Christmas at Hembry Castle: An Excerpt

Happy holidays! Normally this time of year I post a chapter from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but since I’ve nearly finished revising my new novel, When It Rained at Hembry Castle, and there just so happens to be two Christmas chapters, I thought I’d share those instead. For those of you who have been following the progress of the new novel, you know it’s set in Victorian England (in 1870) and loosely inspired by Downton Abbey (which is set later than the Victorian period–yes, I know).

Today’s chapter, entitled what else but “Christmas at Hembry,” currently stands as Chapter 17, though that could easily change by the time the novel is released in February. This isn’t a finished product, and I never show my unfinished products to anyone. But since we’re among friends, I thought I’d share. Enjoy!

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Hembry CastleChristmas at Hembry was glorious. The same rooms that felt cavernous and cold the rest of the year glowed gold and warm from the candelabras and hearth fires that waved holiday cheer to all. Every surface in every room was covered with berried evergreens while mistletoe draped the walls and baskets of clove-wrapped oranges scented the air. The centerpiece of the castle was a 15-foot-tall tree lit with white candles and decorated with paper chains, strung candies, ribbons, and tinsel, all presents from the village children who gasped with delight to see their handmade gifts on display in the grand old house. Even the Countess of Staton was softened by the glee of the season, and she seemed almost dreamy as she floated about, her wind blowing a few degrees less coolly, and she entertained Daphne with memories of her sons’ first Christmastides. She named every present her sons had ever presented her, every mischief they had found themselves in. In the darkness, descending early now, Lady Staton spent hours with Daphne by the hearth in the sitting room over steaming cups of tea and lemon biscuits to tell stories of Frederick’s antics as a boy, like the time he meant to give his nanny a frog as a holiday gift and the slimy thing leapt first into Nanny’s apron pocket and then down the front of her dress. Oh, how she screamed, Lady Staton said, nodding at the memory. Lady Staton told Daphne how Prince Albert had brought his country’s Christmas traditions, including Christmas trees, to Windsor Castle in 1841. “And if Queen Victoria had a Christmas tree,” the Countess said, “then all of England wanted a Christmas tree.”

“We have Christmas trees in America,” Daphne said. “They add such a festive feeling to the season. And the candlelight is so beautiful.” When Lady Staton started in her chair, Daphne said, “Yes, even we Americans are civilized enough to have Christmas trees.” To Daphne’s surprise, her grandmother laughed. A Christmas miracle indeed.

The day itself was snowy, and iridescent light filtered from the quilted gray sky. The castle was full, as it was every year, with family, villagers, farmers, tradesmen, and anyone else important to the castle and its people. They had gathered together, as was the 250-year-old tradition, to eat and drink to their heart’s content, sing carols, and dance like there was no tomorrow. Daphne clasped her hands together when she saw two faces that made her particularly joyous: her Uncle Richard and Edward Ellis. Uncle Richard had disappeared without a trace a few weeks before, his only contact a cryptic message to her father about how he had pressing business but would be back at Hembry for the holidays. Despite her father’s best efforts, Richard couldn’t be found, and when her uncle turned up unexpectedly on Christmas Eve, everyone was so relieved they let his latest disappearing act pass without comment. Though it had only been a day since his return, Daphne saw her uncle smiling, easy, relaxed—as though some great weight, some strangulating albatross, had been removed from his neck once and for all and he moved all the lighter for it. She watched her uncle move among his guests, chatting with the farmers and villagers, laughing with the servants, dancing with his mother, all the time looking over the gathering as though he could hardly believe he was there. Daphne watched her uncle dance with a ten-year-old village girl, who positively beamed.

victorianchristmastreeEdward Ellis’s arrival had a very different effect. He arrived in the afternoon, making his excuses to her father, apologizing for his tardiness, but he had wanted to spend some time that day with his family in London. Edward looked at his grandfather, who stood in his usual hunched manner with his hands behind his back. Mr. Ellis looked very pleased indeed with the turnout at Hembry Castle, and he watched the festivities over his round-rimmed spectacles, nodding at everyone and everything he saw. “I’m grateful to be here now, Mr. Meriwether,” Edward said. “I’ve always wanted to spend Christmas with my grandparents.”

Frederick clasped Edward’s shoulder and steered the young man toward the steaming punch bowl. “I’m so pleased you’re here now, Edward, as is Daphne. I know your grandparents have been looking forward to this since you agreed to come.”

Frederick excused himself to see about Mrs. Pearson, a village widow whose son, Joseph, had been ill. Frederick spoke softly to the doctor, Mr. Hough, and the men approached the woman and her small boy, giving the little fellow some peppermint and molasses taffy to put a smile on his face. Frederick then led the boy to the sitting room where a pantomime put on by the village children was in full swing.

“Who is that?” Edward asked as he watched Frederick and the boy. After Daphne explained, Edward said, “That’s good of your father to take such an interest. And you.”

“Papa and I have been to their cottage a few times to see how Joseph was doing. At first he seemed better, but then he was ill again. Mr. Hough saw Joseph yesterday, but he isn’t sure what’s wrong with the poor boy. He doesn’t have a fever, and he doesn’t have the chills. He’s just ill. Mr. Hough left a note with directions about how to care for the boy, and we’ve been following his instructions to the letter.”

“It must be working. The boy looks well enough.”

“He does, doesn’t he? Let’s hope that’s a good sign.”

Daphne saw little Joseph begin clapping when carolers began singing:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.

When the song was done, the orchestra began an upbeat tune and dancers filed into the center of the Great Hall to bow or curtsey before taking off down the rows on their toes. It was a beautiful scene, Daphne thought, as family, villagers, and anyone else who wanted laughed like children and danced before the great tree. Mothers danced with their sons, daughters with their fathers. The Earl of Staton danced with the baker’s wife and the peacock of a first footman danced with the Marchioness of Braddleton. Edward laughed when his grandfather took his grandmother for a swing around and around. He looked at Daphne and nodded toward the dancers.

“Miss Meriwether, may I have this dance?”

DancingDaphne curtsied, and she joined Edward with the others. As soon as she started moving she forgot about everyone else. She forgot about the holiday decorations and the tables of delicious foods. She forgot the music and the very walls holding up the castle around her. She was with Edward, his left hand on her hip, his right hand holding hers. He looked nowhere but into her eyes, and she into his. His eyes were very green then, Daphne thought, spring green, green like new life and green like hope and dreams. He smiled at her, and she expected a comic comment from him as was his way, but he only smiled, and she smiled too. A space opened around them, and Edward twirled Daphne so her red velvet dress flared behind her. She felt as though she waltzed on air. When the music stopped and the others clapped, Edward and Daphne clapped too, Daphne still dizzy with exhilaration.

When the next song began, Edward grabbed Daphne’s hand and led her to the empty seats nearest the hearth. He opened his mouth, about to speak, but then he looked from the dancers to the Christmas tree to his grandparents, who were close in conversation and glancing in their direction. Edward reached beneath his black frock coat, his green and red paisley cravat falling out from his green velvet waistcoat while he fumbled in his pocket. After an anxious moment, he pulled out a small green box. He looked around, but though the room was full everyone was so caught up in their own frivolity they didn’t notice the chocolate-haired, nervous-looking young man and the small box he handed to the golden-haired, glowing young woman.

“My grandparents would say I’m being too forward, but I wish you’d accept this in the spirit it’s intended—a gift between friends.”

Daphne turned the box over in her hands. “May I?”

“Please.”

She gasped at the ruby earrings inside. Perhaps the gems weren’t of the same quality as the heart-shaped ruby ring her grandmother had given her, but they were perfect—small, round, set in filigree gold.

“You’re not offended?” Edward asked.

“Offended? They’re beautiful. Come here.” Without thinking of the hundreds of people in the castle, without thinking of anything but the present she had for Edward, she led him across the room and around the dancers to the ceiling-high tree. She knelt by the white-lace skirt at the bottom and reached around the back, pulling out a gold-wrapped box with a sprig of holly.

“This is my present for you.” She handed Edward the gift and waited with clasped hands while he opened it—a copy of A Christmas Carol signed by Mr. Dickens himself.

Edward turned the book from front to back to side to front again.  “You must have contacts beyond the grave.”

Daphne laughed. “Not quite. My father and I found it in a bookshop on the Strand in London. As soon as I saw it I thought of you, the soon-to-be famous author. Your book will be out before long, and who knows? Maybe you really will be the next Mr. Dickens.” She pointed to the inside flap of the book. “In case you were wondering, that is definitely Mr. Dickens’ signature. My father had it examined. Someone must not have known what they had when they sold the book.”

Edward stepped closer to her, closing the space between them. “I know exactly what I have.”

Daphne wanted him to look at her that way all the Christmas day, with an intensity she had never seen from him before. When the musicians played a waltz, Edward held out his hand. Daphne curtsied, and again he twirled her across the dance floor, and again her ruby-red dress fanned behind her, and again she felt lifted by the air.

This time, however, Daphne was aware of the others in the room, and she felt their eyes following her every move. Her grandmother squinted at them while she held her ear trumpet in place to hear her Uncle Jerrold and his wife Hyacinth, who had her monocle to her eye so as not to miss a detail. Her Uncle Richard leaned close to John Hough and whispered. Her father watched them too, exchanging sly looks with his lordship and Mr. Hough.

ChristmasFor the first time that Christmas Day, Daphne realized what she had done. By speaking so publicly to Edward, by dancing with him to the exclusion of everyone else, by sharing their gifts in this public space, she had made a choice. Most likely everyone in the castle knew how she felt about him by now. It had to be obvious in the way she felt light on her feet and grinned like a silly girl and laughed at anything he said however he said it.

So let it be, Daphne thought. While Edward hasn’t made any declarations yet, she guessed he felt the same for her as she did for him. She had to follow her heart, and her heart led to Edward Ellis.

2 thoughts on “Christmas at Hembry Castle: An Excerpt

  1. Looking forward to reading the completed work when it is published, Meredith. Festive Greetings to you and hope for a happy, healthy and peaceful 2016 to all.

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