Wednesday, November 29, 2023

What Child Is This? By Linda Rodriguez

The windows rattled with a late November night wind in Oklahoma, a state known for its winds. That chill wind set tree branches scratching and thumping against those windows and the walls of the old house where I sat up late in concerned responsibility for my little brothers and sister. I would have been reading, except I'd already read all the books in the town library, and we didn't own any books of our own, except the Bible that I'd already read through ten times. I should have been in bed long before, but I was the closest thing to an adult in that house. I didn't see how I could protect the babies if I slept.


My partner in responsibility sat up with me, Queenie, my aging collie. Her presence provided a measure of comfort and a small sense of safety. Hours past my bedtime, that warm, solid presence at my feet allowed me to start to drift into sleep in the big green armchair with stuffing poking out of its left side.


Pounding on the front door startled me awake. Loud men's voices and fists beating against the door. I jerked upright, heart racing.


“Come on, Stephanie! Open the door.”


Queenie leaped to her feet, barking a warning.


“Yeah, open up, baby.” A different voice slurred these words. These men were drunk. I recognized the sound of it from experience with my father. “You got to be lonely with your man gone. I got what you need, and you got what I want.”


Men's laughter rose up outside the door, and Queenie crouched and growled. I shuddered, but then walked to the coat closet to grab my brother's baseball bat.


The men pounded on the door again so hard it shook, and a third voice, familiar from somewhere, higher, less rough than the other two, shouted, “Come on, woman! We know you've been running around with airmen, so don't play coy with us!”


By this time, I stood in front of the door as they started to beat on it again. I had a nightmare image of the door shattering underneath their fists. Queenie stood beside me, growling and barking.


“My mother's not here,” I called out, voice quavering and cracking. “Go away.”


Silence fell for half a second, and I hoped they were turning away.


“Open the door, and we'll wait for her, honey. We can have a party while we wait for your mama. Wouldn't you like that, sugar? A real grown-up party.”


The voice I'd recognized protested. “Wait a minute. Jesus, she's just a kid.”


“Like mother, like daughter, sluts, all,” one of the rougher drunker voices said before shouting at me. “Come on, kid. Open up. We'll make it worth your while and show you a real good time.”


Queenie lunged at the door as if she'd understood what he said and could reach him through the wood to tear out his throat.


“No, I won't open the door, and you'd better not try to break it down because my dog will rip your arm off if you do.” I drew myself up to my full four feet four and a half inches and, holding my bat in both hands, pulled it back over my shoulder for a good, hard swing. If those men came through that door, who knew what they would do to my baby brothers and sister. I'd seen how violent my father got when he was drunk. Drunks were dangerous, I knew all too well. “If you don't go away, I'm going to call the police.”


Of course, I knew I couldn't call the police because no one could know officially that Mother had left us alone for the past three days and nights. If the law found out, they would take us away. But I hoped the men were too drunk to realize this.




The bleak years when I turned eleven and twelve, I lived in a tiny town in southwestern Oklahoma, not up in the Cherokee Nation in the northeast of the state near my father's mother and not in the middle in Oklahoma City where my mother's parents lived, but in this little town near the farm of my aunt and uncle. My father had driven us out to this town from San Diego and dropped us off—my mother, my five younger siblings, and me—promising that our stay would last no longer than his tour of duty in the Pacific on his aircraft carrier.


I hadn't actually believed him, of course. My father lied often, spectacularly but always compellingly. Also, we'd always stayed in San Diego before when he went overseas, though often, my oldest younger brother and I spent the summers of those periods in Oklahoma with our grandmother—until all the little brothers and sister came, and Mother needed my help. So I suspected there was something wrong about his decision to unload his whole family in the state where we had kin.


We'd arrived in a bitter snowstorm. I'd never seen snow before, except on mountaintops. Like most of life, I only knew it from books. I'd never lived anywhere but a city before, either, and held high hopes for what life would be like in an idyllic small town, the kind portrayed in many of my books. Like so much else in those years, snow turned out to be a major disappointment.


By the time summer slid past us and we were in the throes of school again, my mother realized that my father not only would never send us money as he'd promised, but he had no intentions of coming back for us. She began to drink heavily and date men from the nearby airbase, desperately hoping to find a new husband and father for her many children. As 1958 ended, she began to leave me in charge while she went on “vacations” with her new boyfriend to Lawton and Oklahoma City.


Since there was never enough money, we'd run up a bill at the grocery store that we couldn't pay off, not even after I took an illegal job stocking shelves at the local drugstore. The grocery store had finally cut off our credit. I couldn't blame the owner, who'd given us plenty of chances, but we ran low on food often after we could only use cash. Finally, we'd been in really bad straits for weeks when some kind soul left a bushel basket of turnips on our back steps. My mother stayed sobby drunk for two days while I fixed turnips every way I could think of. (To this day, I can't eat the things, though I'd loved them before that.)


At the end of those two days, she left for Oklahoma City with her boyfriend, confiding in me, as she often did, her hope that she'd be able to persuade him to propose. She was, of course, still married to my father, but she seemed to think that would all work itself out. My mother was, like most women of her time, a great romantic.


So, for three days, I'd been trying to take care of the little ones without missing too much school, cooking turnips a million ways from Sunday, and sitting up in the old green chair every night.




“Come on, honey, shut up your dog, and let us in. It's cold out here. We won't hurt you. It'll be fun. I promise.” The deep, rough voice with its drunken slurring didn't sound like anything but trouble and hurt to me.


The higher voice that I thought I recognized spoke again, more urgently. “Come on, guys. Let's get out of here. We don't need any trouble. Stephanie's not here.”


I realized whose voice it was, the owner of Harbaugh's Hardware, father of one of my classmates. “Mr. Harbaugh, is that you? It's Emmy from Sandra's class. Mr. Harbaugh, please don't let them hurt me.”


Gruff whispers and scuffling broke out on the other side of the door, and then, footsteps pounding away. A car engine started up in the windy silence and squealed its tires as it drove off. I remained standing at the door, bat cocked, until my arms hurt, and I noticed Queenie had moved back to her spot at the foot of my chair. Figuring that meant we were safe, I propped the bat next to the door, just in case, and resumed my jittery vigil in the big green chair.




Mother returned two days later, hungover and heartbroken that no proposal was ever going to come, so I never told her about the men. She had enough to make her sad.


Besides, I had a new fear—Christmas. As December arrived, I realized we had no money for presents for the little ones. I told Mother, but she had other worries. I couldn't stop imagining the heartbreak in all those little eyes when they found nothing for Christmas, so I began trying to make presents for each of them from whatever I could find around the house. When I finished them, I looked at the amateurish, lumpy, makeshift things and got a little sobby and hopeless myself, wanting to toss all my efforts into the trash.


Afterward, I dried my eyes and reminded myself that without these sad, little gifts, the kids would have nothing, and I carefully wrapped them in some old gift wrap I found (that smelled a little of the attic) and cut an old ragged blouse into strips of “ribbon” to make bows for the packages.


The next afternoon, Rev. Gleeson, from the Methodist Church where I took the kids and sang in the choir, showed up at our front door. For a blessed change, Mother was sober and dressed in something more than house robe and slippers. Rev. Gleeson insisted on my leaving the room, so they could speak in confidence. Sitting in my attic bedroom, I wondered what dire news he brought.


After a brief interval, Mother called me downstairs to join them.


Rev. Gleeson smiled at me. “Your mother tells me that only you can help.”


“An anonymous donor wants to buy Christmas presents for all the kids,” my mother said, looking a little bit relieved. Maybe she had worried as much about those disappointed eyes at Christmas as I had, but just hadn't wanted to show it. “He wants to know what each of them wants the most for Christmas, and I told him you'd know better than I would.”


Of course, I knew, and I joyously explained about the baby doll little Sharon dreamed of, the gun and holster set each of the oldest two little brothers longed for, and the truck and pull-toy the babies wanted. I gave him exact specifications and brand names, and he wrote it all down in a pocket notebook while Mother went to the kitchen to make him some coffee.


“Is the person doing this Mr. Harbaugh?” I asked, remembering that wind-tossed night.


Startled surprise showed for a second in Rev. Gleeson's face. He brought it under control almost immediately. “Emmy, anonymous means the donor doesn't want anyone to know who he is.”


I nodded, overjoyed that the eyes of my little brothers and sister would be shining on Christmas morning. If Mr. Harbaugh wanted to make up for what he'd done that night, I'd take it happily.


I checked to see if Mother was coming and lowered my voice. “My mother needs a new watch. The one my father gave her for a wedding present broke, and she can't afford to get it fixed. She's always trying to check the time, only to find it gone from her wrist.”


Rev. Gleeson smiled broadly and replied in a conspiratory whisper. “Should we fix her old one, or buy her a new one?”


“Oh, fix her old one. It's real silver. I can get it from her drawer and bring it to choir practice tomorrow night.”


So we plotted, and I was thrilled that, not only would the little ones have Christmas presents, but so would Mother. Maybe it would take the despair out of her eyes.




Christmas came with just a sprinkling of snow, enough for that Christmas-card frosted look, but not enough to make cars and people slide into accidents and not enough to turn into nasty, frozen gray slush later. It was almost like the lovely snow in books.


Rev. Gleeson had shown up at the door on Christmas Eve with a big box of wrapped gifts and another full of the makings of Christmas dinner, a turkey and all the trimmings. Early Christmas morning as Mother and I worked in our steamy kitchen, preparing dressing and rolls and pie, it felt like all my book-dreams of small towns had come true, as well—if I didn't think of why all of these goodies had been provided for us.


I didn't care, though. It was all right, if it meant that Mother and the kids would have a happy Christmas, which meant I would have one, as well.


When we finally let the kids open their presents, it was all I had dreamed. All around me, small faces lit up with joy and delight. Then, Mother found the tiny package with her name and opened it to the gleam of her newly cleaned and repaired watch. Her eyes sought mine, and I beamed at the slow smile that spread across her face. My Christmas was complete.


“Emmy, you didn't open yours,” Sharon said, obviously proud that she'd deciphered my name on the tag. She handed me the package.


Taken aback because I hadn't expected that there would be anything for me, I tore open the bright wrappings to find a brand-new book, one I'd never read before—The Day Christ Died by Jim Bishop. I'd read about it, a dramatic detailed, hour-by-hour retelling of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, in the library's copy of Saturday Review, where it had been reviewed before it came out and again after it became a bestseller.


Clutching it tightly to my chest, I looked through watery eyes at my mother and whispered, “Did you tell him what to get for me?”


She shrugged. “I just told him that you'd want a book. I didn't know he'd get you that one.”


“It's perfect. It's just perfect.” I leaned back in the big old green chair with stuffing coming out of its side, Queenie curled at my feet, and began to read.


The End

Thursday, November 23, 2023

The Gift of the Mangled Magi by Connie Berry


Cast of Characters:

Ivor Tweedy:  A small man in his seventies, he looks like something out of a Dickens novel.  After traveling the world with Her Majesty's Merchant Navy, Ivor opened the Cabinet of Curiosities, a fine antiques and antiquities shop in Long Barston, a village in Suffolk, England. Sentimental at heart, he tries to maintain a stiff upper lip.       

 Kate Hamilton:  An American antiques dealer from Ohio, a widow with two college-age children. After meeting Detective Inspector Tom Mallory, Kate has settled in Long Barston where she works with Ivor Tweedy at the Cabinet of Curiosities.   

Lady Barbara:  The closest thing Long Barston has to the titled nobility. In her upper sixties, Lady Barbara is the last of the Finchleys. Sensible and down-to-earth, she has recently gifted her crumbling Elizabethan mansion to the National Trust. 

Vivian Bunn:  Seventy-something, a take-charge woman in tweeds. She might have led the British troops on D-Day. As ex-secretary to Lady Barbara's late husband, Vivian lives in a tied cottage on the Finchley estate. She is Kate's landlady.

Miss Bembridge:  A poor widow of the parish.

The Gift of the Mangled Magi

by Connie Berry

The phone call came at a most inconvenient time.


It was Christmas Eve. Ivor Tweedy was closing the shop early, his mind already on the gathering that evening at Finchley Hall, Lady Barbara’s annual holiday supper. A small group of close friends would be present—Vivian Bunn; Kate Hamilton and Detective Inspector Tom Mallory; Edmund Foxe, rector of St. Æthelric’s, and his fiancée, Angela Vine; and of course, Ivor himself. Francie Jewell, the Hall’s cook, was sure to produce a meal to remember. Afterwards there would be carols around the tree, a small gift exchange, and a toast with the Hall’s seemingly endless supply of vintage Vieil Armagnac Delord.

 Ah, the Delord! Winner of three gold-medals, a five-star rating, and an astonishing 97 points—the ultimate hand-crafted brandy. Ivor could almost taste it—the complex flavors of spice, roasted apricots, and hint of tobacco. And that long, silky finish. This would be a night to remember. 

He was about to head upstairs to his flat above the shop when the phone rang. Should he ignore it? The call might be from a customer, looking for a last-minute Christmas gift. He couldn’t afford to turn away business—especially at this time of year.


He picked up the receiver. “The Cabinet of Curiosities. Ivor Tweedy speaking.”


“Oh, hello,” came an elderly female voice. “I was afraid I’d get a recording.” The voice quavered. “I am sorry to bother you, but I have an emergency, and I thought you might be able to help.”


“This is an antiques shop, madam, not Emergency Services. If you—”


“Not that kind of emergency. I was hoping you could stop by this afternoon and have a look at some old family items. I’d like to sell them, you see.”


Ivor suppressed a groan. He’d dealt with this before, the old dears who considered the detritus of previous generations to be worth their weight in gold sovereigns. He’d poke through musty books, pot-metal jewelry, cheap souvenirs from Brighton and Blackpool, and perhaps a dented medal or two from the Crimean War. If he was incredibly lucky, there might be a Wedgewood biscuit barrel (probably cracked) or an incomplete set of old Minton china. He’d offer her a sum, more than the items were worth. She’d accept his offer and show him to the door with a withering final glance—We both know you’ve cheated me, but what recourse does a poor widow have? She would be insulted, and he would be lumbered with a box of junk to drop off at the charity shop in Sudbury.


Ivor sighed. “Could this wait until after the holidays?”


“Oh, dear.” She dithered. “It’s just my nephew and his little boy are stopping by to see me on Boxing Day. I’ve knitted my nephew a scarf. I do that every year. But that’s not what a child wants, is it? There’s a wooden car at the toy shop on the High Street. Half price.” Ivor heard a small, cry cough. “I must have something to wrap for the little’un, mustn’t I?”


Ivor felt the beginnings of a lump at the back of his throat. He consulted the clock on the shelf. “I could spare a couple of hours as it happens. Do you live in Long Barston?”


“Holly Gardens, the Council flats on the Cambridge Road. My name is Bembridge. Ground floor, number twenty-three.”


“I’ll be there by half two. Do you mind if I bring my colleague, Mrs. Hamilton?”


“I’m sure that will be fine. Thank you. I’ll see you soon, then, shall I?”


She rang off, and Ivor dialed Kate’s mobile.


Yes, he knew exactly how this would go.



The seat warmer on Kate Hamilton’s Mini Cooper did little to ease the pain of Ivor’s aching hips. Only surgery would accomplish that, and the question was when. He’d been on the list for bilateral hip replacements for months. At this rate his heart would give out first. Or his patience.


Kate turned west at the junction of High Street and the road leading to Cambridge. The morning frost had melted, leaving a glistening sheen on the roughly triangular greensward south of St. Æthelric’s Church.


Ivor squinted against the pale winter sun. “Have you decided on a gift for Lady Barbara?”


“I managed to locate a bottle of her favorite perfume,” Kate said. “It’s been discontinued, but I found it on Ebay. What about you?”


“That’s my dilemma.” Ivor shifted his weight, stifling a groan. “What do you buy for a peer of the realm? I can’t afford what she really needs—roof repairs and an army of plasterers. And now, with the National Trust taking over at the Hall, she’ll be getting rid of things, won’t she? Downsizing. I’d like to find something special, something that will mark this year of change.” He sighed. “I’ll probably get Harvey’s Bristol Cream again. She’s been giving it to me for years. I can’t stand the stuff.” He shuddered. “Much too cloying. Tastes like melted raisins. But I can’t say that out loud, can I? Not when she thinks I adore it.”


Last year he’d gone on and on about the DeLord. Had she gotten the hint?


“There it is—Holly Gardens, on the left.” Kate pulled into an empty parking space at the end of the cul-de-sac.


“Lovely place for the elderly,” said Ivor, who was elderly himself.


The small housing estate had been constructed in the late seventies for the aged poor. Beyond the brick-and-roughcast buildings, an area of garden allotments stretched toward a green park. “Thank you for doing this,” Ivor said. “Waste of time, no doubt.”


Ivor and Kate looked at the first of five buildings, a stair-stepped affair, designed so each flat had a miniscule patio or balcony. “There’s number twenty-three,” Kate said. A tinsel wreath hung on the door. “Ready for Christmas.”


A woman answered their knock. She was very old and tiny, bird-like, with impossibly thin arms and legs. Sparse strands of pure white hair formed a short fringe and hung, stick-straight, to just below her chin.


“Mrs. Bembridge?” Ivor asked.


Miss Bembridge.” she said. “Come in. I’ve put the kettle on.”


A wave of heat hit them. Ivor took in the small parlor with its ancient furniture and three-bar heater on full blast. Neat as a pin. Poverty with a respectable face. A tiny kitchen occupied half of an el-shaped alcove. A table had been laid for tea.


They’d never get out of there now. Or they might cook to death.


“You’re busy people,” said Miss Bembridge. Was she psychic? “I have no wish to delay you, so I’ve laid things out in boxes. Take what you will and leave the rest. I’ve provided beakers so you can drink your tea whilst you work.”


A steaming electric kettle added even more hot moisture to the room’s near-tropical climate. Near the kettle, a chipped plate held exactly two dark treacle biscuits. The little woman opened a tea tin and spooned a scant tablespoon of shredded leaves into an old, flowered teapot. She filled the pot with hot water from the electric kettle and swished it around. As they waited for the tea to steep, Ivor noticed that the sugar bowl and cream pitcher were only about a third filled. Were they taking the last she had?


“You’re retired now, is that right?” asked Kate, who must have been wondering the same thing. 


“You could say that.” Miss Bembridge lifted her chin. “In the government’s eyes, I never had a proper job. Kept house for my father and my older sister. She wasn’t well. Both gone now, of course. I receive a small government pension.”


Ivor remembered the article he’d read recently about poverty rates among Britain’s elderly, the worst in western Europe. The minimum pension totalled just over a hundred and thirty pounds a month.


Miss Bembridge pushed up the sleeves of her threadbare cardi and poured the tea through a strainer into two small ceramic mugs.


Ivor and Kate added milk, no sugar, and took a biscuit each.


“The gentleman upstairs helped me with the boxes.” Miss Bembridge glanced at the ceiling. “If you’ll just lift them onto the coffee table, we can get started. I’m sure you have plans for Christmas Eve.”


Kate hoisted two sturdy cardboard boxes onto the low table.


Ivor unfolded the interlocking flaps and began unwrapping the contents. If the old lady’s practical attitude surprised him, the items she’d gathered to sell did not. There wasn’t value enough in all the boxes combined to replenish her tea tin, much less purchase a toy car—even at half price.


As Ivor feared, the first box held mostly reading material. A set of mildewed encyclopedias bound in faux leather. Several dozen book club editions from the seventies, most missing their dust jackets. A stack of Woman’s Own weeklies from before the war. Several commemorative magazines celebrating the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969 and his later, ill-fated wedding to Lady Diana Spencer.


“These should be quite valuable now he’s King,” said Miss Bembridge, thumbing through photographs of the nineteen-year-old prince on the ramparts of Caernarvon Castle, robed in ermine and sporting a strangely oversized crown.


Ivor made a small sound—almost agreement.


The second box held family mementoes—a silver-plated lawn bowling trophy, once presented to Miss Bembridge’s father; a pink celluloid dresser set of hand mirror, brush, and comb; a small, embroidered tablecloth and matching napkins, carefully pressed and folded in tissue. Beneath the tissue-wrapped linens, Ivor found a wooden jewelry box. He held his breath. Surely there’d be something of value inside—a thin gold chain, maybe, or a cultured pearl ring; perhaps a string of the Bakelite beads popular in vintage boutiques.


Miss Bembridge had disappeared into the kitchen to refill the kettle.


“There’s nothing here,” Kate whispered. “Nothing at all.”


She was right. There was no gold, no silver, no gemstones—not even a mid-century enamel pin. If the Bembridge women had ever owned such things, they’d sold them off years ago, leaving tarnished metal bangles, a few gaudy rhinestone brooches, and strands of fake pearls in improbable pastel colors.


Miss Bembridge returned. She looked hopeful. “What do you think?”


“Very pretty.” Ivor forced himself to smile. He could hardly choke the words out.


“The kettle will be ready in a moment. I’ll top you up.” She shuffled out of the room.


“This is awful,” Kate said in a low voice. “We can’t just walk away. I don’t think she has enough to eat, much less serve us tea. What will you do?”


“Finish unpacking. And pray.”


Five minutes later they’d reaching the bottom of the second box. There, nestled in a layer of crumpled newsprint, was a battered toffee tin from J. Lyons & Co Ltd, Kensington.


“The tin’s pretty,” Kate said.


“Art Deco,” Ivor agreed. “The box itself would be worth a few quid if it were in better shape.” He attempted to pry off the lid, but it wouldn’t budge.


“Let me try.” Using her fingernails, Kate worked the lid up and off, bit by bit.


Inside they found a trio of felted wool ornaments, wrapped in cotton wool.


“It’s the Three Magi,” Kate said. “Hand sewn out of old clothing, is my guess.” She turned one over in her hand. “They’re lovely, Ivor. Just look at the detail—the gold threads in the crowns, the tiny crystals on the chests they carry.” She handed him the first two.


“Gaspar, Melchior, Balthazar,” said Ivor. “Mice got to them at some point in their history. Shame. They’ve been pretty badly mauled.”


“Three Mangled Magi,” Kate said. “How old do you think they are?”


“Late nineteenth century? Early twentieth?”


“That’s what I was thinking. In the States we’d call them folk art. Too bad they’re not in better condition.” She handed him the third figure. Sawdust trickled to the worn carpet beneath their feet.


Miss Bembridge reappeared with the teapot. “I see you found the Three Kings. My great-grandmother made them. Are they worth anything, do you think?”


“Well, yes—they’re worth something,” Ivor lied. The truth was the figures, while charming, were barely intact. Balthazar’s turban was missing. One of Gaspar’s arms hung by threads. Melchior’s dark woolen face was barely recognizable. Seams in the fabric had disintegrated, spilling fine wood-fiber stuffing everywhere. There were probably insects living inside.


Kate was poking through the cotton wool. “Look—there’s something else in the tin.” She lifted out an ornament. “It’s Finchley Hall.” The blown-glass castle, accented with mica and glitter, had been painted to resemble the Hall’s rose-red brick walls, towers, many windows, and dark slate roof. “Tiny bit of paint loss,” Kate said, “but otherwise in amazing condition for its age.”


“Where did you get this?” Ivor asked Miss Bembridge.


The old lady furrowed her brow. “I don’t know. It always hung on our tree.”


“I’ve only seen one other like it,” he said. “They were made to order in the early nineteen hundreds by a German manufacturer of hand-blown glass ornaments. Presented as Christmas gifts from Lady Barbara’s grandfather to all the estate workers.”


“That makes sense. I had a great uncle who was Under Gardener at the Hall around that time. Is it worth much?”


Ivor considered his answer carefully. He could probably sell the ornament for twenty-five or thirty pounds. On the other hand, this was exactly the kind of thing Lady Barbara would love. She might not know such ornaments existed. If she’d ever owned one, he’d never seen it on the big tree in the Great Hall.


Miss Bembridge’s lip quivered. “There’s not much of worth here, is there? I can see it in your faces.” She wiped away a tear. “Oh, dear. I was hoping to raise at least thirty pounds—to purchase the little car and a few extras for my nephew’s visit. A nice ham, perhaps, and some Christmas crackers.”


Ivor saw defeat in the watery blue eyes. He also saw keen intelligence. She wouldn’t be easily fooled, and she wouldn’t look kindly on charity.


“You’re right, Miss Bembridge. While these items undoubtedly have sentimental value for you, they wouldn’t bring much in the shop.” Her face fell, but he kept going. “However, the Christmas ornaments are worth something to me. I know someone who would love them. I’d like to offer you a hundred pounds. You keep the rest of the items. Maybe one day you’ll make a fortune with those commemorative magazines.”


Miss Bembridge put a wrinkled hand on her flat chest. “Are you sure?”


“I’m sure,” he said. “The ornaments are exactly the kind of gift I was hoping to find. We won’t take any more of your time.” He pulled out his wallet and extracted five twenty-pound notes.


Two pink spots appeared on Miss Bembridge’s papery cheeks. She accepted the money, thanked them for their time, and showed them to the door. “Thank you for coming. I hope your friend likes the ornaments.”


             Lady Barbara’s Christmas Eve gathering was everything Ivor had hoped. The Hall had been decorated in traditional fashion with wreaths of fir and holly tied up with red velvet bows. The huge tree in the Great Hall sparkled with lights. Francie Jewell’s supper was incredible as always—chunks of tender English beef with potatoes and vegetables, cooked in a savory wine sauce.

This year’s carol-singing was especially fine with the rector’s steady tenor blending with his fiancée’s clear soprano and Tom Mallory’s mellow baritone. The Armagnac had been warmed in front of the fire and was presented in cut-crystal snifters. Outside, defying the predictions, snow was softly falling.


Ivor felt a lump in his throat again. Everyone he cared about was here. He’d spent half his adult life at sea, exploring the far-flung corners of the globe. Then he’d spent the next several decades pursuing the treasures of the ancient world, building a business, counting pounds and pence. He was an old bachelor—no family, no children to comfort him in his old age—but these dear people had taken him to their hearts.


He wiped away a treacherous tear.


The gifts exchanged were small treats, thoughtfully chosen. For the women, boxes of handmade chocolates, colorful silk scarves, bottles of perfume, tins of Angela Vine’s homemade caramels. For the men, the requisite ties, warm mufflers, and (from Vivian, who didn’t believe in treats) pairs of thermal socks.


Ivor saved Lady Barbara’s gift for last, the box wrapped in silver paper and tied with a wide green bow. Okay, so Kate had done the wrapping. That wasn’t the point. The gift was meant to express what everyone felt—that Finchley Hall, and Lady Barbara herself, represented all that was good and true and lasting about Long Barston. Had done for as long as anyone could remember, and longer than that. Now, with the National Trust taking over, the five-hundred-year-old family seat of the Finchleys would belong to the nation. For a time, hopefully ten or twelve years, Lady Barbara would continue to occupy rooms in the east wing, but that couldn’t last forever. One day the Finchleys would be as much a part of history as the objects Ivor dealt in—or the Hall itself.


But not yet. Not this year.


He pulled the silver-wrapped box from beneath his chair. “Happy Christmas, my lady.”

            Kate joined them.


“Lovely!” Lady Barbara pulled off the ribbon and unfolded the silver paper. “What an interesting old tin.”


“Open it.” Ivor’s heart beat faster.


“Oh, my!” Her face glowed with delight. “Ivor, however did you know?” She lifted the glass castle and held it by the faded blue ribbon. “We had one of these on the tree when I was a child. It was broken—one of our cats, I believe.” She poked around in the cotton wool. “And three lovely old Wise Men.”


“A bit worse for wear,” Ivor said. “They belonged to Miss Bembridge, an elderly lady whose great uncle once worked at the Hall as an under gardener.”


“They’re perfectly charming.” Lady Barbara put her small hand on his arm. “I’ll get Francie to do a few discreet repairs, and—” She was running a finger along a gaping seam at the back of Balthazar’s robe. Tiny bits of sawdust fluttered out. “Wait—there’s something inside.”


Ivor and Kate leaned closer.


From within the fine wood shavings Lady Barbara pulled a large coin. “It’s a gold sovereign.” She handed it to Ivor, who turned it in his hand.


            “Dated 1831,” he said, holding the coin by the edges. “Yes—the famous ‘bare-head’ portrait of William the Fourth. And on the reverse—” He turned over the coin. “—a crowned shield bearing the Royal Arms of Hanover.”


“Sovereigns were cast of fine gold,” Kate said, staring at the coin. “This coin has to be worth a great deal today.”


Lady Barbara was busy examining Melchior and Gaspar, picking apart their seams. She gave a little crow of triumph. “Two more coins. They look brand new. Probably never circulated.” She frowned. “Why put gold sovereigns inside the Magi?”


“Good luck,” Ivor said. “It was a superstition. A way of ensuring the family would always have money.”


“Over the years, they must have forgotten the coins were there.” Kate held up one of the coins, careful to touch only the rim. “How much do you think they’re worth, Ivor?”


“In this condition? At least ten thousand pounds each. Maybe more. And very saleable. Let’s not handle them. Here.” He pulled a white handkerchief from his jacket pocket and folded the coins inside.


“Miss Bembridge must be told.” Lady Barbara clasped her hands in delight. “Just think of it, As of old, the Magi have come again, bearing treasure.”


 “I’ll phone Miss Bembridge straightaway,” Ivor said. “I believe her money worries may be over.”


“I haven’t given you my gift yet.” Lady Barbara handed Ivor a long black velvet bag, bottle-shaped, and drawn at the top with a golden cord. “Harvey’s Bristol Cream. Your very favorite.”


Ivor’s heart fell.


“I’m joking.” Lady Barbara gave him a little shove. “And I’m no fool. I saw your face last year when you opened the Bristol Cream. Open it.”


And there it was. A slim bottle with a hand-penned label—Bas-Armagnac DeLord, Recolte 1991. “Thank you,” he whispered.


This would be a Christmas to remember.