In the time before cosmetic surgery came to the rescue of many a not-so-young actress, Veronica Russell was one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the American stage. Her hair was a fiery shade of red, her eyes were the deep blue of sapphires and her complexion was creamy and flawless. Nearly every man Veronica met desired her, and nearly every woman was jealous of her physical perfection. Her lovers were many, and her fans numbered even more.
Veronica was by no means ignorant of her great beauty. On the contrary, she was obsessed with it. When she wasn't acting in or rehearsing for a play or spending time in the company of one of her many male admirers, she spent long hours working at being beautiful. In an attempt to preserve her looks, the actress tried every cosmetic product, every facial treatment, every message and every tonic known to man.
As the years went by, however, Veronica found that she had to work harder at maintaining her face and figure. The first sign that age was creeping up on her came when she noticed that her costumes were getting a little snug around the waist and bodice. Thankfully, a strict diet and a daily regimen of exercise soon solved the problem.
Then her trademark red hair started to turn gray at the temples, so she began making regular trips to the beauty parlor to restore her fading locks to their former magnificence.
When she noticed those first fine lines in the skin beneath her eyes, however, Veronica was devastated. She went to every physician, every beauty salon and every health spa, both in America and abroad, in search of someone or something that could help keep the hands of time from destroying her looks any further. But there was no miracle cure, no stopping the inevitable. Like it or not, the legendary Miss Russell was beginning to show her years.
The thought of growing old terrified the aging actress. She sincerely believed that once her beauty was gone, her career would soon follow. Veronica couldn't bear to live without the applause and the admiration she craved and, more importantly, without the attention of handsome, adoring young men.
* * *
In a theater in the heart of Dixie, far from the lights of Broadway, the curtain went down on the final act of Macbeth. Veronica Russell, who was starring as Lady Macbeth, took her bows and then went backstage to her dressing room. As she was removing the heavy theatrical makeup from her face, she heard a knock on the dressing room door. Her heartbeat quickened as she thought it must be Gregory, the handsome young banker who was currently enjoying her favors.
"Come in, darling," the actress called, anxious to see what expensive token of affection her paramour had brought her that evening.
In response to her summons, however, into the dressing room walked the oldest and, without a doubt, the ugliest woman Veronica had ever seen. Although the actress was at first repulsed by the old woman's repugnant countenance, she also noted that the jewels, fur coat and finely cut gown the woman wore bore evidence of great wealth.
"Can I help you?" Veronica asked, forcing herself to smile at the hideous old woman since she had no desire to offend a rich and potentially influential patron.
"Forgive me for disturbing you, Miss Russell, but I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the play. I have a private box at this theater, and I've seen many plays and many actresses perform over the years. Yet I must admit in all honesty that you are the most beautiful."
"Thank you," Veronica said with feigned humility.
"A beauty like yours is a true blessing, Miss Russell," the old woman continued. "It's really too bad that it passes so quickly."
Veronica's smile quickly disappeared, and the cold gleam of suppressed anger blazed in her dazzling blue eyes.
"Yes, it is indeed a great shame that beauty such as yours so often withers and dies. Of course, there are always ways of preventing such a tragedy," the old woman hinted mysteriously, "though few people are aware of them."
"Just what is it you're referring to?" Veronica asked, with mild interest. "Cosmetics? Hair dye? Facial creams?"
The old hag laughed. "Such methods are only temporary or good for quick cover-ups. I'm talking about permanent changes to one's appearance. You see, my grandmother came from the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains, and she had a special knowledge of herbs and roots. There were a number of secret brews, known only to a select few, which have been passed down through many generations. Before she died, my grandmother passed her knowledge on to me."
"And just what can those secret brews of yours do?"
"They can work miracles."
Veronica raised her finely arched eyebrows and looked at her visitor with unveiled skepticism.
"Naturally, you would have to see the results for yourself in order to believe them," the old woman exclaimed with confidence. "Why don't you come to my house tomorrow? It is only a short drive from the theater. I will prepare a drink for you that will permanently restore the fresh bloom of youth to your lovely cheeks."
Veronica glanced at the ugly old woman, at the warts on her face, the deep crevice-like wrinkles and the stiff gray hairs that randomly sprouted from her skin. If she did have such miraculous beauty treatments, she certainly hadn't used any on herself. Still, Veronica couldn't help wondering if perhaps the old woman might just know something that could help her look younger. The actress, who was desperate enough to try anything at that point, decided to accept the old woman's invitation. Even if her ministrations didn't help, Veronica reasoned, they certainly couldn't hurt.
* * *
When Veronica Russell stepped inside the huge Victorian mansion the following day, she felt as though she was entering a museum. The old woman was apparently an obsessive collector. Throughout the old house there were priceless antiques and cabinets full of curios and old books. Veronica pretended to show an interest as her aged hostess led her through the rooms of her home, proudly pointing out the most prized pieces in each collection.
"I want to show you something very special," the old woman announced, leading Veronica to a locked room in the attic. "Here is where I keep my most prized treasures. Very few people have seen this collection, but, of course, you, my dear, are special."
The old woman turned the key in the lock and threw the door open wide. Inside, the room was full of rare and valuable porcelain dolls. There were Brus, Jumeaus, Steiners and various one-of-a-kind dolls, all worthy of the most discriminating collector. The old woman unlocked one of the finely crafted cherry cabinets, removed a delicate looking bride doll and carefully handed it to the actress.
"They are very beautiful," Veronica said politely but without any genuine appreciation of the woman's dolls.
"Thank you." The old woman beamed proudly. "They are exquisite, aren't they? And did you notice how life-like they all are? Look how their eyes seem to follow us when we move."
As the old woman babbled on about her dolls and about how much she loved collecting beautiful things, Veronica grew bored and impatient. She tactfully reminded her hostess that she had a performance that evening and would have to leave soon.
"Oh, my heavens! I'd almost forgotten the time," she apologized. "It is just that I get company so infrequently. You will forgive me, I hope. Come, let me prepare that drink for you now. I have everything I need down in the cellar. Just follow me, and do be careful; the steps are quite steep."
The two women descended the narrow wooden stairs to the damp, cavernous cellar. Veronica had to duck her head to avoid walking into the herbs and roots that hung down from the rafters. The actress cringed at the sight and smell of the place. Dust-laden shelves filled with jars of dried herbs lined three of the cellar walls. On the fourth wall, flames were smoldering in a great stone fireplace.
The old woman walked to the hearth and threw dry kindling into the fire to feed the flames. Then she mixed several handfuls of pungent herbs in a well-worn cast-iron pot, added water and put the pot on the fire.
Veronica sat waiting on an old wooden bench, tapping her foot impatiently.
"It will only be a few minutes longer. Once the tea boils, we'll let it cool down a bit. Then, after you drink it, you can be on your way."
"Good. I don't want to keep my audience waiting."
"Tell me, Miss Russell," the old woman asked seemingly offhandedly, "if you could have anything in the world, what one thing would you want most: fame? fortune? love?"
Veronica replied without hesitation. "That's an easy question. There's only one thing really worth having, and that's beauty. I've learned that if a woman is truly beautiful, then fame, fortune and love are hers for the taking."
With a repulsive smile that sent chills of revulsion down Veronica's spine, the old woman promised that with the help of her herbs, she would give Veronica eternal beauty. She then poured her pungent brew into a cup, and when the tea cooled, she instructed Veronica to drink it quickly. The actress gulped down every drop of the special blend of herbs, despite the bitter taste and foul aroma.
"Okay, when can I expect to see some results?" Veronica inquired, trying not to gag at the awful aftertaste. "A week? a month?"
"You'll be looking years younger within the hour," the old woman laughed--a sound that could more aptly be described as a cackle. "My grandmother's spells never fail."
"Yes, spells. My grandmother--like her mother and grandmother before her--was a midwife and a healer. Back in less enlightened times people often accused such wise women of being witches. But now no one believes in foolish things like hexes, charms, amulets or potions. After all, everyone knows there's no such thing as magic."
Suddenly, Veronica began to doubt the old woman's sanity as well as her own good judgment. How had she, the intelligent, sophisticated Veronica Russell, the toast of the Broadway, have fallen for this bizarre story of witchcraft, secret potions and eternal youth?
"Look and see for yourself, my dear," the old woman said, handing Veronica a mirror.
The beautiful reflection that stared back at Veronica truly amazed her. In her wildest expectations, Veronica never believed such a drastic transformation was possible. Already, she looked at least ten years younger. Her complexion resembled that of a young girl. There was not a single line or wrinkle anywhere.
"You can indeed work magic, old woman," Veronica said with sincere gratitude. "How much shall I pay you?"
"I don't want your money. I have more than I can ever spend now. No, my dear, your beauty is my reward. I have none myself, as you can plainly see." She cackled again. "That's why I so love to collect beautiful things."
Veronica continued to gaze into the mirror, mesmerized by her own appearance. "How long does the effect last?" she asked excitedly. "When must I take the next dosage?"
"You will never need to drink the tea again. One dose will last you for the rest of your natural life and a good deal longer."
"It's unbelievable! Only one dose?"
As she continued to marvel at her reclaimed youth, Veronica began to feel weary. In a matter of minutes she could barely keep her eyes open. Then she remembered that she had a performance that evening.
"I've got to go," she said and tried to stand up. When she rose, her legs gave out from beneath her, and she fell back against the chair. Within moments she slipped into a deep sleep.
* * *
Several hours later, Veronica Russell woke with a start. She didn't need to open her eyes, for her eyelids were already wide open. In fact, try as she might, Veronica couldn't close them. With a growing sense of panic, she realized that she couldn't move her arms, legs or head. Not one muscle in her body responded; she was totally paralyzed.
Veronica looked around the room--at least as far as she could without being able to move her neck. When she recognized the surroundings, she tried to scream but was unable to utter a sound. Once again she was in the attic room in the midst of the old woman's exquisite porcelain dolls. Only now, the beautiful actress was sitting on a shelf herself, locked away in a finely-crafted cherry cabinet. For such was the cruel magic the old witch had worked on her. Veronica had indeed been given eternal beauty, but that eternity was to be spent as one of the old woman's porcelain treasures, locked away in the attic, so beautiful, so life-like--so lonely--for all time.
I once cast a spell that turned Salem into a stuffed toy, but he collected so much dust I was forced to reverse the spell.