Characters: Ezra Standish, Maude Standish, Original Characters
Notes: PG, Magnificent Seven, many thanks to strangevisitor7 for the beta. Other Charlotte stories may be found here.
Summary: All Ezra wants for Christmas is his mother.
A Quarter For Your Shoe ~ Part Six
Despite the excitement and lateness of the hour the night before, Ezra was still up before the birds Christmas morning. After recounting his recent adventures to his mother, and consuming a mountain of cookies and what seemed like a quart of hot cocoa, he had finally fallen asleep sitting between Maude and Charlotte. The two women had carried the sleeping boy up the stairs to his room, undressed him, got him into his nightclothes, and put him to bed. Charlotte, quietly slipping from the room, had left Maude sitting by the side of his bed, watching her sleeping son.
Making her way back to the sitting room, Charlotte had filled Ezra's stocking and put all his gifts but one under the tree. He'd given her his solemn word earlier in the evening that he wouldn't enter the room in the morning until she told him it was all right to do so.
Now, it was morning, and Ezra was standing at her bedside staring at her, as if trying to will her awake. She resisted the urge to pull the covers over her head; it was barely even light outside yet! The boy moved a little closer; he seemed to have a sixth sense that told him she was actually awake.
"Cousin Charlotte," he whispered. “Cousin Charlotte.” When that didn't get a response, he gently shook her shoulder. "Merry Christmas, Cousin Charlotte!" This time, he spoke a little louder.
She sighed. There was no escape. "Merry Christmas, dearest," she murmured, still half asleep.
With confirmation she was awake, he jumped up onto the bed, kissing her on the cheek. Charlotte put an arm around him, pulling him to her for a hug. "I don't suppose you'll allow me to sleep for just a little while more?" She laughed softly at the stricken look on his face. "Never mind, I wouldn't dream of lying abed any longer." It was worth being awakened in the cold darkness of early morning just to see his dimples when he grinned.
"Can we open our presents now?" he asked excitedly.
"Patience, dear child; soon, I promise." She pushed herself up on one arm. "I do not suppose your mother is awake yet?" Ezra shook his head. "Hmm, well, I see no reason why I should be up while she still sleeps, so let us rouse her, shall we?"
"Yes!" He bounded off the bed.
"Wake her, and then go sit with Mrs. Holcombe in the kitchen till your mother and I come down," she instructed. Then she answered his unasked question, "And yes, it will be soon! Now shoo!"
She shook her head, laughing as the boy raced from the room intent on waking Maude. Charlotte was well aware of the woman's dislike of early mornings and felt a warm glow of contentment imagining her friend being forced out of bed at this hour.
"I can not believe you have me up at this ungodly hour!" Maude complained as she entered the sitting room. Unlike Charlotte, who was wearing her dressing gown, her hair hanging down in a long black braid at her back, Maude was fully dressed, her golden hair arranged in a loose bun at the nape of her neck.
"Just pretend you have not been to bed yet; that's something you're more used to," Charlotte replied tartly. In the time it had taken Maude to come down, she had started up the fire in the hearth and had lit the candles on the Christmas tree, and was now enjoying a cup of tea.
"Very droll, Charlotte," Maude replied with a sniff.
"There is coffee on the sideboard." Charlotte waved a hand towards the silver service that held tea, coffee, and cocoa.
"Well, that's something, I suppose." Maude walked over to the sideboard, pouring herself a cup of coffee before moving across the room to stand in front of the tree. "My Lord, Charlotte, are all these presents for Ezra?" she asked, looking at her in disbelief.
"Of course not; some of them are for you as well."
Maude looked suddenly and inexplicably uncomfortable. She dropped her eyes, and began toying with the handle of her cup. "You really shouldn't have, Charlotte. I am not a child, you know."
What on earth was wrong with the woman? "Maude, what is it?" The other woman turned away, refusing to look at her. "Maude?" she asked again in a gentle voice, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"I have nothing for you, and nothing for Ezra," she finally confessed. "I knew I should not have let you convince me to stay!"
Charlotte pulled her around, taking the coffee from her and setting it down along with her teacup on the mantel. "That's the real reason you wanted to leave last night, isn't it?" She took one of Maude's hands in her own.
"I didn't want to see the look in your eyes when you realized I could not even provide a gift for my own son." She looked at Charlotte accusingly. "I know you think I am an unfit mother, and this is just one more thing for you to hold against me!"
"Oh, Maude; you bring such unnecessary grief down upon yourself." So many of Maude’s demons were of her own making; if only she could ever get the woman to a place where she truly trusted her. Even after all the years and all they’d experienced together, that seemed like a forlorn hope. But hope Charlotte did, that one day, all of Maude’s hurts might be healed and that she would be able to accept love without mistrust.
She placed her hand against Maude's cheek, gently stroking it as if she were a child. "Ezra loves you, you know that. And I know you love him. The only gift Ezra wants from you he has received; you are here with him today."
Maude shook her head. "I find that hard to credit."
"Believe it, you silly woman!" Charlotte said with fond exasperation. "But perhaps you are correct; I did get Ezra far too many things. You know how carried away I can get." She reached into the pocket of her dressing gown, pulling out the box containing the precious pocket watch. "You can give this to Ezra; it will mean so much more to him coming from you than from me." She pressed it into Maude's hands.
"You want me to lie to the boy?" Maude looked suspicious.
"Lie is such a harsh word, dear cousin," Charlotte replied with a smirk. "Think of it as an exchange of gifts. Your gift to me is for you to give that to Ezra. Are we agreed?" She held out her hand.
A smile tugged at Maude's lips as she took the hand and shook it. "You really are the most perverse woman, Charlotte."
"Why thank you, Maude, that's very sweet of you." She kissed her cheek. "Now, do you think we should end Ezra's suspense and let him in before he bursts?"
The look on Ezra’s face when he opened the box containing the pocket watch was all that Charlotte required to make the day a perfect one. He had been beside himself with joy. And for a brief moment, Charlotte thought she might have even caught a glimpse of gratitude from Maude.
After all the gifts had been opened, she left the two alone, under the pretext of checking on breakfast. Lingering in the doorway for a moment, she watched the tableau between mother and son. Both of them seemed happy in that moment, and she was glad.
“That was a fine thing you did, madam,” Livy said softly, coming up behind her.
Charlotte turned a little to look back at her. “Maude is his mother, and it was right that she be the one to give it to him.”
“Still, I know how much you had looked forward to giving it to the young master yourself. He may not realize how much you love him and his mother, but God does.”
Nodding, she smiled, though her eyes held a vestige of sadness. “God does indeed, Livy; and that is what sustains me when they are far away and beyond my care.”
Charlotte gently fingered the leather cover of the book Ezra had given her for Christmas. She realized he must have used a good portion of his winnings from the card game on Captain Gregg’s ship to purchase it for her. It was called ‘Jane Eyre’ and Ezra had explained that it hadn’t even been published in America yet. This copy had come all the way from England, imported especially by Mr. Jenkins, the bookseller on Capitol Square. The boy was well aware of his cousin's love of books and reading, so it was a truly thoughtful gift; she would treasure it always.
It was late Christmas afternoon, and Ezra had gone across the road to show his prized pocket watch to Sarah Beth, along with the book on the stars and planets that Charlotte had given him. When he returned, she had promised to go out to the backyard and make snow angels with him. In the quiet left by his absence, she and Maude had spent a companionable few hours reading by the fire, interspersed with idle chatter. Now, however, Maude was staring out the same window Ezra had only days before.
Watching her thoughtfully, Charlotte sighed a little, thinking she had some idea of just where Maude’s thoughts had drifted.
“Do you remember that Christmas you and Preston visited?” she asked softly, walking across the room to stand next to Maude.
Maude looked over at her, startled. Yes, she had been right; that was who Maude had been thinking about.
“He loved you very much.” Charlotte laughed gently, remembering. “It had snowed all day and night before. When I came down that morning, Preston was bundled up like an Eskimo, prepared to brave the elements. He knew how much you loved the sweet buns from the bakery and was determined to present them to you when you awoke.”
Maude’s hand fluttered against her throat. “He was such a silly man,” she said with a catch in her voice.
“He made his way down the path to the road; it was so early, the streets hadn’t even been cleared,” Charlotte continued. “But he was not to be deterred! I watched him as he blazed a trail through the snow, sometimes encountering drifts so high I could barely see the top of his head.”
Charlotte took Maude’s hand in hers. “The smile on his face when he returned with those sweet buns could have melted the snow itself; he would have done anything at all for his darlin’ girl.”
Maude leaned her head down on Charlotte’s shoulder. “We were so happy, the three of us, for such a little time.”
“I know, dearest, I know.” She put an arm around Maude’s shoulder. “I wish I’d had the chance to know him better.”
“Yes, well....” Maude wiped at her eyes, trying to gather herself.
Charlotte knew how much she hated showing what she thought was weakness and let Maude move away from her. “Even though he’s gone, you don’t have to be alone,” she offered quietly.
“I can take care of myself, Charlotte,” she protested, her voice still uneven with emotion.
“I know you can, but will you ever realize that you don’t always have to?” she asked gently.
“I don’t know,” Maude finally admitted. The honesty of her reply surprised Charlotte.
“Maude—“ she reached into her pocket, pulling out a coin “—this is for you.” She pressed the coin into her hand. At her look of bewilderment, Charlotte explained, “It is a quarter for your shoe; should the need arise.”
Maude looked torn between laughter and tears as she clutched the small piece of silver in her hand. She turned away, her shoulders trembling.
“You may redeem it whenever you require; there is no time limit.”
Maude nodded, but anything else she might have said was interrupted by Ezra barreling through the door. He drew up short, seeming to sense the heavy cloud of emotion that hung in the room.
Charlotte held out her hand, giving him a reassuring smile. “There you are, young man! I was about to send out a search party for you,” she teased.
He giggled, grasping her hand in his. “Can we go make snow angels now? Oh please, Cousin Charlotte?” he wheedled.
“I think that sounds like a grand idea,” she agreed.
“Perhaps you wouldn’t mind if I tagged along?” Maude asked almost hesitantly. Ezra and Charlotte shared a huge grin and Maude looked at them suspiciously. “What?”
“Oh, it is only that you aren’t normally the outdoor type, Maude,” Charlotte replied sweetly. She wasn’t about to tell her that what started as making snow angels always ended with an epic snowball fight. “What do you say, Ezra?”
He threw his arms around his mother. “Oh, yes, please come with us!”
Maude ruffled his hair, returning his embrace. Charlotte joined them, wrapping her arms around Maude, with Ezra between them.
Pulling slightly away, she looked down at the boy. “What say we show your mother how to find the North Star tonight before bed, dearest? Then she’ll never lose us, or we her.”
Ezra nodded, his eyes shining with joy as he reached an arm around Charlotte to hug her as well. “This is the best Christmas ever.”
Charlotte looked at Maude with affection. “Indeed it is, dearest, indeed it is.”
Epilogue ~ A Christmas Future
Charlotte touched Ezra’s pocket watch delicately. “It really did stand the test of time.”
He smirked at her pun, patting her hand where it rested near his on the kitchen table. Drifting through the door could be heard the sounds of laughter and happy voices coming from the room beyond.
“It was the best present you ever gave me,” Ezra said gently.
She looked up at him, startled. “You knew?”
Tapping her nose with a finger, he leaned back in his chair. “Not right away, but I realized a few years later; and I also realized how much it meant to you for me to think it came from mother. So I never said anything.”
“You always were wise beyond your years,” she said, her eyes taking on a faraway look.
Ezra put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. “That Christmas meant everything to me for so many years, dear Charlotte. I don’t know if I ever told you that.”
“You didn’t have to, dearest.” Kissing him on the cheek, she looked down at his watch once more. “But speaking of time, I’m going to be late for Christmas Eve services if I don’t get a move on.”
Snapping the watch case closed, he stopped her as she started to get up. “Let me take you.”
“Ezra, you don’t need to—"
“I know that; but I want to. I want to, Charlotte.” The warm tones of the south caressed his words.
She nodded, looking into his beautiful green eyes, remembering the little boy who gambled with sailors, made snow angels, and searched for the North Star with her all those years ago. “Very well; I would be most delighted for you to escort me, sir.”
He smiled then, his gold tooth glinting in the candlelight, his dimples just as fetching as they were when he was a boy. “I think we can trust mother not to fleece your guests – at least for a few hours,” he opined with a wicked gleam in his eyes.
She rolled her eyes. Maude had made a habit these last few years of showing up ‘unexpectedly’ over the holidays. It had become something of a private joke between Charlotte and Ezra. They’d even placed bets on it upon occasion.
“One can only hope,” she said wryly.
Standing, Ezra offered her his hand, helping her to her feet. “Shall we, madam?”
“Let’s,” she replied, putting her hand in the crook of his elbow. “And just maybe, if you’re good, we can make snow angels when we come home!”
“Promise?” he asked with grin.
“Merry Christmas, Charlotte.”
"Merry Christmas, dearest.”