The first rays of the sun were glistening off of the re-frozen snow crust. Christmas Eve day dawned brightly with no apologies or explanations or new edicts expected. Coming out of her room, Margaret inhaled a wonderful pine scent, and found John standing in front of the tree. He was looking at the cranberry strands, which now stood out as red swags, in the sunlit room. She watched him as he leaned against the back of a chair, long legs crossed at the ankles, arms folded, looking at the tree without knowledge of her presence. Margaret knew she was seeing him in an unguarded moment.
“Good morning John,” she said, startling him slightly, “do you see something wrong with our tree?”
“Good morning. I was looking at the cranberries, which make the tree look nice with the light of day, and wondering what to put at the top.” John was partially lying; he already knew what he was going to put there. “Are you excited about today, visiting the mills and talking among the workers?”
“I doubt I’ll be talking all that much. I’ll be a strange face to them, but I shall enjoy it, all the same. Good morning Dixon.”
“Good morning Miss. I see you, and the Master did a right nice job on that tree. I love coming upstairs to the smell of pine. It makes it cheery.”
“How is it below stairs?
“It’s already busy. The Master’s Cook is discussing food preparation and timing with our Cook. Cooking for six above and seven below stairs is a challenge they are both eager to do. There’s a lot of laughing; they must have the cooking sherry hidden somewhere down there because they sure have the holiday spirit, as I think we all do,” Dixon laughed. “And they’re dragging poor Branson in on the serving tomorrow. He’s just hauled in the huge goose, and they are uncertain how to fit two large birds in the oven.”
Margaret replied, “That sounds wonderful. Be sure that Adrian is worked into your plans, as well.”
John escorted Margaret to the breakfast table and seated her, saying, “Yes. Branson needs to pick him up early.”
As they sat down to eat, Margaret suddenly remembered Nicholas’s children. “What about Nicholas’ children tomorrow?”
“I’ve discussed that with him. They will have their Christmas dinner tonight and arrive a little later tomorrow, allowing time for gifts to be opened. I am pleased that Higgins’ ability to give to them has grown through his hard work for me. I truly am appreciative of that day you sent him back to me. As for today’s plans, normally there are three shifts working round the clock, except for Sunday. Tomorrow they will all be off, and today’s work is a bit different, with each shift working for four hours instead of eight, with the last one ending at 2:00 p.m. Hopefully, today you, and I can catch two shifts as they change, because the night shift left two hours ago. Do you need anything from your home today that can’t wait a couple more days?”
“Yes, John. I need some fresh clothes. Can I take a bath here?”
“Can you?!” John said, raising his eyebrows in mock excitement. “I’m sorry,” he said, laughing, “I’m afraid a little mischievous spirit imp has invaded my senses today.”
Margaret burst out laughing, unable to hide her own joy of this holiday. Yesterday and last night, she turned a definite corner in her life. She was positive that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with John. She was getting to know a John that probably no one had ever seen, and more likely, not John, himself. Had he ever been a happy person? Thinking about what she knew about his past, she didn’t believe he ever was. He’d had a young life full of terrible hardships, then there was the toil and strife of managing the mills and her absence from his life, some of which she read about in those dark letters in his desk. No, he had never known happiness, and now he was happy . . . more than happy… and she was, too. She knew he was caring, intelligent, honest, and loving, but Margaret was reveling in the humor she found he possessed. What new delights still awaited her, she wondered? He was amazing her at every turn. She realized she’d never really known this John Thornton, and she loved every moment of him. How could she possibly go on with his proclamation? But she promised she’d try.
“Margaret?” John said, laying his hand on her arm. “You’re off in that strange land where you go so often. I’ve noticed this several times. Where is this place within your mind?”
Embarrassed about drifting off, she said, “Oh, I have several lands. Mostly, I put to shore on my Hopes and Dreams Island, my favorite place. There are other islands, too. There is Rocky Island, which is my least favorite; I was stranded there for a long time.”
“And just now, which island was that?”
“I was on my Reality Island. That is a newly charted island for me. I am spending a lot of time there, lately. However, last night,” Margaret began with a smile, “I glimpsed an entirely new land beyond the horizon; I think I am going to name it Passion Island.”
John looked at Margaret, loving her little islands. “Margaret, I am your safe harbor; when you are in a storm, sail to me. You can always find me on Passion Island, waiting for you.”
“John, don’t start with those loving words,” Margaret said. “You’ll have me crying before the day begins.” And she smiled.
“Aye, me matey, Captain Thornton, at your service.” John saluted her.
Laughing again, they both discovered another moment, birthed from humor, as each recognized it as a new experience in their lives. Every laugh seemed to tie the bindings tighter.
“Captain, is it? We’ll see about that!” The laughter continued, as John dwelled in the sparkle of her eyes.
“John, did we forget to invite Fanny and her husband? It would be so awful to overlook them.”
“As much as I love our intended guest list, I did talk with Watson, and they are headed away for the Holiday; so, relieve your mind there.”
Branson brought around the smaller two-horse carriage, and the day began at Margaret’s. Adrian was outside chopping wood, but he had a banked fire inside, keeping away the coldness. Branson came down from his box, and after opening his master’s door, he went around the other side of the carriage house to talk with Adrian. John handed Margaret out and up the slick back steps and followed behind. He stopped in the dining room, watching her pass through the parlor.
“Oh look, a piece of furniture must have arrived after all. I wonder which one it is,” Margaret said, walking over and pulling the cover off it. “Dear me, I wish I’d been here when this beautiful piece came; it’s been delivered to the wrong house.”
John walked up to Margaret and wrapped his arms around her from behind. Leaning down, he rested his cheek next to hers and said, “Happy Christmas, my love.”
Margaret stood there paralyzed. She couldn’t speak. John could feel her beginning to slide through his arms, once again, but then she found her legs. “I’m sorry, John. My knees became weak.” Finally, after many long moments of silence, in a soft low voice, she asked, “This is for me?” John could feel her start to shake with quiet sobs. Sobs, he knew, of delight.
“Yes, Margaret. That is for you, my love.”
Margaret slowly lifted the cover to reveal the black-and-white ivory keys of her new piano.
“Someday you shall have a grand piano, if you wish it, but I knew your cottage would be too small for that now,” John said, holding her quiet shivering body in his arms. He turned her to face him.
Margaret’s face was a mask of pure disbelief. She looked into John’s face with tears beaded on her lashes, unable to speak, and mouthed the words, “Thank you, John.” She reached up, put her arms around his neck, and laid her head against his chest, still dazed.
He held her momentarily, and then pulled her back to kiss her, but found she had sailed to one of her islands. She was totally unfocused. She wasn’t pulling out of her state of disbelief. John closed the lid on the piano and pulled the cover back over it. “We can talk about this later,” he said. “Get your clothes. I’ll wait outside, or I’m afraid we’ll be here all day.” He walked her over to the steps that led upstairs then left the house and went out to his horses to pat down. He was happy with Margaret’s response to his gift. He wanted to give her everything. He wanted to spoil her. Someday . . . perhaps…
Margaret was back within ten minutes, still dazed, and John went over to fetch her.
Before he could get to her, she started down the steps. As she turned around to point up to her “Margaret’s Enchanted Cottage” sign, she slipped from the step, pitching forward. John caught her and lifted her off the step, setting her down on the ground. He released her slightly, so she could free her arms, but he wouldn’t let go of his hold, since she appeared to be allowing him that closeness.
John thought how small she was next to him; he could crush her so easily, if he hugged her too tightly. He desperately wanted to always protect her fragileness.
Silence reigned between them. Margaret slipped her hands from his chest, up to each side of his face, and held his head in her hands, beckoning.
John whispered, “If you don’t say no right now, I am going to kiss you again, my love.
“I would like that.” Margaret said softly.
John let her go long enough to throw his top hat to the ground and took her fiercely into his arms, properly, almost bending her backward. He looked at her throat, her lips and then into her eyes, slowly moving to cover her mouth with his. He was tender and slow, licking her lips and gently parting them. The stroking seduction of his tongue took away her senses and blocked any slight resistance she might be thinking was improper. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him closer, trying to reach his mouth more fully. Margaret made a low, utterly female sound and relaxed into him. She was innocently tentative on their first kiss, but not so now. She met him hotly with hunger that fed his own. John’s uninhibited feral groan undid her. Her head fell backwards as his mouth claimed her throat. Reacting passionately, he moved one of his arms lower, just near her buttocks, and drew her more tautly to him. He wanted her so badly. He was burning up. The caged animal wanted to assert its prowess over its mate. Margaret could feel John’s longing, liking it more than she should, as it was ardently presenting itself. He wanted her to know his desire for her as a woman and he pressed her closer to him feeling her heaving bosom upon his chest. Margaret, starting to understand passion, pressed herself to John’s erection.
“Margaret, please let me love you,” John whispered, as he started to kiss down her neck; behind them, one of the horses suddenly whinnied, startling Margaret. She backed away out of propriety, mortified that she had been swept away, forgetting that John’s driver was back there. As she timidly peered around John, she could see that Branson and Adrian had politely turned away.
“Oh dear, I am so embarrassed, ” Margaret said, suddenly turning crimson.
“Not I,” said John. I am not ashamed of the love I feel for my woman. I’ve waited too long to show the world my love for you.” He stooped to retrieve his hat and cleared his throat, which seemed to signal Branson to open the door. Highly embarrassed and red faced, Margaret was handed into the coach, John following with her bag.
“Thank you, thrice, John. Once for saving me from a very uncomfortable accident on the steps, and thank you for my adorable little sign,” as she pointed to it, “which I know is your doing. I love it. And how can I thank you for my exquisite pianoforte. I have so longed for one. I think you are getting far ahead of our gentlemen’s agreement. And I think you did tell me that you were not buying anything for Christmas?”
“Margaret, first of all, if you remember our conversation about gift giving for the holiday, I never agreed to any such thing; we only talked about your boots. Secondly, that was ordered several days after your return to London because I knew you had left one in Helstone and wanted you to have one, no matter where our relationship went. And finally, there was nothing in our agreement about a gift for my love only that you needed choices, and that hasn’t changed. But most of all, I cannot help myself.” John kissed her lightly and then shouted to Branson, “Mill 2.”
Arriving after 10:00 o’clock, they had missed the second shift change for both Mills. John knew that Higgins was spreading his own form of cheer through all the shifts today.
Margaret remarked on the vast difference in layout between the two mills and their sizes. John explained that Mill 2 had 450 workers, whereas Mill 1 had 350. The changed layout had come from 10 years of learning what would expedite movement around the yard. It was built like a fortress, with 20 loading docks, 10 to each side facing each other, uniting all the buildings into a U shape with the canteen at the far end, between the two sides. The office was located at the entrance.
“The canteen,” John shouted to Branson who was threading his way between the loading wagons on each side of him. “One side is for importing and the other side is for exporting,” John told her. “This design is more efficient than Mill 1.”
They enjoyed two hours there, with Margaret following John around, saying little, – mostly nodding hello when introduced. The workers came to get their free dinner that John had provided for everyone, as a token of holiday cheer. Oranges would be passed out when the shift ended; John had ordered almost a boat full of imported oranges to be given to his people. They were a real treat anytime of the year. Margaret was delighted to see Mary, but they would talk tomorrow as she was busy serving. Higgins was there, traveling a different route around the canteen, shaking hands, thanking and talking. Margaret was so happy to see that Nicholas was appreciated and finally finding his merited status as a hard worker and overseer. Nevertheless, once again, she felt overtaken upon viewing John’s responsibilities: the mass of faces, the wagons with all the horses, and the size of these huge buildings and the sound of machinery running somewhere in the distance. As she observed the way they all respected him and looked up to him, she didn’t feel herself fairing very equal as his partner in life.
How is it? He’s picked me, of so little significance, to love?
The same scene repeated itself in Mill 1. Most of these workers had been with John the longest; some, Margaret thought, might even remember her. She felt more comfortable there as she walked among the tables, even without John, wishing the workers a Happy Holiday, and thanking them for all they do for Marlborough Mills. John stood off in the kitchen area, fascinated, watching Margaret conduct herself down the rows of workers, alone, shaking hands, and talking with them. With him not at her side, he wondered how she was explaining who she was. This was a beautiful sight to behold, and caught him off guard with the emotions it brought forth in him. This was another exquisite remembrance for their treasure chest of love. Every moment he watched her, he felt her beauty, her scent, and the touch of her. Second, only to Margaret, were his mills and his people. John knew within his heart that she would fit in perfectly, better than his own mother. He knew his people would absolutely love her.
When they arrived back home in the late afternoon, Margaret asked that a bath be prepared for her before Jane left. Dixon found her and had her own request, “Miss Margaret, we are as ready as we can be downstairs. As you can see, the upstairs has been prepared, and most of the table is set, except for your dinner places. Could I be allowed the evening off?”
“Yes, of course, Dixon. I won’t ask, but I hope it has something to do with Mr. Granger.”
“Yes, Miss Margaret. He bought a small tree, and we will decorate it tonight. And if I could have tomorrow evening off after the dinner has been cleaned away; we will be exchanging gifts then.”
“Yes, yes, of course, please take both nights off.” Margaret said, happy for Dixon.
“Thank you Miss Margaret, and one last thing; since you will be going home the day after Christmas, is it alright if I just return home instead of coming back here?”
“Yes, I guess. Yes, but only because Adrian’s there. You still have a key for now. He will be there, probably sleeping on the carpeted floor in the parlor.”
Margaret went for her bath. John left the house and went to his office to look over the Slickson mill offer again. He felt that it was better to be away from where Margaret was right now. The yard was empty, but he saw that Higgins was still here somewhere. Higgins had long ago moved out of the Princeton District and found a small cottage just a little way out of town. He had a horse and small buggy for getting to work, and it was still on the property.
“Higgins,” John said, as Nicholas stepped into the office, “I think I am going to go talk directly to Slickson next week and stop relying on rumors. Our only questions seem to lie in the condition of the mill itself and its machinery, does it not?”
“That’s about it, Master. Their productivity level is only slightly below our own, but the people that he has, look good.”
“Good . . . then why don’t you get yourself on home? Our security men are all working and rotating this holiday, are they not?” John inquired.
“Yes, that’s where I’ve just been, checking at both mills, that all the machinery has been shut down properly, and security is in place. They know to contact you first and me second, should an emergency arise.”
“Well then, it sounds that all is fine. Take yourself away from here and come back for dinner tomorrow about 1:00 or so in the afternoon”
“See you tomorrow, have a good eve tonight,” Higgins said, waving his cap as he left.
After dinner, John realized that they were left alone, as Dixon would be gone for several hours. He was not sure he had the strength to get through the next few hours alone with Margaret without stepping past his own line, especially with the way she looked tonight. She was wearing a yellow frock, and her scent was eminently alluring. He thought she must have brought her own bath soap.
John went to the bar and got a brandy for both, he and Margaret, while she had gone to her room for something. He stoked the fire, added a log, lowered the gas lights, and folded himself down onto the carpet in front of the fireplace.
As Margaret came from her room, carrying a book for the evening, she said, “Ah . . . What’s this? No lights, only firelight? Mr. Thornton Proclamation, you are not arranging a romantic evening, are you? Excuse me while I send someone for the Proclamation Police. Someone needs to come and enforce procedure here.”
John was quietly shaking with laughter and could only manage to beckon her over to him with his hand. Margaret looked around the room and remembered the sewing basket was in the buffet. Finding what she wanted, she returned to John and sat down on the carpet, placing a piece of yarn between them, effectively giving them sides on which to stay.
“There! You have your side and I have mine. Unless you want pistols at dawn, the gentlemen’s agreement stated that I could only make moderate advances to you until I have seen other men. Are they not, in fact, your very words, sir?
John loved this game, but he had sure outsmarted himself this time. This could have been a perfect evening, almost too perfect, and here he was with a dividing line between them.
“I am a gentleman; that was a gentleman’s agreement, and I will keep my word.” John picked up his brandy glass. “You see this brandy glass, Margaret?” She nodded. “One of my favorite pastimes is to sit in my chair, holding a glass such as this, and swirl the contents. The best part about it all is watching it coat the inside of the glass while watching it through to the fire.” John demonstrated for her. As he was taking his first swallow of it, he saw Margaret start to lean for her glass that sat on the floor in front of him. He slowly, and deliberately, pushed it out of her reach with his booted foot. “I’m sorry, did you want something?”
“Yes, I would like my brandy, please” Margaret said.
“And how to you propose to get it, my love?” John smirked, looking at the dividing line.
Undaunted, Margaret did not answer John or pursue her brandy. She started this little game tonight and had to see it through.
John couldn’t help but love the look on her face as she contemplated some reciprocal act. She had such a fierce look on her face, like a mad little kitten.
Margaret decided to raise the stakes. She thought she had figured something out. So, hiking the hem of her dress to the knee, she reached down to remove her shoes.
John was roused seeing her legs. He knew a real game was afoot, now. John pulled off his boots, hoping this game was headed where he thought it might.
Margaret didn’t know how long she could keep doing this with a straight face. She sat for a minute as if in thought. She swiveled so her back was to John and hiked up her dress much farther to catch the top of one stocking.
John quickly lay down on the carpet, so his body extended back, and he caught Margaret with her dress to the top of her thighs.
Margaret, said, “No fair!”
John took off one sock, laughing.
Margaret took off the other stocking, ensuring he didn’t sneak a peek.
John removed his other sock. He was beaming the whole time.
Margaret, still with her back facing John, removed a garter that held a stocking.
John started to sweat. Was it the fire in the fireplace, or the fire in his body? He removed his cravat and his shirt fell open.
Margaret tried to twist around to see his open shirt. What she wouldn’t give to be lying next to that bare chest. She would work the game until his shirt was off and then stop. She removed her last garter and returned to sitting next to him.
Just before he removed his waistcoat, John took stock for a minute and counted items left for each of them. He was anxious to go straight to his trousers and undergarment to see what she would do, but this was too much fun, so he removed his pocket watch.
Margaret inhaled deeply, she hadn’t expected that. She thought she had things counted correctly. Think . . . think . . . she removed her earrings.
John went for his waistcoat.
After each piece of clothing was removed, they would stare into each other’s eyes, smiling, having survived another round, daring each other to go on. Still no words were spoken. John knew he would have no embarrassment, so he wasn’t nervous, but he’d like to win the game, rather than lose it.
Margaret was getting nervous about how this was going to end. John had three more items to go, if it should ever go that far, which she was sure it would not. She had her dress, full slip, half slip, corset, and undergarment. She didn’t like this, but she could not blink now. Her dress was the next likely item, but she stood and slid down her half slip, pooling it at her feet, and then kicking it away.
John knew he was going to lose, which he didn’t really want to do, because it was so heart rendering having Margaret figure this all out, probably feeling frightened about now; he decided to call her bluff.
He stood up beside her and instead of pulling off his shirt, for which Margaret had patiently been waiting; John proceeded to reach for the buttons on his trousers.
Margaret’s eyes got as big as saucers as she shouted, “You Win! Stop! You CHEATED!!”
“How do you arrive at that conclusion?” he asked, choking back the laughter and the joy at her surprise. Oh well, he thought, these were days they could never recapture and were worth every second to have as memories, just like the first night she had arrived, their first kiss, and the tree decorating. These were all firsts to cherish their whole life.
Still laughing, John leaned down and picked up the yarn, tossed it into the fireplace and reached for Margaret.
Just then, they heard the downstairs door open. Dixon was home early.