As I said last week, there are very few romances that take place at Christmas. This is Alex in 1775, alone in Boston, acting as eyes for George Washington in the British occupied town. On top of that he has decided to read Seneca.
Early in the day Alex had accompanied his friends, the young sons of families with connections to the previous governor, and officers who had the bad luck to be stuck in Boston on Christmas Day, to church. Although the soldiers and residents might have wanted to celebrate the birth of the lord, the town did not have a festive feel. Not only was it warm enough for snow to turn to mud, few homes had bothered to so much as hang a pine bough in the window.
Before the occupation and naval blockade, the townspeople of Boston had begun to enjoy the celebrations around December the twenty-fifth, but it was always complicated for them. First the Puritan edicts ran contrary to celebrating just one day for the birth of Christ. Cotton Mather, called one of the great lights of Puritan thought, had said that every day was cause for the celebration of Christ, not one day a year.
Further complicating the holiday in the minds of New Englanders, was the Saturnalia. The Roman celebration of the new year. It was traditionally Pagan and raucous. Some traditionalists argued that any celebration around the winter solstice was Popery or even paganism. Others understood that it was important to celebrate the birth of Christ, even if the day had not been a significant holiday in the previous century. Everyone it seemed, had begun to realize that it was unkind, in this cold, dark place, not to have some celebration at the end of the year.
Now however, the occupied town was dreary and sad on the best days. Roads had not been groomed or cleaned, wooden walks had not been repaired, and lights that were scheduled to be hung near the market, had either already broken or had never been set up.
Alex spent as much time as he could, in forced jollity with these men. If he could have attended a service at the nearby New South Meetinghouse, the day would have had some meaning, but to have gone to New South would have attracted attention, the wrong kind of attention. He had worked very hard to be the man everyone liked, but nobody noticed. It wouldn’t do to have notice made of him now.
Ruefully, he acknowledged that this life was exhausting him. He lied so often about who he was and what he was doing, that he had lost his energy. His life had no zest. Every night he dressed and went to whichever club was next was on his list, living the charade of the well heeled Tory looking to entertain himself until his army won back the colonies. He played this role so well, that he had been invited by the young officers to spend time at the Province House drinking with them and their superiors, officers of highest ranks. Lots of inadvertent information had started coming his way. Now was not a good time to be noticed in any capacity, certainly not for the stupid mistake of going to the wrong church.
Christmas morning he had left his fellows’ company as early as was polite, and gone home. Once he was as warm and comfortable as possible, he set a bottle fine cognac next to him on the table and began pouring the warm wine into a crystal glass. He had a copy of Seneca open on his lap, but the wine was more interesting than Stoicism. It was not that the Stoics weren’t compelling, it just seemed redundant to him when what he needed was to get very drunk.
He remembered Christmas a year ago. It had been his first in America after being in Italy the winter before. Music ringing from the churches and halls echoed in his memory. He never expected his New England homeland to celebrate with the elegance of Florence or the abandon of Rome, or even the bells of London, but he had put holly and mistletoe in his parlor, and a candle in his window. Now there was nothing.
Alex looked at his glass and realized that it, and the bottle on the table were empty. He had been making up for an afternoon of staying judiciously sober. He tried to stand, to find another bottle of wine, but he sat back hard when he heard footsteps on the stairs. Pushing himself up, and trying to throw off his despond before the door opened and he was asked to go out to a another boring evening. He had just grabbed a second bottle and sat back down, when the visitor retreated, steps echoing in the hall as they moved down the stairs.
He heard some rustling outside his door, and almost went to look, but the effort did not seem worth it. A minute later, he heard footfalls again. He had no interest in leaving his cognac or his chair, and hoped there was no one there who needed anything from him. The steps came up a third time and knocked on the door. He had achieved the perfect state of inebriation and did not want to alter it, he grunted “enter.”
The door opened and boxes of firewood and food were pushed from the hallway through the door by a lady’s foot in dark burgundy boots. Even in boots, she had a lovely ankle. Very pretty legs from what he could see. Alex sat back, if this was a drunken hallucination, or a fabulous dream. He would do nothing to change it. Ladies with nice legs who brought food and firewood, could only exist in dreams.
Alex smelled the food. The lady was surely a hallucination. She unpacked roast turkey and cranberries, Indian bread and pumpkin pie. Food that shouldn’t be here, he swallowed deeply from his glass. The lady with the pretty burgundy boots, threw off a matching cloak and revealed a green gown with a purple striped petticoat. The gown was silk and low cut. It revealed more than it should have to a man as drunk as he. He reached for his glass to prolong the hallucination.
In this dream, Nina was putting wood on his tiny fire, building it to real warmth. Other boxes of firewood were lined up near the door. She moved nearer, and leaned over. He blinked at a lovely neckline, and the tops of full breasts. He did not move or speak, careful not to wake himself or shake the apparition away.
Nina knew when a man was drunk. She took her tin camp kettle and unpacked it on a small table near the fire, setting up a plate of turkey, stuffing and cranberries. She put it on the small table next to his wine, and sat on the floor at his feet. Nina handed Alex a piece of turkey on a fork. “You need food, eat.” He blinked at the plate of good food at his elbow and the fork. Obediently he took the fork and ate the food. When the plate was nearly empty he blinked again. He reached for his wine. Nina replaced the glass in his hand with a tankard of ale.
“It doesn’t seem right to eat. I have made a policy of not eating.” Alex sat back in his chair, he took a long drink of Nina’s ale. He could feel his head shrink and mind clear.
“Why don’t you eat? You are very thin.” All sorts of panicked worries began swimming around Nina’s head. Terrible things happened to people when they began to starve. She wished she could drag Alex home to care for him, but he would not want that.
“There is little food. Most townspeople are here because they have nowhere to go, the redcoats are only holding warehouse goods here, not people, they are free to leave. I don’t mean the Tories, the refugees, as they call themselves. But the locals. Food is smuggled in for them. I don’t deserve their food. I eat with the Tories, but I can’t eat much.”
It was nonsense, and yet Nina understood. She would never fault Alex for a lack of discipline, or of lacking clear sense, of doing what he believed. It would foolish to try to change his mind on such matters. “Seneca?” She picked up his book from where he had dropped it. “Don’t you think this ascetic life is punishment enough?”
“Punishment? I am not being punished. I am performing a necessary task.”
“Yes, I know.” She turned through the pages of the book.
Alex relaxed back into his drunk. The food was nice, and it was very good to be warm. Having Nina, or her apparition, here was good. He would wake in the morning, cold, hungry and with a terrible hangover. But it was nice, this dream.
It was odd to have the taste of ale in his mouth. He wasn’t sure he could conjure up the taste of Nina’s ale. It had been a long time since he had drunk good ale. The false Alex Peele had completely stopped drinking beer. His apparition was talking to him. He fought to focus.
“Deborah Revere said I should come to town. No, that’s not the truth.” Nina fumbled, trying to find words that would not embarrass.
Alex poured some cognac into his empty tankard and handed Nina a glass of the wine. He rested his other hand in her hair as she sat close to him, still on the rug near the fire. “Start at the beginning. Nina, I’m afraid I can’t focus, but I will try.” His slight laugh gave her courage.
“It was the night of that dinner party. I tried to tell you – after – when we were on Thorne.”
Alex remembered being afraid for Nina’s life, afraid there would be no reason to carry on with his own life. Was there a way to explain all that? “I remember a terrible need to shoot the bastard who held you hostage in the road. I recall you trying to tell me something. I know that gunshots interfered.”
“Yes they did.” Nina took a deep breath. Sitting very straight, she put her hands in her lap. “The next week I made a confession at meeting. They voted. I’m a member of the First Church now.”
“Yes, congratulations. I know your family must be relieved. But, I am sorry. What does that have to do with – what you need to tell me?”
“My confession was that I had stayed angry with Johnny for ten years. I confessed that I had never forgiven him for hurting me, leaving me, and dying before we could make a marriage. Then I told the elders that someone had come into my life. And that I had asked God to help me forgive Johnny. I needed to make room in my heart to love this person.”
Alex held his breath. He had been present at many confessions. Some people had begun to take them lightly, but Nina wouldn’t. Such public confessions were required in the Old Light tradition for church membership. Dr. Tyrie was strictly Old Light. Confessing a sexual love was unusual, but nothing was unheard of.
She looked at her hands and continued. “It happened on the way to the dinner party. I had been screaming – howling even louder than the wind – at the unfairness of my life, at Johnny. I guess I was screaming at God. Suddenly, I felt all my anger leave me. I cried for a while, and then I wasn’t scared anymore.
“When I finished my story, the ladies in the Congregation started to cry, their husbands looked a little uncomfortable. But the wives all ran to hug me. Alex I am not afraid anymore. It may be wrong to say, but after that night I feel reborn.”
Alex pulled himself out of his chair and walked the few short step to the window. He pushed his head against the cold glass and looked at the growing dark of the late afternoon. Clouds blocked the moon making the evening as dreary as the day had been, until now. He thanked the gracious God for bringing Nina here, bringing her, just for a moment, into his complicated life.
But he couldn’t, wouldn’t do it. The false Alex Peele could not be here with this newly reborn and wonderful Nina. He put he head against the cold window. There was only one way he could refuse her generous offer where she would not feel rejected. Dishonestly was his middle name, he would be a sloppy drunk.
“Darling,” he carefully slurred his words, “you may be sure. But I am afraid that you find me in a bit of incapacitation.” He that was a hard one, and he made the most of it. His gait wobbled as he sat next to Nina on the warm rug. He didn’t need to fake that, or his swooning head. Her kiss was very sweet, his mouth must take like cognac. He took a minute and closed his eyes.
Nina stood up and away from him. She began to explore the room. Just behind where they sat, was a short corridor to Alex’s bedroom. She went in. The room was very cold. It was likely he had never had a fire here, she knelt and set a fire. Again she wanted nothing so much as to drag Alex back to the Wheel and Hammer, feed him well, and let him rest. She could see the weariness in his eyes. Even the fact he was long in his cups couldn’t hide the profound tired.
It felt good to have Nina here. Good to have that recurring nightmare over. The one in which watched Nina dragged away and held at gunpoint, while he, so afraid to expose his identity, did nothing to save her. He hated himself in those dreams. If there were any way he could give up this false world, he would. That simple kiss in Nina’s kitchen had nearly cost Washington his eyes in Boston. Only saved by Jack walking in the kitchen door. For all he knew, young Jack saved the American cause that morning.
He had lost his heart that morning, though it had taken some time to acknowledge it. Lost, just as Carlotta had seen in the strange way of hers, to a woman with aquamarine eyes. He remembered when she had given him the bezel and told him to give it to the lady whose eyes matched the stone. The one who would own his heart. Carlotta should be hanged as a witch.
He could see Nina through the door. She had shed her shawl and looked magnificent in the green and violet gown, the colors complimenting each other, and her. Like a spring tulip. He summoned energy to bank the fire, and put the screen in front of the hearth. He half crawled into his room and climbed onto the bed. He let his head fall back into the soft pillows, his eyes closed. These pillows were the one extravagance he had allowed himself in this strange, false life. It was his one delicious moment per day, letting his head sink into softness. The room was warm, which was a pleasant shock. Through his drunken haze he watched his Nina taking off her boots and socks in front of the fire.
The simple act was breathtaking. He had seen the veil dancers in Istanbul, and sat in the salons of courtesans in Paris. Nothing he had seen on his travels compared to watching Nina step out of thick boots, warm socks and thick, quilted petticoats. He swallowed. He willed his body to be hopelessly drunk, as inebriated as he needed it to be.
Nina fiddled with the strings and hooks of her gown. Her heart pounded in her ears. She wished it was with excitement, but she knew that she was afraid. She hated to retreat. She was afraid of hurting Alex’s feelings, more than of anything else. She told herself it would be perfect, she would not curl into a frightened little ball. Her heavy quilted petticoats fell to her feet. She stepped out of them, and turned to the bed.
Alex was soundly asleep, his head deep in the nest of pillows a smile on his lips. She had felt him watching her until just a minute before. Quietly Nina tiptoed around the two rooms. She pulled the blankets over him, making sure he was comfortable. She snuffed the candles and checked hearths, banking coals so that they would be alive in the morning. She washed her teeth in some clean water and braided her hair. Then she pulled back the covers on Alex’s warm soft bed and climbed in next to him, snuggling close against his hard back. She put her arms around him and drew him to her, breathing his scent deep into her lungs. It felt familiar, at the same time she felt a warm, a tingly sensation that had nothing to do with the temperature in the room. She had not expected to feel so physically connected although she had realized that what she felt for him must be love. Nina sighed with contentment, Alex slept deeply and seemed oblivious to all.
Before dawn Alex woke to Nina, as she gently, almost silently climbed out of bed. He remembered just enough of the night, what had happened, and what had not happened. And why. He got up and Alex fixed the fire in his parlor and set water on the hearth, while Nina dressed in the other room. He ran out to the privy, only slightly surprised to see Nina’s Suffolks, already harnessed and ready to leave. He greeted the horses and wished them a good new year, then he pushed a leather pouch under the wagon bench and went back into the house. He climbed back into his warm bed, his head splitting.
“I have to leave.” Nina, dressed in a warm wool gown, leaned over to kiss him good-bye. Alex pulled her down and into his arms. He rolled her beneath him and covered her mouth with his. Deepening the kiss when he felt Nina fingers dig into his back and run through his hair.
Nina opened her lips as Alex demanded. Lost in the whirlwind of sensation, his fabulous hair loose in her fingers. He feet struck the floor as clock struck its second charm. Alex let her go, picking up her fingers and kissing them one by one, and letting them go, letting her go.
Weakly, he waved good-bye.