Monday, February 15, 2010

The Mistleberry - Part 3


Uncle James went to midnight mass at the cathedral, I heard the stamp of him shaking snow off his boots on the step in the street below as he came in, and the walking of other feet and quiet voices wishing him merry Christmas. I had no idea what the street below looked like but I could imagine the lanterns in the doorways and the candles in the windows over the street all through Whittchurch, lighting home the many who would have been at the cathedral when midnight struck. The night watchman’s voice called not long after I heard the heavy bolts shut on the shop door as Uncle James came up to bed, and I lay listening past the peaceful sounds of Mark and Christopher sleeping.  
“Born is a baby in Bethlehem town. Past one o clock and all’s well!”  
“It’s past midnight !” a boy’s voice said near my bed. I jumped, not expecting it, and for a moment, startled that Christopher was still awake. Bare feet pattered past me on the floorboards and I heard the creak of the window thrown open and the rush of cold air from the street.  
“Mistress Anstey’s coming home, and Master Thwaites-“

”Be quiet or father’ll hear you!” another boy’s voice hissed from across the room and I heard the stir of another small body in a wooden bed. “Shut the window, it’s too cold.”

”It’s still snowing.” The boy by the window said cheerfully, leaning further out. His voice was nearly in the street. “It’s deep on the eaves and on the sill!”

”Tom come back to bed.” Another sleepy voice pleaded, and my heart started to thud as that voice was younger than Harry’s or Christopher’s ever could sound. It was a boy, a little boy, at the far end of the room beyond Mark’s bed.  
“In a minute cowardy, it’s too nice a night to sleep through.” The boy at the window retorted cheerfully. “Don’t you want to see the snow?”  
“No, I want to sleep!” the other boy retorted. I heard the scrape of hands on the sill, the stealth of bare feet passing my bed and then a stifled shriek and a giggle as someone small pounced onto a bedstead across the room from mine.  

”It’s only snow!”

”Not in my bed!”  
A door opened on the floor below and heavy, irate footsteps began up the stairs, not my uncle’s quiet steps but someone much heavier and not at all amused. There were two more stifled giggles and the child’s footsteps ran past me, there was a creak as someone leapt into bed, and then silence. Too frightened to stay put, I fought off the covers, found my feet and fumbled my way across the room, past Mark’s bedstead with the wooden end which I gripped, through the loft space to the window under the eaves. Snow was scattered on the floor there, I found it with my feet, and when I found the window it stood wide. Somewhere out beyond the window, far away with the rush of the river in the distance, I heard the blast of a hunting horn.  
“Mark!” I said in terror. “Mark!”   
“Lyn?” Mark turned over. I came back to find his bed, moved past him and fell over the end of Christopher’s bed with a crash.  
“What?!” Christopher demanded, starting awake. I lay on the floor for a minute, dazed from the fall and with a healthy ache in the knee that had hit the bed and the elbow that had hit the floor. Mark came around the bed to me and I knew there was no way I could mistake his full grown height and step for the pattering of a child on this floor.  
“Lyn are you hurt? What is it? Did you dream?”  
“He fell right over me!”

I heard the door open on the floor below just as it had a few minutes ago, and then running steps, but my uncle’s quiet and steady pace, and it was his voice and a flare of light that came from the top of the staircase.
“Mark? What was that? Lynden!”

”I think he must have been dreaming sir.” Mark pulled me to my feet and I felt my uncle’s hands take me, leading me back across the floor to my bed. I sat down where he put me, trembling all over.  
“I heard him call out,” Mark said softly, “he must have fallen right over Christopher.”

”All right lad.” My uncle’s hand cupped the back of my head for a minute, then pulled the blankets around me. “What were you dreaming about? What got you from your bed?”  
“The window’s open!” Christopher protested sleepily, turning over. From his snore, he went straight back to sleep. Mark’s steps went to the window and I heard it pulled shut and locked.  
“There’s snow on the floor here- and brushed off the sill-“

”It’ll be thick by morning.” My uncle said quietly. “It was getting deep when I came home. Go back to sleep Lynden. There’s nothing to hurt you here, you’re safe and there’s nothing more than snow outside tonight.”

I lay down where he put me, still shaking, and he got up, taking the light with him.  
“Goodnight boys.”

”Goodnight sir.” Mark said softly, and I felt his hand on my shoulder as he went back to his bed. “Sweet dreams now Lyn.”     
I heard him settle into his own bed, and the room was quiet after that, but for his breathing and Christopher’s. It still took me some time to fall asleep.
We walked to mass before breakfast in the morning, woken by the church bells at five and cries through the house and the street outside of Merry Christmas! as people began to stir and to dress. The snow did lay thickly. Mark took my arm and Harry and Christopher ran some way ahead of us towards Bishops gate before my uncle called them firmly back. After that, they managed to keep more or less to a walk and to stay with us, and Harry, at his father’s order, let the snow lie where it was. My uncle and Mark between them helped my aunt pick her way while she managed her skirts, and many other families around us wished us good morning and talked of the night’s snowfall. The cathedral was bright, I could sense the light and the heat of the candles all around us, and as we stood in our usual place near the back in the lines and lines of Whittchurch people, I heard the voices of the choristers begin, pure and clear as they filed past us in procession to the choir stalls at the front.  
The church bells were ringing as we left the cathedral afterwards, and in the square the Waites were playing and children, freed from immediate religious obligation, were hurling snowballs. Harry and Christopher begged leave and went to join them as we crossed the square, coming home only reluctantly when Uncle James called them from the top of Bishops gate.  
“That’s quite a bruise you’ve got,” Mark told me as he took my cloak in the workshop. The fire for once was out downstairs and we were anxious to get upstairs to the warmth of the parlour. I felt along my temple to the tender spot and winced.  
“It was a strange dream.”

”It must have been. You looked like a ghost when I picked you up.”

My aunt called to him then and he said nothing further, but I had a very clear memory of the voices, three young boys and their beds in the room we slept in, and someone on the stairs.  
Dinner that day was an enormous affair, and we were joined by both the men who worked in the workshop, their wives, and several of their children, my aunt’s sister and her husband from across Whittchurch and an elderly craftsman of the goldsmith’s guild who was a friend of my uncle’s and who otherwise would have been alone on Christmas day. The kitchen was filled with noise and chatter and people, and I stuck close to the safety of the corner by the hearth where Mark and Christopher joined me and Christopher chattered of his own family ten miles away in Gauden, and Mark told me in an undertone what went on, what voices belonged to whom and what their owners looked like. As many as could sat around the table that day, the children sat on the floor and we stayed by the hearth with Harry to eat, Christmas pie, ducks, the spiced wine and mince pies, and the boar’s head which Mark described to me as shining, with an apple in it’s mouth and crowned with a wreath of holly, ivy and rosemary, and which was greeted by a cheer from everyone in the room.  
In the afternoon my aunt brought down her lute, my uncle’s friend brought out a tambour and Mark coaxed until I collected my flute and we played together, uncertainly at first but then with more and more enjoyment, all the Christmas carols and songs we knew. My uncle and the workmen moved back the table to clear the long gallery of the kitchen and there was dancing until it was dark and the other families went home. And then we walked to evensong at the cathedral, coming home for supper in front of the parlour fire where my aunt told us stories of her childhood when Cromwell had the throne and Christmas was a cold affair, banned and policed, and all the old traditions had to be kept in secret, out of the sight of the puritan Roundheads.  
Harry was yawning that night when his mother sent him up to bed and we were not much better. I was half asleep even in the chill of the loft and undressed as quickly as possible to get under the covers. The house was still again when I woke.  
I had no idea of the time, only that of the breathing voices in the room one was missing. For a long time I listened, then cautiously felt Mark’s bed and knew who was missing. And what had woken me.  
I went down the stairs as quietly as I could, into the workshop where I was aware of a bright light over where I knew the fireplace stood. Find the hearthstone, keep the fire to your left – the fire was out, but I could find the hearthstone and from it, Mark’s bench. His voice was soft, kind but I could sense it wasn’t an entirely welcome interruption.  
“Did I wake you? You’ll be cold walking around in your nightshirt.”

”What are you doing?” I asked hesitantly. Mark didn’t answer for a moment. Eventually, shivering and painfully aware of how he must feel- how I often felt myself- I raised my hands and backed away.  
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you, I’ll go back to bed.”

Mark still said nothing, and then as I began to find my way back between the workbenches, he called, softly but earnestly.  

I stopped, not at all sure. I heard the creak as he leaned over, then the warmth of his hand over mine and I went where he drew me, to the high stool on the other side of his work bench. I could hear the soft chipping of something he worked on at the table and feel the warmth of the candle to my left.  
“I’m sorry.” Mark said after a while.  
“Sometimes it’s nice to be alone?” I said hesitantly. I heard him smile through his voice.  
“Yes. Not easy in this house. And less easy for you, I know.”

I thought about that, not sure. This house was full of noise and people, and much I couldn’t do unless one of them was with me- but there were hours too on the stairs while people were busy where I was very much alone.  
“What are you working on?” I asked again, very politely in case he chose not to answer me.  
“Just fiddling.” Mark said easily. “Master James is very good, he gives me time to work on my own things as well as the shop orders- we’ve sold plenty of those buckles and some of my rings too. One day I’ll make my journeyman piece, something really special, and the guild will make me a master craftsman in my own right.”

”And what will you do then?” I said, somewhat nervously. The thought of this house without Mark in it was unsettling. Mark’s answer was reassuringly warm.  
“I’ll stay here and work with Master James. The trade is plenty for two craftsmen, the shop would take in much more work and money, and Master James is an easy man to work for. He’s a good man. I wouldn’t leave him even if I wanted to. What else can you do for a man who took you in and called you family when no one else would have you?”  
“He did that for me too.” I said softly. Mark sounded somewhat detached when he answered.  
“Lyn, you ARE family. You’re theirs, even if you didn’t know you were, and Master James loved his sister. And Tom.”

I heard the tone behind that, weary and accepting with something more than the reassurance it sounded like.  
“Do you visit your mother? Do you go to her at Christmas?”  
“Lyn, what don’t you see?” Mark said with what sounded like amusement. “No, I don’t. And yes, I am brooding on it. I often do at this time of year, it’s a bad habit.”

”Where is she?”  
“I don’t know now. London , somewhere. It doesn’t matter, I’ve lived here now more than half my life and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Just-“

I understood. I couldn’t help thinking of Tom and of Hartford myself.  
I heard the click of his tools going back into their rack and the change in his tone as he got up.

”We’d better get back to bed. I’m not his apprentice now, but I still wouldn’t care to cross Master James if he found us downstairs at this hour.”  
The made me think again of those three little boys and the heavy footsteps up the stairs, as Mark put the last of his tools away. But our room upstairs was silent but for Christopher’s peaceful breathing, and all I heard when Mark and I went to bed, was the sound of his silence which told me he didn’t sleep but stared into the darkness.  
“Mark?” I said softly. And heard his sigh, not of exasperation either. One of the warm tones of his voice.  
“Yes. I’m glad you’ve come, Lyn. You’re the best company I’ve had in the house.”

I knew what he meant. It was a novelty for me too, to have someone my own age to be with and talk to- and someone else who knew what it was like to feel like a stranger.

 The crash outside made me start up in bed, although by force of habit now I didn’t knock my head on the beam above. Boys voices were shouting down below:
“We hunted the Wren for Robin the Bobbin, We hunted the Wren for Jack of the Can
We hunted the Wren for Robin the Bobbin, We hunted the Wren for every man.”
“Christopher!” someone shouted from the street. “Christopher Alney!”

I heard running, then Christopher’s voice shouting as he opened the window.

”I’m coming Toby! WAIT!”  
“Harry Armitage! Christopher!”

Harry’s footsteps thundered on the stairs, and Christopher ran down as the second verse started outside.
“The wren, the wren, the king of the birds. Saint Stephens Day was caught in the furze.
His body is small, but his spirit is great. We pray you good people to give us a treat!”
Below us I heard my uncle’s window open and something thrown down into the street, and Mark’s bed creaked as he got up to see.

”It’s the St Stephen’s day wren hunt.” He said to me as I felt my way after him. “Most of the boys in the town are down there calling for sweets- they’ve got a holly bush on a pole with ribbons and a wooden wren in it, they’ll go out to the fields soon.”

”And do what?” I asked, confused. Mark snorted.
“Most likely end up having a fight, that’s what usually happens. At least this year it’ll be a snowball fight. Come back to bed, Lyn. No one will get up early today other than the boys, we won’t be working.”
The shop door slammed as Christopher and Harry went out into the street, and the crowd of boy’s voices broke into two choruses as they moved on, one side shouting to the other.
"Where are you going?" Said Milder to Malder.
"I may not tell you" Said Festle to Fose.
"Where are you going?" Said Milder to Malder.
"Going into the woods" Said John the Red Nose.  
Aunt Anne worried silently but tangibly all that morning through breakfast with the absence of Harry and Christopher from the table. Uncle James said very little, but that in itself was unusual, and when we’d eaten Mark nudged me and got up.  
“I was ask Lyn to come out with me to the square and watch the horses- we’ll look for the boys too while we’re out. They must be headed homeward by now.”
“If they haven’t had their heads cracked, or their ribs broken.” Sarah said gloomily, clearing the table. “I remember two years back when Master Williams’s apprentice was carried back with that broken leg from St Stephen’s fields, and-“

”We’ll have the goose for lunch Sarah.” My aunt said firmly. I felt her lean on my shoulder as she got up and she patted where her hand rested. “If you two are going to the square I’ll have some saffron and honey from the market please.”  
I heard Mark kiss her cheek as he often did when he left the house, and on impulse, feeling her anxiety, I held onto her hand and found her cheek near enough to do the same. Her hair was soft against my face and it occurred to me I had no idea what my aunt looked like, or anything else about her other than her voice and the gentleness of her hand when she touched me. Her touch in return startled me- her hand touched my hair and ran through it, combing it back from my face and she touched my cheek before she let me go, her voice somewhat strange.  
“Don’t get cold, there’s more snow to fall tonight.”
The St Stephen’s day horsing was in full progress around the cathedral and Mark described it for me as I heard the patient clop of many hooves on the cobbles and the voices and bustle of people watching and working in the market. Most of the working horses of the town were here, gleaming with their tails and manes plaited, walking the circuit around the cathedral while the bishop on the cathedral steps blessed them and scattered oats on the steps before them. Partly Mark said for luck in next year’s harvest, and partly in memory of St Stephen the martyr, stoned to death by Herod the day after Christ’s birth.  
“There’s no sign of the boys here.” Mark said when he’d led me right around the edge of the square. “We’ll get the spices and walk down to St Stephen’s fields, it’s not usual for the fights to go on THIS long.”  
We were on the bridge at the edge of town when he started to laugh. And led me to the edge of the bridge where I could feel a draft from the river running below and distantly hear men shouting and the creak of oars.  
“The little devils… there’s three of the boatmen’s barges loose on the river with snowmen on board them, the boatmen are trying to rescue the boats. The apprentices usually do get out of hand on St Stephen’s day but the guilds won’t like that! HARRY!” he added, leaning over the bridge parapet. I leaned with him, straining my ears until I picked out boys voices and laughter on the river bank some way off. Mark shouted again and louder, waving.  
“Harry! Christopher! Lyn I’m going to have to go down there and collar them, they’re past listening. Wait here, I won’t be long.”  
I stood on the bridge hearing the squabbling of the boatmen and the cheers of the boys on the bank, and then the steady clop of the horses from the square being led home. Mark came back with Harry and Christopher who were out of breath and talking nineteen to the dozen with excitement, although they argued some way home with Mark about having to leave the bank with two boats still uncaught. As we turned into Gold street Christopher stopped dead and I heard ahead of us a deep and unfamiliar voice talking irately to someone.  
“One of the watch.” Mark said dryly. “You two are in the basket now, I should think the whole town knows what went on this morning. Christopher, inside. You’re in enough trouble for missing breakfast and worrying Aunt Anne.”  
Uncle James was on the doorstep of the shop and Aunt Anne came sweeping through from the workshop before we were over the step, sounding as shocked as she was relieved.  
“Harry, thank goodness! Christopher LOOK at you- you two are filthy! HOW badly is that tunic torn Harry Armitage?”  
“Are either of you hurt?” I heard Uncle James say sternly from near to where the watchman was still talking about boats and snowmen and gaol if he had his way. Harry and Christopher were still breathless but sounding a good deal more subdued.  
“No sir.”

”They were only down on the bank and watching sir.” Mark said respectfully. “They were on the wrong side of the river to have released the boats, I think that was mostly the drapers apprentices from what I could see. They’re only cold and wet through.”  
“Go and wash and change.” Aunt Anne said, pushing them past me and into the shop. “Quickly, and Harry put that tunic in the kitchen to be mended.”

Mark and I took the honey and saffron through to the kitchen where there was a strong and wonderful scent of cooking goose and almonds, and the sound of splashing where Christopher and Harry were washing snow out of their hair and working sensation back into their cold fingers. They were still no more than half dressed when I heard the shop door shut and my uncle came into the kitchen with a tone in his voice that froze my stomach even though I was uninvolved.  
“Where have you two been all morning? We expected you home for breakfast three hours ago.”

”There was a snowball fight in St Stephen’s field sir.” Christopher sounded subdued but the excitement was still at the back of his voice. “There was so much snow that went on a while, and then the drapers’ apprentices had the idea of the boats, and we forgot all about the time until Mark came down from the bridge.”  
“Did you two have anything to do with the loosing of the boats?”  
“No sir.” Harry said honestly. “We just helped make the snowmen. Everyone did.”  
“Loosing the boats?” Aunt Anne demanded. Uncle James didn’t answer her.  
“If you’re clean, both of you go up to the loft and wait there for me. Harry get yourself something fit to wear.”

I felt the two of them file past me, still damp and cold.  
“It was only the St Stephen’s day fight.” Mark said from the other side of the kitchen. “Remember the year Samuel and Master Barber’s ‘prentice hung the King’s Arms boat from the bridge? And the year they pelted the Watch with snowballs and half the ‘prentices were arrested?”  
“I remember.” My uncle said grimly. “And I remember too what you and Samuel got when you came home.”

I heard him start upstairs and my aunt sighed, putting plates down on the table.  
“When your uncle was a boy, I remember all the apprentices kidnapped a member of the watch and held him for ransom in the square. It’s been going on for longer than any of us remember and I have no doubt Harry’s children and apprentices will do just the same.” 

That evening while we sat in the parlour there was a thunderous knock on the door and my uncle went to the window, throwing it open to hear men’s voices below and the music of the Waites, singing a carol I’d heard before at Hartford .
“St. Stephen was a serving-man
In Herod's royal hall.
He serv-ed him with meat and wine
That doth to kings befall.”
“It’s the grey mare!” Harry said, rushing to join his father at the window. I heard my aunt and Christopher go to the window and look down, and Mark took my arm, pulling me to my feet. I could hear the crowd beneath the window, quiet now but for the music and a single man’s voice, deep and powerful, filling the street.
‘What aileth thee, Stephen?
What does thee befall?
Lacketh thee either meat or drink
In King Herod’s hall?’—
The answer came from a boy chorister’s voice, high and pure in the cold air, and Harry climbed up on the window seat beside his father to look down. 
‘Lacketh me neither meat ne drink
In King Herod’s hall;
There is a child in Bethlehem born
Is better than we all.’—
The answer came again from the deep voice.
Rise up, my tormentors,
By two and all by one,
And lead Stephen out of this town,
And stone him with stone.’
Then another man’s voice, cheerful and somewhat muffled.  
“Ho Master Armitage! Is there any in your house who can fly?”  
“There’s many in the house who would try with a will, and can swim instead.” My uncle called back.  
“And do any in your house loose boats upon the river?” the man’s voice demanded, still more cheerfully. I felt Harry’s mutter of protest: he and Christopher had not mentioned their morning since they came downstairs for lunch, but they’d been noticeably quieter all afternoon.  
“It’s the blacksmith.” Mark whispered to me. “He has a horse skull on his head – he’s the grey mare- and all the men below are in disguise- they ask each guild household three questions, all nonsense, and if the master can answer all three they bless the house.”  
“In this house we crew the boats with snowmen,” my uncle said dryly, “And leave the loosing of them to the drapers.”  
“And what say you to the grey mare on St Stephen’s day?” the man went on as several of the men around him laughed.  
“I say come in and have a drink Tom Colton, and let us shut this window before we all freeze!” Uncle James called back.  
That raised a cheer from the men below and the man’s voice laughed.  
“Three good answers and true! Pass Master Goldsmith! Bless this house lads!”  
There was a roar of voices and knocking on the door and the windows, and Harry ran downstairs to open the door and let the men in.  

We were sent up to bed while the men were still finishing their drinks in the parlour, and we fell asleep to the sound of their voices downstairs.  
It was the sound of a hunting horn, far away, that woke me again some hours later. The house was cold and still, and no one moved as I got out of bed. It took a moment to find the window latch and to push it open, but when I did, I heard the rushing of the wind past the eaves and the soft chiming of the bells and hanging lanterns in the street. And again, far away, the blast of a hunting horn.  
There was a soft ‘tink tink’ sound from downstairs- the sound of a tool on metal, and I knew what it would be. I shut the window softly, not to disturb Christopher, and made my way slowly downstairs. There was light in the workshop, I could see the brightness, but instead of Mark’s voice there were several, men’s voices and the steady chink of tools and the hiss of hot metal poured. The street door opened and I heard the grey mare’s voice again from the shop.  
“Master Goldsmith! How many lads have you can do a day’s work?”  
The voice that answered was not my uncle’s, nor any voice I knew.  
“I’ve three lads here can do half a lad’s work at a push.”

There was laughter from the workshop and I heard the boots on the stone floor passing me towards the door, several young men’s voices,  
“How many lads have you there who’ll run with the grey mare?”  
“Two.” A young man called back from the workshop. “And coming now!”  
A cloak was being pulled on, I could smell the wool and hear it rustle, then one set of feet passed me and another voice called.  
“Tom, come on! They’re nearly ready to move on!”  
Another set of steps passed at a run, and I heard the street door swing open wider as the older man’s voice gave a third answer and there was a cheer and knocking on the doors and windows. Then silence.  
I followed the ice chill of the draft through the workshop in slow steps, feeling my way through the workbenches to the wood door into the shop, over the rough and wooden floor of the shop itself with a scattering of snow that stung my bare feet. The shop door stood open, I could feel it. Through the open doorway my fingers found the hanging chalice, the sign of the goldsmiths, and my feet felt the icy stone step with the snow in the street nearly level with it.  
“Lyn?” Mark’s voice said softly behind me. I held onto the open door, straining my ears to hear up and down the street. Silence. No steps, no voices, nothing. Then Harry’s voice behind me, still the high little boy voice, sleepy and interested.  
“Mark? Why are you going out?”  
“Quiet.” Mark said with authority and I heard him come through the shop. His hands were shockingly warm on my arms and his voice was gentle.  
“Lyn? Are you awake? Come inside.”

”Where’s he going?” Harry demanded, pattering through the workshop. Mark held me out of the way and I heard the softness with which he closed and bolted the shop door.  
“Harry go back to your bed. Hush! You’ve been spanked once today already, do you want your father to catch you downstairs?”  
“I only wanted to see-“

”Go now or I’ll spank you myself.” Mark said fiercely in the same low tone. Harry clearly believed him: he moved softly upstairs and Mark drew me after him, holding my arms all the way upstairs.  
“Are you awake?” he said again to me, softly when we reached the quiet of the loft. I clutched to him, letting him steer me back towards the bed, then thought of something and pulled away. He followed me, letting me open the window and lean out, listening. There was nothing. The night was still, there was not a breath of wind left. No sound to be heard.  
“I don’t know.” I told him, shivering.  
“Come back to bed.” He told me softly and I curled up under still faintly warm blankets, listening to him climb into the bed near mine. “What did you hear Lyn?”  
Voices. Names. Hunting horns. I turned over, troubled, but not at all sure now if I had dreamed it or imagined it.  
“Nothing. Just a nightmare, no more.”
Continue on to Part 4 of The Mistleberry

Copyright Ranger 2010

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