I hope everyone out there is having a good Boxing Day and happy holiday season. I’m continuing the Ladies’ traditional Christmas story week, using Elizabeth’s random words. It’s a little longer than I usually do, so I hope you bear with me. Here we go:
The Gift of the Wise Man
The pale winter light was fading rapidly from the northern sky as Birdy Dove entered the warm kitchen. She hung her coat on the peg by the door and accepted the unspoken invitation of her brother to join him at the hearth. She sat down with a sigh and stretched out her cold hands to the flame.
“How’s things in the kingdom?” he asked, his eyes on the piece of wood he was whittling. He’d cut his knuckle, Birdy saw, but he’d promised the twins a new doll, so a new doll they would have, if he cut off all his fingers to do it. Not that that was likely. He was an artist, pure and simple. The doll—or two of them, if luck held and time was generous—would not be much of a challenge for him.
“The kingdom is brilliant,” Birdy said. “The Abbotts gave us a Christmas goose and all the fixings. They’ll deliver it tomorrow. They said I need not come in to sweep or scrub for a week, and they’d pay me my wages in full. They’ll also pay for the twins’ school tuition and send you to apprentice with that sculptor fellow, Mr. Eakins. And they promised to find me a suitor. And you a wife, if you want one.”
Joshua glanced unblinking at his sister, then rose and put his hand on her shoulder for a second. Fetching a mug from the shelf, he filled it with tea from the heavy pot on the hob and put in two precious spoonfuls of sugar.
“That bad,” he said, handing it to her.
“That’s the last of the sugar,” she said.
“You’ve earned it.”
The Dove family—what was left of them—had run out of luck that spring, when their parents were killed trying to put out the fire in the Abbott’s barn. Joshua couldn’t work their rented acres on his own, and his heart had never been in farming. Birdy had been hired on doing rough labor at the house, but her wage didn’t cover their rent. They had to leave the estate by January 1, and where would they go? They were penniless, with eight-year-old twins to support.
Christmas tomorrow would be bittersweet, with more bitter than sweet to commemorate it. Especially since she was drinking the last of the sugar in her tea.
Birdy licked her sticky fingers. Well, she had sugar in her tea and a fire in her hearth. Everyone was healthy. Tonight after the twins were in bed, she and Joshua would have to make some plans. Although she had absolutely no idea what they could do.
“Where are the girls?” she asked.
“Feeding the chickens,” Joshua said. “I had to get them out of the house if I wanted to finish this bauble.”
Just then they heard a commotion outside. Joshua got his knife and the doll stashed in his toolbox just as the twins burst through the door, their cheeks rosy with cold. They were followed in a by a tall man in a city coat and dress shoes, his eyes bright.
“Hello, hello, hello!” he exclaimed to the astonished Birdy and Joshua. “You must be the elder Doves!”
“We are,” Birdy said. “How can we help you?”
“It’s more of how I can help you,” the man said. “I’m Frederick Percival John Quincy Adams Thompson-Wise. Fred Wise, for short.”
“Mr. Wise,” Birdy said. “You better sit down here by the fire. It’s very cold outside.”
“I’m not averse,” Fred Wise said, sitting down in the chair Joshua had vacated. “Not averse at all.”
“Tea?” she said. “I’m afraid that’s all we have to drink.” Birdy tried not to be happy that she’d had the last of the sugar.
“That’s better,” Fred Wise said after he’d polished off two mugs of tea. “Much better. Now. Down to business. I have a check for you.”
“A check?” Birdy had never seen a check. Wouldn’t know what to do with one if she had one. It wasn’t as though they had an account at a bank.
“Indeed.” Fred Wise reached into his coat pocket and drew out a long envelope, which he pushed across the table. “We’ve had a hard time finding you. Evidently with the death of your father—about which I am profoundly sorry, you have no idea—well. Here we are now.”
“A check.” As the eldest, Birdy opened the envelope and looked at the piece of paper inside. “Pay to the order of—oh my gosh,” she said. “Me.”
It was for a sum roughly four times their annual income. She felt tears well in her eyes. They were saved. By her father and this funny man with the long name.
“Why?” Joshua asked.
“Your father was genius,” Fred Wise said. “Did you know he wrote a book? About modern farming methods. It’s about seeds and irrigation and whatnot. I don’t pretend to understand a word of it. I’m just the money man. I work the magic. We published it at the beginning of the year, and it’s a runaway best seller, I’m pleased to say. This check is his share of the profits. His royalties.”
“We knew he was writing, but we didn’t know what he did with it all,” Birdy said.
“Well, that’s what he did. He posted it to us, and the rest is history. And now that I’ve found you, you’ll be getting checks quarterly.”
“Quarterly?” Birdy said, stunned.
“Yes.” Fred Wise stood up. “Congratulations.”
“You can study sculpture,” Birdy said to Joshua. “The twins can go to school. We don’t have to live at the sufferance of the Abbotts.”
“Guess we’ll have goose for Christmas after all,” Joshua said.
“Yes, and you’re invited,” Birdy said to Fred Wise.
“Thank you,” Fred said. “I accept. Now, can you tell me where’s the nearest hostelry? I need something stronger than tea.”