For our final week of the 10th anniversary of North & South we’re pleased to bring you A Merry Little Christmas, a romantic Christmas fan fiction by Catherine Winchester, author of N&S novels What You Wish For and Northern Light. We’ve split it into two posts with the first two parts today and the final two tomorrow. Thank you, Cat, for sharing this early Christmas present with our readers!
A Merry Little Christmas
by Catherine Winchester
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.
Cat Winchester can be found archived under the tabs John Thornton, Armitage Inspired Heroes, and Other Works by Armitage Authors on the header above. Parts Three and Four of A Merry Little Christmas will appear tomorrow.