A little later that afternoon we ventured down to the kitchen once more for some more of Cook's excellent Christmas pudding with brandy cream and mulled wine, which we took into the rear parlour and sat on the window seat to watch the snow falling.
“If it keeps on at this rate, Milton might be snowed in by tomorrow,” I mused, wondering if the mill would be affected. The hands were all within walking distance so they should be able to come to work but would the trains and canal boats be running? We could probably survive on our reserves for a week or so if the worst came to the worst and we were cut off. If it went on any longer though, I would begin to receive fines as some orders would become overdue.
“We're supposed to be on holiday,” Margaret reminded me.
“Sorry,” I said a little sheepishly. Margaret smiled indulgently.
“If you want to worry about something, worry about all this rich food going straight to my hips,” she said, unapologetically popping another forkfull of pudding into her mouth.
“We walked half way across Milton this morning in four inches of snow,” I reassured her. “I think it's safe to say that we have already worked the pudding off. Besides, you would have eaten much more if we had accepted Fanny's Christmas invitation; Mother told me that she was planning on serving a twelve course luncheon on Christmas Day.”
“Twelve courses! Your mother will be fit to be tied when she gets home,” Margaret said, knowing how much my Mother dislikes extravagance and detests waste.
“She knew what she was letting herself in for,” I reassured her, though we both realised that we owed Mother a large debt of gratitude for giving us this time alone.
I finished my pudding and brandy cream and placed my plate to one side.
“Good,” Margaret said, spearing a piece of her pudding onto her fork. “Now you can help me.” She grinned as she aimed the fork at my lips.
I took the offered morsel and quickly swallowed.
“I see; so you want me to become rotund so that you can keep your girlish figure?”
“Exactly.” Margaret laughed. “And while we're on the subject of rotund, I'll be expecting you to have all the babies.”
She was so guileless that for a second I might have believed she meant it.
“Oh you will, will you?” I tried hard to suppress my smile but I wasn't as successful as she.
“Yes.” She fed me another piece of pudding.
“That might make running the mill rather awkward,” I reasoned once I'd swallowed.
“You'll manage,” she smiled. “You always do.”
Between us we finished her pudding and as the daylight faded, left the window and pulled the heavy curtains closed to keep the heat in.
I spied the piano in the corner.
“Do you know any carols?” I asked.
“I used to know a few but it's been a long time.” I could tell from her tone that she was reluctant. I've heard her play though and perhaps she isn't a virtuoso but to my ear her playing is lovely.
I could see her wavering.
“If I'm carrying the babies for you, I think the least you can do is sing me a song.”
She laughed at my reasoning and finally nodded her agreement. She made her way over to the piano, sat down and lifted the lid. Her long hair fell over her shoulder and she brushed it behind her ear, out of her face.
“I can't see what I'm doing,” she said.
Realising that the firelight wouldn't reach over there, I lit two oil lamps and a five arm candelabra. I placed the oil lamps on top on the piano and the candelabra on a table to the side so that she could see the keys. It still wasn't much light; when we had a dinner party this room would be ablaze with candles but this was sufficient for our needs.
Margaret began playing Silent Night.
I hadn't thought it possible to love her any more than I already did but the voice that accompanied her playing was so soft and exquisite. I have heard her humming to herself before but nothing like this. It revealed a vulnerability that few people were privileged enough to see. I moved around the piano so that I could look at her while she played and her hesitant expression reminded me of our reunion, when, although she thought that I no longer cared for her (because fool that I am, that is what I had told her) she had still offered to loan me money for the mill.
She looked up at me and I smiled reassuringly.
“That was lovely,” I said when she had finished.
“It was a favourite of my father's,” she confessed.
I considered asking for another but she still looked reluctant so instead I sat beside her on the piano stool.
“So, come on then, teach me the basics.”
She smiled and tried for a while but it quickly became clear that I had no musical talent. Instead she suggested that I read to her.
Before Mother left for Fanny's home, we had been reading nightly from A Christmas Carol. We were nearing the end now and she had once told me how much she enjoyed the ending, so with the candles, lamps and a fresh pot of tea, we retired to our bedroom. We settled on the floor by the fire once more, my back against one of the chairs and Margaret lying across the eiderdown, her head resting on my lap.
With one hand I lazily played with her hair while my other held the book. Every now and again I would glance down at her to see if she was still enjoying herself and often caught her smiling, especially as the book drew to a close. Margaret did so love a happy ending.
I put the book down when we were finished and Margaret sat up.
“Thank you,” she said, leaning forward and kissing me.
Just then we heard the clock downstairs chime eight o'clock and shared a look. We both knew that tomorrow morning we would be back to reality; the mill would reopen, the servants would return and Mother would come home. Our solitude was coming to an end.
“We shouldn't be too late to bed,” Margaret said somewhat sadly. “We will both have busy days tomorrow.”
I nodded and sighed, then an idea occurred to me.
“I think that perhaps we should have a very early night,” I said. “In fact I think we should retire to bed within the half hour.”
Margaret caught my meaning and smiled.
“Why don't you go down and get us each a small brandy while I put the eiderdown back on the bed.”
“What a very good idea, Mrs Thornton.” I kissed her then headed down to get our drinks.
I was still awake as the clock chimed ten o'clock but I could tell from Margaret's deep breathing that she was fast asleep. Her head was resting on my shoulder and her breath lightly tickled my chest with each exhalation
I was still unwilling to sleep for the next thing I would know was the hustle and bustle of daily life.
I imagined what Margaret would say if she knew why I was still awake and smiled as I heard her voice in my head. And she was right.
Yes, tomorrow we would be back to reality and to the daily routine but no matter what the future held for us, we would always have the memories of the last two days to help see us through.
I kissed the top of Margaret's head.
“Goodnight, my love. Sweet dreams.”
I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.
I hope you have enjoyed this story and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you for sharing this story with me and to wish you all a very merry Christmas.
© Catherine Winchester 2011. All rights reserved.