By Joan Stephens
Sleight bells ring, are you listening,
In the lane snow is glistening,
A beautiful sight,
Weíre happy tonight
Walking in a winter wonderland.
Snow blanketed the city including Central Park. The early spring storm had started around midnight, much to the chagrin of the weather persons, not at 6:00 a.m. as they had predicted. They were gently teased by the news anchors as they tried to explain why a storm, that was to blow out to sea north of the city, took a southerly tack and dumped 18 inches of heavy, white snow, perfect for snowballs and snowmen. By the next morning, the city slowly ground to a halt.
Catherine, her arms wrapped around herself, looked down from her balcony on the empty, silent streets below, then raised her eyes to look over the soft snow-shrouded park. Suddenly, she nodded once, smiled, and with a shiver--her sweater was not quite warm enough--stepped into her bedroom and began to rummage around in her closet. What she couldnít find here she was sure she could find Below. In the far recesses of her closet she was busily searching for the items she needed when she heard the phone ring. By the time she had scrambled over shoes and boots and out of the closet, the answering machine had kicked in. When she heard Joeís voice, she quickly picked up the receiver and shut the answering machine off.
"Hey, Radcliffe, for a minute there I though you were out braving this storm, trying to make brownie points by coming to work today?"
"Ha," she responded, "I was in the back of my closet if you must know." She laughed lightly.
"I donít even want to know what you were doing in there." She could see the grin on his face that she heard in his voice. "Seriously, though, donít try to come in today. Itís impossible. Everyoneís calling in to say that theyíre staying home."
"I wasnít going to try, but thanks, Joe."
"Yeah, well, enjoy your three-day weekend and be prepared for Monday."
"I know, I know, weíll have to work even harder if thatís possible."
"Bye, Radcliffe," he said archly.
* * *
Three whole days. She had planned on spending the weekend with Vincent and now she had an extra day. She decided she wouldnít wait any longer. Dressing more warmly than she usually did, she gathered the items from her closet, stuffed what food she had in a bag, and hurried to the basement threshold.
"Vincent," she whispered, after opening the small threshold door. She knew he would be there, having felt her desire to be with him, and was not disappointed when she heard his reply.
"Catch," she called down to him, dropping the bag of food.
"Oof," he grunted, "what do you have in here?"
"Just some food." She scrambled onto the ladder and closed the small door. Halfway down she felt him grab her by the waist. She twisted in his hands as he settled her onto the floor and flung her arms around his neck. She reached up and planted a healthy kiss on his waiting mouth. "I have today off because of the storm and I couldnít wait," she offered in way of an explanation for her early arrival.
"I know," he said, smiling. He could sense a mischief about her that she was trying to hide from him. He reached for the small plastic bag she had in her hand but stopped when she said, "No, I keep this."
He cocked his head and smiled, "Catherine, I am capable of carrying two bags."
"I know," she glanced shyly at him, "I want to hold your hand."
"Well, I canít very well say no, now can I?" He observed as he engulfed her hand in his and they started down the tunnel.
Laughing lightly, she swung their clasped hands back and forth.
"Are you teaching this morning?"
"Yes. We must hurry and get you settled or I will be late."
"May I sit in?" She loved to watch him interact with the tunnel children; he was always so patient with them.
"Of course, they will enjoy it."
"I am free for the rest of the weekend, although I did promise to play chess with Father. I am sure he wonít mind if I cancel."
"No, donít do that. I havenít had a chance to visit with my friends for quite a while."
She could finalize her plans for tonight while he was with Father. Gleefully, she smiled to herself.
Gone away is the bluebird,
Here to stay is the new bird.
He sings a love song
As we go along
Walking in a winter wonderland.
After the class was over, Catherine was helping Vincent straighten up the classroom. "They really put you through the wringer, didnít they?"
Vincent grunted. "They were showing off. You have that affect on them."
"Me? Why would they do that?"
"They love you, Catherine," he replied as he captured her hand and led her into the tunnel.
"And I love them. They are such wonderful children. I donít know of a better place to grow up." She couldnít help it; she was so proud of the way he treated the tunnel children and of their obvious love for him. He was their teacher, father, big brother, and guide all rolled up in one big, furry hunk. And he was hers. She glanced up at him through lowered eyelids. "Not to change the subject but when is your game with Father scheduled?" Grinning, she skipped like the little girl she felt inside this lovely winter day.
Indulgently, he smiled down at her, her mood was catching, and he wondered what she was up to. "Right after lunch," he answered.
"Perfect, then we have time. Letís go to the Park threshold and see how much snow has fallen. They say it was 18 inches." She tugged on his arm and pulled him into the tunnel that led to the Park.
* * *
The sun was shining now, but the city was still paralyzed: no buses, no cabs, and very few pedestrians. For once the city was silent, and they could hear the light wind blowing through the trees. The white snow and the bright sun were a blinding combination, and it took a few minutes for their eyes to adjust. When they could finally look out over the snow-covered Park, there were billions of diamonds in the snow reflecting the sunshine.
"Isnít it beautiful?" she asked. "This is the cleanest Iíve seen New York in a long time."
"Yes, it is truly beautiful. Too bad it wonít last."
"True, but letís enjoy it while we may." She scooped up a handful of snow and made a snowball, which she zinged at him, hitting him squarely in the chest.
"Catherine," he chided her.
"Yes-s-s-s," she answered innocently and scooped up another handful of snow. "Prepare to defend yourself, sir," she challenged him as she whipped another snowball thru the crisp, clean air.
Artfully, he dodged the snowball and made one of his own that he let fly at Catherine, catching her right in the stomach. And the war was on. Snowballs whizzed back and forth amid much whooping and hollering and a great deal of laughter. Shortly, Catherine threw her hands in the air laughing so hard she was breathless, "Ok, I give . . . I want you . . . on my side . . . the next time I have a snowball fight. Youíre too good for me."
Vincent beamed. This was high praise, indeed.
* * *
Skipping lightly backwards in front of Vincent as they returned to the Home Chambers, Catherine commented, "You should have seen the look on your face when I pelted you with that snowball."
"Really, Catherine, it wasnít very dignified . . ."
"Dignified?" Her eyes glittered dangerously.
". . . for a woman of your position and . . ."
"And?" she prompted him, daring him to go on.
Uh oh, he was getting in deep trouble but decided to finish what he had started, ". . . age?"
He had barely gotten the word out when she abruptly stopped and planted both fists on her hips. "Age!?" she asked indignantly. "Are you aware of just how deep a hole you have dug for yourself?"
"A very deep one?" he replied, barely able to contain his laughter as he collided with her. His arms went around her.
"Yes, and how do you propose to get out of it?"
"Like this," was his retort and he swung her into a tight embrace and lowered his mouth to hers.
She gazed at him starry-eyed and weakly patted his chest after he had released her mouth. "Wait a minute and Iíll get a ladder," she murmured as he bent to kiss her again. "Whew," she breathed, "Youíll have to insult me more often."
She shook her head, "No."
"No? How many kisses does it take?" He nuzzled the top of her head, enjoying this game they were playing.
"I donít know if there are enough kisses to make me forgive you. It may take the rest of your life."
"That long, um? Then I had better get started."
They both started to giggle and then to laugh outright, thoroughly enjoying themselves. He kissed her once more and then reminded her that Father awaited him and the game of chess.
* * *
They made it safely to Vincentís chamber without running into Father. He would surely have lectured them on their wet clothes, on their carelessness, and on being about in the Park during the day. Now Father and Vincent were both hunched over the chessboard contemplating their game. Catherine deemed it time too put her plan into operation. She excused herself so she could visit Mary and her other friends. Father and Vincent were so absorbed in their battle of wits that they barely heard her leave; absentmindedly, Vincent waved in her direction. She sped through the tunnels hoping Vincent would stay lost in the game and give her time to accumulate all the items she needed.
Mary gave her an old ragged scarf and a pair of mismatched, holey mittens. William supplied a carrot and the children found several different sizes of stones. She took all of it to the Park threshold and deposited it next to the door. Now she had time for her friends: Mary, Jamie, Olivia, and Rebecca. Sarah was ill with a migraine so Catherine sat with her for some while, placing wet cloths on her forehead.
"Vincent wants you to come back for dinner," Sarah whispered, lifting a corner of the cool, wet cloth. The pipes rang with Vincentís message.
"One of these days I have to get the pipe code down pat. Shall I bring you something later?" Catherine asked.
"No, when Iím like this food makes me nauseous."
"I wish there was more I could do."
"Thereís not much anyone can do. I just have to ride it out," Sarah said with a fatalistic shrug.
Catherine patted her softly on the shoulder and returned to Vincent.
In the meadow we can build a snowman
And pretend that he is Parson Brown.
Heíll say, "Are you married?" Weíll say, "No man.
But you can do the job when youíre in town."
After dinner Vincent read to her from one of his favorite authors, Thomas Hardy. She giggled and he was slightly embarrassed at some of his more bawdy lines.
"Is it dark outside yet, Vincent?"
"I believe it is," he answered, "Why?"
"Oh, I thought we might take a walk outside tonight." Her innocent look didnít fool him. He knew she was up to something, but he decided to follow her lead and see what transpired.
"You brought enough clothing for two people, Catherine," he commented, and after they donned warmer clothing, he extended a hand, "Shall we?" She took his hand and pulled him out of the chamber.
Standing outside the drainage tunnel in the clear, still night with a three-quarter moon shining coldly on the snow, Catherine was pleased with the thought that Vincent was about to do something he may not have been allowed to do as a child. She bent down, scooped up some snow and began to ball it together.
"Another snowball fight, Catherine?" A twinkle lit in Vincentís eye as he thought of this afternoon.
"Oh, no. Iím not about to try that twice in one day." He cocked his head quizzically. "This is the basis for a snowman weíre going to build."
"We are?" Excitedly he made a snowball of his own and followed her motions. Soon they had two large balls of snow. Catherine directed him to settle one ball on top of the other. After that, she had him roll a small ball for the head and place it atop the others. Then they began to smooth and sculpt the snowman. As Vincent sculpted the arms, she went back into the tunnel and returned with the items she had collected. The mittens were placed at the end of the arms, the stones were used for buttons, mouth and eyes, the scarf was tied around the neck, the carrot was the nose, and her fatherís old fedora was placed on the head. Last of all, her fatherís prayer book was placed between the mittens. While they were completing the snowman, she hummed a little tune under her breath.
"What tune is that, Catherine?" His curiosity got the better of him.
"Itís call ĎWinter Wonderland.í"
"Would you sing it for me?"
She scrunched up her nose and said, "I wonít do credit to the song. I donít have a very good voice."
"I want to hear it anyway," he smiled down at her. "I like your voice."
"Only you would say that," she laughed as he shook his head. She sang the entire song softly, hesitantly and he listened closely.
When she finished, he gazed at her thoughtfully. Then taking a deep breath as if he had just made a decision, he asked, "Is this our Parson Brown, Catherine?"
"If you want it to be," she answered quietly.
"Do you think we can find a real Parson Brown?"
"Iím sure we can."
He held his arms open and she flew into them, raising her lips to his. In the cold, in the night, in the light of the moon before a Parson made of snow, they pledged themselves to each other.
Later on weíll conspire
As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid
The plans that we made
Walking in a Winter Wonderland.
Vincent sent a message to Father via the pipes saying that he would be with Catherine this night. He escorted her through the Park and watched her safely cross the street to her apartment building then turned back to the tunnels and hurried to her balcony. She heard him drop onto the balcony just after she had put the teakettle on so they could warm themselves with a cup of hot chocolate. He was standing by the French doors when she opened them and pulled him inside. Still reluctant to enter her apartment, he resisted slightly, but when she said that this was something he would have to accept, he stepped inside.
"Why donít you take off your cloak and build a fire? Iím making hot chocolate."
He did as she wished and soon had a glowing fire burning. His hands were held to the fire when she came out of the kitchen with two steaming cups. She handed one to him and indicated that he should sit on the floor in from of the fire. "This should warm us," she commented. She sank down beside him and leaned into his chest. With one arm, he pulled her to him, chuckling.
"What?" she asked, gazing at him happily through a fringe of honey brown hair.
"Did you plan all of this?" he asked then took a sip from his cup.
"Not all of it. Some I didnít expect. I was standing on the balcony this morning and all of a sudden I found myself humming ĎWinter Wonderlandí. I havenít made a snowman in years and I wondered if you had ever made one. I thought that you must have but not with me. Thatís when I came up with my plan. It was fun trying to keep it from you."
"I knew you were up to something," he said, laughing softly. "I enjoyed making Parson Brown." Suddenly, he turned serious. "You know what happened tonight?"
"I think I do if what I think really happened."
With a finger under her chin, he raised her eyes to his. He wanted her to see the truth as well as sense it through their bond. "It really happened, my Catherine. We are pledged to one another."
She shivered with happiness as he slowly lowered his mouth to hers and sealed the pledge with a chaste kiss.
"Oh, wonít Father be surprised," she laughed delightedly, clapping her hands.
"Not as surprised as you may think, my love. I think heís been quietly waiting for something like this to happen. I have a feeling he will be quite happy and relieved." He leaned smugly back against the couch, his fingers laced behind his head.
"Thatís a very smug look. You look like the cat that swallowed the canary. Whoops," she gasped as she realized what she had said.
Before she could apologize, he grinned wickedly and said, "Exactly."
"Exactly? What do you mean Ďexactlyí?" She twisted around to stare at him.
"I have been thinking about this for some time but never seemed to find the right time. This was the perfect opportunity." He, actually, winked at her. She couldnít keep the laughter from bubbling up and breaking forth as she fell into his warm embrace.
"You sly old dog, you." Her laughter continued as she rained kisses on every bare spot she could find. Laughing, he fell over onto his back with Catherine laying on his chest. Suddenly, she stilled.
He could see and feel her turning thoughtful. Her eyes turned a darker green as she gazed pensively into his.
"What is it?" he asked.
She sat up in Indian style beside him. "There is no need for vows between us, love. I have been wedded to you since I returned from Nancyís"
"I know. I want; I need the words between us. I will not compromise you, and if we have children, I want them to have the Wells name. It is a name that I am proud to bear. It would honor a very great man. And I want our entire family to see and be happy for us." This would be his proof that he was truly a man.
"I didnít know you were so old-fashioned, Vincent," she teased him.
"There is much you donít know about me, my love. I look forward to our discovery of each other."
"Oh, Vincent, I can see a long and interesting life stretching out in front of us: One I will never tire of."
He drew her down into his tender embrace, and they watched the dancing flames, contemplating the future that unfolded one to the other through their bond.
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