Updated: Aug 28, 2019
I pretend to sort through the silks and look at the pattern book, until my sisters go out of the chamber in a noisy gaggle, saying they are going to walk in the garden, the sun having just now appeared. My mother waits patiently until they are gone, and then she asks me if I have really decided on my design. I know that she understands how I feel, for she is the best of mothers, and truly wise. I tell her that I wish to choose without interference from my sisters, dear though they are (though apart from Pen, that is not really how I feel about them), and she nods her head, smiling, and lets me alone to look at the patterns. There are pieces of paper, cut out and rather shabby, that were used for the other caskets to judge the size, and so I can see that I will need five large panels, one for each of the three sides, and two like doors that will open at the front to reveal the drawers within. Then there are other, narrower pieces above the main body of the casket, and smaller strips, and a lid to go over all. I take another piece of paper, a clean one, and dip my mother’s pen in the ink and begin to make a list. I want a lion, and a hound like my father’s, sleek and swift, and a unicorn because they are magical beasts and represent purity and nobility, and most of all because they are very beautiful. Mother has silver thread that I can weave into his mane and tail, and twist along his horn. And when I look at the glowing glittering silks, it comes to me in a blaze of inspiration. I will make the theme of my casket the Four Seasons. I will put Summer on the front of the casket, and Spring and Autumn on the sides, and Winter at the back where Mother explained to me the hinges will be, because the back of my casket is where Winter belongs, for I hate the cold and the snow and the rain and I do not want to be reminded of it, even when it is bright and warm outside.
Then I begin to think about the lid, which is the most important piece, and what I shall put on it. I want to make a little picture of our house, with deer around it, and a lady with a lute or a guitar, because I love the sounds of its music, and I want to put the things I love on my casket. I will make that lady like my mother, with her dark curls and her smile, though I will not thread her hair with the silver which threads it in reality. And there will be a gentleman looking at her with love, a hound by his side, and I plan to make him like Fleet, my father’s favourite. I will sew hares, and birds, and all the other creatures we see around us every day, delights of Our Lord’s creation, and celebrate this place that I love so much. Flowers, too, especially on the spring and summer panels – bluebells, and primroses, and sweet roses twining in a bower ... oh, there is so much I want to sew on my casket!
Mother looks at my list, smiling, and finds patterns for me in the book, and in a very short time we have planned my designs exactly as I want them, without any meddling from my sisters. Mary will not like it that there are no scenes from the Holy Bible, and Dilly and Harriet will not like it that I have refused to listen to their advice, but Pen will like it because she truly loves me, and if I am pleased with my casket, then so will she be pleased.
Together, we cut the first piece of cream silky satin, for the panel that will represent Spring, and we carefully stretch it within my embroidery frame, that I used for my sampler and for all the other work I have done, since I was a tiny child three or four years old, and first learned to ply my needle. I have a desire for bluebells and primroses, but the pictures in the pattern book are much too large, and would look ridiculous unless I were to reduce the size. So my mother shows me how to copy the pattern while making it smaller, and because I take great pains, she praises my care, and I am pleased with what I have done. Now, she says, I must prick the outline of the design all over with a needle, so that there is a trail of tiny holes, and then she brings out a little soft bag and tells me that it is powdered charcoal. At first I do not want to risk spoiling that beautiful clean piece of satin, but she explains that if I lay the paper carefully on top of it, and spill a little of the charcoal along the lines so that the powder falls through the holes made by the needle, when I take the paper away, I will see the drawing transferred to the cloth. And there it is, as if by magic, and now I can take a tiny brush, and dip it in ink that has been very much watered down, and make the outline permanent, and it will not matter because of course my stitching when it is finished will cover everything over.
The sun moves round, and grows ever warmer, and the hours fly along, until I realise that my sisters have returned and are coming noisily into the chamber, and that my hand is stiff from holding the brush, and that I am very hungry, for it must be near to dinner time. I feel a flash of fear as they all crowd around me, for I have put my very heart and soul into my design and my drawing, and I would not have them belittle it, or mock my lack of skill. Perhaps it is our mother’s presence, or perhaps they have realised their earlier unkindness, but to my surprise they are full of praise, and even Dilly admires my skill and the pains I have taken. Nor do they try to meddle with my choice of subject, and Harriet tells me that she thinks it will be very fine. Even so, I do not want them to stand around me and watch, and I am glad when they go out of the chamber again, talking about a game of whist, and debating where the cards might be found.
When the drawing is done, I study it, thinking of the colours I will use, and the kinds of stitches I will employ. The lady I plan to work separately, as a slip, and couch her onto the fabric afterwards, for she will be very difficult to do well. I will do the birds, too, separate, with their wings standing free and proud of the fabric, so they will look as if they are truly taking to the air. But the flowers and trees I will work in satin stitch and others, directly onto the material, and so I will do them first.
Dinner is ready, but I am not ready to go down yet, despite my hunger. I look in the workbox, and choose a silk in a deep, rich blue, such as I imagine the heart of the ocean to be, and two more, one like the colour of a summer sky, and the other a soft amethyst. I thread the needle with the first, and glance up at my mother, who sits beside me, watching. She smiles, and nods in approval: and so, I make the first stitch.