Waves lapped gently against the shoreline far below as Bess Halthrope stood on the cliff top. She was bare footed and wearing a dress that barely kept her warm against the coolness of the coming night. Untying her hair ribbon, she shook her dark curls free and let the wind ruffle through it.
Looking out at the horizon she saw the clipper “Argyle” sailing gracefully towards the harbor. It would be hours before it docked and she felt happy for those that waited for family that sailed in her, yet it wasn’t the ship she waited for. For months now, she climbed to the cliff top hoping for signs of the ‘Sea Eagle’s’ return. Other ships had come and gone, except the Sea Eagle, and she wondered if it would ever reach home port. There had been no news of the ship or the men aboard her for nearly nine months and she and her mother missed Nat terribly.
Bess’s father had died two years previously from the whooping cough and Nat had become the head of the household. Their mother had cried uncontrollably when he turned seventeen and took a position on the ‘Sea eagle’. He had been excited at the thought of travelling to distant lands and no one could talk him out of it. Holding his mother and Bess tight as he said goodbye, he had sailed for India within three days.
Bess, two years younger than Nat, worked along side her mother at the local washhouse. Their meager wages didn’t stretch far at all and the rent on their cottage took most of what they earned. Nat had promised he would return soon and bring home his wage to help out.
Bess watched until the Argyle rounded the small cape and was no longer in view, then looked once more towards the horizon with hope that was lost on the wind. The moon rose, turning the now empty sea silver with its glow. She sighed and turned for home, disappointed once again.
She opened the door and stepped inside. A fire burned, giving little warmth in the drafty one room cottage. Bread and dripping was laid out on the table where her mother sat waiting for her. In the far corner was the double bed that Bess shared with her and a fold up cot was tucked underneath for Nat on his return. Across from the bed was a small kitchen. There was no running water and they had to draw water from a well at the back of the cottage. Bess’s mother would heat a pot of water on the fire for when they bathed.
Bess hugged her mother and sat at the table.
“Nothing on the horizon then?” her mother spoke softly
Bess shook her head and reached out for her mother’s hand. “He will come home. I know he will.”
“It’s nearly Christmas. Shall we find a small tree?” her mother changed the subject, yet her heart was not in the Christmas spirit at all. It was bad enough the year before without her husband, now she had to look forward to Christmas Day without her son. She tried to be strong for Bess but she wasn’t coping well. She was saddened also by the fact that she couldn’t afford a present for Bess.
“We could go into the woods and find one tomorrow,” Bess thought it would be a good idea for her mother to get out for a change. All she did was get up in the morning and go to work, then home again. “But what are we going to decorate it with?”
“We could collect pine cones and some holly.” Her mother tried to raise a smile but Bess could see it was an effort for her. ”Maybe Mr Lowe has some old paint that he doesn’t want and would be kind enough to give us some so we could paint the pine cones.”
“Yes, let’s do it” Bess took a mouthful of bread, imagining for a moment it was roast beef.
Once a week they bought a piece of mutton from the butcher and a few potatoes from the grocer. Her mother tried to make it stretch for a couple of days and every now and then, a neighbour would give them other vegetables. Bess didn’t complain. They had each other and soon, hopefully, Nat would come home.
Late the next afternoon, Bess and her mother rugged up and walked to the woods on the edge of the village. Bess carried a small axe and soon found a tree suitable for their small cottage. The air was brisk, giving them a rosy complexion and Bess saw her mother relax as she picked up some pine cones and cut some holly. Something she had not done in a long time. They laughed at the antics of a squirrel as it scurried around and a red fox made an appearance which delighted Bess. Soon the tree was cut and they headed for home, Bess dragging the tree behind her.
They walked down the cobbled street as daylight started to fade, stopping at Mr. Lowe’s shop on the way. Bess propped the tree against the window and followed her mother inside.
Mr. Lowe greeted them and at their request, he went out to the back of the shop and brought back two small jars. He had filled them with white and silver paint. They thanked him and turned to leave.
‘Now I have something that you can have for your tree” Mr. Lowe smiled. ‘Wait just a moment” He reached under a bench and foraged for a minute or so before he stood up and held out his hand to Bess.
It was a bauble. A large silver bauble and it glistened. Bess was thrilled and held it up to the light. She could see her own reflection in it. “Thank you. It’s beautiful. I have never had anything so beautiful”
“You’re welcome.” He replied with a smile. “May it at least, bring you a little joy”
They left the shop and Bess grabbed the tree. ‘At least there was something pretty to put on it’ she thought as she carried the bauble very carefully.
They stayed up well into the night painting the pine cones. Bess’s mother had put the tree in a bucket filled with dirt and placed it close to the hearth. The silver bauble was near the top of the tree and it shone in the candlelight. Hours later they crawled into bed, exhausted. The fire flickered, casting shadows around the room as Bess lay staring at her tree. She thought of her father and Nat and how lonely and lost her mother felt and softly cried herself to sleep.
The next two weeks passed quickly and there was still no sign of the ‘Sea Eagle’. Bess walked to the cliff top everyday as usual and as Christmas day neared, she watched her mother get more depressed. Bess hated having to go home and tell her there was no sign of the ship.
She couldn’t imagine Christmas day without Nat, yet she was more concerned about his safety. What had happened that they hadn’t arrived back home? Had they run into a storm or been attacked by pirates. She had heard a lot of tales from others about pirates. How many ships had been plundered and the crew killed by them. She prayed that it had not happened to Nat’s ship and she refused to give up hope.
Every night since the tree had been put up; Bess admired the silver bauble, wishing that Nat was there to see it. She would hold the candle towards it and watched it change colour when she moved the candle back and forwards. A slight tinge of blue then green and the yellow of the candle flame in its reflection helped to take her mind of things for a while. Yet every morning, she knew nothing had changed. Nat never came.
Christmas Eve was a solemn affair. Bess talked her mother into going to the evening service but not one note did she hear her sing. She sat staring at the altar and Bess knew what she was thinking and was sure she never heard a word the minister said.
Bess looked around. Most of their close neighbours were there. Mrs. Harris sat across from her with her five children, the youngest still in nappies and she was with child again. Bess thought how hard it must be for her to rear so many children with a husband that likes the drink. Many times Bess had seen her raiding the rubbish that littered their street. Sitting up front was Mr. Lowe and his wife. They were reasonably well attired and respectable; his business just keeping their heads above water. Across the aisle was Mr. And Mrs. Walters, their son Joseph had joined the merchant Navy a year ago and he had got leave and was sitting next to them. Bess felt a little envious that they could share Christmas with their son, at least he was home. Most of the other parishioners were no better of than she and her mother. They strived to make a living and it was hard.
When the service was over, many gathered outside to talk and swap greetings but Bess’s mother walked away without a word. Bess acknowledged a few and followed her mother home. A gentle fall of snow had started and Bess caught the snowflakes in her hand, only for them to melt instantly. It reminded her of life and how short it could be and thought of her father and Nat. ‘Had God taken both of them from them? They were law abiding citizens. They helped others when they could and they never asked for more than a roof over their heads and some food on the table. Was her mother ever to be happy again?’ Many questions went through Bess’s mind as they neared home. She just wanted Christmas to be over and done with.
The house was gloomy as they entered the cottage. The embers in the fire had burned low and her mother put more wood on the fire. Not bothering to light a candle; she then undressed and climbed into bed without speaking. Bess thought it best to leave her alone and she sat in a worn chair for a while before going to bed her self.
Christmas day was not a happy occasion and they spent most of the day in silence. Bess and her mother only wanted one gift and it was not forthcoming. Nothing else mattered. Nat had not come home.
It took hours for Bess to fall asleep that night and when she did, she tossed and turned. Mr. Lowe’s words kept turning over and over in her mind. “May it at least bring you some joy’ ‘May it at least bring you some joy’
She finally dozed but woke when it was still dark. The house was silent as she rose from the bed, lit a candle and took the bauble from the tree. It didn’t bring her joy anymore. Even its shining surface had lost its appeal and seeing her reflection in it couldn’t make her raise a smile.
She knelt on a thread bare rug in front of the dying fire and rolled the bauble in her hands. It had been a wonderful gift and it had been so kind of Mr. Lowe to give it to her, but now she wanted to smash it into millions of pieces and throw it away. She sat contemplating its fate until the candle almost burned out and then she stood up. Sadness overwhelmed her not for the first time in the last few months as she held what light was left of the candle to the bauble before deciding the fire was the best place for it.
The candlelight flickered gently and she looked at her reflection in the bauble for the last time and went to throw it into the fire. Suddenly she saw caught a glimpse of something else reflecting in it. She held it in front of her and her heart filled with joy as the reflection stepped closer and a familiar voice spoke.
“Merry Christmas Bess”
She had been so wrapped up in her thoughts that she never heard the door open. She turned to look behind her and there was Nat. She threw her arms around him and her tears ran like a river. He was home. Nat had come home.
Nat placed a bag on the floor and opened it. He took out some presents and laid them under the tree. Bess placed the bauble back on the tree. It had brought joy after all.
Nat wanted to wake his mother but Bess made a suggestion and they giggled.
They talked for ages as he explained how his ship had been blown way off course and then run aground on a small island. It had taken months to fix the damage so they could sail home. Bess listened intently to his story and soon Nat fell asleep in front of the fire. She kissed his forehead, placed a blanket on him and crawled into bed, snuggling against her mother.
“What a wonderful boxing day she is going to have when she wakes and sees Nat sitting under the Christmas tree”. Bess smiled as she looked at her silver bauble and her tears were tears of joy.