Authors: Caroline Vermalle,Ryan von Ruben
“That’s the spirit,” remarked Jack wryly.
“George! George! Did you find out who he is?” Mary asked her husband as he struggled up the stairs from the basement kitchen holding a battered box of oranges.
“It’s all right, no need to worry,” he said, looking first at Mary and then pointedly at Jack. “He isn’t a highwayman. He’s been bandaged up and is by the fire. Jack, why don’t you leave your mother in peace and go sit with him?”
“No need,” said Jack. “Grandmother is there.”
“Oh, go on, Jack,” said Mary, pre-empting another battle between father and son. “You are no use to me here, and on your way you can take in some tea. It may help him to get his strength back.”
“Fine,” replied Jack.
“Interesting lesson here for you, Jack,” said George, gently laying a hand on his son’s shoulder as he passed by.
“Oh, and what would that be?” asked Jack, his voice thick.
Jack shrugged off his father’s hand and strode out of the room, his head tucked into his shoulders like a cork in a bottle, stopping up the frustration that was bursting to be let out.
Mary continued to adjust the place settings, carefully measuring the distance between the silverware. Without looking up she asked, “How seriously is he hurt?”
George paused, carefully weighing up his reply. “I know how much this evening means to you, but the old boy has had a bad knock and the weather is absolutely foul. You’ll find a way to manage, you always do.” He lifted an orange out of its box and held it out across the table as a peace offering.
Mary crossed her arms, her voice hardening. “I’m sorry too, George, but foul weather or not, we are expecting eight for dinner, four of whom will be staying overnight, and that doesn’t even allow for staff. There just isn’t room. He must be gone before this evening.”
“Very well.” George sighed and put the orange back in the box. After all this time, he should have known better. It would take more than a piece of fruit, even if it had cost him a small fortune, to placate Mary Grant.
“I am serious, George, call the doctor out and pay for a room at the inn if needs be, but he can’t—”
“Yes, dear,” George replied wearily. “He will be gone by this evening. I give you my word.”
The irregular shadows cast by the flames of the fire played across the low ceiling of the summer kitchen. A boxy, single-storey side extension to the main house, it consisted of a rectangular room with a plain, pine floor, and unadorned, whitewashed walls. The three sash windows on two sides, which allowed cross breezes to cool the room in summer, were now closed tight against the cold outside, and the gaps between the sashes and their frames stuffed with rough cloth.
The summer kitchen had been brought into service to help with the preparations for the dinner and to accommodate the servants of those guests who were due to remain overnight. It was also ideally suited as an ad-hoc infirmary: with both the brick oven and the open hearth blazing, it was warm and yet far enough out of the way that the household could continue with its preparations for the evening’s events with only the minimum of disruption.
Bundled in blankets and with a bandage around his head, the old man was installed in front of the hearth on a rocking chair, turned towards the flames, drawing in their warmth like a fading flower turned to the sun. His face was possessed of deep furrows on his brow and a mouth that turned down slightly at the corners. Combined with the crows’ feet that spread from his eyes to his ears, the map of lines on his face suggested a life that had amassed equal time in the contemplation of serious thoughts as it had in the expression of joy, although the latter being communicated mainly through the eyes rather than the entire face. As he held his palms out to the fire, he flexed elegantly shaped fingers that were stained a light yellow at the fingertips from too many years spent handling tanner’s bark. His eyes were light green, as if washed out by years of exposure to the sun, and they darted cautiously from the fire to the figure that sat silently in a corner of the room.
On a stiff, high-backed chair, her face concealed beneath the shadow of her bonnet, an elderly woman sat embroidering beneath one of the windows.
“Good afternoon,” the old man said by way of greeting. But the woman seemed not to have heard. Without looking up, she remained focused instead on the work before her, her fingers nimbly avoiding the point of the needle that trailed a bright orange silken thread.
“Grandmamma is not deaf, she just doesn’t have anything left to say,” said Robert Grant, Jack’s nine-year old brother, who sat on his knees next to the fire, his hands clasped together in his lap. “That’s what mother tells us, anyway. Is it true that you were nearly dead but my brother saved you?” he asked, changing the subject as he inspected the array of objects that Jack had placed neatly on the floor beside the old man.
“Oh, yes,” said the old man, pulling his gaze away from the old woman and turning to the boy with a look of genuine embarrassment. “Your brother saved an old fool from himself. What a courageous young man … and your father. Oh, what an inconvenience my being here must be for your family.”
The old woman did not contradict him or raise her gaze from her needlework when he tried to get up. However, the rocking chair, layers of blankets and his lack of strength all conspired against him, forcing him to give in and let his bandaged head rest on the high back of the chair, the exertion leading to a fit of coughing.
“Young man, would it be too much to ask … my cloak …”
Robert obliged and, springing up from the floor, fetched the cloak from a stand next to the hearth where it had been hung to dry. The old man felt the lining nervously with his sore, red hands but failed to find what he was looking for.
“Hmm,” his tired gaze shifted from the coat to the floor around his chair. “I seem to have lost my spectacles. No matter. Have you seen a leather journal — I had it with me, but it also seems to …” A trace of panic entered his voice as he squinted first at the objects on the floor and then around the room.
Without hesitation, Robert made for a ragged canvas tote placed at the foot of the old man’s chair and retrieved the assemblage of leather-bound notebooks. “Is this what you were looking for? My father said you were holding it when they found you and that you wouldn’t let go.”
The old man reached under the blanket and produced a small key upon a chain. He inserted the key into a brass catch, releasing the clasp that secured the contents of the bundle. With the catch undone, it was clear that what at first had appeared to be several journals tied loosely together was, in fact, a single tome. In addition to the leather strap, the leather covers of the journals were stitched together, and the slight discrepancies in sizes, types of paper and signs of wear suggested that the collection had been built up incrementally over time.
The old man opened the journal from the back and after leafing through the last pages, which were entirely blank, he flipped towards the beginning of the journal, through the musty and wrinkled pages revealing highly detailed, annotated anatomical drawings of plants and flowers, each one a representation of a theoretically perfect specimen.
Robert leaned forward to get a better look, but at the same time keeping his feet planted at a respectful distance “I can read books that don’t have pictures in them, you know.”
A smile creased the old man’s wrinkled face when, upon stopping almost exactly halfway through the first book in the assembly, Robert saw that there was a page missing and that on the facing page next to the torn remnant, instead of a drawing, there was only a rust coloured watermark staining the page in the rough outline of a bird.
“What’s that?” asked Robert.
“Please don’t let my brother disturb you, sir,” said Jack, without looking up from where he had been preparing the tea on the sideboard against the wall furthest away from the fireplace. “How are you feeling? Do you have all your things?” Jack placed a tray down on a large bench table at the centre of the room and began pouring tea into the first of several porcelain cups.
“Oh, everything seems to be in order, thank you.”
“Robert, be a good lad and give this to Grandmamma.” At Jack’s request, Robert reluctantly did as he was told. The old lady did not touch her tea, but continued her needlework, as if lost in the detail of the pattern that was beginning to emerge within the frame.
“Can I offer you some tea or a biscuit, perhaps?” asked Jack as he began to pour more tea into a battered tin cup that he retrieved from a hook on the wall.
“Thank you, that would be most welcome,” replied the old man. “I’m afraid that we haven’t been properly introduced. My name is Francis Masson, and I am forever indebted to you, sir.” He tried again to rise to his feet to shake Jack’s hand, but the effort proved too much and he sank back into the chair with an apologetic smile.
The old lady’s cup and saucer clattered to the floor. Robert rushed across to help, picking up the pieces of broken chinaware as Jack did his best to ignore the commotion. “Jack Grant. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr Masson.” In place of a handshake, Jack handed the tea to the old man, who wrapped his hands around the cup, drawing as much warmth from it as he could. “Are you all right, Grandmother?” Jack asked in a slow and deliberate tone.
But she appeared not to have heard, and after Robert had wiped the spilled tea with a tow-cloth rag, Jack returned his gaze to the old man. “If you don’t mind my asking, Mr Masson, what were you doing out on this godforsaken road in the middle of such weather?”
“God did not forsake it, since He put your good self on my path, Mr Grant.” The old man closed his eyes as he brought the cup up to his nose and gently inhaled its scent. “I was looking for flowers, witch hazel to be precise.” He then sipped his tea carefully, his eyes still closed. “Oh, that is delicious. Ceylon, is it not?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t really know much about tea, Mr Masson, I’m more of a coffee man, myself.” Jack watched as the old man drank from the cup, each time closing his eyes and inhaling deeply before taking a sip, which he then swallowed carefully and deliberately.
“Well, your family must be worried about you, mustn’t they?” continued Jack. “The storm is just about over now. Smithers will drive you home when it is safe. Where do you live?”
“My family? Oh no, I … I live alone. I was due to sail for England, but the ship was delayed when the weather turned, and so I thought I would make one last foray.”
Just then, shafts of winter sunlight poured through the south-facing windows, signalling the end of the storm. The garden had been transformed into a world of crystals and stalactites, sparkling in the timid sun. Even the strongest of trees sagged under the weight of the ice that encased their leafless limbs.
“This ice storm. It’s quite something, isn’t it?” asked the old man. “It’s the first time I’ve seen one. This climate, though, the cold … I fear it is something I will never get used to.”
“Are you not from around here?”
“From England, well, originally I’m Scottish but His Majesty the King sent me here a few years ago.”
“Really?” asked Jack, the surprise in his voice making plain his scepticism. “In what capacity, may I ask?”
“I am, I was … his gardener. I suppose you could say that I came here to hunt. They are such elusive things, flowers, and this cold is much worse than I expected. I had become so used to the heat …” his voice trailed off as he slipped into reverie.
“My knowledge of geography is not what it ought to be,” said Jack, his patience beginning to wane, “But I don’t recall England having a particularly hot climate, and Scotland even less so.”
“Quite right.” Mr Masson drained the last of his tea. “But you see, I did most of my collecting in Africa.”
“Africa?” cried Robert, his eyes shining. “Did you see lions? Did you get to kill one?”
“Really, Robert!” Jack scoffed.
“It was very nearly the lion that killed me!” exclaimed the old man. “Please trust me when I tell you, young sir, that facing a lion is not something I would like to experience ever again.”
“Can you believe it, Jack?” cried Robert. Jack could not. “How big was it? How did you kill it? Did you use a gun or a spear?” Robert jumped up and ran around the room holding an imaginary rifle and making shooting noises.
“Now, Robert,” interrupted Jack, turning towards his brother and adopting the same stance and tone of voice he had seen his father use so many times before. “I am sure Mr Masson is too worn out to tell stories. Leave him be.”
“It’s is no trouble at all, Mr Grant, really,” the old man reassured him, before turning to Robert and saying in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, “In Africa, there were hippopotamuses too. Do you know what they are?
Hippopotamus amphibius …
With Robert’s mouth agape as the old man began to embark on a detailed description of the quadruped, Jack left the summer kitchen and walked through the reception room, across the main hall and then into the dining room, where he found his mother placing the final touches to a table set for the feast. She allowed herself a small, satisfied smile as she stepped back to admire her handiwork.
“Nice table, mother. I would say your best one yet.”
“Thank you, Jack. I thought you were looking after your guest?”