Read by Clareine Cronin
Every Christmas, Matron took the orphanage children to visit Herr Drosselmayer’s marvellous toyshop. How charming for orphans to admire the toys rich children are given! Herr Drosselmayer hated children, however. Messy, noisy, unmanageable—children upset his displays and left sticky, longing handprints on his glass showcases. So Herr Drosselmayer locked the door and put a "closed" sign in the shop window when Matron first came to plead the orphans' cause.
But even Herr Drosselmayer dared not close his door when the Bishop came. The Bishop hadn't a splendid cloth-of-gold robe, embroidered mitre, and jeweled crozier, like bishops of old. But he was the orphanage’s patron and a bishop all the same. So each Christmas, closely supervised, the orphans could compare the shabby hand-me-downs in the orphanage’s toy box to their costly originals.
The orphans loved Herr Drosselmayer's splendid puppet theatre most. The theatre came with tiny cardboard knights and ladies, a cardboard dragon, and a cardboard wizard, each with a wooden stand to hold it upright and a wooden stick to push it about the stage. The theatre had cardboard scenery too—a glittering ballroom, a wizard's forbidding cavern, or a forest with a peasant's cottage in the foreground and, behind it, a castle on a hill. Resting your chin on the glass-topped counter before the puppet theatre was like sitting in a real theatre, watching a real play. The orphans had never seen a play, though, so, when Herr Drosselmayer grudgingly changed the scenery for them, it seemed a magical journey from a real forest to a real ballroom.
One Christmas, a little girl who sold paper roses in the street slipped in behind the orphans. And, when the orphans reluctantly lined up to leave, the ragged street girl remained at the glass-topped counter, her fear lost in admiring the puppet theatre's magic. "Zo you like my theatre, little girl," said old Herr Drosselmayer. "Vould you like to live there?"
The scene in the theatre just now was inside the woodland cottage. Painted strings of sausages hung from the cottage ceiling, and a painted stove glowed with red cellophane. The cardboard peasant and his wife stood stiffly beside a cardboard table, as though about to sit and eat their cardboard bread and cheese. The peasant and his wife had kind, rosy faces. The pale little street girl remembered the cruel aunt who sent her out even in winter to sell her paper roses and who beat her if she came home with no pennies. "Oh, yes!" she whispered, just as the shop door closed behind the two oldest boys at the end of the orphans' line.
One of the boys, Franz, a sturdy blond lad of twelve, had been orphaned at four but never forgot the pretty younger sister who had died of fever with his mother and father. He looked back. Had the little rose seller torn herself away from the toyshop's puppet theatre in time to escape Herr Drosselmayer's wrath? A "closed" sign had suddenly appeared in the shop's window. Making a hasty excuse to his partner Emil, Franz ran back and peered anxiously through the small panes. The little girl wasn't visible, only Herr Drosselmayer with his back to the street, rearranging three tiny figures in the cottage. Franz shook his head, bewildered. But then Matron called him to rejoin the line.
That night, when the attic room where the orphan boys slept was quiet, Franz rose from bed, pulled on woolen trousers and socks, picked up wooden clogs, and woke his friend Emil. “Will you come with me to the toy shop?” Franz whispered. “I’m afraid something dreadful happened to the little rose seller who admired the puppet theatre."
Of course! Emil would gladly help his friend. The two boys crept downstairs past Matron's door and let themselves out through the kitchen in whose great fireplace embers still glowed.
The town's streets were icy and deserted. Familiar houses and shops looked strange in moonlight glittering on snow fallen earlier that night. The toyshop too was dark and silent. But, down the alley beside it, the boys saw light from a window flickering on the snow. Herr Drosselmayer, who lived alone behind his shop, had fallen asleep before a meagre fire with a half-empty bottle beside him on the table. "Look," whispered Franz, "he left the window opened a crack to help the fire draw. If only I could climb in without waking him!"
Emil remembered his parents before they abandoned him and his older brothers. He pointed to the bottle. "He's been drinking," Emil said. "He won't wake up. I’ll join you."
Franz and Emil opened Herr Drosselmayer’s window carefully and climbed inside. Franz took up a guttering candle from the table. He and Emil tiptoed through Herr Drosselmayer’s dusty storeroom into the shop.
The puppet theatre on the glass counter was bathed in moonlight from the street. The scene was the ballroom. As Franz raised his candle, the ballroom's gold paint gleamed, and ground mica glued to its cardboard chandeliers glittered as though a thousand candles had suddenly been lit. Franz caught his breath. Before the cardboard lords and ladies they had seen that afternoon stood a new figure, a bewildered young princess dressed in gorgeous robes but with a wan and strangely familiar face.
Franz picked up the cardboard princess. "Shall I help you escape from Herr Drosselmayer?" he whispered. In the light of Franz’s candle, the princess's cheek glistened as though with tears—perhaps flakes of mica fallen from a chandelier. Franz was about to put the cardboard princess in his pocket when a floorboard behind him creaked.
"Zo," Herr Drosselmayer sneered, "two young princes disguised as beggars have come to rescue the princess." He plucked the puppet from Franz's suddenly lifeless hand and replaced it in the ballroom.
Next morning, when the orphan boys and girls filed down the orphanage’s great hall to receive steaming bowls of porridge and milk, Franz and Emil were missing. Matron, in great distress, sent for the constable.
Meanwhile, the village toyshop received another visit. The customer was a rich young lady, come with her French governess to choose toys to be sent home and opened Christmas morning as presents from Mama and Papa, who were too busy with the season's entertainments to select their daughter's surprises. While the governess paid for the toys, the young lady stood at the glass-topped counter twisting her long black braid, lost in thought before the puppet theatre. The scene was outside a gloomy cavern. Stage left loomed a fearsome dragon; stage right, a fiendish wizard. A pale young princess stood wringing her hands before the cavern's mouth, flanked by two young princes. They held drawn swords to defend her, but, judging from their own pale faces, they too despaired of victory.
"How strange," said the governess, "Why are there two handsome princes?” Then, through the shop window, she saw her sweetheart, a dashing cavalry officer. "Wait here, please, Estelle. I wish to greet a friend."
As the shop door closed behind the governess, Herr Drosselmayer approached Estelle, who shrank from him in distaste. Herr Drosselmayer ran tobacco-stained fingers through unkempt hair. “Zo," he sneered, pointing at his theatre, "the young lady feels more at home with princes and a princess than talking to a poor old shopkeeper."
When the governess returned from flirting with her sweetheart, Estelle was gone. Herr Drosselmayer, pale, breathless, and clutching at his heart, cried, "Through there, through there, quickly! The tinkers have stolen the young lady. They went out the back way!"
The governess rushed out in horror, scarcely noticing that the puppet theatre now showed a castle courtyard. A pale princess and two young princes stared rigidly before them. At their feet, scrubbing the courtyard's flagstones with a dirty cloth and water from a painted wooden pail, knelt a ragged servant girl with long black hair.
The day before Christmas dawned grey and chill. The little street girl had not yet been missed: her aunt was fond of gin, and the holiday season had already brought more pennies than usual. But the whole town talked of the mysterious disappearance of two orphans and a rich young lady kidnapped by tinkers. The Bishop decided to visit the toyshop owner, the last person to see Estelle before her disappearance.
Herr Drosselmayer was rearranging his puppet theatre as usual. The scene was a cruel dungeon. Four young prisoners—two youths and two maidens—huddled together in horror. Around them, red-paper flames fluttered, and fiendish imps capered, some cut in half at the waist so they seemed to emerge from painted cracks in the dungeon's floor.
The Bishop frowned. "Hardly the scene I would expect to see the day before our Savior's birth, Herr Drosselmayer. I wish I could rescue your captives like that long-ago bishop, the good Saint Nicholas, who miraculously resurrected the dismembered children from the wicked butcher's barrel of salted pork." The Bishop sighed. "But children must make their own miracles in these crueller times. We can only teach them to imagine for themselves how they would like their stories to end. Perhaps the imaginations of children are our best hope nowadays, a reminder of God's earlier marvels." He sighed again. "I was forgetting, however. I came to ask about these strange disappearances."
But Herr Drosselmayer didn't know where the tinkers had taken Estelle. And he certainly couldn't be expected to remember two paupers from the orphanage! Besides, the constable had already searched the shop and found nothing.
That night, as midnight of Christmas Eve approached—that hour when, if there were anyone to see them, cows in the barn and oxen in the starry field kneel in remembrance of a long-ago stable—moonlight shone once more through Herr Drosselmayer's shop window into the mysterious puppet theatre.
Had Herr Drosselmayer recalled the Bishop's rebuke and repented of the frightful dungeon scene? The theatre now showed the parlour of a wealthy merchant's fine townhouse. And, as the Bishop had wished, it was Christmas, for there was the tall tree, decorated with coloured glass and gold paper, sheltering delightfully mysterious presents under its boughs.
In front of a real mirror on the painted mantel stood the burgher and his wife. They wore fur-trimmed dressing gowns and stretched out cardboard arms to embrace a young girl whose long black hair and strong features showed a family resemblance—surely their daughter. Three more children knelt before the tree, gazing in wonder at its marvels: beloved brothers and a sister probably, though their fairer complexions suggested different stock. In the background, a smiling governess raised cardboard hands in thankfulness or prayer.
But what a strange puppet theatre! Twelve days after Christmas, the toyshop was unlocked for the first time since Herr Drosselmayer's own mysterious disappearance. It was unlocked by Matron, who was getting too old to supervise an orphanage—especially one whose orphans disappeared one day and reappeared the next. Matron could not be angry with Franz and Emil, of course. Just think: both boys had been adopted by the town's greatest merchant in gratitude for rescuing his daughter and a ragged street girl from the tinkers!
To reward Matron's years of faithful service, the Bishop had granted her a stipend but, knowing how she loved children, had also begged her to mind the toyshop until Herr Drosselmayer returned. So Matron lit a fire in the icy iron stove, put the "open" sign in the window, and began to dust the shelves.
But when she reached the puppet theatre on the glass-topped counter, Matron frowned with distaste. The scene was once again the dungeon, with its fluttering red-paper flames and capering imps. In their midst cowered the evil wizard, cut off at the waist, so that, this time, the imps seemed to be pushing him down through a crack in the painted stone floor.
"Dear me,” said Matron to herself. “Such gruesome scenes as these will never do for children!” She plucked the cardboard wizard from the theatre and threw it in the stove.
(c) Anne Neumann, 2015
Anne Waldron Neumann earned a Ph.D. in English with a dissertation on Jane Austen and has taught at universities in America and Australia. She currently lives in Princeton, New Jersey, and teaches creative writing to adults. She has published a dozen literary folktales and adores telling dirty jokes.
Clareine Cronin (left) trained at Drama Studio London. Stagework includes Susan in The Future (Pentameters), Tanya in Paper Thin (Barons Court Theatre) & Eva in Tough Luck (Hen and Chickens). Screen credits include Tiz in Forna, Teresa in Making It Mean Something & The Bill. She's also an experienced corporate roleplayer. www.clareinecronin.com.