A graceful tune floated across the ballroom, urging each and every person to step out into the center of the marbled floor. Silken skirts crushed together in an array of golds, reds, and greens, ever so fitting for the coming holiday, and everyone began to waltz along to the string quartet. Their motions were lively, and with every twirl and step, the room seemed to burst with Christmas cheer and excitement.
Edeline Marlborough, however, could not find the happiness that the other party-goers wore so well. She let out a heavy sigh and stared at the floor, the light from the chandeliers beaming in the pale reflection. The bouncy ringlets of her golden hair, and the emerald skirts of the dress she crafted herself, would have once given her immense joy, but that delight had been taken far away.
She glanced back up at the twirling couples and the greenery that adorned the edges of the ballroom. Those who watched the dancers took dainty sips from their champagne glasses, studying those on the floor with easy smiles. Across the floor, in the far corner, she saw her younger sister, Abigail, try to sneak a glass for herself. Edeline shook her head and focused her attention back to the dancing.
In the corner of her eye, however, she spied her father. His gaze was focused, as it always seemed to be, and his gray hair slicked back into a ponytail. He, too, sipped from a glass of wine as he chatted with the men around him who also held positions in the army. She didn't have to hear him to know that he spoke of the rebels in the Colonies; his concentrated stare told her that all on its own. But she didn't blame him for discussing such matters at the party, though. It provided a distraction from the worry that awaited them back home.
She turned around, her skirts swishing against the cool stone, and saw her closest friends hurry over to her. They wore festive gowns, too, and their dark hair sat atop their heads.
"How are you?" Marie gave her a smile and took Edeline's hands in her own. She motioned to the girl next to her. "Rebecca and I have been searching for you all evening."
Edeline tried to smile, but she found her lips unable to move. Her eyes fell back down to the floor, and when she looked back up, concern crossed their faces.
"Is your mother still not feeling well?" Rebecca placed a hand on her shoulder.
"I-" Edeline stammered. "I'm afraid not."
It hurt much more to say those words than Edeline ever thought it would. For the past few days, a miniscule part of her hoped that her family might, in fact, see an improvement in her mother's illness. But that was not to be.
"I'm so sorry…" Marie muttered. "I know that must be hard for you all. Especially your father."
Edeline shook her head and glanced back over at him. "He has ways to keep his mind occupied, of course."
"How has your sister been taking it?" Marie continued, glancing at Rebecca once she finished speaking.
"Oh, well, Abigail is…" Edeline sighed, "Abigail. She doesn't let on that it bothers her, but… I know it does."
Her two friends nodded in understanding, and Rebecca gave her an encouraging smile as bright as that of the room.
"Well…" Rebecca linked arms with Edeline and Marie, leading them to a table full of treats. "Tis Christmas-tide, after all, and I'm sure your mother will be healthy once again by the new year."
Edeline nodded as they went on their way, finally forcing a smile upon her face. As she looked back at the sparkling guests and heard the string quartet play a new melody, she hoped Rebecca would be right.
The carriage ride back was quiet, and their grand home, too, carried a particular silence as Edeline and Abigail trailed up the wooden stairs, past the maids who had stayed to care for the lady of the house. At this time of year, their home was always full of decoration and excitement, of sweet aromas and neatly-packaged gifts, but the dull foyer reminded Edeline of how sick their mother had become.
They both turned around to see their father, Howard, standing at the bottom of the steps. His hair had become rather messy from leaning back on the carriage seat, and the faintest circles now hung under his eyes.
"Do be quiet with your mother," he whispered, wringing his hands. "She is probably tired."
"Yes, Father." Edeline nodded as she continued up the steps, Abigail following after her.
They came to their mother's bedchamber, the door cracked to reveal the soft glow of candlelight. Edeline edged it open as quietly as possible.
Their mother turned to look at them, her deep, golden hair stuck to her sweaty forehead. Her cheeks were flushed, and her cough sounded rough and watery, but her face lit up when she saw them. Her smile reminded Edeline of how everything used to be, only a few weeks ago, and she wished she had appreciated those moments of normalcy at the time.
"Look at you two," she smiled and motioned for them to come to her bed. "I'm sure-" A deep cough interrupted her. "I'm sure you two were the loveliest ladies there."
Abigail sat down first, her red skirts splaying about the warm comforter. "I'm just glad that it's over."
Their mother laughed, coughs scattered between her giggles. Edeline watched as she stroked Abigail's brown hair. "You never have been one for such parties, have you?"
Abigail shook her head and looked over her shoulder at Edeline, beckoning for her to come closer.
Edeline saw her mother's gaze fall upon her as she collapsed onto the bed.
"And I am sure that you had the best gown of everyone there," she whispered. She glanced at Edeline's layered skirts. "You did such a wonderful job, even without my help." She winked.
Edeline stared down at her dress and smoothed out the emerald fabric, briefly admiring her handiwork before looking back at her mother. "I wasn't thinking so much about the dress, Mother. I wanted to come back and visit you. It wasn't the same without you there."
Their mother laughed again, coughing every second, and leaned her head back on her pillow. "Not to worry. There is always next year."
As she finished speaking, however, her coughs became more frequent. She gagged, and her face became more flushed.
Without a second thought, Edeline reached for the glass of water sitting upon the bedside table. She held it up to her mother's lips.
"There you are, Mother," Edeline comforted, tilting the glass.
She swallowed and opened her mouth to speak, but a knock came from the wooden door. Edeline turned around, glass still in hand, to see Howard standing at the threshold. He had removed his fine jacket, revealing only his billowing shirt and breeches.
"It might be best if you two head on to your chambers," he muttered. "Your mother needs her rest."
Edeline looked from him back to her mother, wanting to stay as long as possible, to help with whatever she might need throughout the night.
"He's right…" She closed her eyes for a brief second and nestled into the pillows. "Head on to bed. The sooner you go to sleep, the closer it will be to Christmas."
"Yes, Mother." Edeline nodded and took Abigail's hand, leading her to the door. Before she left the room, though, she turned around once more to glimpse back at her. She prayed that the morning would hold improvement, no matter how small.
When they came into the hallway, Abigail let out a yawn.
"Goodnight, Edeline." She began to untie the laces of her dress and hurried off to her room, leaving Edeline alone in the dimly-lit hallway. Part of her wanted to talk to Abigail about how worried she was, but she found herself too tired to even speak of it all again.
She stood still for a moment, her slippers clicking beneath her as she turned back towards her mother's bed chamber. It felt much too quiet, and she hoped that if she wished hard enough, her mother would rise and make the home full of festivities like so many times before.
Between the crack of the door, she watched Howard as he sat beside her. With gentle hands, he took a wet cloth and held it to her forehead. He closed his eyes and sighed.
Edeline shook her head. He had always had a stern side about him, but she found herself treasuring such moments, where his tenderness came to the surface of his stony exterior. Beneath the distinguished role of Colonel that he always wore so well, she knew he carried compassion, even if it often seemed hidden.
She turned away and began to head to her room, suddenly eager to step out of the layers of her dress and into her warm nightgown. Her shoes clicked beneath her as she walked, but the sound vanished as she stopped and stared out the window. Despite the darkness, she could make out the tiniest snowflakes as they floated down from the sky. Her bed called to her, but she ignored it as she continued to look out onto the streets. The world was quiet, ready to be covered in white, and for the briefest moment, Edeline sensed a tiny hint of the Christmas cheer for which she had longed.