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A Cold Christmas

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December, 1861

Windsor

 

The court moved a day’s ride from London to Windsor Castle every year for December to celebrate Christmas. It was a time for family unity; two days in the year to reflect and remember what is important in life. Despite all that troubled the Queen throughout the year, the company of her closest friends and family at Christmas would always pull her back to a simpler existence. She longed to once again be “Mrs Coburg” as she had done on her first trip to Scotland. Christmas shut out her problems for at least a day, which she supposed was almost the same.

“Albert, you ought to write a romance novel,” she told her husband many years ago after hearing the glee in his voice at the prospect of having their very own Christmas tree. That was Victoria’s first proper Christmas as she knew it now, with all their children opening gifts and rejoicing around them.

For the other days of the year, “Mrs Coburg” grabbed hold of her arm while the crown, her children, and many other loyalties claimed the other limbs. She wondered how long before they would all pull in opposite directions at once and tear her apart.

As the Queen descended into the red drawing room to congregate with her court before dinner, she winced at the very thought of being drawn and quartered. How barbaric. A footman opened the double wooden doors, allowing the Queen to pass in her red dress which Albert thought resembled more of an upturned funnel than anything else. Victoria could not wait for the crinoline to pass out of fashion.

Snow was already falling outside, icicles forming on window sills, but the rooms in the castle steamed with the heat of thousands of candles. The drawing room shimmered in the light from several crystal chandeliers, the sound of chatter and clinking glasses washing over her as she entered. The golden panelled ceiling refracted it all into the simple red wallpaper; in turn it shone a kind, dulled light on a circle of people by the marble fireplace.

Lord and Lady Alfred Paget had already arrived, having a polite disagreement over fabrics for a renovated nursery room. The Viscount Palmerston, a rather old man to whom Victoria and Albert referred as “weathered and experienced,” was invited by virtue of being the Prime Minister. He found himself sipping some brandy alone in the corner, quite pleased that Prince Albert was absent. Victoria was unappeased to find him, she only wished Peel could have remained in the post after the Corn Laws.

The Dowager Duchess of Sutherland maintained her position at court as well, despite knowing that frequent contact with Ernest and his wife would be inevitable and only ever lead to more heartbreak. The Duchess of Buccleuch by some miracle still hung onto the thread of life, but her sharp wit was thankfully indisposed as she rested in an arm chair.

“Have you any idea as to where Albert might be?” the Queen asked Lord Alfred, breaking up his argument with Wilhelmina.

“The Prince took a trip to Cambridge this morning, ma’am,” Alfred said, some worry flashing in his eyes. “Although why, I could not say.”

“Unfortunately, I believe I can.” As of late, Albert felt consistently breathless, like a stack of books were weighing his chest down. It did not help the matter that their eldest son, Edward (Bertie, to the family), seemed to have difficulty grasping the concept of maintaining a respectable reputation. In fact, his apathy to the family’s status hacked away at Albert’s pride by echoing the actions of his Uncle Ernest. Victoria saw a glow of embarrassment on Wilhelmina’s cheeks when she too drew the link between the two oversexed men.

“That is, Edward shall be remaining at Cambridge for his studies over Christmas. I believe he’s rather taken to History under his new tutors, even if other activities seem to be distracting his eyes…”

“I shouldn’t worry, ma’am,” Wilhelmina spoke up. “With ten children of our own, I believe any child born into a large family should feel very lucky indeed to have his father travel such distance to see him. Wouldn’t you agree, Alfred?” Her smile glowed at her husband; Alfred merely averted his eyes.

“Yes, I’m sure I do…”

“What a lovely thought, Lady Alfred.” Victoria summoned a footman with a glare, taking a glass of brandy off his serving tray and inhaling half of it in a gulp.

The Queen willed her mouth to curve into what should resemble a smile at Lord and Lady Alfred, knowing that Albert’s trip must be less to do with family unity and more to do with his son’s indiscretion.

Albert once shouted that Edward may end up ailed with a shameful disease like his uncle should he not learn to keep out of women’s beds. Edward retaliated with fire, shattering Albert’s insecurities and pushing him to frustration.

‘Don’t lose your head, papa. Do try to remember who I will become when mama is gone.’

If the walls in the palace were sentient, the Coburgs would surely have a new scandal in the papers every morning. When a similar argument erupted at Cambridge that day over Edward’s disdain for the strict study schedule and diet that Albert designed, it took everything in him not to strike the boy. Aside from the fact that he was physically too weak to raise his hand, he looked on the boy with pity and decided that to brand him as a disappointment to his parents and his country was a more effective.

‘How like your uncle you are. I am not sure if ‘disappointment’ is the correct word, truth be told I am more disappointed in myself for I should know what to expect from you by now. It is a failing on my part.’

Albert couldn’t think on whether he would regret leaving the argument unresolved. However, as he returned to Windsor and left his son behind, he knew he may never have the chance anyway.

~*~

Victoria used her authority as head of the court to infuriate Lord Palmerston as much as possible throughout dinner. When she saw his excitement at the trout served for the fourth course, she refused to pick up her fork and eyed him, daring him to eat before her and ahead of everyone else. She smiled in victory as the footmen came to remove the untouched dishes when it seemed he would not.

“Do take them down in the servants’ hall, I’m sure the staff will appreciate these fine dishes,” she whispered to a footman as he retracted her plate and replaced it with the next course.

The Duchess of Buccleuch enjoyed the sight of Palmerston’s fury, laughing. “I dare say you’ll starve if she means to go on as she’s started!” Wilhelmina and Alfred shared a chuckle at their aunt’s wit, though Victoria could see on his face that it faded quickly. It seemed she was not the only burdened soul at the table.

“Lord Palmerston, to follow from our last audience, I had wondered if you’d yet thought of any suitable courses of action to aid our friends in America during this difficult time?” Victoria asked, punishing him further. The two often disagreed on the monarch’s role in politics, she did enjoy testing him when he was being particularly insolent.

“I hope you mean to intervene, Lord Palmerston,” the Duchess said. “I should hope we are to bond ever closer with the Americans as allies, it should suppress their Godless infatuation with the French at the least.”

Palmerston was determined to wrap his temper up, but it did nothing to stop the uncontrollable bite in his voice. “I should think that the unelected have little say in foreign policy, or any aspect of government.”

Lord Alfred took exception, raising his voice which made Wilhelmina perk up. She did love when her husband became passionate and enthralled in debate, a reason why she sometimes instigated one. “As an elected MP myself, surely you cannot think that Her Majesty is not sufficiently experienced in such matters to provide useful-”

“Yet I have been in office for many years more, should my professional opinion be discounted? Has the monarchy attained all knowledge by divine intervention? You amuse me, Alfred.”

Victoria called for the next course as the hellish dinner continued. She only wished Albert would return, she never felt supported without him by her side. For all their arguments, she loved him for taking her side against Palmerston and arguing her corner for the sake of the people. Prime Ministers would come and go, but her husband would be by her side through it all. She hoped desperately that her son’s impending marriage to the Danish Princess Alexandra could blossom into something that beautiful and provide a consort fit to fill her own shoes as Queen.

~*~

Long after the dinner party disbanded, the Duchess of Buccleuch pulled Lord Alfred aside to address his odd behaviour.

“Whatever do you mean, Duchess?”

“Nothing has changed in all these years.” She reached into a pouch hidden in her bodice, pulling out a handkerchief and handing it to him. “You are still quite unable to hide your feelings, dear boy.” He laughed as he dried his eyes. She knew, she always did.

“You see why I must remain by Wilhelmina’s side, I have made that promise to her for life. She rescued me during that damn awful time, it would be dishonourable of me to abandon her now.”

“As her aunt, I supported the match in the beginning. But I cannot say I see much profit in it, not the way things are.” Alfred raised his head to meet her eyes, she appeared worn out. Like she had been struggling and needed to let go of something.

“What would you have me do? By all accounts, she will be heartbroken by my selfishness…”

“My dear, there will come a time when the production and raising of children ceases to keep you sufficiently busy to hide the incompatibility between you. Though I am not certain you will be as heartbroken as she, I know in my heart it’s better it be now than in twenty years when your nursery is empty and it is only you and she to share a great house.”

Alfred removed his tailcoat, growing hot with the candles in the drawing room. Underneath his thin cotton shirt lay a black band, barely visible through the fabric, strapped around his arm. A silver locket with a strand of brown hair could be seen attached to his shirt, over his heart.

“Will you tell her, or shall I?” The Duchess eyed the band, her decision clear.

“I think it best if I try the notion on her first, then we might decide the timing. Do not think I’m content that it has come to this, but we will do what we must for the best and minimise the damage. Remember how we negotiated the beginning; you must take a deep breath and then another.”

“Might I prevail on you for a drink to calm my soul, as I did before?”

The Duchess laughed, clasping Alfred’s hand. “You may, though I don’t promise there to be much left in the bottle if I am to face my niece first.”

~*~

Albert arrived at the castle early the next morning, slipping through the staterooms into his wife’s chambers. They always slept in the one room, keeping up the illusion of maintaining separate bedrooms for society’s benefit.

The sun was barely pushing over the horizon and melting the ice on the lawn when he crawled into bed. Victoria seemed to gravitate towards him, perhaps in a half-state of dreaming. He soon found himself wrapped around the girl, he dared not move for the next hour until she stirred.

“Albert…” He smiled into her messy braid of hair; Skerrett would have her work cut out for her today. She met his eyes and any anger she harboured for his surprise trip left her. Albert met her lips, leaving his to linger as if he were trying to commit the feeling to memory. The kiss was slow, he drew his hands through her hair and brushed it out. She always found it reassuring.

“I am sorry for leaving you to Palmerston, meine Liebe. I had intended to return before nightfall, but Edward and I appear to have fallen out once more…” Victoria rolled her eyes and recounted the petty things she’d done to maintain authority over the Prime Minister. Albert admitted that he was rather proud of her creativity before he submitted to a coughing fit.

“I must agree that I am terribly disappointed in Edward if he has indeed chosen to disrespect you in this way. To reject your guidance is another matter, though I’m not quite sure I would have borne it either way.”

“You should know that I did not bear it, in fact I have decided it would be better for him to stay in Cambridge for the time being.” Victoria sat up in bed to stroke her husband’s hair and pat circles on his back while he coughed again. Some dust likely caught in his throat; it tended to happen as the Prince’s health took turns throughout the months.

~*~

Alfred strolled around the great park by the castle. The long lines of Eton boys rushing about in the mornings reminded him of simpler times, before life became so complicated. Often, he felt as though he were falling through the sky with nothing or no one to stop him. He would pick up speed and, he imagined, one day slam straight into the ground and that would be the end of it.

That was the best analogy he could think of for his feelings on this day. The Duchess was to speak to Wilhelmina, he was completely helpless as to her reaction. They did have ten children to think of, after all, so should she take to the news badly then Alfred was sure to find himself slamming into the ground.

He felt the black band circling his right arm underneath his shirt; it felt too heavy and painful to hold two hearts within his own. He did believe that Wilhelmina truly loved him, perhaps not in the sexual and romantic way that Albert and Victoria loved one another.

Definitely not in the way that he and Drummond had at a time.

But she did, in some way. There are more than a few types of love, and perhaps he took Wilhelmina under the guidance of the wrong kind as an escape. The Duchess was indeed very perceptive.

With the castle gearing up for Christmas, he did wonder whether it was the best time to ruin a relationship. Of course, he realised that there was never a good time for it. These things just happened.

He noticed that Albert didn’t take a keen interest in this year’s Christmas planning as he had in the past, he wondered whether others were struggling with this time of year as well. The man seemed a shadow of himself, less energetic and cheerful. He stopped attending meetings for his beloved statistical society, his mad obsession with trains and computational devises disappeared almost entirely. Alfred once suggested they ride a train to anywhere just for the thrill of adventure, Albert’s face didn’t even break into a smile.

In fact everyone seemed out of sorts. Victoria was just as closed off as ever, retreating into the nursery and locking herself inside; prison was quite effective at keeping people in, just as keeping people out. Harriet seemed only marginally happier nowadays even with Ernest and his wife flaunting their cheerfulness. After years of experience trying to deal with his own feelings, Alfred knew this trait to be common in men who were unhappy themselves. As far as he knew, Ernest’s marriage hadn’t produced any heirs; they’d been married for nearly two decades and it definitely couldn’t be for lack of enthusiasm on Ernest’s part. Alfred unfortunately had the opposite problem.

Still, none of the celebrations lived up to the expectation Alfred had of Christmas this year. Alfred’s father enjoyed his women as much as Ernest, if not more, so his birth had been the result of affairs and divorce. So, he did look forward to Christmas with the Coburgs nowadays since there had been no emphasis on it in his own childhood. He and Albert did share a poor family situation in common.

As for him, well, it was exactly fifteen years since he lost Drummond. Edward. He always did like the way Edward sounded on his lips. So soft, refined, like the man himself.

Allowing his fiancée and mother to be chief mourners had been difficult, he loved Edward as much as they did. Perhaps even more so. On top of it all, not once since Wilhelmina gave him his first Christmas present had he ever talked about Edward. He got the sense that most of the Queen’s inner circle knew of his struggle, though no one raised it. Alfred wasn’t sure whether to feel abandoned and cast aside or grateful for his friend’s discretion.

“Your lordship!” a hall-boy yelled, running up the grass pathway from the castle. “I have an urgent message from Her Majesty the Queen!”

“My God, this does not sound at all reassuring…”

“The Prince has fallen gravely ill, Her Majesty requires everyone in the Prince’s chambers.”

~*~

The hall-boy had been and gone, running out to find Victoria’s family and friends to tell them of the news. He had only returned a few moments prior to confirm that everyone would be arriving soon. She needed to cherish her time alone with Albert. She’d managed to put him into a bed, pulling covers over him as his hair gathered sweat and a wave of fever erupted. She willed herself not to cry, but a more realistic prospect was not to wail.

“Meine…”

“Albert, no, you must save your breath,” she whispered between tears. She reached out her hand to take her husband’s, feeling its warmth and rubbing circles on him to make sure he wouldn’t forget she was there in a frenzy. He coughed several times, his whole body convulsing as spots of blood hurled up. Victoria dabbed at his mouth with a handkerchief. She repositioned herself to hold his hand and kiss his cheek.

“Meine liebe…” He coughed again, looking into his wife’s eyes and seeing the heartbreak in them. He kept the blood and the coughs down, he strained to keep his voice clear. “You must know… how I have loved you.”

He smiled when he saw the effect of the words, for she smiled too. He knew his message had gotten through when she stopped demanding his silence. There was a silent understanding between them, in many ways reminding her of how she had departed with Lord M so many years ago.

“And I you, my darling…” she kissed his cheek and thought to hum various Christmas carols as the inner circle of the court slowly filed in.

Alfred and Wilhelmina arrived together with the Duchess not far behind, grasping the reality of the situation as soon as they saw Victoria kneeling by the bed over his husband, grasping his hand and humming a broken tune through a sob every few moments.

For Alfred, the sight hit him particularly hard. His friend was losing the man she loved, one who loved her, all too soon. Wilhelmina stretched out her hand and he linked it with hers. He looked into her eyes, a devastation was in them that went beyond this loss. He looked to the Duchess, who kept her face void of emotion and simply nodded at him. Yet still, Wilhelmina wished to share her hand with him in his time of need. Alfred reached into his pocket and gave her a handkerchief to dry her eyes.

The Queen stepped back from her husband, the court doctor having assured her that he would make Albert’s remaining moments comfortable. It dawned on her that they could do nothing more.

 

After some hours, Albert’s fingertips ran cold. Victoria ordered several hot bricks from the ovens to keep the bed warm. She tucked every part of her husband into the bed and kept him warm, that way she could continue to hold his hand.

The Duchess saw the distraught look on her face, so handed Alfred a three-quarter empty flask of drink and shooed everyone out of the room. They all needed to change as the court entered full mourning, after all. Staff rushed around to make adjustments, to open windows to ensure spirits could leave the castle unobstructed. Victoria found she didn’t care about such things.

Lord Alfred let go of Wilhelmina’s hand as the Duchess led her out. He needed his own moment to say goodbye. He was sure Albert knew about his nonconventional tastes, but he’d never said anything. Alfred felt he owed some sort of parting word to Albert’s memory for that.

The Queen finally let go of her husband’s limp hand, moving to the rug at the end of the bed to sit and curl her legs up to her chest.

Alfred held the Prince’s hand, which still had some warmth left in it thanks to the warming bricks. He said a silent thank you to the Prince for his friendship, before he saw that the Queen likely needed him more than the departed Prince would ever need anyone ever again.

She allowed her immense crinoline to fold into itself, creating a puddle of dress fabric and tears on the floor. Alfred sat himself down on the rug beside her, she instinctively leaned over to him and took his arm, continuing to cry.

Alfred removed his coat and held her. Victoria took his arm and traced circles on her own back with it until Alfred understood the pattern and continued it alone. They stayed in that position for longer than either of them knew.

“Take a deep breath, ma’am.”

“No,” she spluttered. “No, I don’t want to be a ‘majesty’ or a ‘ma’am’… Not this day.”

“Take a deep breath. And now another one.”

She continued breathing until it became regular, relaxing into Alfred’s arms.

“I apologise, Lord Alfred.”

“We don’t need to worry about it now. Here,” he said, offering her the Duchess’ flask. She huffed with a semblance of a chuckle, before withdrawing it and forcing the sadness back onto her face. It were as if she never wanted to be happy ever again, lest she forget for one moment the man she lost. She drank the entire contents of the flask.

 

Some half an hour had passed of rocking back and forth on the floor. Victoria felt numb, she knew she should feel sadness, she should want to cry. But no more tears came; instead she felt most sad at her inability to grieve.

Usually when a great love dies, a person looks to blame themselves. However, Victoria was certain that she was not to blame for Albert’s death. No, kind Albert would never lay that burden on her. Rather, she broke again to know that his last conversation with his son was an angry one. A bitter rage rose in her stomach and made her corsetry feel tight and ready to rip at the seams. Edward always knew to push his father’s buttons, to poke at his insecurities and reduce him to tears and anger late at night. Edward knew exactly how to disappoint his father by rejecting him and shirking responsibilities. Ultimately, Victoria knew that it was Edward that pushed her husband over the edge into an illness so ghastly that it finished the tortured man off. She felt herself crumble in deep regret.

“You’re thinking again. I can tell, you know… You’re not to blame, no one is to blame for this.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure… But you are rather an expert at this, Lord Alfred.”

“I’ve had practice…”

“Might it have something to do with your armband?”

Alfred usually froze whenever a family member or a friend on the outside of the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ attitude of the palace remarked on it, or any part of his private life. This time, he smiled with pain pulling at his lips.

“I lost someone for whom I cared deeply, however it was not appropriate to show how their life affected mine. How I affected theirs… And I believe they died never knowing how I felt.” A hint of recognition floated across Victoria’s face as she reconciled the information with something Albert once said to her.

“Mr Drummond, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, yes… Edward.” Alfred averted his gaze. In those days, usually Edward himself was in the room with him and they would fixate on each other whenever they found their eyes otherwise wandering.

Alfred longed for those stolen glances to come back, to sit in a meeting all the while wondering what the dashing brunette was thinking. Whether Edward was thinking about him. It was the greatest love he’d known, fuelled by a constant desire to pull the other close to him and look into his deep eyes, all to find out what thoughts were going through his head. Those were worth more than a penny, in fact they were priceless.

“If you’ll allow me to speak plainly… Did you love him very much?”

Alfred took his locket from its place pinned over his heart, opening it to show the words written beside the lock of his Edward’s hair. He remembered how it felt that glorious day by the lake in Scotland to run his hands through it. His heart had never worked harder in its life. He made a stupid remark about the daylight, he remembered looking into Drummond’s eyes and seeing a hopeful energy in them that had finally triumphed over anxiety.

He remembered when Drummond leaned in, kissing him. At first, Alfred was so stunned that he couldn’t begin to let the happiness rise to his face. All he knew was that he felt a tingling feeling on his lips, and he couldn’t believe where it came from.

He remembered the look on Edward’s face, begging for a response. His eyes seemed so desperate then, a flash of fear in them as Drummond realised he might have made a mistake. Then, collecting his wits and leaning in again. Of course, Alfred couldn’t believe any part of it until he was chuckling with the euphoria of the heat between them. Finally, Alfred regained control of his body and grabbed Drummond’s hair to pull him back in. It felt as smooth and silky then as it did now between his fingers.

Alfred looked down into the open locket and let tears of happiness as the love flowed back to him.

 

Surpassing the love of women.

 

“I loved him more than I shall ever love another person for the rest of my life.”