(Victorian Christmas Schmoop written for the Torquere Blog as a kind of preview for “Suffer the Little Children.”)
The First Nowell, by Tracy Rowan
Twas the night before Christmas. Or more precisely, it was the night before the night before Christmas, and Nick and I were toasting ourselves in front of the fire. His dark head was bent over a book and his teacup was balanced on his knee.
In the morning, I’d be leaving for my parents’ home in Kensington, to spend Christmas with them, my sister and her husband and children, and my impossible younger brother, Eddy. I would have preferred to spend the holiday with Nick, as this was our first Christmas since we’d taken rooms together in Chelsea, but explaining the situation to my family wasn’t something I was prepared to do. In any event, Nick was going to spend the holiday with his family which rather put paid to the hope that something might work out for us to spend part of the time together.
But Nick’s detachment from the season and its pleasures had been bothering me for a while, and I couldn’t help but ask, “Why don’t you like Christmas?”
“It’s all right, I don’t hate it. I just don’t enjoy it the way you do.”
“No,” I said softly, recognizing one of the fundamental differences between us. “I’m not as complicated as you are.”
Nick looked up in surprise. “I never…”
“No, I’m saying it. And it’s true, I’m not. And I do love Christmas.”
Nick’s smile was genuine. “I’m glad. You may not credit it, Fitz, but that makes me happy in a way that Christmas on its own never could.”
The previous year, our first Christmas together, was snatched from family celebrations. I’d gone over to Nick’s flat early on Christmas Eve, and we’d exchanged small gifts and made love until almost teatime, when Nick physically shoved me out the door and told me to get home before my family sent the police out after me. Leaving him that afternoon was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but he assured me that he was expected at his family’s home in time for dinner.
This year, we ate breakfast in bed on Christmas Eve, packed our overnight bags and gathered our gifts together. He only had two. “For my mother,” he said. “The rest of us don’t exchange anything.” Even though I knew I’d see him again in little more than forty-eight hours, parting was miserably hard.
“It’s unfair,” I said, holding him close.
“That we can’t be like Caro and Gardiner where it’s just expected that we’ll spend the holiday together.”
“If that day ever comes, Fitz, I will climb up on the roof and crow, but it won’t happen any time soon.”
I was starting to feel a little lachrymose, so I said “I just hope it happens before you’re ninety. I shouldn’t like to have you break a hip celebrating.”
“All right, that’s it. We are off,” Nick said, throwing open the door. “To the wild ends of London. Meet me back here in two days time and we shall exchange horror stories.”
We went our separate ways on the street, and by the time I reached the family home, I was feeling reasonably resigned. I did love Christmas and I loved my family. Nick’s presence would have made it better, of course, but it wouldn’t be a bad two days by any stretch.
As always, the house was organized chaos when I arrived, with servants and family members rushing about. Even Eddy’s terrier was dashing to and fro chasing Caro’s children and barking at the Christmas tree for no discernible reason. My arrival gave them all a reason to pause for a few moments and then take up their rushing with renewed vigor. I half wished I’d planned to arrive later, but the rushing was a tradition, too. Once I’d deposited my things in my old room, I went downstairs where I was immediately pressed into service.
But it was all to a good end for by teatime, the house was bright with light and laughter. The candles on the tree were lit and all the gifts were piled beneath it. With all the chores finished, everyone gathered in the sitting room for tea. We had not been there long before one of the servants came to Father to say that there was a visitor.
“It’s Inspector Hopson,” he said, examining the card he’d been given. “Show him in, Jeffers.”
The inspector seemed surprised to be confronted with the entire family, but he showed admirable grace under the circumstances. “Beg your pardon for stopping by unannounced, but the lads at the station wanted to show their appreciation for that spot of help you gave us last month, Sir Charles. And of course I do too.” He handed a wrapped package to Father.
“How thoughtful,” Mother observed as Father opened the package. “Oh…”
“Cigars! Hopson, what a fine gift. Thank you, and I’ll be stopping by the station to thank the others after the holidays.”
“Little enough for all the help you’ve given us over the years, Sir Charles.”
“Inspector, won’t you stay to tea?”
“No Lady Sarah, but thank you. I really must be off home before my wife comes looking for me.”
“Let me walk you to the door, Inspector.”
They left the sitting room, and everyone went back to the piano, but a few moments later Father returned and asked me to come out to the hallway.
“Hopson says that Nick is at the station. He’s apparently planning to spend the holiday catching up on some of his research projects.”
“I asked him if he wouldn’t like to spend the holiday with me and Mrs. Hopson, but he said no, he didn’t want to put us out, and anyway he had work to do.”
“Didn’t you say he was spending Christmas with his family?” Father asked.
“That’s what I thought. At least he implied it. I’m as surprised as you are,” I admitted.
“Well thank you, Inspector. I will see you in the new year.”
Hopson left, and Father gave me a look. “You don’t know where Nick is spending his holiday?”
“I thought I did,” I protested as we went back to the sitting room.
Mother looked up from the piano. “What’s happening?”
“Nicholas is spending Christmas at the police station, and your son didn’t know.”
“He told me he was going to be with his family. He even had gifts for his mother; I saw them.”
“How very odd,” Gardiner observed.
Eddy remarked, “That Nicholas is an odd duck.”
“He is not!”
“Of course he is. He’s obviously a gentleman but he was doing the cleaning up for anatomy classes when you met him. And now he’s working for the police, but he’s not on the force. And I never understand a word he says.”
“That’s because you’re an idiot,” I snapped.
Eddy looked affronted. “I think there’s something wrong with him,” he insisted.
“Oh Eddy, Davy’s right, you are an idiot, but that doesn’t mean that you’re mistaken about Nicholas.” I wasn’t sure whether I should thank Caro for that or hate her for it. She went on to say, “He’s a very odd young man, and I’m sure there’s a story there. Really, Davy, if I was living in the same house with him, I’d be asking him all sorts of impertinent questions.”
“You’d do that even if you’d just met him.” Eddy looked triumphant having scored a point on Caro.
“Charles, I should like to speak with you privately,” Mother said. “Children, please excuse us.”
Caro shooed her brood out and told them to put on their coats and go make a snowman. Gardiner went with them, so Caro, Eddy and I stood around in the hall and tried to imagine what was going on behind that closed door.
“Mother looked fairly determined,” Caro observed. “Whatever it is I’m guessing she’s informing Father of what will be happening.”
Our parents emerged from the sitting room. “Children, we will be bringing Nicholas home for the holiday.”
“You make him sound like a stray dog,” Eddy remarked.
Mother sighed. “Unfortunately, as the house is full, someone is going to have to share. Eddy, perhaps…”
Another sigh. “Well your father thinks it’s best if David shares with him, and I do suppose it makes the most sense.”
Eddy’s eyes widened, and Caro gave me a sidelong look. I nearly fainted.
“I shall have cook make something hot for the poor boy to eat when he arrives.”
“Dearest, he’s been at the police station, not the Arctic circle. I’m sure he’d appreciate tea, but no more than the rest of us. David, why don’t you come along with me to fetch him? Go get your coat and hat.”
Father and I took a cab to the station. Along the way he asked me how my writing was coming along, and though I supposed it was by way of making some polite conversation, I was nevertheless pleased that he was interested at least in passing.
“Quite well, I think, sir. I recently sold a story and have several manuscripts being read. I believe that two of them will be purchased. The money isn’t much,” I hastened to add, “but…”
“The money is immaterial at this point. That you are persevering is what matters. Ah, we have arrived.” He told the driver to wait for us and we entered the station. I was always a little surprised to see how well respected my father was, not simply because he was Sir Charles Malvern, but because the members of the police force, almost to a man, knew him by reputation to be one of the fiercest and most formidable barristers in the city. I had once remarked to Inspector Hopson that my father often undid their work and it seemed odd that they would respect him for it, and he said to me, “Malvern, if we don’t do our job it’s not your father’s lookout. He keeps us all honest. And the truth is he’s helped us solve more than one knotty problem in the past. He’s a clever man.”
The sergeant at the desk greeted us warmly. “Always good to see you, Sir Charles.”
“Happy Christmas, Sergeant, and thank you for the cigars. My wife won’t let me smoke them in the house so I’ll be taking them to my office.”
“I know how it is, sir. The wife won’t let me smoke my pipe in the house either and I can’t smoke it here, so I’m thinking of giving it up.”
“Well you’re always welcome to come down to the office and enjoy a bowl. Sergeant, Inspector Hopson tells me that Nicholas Romney is here. My wife, who you may have guessed is a formidable woman, will not allow him to spend his holiday working, so young Malvern and I have been dispatched to fetch him.”
“Of course, sir. Have a seat and I’ll get him up here.”
Father and I sat down on a bench between a sleeping man and a drunken woman. He sighed a bit and said “One forgets, and that’s never a good thing. David, I think I shall accompany the rest of you to church tomorrow.”
I was stunned. My father, a free-thinker, had never objected to Mother’s church-going habits, but had steadfastly refused to share them. “May one ask why, sir?”
“I feel the need to give thanks in a concrete manner. I’m not sure you realize how grateful I am for all of you. I’m not sure I’ve done much to show it lately. Ah, and there he is.” He stood and went to the desk where Nick stood, looking confused.
“Mr. Romney, my wife is rather put out with you and informs me that under no circumstances am I to return without you and your overnight bag. Per her instructions you will be spending the holiday with the Malverns, God help you.”
“Indeed. Do we need to stop at your rooms for clothing?”
“No sir, I have my overnight bag with me.”
“Excellent. Sergeant, I wish you a silent night. Come along, boys.”
We followed Father out of the station. “What happened?” Nick whispered.
“Hopson. He came by the house to bring a gift and told Father you were here. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated or awkward.”
“We’ll discuss this another time,” I told him, sounding frighteningly like my mother. All I really wanted was to get him to the warmth and safety of my parents’ home, make him eat a great deal of holiday food, and ensure that whatever the truth was, that it couldn’t touch him there.
When we arrived, Mother came to the door to meet us and she hugged Nick the way she’d hugged me when I’d arrived. “We’re so happy to have you, Nicholas,” she said as if he’d been invited all along. “I’m afraid that there’s very little room to spare since the house is quite full, but you and David can share quite comfortably, I’m sure.”
“It’s the solution least likely to cause bloodshed,” Eddy observed. “Hullo, old man,” he said, shaking Nick’s hand.
We were ushered into the sitting room where the tea had been refreshed, and Mother made certain that Nick had everything he could possibly want plus a bit more just to be absolutely certain he would be waddling around London after the holidays. He was introduced to Caroline, Gardiner and their three children who had been somewhat drugged by the sheer amount of food forced into them. They lay on the floor in front of the fire and nodded vaguely at Nick.
“Like all Malvern sprouts they show distinct criminal tendencies,” Father remarked, buttering a scone. “Alas, the Highland blood hasn’t helped.”
“Oh Father, leave Gardiner alone. He never knows when you’re joking.”
“Of course I do; my family is not from the Highlands.”
“More tea, Nicholas?” Mother asked, the corners of her mouth rising slightly.
Later, while the children were being put to bed, Nick and I went upstairs to freshen up.
“You know, you should have told me,” I said as Nick washed his face and combed his hair.
“Davy, you’d have tried to fix it, and I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated. I’m feeling very uneasy about being here at all.”
“Well don’t. It was my mother’s idea to bring you here, and Father agreed. It had nothing to do with me.”
“Truly. Though I’m glad they decided to bring you here. The idea of you spending your Christmas alone…”
“You know what I mean. Nick, don’t you have a family?”
“I do. At least in the sense that there are people on this earth with whom I grew up, and with whom I share blood. That’s about the extent of it.”
“You don’t speak?”
“We don’t like each other.”
He scrubbed himself with the flannel. “Don’t be. Not every family can be like yours. Have I told you lately how much I envy you?” he asked with a lopsided smile.
“You don’t have to; I freely share them with you.”
“I wish you could.”
“So do I. But tell me, what was in the packages you took with you?”
“Oh, gifts for Hopson and his wife. I owe him a great deal, too. I wish I had something for your parents.”
“Not to worry, they have everything they could possibly want,” I told him.
“Mostly each other, I expect.”
There was a light supper and card games that evening. While Nick played with Caro, Gardiner and Eddy, I took the opportunity to thank my parents for allowing him to join us.
“We’d have invited him if we’d thought he had no family obligations. He’s a pleasant young man and your mother and I feel he’s been a very good influence on you, David. You’ve become more responsible and serious since you met him. I’m pleased that you call him friend; we both are. From now on, he has a standing invitation to all family gatherings, should he wish to attend. Your mother agrees.”
“As usual, your father feels he must speak for me, but of course in this case, we are of one mind. Nick is always welcome in our home. I hope you will impress upon him that we do expect him to be part of family gatherings when he has no family obligations of his own.”
That was far more than I had ever expected. “That’s awfully decent of you.”
Father gave me a brief smile. “It’s important to us that you’re happy, David. I believe you are, are you not?”
I didn’t know what to think, so I just told him the truth. “I am, yes.”
Later that night, when we were upstairs in my old bed, I told him what Father had said.
“Do you have any idea how fortunate you are, Davy? To have parents who are so kind and generous?”
“I’m beginning to learn,” I admitted. I kissed him. But when I tried to become more intimate, he pushed me away gently but firmly. “Why not?”
“Because they don’t know about us. It would be disrespectful to them, Davy.”
“How do you reckon that?”
“They’ve done me a great kindness, and I think it would be taking advantage of them to do something that they might not approve of under their roof. If the day ever comes when they know that you and I are lovers and accept our relationship, then I’ll have no problem ravishing you in this bed. But until then, it’s a small thing to give up.”
I supposed he was right, but it didn’t make me very happy. Still, I had him to hold close, which struck me as being the best sort of gift I could ask for.
Christmas morning began with an early trip to church. Father surprised Mother by coming along, but not by refusing to put a penny in the collection plate. “You’re so stubborn,” she hissed at him. He just smiled and bellowed out “The First Nowell.” Later, though, I saw him put an envelope into the poor box.
“Render unto Caesar, etcetera,” he said when he noticed me watching him.
“You really are stubborn.”
“It keeps the marriage lively.”
After church, there was a huge breakfast, then gifts. Nick was surprised to find that there was a gift for him under the tree. “We would have given it to David to take home with him, but this is much better,”
Mother told him. They’d bought him a warm coat.
That afternoon, we gathered around the piano to sing carols. Caro’s children were, like their father, tone deaf, so they shouted along with the songs they knew, which were mercifully few, and for the rest, they sat on top of Gardiner and listened quite happily to the rest of the family.
Mother had a pretty voice that lacked power and was sometimes overwhelmed by Father’s robust baritone. Caro’s contralto was beautiful and nearly as powerful as Father’s voice. I had inherited Father’s baritone but without the force. Eddy, who had been a boy soprano with an exquisite voice, had become an indifferent tenor, but Nick’s tenor was sweet and mellow.
After the singing, Father read “A Christmas Carol” to us. I think we all knew it by heart since he read it every year, but having Nick there made it all seem quite new to me. I could see the happiness on his face as he listened.
There was the traditional Christmas dinner, which the children were allowed to attend, and afterwards, the adults slouched in chairs and on sofas, basking in the light from the candles on the tree and overcome by the food, the wine and the good cheer. Carolers came to the door and were given a few pence and a hot drink as thanks for their songs.
“Charles Dickens,” Nick said sleepily, “without the ghosts.” He was leaning up against me, eyes half shut, warm and content. I realized at that moment that I truly was a lucky man. Perhaps my family did understand the nature of our relationship, and were willing to accept it, or perhaps they simply chose not to think about it. Either way, at that moment I was content too, and perhaps as happy as I had ever been in my life.
“Promise me we will always spend Christmas together,” I said to him.
“Always,” he promised. Then after a beat of companionable silence, he added, “At least so long as we can have your mother’s Christmas cake.”