There was so much bustling activity going forth under the roof of the Lucker residence, Branelea, that the barren view from the windows was scarcely noticed. December was upon them, laying waste the beauty of the countryside without yet hiding its vandalism under a covering of snow. About the only pleasant sight for miles around was Branelea itself. Its austere beauty was strangely enhanced by the sere grass that shook in the wind and the naked black arms of trees that twitched as if they would clutch at the house for protection.
The house was built in the Perpendicular style with no soaring Gothic windows, no spires or finials, or even a graceful columned doorway. Lady Lucker had a taste for the elegant, and the bleak gray walls of home could well do with a little garniture in her view. But it was Sir James's ancestral home--large, in good repair, free of mortgage, and therefore tolerated.
As Lady Lucker sat in her gold saloon on that chilly morning, it was not her gray walls that occupied her mind. Nor was it the festive season, fast approaching. She had a matter of greater and dearer moment to consider. Her daughter Prissie was to be married at the end of the month.
She sat with a list in front of her, which she was checking over with her houseguest, Miss Christopher. Lady Lucker was no connoisseur of female beauty. She could scarcely have described Clara Christopher, though they spent endless hours together. "A pleasant girl," she would have said, if asked. Chestnut curls, brown eyes, and a figure that caused a second look from men cut no ice with her.
"I have been planning this wedding for three years," she said with a sigh. "Ever since I fell into the expensive folly of giving my elder daughter a London wedding. You wouldn't believe what the hotel charged me for the dinners! Of course I nabbed an earl for Emily, and that was worth any price. Emily's husband was instrumental in getting my elder son a seat in Parliament and a couple of appointments to go along with it and give him some money. Such a take-in, the members not getting paid! I had no idea ... And of course with Emily having a house in London, Prissie had her season at very little cost. That is when she nabbed your cousin, Baron Oglethorpe, Clara."
"Why did you choose the twenty-ninth of December for the wedding, ma'am?" Miss Christopher asked with an innocent smile in her brown eyes, though she had a sharp idea as to the reason.
"Why to cut short the length of the visits," Lady Lucker answered frankly. "I assume the guests will celebrate Christmas at their own homes, and not be barging in an inconvenient week early. Then you know, it has been a long-standing tradition that Sir James and I spend New Year's in London with Sir James's Uncle Percy, so that the guests cannot hang on too long after the wedding."
No blush suffused the lady's face at this plainspeaking. The only little prevarication was that the "long-standing tradition" was instituted in November of that same year.
"Very wise," Miss Christopher said. "And for the few days they are here, I daresay the overflow from the wedding feast will feed them."
"With something left over to take along to Uncle Percy. One dislikes to go empty-handed. Mrs. Horst is making a gigantic wedding cake. I praised the one she made for her own daughter assiduously, till she finally took the hint and offered to have her cook make Prissie's."
Miss Christopher nodded and managed to keep her lips steady. She knew that similar praise of patties, punches, and petits fours had been lavished about the countryside till the feast was as well as on the table without expenditure of a thing but words. Every spare fowl in the parish was being fatted up for the great day, and every egg was requisitioned to be put into a syllabub or pudding. There was enough food coming to feed an army, and an army was what was to assemble at Branelea at the end of the month, to see Miss Priscilla Lucker pledge her troth to Baron Oglethorpe, of Oglethorpe Manor in Hampshire and Hanover Square in London.
"I hope she doesn't stint on currants," Lady Lucker said, frowning at her list. "I have notified the guests of Prissie's pattern in china and silver plate and crystal. The poor girl hasn't a decent jewel to her name. I do hope her Uncle Max takes the hint. A four-figure income, and he was always so fond of Prissie."
All the relations were imagined to be fond of Prissie. That such an unappealing lump as Prissie had engendered so much fondness was, of course, a sham, like so much in that house. She was a vapid blond lady with no conversation, the unlikeliest daughter in the world for Lady Lucker. The mama was a skint, but such a lively, good-natured one that she had a large circle of friends. Clara liked her very much. Her being clutch-fisted was just an interesting oddity. When one traveled as much as Clara, one met all kinds of people.
"Bachelors and widowers often give jewelry," Clara mentioned. "They mistrust their taste in household things, I suppose."
"The ones who diddle you are the maiden aunts. My own aunt gave Emily monogrammed sheets and pillowcases--to a countess, imagine! I let them know that Prissie has all her linen assembled," Lady Lucker said, with a sapient shot from her black eyes. "I suggested perhaps they would find it easier to send money, and Prissie could pick up half-a-dozen place settings of the Wedgwood herself. They would palm the poor girl off with a couple of guineas if I did not give them a little hint of what is expected. As to Sir James's maiden cousins, the Snelley spinsters, they sent Prissie a homemade bed jacket and flannelette nightie. As if a baroness would be caught dead in such things!"
"Shocking!" Miss Christopher tch'd.
"They said they doubted they could attend the wedding, which is as well for them."
An innocent observer might be forgiven for thinking the Luckers were purse-pinched, but Clara Christopher knew it was far from being the case. Sir James was as well inlaid as any gentleman in the parish, but to state it simply, his wife was the premier skint in all of England. She actually enjoyed scrimping and saving. This wedding was a challenge to achieve the maximum of showy elegance with the absolute minimum of expenditure. It was a chore to daunt a less able skinflint than Lady Lucker, but it did not daunt her.
The truth would not dawn on anyone who had not actually resided under the same roof with her for some time. Miss Christopher, a fairly astute observer, had not tumbled to it for two weeks. Of course, special care was taken to conceal it from her, for she was Oglethorpe's cousin. That a mere cousin of a groom-to-be should find temporary shelter with Lady Lucker was an unusual thing in itself. A close relative had difficulty getting through the door unless his visit promised profit to his hostess.
There was, of course, a reason for the visit. Lady Lucker made the quite natural mistake of thinking Oglethorpe's first cousin was rich. There was Charles, the scion of the Lucker family, still without a wife. Miss Christopher, she was given to understand, had excellent connections and a far-flung network of friends as well. Surely some of them had homes in Brighton or Bath. A free holiday was not to be disregarded.
Miss Christopher, now called Clara, was an orphan who had been residing with an aunt who had just married and gone on a honeymoon to Greece. A twenty-two-year-old niece could not but be a hindrance at such a romantic time. Oglethorpe had done no more than mention Clara's predicament and the invitation was extended instantly. He had not quite come up to scratch in offering for Prissie at the time, and really there was no saying the invitation had not clinched it.
So in a way Lady Lucker did not regret her openhandedness, even when it was gradually borne in on her that Miss Christopher, far from being rich, hadn't two sous to rub together.
The early weeks of Clara's visit were a period of mutual discovery. Clara had seen enough of half-drunk wine being surreptitiously poured back into decanters and enough of shoddy household fixtures being polished and pinned to appear decent that she had a fair notion how the house was run. A few good pieces of old furniture formed a rich backdrop, but the rest of it was a sham.
Not a stick of furniture could be moved, for if its location did not hide a bare patch of carpet, its scratched side had to be placed against a wall. The Meissen ware that adorned tabletops was never to be touched. If it did not have a pasted-on handle, it was sure to be concealing a burn or scratched surface. You dare not jiggle the chairs for fear of pulling a leg loose, and even the sheets disliked a restless sleeper, so precariously were they held together. Yet to enter the gold saloon, one would think it an excellent chamber. In the two weeks of her visit, Clara had disturbed enough of the surface of things to realize what was going on.
During the same period Lady Lucker had gone into Clara's room when the girl was out walking and seen her lingerie was of well-mended cotton. Her face cream was an inferior brand (the same brand as her own), her combs and brushes were plain bone. Her money, accidentally chanced upon at the bottom of her leather jewelry bag, amounted to no more than a few guineas, and she was to stay two months!
As these mutual revelations were assimilated, the reserve and politeness of the relationship dwindled to comfortable familiarity, unmarred by any taint of condescension. Before the third week was out, Clara was helping to save bits of paper and string and cutting buttons off old shirts for Lady Lucker, and the hostess was directing Clara to the remnant bin at Dunston's Drapery Shop to pick up bits of leftover muslin for a fraction of the cost of buying it by the yard. With careful contriving, at which Clara was a bit of a dab herself, a collar and cuffs or a handkerchief could be pieced together at a nominal cost.
Clara was always relieved when the roles became understood in the houses where she was staying. It was uncomfortable to be treated as a guest when one was the only guest in the house and there for an extended time. Over a long career of visiting, she had acquired a certain ease of manners that usually settled this matter of roles quickly. She liked best to be treated as a member of the family. She usually was a member, however tenuous, of the various houses she visited and had a knack of discovering genteel ways of helping without taking on the coloring of a domestic. She was quite firm on that point. At two and twenty, she had no notion of becoming a permanent, unpaid companion to any invalid aunt or anything of that sort.
She had been orphaned ten years before, and though her family connections were numerous and good, her own parents were not well-off. Various relatives had offered her a home, but however much she liked to visit, she was always happy to move on and try her luck elsewhere. She thought of herself as a sort of eternal wandering guest, living out of trunks. Home was the stagecoach, and her backyard was the roads of London and Scotland. She had heard of a plant in America that had no roots but rolled about the countryside, and in a fanciful mood she thought of herself as a human tumbleweed. If she was still single at twenty-five, she planned to find a position, perhaps as a paid companion to some rich female cit who liked to travel.
At the present, however, she had no fear of the future, nor any fear that she would not find a husband. She liked men, was perfectly at ease with them, and the liking was reciprocated. She had turned down three offers, which, considering her rootless life and lack of fortune, was not bad. But for the present, she would continue to accept such offers as were made of taking her in as a guest.
She had never stayed in Surrey before. She thought she would like it in a more benign season than winter; she was happy they had the approaching wedding to relieve the tedium of a restricted company and limited entertainment.
"As we have nothing better to do, Clara, let us begin writing up the place cards for the wedding dinner table," Lady Lucker suggested. "You recall the cards I bought at the stationer's."
"They're in the library." Clara said not a word about the cards being "bought." A dozen had been bought, but there were a hundred guests to be seated. The other eighty-eight cards had been ruled up and cut out of white cardboard by herself.
"I have the list of guests about somewhere. We'll just write up the cards today, and settle on the seating arrangement later."
"The list is in the library with the cards. Shall we do it there?" Clara suggested, happy to have found some genteel occupation.
The ladies were soon settled at the reading table, with the lists, cards, ink pots, and pens before them. "You take this sheet. I'll take the other," Lady Lucker said, handing Clara a sheet of names. That able nip-cheese, Lady Lucker, only used new paper for letters. For such things as lists, she used wrapping paper smoothed with an iron. Her watery ink made the names even more difficult to read. Glancing at the sheet, Clara felt a sudden quiver rush over her scalp. That name looked remarkably like Allingcote. But it couldn't be. No, it did not say Lord Allingcote. B. Allingcote, it said.
After her heart settled down, Clara asked with a casual air, "Who is this B. Allingcote, ma'am?"
"That is my sister Peg's boy. Lord Allingcote of Braemore. Do you know him?" Lady Lucker showed no surprise. She had already discovered that in spite of Clara's poverty, she was acquainted with everyone and had visited with the half of Scotland and England.
No tide of scarlet washed over Clara's face. Her voice did not tremble as she replied, "I met him once, I believe, at a house party some time ago at the Bellinghams'."
"Very likely. He visits about a good deal. We hoped he would settle down after his papa died and he became the earl, but he persists in his runabout ways. I doubt he will come to the wedding, however. His mama mentioned something about his going to Scotland. He will send a gift, of course. He is fond of Prissie."
"Shall I make him a card, just in case?" Clara asked blandly. Her fluttering heart settled down. In that half a minute, she had envisaged a remeeting, a whirlwind courtship, and a proposal of marriage, but nothing of all this speedy romance showed in either her face or voice.
"No point in wasting a card. Just don't cross out his name on the list."
As they continued their work, Clara's eyes were drawn again and again to that name, that stood out because of the lack of a line through it. Lord Allingcote ... Dormant memories stirred to life at the back of her mind.