A Rougemont Novella
December 24, 1872, Devon County, England
Ah, won’t you buy my ivy? It’s the loveliest I’ve seen.
Ah, won’t you buy my holly? Oh you who love the green.
Do take a little branch of each, and on my knees I’ll pray
That God will bless your Christmas and a happy New Year’s Day.
~John Keegan, 1809-1849
Mary Cavendish rolled the last bandage. On the other side of the fogged window, raindrops began to float. “I hate snow.” Her new side-laced velvet boots wouldn’t survive the added layer of slush, for starters.
As though on cue, a mud-spattered sleigh rounded the corner too fast, nearly clipping the lamppost. The back of the hood hit the wreath looped on the post, and it landed in the gutter.
The curled tulle ribbon flattened and seeped black with mud. Mary pressed her lips in a line and squeezed the bandage roll to keep from saying something uncharitable on Christmas Eve. She and the ladies on the Cockington Beautification Committee had spent hours wiring evergreen boughs into loops, and hours more installing the wreaths around the town.
“Beg pardon, miss?” Lieutenant Baxter’s voice sounded nearly as creaky as his half-rusted bed. The apparatus hoisting his plaster-cast leg groaned in protest as he tried to turn and look out the window. He scowled then huffed, sending the ends of his waxed moustache flying.
“I said, ‘What a show.’ It seems the passengers from the last Torquay train have arrived from the station, and all of the cab drivers have forgotten how to steer.”
Old Tom Hart, lying two beds down from the lieutenant, gave a snort then a theatrical groan. He appeared at the parish hospital every time a storm blew in, and sometimes in between, hoping his complaint of “heart murmurs” would earn him a dose of laudanum.
Mary turned Mr. Gage onto his left side, fluffed the stuffing in Harold St. Just’s pillow, and spooned a dose of benzoin tincture onto Mr. Duffy’s blister. He gasped, and she let him squeeze her hand as long as the benzoin burned. She collected the cups from all the bedstands, trying not to wrinkle her nose at the smell of cold stale wassail mingled with the odor of cod liver oil and bedpans. So much for the wassail bringing Christmas cheer to the patients.
At the least it curtailed her appetite. Since her carrot juice and boiled oats with cinnamon luncheon, she’d eaten nothing and was in danger of surrendering to the nearest pastry with hardly a fight. Inhaling was enough to remind Mary her corset simply could not grow any tighter.
“I expect ye’ll want to be off to midnight services, miss?” Lieutenant Baxter called. He paused to cough into a handkerchief then twisted the corners of his mustache back into shape. “Perhaps with the fine Mister Warren?” The fatherly Lieutenant Baxter had been matchmaking on her behalf since he’d arrived from Africa two weeks ago.
Mr. Warren, the surgical resident volunteering from a Torquay specialist hospital, peered over the rims of his spectacles as his pen paused on the clipboard. He raised a brow at Mary, as though she’d made the suggestion. Pomade-slicked waves of hair reflected like molasses taffy in the lamplight. Precisely-trimmed whiskers gave him an air of distinction, although Mary couldn’t help but wonder if they would tickle when he kissed her — the very thought struck her with crippling anxiety.
She didn’t dare meet his gaze, dark as onyx and sharp as a razor. Looking at his shoulders was worse; square and proud, and so dashing in his white physician’s coat. Very fine indeed. An angel on an angel’s mission.
“Yes, and no, Lieutenant.” Mary turned and arranged the medicine bottles in the cabinet to disguise what had to be cranberry-colored cheeks. Knowing she was an uncontrollable blusher only made it flash hotter. Her trembling hand tipped over a bottle — one of Mr. Warren’s vaccine samples. It toppled the entire row with a tinkling clatter. His quick intake of breath was worse than a shout or curse; he’d noticed Mary Cavendish being incompetent yet again.
Careless words spoken in exasperation or jest by people she loved, all burned into her memory. Never mind her improvement crusade, at the moment she felt every bit the spinster, but trapped inside the bumbling fifteen-year-old self she had been. Since drawing a deep breath was out of the question, Mary breathed short gusts until her heartbeat quit pounding in her ears. Mr. Warren still watched her, she could feel it.
A Christmas miracle — none had broken. Mary righted the tiny brown glass bottles and faced the labels forward. Vibrio Cholerae, Salmonella Typhi, Rhabdoviridae Mononegavirales… The faint scratching sound meant Mr. Warren had resumed making his notes.
That he hadn’t come forth with an invitation to attend midnight mass together didn’t bode well for the box she had stashed under his desk: a Ross No. 2 binocular microscope in lacquered brass.
The previous week, Mr. Warren had complimented her expert wrapping of Mr. Duffy’s ankle bandage. He’d called her a fine, conscientious nurse. If he hadn’t added a comment about her being indispensible, she probably wouldn’t have ordered the microscope express from London in a fit of romantic aspiration.
So then he probably hadn’t looked meaningfully into her eyes as she mixed tincture for his patients the day before. And she must have completely misinterpreted his hand at the small of her back the previous day while he monitored her transfering his notes to the ledger. He wasn’t looking at her now with any sign of being enamored.
The guilty box seemed painfully conspicuous to Mary, wrapped in gold paper with a giant green tulle bow. If he’d seen the present, Mr. Warren had failed to mention a word about it. And with only a half hour before the hospital closed for the night, it was looking less and less likely that her vision of a legendarily romantic Christmas Eve would play out the way it had in her daydreams.
It took her a moment to notice Mr. Warren following her gaze; if he hadn’t seen the present before, he did now. Regarding the box as though it were a particularly nasty strain of virus in a culture dish, he approached the desk. “What is this?”
His stern tone of voice made her a coward; she confessed nothing, even as he placed the package atop the desk and looked over his spectacles again, waiting for an answer.
Counting down the seconds until he would see the tag and know what an idiotic, presumptive, peahen she was… Of course she’d been too forward. At the time, all she could think about was the interchangeable lenses and lacquered brass and the rapturous expression that would light on his handsome face when he saw the improved Gillett achromatic condenser. It was absolutely perfect for his vaccination research, and he would think of her when he used it.
Oh, what a silly fool she was!
Mr. Warren lifted the box and looked beneath it then searched the floor under the desk, still regarding the gift with his mouth pursed. “What is it?”
A present, you ninny!
“Who is it from?”
“There’s no tag?”
“None which I can see.”
“Hallelujah.” Never mind the intact bottles — this was her Christmas miracle.
“I said, ‘How could they do that?’ Leaving you so unkindly in suspense?” Trying to invent a graceful way out of her faux pas produced a sensation like grinding gears. “It would seem you have a secret admirer, Mr. Warren.”
Mary slid a sideways warning glance to Lieutenant Baxter, who had seen her bring in the present and place it under the desk earlier that evening. He pantomimed locking his mouth shut with an imaginary key, which he then tossed over his shoulder. “Well, why don’t you open it? Wouldn’t you like to see what it is?”
“It’s very prettily wrapped,” said Lieutenant Baxter, his tone a bit too obvious and hopeful.
“Oh, dear. Oh dear indeed.” Mr. Warren shook his head, much the way he did when a patient was terminally septic. “I’m afraid this is rather embarrassing. You see, I am Jewish.”
So what? came first to her, then, You don’t really look Jewish. What she actually said might have been worse. “Then suppose it’s a Chanukah present?”
One eye narrowed and he cocked his head, which plainly meant, What a numpty you are. Or perhaps he knew it had come from her, and it was too awkward for words.
“My guess is it’s from the Cockington Relief and Aid Society. I had a gift from them as well, although the box was considerably smaller, which is why I didn’t think of the correlation before. It was a pair of tatted doilies. Very suitable for a trousseau, and heaven only knows whether I might yet have need of one.”
Her better self begged her to stay mum, especially since she’d spouted a falsehood. But she’d pulled her finger from the dam, and all her worst faults came tumbling out at once. “But now that I recall it, the wrapping paper on my present from the Relief and Aid Society was likewise that brocade-embossed gold foil with the jade-colored tulle curled into spiral ribbons. I do recall the tag attached to the gift, and it’s a shame yours turned out to be missing, because the sentiment directed at me was most cordial, in regards to volunteering as a nurse here at the parish hospital. Not that I mean to draw attention to my own humble efforts — seeing how your contribution is exponentially more substantial — but I meant to illustrate how the society’s gesture to extend formal gratitude to you for your extraordinary service on behalf of the afflicted would potentially have been gratifying to one so accomplished in the healing arts as you are, Mr. Warren. Even if the offerings turned out to be earmuffs or stocking warmers, since I can scarce imagine they would give you doilies.”
Now he regarded Mary as though she was the abnormal specimen in a culture dish. “Doilies?”
Belated heat rushed from the top of her head and settled in her cheeks, while her unruly heart threatened to punch through her already strained corset. Any moment buttons and laces would go flying, and then she would be well and truly humiliated. “Oh, drat. I fear I might indulge in a sugarplum or two.” Or two dozen.
No doubt once the plate was passed at dinner, Mary would remember this very moment, wishing Zeus would strike her down with a lightning bolt. She would crave deliverance so sorely, the mirage of confectionary comfort would override her good judgment. Not that she had much judgment — it lay in tatters all over the floor.
“I said—” Mary sighed, feeling a tinge of anger compete with mortification. No doubt it turned her face a red hue unflattering with her violet dress. “No. I’m fresh out of fables. If you don’t want it, I will take it downstairs. I am sure there is someone here who could make use of a Number Two Ross binocular microscope.”
Mr. Warren sputtered. “Ross? Microscope?”
“Interchangeable lenses and lacquered brass. Forget it.”
For a moment, it appeared Mr. Warren badly wanted not to be Jewish and not set upon by an erringly presumptive spinster.
Mary set down the bandage rolls she’d meant to transfer to the other supply carts and glanced at the clock hanging by the desk. No point in staying through a humiliating, quiet twenty minutes. “I think I will leave a bit early, with your blessing. I should like to attend the midnight mass.” She reached to untie the bow at the back of her apron.
Mr. Warren adjusted his spectacles and opened his mouth when a commotion downstairs rattled the walls. Slamming doors, shouting voices, toppling furniture.
Mary flew into action; she knew the sound well — an emergency.
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