It was a pleasant evening—inside, at least.
“It is definitely winter. It finally feels like Christmas,” said Charlotte.
She had been playing the clavichord when Mary Elise peeked in, and Mistress Maria had her lute out. The yule log was burning brightly. Unfortunately the servants were still there, cleaning up after supper and tidying the house.
“We won’t make it out to church tonight, though.”
For the storm had hit; snow was falling rapidly and the winds had come up.
“We’ll have our own devotions here,” said Mistress Maria, putting down her instrument and settling herself in her chair. She motioned the girls in and said, for the benefit of the servants, “I’ll need you tomorrow, Mary Elise. You can show the new girl around the grounds and get her started on her duties.”
The servants glanced furtively at the new servant, but the princess turned away, keeping her face hidden.
“I may even make a change in your duties….”
Mary Elise wondered what that meant.
The old woman turned to the servants. “Tell Clara I’ll speak to her in the morning. Tell her not to expect Mary Elise to work in the kitchen tomorrow.”
“Yes, m’lady,” said one. They donned their cloaks and left.
“There, that’s settled. Now we can talk. Joanna, bring some food for the princess. You must be hungry, Your Highness.”
Mary Elise joined Joanna, to help–and eat a bite at the kitchen table, as was proper. But the princess called for her to come back into the sitting room.
While they ate roast venison and beef pies and pudding, she told her story. “But first of all, is there any news of my brother and sister?”
“None that we’ve heard, Your Highness.”
The girl leaned forward in her chair, earnestly. “My father sent us away. There is a plot growing to overtake the royal family and put a new king in place.”
Charlotte’s hand went to her mouth in horror.
“Then it wasn’t just a random attack,” said Mistress Maria.
“It was planned,” put in Mary Elise. “I could see from the cliff. They weren’t waiting for just any travelers that might come by.”
“My parents have extra protection by very trusted guards, but other than that we’re not sure who to believe. Our chamberlain, Joseph, advised us to split up—go to different places to hide, but Susanna didn’t want to. She wanted to stay with William. And I preferred it, too. But Father wasn’t sure if Joseph was one of the traitors. William didn’t think so. He suspects the head of the palace guard. If we’d taken Joseph’s advice, we might have been safe.”
“Where were you supposed to go?” asked Charlotte. “If you can tell us, that is.”
“To the Broun estate, just over in Wales. Sir Alwyn is a good friend and we’ve visited often. It was supposed to look like a Christmas visit if anyone discovered it. And we are supposed to have help coming. King Lochlan from the northern kingdom is sending soldiers. I don’t know any more than that.”
“They’re good allies,” said Charlotte, approvingly.
“You’ll be safe here, princess.” Mistress Maria said, with a smile. “We are all loyal to the king.”
“I knew that. Or I wouldn’t have told you. You have been kind and good to me. Some would say I trusted you much too quickly, but William says that sometimes you just know.”
“We’re happy to serve you, Your Highness.”
Princess Juliana smiled. “I just hope Susanna and William are all right. Someone close to us is a traitor. Whoever it was knew the route we would take. No one was supposed to know where we were going, not even the guards. They were to be changed along the way.”
“No one will find you here. It seems that the Lord has sent us a storm to hinder, as well.”
This as the wind howled through the trees. It was certain that all signs of their unusual autumn weather would be gone after this.
“Rest, princess. You’ve had a long day. Let’s just enjoy Christmastide, and we’ll have some reading and music after a while.”
The princess relaxed in the best chair, that they’d insisted on giving her, as was her due. She gazed into the flames, as they sputtered and glowed around the yule log.
The Christmas candles in the windows gave a warm light. But she still seemed agitated.
“You’re worried about your brother and sister?” asked Mary Elise, softly, as Charlotte played a sweet tune on the clavichord.
The princess shook her head. “Not really. A little perhaps, but William can take care of himself. He is a master at getting himself out of predicaments. Perhaps they’ve already escaped.”
She fingered the rather thin cloak she still wore, for in spite of the good fire, the house was still drafty. “Catherine—and her father. He’s sick and the door is broken. And we should have taken this back…. It’s so cold out there now….”
“What’s this about a broken door?” When Mistress Maria heard the story, she turned to Mary Elise.
“Run to the barn. Tell Richard. He’ll go fix the door. Princess, you need the cloak—for a disguise. But Mary Elise, take some blankets, in case they need them.”
Joanna spoke up, “wait a moment, child. I’ll get you a basket of herbs for tea and a little something for his chest. He’ll need a poultice. His illnesses always end with a deep cough that lingers on and on.”
Mary Elise gladly fought the wind as she went on the errand for her friends. It wasn’t as cold as she’d expected, but her feet were quite wet by the time she plowed through the several inches of snow that were already on the ground.
She found Richard milking the cows.
“I should have come back to do that,” she said, contritely. “It’s a little late. They must have been bawling.”
“They weren’t very happy,” he said jovially. “but I was getting the sheep settled for the night.”
He was much different than Clara, always cheerful, and never scolding. “I knew you were busy with other duties.”
And he was happy to go on the mission of mercy. “It’s only across the field. I’m used to being out in snow.”
Richard gathered his tools, and the bundle of woolen blankets, and the basket. He headed out into the storm while Mary Elise took over with the cows. She finished quickly, then strained the milk and put the large covered buckets out in the snow. It would keep until morning.
She did not want to go all the way to the kitchen of the main house with heavy buckets in this weather. Even more, she didn’t want to meet up with Clara, who was very capable of keeping her there indefinitely, in spite of Mistress Maria’s orders. Mary Elise wouldn’t be surprised if she left the pots and pans for her to do in the morning.
She was surprised at how quickly Richard was back.
“No trouble at all to fix. They’re all cozy and warm now. And Catherine knows how to make the poultice. She’s done it before. They were grateful for the supplies and the nice blankets.”
“They’ve got plenty of wood?”
“Oh, yes. They thought it quite kind of the– uh—new servant– to think of them, though.” He gave her a sideways look.
“Ummm….” Richard had seen the girls when they had gone up to Mary Elise’s quarters earlier that day.
“All right. They told me she was the princess. I told them not to say anything to anyone else. And she looked a little too gentile to really be a servant.”
“She’s in trouble….” Mary Elise sighed.”Only you and them and Joanna and Mistress Maria and Charlotte know.”
“Sounds like quite enough. The ambush—I heard about it from those men that were coming ‘round.”
“They’re the ones that did it. They’re looking for her!”
“I wondered about that, too. They had a rather cruel look about them, in spite of their trying to act like servants of the king. Really, Mary Elise. This goes no further and if she needs me, I’m most happy to serve her.”
Mary Elise nodded and plunged off into the storm again. A few minutes later, they were welcoming her back, and urging her to sit by the fire with a hot drink while Mistress Mary read the Scriptures.
The princess seemed surprised that the elderly woman could read. Charlotte could not, having been trained to be a society girl. Her education centered around painting, music, and learning to run a manor and see to her family.
Charlotte’s father, however, had died, then her mother…leaving her penniless due to her father’s indiscretions. She was also without the important family name that would fetch her a prominent husband. Even as the Lady Maria’s granddaughter, not many were interested. She’d confided to Lady Marie that she didn’t want all that anyway. A plain, hardworking journeyman would do just fine for her—and she had her eye on one who was reciprocating her interest. He was a talented wood carver with a business which was thriving.
The princess listened to all this about Charlotte’s beau, saying that her father was very much interested in the lives of the commoners. Unlike most kings, he felt that the working people were the most important of his subjects.
That night, the princess slept in Charlotte’s beautiful room, with Mary Elise on a comfortable pallet on the floor, ready to meet any needs she might have. Joanna didn’t seem to sleep much, peeking in every now and then, ready and willing to do the same.
Morning dawned clear, bright, and sparkling. The six inches of snow was beautiful to behold, but was melting fast. Princess Juliana would have liked to go out in it, but Lady Maria convinced her that due to how many people knew she was here, it might be best to stay hidden.
This turned out to be wise advice, for even before breakfast was being served, there suddenly came loud pounding on the door.
Joanna hurried to open it but the princess, glancing out the side window, suddenly drew back.
“It’s the captain of the palace guard!” she exclaimed. “And that man with him—he was here yesterday! He was the one whose voice I knew!”
“He was at the ambush!” Mary Elise told the others, excitedly.
“Go upstairs, Your Highness, quick!”
Princess Juliana did just that.
Joanna opened the door, even as someone proclaimed, “Open up, by order of the king!”
The women had risen. As the palace guard entered haughtily, Lady Maria asked with dignity, “what is the meaning of this?”
“We mush search this house.” A half dozen soldiers entered after him, along with the one they knew to be the bandit.
“Wait just a moment….”
“By the king’s command,” the head of the palace guard told her. “You must know by now that the Princess Juliana is missing. All houses on the manor and in the town are being searched.”
Lady Maria bowed her head. She couldn’t go against the king’s order. “There’s something about those others, though. I don’t believe they’re real soldiers,” she murmured to Charlotte and Joanna, as the men spread out to search.
Mary Elise had already escaped up the stairs and joined the princess. “We’ve got to get out!”
“But how? I already hear them on the back stairs.”
Joanna suddenly appeared at the head of the stairs. She had their cloaks over her arm.
The two girls grabbed their cloaks, and Mary Elise raised the window that looked out on the low roof of the cottage’s back door stoop. She crawled out onto the roof. The princess clambered after her. Joanna quickly closed the window, as well as the shutters.
“Come on! It’s not too far to jump. Smooth out the snow there….”
Mary Elise jumped. The princess smoothed the snow as best she could, as she perched on the edge, then made the leap. Mary Elise half caught her and they tumbled to the ground together.
Unhurt, they brushed away their tracks with a branch, and disappeared under a group of firs.
“This is better than trying to escape by the path.”
“I hear them coming! They’re checking the courtyard.”
They scrambled along, under the lowest branches of the line of fir trees, coming out near the sheep’s enclosure, soaking wet what with the melted snow.
They dashed around the barn.
“Richard! You’ve got to hide us!”
Richard took in the situation. “Come on…this way…It’ll be all right!”
To be continued….
By Carol Bennett