|Illustration of "five gold rings", from the first known publication of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (1780)|
"Miss? Master Anselm is calling for you, and his lordship begs to advise that his throat is showing signs of irritation."
Philippa Mosedale blinked slowly, feeling tears prickle under her lids. She stared at the quill in her hand, clenching it tightly on the desk before her. It was four of the clock on the eve of Christmas and her father's announcement was the final straw. Christmas would not happen this year, no matter how many efforts she made. Her sixteen year old sister and fourteen year old twin brothers had all succumbed to feverish colds the previous day and now Papa…
It was not at all how she had planned to spend her Christmastide. She had never expected to be in London for the holiday. Her perfect Yule celebration was to have been held at Leaholm as usual, replete with the traditions and customs that she treasured and that her family had come to expect every year.
Yet here they were, detained in London. Papa's Parliamentary business had kept them in the metropolis well into December, and then a snowstorm had made the roads impassable. There had been a possibility of traveling into Kent when a frost followed the snow's thaw, but then the first sniffles had plagued her siblings.
Last week Philippa had decorated Leaholm House in Grosvenor-square with holly and ivy, just to simulate the Christmas preparations at Leaholm. She had even crafted a mistletoe bough, though it made her think of Everett. When it had become apparent that they would celebrate the holiday in London, she had planned with Cook all manner of Christmas delicacies.
She closed her eyes, and threw down the quill. She had been making lists of her beloved traditions, but none of them now would be enacted.
"Are you well, miss?"
Phillipa opened her eyes, summoning calm and composure. Her family needed her. Her maid was regarding her anxiously.
"Oh, yes. You know I am never ill, Coxwold." That at least was true; she did not fear succumbing herself. "Is there any sickness in the servants' hall?"
"The footman is coughing, miss. And the kitchenmaid is taking honey for her throat. Cook is only vexed and wondering about dinner. Baxter says he will not yield to illness; it is his duty to be well."
This declaration by her family's long-time butler caused Philippa to smile. "I must remember to thank him for his dedication. Very well, Coxwold, ask Cook to cancel the special Christmas Eve meal we had planned. She is to use the beef for broth and prepare all manner of light nourishing dishes. She will know better than I." Philippa rose and straightened the lace cuffs of her favourite merino gown. "I will go to Anselm. I expect it will be a long night, but not one of celebration. Perhaps not unlike that first Christmas eve of labour." She smiled wryly at her stout maid. "Well at least Master Hillary is to go direct from Oxford to Aunt Stonecliff's. He will have a fine time there."
It was, as Philippa had predicted, a long night. She was kept busy carrying pitchers of barley-water, soothing fevered brows, and adjusting tumbled bedclothes. She managed to snatch only odd hours of sleep at the bedsides of her siblings. On making her self-prescribed rounds of her afflicted family at six o'clock in the morning of Christmas Day she pulled aside one of the heavy brocade landing curtains and noted that it was snowing yet again. The square outside was obscured by the pearly swirl of flakes. There was no one abroad but a footman or two, and a coach, briefly leaving stark tracks in the gathering snow.
In the library at mid-morning she paused to reflect that, had they been at home, they would have been lighting the Yule log. She sighed. Tradition and order were very important to her; indeed, they were the framework of her life. But illness paid no heed to such considerations. Illness required spontaneity and improvisation, two characteristics Everett had possessed in abundance.
She pushed the recollection aside and searched out the Latin treatise that her father had requested. Then she found the book on angling that Ambrose had desired, and a book of views of Italy for Sukey to peruse. On the walnut library table lay the book she had two days before consulted about Yule customs and lore. She paused, and then closed it. The first Christmas day had had nothing of tradition about it; it had been overflowing with joy and the love of family. Nodding her head on the thought, she lifted the stack of books and resumed her duties.
At one o'clock she closed the door to her father's bedchamber where she had left a fresh pitcher of barley-water. He was not so very ill, but was uncomfortable enough to wish for solitude.
Coxwold was waiting for her. "Cook has a nuncheon for you, Miss Philippa. In point of fact it was delivered to the door."
Philippa was astonished. Their acquaintance, she had thought, was all gone from town. "Delivered? By whom?"
"By an ordinary person, who left no identification, according to Cook. A gift, he said only, from a friend. It was contained in a basket. The contents are laid out in the dining room."
Repairing to the chinoiserie splendour of Leaholm House's dining chamber, Philippa sat down to a beautifully presented dish of roasted partridge and a compote of poached pears. "Great heavens, a Christmas feast after all. How very kind of someone. No card, no message at all, Baxter?"
The elderly butler hovered at her elbow. "No, miss. I wondered if I should even present it to you, but it seemed unexceptionable."
"It certainly looks acceptable. What an odd occurrence."
"Indeed, miss. Oh, I must beg leave to advise that I have sent the footman to his bed--very unpleasant he is, miss, with a catarrh."
Philippa sighed. "Of course, you did right." She applied herself to the partridge and wondered who was her benefactor.
On Boxing Day, Ambrose, who had been the first to fall ill, was recovered enough to sit, well-wrapped, by the fire in the library. Philippa was engaged with him in a desultory game of backgammon. The lamps were lit against the dull day without. After a brief rap on the door Baxter and a tradesman in a frieze apron carried in by a heavily swathed parcel.
"Great heavens!" Philippa's mouth dropped open with astonishment. "No Ambrose you may not discard that shawl," she directed her brother when he made to rise. "Whatever this is, it may be set on the table beside you."
The tradesman and Baxter placed their burden carefully on the indicated support.
"Is there a card, Baxter? You, sir, where are you from?"
"No card, no note at all, miss. And he's just a carter," the butler said. Baxter withdrew, drawing the offended workman with him.
Philippa, a frown furrowing her brow at her butler's slighting comment, said, "See he has a Christmas box!" She hoped the staff knew that their own Christmas boxes would be forthcoming, as soon as illness loosened its grip on the household. It was a tradition she would not ignore.
With a sigh, she set aside her concerns and began unwrapping the parcel. Her brother offered verbal commentary and sporadic assistance.
Removal of the last binding revealed a gilt cage containing two small white doves. Philippa and her brother stared at the birds for a long silent moment. A burbling coo broke their reverie.
"There is a book somewhere here on caged birds--I remember seeing it once," Ambrose said, getting up without his sister's permission. He began to search his father's well-ordered shelves.
Philippa was too surprised by the gift to censure his activity. A late Christmas offering, she supposed, but why and from whom? And doves? To what purpose…
She was still puzzling over the matter when Coxwold brushed her hair that evening at bedtime. Then it occurred to her to ask "Was the post collected today?"
"Baxter himself went, Miss Philippa, given the footman's still coughing his lungs out. But there was none."
"None at all? Nothing from Master Hillary, or Lord Markenfield?"
Philippa dismissed her maid with thanks and climbed into her bed. Nothing from Everett; he had taken her last rejection seriously then. She almost wished…but no, she had been right to refuse him. There had been that rush of emotion, that overwhelming sense of rightness between them, but there had been no commonality of purpose, no meeting of minds on important matters. Her sense of history, her devotion to tradition had been derided by his love of progress and invention. She had scorned his progressive notions and he had mocked her traditional ones. But she did think he might have wished her the compliments of the season, despite their differences. In the flurry of illness, of course, she had neglected to do the same for him.
On the third day of Christmas her siblings all were well enough to join her for a dinner at four o'clock. It seemed wise to keep country hours for her pale, coughing sister and brothers. At the last moment their father also joined them.
She had ordered a nourishing but plain meal, and so was astonished when Baxter presented her a dish of three plump hens, delicately roasted with a creamy sauce hinting at a French origin.
"I did not order this, Baxter. How did Cook come to prepare it?"
"Our cook did not, miss. It was delivered. With instructions for heating and serving. Cook thought it would do no harm to send it to table."
Philippa's siblings were looking at the dish with avaricious gazes. Even her father appeared stirred to hunger by the finely spiced scent of the offering.
"Very well, Baxter, assure Cook she did right. There can be no reason to discard it," she said, and served up the offering. "Great heavens, what a season of mysteries this is become."
It was only after the newly-recovered appetites had been assuaged, that the viscount commented on her statement. "This may be a season of mysteries, my dear; it certainly has not been our typical Christmas celebrations. I am sorry, child--I do know how much your rituals and customs mean to you."
"We had none of our usual Christmas traditions," Sukey said before Philippa could reply. She did not appear unduly distressed. "But at least it snowed."
Anselm was helping himself to more of the comforting boiled pudding at his elbow. "We may just as easily light the Yule log when we get home." He waved his spoon in the air. "I never did think we needed to keep such a careful schedule of events…"
Philippa listened to her siblings chat about what they would do when they were again at home in Kent. And she was surprised to realize she was as little concerned as her sister about the lack of tradition forming their holiday. "I think I was a good deal too involved with the events of the Season and not enough with the emotions of Christmastide," she reflected aloud. "This year, well, your recovery gives me all the joy that one should feel during these twelve days. Your health is a gift."
"We never did exchange our gifts!" Ambrose exclaimed. His brother and sister joined in his wails. "Philippa, joy is all very well, but I did hope for a new chess set. Papa?"
The viscount wiped his fingers meticulously on his napkin, keeping his younger children on tenterhooks. At last he said, "Well, if Philippa thinks it well and good, we could find our gifts for each other now."
The youngsters pushed back their chairs and rushed for the door.
"Gently, my dears," Philippa called after them. "You are not fully recovered as yet."
The next day Philippa sat in the drawing room listening to the dripping of the eaves. The thaw had already begun. The family was variously occupied with the gifts they had received: Anselm practiced casts with his new fishing rod, Sukey sorted through a basket of satin ribands, and Ambrose and his father were bent over the chess board.
The viscount looked up suddenly. "The snow will be gone in a day. As soon as it freezes, we shall set out for Leaholm," he told them all. "The government can manage without me during January. We shall celebrate Twelfth Night at home, and recruit our strength. Perhaps Hillary may join us--we have missed him, have we not?"
His children agreed, if absently.
Philippa was content, or very nearly so. The thought that she had not heard from Markenfield nagged at her. The persistence of her desire for word from her former suitor bothered her. She looked around the chamber. All the family she needed was here in this room, but for Hillary, she told herself. She had rejected Everett for good reasons and should be satisfied with her choices.
"Come, everyone, let us play at spillikins," she said, hoping to avoid her thoughts.
They had progressed from spillikins to silver loo when a wooden box was brought in.
"For Miss Mosedale, my lord," the footman, who had only resumed his duties that morning, said. "Brought by courier, especial."
Philippa's siblings chaffed her with jests about secret admirers and persistent beaus. They recounted the recent gifts to each other, and their father, and came to a determination that there was a rejected, heartbroken swain endeavouring to regain her favour.
Markenfield's dark, appealing visage drifted through her mind as she listened to their chatter with half an ear while opening the box. As soon as she saw its contents however, she knew the gift could not be from him.
The box contained an exquisite automaton, formed of four small birds in a stylized tree. When the key in the mahogany base was wound, the birds sang, flirted their wings and turned their small heads. Everyone watched it, fascinated.
Philippa's delight in the charming toy was tinged with disappointment. There was no suitor or beau, and her family well knew it. There was only Markenfield and his interest in mechanics was restricted to useful machines, not such frivolous delights as this gift. Whoever her mysterious benefactor was, it was not Everett.
On the fifth day of Christmas, Philippa was planning their removal from London to Leaholm. They would be home for Twelfth Night as the viscount had promised and Hillary was to join them. Their celebrations for the advent of the New Year would be circumscribed by their journey, but the Wassail bowl could be prepared later and the games and revels of the season would be the sweeter for being delayed and being at home.
Phillipa moved through the day overseeing the packing, advising Baxter and the recovering footman on the closing of the house, and urging her siblings to order their possessions for their return home.
Baxter found her mid-afternoon in the morning room, staring at the automaton. "A visitor, miss. I have taken the liberty of installing him in the drawing room."
"Oh, Baxter, I've neither time nor energy for guests. Could you not have denied us? Where is my father?"
The butler appeared to quiver with some suppressed emotion. Philippa studied him closely.
"The caller asked for you only, miss, and desired I withhold his name."
"But you know him?"
"I do, miss. And if I may say so, I believe you should receive him."
This unlooked for advice from her servant astounded Philippa. Still, he had known her since childhood and she trusted him. "Very well." She twitched her green kerseymere skirts straight, blew a pale curl from her forehead with an unladylike puff and followed the butler from the room.
He ushered her into the drawing room with a flourish, and closed the door behind his departure with a snap.
Philippa paused inside the door, the breath leaving her lungs in a sudden surprised rush. Near the window stood Markenfield, his large, well-knit form displaying a certain tension, his appealingly craggy visage exhibiting a lack of confidence.
"Everett!" His Christian name escaped her before she could prevent it. "Lord Markenfield, I thought you in Surrey."
"Happy Christmas, Philippa. No, I elected to stay in London for the holiday, but I leave tomorrow." He was shifting his weight from one booted foot to another in a display of unaccustomed unease.
Philippa was gathering her self-possession even, it seemed, as Markenfield's seeped away. "How kind of you to call. We are ourselves departing for Kent on the morrow, if we can be ready."
"I know," he said and ran a strong hand through the dark waves of his fashionable crop. "Philippa…oh, damnit, I am no hand at this." He hesitated. "I brought you something…" He stepped aside revealing a swatch of ruby velvet spread on the mahogany table under the window. On it reposed two golden bracelets and an armlet of intricately and delicately twisted design.
Philippa caught her breath and crossed the room. Unconsciously she placed a hand on his strong left forearm. She stood silent staring at the three golden rings.
He hesitated a moment, then opened his right hand to reveal a wedding ring and a betrothal ring reposing in his broad palm. He tumbled them negligently to lie beside the other rings, and caught her hands in his.
"Philippa, will you reconsider your rejection of my offer? Please?"
Philippa was preoccupied by the five golden rings, remembering the four calling birds of the automaton, the three hens stewed in the French manner, the two doves in their gilt cage and the nuncheon of partridge and pears she had enjoyed on Christmas day. She began to laugh, very softly.
"Great heavens, Everett, how could I be so blind? The song, the tradition…oh, Everett!" She marveled that she could have imagined life without him. She lifted her gaze to his face, and her hand to touch his cheek wonderingly.
"How could I have been so prosaic and unimaginative?" he replied. "I am sorry, Philippa, but I find I cannot live without you. I will do anything--anything--to be worthy of you. I find you are right: one must look to the past to see the future. Traditions, like the old carol The 12 Days of Christmas can have a place in our modern age."
"And I have learned that all the traditions of the world matter not a snap when one's loved ones are ill or absent…"
He bent his head and kissed her. She responded with a shy wonder that soon dissolved to pure delight. When they were breathless, she rested against his shoulder, close wrapped in his arms.
"How did you manage this?" She waved a hand at the beautiful rings. He released her and slipped the bracelets on her wrists, and the armlet further up, over the sleeve of her gown. His touch made her shiver; his gesture was intimate and loving and confident.
"With the connivance of your esteemed parent," he said. His tension had disappeared.
"Papa knew? Oh, he is a wily character; no wonder he is so successful a politician."
The baron drew her into his arms again. He said earnestly, "But the idea was all my own, Philippa. And indeed I have plans for the other seven days of the carol."
"Even the pipers and drummers, the lords a-leaping…?" she said, laughter twined with her words.
"All laid on. I am waiting only on a Twelfth Night ball at Marken Hall." He held the betrothal ring in his hand. "A betrothal ball?"
Philippa abandoned her plan of celebrating Twelfth Night at Leaholm and set her sites on Surrey instead. "Hillary?" she said.
"Hillary knows all my hopes and was so certain of my success that he is on his way to join us at the Hall. I was not so confidant, I admit it freely. Will you be my wife, Philippa?"
"I will," she said, all her love writ large in her expression. Her hopes for the future, her understanding of their love filled her gaze, as he slipped the fourth golden ring on her finger. The fifth, finely-chased, gold ring he slid into his waistcoat pocket to await their wedding day.
|Art by Rachel Arbuckle|