A Christmas Coffee Time Tale
When I was writing "More Than a Governess" (as Sarah Mallory), I set part of the story in a lovely little village called Charnock Richard. From the coaching inn there one can look across the valley to a pretty little church on the far ridge. The view gave me an idea for another little story, set on Christmas Eve. It's a short story and you can read it in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. I've printed out the story below just in case you want to give it a try (I didn't have any photos of Charnock Richard in the snow, so I have used a more local one, but it's very seasonal and I hope it sets the mood).
'Colonel Alston,' The landlord coughed apologetically. 'There is a lady, sir, who wonders if you would be kind enough to allow her to share your private parlour, the coffee room being so crowded.'
The gentleman standing by the fireplace turned in time to see a lady wrapped in a serviceable travelling cloak slip past the landlord and into the room.
'I do hope you will say yes,' she said in a soft, well-modulated voice. 'It is Christmas Eve, after all.'
As she pushed back her hood the gentleman's black brows went up, and a smile of recognition transformed his rather harsh features.
'How do you do, Philip? Pray do allow me to share your fire for a little while.'
'By all means – you will dine with me, too, I hope?' he gestured towards the window. 'With the snow still falling I apprehend that you will not be going on to Grove End until the morning.'
He pulled a chair up toward the fire for her and while she made herself comfortable he issued swift, concise instructions to their host. When he turned his attention to her once more she had divested herself of her cloak and he could see that she was arrayed in a fashionable walking dress of dove-grey that enhanced her fair colouring and accentuated the brilliance of her blue eyes. There was a faint smile in them as she watched him walking back towards her.
'Jenkins explained that their first task is to clear the road for the mailcoach. However he assures me they will dig out the lane and get me to Grove End in time for my father's Christmas Day sermon. I apprehend that the snow has delayed your journey, too?'
'Yes. I was on my way to join my parents. It will be my first Christmas since leaving the army.' He sat down opposite her, stretching his long, top-booted legs towards the fire. 'Do you travel alone?'
'No. My daughter Charlotte travels with me. My maid has taken her up to our bedchamber. She became a little fractious when I explained that we would not be able to reach her grandfather's house tonight.'
'Ah. Ned's child.' His hard grey eyes were fixed upon her. 'Does she favour him, or you?'
'Me, in looks. Although I fancy I can see Ned in her at times.'
He said abruptly, 'Do you miss him?'
Her hand fluttered, as if to fend off his question.
'Yes. A little. Do you?'
He rose and walked over to the window.
'Of course. He was my best friend.' He turned to look at her, a softer expression on his face. 'Do you remember how we all used to play together? Even when Ned and I were sent off to school we couldn't wait to get back together for the holidays. We were inseparable, the three of us.'
'Until you joined the army.'
The smile disappeared and he turned his back on her again.
'A younger son must do something, Meg. I was never fitted for the church.'
The landlord returned to set the table for supper.
'Has the snow stopped, Mr Jenkins?' asked Margaret.
'Yes ma'am. The sky is clearing now. It's going to be a cold night but I don't think we shall see any more snow. I am very hopeful that the roads can be cleared by morning.'
Margaret watched in silence as the covers were laid and a colourful array of dishes set out on the table. She was a little nervous of dining alone with a man, even one she had known since childhood, but the colonel's manner, although a little brusque, was perfectly cordial and as he introduced only the most unexceptional topics of conversation, she found herself enjoying her meal.
'Do you know,' said Philip, when they had dined and were sitting before the fire once more. 'It always surprised me that you did not return to Grove End when Ned died.'
'Why should I do that? Ned left me comfortably provided for.'
'Not that comfortably. You had to sell the estate to pay off his debts.'
Her chin went up.
'There was enough money left to buy me a house.' She hesitated. 'Besides, Papa has a wife to look after him.'
'And you do not get on with your step-mama?'
'I have been my own mistress for too many years to enjoy any other role now.'
'What about company? Are you never lonely?'
'I have Charlotte.'
'A seven year old child!'
'She is all the company I want,' she said simply.
The silence descended again, until Margaret stole another look at him and murmured,
'And you, Philip. Why have you have never married?'
'I was too busy fighting first in Spain then, of course, at Waterloo.'
'But now the war is over?'
'I had some prize money, and I invested wisely. That has allowed me to purchase a snug little property in Derbyshire. I do not need to marry.'
'You might fall in love,' she said softly.
With one jerky movement Philip pushed himself out of his chair.
'I thank God I am too old for folly of that sort!'
There was a quiet scratching at the door. Impatiently he strode across the room and yanked open the door. A frightened looking abigail peered up at him.
'Your pardon, sir, but I need to speak to my mistress.'
'Betty, what is it, what is wrong?' Margaret could not suppress the sharp note of anxiety as she addressed her maid, who stepped into the room and stood before her, hopping from one foot to the other.
'It's Miss Charlotte, Madam. She's gone.'
'Gone?' Margaret jumped up.
'Run away, Mistress. I just slipped downstairs to fetch some hot milk and when I got back she'd gone.'
The maid threw her apron over her head and began to wail noisily. Margaret took her by the shoulders and gave her a little shake.
'Stop it, Betty. That will not help. Now, tell me all that happened.'
'Well you know, ma'am, she was that upset when she learned we couldn't get to Grove End tonight but I'd told her that she could pray just as well from an inn - it being Christmas I even reminded her that our Lord Jesus had been worshipped in a stable. After that she ate her supper and said her prayers, sweet as a nut. I tucked her up in bed and thought she had gone off to sleep, but then she asked me to fetch her a cup of hot milk.' The maid fixed her tearful eyes upon Margaret. 'I didn't think it would do no harm, mistress. I knew there was a lot of people here tonight so I told her to lock the door behind me, which I swear she did, but then, when I came back, the room was empty.'
Philip stepped forward.
'When was this?' he asked. 'How long has she been missing?'
The maid hiccupped and wiped her eyes with the corner of her apron.
'The clock was just striking eleven when I went downstairs, sir. Oh Madam I am so sorry –'
'Yes well the thing now is to find her,' said Margaret, picking up her cloak.
'Let me go,' said Philip. 'You should stay here in case she comes back.'
'No, Betty shall do that. I must go. I will be better if I am doing something.'
'Then I shall come with you.' Philip snatched up his greatcoat and followed her out of the door.
'Thank you.' As they emerged out into the cold she stopped and pulled her cloak more closely around her. She glanced up at him.
'I think she has gone to Grove End. When we visited here in the summer we walked the two miles across the valley to the vicarage.'
'Come along then. Here, take my arm: I don't want you falling and breaking a bone.'
They stepped out of the inn and into a strange winter landscape. A thick blanket of snow covered every surface, softening the contours and gleaming pale blue-grey in the moonlight. There was no breath of wind to stir the bushes and no sound to break the silence.
'Which way?' asked Philip.
'Through the village to the stile. You can see Grove End from there, and the path cuts directly down the valley and up the other side.'
'A simple journey, then. And you are sure she will have gone there?'
'Almost certainly. She was determined to go to church tonight.'
She set off along the road. 'Unfortunately she has inherited her father's stubborn streak. I pray it doesn't end her life the way it ended his.'
His head jerked around to look at her.
'What the devil do you mean by that? Ned's death was an accident.'
'It was, but if he had not been so determined to show everyone that he was just a good a whip as his father, it might never have happened.'
'I see,' said Philip. 'Showing off, was he?'
She gave a shaky little laugh.
'I have thought that, on occasion, although it is not politic to say so. But that was five years ago. It does not do to dwell on the past. I am now much more concerned with my daughter.'
'So too am I. Look, here is the stile.' He helped her over. 'There are several sets of tracks here but they are too muddled to say if any of them belong to a child.'
'I know,' muttered Margaret, 'But the land falls away at the edge of this field and we shall have a good view of the valley and the path leading to Grove End. We shall be able to see her.'
She hurried on, holding her skirts up out of the snow. Philip fell into step beside her.
'I heard Tom Court made you an offer last year. My mother wrote to tell me you refused him,' he added, seeing the surprise in her eyes.
'May I ask why?'
'No you may not!'
'Was he not rich enough for you?'
She turned her head to look at him, her eyes blazing angrily in the moonlight.
'I have never been interested in money!'
She hastened her step and he was obliged to stride out to keep up with her.
'You were very interested in it eight years ago, when you refused me and married Ned.'
'That is not true!'
'Don't lie to me, Meg. I was a penniless younger son; I could not compare with Ned and his inheritance.'
'That's not why I married him!'
They had reached the edge of the ridge and Margaret halted, staring out over the snow-covered valley. Philip stopped beside her. They were both breathing rapidly after their swift progress across the field and they stood now, their breath forming little clouds in the frosty moonlight. The ground fell away from their feet, sloping down gently for several hundred yards before beginning a steep ascent on the far side to the little hamlet of Grove End. The church was silhouetted on the distant ridge, its bell tower and leaded roof sparkling with frost. The vicarage was a black square stood beside it. There was no light at any window, but that was not surprising, thought Margaret, for it was now nearing midnight, and her father would be rising early to attend to his Christmas Day duties.
'You were wrong.'
At his brusque words she dragged her eyes away from the horizon.
'I beg your pardon?'
'You were wrong. Charlotte didn't come this way.' He pointed. 'There are a tracks leading off to the right there, along the ridge, but nothing crossing the valley. Charlotte is not going to Grove End.'
Margaret's blood chilled. She stared out over the scene, the spotless, untouched snow. She had been so certain she would reach this point and see the little red-caped figure plodding across the valley. As fear clutched her heart she looked instinctively towards Philip. He reached out and took her hand.
'Don't worry, we'll find her. Let's go back.'
They retraced their route, anxiety quickening their steps.
'If she is not going to Grove End, then where is she?'
'We will organise a thorough search,' said Philip as they hurried towards the stile. 'She can't have gone far.' He leaped over the fence and turned back, holding out his hands to her as she climbed over the stile. 'She may have gone back to the inn. She may even now be tucked up in her bed.' He set her on the ground but did not immediately release her. Even through the heavy folds of the cloak she could feel his hands on her waist. Strong, steady. Comforting.
'Do you really think so?'
His smile was kind, but he shook his head.
'Come on, let's find out.' He took her hand again.
The village was deserted but at the far end of the street the lights from the inn cast butter-yellow squares upon the snow.
'So why did you?'
She looked up at him.
'I beg your pardon?'
'Why did you marry Ned?
She did not answer immediately.
'I loved you both,' she said slowly. 'You rather more than Ned, I think, but I was – afraid.' She gave her attention to negotiating the ruts in the snow for a moment and when she spoke again her voice was barely above a whisper. 'You were about to go to the Peninsula. I am ashamed to say I was afraid you would not come back to me.'
'So you married Ned.'
'And he broke his neck.'
'Yes. I was well served fror my timidity, was I not?'
He squeezed her fingers.
'You did what you thought best.'
'I am sorry.'
'You need not be. I know Ned loved you.'
'Yes,' she said quietly. 'He did. But not enough.'
They were nearing the inn when Philip stopped suddenly.
'Shh.' He put his finger to his lips and nodded towards the tumble-down buildings that surrounded the inn's cobbled yard.
Margaret noted that the wooden door of one of the lean-to sheds was open, a broken line of snow standing across the black entrance. Margaret followed Philip as he moved forward quietly, taking care not to let his shadow fall across the aperture. Margaret stepped up and cautiously peered into through the door. For the most part the interior of the little barn was in darkness, but the open door allowed a shaft of silver moonlight to cast a bar of light into the shelter. A thick layer of straw was spread over the floor and wisps of hay protruded between the bars of the metal feeding rack fixed half-way along the wall. At the very edge of the light Margaret could discern the dark, shaggy shapes of two cows but in front of them, kneeling with her her head bowed, was a small, red-caped figure.
Margaret crossed the space between them in two strides and swept the little girl up into her embrace.
'Oh Charlotte we have been so worried about you!' she hugged the child and tried to stop her voice from shaking.
Charlotte put her thin little arms about her mother's neck.
'There was no need, Mama. It is Christmas Eve, and I have been praying.'
'And why could you not do that at the foot of your bed, as you usually do?'
'Because this was special. You told me, Mama, that Christmas prayers can come true, and I really, really want this one.' Margaret was carrying her out of the barn and Charlotte was suddenly aware of the tall stranger standing in the yard. 'Who are you?'
'This is Colonel Alson, Charlotte. He was a great friend of your papa's.'
Philip made a little bow.
'Delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Chamberlain. We have been looking for you.'
'Yes. Your mama was very anxious.'
'I am sorry for that.'
'Well never mind that,' said Margaret hastily. 'You are safe now and it is time you went back to bed. It must be gone midnight.'
'Too late for more prayers,' murmured Charlotte.
'Much too late,' agreed Margaret solemnly.
Philip held out his arms.
'Here, let me carry her. If Miss Chamberlain will allow me,' he added, directing a smile at Charlotte. 'You are a big girl now for your mother to carry.'
She gave him a long, appraising look. At last she nodded, and twisted towards him.
With a grin he lifted her from her mother and settled her comfortably on his arm.
'Good. Now let us go indoors.'
As they set off across the cobbled yard Margaret looked up at her daughter, whose head was resting sleepily on Philip's shoulder.
'And what is it that is so important you must send up special prayers tonight, Charlotte?'
The child gave a drowsy smile.
'I want God to give me a papa, like the other children.'
'Oh Charlotte, you know we have talked about this –'
Philip shook his head at her.
'Hush, Meg. This is Charlotte's prayer. It is not for us to interfere.' He smiled at her, and Margaret found herself blushing. She hoped her flushed cheeks would not be discernable in the moonlight.
'Of course,' she muttered. 'Let us say no more about it.'
'Quite,' said Philip. 'Perhaps you will allow me to escort you to Grove End tomorrow morning, Mrs Chamberlain? It is not too far out of my way.'
'Yes, thank you,' murmured Margaret. 'That would be very good of you.'
They had reached the inn door but before she went inside, Margaret cast one final glance up at the night sky. Surely the stars were shining just a little bit brighter?
© Sarah Mallory