Margaret had always loved Christmas. When she was a child, it was a time of contemplation for her father, of charity and generosity. She spent hours with her parents preparing baskets for those in need. The memories were bathed in warmth and firelight, and Margaret recalled them fondly.
After Frederick left for the Navy, no Christmas had ever been quite the same.
This year would be different, she was certain of it. Though her mother and father were gone from this world, this was to be her first Christmas as part of a new family.
She had married John the summer before, on a glorious summer's day soaked in sunshine. It felt like a hundred years ago now as the frost swept over Milton, bringing with it a chill that reached ones' bones. But still the love that she had found warmed her even on the coldest days. She had not expected to find such contentment in marriage, but it filled her with a happiness she had never felt before.
Christmas Eve arrived with a flurry of snow that settled on the ground in a grey slush, freezing her toes. John had accompanied her to the midnight service at church, and they walked back through the quiet streets. He held her arm, steadying her as they walked cautiously over the uneven cobblestones made only more hazardous with a layer of ice.
"My nose is frozen." Margaret laughed as the mill loomed into site. "I am certain I shall never feel warm again. The church was freezing, my toes have all fallen off."
"It isn't that cold." John chuckled, pulling her closer. "It's barely even snowing. We'll make a Northerner of you yet, wife."
"I am not sure of that. I feel cold even on summer days."
John chuckled, pressing a kiss to her bonnet covered hair. She smiled, leaning into him. Such displays of affection were not appropriate, but they could not seem to help themselves. What did it matter, anyway? It was past midnight, and the streets were deserted.
They paused in front of the gates as John fumbled in his pocket for the keys. Margaret could hear something. A faint snuffling sound, a bit like a whimper. She could scarcely make it out over the clinking of the keys as John searched for the right one.
"John." Margaret stopped, her hand catching her husband's arm. "Stop. Do you hear that?"
He paused, the key in the lock. He looked around, shrugging.
The sound grew louder.
"Shh." Margaret held up her hand.
It was difficult to see anything at all. The street lights did not shed much light here, and the imposing gates cast long shadows. She listened intently for the sound, trying to place its location. It sounded very close indeed, almost right beside her. She paused for a moment, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness.
"In the corner." John said, for his eyes were far sharper than hers. "What's that?"
She bent down, reaching out to touch the strange shape. Her hand met cloth. Her heart sank. Cautiously, she lifted the bundle into her arms, praying that it was not what she thought it was.
Moving out of the shadows, she peeled back the layers of hastily arranged sack cloth.
"Oh." She breathed, catching sight of a tiny hand peeping through the brown bundle. Then, a perfect face appeared, most disgruntled indeed at being exposed to the cold.
"John! A baby!"
John pushed the gate open, taking her lower back and gently leading her inside the mill as she held the precious thing to her. She rushed inside, taking the steps as cautiously as she could. When they were inside, the house was mercifully warm at once, she looked down at the child.
"Call for the doctor, John." Her voice was breathless, her heart hammering in her chest. "Now."
"I'll go. Wake Mother, she'll know what to do."
"Alright. Go, quickly." Margaret held the baby close.
Just how long had the poor thing been on the street?
The child stirred in her arms, a piercing cry coming from the bundle. Crying was a good sign, surely? Margaret knew little of how to care for a baby, and certainly not one this young.
"Shh. There now, it's alright. You're safe now."
Footsteps sounded from the floor above, and Margaret looked up to see Dixon, clad in her nightclothes, standing at the top of the stairs.
"What's all the noise?" Dixon asked, yawning and rubbing at her eyes. "Am I going mad? I thought I heard a-"
"Dixon, wake Mrs Thornton. A child was left outside the mill gates."
"A baby. Newborn, I think. Please, wake her for me."
Margaret took the child into the living room. The dying remains of a fire burned in the grate. Sitting on the floor, for she wished to warm the child as quickly as she could, Margaret lay the baby on the floor and set about taking it from the swaddling.
A baby boy, tiny and frail, quite purple with indignation as he wailed. She felt awful for disturbing him, yet she could not leave him in those dirty, cold wrappings.
"I'm sorry." Margaret whispered. "I'm so sorry, little one."
"What's going on?" said Mrs Thornton's, her sharp voice catching Margaret quite by surprise.
"A baby left at the gates."
Mrs Thornton walked into the room, peering down at the baby. She sat on the floor besides them both. Her expression softened as she stared down at the babe, - much in the same way her son's had just moments before. A baby had the power to turn stone into water, Margaret was quickly realising. She watched in silence as Hannah Thornton's gaze roamed over the baby with her usual precision.
"A newborn. The mother had enough sense to tie the chord, that's a small blessing. Where's John?"
"Gone for the doctor." Margaret said. "We need to wrap him in something."
"I'll fetch blankets." She pulled herself to her feet. "Hold him to you, keep him warm. Imagine leaving a babe outside in this weather! Have you called for the police?"
Margaret folded the baby's wrappings back over him, though she discarded the ones that felt cold and damp to the touch. She lifted him, letting his head rest against her shoulder.
"No." Margaret shook her head. "That can wait until morning. The doctor will be enough for tonight."
"I'll have one of the servants fetch the cradle."
"You have a cradle?" Margaret asked. "Why?"
"It were one of the few things we kept hold of. Near a hundred years old, it is. I thought we would need it before long, I certainly did not expect this."
"No." Margaret said. "Neither did I."
Some time later, when the cradle had been taken from wherever it had been stored and the doctor had declared the child fit and well, Margaret sat in her bedroom. She had decided it was best if the babe slept there, away from prying eyes of servants. She sat on the edge of the bed, John beside her, her hand clutching the baby's. She could not tear her eyes from him. Though she had always liked babies well enough, she had never been this close to one for such a prolonged period of time.
"What a strange evening this has been." Margaret whispered.
"Aye, that's right enough." John replied, his voice far softer than usual.
She had not missed his fond smile, nor the little touches he had given the baby as he squirmed and wailed in Margaret's arms that evening. She had thought he might be angry at the sudden disruption to their lives, but he had not expressed any such feelings.
"Why did she leave him here?" Margaret asked, for what felt like the tenth time that evening. "I do not understand it."
"You know what some folk might say."
"What?" Margaret asked with a frown.
"They'll say I'm the father."
"What?!" Margaret asked in horror as her eyes widened. She had not considered such a thing; perhaps she was naive in her innocence, but she had not considered the possibility that this baby had been left on their doorstep for that reason.
"I'm not." John said quickly. "I'm just preparing you. There might be talk, gossip that I want you to pay no mind to. It isn't unheard of, a babe being left at the doorstep for their father to deal with. We've been married less than a year, perhaps they'll think I - dallied before we married. I've never known a woman besides you. I've nothing to hide."
Margaret felt herself blush, her skin heated with embarrassment. She shook her head fervently.
"I certainly did not think that. Not for a moment!"
"Whose do you think it is?" John asked after a rather prolonged period of awkward silence.
"He. Not it." Margaret corrected. "I don't know. I've no idea."
"Best get rid of these."
John picked up the wrappings the babe had been left in, ready to toss them onto the fire. As he stood up, a scrap of paper fell out. He bent down, frowning as he read whatever it was. A surge of hope ran through her; had the mother's child left word after all?
"What is it?"
"Miss Margaret. Look after my baby. " John read aloud. "They've spelt your name wrong."
"It must be someone from Princeton." Margaret frowned, trying to make sense of why someone would leave a baby for her - and who they could possibly be, to trust her with such a thing. "All the girls call me Miss Margaret, even now. Oh, John. If only she had come to me, I could have done something to help her."
"Would you not notice a girl about to give birth?" John asked. "Would nobody notice? Her family?"
"I would think so but - they eat so little John. It would be no surprise if they carried small, I suppose. And they've all been so bundled up for winter, they could hide themselves with ease."
"We'll call for the police in the morning." John said.
"No! She will be punished, imprisoned perhaps. She must have known we were out, that we would find the child when we returned home. I do not believe she wished to harm him. She left a note, she wrapped him up warmly somewhere he would be found. She is desperate, John - I cannot imagine such desperation. I will not see her come to harm, nor will I see her up before you in court."
"You're not thinking clearly." John said. "She left him outside the mill gates. What if we had been asleep? The lad would have frozen to death within the hour. That in't keeping him safe. Reckless behaviour from a reckless woman."
"Perhaps she knew we were out at church. I don't know, John. But I cannot imagine how she must feel at this moment. It is Christmas; a time of goodwill and generosity. Perhaps we have been given this child for a reason. If we cannot find her, we must adopt the baby." Margaret said, running a finger down the child's face. "I'll not send him away. Would you condemn him to a life in the workhouse for the faults of his mother?"
"She trusted me, John. We ought not judge her too harshly. Whoever she is, she gave us her son to look after. That means something, does it not?"
"I suppose." John said, though his face did not mirror his words.
"We need to find her. There must be something we can do to help."
"What are you going to do, go door to door asking if anyone's secretly had, and subsequently abandoned, a child?"
Margaret shook her head; she certainly had more common sense than that! Did he think her stupid?! She may not be wise to all the ways of the world, but she was certainly no blundering fool.
"Of course not."
"Then what?! You think a girl who's gone to such lengths to hide a babe would confess to all this just because you asked? You go round askin' questions, she'll go further into the woodwork. Let her come to you."
"Word will spread. The servants have seen him, they will talk. The whole city will know soon enough." Margaret sighed. "Once everyone knows, she is even less likely to come to us, but there is little we can do about that. I do not know what we can do, John."
"We'll keep him safe. Time will do the rest."
Margaret stayed awake the entire night, watching over the tiny child. The cradle that had once housed John and Fanny, kept safe for so many years through hardship, now contained the unexpected arrival. Margaret sat by him, her finger held tight by his tiny fist, watching his chest rise and fall as he slept.
The little mite did not know anything, and did not seem to bear any signs of the no doubt difficult circumstances of his birth. He slept as soundly as a babe born in a palace. Margaret smiled, the tiny snuffling sounds warming her heart. What a fine little thing he was.
Margaret's thoughts turned to the woman who had borne this child. What were her circumstances? Too many mouths to feed already, no room for another? No, the note had said Miss Margaret. The only ones who called her that were the young hands, little older than sixteen or seventeen. Unmarried. How cruel that she should find herself so desperate.
"We'll look after you, little one. I swear it." Margaret whispered. "You shall know love, I am certain, however it might come about."
She wondered what his mother was doing at this moment. Was she well? Perhaps she had been hurt, or had taken a sickness. And what of the father? Did he know?
So many questions, and not a single answer.
A/N: Thank you all so much for your support of my writing this year. Here's just a little Christmas story for you - there are two more full chapters and an epilogue that will be posted over the next week. Thank you so much for reading, keep safe.