St Nicholas’s Day, 6 December
At eight months pregnant, the Right Honorable, Viscountess Frome, or simply Sarah to her friends and family, appreciated what her mother had gone through when she had carried the twins. Sarah’s back ached, her feet were swollen, she was tired pretty much all of the time, and more than anything else, she had the most fanciful food cravings.
“Sugar!” she said to Anne-Marie, who was still her best friend and now a fellow teacher at the school house just outside the village. “I feel as though I could eat all the sugar in the world.”
“There is nothing like an expensive taste,” laughed Anne-Marie.
Fortunately, Sarah was in a far better position than Celeste Payne had been at this point in her pregnancy. For a start, Sarah lived in a lovely big house when her mother had been forced to move into a room above her sister’s inn. Sarah did not have to work for all the hours that God sent, nor any hours in fact. The days that she spent at the school teaching folk to read were her own choice, and it was so rewarding. Her mother, on the other hand, had been a housekeeper at the big house – indeed, the one where Sarah lived now. And Sarah had an entire team of servants to look after her every need. The only people Celeste had to help her were members of her immediate family: her husband Frederick, their daughter Sarah, and her sister and brother-in-law Jean and Owen.
The twins, Sarah’s brother and sister, were sixteen months old now and racing around on all fours, chasing each other or seeing which one of them could crawl the fastest. Sarah’s Aunt Jean was in the kitchen helping Celeste prepare the dinner, whilst her father and her husband were in the King Arthur’s Arms, having a festive tipple with Sarah’s Uncle Owen. He would be closing the inn shortly, and the menfolk would return to the Paynes’ cosy little cottage in time for dinner. Sarah was keeping an eye on the twins, whilst Anne-Marie was keeping an eye on Sarah.
“I feel so lucky to be surrounded by so many people who wish to help me,” Sarah said. “Do you know, I only have to pull the service chord in the middle of the night, and any one of the servants will bring me a tray with something sweet and sugary on it.” She patted her swollen belly. “I would swear that if I were not with child, I would still be the size I am now.”
“Pregnancy suits you, mon ami,” said her friend. “I would swear that you have done nothing but blossom like a petit fleur.”
Sarah loved the way that Anne-Marie spoke in a kind of French-English, or ‘fran-glais’ – a mixture of français and anglais. She wondered if her friend thought in French when she was speaking in English, or did she think in English, so she knew how to construct her sentences? I wish my French were half as good as Anne-Marie’s English, Sarah mused for the thousandth time. She had always thought the same, for English seemed to come so naturally to her friend.
It was hard to believe that less than two years before, they had both been housemaids in the big house – Sarah’s big house now – and Anne-Marie was teaching Sarah how to speak French. Now, here they were, Sarah, a viscountess and Anne-Marie, a French language teacher. Anne-Marie could have left servitude to become a private governess in a wealthy household, but she had opted instead to help Sarah and her husband, James, run the new school, which was the viscount’s pet project. She lived in the living quarters above the school, and she had just started to create a small garden so that the children who came to the school had something else to learn about other than reading. They were too young yet to learn French, so Anne-Marie wanted instead to teach them about nature. They had no need to learn about growing their own food, for most of their families did that already, either on small patches of land that were close to their homes or in the fields that belonged to the farms.
The door burst open, and the menfolk trundled into the house on a cold blast of air, bringing a flurry of snow with them. Sarah started to get out of her chair to go and greet her husband, but she felt a twinge in her stomach and decided against it, letting him come to her instead.
“Oh, your lips are frozen!” she said when he kissed her on the cheek. “How long has it been snowing?” He pulled off mittens, his hat and the heavy coat he was wearing, and he stamped his feet on the mat to clear the snow off his boots. Sarah’s father and uncle both did the same.
“We do not know how long it has been snowing,” said James, looking at his companions. “We were toasty warm in the inn, drinking brandy that burned all the way down, and when we came outside to come here, there was already a good four inches underfoot.”
“Four inches?” repeated Sarah, wanting to dash to the window to look out at it but thinking better of that as well. There were short but heavy curtains drawn across the window that looked out of the parlour and onto the cobbled street, and now her da was pulling the matching curtain across the front door to help keep the chill out. “It must have been snowing for at least an hour, then.”
“Most will’ve drifted,” said Fred Payne, straightening the door curtain and making sure there were no gaps. He took three strides across the room and stood with his back to the hearth, where a fire burned merrily behind a fire guard that kept the children safe. “Oh, that’s nice,” he added, wriggling his backside in order to distribute the heat more evenly.
“Nice!” said Nora from her place on the rug.
“Da!” said William, pointing at his father.
They had been playing with some wooden blocks, and now Nora was pushing one of hers into her mouth. Fortunately, it was too big to fit inside so she would not choke.
Uncle Owen pushed Fred Payne out of the way. “Stop hogging the fire, thee,” he said with mock anger. “Let someone else have a go.”
Fred picked William up and held him up in the air until he squealed, then he picked Nora up and did the same to her. “I suppose I’d better go an’ see if there’s anythin’ I can do,” he said, making his way to the kitchen so that Uncle Owen already had more room.
James sat on the settee next to his wife and grinned at Anne-Marie, rubbing his hands together to warm them up. It did not take long, for it was a warm and cosy room once the front door was closed and the curtain pulled across.
Sarah’s Aunt Jean came into the room, wiping her hands on a cloth. “Dinner’s ready,” she said to them all, picking Nora up and taking her through to put her in one of the high chairs. “Will you bring William, Anne-Marie?”
“Mais, oui!” said Anne-Marie, jumping up from her armchair.
The parlour was so small it was better for one to wait for one’s turn before joining in the rush towards the dining room, which was also small but more organised. James was next to stand, helping his wife to her feet, whilst Fred Payne brought up the rear.
The Paynes did not use the dining room very often, choosing instead to take their meals at the kitchen table. But with seven diners, plus the two children, the dining room made more sense. When they had finished their meals of roast pork followed by plum pudding, they retired once again to the small parlour, this time with Aunt Jean and Celeste Payne, and they opened the humble gifts they had all brought for each other.
Christmas Eve, 24 December
James convinced his father to come into the woods with him to select the Yule log, but the Marquess of Warminster grumbled for the entire event. Mr Ingram, the butler, was also with them, and he had brought two of the footmen to help. And, of course, James’ brother-in-law Thomas had come out with them too. The six men were all bundled up against the cold, carrying ropes with which to drag the tree trunk back to the house with them.
“We should not be out here in all this snow!” he complained to anyone who would listen, puffing and blowing at the exertion. “We should be sitting in front of roaring fires drinking good brandy and exchanging amusing tales of Christmases past.”
“Do you know any, Father?” asked James breathlessly, for he did have to admit that wading through snow that was eighteen inches thick was hard work.
“Any what?” said Lord Bartleby.
“Amusing tales of Christmases past?”
“I say,” said Lord Thomas Vincent. “I think I may have a few to tell.”
James laughed. “I do not think my father meant that kind of tale, Tommy.”
Lord Bartleby stood still for a few moments, making a great show of trying to think.
“Do not think you will fool me by pretending you are thinking very hard, Father,” said James with his mittened hands on his hips. “I know it is but a ruse and that you are really having a rest.”
Since the end of the summer, when they had buried the dowager marchioness, historic tensions between father and son, marquess and viscount, had relaxed a great deal, for previously, theirs had not been a happy relationship. The marquess had not shaken himself out of his melancholy immediately, but the improvement in his countenance had been slow and steady. For the first time in as long as James could remember, it was as though they had a true father/son relationship. At last.
“If we were all cooped up at home telling stories to each other,” said James, starting off towards the forest once more. “How would we bring back the log?”
Lord Bartleby looked as though his son had just spoken a foreign language to him. “Do we not have horses to do such manual work?” he asked with a frown.
“It would not be so much fun then, My Lord,” said Thomas, picking up a handful of snow and rolling it into a ball.
Lord Bartleby eyed the snow in his hands, and his frown turned to a look of surprise. “Surely you do not intend–” Smack! The snowball hit him square in the face.
James stood still again and held his breath for just a moment, his eyes fixed on the marquess, for he had no clue how his father would react to such a thing. Then Lord Bartleby surprised them all, stooping down to make a snowball of his own and then tossing it at Lord Thomas, who was so surprised he fell over!
In a heartbeat, everyone was joining in now, whilst Thomas struggled to get to his feet and failed, arms flailing and windmilling as he lost his balance again. And before long, they were all soaked through the skin. Eventually, it was Mr Ingram, the butler, who reminded them they had an errand to run.
“Might I suggest that we go and find the log that Lord James has already identified and had felled?” he ventured cautiously. A snowball hit him on the side of the head, and he pressed his lips together in a tight smile. “Who threw that?” he said.
“I did!” said at least three of the others.
At last, realising that they were soaked to the skin, they reformed and went in search of the elusive tree trunk, which actually was not that elusive at all as James had selected a tree right on the very outskirts of the forest. Indeed, they could still see the house from where they were. Ropes were secured around the girth of the log, and the two footmen and the two younger gentlemen dragged it back to the house between them. Lord Bartleby and Mr Ingram, however, carried armfuls of evergreens, holly and mistletoe with which to decorate the great hall and the dining room.
Lady Melissa came to greet them, going straight to her husband.
“Thomas!” she said. “You are quite wet! What has happened?” She clearly expected to hear that they had all somehow wandered onto the lake, and the ice had broken, dropping them all into the icy cold water.
Thomas looked at James, who looked at his father, who looked at Melissa, and the three of them burst into uncontrollable laughter.
At the sound, Lady Amanda came rushing out to see what was ailing her husband, but when she saw they were all laughing, she had no choice but to join in with them.
“I trust my wife is resting and taking it easy?” said James when he had paused to breathe.
“It was all I could do to stop her from dashing out here with me!” scolded his mother. “Come, now, show her that you are quite well and that she may relax once more.
Dinner was served in the alcove in the state dining room, where Lady Amanda’s newest mahogany table and chairs were set. James glanced around at the high ceilings, the deep friezes, the fancy furniture, the priceless paintings, and the fireplace that was taller than him and the same again deep but wide enough to burn the Yule log in a specially made fire basket, and he silently marvelled at the difference between this Christmas Eve dinner and the St Nicholas’s Day dinner in the village. Boughs of holly hung in garlands around the walls. Balls of mistletoe were suspended from the tops of the four doorways that served the room. An evergreen wreath with a candle at its centre sat in the middle of the table.
He glanced around at everyone. His father was looking happier than he had ever seen him, his mother who was sharing an amusing anecdote with Lord Thomas, his sister who could hardly take her eyes off her husband, and then his wife, whose eyes met his across the table as though she had watched his every move.
Yes, it was definitely much more relaxed in the Horning household this year than it had been in previous years.
James’ father wiped his mouth with a napkin, cleared his throat, and addressed the table in general. “Have you decided upon a name yet for the child?” he asked.
James looked at his wife again. “You tell them, dear.”
Sarah took a deep breath. “If it is a boy, we will call him Stephen.” There was an approving murmur around the table. “If it is a girl, we will call her Holly.”
“Oh, that is a pretty name,” said Melissa.
Lord Bartleby frowned. “It is not a very grand name,” he said, and James wondered if his father might be making a return to form.
“But it is a lovely name,” said Lady Amanda.
“Nicholas or Holly,” said Thomas, nodding. “I see what you have done there.”
Melissa shot her head around and gave him a quizzical look.
He picked up her hand, kissed her fingers, and said, “It is Christmas, the feast of Stephen. And…” he waved his other arm around the room. “There is holly everywhere.”
“But the child is not due for another month,” said Melissa, addressing her brother now.
“We have had such a lovely Christmas,” said Sarah, “with all of you and with my family in the village…”
“We simply wished to mark the occasion by naming the newest member of the family thus,” said James, finishing the sentence for her, as they were often wont to do.”
“Hrmph!” said Lord Bartleby, nodding his approval, and James breathed a sigh of relief.
Twelfth Night, 6 January 1816
James and Sarah lived in a wing of the house that was completely self-contained, with their own servants. That meant if they wished to spend time alone together, away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the household, they could. And they often did. After a busy festive season, when Sarah was already under a lot of strain due to her condition, they decided to end the celebration in their own rooms in their own wing of the house.
“Are you certain you do not really wish you were drinking spiced wine and bobbing for apples with the rest of the household, my dear?” James asked her.
Sarah looked down at her enormous body. “You are not serious?” she said. “I do not think I could bob for anything. I can hardly bend at the waist at all, let alone bend right over to grab an apple from a barrel of water with my mouth. However, if you would rather be doing that, please do not feel as though you have to stay here with me.”
James frowned. “Of course, I have to stay here with you. You are my wife, and you are about to have our baby.”
“Not yet,” she reminded him. “There is at least another week, and I certainly do not feel as though my time is near.”
“You are not your usual lively self,” he pointed out. “Any other year, you would be going around the house with the servants helping them to take down the greenery and putting it on the fires yourself. This time, you are not even supervising them.”
“I will go and see how they are getting on now,” she said, pushing herself up from her chair.
He stood up and helped her to her feet, but she shooed him away, so he sat back down again.
A few moments later, she shuffled back into the room with one hand in the small of her back and a mistletoe ball in the other. “There is only one berry left on this one,” she said
James jumped to his feet again and dashed towards her. “Then let us not waste it!” he said, taking her in his arms and kissing her sweetly on the lips.
She kissed him back and said, “There is something I need to tell you.”
“What is that?” asked James, still holding her tenderly.
“As I reached up to take down this mistletoe, my labour started–” She was not able to finish her sentence because a sharp pain shot through her body. In an instant, he picked her up in his arms and carried her from the room.
Less than a day later, a tired and exhausted Sarah said hello to her baby girl.
“Hello, Holly,” she cooed. And then she said hello to her baby boy. “Hello, Stephen.”