Entertaining Angels: A Christmas Novella, страница 1
M. J. LOGUE
Copyright © 2016 M.J.Logue
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A WORD FROM THE AUTHOR
Well, is it actually that time of year again already?
Time, then, for the annual Christmas story – and yes, it is a Christmas present, because believe you me I am grateful for the people who read my books. (I would say I’m Thankful but I think he’s taller, and possibly less ginger, than I am.)
Twelve months ago I wrote the first Russell story, more as an exercise in creative writing than anything else, and now here he is all grown up. Because I had to know what happened to him, and it seems so did other people: I’m not the only one to have grown fond of my mad Puritan lieutenant!
So – pull up a chair, plump up a cushion, put the kettle on, and immerse yourself in the domestic chaos of the Babbitt household, circa 1660.
His Majesty Charles II has just returned to the throne, and all’s well with the world.
And if you’ve read my series set during the Civil Wars, you’ll be glad to know that all is pretty much well in the household of one retired colonel of Parliamentarian cavalry, too - give or take three daughters of assorted degrees of conventionality - and getting ready for Christmas.
What they’re not getting ready for, of course, is the reappearance of Thankful Russell. But then again, who is?
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
It was December, and only a madman or a fool would travel in this bitter inimical cold by choice, in the gathering dusk, on a weary horse.
Well, Thankful Russell was both, or so he'd always understood, and so he kicked up his stumbling mount. Missing the indefatigable Doubting Thomas, retired this three years and more, who looked as if he'd been put together from the tag ends of three other horses and had a temperament like the wrath of God, but who could go all day and come in dancing at the end of it, unlike this spavined hackney.
He was tired, unutterably tired. Like a sick animal, he skulked off from the glittering court, to the quiet places and the dark places. (Like a man with a recurrent fever, more like, who spent a lot of his time with a blinding headache, wanting a little peace.)
He'd lied to General Monck, who'd just given him leave anyway and not much cared where he was going - asking out of polite conversation, where he might spend Christmas, now that such existed again. And Russell, who had forgot the existence of such a thing in eleven years of dour Commonwealth, had not known, except that he could not bear to be in Whitehall, a shadow amongst the gaiety and the feasting. A figure of awkwardness and embarrassment, because he was tall and slight and scarred and he wore his hair short, and they laughed behind their hands and called him the old Puritan. Which he was, had been, but the fact of his presence there made the old men awkward and the young men scornful, and some of the women venturesome: and he wanted to be left alone.
Almost forty, with a tertian fever from his dogged days in Scotland that threatened to split his head like a wormy apple, and for the sake of his aching head, if nothing else, he could not bear a month of insane forced gaiety.
Not ever having known what Christmas was before, how should he know now? And so he'd dropped his eyes to hide whatever expression might show in them, and murmured something about spending the time with family that he had not seen this many a year. He only meant to get away, to not be in London. To be alone, and himself, and not polite. To not wear a waistcoat and fresh, starched linen every day, but to lie on the bed with his boots on and read books and papers, the like he had craved reading for many months and dared not, for fear of who might say what and to whom about Major Russell's taste in reading matter. Seditious. Libellous. Papist. Pornographic. He didn’t, actually, care, so long as he could read in peace: as long as he chose, and what he chose. The mice in the wainscot could make their reports to the King's agents, for all he cared.
He had meant to hole up in an inn for a month until it was all over, and settled to what passed for normality in Whitehall, and this dreadful fevered gaiety had simmered to a bubbling scum.
Instead, he'd walked into the inn, with his saddlebag slung over his shoulder, and the air had been shimmering.
It remained hazy, and he jerked his head, just a little, to see what might happen. A horrible pain shot through his skull - not, for once, along the lines of the old scar on his ruined cheek, but behind his eyes.
The innkeeper was looking at him curiously. "Help you, sir?"
"I wrote," he said faintly. "I had bespoke a room? In the name of Russell - Thomas. Thomas Russell." Half his horse, and half himself, like some kind of perverse centaur, and wholly untraceable - God willing.
He might die here, the way his head felt, and none any the wiser. And none to care, either, and the way his head felt at the moment that would be something of a blessing too. The innkeeper blinked, frowned, and then his face cleared. "Oh, aye, aye, I mind it. You’d took the room for a whole month, no?"
"And paid for it," he reminded the man, narrowing his eyes. Which probably looked deeply menacing, but was nothing more than a relief from the way the straight lines of the room seemed to ripple like moving water.
"Up the stairs, at the back."
He thought Russell was some kind of ruffian, up to no good. Which, to be fair, he looked, in his nondescript plain grey wool suit with the plain pewter buttons, and his unfashionably, brutally cropped hair, and his marred face. He was wet and filthy and every one of his bones ached singly and together. The room was clean, however, and warm, and almost quiet, with a window that opened on the stable-yard, and a sloping pitch to the roof that a tall man could crack his already-aching head on when he sat on the bed to pull his boots off. "You expecting a man following on?"
"I am travelling to meet friends," he said grimly. A lie, of course, and an obvious lie, unless you had the kind of friends who you would wait a month to see, but since he had paid for the room, and the man's silence, he did not expect questions.
Please, no more questions. He could not bear any more questions. Other than -
And he shook his head. No supper.
He was too leaden-weary for food. Tomorrow, perhaps, when his head did not swim, and when he had dried out sufficient that he could feel his hands and his feet again, he would amble downstairs - ah, bliss undreamt, he would amble down the stairs unshaven and unwashed, in crumpled linen, and amble back up the stairs again to his bed with a plate of bread and cheese and curl himself up in his blankets and read until his eyes ached, and then he would sleep, regardless of the hour. Set his book down and doze, and then wake up and read again, and eat apples from his saddle-bag, and when it grew dark he would go downstairs and eat supper in the public rooms in the gloom.
That was all the company he craved, thank you. He was surfeited of company, of having to smile - which hurt his head - and be polite and feign an interest in gossip and scandal and meaningless chatter.
A little time alone, he thought. To lick his wounds, to regroup - and most of all, to be at rest.