Gillingham Estate, South-East England
The dog ran alongside the carriage as the horses picked their way through the snow and slush. He was old now, with his fur turning white in places. But he was still such a happy dog, loping along with his tongue lolling out, his tail held high, and his ears flapping in the breeze. He looked as though he was laughing at something, and he quite clearly thought the snow on the ground was marvellous.
Inside the carriage, the Earl of Snowley leaned forward, pulled up the blind blocking out the early afternoon winter sunshine that hung low in the sky, and peered through the window at the snowy landscape surrounding them.
“It has been such a long time since we had so much snow,” he muttered to the countess. “Look there! There are even blocks of ice floating on the river. I hope that the bridge is still open when we get there.”
“At least the bridge is open for much of the time,” said his wife. “Not like the causeway of old that was covered twice a day every day by the tide and completely unpassable when the weather was particularly inclement.”
The earl sat back in his seat. “I think that would have got on my pip, being tied to the tide.”
“One gets accustomed to it and adapts to suit,” she replied, looking out of her window that had not been obstructed by a blind, for the sun was on the other side of the coach for much of their relatively short journey. “We are spoilt, living in London,” she said. “When it snows there, the river ices over, but the snow does not settle. Or not for long.”
“And certainly not in drifts up to six feet deep as it has here,” said her husband. “Unless there has been a particularly bad winter. Did the river freeze over this year?” he asked now. “I do not remember anything about the frost fair in the newspapers.”
“There has not been a frost fair in London for more than ten years,” she answered. “Whether that means the river has frozen is another matter, for they will not hold the fair on the river again if there is the risk of accidents, like the last time.”
“Hmm,” said the earl. “I remember now.”
“In any case,” said the countess, “the city usually gets its snow in February. It has always been a more common occurrence here in the country.”
Her husband looked at her and held her hand. “Do you miss it here, Hortensia?”
She smiled at him with indulgence and shook her head. “Not as much as I would miss living with you, my love.” That pleased him no end, and he settled down with a contented smile, nodding his agreement. “Do not forget,” she reminded him, “we spent much of the year at the London house in any case.”
When they had met, his wife had been the housekeeper on Medway Island. What a scandal that had caused when the Earl of Snowley suddenly announced his marriage to a commoner, and when they were both already so old as well.
“We are not so old,” he muttered.
“Pardon, my love?” asked his wife.
“Nothing, my dear. I was simply hoping that it would not be too cold.”
Mr Francis, the butler, could see the carriage approaching along the long drive through his office window, which looked out at the front of the house. “The snow has not yet closed the bridge,” he mumbled to himself. Sometimes he mumbled so quietly that he had to tell himself to speak up.
He eased his aching bones out of his chair and made his way to the drawing room.
As the door opened, eight pairs of eyes turned to him in anticipation. The ninth pair of eyes in the room were firmly closed as the very elderly dowager duchess, the duke’s grandmother, snored softly in her favourite chair.
“Are they here, Francis?” asked the duke.
“Yes, Your Grace,” he replied. “They have just turned onto the drive.”
“Good, good!” said the duke, standing up and clapping his hands. “Let us all go and greet our final guests,” he said.
“Would you ask Pauline to bring the children down, Mr Francis?” asked the duchess getting to her feet.
“Of course, Madam,” he replied before shuffling away to do as he was bid.
Octavia looked after him with some sympathy. “He really is getting old now, Patrick,” she said to her husband. “Is there not something we can do to help him.”
“There is nothing wrong with my hearing,” the butler called to them from the hallway, making them all smile.
“There is plenty we can do,” Patrick replied once he was certain the old man truly was out of earshot. “However, he is a stubborn old devil, and he will not have any of it.”
Octavia looked around at everyone as they all rose, eager to greet the new arrivals. Her sister Margaret with her husband Charles, her other sister Anne, with child again, Anne’s husband the viscount, and finally Nancy and Edwin Martel, who were good friends of the Duke and Duchess of Gillingham and who even lived in the property with them, in their own wing.
“Our party is about to become complete, she said, beaming at them all. “Let us go and meet them.”
“I cannot wait to see Father,” said Anne, who was waddling slowly in her current state, with one hand clutched at the small of her back.
“I do not understand why you did not drop in to see him on your way down from Northumbria,” said Margaret. “You could have all come together.”
“We knew we would see him here,” said the viscount. “And we did not wish to risk the bridge being closed before we arrived.”
“What about your grandmother?” asked Octavia quietly as the room emptied.
Patrick regarded the old lady, who looked like a small walnut-faced doll sitting there in the big, over-stuffed armchair, and as he did so, she slowly opened one of her eyes and winked it at him before closing it again. “Oh, I think perhaps we should let her sleep,” he said, giving the dowager one last fond look.
By the time the coach rattled up at the door, the entire family and Mr and Mrs Martel were assembled in the hallway waiting to say hello to the earl and the former housekeeper.
As the great front door opened, however, and a flurry of snow blew into the house from a snowdrift, fifteen children of varying ages came crashing down the stairs, the younger ones cheering that Granny and Granddad are here!’ The older ones rolled their eyes and smiled with mild amusement. Pauline the nursemaid, who was now really the nanny, came up at the rear, carrying the youngest member of the household in her arms, Little Lord Michael, who would one day become the Marquess of Westcastle, a title that once belonged to his father, the present Duke of Gillingham.
“Are you looking forward to seeing Mrs Kaplan?” Octavia asked her husband, who had always been very fond of the former housekeeper. They still referred to her as Mrs Kaplan, even though she had been Mrs Lambert for eight years.
“I always look forward to seeing the countess,” Patrick replied truthfully.
While the earl and the countess alighted from the carriage, the dog stood quietly in the snow, gazing faithfully up at his master Freddie, the Snowley head groom. However, Octavia spied him through the open door and called out to him.
The dog looked at his master with expectation, as though awaiting permission, and with a slight nod of the groom’s head, the animal dashed into the house, wagging his tail, barking in his deep voice, and he ran straight to Octavia, who made a great fuss of him.
“All we need is Mrs Kaplan’s old Tibby, and everyone will be here!” exclaimed Octavia.
“Tibby was not up to the journey, I am afraid,” said the former housekeeper as she followed the dog indoors.
“He is well, though?” said Octavia, greeting the old woman with a kiss on each cheek in the continental fashion.
“Oh yes,” said her stepmother. “Retirement suits him very well.”
Eventually, the entire party, including the children, returned to the drawing room in a gaggle of noise as they each caught up on the other’s news, but the dog returned to his beloved master and accompanied him and the horses to the carriage house, where Freddie and Scruffy would both be lodging for the duration of their stay.
When two of the maids had finished bustling in and out with trays of drinks and hors d’oeuvres, tasty little morsels that also hailed from the continent, Patrick, the duke, having ensured that everyone had a glass of something in their hands – even the children had cordial – tapped his glass with a silver spoon, causing the crystal to sing around the room.
Once he had their attention, he made his announcement.
“We do not intend to stand on ceremony here,” he began, doing precisely that, which caused a ripple of laughter. “Therefore, this is the only speech I intend to make.” There was a heckle from his good friend Mr Edwin Martel, and everyone laughed again. “Please, our home is your home, and we intend you to all treat it as such. Come and go as you please, eat and drink when you wish, do exactly what you want. There is a ball planned for the day after Christmas, but that depends on whether the bridge is open and if our guests can get home afterwards if they want to. We also have Mr Thomas Clarkson and the Right Honourable Mr William Wilberforce coming to talk to us about the abolition of slavery. They will be here in time for the New Year celebrations. Do not feel that you have to attend any or either of these events. They have merely been arranged for our entertainment and our education. Finally,” he continued, “I should like to propose a toast of thanks to you all for making the journey here.”
“Hear, hear!” shouted Margaret’s husband, Charles.
“Hear, hear!” echoed everyone else.
“Pardon? What?” said the dowager duchess with a start, then her head nodded down to her chest, and she was dozing once again.
The next day was Christmas Eve. There had been another snowstorm during the night, covering all trace of the carriages that had arrived the previous day. The younger children did not object to the weather, for Freddie and Gordon, the two groomsmen, found them some sledges hidden away in one of the outhouses. The house was already on the island’s highest point, so the youngsters had lots of fun taking turns sliding down what was usually the lawns before running back up again. They made a snowman in the rose garden, and a snowball fight broke out on the edge of the woods, with Scruffy the dog thinking that each snowball was a ball for him to chase and bring back. His face was a picture as his ‘ball’ melted and fell apart in his mouth. It was not a problem, however, for there were plenty of ‘balls’ flying around for him to catch again and again.
The older children played cards or read books to each other in the library, sometimes reciting poetry and playing duets on the pianoforte. When the younger children came back indoors and had washed and changed, the older children were allowed to bring out the old toy theatre that was too fragile for the boisterous little ones to play with, and they would put on their little plays and dramatisations, playing all the different voices. Aside from the little figures operated by a hand-held stick, there were two puppets on strings, but only Nora and Dominic, the two oldest children, had mastered those thus far. The toy theatre had belonged to Octavia when she was a child, and the puppets had belonged to Patrick. One of the puppets looked like a wicked witch, and for some reason, she had been named Mrs Agar.
“Is it time to open our gifts?” Octavia called to the children when she feared they might be growing tired.
Cheers greeted this, and fifteen children, aged from three to fifteen, stampeded into the front parlour where a big pile of presents had been laid.
At eleven-thirty on Christmas Eve night, Mr Francis the butler found the family and their friends in front of a roaring fire singing carols. The children were all in bed by now, along with the dowager duchess, but Mr Francis thought that perhaps they should all be woken, if only to see what was outside.
He cleared his throat. “Mr Gordon and Mr Freddie are waiting at the door with the carriages, Your Grace,” he said to Patrick.
“Has there been any more snow, Francis?” asked the duke.
Patrick and Octavia exchanged a special look before addressing their company. “We are going to the mainland for midnight mass,” said Octavia. “If you would like to come with us, I suggest you wrap up warm. We have plenty of coats, capes, furs, and blankets for everyone.”
Anne rubbed her swollen belly. “If you do not mind,” she said to her husband. “I think I should like to go to bed. But you go.”
“Certainly not,” said the viscount. “I will stay here with you, keep you company at the very least, and be on hand should anything happen,” he added, nodding his head at her midriff.
Everybody else agreed they would like to go to midnight mass, and the thought of mulled wine waiting to warm them when they returned was more than sufficient incentive. A maid was dispatched to bring the children, but it was agreed to leave the dowager duchess where she was.
When they were all wrapped up, they made their way to the great front door and gasped when they saw the two carriages. Despite being in their nightclothes, some of the children ran out into the night to have a closer look. They were called back quickly, though, with a warning about catching a chill if they stayed out there for too long, and they did not want to be poorly over Christmas, did they?
The carriage wheels had been removed and replaced with runners so the coaches would glide more easily across the snow. While most of the guests were marvelling at the snow-sleds, Octavia’s attention was drawn to the horses, who had gaily coloured blankets beneath their bridles and harnesses and bright, peacock-blue feathers in their headbands.
Surprised, Octavia said to her husband, “Was that your idea?”
Patrick’s grin spread from ear to ear.
“Oh!” said Anne from behind her, clapping her hands together with glee. “How clever of you to remember!” She nudged their other sister, Margaret, and pointed. “Those are almost precisely like the feathered headdress Octavia wore on the night we first met Patrick!
“It is a night I shall never forget,” said Patrick.
“And so you should not!” said Anne, jabbing him sharply in the ribs with a finger. “You said some beastly things about Octavia in that headdress.”
Edwin Martel stepped in at that point. “To give him his due, he did not think you could hear him.”
His wife Nancy said then, “Well, I think they’re luvly.”
“I remember that headdress too!” said the earl to his middle daughter. “Octavia, dear, it truly was awful.”
When they had all finally got over their joy and surprise at seeing the ghastly feathers, and before the horses grew too tired of waiting, Anne and Jonty waved them off on their trip across the estate, with Anne holding her stomach protectively, and Jonty holding on to Scruffy’s collar. The dog would not be permitted inside the little church, and Freddie did not wish to leave him outside. So Scruffy’s Christmas Eve Treat was a cushion in front of the fire in the parlour and perhaps a nice juicy bone off the cook.
The sleds made a delightful tinkling noise as they slipped across the ice, thanks to strings of tiny bells that adorned the carriages.
Octavia, wrapped in a fur cape, snuggled up to her husband. “It is magical, is it not?” she said.
“It most certainly is,” he agreed, picking her gloved hand up in his. She shivered. “Are you warm enough?” he said, concerned for her well-being.
“It was a shiver of contentment rather than a shiver from the cold,” she said. They were silent for a few minutes as they watched the snow-covered land glide by their carriage windows. “Did you really need to remind me about that dreadful feather?” she asked, remembering now how she had to keep blowing the annoying monstrosity out of her face.
She sensed him smile in the darkness. “It was a fond memory for me,” he said.
The midnight mass in the small chapel was a lovely affair. The young choristers sang beautifully as the priest recited the service in Latin. Everyone had been given a small candle to hold, and when the mass was over, they exchanged greetings with the other locals. They left feeling a sense of peace and tranquillity washing over them.
“I am looking forward to that mulled wine when we get back,” said Edwin, rubbing his hands together.
“I was rather hoping for something a little stronger,” said Charles, Margaret’s husband.
“I would just as soon as be happy with a mug of hot drinking cocoa,” said Nancy, smacking her lips at the thought.
“In the old days,” said Mrs Kaplan, the countess, “Cook would have laid on a light buffet as well.”
“I remember,” said Patrick.
“Then it is a good thing that we have asked her to do the same on this night,” said Octavia with a smile.
“It seems a shame that the staff has had to wait up for our return,” said the earl. “I shall certainly be ready for my bed when we get back.”
Unfortunately, none of it was ready when they returned, for the entire house was lit up, and there was a great frenzy of activity.
“What on earth is going on?” said Octavia as Patrick helped her down from the sled.
“It is your sister, Madam,” said Mr Francis, coming to meet them and moving quicker than he had done for a few years.
“Is she all right?” asked Margaret.
“Is she ill?” asked their father.
They all rushed into the hallway, discarding their capes, coats, blankets, and furs as they did so.
“No,” said the dowager duchess, standing on the stair, clinging to the banister, wearing but a shawl over her nightdress and a mop cap on her head. “She is not ill.”
“Then what?” asked Patrick.
An excited viscount’s face appeared on the landing behind the old lady. “Anne has had her baby!” he said, and he promptly fainted.