Our Christmas Tale, written for you by Sandrine
The Star and the "Santon"
"His Christmas Crib, sumptuously encased in a tall wing door cabinet, entirely gilded and adorned with exquisite painted landscapes: it was thus carefully and beautifully protected by the closed wing doors when not in display and gorgeously showcased when the doors where opened to reveal its splendor."
Winter chilling came very early that year. Harsh, deep cold. The Camargue marshes were petrified under a glittering sheet of pure ice. One could see them from very far away, scintillating in the light of a pale winter sun, as if studded with thousands of tiny diamonds. The late December sky, like an immense icy blue field, was deserted of its usual winged inhabitants, with only a few rare white clouds wandering above the royal city of Saint-Rémy, like a celestial flock of lost sheep.
All things considered, 1604 had been a remarkably calm and peaceful year. For once, absolutely no bout of Black Death had plagued the campaigns, cities and ports of the Kingdom. At long last, peace had been restored from North to South. And a joyful bunch of little princes and princesses were now livening up the Royal Court of France, embodying the promise of a bright and hopeful future for the realm. New treaties had been recently signed with the Court of Spain as well as with the Sultan, opening new and safer trade routes towards Western and Eastern Indies for the ships of the kingdom. All the riches and marvels of the world, both Ancient and Modern, were once again flowing towards the city of Marseille and displayed in an incredible array of rare colours, products and perfumes on the merchants’ stalls and benches of its never-sleeping harbour: Spices from the Malabar Coast and Oliban from Arabia, costly Velvet from Sienna, Lacquers from China, sweet Oranges from Morocco, the rarest Fragrances and the most precious Silks… Optimism was the rule of the day, harvests had been plentiful, the Kingdom was living in peaceful serenity: Saint-Rémy was ready to celebrate the most beautiful festival of the year in a magnificent-and-to-be-remembered-for-years style and lustre.
For the occasion, no effort or expanse had been spared. His Excellency the Governor had widely opened his purse for the city’s aldermen to plan the most lavish Christmas festivities, ensuring gates and houses were beautifully decorated. Much more: celebrations in all kinds and forms had been planned, with several events and banquets, games, distributions of gifts, balls and receptions for each of the last Twelve Days before Christmas Eve. The Holy Nativity celebrations would coincide that year with the return of peace and prosperity in the kingdom and had to be exceptionally colourful and dazzling, culminating with yet unheard-of magnificence at the Midnight Mass. For the occasion, the city’s main church had been sumptuously decorated with cloth of gold, precious and colourful tapestries as well as dozens of fragrant boughs of sweet-smelling pine and fir branches. Hundreds of expensive candles, of the finest wax quality, had been specially ordered. And a fine troupe of actors from Avignon hired to perform in the main yard of the governor’s manor house.
The whole population of Saint-Rémy was looking forward the promised treats with unadulterated glee: little ones and grown-ups, young and old, noble ladies and washerwomen, labourers and knights, bourgeois and craftsmen alike…
Master Combe, tightly wrapped in his long winter-coat trimmed with beaver fur, was striding across the already buzzing market place. He was worried. There was no trace, absolutely none, of the Levantine merchant he had been expecting to meet for weeks. But time was growing alarmingly short… the twelve Celebrations’ Days before Christmas would begin on the next morning! And he was still missing the most precious of all the ingredients he needed to complete his masterpiece. The rarest, the most difficult to get: lapis lazuli powder from Bactria. Without it, he couldn’t possibly finalize his most beautiful Christmas Crib! Impossible to add the final and magnifying touches of dark, velvety blue to the sky overlooking his Nativity scene! The lovely stars crafted in pure gold and meant to illuminate his creation with their soft, warm light would remain forlorn and abandoned on his workbench, like tiny orphaned faeries… And his Nativity characters, crafted with all his love and skill for so many months, carefully carved, painted and enhanced with precious gold leaf! They would be deprived of the exquisite background they deserved, the enchanting, magical miniature landscape he had applied all his talent and inspiration to create especially for them and that unique Christmas Night! This was a disaster! An utter, an absolute disaster! His major Christmas Crib, the tallest, the most beautiful of all the Nativity scenes he had ever designed and realized, his most accomplished work-of-art, a real, unique masterpiece designed to be placed in the choir of the City Church, at his heart, the focus of all eyes and attention. Sumptuously encased in a tall wing door cabinet, entirely gilded and adorned with exquisite painted landscapes: it was thus carefully and beautifully protected by the closed wing doors when not in display and gorgeously showcased when the doors where opened to reveal its splendour.
It should have been the triumphant crowning of his career! It would have honored in the most rewarding fashion his talent and art and be a real, deserved and long-due consecration of his fame and glory as Provence’s finest painter and ornemantalist! All the most powerful aristocratic and bourgeois families of Saint-Rémy had already ordered their own private copy of the magnificent big crib, for their own private chapels and oratories. And his entire studio was busy finalizing the last touches and ornaments of all those small, enchanting marvels so daintily and expertly created of wood and cardboard enhanced with gold leaf. Apprentices and companions, painters and gilders, workshop elves busying themselves at stitching the characters’ clothing… it was a buzzing beehive, bustling about each creation to ensure they would all be delivered to their rightful owners on time. But the most beautiful of all, is masterpiece, THE wonderful original Big Christmas Crib, lacked the essential. His soul. The unique dark blue shade of a magical night sky. The unique, exceptional hue, both vibrant and deep, that a single stone could confer upon any painting: the most precious and rare colour, the unrivalled blue only found in the essence of an exotic and precious stone born in the heart of Asia. All of his lapis powder supply had been used to create the myriad of smallest cribs he had been commissioned to deliver: the success of his original Nativity scene had been so big, the inflow of orders so sudden that he had grossly over-estimated the amount of lapis lazuli he still had in stock. He absolutely HAD to find some additional supply!
Anxiety was slowly gnawing at him. He could feel the tension on his shoulder and his throbbing temples as he tried to move through the crowd, desperately looking for the merchant he was trying to find. And not finding him.
- Master Hyacinth? The merchant? No. I haven’t seen him. Not this year.
The viguier, resplendent in his bright scarlet hood and all puffy with inflated self-importance at being in charge as market-overseer, scratched his head with perplexity.
- Do you know, Master Combe, it is indeed extremely strange, come to think of it. He has been coming to Saint-Rémy for the past thirty years, every year, without exception, for the Advent’s Fair. But this year…
Catching the sudden look of utter desperation on the ornamanist’s face, he suddenly seemed to remember something:
- But…maybe… I wonder if Dame Esclarmonde wouldn’t be able to tell you more about his whereabouts? She is here, I just saw her. She knows him well, they have been attending the same fairs and markets for years and they both specialize in rare ingredients and pigments for painters and artists like you! See: she is over there, next to the bench of the spice merchants…
He had hardly finished his sentence that Master Combe was heading towards the spice merchants bench, letting him out in the cold, stranded, like a frozen monkfish. Advising an imposing lady of rather ample proportions, clad in rich scarlet velvet, her shinning white hair stylishly tucked under an elegant headdress of pure white linen, the ornemanist’s abruptly changed tacked and stopped in front of her stall. In front of her were disposed large benches covered with embroidered cloths, displaying an impressive accumulation of rare ingredients. Boxes and caskets made of exotic wood, with heaps of colored powders. Precious Venetian glass jars concealing translucent or iridescent potions. Mounds of pink and black pearls. Precious stones and gems. Mysterious concoctions and strange roots, twisted like unicorn’s horns… A swarm of servants and clerks was busy presenting gold and silver leaves, strings of garnets, lustrous small beads made of agate or cornelian, to the attention of select clients. In a discreet corner stood rows upon rows of tiny and rather sinister vials of the mercury, lead and antimony compounds so appreciated by painters to add luster and shine to the hues and colours of their masterworks.
- Master Combe! How are you? I have specially set aside for you an exceptional powder made of rubies from Golconda. And some shellac from the Coromandel shores!
She was smiling, her dark eyes sparkling, her hands extended in a warm welcome.
- Dame Esclarmonde: just a word, if you please. It is of the utmost importance. I am looking for Master Hyacinthe! Have you seen him?
The merchant’s bright smile faded, a worried look shading her usual cheerful face:
- Oh my, haven’t you heard? He won’t be attending the Fair this year!
Distraught, Master Combe could only stare at her, gaping:
- He won’t be coming here? But I desperately need lapis lazuli powder! Where is he? Is he still in Marseille? Or in Aix? I will send my servants there for him at once!
- I don’t know, Maître Combe. It has been rumoured that he might have decided to go back to the East. To the Great Khan’s Court… or maybe the Great Mughal’s Court. But I can help you: as it turns out, I had bought a small quantity of lapis lazuli from him, last Christmas. And I still have three nice stones left. I would be more than happy to let you have them. All you have to do will be to grind them into powder.
And so, the deal was settled… Maître Combe went back home with three small leather-bags holding his rubies from Golconda, his shellac from Coromandel and, more importantly, three precious dark-blue, gold-streaked stones. He was still annoyed with the unexplained absence of Master Hyacinthe but deeply relieved at having found the missing lapis he needed to add the finishing touches his masterpiece of a crib required. Back in his studio, he rushed to his workbench to grind the three lapis lazuli in a stone mortar, adding drops of the purest linen oil as well as a slight touch of an extremely rare terebinth oil from India. But, while he was crushing, grinding, stirring, drying and then brushing with a Siberian marten’s air brush the deep blue thus obtained, before affixing the gold stars, he couldn’t stop thinking and worrying. Master Hyacinthe’s absence upset him: without him, how would he be able to keep on producing and painting his blue, the famous “Combe blue” for which he was second to none amongst Provence’s painters?
At nightfall, as the houses, the towers and the domes of Saint-Rémy slowly froze and went to sleep under a thin coat of scintillating frost, the great Nativity Crib was at long last completed, his doors carefully closed for the night, ready to be carried out in the morning to take its rightful place in the heart of the city church. Both household and studio were slumbering in peaceful quiet for a few hours. Assistants and servants were out in the streets to ensure the diligent delivery of the last cribs to their buyers, in their town houses and mansions, before heading back to their own lodgings for the night. And Master Combe, nursing a tumbler of mulled Châteauneuf wine, was comfortably settled in his favourite armchair, enjoying the warmth of a joyfully crackling fire of logs and pine cones. His wife, Dame Michèle, had lovingly cooked him an irresistible supper of a plump fattened chicken, roasted, with truffles. His masterpiece was completed. He was really feeling happy with himself. Drowsily relishing the peace and quite of his cosy home, he was slowly beginning to doze off… when… all of a sudden: BING! CRASH! DING!
An enormous bang of shattered crockery and crushed glass woke him up with a start. Looking down at the wreckage, he spotted a tiny creature, looking like a very small man, standing amidst the bright red spots of spilled wine and the cutting shards of is now broken priced beaker. He was the size of three piled-up apples at the utmost, simply dressed, like a shepherd, with a heavy mantle over a woollen garb. He wore a big red cap over his pitch-black hair and his piercing bright blue eyes were fixed unwaveringly and with quite a disquieting intensity on him.
- I thought for a moment I would never succeed in waking you up! I am really sorry for having been obliged to smash your beautiful Venetian glass beaker. Oh, by the way, you were snoring, Master Combe…
The voice was pleasant and slightly ironic.
- Who… Who are you ?
The little man smiled:
- Don’t you recognize me, tough? Come on Master Combe… You created me! Well… at least, you designed and shaped me. Sculpted me, Painted me. And placed me in your most beautiful Nativity Crib.
A flabbergasted Master Combe was staring fixedly at him, as if the Tarasque Dragon had suddenly appeared in the middle of his very comfortable hall, roaring and breathing fire while fiercely shaking its horns, scales and crests at him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the big Nativity Crib, encased in its gilded cabinet, in his dimly lit workshop-cum-painter’s studio. Its cabinet’s wings slightly opened. Now, wait… opened? Impossible! He was absolutely certain that he had closed them himself. Very carefully. To ensure everything was in perfect shape and order for tomorrow’s transfer to the city church. And… what was that? A kind of dainty blue and gold light, translucent yet hazy, and diffuse like a mist, that seem to escape from the crib?
- Master Combe, pray: time is flying, Listen to me!
Stunned, the ornemanist seemed petrified in a kind of mute stupor… Surely, he was dreaming? That was some sort of nightmare, a strange dream induced by a slight overuse of mulled wine he now deeply regretted?
- Master Combe! You and I must hurry up and track down the Crib’s Soul to bring it back! Or your Nativity Crib will come apart, fall to pieces and dust… and finally disappear when the cabinet’s wings will be opened tomorrow morning. And no star will be shinning in the night sky this year.
- Huuuu… but what is the link between both events?
- Your Nativity Crib and the stars are linked together. This is a very old and ancient Magic. An enchantment which awakes once a year only. Always at Christmas time. And always in Saint Rémy. A Magic which lies at the heart of your art and creations. The heavenly stars over the city can only illuminate the Advent’s nights if the tiny gold stars of your Christmas Cribs are shinning. And if there is no crib, there are no stars in the sky.
- But this is a nightmare!
- Alas. But an all too real one. Do you remember having dispersed a last coating of pure gold dust over all the Crib’s characters before closing the cabinet’s doors?
Devastated, Master Combe suddenly remembered the very peculiar piece of advice Master Hyacinthe had given him so long ago. He was, at the time, a young and ambitious painter. Whose name was only beginning to be recognized by patrons and connoisseurs. It was the first time he could afford to buy a first supply of precious mother-of-pearl and lapis lazuli powders from this renown and very expensive merchant. As he was about to leave his stall with his priced new purchases, Master Hyacinthe had taken him apart in a corner and discreetly given him a purse made out of black velvet, embroidered in gold and silver thread with strange symbols and signs he couldn’t understand. The purse was tightly closed with silk strings. As he was pushing it into his hands, Master Hyacinthe had whispered in his ear:
- Each and every time you will have completed a Nativity Crib in the future, you will add a last pinch of the gold dust contained in that purse. Make sure that it will always be the last and final touch you will never forget in all your creations, just before closing the wings of each Crib’s cabinet and sealing them with your private stamp. Just take a pinch of gold dust in the palm of one hand and blow it over the crib and its characters, with eyes closed, while remembering the light of the Guiding Star, or the Shepherds Star as you call it here in Provence, when it shines over Saint-Rémy on Christmas Eve. Always remember that, don’t you ever forget it! Or the charm won’t operate, and the Spirit of Christmas will flee and fly away. Far, far away.
For the past thirty years, Master Combe had carefully and dutifully followed Master Hyacinthe’s advice. Drawing gold, a pinch at a time, from the mysterious black velvet purse, which, strangely enough and in a rather uncanny way, never seem to be depleted. But last night, he had been so worried and concerned by Master Hyacinthe’s unexplained absence, and his own fear of losing his source of precious lapis lazuli powder from Bactria, that he had, for the very first time, totally forgotten his friend’s warning. And closed the Crib’s doors without blowing his usual last puff of magical gold dust on all its characters.
- The Spirit of Christmas?
- He walked away. Without some gold dust to fix him, he is alive and free, but nothing ties him to the Crib… and if he doesn’t come back before dawn tomorrow, the Shepherd’s Star, to which he is linked, and all its Christmas Eve’s sister-stars with her, will refuse to shine. We MUST find him.
- But how? What does it look like? Are you the Spirit of Christmas? WHO are you?
- I am the Keeper of the Star. Unknowingly, you create me in each one of your famous Nativity Cribs. Always as a shepherd from the Alpilles. Watching over his sheep. But always keeping an eye on the brightest star. The one you mould in pure gold and set at the highest of your dark blue lapis lazuli sky. I am here to protect the Spirit of Christmas: it is such a young and lively soul! Quite mischievous at times…
- But what does it look like? I design and create each one of the characters I display in my Cribs, I should have noticed by the time! This is unbelievable! Is it the Divine Child? Mary? Joseph? The Angel Boufareu? The Donkey? The Ox? Who is it?
- So, you have never noticed, have you? You never guessed? And still, you place it in each one of your Cribs. Guess who… No? The Cat!
- The Cat?
- The Cat.
Master Combe was taken aback. He suddenly remembered all the cats he had placed, year after year, as a finishing touch, on the roof of the barn, or in a discreet part of the landscape, under a bush. Black, white, grey cats… With green eyes, or blue eyes, or golden eyes. Smooth and agile cats, tiny cats, fat cats. Tortoise-shell or stripped cats. Fire-red cats. Cats wearing a white mask. Or black gloves. Cats perched behind a chimney. Or lurking under the trough. In a corner of the stable. Sleeping between the ox’s legs. Or hidden behind the skirts of the Orange Merchant… The Cat! In all its forms, and colours and appearances and reincarnations! Always discreetly present.
"Master Combe was taken aback. He suddenly remembered all the cats he had placed, year after year, as a finishing touch, on the roof of the barn, or in a discreet part of the landscape, under a bush"
He rushed forward into his workshop, followed by the Keeper of the Star. The doors of the tall Nativity Crib were indeed slightly ajar, showing the extraordinarily beautiful staging he had only just finalized a few hours ago. And there, bathed in a soft and warm light with shades of blue and gold, were all the characters he had so lovingly imaged and shaped, crafted and painted… looking fixedly at him. And all their combined voices seemed to boom in his head: “You shall bring back the Spirit of Christmas! Quickly! Or the Magic of Christmas will disappear, and we shall return to our erstwhile nature of pigments, glue and wood. Inanimate objects. Stripped of life. Deprived of soul. Christmas will have disappeared from Saint-Rémy! For ever.”
A frantic Master Combe asked the Keeper for guidance:
- But where can it be? There are only a few hours left until dawn! How are we going to find it?
- Come. Let’s go out and ask the Little Folk of The Night. They know everything and will certainly help us. Just pick me up, put me in your pocket and let’s see what we can find.
And that’s how it happened… In the heart of an ice-cold December night, studded by millions of tiny shinning stars. Maître Combe, tightly wrapped in his winter fur coat, his sable hood firmly set over his head, grabbing a lantern and carrying a strange little man barely taller than three crab apples in his right pocket, found himself walking down the deserted, frozen streets of Saint-Rémy. Looking for the Spirit of Christmas disguised as a cat.
- Where shall we begin? There isn’t a living soul around!
- Of course, there is! Walk towards the fountains on the Market Place and see.
Completed a few years ago, the three monumental fountains were the glory and pride of the city. Built in the Italian style so much appreciated at the time, they showed magnificent sculptures of nymphs and mermen on mossy rocks and giant conch, spilling the fresh water collected in the surrounding hills. People came from far way just to admire them.
In the distance, the first light of a pale winter dawn was already lightning the horizon with subtle hues of gold and pink: time was getting short. As he neared the first of the three fountains, the ornemanist suddenly caught a glimpse of a movement on the stone ledge…
- A rat?
The Keeper of the Star began to laugh, warmly tucked in his coat pocket:
- Just one? Have a closer look !
And then he saw… suddenly emerging from the shadow and the night … a multitude of lesser and not so small creatures, gathered around the statues… busily striving on the rocky mossy stones: rats, yes. But also, mice. And voles. And shrews… And there: pigeons… and robins, and owls. And crows… and bats. And even… yes: foxes. The male and the female, furtively gliding in the greyish background as a pair of furry, sleek and elegant ghosts… All gathered around the stony ledges and mossy rocks, peacefully drinking from the fountains. All linked in harmony. Twinkling on the dark-blue velvet of the sky, the stars seemed to be watching over them, protecting them from above. And the statues of stone seemed to have awakened to life and be dancing, and laughing, and carolling, in the splashing sing-song of the water flawing in the basins…
- Meet the Little Folk of the Night, Master Combe. The Fairy folk human eyes usually never see. The ruling masters and protectors of Saint-Rémy. Watching over its inhabitants’ sleep and dreams and gathering here just before dawn to drink and refresh themselves before returning to their holes, dens or nests for the day… It was high and due time you met them: receive it as a gift from the Star of which I am the appointed Keeper. To pay them tribute in every one of your Nativity Cribs from this day onwards. Because they are all part of the Magic which makes this particular night so unique: all of them. From the tiniest to the biggest of them. Rodents and birds. And statues. And rocky stones alike… The Star has chosen you to wake the Magic every year, with your talent and creative gift.
At that very moment, far above them in the early morning sky, the Evening Star began to sparkle like a miniature version of the Sun, while a denser shadow suddenly seemed to literally materialize out of thin air at the top of the highest mossy pillar of the farthest fountain. A big, anthracite grey cat with a white patch on the muzzle and two enormous, bright green eyes shinning in the twilight. As if in a daze, Master Combe would have sworn that he could see him grinning at him. And: WHOOPS!
The cat disappeared. From one moment to the other. As if he had never been there in the first place. While the Little Folk of The Night softly scattered away in a low murmur of rustling wings and the subdued pitter-patter of hundreds of tiny little feet and paws. The statues came to an utter standstill. The water stopped its joyful splashy song to freeze in long, shinny ice streams. And the stars on their heads began to pale and slowly disappear in the growing light of a frosted winter morning sky. Looking down at his hands, Master Combe saw a small figurine nestling in his palm. A small Christmas Crib’s figure in the form of dark grey cat. With a white patch shaped like a star on the nose. And two enormous green eyes unblinkingly staring at him.
Sliding his other hand into his pocket in search of the Keeper of the Star, he pulled out… another Christmas Crib’s figure. A figure he knew very well, for he had been the one who had imagined it, devised it, sculpted and painted it with tender care and patience only a few days ago. But daylight was beginning to dawn on the slowly awakening streets of the city. The night was nearly over, the hours were relentlessly trickling down and the first one of the Twelve Advent’s Festival Days was already beginning. He had very little time left to try and save the Magic of Christmas. Hurriedly pocketing the two figurines, he rushed back home.
In his studio, he widely opened the two wings of the golden cabinet encasing the great Christmas Crib. No light emanated from it anymore. With infinite care, he reinstalled the two small characters to where they belonged, in his gilded and colourful Nativity Scene: the Keeper of the Star, changed back into an humble shepherd watching over his flock, behind the stable. And the cat, on the roof, as if overlooking some theatrical stage.
The household was waking up. He could hear it breathing, and catch the faint creaks of the stairs or hurrying feet in the corridors as the maidservants were rekindling the fires. He picked up his brushes and paints and hastily sketched a superb fountain in the background of the Crib, skilfully underlining the fluffy green texture of the mossy rocks and ledges… the golden hue of the nymphs and mermen…and the slashing water gushing and cascading around their stone embraces. Then, even more carefully, he added the silhouettes of the protecting genie of Saint-Rémy: pigeons and rats. Mice and shrews. Sparrows, wrens and robins. And even some gracious pipistrelle slippering through the night. Not to mention, of course, a pair of gracious foxes swiftly disappearing under some rocks and ferns in a corner.
Using a small piece of soft leather, he tenderly polished the beautiful Evening Star in its lapis lazuli sky, until it shone like the real one reigning in the Advent’s night. All the stars surrounding it in the Crib immediately lighted up in unison, glittering and twinkling like rows of scintillating tears. Looking up at the sky through the window, he realized that all their heavenly Sisters were answering in kind, brilliantly shining although daylight had already broken. Reminiscent of the gems and precious stones of a royal crown set around an exceptional diamond, resplendent on the pearly grey of a pale winter morning evoking the precious silk encasing a jewel in a treasure-casket. Smilingly, he picked up the pouch containing the gold dust from its secret hiding place. And very delicately blew a light cloud of extremely fine gold dust on all the characters, the fountain, the stones, the cat, the mice and rats and shrews, the birds and the bats, the foxes, the sheep and their shepherd. Keeping his eyes tightly closed, he then expressed his most sincere thanks and heartfelt gratitude to the Spirit of Christmas and to the Star, for having helped him to rekindle the Magic of those Twelve So Very Special Nights. And for having reminded him what he had forgotten over the years: that the Magic of Christmas could only exist if one looks at the world through one’s heart as well as one’s eyes. For the essential remains often hidden and invisible to the eyes. The smallest, the humblest creature of Nature, be it a rat or a sparrow on a fountain’s ledge, or a cat, half-hidden on a barn’s roof, is sometimes more important and more precious than all the riches and power of a king. Without them, there is no Magic. Without Magic, there is no Star. And without the Star, there isn’t any Christmas.
Stumbling with sheer exhaustion but feeling incredibly satisfied, at peace with himself and the world, he had hardly (and at long last!) finished closing the doors of the cabinet over its beautiful Nativity Crib when the stump of hurried feet in the hall startled him:
- Master Combe, Master Combe! It’s Master Hyacinthe!
The door to his studio swung open to let Dame Michèle, looking rather winded, enter the room in haste. She was closely followed by the stable boy, bent and panting under the weight of three enormous wooden trunks studded with decorative silver nails. And by the familiar sight of… Master Hyacinthe, draped in large overcoat of heavy silk brocade, his hands stretched towards his old friend:
- Jean-Marie! How wonderful it is to see you again! I feared I would miss our appointment and never reach here on time! My ship got stuck in Trebizon for three weeks: the harbour had frozen and was entirely icebound. Nobody had ever seen something like that!
- Hyacinthe! I believed you lost for ever to the Court of the Great Khan!
- I actually was there, my friend! I was there, indeed. And I have brought you back the most beautiful lapis lazuli stone you have ever seen!
Soon the fire was rekindled in the big open fireplace. Armchairs were disposed in front of it. And trays of mulled wine, candied nuts and sweet almond cakes hurriedly brought up. A maidservant helped Master Hyacinthe to remove his bulky overcoat while Dame Michèle rushed to the kitchen to give instructions for setting up a proper meal to celebrate a most awaited for reunion.
- Jean-Marie: I brought you back the rarest of all presents. It has accompanied me all through the way back here, on the tracks and in the oases of the Silk road as well as throughout the traps of the Takla Makan desert. It has been my luck charm all along. But first and foremost, please tell me: do you still use the gold dust I handed over to you so many years ago? On each one of your creations? I had a very strange dream last night, while still on the road: I saw a shepherd from your mountains. Next to him was a cat. The shepherd was asking me to reach you as quickly as possible, in the most urgent manner. Saying that he and the cat were afraid, for you might have forgotten to blow the magical gold dust on your latest creation… with possible catastrophic consequences. I must admit that I haven’t perfectly grasped why such a seemingly minor oversight might have so devastating results… But they made it clear enough for me that this was of the utmost importance. They seemed to imply that it had to do with Magic, somehow. And a Star ?
- Everything is fine, Hyacinthe, my old friend. You can rest assured that everything is now settled and back to normal.
With a hint of a smile, Master Hyacinthe leaned over towards his friend and quietly whispered in his ear:
- Do you know, Jean-Marie… this is indeed a very rare and special kind of gold dust. It has been entrusted to me a very, very long time ago. By a mage from Bactria. Yes, the lost kingdom from where your unique lapis lazuli stones come from… But this was not meant for me. I was made to promise to hand it over to the artist who would be able to re-create the most beautiful starry sky in the world when painting it with those magical blue stones you are so found of. I have kept the gold dust for many years before finding such a talent. And the man able to wield it. Until I finally met you. The gold had always been meant for you.
Slowly standing up, he walked towards the pile of trunks and luggage that his puffing and panting assistants had just finished heaping up in a corner of the hall and delicately seized a large wicker hamper Master Combe hadn’t even noticed until then. With infinite caution, Master Hyacinthe removed the dark cloth protecting it before gently opening the lid. A strange noise seemed to come from the basket. It sounded like the whimpering of a baby… or of a kind of leprechaun. With tender care and slow motions, the merchant released a large purring ball of silky, dark grey fur, holding it tenderly in his arms. Stuck in the dark face, like shinning emeralds atop a small nose highlighted with a star-shaped white patch, two enormous green eyes were fixedly looking at the ornemanist. Stunned, yet fascinated, Master Combe had then the disquieting impression that he had seen the animal… hmmm… grinning at him?! Even more disturbing: he could have sworn that it also had seen it winking at him. Deliberately. And very slowly.
- Her name is Sitara. This means “Star” in the language spoken in the kingdom of Persia, where she was born. She belongs to a very rare cat species, exclusively reserved for the kings and the noblest princes of the Great Khan’s Court. It is said in the East that these cats are powerful Magicians. And that they have chosen to reincarnate in a form which allows them to live amongst us humans, to better help, guide and protect us. She now is your own lucky star, my friend.
Staring with rapture into the cat’s eyes, Master Combe suddenly felt an overwhelming feeling of joyful peace and serenity washing over him. Holding the purring animal tight to his heart, he was about to profusely thank Master Hyacinthe for his extraordinary gift when he thought he could hear somebody laughing quietly on the other side of the door to his workshop. A cascading little laugh seemingly coming from the now tightly closed cabinet protecting his Christmas Crib, as three of his heavier and stronger apprentices were wrapping it into blankets to be carried in safety to the city church. At the same time, in an unlit corner of the hall, he distinctly saw a very slight and discreet move: a tiny mouse was pointing its trembling nose from under an armchair, stared at him for a few seconds, its brilliant black and beady eyes fixed on his, before swiftly disappearing. Looking up through the window and the garden beyond, he then noticed that the Morning Star was still there, shining in the now pale blue December sky, while three sparrows and a pigeon were peacefully perched at the edge of the stone basin. All was well.
Broadly smiling, Star purring even more noisily in his arms, he shook his friend’s arm at length.
That particular Christmas was, it is said, exceptional. Saint-Rémy in Provence never had and never would live through such a wonderful celebration. Legend has it that Master Combe’s Nativity Crib was so beautiful, his characters seemed so alive, the blue of his sky so intense and so bright with its stars of pure gold, that the audience couldn’t stop admiring it, feeling as happy as children at Christmas’ Eve. Even the king, it seems, in his palace so far up North, asked to be sent drawings of the Crib, to have the pleasure to see it. And from that day onwards, I have been told, all of Master Combes’s Nativity Scenes always showed, tucked in a corner or discreetly outlined in the background, a gracious fountain in the Italian style so loved in Provence at the time… together with a small little tribe of tiny winged, horned, clawed, tailed, tip-toeing protectors discreetly scattered around under mossy stones and hollow shafts, painted across the landscaped scenery. It is also said that the banquets and the performances held that year throughout the city were of outstanding quality and would never again be so brilliant and so memorable. That dancing, and singing, and carolling, and laughing went on and on without pause for the entire time of the Twelve Advent’s Nights. And that the Stars never looked so brilliant and so dazzlingly beautiful. But that they shinned even more brightly on Christmas’ Eve, as all the inhabitants and visitors of Saint-Rémy gathered in the church, ablaze with the light of hundreds of pure wax candles, to admire the beautiful Great Christmas Crib. Some even say that they saw the statues of the fountains liven up and dance all night long for the city’s rodents and its entire winged folk, all gathered on the mossy wet stones around them… but they say so many things after too many cups of mulled wine!
Strangely enough, tough, it is also said that an unusual number of grey kitten were born at the heart of that particular winter. Dark grey kitten with bright green eyes… But people say so many things. And that happened so long ago!