It isn’t always easy being the youngest of four children, especially when they’re quads. And at the festivities for naming and bestowal, I think our fairy godmother Donnabella (who is neither a fairy not our godmother) ran out of steam somewhat. This is how it went:
She took my oldest sister in her arms, held her heavenwards, and proclaimed, “Great spirit, look with mercy and generosity on this thy daughter Rosanna and grant her the power of reading thoughts.” Those who were present swore that rosy-cheeked Rosanna immediately looked round the chamber with an unnervingly prescient look in her eyes.
She took my next sister in her arms, held her heavenwards, and proclaimed, “Great spirit, look with mercy and generosity on this thy daughter Sylvana and grant her the power of flight.” I have heard it said that slight, ethereal Sylvana seemed to positively hover in the air in defiance of the pull of gravity, and did not look remotely surprised by this.
She took the sister nearest to me in her arms, held her heavenwards, and proclaimed, “Great spirit, look with mercy and generosity on this thy daughter Serena and grant her the power of wisdom and judgement.” Well, the guests testified that Donnabella’s golden wand had barely ceased scattering its magic stars before self-possessed little Serena almost seemed to don the robes of a judge and the robes of a professor, all rolled into one.
I believe my Mother interjected at this point and said, “Good Donnabella, wisdom and judgement may be granted to ANYONE.” Mother is a good woman, but she can be pedantic and is somewhat protective of our status. Donnabella looked into her eyes with her own piercingly blue ones and said, “Your Grace, I do not speak of the judgement and wisdom of mortals!”
It is said that someone muttered at that point that technically we were mortals, but I have no way of knowing if that is true, though doubtless Rosanna would. It would be a person who was either bold or foolish for such a statement is treason and blasphemy and that’s just the start.
There was a bit of a pause, and apparently Father whispered to Donnabella, “Madam, there is yet one daughter remaining!”
And there I was. In my own little crib, probably fast asleep or if I were awake, only thinking a baby’s vague and intense thoughts of wanting to be fed.
“I am aware of that, Sire,” said Donnabella, and nobody, not even Father, would have dared to suggest that she wasn’t.
So Donnabella picked me up, held me heavenwards in her arms, which were probably getting rather tired by then (we were big babies, considering we were quads) and said, “Great Spirit, look with mercy and generosity on this they servant – er, Jane, and grant her the power of – concealing herself.”
Apparently something of a murmur of what was as near as anyone dared to disapproval rippled through the chamber. Mother said, with a degree of gracious irritation, “Madam, do you not mean invisibility?”
“I say what I mean and mean what I say,” Donnabella said, haughtily, stifling a yawn. In any case, everyone knew that once the power had been bestowed, not a word could be changed or amended. I had not become invisible. But it was as if everyone had already forgotten I was there, and were impatient for the feasting to begin now the official stuff was over.
We were raised in the palace in an atmosphere of pampering and privation. We loved each other dearly, but that didn’t mean we didn’t quarrel amongst ourselves sometimes. We were strictly forbidden to use our powers and weren’t even really supposed to know about them, but it goes without saying that we did. We played with them, scored points over each other with them. Rosanna would suddenly say, “And you can all stop thinking that I’m a spoilt brat because I’m the oldest.” Well, that is the kind of thing oldest sisters say, but the thing was, she really did know what we were thinking. And we all giggled when she told us that our long-suffering governess, Miss Peach (whose sallow cheeks bore no resemblance to the fruit of that name!) was nursing tender feelings towards our Father’s clerk Mr Peckwood. What sport we made of his name! There was something a bit like a woodpecker about him, in truth. Of course he had no great power bestowed on him, but we often thought, if he had, it would be to knock his head against hard surfaces until they yielded, with no ill-effects to himself. Sylvana used to quietly hover across the room sometimes, not even with a magic carpet, like the one we’d heard of in our stories, but entirely under her own steam, just because she could, and made out she didn’t know she was doing it. But she was showing off and we all knew it. Serena was not supposed to call on her powers to stop her doing sufficient study and work, but we all knew she did, and in truth, didn’t blame her, though we were envious and pretended we weren’t, and said it must be very boring. On occasion she would help us out, but with such a supercilious air that it was barely worth it, though most of the time she was amiable enough.
All of the other three were united in looking down on me. Oh, they didn’t bully me or anything like that, but it was plain that anyone whose only so-called power was to be inconspicuous (doubtless they thought I could do that anyway, and not help doing it) was something of a pitiful creature, and as if that weren’t bad enough, my name only had one syllable.
So nobody took me very seriously when the four of us were in the study (as the nursery had recently been renamed) and I announced that Papa was planning to promote Mr Peckwood to Keeper of the Royal Mint.
“That’s stuff and nonsense,” said Rosanna. “And anyway, I’ve heard nothing of it!”
“You can only read minds if you’re in the same room,” Sylvana pointed out.
Rosanna pouted but couldn’t deny it. “Anyway, what would you be doing in the audience chamber?” Sylvana queried.
“Nobody knew I was there. I was standing behind one of the palms.”
“That’s not possible,” Serena pointed out. “It just doesn’t work out. I can give you the dimensions ….”
“I don’t doubt you can, swat-face, but that doesn’t mean you have to,” Rosanna said amiably. “All the same,” she turned to me. “There’s no denying she’s right. I might not be able to give you all the figures like Serena can, but it stands to reason. Even Skinny Minnie couldn’t hide behind one of those palm trees.”
“Skinny Minnie” was our nickname for Mama’s lady’s maid, Wilhelmina. She would make a beanpole look obese.
“Well, I did,” I informed her and my other sisters.
“You’re telling the truth,” Rosanna admitted. “But what do you mean – like the chameleons in the Royal Menagerie?”
I could see why she thought that, and if I could have got away with it, I might have agreed. “No, not really,” I said. “I just – well, blend in!”
At that moment, Mama, who could walk through walls, entered the room. As she did, I stood beside the big bookcase. I didn’t hide behind it – I wouldn’t have been anything like strong enough to shift it – but blended in. “Doesn’t look like too much studying is going on here, girls,” she said, though not too strictly. “We were just having a break, Mama,” Sylvana said with her best “butter wouldn’t melt” expression.
“Well, see to it it doesn’t last too long. Oh – where’s Jane?”
“I’m not sure,” said Serena. “I saw her only a few minutes ago.”
“Oh. I see –“ Mama looked thoughtful, but kept her own counsel, even though she probably knew there was no point to it. When she had left, Rosanna informed us, looking especially at me, “Good news or bad news?”
“Bad first, to get it done with!”
“She was thinking that Donnabella wasn’t joking when she said you could blend into the background but then she couldn’t help thinking that perhaps it might have its uses after all!”
To this day I don’t know how I feel about what I did then. Mama had plainly guessed that something was going on, but wasn’t quite sure. I hurtled down the corridor in the palace – and had long-since discovered her stately amble was far quicker than our hurtling! – and entered her bedchamber with only the slightest knock. She was having her hair done by Skinny Minnie. And nobody could do hair like Skinny Minnie. Mama was an exceedingly beautiful woman, but her hair was a source of annoyance to her. She liked to tell us that as a child an aunt jealous of her beautiful hair had cut it off and it had never grown back properly again. Rosanna told us that it was nearer the truth that she got nits and it had to be shorn close, and that was why it never grew back properly again. But Skinny Minnie had a way of tending and dressing her hair that made it look luxuriant and shining. “Please leave us, Wilhelmina,” Mama said. Wilhelmina sketched a curtsey and said, “Of course, Your Grace,” but I didn’t need to have Rosanna’s mindreading skills to know she didn’t have that high an opinion of me. “What is the meaning of this, Jane?” Mama asked.
“Madam Mother – Mama - I have to make a confession. I was in the nursery – the study, I mean, when you came to see us.”
“I suspected as much.” But though she wasn’t exactly smiling (her smile was sparing) I could tell, without needing the power to read minds that, that she wasn’t angry. “You know, of course, you did wrong – you are too young to exercise your powers unsupervised yet. Still, I daresay I would have done the same thing.” Then the smile came. “I HAVE done the same thing. And you came to tell me the truth, although it is not your power to always speak true – your – oh, it must be three times great aunt, had that power.”
“Oh, Mama, surely that’s more of a curse!” I exclaimed, unthinking.
“Consider yourself scolded for saying such a thing. Child, I believe we may make something of you, yet. “ She weighed me up. “Your Papa and I must talk of this. But now, it is time you were back at your lessons.” I kissed her, and felt her cool lips on my still rather flushed cheek in response, and scuttled back to the study.
So, long before my sisters with the more glamorous powers, I became useful. Rosanna could read minds, but could not secrete herself by a closet or a bookcase or a tree. She was eminently visible. Sylvana could hover and eavesdrop, but was as likely to forget what she heard or pay more heed to the sparkling chandelier or the glorious paintings on the ceiling. And Serena’s knowledge and wisdom made her the wisest and most knowledgeable person at court, but did not make her inconspicuous.
Before long I was having a far more exciting life than my more glamorously gifted sisters! I was a spy! That word was rarely used, and never by Mama, who thought it was common, but I was the one who sat quietly by the great oak table to find out if visiting dignitaries from other realms meant us well or ill. I was the one who blended into the bell board in the servants’ hall to see if there was any hint of insurrection or pilfering. I hated doing that as I liked most of the servants better than the petty officials and boot-lickers. But I reminded myself that my first loyalty was to the family. Anyway, I needn’t have been afraid. Oh, they bemoaned their lot sometimes, of course, but if they had anyone they saw as the enemy, it was the likes of Skinny Minnie or Mr Peckwood, whom they regarded as jumped-up versions of themselves with nothing to be so high and mighty about. I had a life that was interesting and had a purpose, and I have never minded being quiet, lost in my own thoughts, but with an ear finely tuned for anything that might be of importance. As I grew into a woman, I grew into my looks. Oh, I would never have Rosanna’s rosy, radiant glow, nor Sylvana’s ethereal beauty, nor Serena’s face that seemed to radiate her intelligence. But in my own way I was, I realised, attractive. I had soft brown hair, and quiet grey eyes, and as my first suitor, Caspar, said, I was interesting.
Caspar, to use a favourite expression of my Mother’s, had possibilities. He was from a minor branch of related royalty, but their roots were ancient and noble. He wasn’t “tall, dark and handsome”, more average height, brown-haired like me, and passably attractive in a good light. But he had a ready wit (he had not told me his power, that was never permitted until a couple were affianced, for fear that such knowledge was used inappropriately) but I had heard it said that he had been bestowed with a gift to make people laugh. That seemed to me an amiable, but insubstantial thing, but then I told myself that people had said such a thing about my own power, and looked askance on Donnabella for something so paltry, but it was working out well.
I liked being courted by Caspar. I liked the gifts he gave me that were silly and cost little but showed he had found out what I liked – little bunches of wild flowers, slabs of nut brittle chocolate, the kind of shell that you could hold to your ear and hear the sea. I liked his jokes, though I still did not know how much was his “power” and how much because I would have laughed at them anyway.
It happened quite by accident. I had not meant to eavesdrop on the conversation between Caspar and his friend Stefan. I didn’t like Stefan much. In the conventional sense he was far better looking than Caspar, and I knew that he bestowed the most elegant and expensive gifts on his fiancée (because they had now officially announced their engagement) Alinor. But he had a dismissive manner to him, and was too liberal with compliments that didn’t seem to need much. I was sitting by the hexagonal pond in the palace gardens, supposedly studying, but paying more attention to the flitting multi-hued fish, or just to my own drifting thoughts. I realised that Caspar and Stefan were approaching. On the point of rising to greet them, I caught Stefan’s words, “That girl of yours…..” and made myself inconspicuous by one of the boulders that looked random but had been carefully placed and positioned. “Your choice, Old Chap, but not to my personal taste. Bit of a mouse.”
“She’s no great beauty, but she amuses me. I don’t think she’ll ever make any trouble or get any grand ideas in her head. She’s fond of weeds, you know!”
“Oh, my word! I’d never give Alinor anything less than an orchid.”
“I know it can’t be true, not really, but some reckon she doesn’t have a power. That poor old Donnabella had run out of ideas by the time she got round to her.”
“Maybe she can grow weeds!”
I let them pass, unseen and unnoticed by the boulder. I did not weep or scream or flail my arms or bite my fists against the boulder. It dawned on me that Rosanna had given me some odd looks lately, and now I realised they were pitying and wrestling with her own conscience. She knew.
I heard my own words echoing in my head – surely that’s more of a curse. Well, maybe that was what my own power was. Something I would have been better off without.
But then I looked up, and then I silently thanked Donnabella. What I was feeling then was painful, to be sure, but basically still a child’s wounded pride. I had been saved the heartache. I told Caspar the next day that I wished him no disrespect, but did not wish us to be affianced. He, too, looked as if his pride had been hurt, but only went through the vaguest motions of persuading me to change my mind. I let him go, to find a girl he could woo with orchids.
Donnabella was at the palace again today, for the naming ceremony of a distant little cousin of mine whose parents live in one of the Grace and Favour apartments. It was a modest ceremony, but a ceremony there had to be, for she is of the blood royal.
I ran into Donnabella on the corridor, and I had the impression she was still slightly apologetic about her, as she may have seen it, uninspiring choices concerning myself. “What power would you have me give your little cousin?” she asked. It was a rhetorical question, as only Donnabella can choose the power. But I smiled (people are beginning to say I have inherited Mama’s smile, and I hope they are right) and said, “Lady Donnabella, it would be a great blessing to give her the same power as my own!”