ell you what, Elizabeth. Let's open one present. Shall we? That'll cheer us both up."

The tears in Elizabeth's eyes distorted the room, caused her mother's image to warp and flow. She didn't want to cry. She just couldn't help it.

"Is father going to be all right?"

"Yes, love. Your father is going to be fine."

"When is he going to come home?"

"Soon. He'll be home very soon."

"In time for Christmas?"

The woman weighed her choices: make things worse now, or set her daughter up for a greater disappointment later.

Her mother's slight hesitation beamed unspoken volumes. Elizabeth's lower lip quivered in response.

"Your father promised he would make it home for Christmas, didn't he? And your father keeps his promises. Now come along, let us go and open a present. Special occasion. We're to begin Christmas early."

Elizabeth walked into the drawing room, where the scent of the fresh cut pine mingled with spice and cinnamon and rum. A pleasant looking woman of middle dimensions was tending to a huge crystal punch bowl in the corner of the room. Suddenly, hot apple and pear joined the parade of aromas. Christmas had become, for her mother and Olivia, a time of redolence and festivity and hospitality.

The pair planned for the season well in advance, working out menus and activities, writing invitations and purchasing supplies, both exotic and mundane. Over the last few seasons, neighbors and friends gravitated more and more to the Porchester household, until, at length, a Christmas visit to the Porchester's took on the quality of local tradition. The receiving hall and sitting room were decked with evergreens and flowers and the front drawing room was constantly stocked with cakes and sweetmeats, mulled wine, punch and hot cider. While the "total war" of the past year and its resulting problems with shipping had caused a general erosion in the quality and availability of most of the items they needed, the two had still managed to bring together the raw materials for an impressive holiday. Almost all of the local shopkeepers knew of the Porchester tradition (indeed most of them would stop by for a holiday visit at one time or another) and would hold out the choicest selections.

Olivia, like many of her station had, long ago, graduated from servant to trusted family member. She had served at Porchester House for more than thirty years now and had the affection and confidence of Elizabeth's parents. She was deeply in her element here.

The two women exchanged a glance, and the younger said, "I think that Elizabeth and I are going to open a present. Early."

"Early? Missus, you're not serious? Why? You'll ruin Christmas." She wrestled with conflicting feelings. One the one hand, she knew of the girl's recent difficulties. On the other, her sense of tradition was just a tad outraged.

"Well, I suppose one won't hurt. A little one." In the end compassion held sway.

"Which shall it be?"

Elizabeth began to feel better. (This was due as much to her native resiliency as to her mother's efforts.)

In the far corner, under the tree, Elizabeth saw the edge of a package wrapped in pale pink silk. She remembered its arrival, several weeks before. It was from her father, purchased on leave and sent well in advance of the holiday. It sat on her mother's dresser until the tree went up. For months it had been an itch her mother refused to let her scratch.

"I want Father's present."

"The pink one?"

"Yes, please."

"All right, dear. That's a grand idea."

Her mother uncharacteristically dropped to all fours and scampered to the back of the pile of presents, emerging with the beautiful pink silk box in her hand.

Elizabeth plopped down in the middle of floor and started to work on the package. Her mother said, "Just a moment, greedy guts. What about me? Which should I open? You must help me." The gloom was now fully on the run.

The girl stopped, her gray-green eyes flying over the pile of gifts.

"Yours from Father?"

"I'll keep that one for Christmas. Choose another."

"This one!" She held a small, poorly wrapped package covered in green paper and a mismatched blue bow. "This one from me."

"All right. The one from you it is to be. Olivia? Will you join us?"

"No, Missus. No thank you. Christmas is soon enough for me."

"All right, little one, go ahead."

The pink silk fell away, revealing a brilliant green leather book.

"Oh, Mother, look! The twelve days of Christmas! I love it!"

1995 Hyperbole Studios Inc.