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A Lancer Christmas Story, 1853 by Suzanne

#1 in the Lancer Christmas series

Word count: 3,600

Wednesday, December 24th, 1853

Tom had told Mrs. Hollingsworth he’d lit the nursery fire but when I poked my head in, it was about as warm as a damp squib in there, so I grabbed a few logs from the copper basket and threw them on.

“There you go.”

I kneeled back and held out my hands to the flames. Before long I had a bloomin’ forest fire in the hearth, didn’t I. That ought to satisfy Mrs. Hollingsworth. I wasn’t intending to get in a row with her on Christmas Eve; not with the snow falling since daybreak and Mrs. H. wanting us all to tear around like chickens with our heads cut off to make sure the fires were lit before The Master himself, got home. Tom says if The Master isn’t happy with someone’s work, it’s the ‘evil eye’ one day, then ‘out-on-yer-ear,’ the next.

I’d only just smoothed down my apron when Mrs. H. stuck her head in the nursery door. “Hurry up, Hildy. Or there’ll be hell to pay. You know that, my girl.”

O’course, I knows it. All the same, I took a peep outside from the nursery window. Sure enough, even though it was almost dark, I could still see the snowflakes floating through the air. “Ooh, look at that.” I rubbed the frosting off the windowpane. From up here, they might be tiny angel wings, the way they drifted down, so gentle-like.  Outside, even the cobbled streets were white, and piles of snow were beginning to clump around the base of the lampposts, shining their yellow light. We didn’t always get snow at Christmas back home, but oh my, this was so pretty. Like a regular fairyland, it was. Out on the streets, all the Boston toffs were rugged up with mufflers and scarves and furs and who could blame’em? The harnesses on the horses jingled as they clip-clopped over the cobbles. Some even had bells on.

Mrs. Moreland, in the house across the way, had a Christmas Tree in her parlour window and that made it look a bit more like home, but none of the other nobs on Beacon Hill had gone to very much trouble.

It wasn’t like it was back in dear old England. In the village they’d be calling out, ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other as they passed on the street or hurried home to cook the goose. The church bells would be ringing as the boys practiced for the midnight tolling and the village children would be collecting garlands of leaves and holly to put on the mantle.

I put my head back and closed my eyes and tried sniffing the air. Perhaps, if I tried hard enough, I could almost smell the pine and my dad’s mulberry wine?

Oh well, it was just a silly thought, weren’t it.

At least Master Scott would be happy. He’d been wanting snow for Christmas, after Nanny Perkins read him the story about Ebenezer Scrooge. Scottie had been jumping up and down all morning, ‘e had. “Hildy, we’ll have snow for Christmas.”

And seeing it was Christmas Eve already, I weren’t going to bet against the fact, was I, when he came bouncing down the stairs and into the breakfast room.

Now, here it was, nigh on four thirty and he’d be home soon and I’d only have a quick minute to give Master Scott ‘is present. I smoothed my apron down but I could feel the stiff corners of the cardboard in my pocket.

As soon as I spotted the newspaper on the breakfast table, I knew it was the very thing to give Master Scott for Christmas—not that he’d be expecting anything—but it still played on my mind, what happened three years ago. How could it not, when I’d scarce slept a wink for a week after the gent’s visit?

I rubbed some more frost off the window with my sleeve, so that I could get a better view when they came home. Crikey, I could’ve been looking out this very window, that day, three years ago. Only, now I comes to think of it, I was probably in the parlour.

Anyways, it was the day of Scott’s birthday that I’d seen him. The tall gent, that is. And he was so tall his head almost brushed the top of the flamin’ door.

The entire house had been in a tiz all that week, and no wonder with anyone in Boston who was anyone, wanting their child to be here. I’d only been working at the Garrett house for six months but even I could tell little Scottie didn’t know half the children that came to his birthday party.

There were vases of fresh flowers and balloons and cake and would you believe it, they even had a monkey.

At first the little ones were a bit afraid, especially when it bared its teeth and made that chattering sound, but after a while, they got used to it and the dear little thing let them pat its head while it danced around in circles.

Master Scott was inclined to hold fast to my hand, because I was there helping Nanny Perkins, but he got quite brave in the end and even let the monkey hold his finger. Mrs. Hollingsworth was thunderstruck, she was. I could see her face across the other side of the room. She said monkeys were dirty creatures, probably carrying all sorts of diseases. Well now, that gave me pause at first, but then I figured Mr Garrett would never let Master Scott touch something that might make him ill. All the same, t’was a little unnatural seeing the little creature preening and taking his bows.

Master Scott was having a fine time, though. Not that he was raucous and boisterous like the Rippon twins. Never was such a sweet natured lad as Master Scott. Mind, he could be jolly naughty when he had a mind to. He was no saint.

Well, there was this knock on the door, that day, wasn’t there. And I didn’t know who ‘e was at first.

Mr Garrett told me to bring little Scottie out – and I did think it was a bit odd, seeing as we were almost ready to cut the cake and open the presents.

But oh, my, he was a such a tall gent. And broad. And his skin was tanned and rough like a sailor’s.

That’s what I thought he was at first; some mumbling cove who’d stumbled in, wanting a hot meal on a cold day.

Only, no ordinary sailor would look at the lad like that.

It seemed odd the stranger would come that day—of all days. But I have to say, my heart swelled when Scottie put his hand out and said ‘how do you do’ like the proper little gent he was.

And that was that, really. The big man was gone, and we went back to the fun. It wasn’t until later that I got the chance to look outside. Just to see if the weather was holding up or if the guests would be needing brollies and cabs when they left.

And there he was. Standing outside on the pavement. And I swear, if ever a man had a broken heart, it was that gentleman. It fair broke my own heart to see it, it did.

And it got me to thinking – whatever could it be that Mr Garrett said or did, to make the tall gent look so sad?

Well, it wasn’t ‘til that night I found out. Mrs. H. was hinting this and that…saying what a shame that Scott was on his own for his birthday. ‘Course I told her, he was hardly that; not with all his little friends there.

“It’s not the same, though, is it, Hildy.”

“I dunno. Is it?”

“Didn’t you see him?”

“See who?”

Mrs. Hollingsworth was never one for pantry politics, so I scarce knew what to make of it when she looked around, like she was checking there was no-one behind the chair a’listening. There were just the two of us sitting at the long dining table downstairs, sharing a cup of tea and some leftover cake. Then she cupped her hand around her mouth and whispered, “That was his father.”

“The sad gent?” You could’ve knocked me down and run right over me with a coach and four and I wouldn’t even have noticed, I was that befuddled by what she said.

Mrs. H bobbed her head. “Murdoch Lancer, himself.”

“Crikey, nooo! Murdoch Lancer, hisself? Do tell.”

We’d all heard talk of Mr Lancer. Not much, o’course. It was a name scarce allowed to be spoken. Mrs. H. made me swear to never tell a soul or I’d be out on my ear, without a reference.

But she hadn’t seen that look on Mr Lancer’s face, like he knew it was his fate to never set eyes on ‘is boy again. Blimey, was there ever anything so sad? It made me think of my mum, standing on the dock as my ship left Southampton, and me waving my handkerchief but scarce able to see her for the tears in my eyes and streaming down my cheeks. What a woebegone sight I must’ve looked, and that’s a fact.

Anyways, I don’t know what got into me, but a few days later I couldn’t help me self and ‘is name just slipped out. “So, Master Scott, where would your father be living, then?”

The lad screwed up his face. “My father lives in a mud hut on a strip of dirt in Cal-i-for-nia, with the Indians and the bears and the coyotes.” Bless him, the lad could’ve been reciting the words from one of his first schoolbooks.

“I don’t think he lives in a mud hut, Master Scott. Not from what I saw—.” I had to swallow my last words. Well, it weren’t my place to say anything more, back then, so I kept my mouth shut. And kept my job.

Course, Scottie didn’t know what I know; that his dear Dad came calling for him…wanted to take him home. But Mr Garrett, he’s a wily one, all right. He called the lawyers in the very next day, and stayed closeted with them in his study for hours.

“You have no cause for concern, Harlan,” they was saying to him as they walked out. And me, bobbing a curtsy as they went out the door.

‘E’s a strange gentleman, Mr Garrett. Not warm. More like cold as a brick that ain’t been heated, but he was kind to little Scottie, in his own way—which was in between meetings and work and lunches and dinners.

But here we are, three years past, and Master Scott, he’s got around to asking, hasn’t he. I even caught him in the stables with my Jack, asking about California. Not that he’s really my Jack—but maybe one day? But Jack’s been there. He used to be a cowboy. That’s how he got to know all there was about horses and smithing and such.

Course, he also knows a whole lotta words Mr Garret wouldn’t want passed onto young Scott, too, so I don’t let Nanny Perkins know where me and Scott happen to pass the time when she’s on her afternoon off.

Ooh, that might be them now—Nanny Perkins, bringing Scottie home.

I put the curtain back in its place then did a quick check around the nursery to make sure it was tidy. It always made my heart a bit sore to see the rocking horse in the corner, all by itself nowadays. I’d polished the wood ‘till it shined but the young master was getting too big for such toys.

But right now, there was no time for dilly-dallying. I’d just dropped down to my knees and started sweeping the hearth as the nursery door swung open. I jumped up and gave them both a quick bob of my head. “Master Scott. Miss Perkins.”

Mrs. Hollingsworth liked us girls to be respectful but Scottie ran up to me and took my hand like we were best friends. “Hildy, we had a wonderful time at the park. There were clowns and carolers and hot chestnuts and—.”

“Hildy, take the boy’s coat. He’s almost wet through. You’d best get his nightwear out. I’ll just pop up to my room and change my skirt.” She pulled her skirt up above her ankles to show how wet and muddy she was. “And he had an early supper while we were out.”

“Ooh, nanny, you’d best get changed. We don’t want no sniffles at Christmas.” Specially at her age.

Not that Mr Garrett approved too much of Christmas. There was a tree downstairs on the parlour table and I’d helped the young master decorate it with popcorn and ribbons and nuts. We even made some gold stars. But that was about it.

Mrs. H. blamed it on the Puritans when I told her how, back home, we sang carols and ate our Christmas fare; goose and mince pies and Christmas pudding. And how it was a special holiday and nary a soul worked.

We’d go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, then come morning, we’d all get ready for our Christmas feast. Ooh, I miss those times. Mrs. H. said those Puritans didn’t approve of carousing. Well, I’ve got to admit, my dear dad would be more than jovial by the end of the night, with his cheeks all red and singing louder than the rest of us around the old piano, while Lucy played her best in our dear, little cottage. I couldn’t help letting go a sigh. Times like this, our village felt so very far away and how I wouldn’t love a hug from my dear mum.

Scottie was already undoing the buttons on his coat when Nanny went out. “Is something wrong, Hildy? You look awful sad.”

It only took me a moment to slip his arms out of his coat and lead him across to the fire. “Not at all, Master Scott.” I put a smile on my face and did my best to look jolly. No good came of being maudlin, ‘specially not at Christmas and not when, maybe in a year or two, I might have saved enough for Lucy to come out here as well? “Quick, slip your nightshirt on and then I’ll show you what I’ve got for you.”

“For me, Hildy?”

“It be just a little thing, Master Scott. But I saw it and I thought to me self, that’s just the thing Master Scott might like.” I waited for him to finish slipping his nightshirt over his head, then stuck my hand into the big pocket on my apron and pulled it out. “There you go. Merry Christmas to you.”

I stood there, fairly hopping from one foot to the next while he stared down at it. But he didn’t say nothing. Just looked at it. “It’s a photograph, Master Scott. Of a ranch. A ranch in California. I found it in one of your grandfather’s newspapers, so I stuck it to this cardboard, so that it wouldn’t get torn and creased.” Then, on the other side, I’d written, ‘Merry Christmas, from Hildy.’

The lad was looking real puzzled now. “But Hildy, this is a big white house. It’s very grand. It even has a fountain. And a courtyard.”

“Yeah, well, Jack told me this is what they’re like. In California. Where your father lives. Not mud huts at all. Not for ranchers at least. Well, that’s what Jack says, and he’d know, wouldn’t he?”

The blue eyes still looked all muddled. “I suppose he would.”

“That’s right. Jack says that’s how they build them out there. They call them ‘has-ee-in-dies.” I scrunched up my face. I don’t think I got the word right.

“But Hildy, Grandfather said my father lives in a mud hut. That’s why I can’t go to live with him. Grandfather says there’s only a strip of sand and grass and the rest of it is desert. It’s not grassy, like in this picture.”

Blimey, what could I say to the boy when I had my own thoughts about his grandfather? Harlan Garrett could eat vinegar with a fork, he could. And he certainly wouldn’t be above ‘glossing over the salient details’ as Mrs. H. likes to say.

“Well, I knows he says that but maybe you could just sort of pretend this is where your father lives. Besides, there must be grass somewhere for the cows to eat, mustn’t there?”

“I guess so.”

“And you never know, one day your father might come a’calling and ask for you to come home and live with him?”

Scott was a bricky young one, all right. His mouth lifted the tiniest bit. “It is a very big house, isn’t it, Hildy.”

“It is, isn’t it.”

“And if my father has a house as big as this, then it’s possible he might have room for me? I’m only small. I wouldn’t take up a lot of room, would I?”

Aw, bless the lad. “That you wouldn’t, Master Scott. But you’d best keep this a secret between us. You wouldn’t want to see Hildy turned out into the cold, now, would you?”

“Oh no, Hildy.” He looked around the room, then his eyes landed on his answer. “I know the perfect place to put this and keep it safe.” And he opened the drawer beneath his bedside table then brought out a white leather book with gold writing. “This was my mother’s. Grandfather said she carried it on her wedding day.”

Scottie took another look at the photograph, like the dear lad was memorizing all the funny arched windows and the courtyard with the fountain, before slipping it into the bible. “I put it between Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Grandfather will never find it there.”

Well, that was true enough. I doubted he’d ever read the bible in his life let alone know who the heck Ezek-whatsathingy was. And I knew for a fact he’d be worrying himself over his figures on Christmas Day, hidden away in his office like many in this town. “Come, Master Scott. You’d best be getting ready for bed, or you’ll be too sleepy tomorrow when Aunt Charlotte comes to take you to church and after that you’ll be having Christmas with your cousins.” At least someone in the Garrett family was God-fearing and wanted to celebrate the Lord’s day.

Scotty put the bible back in the draw. “I think I’m too excited to sleep, Hildy.”

Just then, Nanny Perkins put her head in the door. “Hildy, would you put Master Scott to bed. I’m feeling quite shivery after a day in the cold.”

“’O course, Miss Perkins.”

She closed the door, and I turned around. I knew Scottie would be grinning from ear to ear. He could be a regular little gigglemug sometimes.  And so he was, as he jumped onto his bed.

“Tell me a story, Hildy. Please.”

“Which one would you like? About the highwaymen, robbing the coaches on the road to London? Or Robin Hood and…”

“Could you tell me a story about the rancher who lives in the big white house?”

Crikey, I hoped he wasn’t going to be a blabbermouth. “Now, you knows that’s our secret, Master Scott.”

“I promise I won’t tell anyone, Hildy. Cross my heart.”

And he looked so earnest, what with him crossing his heart then folding his hands in his lap. “Well, seeing it’s Christmas and all, I suppose I can tell you a story. But you’d best get under the covers.”

I pulled back the fluffy, blue duvet and he climbed in underneath then settled himself against the pillows. “I’m ready.”

I pulled the wooden chair close to the bed. “Once upon a time, there was a very tall young man in Scotland, and he boarded a sailing ship one sunny morn because he wanted to sail half-way around the world. But one dark, stormy night, a big storm blew up and some of the sailors fell overboard and drownded.”

“But what about the tall man?”

“Well, he survived by strapping hisself with a rope to the mast.”

“Ooh. What happened next?”

 “Well, they all thought they was doomed because the sails were torn to shreds and the ship was floating on the seas for days. But then, all of a sudden, someone yelled out, “Land Ahoy,’ and it turned out they’d somehow made their way into Massachusetts Bay.”

“Gosh, that was a lucky coincidence.”

“It was at that, Master Scott. Then when the tall man went a’wandering in Boston, he fell in love with a beautiful fair maiden.”

Scott snuggled down further into his duvet. “What happened next?”

I could see by his face that I had to liven things up a bit. “Well, he took his beautiful wife, and he went to California, where there were Indians and wolves and bears…”

I’d just got to the part about the baby bears trying to steal the very first picnic in the tall man’s new home, when the blue eyes closed and Scottie’s breathing went quiet. I pulled the covers up under his chin and blew out the lamp, then crept to the door.

But it being Christmas Eve and all, and me missing my own dear little brother, Albert, I blew him a kiss.

“Goodnight, Master Scott. And goodnight and Merry Christmas to your dear father, wherever he may be.”



December 2022



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4 thoughts on “A Lancer Christmas Story, 1853 by Suzanne

  1. Hi Carol, thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed this piece. I appreciate it very much! 🙂


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