Living Doll House

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All copyrights remain with the original creator(s).

I have made a few minor revisions to correct spelling and grammatical errors,
but have made no attempt to "improve" upon the author's original style.
The story also contains an internal dating inconsistency which I have not attempted to correct.

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A la Récherche des Poupées Perdues

Paris, November 3, 1921

Dear nephew,

Rain does not know its bounds or limits here. Every now and then the Île Saint-Louis and the towers of the Notre Dame emerge from behind another downpour - each a final curtain call but no applause. I am still here though.
It is good to know that you two are out there, maintaining some of the style and spirit of old Chéveny, or should I say, maintaining Style in general? Of course, Style was on the way out already, but the War finished it before its time.

However, I should not complain. Yes, I have lost a castle to live in, a little palace even in our own eyes, yes there are more familiar faces looking from the pictures on the cupboard than I see on parties - the few parties that I go to these days. But a good many of people would be happy to live in an apartment like this one, looking out on the Seine. And although too many friends have found an early grave in the trenches, a nameless grave often, I still have the two of you.
Where I can but yearn back to the old days, you actually seem to do your best to call them back, to restore them by putting them to record. Forgive me if I bore you with all my complaints, I am an old woman before my time.

Now to your chronicles, documents and archives, Alphonse. I have found a newspaper article about the destruction of Chéveny, but I have to say it is but a sideline in an report about end of the battle of the Marne. I found it together with a obituary card for my husband between the leaves of a book a was reading at the time. Symbolical in a way - I am still convinced it was the knowledge that Chéveny was reduced to rubble that killed the duke, not some vague malfunction of the heart.
Also you asked me about the precise circumstances of Eugénie's role in our household. I must say I am inclined to remain silent about that, as you write that Eugénie is too discrete to tell about it herself. On the other hand I feel I may not have been completely honest to Eugénie in the past, so some sort of confession would be in order. Although, what use a confession if I do not repent my sins? On the contrary, I love to think back to that summer afternoon in 1896 ...

This was what it must be like to be a spider in a web, when a fat fly has flown into it, Charlotte thought. Well, not that she was going to eat the girl. After all she was a duchess, not a heathen cannibal. Eugénie, her lady-companion, seemed small between the baroque furniture of the duchess' room.
The way the duchess had ended her last sentence gave the silence a different quality, as it was more than being the mere absence of words. The ticking of the pendulum clock seemed to emphasise it instead of dividing it in conveniently sliced bits of time, even in the duchess' mind, who was supposed to be in control of the situation.
The girl's mouth had fallen open, her words frozen on her tongue. Her eyes blinked, big brown, round eyes, a dainty little nose, and almost heart-shaped mouth - doll's eyes, doll's nose, doll's lips, she had her ultimate destiny written on her face, the duchess thought. The beauty of the girl's face had its own nobility, but the open mouth gave it away: the girl had not had a proper education. No relative or any woman the duchess knew would stand there like that, gaping, not if the world would go down in flames before their very eyes.
`That is the deal?' Eugénie finally said.
`That is the deal. You will take residence in the castle permanently and you will wear this contraption every minute you are awake.'
`But what did Louis ... I mean the duke think about this?'
`He liked it ... are you surprised? All the times you had to play those doll games?'
The girl shook her head in amazement. `You knew about that?'
She was really naive, almost charmingly naive.
`My dear child, the fact that the walls of this castle have been built to withstand gun shots, does not mean that they can not be penetrated by a quick whisper.'
`Even if he had not liked it, he would have agreed,' the girl said bitterly. `He is like soft wax in your hand.'
`There can be but one captain on a ship,' the duchess replied.
The girl looked at the thing on the chaise longue. It looked like a rough mechanical replica of herself, or like a life-size antique doll, or both. It was lying on its left side, and was kept balanced in that position by a large windup key protruding from its back.
`What if I refuse?'
The duchess sighed.
`You may remember that only two years ago my late, beloved friend the baron of C. was blackmailed and had a `hunting accident'. The prefect who handled the situation was a very discrete man, who consulted my husband and me about a desirability of a prosecution. In the end, he left the decision to us ... and the evidence. Recognise these letters, Eugénie?'
The duchess held up a bundle of papers, cheques and other documents.
`It is a mistake ...'
`It certainly was. The fact that your blackmail drove your victim to suicide will not do much to make the judges more lenient. So what will it be?'
`This means I will be your prisoner ... I might as well go to a real jail.'
The duchess rummaged through another stack of paper, finding quickly what she was looking for. She waved a copy of the records of a women's prison in Paris. `I am sure you are qualified to make an informed decision,' Charlotte said.
There was a doctor's attest attached to the record. `Eugénie Grandjean, infectuous fever, the 26th of October 1907. Recovered the 23th of November same year,' the duchess read. `Eugénie Grandjean, pneumonia, the 3d of December 1907, recovered the 8th of February 1908. I have to conclude that you liked it there so much that you fell ill with delight.'
`Would it be any better here?' Eugénie muttered.
`You will have a comfortable room, dry, clean and well aired, unlike your beloved old prison cell, and you will eat the same food that we eat. You were my husband's toy and you still will be. You will just have to get used that you will need someone to turn your windup key before you can speak or move ... and that was a game you liked anyway.'
With a wry satisfaction the duchess noticed the girl's surprised look.
`Yes, I knew that too. So, do you still need to think about it?'
Eugénie had a puzzled frown on her forehead. `After all the ... friendship we had, I can not imagine you really hate me ... that is not like you.'
`You abused my trust and my friendship, but I do not hate you. In our circles this kind of thing is bound to happen in a marriage. I just want a fair chance. A fair chance to share in the love and attention of my husband. So, I have to compensate for the advantage that you have, with your youthful energy.'
`It is not much of a choice that I have.'
`It was not really meant to be a choice.'
They stared each other in the eye. For a moment the duchess expected the girl to break down and cry, but Eugénie just bowed her head.
`Good ... do with me what you like. When do I start?'
The duchess walked to the wall and knocked on a hollow sounding panel.
`Now,' she said.
Two servant girls entered followed a bald man in a white coat.
`You know the girls. Meet Dr. Lacot, Eugénie. He is not just a medical doctor, but a scientist interested in electricity. Doctor, you have heard about Mademoiselle Grandjean.'
`Your Grace ... Mademoiselle ...' the doctor nodded, his spectacles flashing by the reflected light from the window.

The two servants stripped Eugénie of her clothing, which was quite a job. Clearly the girl had spent a large part of the money she earned as a lady-companion to her dresses. When the girls were finished, the doctor began to fit the pieces of the apparatus on the girl's body, apparently without giving too much attention to the beauty of her naked form, which seemed to glow in the soft afternoon light.
It took him about twenty minutes to change the girl in a five foot windup doll.
Even though her body had been completely encased in porcelain, the change was not really big, the duchess noticed. The face of the head was very much like her own - and yet it was a doll that was standing there, not a girl.
As quickly as they had undressed her, the maids dressed her up, in a white dress that stood out in a circle of lace around her legs. A long black wig was fitted on the shiny bald head of the doll.
`I bought an eighteenth century automaton from a Russian friend of mine,' the duchess said. `It was not really an automaton, as there was meant to be somebody inside it to make it move. But the technology had its possibilities, especially when combined with electricity. You are ready, doctor?'
The doctor attached a wire that was still dangling loose, put a windup key in the back and turned it. Finally he flicked a switch in the neck of the doll. A series of clicks and whizzing noises followed. After that, there was a soft, ticking noise. A spring was winding down.
`I am ready, your Grace.'
`Thank you doctor. Eugénie, you may try to walk and talk, if you like.'
With some hesitation, the girl did a clumsy step. And another one.
`Walk up and down the room, Try your arms.'
The girl obeyed, but mumbled: `I don't know ...'
The soft, ticking noise stopped, two clicks followed. Her left arm that had been moving froze next to her body.
`I don't k...' Click.
Click click. Her left arm froze.
Click. `I do ...' Click. Click `I ... I ...' The spring seemed to block her speech on and off, which made her uncertain. There was another click, followed by a muted, almost growling sound. The mouth of the doll had snapped shut. Click-click. Click. Click. The sound of four clicks coming from under the skirts of the girl made it clear that her legs were immobile too.
`As long as the spring in the little machine on your back is unwinding, there is an electric current keeping the clasps on your body open,' the duchess explained. `When the spring stops pulling, the current disappears and they shut close, making you an immobile doll. Of course, I would have preferred to exchange your boundless energy with an energy really coming from a windup spring, but this is the next best thing.'
She caressed the hair of the doll, straightened a ply of the skirts and kissed the cold porcelain cheek.
`I love you, Eugénie, but I have to take care of myself.'
She tugged at bell chord. Two male servants appeared.
`You have put the showcases in place?'
`Yes, your Grace.'
`Good. Carry this doll to the salon and put her in it.'
The two man lifted the girl up, one by shoulders and one by her feet. The doll remained totally stiff and straight, as if she were a statue.
The duchess followed the men to the saloon and watched as they put the frozen girl in the showcase. When they were finished, she pulled the with skirt straight and fastened light golden chain around the doll's neck, using little padlocks.
`It is not that I am afraid that you will run away, but I do not want anyone to fool around with you in absence of me or the duke.'
She closed the door of the case, locking it as well, and looked at the immobile white form inside.
`My turn now,' she said, and she knew the expression on her face was almost cruel.

They tested the apparatus and it worked as planned. The doctor was a perfectionist. Impatiently the duchess took some more steps, waved her arms once more and then the ticking of the spring stopped. It was one of the leg claps that snapped shut first, followed by the two of her arms. Click. Click-click. She decided to try the effect on her speech. and begun a sentence.
`You have your instru ... Click. She could not move the chin piece of her mask any more. Click. She knew she could talk again now, and she could open her lips. `I trust you will ... Click. Click. Click. While she had been trying to talk, the other clasps had sprung in place. Apart from her body warmth, her breathing and her heartbeat there was little that made her different from a doll now.
Calmly she waited for the servants to execute her instructions. The doctor pulled here and there at her limbs, which did not give way. He nodded to the two men who lifted her from her feet and carried her to the salon, just as they had taken Eugénie.
A windup mannequin, she thought, as they carried her through the main corridor. Rather unusual, but sure to please Louis. There had been an elegant mannequin standing in their bedroom for years, until it became the victim of a careless chamber maid. When they entered the salon, the duchess could see Eugénie in her glass case. The duchess would have smiled, if the porcelain mask had not prevented her from doing so. What would the girl think right now?

The men put the duchess on her feet inside the other showcase. As the doctor locked the golden chains around her neck and her waste and closed the door, the duchess realised she had lied to the girl. She would have much more than a fair chance over the girl, now that she had let herself transform into a doll too. Louis would take the doll play with the girl for granted by now, but to have his overbearing wife as a toy would be a new experience. And not only to him. She felt a moist heat in her crotch. And hidden under the porcelain doll mask, and any wrinkles when they would show up, would not count - not as much as experience and character. With both women immobile inside their china skins, Eugénie's vivacious energy would not count. He would not be able to take this girl to the Opera, to the Cabaret and - late at night - to some shady hideout. She would be here, under her eyes, as their mutual toy. That was the deal between her and Louis.
Through the glass of her showcase she saw how the doctor handed two gilded keys to the first chambermaid, who had followed them to the salon after she had dressed up her mistress.
Tonight she would hand four keys to the duke, and the duke would make his choice. Fair enough, Charlotte thought, whatever the outcome. It did not matter. Rather the most prized possession of a duke than his second choice as a wife.

... So, nephew, there is the little story behind `the two mysterious dolls of the duke', as a newspaper called them. Perhaps I deceive myself if I think that Eugénie found some sort of happiness in her role as a toy - just like I found some unexplainable delight in playing this role often, standing in my glass case, silently waiting for the duke.
If some good has come from all the years in between, it must certainly be that Eugénie can live a normal life now, as your beloved wife.

Give her my regards and tell her that I miss her more than I can tell,

Charlotte duchesse de Chéveny

Alphonse sipped from his Burgundy. The letters from his aunt were never too long to him, but reading them out loud was sure to cause a dry throat. He reached for a dossier to file the letter, but just in time he remembered, it might be that Eugénie would like to have her say about it.
He had to look under the stack on his desk to find the windup key - like his aunt he never managed to keep his desk clean and empty. The gilded key had roughly the size of a man's hand; the grip was shaped like a butterfly's wings. Alphonse walked to the white figure that stood in a glass showcase, facing the window. Eugénie had been frozen in mid movement it seemed, with her hands forward as if she was going to grab something. She liked it that way; Alphonse himself preferred to see her in a stance that was more natural, as if she just was a normal person standing still. The doll game did not have the same fascination to him like to his uncle and to his wife, although he admitted it could be entertaining from time to time.
After he had opened the case and lifted her from her spot, he found the tiny opening in the lower back of Eugénie's dress and put the key in it. After a few turns some clicks sounded from various parts of the doll girl's body - a few more turns and she began to come to life, slowly, while the springs and locks let go of their control of her body. He grabbed her shoulders. Occasionally she would fall when she would revive - mesmerised by her immobility, submerged in her dream come true she would have forgotten to flex her muscles from time to time and it would take some time before a restored blood circulation would give her control over movements.
She was all right, though. With stiff movements she walked to the couch and sat down. As far as was possible with her porcelain hands, she brushed a few loose curls from her face.
`What do you think?' Alphonse asked.
A click sounded. The spring that controlled the clasp of the mouthpiece of the mask was getting worn, and it had only sprung open after the girl had tried to open her mouth. Her lower jaw went up and down as she had to swallow. Alphonse wondered what the expression was of Eugénie's own eyes, that were hidden behind the ever radiant gaze of the big round doll's eyes of the mask.
`I remember well that first afternoon, when I was standing in that showcase. I had been wondering why there were two, when this beautiful mannequin doll was brought in and locked into the other case. It took me minutes to realise it was her, but when I did realise that, I knew I had lost. You see, the actual reason that I stood there was that I liked to play a windup doll. She did it out of love for her husband, or perhaps because she was too proud to lose him. But no matter what, in our sacrifices we show our measure, and her measure was such that I regretted immensely I had tried to cheat her.'
`Yet she feels guilty too.'
`I have never questioned or doubted her claim that she did not hate me. Perhaps we should give away our little secret. She might feel better.'
`It would be your decision.'
Eugénie looked out of the window. Alphonse could guess what her expression would be now, behind the mask. Often enough he had seen her look pensively out of the window, in the days that she had not taken to wearing the doll costume again, shortly after it had been found miraculously unharmed in a cellar under the rubble that had been Chéveny. She drew her strength from the sight of the green hills outside, like he drew his from the family past and traditions. After you had spent time in prison, the sight of the open fields can make you religious, she had said once.
`She feels terribly lonely,' she answered his unspoken question.
`A Paris apartment is no place for a woman who spent most of her life in a castle in the country,' Alphonse said.
Eugénie turned her head away from the view to look at the showcase.
`You know this was hers actually? It was mine that was destroyed by the German grenades.'
As she looked to him, he had to blink, for the shiny china of her face had caught a ray of the setting sun and deflected it into his eyes. He smiled, and he knew that under the porcelain mask, there would be a smile too.
With his inner eye he saw the duchess arrive at their mansion; for some trivial reason her niece and former lover would be absent at her arrival, but her nephew would show her to a six foot elongated parcel that was waiting for her.
And what better way to restore some of the style and spirit of old Chéveny than by the presence of two porcelain women that had been the pride of the old duke? Of course, he was not completely sure that the duchess would agree with that idea, but it was not too late to write and ask.

Click. Click. The sounds that told him Eugénie was changed back into a doll interrupted his daydream. He waited for the last clamp to snap shut before he went to his frozen lover to press a kiss on her gleaming white surface of her forehead - and to return to his desk for another letter.

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