The woman was packed into her black Victorian dress, her hair piled high, bearing plumes that bobbed like an exotic bird looking to attract another exotic bird for an afternoon of passion and seed.
As the audience before her clapped, she announced, "...And next, we will have a reading from Rev. Charles Dodgson, who plans quite a treat for us. He says he's been writing a bit in his spare time, and today will recite a poem of his very own creation. I haven't heard it yet myself, so we'll all be surprised and delighted together. Welcome, Rev. Dodgson. I expect your poetry to enlighten and inspire us all."
Young Charles Lutwidge Dodgson stepped to the podium, and felt the sweat bead up around his starched collar. He hadn't shared this with anyone yet, and he knew it was a little risky.
Normally, at these sorts of functions, he just stood up and read Tennyson's Lady of Shalott and was done with it. But there had already been three Lady of Shalotts today. The lady could only die so many times in one afternoon. The moment begged variety.
And variety he would give them.
"Um, thank... thank you," he said. "It's a pleasure to be with you all today. I... I've been working on something new. Er, different, I think. And I... Um... I'm not sure how... Well, you see, this piece was... was... Well, maybe it's just best I begin."
The room grew quiet. He cleared his throat.
"Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe."
He paused for effect, but could hear the murmurs in the crowd. "What language is that?" whispered one.
"Native Australian. They've borogoves in the Outback," responded another, more informed gentleman.
"I had slithy toves in my garden once," mumbled someone near the back. "Dreadful pests. Had to use lyme on them."
"What part of the Bible is this?" murmured a lady in gray flannel, flipping unsettled through her pocket Bible. "Book of Isaiah?"
The Bird of Paradise at the front of the room flushed, looking like the pressure building up might shoot her clear from corset and all. "Shhh, everyone. Please... Oh, I am sorry, Rev. Dodgson, please do go on."
Charles Dodgson gave her a tight smile and cleared his throat again.
"'Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the jubjub bird and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!'"
In the crowd eyebrows were raised. Cheeks were pale. Eyes were wide. He caught a vague, "What did he say?"
"Gloomius band of snatch, I think."
"Well, that hardly sounds appropriate for mixed company! And from a clergyman, too."
An old lady who'd only heard half of it, shouted, "Is this not The Lady of Shalott, then?"
Dodgson tugged at his collar, which was damp and wilting now, but he determined to proceed on. Perhaps the problem was he just needed to give it a bit more energy for it to really grip:
"He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought--
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought."
"Who's the fellow with the purple sword again?" hissed a lady in the front row to her sister.
"I don't know. But he's fighting someone who speaks Manx."
Dodgson decided that maybe louder was the way to go, now, and upped the volume.
"Isn't Tulgey somewhere near Cheshire?"
"But, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock with eyes of flame
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood
And burbled as it came!"
"Devon, I think. Is this fellow quite all right?"
"Always heard he was a bit strange."
Desperate to get through the poem with any degree of success, Dodgson grabbed up a nearby lady's parasol and swept it aloft like a mighty broadsword. He knew he should have brought some props, but this would just have to do.
"One, two! One, two! And through and through,
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!..."
"He's having a fit!" a woman cried, standing up in her concern.
"Someone help the poor man!"
The lady with all the plumes had gone completely crimson now, and rushed to his side-- just as the parasol accidentally popped open, sending a second potential assistant backwards into the front row.
The Bird of Paradise took his arm and made soothing sounds, patting him. "There, there, Rev. Dodgson." She was leading him from the podium now, while someone picked up Mr. Evans from row one.
"I'm fine, honestly," the young clergyman insisted. "It...It's just a bit of nonsense, really, I—"
"Alice, dear, fetch Rev. Dodgson a glass of water, would you?... There's a good girl."
"It's for children, you know," he persisted. "There were just so terribly many Shalotts and—"
"Mad as a hatter, that one," someone whispered.
"Mad as a march hare," agreed someone else sadly. "Completely off of his head."