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That Silent Night

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That Silent Night

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  So perish all whose breast ne’er learn’d to glow

  For others’ good, or melt at others’ woe!

  What can atone (O ever-injured shade!)

  Thy fate unpitied, and thy rites unpaid?

  No friend’s complaint, no kind domestic tear

  Pleas’d thy pale ghost, or grac’d thy mournful bier.

  By foreign hands thy dying eyes were clos’d,

  By foreign hands thy decent limbs compos’d,

  By foreign hands thy humble grave adorn’d,

  By strangers honour’d, and by strangers mourn’d!

  —Alexander Pope, Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady

  “I blame Mr. Dickens entirely.” Colin Hargreaves, my husband, a scowl on his well-formed lips, stretched his long legs, crossed them at the ankles, and then sipped his whisky. “And his wretched little Christmas book.”

  “You must place some of the onus on Prince Albert,” I said. “Christmas trees are an old German tradition.”

  “Trees I do not object to in the least,” he said. “It is the carolers and their incessant singing that brings me to the brink of madness. The whole population of London must be roaming the streets tonight, and if I am forced to endure one more rendition of “Good King Wenceslas” I shall take no responsibility for any bodily injuries suffered by the performers.”

  “Be that as it may, you would certainly regret them in the morning,” I said. “I have already instructed Davis to send all carolers away with a good tip.”

  “Even that doesn’t silence them,” Colin said. “They keep at it as they make their way along the pavement. Insidious.”

  “I have never known you to be such a Scrooge, if I may take up your reference to Mr. Dickens’ work,” I said.

  “I resent the accusation,” he said. “I enjoy Christmas as much as the next man—“

  “We have fled Anglemore with the specific purpose of avoiding festivities,” I said. “That does not suggest enjoyment.”

  “We have come to London for a bit of shopping. You know there is a particular toy I am hoping to find at Hamleys for Richard.”

  “You need not have come all the way down to London from Derbyshire to personally select a Noah’s Ark,” I said. “You could have rung them and explained what you want. That is, after all, the point of telephones.”

  “A palpable hit, my dear,” he said. “However, had I done so we would not have this time alone. Quite the contrary, at this very moment we would be playing charades at Montagu Manor.”

  Now, at last, he admitted the truth. We had removed ourselves to Anglemore Park, our house in the country, not, with the fashionable set at the start of grouse season, but later, when fog descended upon London and the weather began to turn inclement. Colin adored taking our boys—the twins, Henry and Richard, and our ward, Tom—to the zoo and the museums. The British Museum (Natural History) proved a favorite with Richard, who had become fascinated with elephants during the course of the summer. Tom, always amiable, enjoyed any exhibit, but I must admit Henry had caused more than a few problems. He objected strenuously (and loudly) to taxidermy and had to be physically removed (by me) when he had shouted “Morbid! Profane!” incessantly after being confronted with displays of animals in this unacceptable state. I am still unsure as to how either of these words entered his vocabulary.

  Colin remained behind with Richard and Tom while I delivered a stern lecture to Henry after I had dragged him outside. He stood very still, his little hands clasped behind his back, his features placid, and gave every appearance of being a model of youth subdued unless one noticed the defiance in his sapphire blue eyes. I did not entirely disagree with Henry’s judgment on the practice of stuffing and mounting animals and, my reprimand finished, I took him by the hand and walked toward the British Museum, where the two of us spent the remainder of what turned out to be a most pleasant afternoon looking at ancient artifacts.

  When, sometime in September, we retreated to Anglemore, we settled into the quiet country life, the boys running wild on the extensive grounds while I set myself to the task of reading Herodotus in the original Greek. Colin spent much of the autumn abroad, called upon by the Palace to deal with a sensitive matter developing in Russia, about which he could tell me nothing. This caused no tumult between us; as the wife of one of the Crown’s most trusted agents, I had grown accustomed to the demands and restrictions of his work. When at last he had accomplished whatever it was that needed to be accomplished—and having done so, I did not doubt, with panache—he came home, exhausted, and wanted nothing more than to relax at his ancestral estate.

  Then December arrived. We very much enjoyed the company of our nearest neighbors in Derbyshire, the Marquess and Marchioness of Montagu—Rodney and Matilda Scolfield—and frequently dined with them. Matilda, no doubt having inherited her grandfather’s tendency to the dramatic—the old man had torn down the family seat and replaced it with a replica of a medieval castle so that he might play feudal lord—had got rather carried away with celebrating the season. Her own children, a girl not yet two and a boy who would turn one during the summer, were too young to be much affected by what Colin now referred to as The Festival of Horror and the brunt of her excess was felt, instead, by her husband and my family.

  During the first week of the month, she hosted two holiday-themed dinners, a pantomime, and tried to convince Colin to dress as Father Christmas for a children’s tea. When he learned of her plan for a daylong charades tournament that would include the entire population of a neighboring village, Colin ordered a special train and bustled me off to London with him, on the pretense of Christmas shopping.

  Much as I enjoyed teasing him—just a little—about his escape, I always adored London when fashionable society had abandoned it for the country. After our requisite visit to Hamleys, we walked home via Piccadilly, calling in at Hatchards, where Colin bought a copy of Henry James’ The Awkward Age and I, ready for a little light reading after my Greek, selected Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s latest, Her Darling Sin. As we approached Fortnum’s, snow danced from the heavy clouds that had darkened the skies all day, and by the time we had turned into Park Lane, it had blanketed buildings, pavements, tree limbs, and even the tops of hansom cabs and carriages until not a hint of grit or grime remained visible. Rather, I observed, like a Christmas card.

  My husband did not appreciate the remark. We had planned to drop our parcels at home and then go back out, as we both wanted to see the moving staircase installed in Harrods the previous month, but the lure of the warmth of our library proved a greater temptation.

  “It was kind of you to insist Davis accompany us to town,” I said. “I do believe he is even less fond of charades than you, and Matilda was quite insistent that all of our servants join hers in the game.” We kept a skeleton staff on at the townhouse when we were not in residence, and could have got along quite nicely with them (and Meg, my lady’s maid
, who had, of course, come down with us from Derbyshire), but Colin told Davis that his presence, too, would be required.

  “I have always thought Davis a most sensible man,” Colin said, closing his book and rising to his feet. “I must run to my study before we retire to finish one small thing for the Palace. Do you plan to read for much longer?” The look in his dark eyes told me exactly what he proposed as an alternative.

  “Four more pages in this chapter and I shall come straight up,” I said. He bent over to kiss me with a thoroughness and intensity that would have inspired me to abandon Mrs. Braddon’s heroine even before the end of the chapter had he not work left to do. Alone in the comfortable room, with its blazing fire, tall cherry bookcases, and my treasured collection of ancient Greek vases, I finished reading in almost no time—it is, after all, much easier to focus one’s attention when one does not have a trio of sticky children clinging to one’s skirts—and went to the large windows facing Park Lane and pulled aside the heavy velvet curtains so that I might look out at the snow. It continued to fall heavily, and the combination of the slippery roads and the late hour had reduced greatly the amount of traffic passing the house. There was hardly a carriage in sight, and no pedestrians were out braving the elements. The gas streetlights, from which someone had hung wreaths with festive red bows, cast a warm glow through the thick, white flakes. Across the street, the entrance to Hyde Park was not yet locked—it remained open until after midnight—but I doubted anyone would still be in the grounds as the snow looked to be at least eight inches deep.

  On this count, my instincts failed me for, when I looked again, I saw a woman who appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, in the park gate. I could not make out her features in the dark, but the moment I laid eyes on her, all the warmth of the room around me inexplicably disappeared. She wore a dress, cut in a style that had not been fashionable for more than a decade, but she had no coat, and stood, alone, her hands in a ragged-looking muff, gazing across in the direction of the houses that lined the other side of the street.

  She ought to have a cloak, at least, I thought, but when I tried to move from my spot at the window to fetch one for her, my feet would not obey. As if she had read my thoughts, she moved forward, closer to the streetlight, and now I could see her face, thin and drawn, with dark smudges under her eyes. She faced me directly and took two steps forward before again standing motionless, staring at me.

  I cannot say what about her frightened me, but something in her appearance sent shivers racing through me. I dropped the curtain back into place and came away from the window. Composing myself, I went to the front door. She would not be out in such a storm without a coat unless she had suffered a terrible misfortune and needed help. I pulled open the heavy door and stepped onto the threshold.

  “Miss! Are you in need of assistance?” I called, my voice echoing along the empty street, but she was no longer there. I saw no sign of anyone in Park Lane and surmised she must have retreated into the park. Pausing not even long enough to grab my coat, I raced out of the house and crossed the street, still calling for her. When I reached the park gate, she was nowhere to be found, but that was not nearly as troubling as what I saw when I looked down to the snowy ground.

  Or, rather, the absence of what I saw. No footprints marked the place where I had seen her stand. The snow, untouched and undisturbed, bore no evidence of her presence.

  I looked around one more time, still unable to find any trace of her. If I had felt a chill before, while inside, I now trembled with a cold that penetrated my bones too deeply to be credited only to the weather. Defeated, and decidedly unsettled, I went back to the house, brushing the snow from my dress while I waited for Davis to come to the door. In my haste to leave, I had quite forgot it would lock behind me.

  “Good evening, madam,” he said, his carriage erect and his manners a study of perfection. “I trust you have enjoyed your evening constitutional. I shall have your bath drawn at once as hot water and, if I may be so bold, a drop of brandy are the only things likely to restore you to warmth after your adventure.”

  “Thank you, Davis,” I said. “It is very good of you to make the suggestion. Do send the brandy up at once.” Very little I did scandalized him any longer. This was not because I had become more ordinary over the years, but rather because he had become accustomed to my eccentricities.

  Colin’s work must have required more time than he anticipated, as he did not come looking for me until I had already spent at least a quarter of an hour submerged in the tub, my teeth still chattering from the cold.

  “I had no idea you planned to bathe,” he said.

  “Nor did I,” I said, and recounted for him the details of my little excursion. He listened attentively, and then pulled a thick towel from its heated rack and motioned for me to step out of the bath. I shook my head. “I am too cold to move.”

  “I can think of a better way to get you warm.” He turned his head at the sound of a muffled knock coming from our bedroom door that heralded the arrival of a maid with my brandy. After collecting it from her, he returned to me and again urged me out of the tub.

  “Have you no comment at all about this mysterious woman?” I asked, succumbing to his request. With the towel, he blotted the water pouring off me.

  “You are positively frozen, my dear,” he said. “Do not go out again without a coat. Whatever can you have been thinking?”

  “The woman, Colin,” I said, grabbing the towel from him. Irritated now, I finished drying myself off and slipped a voluminous white nightgown over my head.

  “My dear, you have been reading the work of your favorite sensational novelist all evening,” he said. “Can it come as a surprise to anyone who knows you that afterward, when you peered out the window into the snowy night, you saw the ghostly figure of a lonely woman, cold and in need of that sort of assistance of which you are all too fond of offering to whomever will accept it?”

  “I do not appreciate the implication that she is a creation of my imagination,” I said.

  “I do not suggest you did it deliberately, Emily,” he said. “I would instead say that she sprung off the pages of whatever wretched book you bought at Hatchards.”

  “His Darling Sin, if you must know, and it contains nothing that would inspire the figure I saw from the library window,” I said. “It tells the tale of a devastatingly attractive young widow whose reputation is at stake due to the impertinent gossip of society.”

  “I believe I have already lived that story,” Colin said, and pulled me close.

  I ignored this observation. “Lady Perivale is accused—“

  “I am not interested in Lady Perivale.” His subsequent actions proved the veracity of this statement and had the further effect of causing me to lose all interest in Mrs. Braddon’s protagonist as well, temporarily at least.

  * * *

  By the time we awakened the next morning—disastrously late, it must be admitted—the snow had all but paralyzed London. We descended to our cheerful breakfast room, where a Roman mosaic I had purchased near Pompeii adorned the walls. I sipped my tea and munched on toast spread with butter and ginger marmalade while studying the image of Apollo in his chariot. Colin applied himself to an enormous plate of bacon and eggs. His exertions of the night before had, evidently, left him famished, and so focused was he on his meal and his morning paper that he hardly looked up when Davis entered the room.

  “A new neighbor from down the road has sent a servant to inquire whether we might be in a position to spare any coal,” the butler said. “Evidently Mr. Leighton and his wife returned from a visit abroad yesterday and had not planned to stay in town overnight, but the weather forced a change of plans and it seems their servants had not the sense to keep an adequate amount of fuel on hand.” Davis’ tone made it utterly clear that he would never allow such a thing to occur in a household under his charge.

  “Is there none to be had except from us?” Colin asked, folding his copy of the Times.

nbsp; “The snow has made delivery difficult,” Davis said.

  “Of course,” Colin said, waving his hand. “Whatever they need, send it over at once.”

  “Very good, sir.” Davis gave a dignified bow and left us.

  “Are we acquainted with the Leightons?” I asked. “I do not recognize the name, but so many new people have moved into Park Lane recently I find it all but impossible to keep track of who lives where.”

  “I blame Rothschild,” Colin said.

  “Several members of that family live in Piccadilly, not Park Lane,” I said. “Hence the ludicrous nickname given to the former: Rothschild Row.”

  “I refer, my dear, to the nouveau riche in general.”

  “When did you become such a snob?” I asked.

  “Do not mistake me,” he said. “I like the old rich no better. Leighton, though, is a decent enough chap. I met him once at my club. Someone had brought him as a guest. I believe he only recently married.”

  “Then the Leightons’ return from abroad must mark the end of their wedding trip,” I said. “How awful for his bride to make her triumphant arrival to an unprepared house. And the poor servants! They could never have anticipated this storm. We should invite Mr. and Mrs. Leighton to dine with us tonight.”

  “No doubt the invitation would come as a relief to both master and servant,” Colin said.

  I duly wrote a short note to Mrs. Leighton, apologizing for the informality of my introduction, and sent it over to her with the servants carrying our coal. The speed of her reply and the number of exclamation points employed conveyed great enthusiasm, and even before she and her husband had entered the house, I had formed a picture of her in my mind as an eager young lady, delighted at the prospect of the new life that lay before her. I imagined blushing cheeks and a dewy complexion accompanying a bubbling personality.

  As such, I was taken aback when Davis brought the couple into the sitting room that evening. That Mrs. Leighton was young could not be debated, but her thin face, with wide eyes, a long, narrow nose, and pinched lips were miles away from what I had expected. Colin and Mr. Leighton settled in comfortably at once, talking about whatever it is gentlemen of casual acquaintance discuss, but I found myself having the greatest difficulty in getting Mrs. Leighton to say much of anything.

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