A CHRISTMAS ENCHANTMENT

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CHAPTER II – The Second Spell.

Eugenia narrowly avoided a hammer-hard knuckling atop her delicate noggin, but the owner of those knuckles, the aforementioned hulking manservant, was able to arrest his blow mid-strike, at the cost of nearly dislocating his elbow in the effort. Certainly, young Quint (his given name was Quintius, the fifth son in a fraternity of seven, and nary a sister to be found), the stalwart lad, would have offered up his right arm to be smashed to pieces if it meant avoiding any harm at his hand upon Dear Genie! (For thus he ever thought of her, as if addressing a letter he meant someday to write.)

Quint was a year, perhaps two, younger than Dear Genie, and he had been worshipping at her altar since she had first arrived at her uncle’s home ten years before, barely fourteen years old, a petite, almost elfin girl, and an altogether impossibly beautiful vision in ribbon and lace. (A vision in the eye of this besmitten beholder at least, for although Eugenia was indeed a pretty thing, in a straightforward sort of way, it is likely no one else in our little town thought her beautiful.) Quint was one of those boys who grows to great dimensions at an early age; when he was twelve, he stood head, shoulders, and half a torso to boot over his mates, and towered over most of the older boys as well. But his vocal cords had not kept pace with his form—he had a light, one might say (and some did say) girlish voice. In his early adolescence, Quint had been rather overly sensitive about it, and when the tougher element of the town’s reckless young ne’er-do-wells had been foolhardy enough to mock him over it, he had let his fists supply the reply.

Quint’s mother had always counselled patience until his voice should change, but the change when it came was in resonance, tone, and timbre, but barely in pitch at all—under different circumstances, the boy might have become an operatic tenor of great renown, but such was not his fate. Instead, he gained a reputation as a brute, a churlish boor who brooked no mention he considered even remotely critical of his lingual inadequacy. The consequence was an ever-increasing isolation from society; why (reasoned the townsfolk) risk so much as a greeting to someone so easily offended, and so prone to violence?

It brings to mind a fable, one of Aesop’s, if I recall correctly:

‘The Big Dog with the Little Bark’

Once there lived a dog who could not bluster and bark with his kindred. His voice was hardly dog-like at all, but sweet and soft, more feline than canine.

The dog grew to great size, and was tremendously powerful, but all he wanted was to bark like the other dogs. Those other dogs made fun of him, thinking that any dog with the voice of a kitten would be weak as one as well. One day an especially malicious mob of brazen young curs surrounded the kitten-voiced dog, taunting him with cries of ‘Meow!’

The big dog bit their heads off.

Moral: Sometimes a dog’s bite is worse than his bark.

(I can’t seem to find the above tale in my dusty old copy of Aesop’s Fables. Perhaps it was La Fontaine? It is possible I made it up, I suppose. But the ‘Moral’ stands, regardless.)

Whatever his reputation, Quint had a noble heart. From the age of seven or so, he found ways to earn some money to help support his widowed Mum, often as a delivery boy. His preternatural size and strength made him a popular choice with many households and merchants, as he could carry twice the weight that any other boy could manage, and as much or more than most men.

For years, it seemed his most frequent deliveries were made to the Old Man in the Old House; no other boy would approach it. Quint was far more in love with Dear Genie than he was afraid of Old Caspar, and was happy for any opportunity to bask for a moment in her radiance. He never gave much thought to the contents of his burdens, and although there was indeed the occasional small cauldron or box of imported dried newts, for the most part his packages were perfectly ordinary things. But as the Old Man’s financial resources dwindled and his laboratory was more or less thoroughly equipped, the demand for Quint’s services waned.

When Quint reached his thirteenth year, Mr Grosbeck, the curmudgeonly caretaker of the shire’s manor house, took him on as an apprentice. The old Baron had never taken up residence, and the maintenance of the big empty manor suited the nascent misanthrope that was young Quintius quite nicely. Then one day, word came from London that the shire had a new lord; apparently the old Baron had been dead for months before anyone noticed, and now by some inscrutable fiduciary process little understood outside London (if even there) this new one had taken possession. He was quite young, not much past his thirtieth year, and unlike the old Baron (or, as far as anyone could recall, any previous landlord), this new gentleman would be taking up residence in the manor house.

Mr Grosbeck, having no constitution for serving a new master, and stumbling over the requirement to address ‘the yoong brat’ as ‘milord’, took this sea change in the shire as his cue to retire, and so took his pension and departed. Quint, by this time of course a grown man, stayed on, and was soon acknowledged as more than caretaker, but also personal manservant, sometime bodyguard, and even occasional confidant of the new Squire.

Said Squire was formally known as the Viscount Highbottom, the only son of the recently named Fifth Earl of Guilderfast, after a long dormancy of the title; the lands of the local shire, the old Baron having died intestate, were transferred to the revived Earldom. (None of this was commonly known to the common folk, only that an upstart young Viscount—the rightful landlord, his father, having shown no more desire than his predecessors to reside on the estate—would henceforth serve as County Squire). His name was Nicholas Warrington. His father the Earl’s name was likewise Nicholas Warrington. And his father had also been named Nicholas Warrington, although it was not in fact his given name. This original Nicholas Warrington had gone to sea at the age of twelve as an orphan named only Jonah; after being turned down for berths twice, a third, less superstitious quartermaster had agreed to sign him on if he would take a more seaworthy name. When the waif remained dumb on the subject, the quartermaster wrote down ‘Nicholas’, for what better name than the Patron Saint of Sailors, eh? By the time Nicholas acquired his own ship little more than a decade later, he had taken as his surname Warrington, from the town his faulty memory recollected as his birthplace. (Had his memory been more acute, he would have named himself Whittlebrook, for the tiny hamlet a few miles west of Warrington. But would ‘Nicholas Whittlebrook’ have become a sea captain by the age of twenty-five? The owner of a small merchant fleet by the time he retired? Who can say?)

Our Nicholas Warrington had more in common with that illustrious original than he knew. He was very proud of his name, although he had not inherited his namesake predecessors’ predilection for all things nautical. Truth be told, quite the contrary: Nicholas had a deep-rooted fear of ships and the sea. Perhaps this explains why he had leapt at the chance to take up residence at the old (very much landlocked) manor house. Whatever his reasons, it is certainly well that he did, for his presence there is very important to our story.

Talking of our story, where were we? Ah, yes, here is the tableau:

Eugenia stands in the open doorway of the home she shares with her Uncle Caspar; Young Quint stands only a pace away at this same threshold, with his enormous fist hovering awkwardly over Eugenia’s dainty cranium, his face fairly purpling as he attempts to tug at his forelock. (Not that he suffered from a lack of locks, fore- or otherwise; Quint had great unruly masses of straw-coloured hair, the perfect complement by his way of thinking to Eugenia’s dark auburn tresses. It was just that his arm had gone nearly numb from the strain of restraining, and now his tingling fingers couldn’t tell if they were grasping hair or not.) And out at the edge of the dooryard, Master Nicholas, the Viscount Highbottom, sits astride a handsome grey charger, himself removing his sharply styled beaver hat in deference to the young lady’s sudden presence. There is a slight chill in the air, not altogether due to the weather. This is the first time young Warrington has come in person to Caspar’s home. Perhaps he chose this day as auspicious—it is the sixth of December, the Feast Day of his namesake Saint, Nicholas.

Quint, having learnt from his years before as delivery boy that Dear Genie could follow the spoken word if she could see the speaker’s mouth, said with careful enunciation in a very quiet voice, ‘Beggin’ your pardon, Miss, but—’ His private joy in this moment of actually speaking to the object of his no-doubt unrequited (indeed, in his heart of hearts, sadly the word was ‘unrequitable’) adoration, and certain in the knowledge that here was the only person he had ever known (though ‘known’ may be too presumptuous a word, as this was probably the closest they had ever stood to one another without a package between them), the only person of whom he was aware (and he was very aware) who would never judge him by the sound of his voice; his heartfelt joy was about to shatter with the harshness of the message he must deliver... ‘But my master requires a word,’ he went on, carefully, almost silently, ‘with your Uncle. It is a matter of—’

Whereupon there was a great, thundering roar from within the house. Even Genie sensed if not heard her uncle’s sudden appearance, and turned to see him standing on the staircase landing, every inch the Strange Old Man of local legend: his massive eyebrows were arched like black cats above his smoke-lensed spectacles; his hair was wild, an almost animate white nimbus round his head; Bird was perched haughtily upon his left shoulder; in his right hand he held aloft his infamous Wizard’s Staff (it was in fact only his own grandfather’s old shillelagh, no more magical than any other walking stick); he wore a great wool robe, adorned with the customary stars and moons (Eugenia had been delighted to sew them on to the old dressing-gown); and behind him strange shadows flickered through the heavy glass of the landing window (the ancient willow behind the house was shuddering in the breeze).

‘What’s all this brouhaha?’ the Old Man bellowed. ‘Who dareth disturb me in my Dread Redoubt?’ (Caspar had experimented with various arcane names for his rather ordinary old house over the years, but this was his current favorite.) The moment lacked only a peal of thunder to make it a proper theatrical entrance for a latter-day Prospero.

The overall impression may well have been calculated to strike terror in the hearts of any unwanted visitors (and all were unwanted), but the effect was of course wasted on Eugenia, of only minimal impact on young Quint, who had seen such performances many times, and lost completely on Nicholas Warrington, who had missed it all as he was dismounting his horse.

Now Nicholas strode a few paces forward as Caspar stepped out of his neither dreadful nor redoubtable house, and squared up to young Quintius, as nose-to-nose as their disparate heights allowed.

‘What can you want?’ said Caspar, still shouting. ‘I am expecting no deliveries!’ (Never mind that Quint had not brought a package to his door in years.)

‘Sir, my master will have a word—’

'Master! Master? I am Master here! This is my house! My Dread—’

‘No, sir. It is not.’ This from Nicholas Warrington, in a voice neither loud nor obnoxious, but undeniably self-assured and therefore powerful. 'With respect, sir. I am mindful that once this was so. But you are Tenant here now, sir. My tenant.’

Bird pushed off of Caspar’s shoulder and with one flap of its pied wings landed on the hitching post near Warrington. Most people would have flinched a bit at so large a fowl approaching so suddenly, but the young viscount was made of sterner stuff; he ignored the strange bird and went on: ‘Mister Featherstone. I have repeatedly sent you messages and entreaties that we parley—as gentlemen should amongst ourselves—to reach a reasonable accommodation between us. You have repeatedly disregarded, even disdained, these overtures. I am afraid that my father’s solicitors were behindhand in sorting out all the accounts associated with the new Earldom, and their delinquency allowed you to assume over these past few months that your debts were forgiven. They were not, sir. They are now my responsibility. I remain willing to renegotiate our arrangement. But business, as they say, is business.’

Caspar had reddened alarmingly, only partly masked by his dark lenses; he was in fact fairly fuming, but he held his tongue. He looked over at Bird, who was stock-still on the hitching post, gazing at Warrington as if entranced. Then Caspar turned his eyes back to this newly-minted ‘viscount’ as he realised that the arrogant upstart had paused, apparently expecting some sort of response. Suddenly, one leapt to mind: ‘Begone, sir! Before I send for the sheriff! Trespasser! Interloper! Obtruder! Begone, I say!’

‘And you say quite elegantly, sir. Nevertheless, your bluster is without merit. It is I who will soon send for the sheriff.’ He turned to find the strange bird staring at him. ‘Shoo, you,’ he said simply, and the pied raven leapt up and flew somewhat awkwardly whence he came, to Caspar’s shoulder. Warrington swung back up into his saddle. He caught Eugenia’s fretful eye. He was aware of her deafness, and so hesitated to speak to her. Instead he spoke to his manservant: ‘Quint, please convey my apologies to the young lady, for upsetting her with today’s unfortunate business. If you will, implore her to speak reason to her uncle, so that this untenable state of affairs does not become worse.’ He turned the horse about, and touched the brim of his hat as he nodded to Eugenia. ‘Until we meet again.’

As he rode away, Quint began to speak to Genie, but before he had a proper word out, she reached up and stopped him by placing her fingers gently upon his lips. Tears hovered unfallen in her eyes. Quint knew that she had understood his master’s words. The emotions welling up in him threatened to embarrass him, and so, though he longed to stand there indefinitely with her sweet fingers upon his lips, instead he turned abruptly away and trotted over to the old dray horse he had ridden in on with Warrington. Without a look back, he mounted and was gone.

Bird spoke in Caspar’s ear...

(Oh, yes, Bird could speak! It belatedly occurs to me that I may have failed to mention that, unless one considers his previous occasional ‘Caw!’ as speech.) If we may digress a moment:

You will recall, I am certain, that upon their first meeting it would have seemed that that one simple avian syllable comprised the bird’s entire vocabulary. Caspar certainly thought as much, as they made their way out of the dusty bazaar wherein he had acquired the book called Magicae. By later that evening, in his meager apartment in the dreary travellers’ hostel in the seediest quarter of the Port of Tangier, as Caspar sat straining his eyes attempting to decrypt a page in the ancient book, his patience was at last exhausted as the bird let out ‘CAW!’ after ‘CAW!’ after ‘CAW!’

‘Will you cease that incessant cawing!’ Caspar erupted. ‘Even an other of your kind, should there be such an unfortunate creature, would despair of ever thinking again in the constant distraction of that infernal noise! Be silent!’

He returned to his book. But he could make no progress; now in the absence of the bird’s noise, all the other noises of this noisy city assaulted his ears: children at play, the fishmongers’ cries, barking dogs, mewing cats, creaking wheels, cracking whips, angry shouts, and the ubiquitous whining screeches of seagulls—all distant enough, but all creating a cacophony in Caspar’s mind as he attempted to make sense of the indecipherable manuscript. At length he gave up the effort, closed the book, and with a somewhat theatrical sigh put his head down upon it at the tiny table that was serving as reading desk.

After a moment, he heard a voice proclaim, ‘I’m hungry.’ Caspar jumped to his feet, upsetting the little desk and sending the book flying. He spun about, looking for a peckish intruder. He was, as you might imagine, quite dumbfounded when the bird, perched on a bedpost, spoke again. ‘In fact, famished. Hungry as a pilgrim.’

Caspar’s head was reeling. The avian beast’s voice had a distinct burr to it; it was as incongruous as a waistcoat on a snake. Caspar was fairly certain this was an apparition of some kind, perhaps a phantasm brought on by the heat and the perpetual strain of searching for his son. If not for the very real book he was now retrieving from the floor, he would have been inclined to dismiss the bird and its voice—indeed the old gipsy shaman and the entire day’s adventure—as delusion or hallucination or ambulatory dream. Recovering his wit, if not entirely his wits, Caspar said, ‘One might say you’re ravenous.’

'Right on target! I am—Ha! ’Tis a joke! “Raven”-ous! Supposing as ye do that I am in fact a raven! Ravenous! Oh, well played, sir!’

‘And are you?’

‘Ravenous? In sooth, sir, I could eat yon book and declare it delicious!’

‘No, no, no. I meant, are you a raven?’

‘Indeed I am. The only White-chested Corbie in the world outside the Faroe Islands. A Pied Raven, ye might say. As ye surely ken now, I am at yer service.’

And so began the ongoing conversation between Bird and Caspar Featherstone. The bird never spoke when anyone else was present, and claimed he wouldn’t have spoken to Caspar either if not for the extremity of his hunger that evening. When Eugenia joined the household, Bird reverted to cawing until he understood that the girl was deaf. For her part, Genie always believed that her uncle’s ‘conversations’ with the bird were just another of his endearing eccentricities. Certainly, she could not apprehend Bird’s speech in the manner she employed with other humans, as he was entirely lacking lips to read.

So, to return to the present matter: Bird spoke in Caspar’s ear: ‘Who was that fellow?’

‘Quint? Surely you remem—’

‘Dinnae be obtuse. Of course I know Quint, the great lovesick lummox. I am referring, obviously, to the stranger on the handsome high horse.’

‘Ah. On a high horse indeed. He is our new Lord and Master, at least according to himself. Name of Warburton, or Warfield or some bellicose eponym,’ he said disingenuously (he knew well the name). ’I’ve not clapped eyes on him before today, but I knew the miserly brat would come round. He’s not the gentleman the old Baron was, not by half. He has more money than Croesus and Midas combined. Mammon worships him. Yet he requires my widow’s mite for his swollen coffers!’

‘Well, I liked him.’

‘Bah!’ spat Caspar, and turned on his heel so suddenly that Bird was almost unseated from his shoulder.

They left Poor Genie, Dear Genie standing in the dooryard, quietly weeping.

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