Written for Yuletide 2010.
Summary: The cat Zachariah brings Loveday Minette a message from Marmaduke Scarlet.
Characters: Loveday Minette, Marmaduke Scarlet, Zachariah, Wrolf
Rating: General audiences
Notes: This story is set a few months after Loveday arrives at Moonacre Manor after the death of her parents in Cornwall.
Loveday Minette hummed a song under her breath as she flitted around her bedchamber like a silver, blue and gold butterfly, pausing at each of the salmon-pink geraniums to offer it a drink of water and a tender caress. The dainty copper watering-can she held shone gaily where the sun’s rays touched it as they streamed through the north-facing windows. Like everything else in her bedchamber, from the shiny silver horseshoe-shaped knocker to the delicately carved sickle moon and stars on the ceiling to the pale-blue silk curtains embroidered with silver stars, it was exquisitely made and quite, quite perfect.
The song Loveday hummed wasn’t one she had consciously composed. It had made itself known to her soon after her arrival at Moonacre Manor from Cornwall, one morning while she fussed over the geranium cuttings in their little pots of rich dark soil set all along the three deep windowsills of her round tower bedchamber.
Loveday would never forget that singular morning as long as she lived. She had opened her lips to croon the usual endearments and encouragement to her precious transplants, to tell them how strong and brave and bright they were; but instead what emerged with perfect naturalness from her throat was a song. The tune, which was by turns coaxing and praising and sustaining, proved more powerful than any words. For it had seemed to Loveday Minette then that the geraniums listened intently, and that their young leaves quivered and expanded, right before her very eyes. There was magic in Moonacre, she was discovering, very special magic indeed. And most exciting of all, she was a part of the magic.
Each morning thereafter Loveday sang to her geraniums, and in just a few months they grew straight and true and flung out vibrant salmon-pink flower petals softer than velvet and thick emerald green leaves with a scent sweeter than roses and she examined them with the eager, anxious pride of a mother examining her newborn babe. Her heart was happy then, for she still missed her parents and their life in Cornwall, even amidst the magical beauty of the Manor and of Moonacre Valley and the village of Silverydew and the companionship of the new friends she had made: Sir Benjamin and Digweed, the Parson, Wrolf and Periwinkle. The geraniums were the only things besides the clothes on her back that she had brought with her from her old life, and they reminded her of those she had loved so dearly.
Barely had Loveday finished her butterfly progress around the room from north to south to west and set down the now-empty watering can than a knock came at the low, narrow door to her tower bedchamber.
'Later, my lovelies,' she said and flew to open the door, expecting to see her governess Elspeth on the other side, though it was not yet time for her lessons.
But to her surprise and delight, the cat Zachariah sat there and he was purring loudly.
'Zachariah,' said Loveday, stepping back and politely opening the door wider, 'won’t you come in?'
He stood, arranged his long thick tail in three neat coils over his back, and trotted past her into the room. So small and narrow was the doorway and so large a cat was Zachariah that his gleaming black fur nearly touched the jamb on either side. He went straight to the tiny fireplace and with his unfurled tail swept the cold grey ashes from the deeply recessed hearth and spread them flat. Then with his right forepaw, he began to draw in his special hieroglyphic that told stories in pictures, not words.
Loveday watched him curiously, wondering what message he had for her. With a few swift strokes, the outline of a girl’s head appeared and then a pot of flowers. Zachariah enclosed both inside a circle. Next, he drew a most distinctive face, one with round eyes and a snub nose and a broad upcurving smile and a fringe of whiskers. It was, of course, Marmaduke Scarlet. Beside that Zachariah drew a rolling-pin and circled those two images with one sweep of his paw.
'Marmaduke Scarlet wants me to bring a pot of geraniums to the kitchen, is that it?' Loveday said, and Zachariah’s purring grew louder and his brilliant emerald-green eyes were approving. 'Oh clever Zachariah!' She petted his sleek black fur and he wound twice around her legs and then looked at her expectantly.
Loveday went to the north facing windowsill and picked up an especially large geranium simply aburst with salmon-pink flowers. 'Will this do?' she asked Zachariah, and his purr grew louder yet.
Her heart beating fast with anticipation, Loveday followed Zachariah out of her room and down and down the smooth worn stone stairs of the turret. She held the pot cradled tenderly against her chest and the wondrous scent of Cornish geraniums, the very best flower-smell in all the world, filled her nostrils. It was a very good thing, she decided, that her aunt and Sir Benjamin had gone into the village after luncheon, for what Lady Letitia would have said had she caught Loveday bringing the flowers downstairs was anybody’s guess; but it was certain not to have been either pleasant or polite, for she had expressly forbidden Loveday to keep her geraniums anywhere but in the Moon Princess’s tower.
Loveday liked the kind and sunny-natured Sir Benjamin Merryweather very much indeed, but she did not like Sir Benjamin’s mother at all. Sometimes in life you met someone and discovered an instant antipathy between you; such was the case with Loveday Minette and Lady Letitia Merryweather. But there was a deeper cause of discord between them, and it lay in the flowers that Loveday had brought with her from Cornwall. Lady Letitia hated geraniums with a passion and hated the colour pink with an even greater passion if that were possible.
A cold flame of indignation burned in Loveday’s breast whenever she thought of the insult to her precious geraniums and by extension to her parents and her Cornish home, and the indignation turned to bitterness when she thought of what else Lady Letitia had expressly forbidden. Loveday was dressed today in a sky blue muslin gown sprigged with silver knots. Silver slippers adorned her tiny, narrow feet and silver ribbons held back the shining waterfall of her pale-golden hair. Not a speck, not a jot, not a trace of pink was anywhere to be found upon her person save what Nature had put into her lips and cheeks. It was small consolation that Elspeth had called her ‘pretty as a picture’ or that Sir Benjamin had said at breakfast that she looked like the Moon Princess come to life again, for all Loveday wanted to wear was pink... but it was not allowed. Not one pink garment occupied the silvery oak chest that Sir Benjamin had made for her.
Her bitterness vanished at the sight of Wrolf awaiting her at the foot of the stairs. 'Dear Wrolf,' she said in a loving voice and bent to kiss the soft tawny fur between his eyes and he wagged his long tail with the tuft at the end and made a low rumble deep in his throat that would have been frightening had she not known better. She had never thought to have a dog, much less one like Wrolf, who belonged entirely to her and she to him, and would protect her with his life.
With Wrolf pacing gravely at her side and Zachariah leading the way, Loveday crossed the quiet hall to the kitchen door. She could not help pausing to glance wistfully at a side table that held an extravagant vase of flowers from the Manor garden that Digweed tended with such devotion. Not a single bloom had so much as a faint pink blush and oh, how Loveday longed to remove that vase and replace the blue delphiniums and the red and yellow roses and the white lilies with her beautiful salmon-pink geraniums. How grand they would look!
As if he read her mind, Wrolf rumbled again and regarded her with tawny eyes that held a hint of reproof in their depths. His regal head that reached higher than Loveday’s waist butted against her ribcage.
'I shan’t do it, Wrolf,' Loveday promised, and hurried after Zachariah.
At the kitchen door, Zachariah stretched up on his hind legs and lifted the latch with his right forepaw. He pushed the door open and went in. Loveday paused on the threshold, holding the pot more tightly to her, for invitations to Marmaduke Scarlet’s domain were rare indeed. This was only the third time that she had received such an invitation in her months at Moonacre Manor, in fact, and as a consequence she felt awed and uncertain of her welcome. But only for a trice.
'Enter, young Mistress,' said Marmaduke Scarlet in his crisp, squeaky voice. He was standing before one of the enormous cook-fires, wielding a long-handled wooden spoon as he stirred the contents of a large iron pot suspended over the flames. He was smiling just as in Zachariah’s picture, his wide mouth curling upward so that the ends of his smile seemed to run right up into his ears, and his round boot button eyes were sparkling with such kindness and good humour that all Loveday’s apprehensions vanished.
She sniffed the air appreciatively as she advanced into the room. 'Apples,' she said.
'Indeed, your olfactory sense does not mislead you. Set the pot down on the table, there.' Marmaduke Scarlet pointed with the spoon at one end of the wide oak table. There was an empty spot amidst a panoply of glass canning jars, lids and sealing wax, a wide copper bowl and a length of cheesecloth, and a blue earthenware bowl half-filled with sugar.
Loveday set the geranium pot down. She was burning with curiosity to know why she had been summoned and above all else why, in defiance of Lady Letitia’s orders, Marmaduke had asked her to bring a geranium with her; but she bit back the questions trembling on her lips. Loveday had learned early on that Marmaduke Scarlet abhorred a questioning nature above all others. It had already created friction between him and Elspeth, for whom Curiosity might almost be her middle name.
'We are making jelly,' said Marmaduke in answer to one of her unuttered questions, and Loveday wasn’t certain if by ‘we’ he meant the two of them or just himself, for there was something kingly in his bearing and behaviour despite the oddities of his appearance and his colourful apparel, and he was undoubtedly the king of this particular domain. In the kitchen, Marmaduke Scarlet reigned supreme.
'I used to help my mother make jelly,' Loveday said, and despite herself sorrow crept into her voice and only her moon Merryweather pride kept her lips from trembling. But Wrolf pressed against her on one side and Zachariah on the other and such was the rumbling and the purring from those two that Loveday was instantly comforted.
Marmaduke had returned to his stirring, hunched over the pot from which such delicious apple-odour was wafting and wielding the wooden spoon with vigour; but he glanced at Loveday and his eyes were sympathetic and kind. 'Your expertise is noted, young Mistress, and therefore your facilitation in the jelly-making endeavour will be most welcome.'
Loveday understood at once that a singular honour was being bestowed upon her, and so delighted was she that a question popped out quite before she could stop herself. 'What can I do to help you, Mr. Scarlet?' she said.
He did not appear to mind. 'The apples have attained an appropriate degree of doneness and the juice must be strained off. If you will please to hold that piece of cheesecloth over the bowl...'
Moving agilely, Marmaduke took a dishcloth from the line, wrapped it around the handle of the simmering pot and lifted it from the hook with ease. Meanwhile Loveday, quelling the butterflies that had suddenly appeared in her stomach, for to be assistant to a master-craftsman such as Marmaduke Scarlet was no light matter, gathered up the edges of the cheesecloth in her small hands so that it formed a net through which the juice could be strained, and held it over the shiny copper bowl.
'Are your limbs braced?' Marmaduke asked her.
'They are,' Loveday said with resolve.
'Very well, young Mistress.' He tipped the pot over the cheesecloth and the softened apples, cut into quarters, and the fragrant simmering juice poured out.
As the weight of the apples landing in the cheesecloth dragged at her wrists, Loveday bit her lip and kept a firm hold. It would not do to disappoint Marmaduke Scarlet or betray his faith in her; she felt for the very first time since her arrival at Moonacre Manor that he might now be counted among her true friends, and the happiness that brought Loveday Minette would be difficult to describe.
But her grip did not falter and all was well and Marmaduke gave her an approving smile when the last of the juice had trickled through the cloth. 'Zachariah can assist in culinary endeavours when necessity compels. However, his forepaws are better adapted for the inscribing of messages in the ashes,' Marmaduke said, taking the cheesecloth from Loveday and setting it aside. 'Step one has been successfully accomplished,' he continued, 'Can you articulate our next step?'
'Return the juice to the pot and add sugar and boil it down,' recited Loveday, recalling how her mother had made jelly.
'Exactly so.' And wasting no further words, he poured the now perfectly clear golden apple juice back into the pot and hung it once more over the fire. Then he took a tin cup hanging from a peg in the wooden beam above the table and filled it with sugar from the bowl. When steam was rising once more from the pot and the apple juice merrily bubbling, he added sugar until a twitch of his sensitive snub nose told him it was enough, and then he stirred the sugary juice with the wooden spoon, and stirred and stirred and stirred as it slowly thickened and started turning to jelly.
Loveday stood beside him and watched in respectful silence. She started slightly when Marmaduke said, 'Young Mistress, please do me the favour of cutting from your geranium four leaves. Exactly four, mind you: not one more and not one less will do.'
Loveday’s heart leapt like a moon-mad hare’s. Here then was the answer to the mystery of Marmaduke Scarlet’s request. The jelly would be flavoured with her geranium! She was fairly dancing with happiness as she went to do his bidding.
She picked up the secaturs that had, quite without her noticing, appeared beside the pot. Four leaves, no more, no less. She studied the geranium, trying to decide which four to cut. The fan-shaped leaves with their gay ruffled edges were a healthy green all over and softly furred like a caterpillar, and the plant could safely spare four and come to no harm, as Marmaduke no doubt knew, for as the Manor’s housekeeper as well as cook, he was a daily visitor to Loveday’s bedroom. One leaf from each side, she decided, and in short order four perfect geranium leaves nestled lovingly in the palm of her left hand.
She returned to the cook-fire and held out the geranium leaves to Marmaduke Scarlet, but he shook his head, and his bushy hair beneath his red skullcap and his bushy eyebrows and even the delicate pointed tips of his large ears quivered.
'Yours must be the hand to add the leaves to the pot. Drop them in slowly, one at a time as I direct you. Add the first one now, please.'
Loveday did, and the instant the leaf met the surface of the bubbling jelly, a faint but thoroughly delicious scent was released into the air, the best scent in all the world as far as she was concerned: the scent of salmon-pink Cornish geraniums, sweeter than any roses.
'Oh! Oh! How wonderful it smells,' Loveday exclaimed, and at Marmaduke’s nod let fall the next leaf and then the third and the fourth.
The kitchen was soon filled with the fragrance of salmon-pink geraniums and Loveday’s heart filled, too, until it seemed that she could not contain the joy she felt and that even one drop more might be too much and cause it to burst. Without thinking she held out her small hand as imperiously as a Queen might, and Marmaduke Scarlet set the wooden spoon in it. Loveday bent over the pot and spooned up a tiny bit of the jelly. She blew on the thick liquid to cool it and then carefully set the spoon to her lips. The rich sweetness exploded on her tongue and almost dizzied her, and though the jelly was gold in colour, Loveday could have sworn she tasted salmon-pink!
'We must take the leaves out now,' she said with a firmness she never dreamt she would use when speaking to Marmaduke Scarlet in his very own kitchen; but this, she knew, was why he had told her to add the leaves to the pot, because it was up to her to decide when the flavour was right.
'As you wish, young Mistress.' Judging from the sparkle in his black eyes, Marmaduke seemed rather pleased than perturbed by her imperiousness. He took back the spoon and whisked the now-shriveled leaves out in a twinkling and discarded them. 'The gustatory results having met with your approbation, you may now leave me to complete the remainder of the task.'
'Oh.' Loveday’s face fell. She had no wish to be banished from the kitchen until the jelly was poured into the glass jars and the lids sealed with paraffin wax. She wanted to see the finished product, hold a jar up to the light and admire it; and the jelly had after all been made with her geraniums. She felt quite ridiculously proud and possessive of it.
'If you will consult the ashes on the other hearth,' said Marmaduke, wrapping the dishcloth around the handle again and lifting the pot off the hook, 'you will find a message that should lend urgency to your impending perambulations.'
Loveday lifted her skirts and ran to the spit-fire hearth where she discovered that Zachariah, standing with his right forepaw raised and his tail arranged in three neat coils over his back, had indeed drawn a message. It consisted of but a single picture - a horse and carriage - but that was more than sufficient to tell Loveday all she needed to know: Lady Letitia was returning to the Manor.
'Dear, dear Zachariah!' Loveday said and impulsively hugged him. 'Thank you for the warning.' Then she darted back to the table but instead of picking up the geranium pot, she did the unthinkable and hugged Marmaduke Scarlet, too. 'Thank you, Mr. Scarlet, for the wonderful jelly and for allowing me to help you with making it,' she said.
Marmaduke Scarlet’s lined brown face turned red as his skullcap, but before he could utter a word, Loveday had snatched up the geranium pot and was gone in a flurry of blue muslin skirts and a stream of pale-golden hair. Wrolf, of course, went with her.
Loveday fairly flew across the hall to the turret stairs. Hardly had she made it past the first bend in the stairwell when she heard the front door open and Lady Letitia’s voice saying, ‘I do hope Marmaduke Scarlet is preparing our tea. I am quite famished, Benjamin.’
And Loveday smiled happily to herself, knowing that at that moment Marmaduke Scarlet was, in fact, bottling the jelly they had made using her very own salmon-pink geraniums. She smiled even wider, if not wide enough for her smile quite to reach her ears, at the knowledge that in days to come salmon-pink would be present on the table at teatime, even if Lady Letitia didn’t realise it.
Wrolf rumbled deep in his chest and wagged the plume of his tail and his tawny eyes shone with amusement.
The kitchen door closed behind Loveday Minette.
'Well. Well, well,' said Marmaduke Scarlet, still blushing and entirely robbed of his usual eloquence.
Zachariah jumped onto the three-legged stool beside him. As Marmaduke poured geranium jelly into one of the glass jars, the cat stuck out his paw and caught a little of the thick golden liquid in mid-air. He licked the jelly away with his rough pink tongue and started to purr.