December 16th, 1941

Under the circumstances (the sudden move, the sleepless nights, the frightened children, the whole awful, lowering anxiety that lay like a grey film on every familiar face and stick of furniture) it was perhaps a bit laudable that this was only their first row since the war began.

Under the circumstances, however, it was rather a harsh one.

"It's a crime and a shame, Harriet. It's everything I've never been and swore I would never be."

He was not raising his voice, or she might have thought she had a chance. He stood on the opposite side of the room, upright and stone-sculpted. She dug her fingers hard into the soft arm of the chair.

"Peter, I'm not suggesting bicycles and radios. Heaven knows how I'd even reach a shop. But it's Christmas. They're children."

"They are children in wartime. With a roof, a meal and both parents."

"And I was a child in 1916, and I remember what a Christmas gift meant!"

"And I had other business that December..."

"Oh for goodness' sake, Peter. Don't patronize me!"

"When you allow sentimentality..."

A quarter hour's simmering frustration broke.

"You! Lecturing me on sentimentality! Peter..."

There is a particular cough - courteous, eloquent, and above all sparing of any and all judgment - the cough of a well-trained servant interrupting his employers in an intimate argument. Bunter had mastered this cough, even if he rarely had cause to exercise it. But today even his impeccable exhalation lacked a certain something.

In a word, Bunter was unsettled. And a chill fell into the room with the almost-tremor in his voice.

Peter did not turn, his eyes still focused out the window. But Harriet did, a half-breathed word of inquiry on her lips, until she saw Bunter's hand.

Her back went rigid, the ice rushed through her veins, and she released her grip on the arm of the chair and folded her hands slowly together, one over the other.

"Peter."

"My lord."

The two voices spoke almost together, with much the same tone. Wimsey winced, and turned.

Harriet always remembered, in later years, the banality of the sounds in the scene. Bunter walked quietly across the room, his footsteps muffled in the rug. Quietly Peter unfolded the telegram, quietly read it, quietly refolded it and placed it carefully in an inner pocket, where it would not disturb the cut of his coat. He looked first at Bunter and nodded, then turned to Harriet.

She broke her eyes from his, conscious of a tight pain in her chest, and stood.

"You'll need...to pack, Peter."

She took an aimless step away from the chair, recognized her lack of purpose, and viciously stomped on the rising panic. With the careful moments of one walking through broken glass, she turned back to the chair, felt on the small side table, found a notebook and pencil. They were never far off in this home.

"Harriet."

She ignored his voice, flipped open the notebook, set the pencil to the paper and wrote as she spoke. She was dimly aware of Bunter discreetly exiting.

"You'll need clothes, of course...and papers, do you take papers? And we'd better make sure there'll be nothing here, with the money and such, that I can't handle..."

"Harriet."

"I'm sure Bunter knows how to manage most of it, but if you need.."

"Harriet."

She looked at his face for the first time, and saw there everything she was working so hard to keep hidden in her own. He rested one hand on the mantle, his hair bleached in the sunlight behind him, his eyes open and asking, his lips in a weary, frail sort of smile.

Her chest ached, and her voice was barely more than a whisper.

"What can I do to help you?"

He held out his other arm.

"This."

Even in so eloquent and indeed, cerebral a relationship as that between Lord Peter Wimsey and his lady, there is a time for silence. Harriet went to him.

December 20th, 1941

The knife slipped and skidded over the uneven wood, dodged her control and left a stinging red trail along her index finger. Harriet opened her mouth to swear and closed it again, painfully conscious of the amazing retentive powers of the young ears at her side.

"No, Mama," Bredon said, with the withering patience children who have only recently mastered dressing themselves reserve for their elders. "Like this."

He took the knot and the whittling knife, made a few practiced cuts and handed her back a passable small sphere. Harriet was in no mood for gratitude, but best manners were best taught by example.

"Thank you, dear."

She attacked it a few minutes longer with the dogged strength of despair, Bredon making encouraging - and patronizing - noises at her elbow. Then the treacherous knife slipped again, found a crack in the grain, and with a surprisingly loud pop, her long afternoon's labor was suddenly a pile of wood chips and nothing more.

Bredon made a soft sound of commiseration, surprisingly adult for his age, and set a small hand on his mother's wrist.

"I can go and find you another burl, Mama, if you..."

Harriet took a deep breath and found, to her surprise, a faint bubble of laughter in her chest. She shook her head.

"Thank you, dear, but it's alright." She cast a wry look to her fingers, usually ink-stained and nail-bitten, now scored with irritating splinters and tiny cuts. "Apparently I can do only one kind of work with my hands. Thank you for your help, Bredon."

She patted his shoulder briskly and rose from the window seat.

"I'll find a broom and tend to this mess. No use bothering Mary."

She had got halfway across the room when a small voice arrested her.

"There's no Christmas this year, is there, Mama?"

Harriet paused, turned, and had enough mother's instinct to come swiftly back to her son. Bredon sat on the window seat, eyes lowered and feet swinging, the heels beating deeper grooves into wood already scarred by the contemplative moods of small persons of various sizes. Harriet knelt and placed both hands on his knees, halting the tattoo.

"Bredon, of course there will be Christmas. What makes you say that?"

Small fists squirmed in the cushion.

"Well, Papa's gone...and there's no trips to London or Denver...and no guests. And you've been learning to whittle for a week now, and I think...I think it's because I told you that Roger wants a set of soldiers. And you can't buy them so you're making them, and there'll be no gifts, and no Papa, and there's no Christmas."

Bredon was a solid, stocky child, born with chin outthrust and upper lip thoroughly stiff. He sat now, embarrassed under her scrutiny but with voice carefully pitched to express no emotion other than a quiet pride in his effective reasoning.

Harriet took a deep breath and looked at the crown of fair hair confronting her. And so now was the moment that she Explained Things to her eldest son, in that very wise, adult way. She laid on those little shoulders a portion - not the full burden, no, of course not, but just a small sampling of the weight, the many ways the world was not as it should be, not as she would have wanted it to be for him. This was when she told him, as Peter would have if he were here, that while his father was serving king and country he was the man of the house, when she enlisted his aid in keeping the illusion of innocence unspoilt a while longer for Roger, when she turned her child into a very small man in a very short while.

And why not? War compressed life, sped it up. A string of bombs did to a field ready for harvest what a drought would have done in weeks; a bullet did to a man what would have taken an illness months. Innocent romances that should have budded and bloomed for years yet sprinted suddenly to the altar, and from bride to wife to widow - that could be a step so short that other women might envy her few years with Peter as if they had been a lifetime.

Peter, whose innocence - already hard beset, for those eyes had been born to see too clearly what most children in his position found it very easy to ignore - had ended so abruptly in the war.

Now only the first war.

Harriet laid a smooth hand on her son's hair and let the coarse strands - the same color as Peter's, but nowhere near as fine - rustle against her fingers.

"Bredon, love...Christmas comes every year, gifts or no. And this year...yes, there may be less than before, because it is a good deal harder, you understand, to get places now, to find the things you and Roger want. But Christmas won't come any the less for that. And your father will not be here, but he'll be thinking of you and Roger and me, and loving us, wherever he is. And Christmas is more than gifts, Bredon, and you know that. We still..."

Harriet the mother of future Anglican communicants stumbled a moment into Harriet the hopeful, respectful agnostic, and the two bowed courteously to each other and went their separate ways.

"We still rejoice at Christmas, Bredon, and what it means, and the birth of the Lord. Everyone rejoiced then, you know, long before the Magi arrived with the presents. And you know...here!"

She suddenly pulled herself up onto the windowsill and pulled her small son into her lap. Bredon had outgrown lap-sitting scarcely later than he had outgrown gowns - he squirmed a moment, but Harriet held him fast and pointed out the window to the east. As the crimson sun faded behind their home, a few stars were just beginning to wink into being.

"Those stars, Bredon. Pap sees them too."

He stopped squirming and peered a moment, curiously, upward.

"But you said he's far away."

"Well, yes, darling, but the sky is much larger than the earth. However far away Papa is, he still sees the stars...probably the very same stars you and I see, from here. Or that you can see from your window in the nursery."

She wrapped an arm around him.

"So if you're missing him, or you're worried about Christmas, you can just look up at the stars, and you'll see...you'll remember them both."

Bredon was not a child prone to fancies; he looked at her skeptically a moment or two, then shifted his eyes to the stars. Visibly, the small square face softened.

"Really, Papa sees them?"

"Truly and honestly, Bredon."

After a moment of contemplation, Harriet felt the solid little figure sink back against her chest, watching the stars glimmer into being. She wrapped another arm round him gently, squeezed, and was rewarded with a faint returning pressure.

"Now, love," she murmured quietly, after a few moments. "Go and get Roger ready for bed, will you? Mama will be along in a minute."

"Will you read Robin tonight, Mama?" he queried, sliding down obediently.

"We did Robin last night, Bredon; I believe I owe Roger an Arthur."

An exaggerated sigh.

"I know every Arthur story, Mama..."

"And every Robin one too, Bredon. You just care for those more. No arguments, please."

"Yes, Mama."

Then the little figure slipped from her grasp and padded quietly away. And Harriet, with a sigh, turned her attention to the small shavings on the floor. Which had been, once, an attempt at a set of knights for Roger. As the faded and butchered green drapes, now piled in the rag bag, were to be a suit of Lincoln green for Bredon, currently fascinated by Robin Hood. As the broken wood and snapped twine buried behind the shed were to have been a bow and arrow for Bredon, and the mangled remains of a bit of corroded tin a blunt sword for Roger.

A sad little tree, already dying, stood propped against a corner in the living room, strung with a few bits of tinsel Harriet had found in the attic. But there would be nothing under it for her boys in five days.

She brushed her hair aside with a brusque, impatient gesture, and then paused.

She looked a moment at her scored, unfortunate hand in the fading sunlight, the growing starlight.

And smiled.

December 24th, 1941

The clock strikes one, and as punctually as Dickens' miser, Harriet wakes to an empty bed.

This was not strictly true. Her bed was, in point of fact, a trifle more crowded than usual. Even two small boys, if they are the sprawly and squirmy sort, can more than fill an old four-poster designed for one couple sleeping intertwined. But the small whistlings of breath that filled the room were not the slow sighs she listened for, and there was no warm arm to curl under and no heartbeat to match her own to.

And because there were only her dearest sons and not her dearest husband, she slipped from the bed with the haste almost of panic, wrapped herself in a quilted dressing gown that was made for a man, and stumbled down the stairs into the empty drawing room where she buried her face in a pillow, wrapped the scented-of-her-husband robe around her, and keened.

These moments were never long, and she felt, afterwards, a little better. She held no illusions; knew that women throughout the nation, throughout the world shared these midnight mournings with her; knew too, with a coldness in the pit of her stomach, that many of them had no hope to waken to, no golden reunion in the hopeful distance, too shining to see the detail. She did not hold herself aloof from these women, swell with pride for being stronger or drown in shame for being weaker than any one of them. Harriet Wimsey, so cool and self-contained as Harriet Vane, felt for the first time a sisterhood with strangers.

Or perhaps it was merely the sheer physical release, after the long days of breaths to shallow to admit of sobs, hands set in action to keep them from shaking, and feeding her mind thought after thought after thought to escape that one whirlpool possibility that sucked at her every contemplation. For a few moments in the darkness, smelling velvet cushions and his dressing gown, she could relax.

And she had in the pocket of the dressing gown two small bulky packages that could almost make her smile.

But tonight, when Harriet lifted her face from the pillow and wiped self-consciously at her face with the too-long - but only just - sleeve of the gown, she heard footsteps and the creak of a door.

She stumbled to her feet in an instant, felt with one hand for the poker, moved slowly towards the door. Tramps, her grief-fuddled mind experimented; or smugglers; or soldiers; or even a sudden invasion, the nightmare she could reason away in the daytime...

Or a man with a shapeless felt hat and a flowing overcoat, laboring under the weight of a half-full burlap sack. Harriet stared for a full ten seconds before a ray of moonlight through the door caught the figure's profile - and she felt an unaccountable relief that it was a clean-shaven one. And in fact, a familiar one.

"Bunter?"

An unperturbed face peeked up at her, and he snatched at the cap.

"Your ladyship. I hope I did not disturb you."

She stared a moment, slowly identifying the cap as his usual one for out of doors work, the shapeless overcoat as winter wear, and the sack...

"Bunter...what on earth are you doing?"

With practiced ease, he swung the sack to the floor and drew himself to an appropriate posture.

"I beg your pardon for the presumption, my lady, but I have taken the liberty of obtaining a few small...mementos of the season for the young gentlemen."

She gaped at him.

"Presents?"

He inclined his head. She was sure the twinkle in the eye was only the moonlight.

"One might designate them as such, my lady."

She stared a moment longer, then pointed to the drawing room as if she had been commanding servants all her life.

"Explain, please, Bunter."

* * * * * *

She checked that the shades were closely drawn, and lit a single candle as Bunter knelt beside the tree and revealed his bounty.

"I believe that young master Roger has recently expressed a strong interest in the exploits of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. I was able to prevail upon the carpenter, who has an often-untapped gift for more delicate work, to construct him a few small models..."

Four exquisite knights, with lances that detached from their small fists and horses rearing, galloping, or merely standing with noses raised to scent the battle.

"Bunter! How..."

"The carpenter was also kind enough to construct Master Bredon a relatively simple bow and arrows...blunted points, of course..."

A curved longbow, with twine that sang like a plucked string.

"And Mr. Ferndean, the blacksmith, was most creative with the otherwise unusable remains of the last motorcar but one.."

The small blunt sword shone like Excalibur.

"And Miss Deltworth was quite intrigued by the color of the drapes which your ladyship considered no longer usable, and was quite willing to experiment..."

And there lay the Lincoln Green. Bunter rewrapped each gift carefully in newsprint and set them against the unsteady tree.

Harriet turned shining eyes to him.

"Bunter, how much did you spend on all this?"

The manservant inclined his head respectfully.

"No money changed hands at all, madam; merely a few promises for future services. I hope it will not inconvenience your ladyship overmuch, but at the next point when a patriot may make flippant use of petrol, I shall be driving Mr. Trenton to visit his daughter for a week, and bringing him back again when the visit has concluded; and at the next heavy snow, I may be obliged to ascertain that Mr. Ferndean's drive is clear before turning my full attention to our own..."

"And Miss Deltworth, what can we do to repay her?"

It means little to say that a man's face was like a statue's; many statues have expressive and open faces, clearly legible to the curious, faces that would be quite mobile if transmuted to flesh. Bunter's face was like the flat stone before ever chisel has been set to it.

"Miss Deltworth made it clear to me that she was only too pleased to assist in any she could, my lady."

There was a moment when mistress and man stared at each other - and mistress made a conscious decision to speak, and think, no further down that road.

"Bunter...you are a marvel."

The faint inclination of the head, that could express at once diffidence and calm satisfaction in a job well done.

"I hope it is not presumption, but Lord Peter did give me permission to try what I could, before he went away. I simply thought that the young gentlemen should have as merry a Yule as possible, my lady. Under the circumstances."

Harriet nodded and smiled, a trifle painfully.

"Under the circumstances."

She put a hand into the ample dressing gown pocket and drew out two small, bulky squares. She laid one gently between the bow and the Lincoln green; the other she propped under the sword, next to the cigar box containing the knights.

Bunter looked at her curiously.

"I beg your pardon, my lady...but I had been under the impression..."

"That previous attempts at gifts had come to naught?"

Harriet grinned and patted one package. It rustled.

"I had a carefully horded roll of typing paper. And every story of Pyle's or Mallory's...the boys know them by heart. I thought a few new legends would make the winter slip by faster."

This time the inclination of the head held a sense of approbation, and Harriet felt a ridiculous warmth at the approval.

Bunter gave a final nudge to one of the gifts, and then rose.

"If your ladyship requires nothing more, then..."

Harriet scrambled to her feet and stared at her husband's manservant. The only light came from the candle on the floor, and a sliver of moonlight filtering through the shade...but from her window upstairs she had seen the stars, vivid and clear. Bright enough to shine through any smoke or fog, and reach any eyes.

She raised her hand and let it rest a moment on Bunter's shoulder.

"It isn't the gifts, Peter," she had told him, seated like a child on the bed as he buttoned his coat. "It wasn't the gifts then, when I was a child. It was...the safety."

He had paused a moment, looking up at her.

"What do you mean, Harriet?"

She had sighed, letting her eyes drift to the window and into the past.

"My mother gave me a rag doll more rag than doll, from her clothes too worn to make over for me even by that year's standards. And my father had a notebook he'd stitched me out of blank newsprint, and pencil stubs begged from every friend in town. But it felt...safe. My parents had brought me Christmas, even then, even in the war. It was close enough to what had been before...and it meant that it would come again."

She had looked up at him again then.

"I want our sons to believe that we'll be here next Christmas, too, and the one after that. I want them to know love hasn't changed."

Peter had sighed himself then, a deep breath, and settled beside her on the bed.

"D'you know when I offered Bunter a post as my man, Harriet?"

She turned her head, withholding judgment on the apparent non sequitor.

"Your mother told me you and he were together in...a tight spot."

Peter laughed the harsh, mirthless laugh she remembered from the worst moments of their courtship.

"A tunnel collapsed. I was buried and half dead, and he buried with me. Kept me talking. Kept me alive. Kept me sane, even more."

He laid his hand on hers.

"Christmas Eve, it was. I tried to tell him that I hoped they'd get the dates wrong when they notified the family; didn't want Christmas Eve to always mean losing a son to the mater, wanted her to enjoy the carols and the gifts no matter what. He got me to talking of other things, the estate, the flat in town, the family...told me it all compared quite unfavorably to his last post."

While she had hugged the doll, Peter had struggled to breathe. While she wrote her father awkward poems on the dim flimsy paper, Peter had been imagining his mother marking the day of his death.

She curled her fingers around his.

"He's staying here, you know. Just me, this time...it's safer that way," he added, forestalling the protest on her lips. "And I'll sleep better over there, always, for knowing he's here with you and the children." He smiled. "Maybe he'll help you find a way to manage gifts for them. For safety's sake."

She had swallowed hard and found her voice at last, though a weaker and raspier specimen than she preferred.

"He's an immense gift to us, Peter. I may not know from whom, but I know he's a gift."

"When he tells the boys I'm coming back next Christmas...they'll believe him."

And so will I, she had thought.

Now she laid her hand on his shoulder, felt the snow melting on the coat, and smiled at him.

"Thank you, Bunter."

And when she went upstairs to the sleeping sons in her bed, she stood a moment at the window, and watched the stars.

And said her thanks again.