The Ice Queen
From the first moment I saw him I felt he was quite different to any other man I had met, and, to tell the truth, I had met a few. I was singing at Lady Crowley's soiree that evening, and our eyes met across a crowded room, just as it is described in novels. He gave me a smile that made my knees go weak, and while I steadied myself by holding on to the pianoforte, he turned to his friend, surely to discover who I was. Undoubtedly, his friend gave him the desired information -- I was the Ice Queen. This was the name my admirers had given me. Though of respectable parentage, circumstances had required me to perform as a professional singer at concerts -- and even though I had never appeared on an opera stage, I was no more than an opera girl in people's opinion. I was young -- twenty-two -- and, though no beauty, tolerably good-looking, therefore I did not lack admirers. Yet I had learned not to expect true affection from any of them. They meant to amuse themselves for a while and cast me aside afterwards. My well-being was of little to no importance at all. So I refused to take up any of the lures thrown at me, and treated every gentleman of my acquaintance with the same amount of cold, indifferent courtesy. I was the Ice Queen.
He must have been disappointed to find out that I was quite unsuitable for him - a singer, and too old for him besides, because he appeared to be very young. My reputation did not daunt him, however -- after my performance, he somehow managed to be introduced. Lady Crowley came to me and, with an air of someone bestowing an immeasurable honour on me, presented the Honourable Christopher Daventry, heir to the earldom of Metfield. There was that smile again, and it made me feel almost sorry to give him the set-down he needed. But it had to be -- just because he was young and handsome did not mean that he was any different from other men. I curtsied slightly, and said what was proper. Seeing that apparently her young guest was not in danger of getting caught in my clutches, Lady Crowley left us to ourselves.
"You must be thirsty," Mr. Daventry said. "Shall I get you something to drink? One of my sisters sings, and she is always thirsty when she has..."
"This is very kind of you, sir, but I am not thirsty," I interrupted him. "Besides I will have to leave in a couple of minutes." He was amiable enough, I thought, but that was probably just a façade. Too many men had hidden their true intentions behind a mask of solicitude -- it was difficult to trust anyone.
"So soon? A couple of minutes are hardly enough to receive all the praise that is your due," he said with a laugh.
So he thought he could make me relent by flattering me? "Praise, sir?" I asked him haughtily, meaning to nip his pretensions in the bud.
"Do not tell me you are above praise, Mademoiselle Girard. No one is."
"I did not say I was above praise," I said icily. "What I meant to say was that my performance tonight did not deserve any. I was awful."
"Were you? I would not have noticed." That smile of his, I thought, ought to be banned. It could do serious harm to a girl's heart.
"Perhaps you, like most gentlemen, were dazzled by the fact that a personable female was singing?" I asked sharply. Perhaps even more sharply than I had intended -- I felt instinctively that this man was dangerous. I could love him or hate him, but indifference was not an option.
"Hardly," he said casually. "You are not that pretty, Mademoiselle. It must have been your singing after all."
That stung. "You do know how to flatter a lady, sir," I said indignantly.
"As far as I have been informed, you are impervious to flattery," he said with a disarming smile. "I am just trying to be original."
"I am impervious to insults as well," I said stiffly. "So spare yourself the trouble, sir. I am the Ice Queen, as you may have been told."
"Ice can melt," he merely said, still smiling. "It is just that no one has taken the trouble to melt it yet."
I was glad when Lady Crowley's butler came towards me and informed me that Bernadine, my childhood nurse and living companion, had come to pick me up.
"Well, good night, Mr. Daventry," I said and turned to go.
"Wait," he said. "Will you tell me where you live? May I pay you a visit one of these days?"
I looked back at him over my shoulder. "I have no doubt that you will find me if you want to," I said and left, taking good care not to look back again. But I heard his answer well enough.
"I do like a challenge, Mademoiselle Girard."
He had not succeeded in winning my heart that evening. But he had been successful in intriguing me. From then on, Christopher Daventry was never far from my mind.
In the weeks to follow I realised that he had been serious. He had accepted the challenge and it did not take him long to find out where I lived. From that day on he sent me flowers or paid me short visits every day. The first bouquet he sent me consisted of forget-me-nots and lilies of the valley, and the note he had included said, "Red roses would have served the same purpose, but I wanted to be original. C.D."
I had to laugh -- by trying to be original, he had hit on my favourite flowers. Unless, of course, it was not an accident, and he had, by some means or other, discovered what my favourite flowers were. Anyway, he took pains to please me, something no one had ever done before. Christopher Daventry became more and more interesting.
Somehow he always managed to meet me at my concerts, and he always talked to me afterwards, teasing me and, sometimes, making me laugh.
I tried to keep him at a distance, by letting Bernadine tell him that I was "practising" or "did not receive visitors when I had a concert in the evening" -- which was true, by the way -- but he was not deterred. He regularly turned up at my doorstep and, out of sheer exasperation, I admitted him to my parlour one day. Bernadine had the strictest orders to stay with us all the time -- I did not want to give him an opportunity to do anything improper. I had to consider my reputation and did not really trust him yet. So far, we had never been alone with each other, after all.
"At last," he said, as he entered the room. I had deliberately seated myself on the stool in front of the pianoforte -- that way, he could not sit down next to me. He cast one glance at me, and I was certain he understood my trick -- and did not mind it.
"Good morning, Mr. Daventry," I said, rising and curtseying. He gave Bernadine a doubtful look as she sat down in the window-seat, picking up one of my dresses that had not quite survived an encounter with an ardent admirer. The sleeve was half torn off, and I realised that he guessed what had happened to it. He did not say so, but gave me an understanding look that nearly made my heart melt. Then he sat down on the sofa and spent the following ten minutes talking about commonplace things. Only his eyes told me that this was not a usual morning call. The way he looked at me warmed my heart -- I had to do something about it, I thought, or I'd fall in love with him before I knew it. I was enough of a realist to understand that such a love-affair had no future. There would be a scandal, and I would end up penniless, without the means of earning my living, for who would engage a singer who had seduced the heir to an earldom? That everyone would blame me was a matter of course. It was always the woman who got the blame.
"So this is the Ice Queen's realm," he said with a smile. "It looks quite harmless to me." He looked around, taking in every detail of the room. It was stuffed with musical instruments -- both my parents had been very musical people. They were French, but had had to leave France during the reign of Terror M. Robespierre and his henchmen had established. Musicians did not count for much in those days, especially not if they -- like my father -- had played in some Duke's private orchestra.
My mother had died a couple of years ago, and arthritis had rendered my father's hands quite useless. Until then, he had been able to support us pretty well. Now I was the one who earned our bread.
"Which of these instruments do you play, Mademoiselle Girard," Mr. Daventry asked me. "I suppose you do not only sing. I am certain you have many hidden talents."
"I play the pianoforte, of course, and the harp," I said quietly. "And the violin, although it is not exactly a suitable instrument for a lady. My father taught me -- he used to be a famous violinist before he fell ill." I refused to take him up on the topic of my hidden talents.
"I know," Mr. Daventry said. "I heard him play once. I thought he had died, Miss Girard."
"He did, in a way," I said sadly, not daring to look into these tender eyes. "He does not think life is worth living without his music. Most of the time he keeps to his room." To anyone who had known my father before, his sorry state must give constant pain. It did give pain to me.
"Too bad," he said. "I would have liked to meet him." For a moment, he looked as if he was contemplating to get up and take me into his arms. He did not, of course. Bernadine was still there. "Did you get my flowers?" he said instead.
"I did," I said. "Thank you, sir. They were beautiful." Even to me, this tribute sounded rather flat.
"I hoped you would like them," he said and added, with one of his dazzling smiles, "even though spring flowers seemed unsuitable for the Ice Queen."
"I hate that name," I said before I could stop myself. He looked at me, surprised.
"The impression I had was that you were rather proud of it," he said gently.
"I am proud of what it means," I said. "It means that I am not susceptible to all those tricks some men use to get their hands on me. Do you know what it is like to be in constant danger? What it is like to be stared at in that way? I had to become the Ice Queen in order to survive. But I am not cold. I have feelings. I..." I stopped. Why was I telling him about this? Why was I suddenly feeling so passionate on the subject?
"I know," he said quietly. "There is an easy way out of this, if only you'd let me."
"You are no better than anyone else, are you?" I said, incensed. Mostly, I was angry with myself for believing him to be harmless when his intentions were really no different from other men's. If only you'd let me, indeed. How long would he guard his mistress against those ruffians, I wondered? At one time, he'd let me down and leave me to the wolves.
"No, I never thought I was," he admitted and got up. "But I do think I am different. Perhaps you may realise that some day." He bowed, and left me to wonder what he had meant.
For a while, no one said anything, although Bernadine gave me some inquisitive looks. I tried to ignore her, but without much success. Bernadine was not one to hold back her opinion.
"What did you do that for?" she finally asked.
"What did I do?" I asked back, although I was well aware of what she meant.
"Treat the poor boy like that," Bernadine said. "Can't you see he's head over ears in love with you? And he's trying so hard!"
"Much good will it do me," I said cynically. "Do you think he'd marry me?"
"Who knows?" Bernadine retorted.
"Do you believe in fairy-tales? I don't," I said sharply. "Even if he did marry me, what would become of him? I can well imagine the Earl and Countess of Metfield's faces when he introduces me to them as their future daughter-in-law. I bet they always wanted to have an opera girl in the family."
"You're not an opera girl," Bernadine said.
"Will that make a difference to them, do you think?" I asked. "Bernadine, stop talking about him. I will not have it."
Behind my reluctance to talk about Christopher Daventry there was one thing I did not admit even to myself -- he had made an impression on me. A lasting impression. I loved him. A little.
Christopher Daventry kept away from me for while after that. I did not meet him again till there was a concert in his father's town house. I admit I was surprised when I received a letter from Lady Metfield, asking me to sing in her house, and then I thought it might have been her eldest son who had asked her to engage me -- which made me think of refusing the offer. The payment she offered me was generous, though, and I saw no reason why I should turn down such an opportunity. Quarter Day was approaching, and there were bills to be paid.
I was in what the family called the music room when Christopher strolled in. He was already dressed for his mother's evening entertainment and looked so handsome my heart missed a beat.
"Good evening, Mademoiselle Girard," he said, coming towards me. "How are you? We have not met for a while."
"I am fine, thank you," I said, not wishing to tell him how much I had missed him -- so much it had hurt. I had tried hard to get rid of him -- but when it looked as if I had succeeded, my misery was greater than any I had experienced ever before. "I suppose I owe tonight's engagement to your patronage," I said, with a slight smile.
"Not at all," he said with a mischievous smile. "Though I believe I did mention that you were singing at Lady Crowley's the other evening."
"A capital offence?" I asked him, smiling. He laughed.
"Not at all. But if there is one lady in town my mother cannot abide it is her, and my mother will certainly not let Lady Crowley outshine her."
The butler entered the room and informed him that her ladyship wished to see him. The guests would arrive soon.
"Until later then, Mademoiselle Girard," he said, lightly taking my hand and kissing it. "We shall meet at dinner, I believe?"
"No, we shall not," I said. "I never dine with the guests on these occasions. I thought you knew."
"Ah, I quite forgot," he said laughingly. "You keep yourself to yourself."
"The Ice Queen," I said with a meaningful look. "One needs to remember one's station, sir."
"But it must be quite lonely in that icy fortress of yours," he said, with that tender look in his eyes.
"Better lonely than hungry," I said. "I have no intention to starve, sir."
"It is not starvation you are afraid of, ma'am. It is being hurt," he said earnestly, and left the room.
He was right. I was afraid of being hurt, and being in love made me vulnerable. That he should have such insight surprised me. How had he managed to see what was beyond the icy mask?
The concert went well, but I did not feel quite comfortable. There were Christopher Daventry's words I had to contemplate, and besides I saw Mr. Hayle, one of my worst admirers, sitting in the front row and giving me one of those stares that made me feel as if I were naked. He had been the one to blame for that torn sleeve some time before. I hoped to get away before he got the chance to catch me alone -- he always tried to get hold of me, to kiss me, and to see more of me than I was willing to show. The way his gaze rested on my décolletage unnerved me.
The audience was an enthusiastic one -- I gave them three encores before I finally left the music room and went to the small chamber Lady Metfield had allotted to me to put on my coat and hat and await Bernadine's arrival. I realised I had better locked the door when it opened and Mr. Hayle came in. Most likely he had bribed a servant to tell him in which room I was. That being so, I was pretty certain that no one would come to my assistance. None of the servants would, and none of the guests would, either. No one cared what would become of me.
"I thought we should continue our last discussion," he said. "Now where were we?"
"Good night, Mr. Hayle." I tried to slip past him to leave the room, but he grabbed hold of me and pulled me towards him.
"You think you can leave me like this, do you?" he said menacingly. "I have got news for you -- I do not mean to let you go. Just once you will do what I want."
I gave a derisive laugh. "You have gone mad, sir. You cannot think you will get away with this."
He twisted my arm on my back, and I cried out in pain. "It is about time someone taught you a lesson," he said into my ear. "I'll be the one teaching you. You cannot drive a man to distraction without having to pay for it sooner or later. It is your own fault -- you should have been more forthcoming."
Still holding my arms behind my back, he began to kiss my neck -- his touch filled me with such hatred and disgust that it made me sick. I struggled to break free from his hold and told him to stop, but he would not listen. Instead, my resistance seemed to thrill him even more. I was in real trouble.
Then, the door suddenly burst open and Christopher rushed into the room. Mr. Hayle was so surprised that before he even grasped what was going on, Christopher had already knocked him out. Since Mr. Hayle was still holding on to me when he fell, I fell, too. Christopher knelt down next to me, completely ignoring Hayle's presence.
"Did I hurt you, Isabelle," he asked anxiously. "Say, are you hurt?" He was upset, I could see that in his eyes. There was genuine concern in the way he looked at me.
"No, I am not," I said, trying to keep control of myself. Somehow it would not work. My trembling hands gave me away.
"I'm sorry I was so late," he said. "Had I known earlier that Hayle had gone after you-- I knew he was up to no good. I'll never forgive myself I let this happen."
"This was not your fault," I said weakly. "You couldn't have known..."
"I should have known after witnessing how he stared at you tonight," he said grimly. With a groan, Mr. Hayle came to his senses. Christopher helped me up and made me sit down on the sofa before turning to his opponent.
"Leave," he demanded, and Mr. Hayle, still dazed, left us without opposition. I was surprised at how easily he gave in. Christopher sat down next to me, and pulled me towards him. "Don't cry," he said softly and only then I became aware that I had been in tears all the time.
"What would have happened if it had not been for you?" I sobbed, holding on to him.
"Don't think of it," he said, gently stroking my hair. "I won't let it happen again. I promise. I'll take better care of you in the future."
"You are just like all the rest, aren't you?" I asked. "You're taking advantage of this situation, offering me..."
"I am not like all the rest," he said determinedly. "We had that discussion before, didn't we? Isabelle, how long will it take you to realise that I love you? Doesn't that make me different from all the rest?"
"You will grow tired of me nonetheless," I said bitterly. "And what then? What will become of me?"
"I won't let you down," he said. "For better or for worse."
I stared at him, astonished at what I thought he had said. "You mean ... marriage?"
He laughed, and took me into his arms. "I never meant anything else, Isabelle." He kissed me, and his kisses made me understand just how much I needed him. This was right. This was happiness. This was ... madness. I broke away from him.
"We cannot marry," I said sadly. "Your family -- what will they say?"
"My father will probably try to cut me off without a shilling," he said. "My mother will have fits of the vapours. They will accept you in the end." Things sounded so easy, I thought. His confidence that everything would work in our favour was appealing. It nearly made me give in. Nearly.
"What are we going to live on?" I insisted. "I love you, but..." I broke off, helpless. I had to make him see reason.
"I have an income of my own," he said. "Only two thousand a year, but it will do for a start. We'll manage, Isabelle, and once my parents have seen reason..." He embraced me again. "Say you will think about it, Isabelle."
"I will think about it," I said weakly after he had kissed me once again. How was I to argue with a man who could kiss like this?
"Good girl." He smiled at me, and I leaned on his shoulder, holding on to him, wishing that my happiness would last.
It did not last long. The door opened, and in came Lady Metfield, who, upon seeing us in each other's arms, immediately had a fit of hysteria.
"You!!! Out of my house!!! Now!!!" she screamed at me. Her affliction did not seem to impress her son very much -- he merely advised her to calm down and then took my hand.
"Come. I'll take you home, Isabelle."
"You won't!" Lady Metfield cried. "You will never see that ... that ... shameless hussy again."
"I said I would take her home, and so I will," Christopher said unwaveringly. "Now recollect yourself, Mother. We have guests, haven't we?"
"Your father will hear about this," Lady Metfield threatened.
"I have no doubt he will," Christopher said. "We shall discuss this -- and the shameless hussy business -- when I come back."
He led me out of the door, past Lady Metfield who was giving me a look so full of hatred that it made me shiver. Things would not be as easy as Christopher had imagined them to be, I was certain.
Three days later, we were married. I had not expected Christopher to visit me ever again after he had taken me home that evening, knowing that his parents would try everything to keep us apart. Especially Lady Metfield, I felt, would have something to say on the matter.
But the next morning Christopher arrived, this time with red roses and an engagement ring. He spoke to my father, who raised no objection to our marriage, and before I knew it, I was Christopher's wife. I married the man who had swept me off my feet and broken down the walls of my icy fortress. The Ice Queen was history.
© 2005 Copyright held by the author.