Owen Matthews

The King of Christmas: A short story by Owen Matthews

The King of Christmas: A short story by Owen Matthews
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The Christmas King steps slowly from his house and sniffs the evening’s chill. His tread is dainty, for all his heft, and his handsome head swings proudly as he surveys a kingdom of carrot tops and mud. He smells woodsmoke, the sows’ reek, the night’s damp rising from the river. From the kitchen door he hears the teasing voices of boys, the clatter of scullions’ ewers loaded with his dinner. On the hill, Wytham Wood hisses like the sea.

All summer Harry has dined on sour curds and burned crusts, lettuce roots and swedes, and the rich scrapings of the pottage pot. Now winter brings him even greater plenty. A mess of oats and gravy bones cooked special for his Majesty. Baskets of acorns that bring back piglet memories of green woods and fragrant oak mulch, back in the beginning of time when he was still small enough to be herded out with his brothers and sisters, long gone before to the spit and the table. His royal life’s last season is one of gluttony.

Master Wormald, steward, follows the boys from the house. He walks stiffly, pulling on his old plain coat against the winter night. New aches in his joints have put him out of sorts, and a day spent in the kitchen’s steamy fug made the air sting on his face. New people in the house, won’t be bloody taught. A pair of silly maids, Welsh for the Lord’s sake, scorching the milk puddings and giggling with the pot-boys. Who will Mistress Harcourt hire next, he wonders. Cornishmen? Tatars? And Francis Harcourt already slumped at his wine, the light not even gone from God’s day.

The hog Harry, it seems to Wormald, is the only member of the household who doesn’t have to have his thinking done for him. He finds the stone sty busy with the sound of contented grunting. The kitchen boys, sensing a black mood heading their way on stocky legs, have shimmered away like shadows before a lantern. Their catcalls echo on the cobbles of the stable yard. Wormald picks up a stout stick he keeps for the purpose and pokes it affectionately into the Harry’s bristled neck. The pig looks up from his snout-turned mash and gives a furious human snort of irritation. Truly, Master hog, truly.

It will take four men to hoist the hog up on the butchering beam in the barn, the steward calculates. He slides a practised eye along his old friend’s broad back, weighing him by the foot. The finest boar hog ever bred at Wytham. Ever bred in England, according to Master Harcourt, who tosses Harry acorns and calls him stupor mundi, which Wormald supposes is Latin.

A week in the smokehouse for the haunches, at least. The liver, five pounds if it’s an ounce. He’s laid in sage for the purpose, and rosemary, and ropes of sweet red onions that have been perfuming the larder in the steward’s house since harvest. Slice it thin, fry it in butter and spice it with the Barbary pepper that Master Harcourt brings from London in fragrant linen sacks dainty as stockings. For Christmas he’ll have the boys lay the fire at vespers and rake up coals through the night, then set to spitting and roasting the hog at dawn if Harry’s to be done in time for the feast.

The wind carries a clatter from the road. The devil take you, Humphrey Coke, who call yourself a gentleman and arrive to dinner when decent folk should be shivering their way into their beds. The steward sighs, lays down his stick, and turns to his duty. Lights must be summoned for the visitors, the lads chivvied into livery, buckets of oats brought, sweating horses rubbed down with straw.

Three years and more Humphrey Coke, the King’s chief carpenter, has taken ale and honey cake at Wytham Manor, and venison and wine and Master Harcourt’s flattery. Coke is a heavyset man, arms thickened by half a lifetime of swinging an axe. And though he now wears a riding coat of Florence wool, he still has a working man’s roll in his step and a foul tongue in his head when gentlemen aren’t about. The King’s silver that Coke pays — in heavy arrears, always — for the oaks and beeches of the wood keeps Wytham in Burgundy and pepper. It puts pearls on Mistress Agnes’s white neck and skittish fine horses in the stable.

The price is a world out of joint. All summer, misrule in the woodsmen’s camp. By night, oaths and dancing as the Flemish masters set aside their measuring sticks and angled frames and rut with Oxford whores in the soft shavings of the saw-pits. Wormald would wish a pox on them, if they had not already wished it upon themselves. By day, teams of oxen 20-strong haul sledges of oak down the Godstow road. The furrows they leave in the track will have horses stumbling a dozen years hence. And this winter, outlaws in the wood. Hugh the ostler brings stammering reports of wild men lurking. Their faces are green and hairy, he says. Master Harcourt’s dogs find pools of deer’s blood in the clearings. And someone has dismantled the woodsmen’s summer huts and carried them away deeper into the forest, away from the reach of the law.

It is the Cardinal’s new college that has eaten the wood. Stands of green oaks that have grown since the time of King Edward, or Roman Julius, lie like rows of fallen soldiers, flayed white by saws of London steel. The college eats priories, too, and villages, and priests’ livings. In the town the market people say the hall of Cardinal College is a new Tower of Babel, monstrous huge and destined to fall as all prideful things must be laid low.

But this night Master Coke appears a man untroubled by the possibility of divine retribution. He sheds his wet coat into Wormald’s arms and turns to Master Harcourt with a flourish. The roof’s leads are laid and half-sealed, he announces, and Lord willing the rest will be finished before the first frosts. The kitchen’s hearth is built and drawing well. The leadsmen will line the meat larders when they’re done with the roof. He’s having trouble with the glaziers, but he’s promised to have their children’s eyes for marbles — begging my Lady’s pardon — if they’re not finished in a week. The Cardinal has willed that he shall celebrate this Christmas in his new hall, for all its reek of fresh paint and burned solder and new-planed wood. And it shall be so.

Dinner is as close to a feast as the fast of Christmastide will allow. The Harcourts usually do not stand on such ceremony. Such coneys and venison as the outdoors men bring find their way from kitchen to the table in coy disguise as rich pottage, perhaps, or stew, whatever the prayer book may say about eating meat during a fast. But today Coke is in the service of a prince of the Church. Lest one forget, the house is full of cardinal’s hats stitched in scarlet on the livery coats of Coke’s attendants, front and back. The proprieties are observed, therefore. Salt cod, soaked in new vinegar and poached with spinach and capers. Kippered herrings, soused with white wine and stewed with dill. Fennel has been roasted with aniseed, and leeks buttered. The Welsh girls, at least, know their way around a leek. The pudding blancmange is conjured from beef jelly, but the sin is veiled with eggs and sugar, beyond sight and taste. Gentlemen prefer their indulgences invisible.

After dinner the cloth is drawn and Mistress Harcourt and her daughters retire with curtseys, stifling yawns. A wind has got up, whistling off the wood, and rain rattles on the old windows like thrown gravel. Coke feels the draught and rudely scrapes his chair towards the hearth without so much as a by-your-leave. His host joins him at the fire, fresh-stoked during pudding by the steward’s foresight.

‘Will you play tonight, Master Harcourt? Let us have a small table brought.’

It is more summons than question. Coke is a new-minted gentleman, like his master the Cardinal, though the world knows they are both suddenly upstart from the dung-cart. As such, he may play at Hazard and dice. The old King forbade gambling to servants and apprentices to keep them from idleness and crime. But men of property may answer for their own luck. Coke produces a stack of cards painted with devilish symbols. He starts to explain a new Italy game, all the fashion now at court.

Master Harcourt is addled with drink. He asks in a loud voice of the news from London, of the Cardinal’s fortunes and the King’s wars. Born gentleman, Master Harcourt believes that if a serving man stands mute in the shadows he therefore does not hear. Master Coke throws a hard glance at the steward that says he knows different.

‘Providence smiles on our Lords,’ is all he answers. ‘With our prayers’ help.’

Primero, the game is called. It favours the clearer wit, and the player with more practice. Of course it does. Coke snaps the stiff cards down on the table slowly, as before a half-wit child, so there shall be no mistake.

‘Here a knave,’ he says. ‘And another. And this fine gentleman makes three.’

Harcourt’s shilling losses swell into sovereigns. Coke’s secretary, a nervous young clerk, is summoned from the kitchen’s screech and chatter to mark and witness the account.

‘They say there’s a wondrous hog fattening for Yule at Wytham, Master Harcourt.’

At his post by the sideboard, Wormald straightens.

‘A prodigal wonder,’ Harcourt agrees. ‘My people call him the King of Christmas.’ He leans confidentially towards his guest, grinning. ‘They call him Harry,’ he says, ‘on account of his might and bearing.’ Harcourt laughs, a boyish giggle.

Coke returns the smile, curdled.

‘Perhaps you will play for him, sir? What an ornament to the Cardinal’s feast, in honour of the new college. What say you? A prodigal hog for a great hall.’

Coke brushes up the cards from the table without waiting for an answer. He begins to deal. Even Harcourt’s wine-dimmed wits perceive that he has been played. He gropes in his mind for an objection, but finds none. Eventually he says: ‘Shall we set Harry against your winnings, Master Coke?’

‘Of course my Lord, in full account.’

Harcourt picks up his losing hand.

The morning breaks clear and frosty. In the water meadows the cattle’s breath steams. The wood is still, bare branches dusted white. Below the quiet house, the kitchen is busy with whispers.

‘They must have been in league with demons,’ says the cook.

‘There’s nothing a man won’t do once he knows the noose is waiting for him,’ says Hugh. Those green men in the woods are hungry as wolves, he reckons, and as bold. The kitchen boys sit silent as mice at their scrubbing, ears pricked for news of the night’s felony.

The sun is high by the time Master Harcourt calls for hot oats and honey to be brought to his chamber, and fresh milk and a pitcher of small beer. Solemn-faced, the steward attends his master in person to break the news.

The hog is gone. How, nobody can say. The Master’s Picardy horses are untouched and the house’s silver plate lies intact in its strongbox. The dogs? Grizzling in their kennel, busy chewing bones someone brought them in the night. The pigsty gate yawns unbolted. A trail of acorn husks leads through the yard and out toward Wytham wood, muddled with the stamp of men’s boots and a steady, treading line of cloven hoof-prints.

Master Harcourt paces red-eyed in his nightshirt. ‘I shall summon the magistrate’s men,’ he shouts. ‘We shall raise the watch.’

Wormald, his eyes lowered to the cooling porridge bowl, knows they will not come. Even armed men fear outlaws who will sell their lives dearly in a fight. Hunting a gang of steady-handed bowmen in a deep, trackless wood? A dangerous pastime. They’ll raise a posse for a yeoman’s kidnapped daughter, perhaps. But not for a hog.

The news will have travelled to Oxford by now, with the milk-cart. The idlers will already be laughing into their pints in the Blue Boar and the Golden Cross. Doubtless some will be toasting to the green men’s Christmas feast, for after all many of the outlaws are local men, neighbours, cousins, old drinking cronies. Wormald thinks of Coke storming about his hall, kicking the carved bosses laid out on the floor, shouting curses fit to make the wooden angels cover their ears.

On Christmas Eve snow begins to fall. In Wytham Wood it falls on silent rows of felled oaks laid out to season. It falls on the boards and frames that the carpenters have stowed, and on the stands of ancient living trees deemed too bent or knotted for the axe. And in the deepest part of the wood, where two ridges turn towards each other and the land begins to slope down towards Eynsham, the snow fizzles on a hot fire made in a clearing. Harry’s carcass is impaled on a stout young willow, for lack of a proper spit, and his fat falls into wooden ewers. In the firelight the faces of the company are not green but deep red and yellow. Demons indeed, cook would say. But she could not fault their art. Many of the outlaws are kitchen-trained, and they intend to do Harry due honour. Fat parsnips have been got, and carrots, and fennel to grill on the coals. There are sour apples stewing in a patched pot with half a stolen sugar-loaf. The hog’s roasting flesh fills the wood with the smell of home and happier times.

Behind a holly thicket a branch snaps. The men freeze to the danger like deer, listening. Their leader reaches for cold metal tucked inside his rags. Others roll quietly towards their longbows. A man, undoubtedly. A large man, clumsy as he struggles through the thorns. Bowstrings creak. Men rise into a ready crouch.

Their captain stills his fellows with a waving hand. The newcomer steps into the firelight, his face hooded. The outlaws’ leader embraces him and plants a kiss on his cheek. They are the same height and build, with matching faces rough-hewn as ham hocks. They might almost be the same man.

‘Well met, brother. Come to the fire. We have been waiting for you to carve.’

Master Wormald takes the long soldier’s knife from his brother’s hand and flicks a thumb across the blade. Satisfied, he steps forward and slices into the crackling of King Harry’s fat loin.