The Frost Fair

Frost Fair of 1814 by Luke Clenell (from Wikimedia Commons)

Welcome to the Frost Fair, my Christmas story for 2020. This year, it is published as part of the Historical Writers Forum Christmas Blog Hop. Our theme is the Jolabokaflod, the lovely Icelandic custom of giving books as gifts, to be read on Christmas Eve.

As always, the story is free, so please share as much as you like. In addition, I’m offering free copies of the following books on kindle for the whole of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. 

An Unconventional Officer: Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

An Unwilling Alliance: Book 1 of the Manxman Series

A Regrettable Reputation: Book 1 of the Regency Romances

I found researching Frost Fairs absolutely fascinating. I have a childhood memory of doing a jigsaw puzzle of one of the Frost Fairs with my Mum. As a child who knew the River Thames very well, I was enchanted by the idea of a fair on ice, overlooked by the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral and wished they happened in modern times.

The earliest Frost Fairs were probably in the late 7th Century and the last one was in 1814. They were most common between the early 17th and early 19th centuries during the Little Ice Age, when the river froze over most frequently. During that time the British winter was more severe than it is now, and the river was wider and slower, further impeded by the 19 piers of the medieval Old London Bridge. Even then, Frost Fairs were rare, though they were recorded in 1608, 1683-4, 1716, 1739–40, 1789, and 1814.

The reality of the Little Ice Age was brutal. Prolonged cold, dry periods brought about poor crop growth, poor livestock survival, disease and unemployment. Reading about the conditions which made the London Frost Fairs possible, it makes sense to me that a city savaged by cold would seize any opportunity for an impromptu celebration, even one as potentially dangerous as holding a fair on a frozen river where the ice might crack at any moment.

There was no Frost Fair in 1813, but I have invented one for the sake of my story. Most of the events, including the walking of an elephant across the ice, are taken from descriptions of the 1814 Frost Fair. I wanted to follow up Captain James Harker after the traumatic events depicted in the Quartermaster, and his transfer into the 110th alongside his obstreperous Scottish sidekick happens just in time for them to join the regiment on the march to Vitoria in Book 7.

2020 has been utterly appalling for so many people around the world. Covid is not about to vanish overnight, but there’s some hope now, for an eventual return to normality. We’ve been so lucky on the Isle of Man, with one lockdown, and then pretty much normal life, apart from the borders being closed, but that becomes hard when friends and loved ones are in the UK and can’t visit, or perhaps need help.

My readers have helped me stay sane. You are all absolutely amazing people. You message me and chat to me and talk about my characters as though they are your friends. I love that, because they are my friends too. I write because I love it, and I can’t stop, but these days, I write every book for all of you. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. You are the reason I do this, each and every one of you.

***

The Frost Fair: a story of Christmas 1812

By the time the mail coach rattled over the cobblestones into the coaching inn in Southwark, Captain James Harker was so cold that he could not feel his feet. The first part of the journey from Portsmouth had been miserably damp, but long before the coach reached the outskirts of London, rain had turned to snow. It was not yet settling on the wet roads, but James thought that a dry night and a good frost might make further travel impossible and he was grateful that his journey ended here.

It was late and already full dark when James climbed stiffly from the coach and watched as the boy unloaded his small trunk and battered kit bag, with a swift glance at James’s plain dark cloak. James could see that he was being weighed up for a tip, and he smiled inwardly, thinking that the boy could hardly have chosen a worse target for fleecing. Years of living on an officer’s pay had given James the ability to spot a sharper within three minutes. He supervised the carrying of his bags into the inn, handed the boy a coin, amused at his chagrin, then sent him about his business when the youth began a heart-rending story about his widowed mother.

A London coaching inn was not the best place for a restful night’s sleep, but James was accustomed to far worse conditions. At this season there were few travellers which gave him the luxury of a room to himself, and he slept well. He awoke early to find, as he had suspected, that the world was white. A heavy frost and a light swirling fall of snow covered London’s grime for a short time with a magical sparkle.

James went to breakfast in the coffee room, and ate ham and eggs while listening to the voices around him, enjoying the cockney accents of the waiters and porters and the more refined accents of lawyers and businessmen. He had served in Portugal and Spain for more than four years, and even before that his visits to his home city were sporadic between the wanderings of army life. After the upheavals of the past year, it felt good to be back in London.

His breakfast done, James paid his shot, made enquiries and was introduced to a porter, a sturdy fellow with shaggy hair in need of a good wash. There was no need for protracted haggling here. The man accepted James’s offer with such alacrity that James wondered for a moment if he was indeed being set up for a robbery, but he studied Smith’s lined face and decided that the man was simply in need of the money. He was strong enough to make light of James’s trunk, hoisting it easily onto his shoulder. He would have taken the pack as well, but James shook his head and slung it over his own shoulder.

It was no more than a fifteen minute walk across London Bridge to Eastcheap. James walked at a leisurely pace, to allow Smith to keep up, and enjoyed the bustling city streets. Men walked quickly, heads down against the snow, scarves pulled up over their faces for warmth. Women clutched cloaks and shawls close around them and scuttled towards home and fires. Others, less prosperous, shivered in threadbare garments and James flinched at the sight of barefooted children trying to creep closer to the warmth of a chestnut seller’s brazier. He had seen poverty in the towns and villages of Portugal and Spain these past years but the icy cobbles seemed to add an extra dimension to the misery of the poor. He stopped on impulse and bought a bag of chestnuts, then handed them to the three children and watched them burning their fingers to eat them quickly.

An icy wind lifted the edge of James’s cloak as he crossed the bridge. He paused for a moment to look down towards the imposing bulk of the Tower of London, and felt once again the sense of coming home. As a boy he had run from his home above his father’s small legal practice to join his friends mud-larking along the banks of the Thames. Later, his pockets full of small treasures, he would return to his mother’s home-baked bread and crumbling meat pies. Now that he was so close, James felt an odd knot of nerves in his stomach. Four years was a long time to be away, and so much had happened during that time, that he felt like a different man. James wondered how he would seem to his father.

The house was exactly as he remembered it, tall and stately, built from dark red bricks with mullioned windows and a creaking sign stating the nature of the business within. James pushed open the green painted door and was immediately assailed by a faint but familiar smell of paper and ink and dusty books. The room was lined with shelves and two desks were occupied by clerks, one a middle-aged man with a scholarly stoop, the other a young man whom James had never seen before. Both looked up as James motioned to Smith to set down the trunk and lowered his pack on top of it. He reached for his purse and paid, tipping generously. As the door closed, he turned to find the older man coming towards him.

“Captain Harker. Welcome home, sir. It’s very good to see you.”

“You too, Ellis. You’re looking very well. Is my father in?”

“Yes, sir. He’ll be surprised to see you this early.”

“The coach got in late and the weather was foul, so I stayed at the George.”

“Go on up, Captain, I’ll ring for the boy to take up your luggage.”

James found his father in his first floor sitting room which doubled as his study. Frederick Harker was a slight, spare man, wrapped in a quilted dressing gown against the cold, with a velvet cap tucked neatly over his bald head. James thought, as they shook hands, that his father looked more frail than he had five years ago when James had come home on leave to attend his mother’s funeral.

“Well, well, how are you, my boy? Still limping, I see.”

“It’s improved a lot,” James said, taking the proffered seat at the small table and accepting coffee from a middle aged maid with a smile of thanks.

“Will it go?”

“I don’t know, sir. I thought not, for a while, but it becomes easier all the time, so I hope that one day I’ll walk normally again.”

“I don’t suppose it matters as much in the work you do now,” Harker said mildly.

James was never sure whether his father’s barbed remarks were intentional or not. Harker’s complete absorption in his work had left little time for his wife or son, and James had been raised by his affectionate, practical mother. He was not close to his father, who had not approved of his choice of the army over a legal career. Harker had reluctantly financed his first commissions, but once James had obtained his captaincy, he had made it clear that there was no money for any further promotions.

The bedroom on the third floor was as dark and chilly as James remembered it. He unpacked, stowing his possessions with a soldier’s habitual neatness. In Ciudad Rodrigo, he employed a skinny Portuguese boy to act as groom, valet and general servant, but he had not considered bringing Tomas to England.

With his possessions arranged, James left the house and set out on foot towards the river. His father, having made all the correct enquiries about his son’s health and the abysmal state of his career, had gone to dress for an appointment in court. James knew his father would be wholly occupied until dinner and was glad of it. He had an errand which he had no wish to discuss with his austere, distant parent.

James found a hackney cab two streets away. He could have sent a servant to summon one, but knowing how his father’s servants were inclined to gossip, he preferred not to make them a present of his destination. He was dreading this meeting, but was determined to see it through. Before leaving Spain, he had confided his intention to his junior officer and had received a vulgar hoot of derision from the newly promoted Lieutenant Andrew Dodd.

“You’d think after everything that’s happened this past year, sir, you’d give yourself a day off. Is there a reason you’re putting yourself through this, or is it just that life is too peaceful?”

“Life is going to get a lot more peaceful once you’re off on campaign, you disrespectful Scottish bastard,” James said. “It’s none of your damned business.”

“I know it’s not. But sir…what are you wanting to say to the girl? And what makes you think she’ll even see you?”

“She probably won’t. And I’ve no idea. Sandy, I know it sounds mad to you. But after what happened recently…” James broke off, searching for a way to explain. “I feel different,” he said finally. “About everything. After Barbara left me, I was lost for a long time. Nothing made sense to me – killing Cunningham in that duel, almost getting myself killed at Ciudad Rodrigo, and those endless months working as a bloody storekeeper…”

“And meeting me, of course, sir.”

James grinned unwillingly. “You’re one of the few things that does make some sense, Mr Dodd, which is more worrying than anything else. I know you think I’m mad. But I’ve come out of this with the sense that the worst is over. I’ve felt guilty for long enough, and I’ve done my penance. When I get back, I’ll train up whichever God-awful junior they send me when you’ve gone, and then I’ll start applying for transfers and see if I can get back into combat. With my reputation it might take awhile, but…”

“I’ll ask around, sir.”

James thought about Dodd as the cab rattled through the streets. Two years ago he would have been insulted by the idea that his former ensign and junior quartermaster, a sharp-tongued borderer raised from the ranks, might be in a position to put in a good word for him. Dodd’s status had changed since his very recent marriage to a young Spanish widow from Ciudad Rodrigo. James, who had acted as groomsman before boarding the transport to England, knew that Sofia’s wealth had nothing to do with Dodd’s decision to marry her. Nevertheless, it placed Dodd in a position to purchase promotion into a light infantry regiment, while James remained tied to the district stores in Ciudad Rodrigo after the scandal of his fatal duel with a cavalry major. Socially, their positions were neatly reversed, and James knew that it was an indication of how much he had come to value Dodd’s friendship that he did not mind nearly as much as he ought to.

The house was newly built, a neat terrace in a recently developed West London district, with a long narrow front garden. James hesitated for a long time outside the door, then took hold of his courage with both hands and rang the bell. It was answered by a maidservant who bobbed a curtsey, gave James’ uniform a long sweeping look, and agreed to take up his card. James waited for ten minutes, unsure of what answer he hoped for. The maid returned with the information that Miss Harrington would see him in her dressing room and James took a deep breath and trod up the stairs.

Barbara’s dressing room was an elegant apartment, decorated with pale blue stripes and tastefully furnished. It was also one of the untidiest rooms James had ever been in. Every available surface was littered with perfume bottles, cosmetics,  brushes, combs and hairpins. A stand bore a stylish powdered wig, combing jackets, scarves and shawls cluttered every chair. The remains of the lady’s breakfast rested on a small table before a roaring fire. In one corner of the room was a painted dressing screen, and a door on the far side was ajar, giving a glimpse of Barbara’s bedroom.

“Captain Harker, what a very great surprise.”

James took her outstretched hand and bowed over it, observing her polished nails and the presence of an impressive sapphire which he did not think was a wedding ring. Barbara was wearing a loose morning robe in pale blue silk which set off her fair hair and blue eyes, and matched the wallpaper so exactly that James refused to believe it was a coincidence.

“Miss Harrington, thank you for seeing me.”

“Well, I would not have seen anybody else at this hour, I am barely out of my bed. I was playing faro until the early hours and before that, I was at the theatre with…well anyway, you are very welcome, I’m sure. Pray, sit down, sir, and have some wine.”

James did so, studying her. Barbara was as pretty as he remembered, but she looked very different from the girl he had fallen in love with two years ago in Lisbon. He could see her studying him and wondered if she was thinking the same about him.

“What brings you to London, Captain Harker?”

“Furlough. I’ve not taken leave for years, and with the army in winter quarters, it seemed the right time to visit my father.”

“Nothing to do in the stores?”

James had wondered if she had known of his spectacular fall from grace after her departure, but her manner suggested she knew a great deal.

“I’ve good deputies,” he said neutrally. “How are you, Miss Harrington?”

“As you see.” Barbara spread her hands, indicating the cluttered luxury around her. “We have become very formal, James. There was a time that you called me Barbara.”

James gave a little smile. “Barbara. I’m glad to find you in such comfortable circumstances.”

“Were you perhaps expecting to find me in rags in a garret room?”

There was bitterness in her tone. James shook his head. “Not once I managed to obtain your address, I know the area.”

Barbara smiled. “Very perceptive of you, James. I am astonished to see you here. Why did you come?”

“You sound very worried. Please don’t be, Barbara, I haven’t come to renew my offer of marriage. Which is just as well, because I couldn’t possibly afford all this.”

The girl gave a peal of delighted laughter and clapped her hands together. “Oh, I had forgotten how much you make me laugh. I’m glad to hear it, I was dreading your disappointment.”

“Why did you agree to see me then?”

“I am not sure. At least…I think I wanted to apologise to you. I behaved very badly, and it seemed, from the gossip I heard, that it has had very grave consequences for your career. I am truly sorry, James.”

James was unexpectedly touched. “Don’t be,” he said. “You were under no obligation to fall in love with me, Barbara, and for the rest of it, you were not there and it was my own doing.”

“Will you tell me what happened to you?”

James sipped the wine. It was rather too sweet for his taste, but he needed the courage. “I made a damned fool of myself,” he said bluntly. “I heard you’d been sent home, and why. I found myself in company with Major Cunningham at a reception, and we had words. I challenged him, and I killed him.”

“Dear God,” Barbara breathed softly. “James, why, for God’s sake? I’d rejected your suit, after weeks of leading you on. You owed me nothing.”

“I was jealous,” James said. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but I’ve had a lot of time to think recently. I loathed him, but mostly it was sheer jealous rage.”

“And did they not bring you to trial?”

“They intended to do so, but there was no time, we were marching on Ciudad Rodrigo. My commanding officer offered me the opportunity to lead one of the Forlorn Hopes over the breach. I survived.”

“You were badly wounded and you almost died.”

Despite himself, James felt a lift of happiness. “You asked about me?”

“I heard the news of the duel. I move in very high military circles. Since I felt responsible, I made it my business to find out. I was very relieved that you lived, even though it meant that you were sent into exile in the quartermaster’s department. I am sorry, James.”

“Don’t be.”

“Please, let me say it.” Barbara got up and walked to the long window which overlooked the leafy avenue. “I was unkind to you. I liked you so much, James, and there was a time when I genuinely thought that I might be happy married to you. But I deceived myself as well as you. I was never going to be happy in genteel poverty.”

“It’s not as bad as that, Barbara.”

She laughed. “No. But when Jack Cunningham began to show an interest, I knew how wealthy he was. It seemed like a way out.”

“He was a bastard.”

“Yes, he was. But let us be very clear, James – I allowed him to seduce me. Naively, I thought it might make him declare himself.” Barbara studied him. “Have I shocked you?”

James thought about it, then shook his head. “I’ve had a long time to work it out. I have a question, but I’m not sure…”

“The child died. A little girl, she lived only a few weeks.”

“I’m sorry, Barbara.”

“I don’t really remember much about it, I was very ill, they thought I would die too. Afterwards, there I was. Marooned in the wilds of Norfolk, with an elderly companion and a ruined reputation. I wished for a time that I’d died with the baby. Then I met Algy.”

“Algy?”

“The Honourable Algernon Fothergill, eldest son of a minor but exceedingly wealthy coal baron. He was visiting friends in the area, and through a great deal of gossiping with the maids, I managed to run into him on a sunny afternoon in a woodland glade.”

James sought for disapproval and found himself smiling. “And did he pay for this house?”

“No, he rented a charming little apartment for me. Lord Corday gave me the lease on this house as a farewell gift. Sir Anthony Ludlow paid a good deal to furnish it and gave me my sapphires.”

“Are you happy, Barbara?”

Barbara smiled broadly. “Yes,” she said. “Very happy. I have accepted my nature, you see. I am very frivolous and very greedy and I want beautiful things and luxurious surroundings and all the admiration I can take. I am a star in the demi-monde and one day I will be the mistress of a prince.”

“He’ll be lucky to have you.” James stood up and Barbara came forward, stood on tiptoe and kissed him lightly on the lips.

“I would like to ask you to stay, James, but I know that you will not. I’m so grateful you came, though, thank you. I had two painful sources of guilt. Now I have only one.”

James made a guess. “Your parents?”

“Yes. They will not receive me, of course, and they are quite right. I have an older sister and I have probably ruined her chances of a good marriage. I’m sorry that I hurt them so badly. I was sorry about you too, but I see now that I have no further need. You are over me, and you will do very much better with your next choice. I only wish I had the choosing of her, I want to see you with somebody perfectly lovely.”

James put his arms about her and held her for a long, affectionate moment. “I will write to tell you if that ever comes to pass,” he said, lightly. “Goodbye, my dear. I think you will do very well, but if there is ever anything I can do for you, please send word.”

“I promise.” Barbara stepped back and glanced at the window. “You should go. Look, it’s snowing again, and very heavily. I’ll send my boy to find a cab for you.”

***

James moved through the long dull days in his father’s home with a lightness of heart that he had not felt in a long time. He had little to do with his parent, seeing him only at dinner. Mr Harker was as obsessed with his work as ever, often returning to his study during the evening to pore over legal documents and law books. He made several attempts to persuade James to sell his commission in the army and join the firm. He had been making the suggestion regularly in letters ever since his son’s career had gone so dramatically wrong. James allowed him to talk, then refused pleasantly each time. There was no point in trying to explain to his father that despite his blighted prospects, he preferred even his dull work in the district stores to a legal career.

James had few friends in town, but he was a member of the Shorncliffe, a gentleman’s club just off St James’ which was heavily patronised by the military. There was generally an acquaintance or two to be found in the lounge or the dining room, and James took to walking over to the club most evenings after dinner to play cards and share a bottle of wine. He was pleased to find that he was missing army life, despite the dire state of his career. One of the purposes of this trip home had been to decide whether he was ready to give up on the army or if he wanted to stay and push for a new posting. James was beginning to think he had made up his mind.

After an enjoyable evening playing whist for low stakes with several light infantry officers on furlough, James made the unwelcome discovery that the temperature had dropped suddenly, and the light covering of snow on the ground had turned to treacherous ice. He made his way cautiously through the freezing streets, swearing every time his boots slipped on the cobbles, and made it to his bed in a pleasant haze of good brandy, deciding that he would remain at home on the following day and catch up on some letter writing.

James was halfway through a letter to Dodd the next morning when a flurry of activity below caused him to abandon his task. He found what appeared to be the entire staff, including the two clerks, gathered in the hallway around a pink cheeked kitchen maid who had braved the freezing conditions to go to market.

“It’s true,” she was insisting. “I heard it in the market and walked down myself to have a look. The river’s frozen solid. You can skate on it and walk on it and everything. They’re saying it’s going to be a Frost Fair.”

There was a murmur of excitement. The last time the Thames had frozen thoroughly enough for a full Frost Fair had been more than twenty years ago, when James was a boy, and he could still remember the excitement.

“It don’t surprise me,” Mrs Edwards, the cook announced. “I been saying for days, I don’t remember a winter this cold since I was a girl.”

“That’s not so very long ago, ma’am.”

James blinked in astonishment and turned to stare at his father’s senior clerk and then back at the cook who was blushing like the girl she very definitely was not. Before anybody could speak, there was a dry cough from above.

“May I request that you attend to your duties, since I am currently paying for your time.”

The staff melted away and James mounted the stairs and joined his father in his study. “If she’s right, sir, you should give them some time off to go.”

Harker sat down at his desk. “Stuff and nonsense. I remember being dragged along by your mother last time. The ice was full of the worst elements in London, and I almost froze to death.”

Something about his tone made James smile, and he felt an uncharacteristic rush of affection. He reached out, took the black velvet cap from his father’s head, and dropped a kiss on his bald pate.

“Mother would have let them go.”

Harker snatched the cap back and jammed it on back to front. “You are as big a fool as she was.”

“Very likely, sir.”

There was a silence. Harker sniffed noisily.

“If – and I say if – there is indeed to be a Frost Fair, they may attend providing I am still provided with meals, and providing my business is not affected. Speak to Ellis and arrange things. I do not wish to be troubled by it.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Can you still skate?”

James stared at him in astonishment. “I suppose so,” he said. “I’ve not done so for years, but with some practice I should think…oh, you mean my leg? I can’t see why not, if I can walk and run.”

“You should go yourself, perhaps meet some of your army friends. I am no company for a young man.”

James felt warmth around his heart. “You’re the person I came home to see, sir, and I don’t have a single regret.”

Harker looked up with a glimmer of a smile. “Well, well. Get yourself out of here, boy, I’ve work to do.”

James walked down to the river and found a bustle of activity. He stood watching for a long time as the Thames watermen made their cautious way around the ice, testing its thickness. Around them, the river was eerily still and silent, ground to a frozen halt. Walking up to London Bridge, James realised that huge chunks of ice had become stuck between the piers, damming the river and helping it to freeze. With the waterway solidly blocked, there was no work for either the watermen, who ferried people along the river, or the lightermen who transported goods. It was clear that the men had found an alternative source of income, and by the end of the day, they had set up tables and were charging traders to access the ice and were erecting rough signs showing where it was safe to walk.

One of the first tradesmen to set up shop was a portly gentleman selling ice skates. James had no idea what had happened to his boyhood skates, and he sat on a rough bench trying on several pairs before he found some that worked. They were better than the wooden ones he remembered, which had to be tied to the shoe and were always coming undone. These had metal screws to attach them to the heel and strong leather straps. James tried a few turns and found that his old skill came back quickly. He whizzed across the ice between booths and tents being set up by local tradesmen and remembered with a slight pang that he had talked of skating with Barbara during the first heady days of their love affair and discovered that she too loved to skate.

By the following day, the Frost Fair was fully set up. James went down early with Captain Royston and Lieutenant Shipley to find that the Thames, between London Bridge and Blackfriars, had turned into a frozen pleasure gardens and that thousands of Londoners were making their way onto the ice to join in the fun. Traders and pedlars had set up roughly  constructed shops, public houses, skating rinks and food stalls.

James was both astonished and impressed at what the hucksters of London had managed in such a short space of time and wondered if they had worked all through the night. The most substantial structures had been formed into a main street and some wit had made a sign declaring it to be City Road. It was lined with hawkers selling trinkets and souvenirs and there were even several printing presses inside makeshift tents, with typographers working to print commemorative poems and pamphlets about the Frost Fair.

The revellers came from all walks of life. Ladies and gentlemen in silks and satins brushed sleeves with the ragged poor. There was a bull-baiting and cock fighting matches as well as nine-pin bowling and three skating rinks. In one area, children’s swings had been erected and in another, rough planks were laid to form a dance floor. Mummers and puppet plays held small groups of children spellbound. Food and drink sellers were everywhere. Oxen, pigs and sheep were roasted on spits, and booths sold mince pies and gingerbread blocks. Some stalls sold tea, coffee and hot chocolate, but the vast majority sold alcohol, and as the day went on, the numerous temporary bars and public houses were causing the inevitable drunkenness.

James went home in darkness, pleasantly stuffed with roast mutton and plum pudding. He was tired the following morning, and after a quiet breakfast, he returned to his letter to Dodd. He was just sealing it when the maid appeared, looking tired and heavy-eyed herself after the evening’s revelry. She presented James with a letter, sealed with a wafer. James studied it in some surprise. It looked like a feminine hand, and was certainly not from one of his military friends. He broke it open, read it, and then read it again, feeling bewildered.

“My dearest James. After your recent kind offer of assistance, I had not expected to need to call upon you, and certainly not so soon. I find myself with a small difficulty, and wonder if you would meet me at the Frost Fair at noon today. I shall await you by the skating rink at the Blackfriars end of the fair. Ever yours, Barbara Harrington”

It made no sense to James and he sat pondering it for a while. There was no sense of urgency in the tone of the note, it seemed almost playful. He found himself wondering if, after all, his former love had decided to attempt to set up a flirtation with him while he was in town. James firmly rejected the idea. He was happy with his new-found peace of mind and did not want it disturbed by a flighty young woman with a sordid reputation, however fondly he had once thought of her.

At the same time, James could not bring himself to ignore the note. He dressed warmly and set out for the river, promising himself that he would find out what Barbara wanted, but would pleasantly reject any advances, if that was what she had in mind. As he approached the river, there were crowds of people waiting to pay their admission toll to the watermen who lined the banks. James eyed the throng as he waited, wondering how many of them would be lighter of their purses by the end of the day. Such a mass of humanity, especially when they had been drinking, would be easy pickings for the army of pickpockets and cut-purses who roamed the London streets.

There was no sign of Barbara at the skating rink. James donned his skates and took to the ice. It had been smoothed out for the occasion and was good to skate on. He made a few turns and even a jump, which attracted admiring glances from some of the ladies on the ice. Eventually he returned to the booth, looking around for Barbara and wondering if she had changed her mind.

“Captain Harker.”

James turned, surprised. The older man wore a thick dark cloak and old-fashioned hat, and it took a moment before James recognised him. He came to attention quickly and saluted.

“Colonel Harrington.”

“I have been watching you skate, Captain,” Barbara’s father said. “Such a pleasure. And such a surprise to see you here. I had thought…”

“I’m on furlough, sir, visiting my father. Winter quarters.”

“Yes, yes of course. I am no longer on active service, myself. Circumstances, you know, and my health suffered. So I took half-pay and am happy enough with my family.”

James heard the lie behind the words and was suddenly furious with Barbara for the harm she had inflicted on this charming, unassuming man. He was also angry that she had tricked him into this meeting. He wondered how she had known that her father would be here, and what she hoped to gain. Did she think that her jilted lover could somehow speak to her father about a reconciliation, or was she just hoping that James would talk to him and bring her news of her estranged family? Clearly she would not be making an appearance herself.

“I should introduce you to my wife and daughter, Captain. My dear, this is Captain James Harker of the…of the…”

James took pity on him and shook hands with the middle-aged woman in a dark cloak. “I’m currently seconded to  the quartermasters department in Ciudad Rodrigo, ma’am, but I’m hoping to obtain a transfer back into combat.”

“I hope you do too, my boy. Lord Wellington needs men of courage and honour on the battlefield.”

There was an awkward pause, then Harrington seemed to recollect himself and turned to the other woman. “And this is my daughter. Rebecca, this is Captain Harker.”

There was a stumble over the words, and James realised that the colonel had almost introduced the young woman as his eldest daughter. James reached for her hand quickly to cover the awkward moment and found his hand taken in a firm grip and shaken, giving him no opportunity for gallantry. Surprised, he looked up into a pair of steady hazel eyes.

“Delighted to meet you, Miss Harrington.”

“Captain Harker. I understand you knew my father in Portugal. I’m very sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to know you there.”

Mrs Harrington gave a faint gasp and the colonel looked furious. For a moment, James wanted to turn and run. Unexpectedly, however, he found that his interest was caught by the woman’s angry defiance. He wondered why she had not been with her parents in Portugal that year. He was very sure that she knew who he was, and all about his connection to her younger sister.

“Do you skate, Miss Harrington?”

The question seemed to surprise her, but it cut through the moment of awkwardness. After a moment, she said:

“I do, but I do not have my skates with me in London. We were not expecting this.”

“Rebecca is an excellent skater,” Mrs Harrington said warmly.

“Would you care to take a turn about the ice with me? They are hiring skates at the booth. As my guest, if you please.”

The woman hesitated, and looked at the skaters whirling around on the ice. James could sense her longing to be among them. After a moment she nodded. James looked at the colonel for permission and saw a flash of gratitude in his senior’s eyes. He offered his arm and escorted Rebecca to the long bench to try on skates, while he paid.

Rebecca Harrington was so unlike her younger sister that James would never have imagined they were related. She was about the same height as Barbara, but her hair was brown and her skin was slightly olive. Her carriage was erect and dignified with no sense of her sister’s floating grace. Watching her as she strapped on her chosen skates, James thought that Rebecca must always have stood in her sister’s dazzling shadow, but seeing her like this, she was an attractive enough young woman with a good deal of character in her pointed features.

And she could skate. They hit the ice in perfect unison and circled together, holding hands. After a few minutes, James was conscious of a feeling of satisfaction. He loved to skate as he loved to dance, but he had never before skated alongside a partner as skilled as him. They moved about the ice, and James realised they were picking up unconscious time from the small group of musicians who were playing at the nearby dance floor.

On impulse he reached for her other hand and drew her lightly into a dance hold. She seemed surprised, but quickly adapted, and followed his movements across the ice with effortless grace. Around them, some of the other skaters had paused to watch. James ignored them, concentrating on the sheer pleasure of the music and the movement. As they reached the end of the rink and made the turn, he raised one hand and spun her accurately under his arm. She responded quickly and when they joined hands again she was laughing and breathless and suddenly looked younger and very happy.

“Oh that was wonderful. Where did you learn to do that?”

“I just made it up,” James said honestly. “Shall we try it again?”

As the music ended, he brought her to a stop at the far end of the rink. “Are your skates all right?”

“No, the straps are coming loose, I need to tighten them.”

James led her to a wooden bench and knelt to adjust the straps. “You’re an excellent skater, Miss Harrington.”

“So are you. Thank you, I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed anything this much. It’s as if we were dancing on the ice. You should give lessons.”

“If ever I am finally thrown out of the army I will consider it.”

She gave an acknowledging smile. “How did you know I skated?”

“I guessed. I could see the way you were watching them. And also, Barbara once told me that she loved to skate. She said you both used to visit your grandmother in Scotland and skate on the lake in her grounds.”

The young woman put both her gloved hands against her flushed cheeks. “I cannot remember the last time anybody said my sister’s name,” she said.

James regarded her sympathetically. “It must be hard for your father.”

“I understand that. I understand why he will not visit, or have her visit us. She has broken every social convention he ever held dear. But it is hard not to be allowed even to speak her name.”

“Do you ever hear from her?”

James saw the flicker in her eyes. “Occasionally, she manages to sneak a note to me. She says very little other than that she is well and happy. It makes me angry, since I cannot see how she can be, when we are so unhappy. But I am glad of it.”

“I saw her yesterday,” James said.

Rebecca looked astonished. “I cannot think you mean that. After what she did to you, and all the damage to your career and your reputation. Surely you are not still…”

“Not at all, any more than she would not have me. We are very different people, Miss Harrington, and she knew it before I did. I regret many things, but not visiting Barbara. We parted as friends this time, I think.”

“I had a note. She said she might try to be here today, so I nagged my parents to come, although I did not really expect it. But I am so glad I did…did she tell you to be here too?”

“Yes,” James said. “I’ve no idea why, but she clearly wanted us to meet. Are your skates properly fastened? Shall we skate one more dance and then return to your parents?”

They found Colonel and Mrs Harrington seated at a rickety wooden table with a flagon of spiced wine before them. James accepted their invitation to join them, and answered the colonel’s questions as far as he could about the current state of the war in Spain and the condition of Wellington’s army. It was growing dark and around them, booths and stalls were lit up by torches and flares and lanterns on hooks. It was  also growing colder.

“You’re shivering, my dear,” Harrington said. “We should be going, since I suspect that evening will bring out the worst elements.”

“I think they’re already here, sir,” James said. He had been conscious for a while of the rising noise around them as people became more and more drunk. “Did you come by carriage?”

“We took a cab,” Mrs Harrington said. “I wonder if there is somebody we might send to find one for us?”

She looked around rather hopefully and James met Rebecca’s eyes in a moment of shared amusement. “I’ll go,” James said. “Let’s find you somewhere convenient to wait.”

“That would be so kind of you, Captain. Would you…I mean, if you have no other engagement today, I wonder if you would consider dining with us?”

“Excellent idea, my dear,” the colonel said enthusiastically. “Now what do you say, Captain? Will you come?”

James hesitated. His first instinct was to decline, but then he thought about it and decided that he did not want to. “I should be delighted, sir, but I must let my father know, so that he does not wait dinner for me.”

“Come with us in the cab and we can send our boy with a message. It’s not far.”

***

Rebecca had little to say during dinner. Her father monopolised Captain Harker with military matters and although generally she would have been irritated at being excluded from the conversation, Rebecca was content for once to listen and observe. She was not sure how she felt about the unexpected encounter with her sister’s former suitor, but she was impressed by his manners and how well he handled her father’s over-eager questions about the war. Rebecca understood how hard it had been for Colonel Harrington to retire from active service, but she wished his desperate sadness was not so obvious.

Captain Harker was not what Rebecca had expected. Watching him through the candlelight of an early winter evening, she found it hard to imagine him paying court to Barbara and harder still to imagine him issuing a challenge and shooting a man dead because he had dishonoured her sister. Rebecca disapproved of duelling as a way of settling disagreements and she thought that Harker was lucky not to have been cashiered or even convicted of murder, but now that she had met him, it was clear that the duel was an aberration in Harker’s hitherto respectable life. Rebecca listened to him talking of his parents and his early years in the army and wondered why on earth this sensible man had ruined his career and his reputation for her flighty, mercurial sister.

When dinner was over, Colonel Harrington carried Captain Harker off to his study to drink brandy and talk military matters while Rebecca joined her mother in the drawing room. She felt restless, still affected by the exhilaration of the Frost Fair and the enjoyment of skating with James Harker. Rebecca had little social contact these days, beyond her immediate family and at twenty-six she was trying hard to resign herself to the probability of spinsterhood.

It was not her dowry that was the problem. Colonel Harrington was able to provide a respectable portion for his daughters, and with Barbara disinherited, his estate would go to his eldest daughter. Both Rebecca and Barbara had been presented at court and Rebecca had spent several Seasons in town, but she had not managed to find a husband. She acknowledged that it was her own fault. Several older gentlemen had shown a flattering interest in Colonel Harrington’s dignified older daughter, but she had refused them. Once Barbara was brought out, Rebecca was eclipsed. She had hoped that once Barbara made her choice, she might do better, but Barbara was ambitious and turned up her pretty nose at every proposal. Mrs Harrington, unable to afford another expensive Season, was beginning to despair.

When Colonel Harrington was posted to Portugal, his wife conceived the notion of accompanying him, along with her younger daughter. It would be cheaper than another Season in London, and there were plenty of wealthy officers and a dearth of pretty young debutantes in Lisbon. Rebecca was sent to stay with her elderly aunt in Bournemouth and Barbara had packed her trunk and set sail for Portugal with dreams of a brilliant future.

“I shall insist on a title,” she had told Rebecca. “A title and a house in London, so that I may introduce my very clever older sister to the Ton properly. Oh Becky, I wish you were coming with me. I’ve begged and begged, but Father won’t have it. Never mind, I shall make it up to you.”

Rebecca found, to her surprise, that there were tears in her eyes and she blinked them back. It had been one of the last conversations she had with her younger sister. There was no triumphant return and no betrothal. Instead, Barbara was whisked away to have her illegitimate child in the country while her mother returned home to Rebecca and hid from the world in shame. Colonel Harrington remained in Portugal for another year, enduring the sniggering of fellow officers about his daughter’s disgrace. He had used his failing health as the excuse to return to England on half-pay, but Rebecca knew that  it was because he could no longer bear the humiliation.

Rebecca remembered clearly the day her father received news of the death of his daughter’s seducer. He read the letter in silence several times.

“Is everything all right, dear?”

“Yes. No. It’s from Mainwaring. He writes to tell me that Cunningham is dead.”

Mrs Harrington gasped. “That terrible man? But how, was he killed in battle?”

“Not at all. He was shot dead in a duel.” Colonel Harrington seemed to suddenly recollect the presence of his unmarried daughter. “Forgive me, it was a shock, but we should not…”

“Since my sister’s disgrace has ruined me along with her, Father, do you not think I deserve to know?”

After a long silence, the colonel said:

“Very well. It was Captain Harker, the young man who wished to marry Barbara.”

“Oh how I wish he had,” breathed Mrs Harrington. “But tell me, did he fight because of her?”

“It appears so. Cunningham had something to say on the matter and Harker called him out. A pity that he’ll be court-martialled. It’s rare to find a man of honour in the army these days.”

“I think it was remarkably foolish of him,” Rebecca said, buttering her bread so hard she made holes in it. “Especially since I believe you did not encourage his suit at the time, sir.”

“Rebecca, are you quite well?”

Rebecca looked up from her abandoned embroidery, surprised. “Oh. Oh, yes, quite well. Why do you ask, Mama?”

“I have spoken to you three times, child. I am going to ring for the tea tray. Will you go to the study to see if the gentlemen wish to join us?”

Rebecca obeyed. She could hear her father’s voice as she approached the study door, shivering a little in the cold of the hallway, and she wondered if Captain Harker was regretting his decision to come to dinner, since Colonel Harrington had probably been boring him senseless about the numerous problems with the modern army. Her father’s voice always grew louder when he had been drinking, and Rebecca’s hand was on the door knob when she heard him say:

“Damned shame about Rebecca. I hoped that if her sister made a good match, it would open doors for her. She’s a good girl, but she doesn’t have her sister’s looks and she don’t make enough of an effort. A man wants a girl to look pretty and show an interest in him, not bore on about the latest book she’s read or talk nonsense about that dreadful Wollstonecraft female and the rights of women.”

Rebecca froze, feeling colour flood her face. She could not bring herself to open the door, but neither could she move away. She could not believe that her father was speaking this way to a relative stranger, although she supposed that the drink had loosened his tongue. He drank a good deal since the ruin of his younger daughter, and Rebecca hated it.

“It sounds as though your daughter is a very interesting young lady,” Harker said pleasantly. “She is also very attractive, and if her skating is anything to go by, I would like to see her dance. It will take a year or two for the scandal to be forgotten, sir, but I hope one day Miss Harrington finds a gentleman who appreciates an intelligent wife. I’m very sorry, but I must take my leave. I’ve only just realised the time. Will you excuse me, I need to pay my respects to your wife.”

“One more drink,” the colonel said, and Rebecca was horrified at how badly he was slurring his words. She took hold of her courage with both hands and opened the door. Harker stood up quickly.

“Miss Harrington, I was just taking my leave of your father, and would like to offer my thanks to Mrs Harrington.”

“I was just coming to see if you would drink tea with us, sir.”

Harker glanced at the colonel then to Rebecca’s surprise, shot her a conspiratorial grin. “Another time. Colonel, my thanks to you for a very enjoyable dinner. No need to see me out, I will ask your daughter to do so.”

Colonel Harrington subsided into his chair with a grunt. Harker saluted and stepped out into the hall and Rebecca closed the door. Her face was burning with embarrassment.

“Captain Harker. My mother is in the drawing room, if you wish to speak to her. Or I could convey your thanks…”

“Which would you prefer?”

Rebecca looked up quickly. “Oh. Thank you. Perhaps it would be best…Captain, I am so sorry. And so ashamed. He was not always like this.”

“Don’t worry about it, ma’am, it’s nothing I’ve not seen in the officers’ mess. He’s a very fine old gentleman, and he’s been the soul of courtesy. To me, at least. I’m sorry, I know you must have overheard what he said, you were right outside the door. But he didn’t mean it, he clearly loves you dearly. He’s a disappointed man, your sister hurt him very badly.”

“My sister hurt all of us very badly, Captain, including you. But I don’t see you finding refuge at the bottom of a bottle.”

“That’s because you weren’t there at the time,” Harker said calmly. “It’s exactly what I did. If I hadn’t, Major Cunningham would still be alive.”

“Oh. Oh, God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean…”

To Rebecca’s surprise, the captain reached out, took her hand, and raised it to his lips. “I know you didn’t. I hope you’re not offended, Miss Harrington, it’s just that we’ve all suffered to some degree from your sister’s thoughtlessness, which makes it easy to speak plainly to you. I do have to go, but I was wondering…I doubt the Frost Fair will last more than another day or two. Certainly I think it will be gone by Christmas Eve. Do you think your parents would allow me to be your escort tomorrow for a day at the fair? You can bring your maid, of course. I thought we could skate again, and perhaps join the dancers. It will be a very raucous and vulgar day, but I promise I’ll take good care of you, and I think it might be enjoyable.”

Rebecca stared at him in complete astonishment. Her mouth was open to give a polite refusal, when she realised unexpectedly that she had never wanted anything so much in her life before.

“Yes,” she said. “Captain – yes. Thank you.”

Harker smiled, and Rebecca felt a sudden surge of anger at Barbara for failing to appreciate the value of this thoroughly nice man.

“Let’s go and ask your Mama, then, since I suspect your father may have gone to sleep in the armchair by now.”

***

It was well after dark when James finally arrived back at his father’s house the following evening, and the clerks had gone home for the day. James trod up the stairs and found Mr Harker in his study writing a letter. He looked up as James paused in the doorway.

“Ah, there you are. I am afraid you have missed dinner.”

“I’m sorry, sir, I lost track of time, but I’m not at all hungry. We dined very well on roast pork and spiced cider. I shall probably have a headache.”

“It will serve you right, then. Sit down and have some brandy, it can hardly make it any worse.”

James thought that it might, but he complied, pouring a glass for his father.

“You seem to be enjoying the Frost Fair. Were you with your army friends?”

James hesitated. “No,” he said finally. “I was escorting a young lady.”

Harker’s brows raised. “I was not aware that you were acquainted with any young ladies in London, my boy. Do I know her?”

“I shouldn’t think so, sir, you don’t know anybody.”

“True, very true. It is a source of great satisfaction to me. What is the name of this lady?”

“Miss Rebecca Harrington. She is the eldest daughter of a retired colonel of my acquaintance, we met at the fair yesterday.”

“And have you been with her all day?”

“Yes,” James said.

“Alone?”

“There was a maid, but she got lost very early on.”

“How very obliging of her. I do hope you have not compromised this lady, James.”

“I doubt it, sir. Nobody knows who either of us are, and in those crowds, it’s easy to be invisible.”

“I can see you have thought this through.”

“I didn’t think about it at all,” James said honestly. “I was enjoying myself too much, and I think she was as well.”

“Well, well, I’m glad to hear it. Are you intending to see more of this young lady?”

James did not answer, because he had been asking himself the question for the entire cab ride home. He had delivered Rebecca back to her parents and made his apologies both for the lateness of the hour and the absence of her maid. Harrington brushed both to one side with jovial good humour and invited James for a drink in a way that made it impossible to refuse.

James understood. When he had paid court to Barbara in Lisbon two years ago, Colonel Harrington had been polite but unenthusiastic, having greater ambitions for his lovely daughter. Things were different now, and Harrington was making no attempt to disguise his hopes regarding Rebecca.

James did not see himself as a suitor. He had invited Rebecca to the fair on impulse, because he was furious with her father for the drunken rudeness which she had clearly overheard. A few hours at the Frost Fair with a maid in tow could hardly be interpreted as a declaration of interest, and James did not think that he had raised expectations in the level-headed Miss Harrington.

The trouble was that a few hours had stretched into a long and very happy day. They skated and danced, played at nine-pin bowling and watched a puppet show. They ate pasties while watching a dreadful melodrama which made Rebecca dissolve into helpless giggles. They ate roast pork and wandered through the stalls and sideshows. Astonishingly, drinking spiced cider in a wobbly tent, they saw an elephant being led by its keeper across the ice.

“Wherever does it come from?”

“The Tower menagerie, I suppose,” James said, watching the animal make its careful way towards the bank, encouraged by the cheers and noisy encouragement of the inebriated crowds. “I do hope this ice holds out, it doesn’t feel as cold to me.”

“Or me,” Rebecca said. “I don’t think I’d like to come back tomorrow. How do they know when the ice is ready to melt?”

“They’ve got watermen stationed all around the perimeter looking for danger signs,” James said. “Which is fine if it melts gradually, but if it cracks suddenly there’s going to be a panic. Like you, I think I will avoid the risk. I’m glad we came today though, I’ve enjoyed it so much.”

Rebecca looked up at him, laughing. “So have I, Captain. And now I can proudly say that I have seen an elephant walking on water. Such a boast.”

Back in his father’s house, James was still struggling with his problem. He could very easily consider his duty done to Barbara’s family, and go back to the Shorncliffe Club for his social requirements, but he felt unexpectedly gloomy at the prospect of never seeing Colonel Harrington’s bright-eyed, intelligent daughter again. Rebecca shared the lively mind and sense of humour that James had found so attractive in Barbara, but she was better-informed and could carry on an easy conversation on a wide variety of topics.

“Are you in some difficulty, James?”

James started and realised that he had completely forgotten that his father was there. “Oh. Oh no, I’m very well, sir.”

“Good, because I am singularly ill-equipped to give advice on matters of the heart.”

James could not help laughing. “Don’t look so worried, sir, I’m not going to ask you. At thirty-six, I’m old enough to manage my own affairs.”

“Is this an affair that requires managing?”

“I don’t think so. At least…sir, how do you spend Christmas Day?”

“Christmas Day?” Harker sounded revolted. “Good God, I spend it the same way as every other day. Although I have noticed there is always more food. As I eat the same amount, I presume there is a festive meal in the kitchen.”

“Please don’t tell me you make your clerks work on Christmas Day, sir.”

“My clerks are entitled to take the day off. Ellis informs me he will be here, however.”

“Sir, that isn’t right.”

“You wrong me, James. Ellis will not be hunched over his desk on the anniversary of Christ’s birth, he will be seated in the servants hall, stuffed with roast partridge, drinking my best sherry and making eyes at my cook. I wish he would bring himself to propose to the woman, it is impossible to plan anything until they make a decision.”

James stared owlishly at his father. “Plan?”

“I thought I might suggest that they take several rooms on the third floor. It would be convenient to have him here, especially as I am growing older. I am thinking of taking on a junior, since it is clear to me that you are never going to come in to the business.”

“I think it is a very good idea, sir,” James said gravely. “I asked about Christmas, because I wondered if it would trouble you if I accepted an invitation to Christmas dinner with the Harringtons. They’ve invited me.”

“Have they, by God? Well you need not consider me, boy, but you should consider your own position. If you ask me, Harrington and his wife are doing their best to draw you in. I don’t blame them. With a sister who is the latest star courtesan of the demi-monde, he must be short of offers for that young woman.”

James reached for the bottle and refilled his glass. “I didn’t realise that you knew.”

“I always know more than you think,” his father said tranquilly. “Is she like her sister? I presume you must have cared a good deal about the girl, since you killed a man for her.”

“Killing a man becomes easier when you’re a soldier, sir. She doesn’t look like Barbara, but they have some things in common. I fell in love with Barbara after the first dance. I have discovered that is a very stupid thing to do.”

“And this girl?”

James swirled the brandy around the glass, watching the amber liquid make patterns with the candlelight on the table. Eventually he looked up.

“She is a very nice girl,” he said, a little awkwardly.

Mr Harker picked up his own glass and held it out. The two glasses clinked in a toast. Mr Harker was smiling. “As I said, I cannot advise you on matters of romance, my boy, but I can tell you from personal experience, that very nice girls tend to make excellent wives,” he said.

***

Rebecca spent Christmas Day in a confused muddle of joy and agonised embarrassment. She was genuinely shocked when Captain Harker accepted her father’s invitation, having decided that her one glorious day at the Frost Fair was enough happiness to sustain her for a long time. It appeared that Captain Harker had developed a penchant for her father’s society, however, because during the two weeks before Christmas, he called almost every day. He invited Colonel Harrington to dine with him at his club, and he reserved a box at the theatre where he entertained the Harrington family along with one of his army friends and his young wife. Rebecca sat beside Captain Harker, taking in very little of the play or the farce, conscious only of his presence.

Captain Harker arrived promptly on Christmas Day, sat beside her at dinner, and devoted himself to her entertainment. Rebecca would happily have remained at table forever, but inevitably the party broke up, and her father towed his guest away for a session with the port. Rebecca sat tense and miserable on the edge of the sofa until her mother, replete with sherry and plum pudding, fell asleep over her stitchery. Rebecca could bear it no longer and tiptoed out of the room, approaching the study with trepidation. She opened the door and stopped in surprise to find Captain Harker on his feet about to open it. Looking past him, she saw her father snoring in his winged armchair.

Captain Harker slipped into the hallway and closed the door silently, his finger to his lips. He listened for a moment.

“He is gone for a while, I think. Your mother?”

“She’s asleep as well.”

“What an excellent Christmas. I suspect my father is doing the same thing. Come along.”

He reached for her hand, and towed her to the front door, then stopped. “No, we can’t. You’ll freeze.”

“Wait.” Rebecca whirled and ran lightly up to her room, returning quickly wearing her dark cloak. Captain Harker gave her an approving smile, took her hand again, and led her out of the front door.

They walked through quiet winter streets towards the river. Rebecca spoke little, concentrating on the feeling of her arm through his, and enjoying how easily their steps matched. As they arrived at the river bank, there was nothing left of the bustle and activity of the Frost Fair. Huge chunks of ice still floated in the muddy waters of the Thames, but the booths, the ice rinks and the frantic gaiety were long gone.

“I think I like it better this way,” Captain Harker said.

“I think I do too. But I enjoyed it so much, Captain.”

“So did I. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed a day as much. Miss Harrington…”

“Sir?”

“I have a confession to make. Yesterday, I paid a visit to your sister. I have a letter for you here, from her. I know you parents would disapprove, and I’m sorry to go behind their backs, but I think it nonsense that you are allowed no contact with her at all. Obviously, given her way of life, you cannot be seen publicly together, but I see no reason why you should not correspond, or even meet privately.”

Rebecca took the letter. Part of her was warmed by his sympathy and understanding. Another part, a wholly unworthy part, wanted to smack her sister’s pretty face for the hold she still clearly had over this man. It was stupid to think that he would look at her, when Barbara’s fair curls and sweet smile awaited him whenever he chose to visit her. Rebecca wondered if his kindness to her was motivated by his feelings for Barbara. She realised suddenly that her fingers were clenched inside her muff, and carefully uncurled them.

“You’re very kind, Captain. Thank you.”

“She told me that I should ask you to read it immediately. It’s up to you, but if you want privacy, I’ll wait over here.”

Rebecca watched him as he walked over to a wooden bench overlooking the river and seated himself. Turning away, she broke the wafer and unfolded the letter. Barbara was not a good correspondent, and her notes were always brief and to the point.

“My Dearest Sister. Whatever foolishness you are thinking, pray stop it immediately. He is not in the least interested in me, but for some odd reason, probably because he is the best man I have ever met, he thinks that he needs my permission. I have told him he does not. Be happy. Yours, always. Barbara.”

Rebecca looked up in complete astonishment and saw that James Harker was watching her, awaiting her reaction. She folded the letter and stuffed it into the wide pocket of her cloak. He smiled and walked towards her.

“I’ve not read it, but I have an idea,” he said. “Did she get it right?”

“Yes. She always knew how much I hated playing second fiddle to her all my life.”

“You’re not second fiddle to me. Rebecca, I know it’s much too soon to ask you to marry me, and I’m not prepared to marry any woman only to sail off and leave her. But I’ve another month, and I’d like to spend as much of it as I can with you. And at the end of it, if you could possibly feel the same way…if you’d be prepared to wait for me…”

Rebecca began to laugh. “James – did you just propose to me, after a few weeks acquaintance, and one minute after you told me you were not about to do so?”

“Yes.”

“I am glad I did not misunderstand.” Rebecca held out her hand, and he took it, and drew her close. The warmth of his body felt very good, and Rebecca looked up at him and decided that he was probably going to kiss her. The thought made her very happy.

“Do you think you might, love?”

“I am not prepared to give you my answer until we know each other a little better. But if it helps, I am feeling very hopeful,” Rebecca said.

***

After the frozen streets of London, Ciudad Rodrigo was warm and mellow, even in winter. James returned to his uncomfortable billet, seeing it through new eyes. He inspected the stores, went through a mountain of orders and correspondence, and dined with Dodd and his new bride. Although his own situation had not changed, and none of his transfer requests had so far brought a favourable response, James was not discouraged. Everything was different now, and he returned to his dreary, mundane administrative duties without resentment.

He was seated at his desk during the warmth of a spring afternoon when the door opened. James looked up, expecting one of his men, then got to his feet quickly, saluting as a tall, fair officer with the insignia of a major-general, ducked into the little office and stood looking around with interest.

“At ease, Captain Harker. We’ve met before, although I don’t know if you remember it.”

“Major-General van Daan. Yes, of course. Just before Ciudad Rodrigo.”

Intelligent blue eyes studied him for a moment. “I feel guilty,” Van Daan said abruptly. “I spoke to you, but you were about to go over with the Forlorn Hope, I don’t suppose your brain was working all that well at the time. I should have followed it up sooner. I did check to find out if you’d made it, but you were still in the hospital at the time. Afterwards, I forgot about it. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” James said in astonishment. “Why on earth would you be sorry, sir, you’d no debt to me?”

“I made you an offer. I should have found out if you were still interested.”

James was silent for a long moment. “I do remember, but I wasn’t sure if you were just being kind, because you thought I was about to die.”

“I’m never that kind, Captain. Are you still interested?”

“Sir?”

“Sit down, please. I feel as though I’m about to give you a dressing down, standing over you like this. And I’m not.” Van Daan gave a singularly charming smile. “Not yet, anyway.”

James sat, and the other man pulled up a wooden stool and sat opposite. “There’s been the usual shuffle around the ranks during winter quarters. Your former assistant has been looking all over the place for a lieutenant’s posting. He wasn’t having much luck. A lot of regimental commanders panic at the sight of a man who has come up from the ranks.”

“They’d be making a mistake, he’s an excellent officer and a very brave man.”

Van Daan smiled again. “I’m glad you said that, because I’ve taken him on. We lost a number of officers in the last campaign – dead, wounded or captured. And we’ve also had the usual round of promotions and transfers out. I’ve offered Dodd a lieutenant’s commission in my third company.”

“I’m glad.”

“The company has no captain.”

James felt his stomach lurch. He stared at the younger man, trying to decide if he had understood correctly. “Sir – are you suggesting…?”

“I’m asking if you’d be willing to take command of my third company, Captain Harker? Will you?”

James could not speak for a long moment. When he found his voice, he said:

“Did Dodd arrange this?”

“No. But he gave me your name as a reference, which reminded me. Are you interested?”

“Yes, sir. But I need to be sure that you understand my circumstances…”

“Oh don’t be an imbecile, Captain, do I look like an officer who wouldn’t check the background of a man he was about to take on?”

“No, sir.”

“I’m relieved to hear it. I’ll speak to Colonel Muir, but given that they’ve managed without you while you’ve been on furlough, they can hardly claim that you’re indispensable. How soon can you join us?”

“The moment I have permission, sir.”

Paul van Daan stood up. “Excellent, I’ll send a message. Is there anything else?”

“There’s one thing I should probably mention, sir. I wrote to Colonel Muir about a personal matter, but he’s not yet replied. When I was on furlough, I became engaged to be married. I cannot do so until I’m next in England, but I’d like to be able to tell my betrothed that I have permission.”

“Granted.”

James laughed aloud. “Is that it, sir?”

“Of course it is. What a ridiculous rule that is anyway. What man is going to wait around for his commanding officer to grant permission for him to marry. I’m sure I didn’t. Who is she?”

“Miss Rebecca Harrington, sir. Eldest daughter of Colonel Harrington.”

James said it deliberately, because he was wondering if Paul van Daan knew. It was obvious that he did. The blue eyes narrowed and then the general grinned.

“That’s an interesting choice, Captain.”

“It’s the right choice, sir. She is the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

“Good man,” Van Daan said, placidly. “I look forward to meeting her one day. Welcome to the 110th, Captain Harker. You’ll hear from me within a few days. Good afternoon.”

When he had gone, James sat quietly, watching the early spring sunlight make patterns on the baked earth floor of the office. He had an enormous sense of content, as though his life, which had temporarily spiralled out of control, had found its way back to its natural pathway, and was moving forward easily along the road he was meant to take.

After a while, James stirred, remembering that he was supposed to dine with Lieutenant Dodd and Sofia. He got up, looked around the office and left to get changed, closing the door gently behind him.

***

Thanks so much to all the fabulous authors from the Historical Writers Forum who have taken part in this year’s Christmas Blog Hop. In case you missed any of their posts, this is the full list, and I do recommend you go back and have a read when you have time, it’s a great way to discover new authors.

Dec 3rd   Sharon Bennett Connolly
Dec 4th   Alex Marchant  
Dec 5th   Cathie Dunn  
Dec 6th   Jennifer C Wilson  
Dec 8th   Danielle Apple  
Dec 9th   Angela Rigley  
Dec 12th Janet Wertman  
Dec 13th Vanessa Couchman 
Dec 14th Sue Barnard 
Dec 15th Wendy J Dunn 
Dec 16th Margaret Skea 
Dec 17th Nancy Jardine 
Dec 18th Tim Hodkinson 
Dec 19th Salina Baker 
Dec 20th Paula Lofting 
Dec 21st Nicky Moxey 
Dec 22nd Samantha Wilcoxson 
Dec 23rd Jen Black

And of course me at www.lynnbryant.co.uk. You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

Colby Fair: a Manx Christmas story

Groudle Beach

This year’s Christmas story is part of the Historical Fiction Writers’ December Blog Hop and I’ve chosen to return to the Isle of Man, my adopted homeland. Colby Fair: a Manx Christmas story takes place in the winter of 1809-10. For regular readers of both the Peninsular War Saga and the Manxman series, Hugh Kelly and Alfred Durrell have just arrived back in England after the Walcheren campaign and Paul van Daan is in Portugal, rebuilding his battalion after the bloody Talavera campaign.

When we moved to the island in 2002, I fell in love with Manx culture and loved learning about some of the traditional customs and I’m glad to be able to share them with you. As with all my short stories, it’s free, so please share as much as you like.

Colby Fair: a Manx Christmas story

It was frosty on the morning of Colby Fair, an icy wind blowing in from the Irish sea. Lieutenant Thomas Young of  His Majesty’s Revenue Service was without a ship or any useful occupation and agreed to accompany the officers from the Castletown garrison to the fair on a whim. He quickly regretted it, shivering on his hired horse, wrapped in his worn blue cloak which had seen better days.

Thomas knew the officers had invited him out of kindness and was trying to be grateful. He was billeted with two of them in a cosy inn on the edge of Castletown, while the revenue cutter he commanded underwent essential repairs and Thomas recovered from a shot through the arm received in a deserted bay near Santon when he had been chasing down a fast brig bringing in contraband. His ship, the Bluebird, had hit a rock and his crew had manhandled him ashore and protected him, letting the smugglers get on with their business. Thomas remembered little of the night. His wound was trivial compared to previous hurts and as he recovered he had appreciated the hospitality of the commander of the garrison, Lieutenant-Colonel Steuart, who found him accommodation and included him in the officers’ mess of the four companies of the Royal Manx Fencibles remaining on the island.

“You won’t get much done on your ship until after Twelfth Night, Lieutenant. On Mann we take our celebrations seriously, only essential work will be done.”

“Does that include the smugglers, sir?” 

Steuart gave a wry smile. “I wouldn’t know. There isn’t much you can do about it either way, so why not take some time to recover and enjoy our hospitality? We’ve seen very little of you since you were stationed here.”

Thomas agreed, since he had little choice. He had arrived off the coast of the Isle of Mann three months earlier and found it an odd posting. Fresh from the Sussex coast, where the lives of every riding officer and revenue man were constantly at risk, he had been told that the island was a hotbed of smuggling and had come prepared for battle. In three months he had seen his fair share of action and had known some successes, but there had been remarkably little violence. The shot fired on that November evening had seemed random, and there was no attempt to follow it up.

“A warning shot, most like, sir,” his pilot had said reassuringly, as he helped lift Thomas into the borrowed gig to take him to the surgeon. “Unlucky, like.”

Thomas, used to attempted murder on the south coast, had been slightly bewildered. His reception in Castletown confused him still more. The officers of the garrison, about half of whom were Manx, were very friendly and spent a lot of time trying to get him drunk. The inhabitants of the town were distant but civil. No small boys cried insults at him or threw stones from behind walls. For the most part, the people of Mann seemed to see an injured revenue officer as none of their business. It was curious but very peaceful.

Colby Village was some three miles from Castletown and the annual fair was held in a field close to the whitewashed church with its square tower. Already, despite the early hour, stalls and booths were set up and the ground was alive with people. Thomas followed his companions along the village street to a solidly built inn.

“They’ll stable our horses here, and we can order dinner, the food’s good,” Captain Tobin said. He was Manx and spoke with the authority of a local.

“Why are we here so early?” Thomas asked. “They’ve barely set up.”

“To see the procession,” Lieutenant Taylor said. “I came last year, it’s the quaintest thing. I swear half these people are savages, you wouldn’t believe their customs.”

“Thank you, Mr Taylor.”

Taylor flushed. “I didn’t mean you, sir. Or, you know, the better sort. But honestly, it’s a funny place, Young. Not like England.”

“Not so much like Scotland either, although we’ve some odd customs of our own,” Captain Maclay said with a grin. “Come on, the procession will come this way.”

Standing at the edge of the field, Thomas watched them come, around thirty men, the youth of Colby and its environs. The women and children of the village lined the main street, and visitors from around the island stood with them, cheering as the parade approached, two by two, bearing something on a raised bier made of entwined sticks between them. They were singing.

“What in God’s name is that?”

“A dead hen,” Tobin said. “The song is about Catherine’s hen being dead. They’ll parade it around the field, take it to the inn to be cooked and they’ll all get drunk. Tomorrow they’ll bury its head and feet in the fair field.”

“Why?” Thomas asked. He wondered if it was a stupid question.

“God knows. There are various stories, probably dating back centuries. Something about burying their disputes for the new year. Utter rubbish, of course, it’s an excuse to get drunk. But it’s traditional. St Catherine’s Day.”

“I thought this was St Nicholas’ Day.”

“It’s the same day. Welcome to the Isle of Mann, Lieutenant Young.”

As the parade dispersed, the crowd drifted onto the field. Thomas had seen many country fairs as a boy, growing up in the green prosperity of his parents’ Hampshire estate, and this was no different, although it was smaller than he was used to. The main purpose of the fair was to buy and sell livestock and farm and dairy produce, and on the eastern edge of the field, farmers paraded their stock and bartering was already underway.

There were stalls selling hams and cheeses and all kinds of preserves, and thrifty Manx housewives studied the wares, questioned the prices in scornful tones and ignored their children who chased each other between stalls and booths, shrieking loudly. It seemed as though every tradesman in Mann had set up shop in St Catherine’s field. There were stalls selling saddles and clothing and lengths of good, locally woven cloth. One stall displayed lace goods and Thomas paused, studying a pretty lace collar and cuffs.

“For your sweetheart, Young?”

“For my mother. I’ve sent her nothing for the season and I should.” Thomas took out his purse then tucked the small parcel into his pocket. They passed stalls selling gingerbread and sweets, a rope maker and a knife grinder and a carpenter mending broken chairs. In one corner were several herbalists and travelling doctors, shouting out miracle cures for warts, fevers and nervous disorders.

Finally there were the side shows; casting dice for prizes, climbing a slippery pole to ring a bell and a fortune teller draped in gaudy scarves reading palms for pennies. Tobin, Maclay and Taylor crowded around the striped tent, laughing, and the woman, who was young and attractive, predicted glory in battle, promotion to general and marriage to wealthy and beautiful wives.

“If only,” Maclay said, still laughing as they crossed the field to an area where several tents had been set up selling food and drink. “By the time I can afford to marry, I’ll be too old to care.”

Tobin, who was already married with a young son and another on the way, looked over at Thomas. “No wish to hear your fortune, Young?”

“Not really,” Thomas said, trying to sound lighthearted. “I wonder what she said to Mr Taylor, he went very red. Was that a prediction or a promise?”

They laughed, surprised, Thomas thought, at a joke from a man considered very serious. Thomas knew that he was so, although he had not always been, but the kindness of the colonel and the cheerful friendliness of these young men, none of whom had ever seen a battle, made him determined to make an effort to seem grateful.

An ox and a pig were roasting on spits, the smell making Thomas hungry although he had broken his fast early with fresh bread and Manx honey. The meat was not ready but they bought pies and pasties at a booth, warming their hands on crumbling pastry and hot spiced meat, while joining the crowd surrounding a group of mummers. All were men, dressed in a variety of white draperies, with their faces painted. The play was bewildering, and it must have showed on Thomas’ face, because Tobin laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.

“The plot is very simple. St Denis fights St George and kills him, and he is then killed by St Patrick. That crazy looking fella in the hat is the doctor who brings them all back to life. In a moment he is going to ask for his fee for this miracle, and the audience will drop their contributions in the hat, and then there will be a sword dance, during which it’s surprising they all aren’t killed over again. It’s a traditional mummers play, they’re called the White Boys. This is more of a rehearsal for them, the real day for mumming is the Saturday before Christmas day, there are several troupes of them and they’ll perform all around Douglas, Peel and Castletown. The Governor always invites them into Castle Rushen for a show and provides them with food and ale afterwards.”

Thomas was grateful for the explanation, although he was not sure how much it helped, but the sword fight was genuinely funny. The mummers wielded their wooden weapons in a choreographed dance for approximately a minute and then quickly degenerated into a fierce mock battle. The young men leaped around each other, hacking at their friends and there was the occasional yell when a wooden blade bruised an arm or cracked a knuckle while the fiddler accompanying the dance played faster and faster. A crack on the head of one of the combatants brought the battle to an abrupt halt and the mummers led their battered member away to the comfort of the ale tent followed by the cheers and whoops of the crowd.

“I need a drink after that,” Tobin said. “My hands are freezing, standing around. Come on, I see old Crellin has set up his tent by the churchyard again.”

“Crellin?” Thomas enquired.

“Josiah Crellin, MHK. Owns the Top House over at Malew, we passed it on the way.”

“MHK?”

“Member of the House of Keys. Tynwald, our Parliament.”

“Oh. Oh, yes.” Thomas felt rather foolish. He had temporarily forgotten that this was anything other than a winter fair in a typical English country district, but he knew better than to say so. “Why does Mr Crellin have a tent?”

“Hospitality. He does it every year, his servants provide spiced wine and fruit punch for the gentry who attend the fair. You were here last year, weren’t you Taylor?”

“Yes, sir. Very pleasant afternoon.”

The tent was large and surprisingly warm, with several small braziers providing both heat and a means of warming the big vats of wine and hot punch. Wooden trestles were set up and a dozen servants distributed drinks, while their master stood with his family to greet his guests. Crellin  gave the impression of being an intelligent active man in his sixties, accompanied by his son and daughter-in-law, who was heavily pregnant. Colonel Smelt, the lieutenant-governor and Lieutenant-Colonel Steuart had joined his party and Thomas was amused to see a manservant stationed at both entrances to the tent to ensure that only the better class of people were admitted. 

“Lieutenant Young, I’m glad you could join us,” Steuart said. “Have you met our kind host? Mr Crellin, this is Lieutenant Young of the Revenue cutter Bluebird. You’ll have heard of the incident, I’m sure.”

Crellin offered his hand. Thomas took it, aware that he was holding his breath. He saw the older man’s brown eyes widen in shock and then look away. Thomas tried not to flinch. In the five years since Trafalgar, he had tried to get used to that first shocked reaction when strangers saw the ruin of his face, but it still hurt. 

Crellin recovered quickly and shook his hand warmly. “Welcome, Lieutenant Young. A cold day, aye, and you’ll be in need of a drink. Spiced wine or hot fruit punch, sir?”

Equipped with wine, Thomas made awkward conversation for a while then moved to join the other officers. Tobin was talking to some friends, while Taylor and Maclay surveyed the room. 

“I didn’t expect so many people,” Thomas said.

“Aye, it’s always the way over here, there’s not much to do. The same people, at the same receptions and dinners. It gets tedious, and since society is so narrow, everybody knows all the gossip. The advantage, though, is that we’re very popular with the young ladies. They like a man in a red coat, and a new face as well.”

Taylor broke off, blushing scarlet as he realised what he had said. Thomas felt sorry for him and at the same time exasperated at having to rescue him. “Well my coat’s the wrong colour and my face is likely to scare them off,” he said, as lightly as he could.

“Sorry, old man. So sorry.”

“It’s all right, I’m used to it. Tell me about some of the people.”

Thomas listened for a while, smiling at some of the more scurrilous stories and trying to ignore covert looks and some open stares. The scar had faded from a scarlet horror to white, but it could not be ignored. The splinter of wood, blown apart by French cannon, had driven into his jaw and travelled upwards to his temple, breaking his cheekbone on the way. It had remained lodged there as he lay in agony waiting for his turn on the surgeon’s bloody table, and when it was gone, his face was bisected, cobbled together with rough stitches. Infection came and went, but the wound touched neither his eye or his mouth. From the right side, Thomas was the same as he had always been, a face of distinction and even some beauty, crowned with bright chestnut hair and well-shaped green eyes with lashes a woman might have envied. From the left, he was a monster and when possible he avoided society so that he did not have to see its reaction.

“That’s old Quayle. Two sons, one’s gone into the law, the other’s learning the business. The daughter went off to London to seek her fortune and did very nicely for herself, some East India merchant, I fancy. She was back here last Christmas showing off the London gowns and diamonds. I danced with her a couple of times. Very pretty.”

Tobin had joined them. “Did you know Crellin has a daughter?”

“No. Where, I’ve never seen her?” Taylor said.

Tobin grinned. “Now that really was a scandal,” he said. “She was a wild one, Roseen Crellin. Set tongues wagging all over the island and then ran away to sea and married a Manx navy captain. He wasn’t from the gentry, but they’ll forgive him because he’s made a fortune in prize money.”

“Who’s that?” Taylor asked, looking across the tent.

Thomas had noticed the girl earlier. She stood beside an older couple, probably her grandparents, and she had been staring very openly at Thomas, making no attempt to hide the fact. Thomas had been trying to ignore it, but now he looked back, hoping she would be embarrassed and look away. To his surprise, she gave him a warm smile instead.

She was probably around twenty, very tall and well-proportioned with shining brown hair curled around a vivid face with well-defined cheekbones and beautiful green eyes. She was dressed very stylishly in a dark green velvet gown, topped with a black cape trimmed with white fur.  Thomas looked at Tobin enquiringly.

“Aalin Kennaugh,” the captain said obligingly. “Those are her grandparents, they raised her after her parents died. Very wealthy, he was an  East India merchant, retired now. They’ve property in Liverpool and Bristol and a fortune in stocks, I’m told. There was a proposed match with some wealthy plantation owner, Mrs Kennaugh spent some time in London trying to bring it off, but the lady is having none of it. She’s turned down a few local gentlemen in the past few years. She’ll inherit a fortune when the old man dies, so she can afford to be choosy. She’s also the worst flirt on the island.” Tobin smiled at Thomas. “Our young ladies aren’t raised quite as strictly as you’ll be used to, Lieutenant. There are rules, of course, but on a small island, the chances are that the lass you’re dancing with was a childhood playmate so it’s hard to be formal.”

“It seems the young lady agrees,” Taylor said, smirking. Miss Kennaugh was making her way around the tent towards them. Tobin bowed slightly and accepted the hand she held out to him.

“Miss Kennaugh, how are you?”

“Very well, Captain Tobin. How are you? Is your brother well?”

“Yes, I had a letter from him a few days ago, he is with the Mediterranean fleet.”

“I hope he is warmer than I am, then. Why do we do this every year, I wonder, when we have houses with walls, ceilings and fires? Next year, I shall refuse. I have seen St Catherine’s hen massacred all my life, it is enough. Does it not seem barbaric to you, Lieutenant Young?”

Thomas was startled. She was regarding him steadily from eyes which were close in colour to his own. There was no sign of discomfort as her gaze rested on his marred face, but he supposed her open stares had given her plenty of opportunity to get used to it.

“I see no introductions are necessary,” Tobin said dryly. “Nevertheless, I shall make them. Miss Kennaugh, this is Captain Maclay and Lieutenant Taylor from the Royal Manx Fencibles, and Lieutenant Young from the Revenue service. Gentlemen, Miss Kennaugh.”

Thomas bowed. Taylor said enthusiastically:

“Capital to meet you, Miss Kennaugh. I’ve been here a while but I’ve not had the pleasure.”

“No, I’ve been away,” the girl said. “My grandmother took me to London to see the sights. At least that was her stated intention, but truthfully, it was to try to persuade me to accept a marriage I did not want. I have no idea why she thought the location would make a difference, but I think she knows my mind now. I heard about your cutter being wrecked, Lieutenant. Were you not shot, as well?”

Her tone was faintly mocking. Thomas looked back without smiling. One of the advantages of having no expectation of attracting a pretty girl was that he felt no need to impress. “Yes,” he said evenly. “A minor wound only, I think it was probably a warning shot gone astray. I have had far worse, as you have observed.”

Thomas sensed the shock of his companions and he supposed he had been rude, but then so had she, and he had no reason to care. The girl did not seem to react at all, but he saw a slight flush mount to her pale cheeks. Nobody spoke for an agonising moment and Thomas wondered if he should apologise for the sake of his companions. He saw her lift her chin and stand a little more upright. 

“I’m surprised they hit you, Lieutenant, it’s clear you’re not afraid to return fire. My grandfather has expressed a wish to meet you. Should you object?”

Thomas felt his face redden. “I…no. No, of course not.”

She nodded and bowed to the other three men, all of whom seemed stunned into silence. Thomas stepped forward and she did not move but looked at him pointedly. Thomas flushed again and offered his arm. The girl accepted as regally as a duchess.

Halfway around the tent, she said:

“At least you can blush.”

“Only on one half of my face.”

Aalin Kennaugh raised furious eyes to meet his. “Generally, Englishmen have better manners than the Manx. You are an exception, sir.”

“I’m sorry. I thought, by the way you were staring at me earlier, and your reference to my recent misfortunes, that we had decided to dispense with the pleasantries.”

They had reached the elderly couple. Thomas had not been sure that the request for an introduction was genuine, but as he bowed, the old man’s face lit up into a particularly sweet smile.

“It is Lieutenant Young, is it not?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Lieutenant, allow me to introduce you to my wife. My dear, this is the young man that Colonel Smelt spoke of at dinner last week.”

Mrs Kennaugh was pink cheeked and round faced and made Thomas ache suddenly for his home and his family. He bowed over her hand and wished he could take back everything he had said to her granddaughter. “Lieutenant Young, I am delighted,” she said. “The lieutenant-governor was telling us of your misfortunes. And – forgive me for referring to it – your previous fine service. You may not know that we lost both our son and our grandson at Trafalgar. He was captain of the Tulip and his son served as midshipman.”

Shock froze Thomas for a moment. He knew that he needed to say something, but all he could think about was his appalling rudeness to a girl who had lost so much. He turned and looked at her. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, no, that’s awful. I’m so sorry, ma’am. Sir. And Miss Kennaugh, you must think me the world’s worst boor. I’m over-sensitive, sometimes, but there was no excuse…”

“No, you were right,” the girl said unexpectedly. “I was staring. I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it. I have no idea exactly how my father and brother died, it was pure vulgar curiosity.”

Thomas felt rather as though he had been punched in the stomach. “I’m sorry,” he said again, helplessly.

Mrs Kennaugh came to his rescue. “A misunderstanding, I’m sure. You could not have known and Aalin has a very unruly tongue and speaks her mind. Forgive me, sir, you may have made other arrangements, but we were wondering if you would care to spend Christmas with us at our house just outside Douglas. I know the officers will take care of  you, but you will be so much more comfortable in a home and we would like to offer hospitality to a navy man.”

Something about the warmth of her tone drew a smile from Thomas. He did not smile very often, it twisted the scar on the side of his face into a bizarre crescent. “I’m not really a navy man any more, ma’am. With such a long convalescence I was put on half-pay, and have remained there ever since. It was the revenue service or the impress service and I didn’t like the idea of that.”

“I imagine not. My son used to tell me that impressment was essential to keep the navy functioning and ready to defend our shores, but it’s very hard on families whose sons and husbands and fathers are snatched away. I do not blame you for preferring to chase smugglers, Lieutenant. Do join us.”

Thomas was smiling, he could not stop himself. “I am so grateful for your kindness, but you cannot wish for a stranger in the house, especially one making himself unpopular on the island by interfering in the smuggling trade.”

“That is exactly what we wish for, Lieutenant,” Kennaugh said breezily. “You’ve no duties at present, I’m told the Bluebird won’t be fit to sail until January. Pack up your things and I’ll send the carriage for you tomorrow. It’ll be good for Aalin to have a young person around the house for a while.”

Thomas glanced nervously at the girl. She was looking at him with clinical interest. “How old are you, Lieutenant?” she enquired.

“None of your business, Miss,” her grandfather growled affectionately. Thomas was beginning to realise that Miss Kennaugh’s elderly relatives indulged her beyond permission but he understood why. Having lost so much must have drawn the three closer.

“I will attempt to make up for my horrible rudeness by answering frankly, Miss Kennaugh. I’m twenty five.”

Unexpectedly the pert line of Aalin Kennaugh’s mouth softened into a genuine smile. “Oh no, I thought you must be older,” she said. “You’ve done so much. I’m twenty. I was fifteen that year. It was horrible, and must have been so for you too. Please accept. I cannot promise to behave all the time, because I don’t know how, but I will promise not to be beastly to you again. You don’t deserve it.”

Thomas melted. “Then I’ll accept with pleasure,” he said gravely. “Thank you.”

***

Aalin Kennaugh spent the twenty-four hours before the arrival of Lieutenant Thomas Young in a flutter of nervous anticipation which infuriated her. A young woman of decided opinions and independent spirit, she had reached the age of twenty without ever feeling the slightest interest in the various young men that her grandparents threw in her way. Most of them were boys she had grown up with, and Aalin already knew that she wanted more than a steady Manx businessman or landowner as her partner in life. She was young for marriage, but along with her grandmother, whom she adored, Aalin accepted her limitations and realised that it would not hurt to plan ahead.

It was not that she was unattractive. Aalin approved the natural curl of her dark brown hair and the wide, well spaced green eyes. Her skin, which had struggled with hideous spots for several years had miraculously cleared about a week after her nineteenth birthday, with no explanation, and she had excellent posture and was a graceful dancer. In terms of accomplishments, she was very well-read, could sing better than any of her contemporaries and was a talented artist. She had a good seat on a horse and light hands and knew how to sew although she seldom bothered, since she could think of nothing more boring. She had all the essential attributes that a gentleman might require in a wife. It was simply that she was so tall and built on far more generous lines than any of the other girls.

When she was younger, Aalin had shed tears over it. Her older cousin, a waif-like creature now married to a Douglas advocate, was three years older than her, and her aunt had sent bundles of clothing over to Aalin regularly through childhood. Aalin had opened the parcels and tried to struggle into the tiny garments until she wept, and eventually her grandmother had put a stop to the process, telling her aunt firmly to stop sending them. Aalin was a head taller than Emma, with curved hips and an impressive bosom, even at the age of fourteen. Dressmakers, arriving to measure for the garments necessary for Aalin’s introduction into society would pause, and study her, and then sigh.

“The young lady is so tall. And so…so womanly.”

Aalin had heard the word ‘fat’ behind the remarks and had cried herself to sleep. The floating muslins of girlhood had made her feel enormous, the white and pale blue and pinks of the debutante had never suited her and none of her grandmother’s soothing words had helped.

London had changed that. One evening spent in the company of Mr David Claybourne had convinced her that she would never wish to marry him, but the city itself had intrigued her. On the one hand, she had hated the crowds and the noise and the sense of never being able to find a moment of solitude. On the other hand, she realised that among so many people, she could become invisible and the experience had been amazingly liberating.

Accompanied by the companion hired by her grandmother, she had explored the city, wandered through the parks and visited libraries and art galleries and museums. She had sat for a portrait, and been gratified at the artist’s blatant admiration. She had been attended by dressmakers, far more experienced and sophisticated than her island could produce and had begun to realise that there was far more to beauty and fashion than a slender figure and an air of innocence. And she had realised, with passionate gratitude, that the proposed marriage had simply been her shrewd and kindly grandmother’s excuse to show her a different world.

Returning home after months away was confusing. Aalin loved being back among her own people and relished silent walks over the hills with her dogs and long fire lit evenings with her grandparents. On the other hand, she found local society parochial and often boring. She was stifled by the small concerns of the Manx gentry and wanted to scream as they picked over every scandal and item of gossip repeatedly. She had grown up and had no idea what to do about it.

Lieutenant Thomas Young was a very welcome distraction. Flirtation was a skill Aalin had learned during her time away and she had been surprised to find that she was good at it and enjoyed it. She no longer felt at a disadvantage among her more dainty fellow debutantes, and she found that the definite colours and well cut clothing she had learned to wear in London made her stand out. Marriage was a different prospect to flirting but Aalin had taken a long look at Thomas Young’s perfect profile across the tent and wanted to know more about him. The scar had been a shock, but his defensive rudeness had not upset her. She understood, better than Mr Young could know, how easy it was for self-consciousness to spill over into bad manners.

On the day of his arrival, Aalin found herself hanging back. They dined that afternoon, and she was content, for once, to listen, as her grandparents gently questioned him and drew out the story she was dying to know. He was, as Aalin had supposed, of good family, a third son, with the estate and lands going to his eldest brother. The second brother had chosen the army and had died on the brutal field of Talavera. Thomas had chosen the navy over the church and had passed his lieutenant’s exam before the bloody battle at Trafalgar had brought glory to England, robbed them of Nelson and left Thomas Young scarred, angry and defensive, trapped in a posting he hated with no prospect of returning to the navy. Without influence or patronage, a young and newly qualified lieutenant might wait a long time once he was placed on half-pay. He had chosen not to return home to rely on the support of his parents and his brother and Aalin strongly approved of his quiet independence.

December proved bright and sunny, although cold, and as her grandparents’ activities were limited, it was left to Aalin to entertain their guest through the daytime. The revenue man had hired a horse from the Castletown inn, but Aalin cast it a scornful glance and produced her own second mount, a tall grey gelding with a sweet temperament. She enjoyed watching Thomas make friends with Diamond and as they clattered out of the yard, she silently approved his seat on the horse. Thomas was several inches taller than Aalin and a good fit for the horse, and she could see he was enjoying himself. 

“You approve, Lieutenant?”

Thomas glanced over at her. “Yes, thank you. He’s beautiful.”

“My father bought him in Ireland the year before he died, he was intended for my brother. He’s tall for me, Ruby here is a better fit, but I could never get rid of him and he’s so well-mannered. Far more so than I am.”

“Your manners have been impeccable since I arrived, Miss Kennaugh.”

“So have yours. We got off to a poor start, but I’m proud of us since.”

To her delight, he laughed aloud. “It would be impossible to be rude to your grandparents,” he said. “Where are we going?”

“To Douglas. I’m sure you’ve been there already, but I thought we could ride up to Douglas Head and along the coastal path, the weather is so fine. It’s a beautiful view from up there.”

“It’s a beautiful island. I realise I’ve only seen it from the perspective of the best beaches to land run goods so far. I’ve been surprised at how welcoming the people have been. Not just your grandparents, but generally. In Sussex, I’m a pariah, they hate the revenue and excisemen. I can’t even get served in some of the inns. Which is probably just as well, since I’d be drinking run brandy.”

It was a long sentence, for this reserved young man, and a way in, and Aalin seized it. “Would you tell me more about your work? I know a little about the trade of course, since I live in the middle of it, but only from the Manx perspective. I’m interested.”

Thomas shot her a surprised look, but complied readily. Once he began to talk, he was a good storyteller, and she was fascinated by his tales of the smuggling trade in Sussex, of dark nights and sudden conflict, of intimidation and violence and even murder. It bore no resemblance to the casual acceptance of the trade in Mann and she told him so, although she was careful only to refer to stories thirty years in the past that her grandfather had told her, and she knew by his quiet amusement that he realised it. It set the tone for the following week, and by St Thomas’ Eve, as they rode out to watch the men cutting the huge peat turf which would burn through Christmas and bring good luck into the house, Aalin was on very comfortable terms with their guest and she knew that her grandmother was watching with great interest.

“I am told that you intend to take our guest to church on Christmas Eve for the carval singing,” she said to Aalin, as they sat together writing letters one morning. “I hope he doesn’t find it too tedious.”

“He will find it enormously tedious after the third song,” Aalin said composedly. “But I was telling him about the custom and he was interested. I have told him he should remain close to the back door and leave when he wants to. I’ll be able to see him from the gallery and will slip out to join him.”

“Or you could throw a dried pea at him to attract his attention,” Mrs Kennaugh said placidly.

Aalin blushed scarlet and kept her head bent over the letter she was failing to write. The Christmas Eve service ended with local maidens throwing dried peas down from the gallery at their bachelor acquaintances, and it was an accepted way for a girl to express her interest in a man. The scene usually degenerated quickly into chaos and the parish clerk, whose job it was to oversee the carval singing, would clear the church with the congregation, their religious duty done, making their way to the local public house to continue the festivities.

“I shall do nothing of the kind,” Aalin said firmly. “We shall leave before it becomes disorderly. Anyway, I don’t suppose he knows what that is supposed to mean.”

“He may have found somebody to tell him,” Mrs Kennaugh said.

Aalin looked up. “Grandmother, are you trying to tell me something?”

“I think I am trying to ask you something, child. You are spending a great deal of time with this young man.”

“You told me that you wanted me to entertain him. I am never alone with him. If we ride, my groom follows us. If we walk or drive, I take my maid. It is perfectly…”

“Aalin, I am not scolding you, you have done nothing wrong. It is just that I am beginning to wonder if there is more to this than taking care of a guest. You like him, don’t you?”

Aalin could feel herself blushing. “Do you not like him?”

Mrs Kennaugh smiled. “I like him very much. We invited him, as you know, in memory of your father and your brother. At this time of year, it seemed right to offer hospitality to a Trafalgar veteran, especially one who has suffered so much. Since then, I have got to know him a little, and I find him a most estimable young man. It is a shame he is so very conscious of his scar, since I think it stops him smiling as much as he ought.”

“One can hardly blame him when you see the way people stare. It infuriates me. Did you see Mrs Quayle at dinner last night? She stared at him, as though he was some kind of side show at St Catherine’s Fair, I wanted to slap her. To make it worse, she did not listen properly to his conversation, she was so busy staring at his scar. It was so obvious. No wonder he dislikes going into society if it is full of such ill-mannered fools.”

“I see he has a champion in you.”

Aalin sighed. “Don’t matchmake, Grandmama, it’s a repulsive habit.”

“I have certainly proved a failure at it so far,” Mrs Kennaugh agreed. 

“Lieutenant Young is not going to propose marriage to me,” Aalin said firmly. She realised that it would be better to have this conversation and dispose of any false hopes. “He dreams of returning to the navy some day. Besides, he is ridiculously scrupulous and does not believe that a man should offer marriage when he cannot support a wife.”

“Has he told you that?”

“Yes. We have talked of marriage in general, as people do. I wish there was a way he could return to the navy, he misses it desperately, although he tries very hard to make the best of his current work. I think he must have made a very good and conscientious officer.”

“I’m sure he did,” her grandmother said gently. “But you would not wish to be married to a navy officer, would you, Aalin?”

Aalin realised that she was close to tears, and she knew that her grandmother would see it. She looked up, blinking hard, and managed a smile. “Ma’am, if it was a man I cared about, I would not refuse because of his profession,” she said. “But it can not be. He is not…he does not…will you excuse me?”

She did not hear her grandmother’s response as she sought the safety of her bedchamber. Lying full length on her bed, Aalin fought against her tears, knowing that she was being silly. It was not sensible to pine over a man who clearly saw her in the light of a cousin or a sister, and not wise to spend too much time dwelling on the joy of every crooked smile or the flutter she felt every time he took her arm, or lifted her from her horse. She was determined just to enjoy this Christmas then let him go with the memory of friendship and no embarrassment. It had been a mistake to let Grandmama see how she felt, but it was more important to ensure that Thomas had no idea. He would be kind, but it would be painfully awkward, and Aalin had no intention of giving him a moment’s discomfort. It was not his fault that she had developed these feelings and she would manage them herself.

Christmas Eve dawned crisp and dry, but by the afternoon a sharp wind was rising and dark clouds obscured the sun. No rain had fallen by the time they set out for church, but Aalin was fairly sure it would fall before Christmas day. The church was barely half full, mostly with people of the more respectable sort. There were few of the local gentry present, they would go to church the following morning while their servants prepared Christmas dinner, but Mr and Mrs Kennaugh had elected to come. The service was short, dwelling on the story of the nativity and the celebration of Christ’s birth.

When the final prayer was said, the parson gathered together his sermon and prepared to leave. He was followed out by the gentry. Aalin joined them, flashing a reassuring smile to Thomas, who was stationed by the back door of the church, looking nervous. She mounted the stairs to the wooden gallery as sounds of laughter and chatter suddenly filled the church, and the aisle was filled with young men and women. The girls climbed to the gallery and the men filled the pews. There were a number of older men, regular singers at the Oiel Verree service. Mr Corlett, the parish clerk, took up his station just inside the communion rail. Aalin had attended this service many times and wondered what her English guest made of it. Most of the congregation carried a lighted candle. The girls decorated their candles with red ribbons and rosettes. Aalin lit her own candle from one of the others and stood by the door, enjoying the brilliance of the lighted church and the feeling of community. 

The carvels began. Most were written in Manx and one or two in English. There were one or two traditional carols but most were written by previous parishioners. Few of them were about the nativity and the themes were usually grim and dark, dwelling more on sin and the prospect of eternal damnation than the hope of Christ’s birth. Sometimes men sang together, sometimes alone. They carried lighted tapers, and could sing until the taper burned down, when they made way for the next singer.

Halfway through the fourth carvel, some of the girls were becoming restless, and one or two had begun to throw the hard, dried peas down into the men below. Voices hushed them. The song being sung was an old one, known locally as Bad Women, and spoke of the sinful nature of some of womankind, with Biblical references. It was never popular with the girls, and Aalin thought dispassionately that the clerk might have done better to leave that one to the end.

Peering over into the body of the church, Aalin almost laughed aloud. The singer of Bad Women, the blacksmith from Lonan, had chosen to sing the carvel in English, and it was the first that Thomas would have understood. The revenue man was staring at the singer as though he could not believe his ears. Aalin leaned on the wooden balcony and watched appreciatively.

“Here, missus, throw this at him.”

Aalin turned, startled, and a thin faced elf of a girl was laughing back at her, holding out several dried peas. The temptation was irresistible. Aalin took aim. The first pea missed, bouncing off the wood of the back pew but the second struck Thomas squarely on the top of his head. He looked up, startled, and caught her eye. Aalin jerked her head towards the door and saw, to her secret delight, a broad smile in response. It happened so seldom. Aalin smiled at the elf girl and returned the remainder of the peas then slipped down the stairs and joined Thomas outside in the cold dark night.

As Aalin had suspected, it was raining. The wind was gusting fiercely, threatening Aalin’s riding hat. They stood in the church porch, listening to the growing hilarity within.

“What on earth was he singing about?”

“Sinful women,” Aalin said. “It’s traditional.”

“At Christmas?”

“Come to church tomorrow, you’ll hear pretty carols about the birth of Jesus. Carval singing concentrates on the darker side of God.”

“I would never have guessed it.”

“Mind, the clerk is going to wish he’d not permitted that one so early in the evening, it’s stirred up some of the sinful women in the gallery, he’s going to get a dried pea in the eye if he’s not careful. This is not pleasant. I knew it was going to rain, we should have asked my grandparents to send the carriage back for us.” Aalin glanced at her companion. “We could take refuge at the parsonage and send Orry back to get it.”

“I’ll be guided by you, Miss Kennaugh. If I was alone, I’d make the ride, it’s not that far, but for a lady…”

“I’m Manx, Lieutenant, we’re used to a bit of rain and wind.” Aalin surveyed the weather thoughtfully. “We could ride back along the coastal path, which would save us ten minutes or more. I’d rather avoid the parsonage, it will be full of very worthy people clicking their tongues over the shocking conduct of the young people at the carvel singing. Shall we?”

“By all means. What are you doing?”

“Saving my hat,” Aalin said. As the groom led the horses forward, she removed her riding hat and tied it by its strings to her saddle. “It will be wet but will probably dry out. If I try to ride with it, it’ll end up in the Irish Sea.”

“You’ll get soaked.”

“That hat is not going to keep me dry,” Aalin said as they set their horses into the wind. Glancing sideways she saw that he was smiling, the second time in one evening. It felt like an achievement.

“You are the most practical-minded female I have ever encountered, Miss Kennaugh.”

“Thank you,” Aalin said, somewhat miserably.

To her surprise, he picked up her tone. “I’m sorry, that was meant as a compliment. I’ve spent little time in society these past years and almost none in the company of a pretty girl, but I like your common sense. It is reassuring to know that the possession of a lovely face doesn’t automatically make a girl an idiot. I had wondered until I met you.”

Aalin did not reply. She could not, and was glad of a sudden huge gust of wind which made it necessary to pay attention to her horse. Thomas had said it in such matter-of-fact tones, there was no hint of flirtation or flattery and he could have no idea how much it meant to her. She had been complimented before, on her graceful dancing and excellent sense of style. She had been called, by various hopeful gentlemen with an eye on her fortune, such epithets as magnificent, queenly and glorious and had been referred to as an Amazon. She had never once been called either pretty or lovely and she had told herself that it did not matter. She discovered that it did.

“Have I offended you?” Thomas said, sounding anxious.

“No, of course not. Thank you. I was just surprised.”

“I can understand that, I’m not very good at giving compliments where they’re due. Or at all, really. My older brother Kit inherited all the charm in the family, Edward and I were always rather envious.”

“Was it Kit who died?”

“Yes. Earlier this year.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realise it was so recent.”

“He’s buried in Spain, which is hard for my mother, I think. They held a memorial service in the parish church, but…what was that?”

Aalin had heard it too. Thomas reined in, listening. The path ran fairly close to the cliff edge, and they could hear the sound of the sea, waves crashing onto the rocks below. At first, Aalin thought that she had imagined the noise, that it had just been the howling of the wind between the rocks, but then it came again and this time it was unmistakably human voices, not coming back from the direction of the church, but from below the cliff edge.

“Is there a beach down there?” Thomas demanded.

“No. There’s a small cove about half a mile on, you can reach it through a little glen. Down from here, there’s only rocks.”

It was hard to see his face through the dark and rain, but Aalin could sense him thinking quickly. “You, what’s your name? Orry, isn’t it? Come and take my horse. Move them back from the cliff edge, along with Miss Kennaugh, I don’t want them spooked.”

He dismounted and Orry took the horses. Aalin watched as Thomas moved forward. She longed to join him but knew that in this weather, she should not leave the groom to manage three nervous animals alone. She watched, her heart beating faster, as Thomas reached the edge and then lowered himself to the wet grass. He lay full length peering down into the darkness for no more than a minute, then he scrambled to his feet and ran back to them, squinting through the rain, which was little more than a drizzle now.

“It’s a boat, it’s hit the rocks.”

“Oh no.”

“It’s still afloat, I think they’re trying to row to the beach, but I doubt they’ll make it the state of her, she’s lost the mast and she’s listing badly. Orry, you’ll need to ride for help. Back to the church, it’s closest. I hope to God they’re still singing Manx dirges and haven’t got to the public house yet or they’ll be of no use. Take Miss Kennaugh with you and leave her at the parsonage.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Where are you going?” Aalin said.

“Down the glen to the beach. The wind will push them that way. If they can stay afloat long enough to round the rocks, they might make it ashore. If they’re in the water, they’ll need help.”

“You can’t go alone.”

“You’re not coming.”

“I’ll go back to get help. Orry can…”

“No, I’m not having you ride alone along this path in this weather. If your horse stumbles…”

“You don’t know where you’re going,” Aalin said furiously. “Use some of the common sense you claim to value so highly and stop being a hero. Two people should go to the beach.”

Thomas hesitated, then nodded. “Come with me, then,” he said. “Get going, Orry.”

They watched the groom ride off, then Thomas mounted his horse. “Show me,” he said, and Aalin, appreciating his brisk acceptance of the situation, led the way towards Caly Glen.

***

The glen was short and steep, not ideal for horses in the darkness, although the advantage was that it was somewhat sheltered from the wind. There were a few trees clinging to the steep sides, but mostly the hills were covered with tangled undergrowth, a narrow slippery track winding its way down to a stony beach. The rain had eased, which made visibility a little better, and Thomas concentrated on getting Diamond safely to the bottom, following Aalin. Ruby, her tall mare, was sure-footed in the darkness and they paused on the rocky shore. The sea was a dark boiling mass, capped with white foam, and huge waves crashed onto the beach, sending up spray which could make them no wetter. At some point during the speedy descent, Thomas realised he had lost his hat.

“There’s somebody on the beach,” Aalin said. 

Thomas saw it too, dark figures outlined against the waves, speaking in urgent tones. They had two closed lanterns which bobbed furiously in the wind as they held them up, peering out into the waves. Thomas urged his horse forward and the strangers turned to face him. Both were men, wrapped up in dark coats with woollen fishermen’s hats pulled low over their heads and he could see little of them apart from their faces, one young, one old and lined.

“Any sign of them?” Thomas asked, dismounting.

“Out there.” The younger man’s voice was anguished. “They were rounding the head and hit a rock. She’s broken up, sir.”

Thomas could hear them now, the cries of men in the water, and he felt sick with horror. It was the fear of every seagoing man, to find himself clinging to a flimsy piece of wreckage in a dark, angry sea with no hope of rescue. He guessed all these Manxmen were strong swimmers but it would not matter out there tonight.

“Where’ve you come from?”

“Cottage up on the cliff there,” the older man said. “On our way back from church and heard the noise. Sent my lad running for rope, but we’ve no way to use it, they’re too far to throw it.”

Thomas heard the lie and understood. He was not sure if the two men had been on the beach waiting to guide the boat in with the lights or if they had run down as the storm worsened, but he was certain they had been expecting the craft and knew who manned her and what she carried. Christmas Eve in a rising storm was no time to put to sea, but a good time to evade detection with all law-abiding folk either in church or at home, celebrating the season with family and friends. Thomas guessed they knew who he was. Even without his uniform, the island was too small for any smuggler not to know about the red-headed, scarred revenue officer currently on shore leave. But he had not noticed the rope and it galvanised him into sudden action.

“How many aboard?”

“Don’t know, sir,” the older man said. “Like I said…”

“What’s your name?”

“Kinvig, sir. Illiam Kinvig, that’s my boy Jemmy.”

“Right, Mr Kinvig, I don’t give a single damn what cargo that boat carries or what you know about it, I’m here to save lives tonight. You give me a straight answer or you’ll be going head first into that water, and it looks bloody cold. How many?”

“Six, sir,” Jemmy said instantly. “It’s Colin Shimmin’s boat, two of his lads, Adam Joughin, Juan Kermode and my brother Eedin.”

“Good lad. Give me that rope.”

Thomas turned to Aalin. The wind had torn her hair loose from its pins and it blew in wild curls around her face, the big green eyes looking steadily at him. He wondered if she knew what he was about to ask her.

“Miss Kennaugh, it’s your decision. I can ride out with Diamond, and I can probably reach them. If we tie the rope to him, Kinvig and his boy can help pull us back in. He’s a strong horse, I think he’ll make it. But he might not.”

Aalin’s face was white in the lantern light and her expression pulled at his heartstrings, but she did not hesitate. “You might not make it either, Thomas, and I find that worries me far more. Do it.”

There was no time for more and Thomas could not, in any case, say any of the things he badly wanted to say to this girl, who had walked  into his life and made him painfully aware of all the things he did not have. Even in this desperate moment, he felt simple happiness that she had used his first name. Thomas reached for her hand, encased in soaked riding gloves, and kissed it.

“I will buy you the finest pair of gloves this island can produce as a New Year’s gift,” he said, and she smiled through tears.

“See that you are here to keep that promise, Mr Young.”

Diamond reared up as Thomas urged him into the raging sea. Waves thundered around them, pushing the horse back, and Thomas held on with an iron grip, forcing his mount forward. He had developed a good relationship with the horse these past weeks and now, when it mattered, Diamond steadied and held and then began to make his way forward into the sea. Thomas felt the moment that the horse was out of his depth, but he kept moving forward, swimming strongly. Thomas reached behind to check that the rope was secure although he had tied it himself.

Then they were among the wreckage and he heard a cry close by. There were two men, clinging to a wooden board, and he could see that they were both quite young. Thomas manoeuvred Diamond around then reached out a hand.

“Let go,” he yelled, his voice a scream to be heard over the sound of the storm. “One at a time. Hold on to the saddle. One each side.”

It took some time to move the two terrified boys over to the horse. One of them struggled to let go of the plank, his face a mask of fear in the darkness, but it was done finally, and Thomas urged Diamond back to shore. It was harder going, the tide pulling seawards, but Diamond was very strong and knew he was heading for safety, and Kinvig and Jemmy hauled on the rope, helping the horse. His hooves found sand and he trudged through the turbulent waves. In the shallows, Kinvig and Jem splashed towards them, lifting the survivors away from Diamond and up onto the shore.

“Where’s the lantern, I can’t see,” Thomas yelled.

“Here.” Aalin was beside him on Ruby, the oil lamp swinging in the wind, the faint light picking up shapes in the swirling gunmetal waves. Several pieces of wood floated quite close to the shore, and what looked like a barrel was bouncing further out. 

“Shine it over towards the rocks, Aalin, I can’t see…”

“Fella coming in. Swimming. He’s caught in the tide.”

Aalin lifted the lantern and Thomas saw immediately, the desperate strokes that were making no progress. The tide was not impossible to surmount, but this man was exhausted. He was not that far out, and Thomas urged Diamond forward into the waves. He could feel the pull of the water as the horse struck out strongly, but they reached the swimmer quickly, a burly young man and quick-witted for all his exhaustion. He clung to Thomas’ stirrup and Thomas turned the horse and towed him in. The man kept his feet in the shallows and staggered up the beach into the waiting embrace of Kinvig and Jemmy.

“Eedin. Ah, lad, thank God.”

“Any sign of the others?” Thomas asked.

Eedin Kinvig turned, his startled eyes, taking in Thomas’ uniform and clearly understanding. “We lost Joughin when we hit the rocks,” he said. “He went under, we tried to find him. He’s gone sir. Colin is hanging on for his life to the mast. You might see him.”

Thomas took the lantern and raised it. He could feel Diamond beginning to tremble under him and he was shivering himself. He scanned the waves and then saw it, a faint movement, which might have been a waving arm. For a moment, Thomas knew a sense of sheer misery at the thought of going back into the freezing grey water. He leaned forward and patted Diamond’s neck. 

“Reckon we can do it once more, boy?”

The horse baulked as he felt the cold water churning around his legs and for a moment, Thomas thought he had asked too much. Then Diamond steadied and moved forward, striking out strongly towards the faint shape in the distance. The light of one of the lanterns glimmered over the water and Thomas knew that Aalin was holding it high, guiding him towards Colin Shimmin. Diamond swam slowly and Thomas could feel his exhaustion. Whatever happened now, he could not push the horse to do this again.

Shimmin was there, barely conscious, half lying across the broken wooden mast. Thomas tried hard to get him to cling to the saddle, but the older man was too exhausted, and Thomas suspected that if he managed it, he would let go halfway and go under. Desperation lent him strength, and Thomas hauled him up until he was face down over the saddle bow. He concentrated, on the way back, on keeping Shimmin’s head out of the water and thanked God for the rope and the strong arms pulling him in, since he could feel that the horse was spent. As they splashed through the shallows, Thomas could feel Diamond’s legs wobbling and as hands reached up to take Shimmin, he slid from the saddle and put both arms around the horse’s wet, smooth neck.

“All right. It’s all right, boy. No more. You’ve done enough.”

“Thomas.”

Thomas turned. He realised they were no longer alone on the shore. Other men were coming down the beach, some with blankets and flasks, and the survivors were being wrapped up warmly and given brandy. Thomas recognised the parson, Mr Gawne. 

“Lieutenant Young, well done, sir. Four lives saved, thanks to your bravery.”

“Two lost,” Thomas said, bitterly. He was scanning the dark sea, but he could see no sign of life, only a few dark shapes as the wreckage of the boat and her cargo were tossed about on the stormy sea. The wind was beginning to die down finally and it had stopped raining, but Thomas was soaked to his underclothes and shivering. A man he did not know came forward with a rough blanket and draped it awkwardly around Thomas’ shoulders and Thomas nodded his thanks, almost too tired to speak. He looked over at Aalin. She was standing with Diamond, whispering to him, kissing his nose. Somebody had provided a blanket for her as well. She looked as wet as he was, her soaked hair falling in mad curls down her back. Thomas stood watching her and then she looked around and saw him, and smiled.

“You did it,” she said. “You were so brave. Thank you, Lieutenant.”

“You know my name,” Thomas said. “You cannot go back now.”

“Oh. I didn’t think you had noticed.”

“It was my favourite part of the evening,” Thomas said gravely, and loved the splutter of laughter she gave.

“Then you should call me Aalin. Although I don’t know what my grandmother will say about it.”

“We’ll ask her, shall we?” Thomas said. Aalin looked at him uncertainly, and Thomas smiled, not caring what it did to his scar. “We should get this lad back, he’s exhausted.”

“Orry has gone for the carriage, it will be here at any moment. He’ll walk Diamond back. Here, have some of the parson’s brandy. I have told him I don’t think he’ll see us in church tomorrow, but I think he will forgive us.”

“Christmas,” Thomas said. “I’d totally forgotten.”

Aalin was looking around the beach. “These people won’t forget, Thomas,” she said. “And neither shall I.”

***

Aalin slept late, exhausted, and on waking, went first to the stables. She was surprised to find Thomas already there, fussing Diamond in his stall. Aalin stood watching him for a moment. He was neat and trim again, the red hair tied back. At some point during the previous night he had acquired a cut across his temple and both his hands were covered in scratches and tears, the nails broken and black. Thomas turned and saw her and smiled broadly and Aalin’s heart melted, remembering when he had not smiled at all.

“I thought you’d sleep later,” he said.

“I thought the same of you. He seems well.”

“He’ll be fine, no lasting damage, although he should be rested for a few days. I was just about to go in to breakfast, but there’s something I wanted to show you first.”

He took her hand and led her through the stables, past the stalls and out into the yard. Two of the men were carrying a small barrel and a box towards the kitchen door. One of them grinned at their approach.

“Morning, miss. Unexpected delivery, this morning.”

“What is it?”

“Tea, miss. And good French brandy. There was a note nailed to the box. Seems it’s a gift for the lieutenant from an unknown admirer.”

“Oh.” Aalin glanced at Thomas in some trepidation and saw that he was laughing. 

“That’s the first time I’ve knowingly been in receipt of smuggled goods. I am gifting it to your grandparents in gratitude for their hospitality. The parson was here earlier, and brought news that was a better gift to me than illicit brandy. It seems we only lost one man.”

“How?”

“For reasons I shall not examine, half the village was on the beach at dawn to see what had washed up on the incoming tide. They heard cries and scrambled down the tail of rocks to find Juan Kermode lying across a boulder with a cracked head and a broken leg. I don’t know how he didn’t freeze to death in the night but he’s alive and he’s home.”

“Oh that’s such good news,” Aalin said. “Thank heavens for the greed of the smuggling trade or he might never have been found.”

The house was decorated for Christmas with boughs of greenery from around the estate. Holly, ivy and other evergreens were interspersed with ribbons and candles. Guests had been invited for Christmas dinner. After all, Aalin and Thomas accompanied her grandparents to church and Aalin was pleased by the unmistakable warmth of the welcome given to Thomas, who seemed to have made the step from outsider to valued neighbour overnight. They returned to dinner and ate goose and duck and Twelfth Cake until Aalin was not sure that she could move. After the meal, they played blind man’s buff, hunt the slipper and charades and Aalin spent the day in a daze of happiness that she could not explain. Outwardly little had changed, but every time Thomas said her name, he smiled at her and Aalin’s heart beat faster. In the dark of the evening, carol singers came and they stood in the big square hallway joining in with the old carols. Aalin could feel Thomas’ shoulder against hers. She felt him stir, and then to her astonishment, his fingers curled around hers. Aalin did not speak. All her hard won London sophistication had deserted her and she felt girlish and vulnerable and very much out of her depth.

On St Stephen’s Day, the wren boys toured the villages, parading the dead wren at the end of a decorated pole, beating a drum and singing the Hunting of the Wren song outside the great houses in return for food and small gifts. Thomas stood on the front steps of the house beside Aalin watching the proceedings, as the servants cheered the group of young men and joined in the song. 

“I would hate to be any kind of bird during your Manx Christmas celebrations,” he said in Aalin’s ear, and she looked up at him, surprised into bubbling laughter. “Am I to expect any other kind of dead bird before Twelfth Night?”

“Only from the kitchens, Thomas, and I notice you’ve no objection to those.”

“Not in the least, I’ve not been fed this well for years. Which reminds me, since I collect there are guests again for dinner. Do you have time to walk with me before we need to change?”

Aalin felt her heart beat faster. “Of course. Where do you wish to go? I’ll ring for my maid.”

“Do you think it would be very shocking to ask you to dispense with her today? I thought we could walk up to the old church, it’s not far.”

“St Adamnan’s? Yes, of course. I’ll get my cloak and change my shoes.”

It was not far up to the partially ruined church, but the walk was fairly steep. The weather had changed again and St Stephen’s Day brought brilliant blue skies and a light breeze. It was cold, but the exercise warmed Aalin and by the time Thomas opened the gate into the small, tangled churchyard with its broken stones and Celtic crosses, she could feel her cheeks flushed with exertion. 

“How long has this been unused?” Thomas asked, as they explored the churchyard and peered into the musty interior of the remaining part of the church.

“As long as I can remember. They’re building a new church although it’s taking them forever, which is why we travel back to Douglas for most services. This one isn’t really used. I hope they don’t allow it to fall wholly into ruin, though, it’s so pretty, especially in summer.”

“It’s cold today,” Thomas said. She heard laughter in his voice, and turned to find him studying her, smiling. “I was just thinking that I would very much like to spend some time with you when we’re not at risk of freezing to death.”

“I don’t feel cold after that walk,” Aalin said. “Are you warm enough in that light jacket, though? Your uniform…”

“Every stitch I had on me that night is ruined beyond repair,” Thomas said. “I am reduced to civilian clothing.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I can buy new clothing. In fact, I probably should, I look like a pauper. Which I’m not, entirely, although as a younger son, I’m not wealthy. The estate goes to my brother, of course, but there are some bonds and investments left to me by my grandfather which bring in a small income. There will also be a little family money from my mother.”

Aalin knew that she was blushing bright red and she hoped he would think it was from the walk in the cold air. “What…why are you telling me this, Thomas?”

Thomas walked forward, taking her hand in his. “Aalin, you must know what I want to say. I spent Christmas Day wrestling with the knotty problem of whether I should speak to your grandfather first. I probably should have, but to tell you the truth I am not sure what your answer is going to be, so I thought I would find out first.”

Aalin’s eyes opened very wide. “Thomas, are you proposing to me?”

“I’m trying to. I don’t seem to have quite reached the sticking point yet. You look astonished. Didn’t you realise?”

“No. I had no idea,” Aalin said honestly.

“I must be even worse at this than I thought,” Thomas said. He raised her hand to his lips and suddenly seemed to notice that she wore no gloves. “Where are your gloves? Do not tell me you ruined your only pair?”

“No. Only I could not find them and I was hurrying.”

Thomas made an exasperated sound, released her hand and began to strip off his own gloves. “Your hands are freezing. Here, put these on. Honestly, Aalin…”

“Thomas!” Aalin said furiously. “You cannot stop halfway through a proposal to scold me about my gloves, it is too bad.”

Thomas stopped, staring at her. Unexpectedly, he dropped the gloves, reached out and took her into his arms. Aalin froze in a moment of appalled awkwardness. She felt his lips brush hers very gently and she could feel that he was smiling.

“I love you, Aalin Kennaugh. Don’t look so panicked, I’m not going to carry you into the undergrowth, it’s far too cold. I would like to kiss you though. May I?”

Aalin looked up. Suddenly she felt very sure. Reaching up, she touched her lips very gently to the line of his scar and felt him shiver a little in her arms. “Yes,” she said. 

“Was that to the kiss or my proposal?”

“You haven’t asked me, Thomas.”

“Oh. No. The gloves.”

“Yes, the gloves. Which neither of us are now wearing. Should you object if I called you Tommy? I rather like it.”

“Marry me, love, and you can call me anything.”

“Then, yes, Tommy Young. To both.”

***

Twelfth Night was a celebration both of the season and of the engagement, and Thomas realised he had not danced, or laughed like this, since that moment of agony below decks four years earlier had changed his life. He and Aalin drifted through the remainder of the season wrapped up in their own happiness. They spent Oie Houney, or New Year’s Eve, dancing at a neighbour’s house. It was the beginning of the season of Sauin, marking the formal start of winter and for the Manx farming community, rents were due, new leases began and the livestock was brought in for the winter. Thomas listened to Aalin explaining the various customs of the season, his eyes on her vivid, laughing face.

“You are not listening to me, Tommy.”

“I am. Is there an examination at the end of it?”

“If there is, you will fail.”

“I have never failed an examination. I did very well in the lieutenants’ examination.”

“What was I saying?”

“It involved ashes in the fireplace and something about a cake. Some kind of divination, I think? But no dead birds this time, which is a relief. Have I passed?”

“No. But you may kiss me anyway.”

Thomas wrote to his family, and waited without impatience for their reply. He had no doubt of their approval. His mother had cried many tears over her youngest son’s withdrawal from the world and would welcome the girl who had helped him to find his way back. In the meantime, after lengthy discussions with Aalin, he wrote his resignation from the revenue service. He would remain on half-pay, and accepted without resentment that he brought far less to the marriage than his wife. Thomas did not expect their happiness to depend on how wealthy either of them might be, and it was clear that Aalin and her grandparents cared nothing at all.

They had been discussing spring wedding plans over breakfast when the maid brought in the post. There were two letters for Thomas, one the expected happy response from his mother and the other, to his surprise, bearing an Admiralty seal. Thomas broke it open and read the rather long letter in growing astonishment. Getting to the end, he sat thinking about it for a moment then read it again, to be sure that he had not misunderstood. When he had done, he looked up into the wide green eyes of his betrothed. They were fixed on him anxiously and Thomas realised that she knew exactly what the letter contained.

“Tommy?”

“It’s an offer of a posting,” Thomas said. “It appears that I have been recommended for the position of second lieutenant aboard HMS Iris, a 74 gun third rater currently under refit in Chatham.” He met Aalin’s worried gaze. “But this isn’t news to you, is it, love of my life?”

Mrs Kennaugh rose stiffly. “You will want to discuss this privately, my children, so I will leave you.”

“No,” Thomas said quickly. “No, ma’am, please stay. Since I know very well that it must have been you and Mr Kennaugh who arranged this for me.”

“We arranged nothing,” Mrs Kennaugh said firmly. “I was asked by an old friend, what your situation was with the navy. You have met Mr Crellin many times. I explained to him, and I believe he wrote to his son-in-law.”

“Captain Hugh Kelly is married to his daughter?”

“Yes. They returned to England at the end of last year after that dreadful Walcheren business. I met Captain Kelly several times when he was last home, and of course I’ve known Roseen since she was a child. A dreadful tomboy, but a very good girl.”

“Are you angry, Tommy?” 

Thomas could hear the anxiety in Aalin’s voice and he thought about it and decided that he was not angry at all. “No,” he said. “Although I wish you had asked me first.”

“I thought you might refuse because of me,” Aalin said, and she sounded close to tears. Thomas wanted to laugh and stopped himself. Then he changed his mind and gave a broad smile. When he had first begun to smile again, it had felt strange, as though his facial muscles had forgotten how, but he was getting used to it.

“I am going to refuse because of you,” he said. “In a month’s time, I am going to get up in that church and swear before God that I’ll take care of you. It’s a vow I intend to take very seriously. I don’t think leaving you to wait for letters and dread bad news is the best way of doing that.”

“I’m so afraid you’ll come to regret it, love. If you feel that your duty…”

“Hang my duty. Sorry, ma’am. But honestly, my duty took half my face away and Kit’s duty cost him his life. I think my country has had good value out of my family’s sense of duty.” Thomas looked over at Mr Kennaugh who had not spoken. “When we’re married, I’ll be your heir. I should be here, getting to know the land and your people. I should be learning from you what I need to know, not wasting my life on a man o’war doing a job that a dozen other men could do as well. I’ve resigned from the revenue service, sir, and I intend to resign my commission in the navy.”

Aalin was crying. Thomas got up and took her into his arms. “I thought you wanted it so badly,” she said.

“I had nothing else. I have now.”

“I think my granddaughter has made a very good choice,” Mr Kennaugh said. “I’ll speak to Mr Crellin…”

“No, sir. With your permission, I’d like to write to him myself. I’ll send in my papers and I’ll write to Captain Kelly, to thank him for offering me the chance. It was a good opportunity, I’ve heard of Kelly, he’s very well thought of. And I’ve a friend who is in a similar situation to me. Captain Kelly will have a lot of officers interested in this posting, but Alex is a good man, he deserves a chance. It’s worth a shot.”

Mr and Mrs Kennaugh removed themselves tactfully and Thomas was left alone with Aalin. She had stopped crying and they sat quietly for a while, his arms about her. Eventually, she stirred. 

“I should go and wash my face, I am supposed to have a fitting at the dressmaker and she’ll think I’m regretting my choice if I turn up like this.”

Thomas kissed her soundly and when she had gone, he took Diamond from the stables and rode out, as he did most days, taking the coast road towards Kion Droghead. He reined in at the narrow path down through the glen and then on impulse, turned Diamond down towards the shore. Today the beach was quiet and the sea still and calm, reflecting bright sparks from the spring sunlight. Thomas dismounted and led the horse down to the edge of the surf.

“Bit calmer today, sir.”

Thomas turned, startled. “Mr Kinvig. Yes, I was just thinking that.”

The old fisherman strolled down to join him, puffing on a strong smelling pipe. “I hear you won’t be putting on that revenue coat again, then, sir.”

“No.”

“Didn’t suit you anyway, that. How ’bout the navy?”

Thomas wanted to laugh aloud. He was trying to imagine having this conversation on an English beach with a chance met fisherman. “I’m resigning my commission. Plenty to do on the land here.”

“That’s good, then, no call for a nice lad like you to be running around wi’ them excise fellas. She’s a good lass and you’ll fit in here.”

“And you’ll have no need to shoot me again,” Thomas said placidly. The old man gave a cackle of laughter.

“Oh bless you, sir, that weren’t me, I got no call to be firing off shots at a revenue man.”

“No, but you know who did.”

“Accident, sir, plain and simple.”

“I hope my new neighbours won’t hold it against me that I took up a few cargoes last year.”

Kinvig grinned, showing yellowed teeth. “Got a fair few past you as well, beggin’ your pardon, sir.”

“I’ll just bet you did, you unprincipled old rogue. Best take care, the next man they send might not be so casual about his duties.”

“We’ll be careful, sir. It’s not that much these days, not like the old days, before the revocation. Just a few local lads trying to make a bit extra to put food on the table. Nothing to worry about. Should mention, though, keep an eye out in the barn, there’ll be a couple of barrels wi’ your name on, and a bale of silk. Just in time for your wedding.”

“You paid your debt, Mr Kinvig.”

The fisherman puffed on his pipe and withdrew it again. “No, sir. Three lads, I had. Lost one a few years back, impress service picked him up out fishing and he died of some shipboard fever. Thought I was about to lose another. That debt stands.”

Thomas made no reply and Kinvig seemed to need none. They stood watching the tiny waves running in on the sand for a few minutes and then Kinvig turned and lifted his cap with an awkward bobbing bow. Thomas watched him head up the glen towards his cottage and then mounted Diamond, patted his smooth neck, and turned the horse back up the path towards the main road and home. 

Author’s Note

I’ve very much enjoyed returning to the Isle of Man for this year’s Christmas story and it was fun to research some of the old Manx traditions. I’d like to express my appreciation to Culture Vannin’s excellent online resources for helping with this and suggest you have a look at their site if you’d like to know more. I find Hall Caine’s nineteenth century novels set in the Isle of Man very hard to read, but his account of carvel singing in She’s all the World to Me is genuinely worth it and I have him to thank for the idea of interrupting the service with a shipwreck.

Some of the locations in the story are real such as St Adamnan’s Church and the village of Kion Droghead, which was the old name for Onchan. To make my story work, I’ve taken a few liberties with the exact location of the parish church and the fictional Caly Glen and beach, although I had Groudle Beach in mind for the wreck.

As always, I’ve dropped in the odd reference to my regular characters from the books. For readers of my latest, This Blighted Expedition, I had every intention of allowing my scarred revenue man to join Captain Hugh Kelly and First Lieutenant Alfred Durrell aboard the Iris in the next book, but he surprised me at the end and flatly refused to go. I was quite pleased, so many of my heroes have an unbending sense of duty it was quite refreshing to find one who was prepared to put his girl first. As for his elder brother, it was indeed Captain Kit Young who served under Major Paul van Daan in the 110th and died at Talavera in An Unconventional Officer.

I’d like to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors. Thank you so much for your support. To keep in touch, you can subscribe to the website and follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Medium, I’d love to hear from you.

There are some great posts in the December Blog Hop and I really recommend you keep an eye out for more. This is the full list. Tomorrow’s post will be from the fabulous Samantha Wilcoxson