The baby squealed with delight.
The company was enchanted, or so it appeared to the queen. Lady Lovelace, who never missed a twitch or the blink of an eye, had other notions. She had surprised her mother by her quick response to the invitation to attend the Christmas gathering at Windsor Castle. True, there was little choice about accepting when the queen requested one's presence but Ada had sent her answering note with unfashionable haste and without her customary reluctance. The guest list, bandied about as usual, as well as the center piece, had piqued her curiosity.
Victoria Regina was introducing the realm to one of those Duetsch customs of which her consort was so fond, the Christmas tree. A great Scottish fir had been set up amidst baskets and hangings of English ivy, mistletoe and holly, to soothe any national resentment, in Waterloo Chamber. The doors of the room opened wide and the company, including the prince royal, in his nurse's arms, was ushered inside to see the spectacle before they repaired to the dining hall.
The tree was an engaging sight, decorated with glass pendants that twinkled under the chandeliers, tiny china figures, candies wrapped in silver paper, bright beads and small boxes hanging on strings. Candles, ready for the taper, decorated every green branch. The lighting would take place after dinner. The tree was all the more captivating to Ada because of the dissension that had surrounded it. She watched the thin lip of the chief objector, Baronet Goudie, harden to an even thinner line and his fierce Calvinist eye glow with condemnation.
Others in attendance were discomforted by the baronet's glower and wondered why he had been included at all in the select company, a list even more limited because of the recent threat to the prince royal. Douglas Goudie had railed against the horrid pagan symbol, pointing to dire consequences of elevating a tree to the level of worship. Those who were aware that a violent nature accompanied his fierce looks thought him capable of bringing about those consequences without any help from above. Albert had assured Victoria that Goudie would be reconciled to pretty German tradition once he saw Der Tannenbaum. Ada concluded that it took someone as sure of himself as Prince Albert to think that an engraved invitation, a pretty spectacle and a baby's cooing could change the baronet's mind.
It was no surprise that Lady Lovelace and Mr. Charles Babbage were numbered among those privileged to attend. They had been credited with foiling the plot against the tiny heir. The palace, although grateful, found the idea that Mr. Babbage' Analytical Engine assisted in the rescue amusing. The mathematician Augustus De Morgan, Ada's one-time mentor was there, to round out the intellectual complement, perhaps. Prince Albert meant to caste the court in a learned, if not solemn, mold, as little like those of Victoria's uncles as possible. De Morgan was still no more favorably inclined to his tutorial successor, Babbage, but as paternal as ever toward Ada: the natural fickleness of women was not to be held against them.
The Incomparable Sybil Ringwood, a favorite of the Queen, if not the consort, looked as pleased as the royal babe by the tree and the colorful ornaments. Rivals for Miss Ringwood's hand had also received the queen's notes, something Victoria would hopefully become more sensitive to as time went on. The able duelist Lord Pellingham, whose ability to attract women with his demeanor as the despairing Regency fashionable of which there were very few left at court was on one side of Sybil and her constant companion Appolodorus Elgin, a Dandy of the newer posture, on the other. She had given her arm to Elgin.
Pellingham, with his perfect coat, bored expression, disdainful glance and elegant cravat was mindful of the necessity of getting along with Consort and Queen and found it expedient to force a wan smile at the baby. Doro Elgin, refined as any of the old ton, with the light, insolent air that now went with it, had room for humor as well as elegance. He had no trouble appreciating the royal babe's exclamation and gave a laugh as ingenuous as Sybil's. She squeezed his arm playfully.
Several Saxe-Coberg cousins and their wives and a brace of untitled English notables regarded the tree with varying degrees of interest. Among them were a well-known Bavarian naturalist and representatives of the arts, including Mrs. Bradshaw, who would perform that evening. In oddly egalitarian mode or perhaps in official capacity, considering the recent royal abduction, Chief Inspector Raikes of Scotland Yard was among the notables. So was his constant companion, Mr. Latimer, whom Victoria had concluded must be enamored of the study of crime.
None of the company questioned the propriety of a second at traction in the chamber, Mr. Babbage's Analytical Engine, although it seemed oddly out of place under the spreading branches of the Christmas tree. Mr. Babbage would have had taken the request to bring it to the gathering as a sign of royal tolerance of a strange, if useless gadget, if he didn't know the purpose to which it might be put. He had been against transporting his precious Engine even the short distance to Windsor, however, even though the card following his invitation urged him to do so. "It will give you an opportunity to defend its existence if nothing else, Dear Babbage," Ada pointed out. "Some interested minister might be present. Perhaps Prince Albert has changed his mind about its value." "Their Majesties totally disbelieve that either your programme or my Engine had anything to do with uncovering the plot against the heir. They see it as no more than a parlor toy, Madam, something to be played with appropriate for season!" he exclaimed to Ada. "Placed under the consort's silly Christmas tree, if you please!"
Secretly Ada thought the short note following Babbage's invitation indicated a joke rather than an interest in drawing room games. The prank could have easily been accomplished once Babbage was known to be a guest. It sounded like Bunny Latimer. It would serve the prankster right if some minister did see it and envi sion a future in government work for the Engine. Ada was even more sure Bunny had been at work when Victora looked confused and Albert surprised at the incongruous decoration under the tree. The consort recovered quickly and showed a bit of interest, poking the mechanism with his ornamental saber as Mr. Babbage winced, a gesture De Morgan enjoyed. Ada could only glare at Bunny Latimer and vow to give him a quiet tongue lashing.
The party took the opportunity to put their little presents in the branches and around the tree. They paid the Engine no heed, as if it were part of the festive display. There were caskets, boxes and lumpy bundles from which stuffed toy ears protruded. One little basket tied with a pretty golden ribbon had been placed with mathematical precision under the great taper from which the candles would be lit. It would be a present hard to ignore. Even sour old Goudie put down a token, a rectangular parcel in a cloth wrapper. Ada didn't doubt it was a an expurgated King's Bible, for the prince. Elgin hung a loose-jointed marionette from a branch and wee Albert Edward expressed his approval with a second squeal.
Before the heir could get too involved in his presents or the other activity in the room, the queen had him taken to the nursery. A short, uplifting play, with Mrs. Bradshaw in the lead role of a maiden who successfully resisted the charms of a rake, was about to begin. Performances were frequent in the chamber. The tree might have blocked the view of part of the audience that evening if the gathering were larger. As it was, no one missed a word or a gesture in the presentation. After Mrs. Bradshaw had withstood Lord Tornley's advances, Victoria and Albert, followed by the company, left the room for the dining hall. Sybil stopped in the doorway when her path, as well Ada's, was blocked by the Incomparable's two admirers, vying to escort her. She attributed her hesitation to another inspection of the tree. Professor De Morgan took Ada's arm with paternal concern and led her around the jousting suitors and into the corridor.
"I shall have a holiday fir for my drawing room in Mayfair," Sybil said, as if she had no other thought but the great tree, "and imagine myself in a woodland glen."
"Let me show you another country custom, dearest Sybil!" Pellingham responded.
He broke off a piece of mistletoe, held it high above her head and bent to steal a kiss. Sybil ducked nimbly and skipped down the hall in front of both gentlemen. Elgin was the closer but Pellingham soon passed him, whirled the lady behind a statue of the Regent, flipped away the mistletoe and placed a hard caress without the excuse of the twig. Doro seized his shoulder and spun him away. Pellingham kept from falling only by clutching Elgin's arm. Sybil took the opportunity to escape and sandwich herself between Ada and De Morgan.
For a moment, the two suitors stood there, with Pellingham's fingers locked on his rival's coat sleeve and Elgin's free arm ready for a blow. "Shall we make it swords or pistols?" Pellingham asked.
Doro lowered his fist and shook off his rival's grasp. He smoothed his sleeve with a casual gesture before he joined Ada's party and sauntered along to the dining hall. Pellingham adjusted his cravat and chuckled.
Prince Albert found the Christmas meal as neat, filling and orderly as German holiday board should be. The dinner conversation was precisely what he wished too, witty, somewhat scholarly and enlightening for the queen. He made up for any grace Victoria still lacked by setting an example with guests of various persuasions. He sparred in a kindly way with Goudie, who could hardly take real issue at the queen's table. Albert even managed to jest with Augustus De Morgan, whom he assumed was still Ada's teacher. "You must tutor Her Majesty in numbers as you do Lady Lovelace and we'll find no need for a Chancellor of Exchequer," he charged De Morgan. Victoria followed his lead and directed her attentions to the mathematician. "Is it true that the speed of your calculations can never be matched?" she asked. "Flatterers tell me so, Your Majesty, " De Morgan answered with heavy modesty, "but perhaps there will be a quicker soul some day."
Babbage's face remained absolutely bland, a feat Lady Lovelace hoped hers matched. She joined in the banter with the naturalist, who was beside her, and was rewarded with a dialogue on the spread of the wild boar on the continent. She appreciated the information and it helped pass the dinner hour. It wasn't so much the food, which was too heavy for her tastes as her impatience to get to Bunny with her reprimand. She found no way to manage it before the queen and her consort finally rose to be seated more comfortably for coffee and sweets.
Before Ada could confront her quarry, Sybil stopped her at the dessert table, where Elgin and Pellingham, each with a cake plate in hand for the lady, were at it again. Pellingham was also taking an opportunity to twit Elgin about accepting his flirtation with the Incomparable.
"Better take mine," he was telling Sybil. "It's not as sweet as my kiss but Elgin's icing would have water in it."
Sybil blushed at the jibe at Doro's pluck, especially since the remark had been made in the presence of others. A few of the ladies tittered and a few gentlemen smiled behind their hands, as they had in the days of the Prince Regent, when one fashionable bested another.
Doro was undisturbed.
"At least the taste of bile wouldn't be on her lips," he countered.
Sybil made a quick decision, clapped her hands at his remark and took his plate without hesitation. Pellingham could only quip about faint hearts and fair maidens, for the benefit of the onlookers. Most of them, new society as they were, began to remember what it was they had disliked about the court of Prinney and his brother.
Ada withdrew to corner Bunny Latimer, whom she hadn't seen for some months, and engaged him in a conversation that began lightly enough but became more serious when she leveled her accusation. Bunny continued to look as innocent as only Bunny could. When Ada found only denial and no recantation, she was puzzled. At last, she hauled him to his better half, Inspector Raikes. The three had a more serious talk, punctuated by Ada's consideration of the diners and recollections of the scene in Waterloo Chamber. Suddenly, she offered a practical explanation of the dilemma and Raikes left the dining hall in a hurry.
Ada almost missed the sleight of hand at the dessert table. As a self satisfied Pellingham sauntered away toward the wine board, a long twig of holly, with mistletoe entwined among the brilliant berries and firmly attached by its spiky leaves, was swaying like a monkey's tail from the pleat in the back of his perfect waist coat. A roar of laughter went up. Prince Albert caught the finale, although he didn't know what had brought it on. Victoria laughed, too, with the characteristic grin that showed her gums and Sybil, for whom a jest was more precious that defense by blade or fist, knew she had chosen the right man. The prince consort summoned a major domo who had been waiting by the door and gave an order. The man beckoned a dozen footmen at his command and they left all the room in together.
The concentration on Pellingham gave Ada a chance to withdraw as well. She turned toward the door. Sybil, who missed as little as Ada, wondered at her doing so without a curtsy to the queen.
"Don't leave us, Ada, now the evening's turned jolly," Sybil coaxed. "With all the fun over the holly and mistletoe, I quite forgot to leave my trifle for the prince!" Ada whispered.
She slipped out of the room as unostentatiously as possible and hurried toward Waterloo Chamber. As she approached, Raikes came out carrying a blanket wrapped bundle at the end a pole, holding as far away from himself as possible. The blanket was sopping wet.
"You were correct, Madam," he said as they met.
He lifted the edge of the blanket carefully to show Ada a basket with a drooping golden ribbon. Ada glanced back when he hurried away and saw that Sybil and Doro had followed as far as the entrance to the dining hall. Doro had eyes only for the Incomparable but Sybil, who had seen Raikes and the basket, lifted her shoulders in a question. Ada put a finger to her lips and went into the chamber where the host of footmen with had begun lighting the candles. The tapers they used were spitting sparks all over the floor, the presents and, Ada observed, the Engine. The footman were kept busy snuffing them when they failed to stop burning. Only one area, a large wet spot, was free of the hazard.
In the dining hall, the prince consort had a attendant tap a goblet with a silver spoon. "Now we shall see der tannenbaum in all his glory!" he told everyone when he had the attention of the room.
Everyone repaired to Waterloo Chamber. The sight of the myriad of burning candles reflecting on every ornament and needle brought a chorus of approval from the dinner guests and new delight from Albert Edward when he was brought in his sleeping dress. A chair with the best possible view of the giant tree had been positioned for the queen and her consort at a small table and everyone else found seats on chairs and benches around the room. The earlier visit to view the tree had met with interest but the lighted tree brought out honest enjoyment. Victoria credited her husband with the successful event. "It's really quite lovely, better than a ball or a feast!" the queen said enthusiastically, "a holiday custom which will bring on no fatigue or dyspepsia." "You see, Ritter Goudie," Prince declared with a smile and a slip of the title, echoing his wife's sentiment, "The candles called forth no Druids." "Your majesties should know I view this spectacle with no joy!" he responded. "The devilish tree should be burned to the last ash." There was a murmur of shock and a quick resort to small talk to cover what the others hoped their majesties considered a gaffe. Sybil found her chance to whisper to Ada.
"What was it Ada? Whose head did the inspector have in the basket?" Ada took her aside and explained what Raikes had taken out so cautiously. "Gunpowder?" the Incomparable whispered back, as if she had not heard correctly. "How wretched, trying to blow up a Christmas tree!" "Not the tree," Ada told her. Sybil looked at the display in the center of the chamber and found no answer. "What else, Ada? Certainly no one would want to want to destroy Mr. Babbage's Engine," Sybil reasoned. Professor De Morgan, who had been tardy in entering, looked pale as his eyes searched the floor around the tree. He moved to the table to bow a hasty farewell to the queen and her consort. "What? You can't leave us before the candles fail!" Prince Albert exclaimed. "A beautiful display Your Highness but I have a touch of dizziness." "Nein tafel schokolade!" the consort defended his favorite German cake but he let DeMorgan go without further comment. Liveried servants brought in wine for the guests' last moments of pleasure before the final candle flame flickered out and to keep the mood after the servants were freed of their final spate of spark snuffing. The company toasted the Queen and Tannenbaum. Ada and her companion lifted their glasses to each other. "Merry Christmas, Dear Babbage," Ada offered. "Merry Christmas, Madam."
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