Alas, poor Martin!

Blindingham Hall, December 13th 1860

Villiers has started to decorate the Hall. He has a flair for such things and I am happy to let him have his way. I sit down with him every October as he lays his ideas before me and I pretend that I have an opinion about his chosen theme, but I do not. I indulge him by cooing over tiny pieces of fabric and dried fruit; I exude amazement at a new berry he has sourced from the hedgerow and though I am always careful to express caution lest Dauncey should swallow a berry by accident, I do in large part leave the arrangements to him.

But this year I may have to put my foot down. I was not aware of a current and entirely unwelcome penchant he has for displaying the stuffed skin of dead creatures. This is a most unpleasant turn of events. I was greeted on my way to breakfast this morning by a still, small animal with tiny, dark eyes and scrappy whiskers – sitting in pride of place on the mantel in the entrance hall. I confess I screamed and was half way back to my room before I understood that no-one was responding to my calls for someone to bring a spade and kill it.

I approached the creature again – only to find it quite dead, with its scaly claws attached to a piece of wood. And a brass plate which read ‘mustela fidelis’. I carried on into the breakfast room, but I must say my appetite had quite left me.

Papa always said one should eat upon waking, so I sat down, as usual. Whilst waiting for the winter marmalade to soften, I asked Villiers what in the name of all holy was a dead animal doing on the hall mantel.

“Ma’am, that’s Martin. I wanted him to spend the festive season indoors now that he no longer needs to be by the river.” He looked at me with an expression I have rarely seen on Villiers’s face – a mixture of compassion, guilt and excitement. Like an evening spent at a freak show.

I waited for him to continue.

“Martin lived mostly down by the boat-house. Jennet used to feed him most days, but in the last few years he has naturally had to fend for himself. I was not inclined to keep up the tradition – a decision I must say, Ma’am, that I deeply and honestly regret.”

Villers passed me a marmalade spoon and poured my second glass of tea.

“Martin passed a month ago – a blessing if I’m honest, he would not have enjoyed another winter – and I gave him to that man in the village. The one who wears a leather apron but never sharpens knives. He told me he could preserve Martin’s spirit from within, and would have him back to me by the end of the week. And so it was. Martin is here, and warm. Thank God.”

Villiers was close to tears now. I had not seen him quite so moved since the death of Jennet himself.

“I am sorry you have been so saddened by Martin’s passing, Villiers, but I am at a loss as to why he is so important to you and why I should be subjected to seeing him every morning in such an exalted position in my entrance hall.” I said. “He is neither functional nor festive and I wish to have nothing in my house that is not one of the two, or both.”

“Am I to understand you wish me to remove him Ma’am? Might I be permitted to place him somewhere else indoors, but not within your ladyship’s sight?”

I confess I was beginning to feel guilty myself, almost as if I was condemning this creature to a second passing. I decided to give myself the opportunity to relent, if only to stop Villiers from sniffling so close to my toast.

“If you can tell me why you care for it so much, and why you have named it Martin, I will give you my final decision as to where it can be placed.” I am a fair woman and do not wish my staff to think I do not have sympathy for their feelings.

Villiers stared at me – visibly torn. Then he said “I called him Martin when I first saw Jennet with him by the boat-house Ma’am, because he brought to mind a man I used to see occasionally in the village. His name was also Martin and he was similarly wiry and whiskered, with a quickness to him which not many people possess. That Martin was an under-secretary in the office of the Member for East Hertfordshire. He was not important, but I recall him nonetheless.”

“I see. But why does the memory of a small man of little consequence move you in this way?”

“Ma’am forgive me” Villiers squeaked through a choked back sob, “I hardly understand it myself. I only ever met him outdoors, on an evening, usually after a public meeting of the village elders. Bringing this Martin inside gives me a sense of recompense I can barely express.”

So, because I am a woman with a heart, I will eat my breakfast every morning til January 6th under the gaze of a forgettable river dweller named Martin. And Villiers will be forever grateful to me.

But on January 7th, Weasel Martin will be in the woodshed.

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