Mistlethwaite, December 1918
The festive season had brought about a renewed air of optimism within the aristocratic fraternity. The Central Powers had at last succumbed to the Allies and British pride had been restored to its former untarnished glory. Christmas heralded the perfect opportunity for merriment, with families united once more. Earls and countesses from the various estates that surrounded Mistlethwaite had converged at the manor for an evening of merriment. The great hall had proved a splendid setting for such a gathering, with the lengthy oak table boasting platefuls of rich meats and soups.
Seated in between a fine-boned elderly lady and a portly gentleman with a peculiar handlebar moustache was nineteen-year-old Mary Lennox. Her dishevelled brown hair had been tamed into a twist for the occasion and her hazel eyes sparkled against the light of the fire. As she sliced the venison to reveal its ruby flesh, a call for silence fell upon the vast room.
"Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please!" called a butler as the man at the fore of the table rose to his feet. Lord Craven, Mary's uncle, nodded gratefully at the servant before surveying the table.
"T-thank you all for being with us today," He began, only his stammer belying his apprehension at the speech. "It is with my greatest pleasure that Mistlethwaite hosts you today. It has been one month precisely since the end of the Great War and I thank those at this table who fought for their country. I am sad to remark the passing of a couple of our number during the troubled times, however we must remain optimistic for what awaits us."
The eyes of Mary's uncle met those of her own and her heart lurched. Glancing around her to see if her tremble had gone unnoticed, Mary looked down the table until she saw the gentleman she desired. George, Earl of Ripon, was listening intently to her uncle's utterances and beamed at his fiancée when he caught her gaze. Uncomfortably, Mary smiled back, however her eyes did not reflect the warmth of her gesture. George had not gone to war; blaming an old back injury for his refusal to enlist, he instead mocked those who had fought for him. He was chauvinistic- excessively so, using his fortune against the women both at his status and at a lower status than him. He despised animals and nature; shooting was his prime passion and not even Mary's insistence would make him stop. He did not restrict himself to shooting game, for Mary had been told stories of him shooting stray dogs in the village for sport. Her agreement had been solely to appease her uncle and although it had pleased him greatly, she wished she could terminate the proposal.
"I am overjoyed to announce the marriage of George Marshall, heir of the Ripon estate, to my niece, Mary Lennox. They are due to marry in the August of the upcoming year and I invite all of you to join us in celebration- of course, formal invitations shall be distributed also."
A gasp of surprise ignited the table before applause echoed around the room. Sitting opposite Mary, her cousin Colin mouthed his congratulations while her plump neighbour kissed her on the cheek. Mary's body shook as she was toasted by the guests. The pretence was an intolerable weight that Mary had to suffer, however it was slowly overcoming her. Her chair scraped across the floor as she arose, politely made her excuses and dashed from the room.
A ringing silence settled upon the room as Mary's disappearance became apparent. Lord Craven had turned quite pale and sank into his chair quietly. George looked around him to see that the court was staring at him expectantly. He coughed and stood up, before striding purposely towards the door.
Mary had gone. She could feel the wind through the mighty walls of the house, but she wrenched open the oak front door and fled. Her floating chiffon dress caught on a bramble and tore, and she wrenched the grips from her hair. The first diamonds of snow were beginning to settle on the cobbles as she danced across the courtyard towards the gardens. The oil lanterns that she had requested illuminated her path, however she found herself stumbling on loose stones. She would hide in her garden until the storm of her marriage subsided- nobody would find her there, for sure.
The whitewashed wooden gate hung open, creaking as it swung from side to side. In spite of herself, Mary paused. It was only her, Colin and her uncle who possessed a key- she had made sure of that. The two men were in the great hall, so the gate must have been left open. Mary sighed, wishing that they had been more careful. Tentatively, she pushed open the gate and smiled.
Although the snow was creating a glistening white facade on the perennials, the sight was wondrous. The bare trees were adorned with ice and roofs of white decorated the holly. Mary looked at the ground and froze; not from the biting cold, but from shock. Fresh footprints were embedded into the snow, much larger than those of Mary's. Bemused, Mary glanced around her before squinting through the snow and diminishing light. The trail of footsteps led her beyond the flowerbeds, past the vegetable patch and in the distance Mary could see that they ended just behind the oak tree.
Then Mary remembered. She looked down at the footprints once more, noting their size. They were two times the size of her own, the mark of boots rather than the dress shoes of her uncle and her cousin. The line that followed the footprints was the tyre mark of a wheelbarrow. The only other person besides Colin and her uncle who owned a key was Dickon.
Dickon had enlisted himself upon turning sixteen, against the wishes of his family. He wanted to serve his country and work the cavalry, riding and caring for the noble gun horses like they were his own. He had written once to the manor and a couple of times to his family, each time expressing his unhappiness at the vast amount of men and animals lost each day. Mary had not been informed of his return, for he had just arrived home the previous morning.
Ignoring the bitter cold gnawing at her exposed legs and arms, Mary began to run. She had not seen her friend in four years and had missed him greatly. He was the antidote; the antithesis of George- kind hearted, modest and ultimately caring.
"Dickon!" She called, but her words were swept up in the wind.
But Dickon heard. Cementing his fork in the frozen ground, he came out from behind the tree's great trunk to see Mary hurtling towards him. To Dickon, she was as he remembered her on their first meeting- curiously unkempt, with hair that flew in all directions and a pale complexion. Except her eyes had regained the lust for life that she had discovered many years ago upon her first encounter in the garden.
Mary saw in front of her that Dickon was no longer the moor boy she remembered. He was a man; a strapping man with a dirty face and muddied blonde hair. His cheeks were flushed with delight as she ran into his outstretch arms and he cradled her. She was freezing to the touch yet her heart radiated with pleasure at Dickon's return. They remained in a close embrace for a few minutes before he slowly released her.
"Look at the state of you," He murmured, looking up and down at her. "What happened?"
Despite the fact that her teeth were beginning to chatter, Dickon scraped some snow from a bench and they sat down. Mary poured out the contents of her soul as she told Dickon about the previous four years of his absence. She told him about her impending marriage and her distaste for her future husband. Dickon had listened intently, his expression indifferent, until she had spoken about his ways. She showed him the welt on her arm where he had slapped her and began to cry. Once again, Dickon encased her in his strong arms and let her weep until she could cry no more.