Anyroad, in those long-lost days I was an innocent. I attended upon the sermons when we went to temple, I sang in the choir, I even had some dream of becoming a priest myself. On that chilly Winter Sacrifice eve, I stood in the midst of the gathered hole-biters great and small and sang the Aamutähden:
First light, long-needed light!Star that startles darkness!Come carry away our weal and woe!Star that startles darkness!
Warbling along, I found myself distracted by a pair of pairs of sultry, dark eyes and nearly skipped a verse. The Claretton twins, Ivy and Rose, were staring at me in a way I was quite unused to; appraising me the way patrons at the tavern appraised my mother and her co-workers. It was quite enough to throw me off my stride and my performance was less impressive than I had hoped.
There was polite applause – some of it was genuinely enthusiastic, but I fear that was primarily from my family – and I walked up to where old Master G_____ sat in that great, overstuffed, human-sized chair he loved to lounge in. He was dressed as the Old Hunter in a false beard and fur cape, tinsel icicles hanging from the three corners of his hat, with a pile of presents on the end table beside him. Most of these were the hand-me-downs from his extensive family – waistcoats and belt buckles, teapots and dishes – but a few were minor treasures he would give as new to valued tenants and servants. As I approached him, I saw disregard in his eyes and quailed.
He was not pleased with my unremarkable performance, I could tell. I had certainly hoped to impress him more, to perhaps get his support in entering the clergy, but instead he scowled at me. There was a beautiful holybook sitting on the table; bound in heavy leather with gilt letters and page-edges, it must have cost as much as the rest of the presents combined. His spindly fingers traced the cover as I approached…
And then he shoved a waistcoat into my waiting hands.
I was mortified. I thanked him and hared off to find a place to cry, the tears already starting from my eyes. I was more embarrassed than I had ever been in my life, my hopes of preferment crushed. I scrambled through the crowd and finally found a dark corner deep in the heart of the hill.
“Damn me, boy,” drawled a voice I didn’t know. “I think you came off very well.”
I looked up. He was a young hole-biter, not more than a decade my senior and certainly not old enough to call me “boy.” He was dressed very well in a silver-trimmed coat, embroidered waistcoat, and breeches with silver buckles and buttons at the knee. His hair was fashionably clubbed and powdered in the elfin fashion. I knew him to be Dashwood Claretton even though we had never spoken.
“Mr. Claretton, I am humbled but must disagree. My voice faltered in several places and I mispronounced…” I began to say, but he cut me off with a wry laugh.
“Not the singing – that was atrocious – I meant the gift!” He pointed toward the waistcoat I was busy wringing like a dishrag. “Yoink!” he laughed and snatched it out of my hands. He straightened it out and stepped into the light emanating from the hallway. “Lords above, you foolish fellow! You’ll probably never own a finer piece of clothing.”
I took a closer look. He was right that it was a fine waistcoat – it was made of jaunty blue cotton satin with large silver buttons and a subtle embroidered motif of stag’s heads along the collar and buttonholes – but that was small comfort to me. The holybook had represented the promise of advancement, of patronage. The waistcoat was just another cast-off.
“Was it yours, Mr. Claretton?” I asked. I had an uncharitable suspicion that he wanted it back.
“Hmm? Yes, it was, but it’s a couple of years out of fashion.” He tossed it back to me. “Put it on.”