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  • Pamela Belle

MJ (3)

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

One day, when my casket is finished, when I have sewn all the panels and they have been fashioned by the cabinet-maker into the beautiful box that I dream of, I will put my treasures into it, for safe-keeping. My casket will have a lock, and none of my sisters, nor even my dear mother, will be able to look inside without my leave, for I will keep the key on a ribbon and hang it round my neck. I do not have many treasures, but some, like the little silver locket that my mother gave to me, I have had since I was very young, and I have kept them in a plain wooden box by my bed. The sampler I sewed when I was eight years old lies within it too, and sometimes I take it out and look at it, remembering how proud I was when I had finished it, and how fine I thought it to be, and how childish and poorly wrought it seems to me now. And I hope that my casket will not seem the same to me when I am grown to womanhood, and that my daughters, if God wills that I have them, will take pride in my skills as I have done. I do not think it is sinful to want to do the best work that I can, and to feel joy at what I have made.

I have almost finished the first panel now. There are bluebells and primroses, sewn in my neatest stitches, and a little hare, standing up on its hind legs and smelling the flowers. Two trees, one on each side, arch over all, their leaves the young fresh green of spring. I have worked them in satin stitch, and long and short stitch, and tent stitch, and chain stitch for the trunks of the trees and the stalks of the flowers. Now I am going to make the Lady Flora, who is Spring, so Mother has told me, but I will sew her separately, as a slip, and couch her onto the panel and surround her with more flowers, a garland in her hair and a sheaf of blossoms in her arms. Mother has given me a piece of cloth which is very old, and cut from her great-grandmother’s wedding gown when it was made into another garment – it is of sky-blue satin and embroidered with tiny yellow primroses and deeper blue forget-me-nots. From this I will make the Lady Flora’s dress, and sew tiny pearls around her neck, and edge her gown with lace-stitch, which I have learned to do very fine.

Now Tom has come into my mother’s chamber, seeking her, though she is elsewhere in the house, I think talking with the cook in the kitchens. At once, seeing me, he runs over and climbs onto the window seat beside me and asks what I am doing. It should be plain enough, since I sit here with a needle in my hand, and a box of threads and scraps on my lap, and the panel lying on the little work table nearby. But I cannot give him a sharp answer, for he is a dear boy, though I fear much spoilt by all of us, because he is the only one left. Another Thomas, two Harries, Robert and Charles lie in our vault in the church, and Precious Tom will inherit all our father’s lands, if God grant he lives, and I pray he does, for he is a lively, good-natured child whom we all love.

I tell him that I am going to sew the figure of Spring, and he demands to know why there will be no lions in the picture, only flowers and a lady and a hare and birds. I tell him that I may well put a lion on another panel, for after all there are nearly twenty to be made, and only four Seasons to portray. Then he asks if I will put other strange beasts on my casket, and then he looks about for Mother’s pattern book. I sigh, seeing that I will have no peace unless I humour him for a space. I know full well that in a little while he will grow bored with this ‘woman’s work’ and run off in search of something that will interest him more – but I am content for the moment to have him sit next to me, pressed against me, as we look through the book of designs and patterns, and give names to all the strange creatures depicted within it – the elephant, and the cameleopard, and the lion and the tiger and the bear. With great pride, Tom tells me that he has seen a real lion when he stayed in London with Father last year. It was kept in the Tower, and its roar was terrifying to hear. I ask him more about it, though I have often heard this tale before, and Tom describes its tawny colour, its fearsome array of fangs, and its luxuriant mane. He also describes its foul stench, but I tell him, with laughter, that I can hardly stitch that onto my casket.

I wish that I too could see a real lion, and perhaps I will, for now that Harriet is soon to be married, Mother has talked of going to London to buy materials for her wedding gown, and of taking all of us girls with her. Mary and Harriet and Dilly have been many times, with her and with Father, who serves in Parliament, and even Pen went with them on their last visit, but I have never been to Town and I long to go. If I do, I will ask Mother to take me to the shops which sell satins and threads and all the other materials I might need for my casket, for although she has many many silks in her workbox, it has been a surprise to me how much I have used already, and there are more than a dozen large panels to stitch as well as four small ones, and I have not yet decided whether I want the inside of the casket to be lined in carnation satin, as Pen’s is, or whether I will have drawers and boxes faced with embroidery, or indeed what I want inside my casket at all.

But I already know that it should have a place for my rings, though as yet I own but three, and perhaps a little bottle for scented water, and a mirror so I may see myself when I dress, but above all I must have compartments and drawers to keep the things that are precious to me, almost as precious as Mother, or Pen, or Tom – my silver locket, and the medallion of His Majesty King Charles the First, of sorrowful memory, that my father gave to me, and the little things from the baby house that I played with when I was but a very young child. It was made by the carpenter in the village for Mary when she was four years old, and so by the time I was born all my sisters had played with it and it had grown shabby, though much loved by them. The carpenter had made a few tiny plain pieces of furniture for it, a table and benches, I remember, and a cradle that rocked, a settle and a sideboard and two or three beds, and there was a family of little wooden babies clothed in scraps. Once they had had painted faces, and real hair glued to their heads, but when the baby house came to me, after ten years of play by my older sisters, all were bald as eggs, and their faces had been drawn and redrawn many times, but I loved them dearly and gave them all fanciful names from the plays and stories my sisters read and told – Celia and Sebastian, Orlando and Alethea. At last I grew too old to play with them, and with no younger sisters, and Tom of course a boy, the baby house, its inhabitants and furniture all now very shabby and in need of repair, was taken away. But I kept the little silver toys my father had bought in London – tiny plates, candlesticks, a coffee pot, skillets and a warming pan. And they, too, shall go in my casket when it is done, and will be locked away, for Tom does love to play with them, though as he is now nearly eight years old, he will not do so for much longer. Soon he will have a tutor, being far too precious to us all to be sent away to school, and he will learn to be a man, and he will no longer want to sit like this so close to me, his warmth against my warmth, his thumb in his mouth, looking at pictures of lions and tigers in Mother’s book, while I tell him the story of Androcles.

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