November 1, 2006
A Twelfth Night Tale
A Twelfth Night Tale
Yorkshire, December, 1814
“I am sorry, Miss. T’rooms are naught to be had.” The innkeeper wiped the sweat from his fleshy face with his apron. “Other folk coom before thee.”
No room at the inn, Elizabeth Arrington thought. Two days before Christmas. How ironic.
The innkeeper reached for the door to return to the taproom, but she stopped him. “Mr. Vail, you can see my companion is with child. She is exhausted as well.”
Elizabeth watched the man’s expression soften as he gazed at the young woman beside her. Anna Reade was a mere girl, really, only sixteen years old and not accustomed to traveling in public coaches, stopping at strange inns, or listening to Yorkshire accents. Who could not be sympathetic to her? Anna looked like an angel with her alabaster skin, blond wispy curls escaping her bonnet, and large forlorn blue eyes.
The innkeeper compressed his lips and shook his head. “There’s naught to be done. Thou may sit in the taproom, if there be seats.”
He opened the door, and the sound of raucous voices boomed out on a blast of hot air filled with the bitter scent of fermented hops, mutton stew, and unwashed people. The room was packed with Yorkshire workers and travelers all waiting for the roads to dry, filling themselves full of ale and mutton in the meantime. The roads were muddy and treacherous from the rain that had poured down for two days. In the coach that had barely managed to deliver Elizabeth and Anna to this place, the weather and the roads had been favored topics. When their fellow travelers began telling tales of ships imperiled by gales, Elizabeth had wanted to cover Anna’s ears.
Elizabeth and Anna had been traveling the public coaches for three days, making their way from Kent on the Great North Road to Elizabeth’s parents in Northumbria, the only place Elizabeth could think to go. They’d passed through York and Ripon, places where they might have found a room in which to wait out the weather, but Elizabeth had been all too conscious of the dwindling number of coins in her purse. In fact, she could ill afford to pay Mr. Vail had he lodgings to give them.
Anna’s eyes were wide with fright as she peered into the crowded, noisy room.
Elizabeth seized the innkeeper’s arm before he disappeared through the doorway. “A horse, then, Mr. Vail. Do you have a horse for us? To reach Bolting House. I…I was once acquainted with the earl, and perhaps he would take pity on us. You could store our trunks in your stable.”
A horse might make a journey a coach could not, and Bolting House could not be more than three miles distant. The rain had slowed to a drizzle and there was still light enough to find the way there, if she could recall it. Mr. Vail might not remember her from when her father had so briefly been Bolting’s vicar, but the earl certainly would.
The earl had always been kind to her family the year they lived here, inviting them to dinner, including them in the parties, the Christmas festivities. Elizabeth blinked rapidly and straightened her spine. The important thing was, the earl was certain to take pity on her and Anna, and she could only hope the weather had kept his house free of other guests.
“I own a horse, if thee ‘as coin to pay,” the innkeeper said.
Sucking in a breath, Elizabeth pulled out her purse and gave him the money.
He leaned in the taproom and shouted, “Galfrid! Get thee here!”
A few minutes later Galfrid had an old nag saddled and they were on their way. Elizabeth led the horse, and Anna rode on the horse’s back.
“Are you all right, Miss Arrington?” Anna asked as they made their way on the road to Bolting House. “I feel so guilty to be riding while you walk in the mud.”
“It is not so bad.” Elizabeth forced herself to sound cheerful. “In fact, it feels good to be walking after being cooped up in those coaches. Besides, it is not far now.”
She lied, of course, but Anna did not need to know her half boots were soaked through and the hem of her skirt was heavy with mud. The temperature had dropped, and the drizzle cut through her cloak like icy needles.
“Will the earl let us stay, do you think?” Anna asked, sounding like an anxious child.
It was no wonder, after all they’d been through, that Anna should worry about being welcome. They’d been turned out of places Anna ought to have been met with open arms.
But Anna had secretly fallen in love with Jessop Nodham, the son of her father’s archenemy, and, worse than that, she pledged her love with her body before there could be any chance of marriage to the young man. While he sailed for the Mediterranean, Anna hid the consequences of that reckless night with the help of her equally foolish lady’s maid. Anna was now seven months along.
Elizabeth did not know what made her feel guiltier. That she, as Anna’s governess, had not discovered and prevented the clandestine meetings, or that she’d not noticed her charge’s thickening waistline. Either justified her being summarily discharged when Baron and Baroness Reade returned from their latest country house party.
But the Reades had also banished their daughter, something Elizabeth could not forgive.
“Let Nodham’s parents take you in,” they’d shouted at Anna. “We won’t have a Nodham bastard in this house.”
Elizabeth felt it her duty to accompany Anna to the neighboring estate of the Baronet Nodham, but he and his wife would not even receive them. They sent a message through their footman that Anna’s presence was an “extreme cruelty.”
So nothing was left but for Elizabeth to take Anna to the only haven she knew. Her own parents, though her father could barely support her mother in the poor parish he’d accepted after leaving Bolting.
Elizabeth could hardly bear it. It was as if the wounds of her own past, such a mirror of Anna’s situation, had been torn open to bleed all over again.
The horse halted, its hooves stuck in the mud. Elizabeth gritted her teeth and pulled on the reins.
Chances are he would not be at Bolting House, she thought. He would still be soldiering, perhaps, though the monster Napoleon had been exiled to Elba months ago and the war ended. She pulled on the reins again, and the nag lifted one hoof then another, and they began moving.
The Earl of Bolting poured the last drop of brandy into his glass, its liquid glimmering from the glow of the library’s fireplace. He held the bottle up to the light, but it was, indeed, empty. Placing it next to the other two he’d emptied, he rejoiced in this one advantage of inheriting his uncle’s title. A full wine cellar. He pondered if he could make it all the way to the racks of brandy bottles without tumbling down the stone stairs and breaking his neck.
Probably not. He ought to content himself with this numbing haze rather than alcoholic oblivion.
This was not the place he fancied being at Christmas time, this of all houses, and at his least favorite time of year. He’d wanted to remain in Town, but circumstances had driven him away from London’s distractions.
When he’d arrived in London in the spring, he had barely finished mourning his father’s death, or his brother’s, or his uncle’s. Two taken by a freak accident, one by illness, Captain Zachary Weston had been the only one left to inherit the title Earl of Bolting. Fate had certainly made a cruel mistake. Those three men had been worthy of the title, not he. He was a soldier, for God’s sake. He was the one who ought to have died. In Spain, enough men had been struck down around him. Why not he?
Lady Wansford, however, had not cared which man carried the title. He’d come to London during the Season, and she and others like her saw him as a prime prospect for marrying their daughters. Lady Wansford’s pursuit had been relentless. He could not attend any social event without her daughter being pushed at him. As soon as summer came, he fled to the country, touring his properties and trying to learn how a knave of a soldier could act like an earl.
Business brought him back to London in October, and like a lioness stalking prey, Lady Wansford had been lying in wait for him. She contrived to plant her daughter, in his bed. When Lady Wansford threatened to accuse him of compromising the girl, the equally conniving offspring of her devious mother, Zach had laughed at her.
But he’d also deemed it prudent to place himself out of her reach. That was how he’d found himself at Bolting House at the time of year he least wished to be in residence.
At least he’d given most of the servants a holiday, settling their Christmas bonuses before Boxing Day so they might have the funds and incentive to go away. No one would decorate the house. No one would produce gifts. No one would sing.
He’d manage to pass Twelfth night without once remembering.
Zach downed the contents of his glass and stared at it. Perhaps a trip to the wine cellar was in order after all. Besides, if he fell and broke his neck, the wretched memories would cease.
He pushed on the arms of the chair to get to his feet, and stood a moment to be sure he had his balance before he picked up a candle to light the dark cellar stairway. The bones in his legs felt like rubber as he weaved his way to the hall, its classical statues staring at him like disapproving ghosts.
And why would they not disapprove? Zach was a debaucher, after all. When he’d been a youth he’d had grand ideas of honor and courage and chivalry, but that was before that fateful Twelfth Night.
A knock sounded at the door, so feeble that at first Zach thought he’d imagined it. It seemed to increase in volume and urgency, and he looked for Kirby to appear. Then he remembered the butler was eating dinner with Cook and the one maid left in the house. Kirby would never hear the pounding.
“Ought to have kept one footman here,” he said aloud to the statues. The heels of his boots clicked on the marble floor as he crossed the hall. He’d open the door himself and tell whomever the devil it was to go away.
He pulled open the heavy oak door, then almost dropped his candle.
Framed in the doorway stood two females, both shrouded in hooded cloaks, like spectres in the dim twilight. He rubbed his eyes, trying to determine if they were real, when a gust of wind blew open the cloak of the smaller female standing in front.
The smaller female who was obviously with child.
The wind howled and the brandy he consumed rebelled in his stomach. He felt his vision grow black.
“No,” Zach growled before he passed out or vomited all over the vision. “Go away.”
He slammed the door.
He glanced at the statues. Had he not enough ghosts to haunt him?
“Wait!” Anna cried. “Oh, please wait!” She turned around and flung herself in Elizabeth’s arms.
“What will we do?”
Elizabeth could not utter a sound.
He had answered the door. She knew him in an instant, even from the light of a single candle. Dark, curling hair, steel gray eyes, a worry line between two thick brows. His face was leaner–a man’s face, but his lips, so perfectly bow-shaped, still drooped at the corners.
But how altered! How cruel. To close the door in their faces, ignoring their desperate need. Did he hate her? She neverexpected him to hate her.
End of Excerpt
Behind the Book
A Twelfth Night Tale
Regency Christmas Traditions in A Twelfth Night Tale
One of the joys of writing a Regency Christmas novella is imagining the holiday season as it must have been in the early 1800s when the Prince of Wales was Regent. Many familiar Christmas traditions–decorating Christmas trees, singing Christmas carols, waiting for Santa Claus–did not emerge until Victorian times, but a Regency Christmas did have other traditions still celebrated today. I wove some of these Regency Christmas traditions into A Twelfth Night Tale.
Regency families did not decorate Christmas trees, but they did decorate their houses with holly and ivy and evergreens of fir and pine. Mistletoe was hung and the tradition of a gentleman and lady kissing beneath it would have been part of a Regency Christmas. With each kiss the gentleman plucked a berry from the mistletoe. When the berries were gone, so were the kisses. The decorations were removed after Twelfth night. In A Twelfth Night Tale, gathering greenery, decorating the house, and kissing under mistletoe are important parts of the love story between Zach and Elizabeth.
Zach and Elizabeth were served a typical Regency Christmas dinner, ironically what most American households would serve on Christmas day: a turkey dinner. A Regency household would also serve a Christmas pudding. On Stir Up Sunday, the Sunday before Advent, cooks would begin a pudding. Not the Jell-O Instant Pudding on our North American grocery shelves, but a porridge of sugar, raisins, currants, prunes, and wine that was “stirred up” and boiled together in a pudding cloth until served with Christmas dinner.
Twelfth Night, the eve of the Epiphany, proved to be important in Zach and Elizabeth’s lives. In the Regency, it was a time for revelry, for drinking wassail (ale or wine spiced with roasted apples and sugar) and playing games. A bean was buried in a cake and whoever found it was designated the Lord of Misrule who presided over all the Twelfth Night festivities. This tradition appears to have had its origin in the old Roman feast of Saturnalia rather than in the Christmas story, but it became part of the festivities in my novella.
Performing theatricals was a common part of Twelfth Night gaiety. In fact, Shakespeare wrote his comedy, Twelfth Night, to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment. It made sense that Elizabeth and Zach would read the play aloud that night.
I wrote A Twelfth Night Tale during the Christmas season and I could almost imagine being in Regency England, out in the countryside gathering greenery, lighting a yule log, drinking wassail. It was a joy to share with Elizabeth and Zach–and now with my readers–this special time when Christmas brought them together once again and forever.
First Footing: A Holiday Tradition
Learning more about the British customs, folklore, and legends of the holiday season was one of the joys of writing A Twelfth Night Tale. My heritage is mostly French/German (although I do have a Campbell for a great-great grandmother), so many of the British traditions were unfamiliar. I mean, I knew there was something called “wassail” from reading English Literature and Regencies and singing the Wassail Song, but I never knew exactly what wassail was (ale or wine spiced with roasted apples and sugar, yum).
One custom completely new to me was First-Footing. The legend has it that, in order to have good fortune all the year, an uninvited stranger–a dark man–should be the first to cross the threshold on New Years Day. He might carry symbolic gifts- salt (or a coin) for wealth; coal for warmth, a match for kindling, and bread for food. The householder might offer him food and drink. It was most desirable for this strange man to be tall, dark, and handsome. In some villages one tall, dark, and handsome fellow was selected to visit all the houses, receiving food and drink at each one. A tough job, but somebody had to do it!
First-Footing customs apparently stretched back to Greek culture. The hair color of the first-footer seemed to vary according to the area of Great Britain. Many sources indicated it was a very popular New Years tradition in Scotland and still is, in a varied form. Now friends visit friends and bring the traditional gifts and also share a wee dram of whisky.
Some places said the legend cautioned bad fortune to befall the house if a woman was first-footer, which I feel is sex discrimination! But then, equality for women didn’t occur to anyone for several centuries. Bad fortune would also ensue if the stranger, tall and handsome or not, was a fair man with blond hair. In other words, if he were a Norseman come to plunder and pillage.
I’m all for including this tradition in my household celebration this coming New Years Day. I’ll have refreshment ready, even though I’m So-Not-A-Cook. I’ve already decided who my tall, dark and handsome stranger can be—Gerard Butler!