Mary folded and refolded the bread dough, working it with rhythmic motions. Making bread was exhilarating to her. Its possibilities were like rising hopes - hopes for Christmas joy to come back to Ashworth Hall. She hummed a carol as she finished kneading and wiped her hands on her apron.
“McGarvey!” she shouted out the back door. “Come, now, it’s your turn to stir the pudding.”
Her husband entered the kitchen with mixed emotions. He was grateful to come in from the cold, but unenthusiastic about the pudding.
“Won’t do a lick a good, Mum. She ain’t about to ‘ave Christmas dinner, let alone pudding.”
Mary lifted the cover and drank in the aroma of the twenty-some ingredients in the bowl. She loved making the Christmas pudding - it was always Willie Ashworth’s favorite part of Christmas dinner. She called it “advent” food - a way of bringing together all the good things of life to be savored and enjoyed, sharing it in love as God had done that first Christmas. The pudding took weeks to ripen, growing richer with each person invited to stir it, and, as he did, to make a wish. She enlisted everyone - the dustman, the postman, the carriage driver - all willing to oblige, particularly when she thanked them with fresh baked scones.
She added a little stout for moisture and handed McGarvey the spoon.
“Stir,” she commanded. “And make a wish – better yet, be prayin’ for Lady Ashworth.”
McGarvey stirred, but he wasn’t sure how to pray. How do you pray for someone whose only child died of the awful cholera? How does God restore the loss of the life and laughter of an eight-year-old boy who brought such joy to his mum and dad and to all the servants at Ashworth Hall?
Cholera had swept through the country taking its toll, paying no homage to age or status. If any mercy could be claimed for Willie Ashworth, it was his dying quickly and bravely.
“Mumsy, don’t fear. I won’t be alone. There’ll be other boys in heaven, just like here, and angels, too, to care for me. I‘ll bet they‘ll have Christmas pudding there, too. Promise you‘ll remember me when you have it this year. . . ”
The epidemic passed taking Willie and thousands with it, leaving desolate survivors like his parents. Lord Ashworth buried his sadness in work, spending more time away to escape the emptiness; Lady Ashworth remained in her room, a willing prisoner, shackled by inconsolable grief.
“God help the missus . . . master, too. Stir the joy back into their hearts,” McGarvey prayed. A loud cackling from the henhouse outside broke the silence.
“Not again!” He bolted out the door, rushing to the coop and grabbing the egg-stealing ruffian by the collar.
“Caught ya red-handed this time!”
The boy wriggled and squealed. “Please, mister, I only took two - just enough for supper for me brother and me. Have a heart - it’s Christmas.”
McGarvey knew the boy was one of many street urchins orphaned by the epidemic; he knew, too, if word got out of any generosity, there’d be no end. Tears streamed down the boy’s face as he screamed, “Help me, God!”
Suddenly, the boy’s body grew limp as a voice from a second story window spoke. “Stop! Bring him inside.”
McGarvey thought he saw a ghost, but he recognized the pale countenance and knew the voice. As always, he obeyed.
Mary dropped the pan of hot bread on the floor in disbelief. Through one door came McGarvey with the urchin and through the other came Lady Ashworth.
“Are you an angel - come to save me?” blurted the boy.
“Perhaps.” She reached out and touched his cheek. Perhaps he was an angel come to save her. “How old are you?”
“Nine, ma’am, and I’m strong. I can work to pay for the eggs. My brother and me’s all alone. . .” Tears streamed again.
Tenderly, she wiped the tears with a kerchief that held thousands of her own. “Do you like Christmas pudding?”
“Ain’t sure. Never had it. Is it as good as bread?”
“Ten times better. Mary, set two more places for dinner.”
“Make that three.” Lord Ashworth stood in the doorway.
After dinner Mary served the Christmas pudding. It was full of love and redemption and hope, all stirred in and flavored with joy.
“Enjoy, Willie.” Mumsy whispered, under the laughter of two little boys or. . . was it three?
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