Cécile could not believe her ears.
One evening, several days after the harp began playing at night, she gathered books for Victorique and deposited them on top of the clawfoot table in the gingerbread house, as was her daily routine. Just as she was preparing to leave, she had heard a voice call out to her.
“What on earth’s the matter?”
It was the Grey Wolf, who had uttered not a single word for the past several months.
Cécile halted, and then looked over her shoulder in wonderment.
Deep in the shadows, a beautiful doll, tangled in frills and lace, lay sprawled out on the ground in a position that Cécile had grown used to seeing. While Cécile was distracted with other tasks, a white ceramic pipe had suddenly appeared in the doll’s delicate hand. A thin strand of tobacco smoke swayed lazily to the ceiling as she smoked it.
“D-did you say something?” asked Cécile in a quavering voice.
“You seemed to be preoccupied with something these past few days.”
“H-how did you know?”
The girl snorted derisively through her small, finely-shaped nose. And then, in a voice as husky as that of an old woman, she said, “It’s really quite simple. An overflowing wellspring of wisdom told it to me.”
Victorique’s cold green eyes blazed brightly. Cécile gulped. Up until this point, this girl had done nothing else but skim through books with lifeless eyes, her small body slumped onto the floor. But now her spirit was seized by a terrifying, unfathomable energy that had suddenly been released out of nowhere. Her presence had been nearly invisible in that dark room, but in that moment, the one staring at Cécile was a being who possessed real power. Cécile stood motionless, dual emotions of fear and awe warring within her.
“W-wellspring of wisdom…?”
“Correct. On occasion, I will collect fragments of chaos from this world and amuse myself with them, just to stave off boredom. Then I reconstruct them, and arrive at a single truth. …Now, speak.”
“S-speak?” Cécile repeated tremblingly.
Victorique answered in a voice shaking with irritation. “Tell me of the events occurring around you. At the very least, you can be of some use to me so that I may forget this tedium for even a moment. Now speak, speak!”
Cécile gasped at the little girl’s words spoken in that husky voice, brimming with arrogance and obstinacy. But when Cécile opened her mouth to protest, her fear got the better of her, and she closed her mouth, unable to say anything.
Victorique snorted contemptuously, exasperated at Cécile’s continuing silence. “Or am I to assume the reason is a much more inane one?”
“If, for example, you happened to be brooding over your wanton cravings for the opposite sex, then that would be a truly inane reason. In that case, I would rather you not tell me, Cécile.”
“N-n-n-no, not that!”
Cécile ran agitatedly over to Victorique’s side. Once she came closer to this strange girl, she began her tale of the peculiar harp, complete with wild gesticulations.
“…So that’s why all of us teachers have been living in fear. My friend said it’s the ghost of Mr. Jenkins, but he’s still alive. But what else could it be?”
Victorique uttered a short phrase in a low voice. “Move the harp somewhere else.”
Cécile regained some of her composure. “Huh? Why?”
And then Victorique said no more. Once again, she sank into her golden darkness, one formed of books, thoughts, and boredom. No matter how many times Cécile attempted to recapture her attention, she said not another word. At last, Cécile gave up, and silently departed the gingerbread house.
When Cécile returned to the dormitory that night, she borrowed the key to Mr. Jenkins’ room and relocated the harp with the help of her friend. It was a large and heavy instrument, with countless strings strung from top to bottom. For two women lacking physical strength, it was far too much to lift. All they could manage was to drag it across the plush carpet a mere twenty centimeters or so. Then they threw up their hands and returned to their rooms.
“So it’s not supposed to play anymore? Why?”
“Well, I don’t know exactly why…. But someone told me to do that, so I thought I’d give it a try.”
The two women exchanged incredulous looks.
It was getting late at night.
And from that night onward…
The harp never played again.
The next morning was sunny, a fine day that foretold of the coming of summer.
With summer holidays soon to begin, a restless excitement was starting to spread through the student body.
Cécile walked briskly to the gingerbread house, as she had done so many times before. She put down her stack of books, then called out to the frilly doll lolling in the darkness. “Can you explain what happened?”
That cold and beautiful girl, petite enough to be mistaken for a doll, was carefully watching Cécile with her jewel-like green eyes. Every so often, she would bring her ceramic pipe to her small mouth, and take a drag from it.
A thin filament of smoke drifted idly to the ceiling.
“The haunted harp. We moved it a little bit to the side, just like you said to do, and last night it didn’t play. But why would that happen?”
Victorique replied with a loud, weary-sounding yawn. Then, with penetrating eyes that brought to mind those of a wolf, she suddenly gave Cécile a steely stare.
Cécile shivered, frozen to the ground in fear. “Uh…”
“The man on the first floor was playing the harp on the second floor.”
“I’m saying the harp on the second floor was being played by the harp on the first floor.”
“Surely you understand this.”
“I don’t understand,” answered Cécile promptly.
Victorique’s eyes widened in surprise, and she sighed heavily. “It’s bothersome, but I’ll articulate it for you.”
“I will explain what I have reconstructed so that you may understand it.” Victorique removed the pipe from her mouth, and continued irritatedly. “Listen carefully. A harp was playing in a locked room with no one inside, without even the lights turned on. And once you moved it, the music stopped.”
“Investigate the room directly below it on the first floor. You should find another harp there. When the culprit plays the harp on the first floor, that vibrates the instrument on the second floor.”
“H-how is that possible?”
“A harp is an instrument with many strings pulled taut from top to bottom. A sound is produced by plucking the strings. And the floor of the room where the harp is should be overlaid with plush carpet. The culprit made many small holes through the ceiling of his room on the first story, which is also the floor of the room on the second story, and one by one, tied strings to connect the harp on the top floor to that on the bottom floor. And so, when the instrument on the first floor was played, the strings of the harp on the second floor were also plucked. When he finished his performance, he pulled out the strings that he had secretly strung through the ceiling. The holes in the floor of the second-story room should be thoroughly hidden by the plush carpet. Hmph, this is just one of the many worthless tricks that stage magicians have been using for generations. Just a bit of hysteria to fool children into believing in ghosts.”
Victorique muttered this disinterestedly, and once again, took a puff from her pipe. Her radiant blond hair undulated with every movement of her small head.
“But who did it, then…?”
“Most likely, the new music teacher.”
“Mmm. It is necessary that the culprit be skilled in playing the harp. That limits the number of people capable of pulling it off. And I believe you said that the first floor of that dormitory is where the single men live.”
“I suppose he was envious of Mr. Jenkins’ popularity, and stirred up this fuss over ghosts so that everyone would feel frightened at the thought of him. Think about it, Cécile. Who else would have reason to do it except for that man?”
“In other words, he was the only one who didn’t know that Mr. Jenkins was still alive.”
Cécile stared at at her dumbly.
Victorique added in an annoyed tone, “Everyone else knew that Mr. Jenkins was recuperating in the hospital in Sauvrème. But the new teacher didn’t know that. He was probably under the mistaken impression that the previous music teacher had died. Cécile, didn’t he ask you about Mr. Jenkins before all of this happened? And you told him that you had lost a ‘dear friend’.”
Cécile gasped in astonishment. “N-now that you mention it…”
“And when you called the hospital in Sauvrème in the aftermath of the mess, he seemed to be surprised when he heard you mention the hospital. Since he didn’t know that Mr. Jenkins was in the hospital, he didn’t understand why you rushed to phone them when the incident with the ghost happened.”
“Do you understand now?”
But rather than give Cécile a chance to reply, Victorique instead slowly turned away from her, like a wild animal returning to the deep forest, and turned her attention back to her books once more.
Cécile stared mutely at her small form, so very slight, and so finely featured that she could have been hand-made.
Victorique said nothing more, perhaps no longer even aware of Cécile’s presence.
Despite the awe-inspiring, noble, and yet dark and unknown power that lay dormant inside of Victorique, the figure reflected in Cécile’s eyes was merely that of a girl in frilly clothes who looked like a porcelain doll. When she realized that this was the first time she had actually exchanged something akin to a conversation with Victorique, she became speechless with amazement. And then she quietly left the dollhouse, bewildered at the ever-present pain she felt in her chest, like the pricking of a rose thorn.
As she wound her way through the garden maze, what suddenly welled up in Cécile’s heart was the thought that, perhaps, the meaning of boredom was in fact one and the same with loneliness. She had no inkling of what was running through the mind of the grey wolf, or what would become of her. But the thorn only continued to ache.
And so spring headed into summer.
The long holiday had begun.