As the soldiers spread out, searching the area, Richard quickly opened a small door.
“Into the carding room! Quick! Until I see where they’re heading!”
“I don’t believe it’s my father’s order to search every house,” said the princess.
Richard agreed. “His soldiers would assume the bandits have you, I would think. How would they know you escaped? I don’t think these men are soldiers of the king.”
The carding room was filled with large bundles of wool, tubs for washing, and large racks. Much of the wool had already been processed, and taken to the big house for spinning. The room was vacant now, as servants were occupied elsewhere with Christmas activities.
Richard entered the small room. “They’re coming this way! You’d better escape through the woods. They’d find you here in no time, even in the loft.”
The girls slipped out, and headed through a patch of forest that led to town. Soon they entered the village. It wasn’t hard to blend in with the crowds.
The shops were busy and the Market was filled with people running hither and yon, on errands or doing last minute shopping. The girls slipped into an alley, and sank down in a corner, breathless.
“We’re not alone,” said Princess Juliana, with a smile.
A dog trotted over and sniffed her.
“He’s a stray. I’ve seen him here and there,” said Mary Elise. “There’s a lot of stray dogs around, but he won’t hurt you. He’s friendlier than most.”
She addressed the dog, who was small, with black and white coloring. “Do get away from her! You’re so dirty!”
“So am I–again,” said the princess. She had slipped in the slush and mud on the way through the woods. “This dress you loaned me is quite filthy.”
But the dog had taken a liking to them, and sprawled across the princess’ lap. Mary Elise was about to shoo him away, when her friend said, “it’s all right.”
Princess Juliana rubbed the dog’s head, then shrank back into the shadows. “Shhh… Soldiers—or bandits–or whoever they are!”
A group of four marched past the alley. The girls breathed in relief as they moved on, but a moment later, one suddenly appeared back in their line of vision. He took a step into the alley.
Suddenly the dog leaped up. He snarled and barked, as ferocious as he had been gentle a moment before. He sprang at the soldier, who raised his gun, and swung the butt end at the animal. The dog danced out of reach.
“Mangy curr!” the man muttered. “Wild dogs everywhere in these villages. What a little runt that one is.”
But he departed quickly, none the less.
The dog returned to them, panting happily.
“Good for you!” laughed the princess.
They stayed in the alley for a while, just catching their breath and getting acquainted with the dog. Finally, Mary Elise crept to the entrance and peeked out. There were no signs of soldiers, bandits, or anyone looking for them. People hurried back and forth with food and packages for Christmas doings; the girls felt quite safe.
“Why, Mary Elise! What are you doing here? Shopping for the Mistress? Or on another of her errands for the poor?”
“Miss Alice.” Mary Elise bobbed a curtsy, nervously “.…and Cecily.”
A servant girl, a little older than her, smiled and nodded.
The woman went on cheerfully. “A few more Christmas surprises…my mother loves these special pastries from France. But who is this? A new servant?”
Princess Julianna had her hood up, and tried to keep her face turned.
Suddenly there came another voice from nearby. “Mary Elise! There you are. I brought the money for the goods Mistress wanted.”
It was Joanna! The old servant nodded politely to the young woman. “Miss Alice, Miss Charlotte would welcome a visit. She was just mentioning you the other day.”
“Ah yes. After Christmas. I’m busy with Mother, but tell her I’ll come soon.”
The two walked on. Joanna turned to the girls, with relief at finding them. They told her of the soldiers.
“They seem to be gone,” said Mary Elise.
“I heard on the way over here that they searched the whole village. But they’ve moved on. Those four were probably the last of them. Come, let’s get you home and hidden. Here’s a scarf to hide your face, Princess.” Suddenly she hissed, “you! Get away!”
Her foot moved toward a dog hovering nearby. She had nearly tripped over him.
“Oh! There he is,” said the princess. “I wondered where he’d gotten to.”
“He helped us—he scared a soldier away!’ said Mary Elise.
“Oh…” The old servant veiled her surprise, and refrained from the kick she had been about to give him. He followed along as they moved toward the Market. “I do have one stop to make while I’m here. Richard came and told us you were headed for the woods, and would probably end up mingling with the Market crowd. I do hope no one recognized you, “
“No one seemed to, except Miss Alice.”
Joanna headed for a confectionery shop, but Princess Juliana came to a sudden stop at a stand. “Wait, please. I want one of these, I think.”
“A cloak? I don’t blame you. That one you have is quite shabby.”
“But if you’re to look like a servant….” Mary Elise mused.
“No, not for me. I’ll keep this one and buy Catherine a new one. They were so good about helping us and she needs a cloak. I have money. I kept hold on my purse during the ambush, and I have it with me.” She showed a glimpse of a quite fancy pouch which she’d hidden within the folds of her dress.“
“That’s very kind of you, Your Highness, “ Joanna said. “But you may need your money.”
“This doesn’t cost much.”
The price was quite high to Mary Elise and Joanna, but they couldn’t argue with the princess. It just wasn’t done. However, a thought suddenly came to Mary Elise. She fingered the richly brocaded red cloak that the princess was examining.
“Your Highness, this is rather fancy for a shepherdess. People would wonder if she stole it. It could cause trouble.”
“Oh,” said the princess, blankly. “I can see what you mean, I suppose. Perhaps we could go to the shops. I really want to do this for her.”
Each journeyman had a shop on a street which featured his products. Clothiers were on one street, glass-makers on another, Charlotte’s wood carving beau, did business on another,with shops of its kind, and so forth. But many shopkeepers manned stands at the weekly Market, as well.
“Wait! What about this one?” suggested Joanna.
Mary Elise took one look. “It’s perfect!”
The deep blue woolen cloak was plain, yet durable and warm.
“Oh! It’s just right!” Mary Elise told the princess, happily. “She’ll be going out a lot helping Richard with the sheep, I think. Her father does get these bouts of illness often. She’ll need a cloak like this for winter.”
The princess slipped the money to Joanna, who bought the garment. They did their errand at the candy shop, buying several of the Mistress’s favorites for Christmas treats during the next days. Joanna offered the princess a sampling, but she would only take it if they had one, too. They knew Mistress Maria and Charlotte wouldn’t mind.
Joanna raised her eyebrows at Mary Elise when the dog followed them to the end of the village.
The princess caught their look. ‘Can’t he come with us? He saved us from that soldier. I like him.”
“As you wish, Your Highness.” But Joanna couldn’t quite contain herself. “But he’s a wild dog…a stray….”
“But he seems to like us, too.”
“Yes, Your Highness. I suppose he does.”
Richard met them at the edge of the woods. “It’s safe.”
Joanna nodded and turned to the princess. “You must be hungry. The noon meal will be ready soon. And you should get hidden, Your Highness.”
“Please…I want to give Catherine her cloak.”
So Joanna went on to the house.
“I’ll come and help you,” Mary Elise told Richard, “but first, please may I just see how Catherine likes her gift?”
Richard twinkled at her, as if he knew a secret. “I don’t need help. Mistress sent Johnny out to help me.”
“Oh…all right,” said Mary Elise, a bit confused. But she forgot it in the fun of running across the field to the dilapidated old hut to deliver the present.
Catherine’s eyes went wide and her mouth opened in an O when the princess presented the cloak. The father’s face lit up with happiness at his daughter’s good fortune.
The shepherdess finally found her voice. “It’s so beautiful.” She put it on, and turned about so they could see how it looked. “And so warm. Thank you, Your Highness.”
“I’m sure our small service does not merit such a costly gift….” murmured the father.
“It’s the least I could do. I do need this one for my disguise.”
“Of course, Princess.”
They had hot drinks at the small table. Catherine would have given them bread and soup but the princess saw that there didn’t seem to be much and declined, saying they were waiting dinner at The Cottage for her.
They admired the wooden Paradise Tree that Catherine had set up, the poor man’s tree, as people called it. The shelves held decorations, and fir branches were placed here and there around the hut.
Both Catherine and her father were intrigued with the “wild” dog who had followed them home. The father insisted that he come in and have a little food.
“He’s probably starved,” said Catherine, as she gave him some soup.
The princess was about to protest using their food. They would feed him at The Cottage, but Mary Elise nudged her. They wanted to do this little kind deed and the dog was certainly lapping it up hungrily.
The dog went along when they headed back to the house. They passed the barn and waved to Johnny, a skinny thirteen year old. He seemed to be quite happy to be out of the scullery kitchen where he normally did everything from chopping sides of meat, to lifting heavy kettles and moving barrels.
They had just reached the back door of The Cottage when Mary Elise was suddenly grabbed by the shoulder and whirled around.
“There you are! Another day of no work! Where have you been? And don’t tell me you’ve been with the sheep—or in the barn! I know better. I lost Johnny, and you’ve been nowhere to be found!”
“You—lost Johnny? I just saw him….”
“He’s no longer a kitchen servant! He’s under Richard’s domain now—to help in the barn! I asked if that meant I’d have you wholly for kitchen work—and the servants, mind you, told me that Lady Maria needs you today, as well. Well, she should have told me herself! And I need you! She’s had you long enough!”
Mary Elise opened her mouth in shock at such insubordination. To make things worse, suddenly the big woman clamped her other hand on the princess’ shoulder.
“I suppose you’re taking the place of Johnny! You’re a scrawny little thing! Well you can get to work right now! Agnes said something about Mary Elise showing you your duties—well I’ll show you your duties. You’ve been here a whole day and a have done nothing, that I can see!”
She steered both girls toward the scullery kitchen, keeping them off balance as they struggled to keep up with her.
“How dare you! Let go of her! You don’t know what you’re doing!” gasped Mary Elise, nearly breathless with the speed they were moving. There was a squawking of geese just then in the courtyard, which covered her words—it was probably just as well.
Then the princess caught her eye and shook her head. They reached the door and Clara thrust them in! The princess lost her balance and landed on the floor, as Clara stood over her.
“Get up and get to work! Now! Both of you can scrub those pots and pans from last night.”
Sure enough, Mary Elise caught a glimpse of the washing tubs. There were pots, skillets, utensils, bowls—piles of them!
“We hardly have any dishes for the noon meal! Now, get to work!”
Mary Elise was at a loss as to what to do, as the woman grasped the princess’ arm, and pulled her up, shoving her toward the pile. “You’re probably good for nothing, but you can start learning to wash dishes, at least.”
Princess Juliana gave her friend another look and Mary Elise, even in her horror, refrained from saying anything more. If Clara only knew. She could be severely punished for such manhandling of the princess. But the girl was in hiding. She had more presence of mind to remember that than Mary Elise did.
Finally Mary Elise was able to calm down a bit and think. She had to get Mistress Maria!
“I’ll—I’ll go to the well for water….” She started for the door.
“You’ll do no such thing! There’s plenty of water heating on the fire. One of the other girls will go for more.”
This was terrible. Mary Elise walked to the corner and joined her friend, who had no idea how to even start.
Suddenly, one of the servants, Agnes, came over with a large baking bowl and added it to the pile. She met Mary Elise’s gaze.
Mary Elise calmed down a little more at the clear signal. She remembered that the woman would be going over with dinner soon. It was nearly noon. Mary Elise was pretty sure she didn’t know the identity of the princess, but she had heard the instructions of the night before. Agnes would let them know what was happening.
“And what is this dog doing out here! Chasing the geese no doubt. Get out! Shoo!” Clara headed out into the courtyard with a broom.
Mary Elise nodded to Agnes gratefully, and turned to the stack of dishes.
It wasn’t long before Charlotte came marching over with strict instructions.
“You have disobeyed the Lady Maria’s orders concerning Mary Elise. And you have not been told that this new servant belongs here. Lady Maria says that she will speak to the duchess about you, but until then, you may wash the dishes—no, not Agnes, not anyone else. You. If I see anyone else doing it, you may even be relieved of your duties as head cook and be scullery maid permanently! Both these girls will, from now on, be personal maids of the Lady Maria!”
With great pomp and ceremony, Charlotte motioned to the girls and turned on her heel, marching out the door.
Mary Elise caught the open mouthed shock of the woman, before quickly following Charlotte.
“May we plan our own Christmastide play?” asked Princess Juliana, after everything had settled down and they had eaten the noon meal. “Everyone says I’m quite good at acting out a part.”
“No, you’ll attend the real Mystery Play with Charlotte and me. Well, maybe we can make up one for our own enjoyment later, but we’ve had enough nonsense for one day. We’re going to all the Christmas festivities. The scarf will cover your face quite well, and it’s perfectly acceptable for servants to attend the holiday frolics.”
The princess clapped her hands, excitedly.
“And to set your mind at ease, I have a friend. His name is Michael and he’s trustworthy. I’ve sent him to look into all this about your brother and sister, and spy on the bandits. He’s quite good at that, as he’s been in the army as a scout. He said that whatever the news, he will be back tonight to report—and then we’ll decide what to do next.”
The princess slumped in relief. “Thank you. I’ve been so worried about Susanna and William. I know I shouldn’t be. William is very clever but….”
“It’s normal to feel that way, Princess. They’re your family.”
Dinner had been quite relaxing after the excitement of the morning. There were lots of Christmas treats that the mistress had ordered. They had been baked special by Agnes and she smiled with pleasure that they were fully enjoyed.
Afterwards, they decorated their own real Paradise tree with apples and then wafers, representing the ceremony of Communion. There were fir boughs here as well, that Richard had collected for them, and what fun they had placing them above windows and doors
“In my day, we didn’t have Paradise Trees in our homes,” said Mistress Maria. “Only on stage at the Mystery Plays.”
They recalled the story of the Paradise Tree. It represented the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, and it was just the first of many traditions that would start tonight. And tomorrow, Christmas Day, would be the first of the twelve days of Christmas!
“I know some of these things aren’t so familiar here,” Mistress Maria told them. “But my parents came from Germany where some of these traditions were just starting–and I’ve loved carrying on with them over the years.”
Their fun was spoiled for a few moments when the duchess stormed in.
“How dare you! Clara is the best for puddings and tarts and soups. And she’s the only one who can make my tea right! She’s only just now finished that pile of dishes. It took her three hours.”
“Do as you wish with her. But she’s not to bother my new servants again.”
“And you shall not threaten her with being a scullery maid! She’s the best cook we’ve ever had.”
“I personally think Agnes’ cakes and venison pie much better than hers,” retorted Mistress Maria. “And as for the mincemeat, she’s completely deplorable. I’ll have Agnes cooking for my household from now on.”
“Fine! Are you to join us for the Advent Eve Feast tonight, or are you too high and mighty for that, too?”
“Charlotte and I will be there, of course. And I’ll see you at Service tonight. Right now we’re heading out to the play.”
“All of you?”
“I’ll need my new personal maids, yes.”
“Outrageous. What you and Charlotte need three maids for, I don’t know! And where did you acquire this other one, anyway?”
“Ah, here’s the carriage. You must excuse us, Margarita.”
“Well! I do hope we have no more of these petty problems about servants, Maria!”
But the two adults and two girls, filed out, as Joanna happily went about putting up more decorations of fir branches, and straightening an apple or two on the little tree.
Johnny was driving.
“He will be much happier with Richard I think. He loves the outdoors,” said Mistress Maria. “Pardon, Princess for all this upheaval with servants. Are you sure you don’t want more punishment upon Clara. I don’t think she learned her lesson, what with the duchess’ intervention.”
“It’s Christmas. Leave her be. I don’t suppose it hurt me any to see what goes on in a scullery kitchen. Father really does think it’s very important to learn and understand the needs of all our subjects. The Market was quite interesting, too.”
“Your father is quite unusual, Princess. We all love him,” said Charlotte.
“Not everyone,” replied the princess, sadly.
It hadn’t dawned on Mary Elise until the encounter with the duchess, what Mistress Maria had actually done about her status. Now, as they rode to the village, she said shyly. “Are you sure you want me as a personal maid? You have Joanna.”
“There’s plenty to do about the house. It will be good for you to have such training.”
“Thank you, Mistress.” She would still help Richard sometimes, and maybe Catherine with the sheep–just because she wanted to—but she wouldn’t miss the scullery kitchen!
The afternoon passed with lots of fun. When they arrived home, Joanna had a sumptuous supper ready for the princess, while the Advent Eve Feast was going on at the big house. Plus a freshly bathed “wild dog” lay beside them, well fed and content. After much discussion about a name, he had been deemed Percevil. It seemed to fit him.
Then came the Christmas services, where they stayed in the back with Joanna in quiet contemplation of the blessed Christ child and why He had come.
Then it was back again to The Cottage for a Christmas Eve treat and hot drink before bed. What the next day would bring, the girls had no idea, but the yule log, the Paradise tree, the lit candle in each window, all served to remind them again and again of God’s gift of His Son.
To be continued…
By Carol Bennett
Merry Christmas to you all!