Welcome back to our ongoing Selwick Serial (doesn’t that sound like it should be an old-time radio program, with people clopping things together in the background for sound effects?).
Without further ado, Chapter Two….
Now bring us some figgy pudding,
Now bring us some figgy pudding,
Now bring us some figgy pudding,
And bring it right here.
— “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”
Amy pasted a smile onto her face and took inventory of her—well, not rival. She couldn’t call the other woman a rival when they weren’t in competition. They had better not be in competition. Her predecessor, then, even though there was nothing deceased about her.
Lady Jerard—Deirdre, as Richard had called her—was everything Amy had imagined and dreaded. Hair like silk floss, lips of rose, teeth of pearl, blah, blah, and so on. She could see how Richard had once composed reams of poetry to this woman; the material practically wrote itself. The violet of half-mourning perfectly set off Lady Jerard’s roses and cream complexion. Amy felt suddenly very conscious of the whopping case of wind burn she had acquired earlier that afternoon on a last minute mistletoe expedition, Lady Uppington having deemed the quantity already acquired woefully insufficient.
Amy’s cheeks pinkened with more than windburn at the memory of the use to which that mistletoe had already been put. The thought cheered her up immensely, and she slid her gloved hand into her husband’s.
Squeezing her hand, Richard smiled down at her, his own peculiar, familiar smile, the one that he kept just for her. Amy felt the fog that had begun to descend on her lift. The candles sparkled like stars off the long, Venetian mirrors set into the walls, and, in the background, the choir was singing again, like angels calling from the mountaintops. Everything was cinnamon-scented and perfect and just as it ought to be.
Until a shrill voice intruded. “So you’re the wife, are you?” said Mrs. Ramsby.
Amy could see Miss Gwen stiffen with offense at Mrs. Ramsby’s tone. It wasn’t that Miss Gwen minded on Amy’s behalf; she just disliked rudeness in others. It took the edge off her own.
Amy smiled cheerfully at the faded beauty, baring as many teeth as possible. “As far as I know.” She batted her eyelashes at Richard. “You do have only the one, haven’t you, darling?”
“Minx,” said Richard fondly, but there was a warning note to it.
“Tetchy creatures, minks,” contributed Uncle Bertrand. “Now what you want is good English wool. None of that slippery foreign fur.”
Mrs. Ramsby looked like she had bitten into a bad piece of toffee. “And this is your uncle,” she enunciated. Without waiting for a response, she looked to Richard, “However did you contrive to, er, meet her?”
Amy clasped her hands together and looked soulful. “It was a dark and stormy night,” she began.
She could hear Jane stifle a chuckle behind her.
It was true, as far as it went. It had been a dark and stormy night on a packet bound from Dover to Calais. Sometimes, truth could be stranger than fiction.
“We met while my wife was visiting her brother,” said Richard repressively. That was true enough, too, but much less entertaining. It left out all the colorful bits.
Lady Jerard was as sweet as her mother was sour, but she put Amy’s teeth on edge just as badly. “Does your brother live near here?” she inquired innocently. “Might I know him?”
“I don’t think you would want to,” said Amy. “He’s a great disappointment as a sibling. Aside from being the means of my meeting Richard, of course.”
She flung in an extra simper, just for good measure.
Richard sent her a quelling look. “Shall I fetch you something to eat?” he said, just a little too jovially.
“Reputation, lightly sautéed?” Amy muttered under her breath.
Her husband looked down at her with a wry expression, “Stewed, more likely. Or boiled. We are in England, after all.”
She didn’t need to be reminded of that. But for her, he wouldn’t be. “I know,” said Amy miserably. “I know.”
Two long lines dented Richard’s forehead as he looked down at her. So much for holiday cheer. “Amy—” he began.
But before he could get any farther, his mother swooped down on them, folding them both in a mince pie scented embrace.
Mince pie wasn’t Lady Uppington’s usual scent, but one of her grandchildren had already contrived to mash one against her green velvet bodice. As Lady Uppington said, it was all part of the joy of the season, and she had carried blithely on, mince pie, grandchild, and all. She seemed to have deposited Peregrine somewhere, but she was still wearing the mince pie.
Releasing her offspring, Lady Uppington beamed holiday cheer all around. “I do hope you’re all enjoying yourselves.”
From the determined look in her eye, it was quite clear that everyone was going to have a happy Christmas whether they liked it or not.
“Oh, very much so, Lady Uppington,” piped up that puling pudding face of a Lady Jerard.
Hmm, Amy liked the alliteration of that. She rolled it a few times in her mind. Yes, even better with repetition.
Lady Uppington wafted her fan vaguely in the direction of her son’s lost love. “Yes, yes,” she said dismissively, “very good,” before turning to radiate an extra measure of warmth in Amy’s direction. “And how are you, my dear?” She smiled a butter-wouldn’t-melt smile at Mrs. Ramsby and Lady Jerard. “They’re only just married, you know. And so very, very happy.”
Amy quickly straightened up and did her best to look very, very happy. She began to understand why Lady Uppington had invited Richard’s lost love. From the expression on Richard’s face as he looked down at the top of his mother’s golden head, so did he.
One of his mother’s green ostrich feathers poked him in the nose, and he sneezed.
“Bless you!” trilled Lady Uppington cheerfully, getting in an extra glare at Mrs. Ramsby for good measure. “You can’t be getting sick now! Not when you’re just married!”
Hell hath no fury like a mother whose son has been scorned, even when the scorning was a very long time ago.
Richard himself was remarkably silent. Amy glanced up at him, but he was smiled blandly at no one in particular, looking maddeningly urbane and diplomatic.
Uncle Bertrand dealt Lord Uppington a staggering whack on the shoulder. “Your sheep are looking much improved since the last time I visited them, Uppington. Much improved!”
With the consummate tact for which he was famed in diplomatic circles, Lord Uppington discreetly dodged a second whap, leaving Uncle Bertrand’s hand to land harmlessly against the wall. “It must be that mash you recommended for them,” he said kindly.
“Most like, most like,” agreed Uncle Bertrand. “I sampled it meself. What’s good enough for my little ones is good enough for me, I always say. Excellent stuff, that mash.”
“I’m afraid we haven’t any for supper tonight,” Lady Uppington chimed in, the bobbing feathers on her headdress doing little to conceal the glint of mischief in her amused green eyes. “But it can be arranged if you so desire.”
“Nah, nah,” demurred Uncle Bertrand, visibly softened by his hostess’ solicitude. “I shouldn’t like to be a bother.”
“Dear Mr. Wooliston,” said Lady Uppington with the charm that had brought princes to their knees and made even that hardened ovine enthusiast blush, “you could never be a bother. We shall always be entirely in your debt for the pleasure your niece’s presence in our family has afforded us.”
“Niece…” It took Uncle Bertrand a moment to recall himself from his flocks. Lady Uppington put him in mind of an ewe he had once known. A charming one, she had been, with a jaunty curl to her fleece and a certain something to her eye.
Lady Uppington discreetly signaled with her fan.
Uncle Bertrand’s eye cleared. “Oh, you mean our Amy! More of a daughter than a niece to me, she is,” he said heartily, a sentiment that won him a warm smile of approval from Lady Uppington.
Amy could have told Lady Uppington that Uncle Bertrand meant exactly what he said. He couldn’t remember his own daughters’ names either. It was a matter of pure luck that he had managed to give the correct daughter away at her cousin Sophia’s wedding.
“How very sweet,” interjected Mrs. Ramsby, in a voice like a nutcracker snapping down on a particularly tough shell. “Such rustic simplicity. Like something out of a comedy by Mr. Shakespeare. You have been to the theatre, haven’t you, dear?”
Really! Just because she had been raised in Shropshire didn’t mean she was a complete rustic. Somehow, it no longer seemed quite so amusing that Mrs. Ramsby appeared to have decided that she was a glorified sort of shepherdess, rescued by Richard from rural obscurity. Amy spared a moment to hope that Uncle Bertrand had left his sheep outside.
Was there some way to work into the conversation that her father could trace his lineage back to Charlemagne, or might that be considered tacky?
“I’ve been to the theatre both here and abroad,” she said loftily. Ha! Let them compete with that. “My brother has a box in the Comedie Francais.”
“Yes, but what does he keep in it?” said Lady Jerard in her soft voice, with a little smile to show that she was fooling.
“His own counsel,” flashed back Amy. It didn’t make much sense, but it was the first thing that came to mind. But, then, thought Amy mutinously, it was really Lady Jerard’s fault for punning on boxes in the first place. So there. With knobs on.
“Can one really keep counsel in a box?” Richard’s former best friend and current brother-in-law, Miles Dorrington, strolled over to join them. He kept well on the other side of the grouping from Richard, though. Matters between them had been strained since Miles had married Henrietta, in a manner that could at best be termed precipitate. “Deuced convenient, that. One could take it out when needed and bottle it away again when it became annoying.”
Henrietta snatched a chunk of gingerbread out of her husband’s fingers. “Like Pandora’s box, only without all the nasty bits,” she agreed. Taking a bite, she made a face and handed it back. “Too much orange peel.”
“But if it didn’t have any of the nasty bits,” Miles said, absently cramming the rest of the gingerbread into his mouth, “it wouldn’t be Pandora’s box. It would be a different box.”
“Why ever not?” countered Henrietta, cunningly waiting until Miles’ mouth was full. “No one ever said Pandora couldn’t reuse the box for other things once she had emptied it. It makes perfect sense to me.”
It didn’t to Miles, but his mouth was gummed together with gingerbread. “Mrrrr-mrrr-mrrr-mrr,” he complained.
“Who,” demanded Mrs. Ramsby, “is Pandora?”
“I should think one might call her a first cousin of Eve,” said Lord Uppington mildly. “Excessively curious ladies, both.”
Lady Uppington wrinkled her nose at him. “Come, come, Edward, don’t tell me you wouldn’t have eaten that apple.”
“Only if you had offered it to me, my dear,” replied Lord Uppington.
A loud groan emerged from Henrietta.
“They’re flirting again,” said Henrietta, in tragic tones.
She looked to her brother for support—it was his turn to express his horror—but Richard was a thousand miles away. Or maybe not miles, thought Amy, with a sinking feeling, but years away, back in the days when he was dashing around France with the sentimental memory of the fine eyes of one Miss Deirdre Ramsby to lend him inspiration.
That same former Miss Ramsby blinked her wide blue eyes at Amy. In a voice of innocent confusion, Lady Jerard asked, “How does your brother come to have a box at the Comedie Francaise?” She spoke the French words with decided discomfort. “Isn’t the Comedie Francaise in France?”
No, it’s in Hertfordshire. “Yes,” Amy replied, so demurely that Jane sent a sharp glance in her direction. “My brother resides in France. It would make little sense for him to have a box at a theatre in any other place.”
Mrs. Ramsby looked at her sharply. “Whatever does he do there?”
“Go to the theatre, one assumes,” provided Miles blithely. “Ouch!”
“That,” said Miss Gwen gravely, “was for being impertinent.”
“I thought it was very pertinent,” muttered Miles, but he made sure to stay well out of range of Miss Gwen’s fan as he said it. “I say, Hen, do you have any more gingerbread?”
Mrs. Ramsby was still attempting to conquer her natural revulsion at the notion of the foreign capital. The French were worse than sheep. Sheep…. French brothers…. Wherever had Lord Richard found that woman?
“Did you spend a great deal of time among the French, then, Lady Richard?” The title seemed to come hard to the older woman’s tongue.
Well, let it, thought Amy belligerently. Her daughter had had the opportunity to own it and had turned it down to marry her elderly baron, trading a mere courtesy title for a peerage as though the exchange of one man for another were nothing more than a move on a chess board, so many points to be won. Amy had never valued the worth of a man at his place in the peerage. She had seen for herself that it brought danger as well as privilege. Richard’s worth lay in himself.
Most of the time.
Amy snaked a glance at her oblivious husband. What was he thinking leaving her to the wolves like this? Not that she needed rescuing, of course. She could very well rescue herself. But, still. Did he not want to take up cudgels against his former love? It was very hard to fight against the phantom of What Might Have Been.
“I was born in Paris,” Amy replied. “And spent my early youth there. My father was French. I am half-French.”
From the expression on Mrs. Ramsby’s face, she clearly felt that that explained a great deal.
“You must find France sadly changed,” ventured Lady Jerard, in the tone of one determined to smooth oil over troubled waters, whether the waters wished to be oiled or not.
Why did the vile Deirdre have to be so… pleasant? It was very irritating. Amy took it as a personal offense.
“Change,” broke in Miss Gwen, in her precise, clipped accents, “is distinctly overrated. It is so seldom managed properly.”
“Change?” bellowed Uncle Bertrand. “What’s this about change? I don’t hold with it! In my day, we thought it sufficient to change our linen three times a year, and that was change enough for us.”
Across the room, Amy’s cousin Agnes, who had been glowing with the thrill of her first grown-up party, looked about ready to sink beneath the settee. Amy knew how she felt.
“But, Bertrand, dear,” piped up Aunt Prudence, in her vague, gentle voice, blinking her nearsighted eyes at him, “we’ve talked about that.”
Uncle Bertrand deflated, his chin sinking into the folds of his cravat. While much wrinkled, it had clearly been washed within the fortnight.
“Yes, I know,” he mumbled, before rousing himself sufficiently to add, with a hint of belligerence, “Not that I see aught wrong with a peck or two of good English dirt! If it’s good enough for England, it’s good enough for me!”
Lady Uppington’s lips twitched. “There’s something to be said for good English water, too,” she said tactfully.
“Aye, in its place,” agreed Uncle Bertrand, determined to make himself agreeable to his hostess.
“Streams?” suggested Miles. “Rivers? Duck ponds? Eeep!”
His wife smiled sweetly at him. “You’ve been in that duck pond before. Don’t make me put you there again.”
Miles folded his arms across his chest. “I’ll have you know that I’m quite fond of ducks.”
“Yes, on a plate,” retorted his wife. “When they can’t peck back.”
Amy was used to their banter by now. Ignoring them, she looked to her own husband, who was rubbing his head as though he had the headache.
“Are you unwell?” Amy whispered.
Richard shook his head, like a swimmer breaking through the water. “I just need a breath of air. You’ll be all right?”
“Of course,” said Amy.
Ignoring the swirl of conversation around her, she watched as her husband gracefully extricated himself the grouping. Fending off his mother’s concerns about his health, he slipped out of the room, moving with all the speed of a man trying to outpace his own private pack of demons.
Amy just wished it didn’t feel quite so much as though he were running away from her.