Flora the Housekeeper was desperate. She had just witnessed Mr. and Mrs. De Groff — who had been married for ten years at least — kissing in the wagon outside as if they had never kissed each other before. How strange! How incredibly curious! she thought, twisting it around in her mind until it became bigger than it was. And now that it was big, she just had to tell someone about it. But who? Nellie? Yes, Nellie would do.
After a brief search of the main floor, Flora found Nellie standing in the middle of the study, paging through a tattered book. Flora entered the room on tip-toe, as if worried someone might hear, and closed the door gently behind her. Just as dramatically, she glanced around the room to make sure no one else was present, then leaned forward and gasped, “You won’t believe what I just saw!”
With an almost guilty flush of her cheeks, Nellie set down the book and took a step forward. “What? What is it?”
Flora glanced around again before continuing in a half-whisper, half-shout. “I just saw Mr. and Mrs. De Groff outside in the wagon…kissing.” She said the last word as if she were accusing them of a horrible crime.
A look of relief and confusion submerged Nellie’s blush. “But…why is that so hard to believe? They are married, are they not?”
“Well, you know,” said Flora, increasing the volume and speed of her voice, “it wasn’t the kind of kiss you normally see between husbands and wives — you know, an affectionate peck, or if they don’t think anyone is watching, something a bit more involved, with meaningful glances and hands groping about…” Flora began to demonstrate on an imaginary person in front of her.
“That’s quite enough!” cried Nellie, amused and embarrassed by such a display. “Please proceed to the point.”
Flora continued speaking, unfazed. “Well, this kiss wasn’t like that. It was…awkward, you might say. As if they’d never kissed each other in their lives! Mrs. De Groff turned bright red, and Mr. De Groff looked stunned — completely stunned! Why should she blush, and why should he be surprised, I wonder?”
“Who can say?” asked Nellie, shrugging her shoulders. “Perhaps they were conscious of being out in the open and didn’t want to exhibit. Not all couples are so free in displaying their affections.”
“Then why should Mr. De Groff be amazed, as if he’d won some impossible victory?”
“Perhaps you misread his expression. Perhaps he was thinking of something else entirely! There could be a hundred explanations.” A note of agitation crept into Nellie’s voice. “And anyway, I don’t see how their kissing is any of our business, whatever the circumstances.”
“It’s our business, dearie, because we live here, too. We’re as much a part of this household as they are. And if there’s something shady going on, I think we have the right to know about it!”
Nellie was quite perturbed now. “Something shady? It’s one thing to gossip idly, Flora, but to make up such ridiculous stories…”
“Whatever you may think, I don’t lie,” said Flora, surprised at Nellie’s anger. “You heard about Mr. De Groff’s past. You can see with your own eyes how the children look nothing like him. You know how late he stays out every night, and no wonder, too, if his own wife won’t even kiss him. Mrs. De Groff is always ill, and the other day I heard her sobbing in the bath. Now tell me something isn’t terribly wrong in this house!”
Nellie simply glared at Flora for a long moment, then said in a calm voice, “If the De Groffs are so horrible, I wonder how you can remain living here. Perhaps another house would be more suitable.”
Now it was Flora’s turn to be angry. She flustered about for a moment, then steeled herself and said, “I have my reasons for staying. And you sound just like Mrs. De Groff. Well, if you ask me, you’re both in denial. DEE-NIAL!” With that, she flung open the doors of the study and hurried from the room, calling “Tom! Tom! Where are you, boy?”
The exasperated look on Nellie’s face faded as Flora scurried off, and she gave in to a half-laugh. She knew Flora wouldn’t find Tom — she had seen him sneak out just before the De Groffs had left. And he wouldn’t return for a good hour, at least — he liked to walk down to the harbor and watch the ships sometimes — but on a cold Christmas Eve he might cut his outing short.
Remembering that, Nellie stirred to action — she didn’t have much time. Glad for Flora’s distraction, and moving with as much stealth as she could muster, Nellie made her way out into the hall and up the front stairs to the childrens’ room. There she withdrew something from the highest shelf of their closet and carried it to Tom’s room down the hall.
Beneath Nellie’s placid exterior she was bursting with excitement. It had been difficult to procure this gift, and more difficult still to keep it hidden for the past week. She shared a room with Flora and knew that Flora was a snoop; more than once she had entered her room and found her things not quite as she left them. But Flora rarely poked about the children’s room — that was Nellie’s domain, and Flora knew she had no business being there, unless she was sweeping or changing the linens.
So the gift had remained undiscovered, and that added to Nellie’s joy as she placed it gently on Tom’s nightstand.
“Merry Christmas, Tom,” she said, though no one was there to hear. Pleased with herself and the gift, she stood and admired it a moment before slipping out the door and back down the front stair.
(continued on Page 2)