A Gift of Mistletoe • Alex Whitehall A gift of Mistletoe December 23 Ha rry Rapshire checks his watch, frowns at the time, then slips it back in his pocket. It’s no surprise the train is late, what with the snow falling, no matter how lightly. Up north the weather must be worse, and he can imagine what he’ll face as he heads home. It’s his own fault, though, which dulls his annoyance with the train and sharpens his frustration with himself. If he hadn’t stayed late in the library, he wouldn’t have missed the first train out of Demsport and he would be on his way already. On his way home, probably dozing in his tiny cabin instead of standing at the station, alternately pacing and staring out the windows. The station is out of the storm and heated, but not exactly warm. Not as warm as he’d be in front of the fire surrounded by his mother, his father, his brother and, if he is lucky, the tutor, Mr. Dorry. Instead he’d lingered over new and antiquated texts, been caught in traffic, and missed his train. The ticket seller had exchanged it for a later ride, but an hour after its scheduled arrival, the train has not yet appeared. Tugging his hat off, he jerks his fingers through his hair before plopping his hat back on and sighing. Worrying won’t help. Instead, he sits where he can stare out the window, although he can’t see much of anything through the dark and the snow. 2 .
A Gift of Mistletoe • Alex Whitehall Pulling out a sheet of paper, he looks over what he’s written: Mr. Dorry, A merry Christmas to you. I hope this letter finds you well. With a grumble, he scratches out the last line. And the first. This is no longer a letter he should have sent a week ago, it is a speech he will have to give when he sees him, hopefully with a moment of privacy. Assuming Mr. Dorry is there during the holidays and hasn’t made the trip east to visit his own family. Harry doesn’t think that is likely; Mr. Dorry had always impressed upon him that he is estranged from his kin, but his parents had made no mention of Mr. Dorry joining them for dinner. Of course, why would they think to mention that? I want to wish you a merry Christmas. He scratches that out as well, preparing to fuss with his hair when he hits his hat, pushing it up his brow but not off before his hand returns to the paper. Mr. Dorry, you’ve served our family a long time, and I want you to know how much I appreciate 3 .
A Gift of Mistletoe • Alex Whitehall That isn’t right at all since Mr. Dorry joined their house only four years ago, first as Harry’s tutor and now as his brother Rupert’s tutor. Mr. Dorry, I think I’m taken with you. Harry sighs and folds the paper several times before shoving it in his pocket and leaning back on the bench. Before he can contemplate his juncture, he hears the cry of the train and feels a fluttering in his stomach that could be relief, but most definitely has a taste of anticipation. All the passengers waiting in the station begin gathering their things, bundling up to head out into the cold. It’s not quite as bitter to Harry, who is used to the temperatures further north, but he buttons his jacket and pulls on his gloves. It isn’t long before he’s on the train with his belongings stashed and his outerwear hanging. He didn’t get a room, but the seats are comfortable enough, and once the train’s moving, he thinks he’ll be able to doze. It’s warm, at least, and he closes his eyes as the train sets off. He’s awoken by a gentle shake of his shoulder and is informed that his stop is approaching. A few stretches relieve the stiffness from his nap before he dons his coat and scarf again. He bundles up this time, knowing it will be colder, especially with dawn only a few hours away and the wind howling. Soon he’s standing in that cold with his hands full of luggage and he’s bustling to get inside, where he’ll wait for a few hours until he can expect his family to pick him up. 4 .
A Gift of Mistletoe • Alex Whitehall There’s a sense of surprise and, undeniably, joy, when he sees Mr. Dorry sitting inside, fastened tight against the cold. His slender Southeastern body hasn’t adjusted to the extremes, even after the past few years. His eyes are closed, his gloved hands tucked under his arms, and Harry watches as Mr. Dorry shifts, shivers, and slowly opens his eyes. Harry tries not to blush when he’s caught staring, and instead picks up the bag he’s dropped and heads to where the tutor is now standing. “Sorry, Master Harold.” “Sorry?” he echoes, ignoring the use of his full name. “I’m the one who kept you waiting! Have you been here the entire time?” “Your mother didn’t want you worried we’d—they’d forgotten, so she sent me. Haven’t been here long, just long enough. I’ll have to re-hitch the sleigh, didn’t want Oscar’s feet to freeze in place.” “I’ll help; we can throw my baggage in the back. I hate to be such a bother, but this storm came on so suddenly.” “Your studies are important.” Mr. Dorry’s real smile appears for the first time and Harry’s stomach tightens. “Else all my work is going to waste.” They can’t talk as they dash to the sleigh and toss Harry’s things in it, covering them with the oilskin and lashing them down before hurrying to the stables for Oscar. The old draft horse isn’t too inclined to leave his warm stall, and Harry doesn’t blame him, but he wants to get home and warm as well, so they drag old Oscar out and hitch him, their cold fingers fumbling with the buckles. The sleigh is 5 .
A Gift of Mistletoe • Alex Whitehall covered, but it does little to protect them from the biting wind and dropping temperatures as they start home. It’s a perfect time for Harry to confess to Mr. Dorry, but of course he can’t with the noise from the wind whipping around them and the sleigh cutting through the snow at a good clip. Mr. Dorry tries to ask a few questions about school but gives up when his voice is lost in the wind. Instead they hunker down and pass the hour miserably cold, looking forward to getting home. Under other circumstances, he would enjoy the scenery, the company, the ride. But it’s not soon enough that they are pulling around into the carriage house and unhooking Oscar, putting him in his stall and grabbing the luggage for the last leg of the journey to the house. They practically crash through the front door, both wincing as it slams closed behind them. But they are inside, and Mr. Dorry has already set down the bag to take Harry’s coat. He doesn’t think about it, and he isn’t sure when it happens, but as his parents are coming down the hall, which is surprise enough, he sees Mr. Dorry with a familiar paper in his hands. He can’t move. He’s still staring when his parents greet him, and he’s stiff when they hug him. “What is it you have there?” his mother asks, and Mr. Dorry looks up, the shock finally driven from his face. “Just train times from the station, ma’am.” “Oh.” She doesn’t sound convinced, but forgets it when Harry gives her a proper hug. “What are you both doing up?” he manages to ask now that his heart is beating again. “Not on my account, I hope!” 6 .
A Gift of Mistletoe • Alex Whitehall “Oh, don’t be such a fuss.” His mother hugs him again. “I can’t help I want to welcome my son home properly. Now come into the kitchen, I’ve some cider warming.” He follows his parents from the hall, casting a panicked glance back, but Mr. Dorry has tucked the paper away again and has his luggage in hand. “I’ll take these up for you, Master Harold.” Correcting him and saying, “It’s Harry,” isn’t something he can do in front of his parents, and there is no opportunity to explain the note and its final forsaking line as he is dragged into the kitchen. Oddly, they haven’t woken any of the other staff for this late-night gathering, and it is his mother who pours three mugs of hot cider for them, gathering them around the table where the servants normally sup—or the children, when they’d been young and their parents were throwing a party. He answers their questions about his trip and school, updating them from his last letter and blushingly explaining why he’d been late. He doesn’t dare say what he’d been reading—he hadn’t even risked checking out the books in case someone would inquire about it. He had just tucked himself away and read the beautiful words of a man like himself, even if the stories were no more explicit than Shakespeare’s had been—less so, perhaps. “Sorry?” “Oh, darling, you must be exhausted.” His mother brushes his curls back, smiling and taking his empty mug. “Why don’t you go up to bed? We can talk when it’s properly morning.” 7 .
A Gift of Mistletoe • Alex Whitehall He would argue, but he’s suddenly drained from the cold and the stress and the waiting. He hugs his mother, surprised at how dainty she is in his arms, and is given another hug from his father, along with a strong pat on the back. It is still peculiar to him that they woke to greet him, but he has been gone four months, and while he’s gaining a world, they are losing a son. Treading quietly down the hall, he finds his bedroom furnace lit, and he’s so focused on the awaiting bed that he almost doesn’t see him there. Mr. Dorry. He looks sheepish, not like the stern tutor Harry has known, and he holds out the folded paper to return it. “This is yours. I apologize for looking.” “Is that all?” He takes the paper, crumpling it in his fist, the tentative hope from when Mr. Dorry first saw it souring in his throat. “You merely return it?” “I do return it. Perhaps you should read it,” he suggests, a smile just short of amused lighting his face. Harry flattens the sheet in his hand, then unfolds it. His eyes track down the black lines of his failures to where Mr. Dorry’s script dances more fancifully below his own. And I am taken with Mr. Rapshire. “You mean this?” He carefully folds it back up, looking at Mr. Dorry’s—Theodore’s—quiet smile. “I rather wish I didn’t.” “Why would you say that!” 8 .
A Gift of Mistletoe • Alex Whitehall “Because I would not have you go through what I have. I wish for you to find a sweet girl and raise a half-dozen children, to have your family understand and love you and not have to fear the ramifications of society.” “Like Oscar Wilde.” “And so many more, Harry. It is doomed from the start.” “I don’t care.” “Of course not. You’re a spoiled young man from a family whose name means something.” His harsh words are barely softened by the tenderness in his eyes. “You’re a smart boy.” At Harry’s snort, he smiles and amends, “Man. You’re too smart to jump into this foolishness.” “I don’t jump lightly. I know the dangers.” “You know them in theory. What if your family found out? Do you think they’d keep you? Maybe, they love you enough. But you’d be brought back from university so they could keep an eye on you. They’d arrange a marriage so you’d look proper.” “And they’d dismiss you.” Theodore shrugs. “The only loss there is I’d miss my student’s brother.” “So you’re allowed to risk everything, but I’m not?” “You’ve more to risk.” “Then why bother humoring me at all? Why not tell me I was horrid and a pervert and set me straight? Why would you entice me only to send me away?” “Did I say I was sending you away?” 9 .
A Gift of Mistletoe • Alex Whitehall “So you’re not?” Harry steps forward, then again, until he can take Theodore’s hand. He uses the hold to pull Harry near, the buttons of their vests rubbing. “Send you away on Christmas? Do you think me a monster?” “I think you rather wonderful, actually.” “Have you been reading the poets?” “Every word I can find.” “And Shakesp—” “Theodore.” “Yes?” “I’ll tell you tomorrow.” Their kiss good-night is sweet and lingering, bitter only because it has to end. December 24 Ha rry wakes the day before Christmas surprisingly rested for how few hours he slept, and is greeted by a sprig of mistletoe on his pillow with a half sheet of paper, a few lines copied from a poem. Sweet, there is nothing left to say But this, that love is never lost, Keen winter stabs the breasts of May Whose crimson roses burst his frost, Ships tempest-tossed 10 .