A Christmas excerpt from Timebound

A merry Christmas to all you who are celebrating today, and a peek at Christmas 1815 in the Carrington household!

 

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William Carrington woke from a dream of hot Spanish sun to the depressing certainty that the temperature had plummeted at some point in the night. The dim blue-gray light filtering into the bedroom was insufficient to allow him to see the rafters, but he expected the nails were frosted. He wondered whether this winter were truly colder and snowier than those that had gone before it, or whether it was only an illusion caused by his newly-acquired poverty.

Very likely it was the latter. The autumn’s sunsets had similarly seemed more magnificent than any he had previously beheld, after all, and that was no doubt to be attributed to watching them with the woman he loved. It was remarkable how one’s frame of mind could change one’s perceptions.

Beside him, Elizabeth stirred. She cautiously extended one hand out of the bedclothes, then groaned and burrowed deeper, simultaneously squirming closer to him. He curled around her gladly, only partly to share the warmth. “Cold,” she muttered.

“Very.” The water in the wash-basin had doubtless frozen again. It was not possible to have a fire in this little bedroom, and the downstairs fire had very likely gone out sometime in the night. There was no one to build it up again unless and until he did it himself. No one, in fact, to even make breakfast unless and until the lady of the house did it herself. They had no live-in servants, and Mrs. Brewer, who did for them by day, was taking Christmas as a well-deserved holiday with her own family.

He and Elizabeth had thought themselves very clever, eloping to Gretna Green and not only avoiding parental insistence on a long betrothal, but avoiding the fuss and bother of a formal betrothal at all. No new clothing, no new carriage, no unpleasant relations descending for the wedding-breakfast, not one element of the fashionable wedding circus. They had even saved the cost of half the journey, arriving as they did by pocket watch from 1895 and only needing to scrape up the funds for lodgings.

But their cleverness had failed to take one key fact into account: Elizabeth’s parents were far angrier than their daughter had expected. Elizabeth had assumed her family would be so anxious to put a good face on the elopement that they would let her have her dowry, but her parents, most likely egged on by her aunt, had instead dispatched a servant with one trunkful of her belongings and forbade her to darken their door ever again.

It was the wrong move for the Bartons to make on the chessboard of society, anyone could have told them that—the one sure way to fan instead of dampen the flames of a scandal. But Mr. and Mrs. Barton, in the first flush of rage at the daughter who had so defiantly married “to displease her family,” had fanned the flame regardless, and that left William and his wife subsisting upon his lieutenant’s half-pay and a miniscule allowance grudgingly meted out to him by his own exasperated father. They would be counting pennies and living month to month until Elizabeth received her inheritance in just over three years’ time. At least the terms of her grandfather’s will had stipulated the thirty thousand pounds was to be hers “upon attaining her majority” if she had not previously married with her father’s permission, so there was no way for her furious parents to utterly deny her the funds.

But a lean three years stretched out before young Mr, and Mrs. Carrington. William had endured greater privation on the Penninsula, to be sure, but it hurt a man’s pride to be forced to subject his wife to a lack of the comforts to which she was accustomed. By dint of careful cheeseparing, they had managed to hire the cottage in Danby that had once, in the future, in a vanished timeline, housed Charles Wilton and Christopher Palmer. The rent was comparatively low, but there was still little enough left over for housekeeping, and all sorts of unusual economies had been forced upon them. It was a poor young couple indeed who could not afford even one scullery maid, and this bedroom of theirs would have been considered too comfortless for any but a servant, in his father’s house or in hers. William wondered, as he had wondered before, if Elizabeth had made a bad bargain.

She chose that moment to remember what day it was. “Oh,” she said in a tone of discovery, muffled by the quilt. “Happy Christmas, my love.”

The hesitation before he replied told her his thoughts.

She answered them in a tone of affectionate exasperation. “Will you please stop it. I’d rather be here with you than anywhere else.”

“If we were anywhere else for Christmas, someone would have brought up tea by now,” he couldn’t help pointing out.

“Yes, and then we’d have to dress and go down to breakfast and make polite conversation with the relations who have made clear the esteem in which they do not hold us. And then we’d have to go through a formal dinner and charades and word games and company manners and all the rest of the nonsense. I’d rather be here.” She turned over, nestling her head against his chest. “It seems something of a gift to have the house to ourselves, now I come to consider it. I can think of some amusements we might pursue before that lovely sitting room fire, knowing we could not be interrupted…”

William snorted. “Mrs. Carrington, you are a most willful and depraved creature.”

“A reputation I am glad to deserve,” Elizabeth responded tranquilly.

William was in no hurry to sacrifice the pleasures of an idle morning in bed with his wife, but eventually the twin demands of hunger and cold could not be any longer ignored. With nothing for it but to brave the icy air, they did so with feigned enthusiasm—throwing back the quilt all at once, breathing deeply, breaking the ice in the basin without wasting breath on complaint. On the one hand, it seemed absurd to don full formal attire for a day spent alone in one’s own house in pursuit of carnal pleasure—surely one was meant to wear a dressing gown for that sort of dissipation—but it was too damned cold to do anything but keep up the standards. Fully dressed, William at last followed his wife downstairs, intending to stir up the fire so she could make toast and tea.

He saw the shadow move in the sitting room while they were both still on the stairway. He caught Elizabeth’s arm to stop her, but she had already stopped, alert and watchful like a startled deer. She too had seen movement in a house that should have been deserted. And the first floor of the cottage, now he came to notice, was not the bone-deep barn-like chill he had expected. That shadow had been cast by the light of a gaily leaping fire in the sitting room—hopefully in the hearth, hopefully not a twin the leaping flame that had destroyed (would never destroy) that very room in 1885. Emil Schwieger had tracked Palmer and Wilton to this same house in that vanished timeline, had set that very fire to smoke out their secrets. He or another enemy could have as easily pursued Elizabeth and William here—

Maxwell stepped into the doorway.

For a long moment, nobody moved. Then their visitor cleared his throat. “Er, good morning.”

Elizabeth let out a breath she seemed to have been holding for six months, and ran down the rest of the stairs to embrace him.

William’s knees went momentarily so weak he had to put a hand to the bannister to steady himself. “Oh, thank God.”

Maxwell’s arms had closed awkwardly around Elizabeth and now he looked over her head at William, in what might have been a mute appeal for guidance. William closed his eyes for a moment against the stinging.

When he opened them again, Maxwell was holding Elizabeth off with his hands on her shoulders. “You, er…I take it you worked it out.”

“You did leave us your locket,” Elizabeth pointed out. “But yes, we were most of the way to working it out before we opened it. Oh, I’m so glad you’re well. We’ve been so worried.”

“We wanted to look for you,” William said, coming down the stairs to join them, “but it would have been foolish, with all of space and time to search. We’ve been telling each other for six months that we had to trust you, and you’d be bound to find us instead.” He held out his hand. “Welcome home.”

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