Hearing Dixon coming through the door downstairs, John and Margaret grabbed their clothes and scattered to their own rooms, laughing hilariously, like school children putting a frog in the teacher’s desk. John quickly dressed and returned to the parlor, just as Dixon came up from the kitchen.
“Hello Dixon, I didn’t think you would be back this early. Did you have a nice time?”
“Yes, I did. Master, I don’t know if you noticed, but it’s snowing again, not nearly as hard as before, but I thought I’d better get back in case it got bad. I just came up to tell you I was home and about the snow. Goodnight Master.”
“Thank you, Dixon, and goodnight.” John went to the window; the snow didn’t seem like it would amount to much. He waited for Margaret to return, but she didn’t. It was after 10:00, so he decided to turn in. Still crowing to himself over the game, he turned the lights off and went to his bedroom, delighting in his new treasure. He wondered if life could possibly get any better than this, but he knew it could. Before retiring, John returned to the Christmas tree and hung his mother’s ruby pendant, her gift to Margaret, at the top of the tree. It wouldn’t be easily seen, but he would wait for her to notice it.
The morning broke with a beautiful pristine vista, as far as one could see. No one was coming to the mill; there were no sounds, nothing to disturb the light dusting of the snow that had fallen last night, painting the entire landscape in white, with tiny sparkling diamonds, whenever the sun caught it. John woke at his usual early time, but the house was already alive with many voices coming from downstairs. He went down the backstairs into the bustling kitchen and was taken aback by five people trying to get around each other, as they headed in different directions. With a rather loud voice, he said, “Happy Christmas to all.” Everyone echoed back the same and went about their work. Dixon asked if Miss Margaret was awake; John answered, he didn’t think so.
“Would you care for a cup of tea while you wait on Miss Margaret?” Dixon asked the Master.
“Yes, bring a pot upstairs, if you don’t mind.”
John had just finished adding a dab of rum into the teapot, when Margaret emerged in an exquisite emerald-green frock, very dressy and festive.
He inhaled deeply and went to her. Pulling her into his arms, he started to waltz her around the room. “You are dazzling, this morning, Miss Margaret. Happy Christmas, my love,” John whispered to her.
“And a Happy Christmas to you, Mr. John. I see that you waltz, sir. Is there no end to your talents? I cannot find the whole of you.”
“Do you mean like last night? You were very close to finding the whole of me,” John whispered boldly, with a big grin, still waltzing her around the room.
What has come over me? Why did I say that? Where is this coming from? Where are my manners?
Margaret blushed over that comment, sensing it had an air of inevitability.
As he continued to waltz her in a circle, he pressed his lips to hers, giving her a firm but light kiss. Opening her eyes as they parted, Margaret noticed that the mistletoe had been hung from the chandelier. “I see you put up the mistletoe.”
“Me? I saw it and thought you did it. That’s where we were when I just kissed you. Let me fix you my spiced hot tea and give you a warning . . . do not go downstairs,” John said, as he walked over to the teapot on the dining table.
“I think I can hear why.” As Margaret strolled over to the fireplace, she was remembering last night. She found a small length of yarn that had not burned, and placed it in her book that still sat on the table. What a precious keepsake, she thought. On some distant anniversary, she would present it to John and remind him how he cheated.
The heightened excitement seemed to make the day go by quickly. John had set the bar with everything except champagne, which would come later. He talked Adrian into tending the liquors. Margaret checked the table and the upper floor for tidiness, as if she was lady of the house. This did not escape John’s elated, rapt attention.
The smell from the meal cooking drifted upstairs. The bar was ready and the table properly prepared to Margaret’s liking. There was only an hour left to go before Branson picked up his lady friend, the Professor and Mr. Granger. John was browsing through a book, but kept one eye on Margaret as she walked back into the room checking that everything was in its place. She was standing looking at the tree from a distance. She moved closer as John continued watching her. As her eyes drifted away, she thought she glimpsed something glittering near the top of the tree. She stopped and tried to see it again, but she couldn’t find it. She walked back and forth, looking up, trying to catch the light on it at just the right angle.
John thought what a wonderful portrait that would make. This was an extraordinary Christmas.
Margaret stopped and stared. It looked like a chain of some kind. John had intentionally tucked the pendant behind a bough, so it couldn’t be seen. He watched as she tried to reach for it, but she was too small. He didn’t think she realized he was in the room, because she hadn’t asked for his help.
“Darn him,” John heard her mutter, “we agreed to no gifts. That looks like a very beautiful gold chain to me. Where is he? Wait until I get my hands on him!” She turned and found him standing directly behind her as she walked straight into his chest. “Oh, there you are, sorry.” John looked down at her, giving nothing away. “I thought we agreed not to buy anything for each other this year.”
“I’m here so you can get your hands on me. What are you talking about Margaret?” John said smiling, still wondering about the piffle that was springing from his mouth.
“This!” she said, as she jumped, pointing to the gold chain. “I guess that got there like the mistletoe.”
John started laughing. “I did NOT hang the mistletoe on the chandelier, and I did NOT buy you that, whatever it is.” He now wondered who DID hang the mistletoe.
“Well, what is it, then? Where did it come from? John Thornton, I do not believe you.”
John reached up on his own toes to lift the necklace very slowly off the top branch, finally exposing the large heart pendant, swinging from the heavy gold chain.
As he lowered the gem to Margaret, she gasped when he put it in her hands. “John, this is absolutely stunning. It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen . . . a beautiful ruby heart.” She smiled up at him and pulled his lapels down for a kiss, a deep kiss.
John wrapped his arms all the way around her, crushing her to him and kissed her fiercely, slowly thrusting his tongue around and in and out. It was a very carnal kiss; he was making love to her with his mouth and tongue. Margaret’s knees weakened, and once again, she fainted. John carried her to her room and laid her on her bed. He sat beside her, and hollered for Dixon.
Dixon arrived promptly and before she could become hysterical, John said, “She’s fainted. Please get me a cool wet cloth.” Dixon rushed out of the room returning in less than a minute.
Handing the cloth to the Master, she asked what happened. “She was given a nice gift and it overwhelmed her. I gave her the heart pendant that my mother wanted her to have. She’s coming around; would you mind leaving us?” Dixon backed out of the room as she saw Margaret’s eyes begin to flutter open.
Margaret slowly sat up trying to focus her vision. John moved enough so she could swing her legs over the side of the bed. She kept staring at the gem in her hand, realizing that it was an antique, or a family heirloom. “John, tell me about it.”
John told Margaret the story and ended with telling her how his mother had wanted her to have the necklace. On her death bed, she had accepted Margaret as John’s love, and wanted to apologize for how she had treated her. John put his arm around her waist while she cried heavily into his shoulder. She couldn’t stop the flood of tears. She had always known that she was not well received by John’s mother, and for that, she also carried guilt. John took the pendant from her and placed it around her neck, noticing how beautifully the red heart hung against her ivory skin and emerald neckline. Once fastened, she grabbed the large gem immediately and held the heart tightly in her fist. It was as if she was “willing” the stone to mend the distance between herself and his mother, for John’s sake.
The first guests were arriving, and John handed her his handkerchief as he rose to greet them in the hall, just outside Margaret’s bedroom door. It was Higgins and his family.
Upon seeing Margaret come out from her bedroom with red eyes and a runny nose, a sense of sadness wilted the moment. Margaret quickly said they were –tears of joy- and showed them the necklace. Higgins looked over at John. “That was an heirloom gift, specifically to Margaret from my Mother, before she died. That’s why all the tears. I’m lucky you came in when you did, or I might not have escaped the same fate, myself.” Higgins clapped John on the shoulder, saying nothing but giving him a smile.
Margaret gave Nicholas a hug and turned to Peggy. Nicholas introduced Peggy to Margaret, and the ladies held hands, as they bid each other hello and made the appropriate greetings. Margaret turned to greet Mary next. She looked so pretty without her work clothes and severe hair style. Margaret could see a beautiful young woman emerging.
Adrian arrived to take the drink orders. Everyone found a place to sit, and they all became caught up in the spirit of the holiday.
With Margaret’s guidance, the conversation flowing cheerfully for a half an hour; soon the Professor arrived and was escorted upstairs by Branson. Margaret introduced him to everyone. Both Nicholas and Peggy were interested to hear of his work. John was content to sit back and let the others talk while he studied his ‘once shy’ Margaret, blossoming into the happy woman she was becoming. She had a beautiful profile, which he rarely seemed to see. How could such a small demur woman, with ivory skin, blue eyes, light brown hair, and an independent temperament sweep him off his feet so completely? He was always off balance around her, never feeling his feet touch the ground.
God . . . how deeply, I love her.
Dinner was then served, with Nicholas and John seated at the ends of the table. There was lively conversation throughout the meal; the food was excellent and plentiful, and everyone was partaking of the holiday spirit. The goose was cooked to perfection, along with all the trimmings that accompanied a traditional holiday dinner. The Professor regaled them with Christmas celebrations in other lands, while Margaret spoke of their cotton waste snow trimmings and the magnificent pianoforte that awaited her.
Later, Margaret thought she heard something from far off. Not quite knowing what it could be, she said, “Quiet everyone,” as she stood and tried to listen. With the silence in the room, it quickly became clear that they were being serenaded with Christmas carols, from below stairs. All seven folks from the kitchen came up the stairs singing and stood behind everyone at the table. They sang, “The First Noel,” and the tabled clapped with pleasure. As they sang a second carol, each of the seven filled their hands and trays with dishes from the upstairs table, and had it cleaned off in one quick swoop.
John stood and thanked all of them. “Before you leave, and I know your arms are full, but I wanted to thank all of you for the lovely dinner today. I know everyone worked very hard, even our two guests downstairs, who seemed to have been enlisted. Branson and Dixon, please introduce your guests.”
Branson and Dixon did as they were told, to the embarrassment of their guests. Margaret introduced Adrian and the two cooks. The merry singers returned to the kitchen, laden with dishes and trays.
With the dishes cleared, John asked everyone to remain at the table a little longer. Margaret and Peggy were enjoying talking to each other. They were going to be close friends; Margaret could feel it. She was a gentleman’s daughter, but did not regard herself that way, just as Margaret herself felt. She was warm, intelligent and no airs. She was perfect for Nicholas.
John excused himself for a minute, while Adrian brought out champagne glasses and poured a glass for everyone. He returned to the table, as five faces looked at him in bewilderment. It appeared, they were waiting for something else to happen.
The Professor, looking at John, anticipated a toast of some sort. “If I could be so bold as to say something right here?” he asked.
John motioned for him to continue, and took his seat.
“Nicholas, I wanted to tell you that you were given a very nice compliment. I haven’t told John this; I wanted to tell you both. Mr. Bryan McNeil stopped by the office yesterday. I had to decline a dinner invitation with him for this evening because I wanted to be here. I told him that I would be at Mr. Thornton’s home, with his overseer and betrothed, but I didn’t mention you by name. He asked me if your name was Higgins, and I said yes. He said he did not know you, but in his past 10 weeks here in Milton, he had made inquiries and had heard a lot about Marlborough Mills. It seems that whenever Marlborough Mills was mentioned, your name would come up as a highly regarded overseer. Mr. McNeil heard about your ingenuity in helping the people of Marlborough Mills, and the owners, come together. He’s also quite interested in hearing why John hired you after you almost forced the loss of his business.” Ending there, the Professor smiled and sat back down. There was a smattering of applause.
As everyone politely laughed, Higgins felt quite embarrassed. Mary and Peggy looked at him proudly, while John and Margaret looked at each other as if to say, “I’ve never seen him embarrassed before.”
Higgins finally spoke, “Professor Pritchard. I don’t know what to say.”
Standing with a champagne glass raised in his hand, John said, “Well . . . I do.”
John paused to let the words settle in and to raise the anticipation of what he was about to say. Clearing his throat, John began.
“Nicholas, as you know, you have not only become my best friend over these last few years, but a very good part of Marlborough Mill’s more recent success is driven directly by you. I don’t think I have ever thanked you enough for all you have done for the mills and for me. The Mills owe you a great debt, and so do I. I want to settle that debt, right now. I hope you are comfortable in gentleman’s clothes, because for your wedding present, I am giving you and Peggy a 15 percent partnership in all of Marlborough Mills. Nicholas, you are now an owner in the business and no longer an overseer. I have paperwork for you to sign,” John said, as he pulled a folded deed out of his coat pocket.
“Of course, this means that you have to come up with your share when we purchase Slickson Mills.” John smiled.
Silence hung in the air with disbelief. There was a pause, as everyone came to grips with what he had just announced.
“Nicholas, you are going to have to find a Higgins for us. Welcome to the land of property and the rank of a gentleman. Thank you for everything. A toast: To Nicholas Higgins, now a partner in Marlborough Mills. Oh, here are your two tickets to the Chamber’s Ball coming in early spring.”
Everyone stood, except Higgins, and raised their glasses. He was so overcome with emotion. His eyes misted. Slowly, he got to his feet and lifted his head toward John. His eyes were glassy, now. He lifted his champagne glass, and everyone clinked their crystal together over the center of the table. Margaret, Mary, and Peggy had huge smiles on their faces. John had a broad smile on his face, and Nicholas was speechless.
John added, “No one deserves it more than you, my friend.”
John caught Margaret looking at him with the most endearing look on her face.
Nicholas cleared his throat, barely able to stutter out the words, “Master; I don’t know how to thank you for this. I am speechless; I mean, I really am speechless. Thank you, thank you very much from myself, Peggy and the rest of the family. How does one thank someone for giving them such a magnanimous gift as a partnership?”
“Nicholas, it is I who needed to say to thank you. Not you. Things are going to change very rapidly for you. I have already set the paperwork in motion as you see here, so you better buy yourself a whole new gentlemen’s working wardrobe. And henceforth, you call me John, no matter who is around. No more Boss or Master. That title now belongs to you, too.”
Peggy leaned over and embraced Nicholas and turning to John, said, “Thank you from me, as well.” Mary kissed him on the cheek.
Margaret came to John’s end of the table. She looked up into his happy face as he looked down into hers. She was in awe of this man once again, the one who said he loved her. She looked into his face for a long time before finally saying, “John, that was the nicest, sincerest gesture I have ever seen. I am so proud of you for what you just did. As I’ve said in the past, there is no end of you. You gave Nicholas the respect he deserved at a great personal cost to yourself. That was a beautiful show of passion for your conviction and belief in him. You are passionate in more ways than one,” she said with a smile.
Margaret, you hardly know the beginning of my passion.
Little did anyone know that John was getting the better reward hearing her words of praise for him. He had wanted her love, but gaining her respect and having heard her say those words were another miracle in his life. He smiled down into her face, wanting to thank her lips for what they had just spoken.
Margaret, sensing the same feelings, quickly went to the other end of the table to hug Nicholas and Peggy. John followed her. John put his hand out to Nicholas who grabbed it with both hands, firmly. The men hugged each other like old friends, while the women did the same. The Professor walked to the end of the table, too, and offered his congratulations, saying, “You will have a large part in my book as well, but that was planned for you even before this great night.”
The evening eventually ended with Nicholas, once again, thanking John for everything. Margaret said goodbye to both. The Professor accepted a ride home with Nicholas, thus freeing Branson for the evening with his lady.
A sense of merriment mixed with pine scent, and holiday cheer filled the spirited evening. Now, being totally alone until dawn, John and Margaret settled into the comfort of enjoying each other’s company.