The Erebus Accounts: His Last Christmas – Chapter 1
A light, chill rain haunted Ilium’s passage across the Solent.
My father had been quiet – unusually so, even by his measure – during the crossing, making rare, terse corrections to Mr. Rainsford’s idle ramblings, but little else. His gaze was fixed upon our quarry before we had so much as left Southampton, long before said quarry ever came into view. A bloodhound, he stood sentinel upon the prow as the yacht sliced through the waves; his coat billowing about him in the cold wind and spluttering rain, yet his expression – nay, his whole form – remaining fierce and implacable. At Cowes, he had disembarked with atypical alacrity, alighting from deck to jetty not a moment after the pilot first knocked the Ilium’s hull against it. He took five paces towards the waterfront before pausing and spinning on his heel to glower at both son and valet for our delay in following him.
An outwardly unsympathetic man by nature (though capable of no small measure of emotion at starts, as one shall recount), the redoubtable Lord Victor Morscroft was, in that moment, indifferent to any justification for our momentary stoppage: that Rainsford was waiting simply to transfer our bags from Solent to land, as per his covenant, and that I was waiting to offer him my invariably rebuffed assistance, as per mine, was of as little consequence to my father as the flies about its tail to a prize stallion. Likewise, said flies would offer as convincing an excuse to the stallion’s jockey for defeat in the Grand National as the need to moor the Ilium and lower its gangplank meant to my father for our failure to match his peculiar haste.
Nevertheless, as the son who has inherited the greatest share of our father’s legendarily indomitable temperament, I declined succumbing to the pressure he applied to outpace my internal chronometer. Do not mistake my refusal for impudence, however: it is no disrespect of mine that the December sea was not favourable to leaping overboard, bearing our coffin-like cases, unless doing so were to be rendered entirely unavoidable by such extreme circumstances as the imminent disappearance of the yacht itself beneath the capricious waves. This not being the case, of course, my father was afforded little choice to wait impatiently upon the dock as Thompson scrambled over the side with the mooring rope, while his boy, Hector, wrestled with the gangplank. Acutely aware that his temperament was growing as torrid as the Solent itself, we nonetheless proceeded, with every measure of haste that did not spill over into recklessness, to extricate our ample luggage from beneath the deck and render it onto the rain-darkened boards of the lower jetty. The sensation of my father’s icy breath upon his neck – metaphorical, though it may have been – put such spurs to Rainsford that he forgot even his reflexive refusal of my customary offer to assist with the baggage, affording me the rare satisfaction of making myself useful in the conveying of mine own effects. Doing so has never been beyond my capabilities as a man in a most satisfactory body of health, but “polite” conventions have steadily devolved to the assertion that those who carry the heaviest burdens of societal responsibility should, paradoxically, be considered incapable of carrying any physical burdens encountered along their way.
No sooner had Rainsford hauled the last of our cases onto the dock than father turned and resumed his furious pace, storming towards the waterfront in search of the waiting carriage. I thanked the bewildered Thompson and his son, and we followed, maintaining sufficient proximity to witness my father all but pummel the unfortunate coachman from his seat with an unsolicited torrent of invocations, instructions, and pointedly disconcerting implications. Lord Victor had the rare quality – one I have always endeavoured to emulate – of never resorting to vulgar language, nor allowing his tone to become veritably indecorous. Instead, he had mastered the art of saying nothing that would seem discourteous, if recounted in writing or in the words of another, but orating in so unassailable a manner that even the most kaleidoscopic vocabulary in the English language could not possibly have produced so overwhelming an effect. Thus, our loading of the cases into the carriage was assisted by a stupefied driver, who maintained much the same aspect as a deer confronted by an oncoming train – though he was liable to be in considerably more danger.
The desire to distance himself from my father’s inexplicable ire surpassing any desire to remain dry, Rainsford had the commendable idea to join the driver at the head of the carriage, where they struck up a conversation on recent innovations in the matter of vehicular suspension – a topic so banal as to be ingenious in its banality. Inside, my father and I sat diagonally across from one-another, each taking a window to ourselves, with the expectation that no words would be exchanged on the sombre mile from the waterfront to Osborne. The town gave way to trees, whose skeletal branches overhung the road, occasionally reaching down to swipe at the men atop, as evidenced in the occasional bouts of curses from one or both of them. The rumbling of wheels and clacking of hooves faded to a vague awareness in the back of my mind, and to the forefront stepped the most vivid thoughts I had yet had as to what awaited us at the end of this unremarkable road.
I had not known Prince Albert well, but I shared my father’s personal fondness for him. He was intelligent, diligent, and an excellent foil to Her Majesty’s occasionally mercurial temper. Without fail, he would find the time at social occasions, of any scale, to greet members of our family and hold conversation on some matter of shared interest to both parties: politics with my father; grand occasions with my older brothers; family matters with my mother and sisters (or one of them, or at least); war with my younger brother; and the darkest secrets of the occult with myself.
Further to his credit had been his remarkable success in convincing Her Majesty to, once again, set foot upon the Ravencrest Estate; a feat in which all others had failed, after an incident in 1835 in which – following a celebration for the birth of Alice, my older sister – Alexandrina (as she was then still known) maintained she had been tormented throughout the night by the macabre apparition of a wild-eyed man wielding a pair of axes and covered beard-to-boots in blood. The wisdom of tactfully employed lies should be noted here, as convincing Victoria to return was rendered possible only by the universal insistence that her encounter had been with nothing more than the manifestation of an excess of exceptionally fine cheese before bed; a mere trick of the mind, and not truly any manner of vengeful spirit. The truth – as I suspect Albert himself came to surmise – being that her account indeed elucidated, in the most eerie of detail, an uncomfortably common vision of a particularly malevolent ancestor of ours, whose sinister presence has long-since formed a cornerstone of the Morscroft Estate’s deservedly infamous reputation.
However, the finest illustration of the late Prince’s diligence and efficacy as both statesman and husband had occurred only weeks before he succumbed to his protracted illness: the Trent Affair of November the previous year had frayed our relations with the United States of America to perhaps their most taught since 1812, only to be narrowly rescued by a deft display of diplomacy. In an impulsive blunder, troops of the Union had seized two Confederate envoys from a British ship; a brazen infringement on our sovereignty which had brought our nation within hours of entering the Americans’ War on behalf of the Confederacy. Lord Victor had been among the great number who rushed to London to advise the Prime Minister upon receiving the news, but concern soon gripped him that even his indomitable voice would be lost amidst the frantic cacophony. Many, my father among them, credited Albert’s eleventh-hour intervention in revising the government’s response with defusing the situation, facilitating an apology from Washington and the preservation of our neutrality. All the while, as Albert himself had, by then, become certain, dying of what ultimately appeared to be typhoid fever.
The rain ran as a nation’s tears down the carriage window. A remarkable man, and one whose rest we had hoped would be assured upon his eventual passing. Alas, as so often is the case in our lineage and duty, events had taken form far closer resembling our fears than our hopes. It was not coincidence that our stay at Osborne would coincide with the anniversary of the Prince’s passing. He had died at Windsor on December 14th, 1861, surrounded by a family whom, if the reports were to believed (and it should be noted that we had little reason to doubt them), he remained as reticent to leave as they were to let him depart.
Her Majesty had taken the loss poorly, to be generous in one’s terms. At turns melancholy, vituperative, and inconsolable, she had retreated into only her most private circles, seeing few visitors, attending scant occasions, and fulfilling scarce few of her royal duties. A shared sorrow had bought her the sympathy of the people at large, albeit at a most terrible cost; but a year of obstinate mourning saw rumours begin to permeate, throughout the Kingdom and beyond, that their Queen had followed her husband too far into the unending darkness to ever truly be retrieved. Whether in defiance or denial of death, what decisions she made, she made as if Albert had never left her side. His counsel was constant, even from beyond the grave; her every judgement interrogated with thoughts of what the late Prince would have thought, said, and done, then filtered and shaped by his supposed answer.
It was for this most mortal of reasons that Her Majesty had summoned the man whispered to be the most foremost scholar of the super-natural in her vast Empire to join her and her family on the anniversary of her beloved consort’s death. Some entity continued to speak to her; to do so in Albert’s voice, and it was this voice she sought my father’s aid in amplifying. The first question for us, therefore, was whether this voice was simply the manifestation of a mind driven to desperation by grief, or whether some essence of the man she had loved did indeed cling to her shadow as she clung to it.
If the former, then we could offer little but polite sympathies and commiserations, but depart with the assurance that Her Majesty’s mania would ultimately heal with the passage of time. If the latter, however, then a singularly unenviable task awaited us, for the longer a spirit remains untethered from the mortal world – tethered, that is, ideally by its own body, but alternatively to an object of some particular significance to their living self, or even to another living being – the more the humanity it once possessed begins to fade. Left too long unchallenged, the ghost of even a veritable saint will ultimately decay to a fractious shadow of its living self: unpredictable, capricious, malevolent, dangerous.
It was to this end, I knew (though there had been no need for him to say it), that my father had insisted I, and no other member of our family – nor even of the Order – accompany him on this particular journey. Whether it be from within the Queen’s mind or from the very material world around her, it fell to us to exorcise the lingering spirit of the late Prince Albert – for, in either case, it was evident that Victoria had no intention of ever letting her husband’s spirit go.
Herein lay the true challenge before us, then: to bid the reluctant dead forsake all ties to their mortal coil is not, in itself, especially onerous a task to one with sufficient knowledge and experience – particularly in the case of a spirit born not of malevolence, but of unwavering affection and loyalty, as this one doubtless was. The difficulty, therefore, was not in the disposition of the deceased towards their own departure, but rather in the disposition of the living towards relinquishing them.
As the carriage rounded the corner and rumbled up the final stretch to Osborne, mine and my father’s thoughts were not wracked with doubts apropos convincing her husband’s spirit to pass into the quiet darkness of oblivion, but rather with convincing perhaps the most powerful woman on the face of the Earth to let him go.
The light, chill rain had followed Ilium across the Solent, and now it loured upon the anachronistic façade of Osborne House. A peculiar synthesis, the estate endeavoured valiantly to bring the bright openness of an Italian palazzo to the grey drudgery of England. It failed, of course.
Now, more than ever.
Written by James Hart. Illustrated by Andrea Miranda.