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What is cowardice? I dunno. My father said it was a kind of vanity. Every coward thinks they're special. That they're the very first one to feel afraid. They think that if brave people felt the way they did, they'd never do anything heroic. They figure intrepid people are simply too dumb to be as frightened as they should be. It's a great way to claim to be superior while cringing in the corner.
Well, I always fancied myself smart, too, after a fashion. I went to school, but not enough to do myself any harm. I was never that into it. But my predilection to read everything put in front of me had an ugly step-sister: a sort of detachment, even from my own affairs. Daydreamer. But thinking wry thoughts is no substitute for action sometimes. Can't help it.
I had a moment one could mistake for amusement right there. Benedict Arnold Dracula was lurking at the bottom of the stairs somewhere, the wildest thing my imagination could conjure up was snuffling and snorting in the kitchen, and I was practically zoned out, my mind filled with trivial absurdities.
Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see it makes no sense at all,
Is it cool to fall asleep on the floor?
I don't think that I can take anymore
It's not fear. Fear doesn't make you stand daydreaming in a little mixing-bowl room like some Hamlet in overalls. Fear's easy. Fear's a monster doing bad things and you run away or don't and he eats you or he doesn't. This place would be simple if it was plain old fear. There was just something disquieting about this joint; metaphysical termites were gnawing at the entire rotten substance of the place, leaving only a veneer to look at. It straddled some line between awake and asleep, or past and future; maybe man and beast. Something. Innocuous enough to make you fear looking foolish if you didn't play along, strange enough to keep you looking over your shoulder all the time. It wasn't a machine-gun nest to be charged or anything. If he was a werewolf, Pecksniff was a mundane kind of werewolf. As far as evil goes, I could picture him doing Jack The Ripper's taxes, but I couldn't picture him owning a knife. Something makes a noise. Big deal. Man up.
Hanging on a hook on the wall was an implement that would confound a million people who'd never been in an old-money house. The closest they'd come to it was mistaking it for a boathook. It was a long, smooth, slender shaft of white oak, with a little brass cap with a curlicue like an "S" on top. The oak was harder than Chinese arithmetic, and worn perfectly smooth by the touch of a hundred thousand hands. Big houses had tall ceilings, and the servants needed something to reach up and cock the transom windows open and closed. The shaft wasn't much thicker than a pool cue, but I knew I could beat a charging rhino to death with the thing and it wouldn't break. I grabbed it off the wall, not afraid mind you, just ... prepared. I kicked the door that led into the kitchen, and it swung into the room, and then back on the double hinges you'll find on all the doors a servant has to pass through to put food on a table in a mansion.
At first, there was a massive blast of sunlight. The sun had reached some magic point in the sky, and transformed the dim morning light I remembered creeping through the wall of windows in the kitchen into a blinding sheet of white light. My eyes were gulled by the basement and the windowless room, and my rods and cones rebelled. I saw all sorts of things that weren't there, and missed the very real door as it hit me square in the face.
Anger, or pique, or whatever you call the shitfit you throw after the application of a door to the beezer and God's searchlight right in your eyes, is the sure cure for all fears. If a monster rings your doorbell at two AM, you feel like running away screaming. If a monster rings your doorbell at two AM and tries to sell you encyclopedias, you feel like punching him in the face. Rage beats three beers, money, and a medal for ginning up courage. I kicked the door back hard, whacked the oak stick against it to hold it open, and went into the room like a prizefighter coming off a stool.
Between the tears in my eyes from the blow on the nose, and squinting from the sunlight, everything in the room was gauzy and indistinct. It didn't matter. There was someone hunched over the sink on the far side of the room. A hand reached for the faucet, and the hissing noise from the spray head suspended over the sink stopped, and the drumming of the water in the bottom of the big copper basin slowed, and then ceased altogether.
The door was swinging wildly in a back-and-forth half-moon through the doorframe, and I was standing a few feet in front of its arc with my feet apart and the staff held forward like some misplaced Quixote confronted with a real-life Dulcinea; without question, exaggeration, or any other embroidery, the most beautiful woman I've ever laid eyes on turned from the sink and looked at me.
No, not Dulcinea. Or Helen of Troy. Cleopatra? Uh Uh. Marilyn Monroe? Pfft. Pikers. This woman wasn't attractive; she was literally awesome.
We were both dumbstruck, if for different reasons. I was frozen by the unexpected appearance of some sort of Aphrodite; she was left to figure out the buffo arrival of a strange man, puffing like a marathoner, ready to joust, all the while being fanned by the languid breezes from a butler's door.
I lowered the stick and tried to look somewhat more nonchalant. Unsuccessfully, I'm sure.
"We're... I'm... I'm the carpenter. For the fixing. Of things -- stuff. I... Do you... live... um, work here? What's your name?"
There was a pause, and she drifted across the floor towards me. She was even more stupefying close up. Almost tall, but not quite. Delicate and athletic, if that's possible. Her skin was so fair she appeared to glow in the sunshine, without the slightest hint of pastiness, and the effect of it was multiplied by the frame of her hair, lustrous black, thick as thatch, and cut straight across just above the shoulder. She had no hint that anything about her was massaged to perfection by the touch of a human hand. She must have been kicked out of Olympus without her purse for showing up the second-string goddesses. I began a weird sort of visual Easter-Egg hunt, trying to find some flaw, something asymmetrical, any little blemish anywhere on her face. It was a fool's errand. I followed the line of her nose around the perfect curve of her eyebrow, a savage eying another tribe's totem and wondering if I should steal it or worship it, until I settled on the striking green of her eye and ran out of gas.
There was a long pause, and she pursed her lips as if to say something, hesitated, and her eyes widened to a look almost like surprise. A clock ticked loudly somewhere.
"Miss Immaculada Doyle is our housekeeper," Pecksniff said, as my makeshift lance clattered to the floor.