Christmas in Wales, 1875
He had scrubbed himself hard, but he worried that there might still be traces of coal dust under his fingernails. Owen scowled as he inspected them. Homesick for the coal mine, is it? he asked himself. Well, you’ll be home again in Wales and back in the deep dark before you know it.
He peered down at the stage from his seat in the balcony. The place seemed magical to him, the city seemed magical; he had never even dreamed of coming to London. And when, just a month ago, the men’s choir of St. David’s learned they had won a trip to London to sing in an eisteddfod, he thought it miraculous. They had come in third in the contest, in a field of forty-three groups from all over the kingdom. They didn’t call it an eisteddfod here in London, though; they called it a singing contest. Eisteddfod is better, he thought. The word sounds more like music.
All London was talking about the beautiful young actress making her London debut in this play. Jessica Lavery. The girl with the lavender eyes. Not the starring role, but the kind of riveting cameo that makes an impression. Owen had heard about her, read about her in the press. He accepted, as part of the magic, the theater ticket to the matinee urged on him by the wealthy sponsor who underwrote their travel to London.
The curtain rose. Jessica Lavery made her entrance. Made her speech. Made her exit. Owen did not breathe. When the curtain fell, he and the other men from his choir stood and clapped furiously. As Jessica stepped forward to take her solo curtain call, Owen took a deep breath and shouted: “Brava! Brava!” He had read that “brava” was the proper term of praise for a female singer. He hoped it worked for an actress as well. He called it out again, and Jessica Lavery smiled up at the balcony.
Owen pulled on his coat. “Shall we have some tea?” his best friend, Dai, was asking the group. “Not for me,” Owen told them all. “I am not for tea. Today I am for adventure. I am on a quest.”
The doorman barred the stage entrance. “Your card?”
“I don’t have a card,” Owen stammered, introducing himself. “I just want a few minutes with Miss Lavery.”
“You and the rest of London.” He looked Owen up and down. “Ah, why not, come on in. It’s almost Christmas. Just write down your name and address for the record.” Owen complied, and the doorman led the way to a door marked simply No. 3. He knocked, opened it, and announced: “A Mr. Owen Thomas from Llanelli, Wales.” He pronounced it with an “L” sound, as in “love.”
“Flanelli,” Owen corrected automatically, and entered the small room.
Jessica turned to the door, transfixing him with a look. Her eyes really were lavender.
“Yes?” she asked.
Every word of English left him, and he spoke in the first language he had ever heard.
“Oh, you must be speaking Welsh, and I’m afraid I don’t understand it. Could you translate, please, for a poor, uneducated Englishwoman?”
“I said, ‘There is beautiful you are.’” He found his voice, remembered why he had come backstage, and grinned at her. “So we will be having Welsh lessons around our fireside.”
“Whose fireside is that?”
“Our fireside. You are the most beautiful woman in the world, and I have fallen in love with you. It is like an enchantment woven by Merlin, that you and I will spend the rest of our lives together.”
Jessica had experienced ardent stage door admirers before. Usually, with the help of the doorman, she would quickly usher them out. This time, in spite of herself, she wanted to hear more. There was something about this dashing young Welshman that intrigued her. “But Mr. Thomas…”
He ignored the interruption. “As an actress, you surely cannot ruin the plot of an Arthurian romance,” he teased.
Her tone began to match his. “Surely you are precipitate, sir.”
“Surely there is precedent, madam. Dante fell in love with Beatrice the first moment he saw her, and loved her for the rest of his life. When Romeo first sees Juliet he asks himself, ‘Did my heart love, till now?’”
Jessica’s eyes widened. Perhaps he is an actor, she thought. Actors are vulnerable to impulses like this. He looks untamed, somehow. Maybe he is a poet. That’s it. He looks like the portrait of the young Byron in the National Portrait Gallery. “Thank you, Mr. Thomas, you pay me a great compliment. But it’s the theater you have fallen in love with, not really with me. You are in love with the role I’m playing, the sweet young innocent. And you will surely meet and marry someone just like her.”
“Not someone like her. Someone who is her.”
“But I am an actress. I have already made my vows to belong to the holy order of the theater.” She decided to try a different subject, something that might bring him back to reality. “What do you do in Wales, Mr. Thomas? Dare I guess that you are a teacher?”
“After I finished at the National School, I thought of continuing my studies and becoming a teacher. For the moment, until I decide, I am in the coal mine in Llanelli.”
“Have you only those two choices then? You seem to me a man who could do much.”
“Ah, sometimes I think so too. Hubris, Miss Lavery, hubris, a trait I do not detect in you. Yes, I do have a third choice, another humble one. Ever since I was a little lad, I wanted to own a farm; to be part of nature, to make things grow. There is nothing fresh and green about a mine. Do you know Wordsworth?”
“Only a little.”
“We will read him together by that fireside of ours. But first I will take you to Llanelli and show you the magic of Wales. To Saint David’s to see the enchanted well of Saint Non, which sprang from the earth the day she gave birth to David. The place in the Preseli Hills where Merlin quarried the bluestones and flew them through the air to form Stonehenge. The only places in all of Britain where those stones are found are the Welsh hills and the circles of Stonehenge. The geologists say that the Ice Age moved them. But we Welsh know better.”
“I am sure you do.” Jessica smiled.
“And we will visit the tomb in the hills where King Arthur lies, although he is not dead but only sleeping until the day when Britain needs him and he will rise from his sleep to lead us once again.”
“Is Wales always full of magic?” Jessica was falling under his spell.
“Always. And in exactly one week it will be Christmas, the most magical time of all. The streets are full of music, the mines ring with it. The carolers are out every night, even when it’s bitter, and people fling open their doors to listen and invite us in to have a drop and warm ourselves at the fire.”
“Does your family have a Christmas tree?” Jessica asked. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had imported the tradition from Albert’s Germany, and decorated trees were the rage. “A Christmas tree in front of the fireplace?”
Owen shook his head. “My father believes that a Christmas tree must always be outside, where it can look up to God. But here in London you have your own Christmas traditions. Tell me, Miss Lavery, do you have a tree? Do you have carolers?”
“A small tree, on a small table. And the carolers have begun to sing in the street where I live, in Kensington Square, near Hyde Park. But they have not yet sung my favorite carol, ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.’”
“I do not know it. Why is it your favorite?”
“Because it calls for us to rejoice. And that is what Christmas is all about.”
The stage doorman knocked, and two men entered, crowding the little room with cigar smoke and laughter. They laid hats and walking sticks on a side table and tugged at the snowy cuffs of their shirts peeping from their expensive tweed jackets. Owen put his hands in his pockets, ashamed of the coal dust he imagined might still cling.
Introductions were made. The Londoners gave Owen a glance, assumed him harmless. “You were even more splendid than usual today, my dear,” one said.
The second visitor chimed in. “We must do supper after the theater again tonight. We will be waiting with a carriage as soon as the curtain comes down. The oysters at Claridge’s are splendid.” His gaze flicked to Owen. “But you are from Wales, Thomas. You be the arbiter. Which are better: the oysters of Swansea Bay or the oysters of Brittany?”
Jessica, irritated by the dismissive tone, intervened. “Mr. Thomas is from Llanelli.” She was careful to pronounce it correctly. “It is famous for its music, but not for its oysters.” Owen listened in wonder as she continued, “But now you must excuse us. Mr. Thomas has invited me to tea before the next performance, and to a place I enjoy so much that I could not refuse.”
When they were alone again, he felt bolder. “Oysters, is it? I will spread oysters before you, with pearls in them, every one. But where am I taking you to tea?”
Jessica laughed and opened a picnic hamper. “This is the tea we will share, if you are willing. It is simply cold jellied chicken with bread and butter, something light to eat between the matinee and the evening show.” She poured tea and set out the food.
Owen lifted his teacup in a toast to her. “Welsh tradition has it that every good Welshman pays his debts before the new year begins. So I must try to repay your hospitality very quickly.”
The lavender eyes shone at him. “I do believe, Mr. Thomas, that somehow you will find a way.”
The next afternoon, a Sunday, Jessica was in her sunny bedroom at her writing desk, grateful for an entire day without performances. “I woke up this morning thinking of Wordsworth,” she wrote a school friend who lived in the Lake District. “And of course my thoughts turned to you.” It was a quiet time in Kensington Square, as were all Sundays, so she was surprised to hear a bustling in the street. There, just beneath her window, was Owen, standing in front of a group of some dozen men. He was the tallest, she thought, and the most handsome. She threw open the window and heard Owen announce: “‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.’” The men began to sing, in nearly perfect four-part harmony. As the carol ended, with its great final burst of “Rejoice! Rejoice!” Jessica opened the front door. She stood there, not minding the cold, while they sang “Good King Wenceslas” as an encore.
“Will you all come in and warm yourselves?” she asked Owen.
“We are not coming in, but you are coming out. I am taking you to tea at Claridge’s.”
“But I cannot—”
“Please do not delay. I have used the prize money from the singing contest to rent a hansom cab. But I can afford only three hours.” Owen grinned at her.
He has won again, she thought, as she grinned back. “I will fetch my cloak.”
They drove along Kensington Road, skirting Hyde Park, where a few gentlemen were out riding in Rotten Row. “How did you all happen to know my favorite carol?” Jessica asked. “I believe you told me yesterday that you were not familiar with it.”
“Last night, just before I fell asleep, it came to me that we could serenade you with that carol. So this morning I turned my friends out of bed early for rehearsal. And there we were.”
“Do you always act so swiftly on impulse, Mr. Thomas? Is it a Welsh trait?”
“I believe it is a Thomas trait. We do everything quickly. Like rising to occasions. Falling in love.”
“It is a trait known as speed at grasping nettles.”
“My dear Miss Lavery, you can hardly be classified as a nettle.”
The streets were thronged with people, all preparing for the coming holiday. Costermongers were out with their barrows, one selling fruit, another vegetables, yet another sweetmeats. They saw a man selling roast chestnuts, a woman selling hot eels; a knife grinder, a muffin man. And everywhere there were buskers, playing fiddles or banjos or simply singing. Their hansom trotted up Park Lane, past Grosvenor Square, into Brook Street, and drew up before Claridge’s.
The doorman, resplendent in a great fur hat, approached the carriage. “But perhaps you are tired of Claridge’s?” Owen suggested. “You were here just last evening with your friends.”
“They are not friends,” Jessica corrected him quickly. “No, I did not join them. It seems that our little picnic gave me all the nourishment I needed.” And, she added to herself, perhaps more than I expected.
The doorman handed her down from the carriage, and Owen escorted her through the lobby, decorated with festoons of pine and garlands of ivy. When they entered the lounge where tea was served, there was a hum of surprise; some of the patrons recognized Jessica and speculated about the young man at her side.
As they drank their tea, Jessica noticed how Owen cradled the fragile cup. His are strong hands, she concluded, but gentle, too. Tender enough to hold a child. Or a woman. Stop imagining things, Jessica Lavery, she scolded herself, and bit into a scone. “You have more than repaid my hospitality for cold chicken, Mr. Thomas.”
“Ah, more is to come. There is another Welsh tradition that is centuries old. When a young man declares his intentions to a young woman, he carves her a spoon. It is called a lovespoon. And by accepting it, she says, with no words needed, that she accepts him.”
“A spoon?” Jessica smiled.
“But you deserve something more dramatic, more theatrical. When we are at home in Llanelli I will carve a great ‘J’ for Jessica. And put it over the door.”
“Just like royalty. Like a Tudor.”
“Oh, Tudors were plain Welshmen. No, for you we need a grander dynasty. Nothing but Plantagenets for you, it is.”
They talked intently for an hour. He told her more of Wales at Christmas. Of how they believed that at midnight on Christmas Eve, the animals could talk together, and anyone who was born on a Christmas Day could understand them. Of how, on that day, his entire village rejoiced and was glad, just as the hymn directed.
“I should like to be in Wales for Christmas one day,” she murmured, half to herself.
“I will come back to London in one year’s time, and gather you up and take you home.”
“An entire year, Mr. Thomas?” Jessica tried the teasing tone again, hoping they might be able to laugh together about his infatuation. “What will you be doing all that time?”
“Falling even more in love with you. And building a cottage for us. A white cottage in a glen. With a Christmas tree outside the door.” Again, he grinned at her. “And a nursery inside.”
The lavender eyes shone at him. “Mr. Thomas, there is something about you that is quite irresistible.”
Christmas Day, 1875
My dear Miss Lavery,
You told me I might write to you. I hope that you will write to me.
I sang in our chapel choir at the Christmas Eve service last night. And sang again this morning. The entrance hymn is one of my favorites, set to an old Welsh tune known as “Bunessan.”
Child in the manger, infant of Mary,
Outcast and stranger, Lord of all,
Child who inherits
All our trespasses,
All our demerits on Him fall.
The Irish and the Scots claim this tune, as well, but it is Welsh to the core.
The whole Thomas family was at the table to eat the Christmas dinner my good mother prepared. Mutton—there is nothing better than Welsh mutton—three vegetables (winter vegetables from our root cellar: carrots, sprouts, and celery) and potatoes boiled with leeks. Two puddings to finish—a plum pudding and a lemon syllabub.
There are five of us, my three big brothers—Davey, Huw, and Thomas—and my little sister, Branwen. Not a one of us married, so all of us boys put our weekly pay in our mother’s apron every Saturday. And every Saturday she gives us our spending money and a lecture about how not to spend it. You might think it is strange for grown men to act so. I am twenty, and my brothers are all older, but that is the way of it in Wales.
The women mind the money and the men mind the women. Even my father hands over his pay.
After dinner, Davey and I walked the path along the Wern—that means a marsh. It was muddy underfoot from all the rain, but the sun was shining, so the townfolk were out to enjoy the weather. Everywhere along the way, people smiled and bowed and wished each other Nadolig Llawen. That means “Happy Christmas.”
When you come home with me to Wales, cariad, I shall teach you Welsh. So in the evenings we can read aloud together from the old tales of Arthur and Owain and the Knights of the Round Table. Great warriors they were, and many a damsel they saved from dragons, or evil sorcerers, and protected their honor with great vows sworn on their swords. As I would protect yours.
I am, Miss Lavery, yours in all things,
1 January 1876
Dear Mr. Thomas,
We have two performances today, a matinee and an evening performance. So I am writing this letter to you after the one and before the other, in my little dressing room, where we shared the cold chicken. As soon as I finish this letter, I will have cold chicken again, although it will not be as tasty, this time, without the Welsh spice.
Mr. Thomas, I must beg you again not to be so serious in your prospects for any relationship between us. You honor me, indeed, but please understand that my life is completely dedicated to being the best actress that I can be. And, if possible, the best actress of our time, although I know that is hubris. (Yes, Mr. Thomas, I know the word, so there is one thing, at least, that you do not have to teach me.)
However, if I ever need a champion to protect my honor, you would certainly be my choice as knight errant.
Please write to me again. If you wish to do so.
Yours most sincerely,
10 January 1876
Dear Miss Lavery,
Serious about our relationship? I have never been more serious about anything in my life. Last Sunday, after chapel, my brother Davey and I set off to find the place where we will build our house, the house you and I will live in together. And find it we did.
The land belongs to my uncle, my father’s brother, Lloyd the Smith, as he is known here. He will give me the plot and five years to pay for it. It’s a fairy glen, with a brook that sings your name, and a fir tree just outside where the house will stand. At Christmas, we can decorate it, and it will look straight up to God.
My father and brothers and I will build it. My good mother and my sister will sew the curtains. My mother has warned me to ask you, however, if you would not prefer to sew them yourself.
Yours most truly,
20 January 1876
Dear Owen Thomas,
I beg you to stop this madness. I implore you to come to your senses. I told you when we first met that you were too hasty in your assumptions. I have never said that I will marry you.
I am not able to leave London and the theater.
I do not even know how to sew.
1 February 1876
Dear, dear Miss Lavery,
You have never said you will not marry me. And I will teach you how to sew.
We will begin to build as soon as the ground thaws. I am going to call it Glan Wynne—the White Glen.
13 February 1876
Dear Miss Lavery,
There has been no letter from you in these two weeks. My heart is darker than the mine.
With the deepest concern,
20 February 1876
Jessica, my little one,
Are you ill, cariad? Shall I come to you?
Your very worried and loving Owen
25 February 1876
Please forgive my silence. I am so sorry that I caused you any worry. The reason is: our play has a new leading man. We have been busy rehearsing these past weeks, preparing for him to take over the part. Mr. Brent, who played the role when you were in London, has left for New York. He was offered the starring role in a drama written especially for him, and the offer of fame and fortune was too great for him to withstand. So, sadly, he has deserted the West End for the lures of Broadway. I will never do that. I will never leave the theater, and for me London is the theater.
I sit here at my writing desk, look out at the square, and remember you and your friends singing to me to rejoice. Yet today, for some reason, I feel sad.
Believe me, yours most sincerely,
P.S. I have tried to find the meaning of cariad, without success. I assume it is Welsh.
1 March 1876
In chapel yesterday, we sang a fine hymn, “Now Praise We All Our God.” And I praised Him, indeed, that you are not ill.
Today is Saint David’s Day, and every loyal Welshman wears a leek in his buttonhole or on his hat. (The leek is the symbol of Saint David, who lived in the Black Mountains, drinking only water from the stream and eating nothing but wild leeks.)
I am writing this letter to you at five of the morning. It is still dark, but I have an hour’s walk to the mine, so must be on my way.
This winter has been long, but the little flowers of the spring —crocus and daffodil and my favorite, the snowdrop—are pushing up through the earth, so soon we will begin to build.
P.S. Cariad is indeed Welsh. It means “beloved.”
9 March 1876
I read your letter again this morning in the sunlight from my window, and thought of you walking to your mine in the darkness. Is it already dark when you return home? Please tell me what a day is like for you in Llanelli.
It seems I cannot prevent you from building the house in the glen. I hope it will be beautiful and blessed, and that one day you will be proud to bring your bride there.
Your true friend,
18 March 1876
I will be proud indeed to take my bride to our home, but you are the only woman who will be mistress of that house.
You ask me what my day is like. When a man works in the mines, there is not much day in a day. As you know, it is dark when I walk to my work, it is dark in the mine, and dark as we go home.
I will tell you of the mine in a few words. It is a tormented place, a hell of ice and blackness, a scene from Dante. Cold, it is, because we are below the earth. Wet, it is, because the underground streams run through it. We men work the seam, great pieces of coal fall to our axes, and the mule drivers pick them up, put them in the carts, and take them to the shaft. (The mules live all their lives down in the mine, and never see the sunlight, but strong and healthy they are, and happy, and better cared for than most of us men.) At the entrance of the shaft, the breaker boys—the young lads, younger than fifteen, not yet strong enough to wield an axe—break the big pieces into smaller ones. Then the coal is winched to the surface.
At half after six in the morning, the whistle blows and we go to work. At noon the whistle blows, and we eat the cold lunch in our pails. At half after twelve the whistle blows again and back we go. At half after four the whistle blows a last time, and we ride the car to the surface.
Those are the good sounds of the whistle. Sometimes there are the bad sounds—the sharp blasts, one after another—that all in Llanelli can hear, and all dread to hear them. It means there is trouble below: fire or flood or cave-in. I pray I will not hear it again. I pray you may never hear it.
We go to the mine silent in the morning, but we sing on the way home, glad to be coming to food and warmth and light and the laughter of women.
Now I have told you of my day. Will you tell me of yours?
With ever increasing devotion,
25 March 1876
I live in Kensington with my widowed aunt Elizabeth, my mother’s sister, a delightful and spirited lady. She is considered a bit of a renegade in our family: she is a crusader for many causes, and even feels women should be allowed to vote. There are just three of us who live in the house: Aunt Elizabeth, Nora, who has been her housekeeper for twenty years, and I. This part of the city is like a little village unto itself, with its fishmonger, butcher, baker, fruiterer, and, of course, its ale-house.
It seems shameful to admit that I do not begin my day until ten in the morning when Nora comes to my room with tea and opens the shutters. By the time I come downstairs, my aunt is off to one of the meetings of societies that endlessly help the deserving poor. (I do not make light of poverty; there is too much of it in this city and in this country. However, might we not help people to earn both a living and some respect if we taught them a trade? There! My sermon is ended. My aunt teases me that I should be speaking in Hyde Park instead of on a stage.)
If the day is fair, I often walk in Kensington Gardens, the royal park near our home. (Our queen was born in the palace there, you know.) The spring flowers have been up for weeks now, as you told me they are in Llanelli, and forsythia is in bloom everywhere.
Afternoons, if there is no matinee performance, I take lessons—singing one day, piano another, elocution yet another. My speech teacher says I have a sibilant “s” and must conquer it if I am to succeed in my chosen profession.
Shortly after five o’clock, I arrive at the theater. More experienced actors arrive later, but I need much time to prepare myself. Oh, not my makeup. I need time to prepare my soul.
P.S. I have just read again your letter about a day in the mine. Your writing is impressive, as is your learning. When did you read Dante?
2 April 1876
We read Dante at the National School. We read Virgil, of course, in Latin, of course. And Shakespeare and Milton and Wordsworth. And our great Welsh epic, The Mabinogion, even though we had to read it in English, not Welsh, as that language, alas, is not permitted at the school. Yet it is a language for bards.
Do you know Mr. Matthew Arnold’s poem “Lines Written in Kensington Gardens”? I read it, and thought of you.
Your aunt Elizabeth indeed sounds delightful and spirited. May I ask if your parents are well? I assume they are at too great a distance from London for you to live at home and travel to and from the theater.
9 April 1876
My parents live here in London, in the house where I was born. My father is a much respected doctor. Sadly, when he saw that my love for the theater could not be confined to church pageants, he demanded that I give it up. I defied him, and he ordered me from the house. My mother had to choose between us, and I pray that one day I will understand her choice. My aunt defied them both to take me in.
Why am I telling you this? Perhaps because I want you to understand how much in my life I am willing to sacrifice for the theater.
Now I am almost sorry to have told you this, but I am going to post this letter before I think better of it.
18 April 1876
I am sad for the rift between you and your parents, and sad for them, as well. And saddest for me, for what can I offer you for the loss you will suffer in coming to Llanelli?
Ah, Jessica, I can write you odes in Welsh and English, but they will not make up for ovations.
Forgive me. I can say no more today. Perhaps there is no more to say.
25 April 1876
Dear Owen, dear, dearest Owen,
You must write to me. I could not bear it otherwise. I wish I had not written my last letter to you, yet there must always be honesty between us.
Now I have not a shred of maidenly modesty remaining.
2 May 1876
I care not a fig for maidenly modesty. I can only repeat the first words I ever spoke to you. Brava! Brava!
So they continued to write, and to reveal themselves to each other. Jessica, almost against her own will, began to fall more and more in love with him. Owen, busy building the house, wrote that his love grew “stronger with every beam, warmer with every thatch.”
He worried, though, as he watched his mother at her chores, cooking and cleaning, boiling water in the great pot for the endless washdays that come with keeping a home for miners. He worried what the harshness of this life might do to Jessica. Suppose she would come to hate him for it? With a sigh, he wrote her that he was seriously thinking of becoming a teacher, not in Wales, but in London.
As she read that letter, Jessica asked herself if she could really be serious about this man. Am I mad even to think of it? she thought. What would I do in Llanelli? I would come to resent Owen for taking me away from the theater. And if Owen came to London, he could not realize his dream of owning a farm. Then she considered the most dreadful possibility of all. Suppose Owen left Wales because of her and came to hate her for it? Ah, she told herself, you must begin to prepare for the final curtain.
In June, their letters crossed. Owen wrote that the house was finished. Jessica wrote that a famous playwright had written a drama just for her. It was certain to make her a star if she could give the performance it deserved. She wanted Owen to know that she would shortly be very busy with readings; rehearsals would begin in October and the new play would open in London two weeks before Christmas.
As Jessica’s letters grew fewer, Owen worked more furiously on the house in the glen. He whitewashed it. He built a table and four chairs. Built a bed and carved the headboard. Carved a little cradle. When he could think of no more furniture to build, he whitewashed the house again.
In mid-October, Owen saw his mother waving at him to hurry as he walked up the hill with the men. They were singing their usual end-of-day chorus, but these days he seldom joined in. “A letter from London,” his mother announced, breathless, waving it in the air. “Gwilym the Post made a trip on his bicycle so you would have it today.”
“With enough stamps on it to ransom the crown jewels, and marked ‘Rush’ in three places,” the postman added.
The men had stopped their singing. All eyes were on Owen. “From the queen, is it?” one of the men called out. “Are you called to sing before Her Majesty?” There was sympathetic laughter. Everyone in town knew what he had been building in the glen.
Owen opened the letter. He knew he had no possibility of going off by himself to read it. This was a public event in Llanelli. His father and brothers came out of the crowd of men, to stand with him if it was bad news. The letter was short. He read it silently, quickly, then read it again more slowly, making sure.
“Owen, my little one, what news?” his mother asked in the silence.
“The letter is from Miss Jessica Lavery, who is the star of a play that opens in London just before Christmas. She asks me to attend opening night as her guest.”
The crowd cheered. His father and Branwen danced a little jig; his brothers shook his hand solemnly; the men sang a song of thanksgiving for tidings of joy.
His mother, he noticed, had tears in her eyes. Was she happy for him? Or sad to think she might be losing him to a wife? Or sad for some other reason only she could see?
Next day, in the dark of the mine, Owen thought only of Jessica. He wanted to give her a gift, and he could not afford pearls. A lovespoon was too homely. He decided he would carve an angel. An angel for the Christmas tree that would stand outside their home, where she could look up to God. He would carve her from the wood of a good Welsh plane tree, wood that would last for a thousand years. She would be the most beautiful angel in all the world, with a blue cloak, dark hair beneath a delicate gold crown, a sweet smile. And lavender eyes.
Two weeks before Christmas, Owen arrived at the theater with the angel in his arms, wrapped in his mother’s blue woolen shawl. The stage doorman eyed him with curiosity. “I’ve been doing this for thirty years, and never saw a leading lady who wanted a visitor just before the curtain goes up on opening night. Miss Lavery told me she won’t see anybody else. But she wants to see you.”
He led Owen to a dressing room with the name “Jessica Lavery” on the door, knocked, opened it, and stepped aside. Flowers were massed everywhere—in wreaths, in bowls, in vases, long-stemmed roses still in their moist boxes. Jessica was composed but pale beneath her makeup.
“Owen.” Just the one word.
Again, all language deserted him. He had no English, no Welsh. He simply placed the package in her hands.
“A lovespoon?” She unwrapped the shawl, and the two pairs of lavender eyes met. “She’s beautiful.”
Owen looked around the dressing room. “You don’t have a Christmas tree here?”
“No. Someone told me that the only place for a Christmas tree was outside, where—”
“Where it could look up to God,” he finished for her. “Well, marry me and every year the angel will crown the tree we will have in front of our home.” He paused, then continued, “In London.”
Suddenly, she grew very stern. “I remember the tradition. If a woman accepts the carving, she accepts the man as her husband. But I must stay where my heart is, in the theater. And you must stay in Wales, where your heart is. And in the years to come, you will know this is the right decision.”
“Never. Never, cariad.”
“Cariad. My beloved.” She sobbed, and tried to hand the angel back to him, but his hands covered hers. They stood that way, the man holding the woman, the woman holding the angel, until a knock on the door broke the spell.
“Ten minutes, Miss Lavery,” the stage manager announced.
“Now I must go.” She looked for a last time into the angel’s innocent face, thrust the figure to Owen, headed for the door, then stopped. “Good-bye.” She said it quietly, without turning, with a deathly finality. And went out.
Owen knew the verdict was final. He bowed his head and cradled the angel in his rough hands. By some trick of light, he thought she looked sad.
The newspapers the next day reported that a star had been born to London theater. The critics praised the depth of the leading lady’s performance, and her ability to capture the play’s tragic quality. Rare in one so young, they agreed.
Copyright © 2013 by Jane Maas