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Coburg Christmas

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The court moved a day’s ride from London to Windsor Castle every year for the Christmas period. It was a time for family unity; two or three days in the year to reflect and remember what is important in life. This time, it was an escape from Victoria’s annus horribilis; the American Civil War threatened the balance of power in North America, uprisings in Russia and Greece terrified her, her mother had passed, and she feared she’d forever lost Ernest’s trust.

Ernest and his liberal ideas for German unification had made enemies in Prussia, putting his niece, Vicky, in a difficult situation as the Crown Princess. It seemed that every public declaration of Ernest’s political views placed at least one British royal in hot water. His open disdain for Danish claims on Schleswig-Holstein erupted into hundreds of shouting matches with Victoria and Albert, who were planning to marry their eldest son, Bertie, to a Danish Princess.

So, at Christmas, the company of her closest friends and family would always pull Victoria back to a simpler existence. She longed to once again be “Mrs Coburg”, as she had done on her first trip to Scotland, after such a terrible year. Christmas would 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. At first, she’d thought the notion of a tree inside, rotting and dropping its leaves in a messy circle on the floor, distasteful. But the enjoyment on Bertie, Vicky, Alice, and Sarah’s faces reminded her of the one quality she found redeeming in children: appreciation of simple pleasures.

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 deep red and purple dress—Albert thought her wide skirts resembled a steamship funnel, always banging on about his favourite iron-clads. 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; Lehzen’s gas lighting scheme never would have procured the same softness. Victoria so wished her former Governess could return to England for Christmas. The best alternative was a Christmas card, a generous pension, and all the Queen’s best wishes therein. Lehzen informed her that she was content in retirement, spoiling her nieces and nephews as she had once done to the Queen, but quite unable to travel and realise those days again.

The drawing room shimmered in the light from several crystal chandeliers, the sound of chatter and clinking glasses washing over Victoria as she entered. The golden panelled ceiling refracted it all onto the simple red wallpaper, in turn shining a kind, dim light on a circle of people by the marble hearth.

Lord and Lady Alfred Paget had already arrived, having a polite disagreement over fabrics for a renovated nursery room for their ten children. Lord Palmerston, a rather old man to whom Victoria and Albert referred as “weathered and experienced”, sat in the corner alone. He’d hung in the wings of government for decades, waiting his turn to leave a mark on history. Now that he was Prime Minister, he found himself overshadowed by the celebrated Peelite administrations in the eyes of the country, and always that of Lord M in the Queen’s.

Most detestable were the audiences the Queen and Palmerston shared this year.

‘It’s a shame your feet are so small, Lord Palmerston, I believe Sir Robert’s shoes are too big for you,’ she had said, when she’d heard of his plans to trade in slave-produced cotton and tobacco. He stated that it would maintain British dominance in North America to squeeze the growing power of the Union from north and south.

The Dowager Duchess of Sutherland maintained her position at court as well. Her husband had passed just some months previously, and she knew that without the Queen’s household to keep her company, she would have withered to nothing. She stayed for Christmas despite knowing that Ernest was invited—thankfully without his wife—at Albert’s request, rather than Victoria’s. Harriet and Palmerston frequently butted heads over the issue of trading in slave-produce, so she kept her distance by joining conversation with Alfred and Wilhelmina.

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 internal decoration dispute with Wilhelmina and wallflower Harriet.

‘The Prince has not yet returned from his trip to Cambridge, 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 maintaining an unblemished reputation. In fact, his promiscuity hacked away at Albert’s pride by echoing the actions of his grandfather and Uncles Leopold and Ernest. Victoria saw a glow of embarrassment on Wilhelmina’s cheeks when she too drew the link between the four oversexed men.

‘That is, Prince Edward shall be remaining at Cambridge for his studies over Christmas, I imagine. 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. ‘Our Arthur was quite excited to rush off to Eton, but he soon settled. I’m sure his royal highness would feel very glad of a visit from his father, as Arthur surely would with his nine siblings to compete against.’ Her smile and laugh glowed at her husband; Alfred merely averted his eyes. ‘Wouldn’t you agree, Alfred?’

‘Yes, I’m sure I do…’

‘What a lovely thought,’ Victoria muttered, summoning a footman with a glare. Sir John had once said she never could take champagne, which only spurred her on now that she planned on abusing this fact. She inhaled a glass of the bubbly drink in one 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 royal households 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 English 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

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 observation, 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 on the American Question?’ 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. Opposing the slave-trade in the south seems a good place to start.’

‘On the contrary, I believe it would be in the national interest to back the Confederates. All this talk of a naval race against a German Empire, what of an American one?’

‘But Britain is a keen supporter of modernisation, is it not?’ Harriet said. ‘That is precisely why the Privy Council approved of the Princess’ marriage to Prussia, to help guide a German state in the right direction.’

‘I should prefer that the unelected royal court has little say in foreign policy, or any aspect of government.’ Palmerston snapped back. He was determined not to shout, but it did nothing to stop the uncontrollable bite in his voice.

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 decades, 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.

To be distrustful of a growing America was one matter, but to ally with slave-owning secessionists was another. Prime Ministers would come and go, but her husband would be by her side to fight 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, no matter Ernest’s poor opinion of her.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Harriet and Victoria, along with Wilhelmina, retreated to a music room after dinner, where men such as Palmerston dared not venture.

‘Odious man!’ Harriet complained. ‘He gave me such a whacking at dinner.’ She slumped into an armchair by the fireplace and regained her composure there.

‘Although, you must admit that it is quite amusing to see how enraged men become over an argument,’ Wilhelmina said. She thought to Alfred’s inflamed cheeks throughout dinner, always up in arms for what he believed in. It reminded her of the political finesse and tenacity of another man she and her husband had known, long ago.

‘Indeed,’ Harriet said. ‘I believe I showed you that rather accusatory letter I received from that vile German man for my stance against American slavery. Whatever gives him the right?’

‘I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the sender…’

‘Oh, he’s not at all notable. Just a minor German political thinker. His name was… something Marx, if I recall correctly.’

‘I fear we shall never understand the fairer sex,’ Victoria joked. ‘I thought Palmerston might tear poor Lord Alfred’s hair out!’  

‘But there is one thing he and I generally agree upon,’ the Queen continued. Harriet braced herself, knowing what was coming. ‘The Schleswig-Holstein Question, we both believe Denmark should maintain the territory.’

Harriet averted her eyes from the Queen’s, Wilhelmina tried to lighten the mood. ‘I’m sure Ernest has good intentions, even in opposing your interests, ma’am.’

‘What do you think, Harriet?’

‘I have neither a stake nor strong opinions on anything involving Ernest, ma’am.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

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

‘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 misery, dear boy.’ He laughed as he dried the tears collecting behind his eyes. She knew, she always did.

‘Is my misery so obvious? I made that promise to Wilhelmina for life. She rescued me during that damn awful time, would it not be dishonourable of me to abandon her now?’

‘As her aunt, I supported the match in the beginning. But I think it is not making either of you happy, not with 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? There is nothing so selfish and…’

‘My dear, there will come a time when raising of children ceases to keep you sufficiently busy to hide the weariness 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?’ Alfred asked. 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.’

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Albert and Ernest arrived at the castle early the next morning, having greeted each other in London. Albert left his brother to his chambers, so he could slip through the staterooms into his wife’s. 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 woman; 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 Bertie 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.

‘Oh, my darling,’ she cooed, rubbing circles on his back until he regained his breath. ‘I must agree that I am terribly disappointed in Bertie 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 at 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.

‘Do you remember our first Christmas?’ she asked, holding the sick man. ‘You invited poor dear mama to join us, and at first… At first, I was angry. But then I realised, when Uncle Cumberland arrived, that Christmas is also about forgiveness.’

‘Have I done something to-’

She kissed Albert again to prevent him from anxiously reeling off possibilities for things he’d done to annoy her. ‘No, not at all, my love. I was more hoping that I might try to be more civil with Ernest, considering the past year…’

Albert smiled at her, proud of how far she’d come since they’d started celebrating Christmas the Coburg way. He loved her all the more for the forgiveness she was willing to extend to his brother, a gracious gift given simply because she knew Albert stilled loved his dear brother Ernest no matter what. Even if his political undertakings called into question British alliances.

Chapter Text

Alfred and Harriet spent their morning strolling around the lakes of the great park by the castle, Harriet stopping to skip stones on a pond. Anything to remove herself from Ernest’s company, now that he’d arrived. The long lines of Eton boys rushing about in the mornings reminded him of simpler times. Happier times. Before life became so complicated.

Nowadays, 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 about his desire for separation, 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 was suddenly glad that Harriet had wandered far from him in search of skipping stones when he felt more consciously 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.

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 wondered 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 asked himself whether others were struggling with this time of year as well. He noticed that Albert didn’t take a keen interest in this year’s Christmas planning as he had in the past. He stopped attending meetings for his beloved statistical society, his mad obsession with trains and computational devises disappeared almost entirely.

None of the celebrations lived up to the expectation Alfred had of Christmas this year. Alfred’s father enjoyed his women as much as the late Saxe-Coburg Duke, if not more, so his birth had been the result of affairs and divorce. He did look forward to Christmas with the Coburgs since there had been no emphasis on it in his own childhood. A holiday spent with friends he considered family made him so happy, and to know that the Coburg Princes shared the same sentiments and a poor family situation in common with him was usually reassuring itself. But that wasn’t enough this year.

Even Harriet seemed hollower than ever 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 couldn’t be for lack of sexual competence on Ernest’s part. Conversely, Alfred’s marriage depended on children.

As for him, well, it was 18 years since he’d lost Drummond.

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 had the impression 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 friends’ discretion.

As Alfred watched Harriet plunge a rock far too big for skipping into the pond, he concluded that he was not alone in misery.

‘Harriet?’ he called, approaching her from behind as she stared across the pond. Pondering. ‘Are you quite-’

‘Do you think a woman my age might be able to remarry, Alfred?’

Alfred blinked at her. ‘It is possible, although I believe the benefit of having married an older man is realised by an earlier “release”.’

She turned away from the pond to find another stone; Alfred had doubts on whether it would skip, but perhaps that was not Harriet’s goal.

‘George and I loved each other so dearly, and I find myself…’

‘Missing it?’

She threw another stone across the pond.

‘One could say that…’

It made a large splash and sank to the bottom.