Breakfast on Christmas Day was jolly and fun. A light snow had started falling on the way home from the sunrise service at the cathedral. Lady Maria begged off the Feast of the Christ Child later at the big house, however. She claimed weariness, but she also wanted to spend the time with her special guest.
The duchess was not happy that Lady Maria had asked Agnes to bring dinner over to The Cottage. Or that she had ordered her favorite holiday dishes on this busy day, when so many guests were expected.
“I need Agnes!” the duchess insisted.
“You’ll be fine. You have a multitude of servants. Since most of the food is being cooked for you as well, bringing some to us will not take that much time. Agnes makes such a good plum pudding.”
“I despise plum pudding. That’s why it’s not on the menu! One less thing to do! And this feast is tradition! What will people think if you’re not there!”
“I prefer a day of quietness and contemplation, rather than a big celebration that ends in drunkenness and foolishness!”
The duchess had stepped down from the carriage in a huff, and stalked off into the big house.
“I’ll see you at afternoon Mass. Give my Christmas greetings to everyone….” Lady Maria called after her.
“We’ll not see her this afternoon, that’s for sure,” said Charlotte, with a grin.
In spite of Lady Maria’s words, they were having quite a nice time that Christmas morning, with some special surprises for the girls.
Their new pet was perfectly at home, laying at the feet of the princess or politely nosing for treats of his own, like a gentleman.
Later, they adjourned to the sitting room, enjoying Lady Maria’s stories of Christmas’ past—when she was a girl, and later when her husband was off to war. She, a newly married young lady, had filled her lonely hours with deeds for the poor. She was also running the manor that first Christmas, and trying to do it well, so her husband would be pleased.
“Lady Maria,” said the princess, finally. “You’re so different. You seem to know God in a way the rest of us don’t. You, too.” She looked around the group at Charlotte, and Mary Elise, and even Joanna, who was hovering nearby, ready to serve.
“The way you read the Scriptures,” the girl continued, “it makes everything so real. I don’t know…it makes God seem like He’s right here with us, in this room—not just in church. Does that sound—disrespectful? And how do you dare read the Scriptures when our priests say we shouldn’t, that we can’t understand it and they must interpret it for us? ”
The old woman smiled. “As I told you, my family is from Germany—there and in other places too, many changes are taking place. I was able to get hold of this precious Bible, for a great deal of money through a family friend. I don’t believe the Scriptures should be chained up in churches for only the priests to read.”
She took a deep breath. “I believe that the Spirit of God works through us to help us understand the Word of God—when we follow Him completely, and come to Him in the right way. When we understand that there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s favor.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying,” said the princess, thoughtfully.
Lady Maria took up the small Bible. “Have you heard this verse?”
So far she had only been reading stories from the Bible. Incredible stories of heroes, men and women who had done great things in history.
Mary Elise was used to them, but to the princess, they were fascinating, wonderful events that she’d never heard told quite in this fashion. And then the stories of Jesus’ birth had struck her in a way they never had before.
But this was different. The old woman found the place, and started to read.
“For God so loved the world….” Lady Maria’s voice was soft and tender. The snow outside and the glow of the fire seemed to make the room cozy and quiet, and the little group closer than ever.
The old woman’s quiet voice seemed to bring God down into this place as a precious, wondrous Being, rather than high and far away. Even in the candle-lit church, with the warm colors of the stained glass windows, and flickering light on the walls, it sometimes seemed as if He were way off somewhere.
“.…that He gave his only begotten Son….” The woman looked around at them all, and paused, letting the words penetrate.
“….that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
She flipped back and found another place. The princess was fascinated that she knew her way about the Scriptures so well. She’d never seen anything like it, though she supposed William, who had spent time in a monastery, might have witnessed such things.
“….Emmanuel…God with us….” The old woman turned more pages. “Not by works of righteousness that we have done but according to his mercy He saved us.”
They talked about that for a long time.
Finally they paused as Joanna came in with hot drinks. Then the princess said, “I have many more questions. But Lady Maria, won’t you…be in trouble? People must know you have this Bible. Perhaps they don’t know how much you read and study it but I’ve heard in some places that they’re being burned. That people are being imprisoned and even killed….for having these personal Bibles and daring to read them.”
“I believe that it’s a new day. I believe that we all may know God’s Word. If, some day, things change and here in our diocese, it becomes illegal…well… there’s nothing I can do about that. My priest knows I have this. It’s a private matter between him and me. But if some day I must suffer because of it, so be it…. As for me, I don’t believe as some, that we must separate from the church. But there may come a day that I will change my mind. I may be a Dissenter–one who asks questions and wonders if we’re doing it all in the right way–but I’m not a Separatist—yet.”
She smiled at the girl. “Are you going to tell it abroad that I’m close to being a heretic?”
The princess petted Percival’s head absentmindedly, then smiled back.
“No. I want this. I want what you have. Sometimes Susanna says she feels it in her heart when she kneels to pray in the morning or at Mass. She knows in her heart that God is with her and in her. She says she learned it from Mother. I never quite knew what she meant. Perhaps Father knows and feels this too, and William. I don’t know. They are good men. But we don’t talk about religion as you do, we just go to Mass and do our duty.”
“Doing our duty is good. And believing God exists if right. But becoming His child through taking His gift of salvation, believing that He took our sin upon Himself so that we could be forgiven is going the next step. Committing yourself to Him, no matter what.”
“That’s what I want.”
They prayed together then, a prayer such as the princess had never heard. But she agreed with it completely, and took it as her own.
Just then activity in the kitchen interrupted them all. The door opened and voices penetrated into the sitting room.
Joanna looked toward the small kitchen chamber. “It’s the dinner!”
But before they could go on to other things quite yet, the four looked around at each other.
“I understand it,” said the princess. “I know it in my spirit—Emmanuel—God with us….”
They trooped to the table as the steaming dishes arrived. Lady Maria gave Agnes a pleased smile as the wonderful aromas filled the air. “Charlotte, bring the gifts for our faithful servants!”
And their own Feast of the Christ Child was soon underway.
In spite of the fun, the contemplation, the soft snowfall, the peace permeating The Cottage, there had been an undercurrent of concern. Lady Maria’s friend had not arrived the night before, as promised. They had expected him to be at the house when they arrived back from midnight Mass, and then sunrise service, but there was no sign of him.
It was just before afternoon Mass. They were about to head out after a fun time of games and charades, and some musicians that the mistress had hired for their entertainment. But they suddenly heard another commotion at the back door.
“I don’t know you, sir. You may not come in until I speak with Lady Maria.”
“Who is it, Joanna?”
“He says his name is Michael.”
“Let him in. It’s all right.”
Charlotte got up quickly and moved to the kitchen chamber. “Michael! Come in!”
As the young man entered. Lady Maria half rose. “Michael! Are you all right? No wonder Joanna didn’t recognize you.”
His hand went to his bruised cheekbone. A cut over his eye was visible as well. He was dressed in a vagabond’s clothes, complete with an old hooded cape and even a patch over the other eye.
Perceval ran over, sniffing, then lay down, unconcerned.
“M’lady,” the young man grinned at her gallantly, swung back his cape, and bent to kiss her hand.
“Michael! What shall we do with you!” But she was laughing at his costume.
“It worked—to a point.” He sobered, “Do pardon me that I didn’t get back when I said I would. I got into a little trouble, but managed to escape. And I took a tumble. I’m quite all right, though.”
She shook her finger. “You had me worried. But let me present….”
He sobered even more, startled, as his eyes went to the girls. “Oh, forgive me, Your Highness—a very good disguise, as well.” He bowed low.
“It wasn’t my idea, but it’s certainly been successful. What news do you have?” Princess Juliana asked, excitedly.
He removed his ragged cloak, and looked more himself in his normal clothes. “Your brother and sister escaped and are safe with friends of mine. I’m to take you to them, and then you can go on to your destination in Wales. You will trust me to do that, princess?”
“I trust any friend of Lady Maria’s,” she replied, simply.
“Then we really should leave right away. It will be dusk soon and we can travel by night. The bandits are still out there. The king has his soldiers out, too, looking for you and your royal sister and brother, but it’s hard to tell who to trust. I know you don’t trust the head of the palace guard. Since he’s aligned with the bandits, people look at them as legitimate. And they have uniforms that seem so, as well.”
“All right.” The princess hesitated. “I’ll get dressed—or perhaps I should keep these on.”
“Yes, I think that’s best,” said Lady Maria. “Joanna will make up a bundle with your things, though I think your good dress is stained beyond repair. Joanna prepare a packet of food, as well. Mary Elise, go tell Richard to saddle a horse. I think Romaine would do best for this.”
They all were rather in a daze at how fast things were moving. They had become quite used to the princess being there, and had nearly forgotten that she must leave at some point.
“In the meantime,” Charlotte spoke up, “Micheal, you must eat something. You must be hungry.”
Joanna hurried to her tasks and Mary Elise rose to do hers. But the princess suddenly stopped her with a gesture, and turned to the old woman.
“Lady Maria, would you be willing—to release Mary Elise?” She turned to the girl. “I know you’ve just become personal maid, but if you’d like to—you could be my personal maid. I just can’t bear the thought of leaving you….”
Mary Elise turned, surprised, exuberant! Then she remembered her position.
But Lady Maria was smiling happily, “Of course, princess. As you wish. And what a good idea. Mary Elise—your debt is paid many times over, I’m sure. You’ve worked hard these three years.”
The full impact came over Mary Elise. Serving the princess would be even more wonderful than being here at The Cottage but….
“I’m not a personal servant—yet,” she said, sadly. “I’m not fit. I’m a milkmaid and I scrub pots.”
“You’ll learn. Father will let me have you, I know. He’ll be so glad to have us all back, he’ll let me have anything I want, I think,” she grinned.
Mary Elise somehow knew she would aspire to nothing more than serving the princess, though perhaps the princess had even more in mind for the future.
They were heading out. Mary Elise, in spite of the fact that this probably wasn’t proper either, was up on Romaine with the princess, for she didn’t know how to ride or handle a horse of her own. She could have ridden with Micheal, of course, but the princess would have it this way.
Percival was ready and waiting, as well.
“Give my regards to Duncan,” said Lady Maria. “And my love to Genevieve.” Then, mischievously, “she’s such a sweet lass.”
Michael shook his finger at her. “Yes I know. Things are progressing, as you knew they would when you introduced us.” Then he beamed, “actually we’ll wed in the spring. You both will be invited.”
“It took you enough time,” was Charlotte’s remark. “We’ve been waiting for such news!”
“I’ll see her soon and give her your greetings. Actually she’ll be watching for us, and giving us a signal if it’s safe.”
“Goodbye and thank you,” said Princess Juliana, looking down upon the three ladies. “You’ll be rewarded. Though it may not be for a while.”
“No reward is necessary, princess,” said Lady Maria. “It’s been a privilege to serve you.”
“And we may come and visit often, and talk of the Scriptures.”
She turned her horse to follow Michael, when suddenly Percival barked sharply and raced around the corner of the house—and out of the shadows stepped a figure!
“Well, what do we have here? I thought you were up to something, Maria.” The woman kicked at the dog, but he moved easily out of reach. “Where are these girls going now? And who is this? One of those bandits? I wouldn’t put it past you and Charlotte, you’re so foolish!”
“Margarita!”For the first time the calm Lady Maria was quite alarmed.
“I told you something strange was going on,” came another familiar voice. A slovenly woman emerged in the dusk, even as Percival continued to bark and growl.
“Clara!” Both Charlotte and Joanna spoke at the same time, incredulous at her audacity.
“Go back to your party, Margarita,” said Lady Maria. “You don’t know anything about it, and you’d be quite ashamed at such accusations.”
“I will not! That girl’s father owed us money. Then both parents up and died on us. She has at least seven more years….”
“I’ve relieved her of her debt. She’s more than paid the paltry sum her father owed.”
“I’m calling the constable! I don’t believe any of this. Who is this man! He certainly looks like a bandit!”
Lady Maria burst into laughter. “It’s just Michael. The son of Sir Douglas, come back from war and on a secret mission, Margarita.”
“Sir… Douglas? His son…Michael? “ The duchess recovered. “Well, what about this new servant? You never did tell me where you got her.”
As she looked up into Princess Juliana’s face, the girl removed her hood. Her quiet, grateful demeanor, that she’d shown her four rescuers for the last few days, suddenly changed to one of regal disdain.
Margarita looked closer, and stepped back in horror as it struck her who the girl was.
Lady Maria spoke. “We have been most honored to offer the Princess Juliana sanctuary.”
The duchess was so stunned that she just stood there, and Lady Maria gestured that she’d better show some respect, and make it quick. She managed an awkward curtsy, as did Clara, who then endeavored to slip away, quite frightened, remembering her actions of the day before. The dog blocked her escape.
The princess nodded curtly, then returned her gaze to the three women. “We must go. Thank you—for everything.”
They turned their horses and were soon down the lane and out the gate.
They all laughed heartily, as they heard the duchess fussing, “why didn’t you tell me! She could have stayed in the big house instead of this hovel. It was quite selfish of you..What will Frederick say when he hears–and our guests….”
“Margarita, you must know that you can’t say anything to anyone!”
Then Michael took charge as they rode out of earshot. “We must move quickly. Come, I know a shortcut. We’ll have to travel the night through… those woman can’t be trusted. I know the duchess and she’ll be sure to tell it abroad.”
Mary Elise didn’t know what new adventures they would encounter, but she did know that God would be with them.
To be continued….
By: Carol Bennett
Dissenters- People who didn’t agree with some things that the Catholic church in Europe was teaching.
Separatists-People who felt that it would be impossible to change the things that were wrong and decided to separate from the Catholic church.
Soon the time of Martin Luther’s protests against the church would bring about the Protestant Reformation.
All Scriptures verses are from the King James Version