A Merry Little Christmas
A short story designed to be a companion to Northern Light, the sequel to North and South
although it can also be read as a stand-alone story.
A short story designed to be a companion to Northern Light, the sequel to North and South
although it can also be read as a stand-alone story.
Given how lavish Victorian dinner parties and balls are, you are probably thinking that my and Margaret's first Christmas was a lavish affair with a nine course dinner and weeks of parties leading up to the big day. However on this occasion, you would be wrong.
We had not long been married then, only a few months, and it had been difficult for us to spend much time alone. I was still struggling to get the mill back up to full capacity and living with servants meant that time on our own was a precious commodity.
I was surprised when Mother announced her intention to spend Christmas with Fanny and Watson, since I know she does not take much pleasure in their company. I questioned her decision but she was adamant; she had already arranged everything and was to leave us on Christmas Eve and return the day after Boxing Day.
When I told Margaret that evening as we lay together in bed, she raised her head off my chest and smiled at me.
“Imagine, two whole days alone,” she sounded wistful.
“There will still be the servants,” I reminded her.
“Only if we want them,” she bit her lip to stifle the cheeky grin that wanted to escape. “We could send them home to their families for the holiday and then we would have this whole house to ourselves.”
“And what will we eat?” I asked.
“I can cook us something. I don't promise fine fare but it will be edible and tasty. Besides, man cannot live on bread alone!” She said that last line so innocently that if I had not known her well, I might have thought she was talking about spending the day in church.
Thankfully I did know her well by then and rarely have I heard such a tempting idea. I quickly found myself agreeing.
Dixon was the hardest since she viewed Margaret as family and enjoyed taking care of her, so Margaret made the arrangements for Dixon to spend four days with her sister and all but ordered her to go. The other staff were much easier to convince to take a day off, especially since I assured them that they would still be paid.
As we awoke on Christmas morning, we heard something that I have never heard before; perfect silence. The Mill was empty, none of the usual hustle and bustle was happening inside the house and even the street traffic seemed to have disappeared.
We lay there for a while, not talking of anything special, just enjoying the peace and quiet.
“We had better get ready soon if you don't want to miss the morning service,” I reminded her.
Margaret looked up at me, her eyes shining with tears.
“I...” She sat up so that her back was to me, looked down at her hands and began picking an imaginary speck of dirt from under her nails.
“What is it?” I asked, sitting up and putting my hands on her shoulders.
“I have always attended my father's service and since we came to Milton, gone to church with him,” she said, her voice so soft that I almost had to strain to hear her.
I moved my hands from her shoulders to around her waist and pulled her back against my chest, holding her there.
“God knows that you love him,” I assured her. “I do not think He will mind you missing one service because it is painful.”
“Do you think so?” she asked.
“I know so,” I assured her. “Besides, God knows what is in your heart and it does not matter if you pray to him in a church or in a shed, he will still hear you.”
“You're right, of course.” I could feel her visibly relax. “Thank you.”
I kissed her shoulder.
“Now, why don't you go and wash up and I will play the hunter-gatherer and see what we have in the kitchen!” I teased.
She nodded and slipped from the bed to pull her robe on.
She paused on her way to the bathroom and turned to me.
“Would you leave your hair loose today?”
She smiled and nodded, making a grand show of swishing her raven locks around her head as she resumed her course to the bathroom.
Margaret's hair is as beautiful as she is and I love seeing it loose. Indeed it is so thick and full, hanging at least half way down her back, that I often wonder where it all hides once Dixon has put it up for her.
By the time Margaret found me in the kitchen I had rekindled the fires in our bedroom and the kitchen and lit a fresh one in the back parlour. I was just melting some butter into a pan on the stove when Margaret came in, clean and washed but still in her night clothes, as was I.
“Have you looked outside?” she asked. “It's beautiful.”
There had been a fresh snowfall overnight and she was right; although I'd only glanced outside, it did indeed look beautiful.
“Not as beautiful as you,” I told her.
“Well, let's just hope that the snow keeps any callers away. With us both in this shocking state of undress, I should hate to think what might happen.” I teased.
“We will no doubt become the talk of Milton once again,” she smiled and came to stand beside me. “You didn't tell me that you could cook?” she chided me.
“I can't, not really but we had a few midnight raids on the kitchen at boarding school,” I smiled.
“A mis-spent youth,” she teased. “And the fires?”
“We kept our own rooms and had a rota for which of us would clear and light the fire every day.”
Margaret slipped her arms around my waist and peered around me.
“So what are we having?”
“OEufs a la Jean avec du jambon.”
Margaret began laughing.
“That's a very grand way of saying ham omelette!”
I smiled at her teasing and poured the beaten eggs into the pan. While I prepared the food, Margaret got the plates and cutlery out and set two places at the kitchen table. I served the food and we chatted, giggling like schoolchildren at the oddness of the situation.
It's very strange how, although we own the house, we can still feel like intruders in certain parts of it!
With breakfast over we headed to the parlour. The room had been decorated for Christmas with lots of ivy garlands, paper chains, a mistletoe ball hanging in the centre of the room and in one corner, a pine tree which has been decorated with hand made ornaments, lots of holly berries, paper flowers and red and white sugar canes.
Around the candelabra on the mantelpiece snow-tipped holly leaves and pine cones had been placed and the cinnamon and vanilla pod bunch which lay there was giving the room a slightly sweet and festive scent.
We placed some cushions in front of the fire and sat down there to exchange gifts. Margaret had brought me a gold watch, inscribed on the back with “To John, your loving wife, Margaret.”
“It's beautiful,” I told her, leaning over and claiming a kiss. Every day now I would be wearing a token of Margaret's love for me and that feeling was worth more than any gift on its own.
I had bought Margaret a ruby and diamond eternity ring (ruby is her birthstone) and had the inside of the band inscribed, “With love J”. I didn't have as much space as there was on the watch so I had to be brief.
Margaret seemed pleased with it though and made me place it on the ring finger of her right hand for her.
“Is it the right size?” I asked, worried that I had done something wrong.
“It's perfect,” she smiled.
She leaned over and kissed me but this was not a kiss of thanks, it was a soft kiss of desire.
I would have been happy to lie in front of that fire forever but it seemed that Margaret had a better idea.
As I rose to build the fire up again, she pulled her robe on and handed me mine. I raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“We're getting dressed,” she said.
“We are?” I may have sounded a little petulant.
“We are.” She got to her feet and headed for the door. I followed, curious as to what she had in mind.
Once in our bedroom she told me to dress in old clothes that I wouldn't mind getting wet, then took me out into the back garden. It wasn't much of a garden at the mill house but blanketed with fresh snow, it looked beautiful.
We proceeded to build a snowman. Despite the many layers I wore, I soon grew cold. My hands and feet turned numb, my nose turned bright red and I don't believe I have ever been so cold in my life. I enjoyed every single second of it; laughing and playing, stealing the occasional kiss and creating a snowman that had rather a lopsided coal smile and spindly twigs for arms since we could find nothing larger. It would not be winning any prizes for beauty, that was certain.
After that, a snowball fight ensued and after knocking Margaret off her feet and into the soft snow, I claimed my prize as victor; a kiss. I would have claimed more but it was even too cold for me!
We returned to the house; Margaret warmed some mulled wine that Cook had left for us while I went to build up the fire in our bedroom. I stripped out of my cold, wet clothes, dried off and pulled my dressing gown on. I then laid the eiderdown from our bed on the floor in front of the fire and sat down to wait for my Margaret.
She kept me waiting quite a long time but when she returned she had a tray laden with food and drink and I rushed up to help her.
“Get changed,” I told her. “You'll catch your death if you stay in those wet clothes for much longer.”
Margaret handed the tray over to me and headed to her dressing room. I placed the tray down on the closest table and followed her through.
“John!” she cried, shocked that I had entered.
“Well since you have no lady's maid, I thought that you might want my assistance,” I smiled.
Margaret laughed at my impropriety and I reached out to take her hand.
“Margaret, you're freezing!” I admonished, grabbing up her dressing gown. “Come and stand by the fire.” My firm grip on her hand let her know that I wasn't fooling and she allowed me to lead her back to our bedroom.
Her skin was icy cold and I rubbed each area of skin that I uncovered to warm it. Margaret stood placidly and allowed my ministrations. I dried her carefully, not wanting her to suffer chapped skin and once she was dried and at least a little warmed, I held her robe out for her, which had been laying by the fire and was nice and warm.
Margaret stepped willingly into the garment and wrapped it around her as she leaned back against me.
“You do take care of me,” she said softly.
“I try,” I sounded a little tart. Truth be told I was angry at myself for not realising how cold she had become.
“I'm fine, darling. I spent many hours in the snow in Helstone and have been much more chilled than this.”
She turned in the circle of my arms and reached up to kiss me.
“Now, are we going to let this food go to waste?” she asked.
I shook my head, 'no' and we sat down on the eiderdown with the tray beside us while I examined the treats she had brought up.
There was a large plate of sandwiches, a bowl of sugar plums, another of fudge and a third of sugared almonds. There were also two slices of the Christmas pudding that Cook had left us; a carafe of mulled wine and a jug of milk.
“I'm afraid the wine will be cool by now,” she apologised as she poured two glasses.
“It will still taste good,” I assured her.
We spent the rest of the evening by the fire, venturing downstairs only once for a pot of tea and some supper. When the daylight faded we lit only two candles, rather enjoying the romantic atmosphere that the firelight gave us. We talked a lot, swapping stories from our pasts that we had not yet shared, reminiscing about our favourite Christmases past and just enjoying one another's company.
When it came time to sleep, rather than retiring to bed we doubled the large eiderdown over so it acted as a top cover and bottom sheet, then fetched our pillows from the bed and went to sleep in front of the fireplace.
The next morning I believe we both felt that we'd had our share of being idle and although we took our time in rousing ourselves, we decided to actually get dressed and take a turn around the town. Margaret cooked breakfast this morning, bacon, eggs and fried bread (to hide the fact that it was now a little stale) which we ate at the kitchen table again. Then we decided to take a stroll to the Mitre Hotel for afternoon tea.
“We're going to be far too early,” Margaret said as she wrapped her scarf around her neck and pulled her winter coat on.
“Then we had best make it a slow walk.”
We headed to the park first, taking our time and enjoying the scenery around us. While many people had returned to work today, most of the shops seemed closed, clearly taking advantage of an extra day off.
Everyone we passed, even those who seemed to be working, had a ready smile and a warm “Good morning” for us.
At we neared the top of the hill in the park, Margaret noted that the park and indeed the whole town, looked magical under its fresh covering of snow. Many of the mill chimneys were active again since many businesses don't recognise Boxing Day as a holiday but today the smoke only added to the festive look of the town.
There were a few people milling around in the park. Some children were making snowmen, as we had yesterday and another group were having a snowball fight. The adults seemed to be enjoying the view of the town for none of them seemed in a rush to get to their destinations and most kept glancing back over the town.
Margaret began rubbing her gloved hands together so I looked around to make sure that we were unobserved, then pulled Margaret behind a large tree nearby. Opening my coat, I placed her hands around me so that the heat from my back could warm her hands. My chest would have done just as well but this way I also got to embrace her.
We stole a few kisses while hidden back there but when Margaret's hands had warmed sufficiently, we continued on our way.
Though we had missed the morning service, we stopped in at the local church so that Margaret could say her prayers.
I offered my own silent prayer, thanking Him for my good fortune of late and, feeling the Christmas spirit myself, slipped a generous amount into the pauper's box on our way out.
With that done we continued to the hotel, pausing to look in some of the shop windows we passed since it seemed that many had gone out of their way to make their windows look festive. Many shops had miniature, hand made nativity scenes on display and it was interesting to see how each one differed from its neighbour. Paper chains and ivy garlands were draped around most windows and wreaths adorned almost every door we passed.
We stopped in at the bakers, one of the few open shops, and bought some fresh bread. The baker greeted us with a hearty smile and threw in two free gingerbread men that had been iced to look like snowmen. We thanked him and continued on our way.
“I still find it hard to believe that there was a time when people didn't celebrate Christmas,” Margaret said as we walked. “This is all so lovely that I don't understand why anyone would want to miss it.”
“Perhaps they didn't know what they were missing,” I reasoned.
“If that's true, it really would be a shame,” she said, tightening her grip on my arm and resting her head briefly on my shoulder.
Those passing us who might usually look upon such a public display of affection with distaste, today only smiled at us, perhaps understanding the need to show love at this time of year.
As we entered the town square it seemed that we had interrupted a snowball fight among some of the local children and as one hit me square in the chest, the boy who had thrown it paused in fright for a moment. Then obviously deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, he turned tail and ran, his friends hot on his heels.
I was angry and about to shout after them (what if they had hit Margaret instead of me!) when Margaret's laugher caught my attention. It seems that she found both my predicament and my annoyance amusing.
“They're only having fun,” she said as she brushed the snow from my coat.
“You call that fun?” I asked. “They could hurt someone.”
“Yes, well you thought it was rather fun yesterday, if I recall correctly.”
She had me there, but I wasn't giving in that easily.
“You started that,” I reminded her. “And besides, we were in the safety of our garden, not hurling missiles at random strangers in the street.”
Margaret smiled indulgently then reached up and kissed me softly, causing the last of my anger to evaporate.
“Come on,” she said, slipping her arm through mine again. “I don't know about you but I'm ready for a nice pot of hot tea.”
We continued to the hotel which was not far from the square and arrived just in time for afternoon tea. They seated us by a window and we enjoyed watching the world pass us by as the people outside laughed, joked and enjoyed the snow and festive season.
“I wish we could do this every year,” she said. “I've loved these two days on our own.”
“And I, love.”
We both knew that we would not be this lucky every year but a part of me hoped that we could recreate this feeling of solitude some time soon. We had not even had the luxury of a honeymoon after our wedding and now that I knew what time alone with Margaret could be like, I was more sorry than ever for that fact.
The mill would be running as normal in another few months so I began to wonder about the possibility of us taking a late honeymoon, perhaps visiting Margaret's brother. It was too soon to voice such ideas to Margaret in case I could not be spared from the mill but I was determined to do my best and secure us a holiday in the coming year. Preferably sooner rather than later.
When the tea, sandwiches and cakes were finished, we paid the bill and set about reapplying all the layers of clothing that we had removed when we entered. Bundled up once more, we headed out onto the street.
The snow was falling again, large fluffy white flakes drifting gently to the ground. Margaret put her hand out in front of her, palm up and watched as the flakes landed there and melted.
“Let's hail a cab,” I suggested. Snow is very pretty to watch but I didn't much fancy the idea of walking all the way home in it. “I find that I am somewhat eager to curl up in front of a nice, warm fire with you once again.”
Margaret put her hand down and nodded her agreement. I hailed the first passing cab and after telling the driver our address, we climbed into the carriage. Thankfully it was enclosed and we were somewhat sheltered from the biting cold.
Though most surely shocking to anyone who might have seen, I couldn't resist Margaret any longer and removed my hat before I leaned over and kissed her. She responded with equal ardour and by the time the cab slowed to a stop, we were both slightly breathless and her lips were quite red and swollen.
After I had paid the driver, we headed inside and although all I wanted to do was have my way with Margaret, I knew that the fires needed tending first.
I had built them up this morning so none had died out but the range in the kitchen was on its last legs. I stoked up the rear parlour fire also in case we spent any time in that room, then I headed up to our bedroom to find that Margaret had already taken care of the fire in there.
She was lying under the eiderdown by the fire and as far as I could tell, not wearing a single stitch of clothing. She had taken her hair out of its bun so it lay fanned out around her head and I paused for a moment to admire her.
“Come and join me,” she pleaded.
'How is a man meant to resist a request like that,' I asked myself? The answer was simple; 'he isn't.'
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.
Northern Light is available in paperback and ebook formats.