From the author: In the countryside of Regency England on Christmas Eve, no room at the inn: two strangers are forced to take shelter in the stable.
It was not yet midnight when Ivo reached the inn. He could just make out a sign, twisting in the icy wind and lit by a waning moon: a palmer walking, one hand outstretched, the words BETHLEHEM INN beneath. Ivo was cold through, his face whipped raw by the wind, his fingers numb; he was in no mood to be amused by the irony of finding such a place on Christmas Eve. The inn was a sprawling place and old, by its look: half-timbering, some rosy brickwork; despite the hour smoke still plumed from its chimneys and there was a candle lit in an upstairs window. He reined in his horse and swung down off him. No ostler appeared to take the reins and lead the animal off to the stable, and after a moment Ivo lapped the rein casually around a post and went to the door.
It was locked. Cursing all rural innkeepers, Ivo pounded on the door until at last he heard the bolt being lifted and a man’s voice imploring him to give over the racket. The door opened a crack and the landlord peered out and muttered, “No rooms, sir.”
This time Ivo saw the joke in it, although perhaps the innkeeper had meant none. He would have laughed, but a shudder of cold overtook him in the same moment. “No room at the inn?” he asked. The landlord regarded him as if he were an escaped lunatic.“Come on, man, let me in. It’s freezing out here. I’ll take whatever you have, I’ll share, if I must.”
The landlord shook his head. “We’m full up, sir. There’s even two gennelmen sleeping on the tables in my coffee-room. Squire’s daughter’s to be wed on Boxing Day. Whole inn’s bespoke for the week, sir.” The man’s west-country vowels marked him as a local. Vowels or none, he was about to close the door.
“In God’s name, at least let me come in and warm myself,” Ivo barked. His voice, which had oft enough cowed a ragtag company of peninsular foot soldiers into order, drove the landlord back a pace. Ivo pushed the rest of the way in and found himself in a dark, square hallway, facing an elderly man in nightshift and cap, with a gray shawl across his shoulders. “Now,” Ivo began again, more civilly. “I am not proud. Turn one of your ostlers in with the other and I’ll sleep in his quarters. Let me join your gentlemen on the coffee-room tables. A place to sleep and a brandy-and-water are all that I require.”
The innkeeper shook his head helplessly. “I can’t, sir. There’s no room, ‘tis God’s own truth. My missus’d skin me alive do I take another soul into this house. Have mercy, sir, it’s Christmas Eve.” He began to edge closer to the door as if to herd Ivo out before him into the snow.
The warmth in the hallway was tantalizing; for the first time in hours Ivo could feel the tip of his nose and his fingers. It was all he could do to keep from shaking the landlord as a terrier shakes a rat. He drew a breath. “Is there another inn nearby?”
“Only the Dartcaster Arms, over Radstock way. But Squire’s bespoke them, too.” It struck Ivo that the innkeeper was beginning to enjoy the litany of bad news.
“A private house which might take me in?”
The landlord shook his head.
Ivo cast a look over his shoulder. His horse had gathered a powdering of snow in the last few minutes; poor damned creature wanted only a dry stable and a few handsful of oats, which he seemed unlikely to get. Even a stable would be warmer, and drier, than riding through the night. The humor of the idea suddenly welled up in Ivo, as warm as drink. Why not? “Did the Squire bespeak your stables, too?”
The landlord shook his head, apparently deaf to Ivo’s meaning.
“Can my horse and I find a place there, do you think? I will pay.”
“Sleep in my stable, sir?” The man seemed dumbfounded. He cast a look back over his shoulder and up the stair. Doubtless wondering how his missus would take the proposal. Then he shrugged. “If you like, sir.”
Negotiations were brief, and when they were concluded Ivo shouldered through the wind with a bottle of brandy tucked into his pocket and a borrowed lantern in one hand. He gathered up Orion’s reins and made for the stable. When he threw the door open the lantern light bit through the blackness inside and made little sparking reflections in the animals’ eyes. Hanging the lantern high, Ivo saw horses, cows, a goat, several sheep, some chickens, all of them watching him balefully.
“Good evening,” he said to the night air. One of the cows tilted its head slightly, then returned its attention to the silage in the manger. The other animals appeared to take this as a signal and went about their business: the goat sighed, the chickens clucked and settled together in a brooding, feathery mass, the horses went back to sleep. Ivo, finding that the floor of the stable was cobbled, swept a patch clear, found a little kindling near the doorway, and lit a fire, small enough so that the horses would not wake and shy at the smell of it. Then he took the bottle from his pocket, allowed himself a long draught, took off his greatcoat and scarf, and began to groom his horse, working up a sweat as he did. In the army there had been a man to see to his horses; since he’d sold his commission, Ivo did all himself. He wondered if he would find the old head groom still at Ash House — since he’d had word of his father’s death, the thoughts of home he’d had were all of that sort: who he would find there, after four years abroad. He’d felt little grief for his father, but he told himself that war made it hard to grieve for one man when so many others were dying around you daily. His father had forced him to learn groom’s work as a boy, if he wanted to ride at all. Now Ivo was grateful.
Warmed by exertion and brandy, he finally folded himself upon the floor near the fire, drew his greatcoat up over him, and fell asleep to the cascading peal of midnight bells welcoming Christmas Day.
He woke in darkness, his fire a graying glow before him, the lantern flickered out. What had waked him? It was not yet light. Then he heard a whisper. “Now there’s two of ‘em,” the voice said testily.
“Aye, so?” came another voice. “They’s sleeping. Why pay ‘em any mind?”
“Because it’s C-c-c-c-christmas morn,” a third voice stuttered. “The one night of the year. I say we b-b-b-b-be rid of ‘em.”
“What would you, Cally? Do our visitors in? Fine spirit of Christmas that’d be.” A fourth speaker, with a low, musical voice.
“Keep your voices down!” Another voice, old and trembling. “If the man wake and light his fire it’s all up with us.”
The talk subsided to whispers Ivo could not unravel. He lay wondering what to do: feign sleep and listen? Sleep in truth, as the safest course? They spoke of two visitors: who was the other? If I’ve fallen in with the local smugglers, Ivo thought, true sleep is probably my best defense. He shrugged his greatcoat higher up on his shoulder and was about to try for sleep again when a voice rose above a whisper. The stutterer screeched angrily, “I don’t care who they is or where they been! It’s C-c-c-christmas morn!”
“All the more reason, then,” the low-voiced speaker said. Which seemed, for now, to settle the matter. There was quiet, and Ivo, warm enough under his coat, let his eyelids drop down and tried to imagine himself in a bed with dry sheets and velvet curtains, a fire crackling in the grate. He was just drifting on the cusp of a dream when there was an explosion of noise, of voices screeching in argument, that brought him bolt upright.
“Who’s that?” A woman’s voice cut through all the other voices. She was frightened near to death, by the sound of it. “For the love of God, who’s there?” It was an educated voice, the words crisp and clear, vibrant with fear.
“Acch, that’s torn it,” someone said. There was a scuffle of sound, a sharp, fearful intake of breath from the woman. Near the door: Ivo thought she must have stolen in after he fell asleep. Caution vied with chivalry: he could not very well sit still and let a lady be terrorized, despite the unwisdom of tangling with smugglers. Ivo felt about for a few twists of straw and touched one to the fire. The sharp, sudden flare of light caused gasps across the room — Ivo did not see the others, his eyes were too full of the dazzle — as he lit the lantern. Then he raised the lantern up to survey the stable. Horses, cows, a goat, sheep, some chickens; a large black and white cat washing herself unconcernedly. And near the door, a woman in a tumble of blue and gray garments, drawn back as close to the wall as she could go.
“Good evening,” Ivo said. There was the woman; he saw no one but her, and she was eyeing him as if he might be the Devil himself. Her bonnet, or what there was left of it, was clutched in one hand, the only weapon she possessed. He could make out that she wore a gray pelisse and a blue dress,both plainly but well made, with two venerable Norwich shawls over all. Her curling light brown hair was short-cropped, speckled with bits of straw. And her face, which he thought must in the ordinary way have been full-lipped and merry, was drawn and sheet-white. Old clothes but good, Ivo thought, and no commonplace voice. Scared half to death, on top of it. “What in God’s name is a lady of quality doing sleeping in a stable on Christmas morning?” he asked blandly.
“I’ve taken nothing,” the woman said quickly.
“My dear ma’am, I don’t believe I said that you had done. I merely asked — ”
“Oh, let her alone, do,” another voice piped up. “Anyone can see she’s scart to death of ye.”
Ivo almost dropped the lantern. “I beg your pardon?” he said after a moment, watching the speaker.
“I said, let her alone,” the black and white cat said impatiently. “She’s scart to death of ye. Probably had some bad handling by some man, haven’t you, love?” The cat eyed its paw thoughtfully, then went back to washing.
“Blackie, you never could hold your tongue,” one of the cows said.
The cat stuck its long pink tongue out at the cow, elegantly disdainful. “They was both awake, listening. If we’re to have our fete, I reckon we have to let ‘em in on it. Less, like Cally says, we’re simply going to be rid of ‘em entire, which I don’t think.”
Feeling distinctly light-headed, Ivo hung the lantern on a peg and sat down again. I’ve lost my mind, he thought. Or this is the damnedest dream I ever heard of. I’m still in Spain, I took a bullet, I’m in a fever dream... Cats don’t talk, nor yet cows. There must be someone else here, someone I haven’t seen yet. Cats don’t talk.
“You w-w-w-watch your mouth, Blackie,” one of the chickens clucked.
The stutterer, Ivo realized dizzily. “Say something else,”he said at last.
“Such as?” the cat drawled.
Ivo looked around the stable once more, seeking another human speaker, but saw none but the woman. She was still pressed back against the stable door; as he watched she raised her hands to her parted lips and pressed them there, as if to keep any words inside. Her eyes were wide and dazzled. I can understand that, Ivo thought. I’m feeling mightily dazzled myself.
“Such as?” the cat prompted again. “Were you wishful to ask directions, maybe?”
The cat was talking. The sound came from him, no doubt of it, and the voice itself sounded...cattish. The cat was talking. Ivo shook his head, unable to think what to do, until at last his childhood training, the company manners drilled into him in the nursery, came back to him.
“Excuse me,” he sat at last, to the room generally. The woman — without the gloss of terror she was younger than he had at first thought — dropped her hands from her mouth and turned to look at him. As did a cow, the cat, the goat, and one of the sheep. “It seems we have intruded upon a festivity of some sort,” he began. “I hope you will forgive us.”
“N-n-n-n-not likely,” the ill-tempered chicken stuttered, but the cow spoke again, more graciously this time.
“You and the lady are welcome, sir.” Her voice was sweet and musical. “I am Rebecca. This is Sarah, this is Bess.” As she spoke, the two cows beside her paused briefly in their feeding to nod their heads.
Ivo bowed. “Ivo Connell,” he said. “Returning from His Majesty’s peninsular force.” He turned, hoping the woman would introduce herself, and saw that she was shivering deeply. “My dear ma’am, please draw near the fire. It will warm you as well as me, you know.”
The woman shook her head. Her curls shone in the lantern light. “I do well enough where I am, sir.” Her tone should have frozen Ivo colder than the wind outside, but the effect was ruined by the chattering of her teeth.
“I should hate to call a lady a liar,” Ivo said. “But if you force me to, I shall gather you up bodily and bring you to the fire rather than see you freeze solid in — ”
He had meant it to sound teasing, but the woman paled again and drew back against the door. Ivo cursed himself for a blundering fool: a young woman without a protector, in such profoundly irregular circumstances, would see any man as a predator. Have I been away from polite society so long that even my common sense has disappeared?
He began again. “My dear ma’am, I did not mean to frighten you. If I spoke too jocularly, it is the fault of my wretched funning tongue. You have my word I’ll not come near you.”
“Your word.” To hear her, you’d think I’d spoken obscenity, Ivo thought grimly.
“If it matters,” another voice broke in, “I’ve never known Master Ivo to break his word — and certainly not to a lady.”
Ivo turned, slack-jawed, to see his own horse regarding him blandly. “Thank you, Orion,” he said.
“‘Tis no more than the truth,” the horse said. He spoke, Ivo realized, like the head groom at Ash House. “Now, I could tell you tales about young Forsyth, or Sir Redmond Archer — ”
“Pray don’t,” Ivo said hurriedly. He was so long past wonder he could hardly find the words to ask what was happening. “Orion, how does it happen that you can talk?” he managed at last.
“Christmas morn,” the horse said simply, and went back to eating.
There was a laugh from the woman. Ivo turned back to her, relieved to see that she had drawn nearer to the fire and was warming her hands there. Orion’s word seemed to have been good enough for her. His own certainly had not been. Was it as the cat (the cat? Good God!) had said, and she had been ill-used by some man past trusting any other? Some sort of ill-use it must be, he reflected, to send her into the night, into a barn, dressed in little more than she might have worn for a walk in her garden.
“My nurse used to say that the cats would gossip about us all on Christmas morn,” the woman said. “Do you?” she turned to the cat, whowas busily cleaning her left hind leg.
“Oh, aye,” she said, raising her had for a moment. “When we can be bothered. Mostly there’s little enow to gossip over, dearie.”
Ivo laughed. “Surely people must give you enough to shake your heads over during the year?”
The cat shrugged. “Don’t expect much of man-folk at the best of times. Find I’d rather smack my lips over a mouse than some man’s business. Don’t know about the rest of you; horses gossip some, that I do know.” Orion snorted; one of the other horses switched its tail at the cat, who dodged neatly and went back to washing.
“I think I must be asleep in a ditch somewhere,” the woman mused. “Freezing to death and dreaming this all.”
“I had something of the same idea,” Ivo said. “Dreaming or turned lunatic. When I think of what I’ve seen in the last few years. Life’s a madhouse enough. And this seems a pretty enough delusion for a winter’s night”
“You’re right cheery at the notion,” the goat bleated.
“I suppose I am. I’ve fetched up in Bedlam, after all, so I might as well be companionable.”
“What do you mean?” the woman asked.
“The name of this place. It’s the Bethlehem Inn.” He gave it the country pronunciation, which turned the word to Bedlam. “Appropriate, isn’t it? For the night, and for lunacy as well.” Ivo shared it as a joke, but his human companion had returned to staring into the fire, to appearances miles distant. The tight, drawn expression returned to her face. Ivo, remembering her face lit with a smile, had a sudden powerful urge to help her, to bring that smile back.
“Ma’am, my name is Ivo Connell, and if I can be of any service to you — ”
She did not raise her eyes from the fire. “I can imagine the sort of service you are offering, sir.”
“Girl, he’s given you no cause to take him up like that,” the goat bleated. “‘E was being civil, like. Tell ‘im your name, at least. That’s manners. And it’s Christmas morn, we’m supposed to be peaceable, like.”
The woman’s back stiffened, but she turned to Ivo and introduced herself. “Emma Tarliff, sir. I beg pardon if I sounded ungracious, but I’ve had occasion — ”
“So I apprehended, Miss Tarliff. But is there no way I can help you find your friends — ”
“I have none, sir,” she said sharply. “I beg you will believe there is nothing you can do to help me. I have considered the matter rather closely, as you may imagine.”
“My, what a mystery, I don’t think.” It was the goat again. “You’re— a poor relation, a lady’s companion, something like?”
“I was a governess,” Miss Tarliff said.
“Master chase you round the nursery?” The goat suggested. “Missus send you packing without a reference?”
“Addie, hold your tongue,” the cat spat. “Have a little kindness, for Christmas’s sake if no other.”
The goat had hit a nerve, Ivo thought. Emma Tarliff had gone ashy white, her mouth set in a straight line of dismay. “The master did nothing of the sort,” she said slowly, with a kind of exact truthfulness. “But his damnable brother did, and when I said I would not have him, he stole one of Mrs. Cheveley’s brooches and put it in my workbox, to make it seem as if I’d taken it. And Mrs. Cheveley said she was sorry but of course she had to dismiss me. Without a reference. And there — ” her voice shook with the enormity of it.“ — almost at the gate of the house, was Arthur Cheveley, waiting for me to go docilely with him. Since, as he so kindly put it, I will never find a new position without a reference, he thought I might like to reconsider my refusal as an alternative to starving to death. Well, I would rather die. I suppose, when I have run through my little savings, I will die.”
Blackie, the cat, had been biting the base of her tail; she twisted her head up and asked, “What did you do, then?”
“I left the house and I walked to the village. But I’d missed the stagecoach, and the next wasn’t for two days, and I could not — could not — go back to the Cheveley’s. I told the man at the posting house that I’d send for my luggage, and I started to walk. That was two days ago,” she added in a small voice. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast that day, and my boots — I’d no idea how far it was to Wells. I thought I’d freeze to death tonight, until I saw this place and came in.”
“My dear, you have been hard-used,” the cow, Rebecca, said in her slow, mellifluous voice. “But have you no family — ”
“I would rather die,” Miss Tarliff said again, “than be a charge on my sister’s family, dwindle into an unpaid servant, be reproached for each bite of food, each cast-off dress. I would rather die.”
The word rang in Ivo’s ears, cold and hard, conjuring up the battlefield at Cuidad Rodrigo. Memories he hoped he had lost came back to him: Will Stuart with his lungs torn open, his life bubbling away; Ned Hargrove, crying for his mother and for the leg that had been blown off by cannon fire. “Rather die?” he repeated. “How do you imagine it, Miss Tarliff? A neat, pretty, poetical death, freezing easily in a field somewhere? Wasting away in a decline like Clarissa Harlowe, martyred on the altar of virtue?” He saw her draw back, heard the brutality in his own voice, damned himself for a fool but could not stop. It was as if she had torn open a wound he could not stanch.
“I’ve spent the last four years watching friends die, so you’ll pardon me if I’ve a little less glamorous notion of death than you. Rather die? When you’ve seen a friend with his guts hanging out of him, joking because there is no other way to deal with the pain, or seen the man to the left of you, and then the one to the right, dropped by rifle fire, and waited for the bullet that would take you — ”
“And smelled the blood,” Orion added, whickering at the memory. His eyes rolled wildly; the hide at his neck twitched. “And the cannons and the smoke. And heard the scream of horses, and seen the flashes of light from the guns. And still they expect you to go on, they put blinders on you, thinking you’ll not see the worst there is to see, but it’s everywhere. Horses dying, men dying under them and on top of them. Some of them think nothing of using a sword to whip a horse, others will just whip you raw, until you’re foaming and bleeding — ”
Ivo rose and went to his horse, running a hand along the animal’s neck, murmuring to him. After a moment or so Orion’s head bent again. “Sorry.” He whinnied softly. There was a rustling of words from the other animals, comfort and reassurance.
“If we spoke too strongly, Miss Tarliff, I apologize,” Ivo said at last. “But for the love of God, let’s have no more mooning talk of death. Death is no deliverer; I’ve seen too damned much of it.”
For the first time Emma Tarliff met Ivo’s glance straight on. She had fine eyes, Ivo thought idly. Direct, blue, quite honest. “It’s I who owe the apology, Mr. Connell,” she said at last. “I’ve been wrapped up in pity for myself, thinking of the alternatives before me. Although I must say that all I can see is death, soon or late. Now, as you say, from freezing. Soon, if I cannot find employment, from starvation. Later, if I take Mr. Cheveley’s suggestion; I doubt I’ve the temperament for a courtesan.” Her tone now was wry, less bitter. She had courage, Ivo thought, to be able to face the future she envisioned and not take the easiest path. “But what I am facing pales before your experience.” She bowed her head. “And yours,” she added, nodding to Orion.
“He never did,” Orion said, his thoughts evidently still on the battlefield. “Even when we was cornered and I thought sure to die, he didn’t even use his crop. Dug his knees in so hard I thought they’d have to pry ‘em out with a knife, but never whipped me at all — ”
“I never fancied the whip,” Ivo said mildly. He was oddly moved by his horse’s testimonial.
“Mr. Connell, I should think this would be a compliment any man would kill for,” Miss Tarliff said gently. “Saving only your valet, who knows you better than your horse?”
Ivo smiled broadly. “Did I say life was a madhouse? It’s Christmas morning and I hear the animals talking. Orion has paid me compliments. If that don’t qualify me for Bedlam, I should like to know what does. As for you — ” he turned back to his horse again. “How is it you can talk and have never said a word to me in all our years together?” He rubbed his hand affectionately along Orion’s nose.
“Don’t you know?” Miss Tarliff asked. She had come back to the fire again and knelt there, holding her hands out to the warmth, looking at Ivo. Her smile was broad and full of light. “My nurse told me that on Christmas morning all the beasts in the world can speak. Until dawn.”
“Ay, and we’m wasting t-t-t-t-too much time on you and he,” Cally the chicken stuttered. “We’ve had no games, no songs. B-b-b-b-becca hasn’t even told the story yet! You ha-ha-had to come the one night of the year — ”
“Oh, Cally, give over, do,” Rebecca lowed. “There’s more important things than a song.”
“We did not mean to intrude upon your fete,” Miss Tarliff said, and Ivo found himself insisting that the party continue, “as if we weren’t here.”
“Easy enow for y-y-y-y-y-you to say,” the chicken muttered resentfully.
“Then tell the story, Rebecca,” the goat bleated. “Dawn’s not so far off.”
Without being quite aware of it, Ivo drew nearer the fire and settled an arm’s length from Miss Tarliff, who looked at him warily but said nothing. The chickens strutted forward to sit almost at the feet of the cow, who turned, looking from side to side as if to gather all in the stable in to her story, and began. Ivo recognized the tone of a practiced storyteller starting a tale her audience knew well. The pauses were measured and exact, the breaths precise, her voice musical.
“Long time now, before even my old Grannie’s time, or her Grannie’s or hers again, Man and his Wife was traveling to a great city. Were wintertime, as ‘tis now, and Woman was near to time with a baby, and they come along in company with a donkey. So when they reached the town Man began to look out for a room for the night, only there were none to be had at all...”
Ivo listened, delighted and awed, to the animal’s version of the story he had heard told every Christmas Eve since childhood. Emma Tarliff listened with a slight smile on her lips, her expression a mirror of what Ivo imagined his own to be. As Rebecca spoke he could see the Wise Men as three crotchety elders riding patient camels through the night; saw shepherds leading resentful, uncomprehending sheep to Bethlehem for a purpose they did not understand themselves. Saw the animals in the stable itself one by one give gifts to the Baby.
“‘Twas a cow gave the Babe a place in the manger,” Rebecca reminded them.
“‘Twas a bird sang the B-b-b-b-babe to sleep,” Cally clucked proudly.
“A nightingale, maybe,” Blackie said dauntingly. “Not a chicken.”
“Tell about the Baby,” one of the sheep said sleepily.
“‘E didn’t cry like man-children do. ‘E watched ‘em all, cows and kings alike, and took they’s measure. My Grannie used to say that the Babe understood the speech of animals as well as men, right from the beginning. And when they wrapped Him and Man and his Wife started on to leave the stables, the kings and shepherds and whatnot following after, the Baby turned and gave us our gift, the gift of speech one night a year, from the last midnight bell until the sun’s first light.”
There was a respectful silence when Rebecca was done, only the crackling of the fire and the whisper and clatter of the wind through the trees outside. Then Addie, the goat, called for a song. “Something proper and merry!”
The cat started with “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen;” she had a surprisingly sweet and carrying voice. Then they had “Green Grow the Rushes,” and a country song Ivo remembered from the nursery — Orion sang along on that one — and church songs and carols. Ivo found himself dancing country dances, cutting the figures in a square dance with his fingers outstretched to the wingtip of one of the chickens, skipping up the line of a reel with the cat, sliding down the line with Miss Tarliff, who was now blushing with exertion and laughter. And later they played the same games Ivo had played at holiday parties all his life: lotteries, blindman’s buff, and charades. When the fire burned low, a dog Ivo had not even realized was in the stable helped him to fetch more firewood, and the singing continued.
When they came back to report that the eastern sky was lightening a bit, he found Miss Tarliff in counsel with Rebecca, Blackie, and Addie.
“ — surely your old mistress would understand,” Rebecca was saying.
Miss Tarliff shook her head. “Mrs. Creveley is a good enough woman in her way, but she’ll never take the word of her governess over the evidence of her own eyes; she found the brooch in my workbox herself. And if I tell her Mr. Cheveley stole the brooch himself and to what purpose, she’ll only think it’s a tale I’m telling because he spurned my advances — ”
The cow looked shocked. “Your advances? But — ”
“Give over, Becca,” Blackie said brusquely. “Use your brains, not your udders. Yon Creveley will say our Emma made the advances, whether she done or no. And the lady will believe him because he’s her man’s kin. Villainous piece of work, that one.”
Rebecca persisted. “If you cannot talk to her — have you no friends?”
“None who will take me in after something like this. How can they? You cannot imagine how a blackened character compromises me. Any friend who harbors me will be tarred by association. I cannot permit it.”
“You make me ashamed of my sex,” Ivo said grimly. “And of my neighbors.”
“You needn’t be,” Miss Tarliff said straitly. “It’s the way of the world, Mr. Connell.”
Ivo cleared his throat. “If I might be permitted?” Rebecca nodded. “Miss Tarliff, if you wish — only if you wish it — I am going to my family home in the morning; it should only be another five or six hours’ ride. Orion and I would be grateful for the company, and my mother will certainly give you aid.”
It was the wrong thing to say, he knew at once. Miss Tarliff stiffened again; the smile that had strayed into her eyes and played across her face disappeared abruptly.
“Thank you, Mr. Connell,” she said crisply. “I will manage.”
“You’d rather die,” Rebecca said crossly.
“No, of course not, but — ”
“Then why not take the man’s offer? ‘Tisn’t as though he’s offering marriage, just help. And his mother to help you, too.”
“If he has a mother,” Miss Tarliff muttered.
“Oh, he has one,” Orion said, plainly amused. “A tartar she is, too. He’ll need all the distraction he can come up with, just to keep her from trying to run the estate and him too — ”
“Orion!” Ivo began, then stopped, overcome again with the ridiculousness of the situation. Why upbraid his horse for telling God’s own truth about his mother?
“ — and he’ll have a hard enough time discovering what straits his father left the property in without struggling with his dam on top of all. Would be a kindness for you to come along of us, Miss.”
“That’s enough, Orion. Although, Miss Tarliff, if you cannot take my word or it, you might listen to my horse. He is, as you can hear, compulsively honest.” Ivo grinned. “Come dawn, I mean to turn Orion here toward Ash House; if the roads are not too bad we might arrive there in time for luncheon. If you will trust me that far, I promise my mother will see you safe.”
“Surely she won’t want a woman who — ”
“Who was badly treated by a neighbor and victimized by the perfidy of a man? My dear lady, my mother lives to show her neighbors their mistakes, and believes all men guilty until proven innocent.”
Miss Tarliff smiled. “Rather as I have been doing, I think.”
“Then that’s settled,” Blackie purred. “Only about time. Deely!” she called to a chicken who was roosting near the window. “Give us a song!”
The chicken shook its head. “T-t-t-too late. Sun’s almost up.”
“Then we must say good night,” Miss Tarliff said regretfully.
“And thank you for your hospitality,” Ivo added. “I wish we had a gift to give you in return.”
“You gave us a proper romance,” Rebecca said comfortably. She was aware, as Ivo was, that Emma Tarliff stiffened at the word romance and glanced at Ivo as if daring him to believe it. “Acch, d’you think all romances end with a kiss? Don’t bridle so, dearie. The best of romances is made up of folk giving each other second chances. Think about that.”
“A second chance is not the meanest gift one could receive on Christmas Day,” Ivo ventured mildly.
Miss Tarliff sighed. “You make me feel the veriest ingrate.”
“Not at all, dear — ” Rebecca began. What she might have said next was lost in a mournful lowing; the sun had risen enough to send a few rosy shafts of light to pattern the walls of the stable.
Emma Tarliff patted the cow’s ears and neck gently. “Thank you,” she said. Blackie hopped on to the manger and rubbed her jaw along Miss Tarliff’s shoulder. “Thank you all.”
Ivo bent to extinguish his fire. “You will come, then?” he asked Miss Tarliff.
She looked at the cow and the cat, who returned the look steadily. “It would be churlish not to, I think,” she said at last.
Blackie nodded and jumped off the manger as if satisfied.
“Good-bye, then,” Miss Tarliff said, and Ivo echoed the words. He took up Orion’s reins and led the horse out into the dawn light. Miss Tarliff pulled the Norwich shawls up tight about her collar and followed.
“It’s a beautiful morning,” she said, as Ivo lifted her onto Orion’s back.
“It’s Christmas morn,” Ivo answered, echoing Blackie’s tone.
Orion turned to look at them, shook his head as if in exasperation, and, as Ivo mounted behind Miss Tarliff, turned his head toward the road, plainly feeling that the last word should have been his.
Copyright © 1994 by Madeleine E. Robins. First published in Christmas Magic,edited by David G. Hartwell, Tor Books, 1994
This story originally appeared in Christmas Magic, edited by David G. Hartwell, 1994.