"Papa? Papa, are you in there?"
Except for the faint trails of moonlight creeping in through the workshop's only window, Hohberht Wilmod sat alone, surrounded by darkness, ignoring his daughter's knocking.
Katharina paused. Then, quietly, almost desperately, she said, "I know you are. Please come out. Edda has prepared a wonderful meal, and... and the baron has a matter to discuss with you."
Hohberht Wilmod winced at this. The baron has a matter to discuss with you...
Ha! The baron's only wish was to steal his daughter away from him.
Hohberht was now even more firmly resolved to remain put. As long as he refused an audience with the baron, Katharina remained safe.
"Please, Papa. Answer me at least. I know this first Christmas without her is hard, but you shouldn't be alone," his daughter begged, now sobbing. A few tortuous minutes later, he heard the soft click of her heels against the floorboards as she retreated, leaving him to peace.
Ever since Frau Wilmod, Katharina's mother, had been taken from them, Hohberht had spent his days in mourning. He'd started to accept her passing, until Christmas approached. Then it was as if he'd lost his beloved Isle all over again. It had been her favorite time of year, and she had delighted in spreading joy through festive decorations, cooking, and parties.
Katharina was all he had left now. The thought of losing her too, which was what most certainly would happen if he allowed the baron to make Katharina his wife, crippled him.
Even his clocks no longer consoled him. He, the king's premier horologist, renowned for his accurate timepieces with their ornate woodwork, had lost all inspiration to create. Like his will to live, that too had died when his wife had.
Now he spent his days locked in his workshop, surrounded by memories of happier times, times when the woman that destiny had so fortunately matched him with, had still been his to have and hold.
His stomach rumbled as the scent of Edda's fine cooking wafted from the kitchen. He inhaled the succulent smell of roast duck with mint sauce and his stomach growled even louder. The last time he had eaten was five days before, when hunger had finally driven him to steal a quarter loaf of bread from the kitchen while the others slept.
From his food thievery, Katharina and Edda must have deduced his weakness, and had conspired to prepare roast duck--his favorite dish. This attempt to lure him out, however, was in vain. Hohberht covered his mouth and nose with his hand and breathed in. The enticing scent of food was replaced with the stench of his soiled skin.
After a while he forgot about his daughter and the baron, his dead wife, his clocks. He drifted off to sleep, where he could temporarily escape his anguished existence.
Several hours later, Hohberht awoke to a scuffle, which was followed by a thud and a clank. His heart raced as he watched the lever on the locked door rise. Someone was coming in.
But that was impossible! He had the only key!
When the door open, he expected to see Katharina's face–or, worse, the baron's. There was no one. The door closed and he was once again alone.
Or so he thought, until he heard footsteps coming from inside his workshop.
"Who's there?" he called out, leaning forward in his chair, trying to glimpse his intruder over his cluttered workbench.
"A purveyor of lives," the intruder said, the voice both squeaky and scratchy. It sounded like the un-oiled hinges of wheels rolling across gravel.
Hohberht's skin crawled. So, Death's Messenger had found him. At least the wait to be reunited with his beloved wife was over.
"Get on with it then," Hohberht said, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes. He did not know exactly what to expect. Would he feel it, the blade of the Reaper's scythe severing his body from his soul?
Tools, wood, and parts scattered to the floor as the Angel of Death mounted the table. Hohberht tensed.
"What are ya' doin', man?" the angel demanded.
Hohberht dared to open one eye. He half-expected to find himself face to face with a cloaked figure raising a blade. Instead, standing on the workbench before him was....
He did not know. What were they exactly? They were unlike any rendition of a Reaper he'd ever heard tell of.
There were two of them, a man and a woman, about a foot tall, and as smooth, pure, and flawless white as the finest porcelain dolls. From their skin to their haute monde garb, every inch of their being was white. The man's shoulder length, milk-colored hair was pulled back and secured with a bow. Covering his waistcoat was an overcoat. From beneath his jacket's cuffs protruded a torrent of ruffles that engulfed his wrists. His tight, breeches were fastened at the knee with buttons; stockings covered his calves; shiny buckled shoes adorned his feet.
The woman's powdered sugar hair was a mass of ringlets. Her lily-white gown's fitted bodice had a low square neckline that accentuated the gleaming string of pearls about her throat. Her sleeves cascaded down her forearm, sending a fan of lace frills swirling around her slender hands. Her full skirt was a further flare of ruffles and bows. Both the man and woman had delicate, oval faces, petite and thin, with tiny, ivory upturned noses.
All white as they were, maybe they really were angels? But where were their wings? Their halos? Of this, there was no evidence.
In greeting, the man bowed and the woman curtsied. Hohberht blinked several times, not trusting his vision.
After several moments, he found his voice and whispered, "Who are you? What are you?"
"Who were ya' expectin'?" They both spoke at the same time, as if they shared one voice. The man's was rough and the woman's high. This accounted for the squeak and the scratch. He also detected some sort of brogue.
"I--I thought you were the Grim Reaper come to take my soul."
"'Aven't ya' ever seen little people, man?"
Hohberht admitted, no, he had not.
"Why would ya' think we meant ya' harm when we told ya' we were purveyors of lives. We didna' mention anythin' about takin' lives, did we?"
Hohberht shook his head. Then he pinched himself. Surely this was a dream. If not, a hunger-induced hallucination?
As if reading his mind, the man said, "'Tis no dream. We are as real as the hair on your head, or what might be left of it." The couple chuckled and winked at each other.
What was this? First trespassing, now insults? Just who did these little people think they were? And by what right were they in his workshop in the middle of the night?
"No, the question is not what are we doin' here, the question is what are you doin' here?" They both waggled an accusing finger at him. "'Tis a pity your wife lived a short life, but just because she was called home sooner than ya' would have liked doesna' give ya' the right to give up the ghost before your time."
"What are you taking about?" Hohberht roared. He did not know whether to be insulted, angry, or frightened.
"You, man. Ya' sit all day in this workshop, yet ya' do no work. What is the good of that? 'Tis a waste, it is. Ya' do not eat, or bathe...which, sir, we dona' mean to be rude, but ya' could use a fair washing, ya' could. Ya' ignore your lovely lass of a daughter. Ya' pine for Death, but ya' are not ready to greet it."
"I am so!" Hohberht declared. "I want to be with my Isle."
"No, ya' don't."
The audacity of these little people, telling him what he did and did not want!
"Yes I do!"
"Then why, when at first ya' thought we were the Angel of Death, didna' ya' come and greet us with open arms if ya' were as ready as ya' claim?"
Hohberht was speechless. Yes, he had been afraid, but that did not mean he was not ready to die.
Again, in their maddening way, they read his unspoken thoughts.
"That is exactly what it means, sir. Ya' are no more ready to die than ya' are to live. Ya' are caught between your despair and grief. And your fear."
"I have no fear--"
"Aye, but ya' do, sir. Ya' want to live, but you cannot for grief over your wife's passing. Not to mention the fear of losin' your daughter."
Hohberht hung his head and covered his face with his hands. This was too much. He was losing his sanity. These people were not real; he was not talking to them. When he looked up, he was convinced they would be gone.
Alas, when he raised his head and uncovered his eyes, he saw the little white people remained.
"Wh-who are you?" Hohberht asked, wiping his eyes and trying to recollect himself.
"Purveyors, we told ya'. Ya' might be good with the clocks, but ya' are not so bright about other things, are ya'?"
Hohberht's tears ceased instantly at this latest attack against his person.
The miniature white people looked at each other and chuckled again, then looked back at him.
"Ah, do not take us to heart. We jest in fun, not because we are actually mean spirited. No, we want to help ya', we do."
"Help me?" Hohberht asked, confused.
They nodded. In the space of time it took for Hohberht to blink, the man was suddenly in possession of a white tubular stick.
"Where did that come from?" Hohberht asked.
"It was here all the time. We just now got around to presentin' it."
"Why, yes. Your reputation is widespread, clockmaker, and we are in need of your services. We 'ave no money, but we are prepared to pay a very high price indeed. Your daughter's life."
Interpreting this as a threat, Hohberht sprung to his feet and banged his fists down on the table. They flinched, but stood their ground as his voice thundered on top of them.
"If you harm one hair on my Katharina's head, so help me God--"
"Calm down, man. We mean your daughter no harm. Quite the opposite. Help us and ya' help her live a long and prosperous life."
Hohberht did not have to ponder this odd statement very carefully. To avoid the heartbreak of losing another loved one, he would do anything. Even selling his soul if necessary.
"What do you want from me?"
"A repair. In all the kingdoms none has the nimble fingers or true talent necessary to repair as priceless and delicate a timepiece as one we are in need of fixin'. But because of the, ah...sensitive nature of this timepiece, we realize your fee will not come cheap. That is why we offer ya' the opportunity to know the future, so to speak."
"That is ridiculous. No one can know the future."
"Not true. We know the future of every life. And while we canna' tell ya' about that exactly, we can give ya' somethin' in return." The man held out the white tubular object. "With this, ya' can make a clock as useful as one ever was. We can show ya' how to build one that will signal when Death is near."
Hohberht gasped. It was not possible to know something of that magnitude, was it? Even if it was, did he dare wish to acquire such knowledge?
"Wouldna' ya' rather be warned, man? If ya' had had this power when Isle was alive, would ya' have let her go to market that day?"
"Are you saying that had I known...I could have stopped it?"
"Is possible, it is. Nothin' is certain until it is in the past."
Hohberht frowned as he took the proffered white tube and studied it. It was hard, like glass or crystal, and opaque.
"What is it?"
"A sliver from the Staff of Life. We need a small portion to repair the clock we use for measurin' lifetimes. The rest is for ya'. To build the clock we just told ya' about."
"And if I refuse?"
"The Angel of Death will be payin' your household a visit before the New Year comes."
Not wanting any harm to come to Katharina, Hohberht wasted no time in agreeing.
Several days later, Hohberht was back to work in his shop, which was now unlocked and welcoming visitors. He had repaired the little people's timepiece and they had gone on their way, but not before they left behind instructions, and enough of the sliver from the Staff of Life for Hohberht to fashion specially designed wheels to be placed in a specially designed case that would, as Hohberht viewed it, warn him the next time Hell's messenger was near. Now he could ensure Katharina's safety.
"It's nice to see you working again. And eating," Katharina said when she delivered his afternoon snack. "But I do worry you're now working too hard on this new clock of yours."
"Not at all," he said cheerily. "This clock is my rebirth."
He knew she thought him silly when she said nothing, smiled, and indulged him with a kiss atop his forehead.
"Then I will leave you to your work."
Before she left, he called out to her.
"Send the baron an invitation to dinner. If he still has a matter to discuss with me, I am now partial to listening."
"Yes, Papa," Katharina said calmly. But she did not deceive him. He had seen the sparkle of happiness--of pure joy--alight in her eyes at his command.
Hohberht watched her go, happier than he had been in many months, and set about finishing the clock.
At dinner several nights later, Edda once again prepared a meal of roast duck with mint sauce. Hohberht and Katharina enjoyed a fine feast, which was enhanced by the Baron von Kempberg's wonderfully wicked sense of humor.
Having not laughed since he knew not when, Hohberht's stomach muscles soon ached from the exertion. His heart also ached from the swell of love he felt for his daughter. Katharina was clearly smitten with the baron, as was he with her. How could he deny the young lovers their happiness?
Shortly after dinner, as they were seated before a roaring fire, the baron made his proposal.
"Herr Wilmod, I can only imagine, though I hope never to know, the suffering you endured with the loss of your wife. That is why I appreciate even more that you have consented to my audience, and why I implore of you, sir, please let me take your daughter's hand in marriage. I understand your aversion to parting from your only child, but that need not be the case. My holdings are vast. My residence is much too large and empty as it is. I would be honored to have you live with us."
Hohberht regarded the young noble's blue eyes. He saw in them a hope and desire he had once known, long ago.
Except, Hohberht's marriage to Isle had been arranged. He had not asked her father for her hand. He had not even seen her face until their wedding day. Although, if he had seen it beforehand, he would have done as the baron was doing now and would have begged her father's blessing.
Isle had been the most beautiful sight he'd ever beheld. Smooth, creamy skin. Shining flaxen hair. Eyes as blue as newly bloomed morning glories. He looked over at his daughter and saw reflected there her mother's beauty. He understood the baron's determination to take Katharina as his wife.
Hohberht stood, but did not immediately respond to the baron's proposition.
"One moment, please," he said, leaving the room.
"Papa?" Katharina's concerned voice floated after him.
Hohberht retrieved the large wooden box he had left on the hall table and carried it back into the room. He presented it to the baron.
"What is this?" the baron questioned skeptically.
"Your engagement present."
"Oh, Papa!" Katharina exclaimed, running to embrace her father.
The wedding was a beautiful, not to mention lavish, affair. The baron spared no expense and completely spoiled his bride, setting precedent for their life together. She never wanted for anything, as the baron gave her everything she ever needed and more than she had ever wanted.
Herr Wilmod, too, knew much happiness. Still plagued with worry that Katharina would be untimely taken from him, but hoping he could allay such tragedy, he lived with his daughter and her groom in their home.
The clock Hohberht had fashioned for the happy couple took a prominent place on the mantle in the great room. Hohberht always kept a sharp ear out, but, as the days passed and the clock never chimed, Hohberht's nerves calmed.
In time the little people, then the clock's purpose, was all but forgotten.
Several years later, during a winter celebration, when he did not think it was possible for a man to be any happier, Hohberht watched with curiosity as the baron asked the musicians to stop playing and called for his guests' attention. Grateful for an excuse to break from dancing, everyone gathered around. Katharina, looking radiant and heaven-sent in a gown of emerald satin and lace, stood beaming next to her husband.
"It seems, good friends," the baron started, "that my lovely wife and I are blessed indeed. First, with such fine guests as yourself, but now we have a new blessing to be thankful for. I am proud to announce we are expecting our first born child."
Applause and cheers erupted through the hall, followed by congratulations all around. Hohberht strode to his daughter's side and embraced her. Together, father and daughter started off the next dance. The rest of the night was spent laughing and drinking with newfound cheerfulness.
Later, spent from all of the excitement, Katharina begged to be excused to her room. Hohberht collapsed into a chair, where he indulged himself in another goblet of wine. So fatigued and drunk was he, that he almost did not hear the clock's deep gonging clang. It was only when guests teased the baron about the off-hour chiming and suggested that his father-in-law have a look into it that Hohberht jolted up from his seat.
Certain that she and her unborn baby were in danger, Hohberht dashed for the stairs. Startling many of the guests, and then his son-in-law, especially when he began desperately screaming Katharina's name, Hohberht took the steps two at a time.
"What is it, Herr Wilmod? What's the matter?" the baron called after him.
But Hohberht did not stop. He paused near the top only because his daughter had emerged above. Relieved, he cried out, "Thank God you are all right, Katharina! Thank God!"
"Why would I not be, Papa?" she asked, looking both confused and frightened.
Hohberht began weeping.
"Herr Wilmod?" the baron asked from the floor below.
Hohberht, intending to assure the baron everything was in fact fine, turned, laughter now mixing with tears, but his chuckling sobs were cut short when he caught sight of the little white man and woman... the very same couple from that night so many years before. They were standing at the bottom of the stairs on either side of the baron. Their gleaming white personages cast a stark contrast to the baron's crimson robes. Their mouths formed frowns, and their eyes were filled with grief.
In the foyer, having just crossed the threshold of the front door, was the source of their angst. The Grim Reaper, hood drawn low, scythe raised, black robes billowing around him, strode forth. The little people's word had been true. Of Death, the clock did warn.
"No!" Hohberht screamed, preparing to prevent the Reaper from reaching his daughter. The little people had also said Death could be averted, and this Hohberht was definitely prepared to do. "Go back to your room, Katharina! Quickly! Do not open the door! No matter what!"
"Do it!" Hohberht commanded. Hearing the desperation in her father's voice, she turned and fled.
"Herr Wilmod, please, tell me what is the matter," the baron demanded. His face was blanched, and he kept anxiously peering over his shoulder to the front door where his father-in-law's gaze was fixed. "Is Katharina in danger?"
"Yes!" Hohberht screeched, panicking as the Reaper advanced towards the staircase. The little people stepped aside. The baron ascended the steps, with the Reaper closing in behind him.
"No! Stop! Go back!" Hohberht screeched, waving his arms out in front of him. He was, of course, yelling at the Reaper, but the sensitive baron thought his father-in-law was shouting to him. He scooted over to the banister and stopped. Moments later, the Grim Reaper passed him by.
"No! Stay back, I say. Stay back!"
"I am!" the baron said, still assuming his father-in-law was speaking to him.
Many of the perplexed guests witnessing this display assumed Hohberht had lost his mind. The rest decided he'd had too much to drink. No one saw what he did.
The Grim Reaper kept coming. As the awful thing neared the landing, Hohberht decided to make one desperate move. He lunged forward, his arms spread wide, flinging himself at the Reaper and crying, "No! You cannot take her from me too!"
But he did not collide with the Reaper. The scythe was drawn downward a split second before impact, freeing Hohberht's soul from his body. The little white couple collected his spiritual remains, while his earthly body tumbled head over heels down the steps to the horrified screams of the baron's guests.
Hohberht landed in a tangled mess on the floor. The baron instantly ran to his assistance. The Grim Reaper and the little white couple stepped around Hohberht's body, then left, unseen and unnoticed, through the front door. Katharina, hearing the roar of the guests' startled cries, ignored her father's orders and rushed out to investigate. Upon assessing the scene, she, too, screamed.
The baron looked up to see his wife collapse in a faint. Instantly, he abandoned the father-in-law he could do nothing for in order to assist his beloved.
The clockmaker's daughter successfully gave birth to her first child. Though she missed her father dearly, and wished his passing had been an easier one, she still felt him with her.
She was especially grateful for the last masterpiece he ever made, the beautiful clock he had fashioned as an engagement present for her and the baron so many years before.
Even though it did not chime at regular intervals and picked the oddest hours to spring to life--if in fact it chimed at all during a day, a month, or even a year--it only made her father's last work of art all the more endearing.
It was only after a collection of incidences--the deaths of two servants, the loss of a beloved family hound, the miscarriage of her fifth pregnancy, and the passing of her husband, all of which were preceded by the chiming of the clock--that the clockmaker's daughter suspected the clock's intended purpose.
But even after she knew, she neither divulged the clock's secret nor feared it as many might have. She cherished it all the more, comprehending at last the full and far-reaching scope of her father's love.
And when the clock struck the hour for her, she knew... and was ready.