“Upon the Midnight Clear” by Tasha Alexander: New Excerpt
In this heartwarming new Christmas short story featuring Tasha Alexander’s Victorian sleuth, Lady Emily, and her husband, Colin, the discovery of a clue in a Christmas cracker leads to a true holiday miracle.
While most of London society has fled to their country estates for the holidays, Lady Emily and her family are enjoying a few days in the city. On a shopping trip to Hamley’s Toy Shop, a kind-hearted stranger gives Emily’s son a Christmas cracker—but when he opens it to reveal a cryptic clue inside, Emily suspects there’s more to the gift than Christmas cheer.
By the next day, her suspicions seem well-founded when a Scottish stranger arrives with a heartbreaking tale and an urgent plea for help. He believes his long-lost daughter, kidnapped by her well-meaning grandparents as an infant, may be hidden away somewhere in London. As Colin and Emily trace the clues through the city’s snowy streets, more mysterious crackers arrive to guide their investigation. But who is sending them? What do they mean? Emily and Colin must find the answers as they seek to reunite a father with his beloved daughter by Christmas Eve.
My mother taught me that no person of quality is to be found in London during the winter. All of society retreats to their country estates in time to start shooting birds in August and have little interest in returning to the capital before the commencement of the Season the following spring. Why go to town when there are no garden parties, no balls, no fashionable soirées? No gentlemen with whom to flirt on Rotten Row? No hope of catching a glimpse of our new king, Edward VII, flitting to visit his latest mistresses?
Forgive me. I ought not suggest the king would do such a thing. A man of his size is not capable of flitting.
But I digress. Winter is my favorite time in London, precisely because so few people are there. It’s a time when the museums aren’t crowded, when there are no invitations to avoid, when the odds are slim that one will be trapped in tedious conversation with a mother anxious to negotiate an understanding between her daughter and one of my sons.
The boys are five years old. And slim odds are not the same as none.
“You’re very cynical, my dear. I’m quite certain Lady Elsworth has no serious designs on Henry. If he were heir to your father’s earldom, things would be quite different, but as it stands, his fortune alone is unlikely to tempt her.” My husband, Colin Hargreaves, made a habit of downplaying our sons’ charms, at least those admired by the aristocracy.
“The fact that we are standing in a London toy shop in December and she has followed us here all the way from Derbyshire belies your claims,” I said.
“Hamley’s is an institution, meriting a visit in any month of the year. Although, thinking on it, Lady Elsworth has six daughters, and Henry stands to inherit an enormous fortune.” Colin tilted his head and studied the woman standing at the end of the aisle, far enough away that she could not hear us. “One can hardly blame her for starting early.”
The lady in question had in tow only one of her offspring, a girl of seven called Fiona. “Tom would be a more appropriate match, given his age,” I said.
My husband raised one eyebrow. “Tom is a mere six months older than the twins. For this, you’d throw the poor lad to the wolves?”
I was prevented from responding to this unfair accusation by all three of our boys barreling toward us. Henry arrived first, not slowing down quickly enough to avoid slamming into me, his twin brother, Richard, coming fast on his heels at a slightly more reasonable pace. Behind them followed our ward, Tom, as dear to us as any son could be and the best behaved of the bunch.
“Most sorry, Mama,” Henry said. “I admit my enthusiasm does, on occasion, get the best of me, but if you had seen—”
“An apology is undermined the moment one attempts to justify the action requiring it,” Colin said, shooting a stern look at the little boy. Henry knew better than to put any stock in it. His father’s soft heart was known to all his sons.
“Papa, I’ve found a sword that is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. One would hardly know it’s a toy. And as Mama is quite fierce about denying me access to weaponry—”
“You’d best stop there, old chap,” Colin interrupted. “And no more running in shops.”
“It’s only that we’re trying to save Henry from that awful Fiona,” Richard said.
Tom frowned. “Fiona isn’t so bad. We object to her mother. She’s a troubling sort.”
My husband’s eyes widened. “Tom’s only just six years, the twins not even that, and this is how they talk? Perhaps we should have taken heed of your mother’s myriad warnings about the dangers of reading.”
Richard’s face turned a ghastly shade of white. I leaned down and took his hand. “Fear not. We aren’t about to keep you from books.” He nodded, heaved a sigh, and dropped his shoulders a good three inches.
“I’ll pay for our purchases,” Colin said, turning to me. “You stop Henry before he runs into Regent Street.”
I intercepted my unruly son just as he flung open the shop door and stepped onto the pavement.
“You mustn’t run away like that,” I said. “What would I do if you got lost?”
“Hard to say.” Henry frowned. “I’d prefer not to think about it, as, despite your tendency to sternness when it comes to discipline, I’m awfully fond of you.”
“You’re a feisty little bloke, aren’t you?” A portly man wearing an ever-so-slightly too-big bowler hat and a rumpled overcoat looked down at him. His white beard would have inspired envy in Father Christmas. “Here’s something for you. Happy Christmas!” He handed Henry a Christmas cracker wrapped in golden foil and tied with red ribbons at either end.
“Thank you, sir!” Henry grinned as he accepted the gift.
“I’m not sure—” I stopped as the man disappeared into the crush of people on the pavement. Society might have abandoned London, but that didn’t mean the rest of its residents had done the same. “Give me the cracker, Henry. It’s not a good idea to accept things from persons unknown.”
“But I do know him. He was in the museum with us nearly all morning.”
We had spent most of the day at the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington—always a tenuous activity when Henry was involved, for while his brothers adored the museum, Henry objected vigorously to taxidermy in all forms. On this occasion, his father decreed that we would start our visit in the Central Hall, in front of a case that contained the skeletons of a man and a horse. This soothed Henry’s outrage, as he felt it only appropriate that humans be treated the same as other animals. That said, I was not best pleased by his suggestion that taxidermists ought to turn their attention to preserving persons of note (defined by him as notorious criminals, Members of Parliament, and all known descendants of Henry V), who might then be displayed in a case of their own. They, he argued, were no less worthy of study than other creatures.
“I don’t remember seeing him,” I said.
“That’s because he was doing his best to avoid being seen.” Henry grinned, his sapphire eyes shining. “I spotted him, even if Papa didn’t notice, which he ought to have done, given his expertise in such things.”
How the boys had gleaned knowledge of their father’s work was entirely beyond me. We had done our best to keep it from them, but I suspected our illustrious monarch (the Reader may decide for him or herself if I deploy the adjective with sarcasm) was not so careful. Bertie—I will never be able to think of him as Edward VII—was not known for his discretion.
Almost from the time Colin left university (graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge, with a first in classics), he had served the Crown, intervening in investigations that required more than a modicum of discretion. As the years passed, he became Queen Victoria’s most trusted agent, although I cannot claim to know much about the details of his work; they were all kept quiet. Now that Bertie had inherited the throne, my husband had found himself called upon to expand his duties to include protecting the king. When, that is, the king needed protecting. In Colin’s mind, this was always; in Bertie’s, it was almost never. The royals had retreated to Sandringham for Christmas, with Bertie insisting Colin stay with his own family during the holiday season. I cannot say I objected.
Colin, Tom, and Richard exited Hamley’s, meeting us in Regent Street, from whence we started the walk home to Park Lane. The boys raced ahead of us once we’d crossed into Conduit Street, their father calling to them whenever they started to get too far away. Snow began to fall—thick, scattered flakes, too few in number to settle, but enough to lend a wintry atmosphere against the glowing streetlights. My husband squeezed my hand as we turned into Berkeley Square, where I had lived during our courtship. A complicated time, as full of happy memories as bittersweet. I leaned against Colin, who, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we were walking in public, wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled me close as I told him about the cracker Henry had received.
Back home, Davis, our butler, opened the door almost before we reached it. The clatter made by the boys could be heard halfway down the street and no doubt alerted him to our imminent arrival. A footman stepped forward to collect our coats, hats, scarves, and mittens.
“Your mail is in the library, sir,” Davis said to Colin, “along with a parcel delivered for Master Tomaso.” Davis and our housekeeper, Mrs. Elliott, had recently adopted the use of Tom’s full name to indicate their unconditional acceptance of the boy’s heritage after an argument broke out below stairs about the wisdom of us taking in a child whose mother was a convicted murderer. Mrs. Elliott fired the offending maid immediately and refused to give her a character. Tom’s mother had befriended me during an investigation in Venice, hoping that doing so would prevent me from discovering her role in the crime. The child was born some months after her arrest, and she had begged me to take care of him. Hurt though I was by her betrayal—and horrified by her crime—I would not deny the innocent babe anything he might need. Colin and I took him in immediately following his birth. I had hoped the controversy over his parentage would fade with the years, but, alas, the human tendency toward judgment and scorn appeared to have no bounds.
Tom lit up the moment he heard he had a parcel waiting, but, always the little gentleman, did not ask if he could open it. Colin swung him up onto his shoulders and started for the library. “No one likes to wait for a present, does he, old chap?”
“You’re quite right, Papa,” Tom said, a shy smile on his face. “But I’m happy to do so if you think it’s for the best.”
“Was there any indication that it should wait for Christmas, Davis?” Colin asked.
“None at all, sir,” the butler replied.
“Then I see no cause for delay.” Henry and Richard tumbled into the library behind their father, who was still carrying Tom. He lowered the boy onto the carpeted floor before picking up a small package wrapped in plain brown paper from his desk.
“Open it, open it!” Henry cried the moment Colin handed it to Tom, who looked toward me, seeking permission.
“Go ahead,” I said. Tom nodded thanks, then carefully tugged at the twine fastening it. He pulled away the paper, revealing a Christmas cracker, identical to the one I had confiscated from Henry outside Hamley’s, this one with bright green ribbons at the ends instead of red.
“May I?” Colin asked, and Tom dutifully handed it to his father.
“You’re not going to let us open them, are you?” Henry asked, pulling a face. “Just like Mama wouldn’t let me open mine.”
Colin didn’t answer, but rang for Davis. “How was Master Tom’s parcel delivered?” he asked when the butler entered the library.
“By a man who looked the very picture of Father Christmas, sir,” Davis said. “He did not offer his name, and I confess I did not find cause to ask.”
“From Father Christmas!” Henry said. “Which, of course, Davis, made asking his name unnecessary. Was he wearing his velvet suit? Because when I saw him, he was dressed in a sadly ordinary coat.”
“You saw this man, Henry?” Colin asked.
“We did, if he’s the same man we met outside Hamley’s,” I said. “His beard was quite like Father Christmas’s.”
“And he was in the museum,” Henry said. “Following us.”
“Following us?” Colin frowned, crossed his arms, and leaned against the side of his desk.
“Then he should have seen Richard, too,” Tom said, “and known that we needed a third cracker. I don’t want mine if Richard doesn’t have one.”
“That’s very sweet of you, Tom,” I said, “and I’m sure your brother appreciates—”
“Forgive my interruption, Mama,” Richard said. “I ought to have mentioned something earlier. I saw the man in the museum, too. He gave me this while the rest of you were looking at the polar bear. I didn’t want to draw attention to it as neither of my brothers received one.” He pulled a Christmas cracker, its ends tied with silver ribbon, out of his jacket and passed it to me.
I met Colin’s eyes with my own. “I don’t know what to make of this.”
“Now they’ll never let us open them,” Henry said, and sighed. “Wretched grown-ups.”
“Henry! You shall not speak like that,” I said. “Perhaps it’s time for you to join Nanny in the nursery.”
“I apologize from the deepest recesses of my heart, Mama,” Henry said, contrition that did not manage to reach the tone writ on his small face.
“A little gentleman ought not behave in a manner that requires frequent apologies.”
Henry heaved another sigh. “So far as I can tell, being a little gentleman has very little to recommend it, but I suppose I must try harder. Perhaps the benefits will eventually reveal themselves.”
I glared at Colin, who was biting back laughter. “Listen to your mother, Henry,” he said. “She is a wise, wise lady. And I promise you, there are myriad benefits to being a gentleman.” I held out Richard’s cracker to my husband. He took it, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek before he returned to his desk. Henry cringed.
“I do hope kissing girls isn’t one of those myriad benefits,” he said. Now it was I who bit back laughter.
“Will you allow us to open the crackers?” Richard asked.
Colin examined each of them before shaking them in turn. “I don’t suspect there’s any harm in doing so, but let me take the other end when we pull them. You first, Tom.” The little boy tugged with his father, the cracker snapped, and out fell three brightly colored sweets, a paper crown, and a motto. “Nothing unusual.”
“What does the motto say?” I asked.
“And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you,” Colin read.
Henry grunted, but Tom smiled. “It’s not so bad, I suppose, as far as such things go,” he said.
“Let’s do yours next, Richard,” Colin said, and he repeated the procedure. The contents of the cracker were identical, save for the text of the motto.
This time I read. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Excellent advice.”
Henry approached his father, who was holding the last cracker. They pulled it by the ends—this one snapped louder than the other two—and Henry put the paper crown on his head while Colin read the motto.
“The stranger did not lodge in the street: but I opened my doors to the traveler.” He placed the slim strip of paper next to the other two on his desk. “I don’t remember Christmas crackers having such a theological bent.”
“I’d say it’s a welcome improvement, which is not to suggest I have any doubts as to the importance of poetry.” Generally, one expected a few lines of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Longfellow from a Christmas cracker, but I would never object to a well-placed Bible verse. The boys, Henry in particular, needed all the guidance they could get.
“May we eat the sweets, Mama?” Tom asked.
“You may have them after your tea,” I said.
“Aren’t we having tea with you?” Richard asked.
“Of course you are,” Colin said, ruffling the boy’s dark curls. “But first go straight to the nursery and get cleaned up. Nanny will have missed you today and is no doubt desperate to hear all about the museum. Furthermore, I’ve had your toys from Hamley’s taken upstairs.” Requiring no further encouragement, the boys raced out of the library, Tom alone slowing down at my instruction not to run in the house. Once the sound of their footsteps on the stairs had faded, Colin took my hands and pulled me close.
“I don’t think Nanny will have missed them,” I said. “We ought to give her more breaks, you know. She’s not young anymore.”
“She’s not that aged,” Colin said, moving a hand to my neck.
“She raised you.”
“What are you suggesting?” he asked. “That I’m on the verge of old age and infirmity?”
“Far from it. You’re in the prime of life.”
“Perhaps it’s time I remind you of that.” He kissed my neck—once—released me from his arms and crossed to the door, turning its lock. “I’ve learned my lesson about unbolted doors. Tea shall be a bit late today.”
Copyright © 2019 Tasha Alexander.