Sleepless in Staffordshire – Celeste Bradley

LORD MATTHIAS WATERFORD ENTERED HIS fine country manor of Havensbeck in county Staffordshire, removed his hat and was promptly greeted by his butler, Jasper. The stout man looked dignified as usual in his dark blue livery. Jasper bowed. “How was your ride, my lord?” “Cold.” Matthias shrugged out of his snow-dusted greatcoat and unwound his woolen scarf. Something caught his eye as he looked up. “Jasper, what is that hideous growth that is even now strangling my banister?” Jasper wasn’t the slightest bit near-sighted, being no older than Matthias’s own thirty-two years. Yet he squinted up at the stair railing as if barely able to see what his master referred to. “Oh, that? That is a garland, my lord. A braided strand of winter greenery used to impart a sense of the season.” “Yes, I know what a garland is. Why is a garland allowed to infest my house?” Jasper beamed at Matthias innocently. “Some people consider them very becoming decorations, my lord.” “Some people may, but not I. Take it down.

” “Absolutely. Hideous thing. I shall banish it at once, my lord.” The butler bowed so obsequiously low that Matthias could see the top of his ginger-haired head. Sarcasm, in his own house. Matthias handed his black leather riding gloves to Jasper with an admonishing glare. Then he turned toward his study and the bottle of brandy that awaited him there. Garlands. Blast it! Christmas just kept coming, every year, again and again, no matter how fast he rode or how far he traveled. So he retreated to this place, Havensbeck, deep in the Staffordshire valley, where the icy cold kept everyone indoors and the heavy snow muffled the sounds of their celebrations.

And he still walked in on blasted garlands. “My lord?” Matthias sighed and turned to face his most faithful and trusted and annoying retainer. “Out with it, Jasper.” “The Haven assembly rooms are under repair, my lord. Recall that storm last October? The roof leaked most abominably.” “I don’t believe a word of it.” Jasper nodded solemnly. “It is quite true, my lord. Mildew everywhere. The blue velvet chair cushions are positively green with stuff growing on them.

” “And yet you drape my house with green growing stuff?” “That’s different, my lord.” Jasper’s tone was starchy. “That’s traditional.” Matthias sighed. “Mildew, eh?” “It is most unrefined, my lord. The ladies will never sit down all night. You will be forced to dance with every single one, at least three times. That is, you would if you still danced.” Pity tinged the butler’s voice. Matthias flinched from it, parting his lips to reprimand Jasper.

However, those black days of shouting at his devoted servants were long past. “Inform whomever is arranging this event that I will buy new chairs for the hall.” Jasper blinked. “Ah. Yes. That is most generous, of course, my lord. But with only three weeks until Christmas?“ “Ah, you were hoping I would volunteer the manor for the celebrations?” “Oh, it isn’t I, my lord. It’s the staff, you see. I’m simply the elected spokesperson.” Jasper spread his hands in an apologetic gesture.

“I’m fully against it, myself. I loathe people. I despise celebrations. So messy. Dreadful nuisance, guests. If it were up to me, my lord, I would keep the house dark and cold and serve only dry toast and brandy for the next three weeks, just as you prefer. Now, that’s my sort of Christmas.” Irony, from his own butler. Matthias grunted as he turned away. “Just top off the brandy, Jasper.

The dry toast is all yours this evening.” MATTHIAS LEANED BACK IN HIS fireside chair and cupped his snifter in both hands. His study remained quite satisfactorily dark, but it wasn’t cold. Jasper would never allow that. A cheery flame traced blue and gold over the coals in the fireplace. From his high-backed chair, Matthias watched it numbly until its merry dance seemed to mock his misery. He closed his eyes against its optimistic flare. Another Christmas. Another year without Marianna, without his jolly little Simon, without his family. No happy singing of carols, no giddy hiding of gifts, just this bloody great echoing house and another snowy anniversary of that horrible fiery night.

His eyes opened and his gaze slid to the blotter on his desk. Jasper had left out a stack of foolscap and a filled inkwell. Next to the blotter stood a washed, dried wine bottle and a cork at the ready. Matthias looked away. He didn’t know why he bothered. The letters never helped. The entire process was maudlin and unwise and useless. If anyone but Jasper ever learned of it, they would certainly think him mad. So why did the next moment find him seated at his desk, sharpening a quill? Why did his fingertips grasp the pen, dip it into the ready ink and begin to write? My dearest Simon, He wouldn’t write to Marianna this time. But a man could pen a letter to his own son, could he not? The snow is falling on the lawn and I think of you chortling away as your mama tried to show you how to make a snow angel.

She moved your little arms and legs and you thought she meant to tickle you. And when she lifted you into her arms and pointed at what you made together, you clapped your hands and shouted “Doggie!” That’s when she began to call them snow doggies instead and we made them all over the lawn for you to see the next morning when you awoke. The coals had gone to gray ash and the house was silent by the time he finished the letter. The pages, when rolled, scarcely fit through the neck of the bottle. “You are a man of few words, my love,” she had told him once with a little laugh in her voice, “but when you take up a pen, you write volumes! “Only about you,” Matthias whispered now. “Only about him.” He corked the bottle tightly and stood, weaving just slightly. He’d been at the desk so long the brandy had nearly worn off, or it would have, if he’d taken the toast. He would have an aching head on him in the morning for his carelessness. No matter.

His step was steady as he left the study and the house. It wasn’t a far walk to the stone bridge over the river. His woolen surcoat and weskit would keep him warm enough, even in the snowfall. The clouds held a glow, for the village was still alight with lanterns and the first round of celebrations. The people of Haven loved a fête, that was for certain. Marianna had adored throwing parties for them all. From baptisms to weddings, she had turned her considerable imagination to pleasing his people. Matthias had always held their respect, but it was Marianna they had loved. And Simon. His chest hurt.

The hollow pain of loss and helpless fury that smoldered in his heart burned with a special, piercing ache as Christmas Eve approached every year. The manor had long been repaired. Looking back at it now, no sign remained of the fire damage that had burned the heart right out of its master. Tonight, as the snow fell so peacefully and silently, muffling the faint sounds of fiddle music coming from the village, one would think that nothing bad could ever happen in a place so beautiful. One would be wrong. Marianna had loved the river. It was known as the River Churnet, a name so old no one remembered what it meant any longer. “Mundane,” she had stated, and renamed it the River Celadon and declared it chock full of naiads or dryads or whatever spirits haunted running water. Even now, in the harshest of winters, the swift running water had refused to freeze entirely, leaving a rushing stream down the center of the encroaching ice on both banks. Matthias leaned his elbows on the sturdy stone railing of the bridge and pressed the freezing glass bottle to his flushed forehead.

It was a silly thing to do, writing these letters. “Stupid. Useless.” He held the bottle to his cheek and squeezed his eyes closed. “I love you both. I miss you. Merry Christmas.” And he let the bottle fall into the hissing, rushing water yet again. Chapter 2 BERNIE GOODRICH WRAPPED ONE FIST in the back of her brother’s thick winter jacket and held tight to the leafless branch over her head with the other. Beneath them, the ice-edged water of the River Churnet swirled gray and white.

“Just a bit more.” “I haven’t any more, Simon. Do you want to take a dousing in the ice water and cause Aunt Sarah to carry on about you taking a chill? She’ll boil you alive in the tub until you’re the color of a cooked lobster!” “Got it!” Eight-year-old Simon held the bottle aloft like a trophy, brandishing it in triumph. Bernie pulled him back to the bank with a mighty heave. “Heavens, you’re growing. I won’t be able to do that for much longer.” She set him on his feet and then brushed her fallen hair back into her knitted hat so she could better examine their prize. “It’s a different label than last time,” Simon pointed out. “Look, there’s a waterwheel on this one.” Bernie tilted her head.

“I think it’s one of those Dutch inventions. A windmill.” She held the greenish-brown bottle to the wintry gray daylight and tried to peer through it. “This one looks chock full of paper!” “Bernadette Goodrich! What on earth are you doing on the riverbank on such a terrible day?” Bernie tucked the bottle away into the folds of her skirt as she straightened. “Nothing, Aunt Sarah!” She called back up the bank. Her aunt gazed down at her from the path above the Churnet, her work-worn fists plunked onto her angular hips. Her brow held the permanent furrows of confusion that Bernie and Simon seemed to inspire in their childless aunt and uncle. “Are we late for something?” Simon whispered as they clambered up the bank. The grassy slope was covered in a thick fall of snow. They left a trail of footprints, one set small and the other not much larger, in the pristine bank.

It was a good question. “I don’t think so, but perhaps?” It seemed to Bernie that she was usually in the wrong for one thing or another. Tardiness was her usual sin, although according to Aunt Sarah she was also accomplished in Laggardliness and Inattention. In the six years since she and Simon had been sent away from the epidemic that had taken their parents, they had lived in the vicarage of Green Dell and had done their best to adapt. Simon had only been two years of age, so the crumbling house and poor village was all he knew. Bernie, on the other hand, had been fourteen, old enough to recall every moment of another life. A life very different from this one. “Let’s see. We fed the chickens, filled the coal scuttles and turned down the beds.” “I fluffed the pillows!” “And a fine job you did of it, too.

” Bernie counted off on the fingers of her woolen gloves. “Chickens, coal, beds, wood-box, and the dough is rising.” “We didn’t dust the parlor!” “Oh, Christmas Bells on a Stick!” Bernie swore. It was Wednesday and the village Ladies League met in the vicarage parlor every week. “Scurry home and get the cloths from the linen basket. I’ll put the bread in the oven and meet you in the parlor. Go on! Run!” Simon bounced ahead of her. If her aunt wasn’t lurking watchfully about, Bernie would pick up her skirts and race him home. But the prospect of a lecture on decorum along with the usual one on duty made her head ache just a little bit. She didn’t mean to be a slackard.

It wasn’t that she minded the constant work, for Aunt Sarah was thrice as industrious herself. None of the chores she’d been set were terribly arduous, at least not now that she was fully grown. It was just that there were so bloody many of them! And now she’d said bloody in her head, which had to count as some sort of sin. Bernie sighed. It was so easy to sin, living at the vicarage. When Mama and Papa were alive, she’d hardly seemed to sin at all! The paper-stuffed wine bottle tucked deep into her coat pocket banged against her knee at every step. It was the first one they’d seen this year! Excitement simmered within her, fighting with the frustration that threatened to boil over. With the Ladies’ League gathering at the vicarage today, she and Simon wouldn’t have a moment to examine their find until bedtime! Christmas Bells! THE DAYS ARE TOO QUIET without you and your mother. The nights are as silent as death itself. Sometimes I must snap my fingers at my ears to be sure I can still hear anything at all.

Where is your shriek of glee? Where is your mother’s laugh? Did you take them with you onward or are they lost forever? A POOR VILLAGE MEANT A poor vicar, if he were an honest fellow. Uncle Isaiah gave everything to his people and they gave back what little they could. Summers were better, when Bernie could fish and pick berries and the hens laid well. Now, in the winter, bellies were never quite full enough. The vicarage creaked in the night, and the windows weren’t tight enough, and coal was too dear to keep the fire going all night long. Nonetheless, Bernie and Simon had learned to tolerate the chill and darkness to stay up late at night. Aunt Sarah believed in “early to bed, early to rise” and “early birds get the worm” and that keeping late hours made one susceptible to Satan’s minions, or was it Satan’s mischief? To be certain, Bernie was a terrible listener. However, fear held no sway over two young people with a yen for a bit of freedom. Aunt Sarah and Uncle Isaiah had been abed for hours, and Bernie and Simon were sprawled on their bellies on the braided rug in her bedchamber, with seventeen letters spread out before them, a single hoarded candle-stub brightening the center of the assortment of stained and wrinkled pages like a spotlight on a stage. Four of the letters were from the first Christmas after the dam had been built.

The next year had brought five, all during the three weeks before Christmas. Then there had been four every year until this one. Simon touched the corner of today’s find. “He sounds different now.” Bernie tilted her head. “How so?” She’d noticed it as well, but she wanted to hear Simon’s thoughts. He had a way of looking at things, of seeing the heart of the matter. “His handwriting is better.” Simon pursed his lips. “I think he didn’t drink so much brandy this time.

” Bernie would have liked to keep such knowledge from his young mind, but there was no keeping anything from Simon’s sharp awareness. He was clever, like Papa. But not so serious. Bernie had made sure of that, remembering how to play and laugh herself, fighting through her own grief, just so she didn’t have to see the bewildered gravity in his child’s eyes anymore. “Mama would say he is finding his feet.” She spoke of their parents easily, had made herself do so when she’d realized that if she did not give them to Simon, no one would. “Or he ran out of liquor,” Simon said, his tone matter-of-fact. “Or Jasper made extra toast!” She was rewarded by Simon’s snicker. The man who wrote to his lost wife and child didn’t mention other names very often, but Bernie and Simon were very fond of the passage from two years past where he had written, “Jasper despairs of me in these dark times. He would feed me quail in aspic, cake and puddings, filling my hollow spirit with food and pointless celebrations.

I take my revenge upon him by refusing anything but dry toast with my brandy. It is petty, but I enjoy it in a small, black-hearted way.” Bernie thought Jasper must be a manservant. Simon stoutly maintained that Jasper was the mystery man’s best friend. Bernie privately wondered if the letter writer had any friends. If he did, would he spend hours every winter writing to people who were gone? She’d tried it once, after she’d found the first letters. She’d written to her mother, telling her all about how Simon was growing, and said the cleverest things, and how cold and bare the vicarage was, and how Bernie longed for something more from Aunt Sarah, who worked so hard on other’s behalf but never laughed. When she was done, she felt a bit lighter, but Mama and Papa would never read those words, and Aunt Sarah might, if they were left lying about. Bernie realized that her sixteen-year-old opinions might hurt her aunt, so she tossed the letter into the fire and then stoically endured a scolding for wasting precious paper when Aunt Sarah found the scraps in the coals. She never wrote another letter.

But then, she still had Simon, and her aunt and uncle. He only had Jasper. Looking down, she saw that Simon had fallen asleep, his head pillowed on one skinny arm, his other thumb dangerously close to his mouth. “Just keeping it to hand,” she whispered to him with a smile, recalling their father’s wry estimation of the practice. Before she lifted him into the trundle by her own bed, she picked up the latest letter and read it through again. You thought the snow was magical. So did your mother. So did I. Now it is only cold and wet. But at least, when it lies heavy, it keeps the world at bay.

Beautiful words, yet so sad. Who was this man? THE HOUSE RESOUNDED WITH SILENCE. Matthias wandered through the large rooms, his footsteps echoing through the luxurious drawing room with its dark fireplace and through the grand dining room where only a single candle still lighting the room reflected from the many crystals in the chandeliers. He liked it quiet, of course he did. He was always telling Jasper that. Then Jasper would try to get him to go out, or have guests or make calls. In turn, Matthias refused, avoided and generally disregarded his butler’s urgings. Yet tonight the silence fell stifling. If not for his own steps and the slight creaking of the floors as he was walked, he would’ve doubted his own hearing. So still.

Some of the staff were likely in the village, enjoying the celebrations. Jasper was generous that way, especially since there was so little occupation with only the master at home. The house could probably do with less staff, but how could Matthias let his people go? Marianna had chosen them, or brought them with her, and even grown a few right here in Haven. They were Marianna’s people is much as his.

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