Washed and dressed, Nell made her way towards the kitchen, from where a delicious smell of coffee was emanating. Hilda turned as she walked in, and held out a steaming mug.
“I thought we could do with a hot drink. It’s so cold!”
“Well, we are in the middle of a blizzard,” Nell pointed out, eyes twinkling, as she accepted the coffee. “But you’re quite right, this is just what I wanted. Let’s go to the sitting-room and drink it there.”
“Why don’t we stay here? We should really start preparing breakfast in a minute. We can finish opening presents later, ” Hilda said gravely, then sipped from her mug to disguise her twitching lips.
Nell stared at her. “That’s an excellent idea - I don’t think! Have you gone mad?”
“You’re very easy to tease sometimes, my dear! You can’t possibly think I’d really mean that,” Hilda laughed. “Now come along.”
Catching up a plate with buttered rolls she had prepared earlier, she turned to lead the way to her salon. Nell followed, pulling a face at her friend’s back.
“Well, one never knows with you. You might have decided to be all responsible and headmistressy about it!”
Hilda stopped short. “‘Headmistressy’,” she said in a pained voice, “is not a word.”
“I say it is, and I’m a Headmistress,” Nell said, taking advantage of her partner’s pause to step round her and push the sitting-room door open. “Besides, language evolves!”
“I wouldn’t describe your command of the English language as ‘evolving’,” Hilda retorted, following her friend in.
The room was pleasantly warm, since one of Hilda’s first actions when she came downstairs had been to turn up the heating there. There was no Christmas tree - the School tree was in Hall, naturally, and both women had agreed that it would be an absurd waste of power to keep it heated for just the two of them, especially as they hadn’t intended to spend Christmas Day there - but a beautifully carved wooden crib was displayed on a small table, and two parcels stood in front of it. Hilda smiled at Nell as she saw them, realising they’d had the same plan once again; she had left her present here while Nell was bathing, and Nell must have left hers before joining her in the kitchen.
They drank their coffee and ate their rolls in companionable silence. Then, relinquishing her empty mug, Nell leaned down, picked up one of the parcels, and held it out to Hilda. Hilda raised her eyebrows in surprise at the weight as she took it, then smiled slightly at the realization of what was probably in it. She carefully removed the wrapping paper, and her suspicions were confirmed - it was, indeed, books. Three books to be precise, in a slipcover. She looked at the title and gasped.
“Nell! You extravagant creature! This is - ”
“No more than you deserve,” Nell interrupted her protestations firmly. “You’ve wanted that since you heard it was going to be published.”
With gentle fingers, Hilda traced the embossed letters on one of the spines. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. “How did you get it?” she asked, looking up. “I didn’t think it was even available in England yet, let alone Switzerland.”
“I have my ways,” Nell said, grinning. “A magician never reveals her secrets!” Privately, she reflected, Lucky we have American friends, and there’s such a thing as a postal service!
Hilda gave up the question, knowing she wouldn’t get a better answer than that, and returned her delighted gaze to the books. Nell was right, she’d wanted this from the moment she heard about it. She’d been horrified to discover, years earlier, that Emily Dickinson’s poems had often been altered by publishers; now, she’d be able to enjoy them in their original form. With an effort, Hilda tore her eyes away, resisting the urge to start reading at once. Later, perhaps - now, it was time to give Nell her gift.
Setting down her books, she lifted the remaining parcel and passed it to Nell, saying as she did, “be careful with it.”
“What do you think I’m going to do? Throw it across the room?” Nell asked, voice loaded with sarcasm; but she took the large parcel carefully, resting it on the sofa before she began to unwrap it. As she pulled the paper away, a sturdy box came into view, and on opening that a layer of cotton wool.
“I feel like this should be labelled fragile,” Nell remarked laughingly as she saw it.
“I thought about it, but I could imagine what your reaction would be,” Hilda said, waiting eagerly for Nell to continue.
Nell considered continuing the argument, but her curiosity had been piqued by the wrapping, so she lifted off the cotton wool, revealing a record.
“Mars, the Bringer of War - Hilda! Is it…”
“The original recording of Holst’s Planets,” Hilda confirmed with a gentle smile.
Nell looked at her silently, then back at the records. This had been one of her family’s favourite works, one they listened to again and again. Her father’s old records had been one of her most treasured possessions, until a leak in the roof of her cottage had let water drip down to ruin them. Finding Holst’s own recording almost impossible to obtain, she had settled for a newer version; but, though she knew it was musically good, it had never been the same to her - something she had told Hilda once, years ago. She’d forgotten she’d ever said anything, but clearly Hilda hadn’t.
“And you call me extravagant,” she finally said, her eyes bright with unshed tears as she met her lover’s gaze.
To her surprise, Hilda blushed. “Oh, don’t! A good half are second-hand - it’s the only way I could get them, though I made sure they were in good condition.”
“And how much time and effort did collecting them all cost you?” Nell asked quietly. “Besides, it means so much - Hilda, I - thank you, my love.”
Standing, she pulled Hilda to her feet and into a fierce embrace. Hilda held her just as tightly, feeling Nell’s shuddering breaths shake her body.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Idiot,” Nell said affectionately, her voice still catching. “I’m not upset, just overwhelmed.”
“Would you like to listen to it now? I can get a gramophone,” Hilda offered.
Nell shook her head. “I’ll get one in a moment,” she answered, still clinging to her. “Just… stay with me.”
Hilda did as she asked, gently rubbing Nell’s back and whispering soothing words. For her part, Nell concentrated on getting her breathing back to normal, suddenly grateful for the blizzard. It would never have done to put on a scene like this in front of the entire Maynard family, even if Jack and Jo did know about their relationship, but suppressing the upwelling of emotion Hilda’s gift had caused would have been close to impossible.
It was a few minutes before Nell recovered herself enough to go in hunt of a gramophone, leaving behind a rather ashamed Hilda. In her wish to please her friend, she realised now she had underestimated how moved Nell would be; and she too gave thanks for the blizzard that had enforced privacy on their gift-giving. The thought of gifts turned her eyes once more to her own, and she found herself unable to resist the temptation of pulling out the first volume.
That was how Nell found her when she returned, so deeply absorbed in the pages that she never heard her come in. It wasn’t until Nell was halfway across the room, setting down the gramophone, that she realised her friend was there, and looked up, startled, to meet her laughing eyes.
“Keep reading!” Nell cried as Hilda set her book aside. “I didn’t mean for you to stop.”
“I can’t read and pay attention to music at the same time,” Hilda pointed out.
“We can listen to the records later,” Nell offered, sitting down next to her, but Hilda shook her head.
“I told you to get the gramophone, didn’t I? I’ll read this afternoon.” To add force to her argument, she took up the slipcover, intending to replace the book, but Nell stopped her.
“Read me something first,” she coaxed - not that Hilda needed much coaxing.
Scanning the index of first lines, she quickly found an old favourite. It was the work of seconds to hunt it up, and she read it out in her beautiful voice.
“That I did always love
I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived -- Enough --
That I shall love alway --
I argue thee
That love is life --
And life hath Immortality --
This -- dost thou doubt -- Sweet --
Then have I
Nothing to show
The pair were silent for a few seconds, both reflecting on the words. Then Hilda closed her book, and told Nell to put the first record on in a tone that brooked no argument.
Conceding the point with a smile, Nell turned to the box holding the precious records and lifted out the first one. With utmost care, she set the record playing, then returned to the couch, curling up next to Hilda. As the first notes rang out, she kissed her cheek and murmured in her ear, “Merry Christmas, my love.”