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  • Pamela Belle

MJ (5)

“It seems as if it will take forever!”

Mother is very patient. She is much more patient than I deserve. I do not think this at the time, but now, looking back, I can see how fractious and hasty I was, and despite my high hopes for my casket, how easily discouraged and distracted.

Of course, there is a great deal to distract me this summer, after our return from London. First of all, my sister Harriet’s marriage to Master Thomas Bond, who is a cheerful young man with an amiable disposition and a habit of bursting into song when we walk in the garden – for I have found myself much in demand as company for them, it being thought unseemly that they should be left entirely alone, even though they are betrothed and soon to be wed. Harriet, of course, is quick and clever, and often finds errands for me to run for her – “Oh, sister, I have forgot my tippet and the sun is so high and hot, will you be an angel and find it for me, I think I left it in the Long Gallery?” And when I return, hot myself from hurrying, they have wandered further down the walks and I am sure I see them kissing. Certainly when I come up to them, Harriet is much flushed (and not from the sun), and Master Bond’s wig needs straightening. Afterwards, when Master Bond has gone back within doors to find refreshment for us, Harriet urges me not to tell Mother or, more particularly, Father what I have seen, and I turn an innocent gaze on her and say in apparent bewilderment, “But, sister, I have seen nothing at all.” At which she laughs, and ruffles my hair, and calls me her sweet pet, and asks me how my casket is coming along. When I say, a little sulkily, that I do not seem to have had much time lately to devote to my needlework, she laughs again, and tells me that she and Master Bond will soon be wed, and then my time will be my own again. “And before you know it, little one, Dilly will be married too, and then Pen, and last of all it will be your turn. Do you have someone in mind?”

I blush and giggle, for of course there is no-one who has caught my eye, though our house is always full of visitors from the great houses round about, and almost all of them related to our family to a greater or lesser degree. “I am only eleven years old,” I tell her, “I will not even be twelve till next January, I will not be thinking of husbands for at least six or seven years yet.”

“Well, I have known Thomas since I was fifteen,” says Harriet, with a smile, “and as soon as I set eyes on him I knew he was the one I would marry. Did you know that his mother is French, and he can speak that language as well as he can speak English?”

That, I think, will explain Master Bond’s somewhat swarthy complexion and his hot dark eyes, not to mention his expansive gestures and habit of song. Certainly he is not as quiet or reserved as the other young men of our acquaintance – and there are plenty, for my sisters are pretty girls and will come to their husbands with fine dowries and an ancient, noble name. But none of them has yet caught my eye, for I am too young to be looking. I sit beside Harriet in the shade of the arbour, waiting for Master Bond to return, and think that the prospect of imminent marriage has much improved her, for she has never before concerned herself much with me, being so much the younger. And in the pleasant dappled light, with the birds singing and my sister humming a happy tune, my neglected casket does not seem so urgent to me.

Two weeks later, Harriet marries Master Bond at the fine church in town, where they will live for the moment, though his father has his seat near London. Many friends and kin come to the ceremony, and afterwards, at the wedding feast, I see Dilly being paid much attention by a young man who seems quite taken with her beauty – and she is very pretty, especially when she smiles (though all too often she wears an unbecoming expression of discontent). Mother sees it too, and I can tell from the expression on her face that she approves. But Dilly does have a tendency to flirt, so it may mean nothing, even though the young man, who wears a fair wig and a red coat, is son to a baronet, so a very suitable match for Dilly, who I am sure will love to be a Lady, as our sister Mary will also be a Lady when her husband’s father dies. Mary is the only one of us absent from the wedding, for she has just been brought to bed of a fine son, to be called Robert after his father. I have seen the baby, for they live not far away, and he is a lusty boy with a shock of dark hair and a very loud cry. I had embroidered a little cap for him, but although Mary much admired it, and thanked me, and kindly put it on his head, it was plain to me that before long it would be too small. However, I am sure she will have many more babies, so she can put it away in orris root for the next child, and when I make another, I will be sure to make it bigger.

And so our family grows and changes, as families do, and I take up the needlework for my casket again, after an interval of several months. It has been carefully laid away inside the plain workbox which Mother gave to me when I was eight years old, as a reward for the sampler which I had completed. I have finished the first panel, which depicts Lady Flora amongst bluebells and primroses, and the lady herself I have couched onto the satin so that she stands proud of her surroundings, in her yellow gown with her dark hair curling and her eyes the same soft blue as Mary’s. I gaze on it critically, looking for crooked stitches, but even my fierce eyes can see none. Then I lay it back in the workbox, between its sheets of tissue, and begin the next part of my task.

Yes, it has been three months since I stood in Master Haley’s shop and beheld the garden casket, but in those three months I have had some time (though little leisure) to think about how I will encompass the work, and I have my store of silks and other necessary items ready to hand. I have obtained a piece of green felt, cut from the brim of an old hat of my grandfather’s: it is worn and a little faded but careful stitching in brighter greens will give it the illusion of grass. And Mother has given me some silver wires which will form the skeletons of the figures in my garden – I will have a lady, perhaps in the same flowered gown as my Flora wears, and a white unicorn with mane and tail of white floss silk, mingled with silver threads, and a silver or perhaps a golden horn. She will sit by a fountain, with trees to shade her, and the unicorn will lie beside her, resting his noble head on her lap, like the picture in my mother’s book of patterns. I will sew a path across the grass to the fountain, and make tiny flowers to surround the lady, and the water in the fountain will be made of a tiny piece of mirrored glass, which will shine and reflect the light and the colours around it as though it were truly made of water. And all so small that the lady and the unicorn are scarcely two fingers’ breadth in height, for there will not be enough space below the lid for anything taller, or I will have no room left for the ring slots and drawers and secret compartments that I told Master Haley I did desire.

Mother is afraid that such close and miniature work will hurt my eyes, and she has lent me her enlarging glass, which she uses for her own sewing, now her eyes are not, as she says ruefully, so young as they once were. I did not want to use it at first, but I find that it helps me see the very smallest detail, and makes it much easier to put my needle in exactly the right place. On my felt grass I overlay a coarse piece of brown canvas, to make a path,

and stitch counterfeit stones and cobbles upon it, and then sew the path across the grass. The fountain comes next, just a simple cloth bowl made like a tiny cap upside down, in pale grey to represent marble, with the mirror placed within, and that I stitch to the end of the path, and cut a few tiny pieces of silver wire which will be the trickling water. Even Dilly much admires my work, and Precious Tom comes to me every day, when he has finished his lessons (for Father has now engaged a tutor for him, and he is busy struggling with Latin and Greek), to see how far the tiny garden has progressed, and to demand, in defiance of my design, that I make an elephant and a cameleopard to disport themselves beside the fountain, in addition to the unicorn. To quiet him, for he is a dear child even if at times most annoying, I tell him that there will be any number of exotic animals to stitch on my casket, once this garden is finished to my satisfaction.

“And how long will that be?” he cries impatiently. “You have spent half a year on your stitching and you have only done one panel and this!”

I point out, with the patience he lacks, that the trip to London and the preparations for Harriet’s wedding and the birth of Mary’s first child have taken up all of this summer, and that now the nights are drawing in and the weather less kind, I will have much more time to lavish on my needlework. And this is true, for by October I have embroidered all the flowers, and made the trees out of wire covered over with silks in browns and tawny and russet, and green leaves like tiny drops of emerald and viridian, sage and olive and jade, and they too are fastened to the felt base, so that all that remains to be worked is the Lady Flora herself, and her unicorn. They will take a long time to sew, for my fingers are sore and my eyes weary, but by Christmas, I know my garden will be complete at last.

When I began – how long ago it now seems! – I had hopes of finishing all my casket, every panel and every stitch, by my twelfth birthday, which will be in January. Now I know that my ambition has outstripped my speed, and I will be fortunate and favoured indeed if it is all done by my thirteenth birthday, if not my fifteenth (as Dilly has unkindly pointed out, for although she has been more pleasant company recently, sometimes she cannot resist uttering one of her waspish remarks, as if to remind me, if I need reminding, that I am the youngest sister, and of least account). But I am pleased with the quality of my work, even though it progresses more slowly than I would wish, but better slow and perfect than quick and shoddy, which is what Mother told me when I cried that it would take forever to finish. And I hope that one day I will have a daughter to whom I can pass on my skills, and my casket, so that she and her children and their children may admire my needlework and wish to emulate what I have done. I know full well that to think thus is the sin of vanity, but I cannot help it, I am so proud of my garden and my casket, and I love to look upon it and wonder that those tiny, flawless stitches were made by my hand.

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