Country Dances, A Holiday Tale
by Avon Van Hassel
The grounds of Parry House sparkled with crisp and delicate frost, perfumed with spices, wood fires, and evergreens. The winter holidays were fast approaching, and to Alois, newly-married and freshly-lorded, everything was new.
As a peasant farmboy, with his family, he had celebrated the frozen winters with games in the snow and visiting friends for hot cider and meat pies. They would bundle around the fire, singing songs and exchanging laughs. Then after the war, as a thief, he and his partner, Sulat, had a great deal less money, and ever fewer friends. Sulat wasn’t much for raucous celebrations and would see the old year out with a large brandy, two bowls of tobacco, and an early night, leaving Alois to make merry with whoever was left in the tavern.
What did rich people do? Bigger and better, was usually the answer, which meant huge parties, mountains of food, live music, probably dancing, and other things his simple country mind couldn’t imagine. He’d had the pleasure of witnessing the royal wedding just a few months previous, and the luxury and opulence had been overwhelming.
During the same adventure, he had been awarded the title that allowed him to marry his love, Johanne, but it meant that he now outranked all of the landowners in the area. Would he be expected to host a lavish party soon?
He always loved parties and Johanne hadn’t been allowed parties with her first husband, and the uncle she had lived with as a widow was beyond the need to host more than once a year, being a well established member of the gentry already. Thus, she’d had few opportunities to make any real friends. The rule with the rich was that one must throw parties to be invited to parties, and parties were where everyone was. Johanne was positively desperate to socialise, and Alois was always excited to meet new people.
‘I want to throw a party,’ he announced one night, sidling into Johanne’s bedroom after changing out of his day clothes in his own. The chambermaid was in the process of removing the bed warmer from between the soft cotton sheets, and he was looking forward to the first time all day that he’d have feeling in his toes. Bigger homes, it turned out, were harder to heat than the farmhouses and inns he was used to.
‘Wonderful!’ Johanne beamed at him in the mirror while her Ebian maid, Zeferra, helped unpin her gown. ‘In the spring?’
‘No, for the winter holidays.’
Johanne and Zeferra looked at each other in alarm before returning to their unpinning. ‘You don’t think that’s a little…soon?’
‘No. I’m baron here, so I should introduce myself. They’ll have noticed Parry House is occupied again.’
‘Yes,’ Johanne hesitated, shrugging out of her outer dress and unpinnning her stomacher as Zeferra busied herself with the bouncing blonde curls. ‘But I don’t think you need to be in any rush. I’m sure they won’t hold it against you if you wanted to get settled in first.’
‘I’m settled.’ Alois sat on the bed and grinned at her. She smiled back, nervousness in her light eyebrows. ‘You’ll hold my hand?’
‘I’ll need you to teach me about cutlery and that sort of thing,’ he said, rolling onto his back and gazing up at the moulded ceiling, trying to think of everything he’d need to know.
‘I’ll need to teach you about a great many things,’ Johanne said. Zeferra smirked, but kept her eyes down, unlacing the back of Johanne’s corset. She and Johanne had an almost telepathic bond, and it amused Alois to watch the silent conversations the two women often held while they worked together. ‘I’m not sure this is wise, my love. I appreciate your enthusiasm, but it’s a delicate thing, and there’s so much to do and almost no time to do it in. I’m not sure you’ve thought this through.’
Alois barked a laugh. She and Sulat sounded so much alike sometimes.
‘I’m a quick learner, and I have luck and charm. It’ll be fine. And fun.’
Alois came down to breakfast the next morning to find Johanne dressed in grey and smelling like a summer garden, bustling around the dining room, humming to herself. She had the huge drawer of silverware out on the polished blackwood table, setting silver spoons, knives, and forks out in neat rows. She smiled when he entered.
‘We’re starting early?’ he asked, looking over the dozens of different kinds of utensils.
‘You made a good point. So we’d better start now.’ She took a deep breath, and began to list off all of the different items and their functions. It was a lot to take in, so he sat and they decided to break them up, going over spoons first.
‘And which one is for soup?’ He glared down at the gleaming silver table setting. ‘The big one?’ He had been at it for half an hour already.
‘Yes, that is the soup spoon,’ Johanne nodded and pointed out the others. ‘It is different from the bouillon spoon, see? It is deeper. Then you have the demitasse, dessert spoon, egg spoon, marrow spoon, parfait spoon, teaspoon, and tablespoon.’
He groaned and rubbed his eyes. ‘Why?’
‘Why what?’ She cocked her head.
‘Why are there so many spoons?’ He rubbed his mouth and stared at the silverware, picking up the tablespoon and rubbing its smooth handle with his thumb. ‘Why is this not good for everything?’
‘It is, in the breakfast room,’ Johanne said sweetly. ‘But at dinner, you must know the difference. You wanted to learn. This is it.’
She’s enjoying herself too much. He narrowed his eyes at her, then sighed. But she’s right. ‘All right. Again.’
She listed off the various uses of items that looked exactly the same to him, but in different sizes. Then she moved on to serving spoons, eating and serving forks, then eating and serving knives. He bitterly missed the days when he used the same knife to cut, skewer, and pick his teeth; and to eat soup, one simply lifted the bowl. Then she began explaining about dishes, and was just about to begin on glasses when the maid entered with the familiar pitchers of hot coffee and chocolate.
‘You are a saint,’ he whispered to her, and she tried not to grin as she poured him a cup of strong black coffee from the pitcher. Johanne arranged the glass stemware as the girl poured her chocolate from the gold-plated silver chocolate pot which had been Alois’ wedding gift to his new wife. He had not been over fond of chocolate when she had insisted he try it—it was far too sweet and thick—but her love of it was a fond memory for him.
The tour of everything in the dining room ended there with their breakfast of hot soft rolls with butter and fresh blackberry jam, because Johanne had arranged to visit her uncle and help him adjust after her departure. Alois was happy to let her go, as he had quite a bit of work to do himself.
The king, in his generosity, had given Alois his pick of abandoned stately homes when he was given his title. So many knights and lords had answered the call to war and never returned, so none of the houses had been in good repair. The modest, but charming Parry House had among the shortest list of necessary repairs. Still, there was quite a lot to do, not to mention all the invites that had to be written and sent out.
‘I’ll be back tonight, my love,’ Johanne said, kissing him quickly as she gathered up her hat and gloves. ‘I used to do all of the organising for the charity party, and I have no idea how long it will take to simplify everything to his liking. But you will be all right without me, won’t you?’
‘I don’t know.’ Alois pouted up at her. ‘I might use the wrong spoon at luncheon.’
She smirked and flounced out, quite impervious to his childishness.
The carriage ride to Ellenly was smooth as a stroll. Or, at least, it was as smooth as any carriage Johanne had ever been in, which is to say quite a bumpy ride, but in all the comfort and style that Uncle George could afford. The soft sage green velvet seats and thick outer curtains cocooned her against the frost and muffled the sounds of the hoofbeats on the hard road.
The carriage finally rolled to a stop and rocked gently as the driver climbed down. Quenten opened the door with a bow.
‘Ellenly, my lady,’ he said, offering a hand. Johanne took it and climbed out, smiling up at the yellow sandstone building that had been her home these last six years.
‘Thank you, Quenten,’ she said, tucking her hands into her floppy rabbit fur muff. Uncle George’s elderly-but-strict butler, Harker, stood on the steps, his hands held behind his back. Quenten climbed back into his seat and snapped the reins, taking the carriage around the side to the carriage house to wait as Johanne climbed the steps of her uncle’s house.
As a wealthy landowner, Sir George Dubonier was looked to not only as a landlord and lawkeeper in the area, but also as a source of aid in the most desperate of times. Every year, at the beginning of winter, he held a huge party where he invited the richest people from the surrounding area to eat and dance, and donate money and some of their surplus so that he could distribute it among the more needy of his tenants. The extra food stores would be handed out immediately, whereas the money would go to local doctors for medicine, to shelters where the sick and homeless could go for help, or to buy things like food and blankets and warm clothes, which would then be handed out to those who asked. It was a solemn duty he took very seriously, though he almost never had a direct hand in actually planning and coordinating with his own housekeeper. That had always been Johanne’s job.
‘He is in his study, my lady,’ Harker said, opening the door and taking her cloak and muff from her as she stepped into the dark panelled hallway. The house was over a hundred years old and smelled it, like dust and old wood.
‘Thank you, Harker. And how have you been?’ She untied the grey ribbon holding her wide, flat straw hat on and handed it to him.
‘I’ve been well, my lady. It’s been quiet here of late, with you and Lady Rosabel gone.’
‘How is everyone getting on without me?’
‘His lordship has been in disarray these last few days. I don’t think I would be out of line saying that he feels your loss, at least where the household is concerned.’
Johanne studied the butler’s face, and found concern there. ‘Tell me truthfully, Harker, is he struggling?’
‘He’s finding his feet, my lady,’ Harker said delicately. ‘These are tasks he hasn’t had to do himself in many years. He wasn’t long widowered before you moved in. Indeed, it is possible he never has had to plan a party.’
‘I shall see what I can make easier for him,’ Johanne said, waving goodbye to Harker and climbing the stairs.
It was eerily quiet. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d climbed the winding staircase without hearing Rosabel’s or Molle’s voice, or Uncle George talking to someone.
It’s a monument to his grief, Lady Marva had said a few months ago. Suddenly, the air felt thick and not just with sweet tobacco smoke, like there were too many people pushing in on her. Aunt Charis, Molle, Zeferra, Rosabel, Pol, her mother, Idella, her father, Randulph, and even an incorporeal version of herself, all gliding silently, aimlessly, without looking around or speaking.
He’s in this big house all by himself. Guilt tickled the back of her throat, but she pushed past it, remembering the ultimatum he’d given her a few months ago, which essentially forced her out.
The study lay two doors from where Rosabel’s nursery had been. Johanne couldn’t help peeking into the room just once. The warm square-panelled walls, moulded plaster ceiling, and casement windows letting in broad bands of light were as familiar as though she had been in this room just earlier this morning, rather than months ago. There was Rosabel’s tiny bed, just as they had left it, the brass cage that had held her pet bird, and a dollhouse Uncle George had insisted stay at Ellenly. Insurance, no doubt, that she should come back to visit.
Johanne closed the door and wasted no further time. The study was brightly lit by its own bank of windows, illuminating the titles of the leather-bound books that dominated the opposite side of the room. The yellowing globe with its now-obsolete geographic mapping of continents shone in a corner like any other curiosity of history and travel that Uncle George had picked up or inherited, and had the barest of sentimentality to keep. Uncle George was sitting at his desk, back straight, feet flat on the floor, the picture of genteel resoluteness. His favourite strong, bitter black tea steamed in his finest china cup to his right hand, a quill set in a pot of ink beside it, ready to be taken up, and the lit pipe in his left hand.
‘I heard you downstairs,’ he said, taking a moment to finish what he was reading before looking up. A smile curled his wide thin mouth and crinkled the edges of his stern blue-grey eyes. He set the pipe down and stood to his full towering height to pull Johanne into a tight hug. ‘I have missed you these past few weeks.’
‘I’ve missed you, too.’ Johanne squeezed him back. ‘It’s quiet in this house.’
‘You’re welcome back any moment,’ Uncle George said, releasing her. Johanne gave him the look she’d given him every time he suggested she cut off contact with Alois, or call off the engagement, cancel the wedding, or move out: you know I won’t do that.
‘You wouldn’t like all of that noise back,’ she chuckled, wandering about the room. She put a finger to the old globe, just by a patch of ocean labelled, The Squalls. ‘It’s a circus at Parry House, most days.’
Uncle George shuddered theatrically, but Johanne knew it was an act. He liked things to be peaceful, but even a stuffy old aristocrat like him needed some human contact from time to time.
‘Will you look over these notes and adjust them?’ Uncle George pulled a number of papers from a neat stack and held them out to her. His strong but narrow handwriting formed a list of names: the great and good of the area who might have supplies or money to spare for the coming winter. Another sheet had a list of households with numbers next to them.
‘Is this what they have, or what they owe, Uncle?’
‘What they owe. I haven’t the mettle to ask a widow with four little mouths how much she has between them at this time of year. What she has is her business, what she owes is mine.’
‘Will you be forgiving the debts, then?’ Johanne sat in a firm wooden chair on the opposite side of the desk.
‘That’s no way to run an estate.’ Uncle George’s face was stern. ‘But it does somewhat determine which families are most in need of my charity. They’ll receive the largest parcels and perhaps a small easement of their debt to see them through until spring.’
‘I know how to look after my people. It’s the-’ He pursed his lips and waved an impatient hand at the paper in Johanne’s hands. ‘The parties. Where does one find musicians?’
Johanne fought back a smile. It was a milestone enough that he was asking for help at all. It would have been much more in character for him to stop throwing parties altogether after she left and just ask for donations outright, but he was making an effort.
‘The musicians will come, or else you can hire the same people I did. I’ll give you their addresses and you can have Mrs Urna go speak to them. You’ll also need to speak to her about the menu so that she can buy everything.’
‘The menu, stars.’ Uncle George paled beneath the light powder on his face and puffed on his pipe. ‘All right, what goes on the menu?’
Johanne took up the quill and a sheet of paper. ‘I usually order a set meal. I’ll write it down here, and all you need to do is hand it to Mrs Urna and tell her “Just as Lady Johanne ordered,” or else you can change it however you want. But here is a start.’
She wrote out her usual menu in her neat flowing handwriting:
- Boiled rump of Beef
- Boar’s head
- Ribs of Lamb
- Gravy soup
- Hare soup
- Fried Eel
- Marinated trout
- Mutton with onions
- Baked Pigeon
- Second course:
- Roast Goose
- Mince pie
- Fried Celery
- Plum pudding
- Dried fruits with nuts
- Apple butter, black with currants
- Wine, wassail
‘Let Mrs Urna do as she will with decorations and whatnot. She’ll likely keep to the things I put in place unless you say otherwise. You focus on your guests.’ She stood and smoothed her skirts.‘Oh, before I leave, Uncle, Alois is throwing a party for the winter holidays. Perhaps you should come.’
Uncle George snorted. ‘Indeed.’
‘Don’t be rude,’ Johanne scolded. ‘It’s important for him to socialise with people, if he’s to make a decent go of this. I’d like you to be supportive. Of me, if not of him.’
‘And what sort of people does our new Lord Brynglas socialise with? I’ve met one or two of them, good heavens.’
‘You’ll be pleased to know he’s inviting the local society. Sulat is busy, and Ghaley isn’t welcome among his family these days, so you needn’t worry.’
‘Oh, a pity that Sulat woman won’t be there.’ Uncle George looked genuinely disappointed. ‘She’s a shocking creature, but fascinating.’
‘Very true.’ Johanne kissed the top of her uncle’s powdered wig. ‘I doubt you’ve seen the last of her. We’ve given her her own room, so she’ll likely be by for a stay often enough. In any case, I wish you the best of luck with your charitable works. I shall be along at least once more before the new year to make sure everything is going smoothly.’
‘I’m not a child, Johanne. I can look after my own, as you well remember,’ George grumbled.
‘Well, if you’d rather I not visit…’
‘Away with you, cruel woman.’ He gestured toward the door and Johanne released a peel of laughter, moving away. ‘And Johanne…’
‘Yes?’ Johanne paused at the door, her skirts swirling about her knees.
‘Next time, bring Rosabel with you. I’m sure she misses her dollhouse.’ He picked up his quill and pointed at the nursery with it.
Johanne pursed her lips in good humour. ‘She’ll be thrilled to come. I shall bring her. Good bye, Uncle.’
Johanne floated down the stairs to where Harker waited with her things.
‘Keep an eye on him, will you?’ she whispered. ‘And do write to me if he gets too frustrated.’
‘I will, my lady.’ Harker nodded and draped her cloak about her shoulders. He walked her outside and helped her into the carriage. Johanne glanced up at the upstairs window, at the stoic figure she knew would be there. She raised an arm in farewell, then retreated behind the velvet curtains and snuggled down until the carriage returned to Parry House.
Alois was in the sitting room with a book, a glass of brandy and a low fire burning, when Johanne returned, pale and rosy-cheeked, amid a flurry of snow.
‘Am I late for supper?’ she asked, a little breathless, pulling off her hat and gloves.
‘Not at all,’ he said, setting down the glass. He intentionally left some brandy, trying hard to break the habit of finishing every drink he poured. ‘I said I’d wait for you. Rosabel is already fed and in bed.’
‘Oh thank goodness. I am so cold.’ She rubbed her hands together, eyeing him with an odd look on her face.
She took a few steps then paused before crossing the rest of the room to sit beside him.
‘Is everything all right?’ he asked. She didn’t look distracted and tired anymore, rather, if anything, excited and a little nervous.
‘I’ve never had anyone to sit with.’ She laid her head on his shoulder and hugged his arm with both of hers. ‘On cold evenings, in front of a fire.’
Alois chuckled, pulled his arm out of her grip and wrapped it around her shoulders, pulling her closer. The fabric of Johanne’s brocade gown was still cool from the journey through the snow, contrasting with the warmth from the fire. Alois rubbed a thumb over the bumpy embroidered peonies. ‘Well, you have now, whenever you want.’
‘It’s nice,’ she whispered, laying a hand on his chest. Her hair smelled like her perfume, and also like pine and the ancient wood and plaster of Ellenly. He kissed the top of her head and settled back into the buttoned cushions of the sofa to enjoy the moment.
The silence yawned and stretched, with only the gently crackling firewood and dancing flames to disturb the drowsy peace of the evening. A warmth spread outward from Alois’ chest that could have been caused by the fire, the brandy, or the love of his life cuddling under his arm.
So this is what true happiness feels like.
He held her for so long, he thought she might have drifted off, but she sat up suddenly.
‘These clothes are too hot for sitting in front of a fire,’ she said, fanning herself.
‘You can come back later in your nightgown,’ Alois offered.
Johanne grinned and pinched his chin. ‘I’d better go change for supper and say good-night to Rosabel.’
She paused with her hand on the doorframe to give him one last sunny smile before disappearing. The last mouthful of brandy on the little table called to him, but he resolutely ignored it and returned to his book.
Johanne reappeared a few minutes later in appropriate attire and they seated themselves at the table.
‘How did it go at Ellenly?’ Alois asked. Johanne paused a moment then began to tell him about her visit to Ellenly, careful to leave out the majority of her uncle’s doubts. She needn’t have bothered—Alois was well aware of how Sir George felt about him. The older gentleman had never been subtle about it, even within Alois’ hearing.
Supper that night was just a bit of cold roast beef with sweet berry chutney, bitter stewed greens, chicken broth heavily seasoned with onion, and a light fluffy white bread. Alois reached for the meat and paused, remembering about the utensils. Johanne eyed him beadily with a slight quirk to her lips. He served the food he wanted with the utensils left by the maids, but chose from his eating utensils carefully, only now realising that the full complement had been set out to test him. He wanted to swear under his breath, but he was trying to break that habit, too.
He started with the soup and chose the deeper of the two wide shallow spoons.
‘Soup spoon,’ he declared, and Johanne nodded, smiling.
Dinner concluded, they rose and left the dining room.
‘So then, dancing,’ Johanne said, pulling him into the dark ballroom with a grin.
‘Ahh, now dancing.’ She had found the one thing Alois did not want to learn. ‘I have seen how your lot dance, with the slow twirling and toe pointing. It’s not for me.’ Much as he grumbled in jest about the food and silverware and forms of address, he was happy to learn. But dancing was another thing entirely. She fixed him with a perplexed look.
‘But parties always have dancing.’
‘Oh there will be dancing,’ he agreed wholeheartedly. ‘But not by me.’
‘And what if I want to dance?’ she asked, an icy tone in her voice.
‘I have no objections to you dancing, at all.’ He shrugged. He was not the type to get jealous about that sort of thing. ‘I should hope you would enjoy yourself.’
‘We are newly wed, Alois,’ she said slowly, choosing her words. ‘It would be unseemly for me to dance with other men, and not you, at your own party.’
‘I don’t dance.’ He said again, unwilling to budge on this. ‘Look, country dances have a lot of hopping about, and not much of this…’ He exaggerated arm movements and facial expressions. ‘I have no…grace.’
He could feel Johanne’s irritation mounting. ‘You wanted to learn to be a gentleman,’ she exploded. ‘Gentlemen dance!’
‘You wanted me to be a gentleman!’ he shouted back. ‘I’m not like your lot. I can’t do it all at once. Like that.’ He gestured to indicate his previous illustration.
‘No one dances like that,’ Johanne spat, and stormed out. Alois scowled after her.
I shouldn’t have said that. He stomped to the sitting room to finish the brandy he’d left there. It wasn’t even satisfying, going down. Damn it! He growled and rubbed his face.
Maybe it is too much all at once.
The next morning, Alois woke up in an empty bed. After his fight with Johanne, he had told himself he would get some work done, but he mainly hid in his office until he was sure she was asleep, before returning to her bed. She didn’t say anything, so he assumed she was asleep or else not speaking to him. Now, it appeared as though she had gone down to breakfast without him, too, which could either mean that she was still upset and didn’t want to speak to him, or that she had gotten over her irritation but had a busy day planned and needed to get going. He dressed slowly, dreading finding out.
It seemed that the latter was the case. When he arrived, she was just leaving, tying the ribbon of her hat under her chin. She looked up when she saw him, smiled sweetly, and rose on her toes to kiss his cheek.
‘I’m just off to the shops,’ she said cheerily. ‘I need to speak to the butcher about the ham, and I need to look out for some garlands.’
‘Should we talk about last night?’
‘Oh! Yes,’ she chirped happily. ‘We had our first fight. And we survived!’
Alois cocked his head. It was far from our first fight. ‘As man and wife, I suppose. You’re not still upset?’
Johanne smiled. ‘Alois, we are both people with strong opinions, that was but a bump in the road. No one expects you to be perfect this quickly. Now, I really must be going.’ She put a hand to his cheek, and was gone in a rustle of wool.
No one expects you to be perfect. Somehow it sounded different when she said it than when he did. No one expects me to be perfect. Everyone expects me to be a country clod in silks. I’m a scarecrow.
Rosabel was already dressed in white ruffles and sitting at the small round table with her governess, Molle. Molle was a plump woman of about thirty, with shiny dark brown hair, round blue eyes, a small button nose, and a rosebud mouth. Today she wore a flattering striped jacket over a simple blue petticoat and a crisp white lacy pad pinned to the top of her head for the barest of indoor modesty.
Molle was the daughter of a minor noble family who paid homage to Sir George. They fell on hard times and lost the ability to provide her with a suitable dowry. Past the ideal marriageable age, Uncle George hired her last year as governess to Rosabel. Since she and Rosabel got on so well, Johanne picked up her employment contract, and moved her into Parry House.
Her life was a lonely one: as a noblewoman, she couldn’t mix with the servants, yet as an employee she wasn’t a full member of the family either. She spent all of her days with a six-year-old girl, constantly teaching, constantly caring, with little time to herself, and little prospects for the future, except to go to another family once Rosabel was too old for her.
‘Uncle Alois!’ Rosabel called and climbed out of her chair to hug him. Molle looked up and smiled at him as well.
‘Good morning, sweeting.’ He gave her a one-armed seated hug, and nodded politely at Molle. ‘All right, Molle?’
‘Very well, thank you, my lord. Come back now, Rosabel.’
He seated himself and pulled a roll and the steaming coffee pot toward him. Rosabel and Molle were already halfway through their breakfast of toast, fruit, and coffee, and Rosabel was reluctant to return.
‘What is your plan for the day?’ Alois asked the governess, biting into a hot yeasty roll without bothering to put anything on it.
‘I had planned to go to the pond and watch the skating, but it is so cold today that I thought we might stay in and practice music.’ She took a small bite of toast with jam.
‘Well, I was thinking, as it’s so cold today, we take a pot of chocolate up to the library, light the fire, and play card games.’ He winked at Rosabel and she clapped her hands excitedly. Molle pinched her lips and looked between them.
‘My lord, I do not believe that Lady Johanne would approve of gambling—,’ she began.
‘Lady Johanne is out all day, she doesn’t need to know.’
Rosabel looked from the man she thought of as an uncle to the woman who was a second mother, a silent plea in her round brown eyes. Johanne’s eyes, set in Alois’ face. It was a miracle that no one had put it together yet, and a relief that she was beginning to look more and more like her mother the older she got.
‘One hand,’ Molle relented, and Rosabel clapped. ‘One hand only, and then we must continue your lessons.’
So Molle and Rosabel waited for their pot of chocolate while Alois finished his breakfast and they all trooped upstairs to the library, where a fire had been lit for them and was burning merrily. Alois had been taught a bluffing game once by a smuggler with the seventy-eight card deck that was sometimes used for cartomancy and had secretly taught Rosabel to play. Molle scowled at this game, as it taught her young student how to lie. But it required three to play and she didn’t have any personal objections to it, so she joined in on the grounds that they stick to exactly one hand. Alois won early on, but bluffed to keep the game going. He was enjoying playing a game he’d played so many times with Sulat and some poor victim on the road.
This led his mind to his argument with Johanne on how hard he was trying to fit in, or whether or not he should try at all. And he suddenly felt guilty all over again for arguing with her. What did it mean that after so many years of wanting each other, they were finally together and already fighting?
‘I win!’ Molle declared triumphantly, throwing down her final hand as proof. Rosabel groaned and Alois touched a finger to his head in acknowledgement, as Molle put the cards away and stood, holding out a hand to the little girl. ‘Come now, we agreed.’
‘Come with us, Uncle Alois,’ Rosabel said, holding out her hand to him. He looked into her face and couldn’t resist. He wouldn’t be getting any work done today anyway, so long as he was worrying about Johanne. They all went down together to the ballroom where the grand piano sat in front of the rounded windows.
‘Today, I’m going to begin teaching you to play a minuet.’ Molle swept her skirt around to sit primly on the piano bench. Rosabel dropped down beside her. ‘Gently, my lady, sit gently. Now, hands like this.’ She stretched her fingers gracefully over the piano keys. ‘You’ll need to be able to play this well by the time you’re old enough to have a piano and dance instructor,’ she said, adjusting Rosabel’s little hands.
‘You women and your dancing,’ Alois scoffed, sitting in a settee. Molle and Rosabel gave him admonishing looks and he shifted awkwardly, remembering Johanne’s anger again.
Molle and Rosabel played beautifully together, and Alois enjoyed sitting there in silence, listening, as the snow fell outside. Even when Rosabel made mistakes and Molle had to go back over and over to correct them, he still enjoyed it. A more practised ear might find fault in the tempo or wrong notes, but he had never had any training in music, or any art form, for that matter. But here he was with little Rosabel learning to be cultured like her mother, and Molle who had been a grand lady once but had been reduced to teaching to make a living. He suddenly saw things in a new light.
You can be born with everything and end up a governess, and you can be a farmboy who wins the favour of the king. Who you’re born isn’t who you’ll always be.
The two practised for about an hour before Rosabel started making silly mistakes more often. It became clear to Molle that she was growing tired and needed a break. So Molle lowered the lid on the piano and declared that it was time to do something else. She sent Rosabel along to lunch while she packed up the music books. Alois pulled her aside.
‘How many kinds of music can you play?’ he asked her quietly, leaning against the piano.
‘Only the minuet and waltz well,’ Molle whispered, smiling shyly. ‘I was never much fond of my music lessons, I preferred to read and paint. But that’s all right. In a year or so, Lady Johanne will have me send for a proper instructor for Rosabel. You needn’t worry about that.’
‘Who did you have in mind for her instructor?’
Johanne took the carriage to the butcher shop. It was much colder than it had been the day before and she didn’t like the idea of traipsing about in the slushy street, carrying a ham. She could easily have sent Yleri, the housekeeper, but the poor woman already had so much to do, and as the centrepiece of her supper, Johanne wanted to pick it out herself.
The butcher shop was a square, two story building, painted green and white, with the residence for the butcher and his family up top and the shop below. Huge ham hocks and whole sides of red-and-white marbled beef hung from the rafters outside, swaying gently, a thin layer of frost sparkling in the midmorning light. A squat butter churn and a barrel of salt stood beside the closed glass-paned door and, as though it needed it, a swinging sign painted, ‘BUTCHER’ hung above.
Ordinarily, an estate the size of Parry House would be able to sustain itself with meat, vegetables, and grains, or else take them from the tenants as rent, but it had only been functional for a few weeks. They wouldn’t even be able to begin setting up any long-term operations until the first melt of spring.
Johanne pulled her dusty rose cape a little tighter and pushed open the door. The smell of smoke, spices, and something heavier wafted over her like a greasy cloud. The interior was dark but for a few laps on the far wall, with more cuts of meat, ropes of sausages, and plucked whole birds hanging in the windows. Behind a table laden with brown paper-wrapped and hemp-corded parcels and more coils of sausages, stood a scarred and stained wooden block.
At the tinkle of the brass bell, the butcher, a thick-bodied man with wild auburn eyebrows and fiery hair pulled back in a queue, glared up from the customer he’d been dealing with, a mousy middle-aged woman in a tan cloak and bonnet. She jumped and stared at Johanne with frantic eyes.
‘Yes?’ he barked, waving the woman aside.
‘Oh no, I’ll wait.’ Johanne adjusted her hands inside her muff and smiled pleasantly.
‘She doesn’t know what she wants,’ he said, wiping his huge hands on the cloth at his waist.
The woman opened her mouth as if to protest, but closed it quickly again.
Johanne looked between the stormy-faced butcher and the shrinking woman. The latter held a slip of crumbled paper clutched in her trembling hand.
‘Is that your list, dear?’ Johanne asked, holding out a hand. The woman nodded and handed it over.
Two chickens, three pork sausages, one pound of liver, and a side of beef.
‘It looks like you know exactly what you want.’
‘I-I do, but…’ The woman’s voice shook as she glanced at the butcher like a cornered rabbit before a mastiff.
‘I need to speak to her husband before I fill that order,’ he said flatly. ‘So what do you want?’
‘Why?’ Johanne asked.
‘Why do you need to speak to her husband? She has asked your for your products and unless she came here without money, there is nothing else to be done.’
‘I don’t want to waste my time and stock on the wrong order.’
Johanne’s chest swelled and heat rose in her cheeks.
‘And what makes you think her husband knows better than she does? Her husband is not in charge of the household stores nor the housekeeper, and her husband is not here to negotiate with you. If this is the sort of treatment a woman can expect from this shop, I’d just as soon take my business elsewhere.’
The woman looked timidly from Johanne to the butcher, and the butcher gazed squarely at Johanne, apparently sizing her up.
‘Very well,’ he drawled, turning pouchy eyes on the woman, who shrivelled again, and pulling out a pen. ‘What was it again?’
The woman repeated her order and paid a handful of silver coins, then Johanne bought her ham and accompanied the woman back into the chill outside. Quenten, the carriage driver, took the ham and helped her in. She paused before shutting the carriage door.
‘May I offer you a ride home?’ she called, taking note of the damp and dirty hem of the woman’s green petticoat.
‘My lady, I couldn’t.’ The woman shivered and pulled her cloak tighter, the large bundle of meat preventing her from closing it fully.
‘Please, it’s so cold.’
The woman looked up the lane at the brown slush, and eventually yielded, allowing Quenten to help her climb in.
‘I’ve never been in so fine a carriage,’ she said, passing a covetous hand over the grey silk inner curtains.
‘What is your name?’ Johanne asked, offering her a wool blanket to lay across her knees.
‘Tildi,’ the woman answered with a shy smile. ‘And you’re the new Lady Brynglas.’
‘Yes, I am. Oh, it’s cold.’ Johanne rubbed her hands together and called to Quenten, ‘Let’s go home.’
‘I thought you needed garlands, my lady,’ the driver said from his high seat. Johanne poked her head out of the window.
‘It’s too cold. I will ask the farmers to harvest some from the wood. Perhaps it will warm their blood.’
‘Very good, my lady.’ He tipped his hat to her and cracked the whip, lurching the coach into motion.
‘You were magnificent,’ Tildi suddenly said, her eyes wide. ‘I wish I could remember every word you said. I’d rehearse them in front of the mirror every night before I go to bed.’
Johanne smiled quietly as the coach bounced and skipped into the village.
Johanne arrived home in an even cheerier mood than when she had left.
‘Why are you so happy?’ Alois asked her as she tossed her muff onto the hallway table, humming a merry tune.
‘You men fight your battles, Alois, and we women fight ours.’ She bounced up and kissed his cheek. ‘And I have won one today.’
‘Who were you fighting?’
‘The butcher.’ Her hat went sailing across the polished wood surface.
‘You got the ham, then’
‘Oh yes, but that’s not the point. I’ve asked Denny to talk to the farmers about cutting us some garlands. Would you like to come watch?’ She pulled up the hood of her cloak and swished out of the back door.
‘Yeah, that could be fun.’
She walked in front of him and lowered her hood. The day had started to warm up very slightly, bringing with it the familiar smells of pine and baking food, and the sun was shining brightly down on her pale gold hair. Zeferra had done a sort of circular arrangement in the back, and he became suddenly aware of the snow covering the ground all around them.
Oh no, I shouldn’t…
Johanne swept ahead, blissfully lost in her own thoughts. It was too much to resist.
Alois hid behind the tree, scooped up a fistful of snow, patted it down, and chucked it at her. It disintegrated in a puff against the back of her head and showered down across the back of her cloak. She froze and turned slowly, an expression of shock and outrage on her face.
‘Did you just throw snow at me?’ she shrieked, gaping at him.
He double over in hysterics at the expression on her face and couldn’t breathe for a few moments.
‘You have to throw one back,’ he finally forced out, leaning on the tree for support.
‘A snowball! Haven’t you ever had a snowball fight?’
‘I had sisters, Alois! We were ladies,’ she hissed, the sharpness of her voice dampened by the snow. She was grinning now in an embarrassed sort of way that told him that she was not angry, but would definitely be punishing him later. He could live with that.
He dusted the snow off of her shoulders as they walked along to the spacious garden. From there they could see some of the farmers that worked on their property moving about in the wood, rummaging for holly boughs, ivy strands, and mistletoe sprigs to bring into the house for good luck through the winter. Johanne pulled her cloak tighter about her and leaned against Alois, laying her head back on his shoulder.
‘They seem happy,’ Alois said, listening to the farmers singing festive songs as they searched and sawed, shouting back and forth to each other.
‘I told Denny they could have some of our spiced wine with their dinners tonight.’ Johanne grinned and rubbed her arms under her cloak. ‘Oh, it’s getting chilly. I’m going in.’
They turned to go, but halfway up the lawn, Johanne stumbled and fell to her knees. Alois stopped to help and got a face full of icy powder for his efforts, followed by a peal of laughter. He wiped it off and shook it out of his hair, and by the time he opened his eyes again, Johanne had pulled up her skirts and was nearly back to the house.
‘Some lady you are!’ he shouted, chasing after her. ‘You wait til I tell your uncle!’
‘He’ll never believe you!’
That night, Alois pulled Johanne aside as they were going in to their light supper.
‘I’ve got someone coming over tonight that I’d like you to meet,’ he said.
She nodded. ‘Did you tell Yleri? Shall I ask her to leave a plate out for him?’
‘No, he said he’d wait for us.’
The whole family and Molle sat down to supper together that night. They had stewed capons, rich herby brown soup, vinegary dressed cauliflower, and curried carrots. Rosabel was excited because she had written a short story and practised drawing scenes from it. She was very careful not to mention that she and Molle had played a card game with Alois earlier. Johanne told everyone about her visit with the butcher and about her efforts with Uncle George’s party. Molle told Johanne and Alois that Rosabel was coming along nicely with piano and that she would be well prepared in a year to have a real tutor for playing and dancing.
Finally, the meal was concluded and Molle took Rosabel upstairs to get ready for bed. Johanne kissed her daughter and rose gracefully, waiting for Alois. Then he took her by the arm and led her to the ballroom.
‘The ballroom?’ she asked. Normally, a visitor would be put in the sitting room to await their host.
‘Well, naturally.’ Alois threw wide both doors with great flourish. ‘That’s where the piano is.’
A short balding man with a face not unlike a happy turtle stood beside the piano, hands at his side, watching them attentively. Alois led Johanne to the man and she curtsied, an expectant expression on her face.
‘Lady Johanne, this is Master Wilmot. Molle says he is the best piano tutor in the area, and she wants you to hire him next year to teach Rosabel. Until then,’ he grinned at her, ‘he can play any dance song you can think of. I know you can play as well as anybody, but you can’t play and teach me to dance at the same time.’
Johanne’s eyes sparkled and she held her hands out to him.
‘But,’ Alois held up a finger to prevent her getting too far ahead. ‘I want to teach you some of my dances, too. You might like them if you gave them a chance.’
Johanne pursed her lips and her face clearly said, I knew there was a catch, but she conceded. ‘Fine. We’ll alternate. You won’t need to know all of them for one party, anyway. But we’ll need chocolate.’
Johanne pulled the cord on the wall and when the maid appeared, she ordered a pot of chocolate.
‘And coffee,’ Alois whispered to the maid, who smiled and nodded before backing out of the room.
‘How late can you stay, Master Wilmot?’ Johanne asked.
Master Wilmot took his place at the piano and shrugged, blinking excitedly behind his thick bifocals. ‘Alas, I am a lonely bachelor with no one at home to complain about my hours. And you’ve no idea when I last played for adults. I miss the days when I’d stay up all night playing for parties and the like.’
‘There you are,’ Alois grinned. ‘All night, if that’s what it takes.’
Johanne seized his hands and positioned them appropriately. ‘A waltz, then, Master.’
Master Wilmot struck up a bouncing tune, and Johanne began to teach, guiding Alois around the room, careful to show him how to lead. Then they switched, and Alois led Johanne through the steps of the dances he’d learnt at village festivals as a boy.
The sun was coming up when they finally bid farewell to Master Wilmot and went to bed. As Alois drifted off, his legs aching like they hadn’t in months, he heard the unmistakable sounds of Molle and Rosabel beginning their day.
The night of the winter solstice finally came, and Parry House was a glittering golden paradise of fine winter foliage, silk ribbons, and glass baubles. Feathered wooden birds peaked out from between pine boughs, sparkling wax fruits dotted the tables, and tall white candles shone in polished silver candelabras in the corners of every room. The only thing more radiant than the house was Johanne in her magnificent plum coloured gown.
She kept touching Alois’ arm to keep him from constantly adjusting the cuffs of his sleeves, waiting for the knocks on the door. Ashor, the butler, stood upright and ready, his emerald green livery stiff and smart.
At last, the first visitors arrived and Ashor opened the door and announced Lord and Lady Theol of Brooklawn Manor, taking their cloaks and the lady’s muff. Johanne glided forward, arms outstretched as though Lady Theol and she were lifelong friends and not near-perfect strangers. Alois and Lord Theol bowed to each other and entered into the sitting room.
‘Brandy, my lord?’ Alois offered, pouring himself a drink.
‘Thank you, it’s frightfully cold out, isn’t it, Berta?’ Lord Theol rubbed his hands together vigorously and Lady Theol nodded.
They seemed a pleasant couple. Lord Theol had a round amiable face framed in what looked like his own grey hair curled at the sides and pulled into a queue with a black bow. Lady Theol was a tiny woman all over, especially sat beside Johanne, who was tall by anyone’s standards. Her grey-streaked brown hair stood piled high and curled, dressed with ribbons and strings of pearls to match her brown-and-cream striped gown.
The rest of the guests arrived steadily, and Alois was both pleased and uneasy that almost everyone he had invited had actually shown up. Perhaps it was because rich people love to party, or perhaps they were curious about the family that had moved into Parry House. He hoped it wasn’t because they were expecting a fiasco. His eyes found Johanne, who was beaming and chatting away with a pretty young redhead and her fresh-faced companion.
No, it’ll be fine. His shoulders relaxed, watching her. She’s not worried.
Even Sir George showed up. Alois had chosen Parry House for its proximity to Ellenly so that Johanne wouldn’t feel completely isolated from her family, but when Ashor announced him, Alois was sure he’d misheard. Yet there was the stern elder nobleman, rigid in his silvery suit until a number of guests, including Johanne, swarmed him. He gradually melted, apparently reassured by the presence of so many people he know.
Alois waited for the appropriate moment to engage him.
‘Thank you for coming, Sir George,’ he said quietly.
Sir George nodded curtly. ‘It’s the done thing, isn’t it?’
Which means he did it for Johanne. Alois fought down a smirk. It didn’t really matter why, his presence at all was a huge boon, whatever his reasons.
Alois turned around to whisper covertly, ‘You know she threw snow at me a few days ago.’
Sir George shot him a disgusted look. ‘Johanne? Nonsense.’
Ashor announced dinner, and everyone filed into the dining room. Alois and Johanne took their places at opposite ends of the long darkwood table. The most honoured guests were supposed to sit closest to the lady of the house, and Alois had full confidence that Johanne had arranged the seating chart properly. He was just pleased that Lord and Lady Theol were seated closer to him.
The first course was arranged on the table already in painted ceramic tureens and on polished silver platters: brown onion soup, chicken fricassee, pork ribs, mutton, Johanne’s magnificent clove-studded ham, stewed pike, and cheese sandwiches. When that was finished, the footmen took away the empty dishes and replaced them with mashed turnips, conserve of roses, dressed broccoli, asparagus, eggy rolls, cheese, and baked custard and stewed apples for dessert. Wine, coffee, and chocolate flowed like rivers; the spicy, herby, yeasty, fatty, and sweet aromas floated like clouds; and the conversation ranged from light as a summer breeze to dense as a winter forest.
Alois was surprisingly at home here. He found he had no trouble chatting amiably with men and women about a variety of topics. With men, he enjoyed a good hunt (albeit on foot and without dogs), he had been to war, he had travelled far and wide, he now understood the trials of running an estate from both sides of the big house’s door, and living with strong women (both Johanne and Sulat). Women wanted to talk about Johanne and Rosabel, the comfort of his house, the beauty of his grounds, the sumptuous decorations and food, and the impressive collection in his library. He couldn’t take credit for that last, the library was Johanne’s baby, as was the rose garden, which he encouraged everyone to visit when the weather was kinder.
He even had no trouble with the utensils, since the serving staff deftly handled the serving ones for him and he’d practised the most with the personal ones.
Finally the eating and conversation died away and Johanne led the ladies into the ballroom, followed by Alois and the gentlemen. Whatever the guests may have thought privately of their newly-minted peer, they seemed to be enjoying themselves, and that was encouraging. Master Wilmot waited for the guests to assemble before he took his seat on the bench.
Alois and Johanne took their places by the piano. Alois’ heart leapt into his throat. All of the confidence he’d had at the start of dinner was gone. All of those eyes were on him like they hadn’t been all evening and his legs felt like stones. Johanne turned and whispered something to Master Wilmot, who nodded and struck up a merry tune. It sounded…wrong, somehow. It wasn’t a minuet or a waltz.
We didn’t learn this one! You didn’t teach—
The tune struck a memory somewhere in his mind. He was right, it wasn’t any of the ones Johanne had taught him– it was one he had taught her.
Johanne took his hand and gave him the look that meant that he was supposed to lead now. He snapped back into focus, trying not to grin, put a hand on her waist and began to spin and twirl her around the ring of onlookers. Their guests gaped at first, looked wide-eyed to one another, then one by one, they counted the steps and joined in.
When the song ended, everyone clapped and the host and hostess took a bow. Master Wilmot immediately struck up a waltz, and the guests laughed with relief to begin a dance they knew. After that came a minuet, followed by another waltz. And then the strangest thing happened— a few guests approached Johanne to ask for another country dance! At the end of the night, they took their cloaks and muffs from Ashor, and a number of them were even still humming the tunes Alois had grown up with.
‘What a success!’ Johanne sighed, wrapping her arms around Alois’ neck after the last of the guests filed out. He hugged her back, finally able to let go of the grin that had been fighting to escape him all night.
‘I didn’t know you were going to do that.’
Johanne shrugged. ‘You were right. They know where you come from and they won’t forget. And they won’t let you forget. So why not lead with it and say, “You know, I know that you know. This is how it is, this is how it’s going to continue to be, and there’s no reason we can’t embrace it and enjoy it.” I didn’t think it would be such a success, I admit. But I thought it worth the gamble. I don’t want to hide anymore, and I don’t think you do, either.’
Alois goggled a her. Even a few months ago, she’d have advised him to keep his head down and not make a fuss, and now here she was, flaunting their unconventionality. He didn’t know what to say.
Master Wilmot came up behind them, hand extended.‘That was some of the most fun I’ve had behind the keys in many a year,’ he beamed. ‘I’ve never wished so much that I was on the floor.’
‘Can we expect to see more of you in a year’s time, then?’ Alois asked, coming back into himself to shake the Master’s hand.
‘Oh, certainly. You couldn’t keep me away.’ He touched the brim of his hat and strode out into the snow, leaving Alois and Johanne alone in the golden glow of Parry House.
Cover artwork by Inkcell Illustration