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"Is it a cup of tea you will be having to drink?"
Betty the Cakes must have put the kettle on the stove as soon as she heard the gate squeak; Betty had ears like a hare. Madoc Rhys, who'd known Uncle Caradoc's cook all his life, gave her a bear hug and a smack on the cheek.
"It is the baby we will be needing to change, Betty fach, and the bags to take upstairs."
"Ach; Danny the Boots will carry the bags, and we will change the wee one here by the warmth of the fire, God bless it and the devil miss it. Let me give you a clean towel on the table for her to lie on, Mrs. Madoc. She has your sweet mouth, but her taddi's dark eyes. And it is Dorothy you named her?"
"After my mother." Janet Wadman Rhys didn't at all mind hearing her baby's name pronounced Torothy, here where Madoc was Matoc. "I'll bet my husband's had his nappies changed on this very spot."
"Indeed he has, and many the time," Betty answered, "I have changed him myself, when his fine English nanny would let me. Sit down, lad, and keep out of the way. This is women's work."
"Not at our house." Janet was dealing capably with her firstborn. "I don't hold with these disposable diapers as a rule, but they're handy for traveling."
"She is young to have come so far."
"Eight months on the day before yesterday," said Madoc. "We could hardly expect Uncle Caradoc to postpone his ninetieth birthday till Dorothy grew up. Anyway, she was good as gold all the way."
Flying first class had been hideously expensive, but worth the difference. It had been a long journey from New Brunswick, Canada, to a place in Wales that barely rated a dot on the map. Once off the plane and through the nightmare of Customs, there'd been a train. Then Madoc's elder brother, Dafydd, had met them in an elderly but sumptuous borrowed Daimler with a bar in the back and a blonde of Wagnerian proportions in the front.
Going off with blondes seemed to be a hobby of Dafydd's, though he could manage with a brunette or a redhead and, according to international rumor, often did.
He'd be around for the birthday but would have to sleep down the road at the house of a distant cousin named Lisa Ellis. Ancestral piles didn't come all that big in Wales as a rule. Sir Caradoc hadn't enough rooms for everybody who'd asked to come, and Dafydd was merely a world-famous opera star.
Madoc was a policeman, a detective inspector in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. This was a rank seldom attained by anybody at all, let alone a soft-spoken wisp of a chap still in his thirties; but Madoc had been training for it all his life. In Canada, he was something of a legend. Over here, he'd been merely an amiable younger son who'd sought no special attention and got no more than his relatively meager due.
But last time around, he'd boosted his stock by showing up with a blushing and beautiful bride. Now, with the addition of a lawfully begotten baby daughter, he was getting the full red-carpet treatment. Quite literally, in fact; he and Janet were to have the red room, right next to Uncle Caradoc himself. Danny the Boots had already carried down the ancestral cradle from the box-room for Dorothy to sleep in and kindled a fire to warm her infant toes, Welsh weather being what it was even on the next-to-last day of April.
But first there was to be tea. Already an infinitude of cups had been set out at the far end of the table. The loaf and the knife were on the breadboard, the butter in a lordly dish, softening up to be spreadable. The Welsh cakes, fresh-baked and smelling wonderfully of currants, were heaped upon the big pewter salver from which they'd been served since time immemorial; the milk was in the pitcher and the sugar in the bowl. Janet had barely managed to get Dorothy comfortable and Betty to fill the pot when some atavistic tribal instinct alerted Rhyses one and all that it was time for tea.
People who live in great houses, and even in houses not so great, are supposed to have their tea served to them in drawing rooms or libraries by butlers, footmen, parlormaids, or some tasteful combination thereof. At Sir Caradoc's, everybody piled into the kitchen and helped himself. Madoc's sister, Gwendolyn, led the pack.
"You're here! Why didn't that idiot Dafydd let you off at the front door so we'd see you coming? Aunt Elen and Uncle Huw can't come to dinner, but you're to pop up to the farmhouse tomorrow morning without fail. They're itching to see the baby. Is this my angel niece? Come and give Auntie a great big kiss."
"Watch out for your embouchure," Madoc cautioned. "She's got a tooth."
"Ah, she wouldn't bite her Auntie Gwen. Would you, precious? Look, Jenny, she's smiling at me. Does she remember me, do you think?"
Gwen, a clarinetist with the Albert Hall Symphony, had been in Canada on tour three months previously and managed to sandwich in an overnight visit to Fredericton. Janet smiled and lied.
"Of course she does, why wouldn't she? When did you get here, Gwen, and how long are you staying?"
"I've a whole fortnight, isn't it lovely? How about you?
"Madoc doesn't have to be back till the twelfth, so that gives us lots of time to visit. You're looking marvelous, as always."
"So are you."
Marriage and motherhood had done well by Janet. Orphaned at twelve, she'd been living on the family farm in New Brunswick with her married older brother and his family when Madoc had first met her, thin, pale, and badly scared. While trying to recover from a ruptured appendix, she'd come upon two murder victims and been justifiably concerned as to whether she herself might become a third. He'd thought her lovely even then; now she was beautiful. There was a serenity in her face, a steadiness in her hazel eyes, a dignity to her carriage, a note of quiet amusement in her gentle voice that fooled some people into thinking she was a pushover, but not for long. Janet could pack more clout into a quiet word or a quelling glance than even Madoc's father, a choral conductor who seldom spoke above a pianissimo and could cow a whole mixed chorus and orchestra with one lift of an eyebrow.
Sir Emlyn was in the kitchen now, kissing his daughter-in-law, smiling at the son whom he loved in spite of the fact that Madoc couldn't carry a tune in a basket, and demanding quite aggressively, for him, that Dorothy come to Grandda. The young lady was pleased to oblige; she enchanted her grandpa with a cascade of fairly melodious gurgles, then flung herself cheerfully into the eager arms of Madoc's mother.
Lady Rhys took full credit for Dorothy's existence. It was she, after all, who'd proposed on her son's behalf after she'd eaten three of the then Miss Wadman's homemade lemon cheese tarts. She didn't mind a bit that the baby hadn't been named for her. Silvestrine was not a name to be wished on any innocent child and her parents might have known she'd wind up being called Sillie, a nickname wholly out of keeping with her husband's position. Position was important in a Welsh village; Janet had been relieved to learn on her previous visit that, as Mrs. Rhys the Mountie, daughter-in-law to a knight whose uncle was a baronet, she rated right up there with Mrs. Doctor Jones.
Surnames in Wales are shared by many members of its relatively few families, so everybody gets a nickname. Dafydd was the Song. Tom Feste, who owned the Daimler (and, for all Janet knew, the blonde) and had something to do with the cinema, was Tom the Flicks. Tom's stepsister, the widow with whom he and Dafydd were staying, was Lisa the Tortoise, not from any slowness of locomotion or thickness of carapace, but because she wrote and illustrated a highly successful series of children's books about a very with-it tortoise named Tessie. An old man called Padarn the Dogs trained the collies and corgis that either assisted Sir Caradoc's several shepherds or were assisted by them, depending on whether you regarded the matter from the shepherds' or the dogs' point of view.
All of them sang, as the Welsh always do; some tunefully, some just loudly. A fair number wrote poetry; the rest recited it, dissected it, and argued about it with a fervor that in Canada would have been reserved for hockey or the government. Right now the poets and singers were clumping in from the fields and the barns, having first kicked their boots clean of mud and manure on the stone steps outside because Betty ran a tight ship. The stately Silvestrine was cutting them slices off the big loaf; Gwen, all sparkles, was pouring milk in the cups for their tea. Janet sat like a queen with Dorothy on her lap, accepting their homage while Betty refilled the big brown pot yet another time. It was lovely, just lovely, to be here.
Sir Caradoc was late in arriving; he'd been extending welcome to the three blind mice: small, scurrying figures clad in fuzzy grays and browns. All had sharp pink noses and splayed-out pink hands; all wore the sort of eyeglasses that turn dark in the light and light in the dark. One was, or appeared to be, female; Janet deduced that the other were her husband and her son. Janet was wrong; the fat mouse with the silly little fanned-out chin whiskers was her brother, and the twitchy young one her nephew.
They were, of course, Rhyses, in some remote degree that would no doubt be discussed at length over the table. It was no longer the custom for Welshmen to gather on hillsides of a Sunday afternoon and recite their genealogies all the way back to Adam and Eve or in some cases, it was suspected, to the serpent. Nevertheless, families still liked to keep their relationships sorted out.
The she-mouse was Mary, not Mary the Anything, just Mary. The brother was Bob and the nephew was Dai. Bob the Blob and Dai the Eye. Janet didn't care much for the way that young pipsqueak was staring at her, though it might just be the lamplight reflecting on those oversized glasses.
Sir Caradoc was turning the lot of them over to Silvestrine, who could always be counted on to do the done thing, so that he himself could get on with the more important matter of making gentle clucking noises at Dorothy and beaming in ecstasy when she accepted his outheld finger and showed him her tooth.
"Ah, you are a beauty! Will you let me hold you while Mam drinks her tea? It is a long time since I danced a pretty young girl on my knee. Will she cry if I take her, Jenny?"
"Oh no, she'll love it. Here, sit down and I'll hand her to you."
Sir Caradoc was tall as the Rhyses went, fairish and quiet-spoken like the men of the North. He carried his four-score years and ten minus two days without much stooping, and moved easily enough though Betty had never managed to pad his big bones with enough fat to grease a griddle. Few now alive could recall what color Caradoc Rhys's hair had been before it turned to bright silver; he still had a magnificent headful. As he bent to kiss the wee one in her red sacque, she managed to grab a fistful and give it a tug. For that moment, it would have been hard to say which was the younger. Janet, now snugged into the curve of Madoc's arm, felt his clasp tighten and her eyes begin to smart. How right they'd been to bring the baby; she didn't begrudge that stupendous air fare one penny.
Dorothy had slept on the train, and Janet had fed her in the car, but she was, after all, only eight months and a bit. Nobody was surprised when she showed signs of working up to a fuss.
"Come on, baby, I think it's time for your nap." Janet was beginning to feel she could use a short lie-down herself. "We haven't even been up to our room yet. Thanks for the tea, Betty. We'll see you in a while. Coming, Madoc?"
As she and Madoc climbed the stairs—the front ones, of course, in view of their guest-of-honor status—somebody else was just arriving.
Too bad Dafydd had gone off with the blonde, Janet thought as she peeked down over the banisters. The woman directly underneath had a head of hair like a heap of new copper pennies; if the rest of her was up to the hair, she must be a knockout.
The redhead had a man in tow, naturally. At least her companion was wearing a Burberry and one of those floppy tweed caps Welshmen seemed to favor, though a person might think he'd have taken it off once he was inside somebody else's house. Ah well, one shouldn't pass judgment. Maybe the man had both hands full of his lady's suitcases. Janet only hoped her and Madoc's own luggage was where it ought to be. They had been in their traveling clothes too darned long for comfort, or even for respectability.
Danny the Boots had done them proud. The red room was, if not yet toasty, at least adequately warmed against the chilly drizzle that so often betokened sweet springtime in Wales. The cradle, already made up with the whitest and tiniest of linen sheets and pillow slips and the fleeciest of lambswool baby blankets, was near but not too near the welcoming fireplace. Dorothy, divested of her outer layers, made not a whimper as she nestled down into this wonderful cocoon and shut the eyes that were so like her dad's.
Now to unpack. No, that wouldn't be necessary. Some of their garments were already shaken out and hung inside the oaken wardrobe that had never yet felt the woodworm's tooth, thanks, to a protective spell laid on it a few centuries ago by a visiting Archdruid. Others were folded neatly into the drawers of a pleasant mahogany chiffonnier bought at an estate sale in 1930 by Great-uncle Caradoc's late mother, who'd always known a good thing when she saw it. Janet could have cried for joy.
"God bless Danny the Boots."
"Not Danny," said Madoc. "He's strict Chapel—he'd think it a black sin to be handling another man's wife's underwear." Madoc himself was kicking off his shoes and slinging his trousers over the foot of the bed. "Either Uncle Caradoc's hired a new housemaid or else the fairies have been around. We must remember to leave a saucer of milk on the hearth tonight. Come here, darling."
Two hearts may beat as one when love is true, but jet lag conquers even the most devoted. It was Dorothy who woke them; she wanted her supper, and she wanted it now. That was no problem; Janet didn't even have on a blouse to unbutton.
"Enjoy it while you can, precious. One more tooth and this milk bar's going to shut down."
Dorothy burped and went on nursing.
"What are we going to do with her at dinnertime, Madoc? You'll want to be with the family. Maybe I'd better just have my supper here on a tray, if there's anybody to bring it."
"Not to worry, love. Betty will have set something up. I'm going to have a quick bath and get dressed, then I'll go see."
"Don't take all the hot water. I want one too."
"There'll be plenty."
The Romans had introduced the concept of indoor plumbing to Wales sometime after A.D. 50. There might be places here as in Canada where it still hadn't quite caught on, but in Sir Caradoc's house, at least in the less ancient parts, the amenities were not lacking. Madoc was shaving and Janet, wearing a tricot robe bought for the trip because it would pack well and wishing she'd brought her old blue fleece instead, was getting her child into fresh sleepers when Lady Rhys knocked at their door. Cowering behind her was a rosy-cheeked lass of about sixteen.
"This is Megan. She's going to sit with Dorothy while you go down to dinner."
"Oh good, we were wondering how to manage. Are you used to babies, Megan?"
"She's Betty's great-niece and the eldest of six, she's been to nanny college, and she doesn't have anything contagious," Lady Rhys amplified. "Isn't that so, Megan?"
After all, they'd be right downstairs. Janet needn't fuss. "Then why don't you come back in about twenty minutes, Megan, after I've had a chance to get dressed? Was it you who unpacked for us so nicely, by the way?"
"That's two things we have to thank you for, then. What time does Uncle Caradoc want us downstairs, Mother?"
Not having a mother of her own, Janet had fallen easily into the familial form of address. "Lady Rhys" would have been too formal toward someone she had every reason to love, "Silvestrine" was too much of a mouthful, and she could never have brought herself to say "Sillie," even if Sir Emlyn did.
"Dinner's at eight, but come as soon as you're ready. There'll be drinks in the hall, and people will be wanting to chat."
People would already be chatting, Janet was sure. Awkward silences were never a problem at Sir Caradoc's. Janet had got by last time mostly on nods and smiles and had therefore been a smash hit from the first; she had no qualms about meeting a fresh batch of relatives, even that one with the hair. Madoc was out of the bathroom now; she gave him a smile and a nod for practice and went to take her bath.
Excerpted from The Wrong Rite by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1992 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 31, 2012
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