Beneath Black Clouds and White
In this book, which spans nine Christmases, our two protagonists could not be more different. Captain Josiah Tenterchilt loves his family more than any other soul, but his duty is always to the army. In this first excerpt (which is set in 1792 and opens the book), he makes his announcement to his family that he is to leave for the continent and war, throwing the perfect and opulent Christmas into disarray. The second extract (set the following year, 1793) focuses on the young army surgeon, Henry Fotherby, who has high and noble ideals, but whose Christmas is spent in the dismal army camp.
I’m a bit of a research geek, and I loved looking at the types of food and gifts which were eaten and given in the final decade of the eighteenth century. On the other side of this, I found the research into military Christmases were often quite sad and lonely affairs but which, nonetheless, could inspire the best in the most unlikely of people. Hopefully, both these things come through in the text!
from Chapter One – Christmas at Chanter’s House
In a country at peace, men of war are confined to their homes and families. To some this can create a suffocating world where they can only dream about the freedom of distant lands and the camaraderie of the army. To Captain Josiah Tenterchilt there was no better way to spend Christmas than with his wife of nine years. It would be incorrect to suggest the captain did not enjoy his work, for there was nothing he regarded as highly as the British army, but he loved his wife beyond anything else.
He lived in a large town house which he had received upon making Miss Elizabeth Jenkyns into Mrs Tenterchilt. It had tall railings before a grand driveway, with two imposing sycamore trees growing at either side, and a large Jacobean front with enormous windows overlooking the drive, railings and the road beyond. While Captain Tenterchilt was a fiercely proud man, he did not see this place as anything more than his home. Inside, Chanter’s House was filled with lavish marbled floors, high ceilings and strong coloured walls that gave the rooms warmth, even in the cold of winter.
He and his wife did not live alone in the great building for they also shared its opulence with their three young daughters, Arabella, Imogen and Catherine. Each of the three girls appeared now, decked in their most beautiful dresses, sitting at the table to share the Christmas meal with their parents. Ordinarily on a Tuesday the family would not sit down together for a meal, but Christmas day held a special dispensation. The five of them would sit together for dinner on Sunday, but on other days only the eldest daughter would share the table with her parents, for Captain Tenterchilt did not believe it was right for a child younger than seven to eat with their parents.
Now, all three girls watched excitedly as a large joint of beef, tureens of vegetables and the plate that housed the plum pudding were brought through from the kitchens downstairs. Arabella brushed a loose stand of hair from her face as she indicated to one of the footmen the food she would like. She was a lady in miniature, having learnt a great deal from her mother in her eight years, studying each movement that she made and trying to learn from the answers and instruction she gave. This great house would one day be her own, Arabella knew, and she wished to be prepared for such a day whenever it might appear. Imogen sat with her hands on her lap as she knew she should, having been taught ready for her seventh birthday next year, but her eyes sparkled as she took in the splendour of the spread before her. Catherine covered her mouth trying to hide the excited smile she felt creep across her face and she giggled into her fingers as her father stood to carve the meat. Being only four she had a long time to wait before she would be able to share this experience daily with her parents, and to be given an opportunity midweek seemed almost as exciting as the gifts waiting in the Drawing Room.
Captain Tenterchilt, who sat at the head of the table, looked at his gathered family and smiled slightly to himself. Elizabeth, whose eyes never strayed from her husband’s, followed his gaze and felt a similar smile catch her own features as she took his hand in her own. Arabella watched on from the other side of the table, unsure whether she should take her father’s other hand but deciding against it.
“Catherine,” Imogen hissed as her younger sister picked up one of the potatoes in her hand.
“It is alright, Imogen,” her father said gently, while Elizabeth helped her youngest daughter with her cutlery. Generally, their mother would not do such a thing, but Christmas brought great acceptance and leniency within the family hierarchy.
“My dear ladies,” Captain Tenterchilt said, rising to his feet. “A very happy Christmas to you all. I shall not make a long toast, or Cat may not be able to contain her excitement.” Imogen watched as her mother frowned slightly, but her father continued. “But with the events that brew overseas this might be our last Christmas together for a time.”
“Josiah, please,” Elizabeth whispered as Imogen’s eyes filled with tears.
“War is in a man’s nature, Elizabeth,” he replied, looking around the table. Imogen kept her eyes fixed on her father as he continued speaking.
“I do not mean that I shall die, my dears, only that war does not know the holy days and festivals which we observe.”
“But, Papa,” Arabella whispered. “You have missed our last two Christmases.”
“It is the price military men must pay, my dears.”
“I hope that my Christmas miracle might be that you are returned to us for next Christmas, Papa,” Imogen whispered with great earnest. Catherine looked across at her father and nodded, unable to say anything with her mouth full of plum pudding.
“You could not wait, my little Cat,” Josiah smiled across at his youngest daughter who shook her head, giggling into her hands once more.
“Her name is Catherine,” Elizabeth whispered, looking at her own plate but seeing nothing. She loved Josiah so overwhelmingly, but she had been forced to acknowledge that, while she held the highest position in his heart, he still belonged very much to the army. Her husband had only just returned to her from his exploits in India, where he had fought in the Kingdom of Mysore. That he was already planning and anticipating his return to conflict left a bitter taste.
“Then, here is a health to my beautiful ladies,” Josiah continued, lifting his glass to them all. Arabella and Imogen copied him while Elizabeth begrudgingly lifted her glass and encouraged young Catherine to do the same. “Merry Christmas, my dears.”
“Merry Christmas, Papa,” the three girls chimed as one before Elizabeth set her own glass on the table, untouched. At once the children began eating and their mother watched as the three of them, with varying manners, enjoyed their dinner. She tried to recall the celebration of the day, and smiled at each one of her family, but could not bring herself to engage in conversation.
Afterwards, the family withdrew to the Drawing Room and presents were handed out to each of the daughters. Arabella received a beautiful family of dolls, each wearing clothes which were embroidered with her initials, and she traced the stitches with her fingers, appreciating the fine needlework. Imogen, a keen scholar, received a writing set with its own inkwell and a pen into which her name had been engraved. Catherine, who had no interest in dolls and wrote as little as she could, received a collection of toy horses and riders. But, while their gifts were each so well matched to the individual daughter, their favourite gift was one they were given to share. Elizabeth watched as her three daughters gathered around a small wicker basket and both Imogen and Catherine gave an excited squeal, while Arabella whispered,
“Oh, Mama, is he ours?”
“Of course he is, my little lady,” Elizabeth replied. “But he belongs to all three of you. You must share him.”
Catherine wasted no time but picked up the sleeping puppy and held it close to her chest as she had seen people do with children.
“What is his name?” she asked. The small spaniel twisted in her arms but, with a gentle firmness which surprised her parents she safely kept hold of him.
“You must name him, all three of you together,” her father replied.
“Gulliver,” Imogen announced as she traced her finger along the white line on his nose.
“Arabella? Cat?” Josiah asked. “Do you like the name Gulliver?”
“It is a very exciting story.” Imogen began to defend her choice, but her two sisters just nodded.
“Then Gulliver it is,” Josiah announced, watching as Catherine set the small animal down on the floor and at once it began snuffling around the room. All three of the children followed Gulliver’s every move.
Christmas Day concluded with the children taking their new friend upstairs and placing him in the wicker basket once more. Arabella did not wish to have Gulliver in her room so Catherine and Imogen took the little dog into the nursery with them, much to the annoyance of their nurse. Downstairs, Josiah sat in the Drawing Room with a glass of wine in one hand and the bottle in his other.
“Why did you talk to the children of returning to war?” Elizabeth asked as she walked over to the window and looked out across the lawn at the front of the house. “I thought you had hopes to stay a while longer.”
“Elizabeth,” Josiah said flatly, pouring the remaining wine from the bottle into his glass. “I have a duty to the army. You know that I must go where I am sent.”
“Why did you not take the job you were offered at Horse Guards? You will not get an opportunity like that again, I know it. Your children are growing up without you. You have a duty to them, too.”
“I am quite certain that Arabella learns all she needs from you,” Josiah replied. “And Imogen? What other six-year-old could recite Jonathan Swift? No, Elizabeth, they do not need anything from me.”
“And Catherine?” Elizabeth demanded. “The poor child has yet to find anything she might excel at.”
“Little Cat,” Josiah laughed. “She has a fire that the other two have not.”
“Your temper, you mean. She is lost without you. I am lost without you,” she conceded.
“You married me knowing I was a military man, my dear.” Josiah rose to his feet and walked over to his wife.
“And, in that time, I have had only one full year with you by my side.” She turned to face him and allowed him to kiss her cheek. “I know that I have not delivered you the son you so desperately want, but your three daughters love you as much as any son could.”
“My beautiful Elizabeth,” Josiah sighed. “I could not hold against you that our three children have been female.”
“Is it something you must lament?”
“I do wish I had a son,” he admitted with a little reluctance. “But not at the expense of any one of my daughters. Only, a son might understand what it is to be a soldier and would not be reduced to tears at the mere mention.”
“Is it so bad that your children are sad to hear you will not be with them?”
“You outsmart me at every turn.”
“You married me knowing I was a parliamentarian’s daughter,” she responded, watching as her husband nodded.
“And so, I accept that you will win any war of words. Now you must accept that I will always respond to the call of the army. You have a beautiful house here,” Josiah remarked, his voice becoming frayed with impatience, “and when you become tired of life here you have an estate in the north to enjoy summer.”
“They are both yours, my dear,” she replied, taking the bottle out of his hand. “Signed over on marriage.”
“Do you believe I married you for your property?” Josiah demanded.
“I believe I married you for love, so I do not care, my dear. But I wish you were here long enough so that we might share that love.” She set the bottle down on the table and walked toward the door. “Happy Christmas, Josiah,” she added, closing the door behind her.
from Chapter Six – Who We Truly Are
In contrast to the festivities and worries of the family at Chanter’s House, Christmas on the continent was a desperately lonely affair. Despite the lack of appeal that Wanderford Hall held for Fotherby, when Christmas arrived in Flanders, unannounced and unmarked, he felt a pang for the simple celebrations of home. Although Wanderford Hall was never decked for Christmas, the strictly adhered to fast of Advent made the feast of Christmas only more exciting. Fotherby’s father had heard the preacher John Wesley on many occasions throughout his youth and it was to this man’s words that Fotherby owed his own religiously regimented upbringing. His uncle, of course, would heed none of this puritanical approach and, when he had arrived at Wanderford Hall when Fotherby had been ten years old, he introduced his nephew to the concept of a church beyond what his father had taught him. But the young Fotherby found that the method and rule of Wesley’s teaching suited him rather well.
While he wrapped a thick woollen blanket about his shoulders and gazed out over the dusting of snow, he considered how desolate this place was but how true to the Christmas story it felt. Lieutenant Kitson had been granted leave to return home to England over the festive period, for there had been a lull in the war over the past two months. Though he felt great shame to admit it, even to himself, Fotherby was jealous that his comrade had secured passage home for the festive season when he had not.
“Merry Christmas, sir,” Fotherby whispered begrudgingly, shivering as he shuffled further into the tent.
“Merry, Fotherby?” Peters replied as he turned on his chair. “I did not know you approved of merriment. Is it not a sin according to your teaching?”
Fotherby ignored the man’s remarks and sat down on one of the three-legged stools, leaning forward and pulling the blanket over his head. Peters’ constant comments about his religious views did not generally bother him but, as he struggled to keep the winter at bay whilst the miserable seconds of Christmas Day passed him by, he felt his usually limitless patience approaching the end of its tether. In his innocence, he had never considered what a desperate time Christmas was without the comforts of a warm fire and strong walls to shut out the bitter cold. The only other Christmas he had spent away from Wanderford Hall had been two years ago when he had been in the scorching heat of the Indian subcontinent.
A boy stepped into the tent and Fotherby looked up long enough to recognise him as a messenger, before resting his head back down on the table. It would most certainly not be a message for him and, indeed, the boy stepped over to Peters. Peters took the letter from his outstretched hand and, in a most uncustomary manner, he smiled across at the boy and handed him a shilling.
“Thank you, sir,” the boy replied, shock evident in his voice.
“Careful whose shilling you accept, boy,” Peters said, and laughed as the youngster stared down doubtfully at the coin. “They will have you fight and die to accept your next one.”
“King’s shilling is spent so quickly in the ranks, but I shall see that this one is saved. Merry Christmas, sir.”
He smiled as the boy rushed from the tent, looking down at the gift he had just been given as though it were a guinea rather than a shilling. Peters looked down at the letter in his hand and sighed heavily before he glanced across at Fotherby whose placid eyes were studying him. The smile slid from his face as he saw the younger man watching him.
“You have not received a letter in some time, Fotherby,” Peters remarked, the usual cutting tone returning once more to his voice. “Have you no one back home who would send you any form of Christmas correspondence?”
“Indeed I have,” Fotherby replied, never taking his eyes from the man but still clutching the blanket about his head. “But as the only living relatives I have are men I would not expect to hear anything from them. Had I a sister or mother, I should be disappointed to receive nothing, but gentlemen make poor correspondents.”
“Have you a brother?”
“No,” Fotherby whispered, feeling suddenly uncomfortable in this discussion about his family. “I have my father and my uncle, only.”
“Then you inherit.”
Fotherby knew by his captain’s tone that this had not been a question, but he nodded. “Yes, sir. But I am ill-suited to being a landowner. I wanted,” he paused and shook his head quickly.
Peters rose from his chair and walked to the tent flap where he stood staring out over the sunset, apparently ignoring the comment that his apprentice had left unfinished. Tipping his head back, he drank heavily from the flask, while he still held the letter in the other hand. A solitary streak of purplish blue marked where the sun had rested only minutes earlier and, in the eastern sky, the darkness of night was creeping in. Somewhere further in the camp, men were singing carols, laughing and shouting out to one another. Fotherby sat up straight and observed this behaviour with curiosity, for Peters had never shown such a pensive side before. The captain eventually turned back and carried his chair to sit before Fotherby.
“What did you want?” Peters asked bluntly.
“You said “I wanted”, but you did not say what you wanted.”
“You would view me as very ungrateful, sir.” Fotherby glanced at the captain’s face which stared back expectantly at him. “I wanted something more, sir. I wanted to do something with my life that would mean more to people than how many acres I ruled or how many men worked for me.” Fotherby lowered his head and muttered, “Why did you become a surgeon, sir?”
“I had two brothers. One inherited and one became an officer in the army. I should have become a clergyman, but I am certain it will come as no surprise to you that I found I was ill-suited to such a vocation. I had no such noble intentions as you have.”
“They are not noble, sir. I am rather afraid they were at best naive. I do not seem to be achieving anything here.”
“It can feel that way, my boy,” Peters began as he rose to his feet. “But to those men whose lives we preserve, and to their wives, mothers, fathers and children, we are saviours. Merry Christmas, Fotherby,” he added as he handed Fotherby the letter before carrying his chair back to the desk where he sat down and picked up the cards once more.
Fotherby looked down at the letter that had only “Captain Jonathan Peters” by way of an address, but Fotherby felt his breath catch as he turned the envelope and saw the seal of the Royal College of Surgeons imprinted in the wax. Glancing across at Peters, who was still tossing the cards into piles on the desk, Fotherby opened the seal and read on in interest, muttering the words under his breath.
“Further to your request, a place shall be made available upon Henry Fotherby Esquire’s arrival in London that he might perform the examination for the army surgeons’ diploma. The account being settled and the five guineas received, Mr Fotherby shall not be required to provide any form of proof, or payment.”
Following this, the letter was signed off by the head of the college. Fotherby read through the brief epistle so many times that he could have recited it, before he rose to his feet and stepped over to his captain.
“Are they to accept you?” Peters’ began gruffly, not turning to face him.
“I believe so, sir.”
“Then when Kitson returns in the new year, you shall be free to journey back to England.”
“Thank you, sir,” Fotherby whispered, with so much heartfelt sincerity that Peters turned to face him. “And thank you for settling the account. I can pay you back.”
“I did not do it that you might pay for it yourself, boy.” Peters’ tone was irritated. “You may never have received a gift before, but this is what it feels like, Fotherby.”
“Back in Valenciennes I saw my successor, when you commanded Kitson and myself with what to do, to save a man who in the least should have lost his leg and would almost certainly have bled out on the table. And, Fotherby, you viewed him as a person. You saved him for all the right reasons.”
“This is the greatest gift I have received, sir. I only hope that I shall not let you down or betray your faith in me.”
“You will not,” Peters replied, turning from the young man once more and dismissively waving his hand to signal that the conversation had ended.
The revelation that he should soon be able to fulfil his calling gave Fotherby cause for great comfort and, as the new year approached, he forgot completely about how dreary Christmas had seemed. He walked through the camp and completed the duties he had with a light step and bright eyes.