Christmas is nearly upon us and I’m busy making mince pies, wrapping presents and looking forward to a glass of mulled wine by the fireside.
If you’re feeling Christmassy and have a moment to relax with a glass of mulled wine of your own, you might like to read the following excerpt from The Painter’s Apprentice, set in 1687.
I wish you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas.
On Christmas morning Beth awoke to see grey fog and drizzle running down the window. The damp mist permeated the house, creeping in through the casements and causing the fires to smoke and the guests to huddle together, coughing.
Almost all the inhabitants of Merryfields braved the weather and walked to the church for the morning service, enduring the usual curious glances of the congregation. Nelly Byrne took off her shoes to show the Squire her red Christmas stockings and Poor Joan wept unrestrainedly at the thought of the baby Jesus lying cold in a manger.
The parson gave a rousing sermon against the ills of Popish practices, which set heads nodding in agreement and Johannes said Amen loudly enough for the congregation to turn and look at him. The parson ended the service with a call for peace and goodwill to all men.
Back at Merryfields, William, John and Noah dragged in the Yule log and worked the bellows to fan the flame until the sodden wood stopped steaming and there was a cheerful blaze.
Susannah and Beth decorated the table with garlands of ivy and sprigs of berried holly and lit a week’s supply of candles to dispel the gloom.
The centrepiece of the dinner was a great baron of beef sent as a Christmas gift by Princess Anne, surrounded by several roast fowl and buttered root vegetables.
Afterwards, Joseph and Emmanuel carried in a vast plum pudding with great ceremony, while Peg watched with a smile on her face and her hands on her hips, ready to spoon it into bowls. If there was more flour and suet and less raisins that usual in the pudding, no one seemed to notice. Spiced ale simmered on the fire, filling the Great Hall with the warm and comforting aroma of cinnamon, cloves and orange. The guests enjoyed their festive dinner but, for the family, nothing could make up for the empty place at the table where Kit usually sat.
Noah presented gifts to all the family and boxes of sweetmeats for the guests.
Beth unwrapped the roll of paper that he gave her, all tied up with a red ribbon and a sprig of mistletoe. She spread out the paper on the table and saw that it was a carefully worked pen and ink drawing of a church.
‘I thought you might like this,’ Noah said. ‘It’s St James Garlickhythe. I made a copy of my working drawing to show you how I’ve designed the new steeple.’ His brown eyes were slightly anxious as Beth remained silent.
‘This is the church that you say people call Wren’s Lantern,’ she said at last.
Noah smiled. ‘You remembered! The steeple is to be in white Portland stone and it will dazzle in the sunlight so that people cannot help but look at it.’
‘It’s so beautiful, Noah.’ She studied the intricate ascending tiers all set upon columns, reaching up for the Heavens. ‘Your line work is extremely fine.’
He grinned. ‘I had to work on it by candle light after the day’s work was finished and was fearful that I’d make a mistake, especially as I know your own artistic standards are so high.’
‘So that’s what you’ve been doing every evening!’ she said. ‘I thought you were avoiding me after I spoke sharply to you about your work on the royal nursery.’
‘Not at all.’
‘So how are the works progressing at Richmond?’ asked Beth.
‘I’ve finished the survey. It was no easy task as the Palace fell into disrepair under the Commonwealth. Once I’ve drawn up the plans they can be presented to the King.’ He pursed his lips. ‘I can tell by your expression that you still disapprove of my involvement.’
‘I’m afraid I do.’
He sighed. ‘It’s not my intention but I appear to have displeased you ever since I arrived, haven’t I? First because I didn’t understand how dedicated you are to your painting, and then because I carried the letter which resulted in Kit leaving Merryfields and now because I’m drawing up plans for the royal nursery.’
‘Your arrival at Merryfields was like a stone dropped from a great height into a millpond,’ said Beth. ‘And the ripples have spread far and wide.’ She looked again at the carefully made drawing. ‘But I shall treasure this.’
He gave her an uncertain smile.
‘And I have something for you.’ She handed him a small parcel.
Noah unwrapped the present and his face lit up when he found an apple-wood box to hold his pens and drawing instruments. Beth had painted the lid with an image of Merryfields surrounded by a garland of honeysuckle and roses twined all around.
‘I’ve never painted Merryfields before,’ she said, ‘but I’ve combined your love of architecture with my love for botanical art in this painting in the hope that you won’t forget us when you return to Virginia,’ she said. She had spent many hours painting the box, in an attempt to relieve her guilt for her previous coolness towards him.
He ran his finger over the silky-smooth lid of the box. ‘I’ll never forget you,’ he said, leaning forward to kiss her cheek, ‘and I’ll treasure this box always.’
She smelt the slight smokiness of the fire in his hair and the clean, comforting, male scent of his skin.
‘I miss my own family today,’ he said quietly.
‘What will they be doing now?’
‘Father will be bringing in the Yule log and Mother and my sisters, Maryanne, Abigail and Kate will be busy in the kitchen.’ He smiled. ‘Mother will insist on giving the servants a day’s holiday. The whole house will smell of baking and egg nog and cinnamon. There will be candles in the windows and in the afternoon our good neighbours, the Sharpes, will visit with their daughters Hannah and Amy.’ He stared into the fire, lost in thought.
‘Your poor father will be outnumbered by all the womenfolk,’ said Beth.
He sighed. ‘Indeed he will.’
Beth glanced at Kit’s empty chair. ‘I wonder what Kit is doing now? Imagine having only ship’s biscuits for your Christmas dinner!’
‘I expect it will be washed down with a swig of rum and there are sure to be other passengers who will sing a round of Christmas carols with him.’
‘And by next Christmas you will be back at home.’
Noah reached for Beth’s hand. ‘And then I’ll be missing you.’ He bit his lip. ‘I mean I’ll be missing all of you.’
They sat in companionable silence for a while, watching John roasting chestnuts, while Cecily danced about blowing on her fingers as she peeled off the hot skins.
Clarence Smith stood up in front of the fireplace and began to sing I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In.
One by one the others moved into a circle around the fire and joined in. Joseph brought out his penny whistle and Old Silas accompanied him on his fiddle as the party worked through their entire repertoire of carols.
Noah joined in the singing with his clear tenor voice and Beth smiled to herself as she noticed how his thumb unconsciously stroked the lid of the painted pen box she had made for him. She felt a surprising tenderness growing in her feelings towards him. Perhaps he wasn’t as arrogant as she’d previously thought? Sighing, she was overcome again by melancholy because Kit was no longer with them and because the following Christmastide Noah, too, would be gone.