世间奇伟诡怪之脑洞尽在余之颅内喀斯特。

Distortion Chapter 1

Distortion

Chapter 1

“Of all the auditoriums in the Theatre de Campanula, people would only dream about the Peony, about its well-designed stage structure, splendid lighting effects, and the overall oriental temperament. Of all the seats and boxes in the Peony, spectators would only fight over for the Central Pedal to which, rumor has it, even her Majesty has once paid a visit. And of all the decent dramas about to hit the Campanula, you would hate to miss this newly rehearsed Henry the Fifth that stars Roberta Agresta and Nicho…”

“You bore me, Henriette. Speak no more of that horrid Canterbury Review.”

“I literally have no clue why your bias doesn’t bother me anymore.” Scorned the young lady named Henriette, “but you’ve been mistaken, for this is not from the Canterbury Review, but an invitation from the board of Campanula.”

“They invited you?”

“You don’t have to look so surprised, my sis. It is the Season.”

“It is the Season indeed!” Upon hearing the line, the ladies simultaneously sat straight from their armchairs, turning their sights toward the entrance of the library. A footman pushed the heavy walnut door open, and then stood by the side, appearing ridiculously solemn. “Lady Hester Stapleton of Hun Stanton,” he exclaimed.

Lady Hester, an energetic and joyous young woman in an embroidered violet gown, approached in delightful footsteps. “And in this time of the year, we must not let the society think that I grounded my amiable cousins. Here, let me see the invitation.”

“But it is addressed to me!”

“Henriette, hand it over. Surely the board would not only invite one Quincey, or disregard your gorgeous chaperone.” She chuckled, “I’ll ring for Tess now, and why don’t you go with her to pick an evening dress out of my wardrobe and stun us all on this Saturday night?”

Lady Hester knew that she has removed the nuisance from the room as she captured that subtle look on Henriette’s visage. Having Tess, her maid, drag away the younger Quincey, she now had time to handle the older one.

“Charlotte,” all of a sudden Lady Hester switched into a mysterious tone, “the letter wasn’t sent by the Board of Campanula. It’s from Edward.”

“That Tonshese lad? Why should I care?”

The manner in which Charlotte addressed the aristocrat irritated Lady Hester, who, has become so sophisticated among the gentries, quickly managed to put on a carefree masque. “Because he is wooing you, Lottie! Everyone’s been saying that you are the Marquise-to-be.”

“I found the idea of this matrimony quite resentful.” Unlike Lady Hester, Charlotte barely hid her disgust that awfully tweaked her oval-shaped face. But as soon as she felt that the urge to express has ended, her beauty was restored.

Lady Hester noticed an unpleasant glance from Charlotte when she poured herself a glass of Pinot. The glance almost drove her on her edge, but Lady Hester never let her feelings take control. She mildly pushed the glass towards Charlotte until the girl’s facial expression softened. Lady Hester even dared not to make a humph since she has come to this conclusion long ago, that dealing with Charlotte Quincey is the most exhausting human interaction on the entire planet.

“My dear little Lottie, cynicism is not appreciated in town,” Lady Hester took a sip, and then continued, “Not to mention that you and Edward are a perfect match! You were classmates since Cambridge; your families are very fond of Edward; you are both into poetry, politics, history… you name it. Your marriage will be like fairy tales.”

“Only he is a pedant while poetry writes me.” Then she rolled her eyes and turned to look the other way, “and Henriette has grown… too fond of him.”

“So I suggest we all travel down there together and find out who can claim his heart. And don’t forget your poor old mama and papa all the way back in Norfolk, desperately pending the news of your engagement.”

Charlotte didn’t argue back when heard Lady Hester mentioning her parents. She was, after all, too filial, which trapped her in the Central Pedal, in the heated milieu of nobility and vanity, on the very next Saturday.

Lady Hester has been missing ever since their arrival, completely leaving her duties of a chaperone behind. Charlotte presumed that her Ladyship abandoned her deliberately so that Edward Tonshese could catch her alone and force her to accept his proposal.

That was why, when Tonshese came over, Charlotte insisted on going out for some fresh air, claiming that her stomach has been putting up a show. However, she never anticipated that Tonshese would be reckless enough to catch her alone in the dim, murky hallway.

“Charlotte! I was worrying that you might get lost.”

She instinctively withdrew a few steps back, “Don’t be, Master Edward. Now I have to go.”

“Please, call me Edward. I’ll go with you.”

“To the ladies’ room?” Charlotte narrowed her almond eyes, silently sneering.

“I shall wait outside.”

“I strongly advise you, Master Edward, not to do that. It is already outrageous for you and me to talk in private without the presence of my chaperone.”

“I thought you like being outrageous! Back in college, you were always…”

Edward Tonshese cut his line when he saw Charlotte frowning. To watch his princess being annoyed was already horrid enough, not to mention that his princess happened to be, most, unfortunately, Charlotte Quincey.

“You and I were never chummy back in college. And you have no idea what I like.”

“Because you were a bit intimidating back then… where are you going?”

Charlotte dashed into the crowds before Edward could even finish his line. She could no longer stand Edward Tonshese the person nor the thought of spending the rest of her life with him. She has fought, but now she needed to flee. But avoiding undesired acquaintances in pannier and high heels was on the exact opposite of a wise choice. However, Charlotte, having always been spoiled and whimsical for 20 years, wouldn’t care that in fact, both the people around and her corset almost suffocated herself.

As she eventually managed to wriggle her way out of the stuffy public section in the Peony, Charlotte became aware of her own stupidity. Gradually slowing down her pace, she figured out it was the backstage of the Peony that she broke into. Though lost, Charlotte still had no intention to return to the Central Pedal at all.

What a pleasure—an unexpected adventure! Wandering off in Theatre de Campanula under little surveillance, getting to feel the costumes, the prop swords and armors and the worn-out makeup brushes, she found her heart filled with peace, comfort, and a sense of sublimity. A smile crept over her face when Charlotte reached out for a dainty masque on the rack and put it on. Then she swirled around the dressing room, stopped and stood in front of a mirror, and uttered totally out of blue, “O brave new world/ that has such people in’t!”

There was a rustle, along with which a man in scarlet cloak emerged from his chair, whose sudden appearance alarmed Charlotte and made her drop the masque. He looked irritated yet spoke gently, “I would be more than delighted to talk to you after the play is over, my lady. Only Act I has already begun now and it is always incredibly brief. At the very beginning of Act II, I will be entering the stage.” The man then walked away, shaking his head from side to side, and muttering, “how come the safeguards let a fanatic in at this point of time.”

“I ain’t a lady, nor a fanatic of thee. Who art thou anyway?” Blurted Charlotte.

The man came close and picked up the masque from the floor, tenderly dusting it with his palms. “Your diction is very interesting, my lady. But I am afraid you can’t stay here.”

“But what is this place?”

“This place,” sighed the man, “my lady, is my own dressing room. Now allow me to walk you to the exit so that you wouldn’t interrupt others’ work.”

“But I never meant to!”

“Hush now! The audience can hear you!”

Charlotte sealed her lips obediently. However, at the end of the backstage corridor, they came across Lady Hester, who seemed to have hurried a long way. Upon the sight of her chaperone, goose pumps soon occupied the skin on her arms.

“Cousin Hester, what are you doing here?”

“I was going to ask you the very same question, Lottie! I came looking for you! Why are you with an actor? Don’t you know that Edward and everybody else await you to return to the Central Pedal? Or you feel like to let Henriette become the Marquise?”

“Please, Cousin…”

“Lady Hester,” the man cleared his throat and explained, “your cousin here only got lost and I was escorting her out. Please don’t be so harsh.”

“That is very nice of you, mister.” Lady Hester responded indifferently.

The actor beamed politely, “it is my pleasure.” Then he nodded, signaling that he intended to leave, “now if you will excuse me. Good day, my ladies.”

Lady Hester took Charlotte back to the Central Pedal, the airless upper class. Henriette gave radical comments on the play to get Edward Tonshese’s attention, pretending to be a saucy know-it-all, while Tonshese was absented-minded, glancing at Charlotte from time to time. Lady Hester was falling asleep. Meanwhile, other noblemen pompously tried to evaluate Shakespeare through their superficial knowledge, and dowagers and young ladies were all engaged in a secretive conversation of which Charlotte couldn’t help overhear.

“Nicholas is more than an actor. He is a prince!”

Light chuckles. “More like a prince charming!”

“You don’t say! One night with him, only one night! I would…”

“Cheeky!”

Who is Nicholas? Which role does he play in Henry the Fifth? These questions took over Charlotte’s mind but were soon cast away when she saw the actor she ran into at the backstage advanced into the light.

“Where is my gracious Lord of Canterbury?”

Should velvet have a voice, it would be the voice of this actor, magnetic, and vibrant. Charlotte felt that somewhere in her chest vigorously resonated with his speech, somewhere close to her lower left ribs. “So he plays Henry V.”

“Yes, you are right, my clever Lottie!” Lady Ingrid, Earl of Devan’s youngest daughter, leaned over, whispering to Charlotte, “Mister Nicholas Watters, have you ever heard of him?”

“Not until now.”

“My, my! Lottie, everyone here knows about him. Believe me, Nicholas is a miracle. Now watch and you’ll see.”

Charlotte took Lady Ingrid’s advice and devoted her attention to the stage. It was a masterpiece, a brilliant depiction of the Battle of Agincourt, and a fascinating biography of how an untamed prince evolved into a mature, responsible king. She was so absorbed in the plots that when the curtain drops, she remained frozen on her seat, lost in mind, and reluctant to leave.

“Are you alright, Lottie? Lottie!” Lady Ingrid called out to her, “good lord, what is all this blush? No, tis’ not blush. I mean, feel your cheeks! How come you are so feverish?”

Henriette showed up out of nowhere, edging in, “Aye, Lady Ingrid, relax, there’s nothing to worry about. My sister has experienced this pyrexia almost forever. Ever since I could remember, Charlotte is always febrile at night in winter.”

“And you never took it seriously?” said Edward Tonshese, “how could your parents…” again he stopped himself once he realized he has repelled Charlotte the second time in three hours.

Charlotte rose up. “I am fine. Now can someone wake up Cousin Hester? Pray, she is not worn out because of taking care of us Quincey girls.”

“Red-faced Charlie!” as the aristocrats vacating the Central Pedal, George Gordon, the Master of Bedford-on-Avon, hopped out of the door excitedly as soon as he saw Charlotte. “How very detestable of you! Arriving in town without letting me know! See, your temperature is acting up again—all hail justice! You have been punished for neglecting me!”

Charlotte faintly grinned, and greeted him, “I am sorry, Georgie. I was going to write to you, but the Season has been a mess. And you never show up at any occasions. His lordship must be really aggravated.”

“Who cares? Ha! Ah, Charlie, my old pal, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to see you in London. And you haven’t introduced me to your friends.”

“My bad. Everyone, this is George Gordon, son of the Duke of Bedford-on-Avon, also my classmate back in Cambridge. So, George, this is my cousin, Lady Hester of Hun Stanton, whom I am staying with right now. My sister Henriette, who is also going to Cambridge next year; Lady Ingrid of Devan, and Master Edward Tonshese—the famous Trinity graduate you already know.”

“What an odd combination of acquaintances you have, Charlie. And I have something to tell you. Mr. Augustus Russell, the Chairman of the Board of Campanula asked me to invite you all to attend the cocktail reception in an hour.”

Lady Ingrid elevated her eyebrows, “A cocktail reception?! For this play? Will Nicholas Watters be there?”

“He will, Ingrid. He will.” George slyly winked at her while answering the question.

It was obvious that Lady Ingrid felt appealed to the reception because there she could see Nicholas Watters in person. But the incentives of the others were quite obscure and intertwined. Henriette desired to go and spend more time with Edward Tonshese; Edward Tonshese wished to be there since he took it his duty to accompany Charlotte to anywhere. And Charlotte managed to convince herself that she hated to be parted with George, her best friend since college. But what were her true motives that she refused to acknowledge? No one knew, not even Charlotte herself, at least at this point.

When they arrived at the reception, at once she recognized Nicholas Watters surrounded by his true “fanatics.” As soon as Charlotte pointed him out for Lady Ingrid, the Earl’s daughter charged out like an arrow, directly aiming for Nicholas. Her frenzy or madness quite startled George, driving him into a good laugh.

There was something pure, bright, and cheerful about George that could always succeed in assimilating Charlotte, which was the reason she regarded him differently than others. Overwhelmed with the merriment of the old acquaintance reunite, or because of her morbidly high body temperature, Charlotte was struck by a sudden dizziness.

“Oh, Charlotte, you are not to spoil this reception?” asked Henriette.

Edward Tonshese bent down, reaching his hand out to feel her forehead, yet Charlotte turned away fretfully. Edward embarrassedly retreated while George helped her sit down. Lady Hester was absent again. This tiny turmoil caught Nicholas Watters’ perception from the other side of the reception hall. By the time Charlotte felt better, she raised her lids and fell into a direct eye contact with Nicholas Watters. Though perceiving from a distance and among the crowds, Nicholas was certain that she was looking at himself. Charlotte, on the other hand, suddenly became conscious that someone was looking at herself. She grew pale for a curious sensation of terror sneaked into her chest, and simply stared at him while a hunch dominated her mind along with an unendurable sting in her ribs, that she was already on the verge of a terrible crisis in her life.

Sensitive was George’s middle name. Having detected their strange eye contact, he immediately proposed a question, “Do you know that in private, Nicholas and I have been chums for quite a while?”

“Then why didn’t you mention him to me until now?”

“I don’t know! You were never in town! Anyway, do you, Charlie, need a favor of mine? I’ll be happy to do it.”

Before receiving any response from Charlotte, George fled away like a hummingbird. She amusedly shook her head, took a glass of Cosmopolitan from a waiter, and decided to go on a little walk around hall and check out the Shakespearean relic’s exhibition. When Charlotte stopped at the counter where the First Portfolio of Henry V was laid open and read into it, that velvet voice entered her ears, “what says she, Charlie? That the tongues of women are full of deceits?”

Charlotte turned around immediately—in front of her stood Nicholas Watters himself, still in the scarlet cloak, still beaming.

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