A Merry Yuletide (A Virtuous Anne Radcliffe Story)
“The Holly and the Ivy, when they are both full grown.”
Anne sang happily, tiptoeing on a stool to hang high garlands of holly and ivy upon the plastered interior wall of the Old Boz orphanage. “Of all the trees that are in the wood, the Holly bears the crown…”
She broke off singing, and looked down at Bonnie Anne, who was holding up more garlands to put up. “Why holly and ivy?” Anne wondered.
The Fox woman smiled and wound some ivy around her gloved hand. “The ivy represents one kind of Love - yielding yet supportive, and always there. The holly represents sacrificial Love,“ she added more somberly, gently indicating the blood red berries and prickly leaves. “Love that gives of itself and endures all.”
“I thought it was because holly and ivy are the few green branches around this time of year,” came Gracie Conrad’s cheerful, practical voice breaking the brief spell of solemnity.
“Don’t you have anything of a romantic imagination, Gracie?” Anne inquired teasingly, with laughing eyes.
“Not a bit,” Gracie returned heartily.
Mrs. Fizwick, the orphanage director, came bustling into the room. “My, you ladies have done a lovely job here,“ she clasped her hands appreciatively. “Now, do leave the rest and have some refreshments with your crew in the kitchen,” she offered, giving a hand up to aid Anne down from the stool. Ordinarily Anne would have just jumped down, but she decorously took the hand offered and obediently followed Mrs. Fizwick.
The pleasant odor of freshly sawn wood and sawdust mingled with that of the fresh greens. The orphanage parlor, where guests ordinarily would have been served refreshments, was presently in great disarray. Workmen and women were busy repairing, rebuilding, and adding an entire new wing to the orphanage. “I see Mr. Scrooge kept his promise to you,” Anne commented, eyeing all the improvements with a pleased look.
“O dear me, yes. He’s been as good as gold to us, and better! This will be indeed a most merry Yuletide for all of us, especially the children. In fact,” Mrs. Fizwick paused delicately, “we very much appreciate the splendid presents you and your crew brought us, but the truth is we don’t need them nearly as much as others do. I would dearly love to keep the books you brought -- I never have enough books for the children here -- but, if you don’t mind, I think most of that lovely food, toys, and material for new clothing should go to the new dockside orphanage.”
“There’s a new orphanage on the Isle of Dogs?” Bonnie Anne exclaimed in surprise. “Why don’t they bring the children here?”
“Some of them have been settled here,” explained Mrs. Fizwick. “And we can take more when the new additions are complete, but right now we are sadly crowded. You see, with the War and things so desperate on the Isle of Fetch, they closed up the orphanage there and brought the children here for their safety. And with the War too, there are now many more orphans or children separated from their families,” Mrs. Fizwick concluded with a sigh.
Anne winced. Here was yet another consequence of her actions, actions which seemed for the best at the time, but which had terrible consequences.
Mrs. Fizwick saw the girl’s reaction, but misinterpreted it. She patted Anne‘s arm consolingly. “Now that the hostilities have moderated somewhat, some children are becoming reunited with their families again, and I hope this will be a continuing trend. In the meantime we will take care of all the children as best as we can.”
Anne smiled, though her eyes bore a shadow. “You have an excellent notion, Mrs. Fizwick. I will gather my companions and take what you approve to the new place.”
“Oh, there’s no need for that, my dear,” Mrs. Fizwick added merrily as they entered the warm kitchen, fragrant with the odor of cooking. “They are all having such a good time. I can send a couple of the older lads down. Our boys have been helping out with the workmen, and will be glad of a break and some fresh air.”
Anne saw that Mrs. Fizwick was quite correct. The kitchen was crowded to an almost ridiculous degree, orphanage workers holding very small children, smaller children sitting on the laps of older ones, and all crammed in together in eager expectation as they listened to tales of adventure from their visitors. Catbeard sat directly in front of the hearth, as if he was holding court, flanked by the handsome couple of Don Rodrigo and his beloved Carolina. It was the most deliciously warm place in the building, the hearth fire mostly glowing coals that heated various bake-kettles and a large cauldron of soup. Ratbeard stood nearby, making occasional pointed commentary at Catbeard’s tales, but in a relaxed, almost friendly fashion. Sarah Steele was evidently acting out a part of the tale, making the most of her cramped surroundings, and had successfully dragged Subodai into the dramatic action. Subodai was actually --smiling.
The orphanage director smiled benignly at the scene. She knew too well that all this excitement would lead to tears and tantrums when the fascinating visitors left, but that was a small price to pay for these moments of color and joy. Her reverie was soon interrupted by the young captain beside her.
“I’ll just go to the new place by myself for a visit, if you will give me the address, Mrs. Fizwick.”
“We’ll come with you,” Gracie hastily added. Bonnie Anne quickly concurred. Anne thought to ask teasingly if they were afraid she would get in trouble on her own, but quickly decided she knew better than to ask.
The ‘new place’ was a very much cobbled together affair, a hasty if serious attempt to make living quarters in an old warehouse. The three newcomers were greeted warily, if politely, by the orphanage staff. But upon introductions, it seemed their previous history with Old Boz orphanage was already well known. Ready smiles ushered them into the chill and drafty old building.
With Mr. Scrooge’s outpouring of support, Mrs. Fizwick had been able to hire additional competent staff. This was plainly not the case for the dockside orphanage, where there were few staff to try to govern a horde of dirty, thin children of nearly every description -- Dogs, Cats, Foxes, Rats, Mice, and Frogs. The arrival of interesting newcomers temporarily attracted the attention of all. Children and caretakers pulled together tattered blankets and coats and crowded around, full of questions, and soon were listening, wide-eyed, to thrilling tales of battles against the evil Armada.
Anne hadn’t told them about the coming Yule feast, wanting to keep it a surprise, and that turned out to be just as well. At an insistent knock, the doors flung open to reveal a surprise of another sort -- the boys from Old Boz, empty-handed, with miserable expressions, torn and dirtied clothing, and not a few bruises.
“We was set upon by thieves, Miss,” one of the young Dogs unhappily hastened to explain.
“They took everything!” added the younger boy beside him, and overwrought, began to sob.
Anne looked to the oldest child there. “Show me where.” She turned to the other boys. “The rest of you stay here.”
The three pirates followed the young Dog out through the winding streets of the docks and soon found where the robbery had occurred and which way the perpetrators had run off. Sending the boy off with their thanks, Anne and her companions before long caught up with thieves in a dank, trash-filled alley.
The robbers turned out to be a rag-tag group of Cats, who sneered at Anne’s demand that they hand over their stolen goods.
“Sure, and that’s likely we’ll do that,” swaggered one of the Cats, a large fellow with a torn ear from a skirmish long past. “Yer own weapons can‘t match ourn,” he coolly dismissed Anne’s saber, Gracie‘s heavy wrench, and even Bonnie Anne’s fancy spark rifle. Indeed, he assessed the value of the spark rifle with a casually impressed eye, already planning its re-sale.
As the ruffians spoke, they spread out with practiced ease, giving the newcomers predatory stares, as the pirates watched warily. “There’s seven o’ us, and three of you,” remarked another Cat, a skinny female with mean-looking eyes. “And ‘ere you are in a blind alley. Pretty stupid on your part.”
“Tsk, tsk,” mocked a third. “Didn’t yer mothers ever tell you not to wander into these alleys when the likes of us could be there?” He made a swift gesture, and the entire gang attacked at once.
It wasn’t a contest. The robbers worked well as a team to take down a moderate threat, and they were always careful to choose fights that were very much to their advantage. But they had miscalculated badly. A handful of shabby villains was a poor match for even just a few members of the team that had destroyed the fearsome Armada general Rooke on his own flagship. In less than half a minute, the Cats variously found themselves nursing sore heads, aching wrists from being neatly disarmed, or waking up uncomfortably from stunning sparks.
“Now, give back what you stole,” Anne demanded again, this time meaningfully pointing her blade at the large Cat.
“It’s over there, in those sacks,” the torn-ear Cat grumbled as he sat on the filthy ground, rubbing the large lump on his head.
“What kind of villains are you, anyway, that would steal from orphans?” Gracie chided angrily.
“Hungry ones,” snapped the skinny female Cat who had spoken before, impatiently rubbing the wrist that moments ago had held a long knife. “And wot’s worse, me own little ones will go hungry. A fine Yule feast they’ll have now,” she added bitterly.
Bonnie Anne looked sympathetic, but Gracie gave her captain a warning look, wordlessly urging her not to take any ‘sob stories’ at face value. Anne, however, was a little more sensible now than she had been in months past. “Why do you try to rob people instead of getting a job, then?”
“A job? Wouldn‘t that be nice,” another of the Cats, a scrawny black male, rejoined acidly. “And who would hire the likes of us? We’re strangers here, refugees from Isle of Fetch. Worse, we’re Cats in a Dogs’ world. Me wife does laundry for the Dogs, but that’s not enough to keep bread and meat on the table for us our little ones.”
“At least you still have your spouse,” retorted the female. “Me husband went off wi’ the Marleybone Navy. That accursed Armada has sunk many a ship, so likely I’ll not see him again.”
“Stop nattering on about your husband,” added another Cat irritably. “Like he was ever much of a help to you.” This snide comment started a bickering match, the ruffians practically forgetting they were under guard as they squabbled among themselves.
Anne felt the comforting armor of virtue melt away with the Cats’ words. Perhaps these folk had never been anything but villainous -- or perhaps circumstances of war had made villains out of them. Her conscience smote her once again. She wasn’t any better than they were, Anne thought sadly. She wanted to be virtuous, but so often it seemed like it was a role that existed beyond her.
Her sad thoughts dissolved under the force of an idea. Anne sheathed her sword, the sound bringing the Cats’ attention away from their quarrel. “I won’t deliver you to the authorities and have them arrest you. But,” she continued, breaking into their exclamations of relieved thanks, “if you want to earn some money to make a Yule feast for your families, meet me at the north section of Market Square in an hour’s time. This feast, however,” she added picking up one of the sacks and slinging it on her back, “is going to the orphans, where it belongs.”
The load was quickly divided up among the three pirates. “All right, what’s your plot now,” Bonnie Anne murmured once they were on the main streets.
Anne told them. Gracie burst out laughing. Bonnie Anne smiled, but shook her head. “It’s a bit of a daft idea,” she assessed.
“It’s a good idea,” Gracie interjected with a hiccup as she swallowed her last bubble of laughter. “I don’t know how well it will work, but it is worth a try.”
The sacks were delivered to expressions of gratitude and delight from the tenants of the dockside orphanage, along with pleas for Anne and her companions to join them that evening when they would take their first sample of the good things brought, though the majority saved for the Yule celebration proper the next day.
At the marketplace, Anne’s idea was met with skepticism, but her enthusiasm for it was infectious, and pretty soon the Cats had all agreed to give it a try. A few cheap trinkets, bits of this and that were purchased, lines hastily scribbled out and rehearsed, and by late afternoon they were ready to be mummers putting on an impromptu play in the marketplace.
Gracie pleaded a complete lack of acting talent and bowed out, but Bonnie Anne promised to do her part by performing trick shots to please the audience. They put out the hat, and began the play.
The play was much in the line of traditional Marleybonian mummer‘s play, beginning with stock villains who threatened the coming of a good Yule. First came ‘Tom Fool’, gross and ignorant, delighting in his stupidity -- a favorite theatrical enemy for the Marleybonians who prized intellect and rationality. Tom Fool’s crude jokes and behavior provided great entertainment also for the less intellectually minded in the crowd.
Then came the ‘Quack Doctor’ with his pills, making arrogant demands and serving up useless remedies at high prices. The Cat who played the doctor had a high, reedy voice that didn’t declaim well to the crowd, but this was a familiar character, and the audience cheerfully booed him at all the right parts.
Not so traditional was the ‘Armada Captain’. His cardboard mask was quite clumsily made, his costume not really like a clockwork’s at all, and really the Cat with the torn ear was too large to accurately represent the slender Armada soldiers, but he was the best actor of the lot. The audience experienced a pall of fear as the character coldly ordered the destruction of Marleybone, and made a brief but virulent speech against the ‘Yule Spirit’. The Marleybonians could only be crushed, said the Armada Captain, if they lost all hope, all sense of caring for each other.
“I will personally slay the Yule Spirit! I shall not be satisfied until it is crushed under my heel!” The actor declaimed with such bloodthirsty fervor that the audience found themselves unable to do their traditional booing and shrank back, intimidated. Several little children whimpered and clung to their mothers.
This was Anne’s cue. Wearing a red jacket adorned gaily with tawdry gold and silver ribbons, a wreath of ivy firmly tied around her head, she jumped from a stand into the circle of villains, doing an acrobatic spin in the air as she did so. Her voice was thin but clear, expressing words the audience very much wished to hear. The ’Yule Spirit’ did not fear these villains, Anne piped out cheerfully. Compassion, good humor, courage, and generosity would endure, and the ‘Yule Spirit’, small though she might be, would see it all happen.
Now the audience began to cheer and boo the villains as they drew their clubs and swords and began to attack the Yule Spirit. Here the audience found themselves surprisingly thrilled, as the mock battle was very good. Anne was skillful enough to make her opponents seem much better than they really were, and pulled out plenty of dazzling moves that would have been impractical in a real fight. There were new jokes that pleased the onlookers, as the Yule Spirit was usually portrayed as very tall, perhaps on short stilts, and Anne was small, even for a human teenager. ‘Short’ jokes were bandied by the villains to be reposted wittily by the merry Yule Spirit. The audience laughed heartily at the comic moves, laughing loudest with the relish of relief and revenge to see the Armada Captain fall by being kicked square in the backside. When it was all over, they cheered and clapped, and the hat for the performers grew heavy with small change.
Several more successful performances followed, until it became too late to go on. Bonnie Anne noticed a few gold coins among the lesser sort, slipped in by her captain, but made no comment. The whole was divided among the Cats, who happily found that now they could indeed provide themselves and their families with a merry Yule feast after all.
“That’s all well and good, but you should consider what you are going to do after Yule,” Gracie pointed out pragmatically, having come back again.
The scruffy black cat shrugged. “We’ll get by,” he commented indifferently.
“Yes, but you’ll get by a lot easier with real jobs,” Gracie retorted. “And I might have some for you.” All the pointed Cat ears practically swiveled to her. “I’ve got some friends in the Marleybonian corp of engineers, and they could use some extra laborers. The pay is decent and they’re willing to give you a fair trial. But mind, they are my friends. If you pay them false coin for true -- if you are dishonest, I’ll hear about it. And I’ll be back,” Gracie added, giving her trusty pipe wrench a significant toss in her hand.
The Cats engaged in conference. A few objected to working for the Dogs, but this false pride was roundly derided by the others. One or two wondered if they would be better off as laborers than living the often lucrative life of crime, but none fancied the eventual likely consequence of the Glass House prison -- or worse.
The Cat with a torn ear felt a wistful twinge. He had very much enjoyed this mumming, and realized he was good at it. He had a sudden longing to become an actor. But better to seek such dreams with decent clothes and a full belly. This was a good opportunity for all of them, and they might as well give it a try, he argued successfully to the others. So it was agreed, and Gracie gave them the card they would use as introduction as well as direction.
The Cats began to make their farewells, and the easy atmosphere dissipated. A moment ago these strangers were fellow players, but first they had been considered easy marks for robbery. Shame mingled with the recent camaraderie and with a few mumbled thanks, the Cats hastily took their leave.
Anne and her friends at last began to return to the orphanage. As they walked down the streets, now lit by lamplight, another parade of mummers strolled by, and the three stopped to watch. The mummers danced and sang through the street, performing before open doors and receiving plates of little cakes and mugs of steaming wassail from the smiling people within. One of the Dog mummers, taller than the others, wore a long red robe and a garland of holly around his head. He seemed to sense the stare of strangers and turned his face to the pirates.
Anne gasped. For a moment she saw not a Marleybonian Dog, but an ageless human face, a kindly face filled with old sorrow but present joy. He (or she?) seemed to wink at her. Then the mummer turned his head, and the vision disappeared.
“Captain - what did I just see there?” Bonnie Anne murmured, her voice soft with bemusement and awe. “I thought I saw a fellow Fox…”
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