Christmas during wartime had become a habit he had never grown used to. No matter where one was, there were always parties and dancing with officer’s wives and the daughters of magistrates and potentates. He would love to spend the season decorating with green boughs and attending church at midnight as he did growing up. But army life did not allow for personal extravagances such as those.
Simm made sure he was away from the farm most evenings, busy with meetings or social affairs. When he was at home it was almost never at regular hours, so he had not seen Rebecca for more than a moment in days. The few minutes he grabbed at the farm were precious. He loved the pleasant, homemade decorations and greens. He pretended Rebecca was doing the decorating for him, and that she was missing him as he was her. He also prayed that her anger would dissipate if he were gone.
Where Rebecca’s home seemed to get warmer, with the pine boughs and holly on tabletops and mantles. Amalia had transformed hers completely. Even from the top floors it was hard to miss the beautiful greens being brought in to decorate the house for Christmas. Simm supposed that even with farms completely surrounding the City, there was still enough woodland to satisfy Amalia’s demands for ivy and mistletoe, and in a few days’ time, Amalia’s main rooms were transformed from sheer elegance into Christmas magnificence.
Christmas morning foretold a chilly rainy day. Rebecca left the household asleep as she finished the morning chores, changed her gown, and walked in the constant drizzle down the familiar path to her family church. As always she was torn between her father’s tradition of a joyous day with gifts and too much feasting, and her mother’s. A solemn approach to the day. Bostonians had banned special worship on Christmas during her mother’s childhood, Cotton Mather wrote that every day belonged to Christ, not the one day called his birthday. Still, even her mother had enjoyed the happiness and the decorations in the houses of her husband’s family.
Memories of her parents, and her childhood swirled in her head as she trod through the muddy road toward the Presbyterian Church. Happy and wet people rushed in from carriages and on foot, shaking water onto the floor, and shaking hands and hugging. Rebecca felt peaceful as she entered the empty family pew. That solitude was broken seconds later as she was surrounded by nieces and nephews, brothers, and sisters- in-law.
Simm’s eyes followed Rebecca as she walked forward in the plain white church. He had risen early to find some solace and solitude in the day. This year, more than others, he wanted more from Christmas than a series of fancy parties given out of meaningless duty, thousands of miles from home. The empty church was already illuminated and welcoming as he found a seat in the far back, away from the central aisle. The clear windows glowed with flickering candlelight against the wet, gray morning sky.
The white clapboard church with its high box pews brought back memories of Christmas in Boston. Although he recalled that the Puritans had banned the holiday, it had become a day of fasting and feast by the time of the occupation. The soldiers quartered in the town had gathered what greens they could find to decorate their barracks, and the day was spent with song and food. As Simm sat in the little church, watching the rain against the windows. He thought of another occupation of a very different sort of American town.
He recalled the High Anglican Mass they had celebrated at King’s Chapel with the other officers and wealthy loyalists, who had migrated into the protected town. The beautiful stone church near the top of Queen Street, had stayed alive. This was in sharp contrast with the Old South Church, the Third Meetinghouse, that the first group of soldiers sent into Boston in 1774 had turned into a riding stable to punish the town for destroying the tea. He looked around this Meeting House, holy with Christmas and joyous families, and mourned the destruction of the other.
He watched Rebecca enter the empty a box near the front of the church and sit. In seconds he heard giggling and saw little feet flying down the aisle. Two small girls, the first no more than two years, and the other around four, ran down the center aisle, effectively dodging between the legs of the more sedate church goers singing “Bay-Ca, Bey- Ca.” A song he could only assume meant Rebecca. The small girls were trailed by a number of adults and various older children, all of whom crowded into the box where Rebecca sat. He was glad to see his lonely beauty surrounded by her family.
The service was lovely, and perhaps not long enough for a man so far from home; he sat in the pew lost in thought as the congregation moved out into the rain behind him.
“John?” He heard Rebecca’s voice through the happy voices of the crowd.
“Miss Willent,” he answered “A lovely service wasn’t it?”
“Yes, Major, it was. Well, uh excuse me.” Rebecca turned to her family who were watching her conversation with the strange man.
“Well Becky, aren’t you going to introduce us?” That from someone who must be her older brother.
“Oh, don’t bother,” A woman not much older than Rebecca spoke up. “I’m Jane, the kids are Abby and Mary, the baby is Hackett, but he doesn’t answer to anything yet.” She pointed to a very small bundle currently being held by the larger Hackett. The rest of the herd just left, but if you’re a friend of Becky’s why don’t you follow us to our farm for some dinner? It’s just family, we’ll be eating around two o’clock.”
“ Jane, Hackett, family,” Rebecca jumped in to try to stem the tide before more family was introduced, may I present Major John FitzSimmon, one of the men who has been quartered at the farm. It’s lovely to see you, Major, yes do come for dinner, Jane’s mother stayed home to cook. That is unless you have other dinner plans?” Rebecca almost added, ‘other than the cold ham, bread and Christmas biscuits I left on the side board’?
To have shown reluctance, Rebecca felt, would have revealed too much to her family, and would have been outright rude to Simm. She had been that too often.
He noticed her squirm at Jane’s invitation. He smiled encouragement that only she would notice, and made silently promised that he would not stay past dinner. “No Mistress Willent, no particular plans, but I did promise the men I’d be back in the late afternoon.” He answered both Jane and Rebecca.
Simm liked Jane Willent. She was a woman who did not let life’s larger issues get in the way of raising her family. She continued the informal introductions, while trying to grab the hands of her daughters and push them into their cloaks. She kept up the commentary as they moved toward the exit, partially to marshal her large group out of the church and out into the rain, and Simm was sure, to keep him from feeling left out.
They found the carriage and crowded into it. Simm was pushed in with the crowd, and ended up sitting between Jane and her daughters. Abby clambered over one adult after another trying out laps. Finally she turned and settled onto Simm, finding the thick wool of his cloak and the velvet of his fine suit just right. Soon the child was sleep on his shoulder. Jane made to reach for her sleeping daughter, but Simm waved her off. He adored his nieces and nephews and missed them terribly. It felt very nice having such a trusting fellow human resting in the crook of his shoulder. The child smelled of fresh soap and that special sweet scent that children have.
Nat followed the family to Hackett’s farm on Comet. He laughed, enjoying the fact that the haughty FitzSimmon was stuck in the crowded coach with the babies. Simm and Nat had recognized each other immediately as the family gathered in the vestibule. They had both been involved in military negotiations. The project was a private enterprise between the Continental Congress and Parliament, secret even from their own battalions. It was impossible to explain to the family that they had met before, many times.
The first meeting had been two years before during 1775, before Charlestown and Saratoga, before it became clear that war would need to be fought through to its ultimate finish. Nat found Simm efficient and organized. The Englishman always seemed to know what was expected of each meeting; as though he could see the outcome before the negotiations began. To the less experienced and worldly Nat Willent, all that efficiency was a form of British aristocratic arrogance. He did not understand that experience and careful observation made Simm able to the see the outcome, as each meeting unfolded.
Nat rode the bay into the barn, as his brother, walking the team which was now harnessed to an empty coach, followed. “That FitzSimmon put up a fuss about being crowded in with a bunch of babies?”
“Nope, seemed to settle right in. Carried Abby into the house just now. Like as not, good with kids. Likes ‘em, far as I can tell. You have some sort of problem with him being here? Nat, it’s Christmas.” Hackett half reprimanded and pleaded with his younger brother to stay and behave like one of the family. “We are lucky that you are so close you can get leave to come for dinner. Nat, don’t make me ask ‘the stranger’ to leave the table – at Christmas.” With that said, and the horses cared for, Hackett turned and went out the barn door into the rain, pulling the collar of his great coat over his head.
Nat contemplated leaving, but decided a warm kitchen and good food outweighed any personal animus he felt for John FitzSimmon.
Simm hadn’t been at a family Christmas celebration since he left for the army when he was sixteen. He had visited his family many times, but had been away at the holidays. Now he sat at the roaring fire waiting for a roast goose to be served. He could smell dinner cooking three rooms away. He sat nearly motionless, enjoying the family chaos, but feeling very alone in an alien world.
Soon the children were seated in the kitchen, and mulled wines and ciders were served to the adults. People moved to the table to eat. The five course dinner was an extravagant one for farmers in wartime, of that he was sure, and he tried to eat sparingly so the family would enjoy more days of the wonderful, well cooked meal.
Not feeling comfortable enough to enter into natural conversation, Simm watched the family interact. They were happy to be together, even Jasper Willent was not the angry patriarch he’d been when he visited Rebecca. Nat, home on leave from his unit at Valley Forge, glared at Simm, and ate as much of the good food as he could fit. Simm could not help noting the twist of fate that had him living in Nat’s house, eating well each day, while Nat’s army, the opposing army, was nearly starving not thirty miles away.
Hackett and Jane were devoted to home, family and each other. It was nice to be around such pleasant people, but he wanted to move to the children’s table in the kitchen. He puzzled that, and realized that the last Christmas dinner he had attended had been spent at the children’s table. Again he decided, he needed to leave as soon as it would be polite to do so.
Rebecca, the youngest adult in the family and the only unmarried woman, was busy serving and helping the children in the kitchen as often as she sat down. It was she who allowed Jane and her mother, to enjoy their dinners without hopping up to get the succeeding courses. He wanted to help her, but that would have seen as bizarre, he let the feeling pass. He thought about his brother’s advice and started to consider how he could connect with her so as to prevent himself from falling into some form of insanity.
After dinner, drinks and desserts were served in the parlor so the table could be cleared. Simm sat for a minute, excused himself to go to the privy, then made his thanks and good-byes to his generous host and hostess. The steady rain of the afternoon had turned, with dusk, to sleet. It made the road slick with bouncing ice balls, dancing as they hit the quickly freezing ground. Simm chose the less slippery path, and made his way over the brown fields instead of the rutted road, back to the stone farmhouse. Off the main road, his collar and hood over his head against the weather, he watched others riding and walking to and from their Christmas’ dinners. It all seemed so normal, calm and healthy.
These thoughts were dragging him away from the tight focus he tried so hard to maintain. Maudlin thinking had no place anywhere near a battlefield. Maybe seeing Nat Willent had brought it home, he felt done with the whole project. The months with hard-line Clinton in New York wouldn’t make it better, but it might prove distracting.
Politically he was coming to agree with his brothers’, Robert and Stephen’s, support of the American cause, and was finding it harder to accept the majority position of Parliament. This was perhaps what comes of living too close to real Philadelphians, or maybe because he also had read Mr. Paine’s Common Sense. On top those thoughts, Simm could not get the image of Rebecca laughing with her nieces and nephews, out of his mind. The sight of her holding tiny Hackett in her arms as she politely said good-bye and Merry Christmas at the door, nearly had him breathless with desire. He could not want to destroy any of that, but too often war tore families apart.
The distance to the farm was short and Simm was in the empty, cold kitchen too soon. The other men were out, the fires long cold. Simm set the kitchen fire and coaxed it back to life, then he put a kettle over the flames, to boil water for tea. He sat, alone on a hard wooden chair, eating wondrous shortbread and thinking of soft skin and silky hair. So sweet, so beautiful. His Rebecca was Nat Willent’s baby sister. Had Nat not been told that Simm was one of the men living in her house? He couldn’t like that. If it had been legal, he was sure the young lieutenant would have challenged him to a duel just for being at his family’s Christmas dinner. Honestly, if either Anne or Janet had a strange man, known only as a military adversary, home for Christmas dinner, he might challenge him as well.
He finished his tea and another shortbread upstairs in his room. Then he replenished the wood and kindling in his and Rebecca’s rooms. In time a few of the other soldiers came back and sat in the parlor telling sad stories and drinking brandy. Simm was tempted to go down and join the self pity of soldiers far from their homes on Christmas evening. Instead, his thoughts fell to the future. Something hopeful he could only dream of. Lying on his back staring at the ceiling, he built a dream of a beautiful, caring, wife with blond hair, and smokey blue eyes, his Becky. And children, their children, happy bright haired children. All of them living away from here. Far away from war and the things that would drag them back into war.
Simm had gotten a glimpse of his future in the front pews of the church. He could do something to achieve it, or let it lie fallow and die. He went down to say happy Christmas to the men, but excused himself after a few minutes, and went back upstairs to write letters to his mother and father.
“Simm!” Ellerby called from the front room, “when will ‘Becca get home tonight?” His voice was slightly slurred and it was clear the men had not finished drinking.
“Not till late, Ellerby, I told her I’d do the milking and fires,” John lied, but considered that doing Rebecca’s chores would be a Christmas gift.
“Ish too bad, I have a preshent for her.”
“Lets all do Christmas gifts tomorrow at dinner, Ellerby, when we’re not in our cups.”
“Dash a good idea.”
“Happy Christmas Ellerby.”
“Happ’ Chrishmas, FitzShimmon. Ellerby went back to the others. Simm went to the barn to see if he remembered what the milkmaid said when she taught him how to milk a cow.
Later, while the women were drying the last of the dishes, Jane gave Rebecca a look that said it was time to talk. “Becky, what’s wrong, you are so tightly wound I fear you will break? I’ve never seen you rush around so at a dinner. You know we all share the chores. There was no reason for such.”
“Jane, dear, I know you’re right, I am sorry. Nat and FitzSimmon were making me nervous, or rather, Nat was. He sat there so stiff.”
“He’s still here, Becky, why don’t you ask him why. Maybe it was sharing bread with his enemy. You know we are used to it here, having the soldiers all over the place, it might be harder for him?”
Rebecca thought over Jane’s words. She suspected it was deeper than that, but it would be interesting to hear what Nat had to say. She headed to the parlor, but stopped at the door to listen to the men talking. She learned that Nat had been involved with political missions. Ones that he was glad had failed. That barely answered her questions, unless he and Simm had known each other through those negotiations. As unlikely as another coincidence would be – it would explain why they seemed to know one another. She spent some time reading with the little girls. When at last they were ready for sleep she said her good-byes.
“Beck- you need someone to walk with you. It’s very dark and late.” Her brother Nat asked as she grabbed her cloak from the peg in the hall.
“Nat, you’re as likely to land face down in the ice as not. I know you need to get a good night’s sleep when you have a chance. Besides, you don’t want to see the men at the farm. I’ll find my way home, and I’ll be fine, see the moon is out.” And indeed the storm had cleared to an icy clean night, with a nimbus moon.
Rebecca walked through the barn on her way into the house to see what chores she could put off till morning. She found the cows milked, sheep penned and chickens fed. Pleased and surprised, she walked into the kitchen to find the kitchen fire banked and the floors swept. She peeked into the parlor and sitting room and found most of the men contentedly drowsy or asleep beside a dying fire. Quietly, she put a thick log on the coals, knowing that when house got too cold, the men would find their beds. Carrying her shoes, she tiptoed through the dining room back through the kitchen. She climbed the stairs to the first landing. Simm’s door was ajar and a lanthorn was lit. She could just make out that he was sitting at his desk working. Rebecca continued up to the attic. She lit a candle and covered it with the glass, carefully placing the light on the floor. She went to the large chest that took up most of the wall under the window. It was where she stored her things, since her removal to the attic.
She lifted the lid and rummaged inside the wooden chest until she found a package wrapped in flax homespun in a pile of cedar shavings. She pulled off the wrapping and examined the contents. Inside was a bolt of fabric, about the size of a small blanket. She had woven it a year ago during the fall and into the winter. Everything had felt different then, for although the war was on and her world was upside down, there had still been time to dye and spin. A year ago, there had been space to assemble her loom and sit and weave the tartan she would never look at again, certainly never give away.
Rebecca refolded the soft wool, pushed her feet into a pair of warm shearling leather slippers and went down one flight. “Knock, knock,” Rebecca called hesitantly into the open door. “Major, may I disturb you a minute?”
“Yes, Miss Willent,” Simm jumped at the unexpected and welcome interruption. “Yes. Of course, can I help you?” He looked up, Rebecca was holding a blue and green piece of wool fabric.
“No, I don’t need help. I’m sorry. I won’t interrupt your work.” She made as if to turn.
Simm felt desperate to stop her from leaving, short of screaming. He simply barked an order. He tried to do it quietly.“Stop, please. You’re not bothering me. Let me start over. Miss Willent, to what do I owe this unexpected visit?”
“I’m afraid this,” she held out the limp wool. “It isn’t what I would have chosen – this year, I didn’t make it recently. I didn’t have time or I would have made something more… more formal, a fine linen cravat or something.” Suddenly feeling like she did want to run away and abandon this effort, she made herself finish a bit defiantly.
“You had mentioned that your mother was a Douglass.”
“Yes, her mother’s father was a Scottish Douglass, the clan is dissolved now.”
“You see,” Rebecca took a deep breath and steeled herself to tell her story. “I started this that fall, you remember?” She let that memory hang in the air. “I didn’t have a reason. I never thought to give it to you, I suppose I made it for myself, to remember you while I wove it. Now, I think you should have it.” Embarrassed, Rebecca turned away.
“Becky?” John spoke softly. She turned back to the room and handed John the soft wool weaving. He took it in his right hand, while with his left he reached behind him to grab something on a shelf. He handed her a four inch by four inch by four inch wooden box that rattled as he moved it. “Similarly, I had no reason to write my mother about a girl that I had met. A girl who explained the entire geopolitical industrial history of colonial America by explaining the lack of hairpins, but I did. Mother sent this last year. Jason brought it. I remember writing her about my trip through America. I tried to keep my stories bland, informational. I think I might not have been bland. Mother and my niece, another Elizabeth, went hunting for pins throughout London and Paris. She told Jason to give me this box, that you would want it. I assume, Mother was right?”
Rebecca reached for the box as Simm reached for the cloth. She sat on the floor in front of his warm fire and slid open the lid of the little wooden box. Inside, there were long thick straight pins for closing heavy coats and capes, long thin ones for hats, there were curved decorative pins with dulled ends for hair, even a large set to be used for utilitarian things such as sewing and diapers.
Simm fingered the soft wool. He’d penned these very sheep. He imagined Rebecca shearing, carding, spinning and dying the yarns before she wove the lovely tartan. He ached for her as he imagined those happy, bright haired children sleeping in their cradles, covered with this warm soft cloth.
He thanked her. She nodded and went back to her attic room.