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Author's Chapter Notes:
4th December: St Barbara’s Day

The kitchen in the pretty Sonnalpe chalet called Die Rosen smelt gloriously of warm gingerbread. Marie Monier had already placed one batch of Lebkuchen in the oven and was busy cutting out a further batch when a footfall in the doorway made her glance up momentarily from her work. It was only her younger sister, Rosa, however, and she turned her attention back to her biscuit dough.

“Master David’s asleep then?” was all she said.

“Yes, at last,” Rosa said. “Aren’t teeth awful? I mean, whilst they’re sound, it’s good to have nice things to eat which you can bite into, but they cause so much trouble when they first come through and so much trouble when they go bad.”

A sudden crash raised Marie’s head again.

“Rosa! What are you doing? What are you looking for?”

The younger girl was kneeling on the floor with her head half-inside one of the kitchen cupboards, rummaging amidst the pots and pans.

“I’m looking for a vase. I’m sure I’ve seen one, Marie. A tall, thin one, made from blue glass, I think.”

“I know the one you mean. I don’t think it’s in here, though. Herr Doktor Russell took it a few weeks ago for his study to hold those long tapers for the fire. What do you want with it?”

“Oh… nothing. Just… nothing.”

***

Later in the day Marie returned to the kitchen after having spent some time with her young mistress discussing plans for Christmas meals. The light was starting to fade and there was a threat of a heavy snow shower brewing so she was glad when she and Frau Russell had been interrupted by the early arrival home of Herr Doktor Russell . He had checked that his patients at the Sanatorium were settled and had wisely handed their care over to his colleagues in order to spend some time at home reading medical journals which had arrived in the post from England over the weekend and then to enjoy the company of his pretty young wife and baby son. Marie had just lifted the kettle onto the stove when Herr Doktor Russell appeared in the kitchen doorway, much as Rosa had earlier, but with a frown on his face.

“Marie, there’s a pile of tapers which has appeared on my desk in the study. Weren’t they in a jug or something by the fireplace?”

“Ach Du meine Güte! That girl! I am sorry, Herr Doktor, but I think Rosa may have taken the vase they were in. She mentioned it to me earlier but I don’t know what she wanted it for nor where she has…” Marie’s voice trailed off as she suddenly caught sight of something on the floor, tucked in beside the stove, half-obscured from view. “I will speak with her.”

***

Marie found her sister sitting in the nursery, embroidering daisies onto a piece of ribbon destined to adorn a Christmas Day frock for little Peggy Bettany, who was playing with a doll whilst her brother Rix sat on the floor nearby trying to stack bricks but hindered by his smaller cousin, David Russell, who kept snatching them.

“Rosa, what is this?”

Marie was brandishing a handful of long twigs with scant attention to the drips of water which were falling from them onto the nursery lino. Rosa’s face fell. She gave a slight shrug of her shoulders but said nothing.

“Du Bist Ein Dummes Mädchen, a foolish girl,” Marie scolded. “Barbarazweige, at your age!”

“I’m sixteen!” Rosa protested.

“You’re not sixteen until February.”

“Well, I’ll be sixteen long before the next year is out and that is old enough to be married.”

“And who would be marrying you, eh? I have not noticed a queue of suitors waiting to serenade you below the balcony.”

Rosa burst into tears. “It’s not fair,” she gasped, between sobs. “You’re pretty and everyone knew you were a good cook and housekeeper even before Andreas arrived on the scene. And Lieserl is so gorgeous to look at that she, indeed, has a queue of suitors. And me? I’m just dumpy Rosa, destined to look after other people’s children.”

“Oh, Röslein,” Marie said, relenting with a sigh, and sitting down next to her. “Yes, you are looking after other people’s children now but that’s because you are good at it and are well-trusted despite your lack of years.”

“Indeed,” said a voice from the doorway and the sisters looked up to see their young mistress standing there with the gentle smile on her face which they both knew and loved. “What is this talk of leaving us, Rosa? What has brought all of this on?”

Marie lifted up the twigs. “This, gnädige Frau. Do you know our tradition? Die Barbarazweige?”

Madge Russell shook her head.

“It is for Saint Barbara, whose day we celebrate today. We are told that the saint was imprisoned and then killed by her father because she professed to be a Christian. Whilst she was in prison she found a branch of the cherry tree in her cell and when she sprinkled water from her drinking cup onto it, it burst into flower. So now, some foolish young girls bring cherry tree twigs into the house on Saint Barbara’s day and put them in water by the stove. If they flower by Christmas Eve, then it is supposed to mean that the girl will be married before the next year is out.”

“Oh, Rosa, if a husband were to carry you off, how would we cope without you?” Madge asked. “And we will need you here more than ever next year. Marie will have her own little one, your niece or nephew, in just a couple of months and… well, David is to have a brother or sister around Eastertide. Then there’s my brother’s wife, Frau Bettany, who is expecting another baby any day now and who will, I am sure, want in due course to entrust that child to your care here in the healthy air of our lovely Alps rather than try to bring him or her up in the heat of India.”

“And it’s nicer to be embroidering pretty things for a child than darning a husband’s socks, believe me,” Marie said drily. “The little ones love you, Rosa, and I love having my sister working alongside me. Be content to be with us for a little longer. You are still a young girl and there will be time enough to grow older and wiser before the right man comes along, if that is God’s will for you. Be happy and content with us in the meantime. And, besides, the Herr Doktor needs his taper holder back!”

Note: For more on this tradition in German-speaking countries, see https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/activities/view.cfm?id=963

And, alas, Rosa was destined to remain unmarried.



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