The Gift

I heard stamping then the insistent knocking. I had only recently rubbed the condensation from the window to check the progress of the snow rapidly collecting on the stone pillars either side of our huge iron gate. It had not been a complete surprise to awaken this morning to the tell-tale glare and the all-encompassing silence, but the severity of the storm was something I had not been expecting. I knew whoever the caller may be; he, it was likely to be a ‘he’, after all, no lady worth her salt would venture out in this blizzard; was obviously stamping their feet on the front step to clear his boots, as best he could. I made a mental note to instruct Tilly to clear the doorstep immediately she had finished the bedrooms.

Knowing Rowe, the footman had been given the day off to visit his parents and Farthing, our butler, was down in the cellar checking the state of the victuals stock following the Christmas festivities, I arose reluctantly and, pulling my shawl around me, tore myself away from the parlour fire. In addition to the seasonal household liquor consumption, I had generously instructed Farthing to use a bottle or two of claret to accompany the staff Christmas dinner the previous week. I would be checking the inventory carefully later today to ensure all was in order.

Making my way into our grand entrance hall, automatically nodding at the bust of dear Queen Victoria on the side table, I prepared to open the door. Dragging back the huge bolt, I tugged at the heavy oak structure, immediately giving passage to a bitter blast of cold a cloud of snow particles which, after fluttering wildly, deposited themselves on the hall table, the Queen’s head and our black and white marble floor. Another job for Tilly, otherwise one of the children would be bound to slip on the wet. 

‘Good day to you Ma’am. Apologies for disturbing you. It’s not a day to be away from the fire.’ The village postman held out a small parcel. I smiled a gracious smile, one of those I reserved for coachmen, milliners and head waiters, and reached into my purse for a suitable coin. I tried to ignore the muddy, slushy mess on the top step. Mr Franklin had, by now, removed his cap and stood obsequiously; snow gathering on his bald head, with drips making their way down into his upturned collar. I thought he would faint clean away as he realised I had placed a sixpence in his frozen hand. I took the parcel and, shivering, made to return to the welcome warmth inside. He was awkward in my presence and both of us were relieved when the encounter finally ended as I closed the front door, the little brown paper package secured in my reticule. 

All was just as I had left it as I returned to the comfort and calm of the parlour, the faint seasonal aroma of pine, cloves and orange still detectable despite the decorations having been removed yesterday, 12th night. It amazes and delights me how quickly so many us adopted the customs so dear to our beloved Royal Family. These days we could not imagine the festive season without our 14 foot tree, however pagan the custom may have seemed originally. Despite my initial scepticism, I now freely admit Prince Albert had proven a wonderful asset to this country. Our dear Queen had never seemed to fully recover from his premature passing.

Settling myself back into my favoured chair, the fire screen appropriately shading my face, I cut the string securing the parcel’s wrapping. The brown paper parted revealing a familiar small navy tooled leather presentation box. I had sufficient jewellery in my collection to immediately recognise the Garrard’s crest, this rapidly increasing my excitement. Carefully opening the lid, there, nestled in its blue velvet bed, sat the most exquisite platinum brooch in the shape of a bouquet. The perfectly matched diamonds and sapphires forming flowers which periodically caught the flashes of light from the fire. 

I had no need to read the accompanying card. The forget-me-knot was the well-worn symbol of undying love and only one person would have the audacity to send me such a vivid declaration of his feelings. Let alone in my own home. Momentarily I heard the children laughing in the schoolroom, then complete silence again, only broken by the occasional crackling of the fire. I suddenly felt hot, for just a moment guilt pierced my thoughts. Five minutes or maybe more passed as I held the box, all thoughts of the snowstorm forgotten, revelling in the majesty of the stunning piece of jewellery. Wonder at the craftsmanship was overshadowed by the message conveyed in the piece. I was overcome by a womanly flush as my thoughts carried me back to Windsor’s grand ballroom 3 weeks before and the excitement of my secret courtship by the heir to the throne. Discretely conducted in full view of over 300 other guests, including my own husband, the passion that had been building between us over several country weekends had ignited into a spark over which neither of us had control. I was revelling in reawakened emotions long missing from my dutiful life. That evening had seemed outer-worldly. At times, when we danced, I felt I might swoon. 

Footsteps on the hall floor. My reverie was shattered.

‘Yes, if I hadn’t left London when I did, it’s doubtful I would have made it home today.’ 

Reginald! My husband’s voice reverberated along the hall and I heard Farthing making some reply, no doubt as he removed The Master’s overcoat and moleskin hat. I was galvanised into action. I tossed the brown paper wrapping into the flames. The sealing- waxed string too. Where to hide the box? Snapping it shut with no opportunity for a final glance at the brooch, with a flash of inspiration I tucked it inside my bloomers, relieved that Prince Edward had chosen a gift secured in a relatively small box. When Reginald entered the parlour, I was seemingly engrossed in the latest adventure involving Mr Holmes and his trusted friend Dr Watson. Little did he know what was secreted close to a very intimate part of my anatomy.

‘How fortunate you managed to make it back before the village was cut off. Did you have a good morning?’ I raised my cheek for a kiss. Reginald bent towards me, I dutifully smiled, although, not for the first time, I noticed how old and shrivelled his neck had grown recently. 

‘Something of a wasted journey, really, the P.M. cancelled our Cabinet meeting, so I spent most of the morning at White’s. Cecil reckons we’ll whip those damned Boers into shape before the year is out. Oh, and I ran into the Prince of Wales. Dashed popinjay. He asked after you.’ My stomach lurched. ‘And of course I enquired after his mother.’ He stood, back to the fire, not noticing the remnants of wrapping turning to ash and a stray strand of string hanging from the fire basket. ‘Oh, I know how you delight in any titbit of society gossip I bring you. The latest on the Prince is that he’s made yet another one of his conquests. It was all over the club. Even old Forsyth was full of it. Came over specially to chat. Odd really, as we’ve not spoken for years. No-one could tell me the hussy’s name, but the word is her husband is something in The Cabinet. No doubt we’ll find out soon enough.’

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