Elisabeth Fairchild
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from the anthology "A Regency Christmas Present"

by Elisabeth Fairchild

Signet Books
ISBN #0-451-197877-8
November 1999

A Christmas Canvas

A grim place to spend his Christmas. Lonely.

The dappled gray stopped uncertainly just inside the stone archway, belled packhorse jingling to a halt at its heels. Behind the horse and rider a fog wrapped sun went down on All Soul's Day. Church bells tolled faintly from the vast, empty canvas of the misted moor.

Maitland trusted the animal's instincts, eying the courtyard, the greystone house beyond with suspicion. Savage Manor--a dour house in dour surroundings. The stone was as colorless as the day, the rooftop lichen covered. Crouching monkey-faced gargoyles scowled down at him from seven medieval gables. Mullioned windows, tall and narrow, with projecting lintels, like beetled brows above each set of three, frowned at him. The windows were hollow-eyed, no light to welcome him.

He came by choice, by plan--here he sketched the future. Within these walls he thought to find, if not the perfect Christmas gift, at the very least, Christmas answers. It did not, at first glance, look anything like a fortune hunter's haunt.

The pack horse shifted its weight, bells jingling too cheerfully, hooves clopping on cobblestone, the sound echoing. It was then he saw her, a flash of light and movement in the upstairs window, the pale, golden shape of a woman cut into a thousand diamonds against the darkness of the room beyond, one hand pressed to the pane, in the other a candle flickering.

Could this be she? The woman he had come to paint. He doffed his cap with a flourish, despite the misting rain. He could get no wetter.

The woman merely stood, watching, palm pale against the glass, the curve of her breast an enticing swell against the flat contrast of a fall of dark drapery. He could have painted her as she stood.

"I wish to commission a portrait, Mr. Gregory." Two weeks since Lord Savage had rubbed meaty hands together, eye gleaming, gaze roving, up and down, up and down, as if it were Maitland's body he commissioned rather than the use of his hands. "A Christmas gift. You come highly recommended. A beauty she is, my Dorothea, though I do say so myself. I am not one to overstate the thing, sir, but when I say you will enjoy your subject, you may believe me."

His subject, he was sure it must be she, dropped her hand from the window, and stepped back, into the gloom of the house. Hair standing damply against the back of his neckcloth, he felt himself still watched as he chirruped the nervous gray into motion.

When the narrow oak door at the back of the house opened, hinge screeching, a thick, sweet smell met his nose. Cinnamon, cloves, citrus and plums--a heady, yeasty brew. Soul cakes and plum pudding--Christmas come early.

A staid, plump woman peered out at him. "'Ooo are you?" she demanded suspiciously.

"Mr. Gregory," he said. "I am expected."

She did not swing the door wide in welcome, merely eyed him narrowly a moment before she said, "You are late, sir, and wet. 'Tis a nasty day. You'll be leavin' yer boots and gear just inside the doorway to drip."

"My horses," he stayed her when she would have stepped back.

She frowned. "The lad will see to them."

He tipped his hat, water drooling from the brim. "If you please, marm, I prefer to see the poor beasts stabled myself. They have been good to carry me so far. If you will just tell me where to take them."

She pointed.

He nodded, surprised she called no one to help him. It took three wet trips to unload, everything dumped just inside the door.

He found the ancient stabling bleaker than the house--a chiaroscuro study in gray. The stable lad, thin scarecrow, stood in the doorway, wet and shivering, eyes narrowed against the misting rain.

The place was blessedly dry inside, sweet smelling, the mangers full of hay. He got a good look at the none too impressive number and condition of cattle Gordon Savage kept as he relieved the dappled gray of her saddle and swabbed down her steaming sides. The lad saw silently to the pack horse.

Maitland snuck a peek at the Baron's antiquated vehicles, leather molding and worn, cushions splitting. Then he splashed across the courtyard to the house, where the smell from the kitchen set his stomach to growling.

The cook fed him mutton stew and all soul's buns, the filling heat a blessing. The scullery maid, a child, wan faced, her hands raw as rare beef, took away his sopped clean plate. The stout housekeeper who had answered the door told him her name was Tilly. He was to ask her should he need anything. She led him through the nighttime gloom of a darkly panelled hall, keys jingling, the faded tapestries of a former prosperity billowing in the breeze of her brisk passage.

Through three rooms emptied of furniture she took him, footsteps clacking on bare floors. Through two shrouded in dust cloths they went before taking the servant's dark and pokey stairs to the first floor, where they made their way through a sudden wealth of furnishings, rows of Dutch school paintings, the soft warmth of jewel-tone rugs, a glow of pewter candlesticks.

"Your room, Mr. Gregory." She flung open the door. Echoing and chill, a long gallery stretched before them at far greater length than he had anticipated.

The first thing he saw was the faint smear of her handprint on the pane, the mark of her upon his future here. "Thank you, Tilly," he dismissed her. "I will ring if I need anything."

She left him, the shadows of the house swallowing her, keys jingling. He crossed an ocean of canvas covered floor, footsteps muffled, candles and fireplace flickering golden highlights on wood paneled walls, drawn to the window he had seen in reverse. The view was a watercolor blur of fogged twilight. Not the view he was interested in. He raised his hand, measuring the stretch of his palm to her handprint. It fit neatly within, smaller than his. Big enough, he thought, greedy enough, to snatch up an old man's purse should it come within reach.

They had arranged a bed near the fireplace, and canvas to cover the floor. He moved the bed away from the warmth, the canvas on the floor helping him to slide the weighty mass of carved cherry and enswathing draperies. Too lulling such heat. His senses, his awareness, must remain keen. The faintest of sounds, the feeling he was watched. "Who might you be?" he asked before he turned to find beauty framed in the dark doorway, watching him, a young woman in a cheerful, persimmon gown, golden hair bright as flame. The vibrant color of her, the sweetness of her youth and unblemished beauty, burned like candle flame in the dim gloom--a Christmas angel come early.

He wondered how long she had stood there, observing him, gaze steady, guardedly curious, assessing the changes he made in the furniture arrangement without comment.

"I am Dorothea Savage," she said.

The firelight played in her hair. "I understand this Christmas gift I paint is wedding gift as well."

She nodded without the glowing enthusiasm of a bride- to-be. "Lord Lovell is a lucky man," he said perfunctorily, not at all convinced luck figured in the match.

"You know him?" Curiosity colored her features. Through light and shadow she came the length of the gallery, no diminishment to her beauty on closer inspection. "We are well acquainted," he admitted. "An excellent gentleman."

She smiled, a small lifting of sweetly curved lips, a look of vulnerability, of innocence. Maitland was unprepared for such a sugar spun facade. "I hear nothing but good of him. He was kind on the occasion we met."

He had expected a hint of the cunning so prevalent in her father's features. There was none to be found. She would be easy to paint. No lies to tell about face or features. No embellishment on her youth or physical appeal. It was only the impression of her innocence he doubted.

"Ah! Here at last, sir!" A handsome, floral scented gentleman intruded upon the room, all forget-me-not paisley and well stitched straw-colored kerseymere. A small, silk-haired dog pranced at his heels, nails clicking on hardwood. The gentleman's features echoed those of Miss Savage, a trace of the foxishness of the old man to the twist of his lips, a jaded quality to his eyes, to the bored hand gesture. "Come to paint Dodo, have you?"

The dog sat, nose pointed skyward, adoring his master's every move. What did this fellow call the animal, Maitland wondered, if he would address this beautiful golden girl so callously? He disliked the man's casual, urbane sarcasm. The girl stood, less animated than the dog, gaze fixed on the floor, no protest, no objection. Maitland's heart went out to her.

"I am commissioned to paint Miss Dorothea Savage," he said calmly, a hint of reproof to his tone.

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