A CHRISTMAS ENCHANTMENT

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CHAPTER VI – The Sixth and Final Spell.

Christmas Eve! Eugenia and Quint spent all day searching for her Uncle Caspar. If perhaps they rested for a quiet moment or two, and stole chaste kisses from one another, who will begrudge them? Not I!

Back and forth, forth and back, through the village and then back to Warrington Manor and the makeshift gaol there, just in case the old wizard had taken an absent-minded stroll and found his way back again. The search was sincere enough, but by necessity quite repetitive, as there was simply nowhere else to look for him but the very familiar—and quite limited—confines of the village, the manor, and the leas and fields surrounding.

It could not be rightfully said that Caspar Featherstone had any regular haunts—after all, he rarely left his ‘Dread Redoubt.’ When Quint fretted that he feared that the old wizard might have tried to run away and had now come to some mischief, Genie only shook her head and explained that although she was of course concerned for her uncle, she wasn’t really worried.

’Well, I am,’ said Quint. ‘Something terrible may’ve happened to him! What if he was waylaid by the same footpads that robbed my master and left that chest in your parlour? P’r’aps they came back for it!’

Eugenia was delighted to receive such a clear confirmation that Quint believed her uncle innocent of that incomprehensible crime, but still she had to (oh-so-gently) remonstrate with him about entertaining such anxieties. ‘Sweet Quintius,’ she mouthed, and thrilled to see him colour as she did, ’all we really know is that Uncle Caspar is missing. Almost anything might have happened. But whatever has or has not happened cannot be affected by worrying about it! I cannot say why, but in my heart I know that Uncle will return to us; everything will be explained and we will all embrace and make merry and celebrate together!’

‘Dear, dear Genie, you are very wise.’

Genie laughed, not quite silently as little plosive bursts of breath escaped her mouth. ‘Wise? I? No, my blessed mother was the wise one. Many a time she told me to unknit my brow. She said, why worry when you can hope instead?’

And so their Christmas Eve passed, only slightly tinged by bittersweetness, as by any measure the sweet greatly outweighed the bitter. Perhaps they both sensed that in this as in so many ways they were well-balanced, Quint’s nature a bit woebegone, Genie’s positively luminous. Neither was inclined to ponder overmuch what the future might hold for them; instead both were content to linger in the happiness of the moment, strolling hither and yon, arm in arm, giving occasional thought to Caspar’s plight, but both enjoying the finest Christmas Eve either could ever remember.

But as the sun began to caress the western hills, the missing wizard came back to the currency of their thoughts. Squire Warrington had invited all of the manor staff to celebrate Christmas in the manor’s great hall (which was not so great if compared, say, to similarly named facilities in London, but was nevertheless a fine large place for a yuletide party); all were expected to attend, and Master Warrington had made an especial point of telling Quint that even the so-called prisoner (those were the squire’s own words!) was included.

Thus, Quint had no choice but to report to his master that his charge had gone missing. Young Warrington was in nearly unbridled good spirits—it seemed that to-day was not only Christmas Eve, but his birthday-eve as well, and his beloved father, the Earl himself, was here to share in the celebration—so though he darkened a bit at this intelligence, he took it almost affably.

‘Mister Wainwright,’ said the squire (who was the only person who ever addressed Quint by his surname, and was in fact one of the few outside Quint’s family who even knew it), ‘I am given to understand that there is something of a tradition in this county of playing pranks on our masters of a Christmas Eve...’ (If this was so, no one had ever shared the tradition with Quint!) ‘... so I say with all holiday charity that I do not believe you! Let us go and see for ourselves!’

It was perhaps an hour before the festivities were scheduled to begin. Quint intuited that it was futile to protest that this was no holiday prank, so—true to the dolesome side of his character—he led the little retinue (in addition to Quint and Genie, Fitzie was in attendance, along with the elder Warrington, the Earl) across the lawn to the old barracks building, dreading his master’s reaction when they found the attic empty.

Up the stairs they trudged. Eugenia slipped her tiny hand into Quint’s enormous fist as he turned the latch and opened the door. At that precise instant, Caspar Featherstone and Bird appeared in the very center of the room. As Quint’s huge frame blocked the others’ view, he alone was witness to this miracle. Even Genie had been far enough behind to have missed the manifestation. But Quint had seen it, make no mistake! Neither wizard nor bird had been in the room as Quint swung wide the door. Then, there they were! It was impossible! If young Quintius had suddenly seen the sky turn emerald green, or water running uphill, or, say, a bird speaking its mind, he could not have been more thoroughly flabbergasted. The poor fellow fainted.

For his part, Caspar had grown somewhat immune to supernatural shock; this was not his first mystical traversal, although he sorely hoped it was his last. As he blinked his eyes, he saw young Quintius keeling over, and very nearly dragging his dear niece down with him. This sudden collapse revealed in the doorway that silly woman Flibbertie, and peering over her shoulder the young landlord, Warfield or Warburton or whatever; behind him was an older fellow that Caspar didn’t recognise.

Less than a second had passed; the sound of Quint’s great bulk hitting the planks startled the others, and now they all looked at his fallen form. Genie already knelt next to him, and was beginning to pat his face (in a fashion extremely unlikely to roust him, in Caspar’s opinion); Flibbertie screamed briefly, likely more from startlement than real distress; and Warrington, after taking in the tableau for a moment, stunned Caspar (and all present, save the insensible Quint) by laughing!

‘Oh, ho! Well played, young man!’ cried Warrington between bouts of laughter; Caspar thought he was genuinely greatly amused. What was Quint about that inspired such mirth? By now the housekeeper had stepped through the doorway, and when she saw Quint (and the look on Genie’s face) she immediately understood that this was no jest. She looked about and spied a pitcher of water on a marble-topped half-table. She grabbed it and dashed the water into the young man’s face (giving Genie a generous dousing as well). The effect was immediate: Quint sat up, sputtering, and swung his gaze immediately to Caspar.

‘How—? What? How did you—? I thought I saw—but that cannot be!’

Caspar took pity on him. ‘Just a bit of legerdemain, young man. Some mirrors here, a pot of smoke there. I apologise for catching you unawares.’

‘But... but...’

Young Warrington’s mind was set. ‘I see you two have conspired in this pantomime; so be it! A sound amusement, indeed!’ He approached Caspar. ‘Mister Featherstone,’ he said, extending a hand. ‘I have formed my own conspiracy, sir.’ As he shook Caspar’s hand, he gestured towards his father, who now stepped forward. ‘This is the Earl of Guilderfast, my father, also called Nicholas Warrington. In honor of the occasion—to-morrow being not only Christmas, but the day I celebrate what I call my “re-birthday”—we have decided that all criminal charges against you are hereby dissolved!’ A little cheer escaped Fitzie as she and Genie were helping Quint regain his feet. ‘Huzzahs are in order, Missus Fitzwhistle,’ the young lord went on magnanimously. ‘In addition,’ he said, returning his attention to the wizard, ‘please consider your debt dissolved as well! Happy Christmas, sir! Your mortgage is no more!’

‘CAW!’ said Bird, and everyone laughed. Caspar shook both Warringtons’ hands. ‘Thank you, milords. More than words can say. Your generosity is—that is, your kind beneficence—er, I am afraid I am at an unaccustomed loss for words...’ This earned a chuckle from Fitzie, in which Quint and even Genie may have joined. ‘I sincerely wish a merry Christmas to both of you gentlemen,’ Caspar said, and added to the younger, ‘And felicitations on your “re-birthday”, whatever that might mean.’

The young man exchanged a glance with his father. ‘I do not know my true birthday,’ he said. ‘I know nothing of my early life. My memory began twenty years ago to-morrow, when this man’—He put an arm around the Earl’s shoulders—‘the only father I have ever known, pulled me from the sea and took me as his son.’

Caspar’s knees went suddenly weak. He stumbled into a nearby chair. ‘Can it be?’ he whispered. He looked up at the elder Warrington. ‘What sea? Where?’

The old gentleman frowned, confused by the wizard’s loss of composure, but he answered readily enough: ‘The Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of...’

‘Portugal,’ he and Caspar finished together.

‘The boy,’ Caspar continued, his voice raspy with emotion, speaking to the elder, but looking intently at the younger, ‘had he a large birthmark, here,’ he said, touching his own breast, ‘in the shape of a bird?’

The two Warringtons looked at each other for a long moment, then both returned their gaze to Caspar. ‘Aye,’ said the elder. ‘Begging your pardon, ladies,’ he said, and nodded at the younger. The young lord undid his shirt collar and pulled his shirt open. A dark red mark was spread across his chest, like a bird in flight.

‘The Ides of March,’ said Caspar.

‘I beg your pardon?’ the young man said to this apparent non sequitur.

‘Your real birthday. March fifteenth. Your mother and I named you Robin, for that image on your chest.’ Caspar managed to stand; he spoke to the Earl: ‘Thank you, sir. You have raised a fine young man.’ He turned to said young man. ’I never stopped searching for you. I may have despaired sometimes of finding you, I confess,’ he went on, tears streaming down his face. (There were tears streaming down many faces at that moment, even Flibbertie’s, though she hardly knew what was happening.) ‘But I never really gave up,’ Caspar said. ‘Now it seems at long last that it is you who have found me.’ He put his hands on the young man’s shoulders. ‘Son.’

Thus ends our tale, with Caspar and Robin, reunited at last! On Christmas Eve! Over the next few months and years, there was more and more cause for yuletide happiness and remembrances: Quint asked Caspar for permission to wed Genie, and it was happily given by both Eugenia’s uncle and her cousin, the Squire. They married in the spring, and had many happy, healthy children together. Caspar gave up thaumaturgy, with no regrets, never to don a cloak, raise a staff, or cast a spell again. The townfolk forgot the Strange Old Man in the Strange Old House, or rather transferred their superstitious whisperings to refer instead to the other likely old man a few streets away, the undeniably strange Sir Malcolm Marsh.

And what, you ask, of Bird? Well, a retired wizard needs no familiar, and only a few days later, just before the year turned, Bird took wing for more southern climes. But every year for as long as Caspar lived, the irascible Corbie paid a visit at Christmastime, sometimes for an hour, other times for a week or so. He always had plenty to say, for Caspar’s ears only, but those are tales for another time.

Caspar often repeated his tale of his quest for Robin to his grand-nephews and -nieces as they grew up, replete with all of the magical misadventures, including Robin Hood and the mysterious banditry against the Squire (his son! Caspar would never stop marveling over that!); and Robin Goodfellow, who drew them (meaning himself and his talking piebald raven, ‘Bird’, of course!) into the Faerie Realm; and the good ship Robbin, with the heroic cook Sam and the fearsome Captain Treblethorn; and finally the malevolent ghost of the old Lord Mayor Jack Robinson! And some believed every word, and some thought it all a yarn. But even the skeptics asked to hear it all again and again.

Caspar would tell it before a crackling fire, and never exactly the same way twice, but he always finished with these words:

‘And father and son, cousin and cousin, sweetheart and beau, kith and kin and friends and all, everyone said each to each other, over and over again, as sincerely the last time as the first, a truly heartfelt “Bless you! Much love to you! MERRY CHRISTMAS!”’

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