Friday December 23rd 1814
The Rev Edward Grainger was eating a boiled egg and sipping tea, the Squire’s copy of the Morning Chronicle was open on the table.
“How curious,” he said, lifting his head he realised that all his family had finished breakfast and left the table. He rapidly finished his tea, discovering that it was now ice cold. He knew his wife, would probably be involved in planning the dinner for Sunday, he followed the old traditions of the village and gave dinner to six poor men and six poor women at Christmas.
He guessed his children had already left the house so he put on his coat and walked towards the green, as he left his gate he saw that there were several people standing around the snowman. As he approached Charles, his younger son ran across to him.
“Come and look father, the snowman, it must be magic.”
He walked up, the snowman stood there as it had done yesterday. He saw his elder son with the girls from the manor, all sensibly wrapped up in thick cloaks with fur muffs, accompanied by Miss Grey their governess.
“James, what is this about a magic snowman then?”
“It’s not magic, it is just very strange. Yesterday the head was facing towards the Rectory, now it is looking across the green towards the park.”
“Perhaps the men knocked it when they moved the tree branches,” The Rector looked around at the disturbed snow, showing traces of where the branches had been moved and cut up the day before.
“But the branches had all been removed by the time we had finished.”
“And what about the buttons?” added Charles. The Rector looked closer at the snowman, down the front were a row of large brass buttons. “They were pebbles yesterday.”
“And they won’t come out.” Added Frances, the youngest of the three girls, “I think it is our cousin, perhaps he really is a wizard.”
The Rector touched the buttons, they were covered with a layer of ice. Only the bottom one could be prised loose, he looked at it, it was very muddy and discoloured but he thought he could make out a monogram.
“I am afraid there is no magic here my dear.” He smiled at Miss Grey. “They are covered in ice and frozen onto the snowman. Also look how dirty they are, I think they must have been on an old coat or something similar that had been lost in the pond. They were probably dragged out yesterday by the branches, someone found them last night and thought they would look good on the snowman.
“They have got initials on them, I will take this and get it cleaned, my wife may well recognise it.” He paused and looked at Frances. “But what was that about Mr Scott.”
The girl blushed bright red and buried her face in her muff, her elder sister replied for her.
“Fanny thinks Mr Scott is a wizard because there is a wizard called Michael Scot in one of Sir Walter Scott’s stories.”
“I don’t think so my dear.” Said the Rector kindly, “there may have been wizards in Scotland hundreds of years ago, but not in Berkshire today.”
“But he is still a horrid man.” Said Frances defiantly. Eager to change the subject the Rector turned to Charlotte.
“You young ladies must be feeling very cold, why don’t you go to the Rectory and get warm.”
“But isn’t mama getting ready for the dinner on Sunday, the one for the poor people?” Said Charles.
“Then we can help.” Said Charlotte, turning towards the Rectory.
“Parson’s wife in training.” Said Mary to Frances, as they followed their sister. Dr Grainger could see that both Charlotte and James were blushing. As the young men turned to follow the girls he said.
“James, will you come with me to the church, I want you to help me see that everything is ready for Sunday.”
Slightly reluctantly he followed his father across the frozen green. The church door was open and inside Caleb Smith was standing by a ladder, holding up a branch of holly to his son, who was putting the greenery along the ledge that ran along the bottom of the gallery.
“Still putting up the greenery then.” Said the Rector with a smile.
“T’is the old way sir. I know you don’t care for it but I hope you won’t be stopping it.”
“Oh no, Caleb, I have no wish to stop it. You can keep putting up the decorations as long as you are sexton.” Then, as he turned to walk up towards the communion table, he said quietly to his son, “Though, when he is gone, I doubt there will be anybody who will wish to continue with the tradition. In a few years there will be no more Christmas decorations in the parish.”
“I don’t know.” Replied his son, “I rather like it, and I know Charlotte – Miss Scott likes it as well.”
“Then when you have your own parish, you can decorate your own church.” Said his father with a smile.
“But that will be many years in the future, I know how hard it is to get a living, to get to the point where I can support myself.” He followed his father into the small vestry, where they took the communion plate from a strongbox.
“This will need polishing before tomorrow, we will take it back to the Rectory.” James said, stepping back towards the door. His father stopped him.
“You will be ordained next year, and as soon as you feel that you are capable of taking over a parish then the living of Stanton Lacy is yours.”
“But isn’t that one of your livings, father.”
“No, I am nominally the Rector, but have been holding it for you for the past seven years. The living is in the gift of Sir Thomas and this has been done with his full consent. Both he and I want you to be the Rector of Stanton Lacy.”
“But,” James sat on the tiny wooden chair, his father smiled down at him. He looked stunned, before he could recover himself his father launched another broadside.
“And of course there is Miss Scott.”
“Charlotte, what do you mean?”
“Well, you will shock the entire parish if you tell me you don’t love and want to marry her.”
“The entire parish thinks I want to marry her, everybody, her parents?”
“Of course, especially her parents.”
James was now so pale his father thought he might faint.
“Well, do you love her, do you want to marry her?”
“Of course I do, but I never thought I could, she is a baronet’s daughter. What will her father say if I asked for her?”
“He will probably say yes, but ask you not to get married for a few years, not until you are settled.”
“Oh,” James paused, “What should I do then?”
“Go and talk to Miss Scott now, tell her all I have told you, then I suggest you return to the Manor House with her and talk to her father. I am sure you will find it easier than you think.”
They left the church by the side door and had reached the churchyard gate when they heard a scream. Across the green they saw a several people around the snowman, their bright red cloaks showing that some of the girls from the Manor were there, as was a man on horseback. James ran fast across the frozen ground, his father following as fast as he could.
As he approached James could see that the man on horseback was Michael Scott, he was threatening Mary and Frances with his crop, there was no sign of Charlotte. Charles was standing in front of the girls, trying to protect them.
“I will ask again, where did you get the damn hat?” he pointed at the snowman, the Rector saw that it now boasted a battered tricorn hat, the colour had probably once been blue, with light coloured lace along the top edges.
“I just found it by the pond,” sobbed Frances, “And Charles put it on the snowman.”
“Don’t lie, you knew what you are doing, he gave it to you, didn’t he? Tell the truth?” Scott lashed down at the two girls.
“Stop that.” Shouted James, and swung at him with the bag he was carrying. The heavy communion plate hit his arm and he swung sideways, dropping his riding crop. His horse stepped a few paces to one side, Charles bent down and picked up his fallen crop and struck the side of his horse. It neighed and cantered a few paces away from the group. As Mr Scott regained control he turned the horse back to see Dr Grainger and James standing in front of the children.
“Leave here and never return.” The Rector shouted, then he turned his back on the rider and looked at the two girls.
“Are either of you hurt?”
“No sir.” Replied Mary, who was still holding her sister. “He struck at us and missed, then Fanny screamed and James came running.” She smiled at him. He was looking at the bag, aghast.
“Father, I think I have dented the cup. I am afraid I have damaged the communion plate.”
“Don’t worry, everyone even the archbishop would praise you for what you did. But now, let’s get into the Rectory. The girls mustn’t stand outside any longer.”
As they walked up the path the door opened and Mrs Grainger and Charlotte ran out, Miss Grey a few paces behind them. Charlotte wrapped her arms round her sisters and Mrs Grainger wrapped hers round her sons. From the look Charlotte gave James, it was clear that she would have much preferred wrapping her arms round him.
A few minutes later, sitting in the warm parlour, the girls sipping hot drinks Dr Grainger looked at his sons and said.
“The girls cannot walk back across the park now, it is not only getting dark but they are too shocked to do so. James, will you ride to the manor and let Sir Thomas know what has happened and ask him to send the carriage.”
The boys went to harness the horse and, a few minutes later James was riding as fast as he dare on the frozen ground. It wasn’t long before he strode through the front door of the Manor House, only to be greeted by a frightened Lady Scott.
“What has happened? My girls, are they all right?”
“Everybody is all right, they are all at the Rectory.”
At that point Sir Thomas entered, asking exactly the same questions. Now James was able to tell his story, only to be interrupted twice, first by Sir Thomas shouting an order to his servants to bar the house to Michael Scott, then to order the carriage. After James had finished his story he was embraced by Lady Scott whilst Sir Thomas shook him firmly by the hand.
There was no possibility of the carriage going to collect the girls without Lady Scott so Sir Thomas and James waited in the hall whilst she got her cloak and bonnet. Sir Thomas smiled at James.
“I must thank you again for protecting my daughters.”
“I was happy I was able to do so.” He paused, took a deep breath and added. “I would like to continue to protect them, particularly Charlotte.”
Sir Thomas tried to look stern, and failed.
“I suppose I should ask you what your prospects are, but I suppose I know that better than you.”
“You mean Stanton Lacy?”
“Yes, when did you learn about it? I know your father hadn’t told you yesterday.”
“He told me this afternoon, just before he told me that everybody knew that Charlotte and I were in love, and suggested that I should talk to you”
“What did you say to that?”
“Nothing, because that was when we heard Fanny scream so I left my father and ran to protect them.”
“Now how can I refuse my consent to the man who left his own father in those circumstances to help my daughters.” He smiled, “I would prefer if you had a long engagement, as Charlotte is very young, but with three women involved I don’t think you and I will have any choice in the matter.”
James looked dazed, he hadn’t expected it to be so easy.
“Your mother and my wife, they have been planning Charlotte’s and your wedding for years, and I am sure that Charlotte will want to have her say as well. All you should do is sit back and say, ‘Yes Dear’, I have found that is always the best idea.”
“What’s a good idea?” Asked his wife who had just returned to the hall. Sir Thomas handed his wife into the carriage before replying.
“Oh, James had just asked permission to marry Charlotte.”
James, sitting opposite, was amazed at her reaction, she sprang to her feet, just as the carriage bumped on a frozen rut, and fell half across her husband. He burst out laughing.
“There’s no need to react so violently. It’s all right, I refused of course.”
“Refused, how could you,” she burst out, “when that is what Elizabeth and I have been planning for years.” Then she saw her husband’s laughing face and sat back, smiling at James.
As soon as they arrived Lady Scott ran into the Rectory and went straight into the parlour. Mary, Frances and Charles were seated at a table by the fire, playing spillikins. Miss Grey was quietly reading.
“Where is Charlotte?” she demanded.
“She is with Mrs Grainger, they are looking at the clothing that will be going to the Alms House for Christmas.”
“Parson’s wife in training.” Said Mary, her mother smiled and said, “Quite right.”
Mary looked stunned as Charlotte entered to be embraced by her mother, then everybody entered and there were explanations, congratulations, mulled wine and happiness, in the midst of all this everybody seemed to have forgotten the reason that the carriage had been sent to pick up the girls.
Sir Thomas remembered as all his womenfolk were climbing into the carriage. He bent down to the Rector and said.
“I want to talk about this, I will come tomorrow, will that be all right?”
“Of course,” his friend replied.
As the carriage drove away he looked across the green. He was certain now, the snowman had moved, it was half way across the green. He felt very cold, and it was not from the hard frost.