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Dreams

I swayed, lulled by the movement of the train. The wind outside blew puffs of black smoke across my window, obscuring my vision of the bystanders watching the train leave the station. My heart beat quickly as in moments all familiar to me had passed away, and we were diving like a bird through green pastures where sheep grazed, pale, ghostly blurs on the hillside veiled by mists rising.

I wore a blue-gray traveling suit that was one of several gowns sewn for me on a breakneck schedule of only a few days. Beneath it, I wore the proper foundation garments which felt as strange to my body as if I were a man wearing women's clothing, so completely alien were a corset and bustle against my form. I struggled quietly as I learned to breathe all over again in our passenger compartment. Our hurry to make the train had involved running. I was no stranger to physical exertion, but it was a different matter in the bell-like skirt and tiny slippers I presently wore.

Hildegarde seemed oblivious to the stares and whispers we had evoked from onlookers at the station. Her behavior, far from timid or apologetic, could approach boorish. Her collisions with ateliers and milliners the past days had shocked me as she cut through wasted words and mandated insipidity in interchanges to communicate directly and receive what she desired. Though she appeared a woman, her spirit was like that of a man's, and I easily read the mixed facial responses of all who dealt with her as they realized this.

Who was this benefactress of mine? My hurried schedule of the past days had not allowed me any real contemplation of this, or even much conversation between us. On this opportune train ride, it was obvious she intended to sleep for the duration, as she now pulled a velveteen stole from her satchel and wriggled beneath it with some satisfaction.

Our last stop had been to procure my paints and supplies as, Hildegarde explained, the castle was remote, and neither of us would know where to find these supplies in the nearest city, Munich, on our brief stopover before picking up the postchaise.

I was accustomed to purchasing supplies for myself and M. Giraud from a particular retailer, and Hildegarde left these details to me and supplied the funds.

It was strange to enter that familiar place, likely for the last time, never to see my master or my home again, and in the company of a stranger who now possessed sole jurisdiction over me. I had never asked Hildegarde what had become of M. Giraud. I knew I was in no position and must hope that at some point I might learn through indirect means.

She leaned her head forward in obvious discomfort at the rattling wooden panel at her back. It was not, I decided, the most opportune time for sleep, and I wondered if she meant to evade me.

An attendant leaned into the compartment to offer us tea, and I requested a pillow for my companion. In his wake I marveled to myself how changed I felt in my new attire. It came easily to me, I found, to behave like a lady. I was naturally retiring, quiet and submissive. It was in my nature to perceive what others desired and to carry out their wishes without being asked.

Knowing that now my appearance was not disagreeable, I felt a lift of confidence accompany my every word. I was as relieved as I was grateful to have adequate clothing to cover me from the autumnal chill, bone-handled brushes and pins to properly manage my great length of hair.

When the attendant returned with tea I prepared cups for myself and for Hildegarde, who had not yet succeeded in sleeping.

"Do you read, Giselle?" she asked me.

"A little. I attended school until I was eight, when my parents were killed. Occasionally my master gave me books on art or restoration to read in accompaniment with his teaching."

My response had surprised her. She looked at me, nodding, for a moment. "You are intelligent," she said. "My father will be pleased with you."

"Do you like to read, Fraulein von Wolfram?"

"I read mostly religious work. I have studied the verses of my namesake, Hildegarde von Bingen, and books my priest recommends to me."

"Von Bingen was a mystic, wasn't she? Unconventional."

Hildegarde lifted a black brow, as fine and dark as if painted in oils against the stark white of her skin. "She inspires me." In my silence, she added, "Do you dislike me, Gisele?"

"Oh, no," I said hastily, startled. "I meant no offense with my comments. I suppose you mean, do I observe you as common people do? I do not care for the circumstances of our introduction, or for my enormous debt to you, but I can find no real fault in your character. Your kindness lies within your forthrightness. Most others miss that, I believe, and mistake it for something else."

"No," she said, "most others are quite right in their assessment of me. I am a bully. And most others, excepting you, take offense to bullying. You almost need it."

"The coldest thing, I find, is indifference. Bullying from another, especially to select warm clothing and good food to sustain myself, is a far cry from it."

Her tea finished, Hildegarde turned her face to the side. "I find," she said, "that traveling does not agree with me, and it goes better if I can sleep through." She had turned paler during our interchange, and the hand that discarded the porcelain cup upon the tray was trembling.

She offered me the contents of her satchel in the interim which contained a number of books. Though my education for a poor woman was remarkable, I could read only in my native language, and I put aside the German texts. She had procured several French magazines and books from a bookseller during her time in Paris, no doubt intended to peruse at leisure on the isolated estate. The magazines were fashion and society, and were bewildering to me. The poetry book I was quick to select. I had heard of Baudelaire's work and had never supposed I would have the chance to read through the slim volume myself.

It awakened something answering within myself, as I read his words about the Paris he loved. I yearned, as I had yearned before, to meet him in a startling moment of chance. I became caught in a daydream of how the poet would know instantly when we saw one another that our hearts were the same, though our circumstances were so different. He would want to speak with me. He would be impressed with me...

Hildegarde murmured in her sleep. I realized the sky had darkened and indeed hours had passed. It would not be long before we reached the station at Munich. We would be boarding the chaise, I supposed, in the middle of the night.

She had loosened the knot of hair at her nape to give her better ease during our travel. It fell in a long black braid into her lap, rumpled with her movements. Her fingers twitched and then curled. As they did so, a sound escaped her throat that was like a howl.

With a gasp, I crossed the compartment and shook her gently. Travelers on the other side of the row were peering through at us. I averted my gaze from theirs hastily. "Fraulein. Fraulein, you shouted in your sleep."

"Oh, my. Oh, did I?" As Hildegarde's fingers uncurled from their claw-like movements I noticed her nails, exceptionally long, like razor-points, seem to retract into well-manicured half-moons.

I disbelieved my eyes and dismissed the sighting. When Hildegarde had collected herself, I returned to my seat, unable to return to my romantic daydream with my former fervor.

She had cried out in her sleep like an animal.

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