The city of Belle-by-the-Sea was the most fashionable place on earth. There was nowhere more polished and up-to-date, no city lovelier, with greener trees or sweeter air or a bluer, more-picturesque ocean that one might look out over, and throw oneself into when hot or melancholy. The citizens prided themselves in being the prettiest, the most modern citizens probably anywhere, and it would take you only a moment in those beautiful streets, with the willows drooping overhead and the people strolling past in bizarrely improbable costumes, to realize the abnormal measures their obsession with fashionableness sometimes took.
It was a marvelous-looking city, there could be no doubt of that. Slow-moving dirigibles floated overhead, and colorful kites wafted in the ocean breezes, and the buildings soared, built of gray stone, but so delicate and fantastical that they looked more like carefully dipped wax, little balconies protruding, and pierced all over with stained-glass windows or diamond-shaped panes, peeping out like eyes. The chimneys were twisted or braided, or carved in the most aesthetically pleasing manner possible. Below in the streets, ladies and gentleman promenaded tirelessly (promenading was the fashion that month, replacing the newly outmoded “jaunting” and the hopelessly prosaic “walking”). Lace parasols bobbed along like the skeletons of mushrooms, pinstripe trousers snipped like scissors, salmon-silk socks flashed, candy-colored shoes darted. The skies overhead were kept perpetually blue and cheery by the weather balloons that floated about, pulling clouds in through their propellers and releasing them white and pure. The gutters and stoops were always clean. Even the urchins were perfectly maintained, their cheeks smudged with just the right amount of coal-sludge, and their suspenders and ratty polka-dot bow ties kept in a careful state of disarray by the city’s Fashion Keepers.
But now you would begin to notice the abnormalities – the desperation, almost, beneath the lacy, silken, parasol-toting façade.
For example, when the newspapers declared that fish-shaped hats were all the rage and in fact indispensable to any well-dressed lady’s or gentleman’s wardrobe for Wednesdays, the hat-shops and milliners of Belle-by-the-Sea were hard pressed to stock their shelves fast enough, and were known to send errand-boys running to the fisherman quays with their fists full of hat-pins.
When an underground pamphlet declared that one ought to be utterly indignant about the state of cat-hairstyles in the neighborhood of Glendaloo, everyone made a point to be righteously outraged over the subject for at least ten minutes a day.
And when some enterprising young fellow discovered he had miscalculated gravely, and had far too many pads of butter in his cooling warehouse, he put up posters all over the city declaring that butter was good for one’s figure and one might dispense with exercising altogether if one ate sufficiently of the butter, and he put this statement on great sun-colored billboards, with appealingly curly, vine-like type, and had it printed with a picture of two lovely people, one slim and one round, and of course they weren’t the same person at all, but my dear, you would be far too busy eating butter to notice.
Enough of that, though. All in all, Belle-by-the-Sea was a lovely place. It was a pleasant life, there in the cool shadows of its arches, and a simple one, too, because after a while no one really knew what was good and what was bad, simply what was fashionable.
One day, something arrived in Belle-by-the-Sea so marvelous that the people were rather surprised, as they thought they had seen everything marvelous already.
It was a massive wagon. Not a regular massive wagon, but a wagon so great and ponderous it was more of a gilt-and-wood castle, balancing on thirty-six massive iron-hooped wheels and pulled by an army of eighty silent, velvet-gray donkeys. The wagon rose almost fifty feet into the air, towers and flags not included, and the sight of it emerging through the dust on that hot summer’s day, well. . . . It was a sight for sore eyes, and fashionable eyes, too.
Behind upper windows, and from balconies, housemaids and children gasped as the wagon pulled slowly into the city and squeezed between the housetops. Housemaid spoke to parlor-maid spoke to housekeeper spoke to master or mistress and soon crowds of powdery rose-and-mint colored promenaders were pouring toward the main square of the city, where rumor had it the wagon was destined to arrive.
The wagon squirmed into the square, went to its center, and there curled like a great worm around the fountain in the middle, falling still with a creak and a sigh, the donkeys closing their eyes without a single bray or stamp of hoof, as if falling asleep.
By this time, word had spread through all of Belle-by-the-Sea, from the mansions to the gutters to the quays and the fashionably-distressed-nautical-chic sailors’ taverns. News arrived of the marvelously enormous wagon lying in wait in the main square, and people left whatever they were doing to see it.
The urchins heard, too, and went running and ducking under the fingers and swabs of the Fashion Keepers, went darting and leaping through the streets. When they got to the square, it was already packed toe-to-heel. It was a large square, and a grand and beautiful square even without people in it, but now, full of all the wonderful figures of Belle-by-the-Sea, with the blue sky spread out overhead, and the gilt glimmering from the wagon’s crenelations, and the eighty donkeys standing silent as could be, it made the urchins stop in their tracks and stare.
Everyone was staring. Everyone was waiting, breathing, silent.
The wagon sat for what felt like a ridiculously long time in the heat, with the weight of Belle-by-the-Sea’s not-entirely-low expectations hanging about like fluffy pink smog. I have already said the wagon was massive, but it was more than that. It had turrets and towers, many windows and little balconies, and on one side was a stage, curtained with luxuriantly rippling purple velvet. There was no sign above the stage, or indication of what might be performed, but the promise was there and so the population of Belle-by-the-Sea waited.
After approximately fourteen minutes, the curtains twitched, and out came a man, marching across the stage. He looked very fashionable, quite as marvelous as the wagon from which he had emerged. He wore a gloriously complicated coat made from many sharply tailored triangles and covered in buttons, brass and seashell, and drooling lace from the throat and cuffs. He had an enormously tall top hat on his head, the most handsome mustache anyone had ever seen, and as he approached, he smiled radiantly down at the masses below. A few young ladies flapped their painted fans, and the gentlemen smirked disparagingly, which is what gentlemen do when they stumble upon other men whom they deem almost as wonderful and debonair as themselves.
There was a moment’s pause when all of Belle-by-the-Sea seemed to hold its breath. Then the man in the complicated coat spoke:
“Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls. Urchins,” he began, and he threw his arms wide, so that the people in the crowd could more fully appreciate the red silk lining of his jacket and the fact that his belt was almost certainly snakeskin, with a little ruby eye at the buckle. (The Fashion-Keepers were scribbling wildly at this point: ruby-eye buckles, dramatic arm sweeps, complicated coats.) “Welcome! To my Palace of Marvels!”
Music sounded from somewhere, a clarion blast of trumpets, violins sawing frantic scales, and a frenzy of clashing cymbals and tinkling bells. At the same moment, a hundred butterflies were released from somewhere behind the wonderful gentleman and spiraled into the air in a beautiful column of iridescent wings, emerald-, wine-, and pearl-colored. The butterflies were sucked into one of the weather-turbines high above and came out the other end considerably smaller, but the audience below was far too busy staring at the complicated gentleman to notice.
“You may be asking yourselves,” he said, his voice carrying effortlessly across the square, “what is this Palace of Marvels? And who are you, Wonderful Gentleman, with your impeccable coattails and well-oiled mustache? Well, fear not! I shall tell you!” Here he smiled again, even more radiantly than before, and his eyes shone, and suddenly and subtly, without anyone really understanding how, the tables had turned. They had already been almost upside down – the impressively massive wagon and the donkeys and the butterflies had done much of the work – but now the entire audience was beholden, enraptured, enslaved to every word the gentleman spoke. He was no longer a traveling performer. He was almost a king, and there was not a person in the crowd who did not desire to know what secret this man had to tell, and what wonders were held within his Palace of Marvels.
The gentleman in the complicated coat seemed to have expected this development as a matter of course: “My Palace has been to all the great cities of the world. No doubt you have heard of it from London. Beijing. Poughkeepsie. Now doubt you have heard tales of the fetes which it can perform. No doubt our reputation has reached this great city years ago. “
Again that smile flashed, and a veritable gale of head-nodding ensued, peacock feathers, silk flowers, and fish-tails shivering in time with their wearers. The truth was, no one in Belle-by-the-Sea had ever heard of him before, but there are some things simply too mortifying to admit.
“I thought so.” The gentleman said and now something new entered his eyes, the tiniest glitter of derision, but no one stood near enough to catch that.
“And yet. . .” he said, his eyes back to twinkling like a pair of bells. “And yet there are no doubt one or two among you who have been living under a bridge your entire lives, or have been recently orphaned, who have not had the cultural education necessary to know of me. You, perhaps, with that hideously old-fashioned yellow kerchief. You have only recently crawled into the light of the sun at the sound of my arrival, yes?”
The man with the hideously old-fashioned yellow kerchief tried desperately to cover it with his hands, but the gentleman only laughed and carried on. “And so for you, for the benefit of you, I will reiterate. “
“I?” He swirled his hands at the wrist and bowed low, and doffed his enormously tall top hat, which was lined inside with blood-red satin that had been printed with smaller top hats. “Am the Lord Doctor, PHD from Wizcombe University, honorary member of the Society of Rednow, recipient of degrees from the University of Juno, knighted by the Queen of Ingrish. I am John. . .” He breathed in, deeply and dramatically, “Smith.”
Rapturous applause exploded throughout the square, ringing and bouncing against the stone faces of the buildings. Again the music started up, trumpets and violins screeching. Again a burst of butterflies were let up into the air and again they were desiccated horribly by the propellers of the weather balloons.
“Thank you,” said the gentleman, and instantly the crowd and the music fell quiet again, and all that moved was the softly drifting wings of the butterflies, raining down like petals. “Now. You are probably wondering: what is such a man as this doing in our town, on a stage? Like a common conjuror, or snake-oil-selling witch-doctor quack! Well. . .”
A spindly brass staircase folded down off the edge of the stage, and the gentleman darted down it, leaning over the railing toward a little child who smiled up at him, brushing bits of Butterfly-guts out of her eyelashes.
“I will tell you,” he said, in a whisper that was somehow not a whisper at all, but loud and cutting enough for all to hear. “I will tell all of you! Nay, better, I will show you!”
The gentleman spun away, back toward the center of the stage, and there he spread his arms. Spotlights affixed somewhere high among the turrets of the wagon ignited, and suddenly the curtain behind him was awash in changing colors, a shifting, whirling cloud of purple and green and dusky blue. The music became mysterious and tinkling.
“I have discovered,” the Lord Doctor Smith breathed, and spread his fingers, and looked away into the distance as if seeing some glorious vision of dewy-hilled Arcadia. Everyone in the crowd sighed in awe. “I have discovered the greatest mystery of all. And I have solved it.
“Yes! I have solved the greatest mystery! You all know what the greatest mystery is. No, not your neighbor’s flawlessly inexpressive face, or where your brother gets all those socks from. Death! Death is the greatest mystery. And I have conquered it.”
Behind him, projected on the curtains, a coffin appeared, and a rather Gothic graveyard, and the spell in the square was rather broken by that. Death was neither a pleasant subject nor a fashionable one, and snake-oil might have been preferable. The shift was instant. Skepticism crept into faces, charged the air and turned it heavy and bitter. And yet the Lord Doctor Smith was unperturbed.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “Murmur among yourselves. Shake your heads. Call it an impossibility, frippery, rubbish! But are you a member of the Society of Rednow? No, I think you are not. I can show you this world. That is what my Palace of Marvels does. I have developed a foolproof way to cross between the world of the living, into the world of paradise.“ Again, the swift swoop of the hand outward, fingers spread.
“It is a marvelous place, a Wonderland, a garden of pleasures. I have been there. I have charted it, and developed a perfectly safe method of traveling between the two plains. All you must do to get in is die.”
He was losing the audience rather quicker now, and he seemed not to care at all.
“You don’t need to believe me of course. Such worldly people as yourselves will want proof. I can give it to you. All you like! I call it Paradise Tourism, and that’s really all it is! Tourism! A jaunt to the world beyond the grave for well-heeled people.”
A few of those well-heeled people were leaving the square just now, indignantly drawing scarves around shoulders and straightening hats. Perhaps the Lord Doctor saw it, or perhaps that was only a bit of dust making his eye dart and glimmer in amusement. Whatever the case, he was not disturbed.
“Behold!” he shouted.
The curtains behind Lord Doctor Smith opened slightly, revealing a woman in a glittering circus costume, bristling with feathers and stitched with so many gilt beads and crystals she practically shone. The woman smiled broadly at the audience. The Lord Doctor Smith smiled at the audience, too. He extended his hand and she took it, and together they both walked across the stage, their eyes clanging like church-bells now, projecting metaphorical lightning bolts of joy and showmanship into the crowd. They stopped in the center of the stage. The Lord Doctor turned his smile on the girl. Then he took a pistol from his breast pocket and shot her in the heart.
The sound was sharp. It pulled the crowd tight like a drawstring, jerking everyone upright and freezing them. The girl fell, blood blooming across her chest.
“Nothing like someone dying to catch your attention, eh?” the wonderful gentleman laughed, flicking the blackpowder from the barrel of his silver gun, while all across the square people’s faces turned to masks of shock and revulsion. “All the books start that way these days, don’t they? So-and-so died. Why should you care? I don’t know, but you should because it’s dramatic. However!” He twinkled at the audience, as if he were telling a joke. “It’s really only remarkable when they come back.”
The audience did not understand this joke. If it was a joke, it was not funny at all. The girl lying on the stage had a bloody wound over her heart, and there is something very primal and horridly unnatural about seeing another person die that ruins the mood of any gathering.
And yet the gentleman was carrying on as if nothing was amiss. “Don’t worry!” he cried, laughing merrily and not at all madly. “Don’t be afraid! Look!”
Here the great curtains parted, and then another pair, and another, three sets of curtains swooping apart in waves – purple-green-red – and there, behind them, was a great circle of bevelled glass, like a lens. And behind that, floating happily-as-could-be in the most marvelous void of multicolored clouds, was the circus girl. There was no sign of a wound. In fact, she looked as if she could not have been happier about her current state. She appeared rather like a goldfish in a bowl, moving languidly about, plucking bits of multicolored cloud and eating them and making delighted faces. Her body remained on the stage, a lump of sequins, white limbs and beads.
“You see?” said the gentleman, very softly. “She is dead. Temporarily. And yet her soul, her essence, all that really matters, has passed into that wonderful place beyond. That is what all of you have been missing! Clinging to this dull old ground. This!” He gestured around him. “This is only half of everything! There is an entire world of softness and joy and wonder, where you are never hungry or sad or too warm or too cold! Look at her frolic! Would it not be worth a moment’s discomfort to frolic through a landscape of multicolored clouds?”
No. The crowd was not entirely convinced that it would. Not to mention, they were still sure they had witnessed a cold-blooded murder.
“Oh, but of course. You are all asking: ‘What of the dear girl? How will she come back! Surely it is not so difficult to die, but how will one return?’ Well, you are darling little thinkers, aren’t you. Let me show you something else.” And here he made an elaborate gesture, and a mechanical arm swooped into the dark behind the bowled lens and drew the circus girl out. However, she left the lens not as girl, but as a wisp of violet steam that somehow did not dissipate or blow away. The Lord Doctor took the wisp by thumb-and-forefinger and placed it elaborately over the dead girl on the stage, and suddenly she was alive again, and there she sat up and smiled rather vacantly, her teeth as white as rabbit-fur.
“There you have it! There she is, in the flesh.” His eyes flashed brighter and merrier than they ever had before. “Now, is that not terribly, terribly fashionable?”
There was still some slight convincing to do, of course. The circus girl roamed about through the square and let people touch her hands, and she smiled at them reassuringly and showed them that yes indeed her wound had entirely healed, and the Lord Doctor continued to flail and gesticulate and prance on the stage.
And now it came, slowly at first, but rising steadily and surely: the most resounding sound came up from the crowd, the loudest cheer you ever heard. This was death conquered. This was new, and exciting, and wonderful, and quite realistic and scientific, didn’t you think, Jeremy? Eating clouds? Frolicking weightlessly? Yes, please.
“But don’t make up your mind just now,” the gentleman cried. “Go home and think on it. We will not run away in the night. In two days, when we open for business, the doors to paradise will be flung wide, and you may enter and leave as you please. Death Tourism, I call it! And you are all . . . WELCOME.”
Everyone went home that evening befuddled, slightly fuzzy and sick-feeling, like the way you are after a carnival. Too much cotton candy and too-bright-lights, and too much wonder can turn nasty very quickly.
But it could not be denied that Lord Doctor Smith had caused a sensation. All through the night, and the next morning, too, the citizens of Belle-by-the-Sea were a-buzz with talk of his great wagon, and the Lord Doctor’s marvelous contraptions. You could even go to the square and watch various members from the Lord Doctor’s troupe being murdered and then appearing behind the glass, leaping through the clouds, being merry. They were such fashionably-clad people, and they looked very happy.
And so two days later, when the little ticket booths opened for business and the spotlights were lit, and the beveled glass lens was polished to a gleam and promising all the wonders of that cloud-filled void, there was a long, long line of people waiting to go in.
Great ladies from the mansions on the waterfront of Belle-by-the-Sea had left cards at their friends’ houses, had met over finger sandwiches at Mademoiselle Fricassee, had passed folded notes while getting their feet chewed upon by dogs, which was the newest fashion in pedicures:
My darling Emily, Die with me, won’t you? The newspapers are saying it’s quite necessary this week, quite indispensable. 12 o’ Clock, Saturday, Town Square.
Yours, fashionably, Lady Meredith Cray
Darling Emily was only too happy to die with Lady Meredith Cray, and so was most everyone else. Within one turn of the clock-hands, much of the population of Belle-by-the-Sea had been convinced this was a revolution, a wonder, and a must-do.
High on the fifth floor of the wonderful wagon, inside one of its drooping turrets, in the hot, stuffy confines of its wooden walls, there sat the circus girl in her sequined costume, fuming on a little velvet footstool and looking as if she were about to explode. The complicated gentleman was there, too, watching the scene below with an air of satisfied disdain.
The circus girl began toeing a crack in the floor, then kicking the corner of a carpet, ever more viciously. Finally the complicated gentleman sighed expansively and turned to her.
“Oh, come now, Bessy, stop your rattling. It’s paying your dinner too.”
Bessy’s head came up like a Jack-in-a-Box, her eyes like two little stones. “What about the little ‘uns! What about the babies left at home, and all the old folk, and the ill, and- ”
“Not my fault. A fool and his breathing-abilities are soon parted.”
“That is not how that saying goes, and you- you- You! There are good people down there! Good people!”
“Darling, I do not doubt it. I’ve been quite convinced of their virtues as well. But why do you scowl at me so? What have I done? I have not lifted a finger against them. That’s the brilliance of it. It’s all entirely up to them.”
“The first judge who finds out, you tell ‘im that and you see if you’re not drawn and quartered for what you’ve done.”
“Well,” said the complicated gentleman. “I think we must simply make sure that never am I caught.” His eyes went the slightest shade darker. “Yes, that’ll do nicely.” He laughed, and turned again to the window.
Here the door to the chamber creaked open and another girl came in. She looked almost identical to the girl on the footstool. They wore the same costume down to the smallest bead and bit of stitchery. They had the same nose, the same dark eyes, the same pale skin and thin face. And yet it would have only taken a moment of looking at them both in close proximity to see they were not the same people at all. They were sisters, twins, and one of them had a splotch of red theater blood above her heart and the other had small hooks hidden about the waist of costume that allowed her to be hung on invisible ropes and appear, from a distance, as though she were floating.
“Is Bessy whining about the poor innocents again?” the girl asked, and she spoke the word ‘innocents’ as though it were not a word at all but a string of spit. The differences could be counted on two hands now: this girl had all of Bessy’s grace, and yet none of that coiled, angry energy. She was somehow sharp beneath her flowing movements – sharp voice and sharp chin, and a somewhat supercilious expression which she employed liberally as she passed the footstool on which Bessy sat. Bessy glared up at her.
“I am,” Bessy said, as if daring her sister to contradict. “And you should be, too, if you had half a heart.”
“Well, I don’t. Not for idiots.”
“Both of you are awful. Both of you are a couple of rotten wormy wicked apples!”
“Hear that, Esmé? Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I’ll be a rotten wormy apple any day, if you’ll be, too.”
And here they took to giggling and poking each other, and Bessy ran from the room, while below in the square an insistent clatter had begun, a clatter, a snap, and a fall.
The massacre had begun. 10£ a piece, the gilt sign by the booths said, and it could have said 100£: the people of Belle-by-the-Sea would have payed it gladly. A gallows had been put up in front of the stage and all the fashionable people payed for their tickets and went up with their little half-heeled shoes, and salmon silk socks and plumed hats, and there they lay nooses around their own necks, looking at each other excitedly, and making little exclamations, and when the trapdoor fell, the attendants and onlookers cheered, and the little shoes and silks went spinning down into the dark, and the rows of people on the scaffold were smiling, too, their faces quite bright and joyful as their necks broke.
Figures began to appear in the wonderful world beyond the glass, indistinct shapes that frolicked about and ate clouds. Row after row stepped onto the dais, and row upon row fell. The Lord Doctor Smith’s coffers became full to bursting, and no one seemed to notice how the shapes were very blurry behind the beveled glass, not like faces at all, but merely silhouettes, drifting farther and farther away.
Late in the afternoon, an elderly gentleman, trembling and solemn-faced, came to one of the booths and said, “My wife went in. When will she be out, please?” And the boy in the booth smiled and said: “I don’t know! But perhaps you would like to join her! Couples go free, naturally.”
The bodies, once they had been hanged, were taken down with the utmost care and hurried behind the wagon. Shoes were gathered and carted away between the wagon wheels by tiny, chittering little creatures wrapped in strips of old cracked leather, with helmets over their faces. And at last, when night came, the Palace of Marvels was closed and the curtains swayed shut.
Not a single person had left the wondrous sky-scape beyond the beveled glass.
The next morning, very early, Bessy woke and threw a cloak over her sequined get-up and crawled out the bottom of the wagon, landing in a heap on the cobbles. She had a small sack over her shoulder and workman boots on her feet, and she stole across the square and into the shadowed streets as quietly as an ant. Then she began to run, out of the city and into the wild countryside, and only when she was far down the road did she slow and look back over her shoulder. Belle-by-the-Sea looked gaudy to her then, a hideous whirl of fakery, the balconies teeth, the chimneys noses, pointing endlessly toward the sky. She turned her face to the road again and began to walk, suddenly loosely, into the dawning sun. She did not look back a second time. There are some things much larger and more complicated than one’s self, like an entire city of fools, and a heartless sister, and a greedy man. But there is always a sun going up somewhere that one can walk into and hope, for a little while, that elsewhere is better.
The urchins of Belle-by-the-Sea watched mountains of fashionably-clad bodies being taken away, pockets emptied of purses and coins, limbs stripped of their silk stockings and candy-colored shoes, milky bodies thrown into the water to sink quickly under the deep blue waves. Later, in the dead of night, when the urchins went around the glass on the stage, they found there nothing of a paradise, and no wonderland of clouds. Only light, sculpted carefully, and sound effects, and strange profusions of steam, that, from a distance, might be mistaken for souls.