Friday, February 12, 2010

The Mistleberry - Part 1

This is a story I’ve wanted to write for years, and is freely inspired by and borrowed from three wonderful books which are some of the most Christmassy stories I think you can find, not to mention beautifully written fiction. They are: The Armourer’s House by Rosemary Sutcliffe, The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston, and The Thirteen Days of Christmas by Jenny Overton. They did this first, and much better than I ever could: I highly recommend all three.  
For those interested in the history, this is set in the year 1670-71, in the middle of the reign of Charles II. All of the Christmas customs, traditions and festivals here are real and appropriate to the time, and still exist in parts of the UK . I have however taken some liberties with the timing and the mixing of them.
This was written for Rolf, with much love - admit it darling, it's more fun than a tie. Merry Christmas.
The Mistleberry
by Ranger
When I was seven, I saw the King in our garden.  
He was very tall, taller than anyone else I’d even seen, and he had solemn brown eyes that looked at me for a long time. And then he smiled at me with his eyes, and his mouth never moved at all. He sat for a while on the bench under the elm with his long white hands clasped together on the gold top of his cane, and he spoke to two men who stood with him and bowed their heads when he moved. He called me to him afterwards and asked me what I liked to do. And when I told him music, and my pony, his dark eyes smiled again.

When he left, Sir James bowed so low his long curls hung down, and his heavy tunic creaked. I’d never seen him bow to anyone before. Usually everyone bowed to him.

 There were no other children at Hartford . Just the servants and Sir James, whom I barely saw and who never spoke to me other than to tell me to be less noisy or to stand up straight. The few times I misbehaved sufficiently for him to send for me were short and terrifying ordeals that I never had any wish to be repeated. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps anyway, I was in general a very well behaved child. There were nurses when I was very small, some of whom I liked more than others. And there were various tutors, who taught me Latin and Greek, reading and writing, in amongst far more interesting things like riding, fencing and music. And there was Tom, known to all the household as Old Tom to distinguish him from the several other Toms, with his shaggy white hair and crinkling blue eyes, who taught me to ride and to shoot. He worked in the stables and the gardens, said little and watched me far better than any servant in the house while I played. I didn’t remember a time when old Tom wasn’t nearby with an eye on what I did, and quick too to come to my rescue or stop a venture too dangerous. Or when well out of sight of the house, to come and join my play which he did with quiet enthusiasm and great imagination.  
Then when I was nine, my tutor and I and several other members of the household, took scarlet fever from the epidemic in the village. My tutor, the cook, two stable boys and one of the kitchen girls died. Sir John, who being free from infection and understandably unwilling to wait until he took it himself, withdrew with all speed to London . By the time he returned, I was tutorless and fully recovered, but there were to be no more tutors and no more lessons. The fever had left me, and taken my sight with it. When Sir John came home I could tell strong light from dark, but I could not see his face nor anything else, and never did again. According to the household and Sir John, there was no sense to educating or indeed doing anything with a child who was entirely blind.  
Not having been born to it, I had no skills with which to cope with my change of condition: I was incapable for a long time of finding my way around the house, prey to falling and with a never ending array of bumps, bruises, burns and tumbles. Since too I was too old for a nurse and no longer in need of teaching, and somewhat withdrawn and given to frustration over my change in life, old Tom was brought indoors to take charge of me. Oddly enough, for a stableman, he adapted to the change quietly and without difficulty, and with his eye on me I was left to wander the house and the gardens uninterrupted, filling the days as I wanted. In many ways Sir John took no further notice of me, other to see that I was fed, clothed and kept safe. I was no longer a fledgling man to be trained and directed towards whatever he deemed fit; I was merely a ward in his charge, blind and in need of care, and so would be for the remainder of my life.  
I was seventeen when he died.  
I admit to no real sense of grief over his death. I barely knew him. I believe too that his death was unexpected to him. He was not a young man, but not old either, and he appeared to have made little preparation for his end. Messages were sent out, people gathered at Hartford and I held Tom’s arm while the masses were said in the little village church and Sir John was buried. I first heard Her voice in the bustle afterwards, while people were drinking and talking in the great hall below- the many people who had gathered from the town and the county who I had never heard before during Sir John’s life. And I sat on the stairs with Old Tom stood behind me, trying in an undertone to persuade me back up to the rooms I was used to and comfortable in.  
“We will take the house immediately.” She was saying in a high and somewhat acid tone that reminded me of the sharpness of vinegar or turned wine. “My husband will arrive in the morning and I shall send for the children. Hartford will be so much better for them than London . There will be a great deal of work to do on the house of course, my husband’s great uncle was somewhat eccentric and did not keep company. The state of some of the rooms- I have scarcely dared to look.”

”And what about the boy?” another woman’s voice asked, carrying clearly up the stairs. “The blind boy, I saw him with the old man.”  
“Come on lad.” Tom said again, and this time his hand pulled hard enough on my arm that I came to my feet whether willing or not. “This is not for your ears.”  
For my ears or not, I clung to the banister, refusing to be moved.

”Sir John’s ward?” the acid woman said sharply. “Lynden Armitage.  No relation of ours, there is no mention of him in my great uncle’s papers and no one appears to know even who the boy is. Some foundling, most likely, that Sir John took pity on.”

”And what is to be done with him?” asked the other woman. “He can scarcely remain here?”  
“Oh indeed no! As if I should want the children to be seeing that poor, afflicted creature about them! No, I intend that Lynden Armitage should be removed from Hartford with all speed. The nuisance is that no provision appears to have been made for him-“

Tom succeeded in gripping my second hand and took me upstairs and out of earshot of the voices below. It had been cold in the church. I stood still, shivering and shaken, while he unfastened my cloak and took my gloves. Somehow it had not occurred to me that Hartford would simply be taken over by another family: that it would cease to be my home. All my life I had been told that Sir John was my guardian and not to ask questions.    
 “Where will they send me?” I asked Tom. He had moved away to the fire, I knew the sound and direction of his boots intimately, the number of steps, every item in the room. He sounded grim.  
“You’re not to be sent anywhere, I’ll see to that.”

He put a cup against my hand and I took it from him. The wine was mulled, warm and sweet, and vaguely comforting against the chill in my stomach.

She came upstairs some hours later, after Tom had lit the candles in the three big rooms we kept in this wing. Near to the gardens, I could come and go as I pleased from here, I knew every inch of my way. She had people with her, I could hear the rustle of skirts and once the familiar cough that told me the housekeeper was one of them. Tom touched my arm and brought me to my feet as she came into my room without knocking, and prompted by Tom I managed a sketchy bow, my flute still in my hands.  
“And this is Lynden Armitage?” the woman said crisply. “I am Mistress Maberly, Sir John was my husband’s great uncle. Which rooms are these?”  
“These have always been Master Lynden’s rooms-“ the housekeeper began, but Mistress Maberly interrupted, sounding impatient.  
“Yes, yes, but which rooms ARE these? The main bedrooms and dressing room in the south wing? These would be the most suitable rooms by far for the children, there is by far the best light here. Which would hardly benefit the boy. The rooms will need to be prepared immediately, the children will arrive by the end of the week.”  
“Sir John chose these rooms,” Tom said shortly. “Best place for Master Lynden to be, and he knows them, he can’t just be moved-“

”And you are?” Mistress Maberly demanded.  
“Tom Barton.”

Mistress Maberly made a sound near to a laugh, and not a sound I liked. “Well Tom Barton. Sir John certainly liked strange company within the house. Lynden Armitage will not be remaining at Hartford , so it cannot matter now how these rooms are used. You will make the boy ready for travel in the morning.”

”To where?” Tom said grimly.  
“Really, were you used to speak to Sir John with such insolence, Tom Barton?  You will have your direction in the morning, there are charitable places that will be persuaded to take the boy and to take good care of him.”  
I heard the rustle of skirts as they left the rooms, and her orders for the drapes to be taken down at once and cleaned, the furniture removed and the wooden bed dismantled. Tom shut the door on her and for a moment I heard him breathing, fast between his teeth as he did when he was trying not to let me hear him swear. Then he came to me and I felt his hands grip my shoulders, heavy and warm.  
“It’s all right boy, don’t look like that. I told you you’ll not be sent anywhere, Mistress Maberly don’t know what she thinks she knows. We’ll be leaving now and going where I think best, and it’s somewhere Mistress Maberly won’t have thought of.”  
“Where?” I asked him, but he only pushed me gently towards the oak chest by the window.  
“Get what you want to take with you.”

It wasn’t much. Just my flute, my cloak and my good clothes, all of which I felt Tom wrap into a bundle before he fastened my cloak around me. His own belongings took still less time and made a far smaller bundle. And quietly, his hand on my arm, he took me along the passage past the seven doors I counted with my hand, to the back stairs. He stumbled in the dark, but it didn’t bother me: I led him down the twisting stairwell and out of the tiny yard door where the air smelled of smoke and horses, and we could hear the occasional stamp and snort from the stables. At this hour, in this darkness, they were deserted. I stood, ears straining, while Tom made ready, and then guided me into the saddle of the grey mare I knew only through Tom’s descriptions, for all I’d ridden her regularly for several years. He took my reins as he always did, knotting them around his fist as his breathing and the brush against me told me he’d hauled himself up onto the large cob he rode. And very quietly we paced out of the open stable door, into the yard and through the archway to the hard packed earth beyond, the road that led out into the fields. It was some minutes before Tom breathed easily beside me, and from the dark and the stillness of the air I knew we were beyond sight of Hartford . Tom clicked to both the horses and I moved automatically to compensate as the mare began to trot. And like that, we rode for three days.  

We walked the horses where we could, and rested in the stable yards of inns where we ate and drank with freezing fingers, Tom warning me sharply to be wary of the cobbles which were slippery with frost. An hour or two was long enough for the horses to regain their strength, to eat, and for Tom and I to warm ourselves at the fires in the yard, and then we once more rode on. I had no idea of where we went or what we passed, other than that Tom told me we were moving west. It was difficult to tell day from night. Tom said that the weather was so grey and foggy there was barely more than twilight even at the height of noon . We spoke very little as we rode- and between Tom and I there often was no need to speak. He said it was late evening when the horses stepped onto hard road on the third day, and I began to hear the ring of hooves on stone. There was a strong smell of the river as we crossed a bridge, the sharp draught of wind bringing with it the taste of snow from the water, and then we were on the hard packed earth and cobbles of a town street, and in the distance I could hear church bells. Beyond that, the night crier: a man’s voice, calling far away.  
“Past eleven o clock and all’s well!”  
“Whittchurch.” Tom said with satisfaction. “Nearly there now boy.”

I knew nothing of Whittchurch, save that Tom had been born here. The smoke from many chimneys stung my eyes and tasted darkly of wood, mixed with the frost and the few drops of sleet and rain that fell and wetted the horse’s coat beneath my hands. The horses were moving slower now, sniffing at the air and beginning to make the small sounds of contentment that came from knowing they were approaching stables and the comforts associated with them. We made several turns, and the streets grew narrower, the air and sounds more closely pressed around us, then Tom slid to the ground and came to me, guiding me to the ground beside him. His knock on a door nearby was shockingly loud. While we waited and the horses dropped their heads, glad to stand still, I ran a hand over the door in front of us. Smooth, with a large knocker and heavy iron bands. Tom’s hand closed over mine and moved it up and to my left. Hanging above the door I felt the outline- a chalice. A cup, suspended in the air.  
“The guild mark of the goldsmiths.” Tom said quietly. Feet sounded beyond the door, then heavy bolts were slid back , then the door creaked open. I waited, cold and apprehensive, but there was nothing but silence. Then a sudden movement of someone past me and I knew from the sounds that someone tall, a man, had embraced Tom hard and that Tom had returned the hug as tightly.  
“Good Christ!” a man’s voice said eventually and somewhat thickly. “Tom, by all that’s holy- what do you here at this hour of the night? Come in! Come inside! Who is this?”  
“Lynden Armitage.” Tom pushed me gently through the door and I felt to my left the weak blast of a dying fire, in the somewhat echoing space of a large, stone room. Someone- the man- took my arm and drew me towards it.  
“Lynden? Tom-“

”I’ll see to the horses sir.”  
Someone as tall as the man, but lighter, came past me and went out of the door, closing it behind him. I heard Tom’s sigh of relief and his footfall as he came to me.  
“Thank you. Is that your Samuel?”  
“Samuel’s three years married and gone to Braywell. That’s Mark, my journeyman. Lynden, Tom?”  
“He’s blind, don’t startle him.” Tom said briefly, pulling my wet cloak off. “Lynden Armitage, he’s Linnet’s son. I brought him here for nowhere else to bring him where he’d be safe. I need to start for London in the morning.”  
The man’s voice was shocked, and sounded to me as though it cracked on the name. Linnet. I had never known anything of my mother, or her name, other than Tom’s clear assertion she was in heaven and the matter ended there. Then a warm hand took mine, drew me close and led me up a steep wooden staircase to a room where the fire was bright, and where I could sense the wood pannels and drapes that covered the walls and deadened the sounds.  
“James?” A woman’s voice said anxiously from near to the fire. The man led me gently across the floor and his voice beside me was still unsteady.  
“Anne, this is Lynden. Lynden, this is your Aunt Anne and I am your Uncle James.”  
It was extremely strange to be here, with these people who called themselves my family, in this room which I had no clear idea of.  
Wine was brought from the kitchen and I heard the vigorous rattle of the poker from my Uncle James in the embers of the fire, then the hiss as he plunged the poker into the wine to warm it. My teeth chattered on the cup I was handed, and the chair I had been put into was upright and cold.  
“Where have you come from?” James said anxiously. Tom was by the fire, his voice sounded equally rough and shaken with cold, and hoarse with something else too.  
“ Hartford . Lynden’s guardian is dead. And Linnet’s dead these sixteen years James. There’s no one to take him, no one of the family to claim him but you.”

”You have such a look of Linnet.” The woman’s voice said beside me as her hand touched mine. I jumped and felt her flinch back, the sleeve of something light and laced grazing me. I realised then that both she and her husband must have been abed and were here in their nightwear.  
“He’s badly shaken.” Tom said gruffly. “Sir John died without warning and the house was taken over within hours, we could do nothing more than come direct to here.”

”And you will go to London ?” the man, who said he was my uncle, asked. Tom grunted.  
“Aye. There’s a message I must take before I come back here, the last of my duty to Sir John. But I had to have the boy safe first. After, if you’ll have me and the boy, I’ll come back here.”

”There’s always a place in the workshop for you Tom.” The man said fervently. “And if Lynden is Linnet’s child then he belongs with us, you can’t have questioned that. Tom you’re frozen. You and Lynden, get you to bed and we’ll talk more in the morning, it’s near on midnight .”  
“Come upstairs Lynden.” The woman said gently beside me and she put her hand over mine, much more hesitantly this time. “There’s plenty of room, Tom. All the children are grown and gone now, save Harry. And Mark and Christopher, James’ apprentice, they sleep up in the lofts.”  
“I’ll stay with the boy up there then.” Tom said gruffly. “Right where I always was. I’m here lad, come with me.” 
I fumbled for his arm and held it as I felt my way after him up a wooden stairway that wound around a central post for what felt like miles, before we came into the chill of an open and dusty room that I knew must be under the eaves of the house. A quieter step followed us and I heard the young man’s voice again- Mark- deferentially speaking to Uncle James.  
“The horses are stabled with ours sir.”

”Mark, this is Tom Barton.” Uncle James said just as softly in a way that suggested to me there was someone, somewhere in this room that was asleep.  
“I’ve heard your name many times sir.” I heard Mark and Tom shake hands, and then Tom put me down on a wooden bedstead and left me to work out with my hands where I sat and what was around me.  
“There’s blankets in plenty here.” Uncle James said in an undertone. “The boys are warm enough- Mark and Christopher sleep up here and Harry in the chamber below, Anne and I are in the front chamber there should you need us.”

”What he needs most is sleep.” Tom muttered back. “I’ll see to him, get your rest James.”

”It’s good to see you Tom.” Uncle James said once more and softly. Then to me, with a kindness that reached me even through the numbness of cold and bewilderment.  
“Goodnight Lynden.”  
The footfall moved away and descended down the open stairwell. From across the room I could hear the snuffles of someone sleeping, and beside us somewhere, the rustle of a man- Mark most likely- making ready for bed. Tom did no more than help me pull off my boots, covered me with blankets and roughly tousled my hair.  
“Go to sleep boy. It’ll seem better in the morning. You’re safe here. If I’d had my way we’d have come back here years ago, James Armitage is a good man.”  
From the creaks I could hear, Tom was settling on the floor beside me, his back to the wall, and when I put my hand out he was sitting wrapped under blankets, his head against the rough wood of the beam. He took my hand and held it, squeezing firmly.  
“It’s all right lad. Go to sleep.”  
The house was quiet, other than the reassuring stirs and breathing from the others in the room, and the occasional creak of the eaves above my head. I put a hand up to feel and found the beams and the thick thatched roof sloping sharply, only a foot or two above my head. The enclosed space was almost comforting, and cold, fresh air came in through the thatch, bringing with it the faint smell of smoke and snow. I fell asleep breathing it.  

I was woken in the morning by a sound beside me, and then by a violent blow over the head as I sat up. It took a moment to remember where I was, and that the sharply sloped roof would not allow me to sit up. Then a hand grasped my shoulder and a voice, low but taut, said softly, “Lynden, it’s Mark. Stay where you are.”

”Is it morning?” I said anxiously, unable to tell as I knew none of the sounds of this house. “Tom?”  
“It’s morning, early, and Tom’s here.” Mark said again, quietly. I felt the stir as he sat down on the bed beside me and took my hand under his large one. His fingers were long and while his palm was calloused, his fingers were fine and smooth. And while cold, they gripped and held my hand in a comforting clasp.  
“Tom?” I said again, not wanting to raise my voice to disturb the other boy here. I heard his voice, still a child’s voice although newly broken, calling from the other side of the room.  

”Christopher, dress and bring Master James up here. Quickly.”  
Mark’s voice wasn’t sharp but it was peremptory and the boy moved at once, I heard his clothes being dragged on.  
“Tom?” I said sharply, putting a hand out. Mark caught it for a minute, then let go and let me reach. Tom had slipped down against the wall in the night. His eyes were closed, his mouth slightly open and his rough, familiar face was chilled to the touch.  
“He’s gone.” Mark said to me quietly. “When I woke he was cold, he must have slipped away almost as soon as he fell asleep.”  
It took my hands several minutes to make sure of the facts and believe them as my ears had informed me. Uncle James’ footsteps came up the stairs several at a time and then I heard them slow and become heavy behind me.  
“Oh Tom….”  
“This was how we found him sir.” Mark’s arm enclosed my shoulders and drew me gently away, to my feet and into the body of the room, I could feel the air change around me.  
“This was his bed as a boy.” Uncle James said after a long while of silence, and I could hear the tears in his voice. They shocked me. Tom had never left me in all my life, I’d never thought of him as having family, people who loved him some way away.  
“He was an old man when I was a child, I don’t know how he lived as long as he did- Tom never changed. I’m glad he did come home, that must have been what kept him going through that journey. Such a journey in winter for such an old man.”  
He straightened up and I heard his voice change and deepen as he came to me.  
“Lynden, come downstairs my boy.  Come along. You belong to us now, you’re safe here. Tom raised me too.”
Continue on to Part 2 of The Mistleberry
Copyright Ranger 2010


Laura said...

You just made my year! I read The Children of Green Knowe when I was a little kid and for some reason the story has been in my mind for the last few months but I could not for the life of me remember what it was called. Thanks!
By the way, love all your stories, but the cowboys are definitely my favorite!

Ranger said...

It's lovely to hear you're a Green Knowe fan! I still love that book now. There's a lovely adaptation of it that you can find on youtube if you look.

Most of the artwork on the blog is by Canadian artist Steve Walker.

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