Father has returned from London today, and as soon as he has eaten and refreshed himself from the long journey, he calls me to him.
I love my father dearly, but he has always been a rather stern and distant figure, very unlike my mother. He has served the King all his life, and suffered for it during the late Civil Wars, but when the King came into his own again and was restored, Father was rewarded and became a Member of Parliament and a great man in our county, especially when his uncle died and he inherited his title. He is much away, and when he is home I think he does not know how to cope with all his girls, for there are five of us, and we are none of us shrinking misses but we argue and laugh and sing and talk too much and too loud, and every one of us, except perhaps for Mary, has spirit and liveliness in great abundance. And I do not know whence that spirit comes, for Father is full of duty and severity, as befits a Lord, and Mother is quiet and gentle and concerned very much with domestic matters.
But I digress. I go to his study full of apprehension, for although I am almost a woman grown – I am sixteen years old now – in my father’s presence I always feel as if I am about to be scolded, even when I have done nothing wrong.
I knock, and at his voice, I enter. He sits at his desk, which is piled high with papers, and Master Folkes, his steward (as was his father before him, and his father steward to my grandfather before that) is at another table by the window, pen busily at work. The room smells strongly of pipe tobacco, which I dislike, but must endure because all men seem to indulge in it. I make my obeisance, as is customary, and fold my hands before me, the picture of demure maidenhood, though he must know that my pose is, alas, somewhat misleading. “You wished to see me, Father?” I ask.
He looks up with a smile. “Good afternoon, my dear. May I say how pretty you look today? You are become quite the young lady, yet it seems hardly yesterday that you were in hanging strings and playing with your dolls.”
There seems little I can say to this, beyond a bland, “Indeed, Father.”
“And soon, no doubt, I will be endeavouring to arrange a suitable match for you. Now there is only you and Pen to settle.” He studied me, still smiling. “Tell me, do you have anyone particular in mind?”
I blush a fiery red, for Tom – my Tom – still occupies a special corner of my heart. He has been a frequent visitor to our home, and often my sisters and brother and I go to his house, for it is only an hour’s gentle ride away, north along the lanes. Or we all meet in town with many other young people, on market days and fair days. I have not seen him for a while, though, because his mother is ailing and he must spend all his time at home with her. I am not ashamed to admit to myself that I miss him most grievously, even though I know there is very good reason for his absence, and I wonder if my parents have noticed my partiality for him: my sisters certainly have, and Dilly in particular takes great delight in teasing me, as if I were still a child, and she not four years wed and now the mother of two thriving children, a toddling daughter who is another Dilly, and a new baby boy who shares our family’s name.
“I see there is,” Father continues, and I see that his eyes are twinkling, which pleases me greatly, for although I had hoped that my friendship with My Tom would meet with his and Mother’s approval, I could not be sure. “Well, you are still very young, and besides, I have not yet received a formal offer, and may not for a little while yet, in the circumstances. But that is not why I have called you here. I have something for you, all the way from London.”
Master Folkes’s pen continues to scratch away, while my father reaches down beside him and lifts something up off the floor where it has lain out of my sight. It is large, and heavy, and he sets it with some effort onto the desk in front of him. I see a plain oaken box, with a brazen lock on the lid, and brazen handles, one at each side, all new and polished and gleaming. And my heart begins to thump with anticipation, but no longer with fear. This, this is what I have been longing to see, ever since Father took all the pieces of embroidered silk, and the tiny garden, off to London with him on his visit last year, though I have not dared to ask him about them, knowing that he is fully occupied with the late momentous affairs of state, the new King and Queen, and all the business of government. And so I have learned to be patient, and now my reward is here.
I stare eagerly as he takes a small brazen key from a drawer, puts it in the lock and turns it. Then he lifts the lid, and draws out what is inside, and I cannot help but gasp in joy and wonder, for there is my casket, just as I imagined it, all those years ago when I was but a child of eleven, and embarked upon its making. “There,” he says, and smiles at me, his eyes full of warmth. “You have been waiting a long time to see this, have you not, my dear? I hope it has been worth it.”
I can hardly speak, and my sight is blurred by tears of delight and happiness. “Thank you so much, Father,” I say eventually. “Thank you so much.”
Still smiling, he pushes the casket across the desk towards me. “I know little about such things, but I know great skill when I see it, and you are a remarkably accomplished needlewoman, my dear. The casket is testament to your abilities, but this is exquisite.” He lifts the lid, to expose the garden I have made, with the tiny fountain at its centre, the sliver of mirror glass gleaming like water, and the lady and the unicorn amidst the flowers. “Master Haley told me that he has been assembling caskets for young ladies for nigh on thirty years, and he has never seen its like. I remember those your sisters made, and although they were beautifully wrought, I do not recall them being half so fine. Though do not mention that I said so,” he adds, with a rueful glance. “I have no wish to arouse envy or ill feeling, for you are all my daughters, and I love you all equally. But this deserves the highest praise. Why, child, do I see tears?”
I cannot help them, for in all my life my father has never seen fit to speak to me like this, and now, to have his approval and admiration is so sweet that I am quite overcome. “I – I am sorry, Father,” I sniff, as if I were five years old again, and erring in my catechism.
“Ah, no, do not cry, my dear,” he says, and he gets to his feet and comes round his desk and takes me in his arms to comfort me. “Why do you weep?”
“Because I am happy,” I say, at last, and we both laugh at that, and he releases me and looks down at me, my stern father suddenly become a warm and affectionate parent. And in his face I see what I have never seen before, directed at me – admiration, and pride in my accomplishment, and, yes, respect. And in me I can feel rising an answering surge of delight, for I have always been the youngest girl (save for poor little Isabella, born two years after Precious Tom, who lived for but a single day), and made to feel (by some of my sisters) to be a person of very little account.
“Thank you, Father,” I say, wiping my eyes, for I can see Master Folkes looking at us curiously. “It means a great deal to me, to have such praise from you.”
“Praise which is well deserved, my dear. Now, there is something which I must ask you.” He points to the lid of the casket. “Is that a picture of this house?”
“It is, Father,” I say, pleased that he has been clever enough to guess.
“Ah. I thought as much. So this lady here, with the flowers – who is she? With those chestnut curls, she looks a little like Mary.”
“Yes, it is meant to be Mary, and you are here, Father, on the front panel, which represents Summer. And look, Flash is with you too.”
He laughs as he recognises the dog. “And is there anyone else I might know?”
So I point out Precious Tom, with the apple in his hand, who represents Taste, and Dilly and Harriet are Sight, looking in a mirror, which is something they both do all too often, and Pen with her beloved lute, and our mother calm and wise with a sheaf of corn in her arms, to signify Ceres, goddess of the harvest and of fruitfulness. I do not mention that the man with the dog in the orchard, on the panel which denotes Autumn, is my Tom, with his spaniel Sorrel by his side, and to my relief, Father does not ask me, merely states that the white-haired man cutting back the trees is very like old Jack Hall, who is our gardener, and wears a plum coloured coat when he works just as his embroidered counterpart does.
“Well,” he says when I have shown him everything, even the new carnation silk lining to the drawers and within the cabinet, “you must show your casket to your mother, for I am sure she will be longing to see it, and your sisters too, when they visit.” He sets it back inside its box, closes the lid over it and locks it, then gives the key to me, and I stow it in the pocket of my apron. “It is quite heavy – can you carry it? It would be a shame indeed to drop it, after it has travelled safely all the way from London.”
“I think I can manage, Father,” I assure him. “I will take great care not to damage it.”
“Of course you will.” He smiles at me as I lift the box by its handle. It is indeed heavy, but not unmanageably so. “Well done, my dear. Very well done. You have made something that you can pass to your own daughter, and she to hers, and it will be cherished down the years. Does that please you?”
“It pleases me more than I can say,” I tell him, with perfect truth, and I take the casket upstairs to the gallery, to show it to my mother and to Pen.