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Head of the House
By Grace Livingston Hill
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Grace Livingston Hill
All rights reserved.
The house was wide and low and charming, built of rough gray stone with ivy climbing around the terrace walls, creeping up the rambling solid chimneys and around the stone bay windows. It had a homelike look, as if it were a place beloved where happy living went on and joy echoed from its solid walls, a place where every spot was enjoyed to the fullest, a place where friends and neighbors loved to come.
But that morning it seemed to be standing aghast in the early summer sunshine, its bright frill of daffodils that edged the terrace walls gazing with fixed yellow stare at a world that overnight had changed. The whole house seemed stunned with the sudden catastrophe that had befallen, like a beloved dog wagging his lonely plumy tail, wistfully, aggrievedly, to an unresponsive relative.
Two cars were parked on the wide drive near the front entrance, and a third drove hastily up as if it feared it was late. A lady in the backseat leaned forward, looking up at the house speculatively, with an almost possessive glance, critically taking in all its features. She stepped out of the limousine as her chauffeur opened the door for her, and she hastened up the broad low steps, noting a flower that hung down from its stalk over the walk, reminding herself to speak to the gardener about picking the flowers and sending them over to her house.
She was a large lady, imposing in her bearing, sharp of glance, firm of chin, and thin of lip, a great aunt on the mother's side who had always considered it her business to set the whole family right and keep them so. Her name was Petra Holbrook, Aunt Pet for short, disrespectfully called by the children sometimes "Aunt Petunia."
At the threshold, she paused with her hand on the doorknob and identified the two cars that were parked at the right of the drive, side by side as if a procession were expected and they were the first. She sniffed as she recognized them. The first would be Adrian Graeme's car. Of course he would come first and try to act as though he was the most important member of the family, just because his name was Graeme and he was the oldest relative on the Graeme side. But he surely didn't expect to have anything to say about matters. He was only a second cousin and had never been generous. But then, of course, the notice had been sent to them all. That was certainly a shabby car he was driving. His second-best likely. It didn't seem very respectful to come to such an important engagement in a car like that, but then his flighty wife, Lutie, likely had the other off somewhere shopping. Wasn't she coming? Probably she was going to try to get out of any responsibility. Perhaps she would be late and come fluttering in after everything was all arranged. Lutie Graeme! Such a silly name for a grown woman. Well, she for one intended to see that Cousin Lutie had a task set for her that would make her wish she had come earlier.
And the next car was Jim Delaney's. Jim had been a half brother of John Graeme and would likely think he had a say. And, of course, he was pretty well fixed and ought to be able to shoulder some of the responsibility. But he needn't think he was going to choose what it should be. After all, he was only a half, and a man at that. And a man wouldn't know rightly what was good for children suddenly left without father or mother. Jim's wife was dead so she would not be there to complicate matters.
She swept the driveway with another glance that glimpsed the side toward the garage. Apparently the lawyer hadn't come yet. Well, that was just as well. She would have a good opportunity to talk things out with Adrian Graeme and Jim Delaney before he arrived.
Aunt Petra turned the knob and tried to open the door. It was her habit to open her relatives' doors and walk right in as if she owned them herself, when she could. But in this case the door was locked.
"Utterly absurd!" she murmured, annoyed, as she petulantly rang the bell.
A man servant appeared and opened the door for her with respectful formality, as Miriam Graeme had taught him to do.
"The gentlemen are in the living room, Mrs. Holbrook," the man said.
Aunt Petra made no comment but turned on him with orders.
"Stanton, why don't you unlock that door?" she said dictatorially. "It's absurd to keep running back and forth to open the door when you know there are a number of people coming!"
"I'm going according to my orders, ma'am," said Stanton.
She reached out and snapped the latch back herself. "Now," she said with authority, "you needn't come when the bell rings. Let them walk right in!"
Then she turned and sailed into the great beautiful living room.
Stanton stood at one side waiting until she had paused an instant to take in the situation and turned to the right toward the far end where the two men were sitting. Then he reached a swift hand and snapped the latch back once more, disappearing silently into the recesses of the back hall, alert and prepared for the next ring of the bell. His mistress, who had laid this responsibility upon him, was lying in a newly made grave, but as long as he was in this position he would continue to do as she had taught him.
Aunt Petra made her leisurely way down the room, noting with appraising eye several articles in the room that she had long admired, a priceless painting on the wall that might well adorn her own wall now, if she should feel it wise to take over one of the children and look after her. Jennifer, perhaps, because she would soon marry and be off her hands. A tall lamp with a unique arrangement of indirect lights. A lovely plant stand she had long coveted. And those marvelous rugs! But there wasn't a room in her house that was large enough for them, and they would likely have to be sold, anyway. What a pity!
The two men had risen as she drew near, though they still continued their talk until she was opposite them. Then they turned.
"Good morning, Mrs. Holbrook," said Jim Delaney. "Won't you have this chair?"
"Thank you, I prefer a straighter one," said Aunt Petra obstinately. "Good morning, Adrian. I'm surprised you're able to be out. I heard Lutie telling someone yesterday at the funeral that you were feeling quite miserable and really ought to be in bed. I didn't expect to see you this morning!"
"Hmm? Ah! Why, I'm feeling quite well, Mrs. Holbrook, thank you. It is a sad occasion, of course, but I'm in my usual health. Perhaps you'd like this chair."
"No," said Aunt Petra sharply, "I'll take this straight chair. Hasn't the lawyer come yet? I thought he was always ahead of time." She glanced at her watch severely as if it were somehow to blame.
"Hmm, no, not yet," murmured Adrian. "It's just as well, as we aren't all here, anyway."
"Oh, who else is coming?"
"I really couldn't say," said Adrian. "All of them, I suppose. Ah, I think I hear footsteps. Someone else has arrived."
Stanton had arranged the bell with a muffler so that it sounded with a subdued bur-r-r back in the hall, and he was at the door before Aunt Petra could even know anyone had come. They all looked up, however, as a shadow crossed the sunlight from the front windows and portly Majesta Best walked in, followed, a pace or two behind, by her thin apologetic husband, Uncle Pemberton Best. Majesta Best was a younger sister of Petra Holbrook and her rival in every way.
"Oh," said Petra, somewhat haughtily, "Pemberton, Majesta, I didn't suppose you'd be able to get away this morning; you took home so many cousins from back in the country after the funeral yesterday. Have they gone so soon? I was hoping some of them could come to dinner."
"Oh no," said Majesta, sinking comfortably into an ample armchair, "they're staying over the weekend. You'll have plenty of time to invite them, Petra. But I know my duty, and I told them frankly I'd have to be over here and do what I could to look after my dear dead niece's children."
"You needn't have felt that way, Majesta," said Petra. "There are plenty of us here to plan for the children, and we would all have understood that you were taking care of the cousins. But we're all here now, aren't we? I mean, of course, the more active ones. The uncles are all here, at least, aren't they, Adrian?"
Adrian looked around him. "Why, no, I believe Blakefield hasn't come yet."
"Blakefield!" chorused the aunts. And then Petra: "But what does he matter? Of course, he wouldn't have a voice in saying what should be done with the children!"
"You must remember, Petra," said Adrian, "that Blakefield is an uncle of John Graeme, and one might almost say a favorite uncle," he added in a half-offended tone. "Of course, I never have felt that Blakefield was practical. Still, we have to give him the courtesy of an invitation. John always did think a great deal of his uncle Blakefield. Perhaps because he was John's father's twin brother."
"Yes," sighed Aunt Petra, "of course, John always was quite sentimental about everything, and his father dying so young and all, I suppose he felt that Blake was a little nearer to him than any of the others. And, of course, it's all right for Blakefield to be here and sit in on this conference, but he can't be expected to really do anything. He hasn't been so awfully successful in business, has he? And now being an unmarried man he couldn't be expected to give any of the children a home. But I did expect Agatha Lane to be here. She has plenty of money and room and servants, and no husband to interfere, and being Miriam's only wealthy relative, she ought to do something handsome. She ought to be depended upon to take over the two younger children. She has nothing in the world to do but amuse herself, and she always pretended to think the world and all of her niece Miriam. There! Didn't I hear another horn? Isn't that her car, Adrian?"
Aunt Petra got up and sailed to the front window. "Yes, it is! There's Agatha now! Well, I'm glad she's come. Now, if the lawyer were only here we could get started at once."
Aunt Agatha Lane — slim, youngish, elegant — entered languidly, inclined her graceful body in a bow that included them all, and dropped dramatically to the end of a couch. She was a widow, well made-up, with threadlike eyebrows, delicately flushed complexion, and a cloud of golden hair, done in a long golden bob that gave her the appearance of at least half her age.
"Well, I'm glad you've come, Agatha," said Aunt Petra, raising her deep voice so that it could be clearly heard over the large room and penetrate even to the adjoining library. The library opened in a vista from one end of the living room, and Jennifer Graeme had taken refuge there behind heavy drawn curtains. She had been weeping her young heart out for her adored parents and was miserable now over what she considered the intrusion of all these relatives. Why did they want to come here at this time when she wanted to be alone? What right had they, she asked herself pitifully, as she curled more deeply into a great leather chair and stuffed her little damp handkerchief against her mouth to still her sobs.
But Aunt Petra's voice came sharply through the curtains. "Yes, Agatha, I certainly am glad you are here! For, you see, you will have to play quite an important part in the plans we have to make. It has seemed to me from the very first that you would be the ideal one to take over the two youngest children, or one of them at least. You have more leisure than anyone else, and it would be just a pleasure for you to bring them up and plan their future."
"Oh mercy!" said Agatha Lane, suddenly rousing from her languor. "I? Bring up the children! And such terrible children! Why, Petra, the last time I was here I went home utterly exhausted from the strain of having them come pelting into the room every few minutes, as dirty as two little pigs, and howling! That little Robin is positively disgusting when he eats chocolate and smears it all over himself and the chairs. He actually wanted to get onto my lap! At least his nurse suggested that he do so, and eat his chocolate dog on my lap! Fancy it! And that little Karen is unspeakable! She climbed up on the lattice outside the back terrace and swung there before the window until I thought I should lose my senses! No, Petra, you'll have to leave me out of any plans like that. I haven't the strength to stand it. I've just come from my doctor's, and he thinks I should have a long sea voyage and a little time of resting abroad in some resort where I can have baths and treatments. Of course, I could take Jennifer with me for a few months perhaps. She is old enough to look after herself, I should think, although I'm afraid I should lose my mind; she is so peculiar and unexpected in her reactions. I just couldn't stand it to have to watch out for her on shipboard. One has to be so careful about whom a young girl meets, you know. At that age! There are so many ineligibles around, too, especially when a girl might be thought to have money."
"I don't think you need worry very much about Jennifer," said Aunt Majesta dryly. "I think she's pretty well provided for, isn't she, Petra? I've seen her going about a great deal with that Peter Willis, and he's enormously rich. I imagine she'll be marrying him before long, and then she'll be off our hands!"
"Jennifer is a little young to married off yet, isn't she? Do you all realize she isn't of age?"
They all looked up startled, and there in the doorway stood Uncle Blakefield, gray haired, somewhat bald, kindly faced, but grim just now.
"Oh, is that you, Blakefield?" said Aunt Petra. "I didn't hear you come in. I don't suppose you realize that Jennifer wouldn't be counted young to be married in these days. But do come in and sit down and let's get to work. Why doesn't that lawyer come?"
"By the way," said Agatha Lane, in a clear voice that dominated the room at once, "I wonder if you all realize that there's a perfectly good way to settle these matters without the least bit of trouble to any of us. Why don't we just put Cousin Abigail Storm in here and let her run the house and take care of them all, at least until Jennifer marries? That will kill two birds with one stone. Cousin Abigail is in abject despair. She's lost every atom of her money and she can't find a job anywhere, she's too old. I had a most forlorn letter from her this morning, and I felt that it just came in the nick of time. Here we'll have Abigail on our hands if we don't do something about it pretty soon, and it strikes me that this will be a perfectly lovely arrangement."
"Well, I think it would be perfectly ruinous," said Petra, with scornful eyes. "It might be a lovely arrangement for you, Agatha, saving you from any responsibility at all, but it would be disastrous for the family! Simply disastrous! Those children need to be dealt with strenuously, and they mustn't be allowed to stay together! No one woman could deal with them adequately if they were left in a bunch. Those children have been allowed to run wild, and we've got to separate them or we'll have a set of criminals on our hands before long. I tell you they have got to be separated! You can't ever do a thing with them if they are left together, for they will protect each other. Haven't I seen them? They are little devils. I know what I'm talking about —"
"They ought not to be separated!" declared Uncle Blakefield's quiet, stubborn voice.
"Well really, Blakefield, what have you to say about it?" demanded Aunt Majesta grandly.
And then the fight was on.
Blakefield stood his ground amazingly, unaccustomedly, saying little except when the others seemed to consider that their arguments were about to prevail, and then he would utter a single sentence, cryptically, which would startle them into a momentary silence.
"Well, I think it's ideal, having Cousin Abigail come and keep them together just as their uncle Blake says," stated Agatha Lane happily in one of the brief intervals of silence. "That would take care of Abigail so beautifully and give Blake his way. We could allow Abigail a reasonable salary and a certain sum for running the house. Then let her train the children to help. That would save money for them when they get older."
Agatha Lane just loved to get up plans and elaborate them in finished little sentences.
"You will never put that selfish, hard-eyed, unloving woman over those dear children with my consent!" said Uncle Blake.
Excerpted from Head of the House by Grace Livingston Hill. Copyright © 2015 Grace Livingston Hill. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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