Authors: Georgette Heyer
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Crime
It was a source of great satisfaction to Joseph Herriard that the holly trees were in full berry. He seemed to find in this circumstance an assurance that the projected reunion of the family would be a success. For days past he had been bringing prickly sprigs into the house, his rosy countenance beaming with pleasure, and his white locks (worn rather long, and grandly waving) ruffled by the December winds. Just look at the berries!" he would say, thrusting his sprigs under Nathaniel's nose, laying them on Maud's card-table.
"Very pretty, dear," Maud said, her flattened voice divesting her words of even the smallest vestige of enthusiasm.
"Take the damned thing away!" growled Nathaniel. "I hate holly!"
But neither the apathy of his wife nor the disapproval of his elder brother could damp Joseph's childlike enjoyment of the Festive Season. When a leaden sky heralded the advent of snow, he began to talk about old fashioned Christmases, and to liken Lexham Manor to Dingley Dell.
In point of fact, there was no more resemblance between the two houses than between Mr. Wardle and Nathaniel Herriard.
Lexham was a Tudor manor house, considerably enlarged, but retaining enough of its original character to make it one of the show-places of the neighbourhood. It was not a family seat of long standing, Nathaniel, who was a wealthy man (he had been an importer from the East Indies), having purchased it a few years before his retirement from an active share in his flourishing business. His niece, Paula Herriard, who did not like the Manor, could not imagine what should have induced an old bachelor to saddle himself with such a place, unless - hopefully - he meant to leave it to Stephen, her brother. In which case, she added, it was a pity that Stephen, who did like the place, should take so few pains to be decent to the old man.
It was generally supposed, in spite of Stephen's habit of annoying his uncle, that he would be Nathaniel's heir. He was his only nephew, so unless Nathaniel meant to leave his fortune to his only surviving brother, Joseph, which even Joseph admitted to be unlikely, the bulk of the estate looked like coming into Stephen's graceless hands.
In support of this theory, it could perhaps have been said that Nathaniel seemed to like Stephen rather more than he liked any other member of his family. But few people liked Stephen very much. The only person who stoutly maintained belief in the sterling qualities to be detected beneath his unprepossessing exterior was Joseph, whose overflowing kindness of heart led him always to believe the best of everyone.
"There's a lot of good in Stephen. You mark my words, the dear old bear will surprise us all one of these days!" Joseph said staunchly, when Stephen had been at his most impossible.
Stephen was not in the least grateful for this unsolicited championship. His dark, rather saturnine face took on such an expression of sardonic scorn that poor Joseph was momentarily abashed, and stood looking at him with an absurdly crestfallen air.
"Surprising weak intellects isn't a pastime of mine," said Stephen, not even troubling to remove his pipe from between his teeth.
Joseph smiled with a bravery which prompted Paula to take up the cudgels in his defence. But Stephen only gave a short bark of laughter, and buried himself in his book, and by the time Paula had told him, with modern frankness, what she thought of his manners, Joseph, whose invincible cheerfulness no brutality could long impair, had recovered from his hurt and archly ascribed Stephen's snap to a touch of liver.
Maud, who was laying out a complicated Double Patience, her plump countenance betraying nothing but a mild interest in the disposition of aces and kings, said in her toneless voice that salts before breakfast were good for sluggish livers.
"Oh, my God!" said Stephen, dragging his lanky limbs out of the deep chair. "To think that this house was once tolerable!"
There was no mistaking the implication of this savage remark, but as soon as Stephen had left the room, Joseph assured Paula that she need not worry on his account, since he knew Stephen too well to be hurt by the things he said. "I don't suppose poor old Stephen really grudges us Nat's hospitality," he said, with one of his whimsical smiles.
Joseph and Maud had not always been inmates of Lexham Manor. Joseph had been, in fact, until a couple of years previously, a rolling stone. In reviewing his past, he often referred to square pegs and wanderlust; and, that nothing should be wanting to exasperate Stephen, would recall past triumphs behind the footlights with a sigh, a smile, and a gently-spoken: "Eheu fugaces!"
For Joseph had been on the stage. Articled in youth to a solicitor, he had soon abandoned this occupation (the square peg) for the brighter prospects of coffee-growing (wanderlust) in East Africa. Since those early days he had flitted through every imaginable profession, from freelance prospecting for gold to acting. No one knew why he had left the stage - for since he had belonged to colonial and South American travelling companies it could scarcely be ascribed to the wanderlust that was responsible for his throwing up so many other jobs, for he seemed designed by nature to grace the boards. "The ideal Polonius!" Mathilda Clare once called him.
It was during this phase of his career that he had met and married Maud. Incomprehensible though it might appear to the young Herriards, knowing Maud only in her fifties, she had once held an honourable place in the second row of the chorus. She had grown plump with the years, and it was difficult to trace in her fat little face, with its tiny mouth embedded between deep creases of pink cheek, and its pale blue, slightly starting eyes, the signs of the pretty girl she must once have been. She rarely spoke of her youth, such remarks as she from time to time let fall being inconsequent, and holding little clue to what Paula chose to think mystery of her past.
The young Herriards, and Mathilda Clare, a distant cousin, knew Joseph and Maud only as legendary figures until the sea washed them up on the shores of England two years previously - at Liverpool. They had come from South America, solvent, but without prospects. They had gravitated to Lexham Manor, and there they had remained, not too proud, said Joseph, to be Nathaniel's pensioners.
Nathaniel extended his hospitality to his brother and his sister-in-law with surprising readiness. Perhaps, hazarded Paula, he felt that Lexham needed a mistress. If so, he was disappointed, for Maud showed no inclination to take the reins of household government into her small hands. Maud's idea of human bliss seemed to consist of eating, sleeping, playing interminable games of Patience, and reading, in a desultory fashion, chatty biographies of royal personages or other celebrities.
But if Maud was static, Joseph was full of energy. It was nearly all benevolent, but, unfortunately for Nathaniel, who was not gregarious, he delighted in gathering large parties together, and liked nothing so much as filling the house with young people, and joining in their amusements.
It was Joseph who had been inspired to organise the house-party that was looming over Nathaniel's unwilling head this chill December. Joseph, having lived for so many years abroad, hankered wistfully after a real English Christmas. Nathaniel, regarding him with a contemptuous eye, said that a real English Christmas meant, in his experience, a series of quarrels between inimical persons bound to one another only by the accident of relationship, and thrown together by a wornout convention which decreed that at Christmas families should forgather.
But this acrid pronouncement only made Joseph laugh, clap Nathaniel on the back, and accuse him affectionately of growing into a regular curmudgeon.
It said much for Joseph's powers of persuasion that Nathaniel did, in the end, invite "the young people' to spend Christmas at the Manor. As he had quarrelled with his nephew Stephen only a month previously, and had been resolutely refusing, for rather longer, to give financial backing to a play which his niece Paula wished to appear in, it took some time to talk him into letting bygones be bygones.
"You know, Nat," Joseph said, rather ruefully, "old fogies like you and me can't afford to quarrel with the younger generation. Why, where should we be without them, with all their faults, bless their hearts!"
"I can afford to quarrel with anyone I like," replied Nathaniel, with perfect truth. "I don't say that Stephen and Paula can't come to stay if they want to, but I'm not going to have that young woman of Stephen's poisoning the air with her filthy scent; and I won't be badgered by Paula to back a play by a fellow I've never heard of, and don't want to hear of. All your precious young people are out for is money, and well I know it! When I think of the amount I've squandered on them, one way and another-"
"Well, and why shouldn't you?" said Joseph cheerfully. "Oh, you can't deceive me! You like to make out that you're a skinflint; but I know the joy of giving, and nothing will make me believe you don't know it too!"
"Sometimes, Joe," said Nathaniel, "you make me feel sick!"
Nevertheless, he consented, after a good deal of persuasion, to invite Stephen's "young woman' to Lexham. In the end, quite a number of persons forgathered at the Manor for Christmas, since Paula brought with her the unknown dramatist to whom Nathaniel had taken such violent exception; Mathilda Clare invited herself; and Joseph decided, at the last moment, that it would be unkind to break the custom of years by excluding Nathaniel's business-partner, Edgar Mottisfont, from the party.
Joseph spent the days immediately preceding Christmas in decorating the house. He bought paperchains, and festooned them across the ceilings; he pricked himself grievously in countless attempts to fix sprigs of holly over all the pictures; and he hung up bunches of mistletoe at all strategic points. He was engaged on this work when Mathilda Clare arrived. As she entered the house, he was erecting an infirm stepladder in the middle of the hall, preparatory to securing a bunch of mistletoe to the chandelier.
"Tilda, my dear!" he exclaimed, letting the step-ladder fall with a crash, and hurrying to meet this first arrival. "Well, well, well, well!"
"Hallo, Joe!" returned Miss Clare. "Yule-tide-and-allthat?"
Joseph beamed, and said: "Ah, I catch you at a disadvantage! See!" He held up the mistletoe over her head, and embraced her.
"Cave-man," said Mathilda, submitting.
Joseph laughed delightedly, and, slipping a hand in her arm, led her into the library, where Nathaniel was reading the paper. "Look what the fairies have brought us, Nat!" he said.
Nathaniel looked up over his spectacles, and said in somewhat discouraging accents: "Oh, it's you, is it? How are you? Glad to see you."
"Well, that's something, anyway," said Mathilda, shaking hands with him. "Thanks for letting me come, by the way."
"I suppose you want something," said Nathaniel, but with a twinkle.
"Not a thing," replied Mathilda, lighting a cigarette. "Only Sarah's sister has broken her leg, and Mrs. Jones can't oblige."
As Sarah was the devoted retainer who constituted Miss Clare's domestic staff, the reason for her visit to the Manor was felt to have been satisfactorily explained. Nathaniel grunted, and said that he might have known it. Joseph squeezed Mathilda's arm, and told her not to pay any attention to Nat. "We're going to have a real Christmas jollification!" he said.
"The deuce we are!" said Mathilda. "All right, Joe: I'll co-operate. The perfect guest: that's me. Where's Cousin Maud?"
Maud was discovered presently in the morning-room. She seemed vaguely glad to see Mathilda, and gave her a cheek to kiss, remarking somewhat disconcertingly: "Poor Joseph is so set on an old-fashioned Christmas!"
"All right, I've no objection to helping him," said Mathilda. "Shall I make paper-chains, or something? Who's coming?"
"Stephen and Paula, and Stephen's fiancee, and of course Mr. Mottisfont."
"It sounds like a riot of fun. Stephen would make any party go with a swing."
"Nathaniel does not care for Stephen's fiancee," Maud stated.
"You don't say!" remarked Miss Clare vulgarly.
"She is very pretty," said Maud.
Mathilda grinned. "So she is," she admitted.