Once Upon a Christmas Past – Paula Quinn

The crowd surged around Nash like a living thing. Voices of children mingled with those of their parents anxiously awaiting the man they believed would give eloquent voice to their long-ignored cries for reform. Unmindful of the smoke from the city’s factories marring the blue of the midday sky, thousands had flocked to the vast green field. Mothers wore their Sunday best, some carried babes in arms. Their presence only added to Nash’s fears. The conversations he and his twin brother Robbie had overheard in Manchester’s taverns had educated them to the people’s hope that such a large gathering would rouse the government to act. They wanted representation in Parliament and relief from the heavy taxes that took bread from the mouths of their children. Nash had seen for himself the hunger and sickness that stalked the overcrowded city like a destroying angel, claiming lives old and young. Manchester’s huge population lacked even a single Member of Parliament while some villages with a dozen people and a few cows had their own MP, a situation that kept votes in the hands of the landed few. Jostled by the crowd, Nash took a step back, shaking his head. He doubted the workers in Manchester would see their hopes realized. The political climate in England turned a deaf ear to cries for reform. Fearful the lower classes would rise up like those across the Channel, the government’s mood was one of suspicion, even fear. The Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth had sent Nash and Robbie to Manchester to spy on those “fomenting rebellion”. But in the days they’d been here, they’d uncovered no signs of revolt.

As far as Nash could determine, none of the men in today’s crowd bore arms. They carried only the meager food they had to sustain their families for the day. What man brought his children to an armed rebellion? Shifting his gaze to the right, Nash caught a glimpse of Robbie’s head of nut-brown hair rising above the crowd some yards away. His brother’s furrowed brow shouted the foreboding they both felt. As twins, they often shared emotions, a benefit to them as spies. Nash’s unease grew, his stomach twisting in knots, as he thought of the forces mustered a few streets away: six troops of the 15th Hussars cavalry and seven companies of infantry, to which had been added the Manchester Yeomanry. Over one thousand armed men stood ready to subdue any violence offered by the unarmed crowd. Convinced this would be an insurrection, Sidmouth wanted to make a point. But did the Home Secretary intend to do more? Nash feared Sidmouth wanted blood. Did his plan, undisclosed to Nash and Robbie, include teaching the people of Manchester a terrifying lesson? Murmurs spread through the crowd as the man for whom they had patiently waited finally made his way to the wooden platform.

Henry Hunt, with his distinguished head of gray hair, stood ready to address the people. Nash glanced at his pocket watch, noting the time: half past one. From the other side of the field, a band struck up a rousing “God Save the King” and, for respect owing their monarch, the men took off their hats. Nash, too, removed his cap, setting it back on his head when the music stopped. With eager anticipation, the people surged forward, straining to hear Hunt’s first words. Suddenly, on the edge of the field, not far from where Nash stood, the Manchester Yeomanry appeared. Their blue uniforms and tall hats trimmed in gold made a flashy contrast to the common dress of the people. Nash desperately wanted to believe the soldiers were there merely to assure order. The people must have believed it was so because they received the yeomen with shouts of goodwill. But the hard expressions on the soldiers’ faces told Nash they were there for an entirely different purpose.

Without warning, the yeomen raised their sabers and galloped into the crowd. Horrified, Nash watched as the cavalry, reeling in their saddles, hewed their way through the defenseless heads and naked hands of the people. Heedlessly, they chopped off limbs until their blades dripped blood, leaving gaping wounds and blood-spattered clothes in their wake. The thronging masses panicked, shrieking in fear and protest. Eyes wild, men, women and children screamed and tried to run. Trapped by the crowd, there was nowhere to go. Heart-rending cries from women and children filled the air, piercing Nash to his soul. Ignoring the shrieks and groans, the uncaring cavalry plunged forward. Catching Robbie’s eye, Nash pushed his way through the fleeing crowd, heading toward the nearest yeoman to try to stop the mêlée. Before he could reach him, the soldier raised his saber and struck a woman in the head with the flat of his blade.

She plummeted to the ground. Her children fell to their knees beside her wailing, “Mama!” Hot fury burned in Nash’s chest, as he raced to the yeoman. “These people are unarmed!” he shouted above the din. “Drop your sword! Forbear!” The yeoman, slurring his words beyond understanding, swung his blade at Nash. The blow hit him on the side of the head. Stunned, he crumpled to the grass. Blackness closed around him as he heard Robbie shout, “Leave off, you fool! He is Sidmouth’s man!” A CHAPTER 1 ARBROATH, FORFARSHIRE, SCOTLAND – DECEMBER 1819 ileen Stephen drew her blue tartan shawl tightly around her, burying her cold fingers in the soft wool as she stared out the window, watching snow fall in great lumps on the shipyard. In her mind, she saw the face that had come to her in a dream the night before. A dark-haired man of handsome visage who seemed to see into her very soul. A man she did not know.

The stove in the shipyard office warmed her backside, but the air next to the large window carried winter’s chill. “It’s snowing again, Will. Soon, the entire yard will be buried.” As she watched, the snow covered the decks, rigging and masts of the schooners docked in front of the company’s offices, making them appear like fairy ships. Beyond the snow-covered schooners, the North Sea showed its drab face, like an old sailor’s, gray and sullen. Behind her, she heard her brother scratching a line into his ledger. “Aye, no work outside today, but the lads are still working on the new schooner in the main shop and I’ve got others cutting sails. They’ll have the week before Hogmanay and the New Year to spend with their families, so they’ll not mind a bit of work before then. ’Sides, I’ve made sure the stove fires are stoked and fed with coal.” She turned away from the window and reached her hands toward the heat from the office stove, her ginger hair falling over one shoulder.

Opening the door of the stove, she added a log and breathed in the sweet smell of the burning birch. “When are your guests arriving from London?” Will looked up from his ledger. “They may be English, Ailie, but they’re our guests and Emily’s friends, so do be kind to them.” He gave her one of his smiles that never failed to soften her ire. As older brothers went, he was more than tolerable. “Haven’t I been practicing the songs to play for them?” “Aye, you have. They will love the music. I want Emily’s first Christmas away from London to be a special time of celebration, one she will always remember.” He leaned back in his chair and began to chew the end of his cedar wood pencil, seeming to contemplate the unknowable as only Will could. In truth, Ailie loved her English sister-inlaw of one year and would be happy to please her, for Emily had made Will content.

“So, when do they arrive?” Will twisted his pencil. “That depends on the weather, of course. I sent the Albatross a week ago. Allowing for time to load and take on provisions, they should be leaving London about now.” “Might I know who’s coming?” Her brother set his pencil down, crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair. His mouth quirked up in a grin. “Muriel, Lady Claremont, Emily’s dearest friend. She’s an older dowager and quite respected in London Society.” He smiled as if remembering something. “Loves feathers and parties.

You’ll like her.” Uncrossing his arms, he picked up his pencil. “I should probably warn you, though. Muriel dabbles in matchmaking. ’Twas the countess who picked me for Emily.” Ailie considered the possibility of an aging English countess who dabbled in matchmaking being one of their guests. Lady Claremont would be hard pressed to find candidates for her efforts in Arbroath. Ailie’s younger brothers and unmarried cousins were all in Aberdeen, where her father and uncle ran the successful shipbuilding concern Alexander Stephen & Sons. “Who is the countess bringing with her?” Someone for Ailie to talk to, she hoped. “Ormond and his wife, Mary, of course.

” Ailie had never met Lord Ormond, one of her brother’s Cambridge friends, but Will had spoken often of him and his young wife, both English aristocrats. Emily, who knew the pair, reported they were great lovers of horseflesh and raised thoroughbreds for racing. “The Ormonds attended our wedding in London last December. The marchioness is younger than you, yet she has already managed to give Ormond his heir and a spare.” “Is that a hint?” Will didn’t need to tell her she had reached the age of twenty-four and was still unwed. “Nay, Ailie. I know I sometimes tease you but if you desire to never wed, though Mother will be appalled, you will always have a home with Emily and me. It’s just that…” “What?” “I would see you find the happiness I have found with Emily. Kindred souls and all that.” “’Tis rare, Will, especially for a woman who would not confine herself to the home.

” “I know, but at least our guests will provide some interesting conversation that should appeal. Ormond wrote to say he’s bringing his friends from Powell and Sons.” At her puzzled expression, he added, “It’s a London shipping company. Every man in the family is a shipmaster—and there are five of them.” Will waggled his chestnut brows. “Ormond thinks we’ll have much to talk about since the Powells buy ships and we build them.” She chuckled. “That will make for interesting discourse.” Ailie’s whole world revolved around shipbuilding. It would always be her preference to speak of ships rather than London gossip or Scotland’s unhappy textile workers.

She had just turned nineteen when Will returned from the war in France and urged her to leave Aberdeen to join him in his new venture in Arbroath. She went back to her desk and picked up the drawing she’d been working on. “So, how many are coming?” Her brother reached for the letter he had set aside. “According to Ormond, their children are spending Christmas with the grandparents. So, in addition to the Ormonds and the dowager countess, all four of the Powell brothers have accepted the invitation, the two who are married bringing their wives. Nine guests in all.” “Nine?” Her eyebrows rose. “’Tis fortunate you added that wing to the house after you married Emily.” Will had already possessed a grand house on the hill overlooking the shipyard when he took his English bride. In the year that followed, it had become a sprawling estate, complete with an orangery for Emily, whose constitution favored a warmer clime.

Will grinned. “I had to enlarge the house. I did not change the company’s name to William Stephen and Sons to remain childless. Emily and I expect to have many bairns. Come spring, Lord willing, we shall have the first one. Perhaps a braw lad with my auburn hair and brown eyes.” “Or a lass with Emily’s black hair and thistle-colored eyes,” Ailie teased. Her brother paused, his face taking on a look of bliss that told her he was thinking about the children he expected to have. “Aye.” Resisting the temptation to roll her eyes, Ailie said, “Whatever the good Lord gives you, Will, I’m just glad we have the additional bedchambers for our visitors.

Has Emily warned our cook?” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “I believe so. She mentioned something about talking to Martha about the cook Muriel is bringing, but you can ask her at dinner.” “The countess is bringing her cook?” Ailie envisioned sparks flying in the kitchen as roast goose, boar’s head and turkey replaced salmon, venison and steak pie. “Emily thought Martha might need help with the English dishes for the Christmas feast.” “I just hope you ken what you’re about. The Kirk does not abide Yule celebrations.” Will’s expression took on the look of a determined Scot. “I have loved Christmas since my days at Cambridge and ’tis worth the risk of a frown from the parish minister to make Emily happy.” “As you wish.

Are we still going to Grandfather Ramsay’s for Hogmanay?” “If the weather allows, aye. A short sail up the coast to Stonehaven could be great fun. Our guests might like to take a sledge through the snow to see the old castle. I’ll ask Grandfather to book the Ship Inn. Now that I think of it, we’ll need all their rooms. Perhaps Father will come from Aberdeen. What do you think?” “Grandfather might not be pleased with so many Sassenachs descending on him, but he will expect us for Hogmanay. Once Father hears of our plans, he and Mother will be staying put in Aberdeen. Aside from the fact he doesn’t like to travel at this time of year, he’s still riled about what happened in Manchester. The last time I visited him, our uncle had just returned from Glasgow where the mood of the weavers is angry.

” William frowned. “There’s talk in the Arbroath taverns, too.” That night, after she retired to her bedchamber, Ailie took out her diary, drew her shawl around her and opened a new page. Replacing the candle that had burned to a stub, she dipped the quill in the ink and began. 15 December I am preparing for a storm (not the current one that has brought so much snow, but one of a different kind). Will says we’re to have guests from London to celebrate Christmas—in secret, of course, else Mr. Gleig, the parish minister, will have something to say about our celebrating a holiday banned by the Kirk for centuries. Bother. Father will be ever so displeased. And, after we sail our guests to Stonehaven for Hogmanay, Grandfather Ramsay might never speak to us again.

Oh, did I mention the Countess of Claremont is bringing her English cook? Batten down the hatches. ADELPHİ TERRACE, London, 16 December ROBBİE SET his coffee on the table in front of the parlor sofa and turned his attention to the Times article. The correspondent, who’d been on St Peter’s Field that sultry August afternoon when Robbie had nearly lost his brother to a drunken yeoman’s saber, recalled in shocking detail the events of that day. The newspapers had dubbed the debacle “the Peterloo Massacre” in a parody of Waterloo. They were not far off. It had been months since that terrible day, yet London still spoke of little else. The names of the four hundred injured were printed along with the nature of their wounds in the hope sympathizers would contribute to the charity set up to support them. Over one hundred of the injured were females, the mothers, wives, sisters and children of those attending the meeting. The fifteen dead were also named, including one Sarah Jones, mother of seven, fatally injured by a blow to the head. How the Prince Regent, after all that, could congratulate the hussars, who had entered the fray after the yeomanry, inflicting more bloody wounds, Robbie could not fathom.

But there it was, signed by Sidmouth on behalf of the prince, clearing the hussars and magistrates of any wrongdoing. No one in London believed a word of it. Nash had recovered from his head wound, the scar buried under his thick brown hair, but Robbie shuddered each time he remembered the blood. He’d had to pull the drunken yeoman from his horse to keep him from taking another swing at Nash. The newspapers had not exaggerated what followed that day. Sixty thousand people, peacefully gathered to hear about reform, attacked by saber-wielding yeomen and hussars. Like Nash, Robbie wondered if the result had been intended by Sidmouth all along. Robbie took a drink of his coffee and read on, surprised to learn that a few days ago in the House of Lords, Sidmouth had openly spoken of a conspiracy and proposed coercive measures “to meet the evil”. The new laws, dubbed the “Six Acts”, would, among other egregious things, make any meeting to discuss radical reform an act of treason, the penalty death. “Damn!” Robbie hissed under his breath.

“Deuced stupid, if you ask me.” His gaze shifted to the page containing a poem by satirist William Hone titled “The Political House That Jack Built”. Robbie thought it quite clever to sum up the reformers’ grievances using a nursery rhyme in an irreverent manner. “By God,” he muttered. “He attacks lawyers, the Crown, the army, even the church. But he certainly has the massacre on St Peter’s Field right.” “Who attacked all those folks, Nash?” came his mother’s French-accented voice. Robbie raised his eyes to see Claire Powell gliding into the parlor, her black hair neatly coiffed, the few strands of gray adding to her dignity but taking nothing from her beauty. She wore one of her French gowns, a confection in sapphire silk. He allowed himself a brief smile for her confusion in her sons that had her addressing him by his twin’s name.

“’Tis the poet William Hone describing the grievances of the reformers and the blood spilled by the yeomanry in Manchester.” Her blue eyes flashed in anger. “ Sacrebleu. I cannot think about that horrible—” She froze, turning to give Robbie an assessing gaze, then pursed her lips. He laid aside the newspaper and tried to look innocent. “Is something amiss?” “Robbie, you scoundrel! You have cut your hair to match your brother’s. Even I cannot tell you apart when you do that. Well, not unless I hear you speak for a while. Why ever have you done it?” “Nash and I believed it… necessary.” “I see.

” Likely she did, for their mother knew well that he and Nash had been on the Crown’s business in Manchester. “The two of you have accepted another assignment, haven’t you?” He nodded, admitting the truth of her words but not providing any details. “But why now when you are sailing to Scotland for Christmas?” Robbie folded the newspaper and set it on the small table in front of the sofa, slowly rising to give his mother a knowing look, the message unspoken but clear nonetheless. She would not fail to note it. Hands on her still slender hips, she scowled. “Alors, I begin to comprehend. Your next assignment is in Scotland, isn’t it? No wonder you were so eager to join your older brothers when Lord Ormond extended his invitation.” Robbie cast his gaze toward the window looking out on the Thames, feeling only slightly guilty for not telling her he and Nash would be acting as spies once again. The family business, after all, was shipping, which served as a respectable cover for their more clandestine activities. “Combining a holiday with friends and business for the Crown seems ill-advised, Son.

I do hope Lord Sidmouth knows what he is doing.” She dropped her hands from her hips and shook her head. “I’ve never been overly fond of that man, even when he was just Henry Addington.”

.

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