Read an Excerpt
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.