Aurora: A Christmas Vignette
by Bev F.
Those of you who read "A Drury Lane Evening" may remember that Horatio and Kitty had
agreed to write. Here are two of their letters, written on the same day - Christmas.
Somewhere at sea
December 25, 179--
I hope this letter finds you well and enjoying a quiet Christmas with Mrs. Morris. I have just
come off watch and in these first few moments of Christmas Day I take pen in hand to send
you my fondest regards. Presently, the Indefatigable is riding easily, but she has been sorely
tried in the last few weeks. We were driven far from our station by a gale the likes of which I
have never seen. Three crewmen were swept overboard, our foretopmast was carried away,
and one of the larboard cannon broke loose, resulting in serious injury to two more crew .
When finally the winds died, and repairs could be effected, some form of ague, no doubt
brought on by the wet, bitterly cold conditions, struck down many of the men, resulting in
more deaths. Only now, with a week of settled weather, is the Indy becoming once more the
ship she was. Needless to say, we are all eagerly awaiting our regular supply vessel,
expected momentarily, to which I will consign this letter. Our supplies, while not yet at critical
levels, are affording only meagre satisfaction to men cold and tired.
Captain Pellew, as usual most concerned about the condition of the men, had scoured the
ship and his own stores, I do believe, to provide the officers and crew with some poor
shadow of a hearty Christmas meal. I am sure his efforts on their behalf went far to sweeten
the cook's poor fare, in the hearts and minds of the men, if not in their stomachs.
I volunteered to stand the watch last night, so that all the officers could attend dinner with the
Captain. Sir Edward had generously broke open the last few bottles of his best brandy, and
promised some musical entertainment provided by a landsman in the crew with a fine hand
on the fiddle. As neither brandy nor music hold any attractions for me, I was happy to relieve
Mr. Potts, our newest midshipman, and take the watch.
At one point in the evening, Archie joined me on the quarterdeck, with a hot toddy of rum,
which, I must admit, helped ease the chill of the night air. I believe he sought to cheer me up,
as though I were doing penance of some kind, banished alone up there. I thanked him, but
assured him I was quite cheerful enough, with a steady deck beneath my feet, and cold, clean
sea air to breathe. Perhaps those with fond memories of happy family gatherings and
traditions feel the lack of such more acutely at this time of year. I, on the other hand, have no
fond memories of Christmas, except vaguely , from the times before my mother died. I did
travel down from school to spend the season with my father, but a roast goose and a present
of some useful article of clothing or an enlightening type of book, was all that Christmas
meant to me. We did attend church; my father, as the local doctor, felt that he must make an
appearance there; his feeling being that his patients might lose faith in him, if he did not
appear to have faith in God.
So I thanked Archie, and sent him back to the festivities, with no envy on my part. The cup
of hot rum warmed my hands as I held it; vaguely, I could hear the men singing, and as
always, I listened to the sounds of the Indefatigable, as cables rubbed, and timbers worked,
and the cold sea lapped at her hull. The night was cloudless; perhaps as reward for our being
so sorely challenged; the last few days, though bitterly cold, have been sunny. Now, stars
sparkled brightly above, and although the moon was down, I was aware of some kind of a
glow, a lightening, of the sky. I crossed the quarterdeck, and faced to the north, towards
England. And over the place on the horizon where England lay, the whole sky shimmered
with red and green, a curtain ever changing.
The aurora borealis, caused by the earth's magnetism, I have heard, the same force that helps
navigate this ship. I had seen it before, once or twice, but never like this. It moved and
danced, and shimmered, as though following some unheard melody, as though it were a song
made visible only for me. Writing these words, I cannot fully explain why or how this act of
nature should so have moved me, or make me think on words and ideas that have never
been a part of my life, but it most certainly did.
Though the Bible and religious instruction never figured largely in my life at home, both were
required when I went away to school. In fact, I was at a disadvantage at first among the
other boys, as they seemed able to declaim what appeared to me large pieces of the Bible
from memory. But memory work came easily to me, and in time, I too was able to repeat the
words, if the meaning touched my soul but little.
And now, looking at those great celestial lights, some of those words came unbidden to my
mind, the words the angels spoke to the shepherds - promising tidings of great joy, and
peace, and good will towards men. I do not know if the aurora is ever seen in the Holy
Land, but I could imagine that the angels, if there are indeed such, might have appeared to
those simple shepherds, in like glory. To think of peace and goodwill, in this time of war,
seems folly, but certainly a nature which could provide such a glorious spectacle as I saw
there before me, should not have to witness such death and destruction as I have witnessed
even in my short time in a ship of war.
As I watched the ripples of red and green, the color of Christmas holly and its berries,
another picture came to my mind, and that picture was of you, Kitty. The lights glowed over
England, where you are, and I wondered if perhaps you could see them too, if perhaps at
this exact moment you too were staring in awe at the sky. A foolish though, no doubt, as
Mrs. Morris' hearth and good cheer would keep you close and comfortable inside, and not
shivering on a dark London street, with its sooty air and dank breath.
I have nothing to send with this letter, no token or gift of the Christmas season, so I have
shared my experience of this aurora with you. I have never spoken of our evening together in
my letters, but this you must know, Kitty, that the peace and goodwill which you so
generously shared with me that night has lit my life in quiet moments as the aurora lit up the
sky tonight. For the first time in my life, I pass on wishes for the happiest of Christmases,
with some true understanding of its meaning.
Your friend ever,
Somewhere north of London
My dear Horatio:
As you can see from the above, I was not destined to spend this Christmas night snug in my
London apartments. I sit now in a miserly room under the eaves of a coaching inn in some
small hamlet well to the north, being serenaded by the rather loud snores of Lizzie, our
wardrobe mistress and general dogsbody, passed out on the lumpy bed where I shall
unfortunately retire myself in a short while. I was farsighted enough to have packed a quill
and some paper in my baggage, and feel moved to pen this short letter to you, in honor of the
Our small company has been touring the provinces for the last several months, seeking new
audiences, our director states, but I suspect an irate husband is keeping him out of London,
rather than a dearth of business. Nevertheless, the change of scenery has been exciting, and
while our audiences have been smaller than we might have hoped for, on the the whole, we
have done well. Until yesterday.
A horse gone lame, and then a wheel spinning off merrily down a hillside and all of us
dumped without ceremony into the road. We must count ourselves lucky that no permanent
damage was done to either our tender bodies, or more importantly, our costumes and props.
But continuing on to London was out of the question and so we are abandoned here, until a
horse can be found and the wheel fixed, a matter of a day or so at least.
The local inn, wherin I sit at this moment, is no worse than many, and indeed better than
some, and, there being few travellers on the road at this time, rooms were available. The
innkeeper nevertheless sought to drive a hard bargain; as you may recall, I have some
experience with the keeping of roadside inns, due to my late husband's occupation, and I
was quick to point out to him, that , were it not for our mishap, his rooms would all be
empty. An accomodation was reached with him which did not lighten our purses quite so
much, and in recompense for the money he felt he was missing, we agreed to provide some
entertainment gratis, for the local folk to enjoy.
So I have spent my Christmas Eve doing what I have done for so many years of my life -
playing a role. We presented a cheerful medley of small set pieces, and in all fairness, I must
say that the poor folk crowding the Fox and Whistle that night were the most appreciative
we had yet met in our travels. My thought did stray to poor Mrs. Morris, sitting in solitary
splendour at her long table, wondering what dire misadventures had befallen her expected
guests. While her husband still lived, the Morrises were known for their elaborate Yuletide
festivities, and she never quite got out of the habit of holding them. I know my fellow
Thespians, as they pranced and cavorted on that makeshift stage, were thinking ruefully also
of the bounteous meal they would miss.
So the evening passed pleasantly, and so did the ale and rum, and a boisterous time was had
by all. At one point in the evening, I felt the urge for fresh air, and so donning my cloak, I
found my way through the bodies, not all of them still upright , and stepped out into the crisp
night . We had recently passed through a week or so of miserable, unsettled weather, but
now the skies had cleared, and I am sure every star in the firmament could be seen . There
was no snow, but the ground under my feet was frozen fast, and I trod warily, not wanting to
risk a tumble.
I decided to walk down the roadway a few paces, and then return, my head already clearing
from the stifling heat of a roaring fire and too many bodies pressed into too small a space. It
was on turning round, and lifting my head, that I saw the lights in the sky. Like gauzy curtains,
they were, red and green, and they seemed blown back and forth by some great wind I
could not feel down here on earth. I recalled seeing such lights once as a child, though I did
not remember them to be as brilliant as these. Northern lights, folks called them, and some
said they were caused by the reflection of the great ice and snow far to the north, though I do
not know whether that be true or not. I stood transfixed , unable to tear my eyes away from
this awesome spectacle. I felt as though God had lit up the heavens in praise of the birth of
I have a poor head for directions, but I knew that I faced south, and far past where my eyes
could reach, was the sea. Suddenly I though of you, Horatio, and I wondered whether
perhaps you might be there on the deck of the Indy, watching also. A foolish thought. Surely
some poor midshipman is shivering up on deck, and you are in your proper place, drinking a
Christmas toast with the good Captain Pellew and your sweet friend Archie. But somehow, I
felt you close to me, as though, were I to turn my head, you would be standing there,
watching with me.
I have made no mention in my letters to you, Horatio, of that special time we shared. I have
not often been called shy, but I was shy in thinking that you may have regretted your interlude
with a woman of my age and occupation. I put my shyness aside now, Horatio, and bless
you for giving me back my joy in life. Our lives follow different paths, and Fate may decree
that we never meet again, but as I remember that glorious fire in the sky, I know that even in
these perilous times, there can be peace and goodwill.
Forever your friend,