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To Be a Queen

Bess chewed a strand of grass, watching the white clouds as they drifted on a blue summer sky. Through her half-closed eyes, the sky seemed shimmering with heat. Pressed down by the weight of her long body, the grass beneath her formed a comfortable cushion. Were the clouds overhead as soft as the grass beneath me? She wanted to believe that, but life had long taught her to expect otherwise.

The tall grass hid her from view. At least, she hoped so. In the distance, she heard her mother called out her name. “Bess—where are you? Besssss,” —her voice strident, angry. She was probably searching for her in the nearby maze in the confines of the castle’s walls, not thinking Bess would venture farther. Why should she? Sheriff Hutton Castle was a place unknown to her mother, while Bess had spent her first days at the castle in exploration. It hadn’t taken her long to discover a way out of the castle to the meadow just outside its walls. It became a place to escape to—a place where she found a semblance of peace.

“Besssss –,” her mother called again in the distance. Bess blocked her ears. She didn’t want her mother to find her. Not yet. She needed time to be alone with her thoughts. She needed time to sort out her feelings. Feelings threatening to overwhelm her as she pondered about what these days could, and would, mean to her.

Her mother had no hesitation in bringing up the subject. It was one of the first things she had spoken of when she arrived mid-morning to the castle, saddle-worn and weary. Separated from her daughters for weeks, her mother had embraced not one of them. She just demanded to speak alone with Bess. In the solar, her mother, in one of her worst moods, had attacked her eldest daughter with questions. “Are you all prepared, Bess? Soon we will know the outcome of the battle.”

As if Bess wished to think of the outcome.

When her mother spoke of her uncle winning the battle and then broached again at the possibility of her uncle marrying Bess, she had enough. Bess bounded up and ran from the room.

She could have died from the shame, just like on the day when her beloved uncle, half mad with grief about the impending death of his wife, had denied out loud he had ever planned to marry his niece once his queen was dead.

Bess could barely think of that day without praying for the earth to swallow her up. Confused and heartsore, she had also realised that day her true feelings about her uncle. He was only twelve or so years her senior. He was kind, gentle, handsome. He played his lute and sang love songs to break hearts. His blue eyes were unforgettable.

Later, when she heard he had entered talks for her to marry Manuel, the heir to Portugal, she felt her prayers answered. Portugal would be the earth to swallow her up. She deserved far greater punishment than Portugal. She deserved exile forever from England for her sinful thoughts.

The summer breeze changed into a strong wind, blowing down the thick wall of grass around her. She curled up, trying to make her tall body small, fearing those looking for her would now see her from the castle. When the wind dropped again, she almost wept with relief. She wasn’t ready to be found—or to return to the castle and her mother’s badgering.

She wasn’t ready to return to her sisters’ questions—or to face poor Edmund and John’s anxiety. John, she knew, planned to escape if news came of Henry Tudor’s victory. Seventeen, he was still smarting from not being allowed to fight at his father’s side. He did not accept his presence would have just offered a target for the king’s enemies. Edmund was just a bewildered child. Still, he knew his close position to the crown left him somehow in danger if anything happened to the king. Bess had told them both they had nothing to fear. Henry Tudor would not seek their deaths. She would not let that happen. She refused to let that happen.

She prayed she was right to tell them so.

And what of my own brothers? If they’re alive, then what did that all mean for them?

Her mother’s behaviour always confused her—but more so in recent months. At court, her mother had resumed her usual practice of plotting by joining forces with Margaret Beaufort. That soon resulted in a command. Bess was told she would marry Margaret Beaufort’s son once he took the crown from her uncle.

Surely, that means Mother believes Edward and Dickon dead? But she did not seem grieving them. She returned to her uncle’s court with her daughters as if not troubled about the disappearance of her sons. She treated their absence as if it was but a trifle. Her mother gazed on the grieving king without fear, while continuing with her plots and plans. Bess rubbed her pounding temples. Her mother had even seeded the rumour about her uncle desiring Bess for his second wife.  

The fate of her brothers gave Bess nightmares. She believed them dead. It was the only reason she agreed to marry Henry Tudor. Not that her mother left her any choice in the matter.

She could not believe her uncle murdered them. He was a good man. She remembered the many times her father praised his brother’s loyalty. Her head pounded again. She had seen little of Edward in recent years. He had his own court at Ludlow Castle, where he learnt to rule. But Richard? Blonde, blue-eyed Dickon. The little boy she had first cradled as a newborn babe. Seven years his senior, she had cared for him with devotion. She smiled, remembering his wedding as a four-year-old to Anne, his five-year-old wife. He did not really understand what happened that day, but he enjoyed the feast, the new clothes and glittering jewels and even dancing with little Anne. How the court had buzzed with the echo of her father’s great amusement. Dickon always came to her first, if he desired comfort. She felt more his mother than their own mother was to any of them.

No, if she believed her brothers still lived, she could not marry Henry Tudor. She would far rather a Portuguese marriage. She would far rather exile from the country she loved, escaping from being a pawn in her mother’s plotting. Sometimes, she came close to hating her mother. If she did not hate her, she disliked her far more in these distressing days the father who had made her, and her siblings, bastards.

She had loved him, but that she could not forgive.

Bad enough, his desire for a life of pleasure had diminished him as king. She was only a child when she first realised her father’s many flaws—flaws which saw the kingdom plunged into civil war—and not just once. Even as a child, she knew of the countless deaths. There were so many weeping women at court.

Two times in Bess’s life, her mother had fled with her children to sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. The first time, her mother gave birth to Edward, her father’s longed-for heir. Her father was not there to welcome his son. He was still a sea away, across the channel, seeking to reclaim his kingdom. The second time… Bess witnessed her mother handing over Dickon to her uncle’s men. Bess believed him safe, but she had also promised herself she would die first before ever doing the same for any child of hers. Dickon was only nine. She would always remember his eyes turning to her—how scared he had been. How brave he had been. Not one tear did he shed. Every time she thought about it, her heart broke anew.

Now—her heart broke again, thinking that her marriage to Henry Tudor would mean the death of another person she loved.

Her uncle had been so burdened with sorrow when she had returned to court. His young son and heir dead, and now his beloved wife, he seemed sleepwalking through his days. She thought of the last time he had spoken to her and her sisters, when he told them he was sending them to this castle, far away from London, in North Yorkshire, a place he loved. “I pray to God, sending you all there will keep you safe. If the Tudor wins the throne, the distance will give him time enough to cool his blood and think of mercy, and not of more death.” He paused then. “Believe me, I have done my best to keep you all safe.” He looked to the window. Tears coursed down his pale cheeks. There were new lines scored into his still youthful face. Lines of pain, lines of grief. Lines of torment. “All of you,” he had repeated in a whisper, meeting Bess’s eyes.  

No—she refused to believe the lines belonged to guilt. She did not know the fates of her brothers, but she did not believe they came to ill at her uncle’s hands. She swallowed bile. It was far more likely their deaths were at other hands.

If I am to be Henry Tudor’s queen, what then? She breathed in sharply. But I would be England’s Queen. Even if I am a bastard, I have far greater right than him to the crown. Despite the heat, she shivered. She shook her head. If I am to be England’s queen, I will be England’s queen. Even if it means letting my husband believe he rules alone. I desire no more civil wars. I desire only good for England. I’m my mother’s daughter, but I have learnt well from her mistakes. I will not divide like my mother but unite. I will spend my life serving England. If my uncle wins, I will serve England as Portugal’s Queen.

If he loses…

She rubbed tears from her eyes and rose from the ground. She lifted her head like a queen ready to face her destiny.

If he loses, I will not let England lose too.


Wendy J. Dunn is an award-winning Australian author, playwright, and poet. Her first Tudor novels were two Anne Boleyn novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This? and The Light in the Labyrinth. Wendy’s most recent publications are two novels inspired by the life of Katherine of Aragon: her Falling Pomegranate Seeds duology: The Duty of Daughters (a finalist in the 2020 Chaucer award) and All Manner of Things (2021), silver medalist in Readers’ Favorite for historical personage, shortlisted for 2021 Chaucer Award, a Silver Medalist in The Coffee Pot Book Club Book of the Year Award (Tudor and Stuart category), and a Gold Medal in the Historical Fiction Company awards for fiction set in England, Ireland, and Scotland. Wendy tutors in writing at the Swinburne University of Technology. She’s currently writing her first full-length Tudor biography, commissioned by Pen and Sword.

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Writing Hotel Portofino by J.P. O’Connell

The story of an English family who moves to Italy to open a guesthouse, Hotel Portofino is set in the titular coastal town in 1926. People ask me: did I go there to research it? Sadly not. (Blame COVID – I do.) But there’s a lot you can find online nowadays – more maps and photos than any sane person could want – and even more you can read in places like London’s British Library, where I called up long-forgotten memoirs of Anglo-Italian life like Cecil Roberts’ Portal to Paradise (sample quote: ‘It has been said that Englishmen are born with two ineradicable loves – one for the England that breeds them, the other for the Italy that lures them’) and wincingly hilarious travel guides from the period. Without fail these depict Italians as noble yet easily corruptible simpletons who have nevertheless managed, more by accident than design, to produce some of the world’s finest art, literature, and cuisine. 

The interwar period, when wealthy Westerners discovered the pleasures of ‘abroad’, is remembered (or misremembered, depending on your viewpoint) as the Golden Age of Travel. Taking advantage of the latest technologies – planes, trains, and automobiles – they crisscrossed Europe in search of exclusive hotels and ravishing beauty spots. If you had the time and the money, you could go skiing in St Moritz then take the Blue Train from Paris down to the Côte d’Azur. From there you could drive along the coast to Monte Carlo for a spot of blackjack before crossing the border into la bella Italia… 

Italy was one of the most popular interwar destinations. The barrier island in the Venetian Lagoon known as the Venice Lido became a magnet for the fashion-conscious super-rich. But the Italian Riviera, a crescent-shaped strip of rugged Ligurian coastline studded with pastel-coloured towns, appealed to the prosperous middle classes who valued its quaintness, its beauty, and the restorative comforts of its warm yet fresh climate. 

Ever since the seventeenth century wealthy Brits had been stopping off in Italy on their Grand Tours. (Americans, too – see Mark Twain’s bestselling travel memoir Innocents Abroad.) For this reason there was something proprietorial about how comfortable they felt in the country and how readily they colonised certain Riviera towns, opening English libraries and ‘British Shops’ selling Gordon’s gin and Huntley & Palmer biscuits. 

Italy also had massive cultural snob value. The merest exposure to its wealth of paintings, frescoes, and historic buildings was held to be improving – an attitude roundly mocked by EM Forster in A Room With A View, published in 1908 and filmed to acclaim by Merchant Ivory in 1985. (Who can forget Judi Dench as writer Eleanor Lavish? ‘A smell! A true Florentine smell! Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell…’)  

Forster was fascinated by the ‘Italian temperament’ and English responses to it. Although they’re set some twenty years before Hotel Portofino, for research purposes I re-read both A Room With A View and the earlier Where Angels Fear to Tread, about a free-spirited English woman, Lilia, who defies her family by marrying the handsome young Italian man she met on holiday and remaining in Italy. 

The free spirit in Hotel Portofino is matriarch Bella. The daughter of a wealthy industrialist, she’s the driving force behind the hotel and channels her entrepreneurial zeal into forging a new life in Italy for her family. Her husband, Cecil, is an aristocrat (and a cad to boot) but like many of his kind in the 1920s he has no money. Which puts all the pressure on her. 

Their artist son Lucian was badly injured in the trenches. He spent his convalescence reading travel guides to remind himself that a better life might one day be possible. Because this was no longer a prospect anyone took for granted. ‘I do feel that during the war something in [England] got killed,’ wrote Forster on his return home from India in 1922. Many other writers and artists felt the same way, fleeing to Mediterranean countries whose beauty and climate seemed to stand for the opposite of combat. The title of the WW1 memoir Robert Graves wrote after moving to Majorca – Good-Bye to All That – says it all, really. 

For a historical novelist, reading novels from the period is the best research you can do, because above all you want your characters to feel real – and novels capture consciousness with a precision no other form can match. Elizabeth Bowen’s 1927 debut novel The Hotel, based on a holiday the Anglo-Irish writer took not far from Portofino, was incredibly helpful in this respect; also in more obvious ways to do with how things looked, what people wore and what the plumbing was like.

Just as useful, though, was a sequence of novels not published until the 1990s – Elizabeth Jane Howard’s bestselling Cazalet Chronicles, which follow the fortunes of a well-heeled English family from just before WW2 until the 1950s. Like Hotel Portofino, the Cazalet books are as much character- as plot-driven. Their use of viewpoint is very revealing, both about the gestalt of family life and the way the most compelling drama often derives from the natural friction between characters rather than the violent contortions of plot. 

So no, as it transpired I didn’t need to go to Italy to research Hotel Portofino. But in a COVID-free world would I have wanted to? 

Do you really need to ask?


J. P. O’Connell has worked as an editor and writer for a variety of newspapers and magazines including Time Out, The Guardian, The Times, and The Daily Telegraph. J. P. has also written several books, including a novel, a celebration of letter-writing, a spice encyclopedia, and, most recently, an analysis of David Bowie’s favorite books and the ways they influenced his music. J. P. lives in London.

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The Boston Doctor by Lisa Gordon

“Don’t look back,” Nels said.

The gravity in his voice, her only comfort. The train ride had been long and unrelenting. Crowding in against countless others, Millie hushed Thelma, their new baby girl, so often her voice turned to gravel in her throat. The smell, unbearable: humanity at its worst. The persistent grumble of the tracks beneath them, the constant bump and jostle, a new torture. The only color, for so long, the backs of their eyelids. 

“Almost there darling, almost there,” Nels whispered, over and over, his eyes squeezed fiercely shut, his full lips pressed in a hard line. Who was he speaking to, she wanted to ask: her? Or Thelma? But she did not, she could not. That question was born of insecurity, and insecurity bred fear. Nels had taught her that; had taught himself that. And there was time for neither in their new life. She tightened her grip on the blanketed bundle of their daughter, and tried to imagine it:


Nels had pointed to it on a map and told her it would be filled with bricks the color of persimmon and windows high in the starry sky. “All the medicine in the world is happening here,” he’d said. “And we’re going to be a part of it, yes, yes we are.”

She loved him for that, how he included her, as if she, too, were taking a scalpel to someone’s throat, or administering penicillin on the backs of dying tongues.

They arrived at Back Bay station to little splendor. The planks below her feet swelled with weight. Humidity clung to her skin like sweat. Immediately, the fashions affronted: swooping skirts, high-necked blouses, wide-brimmed hats. And the colors—oh! Colors Millie was not sure she knew the names of; colors of vegetables and fruits, perhaps, that didn’t grow on her family’s farm. Purples, greens, oranges bright as sunsets. 

Thelma bucked in Millie’s arms, silent, her eyes wild. 

“We’re here, baby girl, here we are!” Nels sang. His demeaner was back—another comfort she needed. He kissed Thelma’s cheeks with lips pursed big and swollen. “Boston here we are!” 

“Shushhh,” Millie hissed, gripping his arm. But inside, she soared. 

Nels pointed across the street. “There,” he said. 


“There!” Nels grinned, easy with the thrill of surprising her. “Our new apartment building.”

“An apartment!” Millie said. “Nels!” She nearly dropped Thelma. The building stood before them, of quality Millie couldn’t properly determine, but to her, it was wondrous.

“I promised,” Nels said, taking her by the elbow and leading her across the tracks.

He had promised. It hadn’t been her place to ask, but she had hoped; oh, how she had hoped! And now: an apartment of their very own. Their very own. It stood mightily, bricks upon bricks, just passed the station. Nels retrieved a key from his satchel, dangling it in front of her face, his smile enormous, infectious. The landlord, Nels said, had sent it two weeks ago. Gratitude and confusion—but how did he, when could he have—rushed to the surface of her cheeks. She kissed him, before remembering herself, then laughed, embarrassed.

Look at us, she thought, this new family, their new life. She couldn’t get over the new smell of rust mixed with dry air, or the new sound of the train hissing, the porters calling out in their glossy voices, or the elegance of the ladies, the swish of their dresses. How quickly she came back to earth, the earth where they didn’t belong.

Her Ma and Pa back home, her sisters and Uncle Rep: what would they say, if they saw her now?

The quarters were small and modest, but they were clean. A small mirror atop the mantle. An armchair in the corner, near the window. A straw bed, in the front room. A belly stove.

“We’ll need to buy everything else, in due time,” Nels explained. He set Thelma on the floor, shiny with wood polish. “My exams are next week. I expect to be employed soon thereafter.”

What Millie wanted to say, she knew she couldn’t. Was he certain the hospitals would hire him, here? Back in South Carolina, he’d gone to both local hospitals, dressed to the nines. He’d gone to many of the local physician practices, white and Black. He’d been turned away from every door. At first, his anger erupted like a rock thrown through glass. Then, it tempered, becoming more even, fueling his motivation. 

He took Millie’s cheeks in his hands. “I hope you are pleased, my darling,” he whispered. 

Millie squeezed the tears from her eyes, lest he see her cry. For he’d believe they were tears of joy. But once Nels left for the lay of the land, a strange sadness came over her—it had, perhaps, been there all along. He told Millie to rest, but she could not. From the window, she saw the wooden planks of the train platform, the steam hung in the air with a hot energy, the Boston skies grey and unwelcoming. People of the kind she knew nothing about on their merry ways, living their strange lives. Thelma fussing in her arms, her mouth a pink animal, wailing.

Millie watched her husband leave, thinking, when he came home, she’d have to find new ways to be a wife to him.

* * * * *

That first autumn, as the leaves fell and the sky stayed endlessly gray, Nels prepared for his licensing exam. Millie passed the time by taking walks with Thelma when she fussed. The accents were different in Boston. Clipped syllables, tight lips. She missed the sing-songyness of Southern talk, the rise and fall, how voices bloomed with vibrancy and anger, with gossip and laughter. She knew her accent marked her, but many other things did, too: the daughter of a former slave, she was also half white, a plantation owner’s daughter, but too dark to pass. She’d feared she’d never match the Bostonian poise, a poise Nels already seemed to embody.

Millie preferred to the parks in the Commons to the commotion of the streets. Thelma loved the lake between the trees best, marveling at the big white birds gliding in the water. Later, she learned what they were: swans. She, too, was stunned by their majesty and elegance. She preferred to stay there as long as she could, but there was much to do at home. Walking briskly, she tried shed the imposter feeling as if it was weight she could lose.

Nels was late. Millie had barely anything other than barley and peas for dinner, and he was expected with their Sunday roast. She fretted at the window, trying to quell her eager stomach by sucking on rosemary leaves. She longed for a drink and wished she could ask Nels to bring some home, but knew how unladylike that was. Finally, he arrived with a parcel wrapped in newspaper. 

“Today was grand,” he said, kissing her on the cheek. “I shadowed Dr. Worthy all day. He’s a fine man, indeed, and a finer doctor. He will help establish my practice.”

“That’s wonderful,” she said. She opened the parcel and was surprised to find a rack of lamb. 

“I thought you would like it.”

“Oh, but we can’t afford this!”

“It’s on loan-away from the butcher. I’ll pay back more next week.”

“But your boards aren’t for a few more weeks, and even then—”

“I’m going to be a doctor, Margaret. Here, in Boston. I am. And not a word of it again.”

Nels’ key had turned; he locked her door and was opening Thelma’s, instead, reaching for her to hold her high in the sky, his smile as wide as her squeals of joy.

“I can’t believe you’ll be educated as a Bostonian,” he murmured to her, burying his face in her neck.

She was envious of her own daughter, the very thing that sucked her dry of milk, of self. Envious of the life her daughter would lead. Envious of the love her husband showered her, copious, unbounded love. Her love for her daughter was love, yes. But it was rageful in its purity.

She opened the lamb, pressing her hands into its raw meat, realizing only then that she didn’t know how to cook it.

* * * * *

Millie went to bed but couldn’t sleep. She lay watching the candle burn out until Nels came barreling into the bedroom. He’d gone out with new comrades, at some saloon in Copley Square, drinking away money they still didn’t have. She pretended to be asleep, but whether or not he knew that, he didn’t let on.

“Millie-my-Margaret-my-lady-oh-my,” he sang. “I’ve got it, I’ve got just the thing, the very thing indeed, indeed indeed indeed!”

Millie couldn’t help but smile, though she kept it small and hidden in her face. Oh, how she did love seeing Nels like this, truly elated, walking on clouds, taking her along for the ride.

“The thing?” she said demurely.

He laid down in bed and kicked off his shoes with great labor—they toppled to the wooden floors Millie had cleaned hours earlier.

Sshhh,” she chided him. “Sometimes it’s as if you forget you’ve ever had a daughter at all!”

“Oh, gracious me!” he cried, extending his arms beyond his head and grinning ear to ear. “As if I’d ever forget the love of my very life.” He turned to her, his eyes bright and swimming.

Her skin sang, then quickly bristled, once she realized he’d not meant that she was the love of his life. At the same time, he caught his error, smart man that he was, even if drunk: “Second-in-standing, mind you.”

“What, is it Nels?” she said, impatient now. She was jealous of the fun he was having, the fire lit in his brain.

“The thing,” he said, “yes.” He closed his eyes and rested his hand on her forearm. The rich, dark smoothness of his skin shone keenly in the candlelight.

“A hospital!” he cried.

“A…hospital,” she said, not sure what he meant.

“My own, my very own.”

“Your—your own? Your own hospital.”

“Yes! Men have done it. A Negro man in Chicago. A Negro man in Georgia. Purchased small home dwellings and converted them into hospitals. Trained, Negro doctors. They’ve done it.”

 “But you’ve not yet—”

“It will be open to all patients. Anyone. Free of charge, if need be. And I will employ only Black physicians, and I will create a nurses’s training program for young Black women, they need careers too, we need—”

“Impressive, Nels. But—”

“My sweet dear. I have responsibility. To forge it for others. To create opportunities for others. To raise us up.”

“But Nels, you’ve not yet—”

“I will train them. I will give them jobs. He groaned, his body beginning to twitch. “Donations will function here. We need to find a church.” At that, he seemed to wake up, brightening. “Why haven’t you found us our church?”

She hadn’t known if Boston churches would be different from home. She hadn’t known how to find out. “I…I don’t know,” she whispered.

He turned then, deciding to sleep, and this was a small gift. Millie had not yet said her piece—he had not let her. They both knew that he hadn’t yet passed his boards. Nels knew that he would. Millie’s uncertainty extended deeper than that. She was quite sure he’d pass his boards, but his larger plans frightened her. Not that he couldn’t achieve them, but that she wouldn’t grow with him. Wouldn’t become the wife he’d need for such a life. That she wouldn’t know how. She couldn’t even find their church.

Tears came to her eyes. Luckily, they were only the beginnings of tears, tiny wells of water too timid to flow. She wiped them on the lace sleeve of her nightgown and began to undress her husband, who was snoring now, tumbling into dreams.

* * * * *

The house on East Springfield Street was unimpressive, but strong. And it was more than a house. A whole brick building of a thing—three, four floors from what Millie could tell.

Nels stood off to the side, watching her approach. “Well?” he said. Already impatient for her reply, though she’d just arrived.

Millie looked up and down. It was the same as the other rowhouses on the block, lined with early trees, forming a young canopy. “The street is quite lovely,” she said, turning her head back to the building.

“The loveliness of the street is a side thought, if at all. Have you focused your attention on what’s at the end of the block?”

Millie had not. Now she did. Beyond them lay the resplendent center pavilion of Boston City Hospital, its iron-domed pillared building just beyond view.

Nels reached into the bassinette and drew out his daughter, held her up, up, up. “Look!” he said. She made not a sound, but her smile disappeared into the sky. “That’s Daddy’s, yours and mine, it’s ours, baby girl!”

But it wasn’t.

“It rings, Millie. It rings!” he exclaimed, circling the baby in the air, pointing her toward the city hospital, up and down the street, the building that might become his.

Ever the questions! Was it proper to have the city hospital a block away? Where and how would the patients find them? How would they pay? Who would he hire? Could they afford it? What about supplies? Was the city ready for a black physician? Were they? She bit her tongue, reminded of Nels’ words: questions were born of insecurity, and insecurity bred fear.

But fearful, she was.

“So this will be just—”

“I will need somewhere to practice, Millie, in case they won’t take me.” He nudged his chin toward the hospital at the end of the block, its enormity looming. “I need somewhere to train others like me. I need to help us.”

Oh, her good husband. Her good, courageous husband. She needed to chew her own fear and spit it out. 

“You will, Nels. It could be—” Millie searched for words. “Revolutionary.”

At that word, he seemed to deflate. He sat down on the front steps and settled the baby in his lap, her arms and legs squirming, wanting more of him. Millie watched his face, seeing this doubt upon him like a new skin. She knew she needed to scrub him clean of it.

She went to him and placed her palms on the sides of his head. She looked him in the eye, square as she could, and in them she saw two Corneliuses: one, the young man she knew so long ago, the dreamer; and two, the grown up version of that young dreamer, smoothing out his dreams like untangling a knotted rope.

“You will not just be good. You will be excellent.”

He nodded back to the house. “If not I, someone else will do it,” he said. 

“Perhaps, though not as well.”

She thought of him as a little boy, hauling coal into the fire of the McCrossin’s home, his father out back chopping wood, his mother long dead; she thought of his tiny, capable hands, his brain, alive with fire, and how the couple admired him so much they paid for his schooling. They saw it in him, even then. (Sometimes, when she looked at Thelma, she thought: do I see that in her? Do I? And she thought: did anyone see it in me?) She thought of the letter from McCrossin that Nels kept in a cardboard file in his desk, next to the brass letter opener. 

It seems to be but yesterday when you as a little boy was studying your Spelling book and performing your House-hold duties at our Home; how well I recollect the day you started to school and again I say that it fills my heart with pride to see that my advise has been kept by you and you have distinguished yourself at school and won a higher place than ever, in my friend-ship, I trust and predict that you will able, as a man of the world, to distinguished yourself among man-kind and do good for the race to which you have been born, there-by setting a fair example to the countless millions of your people.

“No one is as skilled as you,” Millie said. 

“But they are, Millie. I’ve good training, of course. But medicine is medicine.”

“But medicine is not medicine. It is your touch, your manner, your temperance, that makes it so. Your confidence.”

He looked toward the building again, gripping her fingers. “Perhaps that is why they won’t follow my lead—” He turned Thelma toward him, cradling her in one arm, stroking her eyelids and nose with the light touch of a finger.

“No,” Millie said, shaking her head slowly, side to side. “That is exactly why they will.”

And, she wished she could add, exactly why I have, too.

* * * * *

He passed his medical licensing exam with flying colors. “Fireworks!” he said when he came home, his hands exploding in front of his face. “Fireworks!” As if saying the word made them appear. But, his eyes all lit up with stars and planets, his movements singeing with afterglow, she could almost smell the gun powder.

It seemed Thelma’s tiny arms reached for him before he’d entered her vision. He flew her on his back, zooming about, singing me oh me oh my. Thelma’s little giggles heaps of glee, dollops of creamed sugar fluffed on every other note, together their song becoming more familiar, yet more unpredictable, at once.

She wiped her hands on her apron. Back in the kitchen, Millie listened to the heady bubble of boiling water, the thud of the rolling pin on dense dough, until the sound of her own song became the only one she could hear. 


Lisa Gordon’s fiction has been published in Paper Darts, Storychord, Hypertext, and others. She is working on a novel about Cornelius Garland, a Black physician from Alabama who founded and operated the first and only Black hospital in Boston, from 1908-1928.

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An Interview With Kathleen Parrish

Kathleen Parrish retired from a career in nuclear engineering to revise and publish a manuscript written by her uncle, Herman Willis Logan, and pursue a second career as a writer of science fiction and fantasy. Instead, she’s now working on two historical fiction sequels to Second Son. Southern Woman explores the competing demands of family and career on a young woman determined to have it all. Southern Soldier captures the anger, bitterness, and struggle for redemption of a young soldier whose service in the Vietnam War leaves him broken and disabled.

Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?

Kathleen Parrish: I began writing at Kansas State University while pursuing a degree in nuclear engineering. Narrative writing was a humanities elective, and I needed one, so I signed up. Professor Russell Laman, the author of Manifest Destiny, taught the course. Russ limited his class to 15 students, and I was the last student to make his final cut. Russ kept the class size small, so he could work with us individually. I took his class four times, twice for college credit and twice for the sheer joy of it. My writing was inspired by books by Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and J.R.R. Tolkien, especially Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

After graduation, I took an engineering position at Black & Veatch Consulting Engineers but continued writing science fiction and fantasy as time permitted. My husband and I eventually moved to a two-acre mini-ranch in Arizona, so I could work at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Over time, my engineering career became more demanding. I moved up to section leader, then to senior consulting engineer. More responsibility meant longer hours and more stress. I loved the work, but the hours and the commute took their toll. We had two young sons, two horses, two dogs, and a small flock of chickens to care for. There were years I had no time for anything that wasn’t job- or family-related, and I put my writing dreams aside.

I never thought of writing historical fiction until 2012, when my mother asked me to look at a manuscript her brother, my Uncle Willis, had written back in the ’60s. Then she asked if I would be willing to revise and get it published someday. The manuscript that eventually became Second Son was 610 pages. My uncle’s editors at Carlton Press wanted it cut to 320 pages, a massive undertaking back when most writing was still done on manual typewriters. Mom was gentle in her request but very persistent. I finally read the manuscript and realized a powerful, captivating story lay buried in the faded, xeroxed pages.   

M.A.: What is your latest novel about? How would you describe it to potential readers?

K.P.: Second Son tells the story of Towanna Whitaker, a sharecropper’s son trapped in the cotton fields of 1938 Mississippi. Towanna’s dream of getting an education so he can “be somebody” is threatened by the demands of the harvest, daunting poverty, and a cruel betrayal when his ma abandons the family. When he gives up his education to take care of the house and care for his baby sister, ugly rumors spread through the town that he must be queer. Bullied and ostracized, Towanna finds solace in the friendship of Kathy, a shy, local girl, but their fledgling love is threatened when he’s drafted into the army and deployed to Europe during WW2. Trained as a combat medic, Towanna must face death, loss, and his deepest fears if he’s to survive the war and find his way home.
Second Son captures the lives of beautifully flawed characters struggling to survive in a pivotal time in American history, and embodies a realism and accuracy that historical fiction fans will find compelling. Uncle Willis poured his heart into this depiction of a life much like his own: a sharecropper’s son struggling under the poverty of the Great Depression; dealing with bullying, abandonment, and betrayal; giving up his education to take on adult responsibilities at fifteen, only to be taken from his family by the demands of World War II.

M.A.: What makes this book different?

K.P.: Second Son captures the realism and wonder of a young man’s coming of age in a time and culture that did not protect or prepare children for the demands of adulthood. Intimate and deeply personal, Second  Son immerses the reader in the wonder of becoming sexually aware, the heartbreak of being abandoned, the terror of realizing how fragile life can be, and the saving grace of faith that can carry us through the darkest times. When the manuscript was initially written, it would have been classified as contemporary military fiction, Southern fiction, or family saga.

M.A.: All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like?

K.P.: While in college, I submitted one of my SF short stories to Galaxy, Science Fiction and Fantasy, and finally to Analog magazine. In each case, the story made it to the senior editor, who sat on it for several weeks before ultimately rejecting the story. Instead of pink rejection slips, I received personal letters from Ed Ferman at Fantasy and Science Fiction and Ben Bova at Analog. Both said the story didn’t quite fit their needs, but they’d like to see more of my work.

I finally took Hunters of Iquo back to Russ Laman, who invited me to do a private reading for him and his wife. Halfway through the reading, he chuckled and asked me for the word count. That’s when I found out that a 25,000-word novella by a first-time writer simply didn’t fit the fiction magazine business model. I could cut the story to 8,000 words and resubmit it as a short story or expand it to 60,000 and market it as a novel. I set the story aside, but I’d learned a vital lesson about publishing. Know your market.

With Second Son, I considered self-publishing but decided to try traditional publishing once I had the manuscript under 100,000 words. I queried sixty-seven agents before submitting to Touchpoint Press, a regional publisher known for their Southern fiction. They accepted Second Son, and our agreement gives them a first look at the sequel, Southern Woman, which follows Towanna and his wife, Kathy, into the next chapter of their lives.

M.A.: What are the joys/challenges of writing historical fiction for you?

K.P.: Writing historical fiction lets me connect the past to the present and better understand the traditions and values that flow from one generation to the next. It also gives me an intimate sense of continuity and a connection with the people who came before me. I never realized I was rooted in second-generation sharecropper stock and that my uncle, mother, and aunt had picked cotton by hand and grown up in a house with no plumbing or electricity until I delved into the manuscript and started asking questions.

The challenges of writing historical fiction are very different from those of speculative fiction. Unlike creating science fiction or fantasy, I can’t simply invent the world in which the story occurs. I have to be true to the past. Historical accuracy is vital, right down to the sniper rifle Towanna uses to shoot down a German fighter plane or when cotton harvesting machinery first became available to small farmers in Mississippi.

M.A.: What is the research process like for you?

K.P.: I tend to go a little overboard. My process is heavily influenced by the accuracy required in my engineering work. People, places, technology, and events have to be woven into a seamless whole. Facts need to be checked and rechecked. A lot of credit goes to my critique partners, some of whom served in Korea or WW2 or whose own writing taught them hard-won lessons on research they’ve shared with others.

M.A.: Do you travel for research? If so, what role does travel play in your writing process?

K.P.: Yes, I love to travel. My husband and I made a road trip in 2019 that took us through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. This allowed me to research the people and places that make up the framework of Second Son, as well as the planned sequels, Southern Woman and Southern Soldier. I collected reference books, photographs, and personal stories along the way. The librarians at the Indianola Public Library let me browse their copy of Fevers, Floods, and Faith: A History of Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1844-1976. It’s long out of print and wasn’t allowed out of the library, but I was able to locate and purchase a copy through eBay.

Books, websites, blogs, and movies are all excellent sources of historical information. Traveling allows me to experience the settings and the culture I’m trying to portray.

M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?

K.P.: Stephanie Storey, author of Oil and Marble, and Raphael, Painter in Rome, writes historical fiction with passion and accuracy. Stephanie brings the Renaissance alive and sweeps the reader into the lives of the luminaries of the day—Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael. I met her at a writer’s conference in 2019, and she gave me an encouraging, one-on-one critique of the first three pages of Second Son.

Rick Adelmann, author of the MG&M Detective Agency Mysteries. Rick takes his readers into the jazz age and Hollywood’s golden age as if he lived it. A retired history major, Rick is an amazing fact-checker and critique partner, and I’m fortunate to know him.

Lois McMasters Bujold, author of The Vorkosigan and Chalion Series. Her protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, became something of a hero for me when I was battling depression. Her writing is clear and concise, her characters real, beautifully flawed, and very human.

M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write historical fiction?

K.P.: Find a compelling subject, historical event, or era that you can connect to and study it for a while. Find a story that needs telling with fictional or historical characters who have wants, needs, and passions that will help drive your story forward. Rough out your plot and map how it intersects the historical events or era you’ve chosen. Then sit back and think: do I really want to do this? If it’s a yes, start writing. Find a critique group you can work with. All the best!

M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?

K.P.: I’d like to connect with them. I’m still building my author’s platform, and right now my website is being overhauled, but readers can find me on:

My website:

Facebook:    Kathleen Parrish, Writer | Facebook

Twitter:       Kathleen Parrish (@Kathlee49346780) / Twitter

Instagram:    Kathleen Renee Parrish (@kcparrish2) • Instagram photos and videos

LinkedIn: Kathleen Parrish | LinkedIn

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The Bullet

It was still early. A glimmer of light poked its way through the small spaces in the room’s only window, but it would be a while before the shadows outside subsided and things looked brighter.     

He looked back at his bed. Like this home of his for the last few months, it was small but comfortable enough. Certainly better than expected. The pillow lay askew at the wrong end, and the still sodden sheets hung limply over the mattress.     Being up was no bad thing. No…being awake was no bad thing.     

The mornings were always the same. They had been for years, even through everything that had happened – the progress, the disappointment, the hopelessness. He emptied his lungs, collapsed into a wicker chair and laid an elbow on the table. Staring at the dull patterns on the cloth, the browns, greys and yellows of his night-time terrors slowly blended with the old-fashioned curls and swirls. He hoped he’d be free of those visions, at least until night came round again.    

What happened that day six years back had its hook in him, alright. The terrors, the visions…they were a relentless echo delivering a message he couldn’t understand.

* * * * *

It looked good. They’d somehow kept on top all day. The bastards had thrown everything at them since sunlight, but his comrades at the machine-gun post on the other side of the river had terrorised the enemy and pinned them down. Surely it was here, today, that the unerring torrent of bad news would dry up.     

The fighting wore on and their bullets found homes in more enemy flesh. What was left of the town would stay theirs. The station, too. He was sure of it.     

He caught his breath, crouched beside a wall at a crossing. To his left, a handful of his men had tucked themselves among the joists of a partially collapsed warehouse on the waterfront. On his right, three more were perched behind countertops in a long-since abandoned store. Ahead, one had ducked into a shallow crater in the road, evicting the rats for a prime view of the bridge over the Escaut.     

He shifted his helmet back on his head, wiped the sweat from his face and broad mustache, and scanned the debris on the opposite bank for any hint of movement that might suggest another advance on the bridge. He needn’t have bothered. The enemy, devastated by the machine gun off to the north, had been pretty quiet for more than half an hour. It was eerily quiet and, for the first time that day, he felt the French September wind bite into his skin. He dared to think it was done.     

The gun across the river crushed the silence.     

In the distance his countrymen were frantic. Loading. Firing. Loading. Firing. Even from this distance he could see gold spitting from the barrel as steel flew through the air about it. The surface of the river between them became an uneven, pockmarked mess as a guttural roar flooded across to the town.     

A shadow in the warehouse above him was waving and pointing beyond the bridge as his distant comrades concentrated their machine gun’s fire. Something was very wrong. The enemy were readying a gun of their own, and in moments it would be up and running, fixing itself on his comrade’s post. He groped for a solution. He and his men on this side of the river were too far off to join the fire on the enemy’s new gun. Taking to the bridge on foot would see them give up their advantage. What else? What else?     Too late. For a few brief moments, the roar of guns intensified.     

Then nothing.     

Then shouts across the river.     

Three figures in brown – two tall, leggy runners, one short and slight – scrambled up and away from the new gun and towards his comrades’ now silent machine-gun post. They slowed, and disappeared behind a bank of sandbags.     

Silence. Muffled screams. Pop. Pop. Pop. Silence.     

He knew what this meant. The bridge was open. Within moments the buildings and streets around him were alive with flying metal. Lethal shards of brick and concrete both leapt up and rained down. He yelled to his men to return fire, but now they were outnumbered, outgunned. Soon there was a man on the bridge. Then two. Three. More. Suddenly there was no water between them and the enemy, who were right on top of them. As the air filled with acrid smoke, he desperately called on his men to fall back into the town. They’d take their chances man to man. They knew the streets. They could still hold.     

He glanced left and right, turned and darted back. He’d find somewhere. He’d organise the men. They’d counter.     

Neither of the two comrades sprinting away ahead looked back as a hot, slithering, stabbing pain stole its way through his left thigh. He hopped and, at great speed, plummeted headfirst into cobblestones, his face grinding through coarse rubble and bullet casings. He saw his friends disappear into the distance, and it went dark.      

He couldn’t know how long it was before he awoke, but somehow the streets, buildings, and air itself felt different. Blue-grey smoke swirled thickly around him, flickers of yellow and green silently illuminating fragments of pavement, road signs, and buildings. A muffled hum crept insidiously through every crevice of the town, winding its way up around his body, into his eardrums, and filling his brain. Leaning on his rifle, he struggled to his feet. His left leg hung limply, the heavy, wet fabric of his trousers clinging to him around it. Nearby, something human-like slumped out of a crater in the road, outstretched fingertips grazing a rifle butt. A rat sniffed at a pool of red, paused, and disappeared into the hole.     

Yards ahead, the smoke billowed and intensified, and a shadow appeared. Was it a man? Yes, it was. The figure sharpened and grew nearer, hazy greys becoming the obvious outline of a soldier. Was it one of us? No, no it wasn’t – the uniform was wrong, and his rifle was trained unflinchingly in his direction.     

He had time to look at his enemy. A short man – shorter even than he was, perhaps. He had the black and red smears of war across his face, but somehow his pale skin glowed.    

The rifle’s barrel rose slightly.     

This was it. He knew he was done. He shifted his weight to his right and let go of his own gun, barely hearing it clatter to the ground. As he stared ahead, he could swear he saw the smoke behind the enemy soldier clear just a little and the merest glimpse of unscarred hillside come into view.     

But the shot didn’t come.     

The two men stared at one another. Somehow in that moment, their minds were one. He could see this man. He could feel him. For a few moments they breathed together, thought together. They were beings separated by a cause, but in that time and place they were the same.      

The soldier slowly and smoothly lowered his rifle and nodded almost imperceptibly. Face, uniform and gun blurred, and then became shadow. Shadow became haze.     

He was alone. He was alive. The battle was lost, destruction was close, but somehow he was alive. 

* * * * *

The visions stirred again in the insipid patterns of the tablecloth. The war-stained, glowing face of the enemy soldier loomed up, out and away from the knitted swirls towards him.     

What was it saying? What was its message?     

As the day’s first light sifted through the window, he finally saw it. That soldier, that day, had been no ordinary soldier, and he’d chosen not to fire.     

He was meant to escape. He was special. He turned and looked out the window. In the distance, the lights of a big town flickered upwards, piercing the retreating darkness. Domes, roofs, and spires glowed with a familiar energy.     

“Das ist München”, he mumbled. “Das ist München”. If he wasn’t sure of it before, he was now. He felt charged, ready to throw off the gloom of the last months.    

In the corridor outside, a guard shuffled across austere flagstones towards the door and peered in through the bars. Inside was a small, gaunt man at a table, wide eyes fixed on a clutch of paper in front of him, writing furiously. The guard grunted, took up his clipboard, and drew a tick next to the initials “A.H.” and the date – 16th June 1924. He shuffled away across the stones again, edging deeper into the shadows.


Russell Saunders is a writer camped out in the wilds of south London. He left the world of marketing and a 15-year career behind to pursue the dream of writing words for people other than clients, bosses, and other assorted middlemen – that and take a Grand Tour round Italy, build a patio, and look after his son.

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We Are Now Using Submittable

The changes we promised for Copperfield are on their way. While I understand that there may be mixed reactions to this first change, it is one that is necessary in order for us to keep Copperfield going for another 20 years.

As of February 21, 2021, The Copperfield Review is using Submittable as a way to accept and keep track of our submissions. For more than 20 years we accepted submissions via email, but the email system is no longer working.

The number of submissions we have been receiving has been growing, for which we are grateful. However, a number of those submissions are not meeting our guidelines. We have been receiving a lot of submissions that are not even historical in nature, which is a waste of everyone’s time. We’ve also been getting some submissions that are questionable, at best. I’m not referring to quality since quality is subjective. I mean as in poorly executed with typos everywhere, misused words, poor grammar, and the like. Then there are the submissions that say something along the lines of, “I heard you guys publish historical fiction so here’s this 200-word piece I just wrote about the American Revolution.” Yes, that particular piece was every bit as bad as you might expect. With a hope to weed out the contemporary mystery submissions so we can focus on the amazing pieces of historical fiction and poetry we receive, we made the decision to begin using Submittable along with charging a nominal reading fee of $3.00 USD.

Three dollars is in line with what other literary journals charge for reading fees. We hope that the small charge is enough to stop someone from sending a space opera to a journal of historical fiction, or at least it will stop someone from sending us a photograph of something they scribbled on a yellow legal pad. That’s not a joke, I’m afraid. All well-intentioned historical fiction and poetry submissions are always welcome at The Copperfield Review. Scribbling, not so much.

Having the opportunity to read and publish amazing works of historical fiction and poetry has been a dream come true. The Copperfield Review has been the first published credit for many up-and-coming writers, and many of our contributors have gone on to great things. I feel like a proud mamma bear when that happens. I’m also proud of the reputation The Copperfield Review has earned as being a place that publishes high-quality literature.

The world needs stories, good stories, stories that tell the truth about our past and stories that give us an inkling of where we’re going. That’s why I love historical fiction. That’s why I write historical fiction. That’s even why I wrote a book about writing historical fiction.

Thank you as always for thinking of The Copperfield Review. I look forward to sharing many more works of historical fiction with you.

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How Much of These Hills is Gold

Written by C Pam Zhang

Published by Riverhead Books

Review by Michael Nellis

America’s history of immigration is fraught with troubles, with racial stereotypes and rampant mistreatment. Often driven to poverty and inadequate living conditions, newcomers to the “land of the free” put their trust in hard work and silent grit to achieve success. And when this didn’t work, as it often did, their families, their children, would be driven to breaking point. All of this and more is explored in C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills is Gold

Zhang’s novel takes the American Old West, a setting that has been built up and regurgitated for decades, and puts it into a tailspin. Given their large influence on American history, immigrant stories in fiction are nothing new. What is new is Zhang’s exploration of family dynamics and her effortlessly taut style that backs it up. Two siblings, Lucy and Sam, live in squalor in a small mining town. Only problem is, their father has just died, leaving them orphans in an environment wary of their Chinese ancestry. The one duty pulling at their minds is to give their father a proper burial—but, of course, obstacles soon arise in their path.

While Lucy and Sam meet many others in their journey, from the first page the novel is a dance between them: Lucy, the quietly courageous bearer of burdens; Sam, the younger of the two and more inclined to putting on a show of bravado. Late in the first chapter Sam is revealed to be Lucy’s sister, in spite of her cowboy attire, mock gunslinging, and short hair to convince anyone the contrary. Their father had wanted a son, and he haunts them long after he is dead, both because they are carrying his body around wherever they go and because he incessantly invades their memories and dreams. 

Zhang’s style pulses like bullets from Sam’s gun. Sentence fragments abound and any sentence more than a line in length is studded with commas: “Jim’s eyes snap up. Red eyes, flesh raw at the rims. ‘Off,’ he says. His voice flicks, steel wire. His hands go on writing.” One gets the sense of a rapidly moving eye, one that only soaks in the details that jump and then flits away. For all the style’s brusque swiftness, it causes readers to double back and investigate the significance of the images presented. This is reinforced by the one-word chapter names, which rotate between eight different images, from “wind” to “gold” to “blood.”

As Lucy and Sam continue their adventure they meet some, like mountain men, who are willing to humor them and share a campfire, but the townspeople they encounter gawk, oblivious to their hardships. The novel’s second part delves deep into flashbacks, striking glimpses of the family’s experiences before both parents had died and their “ordinary” lives. Although I picked up the book and stuck with it because of its engaging style, I took away from it an enhanced sense of the sheer struggles that others, especially immigrants, have gone through—and are still going through. Suffice it to say I highly recommend this read.


Michael Nellis is pursuing an English degree at George Fox University in Oregon, and in addition to nonfiction essays has a passion for historical fiction and poetry. He is an aspiring novelist who seeks to embody a unique blend of fantasy and literary fiction. When he’s not writing, he can be found listening to classic rock, playing Minecraft, or practicing his cello skills. His blog on writing (and more) can be found at

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The Case of the Midnight Assassin

New Year’s Eve of 1888 brought to London a sense of anticipation, calm, and beauty combined. Anticipation existed in that the city was hopeful the year 1889 would bring new advances in our rapidly changing world, and that I was eager for new cases to occupy the indefatigable mind of my friend. Secondly, an eerie calm paradoxically layered over the rooftops, stretching from our lodgings at 221B Baker Street to the vestibule of St. James and to the spires of Westminster. Looking out our window, I cracked it a smidgen to inhale the cold night air, its constant companions the fog and chimney smoke of thousands of grates spreading over the horizon and the quietness that pervaded the city at the late hour. This view constituted my last point of the evening; it was a beautiful night.

Holmes and I had hosted a small party of guests for the occasion in our chambers. The idea was a combination of Mrs. Hudson’s and mine. My roommate, at first, was against the idea, saying he needed rest upon the completion of his most recent case; one that involved the stolen emeralds of the Duke of York’s wife and the apprehension of the kleptomaniacal son of a member of the House of Lords. 

“Surely, Holmes, you can do with a little celebration after your recent accomplishment,” I said, attempting to staunch his misgivings. “After all, it is the new year, and Mrs. Hudson’s daughter and her new husband will be visiting.”

Here, Holmes shot a glance at me from his armchair near the mantelpiece. The fire cast a gleam in his eye, which he hid well, for it was gone in a split second. But I caught it in that flash. Holmes had been a bit unpleasant to our poor landlady in the weeks leading up to the Duke of York’s case. It was his habit to be pouty and rude to both myself and even more so to Mrs. Hudson when there was no work or puzzle to occupy his brilliant, investigatory brain, or when there was difficulty in the solving of one. 

During this period of doldrums, Holmes had been restless in his study of the native tribesmen of the Southern Americas as well as New Guinea. He even went so far to, on more than one occasion, emulate the same dress as these indigenous peoples, and had terrified the tolerant woman more than once. One particular instance occurred after I had gone to bed as Holmes started up his violin playing (I was used to his antics and learned to sleep through his spasmodic rehearsing). Well, it had turned out Holmes had played far past his usual late hour, only to incite the wrath of Mrs. Hudson. Imagine our landlady’s surprise as she trounced up the stairs at three in the morning and upon flinging open our anteroom door, witnessed her pale half-naked tenant dressed as an Amazonian huntsman playing the violin, using a dart blowgun as the bow. Needless to say, if the scream hadn’t already woken me up, it would have been the shouting match that ensued.

In my blurry state, I managed to calm down lessor and renter, saying that it would be a miracle already if Lestrade hadn’t been dispatched with his constables to our residence. Both parties, to my great relief, went to bed. But it occurred to me that Holmes had acted rather rudely towards Mrs. Hudson, and I never did witness an apology.

I believe this had inhabited the peripheries of Holmes’s thoughts for he replied in a conciliatory tone to my New Year’s plans. “Perhaps you are right, Watson,” he said, steepling his fingers, elbows on the arms of his chair. “I fear I have rather taxed Mrs. Hudson recently and owe it to her to remedy my misbehavior.”

“So you are for our little celebration, Holmes?” I asked, eyebrows raised.

“As much as social gatherings vex me, I think it wise to throw a small soiree in our quarters.”

“Very good, Holmes. Mrs. Hudson and I would be delighted.”

And so here we were on the second floor in our meeting room enjoying companionship and cheer for the new year. I had invited friends of mine, a Dr. Michael Huddleston and his wife Lucy, a charming woman who knew much of London’s goings on. Michael’s practice was adjacent to mine on Harley Street and the two of us got on well with our common occupations and shared views on many a matter, both political and social. Also in attendance were Daniel Ives and his new wife, Mrs. Hudson’s kind and enthusiastic daughter, Amelia. Both had made their way to London from Devonshire, and Mrs. Hudson was beaming, blissfully content to see her daughter happily married to such an agreeable young man in the textile trade. Holmes, I could tell, had been more sociable than usual to our landlady, and I gathered that his acquiescence and demeanor had mended the rift between them.

The seven of us made a fine party, and all were in good disposition. Mrs. Hudson had brought up cakes and pastries, some of which were made by Amelia in the kitchen downstairs. Lucy made an exquisite fish pie, of which I had more than my normal portion. And even Holmes had provided punch and chocolates. After our piecemeal dishes were served, we sat around in discussion, keeping our eye to the hour. The clock on the mantle neared midnight, and I stifled a yawn and could tell that others were fighting off somnolency. The evening meal and many helpings of punch were taking effect. If it wasn’t for the intriguing conversation between my two friends, I fear I would have dozed.

“It is amazing, still, you must admit Mr. Holmes,” Michael stated. “This new telephone system improves with each passing day. In fact, I wonder if you yourself owned such a contraption could you be able to wish the Queen herself at the tolling of the hour a “happy new year” and could you hear her reply.”

“The technology is getting there, Dr. Huddleston,” Holmes said, “but I fear even if I was to get through to her majesty, she would not hear me, for surely the fireworks over the Thames at the Royal New Years Jubilee would drown out my frail voice.”

The room chuckled, and my heart warmed at seeing such a happy young couple along with the mirth of their matriarch. My small revelry was interrupted by a cry from Lucy, who grabbed her husband’s arm and shook it from the settee. “Look, Michael,” she said. “Look, everyone. The hour approaches!” She pointed at the clock, and sure enough, we were within thirty seconds of January 1st. 

At ten seconds till, we counted down the time, and I noticed Holmes roll his eyes as he saw me look his way. Yet even he mimed the tradition, if not for Mrs. Hudson’s sake. Midnight struck, toasts were made, the two groups of lovers kissed, and Michael and I broke out into song. Upon finishing our jolly Auld Lang Song, there was a knock on our apartment door.

“Who could that be at this hour?” I said. I approached the door, cracking it to find a darkly-clad man bundled in his greatcoat and holding an envelope. Holmes had walked up beside me, and I opened the door wider. “A happy new year to you,” I said by rote. “Can I help you?”

“Yes sir,” he said. “I’ve a letter for a Mr. Sherlock Holmes and a Dr. John H. Watson. Might that be you, gentlemen?”

“Indeed,” I said, taking the letter, eyeing Holmes dubiously.

Holmes looked past me. “Don’t open it, Watson. I want this man to know that I already know exactly the contents of this letter.”

“You do?” I asked, nonplussed. 

“Furthermore,” Holmes continued, “the real intent of this letter is to distract you and I.”

As soon as Holmes said this, the man at the door reached into his coat pocket. 

“You can try to conjure imaginative bullets, sir,” Holmes said with his palms upward in a gesture of futility, “but I fear they will not serve your role as the Ripper’s agent.”

The assailant levelled up his pulled pistol, hesitant. I instinctively froze as Holmes held up a hand for me to do so. 

“What are you getting at?” the assailant said. 

There were noises of gasps and questioning from our guests, who by this time took notice of our ill-intentioned visitor. 

“There is no need to fret,” Holmes said loudly, in a commandingly calm tenor. 

“Oh, but there is,” said the assailant with a grim smile, “Say goodnight.”

“You fool,” Holmes glared at him, “I had your firearm replaced this very afternoon.”

The assailant fired. Click, click, click. There was no gunshot. I was utterly baffled as I flinched at each sound. 

The man immediately about-faced, running down our stairs. I made to chase, but Holmes grabbed my arm. “No need, Watson. You hear that scuffle below? That’ll be Lestrade and his constables apprehending our offender on our porchway.”

“What do you mean, Holmes? What is this all about?”

My questioning was reinforced by the urgings of our guests who stood pale faced despite the glow of the waning flames in our fireplace. 

“Please, all of you relax,” Holmes said. “I can assure you all is well. See there below, Lestrade is just now escorting our would-be assassin via locked carriage to one of the Yard’s gaols.”

He spun around and motioned us to all sit in our previous seats. I was quite irritated with him but also so confused I blankly walked behind the couch. My nerves were so rattled, I opted to stand behind the sofa. 

“You may know,” Holmes began, “that the Yard’s struggles to discover the killer behind the Ripper murders has led them to enlist my help. I had been investigating the case long before they asked me, but once my official role became known in certain spheres, I knew the killer would try and address it. This so-called Ripper, despite his utter barbarism, is a cunning individual, someone who does, must, not want to be caught. As such, I knew he would make a move to take me out.”

“But Holmes,” I said, “the letter that you are holding is addressed to both of us.”

“Quite right, Watson. Our killer hired this agent to kill only me. He wanted you to bear witness to my demise, close up, in the hope you would write about your experience, or at the very least be reluctant to involve yourself in further investigations.”

“How did you know this man was not the Ripper himself?” I said.

“Our foe does not work that way. This is far too exposed. He works only in the shadows and will continue to spread the wings of his darkness therein.”

“Will he strike again?”  Mrs. Hudson asked, shakily. 

“He may try,” Holmes said, “but I have on my side a few allies that would make him think twice. You see, when I first discovered our assailant was following me about the city, I enlisted my young minions. You may call them dirty boys and mischievous girls, street urchins, but to me they are my irregulars—loyal soldiers who can slip into most places undetected, uncover secrets, and execute strategies. Once they discovered where this agent lived, it was easy to have young Mickey slip in here and there, discover the exact model of pistol, and replace it with one that held blanks.”

“Another ally is my brother Mycroft. As you know, he is quite up there in his work in matters of government. He provides the occasional spy her majesty can spare, and I am quite certain their skills supersede those of our talented yet lacking Lestrade.”

Here, Holmes paused, looking at the letter in his hand, then continued. “This letter has nothing written on it, unlike the cryptic notes our foe leaves around his slayings, which I hope to end once and for all in this new year.”

“Here, here,” Michael said, raising his glass. Our guests and myself also voiced agreement, but I could tell there was a troubled split-second movement in Holmes’s face as he said it. Was that a flash of doubt? Hesitancy in solving the case of the century? As with most of Holmes’s mystic persona, I could not fathom the reason.

“Now, if you are all agreeable,” Holmes said grabbing an empty glass, “let us have a nightcap to settle our nerves and end the night in an accustomed manner of cheer without fear. Lestrade has been generous in leaving two constables as sentries on our nook of the street. So drink up.”

As punch was served and conversations resumed, Holmes spoke to me quietly. “I am rather glad you threw this gathering, Watson. Please know, I agreed to it in the full knowledge that no harm would come to any of you.”

“As you say, Holmes, I know your methods, though they still leave me in the dark. May I ask a candid question?”

“Certainly, my friend.”

“Could it be that your eccentric behavior of late toward Mrs. Hudson has to do with the difficulty in this case, which has dragged longer than most? You made quick work of unmasking the emerald thief—did you take that to distract yourself from the Ripper?”

“Here, you see through me, Watson.” Holmes smiled. “Though the emerald case was more of a distraction for the Ripper than for myself. He knows I will not stop until he stops, yet I wanted to see what he would do. You may be perplexed by my studies of the Amazonian or New Guinea hunters. But I ask you, how do you catch an evasive prey?”

“You learn from the best hunters,” I ventured. 

“Precisely. So what appeared to you as me not working, was actually me working.”

“Ah,” I said, sipping the last of my punch.

“I really must keep myself in check, Watson. This case, as you see, brings me to bleak moods, and I do not like mistreating you or Mrs. Hudson.”

“We all act out when under great stress, Holmes.”

“Indeed, Watson. And for one of the first times in my life, I must learn to cope. I hope my year’s resolutions bring progress, for I fear with this new foe, I have met my match.”


Nolan has been published in Foliate Oak, Aphelion, Points in Case, The Copperfield Review, and others. He’s worked with editors from TOR/Forge; Random House; Folio Literary; and Dijkstra Agency. Under a pen name, he self-published an Epic Fantasy novel, full of kingdoms and conflicts. An avid reader, he has recently been devouring fiction set in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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We’re Booked Through 2020!

We’ve been receiving some amazing submissions at Copperfield, so much so that all of our slots through 2020 are now filled. Wow! Thank you to all our great contributors.

Please keep in mind that our response policy has changed. To keep up with the latest from Copperfield, be sure to check our Submission Guidelines on a periodic basis because things do change.

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Dorothy Baird

          (William, aboard the Transport,
           departed London, July 4, 1635)
At dawn our ship tacks into the James River,
heads northwest toward James Towne,
toward land promised me.
The Transport rocks under my feet,
the only sound, a steady swoosh
as prow pierces sun-glazed ripples.
The fertile scent of foliage lining both shores
revives me after weeks spent below deck
breathing the ship’s stench.
A feast of August green feeds my hunger
for color after six weeks of blues—
sky, sea, night.
The King demands gold from these lands.
I shall find it on my grant,
whether I dig for it or grow it:
Maize, its colors hidden in silks and husks,
will rise from tilled soil, provide
grain for bread, fodder for animals.
Grape vines trellised on trees,
draped with clusters of purple-tinged amber,
will fill hogsheads with claret and port.
Tobacco’s emerald fans will turn tan,
age to mahogany, deposit gold in my pocket,
before leaves disappear in curls of smoke.
I yearn for life as a landowner, no longer toiling
to fill another’s purse. By sunset, God willing,
I’ll feel my land beneath my feet.


Dorothy Baird’s poetry has appeared in journals, anthologies and her chapbook Indelible Ripples (Kelsey Books, 1917). She taught at Western Connecticut University and was Managing Editor of Heat Treating, a journal serving the steel industry. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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