
She looked at her husband, blinking slowly. “Disobedience?”
“Not only that, but curiosity. Women are like cats, prying and peering into everything, most especially that which is forbidden. Keep from that sin, Eva, and you and I will be content, and you will have all you wish for.”
“I must keep from prying and peering,” she said, choosing her words as if she picked over fruit at the market. “And you will be pleased with me.”
“But if you disobey me, my anger will be both just and terrible. Do you understand?”
“Aye, master.” She rolled thoughts about for most of a mile, and at last offered: “My father whipped me proper, but never had to but once for each fault.”
Blaubart smiled in the midst of his beard. “I trust you shall never need to endure my punishment, my dear.” Idly he pictured this wife, her hair streaming about her shoulders, her pink face wet with tears, as she, like her predecessors, pled for mercy. But he would not be forced to that. This time he had chosen with care.
When they reached the house, she was too weary with travel and strangeness to do more than gaze wonderingly at the staircase, carpets, paintings and mirrors that Bluebeard had installed. He brought her to the bedchamber.
“You must do without a lady’s-maid this first night, my dear. I shall perform the offices myself, hey?”
She stood on the fine Turkish carpet, stiff as a china doll while he undressed her. “Never had a maid, master.”
“Husband,” he chided. “Husband is more than master. More even than father.”
“Husband,” she echoed, as he turned the covers back and arranged her on the bed, her peach-flushed skin smoother than the linen sheets.
She said no more, not even a question when she saw the terrible scars on his chest and throat, made by the sabres of his last wife’s brothers. She made only a sharp intake of breath as her maidenhead was lost. Bluebeard noted, before he lost himself in her flesh, that he must look for blood on the sheet, for women were deceivers who cried without hurt.
In the morning she woke before him, as a wife ought, washed and dressed herself, then waited at the bedside for his instructions. He kissed her cheek fondly. “This house will be yours to care for, my dear. All upstairs and downstairs, and you shall keep the keys. Here is the ring. But mark you, this little golden key?”
Eva nodded, taking the great ring in both hands like a door-knocker.
“The door to that key you must never open. If you open it, my anger will be beyond anything you have known.”
That fortnight all the talk of the town was of Ottavius Blaubart, how the mysterious spicer had been felled by Cupid’s arrow, plucking a fair flower from a country meadow when all the town’s carefully tended gardens lay open to him. He carried Eva to milliners, to dressmakers, to the dancing-master and tutors of every sort. The knocker fairly wore a hole in the door with the queue of visitors to see the country innocent who had succeeded where citified wiles failed.
As weeks ran into months, he watched his wife’s doings, attentive as a cat to scratchings behind the wainscot. Every night he asked her for the ring of keys, and every night the little golden key shone blameless. Would her head be turned by admiration, would she be tempted to extravagance at card-table or milliners, would she fall to gossiping and at last be tempted to curiosity about him?
“Does it please you, my dear, to be the cynosure of all eyes?” It had pleased him to tease his wives with words they did not know, but the pastime was spoilt by Eva’s simplicity, for she did not pretend to comprehension she did not have, only turned his question over for meaning on the underside.
“To be stared at? I’d as soon stay quiet at home, but I’ll go out as it pleases you, husband.” More thought passed behind her blue eyes. “These folk who’ve entertained us, oughtn’t we to feed them? ‘Twas turnabout so, in the country.”
“And how would you entertain them?” he asked, entranced as if his horse had ventured its opinion on the road best taken.
“Feed them well. The kitchen’s grand. And let them talk all they’ve a wish. That’s what they like best.”
This peasant shrewdness made him laugh aloud. “Some hired musicians, to relieve those who would rather attend to instruments than voices. But who shall prepare this feast?”
“Who but I, master?”
Bluebeard nodded. He had chosen well at last. But doubt slid under his complacency: did she scheme for excuse to explore throughout the house, under guise of housewifely duty?
While Eva ordered in joints of meat and barrels of apples, Bluebeard made the house ready for guests–and for disobedient wives if need arose. All the windows he had cleaned and puttied, and the little attic window covered with iron gridwork. The panelling was given fresh paint, and the attic walls strengthened until no sound could be heard from outside. With his own hands he screwed strong hooks in the beams. The low narrow door was locked, and every evening the golden key was unmarked and virginal on the ring Eva kept.
The long table filled with guests, and the musicians sawed diligently at fiddles and puffed into flutes. Eva, pink with kitchen heat and pleasure, received the compliments of their guests.
“Oh, my dear Madame Blaubart, pray show us around the house!” cried one of the unmarried girls. “None of us have been further than the front parlour, and we are agog to know what improvements have been made!”
Eva looked at him, and he could see no guilt in her eyes as yet. “Better my husband show you. He knows all that’s been done. I don’t trouble myself with that.”
“No, no, my dear,” Bluebeard said genially. “You are the mistress of the house and keep the keys. Display your realm.” He sat with the other gentlemen, giving the ladies time to gain the stairway, then followed, within earshot but always a corner behind the rustling, exclaiming throng of women.
Eva’s voice, clear as a thrush’s song, came to him. “These keys are to the great wardrobes, where the furniture is kept; these to the strongboxes for gold and silver plate; this the master-key to our apartments–”
“Oh, let us see your dressing-chamber,” said one, but another asked, “What is this pretty little key?” Bluebeard stood in the dim corridor, and stroked his beard.
“That is the key to my husband’s closet,” Eva said, unhesitating. “And that door I may not open. Come, I will show you the wall-hangings of silk, in my small parlour.”
“But what does he keep in his closet?” asked the second lady. “What secrets does he keep from you?”
Bluebeard craned his neck and took a step forward, unknowing.
“Well, and how could I know that,” Eva asked, the town polish fading from her accent, “when they’re his secrets?”
“But aren’t you curious?”
“No more than he’s curious how I manage my kitchen. I shouldn’t thank him to come poking and inquiring when I’m spicing a pastry or boiling preserves.”
And though he followed all through the house, Eva was not tempted to speculate. He could detect no duplicity in her answers, no dawning curiosity, only perhaps boredom, or disappointment that her guests did not share her passion for a well-fitted kitchen and well-stocked larder.
“Are you content, wife?” he asked her in their bed. He had taken her more roughly than was his practice, but she had made no more sound than she ever had after that first night. “Shall we entertain again?”
“As you please, husband.” She added, ruminating, “That piped pastry turned out a fair treat. ‘Tis a pity they’re all so pleased with the talk coming out of their mouths they don’t hardly notice the food that goes in.”
Indeed, Eva fed him well. She delighted in finding the freshest fruits and meats at the market, and soon knew every stall-owner by name. Within weeks, she learnt the scent and virtues of every spice and rare herb he dealt in, and how they were best employed. With the generous allowance he made her, she bought books on cookery and puzzled through, sounding out words. Sometimes he would hear her suddenly fluent as she disagreed with the printed text. “And pep-per till it be … e-en-og? Enough? Nay, never pepper, not with the onions, ‘twouldn’t go near so well as cumin–”
Every night, the golden key shone blameless. Eva did not chatter, neither inquiring into his affairs nor speaking of her own pursuits unless he asked. She received visitors, repaid calls, and went each day for a dutiful ride in the park if the weather was fine, but her heart was in the kitchen. A faraway look on his wife’s face meant she was planning a menu, not scheming how to evade his eye.
Bluebeard could not explain the restlessness that gripped him. He went by candle-light to the little locked door. Sometimes he opened it, and walked inside, careful of the low beams and their gleaming hooks. With his eyes closed, he could picture the limp heavy shapes of his wives, swaying with the slow weight of churchbells. The sick-sweet smell of blood was missing, and the thick stickiness of blood on the floor. He stretched out his arm in the dark space, and felt nothing, no silks stiff with the last leavings of the body, no tumbling fall of hair. His wives had all had long hair.
He became short with Eva, and that too she bore incuriously. “Leave your cookery,” he ordered. “Invite the Misses V– and Miss L– for tea,” naming here the most inquisitive of his wife’s acquaintance. The Misses V– and L– came, devoured little cakes and the reputations of their friends, but Eva cared only for their opinion of the cakes. The closet remained inviolate for all their teasing.
He played the complacent husband and thrust her into company with handsome fortune-hunters, dashing cavalry officers, and hopeful poets. She listened patiently to their compliments, boasts and sonnets, but when Bluebeard asked what they had spoken of, she answered, “Oh, he rattled on, but nothing worth attending to. Did you care for the calves’ livers, husband? I’d like to ask their cook what spices she added to the sauce.”
It is because I am present, he thought. She knows my punishment would be swift, and she does not believe herself clever enough to deceive me. But if I were not here, matters would be otherwise. So it had proven before.
He laid the foundations of his plan. From time to time he groaned, or paced, and held his hand to his head. Eva asked whether his dinner disagreed with him, and if he would not like a glass of ginger wine to settle his stomach.
“No,” he said, nettled. “My business affairs go poorly. You would not understand.”
“Likely I wouldn’t,” she said agreeably. One of the stall-owners had shown her how to crochet, and when her husband wished her company, she brought trailing yarn along and slipped the silver hook in and out through patterns.
“It may be necessary for me to leave, and see to matters myself.”
Eva nodded. “My father said the best manure for a field is the owner’s boots.” She finished a row and brought it into the whole. “I’ll make you up a hamper so you needn’t eat at inns unless you please.”
“Before I leave, we must have a house-party. I will give you a list who must be invited, to cement my position in the town.” Her incuriousness would play to his benefit. She would not question what use the husbands of notorious gossips or the fathers of inquisitive maidens would be to him. She would accept, as always. “We will entertain them for a night and a day.”
“As you wish.” Her soft mouth firmed in determination. “They shan’t go away hungry, that I promise.”
Invitations went out, provisions come in. Practiced, Eva took much into her own hands, save only the writing of invitations, which Bluebeard gave to his private secretary. Musicians and servers were engaged, menus planned and altered.
“The house must be swept, top to bottom. You may hire women to assist you,” he said, and added, “Be sure none open my private closet.” She would see that little door every day, he thought, pleasure uncoiling in his heart. How it must tease at her, to have that one only closed. How it would work on her, day after day. He watched her, feeling a smile twitch at his lips, sure the little lines between her brows came from striving not to think of key and lock. For he knew the more it was stifled, the greater desire grew.
The night before the house-party Bluebeard woke to find himself standing on bare floorboards before the little door, hands and feet chilled in the night air. Alarm jolted him, to think he had given himself away, that Eva had followed. But stairs and hallway were empty. If his somnambulism had woken her, he consoled himself, it would be but one more test she was put to, wondering what called him from his bed. When he slipped again into his bedchamber, she was there, snoring softly. To warm himself, he woke her and had use of her. She did not question his cold hands or wakefulness, only submitted as always.
The day of the house-party, Bluebeard’s secretary brought him the letter he had prepared. “I am called away suddenly,” he told Eva. “Those matters of business of which I spoke, they have gone badly awry and I must see to them. But you cannot disappoint our friends. Explain to them I will return as soon as I may, and that they should make merry, eat well, play games and divert themselves. And you also, do not be all sobriety but match their high spirits and forget your cares.”
“As you wish, husband.” As she lifted up her face for his curly-bearded kiss, the ring of keys jangled at her waist.
“Ah,” he said. “I remember I have a small gift to console you for my absence.” From a pocket he took his egg, a pretty ivory thing scarcely bigger than his thumb-joint, his oldest and surest talisman. “Carry this with you always, and keep it from harm and dirt, and I will be pleased. But let it be cracked or stained, and my wrath will be terrible.”
The first guests were arriving, so Eva only nodded and hurried to greet them.
Bluebeard crept back into the house while his wife was busy at the front door. He slipped upstairs, carrying his shoes for silence, though the clamour of the door-knocker and guests’ voices smothered any noise. Then up the narrow stairs to where the low door stood just ajar, ready for him to slip in and wait in his closet, his lair. For surely this night his wife would fail, would show herself unworthy of his trust.
Through the little gap, he followed the course of the party. They dined early, to the clinking of silverware and the watery music of a harp. Women’s exclamations shrilled over the rumble of men’s laughter. He imagined every step: the dishes removed, the port brought to the table, the younger folk crying for some sport that would allow them to steal an embrace unobserved, a child’s game turned to needs a child did not know.
“Hide and go seek!” came the call at last, and Bluebeard’s heart surged. He waited within arm’s-reach of the door, breath coming quick as a lover’s.
Feet clattered from room to room, squeals and laughs springing up to Bluebeard where he waited. He cared nothing for them. Eva was coming, his destined bride, coming to complete their pact. “My punishment will be just and terrible,” he whispered. “As I promised.”
Eva’s footstep sounded on the stairs: he could not mistake it. His hand twisted in the blue curls of his beard. The knives lay ready on the table.
“Here now,” said Bluebeard’s wife, her country accent unguarded. “How’s this door come to be ajar? Good fortune I’ve come first.”
Beside Bluebeard’s ear, the door snicked shut. Eva turned the little golden key firmly in the lock, withdrew it, and walked away. So thick were the walls he could not hear her firm footsteps departing, or any sound from the guests.
After some hours he understood that neither could they hear him. After a day he understood that kitchen knives did little harm to oak door or brick walls. Much later he understood that he had at last found an obedient wife.
Eva tucked the little egg in her bodice to free her hands for cooking. Warmed by bosom and kitchen, the egg hatched at last, revealing a damp chick, pale blue down speckled with red. She kept it in a wicker cage, and it sang cheerily while she baked and brewed.
B. Gordon works at an academic library on Vancouver Island and her long-time hobby is historic re-creation. Her short fiction has been published in Coyote Wild and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and she recently won the Rannu Fund Prize for Fiction.