Sunday December 25th 1814
The Rev Edward Grainger scraped the ice off the parlour window to see that snowflakes were already falling from a leaden sky, the snowman was back where it had been. As on all communion Sundays he walked over to the church well before the rest of his family, though this time he was accompanied by James. As they placed the vessels on the end of the communion table James said.
“It does seem a pity not to use them more often.”
“True, but the rubric says that communion should be offered four times a year.”
“But could it not be offered more often?”
“That I do not know, perhaps at Oxford they could tell you, but now pass me the wine.”
They completed the preparations, as the villagers began to gather outside the church. Seeing them waiting for the squire the Rector walked to the door.
“Come in, Come in. Sir Thomas will not want you to freeze outside.”
The villagers looked uncertain, then the carriage from the manor arrived, as Sir Thomas got out he shook his head.
“For goodness sake, why didn’t you wait in the church, it is much too cold out here.” He took his wife’s arm as she stepped down from the carriage. As Charlotte stepped down, James stepped forward and offered his arm. The villagers cheered, Caleb led Sir Thomas and his family to their pew, as he took his place in the lower desk of the pulpit he said.
“It is good to have a proper service on Christmas day, it is a long time since it last happened.”
“I hope you see many more.” Replied the Rector sitting down at the middle desk. Then he opened his prayer book and the service commenced.
As serving communion to the village, and this time it seemed that everybody was there, took a long time, his sermon was very short, little more than half an hour. Despite this it was well after noon that they left the church. The wind had risen and it was blowing a blizzard, Caleb was organising the men to make sure everybody, especially the women and children, got home safely. Sir Thomas’s coachman came up.
“I am sorry sir, but a branch has come down at the entrance to the park, it will be some time before we can get it clear.”
“Then come across to the Rectory, you can shelter there.”
They struggled across the green, as they passed the snowman Frances stopped for a moment.
“I think he is watching, like a cat.”
“I don’t like him, come away.” Said Mary, pulling on her sister’s arm.
“Oh, he’s not dangerous, at least not to us.” She replied, following her sister into the warmth of the Rectory.
The entire party were settled in the parlour, drinking mulled wine, when the housekeeper came in.
“Pardon sir, but it is time to carve the beef.”
“Oh, I had forgotten, the dinner for the poor men and women, they will be waiting for me in the kitchen.” He made to rise, when his wife stopped him.
“Why not let James do it this year.” She said with a smile, her husband nodded. James rose and followed the housekeeper. As the door shut Lady Scott looked to her daughter.
“Why don’t you go and help him.” Smiling Charlotte sprang to her feet and ran after James, as she reached the door Lady Scott called after her, “Parson’s wife in training.” Everybody laughed, Charlotte turned and curtsied to her mother, her face full of humour.
In the kitchen the twelve old people ate heartily, as Charlotte served one old gentlemen with plum pudding he asked.
“Pardon me miss, but is it true that you are betrothed to Master James?”
Charlotte blushed and nodded, the man raised his tankard and said.
“Good luck to you both, when I was a boy I saw your grandfather marry, when I was a man I danced at your father’s wedding, and now, if I am spared, I will see your wedding.”
“I pray that I can serve you with bride cake on our wedding day.” Said Charlotte with a gentle smile.
Back in the parlour, Sir Thomas watched his daughter leave and turned to Dr Grainger.
“Have you realised that over the past few days we seemed to have been following two stories?”
His friend nodded, “the love affair between our children,” He looked out of the window, though it was just after two it was already quiet dark. “And the other matter.”
“Yes.” Replied the squire, “I can see where one will end, a wedding and a new family in Stanton Lacy. But the other one, of David Beddoes and Michael Scott, I cannot see where that will end.”
“Not happily I think, and there is also the matter of the snowman.” Finally he told Sir Thomas of what he had seen, his friend was silent. The reverie was ended by a distant, muffled bell, Dr Grainger rose.
“Caleb is ringing for evening prayers, you need not come, on a night like this I cannot expect it of anyone.”
Surprisingly it was Frances who said.
“I will come, I think it would be best if we all went, I am not sure what will be about tonight and I think I would prefer to be in the church.”
Lady Scott rose, “Then we shall all go.” Charlotte and James came up from the kitchen, and shortly after the entire party were struggling across the green. Halfway across Charlotte suddenly gasped.
“Where is the snowman?”
They looked around, it had gone. Remembering what the Rector had said, Sir Thomas refused to stop, but hurried his party towards the church. They had almost got there when there was a screaming neigh and a horse galloped out of the driving snow, almost knocking James and Charlotte to the ground. Frances screamed and fell, she was picked up by her father and hurried into the church.
“Who was that?” gasped Lady Scott and Mrs Grainger together, “I think it was Mr Scott,” replied Charlotte.”
Lady Scott took Frances from her husband and stroked the girl’s hair, her bonnet had fallen off in the rush.
“It’s all right, he can’t hurt you here.” She said soothingly. Frances looked at her with wide, dark eyes.
“Oh, it wasn’t him, it was what was after him.”
“What was it?” her mother asked concerned, but Frances wouldn’t answer.
The church was full, in spite of the terrible weather most of the village seemed to have felt as Frances had, that it was best, or perhaps safest, to be in church. The service began, following its traditional course. The Rector had climbed into the high pulpit, the clearer to be heard over the storm outside. Below him old Caleb led the responses with a shout, the congregation did their best to follow him as they cowered in the high pews, lit by the guttering candles on their iron frames.
“Lord, have mercy upon us.” intoned the Rector.
“Christ, have mercy upon us.” Said the clerk, and waited for the congregation to follow him.
At that moment the west door burst open and for a second a figure could be seen standing there.
“Christ, have mercy upon ME!” it screamed, then most of the candles were blown out and the door slammed shut.
“Lord, have mercy upon him.” Said the Rector quietly.
There were screams and shouts in the church, and it was several minutes before there was calm. The churchwardens walked down the aisle lighting the candles. No one touched the door, no one wanted to go outside to see what had happened to the man who had screamed. With the church lit again the service resumed, the storm continued to beat on at the windows, the congregation sat in nervous silence until Caleb announced
“The Third Collect, for Aid against all Perils.”
“Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord” said the Rector , and paused as, outside, the clouds parted and bright moonlight poured into the church. Shaken he continued, “by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.” And the wind dropped outside and there was silence.
The service came to its conclusion, the congregation rose politely as the Rector and his family, and Sir Thomas and his, walked down the aisle. There were smiling nods and winks as Charlotte held tight to James’s arm. Outside Sir Thomas stopped and gasped, the tree beside the pond had fallen, the top branches had smashed thorough the ice into the water. Beside it there was no trace of the snowman. As they walked back to the Rectory, the squires younger daughters laughed, almost skipped, as they slid on the frozen ground, the tension that had gripped the village for the past few days, seemed to have faded. The coachman was waiting for them.
“The drive is open now sir,” he said.
“Then we will go,” Turning back to the Rector he said, “I will return tomorrow, I feel there might be something to see at the pond. And tomorrow afternoon I would like you all to come and dine with us, we have something to celebrate.”
He looked to his daughter, then turned away with a smile, as she was being gently kissed by James.
To be continued