'Fate shuffles the cards and we play.'
― Arthur Schopenhauer
Near the middle of their nation's heartland was a large lake; on sunny days it reflected the blue of the sky. On some mornings and evenings the fog and mist from the lake would flow into the town on its shores. There were impressive sunrises, sunsets and moon risings that cast colour onto the water. When large storms occurred the water formed considerably large waves for an inland lake. These atmospheric conditions were unknown in the rest of the region and led the town to become a well loved local tourist resort.
The lake was large enough to offer lengthy leisurely circular cruises on an old steamer for its flocks of visitors. In addition to the town, a small waterfall and the mouth of a river, the passengers admired the visual status symbols of the architecturally pleasing Victorian and Edwardian mansions on the sides of the lake. The extreme well to do from the nearest large city resided in them during the summer to catch the desirable cool breezes.
The resort town was also enjoyed by spirited young at heart couples from the large city for amorous weekends and by excursions of groups of senior citizens. students and clubs.
For those from the small towns, villages and hamlets of the countryside, the resort town was a much loved and occasionally achievable substitute for the international travel they would never be able to afford and a glimpse of a 'high society' that they would never be able to enter. Those who didn't own their own automobile could arrive by train or regional coach services.
Adding to the natural beauty were the town's well kept parks with floral gardens and water features. Visitors were additionally attracted to the blatantly visible 'old money' wealth and architecture and a variety of shops and restaurants owned by Continental European immigrants, a rarity then and there outside the large city. The town's buildings were designed and decorated in accordance with the production design of the mid 20th Century movies made on film studio backlots during the Golden Age of Hollywood; they were never considered 'gaudy' or 'tacky'. These were the images of Europe in the minds of the vast majority of the heartland's residents save for those who did overseas tours and naval cruises during their military service. The country visitors eagerly swarmed to the resort for those special times in a lifetime, such as a honeymoon. Thus was the case with newlyweds Paul and Betty Fields at summer's end 1961.
After a lingering late morning breakfast in bed together in their quaint hotel's bridal suite, Betty was on her shopping mission with Paul wandering the town by himself until their late lunchtime rendezvous. Though Paul wasn't one for shopping as a recreational pursuit, he was fascinated with the bright colours and decor of an imitation European town. He stopped to view a sign-
HERR PUPPENMEISTER'S EMPORIUM OF MARIONETTES
The Emporium was in a lower level entered by steps from the street. Paul entered the shop to the sound of old fashioned bells on the wooden door; familiar from the old movies that Paul and Betty loved.
He was immediately struck by the total quiet in the subterranean shop.
There were not only no other customers nor sales staff visible, but there wasn't the usual piped in music. Unlike those raised in the large city, Paul was not afraid of silence. There was a large clock on the wall with an aging white dial with Roman numerals, but the clock was not only silent, it had no hands...
Other than the strange silent clock, the only things in the shop were a variety of marionettes hanging from their strings on the two sides of the emporium's only aisle, and what Paul assumed were the decorated fronts of stages for puppet shows below the hanging marionettes.
The marionettes were dressed in what looked like hand-made clothing of a very high quality.
Paul reviewed the ranks of marionettes feeling like a general reviewing his soldiers of the Army of the Funereal with only the sound of his footsteps. He was amazed when he noticed he could hear the sound of his own wristwatch.
Amidst the right hand row of marionettes, he caught sight of an exceptionally realistic one far back from the others. Paul was shocked when it smiled as it turned out to be an actual human.
'Good day, sir. I trust you are not in a hurry.'
'No, no one could be in a hurry in a place like this.'
The portly grey haired bespectacled man with the pale complexion gave a bigger smile as he made his way through the hanging marionettes to shake Paul's hand. He spoke in a Germanic accent.
'Welcome to my world, sir.'
'Herr Puppenmeister, I presume.'
'No, that is the name of my shop. I am Herr...Mister Strippenzieher. Forgive me, but I enjoy watching people come into my emporium for their first time and seeing their reaction to my children, and most of all...the silence.'
Paul glanced at the clock with no hands.
'Yes, time does seem to stand still here. I'm Paul Fields. My wife and I are honeymooning here.'
'Congratulations, and I wish the both of you a long and happy life together, Mr. Fields.'
'Thank you. I've seen puppet shows when I was a boy, but I've never seen a puppet shop before'.
'I prefer the word emporium and of course, these are my marionettes.'
'Pardon me, Herr Strippenzieher, those words are correct. It's an empire of the marionettes. It's funny, but I had no idea that I would ever find a place like this and I had no idea such a place actually existed, yet it somehow seems familiar.'
'You are not alone, Mr. Fields. Very few people outside the world of marionettes, or the empire as you so nicely put it, know I exist. To answer the questions most people ask me, I am originally from Germany and I create and provide marionettes to various people around the world. Once I was commissioned by a gentleman to make a box of wooden toy soldiers for him like the ones there on that castelet.'
He pointed at one of the puppet stages that looked like a castle; two red coated soldiers in shakos stood in a pair of striped sentry boxes bordering a faux drawbridge.
'My sister creates their costumes by hand; she owns The Dollhouse Doll Boutique and Hospital across the street. Otherwise, my customers are visitors like yourself who purchase one of my marionettes for a memorable souvenir of our town, like those who buy a boomerang when they visit Australia or a mask when they visit Venice...'
Paul showed his surprise.
'It's funny you mentioned Venice. My wife has a mask from there that her best friend gave her and it's her dream to someday go there. However, here is all we can afford but we're having a wonderful time.'
Herr Strippenzieher glowed with an open mouthed smile and nodded. Paul was reminded of the old time actor S.Z. Sakall, the symbol of traditional Continental kindness in so many wonderful old films.
'Venice is a beautiful city state, but it is very crowded in the summer, and as you say, it is very dear in both meanings of the word.'
'You have some amazing things here. I'm surprised how serious most of your marionettes look. I always thought Punch and Judy was the most popular puppet show.'
'In England, yes, but in Germany the most performed puppet show was Faust.'
Paul thought that explained why the Germans were so serious; they were brought up with Satan instead of Bozo.
'I had no idea puppet shows were supposed to be serious.'
'Everything in the world is serious, and everything in the world is comical. It depends how you look at it, Mr. Fields.'
'And what is the most popular puppet show in Venice, or the rest of Italy?'
'The Commedia dell'art. I have many of their characters here. Please, come with me.'
They paused in front of a group of wooden marionettes, Herr Strippenzieher picked up two of them. One was dressed in white as a clown, the other was attired in a chequered pattern of wildly coloured diamonds; both wore black cloth masks.
'Here is Pierrot and here is Harlequin.'
'Odd, my wife calls me "Pierrot"'.
'And do you call her "Columbine"?'
'No, I call her "Bettina" as she never liked "Betty", and she's so fond of Italy.'
Paul made a puzzled expression.
'"Betty Fields" in Italian.'
Herr Strippenzieher continued.
'Harlequin is the character all the women love.'
'But they always marry Pierrot.'
Both men laughed. Paul somehow felt entranced. He took Harlequin in his hands and found himself saying.
'How much is he?'
'For a newlywed with a lovely bride and for a man who says "he" instead of "it"...'
Paul was surprised at the generosity of the price. His Bettina loved her Venetian mask, she certainly would love this!
'I'll take him, no strings attached', he quipped.
'Everyone has strings attached, "ensecrètement" we say; you just can't see your own strings.'
'What kind of strings would I have?'
'Aren't they one in the same?'
'Fate is the cause of kismet. Kismet is a predestined situation. Destiny is the result.'
'I don't believe in predestination.'
'You will by the time you reach my age.'
Paul took one last look at the marionette that Herr Strippenzieher placed in an attractive wooden box lined with heavy white padding that made Paul think of a coffin.
'Would you like me to gift wrap it for Bettina?'
The puppet master left and returned with some attractive wrapping paper and ribbon. Paul decided to look under the Harlequin's mask.
'He looks so sad when he's not wearing his mask.'
'Don't we all, Mr. Fields?'
Paul looked at the face of the marionette more closely and he froze in fright.
'Mr. Fields! Mr. Fields! Are you all right???'
Mrs. Betty Fields eagerly awaited Paul at a window table in the Bellagio Ristorante Italiano in Riva al Mare. The interior of the restaurant was wooden panelling with prints of paintings on the walls of scenes of Lake Como and its adjoining lushly flowered white villas. The tablecloths were of the familiar red and white checked pattern so familiar to her from old movies and hence, her dreams of Italy. This morning was the first time that she had ever had breakfast in bed since she was sick at home and served by her mother. In turn, this afternoon was the latest time that she ever had lunch in her life; she usually ate at noon. She had had a wonderful morning shopping experience with the helpful staff having the items delivered to her hotel to save her from carrying them; another first time experience for her.
The late lunch assignation had been a splendid idea as she was able to obtain one of the prized tables on the balcony overlooking the lake. She was protected from the sun by a red, white and green striped canvas canopy as she enjoyed the lake's cool breezes. The day was beautiful and blue with activity on the lake provided by white sailboats that moved slowly on its surface. The La Reine du Lac, the town's locally famous excursion steamer leisurely chugged in its circular voyage. Well known Italian tunes performed both vocally and instrumentally on mandolins came through the speakers at a pleasing level of sound; loud enough to break the silence and establish a 'Holiday in Italy' mood, but soft enough to permit intimate conversation.
She smiled and waved at Paul who was guided in by the smiling middle aged proprietor, Salvatore. Betty's brown eyes were bright and her auburn hair was perfect. Her cherry pattern dress and red lipstick matched the small floral bouquet in the centre of the table and the flowers in the green window boxes on the outside of the restaurant as well as the checks on their tablecloth. Salvatore's equally charming wife Maria Luisa had presented Betty with the bouquet on their table as a gift. Betty's eyes turned from esctatic happiness into curiosity by the gift wrapped box Paul was carrying. The pair lingered in their kiss and embrace.
'Is Chianti all right by you? I've always wanted to try it.'
Paul and Bettina helped themselves to the breadsticks near the bouquet. Salvatore brought a bottle with a straw bottom.
'I hope this is the only kind of fiasco that you will have in your life together.'
Bettina couldn't wait to find out what Paul's present was, nor could she refrain from telling him about her morning's shopping expedition and her trophies, but most pressing was ordering their lunch. They had desired salad and Spaghetti Pomodoro with bread but the thoughtful proprietor had recommended Rigatoni as less messy for their beautiful new clothes. Salvatore and Maria Luisa allowed the newlyweds to drink and dine on their balcony as they locked the door and tidied up the interior for the dinner crowd. The newlyweds made their reservation to return that night for a late dinner, again, the latest Betty now Bettina had ever eaten her dinner, as they felt at home there.
They enjoyed their Chianti and conversation; it was only over cappuccino and tiramisu, that Bettina remembered Paul's gift.
He smiled and presented it to her
'Ti amerò per sempre, tesoro.'
Paul had secretly written down and memorised several Italian phrases to keep her in an amorous mood. The proprietor and his wife watched with smiles as they poured their customer's limoncello into their glasses.
Bettina radiantly smiled and held the beautifully wrapped and beribboned box in her arms, almost afraid to destroy the most beautiful parcel she had ever been given. Curiosity won out as she carefully removed the ribbon and the paper that she intended to keep.
She gasped and gave a wide eyed expression of delight.
'Harlequin! How did you know that I've always dreamed of meeting Harlequin at a masked ball at the Carnival of Venice????'
'I'm glad you like him. I hope he's going to be the only other man in your life next to me.'
'A tall, dark handsome stranger...oh Pierrot, I love you so much!'
She kissed her husband and hugged him.
As Paul did in the emporium, Bettina slid Harlequin's mask up to see his face.
'His eyes are so sad, do you think he knows something that we don't?'
She looked back at her husband with a smile, but he had an equally sad look as her Harlequin.
'What's wrong, bello? Is my Pierrot jealous?'
'I don't know Betty. It's not the costume that I've seen before, it's the face of the marionette...'
'I just think you're jealous. Pierrot can never have Columbine because Columbine dreams of her Harlequin.'
'No darling. It's just that I've seen that same marionette in a recurring dream of mine where he floats face up out of the water, then I wake up. I don't know why he scares me but he does!'
'A Mystic Marionette from a Demented Dream? Paul, you're being silly. You're spending too much time in The Twilight Zone.'
'It's funny, dear. They say most dreams are forgotten, but what if they remain in our subconscious and our memory of them comes back when we see something that reminds us of the dream? Why does a dream like that recur several times, and why does it frighten me?'
Betty's mood turned to anger and scorn and she launched into a tirade. Paul thought it odd that when it came to a country that she had never been to, she could come across as an enthusiastic dreaming schoolgirl, but when she was faced with anything remotely occult she turned angry.
Paul knew when to concede.
'Whatever you say, dearest.'
Bettina's happy mood returned when Salvatore and Maria Luisa joined the pair at their table with four glasses of their home made Limoncello.
Though their siesta was cut short by their unexpected but highly enjoyable late lingering lunch with real Italians and their cuisine, the pair still had a mutually enjoyable intimate rest and relaxation in their lovely bridal suite.
With their dinner reservations much later in the evening that either had dined before, they could relax over a cup of tea in their room. Bettina displayed her shopping trophies and Paul enjoyed reading the evening paper as his wife dressed for their evening out.
Though the pair travelled to their honeymoon destination by automobile, Bettina humoured her husband by accompanying him to the town's Edwardian period railway station as Paul had a train fetish as most little boys of all ages do. They had coffee together on a balcony with a view of the interior of the small station and its trains that terminated on the platform. They enjoyed the arrival of the Evening Star train and the looks of happiness on the visitors who poured from its carriages.
After a horse drawn landau ride around the town and a promenade by the lake it was time for their late dinner at the Bellagio. Dressed in her black cocktail dress set off with a string of pearls and his black suit with red tie, the pair were greeted like long lost friends by Salvatore and Maria Luisa. Though the balcony window was shut, they could still view the lake where the brightly lit La Reine du Lac sailed on it's 'romantic' night cruise. The pair were booked for the afternoon lunch cruise the next day. Betty had also wanted to do the night cruise but Paul dismissed it because he felt that the only thing you would be able to see were the lights of the town, and it wasn't a full moon that, in his mind, would truly make it 'romantic'. Paul kept his thoughts to himself that the word 'romantic' seemed to be overused in the town...
Their mood was shattered, when just like in the films Maria Luisa told Paul that he had an urgent telephone call.
It was his boss Mr. Clarke demanding his services for an emergency situation the next day. Mr. Clarke had known of their dinner plans due to Betty having told the hotel receptionist about their evening late dining at the Bellagio. Paul had wondered why Betty believed sales and reception staff were actually interested in her life story and plans, but there you go. Though Mr. Clarke knew Paul was on his honeymoon, he would be rewarded by being granted extra leave, therefore an extended honeymoon. Paul was a young man desiring a rapid rise in his career, and his returning like a trained dog would display his motivation to his employers. However, he asked his boss if he could speak to his other boss first. Mr. Clarke happily agreed to wait.
Betty was at first shocked and slightly upset, but she was attracted to the reward of Paul's additional leave that they would spend there. She comforted him by saying that as he had wanted to travel to the resort by train, but she didn't due to all their luggage, he could have his wish by catching the early morning train to the large city and return in the same way. Paul told his delighted employer he would be returning on the early morning train.
They finished their lovely dinner by sampling Salvatore's Grappa that Paul felt tasted like moonshine illegal stilled whiskey and seemed to have a similar alcoholic content to rocket fuel.
* * *
Paul woke up due to a life like dream of seeing the marionette's face rise up from the water. He looked at his sleeping bride, then at the clock on his bed side table. The time wasn't far off from when he had set his alarm to rise for catching the early Morning Star train to his workplace in the large city. He prepared himself for his travel dressed in the grey suit he had arrived in and carried a small bag of an extra shirt, underwear and toiletries to bring with him that he packed the previous night. He didn't want to wake Betty, so he blew her a kiss. He turned to check his appearance in the mirror over the chest of drawers where her Harlequin was laying in state in its coffin...
Had Betty been with him and there was no urgent work to do, Paul would have truly enjoyed his excellent breakfast on the Morning Star and the scenic rail journey to the large city.
Reporting to his office as soon as he arrived, Paul saw that the emergency situation truly was an 'all hands on deck' affair for the very survival of the business.
Paul soon discovered the truth of his father's saying, 'if you have time to worry or regret, then you're not really busy'. Paul leapt into the situation besides his fellow employees but asked Mr. Clarke to inform him when it was near five o'clock so he could telephone Betty at her hotel for his prearranged telephone call. Mr. Clarke allowed him to use the business's phone without charge.
Mr. Clarke and Paul's fellow employees pretended not to listen, but they couldn't resist enjoying Paul's conversation with his new wife as it brought back so many memories of when they themselves were newlyweds.
Betty said that she missed her husband, but provided the good news that she was allowed to transfer their pre-booked afternoon cruise on the lake to an afternoon cruise on a later day when they would be together. She told him that as he was able to have his train trip, she was going to do her 'romantic' night time cruise, with her secret lover...Harlequin.
Before finishing the telephone call, Mr. Clarke signalled to Paul that he wanted to speak to Betty.
After the usual congratulations, small chat and jokes, he informed Betty and Paul that not only had their stay at the resort hotel been extended by three days but he and his fellow employees took up a collection to pay for all three days of their accommodation. Paul was proud that Mr. Clarke told his wife what a fine hard worker he was who didn't complain, and that he would be returning tomorrow on the Evening Star, as they probably would profitably complete their business before the train's departure.
Though missing Betty, Paul was exhausted by the late hours of his work. He was pleased that he had the respect of everyone in his office and slept soundly. Prior to the dawn, he was again awakened by the somehow frightening nightmare of the marionette floating out of the water.
* * *
With the danger of a financial disaster over, Mr. Clarke and his employees worked through the morning with their boss treating them to a celebratory well earned lunch of beer and steak sandwiches. Paul felt like one of the old employees as they acknowledged him as one of their own.
'PAUL! LOOK AT THE TELEVISION!!!'
The television set over the bar was televising a news story about a serious accident at the lake resort where the La Reine du Lac had struck a sailboat on its night cruise. The spokesman would not confirm or deny that there were fatalities as the next of kin of the missing would have to be notified.
The scene of the sad faced television reporter switched to film of a Harlequin marionette floating up to the surface of the water...
Mr. Clarke spoke to the barman. Paul was escorted into the office where he was able to use the telephone. The hotel said Betty was not in her room but no one there knew whether she had returned that night or not. The telephone line to the local police station was continually engaged.
Mr. Clarke threw his car keys at Paul and told him to drive to the hotel immediately.
* * *
Paul prayed as he drove and drove as he prayed. He listened to the news on the car radio but there was no confirmation of any deaths, only that there were still to be identified people still missing.
He was approaching his destination as now the river that emptied into the lake was visible. A large truck turned the bend of the narrow road as Paul swerved away from it and left the road. He slammed on the brakes.
The truck hadn't stopped. Breathless, Paul left his car to see that he had only come to a halt a very short distance from the cliff that led down to the river. As he looked down to the flowing river below he wondered if the marionette had foretold his own death rather than Betty's. He prayed again and sped towards the now nearby hotel.
* * *
'IS BETTY FIELDS IN HER ROOM????'
The surprised hotel receptionist looked up at Paul, then looked behind him.
'No, she's right here, Pierrot.'
She was smiling then mystified as Paul gave her an embrace that nearly broke her back.
'Betty! What happened? Are you all right?'
Paul's dramatic entrance had been watched by the entire hotel lobby, including a waiter.
'Brandy for my husband, please.'
They sat down at a table where Betty had been sitting with her back to Paul's entrance having a cup of tea. Sitting on one of the chairs at the table was a familiar large box.
Betty explained that her night cruise had struck a sailboat that had no lights. The impact of the collision sent her Harlequin over the side. It was only recently discovered that the sailboat had been stolen by a pair of teenage boys who were unharmed but swam to shore because they feared being identified and arrested for the theft. Their parents had driven them to the police when they discovered their activity later that day. No one on the boat had been injured, but until the teenagers had visited the police station no one knew if there were fatalities from the crew of the sailboat.
Her Harlequin had washed ashore and was filmed by the television news crew as a dramatic image. The police had taken Harlequin to Herr Strippenzieher who knew who owned him. He contacted Betty who came over as he cleaned the unharmed Harlequin and his clothes.
Bettina giggled, 'Oh Pierrot, it's so comical!'
Paul furiously replied, '"Comical"??? You could've been killed, I could've been killed! It's not comical, it's serious! It's...', he thought of Herr Strippenzieher's comment and then he laughed, 'It's how you look it at!'
Paul and Bettina were incredibly happy. Bettina discovered one of the local churches was throwing a masked costume ball with the proceeds going to charity to celebrate the End of the Season that would occur on their penultimate night at the resort. Over a telephone call, Mr. Clarke said picking up his car at their hotel gave him and his wife an excuse to come to the lake by train where he could do some fishing as his own reward for his business's recovery and profit.
Pierrot and Bettina holding her boxed Harlequin walked into one of the town's flowered parks and promenaded on the path by the small river that ran through it. They stopped to look at a sign.
TRY OUR ROMANTIC VENETIAN GONDOLA RIDES
The lovers looked into each other's eyes and simultaneously asked each other,
'Man does not control his own fate. The women in his life do that for him.'
― Groucho Marx
Author Notes: I am the author of three Extra Dimensional/Ultraterrestial military science fiction novels MERCENARY EXOTIQUE, OPERATION CHUPACABRA and WORK IN OTHER WORLDS FROM YOUR OWN HOME! as well as two travel books THE MAN FROM WAUKEGAN and TWO AUSTRALIANS IN SCOTLAND. I live happily ever after with my wife in paradise (coastal Kiama, NSW Australia).