Waking Beauty

A Variation on a Classic

By Lisa Christine Svenson

Matthew had decided to be impetuous. It was a conscious decision and he had spent a long time making it, but he figured that since he was single again (after Erin left him for a vacuum cleaner salesman, the bitch. Vacuums!), it was time to start acting that way. He had scheduled extra days after his business trip to tour the city. He figured what he did would be unplanned, but he had to be there or else he wouldn't be able to tour it in his new impetuous fashion. He sat in the hotel the first morning of his freedom and looked through a tour book to decide what piqued his interest. What would a spontaneous man do? he wondered.

He flipped through the pages idly and wondered why nothing sounded interesting (had he been boring that long?), until one item caught his eye. It was an advertisement for an antique home, the Hanbury Mansion. He had heard about it on a news report years ago and hadn't believed the story for a minute. He skimmed through the advertisement, then read it in its entirety. In it, the writers claimed that in the Hanbury Mansion, Miss Rose Hanbury lay sleeping in her bed. According to the "scientifically accurate" history reports, she had been sleeping there for over a hundred years. Matthew couldn't help but be skeptical (even an impetuous man had a brain). Propaganda brought in tourists, though, and Matthew knew that. He also knew that as soon as the mansion museum opened, he would be one of those propaganda-led tourists awaiting the guided tour.

Matthew decided to take a cab to the museum, not really knowing his way around the city well enough to navigate the trip on his own. He arrived just as the doors were opened. There wasn't much of a line, only about ten people in front of him. He entered the building and stood in the grand foyer of the home to look all around him. He imagined what it must have been like when people lived there, high-society people. He wondered if famous people had walked in exactly the same place he was walking now. He could almost hear their voices, their laughter, taste the smoke in the air from the fireplaces and pipes, as if he had been there. The tour guide appeared magically, moving as if transported by conveyor belts, as if he were an antique statue, propped up and transported around the building to maintain the image of the museum. He distributed brochures to the assembled crowd, small though the crowd was. Matthew wondered as he looked at this stiff man in his dusty grey jacket if the guide might not perhaps be the same age as the house, such was the air of the man. And why not? An impetuous man could believe that.

The tour began in the dining room and progressed to the kitchen almost immediately. Matthew had never been much of a cook, so the stories of grand banquets weren't as interesting to him as he might have liked. He wished he could taste the food, see the chefs in their crisp white uniforms, but not so much that he could bring himself to visualize it. He was here to see Rose, and he knew it. He wondered if she were a wax sculpture, or perhaps porcelain, but he knew she wasn't real (even an impetuous man had limits). He would find out soon enough what she was, though.

Matthew suffered through the first floor of the home and most of the second before at last the tour guide led the crowd into Rose's bedroom. Matthew was at the back of the small crowd and was standing on tiptoes to see (not having been blessed with grand stature but, rather, cursed with being of average height). There in front of him was a bed. On the bed was the figure of a woman. Matthew felt himself curiously drawn to this woman. He didn't know what was responsible, the dim lighting or the new impetuosity (or perhaps one of the guide's conveyor belts), but he walked toward her, unhooked the dingy velvet theater rope and approached the bed.

"No, sir, you mustn't touch anything," the tour guide said desperately, his voice as rickety as his frame. He watched helplessly as Matthew pushed aside the cobwebs that surrounded the bed, unable to move to Matthew's side quickly enough to stop him.

Matthew reached out gently and touched the face of the woman. It wasn't wax, he could tell that. It wasn't porcelain, either. What it felt like was skin, very cold skin. He wondered if this might, in fact, be a person, and if so, how she could have been mummified. Her face still looked young and, he assumed, beautiful. There was a thick layer of dust that made it hard for him to be totally sure.

"Please, sir," the guide said, closer, but not close enough. "Step away from the bed now."

Matthew couldn't fight his curiosity any longer. He leaned his face toward the woman to see if he could feel any breath from her delicate nostrils and, much to his amazement, there was the faintest hint of air stirring the dust on her lips, enough that the dust layer was thinner on her lips, very obvious from this close view. Matthew closed his eyes and, for some reason he could not understand other than sheer compulsion, he kissed her. The woman coughed slightly, stirring up a small cloud of dust, and opened her eyes, blinking hard, either to adjust to the light or to wash away the grime that must surely have settled there.

"What have you done, sir?" the tour guide asked, sadness weighing heavy on his voice.

Matthew held out his hand to the young woman and helped her to her feet. The tour guide walked inside the ropes and tried to push her back down, but Matthew pushed him there instead. The young woman looked around her. She did nothing but blink her eyes hard for a few moments before she turned her gaze to Matthew.

"How do you do, sir?" she said, her voice a bit scratchy, but delightful as bells in a well-trained church choir. She cleared her throat, eliminating the scratch, but enhancing the bell-clear melodic tone. "My name is Rose Hanbury."

Matthew kissed her hand and hoped she wasn't offended by his attempts at licking the dust away from his lips. He tried hard not to grimace. "My name is Matthew Taylor."

Rose looked around at all the people in the room (well, all ten of them). "Who are all these people and what are they doing here?" She covered herself modestly, although she was fully clothed. She looked down at her attire, breathed a sigh of relief, and smoothed a wrinkle in her skirt.

"I have tried to kiss her so many times," the tour guide said, sounding weak and defeated. He pulled at Matthew's jacket in an attempt to get him out of the way. "Please, Miss Hanbury, let me take you away from this place."

Matthew took Rose's hand and pushed his way through the crowd, such that it was, and began to lead her out of the room. "Come on, Rose," he said, excitement in his voice. "Let's see what this town has to offer."

Rose followed behind Matthew all the way to the foyer. She slowed him down somewhat as she examined her home, filled now with theater ropes, plaques and old photographs, her life and family history on display for all the world to see. Matthew used the phone there to call for a cab and watched Rose as she surveyed the room. She looked curiously at the telephones and electric lights. He wondered what she might be thinking, wondered how the room had looked all those years ago when she had fallen into her deep sleep. He wondered if there were any other family members or if Rose would be the owner of the house, and how tangled the legal mess would be when she tried to reclaim her place as rightful owner.

Matthew led Rose outside to await the cab and couldn't help but notice her gasp when she looked at the city. He couldn't imagine what the city had looked like the last time she saw it, but certainly there wouldn't have been any skyscrapers then. Rose walked onto what was left of her front lawn and just turned around and around, her eyes wide in astonishment.

The cab pulled up. Matthew opened the door and called Rose to join him. She looked at the vehicle skeptically, so Matthew took her hand and pulled her into the back seat with him. There was a look of anxiety on her face as the vehicle began to move, but then she began to look thrilled, almost giddy. She glanced at Matthew and smiled. He held her hand and gave it a light squeeze.

The cab deposited Matthew and Rose in the middle of downtown and Matthew looked up and down the street for a hair salon. Rose looked up and down the street, also, but probably not for the same purpose. She seemed as if she were in a daze, as if she perhaps couldn't shake off that hundred (plus) year nap. Matthew spotted a salon and put his arm around Rose's shoulder. He led her to the door, careful to lead her well because she was looking everywhere but where she was going. She jumped when she heard an electronic buzz as the door opened. Matthew explained to her that it was a doorbell. She nodded her head as if she wanted to make him believe she understood, but he could tell she didn't have a clue.

A bleached blonde woman with hair so big it probably had internal physical support structures greeted Matthew at the front counter with an interested smile, then looked at Rose, a look of total disgust passing across her overly painted face. She called for a beautician who was in the back and the beautician came to the front. When she saw Rose, her jaw dropped for a long moment. Finally, she led Rose back to a cushioned chair and had her sit, but not before covering the chair in plastic. The beautician began by washing Rose's face thoroughly. She had to wash it several times over before all the dust was gone, but when it was, Matthew could see that Rose really was very beautiful. With her face cleaned, she looked more like a living, breathing person, which was, of course, what she finally was again. The beautician next led Rose back to the sink and began to wash her hair. She pulled out clumps of cobwebs and several large dead spiders, washing over and over until the hair was clean, then she led Rose into the back where Matthew was unable to see her. He sat in the waiting area and tried to read a magazine, but not really wawsn't interested in how celebrities spent their weekends, the theme of the special issue.

At last Rose emerged from the back of the salon and Matthew rose to his feet in awe. He never would have guessed that Rose was a blonde, that's how grey her hair had been with dust and cobwebs (it hadn't really looked like hair, now that he thought about it), but she was blonde and her hair was beautiful, especially now that it was clean and trimmed. She was wearing makeup, not too much, but she looked as if she had stepped out of a centerfold, from the top of her head to the bottom of her chin, then her attire got in the way. Matthew paid the receptionist and gave a large tip to the stylist, then led Rose into the street. People turned to stare as they walked by. He wasn't sure which they were staring at, her clothes or her face, but Rose was attracting a lot of attention.

Matthew led her into a women's clothing store and brought her through the front door. They were immediately surrounded by the entire staff of the store, who stood around them in a circle like vultures for whom the carrion was too offensive, as if they were waiting for the highway department to sweep the street clean, and stared for a very, very long time. Finally one of the salesclerks approached them.

"May I help you?" she said.

"Yes, please," Matthew said. "I'd like to buy a new outfit for my friend."

"Right." The woman looked nervously at her associates, then at Rose. "Won't you follow me?"

Matthew sat and waited again. The salesclerk brought Rose through the racks of clothes and picked up several items of clothing, then led her to the dressing rooms. Matthew heard a loud giggle and watched as the saleswoman stuck her head over the door and called for another salesclerk, who disappeared and returned, hiding whatever it was she was carrying from Matthew's view. He saw Rose's old dress dropped over the edge, then bloomers and finally, a corset, probably the source of the giggles. He wanted to pick it up and bring it to an antique dealer, but he had enough common sense to override this impetuous impulse. Even an impetuous man realizes tacky. He got up and poured a cup of coffee for himself, old, nasty coffee, but at least it was free (some stores humored the hapless spouses and lovers of women who lived to shop but couldn't bring themselves to do it alone, instead feeling a compulsion to drain all the life from their men). He sat and attempted to sip it, but had to stop when he felt it begin to grow physical layers on his tongue. At long last Rose emerged wearing a black dress, black pantyhose and...her old boots. Matthew walked to her side and took her hand. He looked her over carefully. She turned to face a mirror and stared at her reflection for a long, long time before she smiled. The salesclerk gathered Rose's old clothes and put them in a shopping bag, then brought Matthew to the cash register where he paid dearly for the purchases, but she was worth every penny. He led Rose into the street again and this time he knew without a doubt that people were looking at her because she was beautiful.

Matthew brought Rose to a shoe store and it was only a matter of moments before she was wearing a pair of black pumps and her boots were in a bag. He paid for the shoes, then took Rose to a restaurant for dinner, proud to have a genuine angel by his side. Rose seemed baffled by the menu, but bravely ordered a dinner for herself and ate every morsel she was served. It had been over a hundred years since she had eaten her last meal, Matthew thought to himself. It was only natural that she would be hungry now. She asked a lot of questions and Matthew tried to answer well, thrilled as Rose smiled and laughed more and more, bringing him back to life just the way he had brought her back.

Matthew was sad when he had to hail a cab to bring Rose back to her home. She was perfect, as if she had stepped out a fairy tale just for him, at the moment in his life when he needed it most. They rode through the streets of the city, streets so recently paved in joy and now paved in sadness, to the Hanbury Mansion. Matthew got out of the cab and helped Rose to get out, as well. He handed her bags to her and kissed her, just once, a quick kiss, then climbed back into the cab. He tried hard to look braver than he felt. Rose stood in the way of the door so Matthew couldn't close it. She looked first at the mansion, then at the bags in her hand, then at Matthew. She looked quickly at the house again and once more at the bags. She smiled as she saw the tour guide approaching. He reached out his hand to her and she gave him the shopping bags, then climbed back in the cab, closed the door and waved to the tour guide as away she went.

Matthew and Rose lived happily (and impetuously) ever after.

 

Copyright 2000 by Lisa Christine Svenson