Popham and Wellington’s Christmas Carol was written as a Christmas gift to my very good friends Jacqueline Reiter and Kristine Hughes Patrone, but I know they’ll be very happy to share it. It’s very silly, but it probably does reflect something of the way I see and write these two characters in fiction. I hope you enjoy it. Grateful thanks to Charles Dickens whose work I have shamelessly used.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you.
Sir Home Popham
It is Christmas, and Captain Sir Home Popham, the well-known genius of navigation, cartography, communications, amphibious operations and driving people up the wall, is settling down in his London lodgings for the night under the supervision of Able Seaman Glossop (aka Gloomy Glossop) his trusty valet.
“Well, well, well, Glossop, Christmas tomorrow, eh? It’s a shame I didn’t make it home to be with my wife and the children, but I had so much to do here. I’m sure she’ll understand. I wrote her a long letter explaining the circumstances.”
“I’m sure you did, sir.”
“Although she’s not replied yet.”
“She’s probably still reading it, sir.”
“Yes, yes. Very probably. And did I tell you I received an invitation to dine with several City gentlemen tomorrow? They are still very grateful about the excellent work I did in South America, and…”
Glossop backs up hastily. “Very good, sir. Goodnight.”
For a long time, nothing can be heard in the room but the sound of Popham snoring. He is in the middle of a very satisfying dream about the Admiralty burning down with most of its occupants and any incriminating paperwork pertaining to himself, when a strange noise awakes him. The room is filled with a peculiar light, and at the foot of the bed, a woman in an old-fashioned gown.
“Who the devil are you, ma’am? And why on earth are you dressed up like that? Have you lost your way home from the Victuallers Fancy Dress Ball?”
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
“I don’t care who you’re meant to be, you’re in the wrong room. Bugger off.”
“I am not in fancy dress, I am the REAL ghost of Christmas Past, and I’m here to see YOU Sir Home Popham. Your activities have displeased the Powers That Be, and you need to mend your ways. You will be visited by three spirits…”
Popham gets out of bed and reaches for his robe) “This is outrageous! I knew I was being persecuted by the Admiralty, but to send a message with fresh accusations on Christmas Eve, and via a female who has clearly strayed from a Masquerade Ball is too much! I shall write a letter of complaint in the morning, worded in the strongest terms, and if this is about the business in the Red Sea again, I have irrefutable proof that I wasn’t even there!”
“The Admiralty? What on earth has this to do with the Admiralty?”
“Well you said the Powers That Be, and I hardly think you’re here from His Majesty, you wouldn’t get past the gates dressed like that. They’ve no standards at the Admiralty, so…”
“Oh for God’s sake, will you stop talking, this is going to take all night and we’ve two more ghosts to get through yet! Look, I’ll break it down for you, Dumbhead. I’m a ghost. We’re going on a trip to show you what you’ve been doing wrong in the past. Hopefully, you’ll repent. Got it?”
“Dumbhead? Did you just call me Dumbhead? Well, I must say…wait, where are we going?????”
After a blur and a flash of light, Popham opens his eyes and looks around him. After a moment, his expression brightens.
“Ahhh, the good old Etrusco. I’d know her anywhere. What a fine ship.”
“I’m glad you recognise her, Sir Home.”
“Of course I do. But what on earth are we doing here? I thought this was about things I’d done wrong.”
“Sir Home, you seem to have forgotten a few things. During your time with the Etrusco, you were accused of carrying contraband and infringing the East India Company’s monopoly. Both were illegal. People suffered because of you. People got into trouble. People lost money…”
“What do you mean, ahem?”
“I was trying to attract your attention.”
“You’re supposed to be repenting.”
“Well of course, I’d like to oblige. But in this case, you’ve been misinformed. As it happens, I wasn’t even aboard the Etrusco…”
“Yes, you were. The Powers That Be can see all…”
“Well before they make a final decision, The Powers That Be need to read this.”
“What is it – a book?”
“No. Although I did pay to have it professionally published. It is a memorandum, explaining very briefly, over two hundred concise pages, why all the accusations against me with regard to the Etrusco were complete and utter nonsense.”
The ghost looks confused. “Nonsense?”
“Absolute balderdash. That document proves it.”
“I see. Well I’ll have to take this back…”
“Do so immediately.”
“Aha! You’re trying to get rid of me! I see through you, Sir Home Riggs Popham!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re the ghost, not me. What next?”
“Right. Hold on to your hat. We are going to…..”
“Ahhhh – Buenos Aires. Now those were the days!”
“So you admit it. Those were the days when you took off from Cape Town to effect an entirely illegal and unauthorised invasion of South America which completely failed.”
“I was exonerated.”
“No you weren’t. You were court martialled, found guilty and…”
“And then what?”
“You were censured.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Well…they said you’d been bad.”
“Oh boo, hoo hoo. As if that meant anything. Being censured is the same as being given a slap on the back and told to hide the bodies better next time. I did nothing wrong. Do you seriously think I’d be daft enough to do something like that without a nod or a wink from a Man who Knows?”
“It’s clear you’re not a politician, my good woman. Anyway, just in case you’re in any doubt, read this.”
“What is this?”
“A three hundred-and-eighty-six page document which I had privately published, proving that I did nothing wrong in South America. The Powers That Be need to read it. It’s riveting. Now, is there anything else?”
“Well…errr…there was some dodgy stuff at Walcheren.”
“Take this. A hundred and eighty pages.”
“Well what about when you were in Russia, then?”
“Two-hundred and twenty pages. With personal recommendations and footnotes. Do you need any help carrying those?”
“No. I should be getting back, since it’s clear that the Powers That Be will need a bit of time to study all this.”
Popham waves his hand airily. “Oh, tell them to take all the time they need, ma’am. No hurry. Now you said something about some other ghosts?”
“Yes. Shortly, you will be visited by the ghost of Christmas present.”
“Right. Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll get some sleep while I’m waiting. Busy day tomorrow, you know.”
Back in his bed, Popham is dreaming about Lord St Vincent being disgraced over an embarrassing incident with a chamber maid when he is once again rudely awoken. This time, an enormous man in a green cloak, with an impressive beard and a holly wreath on his head is standing at the foot of the bed.
“Sir Home Riggs Popham, I am the ghost of Christmas present, and I have come to show you…”
“Dear Lord, it’s difficult to get any sleep at all. I feel like the Earl of Chatham when his valet mistook the time and brought him breakfast at ten minutes to noon. Well, what is it this time?”
“I have come to show you the effects of your actions in the present day.”
“Get on with it then. Where first?”
There is a flash of light and Popham finds himself in an elegant drawing room. There is a reception in progress and the room is ablaze with candles, and filled with elegant people. A middle aged couple stand at the end of the room greeting their guests. She looks drawn and a little tired, but is very well dressed, and is talking to two officers in red coats. He is engaged in an enthusiastic conversation about hunting.
“Do you recognise this man, Sir Home?”
“Of course I do. It’s the Earl of Chatham. And that’s his wife. She’s been very ill, but I’d heard she was a little better. Where is this?”
“They are at home, entertaining some family and friends for the Christmas season, Sir Home. Of course had you not deliberately lied at the Walcheren inquiry, wrecking both his military and political career, he might have been serving his country overseas.”
“Two things. Firstly, take this. It is a three hundred page document demonstrating without any shadow of a doubt, that I was wholly innocent of any wrongdoing at Walcheren. I was merely the Captain of the Venerable. Hardly involved at all. Secondly, look at them. Don’t they look happy? She’s been ill for years. Now she’s having a brief spell of better health. If he was overseas, he’d be missing it, and it might cause her to deteriorate again. Even if I was involved in the destruction of his career, which of course I wasn’t, wouldn’t you say this is good for them in a way?”
“Errr….I don’t know. Three hundred pages, you say?”
“Give or take. Right, what’s next?”
“Very well. Do you recognise this man?”
“Of course I do. It’s Lord Melville. Now, I’m glad to see him, because I wanted to speak to him about…”
“Lord Melville no longer holds office, Sir Home. But when he did, you persecuted him.”
“I did not. Lord Melville and I were on the best of terms. I wrote him many letters…”
“Do you see the boxes before him. Those are your letters, Sir Home. Dozens and dozens of them. Even after he left office, you did not cease.”
Popham looks happy. “Well. I am glad to see he’s kept them all, I must say. Right, who else?”
“We could visit your wife, who is alone without you this Christmas.”
“Oh, nonsense, she has the children, she’s perfectly happy.”
“That’s true actually, I checked on her earlier.”
“You see? Who can you find, in this present day, who has actually been harmed by me. I mean, seriously harmed.”
“Pooh. They need to toughen up, man, they’re only letters. Right, if that’s it, I’m going back to bed. I’m going to be shattered tomorrow.”
Popham was deep in dreamless sleep when the third and final ghost appeared, a faceless figure in a dark cloak which actually managed to make him jump when he awoke to find it standing at the end of his bed.
“Good God, you might have knocked. For a moment, I thought that Gloomy Glossop had been off on one of his drinking spells and was waking me up to cry about the girl he left in Middelburg. I’m guessing you’re ghost number three, then? The ghost of Christmas future?”
The ghost nods without speaking. This is supposed to be terrifying, but for Popham, it is a gift.
“Not much of a talker, eh? Never mind. Right, where are we off to now? I must say, I’m excited. I’ve been wanting to know what happens next in my fabulous career. Obviously, I’m off to Spain shortly, where I’m sure I’ll be invaluable to Lord Wellington and to the Spanish guerrillas. After that, I imagine they will finally see sense and offer me a position at the Admiralty. If it hadn’t been for St Vincent constantly blocking me, I’d have been there years ago. Now in case you need any information about the constant persecution I’ve endured from that man and his acolytes at the Admiralty, I’ve a four hundred-and-twenty-one page document here giving full details. Please take it. Right, good man. What’s next?”
In a swirl of light, Popham is transported to a quayside. A hot sun beats down on him, and up on the hillside, there is a sombre little procession. Popham observes it for some minutes.
“A funeral, eh? Well, where is this place? Nothing to do with my life so far. Is this a future posting? Hold on, I’ll find out. I say, my good man, let me see that notice you’re holding if you please? A sale to be held in…oh. Oh, I see. Jamaica.” Popham looks at the ghost. “So I’m at the Jamaica Station. Commander in Chief? Yes. Good. Well that’s an honour, of course. But still – an unhealthy place, the Indies.”
There is a long period of quiet, as Popham follows the funeral procession up to the graveyard. The ghost waits in silence. After a while, Popham returns.
“There is another grave up there, Ghost.”
The ghost nods.
“My son and my daughter. Both died out here.”
The ghost nods again.
“That’s hard. That’s very hard. I love my children very much. My wife…I saw my wife up there. It broke her heart.”
The ghost nods again.
“And what about me? Do I also succumb to the unhealthy climate of this place? Do I make it home again?”
There is another flash of light, and Popham finds himself in a small churchyard, in front of a monument. Popham looks around.
“The church of St Michael and All Angels. Is this where I’m buried? And this is my grave. My monument.”
There is a long pause.
“It’s very big. I mean, pleasingly big. I must say I’d hoped to live longer than 57 years, I suppose it was that dreadful last posting. I wonder who at the Admiralty suggested that for me? I have my suspicions, they were always out to get me. All the same, I’m pleased to see that I’ve been remembered. Several of my finest portraits scattered about, and I discover that on Twitter, there is an entire community dedicated to talking about me. There is a fine biography by a family member, and another being written by a young woman whom I am personally supervising. Plenty of people will be able to read about me, me, me, me. On the whole, despite my early death, I am not displeased, Spirit.
“Now, have you finished? I have an important dinner engagement tomorrow, and a large number of letters to write. For all you tell me what my future is to be, I say it is nonsense. I have friends in high places, they would not allow me to be sent off to some ghastly posting in the Indies, they could not possibly manage without me. Why don’t you pop off now, and visit somebody else? There must be somebody needing some spiritual guidance. What about Lord St Vincent? He’s probably a little bored these days…”
The following morning, Popham awakes as Gloomy Glossop brings his tea into the room. He puts it down and retreats fast, but doesn’t make it out of the door in time.
“Good morning, Glossop, and what a fine one it is by the look of it. A very Merry Christmas to you, although by your expression, I should say that isn’t very likely. Tell me, did anything odd happen during the night?”
“Like what, sir?”
“No disturbances in the house. Nobody tried to break in?”
“Not that I’m aware of, sir. You were talking in your sleep when I passed earlier, but there’s nothing unusual in that, you generally talk all night.”
“And all morning.”
“And all afternoon and evening. But nothing unusual.”
“Just as I thought. The whole thing was nothing but a foolish nightmare, and I shall knock off the cheese board at dinner and think no more of it. Now before I go out, I must write to Lord Melville.”
“Yes, sir. Er – why?”
“Well, it’s Christmas Day, Glossop, it will cheer him up to get a letter from his old friend. It may have been a dream, but it made me realise how much he must value all those letters I sent him over the years. That will be all, Glossop.”
The Duke of Wellington
It is Christmas, 1835 and the Duke of Wellington is sleeping peacefully at his London home, when he is awoken by a strange sound. A woman in old-fashioned dress is standing at the foot of his bed.
“Who the devil are you? Did I send for you, Madam?”
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past, your Grace.”
“Utter nonsense. I don’t believe in ghosts. What are you doing here?”
“I am here to take you to scenes of your past life, to teach you things you need to learn.”
“Can you not just send a memorandum? I am in need of sleep, I am dining with my brother’s family tomorrow, which is always exhausting.”
“The Powers That Be do not send memoranda, your Grace.”
“Poppycock, they send them all the time, most of them complete drivel, not worth my time. Very well, if you insist, I shall accompany you. But do not be all night about it, if you please, I am a busy man.”
There is a flash of light, and Wellington finds himself in a brilliantly lit ballroom, watching a dance in progress. A young couple are dancing in the middle of the set, laughing and whispering every time they come together. Wellington watches them for a while.
“Do you know where you are, your Grace?”
“Of course I do. Dublin. Kitty Pakenham. I had forgotten how pretty she was when I first met her.”
“You did not always think her pretty.”
“She did not always think me kind, and we were both right. Although at the end, I found that I felt very close to her again. She was the mother of my sons, and I realise now that has more meaning than any fleeting encounter. And she was a good woman.”
“You remember her fondly then.”
“Naturally. Just as I remember all the times I was not kind to her. Is that what this is intended to teach me? If it is, you are wasting your time. I was a poor husband, ma’am. What next?”
In another swirl of light, Wellington is transported to a sunny room overlooking a harbour. Several men are seated around a long table, talking, looking over a document.
“Do you recognise this, your Grace?”
“You seem to think I have succumbed to senility, ma’am. It is the palace at Cintra. Dalrymple and Burrard. And myself, of course. We were discussing the peace terms with the French.”
“The Convention of Cintra. A shameful peace. Which you signed.”
“I was exonerated by the inquiry.”
“I wonder what might have happened if you had not agreed to such generous terms. Would the rest of that long, bloody war even have occurred?”
“Are you perfectly well, ma’am? Do you know, I have been thinking that this was a dream, brought on by some very bad port at the Arbuthnots yesterday, but I see that I was wrong. Even my worst dreams have never been this nonsensical. In the first place, as I was junior to both these men, my agreement was irrelevant. In the second place, how would harsher terms have prevented Bonaparte running rampant through Europe for the next six years? All it might have done would have been to deprive him of some equipment and some men. He would have found more. He always found more, until the end. Nothing I did that day could have prevented that war, and if I was economical with the truth afterwards, what of it? If I had not been given command, we may have ended up with the Earl of Chatham in command in Portugal, and that would have been a very different outcome. Really, if this is intended to make me regret aspects of my younger life, you are doing a very poor job of it. Is there more?”
“One more visit, your Grace.”
Wellington finds himself outside Parliament in London. Members are making their way inside while a noisy crowd of protestors chants and yells insults at them.
“Do you know…?”
“The Reform Act. A poor piece of legislation, in my opinion. But it passed.”
“Against your fervent wishes.”
“I have never denied it.”
“Your stubbornness brought down your premiership.”
“An office to which I was patently unsuited. What lesson, pray, am I expected to learn from this? That a man should sit quietly in a corner and say nothing controversial?”
“Perhaps that a man should pay more attention to the opinions of those he commands?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, one cannot do that in command of an army, nothing would ever get done!”
“Parliament is not an army, and you were not its general, your Grace.”
“What a pity that was, since it would get through a great deal more business with a great deal less fuss. I have had enough of this nonsense and intend to return to my bed.”
“You will be visited by…”
“Pray tell them not to bother. I will tell my housekeeper not to admit them.”
When the ghost of Christmas present arrives an hour later, he is somewhat baffled to find that the Duke is not in his bed. Wandering through the house, he finds him in his study, writing letters by lamplight.
“Ah, there you are. I was beginning to think you had decided not to bother, but I suppose you had committed your forces and could hardly draw back now.”
“You should be asleep, your Grace.”
“So that you could wake me up? As I was awake already, I decided to make use of the time. I hope you have this properly planned, for I can give you no more than half an hour, I wish to finish this letter regarding the next stage of draining the moat at the Tower of London, before…good God, man, what are you wearing? You look like Harry Smith in the Light Division Amateur Theatrical performance back in 1812, and that is a sight I hoped never to see again. Never mind, let us go.”
The scene is a country park. Half a dozen children are playing under the supervision of a governess. Wellington watches them for a while.
“Do they remind you of your own children, your Grace?”
“You know perfectly well that I hardly knew my own children, ma’am, I was never there. These are some of my godchildren. I am very attached to them. Is it your point that I am a poor father as well as a husband? I do not deny that either. Where next?”
“You seem in a great hurry, your Grace.”
“I wish to get this piece of nonsense over with, so that I may return to my desk. I have a great deal to do. So, where next?”
“I was intending to take you to Spain, your Grace, where the country is…”
“The country is engaged in a civil war, which may be seen to negate my achievements during the late war. I am aware of it, no need to travel there. Next?”
“To France, where…”
“Where the Bourbon restoration proved less than satisfactory. I have no wish to go there either. Am I also to be held account for that?”
“Your Grace, I am trying to show you that…”
“All you are showing me is that no one man can be held responsible for the fortunes of the world. He might well, however, be held responsible for the fortunes of his own family. I have done the best I can with both and have had both successes and failures. These journeys are unnecessary and a waste of my time. I intend to return to my desk.”
One hour later, Wellington is still working when a shadow falls over his desk. He looks up to see the cloaked, hooded figure of the ghost of Christmas yet to come.
“You are late. I expected you fifteen minutes ago.”
The figure nods slowly.
“Well, it makes no difference, I suppose. As I told your predecessor, I can spare you only half an hour, so if you have a point to make, make it quickly.”
There is the usual flash of light, and Wellington finds himself in an elegant salon, crowded with people. A very young woman in a white gown stands at the far end, with a gentleman bowing to her.
“Good God, that is me. And not so very far in the future, by the look of it. And is that…it’s little Alexandrina Victoria. So we avoided a regency, did we? Thank God for that.”
Wellington pauses, then looks at the ghost in some alarm. “Wait – I’m not Prime Minister again, am I? No? What a relief, I hated the job. I hope I live for a while longer though. She’s very young, she’ll need an advisor. Very well, let’s move on.”
The next room is very familiar to Wellington. A much older version of himself sits at the head of the table, talking to a group of children.
“The breakfast room at Stratfield Saye. And more children. I don’t recognise…wait. Are these my grandchildren?”
Wellington watches for a while longer. “They seem very happy to be here. Very talkative. Very…very much as I always wished it had been with my own boys. Almost like a second chance. Spirit – this is a good future. I was rather expecting something gloomier. Have you more to show me?”
The scene is in London, and it is clear that a great event is taking place. The streets are crowded with people, and some kind of procession is going past. Wellington finds himself on a balcony overlooking what is obviously a state funeral.
“What in God’s name is this? Oh, don’t tell me the queen died before I did? What was it? Childbirth? An illness? Or…oh, wait…”
The procession moves slowly on. Wellington recognises soldiers from regiments who fought under him, including the green jackets of the rifles. The family are directly behind the impressive funeral carriage, and suddenly, Wellington realises who they are.
“A state funeral? Surely not. Whoever thought that this was a good idea? If they had asked me, I would have told them…I suppose they could not ask me, could they? Damn it, what an infernal waste of time and money.”
The final scene is in a crypt, a dim, quiet room with guardsmen on duty beside an enormous granite tomb. Wellington walks forward and touches the lettering.
“Arthur, Duke of Wellington. What year is it? No – you can’t tell me of course, and I don’t want to know. I saw myself with the children…I looked older there. A long life, then. And this tomb. I loathed all that pomp and ceremony, but this…this feels right. Thank you for bringing me, Spirit. I’ve no idea if this was intended as a lesson, a warning or whether you really are the product of Charles Arbuthnot’s damned bad port. But I’m glad to have seen this.”
The following morning, Wellington is still at his desk when a visitor is announced. Wellington rises to greet him.
“Good morning, General van Daan.”
“Morning, sir, and Merry Christmas. I can see you’re throwing yourself into the Christmas spirit as usual. I want a word with young Fraser, I gave him explicit instructions to lock this room for Christmas Day to keep you away from your desk.”
“I know where he hides the key.”
“He needs to hide the ink, then. Are you all right, sir, you look tired?”
“I did not sleep well. I had a ridiculous dream. Really, there must have been something wrong with Charles’ port yesterday.”
“It didn’t affect me, I slept like a baby. What was it about?”
“Ghosts, escorting me on a journey through my life. Past present and future.”
“Where precisely did this journey end?”
“Where you would expect, General. At my tomb.”
“Jesus, no wonder you’re tired. I hope it was a very handsome tomb, sir.”
“It was very appropriate. An utterly ridiculous dream. But I feel oddly comforted.”
“Comforted enough to enjoy dinner with your brother?”
“Good God, are you mad? I would rather undertake a Grand Tour with imaginary spirits than spend an afternoon at Richard’s table. But I am fond of his wife, so I will do my best. I will escape as quickly as possible, so expect me early.”
“We’re looking forward to it, sir. Happy Christmas.”
London, Christmas 1842, Three Spirits Meet…
“So are you ready for tonight? I’m told it’s a tough one. Old Ebenezer Scrooge is the meanest old goat in London.”
“That’s all right. I sent his old partner, Marley, to soften him up a bit. You remember Marley?”
“Any friend of Marley is going to be hard work.”
“Not the worst though.”
“No. Oh no. Which do you think?”
“Wellington. Definitely Wellington. The man had an answer for everything.”
“Rubbish. Do you remember how much Popham talked? And talked and talked and talked…”
“He was convinced Lord St Vincent had sent us. Kept going on and on about being persecuted.”
“And those publications. Pages and pages and pages of drivel about how hard done by he was. The Powers That Be nearly cried.”
“I nearly cried carrying them back. Yes, Popham was definitely the worst. What was that, number three?”
A sepulchral voice emerges from under the dark hood.
“Wellington was by far the most difficult. Do you not remember, number two, that he did not even complete your part of the journey? He informed you that he wanted to go home, and you took him. I do not believe that has ever happened before.”
“No. Well. He just gave the order, and I found myself obeying it. Couldn’t seem to help it.”
“I imagine he had plenty of practice. And of course he is still with us. Enjoying his retirement and spoiling his god-children and his grandchildren. Just as we said.”
“And Popham? I never really felt anything we said made any difference to him.”
“No. That was as we predicted too. But we had to try. And now it is Scrooge’s turn. Somehow, I don’t think he’ll give us as much trouble. Are you ready, number one?”
As the cold winter sun sets over the roofs of London, three spirits move silently through the darkening streets towards the house of Mr Ebenezer Scrooge…