Christmas Eve, 1915 The snow fell lightly on the tents and slid down the sloping sheets of canvas in heavy clumps. A young boy slipped out from behind the flap of one of the tents. He hugged the collar of his jacket tighter around his bare neck and darted across the bright white field to one tent that glowed with candlelight. He dropped the heavy flap of canvas and tied it closed behind him. “Evening,” the boy greeted the two uniformed men. “Deal me in.”
He grabbed a bucket from the corner and pulled it next to the buckets the other men sat on. “James here was just saying how bad he feels for the men down in the trenches.” As if on cue, a gun went off in the background. All three men shuddered.
“Not to worry, Owen. You‟re in the cavalry with us, now,” the youngest of the three men said.“Right.” Owen sighed and dealt a hand of cards to each of the men and himself. “Now, Charlie, what is it you were going on about? Some mademoiselle that‟s got you wrapped around her finger?”
“Lady Emma? I barely mentioned her,” Charlie said defensively as his friends began to laugh. He tried to shrug the topic off but James pressed on. “Oh, please, Charles. You used the words „love at first sight‟ for goodness sake.” The men were outright laughing at Charlie now.
Charlie crossed his arms over his broad chest and sank back in his seat.“Fine,” he huffed. “If the way I talk about my girl is so funny to you two boneheads, then why don‟t you tell us about yours, Owen?” “Mine?” Owen echoed. “Yeah,” James, the youngest man of the cavalry, said. “Let‟s hear it, Owen. How‟d you meet her?”
Owen shook his head, laughed, and shuffled his cards between his fingers as he told the story.
Christmas Day, 1909 “Joyeux noël, mademoiselle Bradley. Comment allez-vous?” The woman in the blue dress glanced up from her goblet of wine. Instantly, she recognized the man. Her soft features hardened into an elegant pout.
“Did I not tell you in the last hour, Mister Knight, the French does not impress me?” “Je ne me souviens,” he returned.
“Very well, sir. Then I do not recall the conversation, either. And if you continue to pester, I will call for my brother. I won‟t waste my time entertaining les étrangers.”She opened a large, pearl white fan in front of her face and turned to go, leaving her wine in her vacated seat.
“Wait,” Owen Knight called after her.She looked back over her shoulder, fluttering her fan.
“Yes?”“Could we dance together?”
She dropped the fan from her face. Her even expression gave way to a small, pretty smile.
“There you go, Mister Knight,” she exclaimed lightly. “You‟ve finally made your point. Next time, you can skip the attempts to impress me, though. I like the waltz.”
Christmas Eve, 1915 “I‟m sorry, Charlie, but Owen‟s got you beat. At least there was none of that „love at first sight‟ in that story. If you ask me, you should give a girl a bit of a hard time. Let her know what she‟s getting herself into,” James said. Owen laughed a bit at that. Charlie‟s expression only soured even more.
All three men looked up as the tent flap was untied and several warmly dressed, blue-skinned figures hurried inside. “Your drinks, Master Hale,” said a man that Owen recognized to be Charlie‟s footman.
Charlie straightened up and uncrossed his arms.“It‟s about time,” he grumbled. “Set them there.” He motioned towards the unoccupied table.
The footman set a tray, on top of which balanced a round of port, on top of the crate. He motioned toward a younger boy who stood off to one side. This boy took a bundle of letters from his pocket. He cleared his throat. “Two letters. One for Master Hale; the other for Master Knight.” Owen and Charlie reached forward and took their letters.
“Would you look at that?” Charlie exclaimed. “You can‟t go making jokes about love now, Jamie. „To Lord Hale, from Lady Emma.” James‟s face crumpled into a sour pout.
“Master Hale, Master Matthew, Master Knight,” the footman said in way of an exit and bowed. He motioned for the young boy who‟d delivered the letters and a small cluster of other servants to follow him out of the tent. As soon as the tent had been abandoned, the teasing began again.
“What‟s yours?” James asked Owen. Owen played with the envelope.“‟To Owen Knight, from Lady Mary Bradley,‟” he announced. “Excuse me, boys.”
Owen stood and tucked the letter into the inside of his coat. He untied the flap of the tent quickly, pulled his coat tighter around his ribs, and hurried out into the snow.
The sounds of fighting in the trenches echoed across the valley and shook handfuls of snow from the towering evergreen branches. He shuddered. I pity the men in the trenches tonight.
Christmas Eve, 1911 “See, now that wasn‟t so bad. Was it?” Owen pulled the gloves from his hands and reached out to brush a bit of snow from the her shoulder. “Which part? When the horse decided to abandon the sleigh ride and had to be chased down by the driver or when the snow storm hit and we collected three inches of snow on the floor of the carriage?” Lady Bradley asked with a wide grin. Owen laughed.
“Very well. We will cross „sleigh rides‟ off our list of things to do next winter.” “Next winter?” she asked as a servant came into the room to take their coats.
“That is, if I let you hang around me for that long.”“Let me?” she echoed with a laugh as they made their way into the parlor, where a warm fire had been lit and steaming cups of tea were set out.
She paused in the doorway. “Owen?” “What?”
Lady Bradley squished her eyes closed, grabbed his face between her hands, and planted a kiss on his lips.
She pulled back quickly, picked up her skirt, and hurried into the parlor, taking a seat on the couch. “We‟ll see if I let you hang around me until next winter,” she called over her shoulder.
Christmas Eve, 1915 “Owen?” Owen jumped at the voice that floated up from the cot. “Simon,” he sighed. “I thought you were asleep.”
Owen tied the flap on his own tent down. Except for a single candle, the inside was completely dark. He felt his way over to a small desk and chair. “You‟ll never believe the day I‟ve had,” Simon said. “I was out in the field with a couple of the boys when Winston Churchill came over. He complimented our form!” Owen sat down in the chair and scooted closer to the desk.
“Churchill, huh?” Owen mumbled as he lit the candle on the desk. “Didn‟t he just resign from his position in government?”“Yeah. Rumor is he‟s going to be made a Lieutenant-Colonel soon. They‟ve been saying he‟s going to be in charge of the 6th Battalion,” Simon explained.
“Don‟t worry about it,” Owen mumbled distractedly. “We aren‟t in the 6th Battalion.” A minute or two of silence passed. “Owen?”
When Owen didn‟t answer, Simon sat up from his cot. The springs creaked loudly in the silence. He blew out his candle and let himself out of the tent.
Owen stared at the front of the envelope.Lady Mary Bradley, Bradley hall, Yorkshire England…
Christmas Day, 1913 Owen stared at his goblet of wine. “Is… everything alright?” Mary sipped at her own goblet of wine, her soft eyes fixed on him over the rim of her cup. Owen nodded his head slowly.
“I should be going,” he announced and stood.
He stuffed his arms into his coat sleeves and buttoned the coat up the front. He made for the door, Mary keeping closely at his heels. “Will I see you next winter?” she asked with a goofy, wide grin.
“Yes,” he said, too seriously.“Owen, I was only joking.” She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and played nervously with the frill on the cuffs of her sleeves. “What‟s wrong?”
He stood on the porch. The snow fell on top of him and gathered on his shoulders and the top of his head. “I wanted to ask you something,” he admitted.
How hard is it to ask for her hand in marriage? Owen wondered, frustrated, but remained silent. His mouth moved but no words came out. Finally, he spoke. “Mary Bradley, will you…” He sighed and dropped his eyes to the floor.
“…wait for me to get out of the military? And write me if war breaks out?” Mary‟s shoulders relaxed. Her eyes dropped to the ground, too. “Sure,” she mumbled. “I will.”
Christmas Day, 1915 Owen tore the seal on the letter. His eyes moved quickly over the words, anxious.
My Dear Owen, Yes. I received your letter and yes. Yes Iwill marry you. I look forward to your return from thearmy. I haven’t seen you for Christmas inyears. When you return, for the first snow we’llgo for a sleigh ride. The horse can runoff. It can snow feet and feet of snow in oursleigh. So long as you’re home. Anxiously awaiting your return, Mary Bradley Knight
Owen relaxed against the seat. He reread the letter once, twice, three times, and pulled a pocket watch out of the desk drawer. 12:04. “Merry Christmas,” Owen whispered aloud. He stood, scooted the chair in against the desk, and dropped hisletter into the trunk at the end of his cot. Then, tightening his collar around his neck once again, he slipped out into the snowstorm and headed back for the candlelit tent.
“I lose feeling in my toes every time I go outside.” “That‟s not as bad as the bombs. Even when I‟m inside, those blasted explosions are ringing in my ears.”“Yeah, well, if I live through this war, I‟m going to run for office. Can‟t you picture me in the House of Lords?” There was laughter all around at this. “Yeah, right, Charlie!” they roared.
“If I were in politics, first thing I‟d do is stop the war,” Owen announced as he ducked into the tent and stomped the snow from his boots. “If I were back home, I‟d stopthe cavalry first chance I got!”“See, Charlie,” one of the men who‟d wandered into the tent since Owen had last been there said. “That‟s a real politician!”
There were yells of “here, here” all around. Cups of port were raised.Owen grabbed a cup of port offered to him by Simon. He motioned for James to deal him in and, once he did, took a seat among the men.
He took a long drink of port as a new round of cards was dealt.
But the first thing I would do when I get home is dance the waltz with my Mary Bradley.