Very early on Christmas morning
“Evelyn! Evelyn! Meu Deus, wake up, girl!”
Evelyn opened her eyes in a sudden panic and pushed herself up.
“What is it? What’s happened?”
Rafaela laughed incredulously.
“Nothing, silly! It’s Christmas! We can open our presents! Auntie Sarah said we could when we woke up.”
Evelyn blinked and looked around. The curtains were pulled tightly shut, but nonetheless she could see it was very dark outside.
“What time is it?” she demanded suspiciously.
“It’s definitely morning,” said Rafaela, with a certain degree of haste, and she pushed Evelyn’s watch over so the younger girl couldn’t see the face. “Come on, let's go down!”
Evelyn scrambled out of bed and tugged back the curtain to look out at the morning. The sky was clear and the moon shone down with a silvery glow, glinting off the crisp snow and throwing the shadows of the garden into sharp relief. High above her she could see stars glittering in their myriad constellations, their lights twinkling crystal-like above the sleeping earth. It was a sight to gladden the sternest heart, full of heavenly charm and splendour, and yet it held a certain wintery cruelty, for it was bitterly cold and a heavy frost lay on the trees and frost patterns decorated the window.
“I think it’s still night,” Evelyn said after a moment's peering through the fingers of frost upon the window.
Rafaela scrambled up to join her.
“No,” she said. “See that light over there? That’s dawn!”
“I don’t think Auntie Sarah meant us to get up at dawn,” murmured Evelyn.
“She said morning!” protested Rafaela. “I’m going down, anyway.”
“Rafaela - no!”
But Rafaela had slipped out of the room. Evelyn leapt out of bed and made to follow her, but she had to stop and put on her dressing gown and slippers, for it was a cold night. Rafaela was already warmly clad and, by the time Evelyn was wrapped up and had run downstairs to join her, she was in the salon rooting about under the tree for her presents. The clock on the mantlepiece revealed to Evelyn that the precise hour was half past four. She swallowed nervously.
Evelyn spoke rather more loudly than she had meant to and her voice echoed in the hall.
“Shh!” Rafaela turned on her. “Shut the door, idiot!”
“Don’t call me an idiot!” said Evelyn heatedly, but she saw the sense of Rafaela’s remark and closed the door carefully. She came over and the worry crept back into her voice again. “Rafaela, I don’t think we ought. Auntie Sarah really didn’t mean us to get up at 4.30.”
“She said in the morning.” Rafaela was clinging stubbornly to her story and Evelyn sighed in mild frustration.
“Well, you can open yours,” she said. “I’m not opening mine.”
Rafaela turned round, a wicked glint creeping into her eye. Evelyn’s good example had had some effect on her over the last half a year, rounding off some of her rougher edges, but when tempted she still reverted to her favourite game, namely corrupting another’s good intentions.
“Not even this little one?”
“No, I…is that for me?”
Rafaela made a show of checking the label.
“It says so,” she said. “‘To Evelyn, from Uncle Matty’.” She squeezed the package gently. “Oh, it’s soft. Feel it!”
Evelyn reached out and touched the parcel, but then her conscience caught up with her and she snatched her hand back as if the parcel were bubbling hot.
“No!” she cried. “I won’t!”
Rafaela shook the package gently.
“It’s very light,” she said. “A very small present, actually. I bet they wouldn’t notice if you opened it.”
“I…do you think?”
“I ‘spect so,” said Rafaela. “I ‘spect they wouldn’t notice at all.”
“Really?” Wistful longing was beginning to replace caution. Evelyn crept a little closer and knelt beside Rafaela, feeling the sharp pine needles in the carpet prod into her knees. “But we really shouldn’t - we oughtn’t, Rafaela! I’m sure we’re supposed to wait.”
“P’raps,” said Rafaela, “p’raps if you open it really carefully, we can wrap it back up again and no-one will know in the morning.”
“No," said Rafaela with a sudden change of tone. "No, you’re prob’ly right.”
“You prob’ly couldn’t do it carefully enough.”
“I...I could too!”
“Bet you couldn’t!”
“Bet I could!”
“Go on, then.”
Evelyn took the present with some dubious qualms still fluttering in her breast and began to tug at the string. It gave and she snatched her hand away nervously, but Rafaela’s teasing expression made her try again until the knot had almost come undone…and then her very heart stopped within her, for a sudden breeze announced the opening of the door, and a voice was heard to say, in frighteningly stern tones,
“What are you doing?”
It was lucky for Evelyn that it was a soft parcel, for she dropped it in terror at the sound of the voice, and she and Rafaela turned to face Uncle Tristan, who was standing in the doorway with his dressing gown over his pyjamas, eyes half-open and bleary from sleep.
Evelyn's stammerings came to nothing and she could only crouch, crimson-cheeked and horrified, waiting for the blow which she knew must fall. Oh, she wailed inside, as she had so often wailed before, if only she had not listened to Rafaela! She had been naughty, and now Uncle Tristan was cross, and Christmas would be ruined and all because she had let Rafaela tempt her! She huddled, ready to cry, but to her amazement she heard Rafaela speak up as bold as ever she was.
“We’re opening our presents!”
Uncle Tristan frowned slightly, but even in her fear Evelyn could see that it was more in puzzlement than in anger.
“And why, pray, at this hour of the morning?”
“See!” Rafaela shot a triumphant look at Evelyn. “I told you it was morning!”
“It is morning within a very limited definition of the term,” said Uncle Tristan in reproving tones. “A time, indeed, when good little girls, not to mention their adult mentors, ought to be asleep in their beds.” He rubbed a hand across his eyes as he spoke and blinked sleepily.
“But Auntie Sarah said…”
“I feel quite certain,” said Uncle Tristan, “that when Auntie Sarah said you might open your presents in the morning, she did not anticipate you rising at such an…unexpected hour as this. It is far too early, girls! The sun has not even risen yet. Now, put that present back and return to your beds! Come!”
Evelyn rose immediately and went across to Uncle Tristan, but Rafaela stayed where she was, her every move filled with reluctance.
“Mightn’t we just open one?” she said. “Just one, Uncle Tristan? Then we’ll go back to bed, I promise! I promise, honest Injun! But…mightn’t we? Just one?”
Uncle Tristan gave a sigh, but to Evelyn’s surprise his expression was more indecisive than frustrated.
“Well…” he said, and Evelyn realised with a jolt of surprise that he was relenting! “Well…perhaps one. One only, mind you! One small present each, and then you will return to bed and not rise again until at least…at least seven o’clock.”
“We promise!” was the excited exclamation, and Uncle Tristan uttered something that was halfway between a sigh and a laugh and came into the room properly.
“Very well,” he said. “Choose - and quickly! You may not be tired, but I am. Not that one, Rafaela - that is far too big. Here - take this one, and Evelyn, you take this.”
The girls sat down eagerly and unwrapped a present each, while Uncle Tristan collapsed onto the sofa with a yawn.
“Look, Rafaela!” exclaimed Evelyn excitedly as she pulled away the paper. “A skipping rope!”
“Marbles!” Rafaela was no less excited. “For my collection - oh, topping!”
“Look, Uncle Tristan! Look at my…Uncle Tristan?”
Both girls tore their gaze from their presents and looked over to where Tristan was sitting, head resting against the back of the sofa.
“Rafaela,” said Evelyn after a moment, “he’s fallen asleep!”