A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS

Excerpt from A Fond Hope by Vanessa Lind (copyright 2022)

From Chapter Twenty

December 24, 1864

On Christmas morning, Hattie and Alice enjoyed a lazy breakfast with the Duncans. They had fruit-filled Stollen bread, a tradition Mrs. Duncan said had been passed down through her German mother. They washed it down with rich, dark coffee—the real thing.

“We’ve so much to be thankful for,” Mrs. Duncan said as the servants cleared the table.

Dressed in the resplendent red dress Hattie had made, Jo tugged at her mother’s hand. With the two of them leading the way, they all retreated to the front room.

A Christmas tree filled one corner of the room, floor to ceiling, tinsel sparkling in the light from candles secured to the branches. “Santa came,” Jo said, pointing at the packages crowded under the tree.

“So he did.” Anne nudged her forward. “Now you shall be Santa’s helper, handing out gifts.”

“Just mind the candles,” Mr. Duncan said. “We don’t care to celebrate with the house afire.”

At the mention of fire, Hattie caught Alice’s eye. Last night, as they’d readied for bed, Alice had told her a contingent from Buffalo had pursued several suspects in the New York City fires over the Canadian border. One of the men they’d seen at Delmonico’s—loud, burly Robert Cobb Kennedy—was apprehended. The rest got away. Frustrating, but Hattie hoped the arrest would make the attackers think twice before attempting a similar plot in another Northern city.

Mr. and Mrs. Duncan arranged themselves in a pair of horsehair chairs. Hattie and Alice occupied a settee. Crouching near the tree, Anne handed one gift at a time to her daughter, whispering instructions.

Jo toddled dutifully to each recipient, delivering the gifts. One by one, the packages were opened. A ruby broach from Mr. Duncan to his wife, a gold watch chain from her to him. A handbag in a cheery floral print from the Duncans to their daughter, and from her to them, a tea set imported from Canton.

Hattie and Alice unwrapped tiny bottles of Paris perfumes from Anne. Alice had brought a box of chocolates from Buffalo, which they shared all around. After that came an intermission, so Anne could wash away the chocolate smeared over Jo’s hands and face.

Clean faced again, the child resumed her distributions, now with Hattie’s gifts. With the money George had given her dwindling, she’d obtained scraps of fabric from a servant so she could stitch pouches for her hosts and friends. There were oohs and ahs all around at Hattie’s careful stitching, the one useful skill she’d learned at boarding school, and everyone seemed pleased with the patterns she’d chosen.

By the time she’d finished her deliveries, Jo had to be reminded that the remaining gifts under the tree were for her. She tore into boxes of candies and fruits, then unwrapped a porcelain doll which she clutched to her chest, loudly proclaiming it “mine.”

Soon she abandoned the doll for a pull toy shaped like a hound dog, complete with a wagging tail, which she walked in circles about the room.

With all the gifts dispersed, Hattie relaxed in her seat. Smells of roasting turkey and boiled ham wafted from the kitchen. In his chair, Mr. Duncan, head drooping, began to snore.

“I can’t think of a more pleasant way to spend Christmas,” Alice said.

“Nor can I,” Hattie said. “Unless of course word came that the war has ended.”

“Ah, that would be lovely indeed,” Mrs. Duncan said. “I do hope that Richard is having a bit of enjoyment this holiday.”

“He should at least have received a package like the ones we made for our soldiers,” Anne said. Last week, she and Hattie had volunteered with the local sanitary commission to package up fruit, nuts, socks, and wool hats to be delivered to Union soldiers on the front lines.

“And your lieutenant, Hattie,” Mrs. Duncan said. “I hope he received a package too.”

More than that, Hattie hoped he was safe. For once, she’d been glad he’d been sent away from the city. Recently, the Confederates had tried to take Nashville. Union soldiers had turned them away, but there had been casualties on both sides.

Jo began to fuss. Anne bent to help her untangle the pull cord of her mechanical dog toy from its wheels. Mrs. Duncan nudged her snoozing husband, startling him awake. “If you’re going to nap, dear, you should do it properly, in your bed.”

He blinked several times, looking a tad disoriented. “Properly,” he repeated. “Yes.” He stood. “If you’ll excuse me, ladies.”

Mrs. Duncan stood too. “I’d best see to the preparations in the kitchen. Last year the chestnuts were underdone and the plum pudding burnt around the edges. We mustn’t have that disaster again.”

Abandoning her pull-toy, Jo reached for her new doll, clutching it to her chest. Anne scooped her up in her arms. “Someone is quite overdue for her nap.”

“No, mama,” Jo said. “More presents.”

“We’re finished with the presents.”

“Are we?” Alice said. “I wouldn’t mind another even if it’s for someone else.”

“Now Alice,” Hattie said. “We mustn’t be greedy.”

As Anne and Jo left the room, she gazed out the window. From the gray sky, a steady snow was falling. “Snow for Christmas,” she said. “We don’t always get that in Indiana.”

“We do in Buffalo,” Alice said. “Tons and tons of it. My favorite part of Christmas used to be snowball fights with the neighborhood kids.”

“George and I would do that, too, when the snow was deep enough. But it was only the two of us, and I’m afraid I got the worst of it. George has a superb throwing arm.”

“I wonder if there’s snow in Oregon,” Alice said.

“Probably just rain, close as he is to the ocean.” Studying Mr. Duncan’s atlas, Hattie and Alice had located Astoria, situated near where the Columbia River emptied into the Pacific.

“I wish your mother had shown you his letter,” Alice said.

“There’ll be one waiting for us in Nashville,” Hattie said. “I’m sure of it. As soon as John gets home, we’ll have it.”

“And you’ll be off to Nashville, leaving me to fend for myself.” Alice’s pout seemed mostly feigned.

“The war’s tide is turning,” Hattie said. “The Confederates have been turned back from Tennessee. The Federals have Savannah. Soon it will be over, and we can all be together. In the meantime, you’ve got your engagements to keep you occupied.”

“I suppose,” Alice said. “Although I received some distressing news before coming here. You remember I have a commitment in Washington City in March?”

“The benefit for John McCullough?” Hattie said.

Alice nodded. “At Ford’s Theatre. I’m to play Florinda in The Apostate. But recently I learned that Wilkes is cast as the male lead. I can’t bear the thought of taking to the stage with the cad.”

“Then say you won’t do it,” Hattie said. “They’ve time to find someone else.”

“Oh, but McCullough would be so disappointed,” Alice said. “He begged me to perform in his benefit. Besides, I’d rather not give Wilkes the satisfaction of having run me off.”

“You are an actress,” Hattie said. “You can make nice while seething inside.”

“That’s precisely what I intend to do,” Alice said. “And maybe Wilkes will let slip about the company he’s been keeping of late. That man he met with in Boston, who turned up at Delmonico’s in association with the plot to burn down New York.”

“Headley,” Hattie said. “But that’s guilt by association. Hardly enough to accuse Wilkes of wrongdoing.”

“What about the money you saw him get at the bank?” Alice said. “And that lovely sometimes-widow Sarah Slater we’ve known him to be with.”

“That’s what’s got you perturbed,” Hattie said. “The veiled lady.”

Alice’s eyes flashed. “You suspected her too.”

“But without any real evidence,” Hattie said.

Alice folded her arms at her chest. “And here I thought you were a spy.”

In the hallway, the door knocker sounded. “Now who could that be, on Christmas Day?” Hattie said.

“Maybe it’s a delivery boy. With some ingredient or other for the Christmas feast.”

“He should have gone around to the back.” Too late, Hattie realized how much this sounded like something her mother would say.

“Probably not a path shoveled yet, with the snow,” Alice said.

There was the creak of the front door’s opening. A moment later, Anne poked her head into the room.

“Hattie, there’s someone at the door who wants a word with you.”

“With me?” Hattie stood. “Who?”

“Never seen him before,” Anne said.

“And you opened the door to him?” Hattie said.

“It’s Christmas,” Alice said. “Not even a stranger should have to stand outside in the snow.”

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