A Very Mansfield Christmas
"Deck the halls with bows of holly. Tra.. La.. La.."
The strong, if not melodic, voice broke off abruptly as its owner slipped sideways through the hedge and watched cautiously the path she had just neatly exited. Her patience was rewarded as her brother and oldest cousin came in to view. They walked past without pausing, talking companionably, and obviously heading for the stables for an early morning ride. Her cousin Tom, tall and fair, looked very much the gentleman. William, shorter and stockier, looked slightly uncomfortable in his borrowed riding gear, tugging ruefully at his cravat. Tom smiled his deceptively lazy smile and urged his cousin on. Susan had reason to mistrust that smile knowing full well that a sharp mind hid behind sleepy eyes. Tom might eschew book learning for horses and estate management but once he decided to take an interest in something his commitment was total.
Susan watched them till they were out of sight and then stepped back on to the path. She headed towards the trees, in the opposite direction to William and Tom. William was a poor horseman, as the amount of time he had spent at sea in the last few years had not allowed him much time for leisure. Tom would take him over the fields, flat and bare after an excellent harvest.
She began idly humming again as she climbed the hill and paused to rest at the summit amongst the trees. The air was crisp and cold as she looked back towards Mansfield Park. She felt like the only person alive. The only sign of life was a wisp of smoke from the chimneys. The walk was a small respite as they would be looking for her soon. Tom had volunteered her to decorate the main rooms with evergreens while the maids did the lesser rooms. Her Aunt Bertram had agreed of course. Yes, certainly Susan must do it. She was quite the best person for the job. Her uncle, Sir Thomas, had nodded into his newspaper. Indeed. Well, she wasn't going to. Not yet, and certainly not at Toms order. They had been so busy deciding amongst themselves that they had quite forgotten to tell her.
She practised the air of puzzlement she would use.
"The evergreens? Oh I would love to decorate the Hall. I have some wonderful ideas. When would you like me to start? Oh, you thought I would do it today - What a shame you didn't let me know."
She smiled and acknowledged to herself that she couldn't do it. She loved her Aunt and Uncle and the home they shared with her. Brought to Mansfield as companion to her Aunt she had made them her family. It was five years since she had left her parents and remaining siblings in Plymouth but it seemed a lifetime ago. Of course she wrote to them but she knew, as her sister Fanny had taken much longer to learn, that in her heart Mansfield Park was home. Susan was resigned to the fact that in a few moments she would walk back down the hill and do the best job of decorating the hall that anyone at Mansfield had ever seen. Her pride demanded it.
Of course, she would need revenge on Tom. Bossy Tom, Perfect Tom, the heir apparent to Mansfield and all its' concerns. He thought he knew best and condescended to share his wisdom with his little cousin, who being a girl needed guidance.
"Bah!" That sounded well so she tried it again.
"Bah!" Definitely not a comment for the drawing room of Mansfield Park, but satisfying all the same. Reformed rakes were supposed to be the worst. She wasn't sure that Tom had been a rake, or what they were supposed to be worse at. For that matter she was a little hazy on the exact definition of a rake as well. She did know that he had caused the family much concern as a young man. Her sister Fanny had married Tom's brother Edmund and they were settled at Mansfield Parsonage. Edmund as a minister had much more right to lecture but very kindly refrained. Tom alone considered himself the guardian of her conduct. Spinning in a circle with her arms wide she took a breath and then started back home
Susan was wrong about the direction the cousins had taken on their horses as an errand had taken them towards the village. They drew in, and dismounted at the gates of the parsonage. Handing the reins to the gardener that Tom's brother Edmund had recently hired they strode towards the house.
"Good Morning Fanny!" William called as his sister opened the front door. " Won't Edmund let you have a maid to open the door for you?" Fanny's pleased smile changed to a frown. She began worriedly "Indeed brother I am sure I may have anything. Edmund spoils me excessively. The maid is visiting her mother who is unwell".
Tom laughed as he entered. "Your brother is teasing you Fanny, and if you had a hundred maids you might still answer your own door. It is your nature to spare others work at your own expense. Now, we have an invitation for you both to dine with us this evening." Assuring them that dinner at the house was just what would please her, Fanny directed them to the church where they would find Edmund.
Fanny returned to her breakfast room to clear the dishes. The cook really had too much to do with all the Christmas preparations and it would only take a moment. The job was soon done and her sewing basket accompanied her into the parlor. She threaded her needle as she thought of her brother William. She hoped he would enjoy Christmas at Mansfield. Indeed, it was the first time he had been free to spend a holiday with family in quite a while. She could not help counting her blessings. Her marriage to her cousin Edmund three years ago had brought much joy to all the family, and now they were all gathering for the Christmas season. She might have wished William was staying at the parsonage but her cousin Tom had begged his company at the house. Sir Thomas was glad to hear his tidings of the Fleets progress. Her sister Susan was not as close to William, as Fanny had been over the years, so she would not begrudge her younger sister the chance to get to know him for the excellent brother he was. Aunt Bertram was so placid that she liked any plan that caused her no bother. She would only smile and agree that it was lovely to have William visit and that his sisters must be very pleased to see him so well.
Fanny did wish Susan would get along better with their cousin Tom. Susan was quick witted, good hearted, and loved the family but was more likely to voice her opinions than Fanny. Tom was coming into his own as the future master of Mansfield and would spend hours discussing with Edmund their plans for the future. Sir Thomas thought this only right and very wisely was gradually handing over his responsibilities. Susan, at nineteen, was the youngest of the cousins gathered at Mansfield and Tom's protectiveness and advice was considered interference by the strong minded girl.
Fanny looked up as the two men rode past the window, waving as they went. Edmund came in a moment later smiling, and kissed her on the cheek. "What, sitting all alone my Fanny? This won't do. You must wrap up warmly and come for a walk with me. I need some paper for my sermon and we must buy you some pretty ribbons to trim your new dress. Christmas is only a week away."
"No, Edmund, my ribbons are fine but I will walk with you if you desire it." Fanny quickly tidied up the sewing which in truth was barely begun. They walked arm in arm to the village and if Fanny's heart gave a pang as she watched the children running and playing she buried it deep and was a happy companion.
Three days before Christmas the coach bearing the Honorable John Yates and his family descended on Mansfield bringing in its wake the first signs of snow. Two young boys jumped from the coach before the steps were lowered, running and jumping to catch the flakes that heralded the season. Julia descended from the coach, the very image of a young matron, bearing herself with the assurance of one who knows herself the centre of domestic harmony. Young daughter in her arms, she laughed as her two sons scampered away from Susans reaching arms.
"You must let them run, Susie. They have been confined in the coach for three hours and as soon as they knew the snow was on its way they were unbearable."
Her husband following her from the coach agreed.
"Yes, I shall take them for a walk around the park before this snow gets any worst."
Tom stepped forward to shake Johns hand and offered his company, as Susan drew Julia into the house where her parents were waiting to greet them.
Christmas Eve they all assembled for dinner at the parsonage. Sir Thomas revelling in his role as the patriarch looked around the table with satisfaction. His two sons Tom and Edmund were men to be proud of. His daughter Julia was married to a man he had come to appreciate for his even temper and goodwill. John Yates brought a ready laugh to any table and was a good father to his much loved grandchildren. Looking round at his two nieces, Sir Thomas acknowledged to himself that it had been a happy day when Edmund took gentle, steadfast Fanny as his wife. Susan with her bright smile and quick ways brightened up his home. The old Sir Thomas would have wished for a more yielding nature and more reserve from his younger niece, but he was older and wiser now.
"A toast!" He called. " We give thanks for our blessings, large and small." This last with a glance to his youngest grandchild who had reached out and managed to overturn the gravy boat on Fanny's best tablecloth. All at the table laughed as the mishap was cleared and the sleepy children removed by their nurse, before Sir Thomas continued. "We wish the joy of Christmas to all our neighbors and friends, but most importantly are grateful for the love and company of family."
"Hear, Hear" called John. The others smiled and raised their glasses.
"And Father, perhaps a blessing for those absent" added Edmund more quietly.
"Yes indeed Edmund." His father agreed, looking down into his glass, pale and bereft of words.
"For Maria, then" said Tom with a smile "With the hope and forgiveness of the season."
They all solemnly raised their glasses again and thought of her that was lost to them. Maria had not been heard from in two years. After the matrimonial scandal, which had exiled Tom and Edmund's second sister to the country with her Aunt Norris, they had heard little from her. Two years ago they had received the news that Aunt Norris had died unexpectedly. The funeral was organised and attended by the Sir Thomas and his sons out of respect, if not love. Maria had surprised them. The selfish, petulant, demanding girl was gone, replaced by a stranger. This Maria was pale and quiet. She clutched at her brothers' arm and cried silently at the funeral but added nothing to their conversations, listening to their plans for another companion for her with disinterest. Sir Thomas spoke with his sons and they agreed that grief for her aunt, and the knowledge that she was still forever outcast from Mansfield and that other world she once enjoyed was weighing on her. Staying the night at the inn and returning the next morning with the resolution to find her a cheerful companion, they were shocked to find her gone. Her plans were well made. A ship to France and then she disappeared as if she had never existed.
Susan could hear the Christmas bells as she woke. Five...six and then silence. The snow that had been coming down heavily all night seemed to have stopped and there was no wind. Peering over the counterpane she considered her options. A few more minutes in this warm nest or a quick dash for slippers and robe so she could look out the window. Seconds later she was flying across the room to the window seat, breathing on the glass to see Mansfield and its surrounds covered in a mantle of snow. The only movement was the stable boys already out clearing a path towards the parsonage otherwise the scene could have been a picture. A moment frozen.
Dressing quickly Susan surveyed the room with satisfaction. Her presents were already under the tree downstairs but the holly she had placed on her mantelpiece was very festive. She frowned as she tied her sash thinking of the trouble the presents had given her.
Fanny and Edmund had taken a trip to London before winter and she had been very glad to accompany them. Her gifts had either been made or purchased during their stay. While Edmund had visited his colleagues, and attended meetings with the Bishop, Susan and Fanny had expored the London shops and attractions. The children's toys had been the easiest while Fanny had helped her chose some excellent books for Edmund and Sir Thomas, and a selection of plays for John. The bookmarks she had embroidered herself with their names and a Christmas message. William had admired Edmund's watch one day so Fanny and Susan had joined their resources to buy him a silver one from the jewellers. Julia and Aunt Bertram would receive lovely shawls they had found in a Welsh lace makers shop. Susan had slipped back another day to purchase one for Fanny who had thought they were beautifully made.
That had left Tom. What to buy Tom? The very thought of that decision made her head ache. She didn't know why it had been so hard. She couldn't buy him a book. He was not a great reader. Perhaps one on estate management? Too boring. A new riding crop? Goodness he had three already. A watch fob, a cravat pin, monogrammed paper and a desk set were all discarded as unworthy. Unworthy? Susan didn't like to think about that too much. They were not interesting and she had wanted to find just the right gift.
William had unwittingly been the inspiration for her final choice. His latest letter had spoken of long nights on watch at sea. He had spoken of the looking glasses used by the watchmen during the day. How useful they were in seeing long distances with such detail. Well, Susan had enjoyed a particularly exhausting argument with Tom before their departure for London. Tom had not defended himself as she accused him of watching and spying on her. This had followed a thoroughly innocent exchange between herself and the publicans son who had been delivering goods to the kitchen. Apprised by the cook, as she delivered a message, that it was his fourteenth birthday she had impulsively kissed him on the cheek much to his stuttering embarrassment.
Tom, of course, had walked in at just the wrong moment carrying some rabbits from the gamekeeper. The battle she engaged with Tom in the privacy of his fathers study had left no prisoners. Her defenses were blasted by the cannonballs of propriety and dignity. They had retired to corners, Tom unsure that she had been chastened and Susan unsure if she was paroled. Susan's parting shot calling Tom "the spy master" was followed by the slamming of the study door. Getting the last word would have satisfied her if she had not heard laughter behind her as she flounced down the hallway.
Seeing the naval looking glass in the display case at the jewellers she knew immediately it was the perfect gift. Everyone would think she had bought it for Tom to use as he travelled the estate and made decisions about the property. He would know the significance of a "spy" glass though.
An hour later she was pensively wandering downstairs with her hand trailing on the banister when a sharp nudge from behind had her turning in surprise.
"Look out boys!" Called their father as Jo and Phillip rushed past her. Susan turned smiling as Julia and John came down the steps.
"I should have known the boys would be up early" she laughed.
"Early?" Julia sighed "This is their normal time to begin attacking the day. The nurse is bringing baby down in a moment. Is there any chance of breakfast before the presents?"
"Not much." Sympathised John, before Susan could speak.
As it happened there was time for breakfast and for the other members of the household to join them. The boys had agreed that they could not possibly open presents until Grandfather came back from fetching Edmund and Fanny from the Parsonage. Their usual custom had been to open presents on Christmas Eve but the tradition in Johns family was to open them after breakfast and no-one wanted to confuse the children.
Breakfast was a happy meal, loud with the childrens expectations of the joys to come. The sideboard was covered in every dish imaginable but with the Christmas feast yet to be faced the adults at least managed to restrain themselves. Susan looking around the table was struck by the happiness of the moment. Every ones cares set aside in the pleasure of the season. She began to feel a little uncomfortable about her present for Tom. Glancing down the table at him she was surprised to find him watching her. Stifling the urge to snub him she offered a shy smile. Tom blinked and then smiled, saluting her with his coffee cup. She looked away, sure her heart was beating loudly enough to be heard in the village.
Quietly excusing herself Susan went out into the hall took a breath and walked quickly to the Drawing room where the presents had been laid out on the side tables. Tom lounged against the door frame as he watched her nervously rearrange the presents.
"I think they're fine, Susan" he drawled. Susan jumped and whirled around.
"Must you do that!" She complained.
"What Susan. Startle you, follow you or just live in this house with you. You need to decide what most annoys you about me." There was no disguising the edge to his voice as he continued his entry into the room.
"Tom..."entreated Susan, suddenly a little ashamed of her continued antipathy towards him. " I have never disliked you. I suppose I'm just too used to fighting you all the time."
Further conversation was suspended as the others joined them. They arranged themselves around the fire as Sir Thomas handed passed the presents to the boys indicating to whom they should be delivered. Susan was pleased to receive a lovely gold pin from her Aunt and Uncle but frowned at William as she opened his gift of French perfume.
"Don't frown so, Susie. The perfume is not smuggled. I got it through a merchant who has dealings with the navy. I paid the duty on it myself. There are quite a few trade ships getting through now that Bonaparte has stood down."
"Thank you William" said Susan as she kissed him on the cheek. "Forgive me, I shouldn't have doubted you. It will be so nice to have some genuine perfume again."
"Indeed William. I thank you for mine also" agreed Fanny. " We shall be quite fine."
The presents were all disbursed with many exclamations and much gratitude. Susan watched anxiously as Tom opened his gift from her. He looked at it a moment but she couldn't see his reaction as he was called to the window by William, who had seen immediately what he was holding.
"A spy glass, excellent. That will be very useful. Look out the window and I am sure you will be able to see a fair distance" explained William. Edmund joined them at the window, always interested in scientific objects.
"Look Tom, how clear the view is" he said taking a turn. Tom took the glass and looked out over Mansfield as Edmund continued. "Now you really will be Lord of all you survey" he laughed.
Tom scanned the horizon and then unexpectedly turned his gaze back into the room focussing it on Susan who froze.
"Indeed." He said as he put it down. "I thank you Susan."
Susan went pale, unable to meet his eyes. She busied herself with the children as the conversations whirled about them. They decided on an outing so the children could try out their new sleds and build a snow man on the lawn. It was important to make use of this clear morning before the snow returned.
Fanny and Susan settled their Aunt comfortably by the fire with her pug as the others called for coats and wraps and departed to brave the snow. Fanny carried the baby upstairs returning her to the nurse as Susan cleared the drawing room of papers and ribbons. Joining her sister, Susan found her on the landing clutching the banister with a shaky hand.
"Fanny, come sit. You are not well." Exclaimed Susan as she took Fanny into a nearby sitting room.
Fanny took a moment to compose herself as Susan held her hand.
"I should call Edmund back." Worried Susan.
"No, Susan." Began Fanny,quietly with a small smile. She seemed uncertain how to continue. "It is just that, finally, our hopes will be met. Edmund and I are to be parents."
"Oh Fanny. How wonderful. Will you let the others know?" Susan could not hide her joy at the news.
"Yes. Edmund will make a small announcement at dinner." Fanny coloured.
"Oh goose, don't be embarrassed. They will be so pleased for you, and it is only family." Reassured her sister. Fanny agreed but battled with her desire not to be the centre of attention.
Fanny was returned to her room for a rest and Susan gathered her own wraps to join the others outside. She needed to walk or run or something. The house suddenly seemed too warm. She needed fresh air and a little peace for a while.
Discarding the plan to join her family she decided to head up to the hill. She could sit there for a while in the calm of the morning. She was glad for her sister, of course, but the news also seemed to underline Fannys place in the family. Susan was unaccountably unsure of her own future. She was not jealous of Fanny but only envied her that surety of belonging in this beloved place.
Susan was not surprised to find Tom waiting for her when she reached the summit. She had thought there would be an accounting for her gift. It had seemed too much to hope that she could have this moment of peace. She looked at him silently and he returned her steadfast gaze calmly.
"I thought I would bring my gift up here for the best view of Mansfield Park" He began. Susan had not noticed that he was holding the looking glass.
"Tom, I am sorry. You did not deserve such ingratitude. I know you do what you think is right for my well-being." She apologised.
"No, I don't" he ruefully acknowledged. "I do it to get your attention. I do it because I cannot help myself."
Susan was shocked. Unable to say anything in the face of such honesty. Tom continued without pause.
"When you first came to Mansfield Park you disdained me. No, that's not true, it was as if you didn't see me. I was recovering from my illness and you were so full of life, never stopping for a second and I was ashamed of my apathy. You always had some project or plan, interested in everything. When I was well I think I set out to prove to you that I was to be reckoned with. That you must pay heed to me."
"But that's so long ago" replied Susan. " You run the estate so confidently. Everyone looks up to you. You do not need to prove yourself to me."
Tom was suddenly much closer and Susan held her breath as he took her hand.
All her time at Mansfield had come down to this moment. Two people alone on this hill looking down on the place that they both loved, perhaps afraid to take that step that would bind them not only to it, but more importantly to each other. Susan suddenly knew that it was not Mansfield Park that she loved but the people who filled it, and especially Tom.
What they said, and how it was agreed, is between them. They spoke of their hearts desire and their plans for a future together. No objection would be made by a family that had learnt to appreciate the truth of a decision made by the heart unaffected by material considerations. A short while later they walked back down the hill their hands firmly clasped. Nothing had ever seemed quite this right before.
"Did I mention that Edmund has an announcement to make at dinner." Offered Susan as Tom put his arm around her waist to help her over the snow. Tom smiled down at her. It didn't seem possible the day could offer more than the contentment of this moment.
"Does he? Well, It can't be more unexpected than our news." Replied Tom with a grin as they headed home.
"Perhaps unexpected Tom. But not unwished for." Stated Susan as she returned his gaze. There was a place for her at Mansfield, there always had been.
By the time they were all seated for dinner the snow was once around swirling around the windows of Mansfield Park. The smoke from the chimneys the only sign of the warmth that filled the house and their hearts.
© 2002 Copyright held by author