Wishing all my readers a wonderful Christmas and a great 2018
CHRISTMAS AT THE HALL
Tom stopped to admire the view. A slow smile spread over his face. Even in the gathering gloom of a winter’s early evening, Wyvern Hall with its broad Neo-classic façade was impressive. That first time he had come up this long drive, he had thought it the grandest building he had ever seen. He had been so proud that he was going to work at the big house.
Bright lights now shone out from every window to welcome the little group of approaching visitors. Their reflected glow twinkled on the thin covering of snow on the trees and glistened on the vast expanse of lawn so that, for a moment, Tom thought the great lake had been restored. He shook his head. It must be almost half a century, immediately after the tragedy, since Sir Peter had ordered it to be filled in.
Tom sighed and turned his gaze back to the house. The rest of the group had almost reached the top of the long flight of steps up to the massive carved oak doors and Tom had to hurry to catch them up. Their noisy chatter had all but ceased as they conserved their energy for the climb. Mary had stopped three quarters of the way up. Hands on hips, her misty breath coming in short pants.
‘Not as young as I used to be. These stairs’ll be the death of me.’
The doors were thrown open and James, Sir Richard’s secretary, flanked by Phyllis, the housekeeper, and the current cook whose name Tom had forgotten, stood ready to greet them. Though the staff at the hall had been reduced to a mere handful compared with the days when he and Mary and many of the others had started work here, an army of catering staff employed for this special occasion were on hand to take coats and pass round the gently steaming glasses of spiced mulled wine.
They were all ushered into the Saloon where, as always, there were oohs and aahs of delight at the glittering decorations. Beneath the huge tree that towered almost to the high ceiling were the wrapped gifts which Sir Richard and Lady Fullerton would present to all the assembled staff, both old and new, at the end of the evening. The farm manager and the estate workers were already gathered around the blazing log fire in huge fire place. The new arrivals drifted over to warm themselves and recover after their recent exertions. The buzz of noisy chatter began again as folk exchanged greetings and brought each other up to date with the year’s events when they had last all been together.
A hush descended as the double doors were thrown open and Sir Richard and Lady Fullerton entered followed by the children. The eldest boy must be ten or eleven now and the spitting image of his father as he was when Tom first came to the big hall. Like his parents, he was all smiles no doubt already being groomed for his future role when the management of the estate would fall into his hands. The younger lad, looking uncomfortable in his smart buttoned jacket and unaccustomed collar and tie, had none of his brother’s confidence and still had hold of his mother’s hand. Not so the girl. In her deep blue velvet dress with its great flounce of petticoats and lace collar and cuffs she reminded Tom of a character from a Victorian Christmas card. With an assurance surprising in a seven year old she looked around taking in the group of strangers. When she caught his gaze, she stopped. Her large brown eyes held Tom’s so steadily that he could not look away. Tom smiled but the child’s expression did not change.
As he did every year, Sir Richard welcomed everyone, said how good it was to see so many familiar faces and promised to speak to every one of them before the end of the evening. Then he and his lady stepped forward to mingle with their guests cutting off Tom’s view of the child.
Tom turned back to Mary who was talking animatedly with Betty about their days as kitchen girls together. Both women had changed since then. The slim, fresh cheeked young girls they once were had now become plump, grey-haired and with laughter lines around the eyes very much in evidence. Nonetheless, Mary’s ready smile and warm soft voice still had the power to make her seem as beautiful to him now as she had all those years ago in their courting days.
Soon it was time for them all to move into dinner. Sir Richard led his family to the far side of the top table whilst the rest of the party found their places at one or other of the two long tables on either side. The silver and glass sparkled in the glow of the many candles. Naturally enough, with so many people to cater for, the crystal and Sevres china that adorned the dining table when the house was opened in the summer months for paying visitors, had been replaced by less expensive items no doubt hired for this special occasion but nonetheless elegant and tasteful. Fine china plates with gold edging and glassware delicate enough to cause a flutter of concern to the unsteady hand.
When he glanced up at the top table, Tom saw the little girl standing a little apart so that she could see round the high backed chair, her eyes still glued on him. This time he gave her a little wave as well as a smile but she remained impassive.
James tapped the edge of his glass with a spoon and the room fell silent. Heads bowed as Sir Richard said grace followed by much scraping of chairs as everyone sat down. Time to pull the crackers. The ladies and several of the men screwed up their faces in anticipation of the sudden bang. Some squealed then broke into laughter to cover their embarrassment. Silly paper hats were unrolled and even those on the top table felt obliged to put them on. The hubbub continued as the jokes were read out.
Once the smoked salmon starters were served, the place quietened down; the noisy excited babble replaced for the most part by the clatter of cutlery and the clinking of glasses.
It was Mary who drew his attention to it. ‘They’ve put back the picture, I see.’
Tom followed her gaze and looked up at the family portrait on the wall behind the top table. It dominated the room. It had been painted soon after Tom had started working at the Hall. The late Lord Fullerton, his wife and their four children, Miss Sara, the eldest, Master Richard, the current baronet, Master George and the ill-fated Miss Lucy.
‘I’m surprised Sir Richard moved it back,’ said Betty who was sitting on the other side of Mary. ‘His father couldn’t bear to look at it, not after she drowned. Had the picture taken down and put in the attic. The room looked so bare without it. Made it worse somehow.’
‘I expect they had it put back for the visitors. They all want to hear the tragic story of what happened. That’s what brings ’em in.’
‘Perhaps. But then Sir Richard was very fond of his high-spirited little sister. He was always first to defend her when she got into scrapes.’
‘True but if they hadn’t been so lenient with all her and all her antics it never would’ve happened. They’d both still be alive today.’ Mary brushed away an angry tear and resolutely tucked into her turkey.
Fifty years on and she still hasn’t forgiven the poor child, Tom thought. He, on the other hand, had never held her to blame. Not that she didn’t know full well that she wasn’t allowed onto the ice unless there was an adult on hand to supervise but that morning she had been so eager to go skating that she’d slipped out without telling anyone.
The conversation moved on and it wasn’t until the pudding dishes were being cleared away and the wine glasses filled ready for the toasts that Tom gave any thought to the little girl. There she was, still staring at him. This time she gave him a nod and slowly rose and made her way round the top table and down the room towards him. He stood ready and when she faltered for a moment he held out a helping hand. The sad brown eyes looked frightened but she lifted her arms to him and took a few more haltering steps.
‘It’s alright Miss Lucy,’ he called softly as swept her up and held her tight, ‘I’ve got you this time.’
Tears coursed down his cheeks. If only he had been there a minute earlier he could have saved her. He could feel the cold, cold water dripping from their clothes. A dark puddle grew ever wider round his feet.
Still holding the child tightly to his breast he turned towards Mary. If only he could tell her to stop grieving for him. To forgive and let the past go. To let them both go.