Authors: Nancy Atherton
I sighed with pleasure and gazed adoringly at Bill. He would make a splendid Father Christmas. If anyone had been born to play the role of a gift-giving saint, it was my gentle, great-hearted husband.
Bill cleared his throat once more and folded his hands over his stomach. “Christmas,” he stated flatly, “should be abolished.”
“Huh?” I said, startled.
“Christmas should be abolished,” said Bill, biting off each word. “I'm sick to death of it.”
“But it hasn't even started yet,” I objected.
Bill blinked rapidly. “It hasn't started? Then what have we been doing for the past month?”
“Getting warmed up,” I replied.
“Lori,” Bill said slowly, “do you realize that we've been to fifteen parties in the past ten days?”
“Has it been that many?” I said. “I guess I wasn't counting.”
Bill's laughter held a touch of madness. “Seven dinner parties, five luncheons, and three sherry evenings, in addition to running back and forth from London every other
day, not to mention all the little jaunts to Oxford, on top of playing woodsman in the oak grove â¦ Lori,” he gasped, “I'm worn out.”
“Of course you are.” I crossed quickly to sit on the arm of Bill's chair, smoothed the hair back from his forehead, and cooed, “It was thoughtless of me to pile so much on you, but you know how hard it is to refuse an invitation without offending someone. I'll go to the rest of the parties by myself, okay? All you have to do between now and Christmas Eve is bring the tree in from the garden shed tomorrow.”
Bill leaned his head against the back of the chair and breathed a sigh of relief. “I think I can manage that.”
I smiled sweetly. “And play Joseph in the Nativity play.”
Bill's eyes swiveled toward my face. “Nativity play?”
I got to my feet and put a couple of yards between me and my great-hearted husband before asking, “Didn't I tell you about the Nativity play?”
“No,” Bill said, with frightening calm, “you didn't.”
“Well,” I said, taking a deep breath, “Peggy Kitchen decided to stage a Nativity play on Christmas Eve, but according to her, Nativity plays are always directed by the vicar's wife, so she corralled Lilian Bunting into directing it, only Lilian's never directed a play before, and there was a shortage of male volunteers for the cast, so I”âI backed up another stepâ”I volunteered you.”
Bill lowered his chin in the manner of a bull about to charge. “You'll have to unvolunteer me, Lori.”
“It's mainly tableaux,” I coaxed. “Hardly any lines to memorize. And they're only holding four rehearsals.”
“No,” said Bill.
“Not even as a favor to Lilian?” I pleaded.
“No,” Bill repeated.
“Bill,” I said sternly, “it's your civic duty to help the vicar's wife.”
“Civic duty?” Bill sputtered, pushing himself up from his chair. “You've had civic duty on the brain ever since the Harvest Festival last summer. Well, here's a news flash for you, Lori: I danced with the morris dancers at the festival, I singed my eyebrows lighting the Guy Fawkes Day bonfire, and I bought a year's worth of beeswax candles for Saint George's Church at the last benefit auction. I've
my civic duty, and I plan to spend the next two weeks
Red-faced with fury, Father Christmas stormed out of the living room, slammed open the stair gate, slammed it shut behind him, and stomped up to the master bedroom. I stood frozen in place until his last foot-thump faded, then leaned against the mantelpiece and groaned.
Willis, Sr., looked up from his novel. “My son is tired,” he offered.
“Your son is right.” I sank into the chair Bill had vacated. “I never should have accepted all of those invitations.”
“Christmas comes but once a year,” said Willis, Sr. “It is only natural to wish to share the joys of the season with friends.”
“Maybe,” I said, refusing consolation, “but I definitely could have planned our trips better. If I'd arranged things properly, we wouldn't have had to run back and forth to London and Oxford so often.”
“My son is accustomed to letting employees run for him,” Willis, Sr., observed. “I do not think it such a bad thing for him to do his own running now and again.”
“Okay,” I allowed, “but I shouldn't have volunteered him for the Nativity play without speaking with him first.”
“No,” Willis, Sr., agreed, “you should not have.”
I folded my arms and slumped back. “Now Bill's mad at me and I've left Lilian in the lurch.”
“I can do little to remedy the former predicament,” said Willis, Sr., “but I may be able to help with the latter.” He ran a finger along his immaculately shaved jaw. “Perhaps I could take Bill's place in the Nativity play.”
I shot upright in my chair. “Are you serious?”
“I do not pretend to be a polished thespian,” Willis, Sr., cautioned, “but I believe I could fulfill the role of Joseph without embarrassing myself or Mrs. Bunting.”
“Lilian will weep with gratitude,” I assured him.
“Then you may tell her not to worry about finding another Joseph,” said Willis, Sr., with a decisive nod. He picked up his novel. “And now I believe you have some diplomatic business to conduct upstairs?”
I beamed at him. “What would I do without you, William?”
“I tremble to think,” he replied.
I gave him a peck on the cheek, then headed for the staircase, hoping that Bill had been too angry to fall asleep at once. When I reached the head of the stairs, I turned automatically toward the nursery to check on the twins and saw, in the night-light's dim glow, that Bill had beaten me to the punch.
I watched in silence as my husband bent low to place a handsome pink flannel rabbit at the foot of Rob's crib. When he straightened, I whispered, “I'm sorry.”
“You should be,” Bill whispered back, but he put a hand out to me, to take the sting from his words.
“Don't worry about a thing,” I told him, taking his hand in mine. “From now on, we're having a quiet Christmas at home. Except for the Christmas Eve party.”
“I should be recovered by then.” Bill pulled me close and wrapped his arms around me. A few moments later he
murmured softly in my ear, “Your willingness to make amends shall be rewarded, my love.”
“How?” I asked huskily, running my fingers through his hair.
“With snow,” he replied.
My hands dropped to his shoulders. It was not the answer I'd expected.
Bill drew me to the window. “I don't know if it'll last until Christmas, but it's a start.”
A shimmering veil of snow swirled and billowed just beyond the windowpane. Fat flakes, wind-driven, splashed the glass or cartwheeled through the darkness to deepen drifts already forming along the flagstone path. It was dazzling, hypnotic, an answer to my prayersâI would have stood there all night, entranced, if my husband hadn't suggested a better way to spend the evening.
Hours later, long after Bill and I had fallen asleep, after Willis, Sr., had closed his book, quenched the fire, and crept upstairs to bed, the snow kept falling. It curled like ermine along bare boughs, filled furrows in plowed fields, and drifted gently over the tattered stranger sprawled beside my graveled drive.
The gift the stranger carried nearly cost him his life.
soft knock at the bedroom door awoke me the following morning. I lay for a moment, relishing the warmth of Bill's body, then slipped out of bed and pulled on the vintage dressing gown I'd picked up in London. I paused briefly to admire the robe's pastel gray-and-blue plaid before tiptoeing barefoot into the hall.
My father-in-law awaited me, fully dressed and sincerely apologetic. “I am sorry to disturb you, Lori, but my grandsons are rather excitable this morning and I cannot find a way to calm them.” He hesitated. “Have you any idea what âwedge' means?”
“Wedge?” I echoed blankly.
Willis, Sr., nodded. “Rob and Will keep repeating it, âwedge, wedge, wedge,' as if it had a particular meaning.”
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. Until now the twins' intelligible vocabulary had consisted of a handful of generic terms, such as “mama” and “dada,” and the highly original “gaga,” meaningâone hopedâ
grandfather. Had my little geniuses added a proper noun to their lexicon?
“Where are they?” I asked.
“In the nursery,” Willis, Sr., replied, leading the way down the hall. “I closed the door, fearing that you and Bill might be awakened by the commotion.”
As Willis, Sr., opened the nursery door, I heard a babble of baby voices loud enough to wake the dead. Will and Rob, still dressed in their pajamas, their dark hair tousled and their cheeks pink with excitement, were standing in their cribs, bouncing up and down and chattering wildly.
“You see?” said Willis, Sr.
“Mama,” cried Will. “Wedge, wedge, wedge.”
“Wedge!” added Rob, in case I'd missed the point.
“What's going on?” Bill appeared in the doorway, rubbing sleep from his eyes, wearing a hastily donned Harvard sweatshirt and gray sweatpants.
“I think they're trying to tell us something,” I murmured, scanning the room.
“Spoken like a doting mother,” Bill said, with a tolerant smile. “You know the boys are too young toâ”
I nudged him with my elbow and pointed toward the window seat. “Wedge,” I said triumphantly.
If Bill had remembered to put on his glasses, he'd've cracked the code as quickly as I had. It didn't take a genius to figure out that “wedge” meant Reginald, the pink flannel rabbit bestowed upon me at birth by Aunt Dimity.
“What's Reginald doing on the window seat?” Bill pulled his glasses from the pocket of his sweatshirt and put them on. “I dropped him in Rob's crib last night.”
“Rob must have tossed him out,” I said.
“All the way to the window seat?” Bill frowned. “That's a heck of a toss for a little guy. Besides, Reginald's standing
upright, facing the window. How did he land like that? Father, did youâ”
“I did not move Reginald,” said Willis, Sr., crossing to look out of the window. “He was sitting on the window seat when I awoke this morning. I thought one of you had placed him there.”
A quiver of uneasiness passed through me. The boys had fallen silent and were watching me expectantly. I nodded to them and joined Willis, Sr., at the window, squinting against the glare of bright sunlight on snow.
Not a whisper of wind stirred the silent world beyond the windowpane. The sky was a cloudless dome of blue, and the drab autumnal landscape was now gowned in classic white. The hedgerows sported clusters of sparkling pompoms, and the front lawn wore a sinuous, shimmering gown that flowed unbroken from the flagstone walk to the foot of the lilac bushes lining the graveled drive.
“What's that?” Bill asked, coming up behind me.
“What's what?” I replied.
Willis, Sr., leaned forward. “I believe I see something beneath the lilac bushes.”
Bill stiffened suddenly. “Something â¦ or someone.”
For half a heartbeat, no one moved. Then Reginald tumbled from the window seat to the floor, stirring all of us into action. Willis, Sr., remained with the boys while Bill and I pelted down the stairs, leaving the gates open in our haste. We paused briefly at the front door to jam our bare feet into boots, then raced outside, not bothering with jackets.
A man lay on his side beneath the bare-branched lilac bushes, his arms crossed over his chest and his knees half-bent, as though conserving a last remnant of body heat. Shoulder-length gray hair fell across his face, and his shaggy beard was rimed with frost. The man was dressed
like a tramp, in ragged trousers, fingerless gloves, and a worn woolen overcoat bound at the waist with a length of rope. A drift of snow had settled over him, intricately patterned with whorls and curves.
Bill dropped to his knees and pressed his fingers to the man's neck. “Still with us,” he muttered. “Just barely. Grab his legs, Lori.”
I looked at the man's ragged trousers, suppressed a shudder of revulsion, then reached for his legs and lifted.
Willis, Sr., was slight of build and had a delicate constitution, but when he took charge in an emergency he had the command capability of a five-star general. While Bill and I were out in the snow, he got on the telephone.
In less than an hour, an RAF rescue helicopter appeared in my back meadow and whisked the tramp off to the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, where he was treated by a team of specialistsâcommandeered by my well-connected father-in-lawâfor pneumonia complicated by hypothermia and malnutrition.
Dr. Pritchard, the attending physician, kept us informed of his patient's progress throughout the morning. At nine-fifteen the doctor reported that the man was in critical condition, still unconscious and still without a name. The police had been unable to identify him, and the medical staff had found no trace of identification on his person.