Maggie nudged Lizzie out of the way and took her place at the window overlooking the track down to the cottage. “She ent comin’ any faster wi’ you there watching instead o’ me, Mags.”
“I know, but it makes me feel better.”
“Maybe she won’t come at all. Them fancy folks ‘ave balls an’ dinners an’ such to go to, and they’ll drag the Lady along, just you watch. She’s bin gone hours.”
“She said she’d come back, Liz.” But Maggie wondered. Why should the Lady leave the Dunsmuirs’ palace of a home to come all the way out to Vauxhall Gardens and spend Christmas with a bunch of alley mice who never had anyone to say “merry Christmas” to ’em before now? Lizzie was probably right. The Lady would be only too happy to stay at Hatley House for Christmas dinner, where it was warm, with lots of lovely presents, and probably the biggest, fattest roast goose you ever saw, with all the trimmings.
Granny Protheroe had fed them breakfast, but that had been hours and hours ago. It was enough to tempt a girl over to the Christmas caroling service at the church downriver and see what stuck to her cold fingers in that crowd of purses and pockets.
“I’m ‘ungry,” Lizzie moaned. “I bet someone’s got an orange in their pocket. It’s Christmas Day and there’s the bells for that service where all them wealthy coves stand there an’ sing.”
“All right,” Maggie said before her conscience could rise up and stop her. “If the Lady don’t care about us, then we shouldn’t care about ‘er. An’ I fancy an orange, Liz, I do.”
The cottage was warm, and Snouts had gathered some of the boys around the hearth to roast chestnuts. “Mopsies, where you off to—”
But the door slammed behind them before he could finish. The wind whistling down the Thames pounced on them and pushed them up the path as though a man had his hand on their backs. Maggie took it as encouragement, even though her nose felt like it was going to fall off from cold, and she’d forgotten to scare up a pair of mittens or even put on a coat.
Too late now. They ran for the church and its crowd of rich folk–richer than them, anyway. They’d fleece ’em proper and maybe there’d be a coin or two to buy a pair of mittens from one of their old rag-picker friends for her very own self.
The wind was cruel cold, beating in their faces every time they looked back. They weren’t even halfway, and—drat it, she’d just stepped in a big puddle and now her foot was soaked to the ankle in mud. Cold mud, with prickles of ice in it.
Maggie’s lip trembled. “Liz, I can’t do it.”
Lizzie slowed, and wiped her red nose with the back of her hand. “The Lady’d be mad, wouldn’t she?”
“Disappointed, more like. An’ think ‘ow Snouts’d go on about it if we got caught. We’re out of practice, ent we?”
Lizzie stopped. “Yer wet, Mags. An’ I’m freezing. Do we go on or go back?”
And then they heard it. The sound of bells, and the smooth chug of a huge Bentley steam landau, rising over the hill and puffing its way toward them. The top folded back and Willie—beg pardon, Lord Wilberforce, Viscount Hatley—popped up like a jack-in-the-box. “Maggie! Lizzie! Did you come to meet us?”
Behind him, the entire rear compartment was bursting with gaily wrapped presents. Maggie stopped dead on the side of the track as the Bentley swanned up beside them and the great brass wing folded up to reveal Claire and the Dunsmuirs. “Jump in, girls!” the Lady cried. “What a lovely welcoming party, all this way from home! I do hope you haven’t been standing in this cold very long.”
“We’ve ever so many presents for everyone and such heaps of food, you’ll never believe it!” Willie cried, before her ladyship pulled him back down into the nest of furs in which she was swathed. The Lady helped them into the mighty landau and in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, they were back at the cottage.
Maggie held out her arms to take a bunch of shiny boxes done up in ribbon so pretty it would be a shame to unwrap them, and Lizzie took some of the bright burden herself. “Guess we ought to’ve believed the Lady when she said she were comin’ back. Think we ought to ‘fess up?”
“Crikey, are you mad?” Lizzie demanded. “Spoil our Christmas an’ ‘ers too? Not likely. Besides, I wouldn’t’ve done it, not really. We ent alley mice anymore, Mags, an’ that’s a fact.”
“Wot are we, then?”
Lizzie gazed at the table, which Lady Dunsmuir and the Lady were filling with all manner of marvelous food, from little wrapped chocolates to pots of gravy to a goose so big that Lord Dunsmuir and Snouts both had to lift it out of its hamper. Lewis and Tigg were pulling a cracker, and someone dropped a bag of oranges, which sent children rolling this way and that to catch them.
“I ent never thought I’d say this, Maggie, but you know wot?”
Lizzie caught an orange and the sweet, spicy smell filled Maggie’s nose as she peeled it swiftly and handed Maggie half. “Wot?”
“I think we’re a family.”
Happy Christmas to all from Lady Claire, the Mopsies, the Dunsmuirs, Snouts, Tigg, Jake, Lewis, and Rosie the chicken!