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A Christmas Hope

Claudine Burroughs did not look forward to the party. This November of 1868 it had been bitterly cold, the kind of chill that creeps into one’s bones and makes them ache. Now it was early December and warm again. People were predicting the mild spell would last. Here in London there might not even be any snow! Most unseasonal.

Claudine regarded her face in the glass, not because she admired it, but because she must do the best with it that she could. She had never been pretty, and now in middle age she had not even the bloom of earlier years. She had strength, something not always admired in a woman; and character, also not necessarily cared for; but excellent hair, thick, shining, and with a natural wave. When her maid dressed it in a glamorous style, as she had this evening, it always stayed exactly where she wished. It was the one aspect of her appearance in which her husband, Wallace, had ever expressed his pleasure.

Not that that mattered to her anymore. He disapproved of too much that was at the core of her, like answering honestly when she was asked her political opinions— which were defi nitely more radical than most people’s. She laughed at the jokes it would have been more ladylike to pretend not to understand. And, despite Wallace’s disapproval, she worked at Hester Monk’s clinic for sick or injured prostitutes— voluntarily, of course; she had no need of money, and the clinic had none to offer. She had begun there looking for something better to fi ll her time with than endless committees. Now she loved it for the fellowship, the variety, and above all, the sense that she was doing something of genuine worth.

She looked away from the glass. There was nothing more to accomplish here. She stood up and, thanking her maid, went out onto the landing and down the stairs, walking carefully so as not to trip over the hem of her rich teal- green gown. Wallace was standing in the hall with his coat on. He was a big man, more overweight than his expensive and skillfully cut suits allowed to show. The flicker of impatience on his heavy features told her that she had kept him waiting.

He made no remark, no compliment on her appearance, simply held her cape for her and then nodded to the footman as he followed her out of the front door. Their carriage had drawn up to the curb ready for them. The coachman must have known the address to which they were going because Wallace did not offer him any directions.

They did not speak on the journey. They had long ago run out of things to say to each other about life or feelings, and Claudine imagined he did not want to pretend any more than she did. There would be enough of that when they arrived. The other guests were all socially important, which was the reason for their going. Wallace was a successful investment adviser to several people of considerable importance, and she admitted that he deserved his success. Apart from being gifted, he worked very hard at cultivating all the right connections. He never failed in anything he regarded as his duty. It was the laughter, the gentleness, and the imagination he could not manage. Perhaps it was beyond his ability, as well as his nature. During rare moments, she hoped he was happier in their life than he had ever made her.

And yet, it would be graceless not to acknowledge that she had never gone without any of the physical comforts of life. She had never dreaded that a letter or a knock on the door would be a request to pay a debt she could not meet. He had never lied to her, so far as she was aware, never drank too much, never embarrassed her in public, and certainly had never been unfaithful. She sometimes thought she might have understood if he had been, possibly even forgiven him for it. It would have shown a quality of passion she had never felt him to possess. Instead of admiring his rigid tidiness, it infuriated her. He folded everything, even the discarded newspaper, matching the corners exactly. He put everything away where it belonged as soon as he finished using it.

But that was a self- defeating argument. If he had understood passion and loneliness, the same desperate hunger for warmth, then she might have loved him, despite everything else. She had tried to love him. But here they were.

At least she could behave with gratitude. She would do her part this evening: She would be gracious to the Foxleys and the Crostwicks, the Halversgates and the Giffords, and everyone else it was necessary to please.  They alighted at the entrance to the Giffords’ magnificent house. Forbes and Oona Gifford were wealthy enough to entertain in the most lavish style, and seating thirty to dinner was no effort to their staff. Claudine and Wallace were welcomed into the hall, relieved of their outer clothing, and shown into the first of the large reception rooms. They had timed it perfectly: not the last to arrive, which would be slightly ill- mannered or self- important, but very far from first, which made one appear overeager.

Oona was Forbes’s second wife, his first having died some ten years earlier. No one knew where Oona had lived before their marriage, and she never mentioned it, which was an interesting omission. She was very striking to look at, some might say truly beautiful. She came toward Wallace and Claudine now, her dark hair swept  up luxuriantly and her slender gown the height of fashion. Wide crinolines were suddenly out. No one with the slightest pretensions to style would be seen in one.

“Delightful of you to come,” Oona said with a smile.

“Thank you, so much. In spite of the clemency of the weather, Christmas will be upon us before we know it. Let us begin to celebrate as soon as we can, I say.”

“Indeed,” Wallace agreed, forcing a warmth Claudine knew he did not mean. “What better way to begin the season?” He spotted Nigel Halversgate and moved toward him, realizing Nigel was standing with his wife, Charlotte— known as Tolly— only when it was too late to change course.

Oona saw what had happened and shot a surprisingly candid look of amusement at Claudine.

“Beginning to gain the Christmas spirit, I see,” Oona said ambiguously.

“Such a party is definitely the best place to do so,” Claudine replied, equally ambiguously. She was thinking of the discipline it took to be agreeable to a number of people she did not know very well or especially care for, but she certainly would not say so aloud.

“Goodwill to all men,” Oona murmured under her breath. She sighed. “And women.” Lifting her chin a little, she turned as Euphemia Crostwick approached, a delicately blond woman whose pretty face was always at attention, looking this way and that to be sure she missed nothing.

“I’m sure you know Mrs. Burroughs,” Oona said, motioning toward Claudine.

“Of course.” Eppy Crostwick smiled brightly. She looked up and down at Claudine’s dress; it was a very handsome one, but it certainly would have overwhelmed her own diminutive figure, and its dramatic coloring would have bleached her skin. “It seems like ages since we last met,” she added, letting the underlying meaning hang in the air.

“Indeed.” Claudine inclined her head, her good intentions already vanished. “So much has happened. But surely it is one of the pleasures of life to be busy, don’t you think?”

Eppy’s eyes widened. “I had no idea you were . . .busy. Your charities, no doubt . . . You must tell me all about it”— she waved her hand delicately— “sometime.”

“Of course,” Claudine agreed. “I should be happy to. However, this is an evening to celebrate our own good fortune, rather than commiserate about the tragedies of others.”

Eppy gave a sigh of relief, which was only a trifle forced. “I’m sure you’d love to meet some of the other people here. You know Verena Foxley, of course. Such a good- looking boy, Creighton, don’t you think?”

They all looked over at the Foxleys. Claudine did agree that Creighton Foxley was handsome enough, if not quite as superb as he himself imagined— but then, Eppy had not really meant it to be a question. It was an opening for Claudine, who had no children herself—another way in which she had disappointed Wallace— to argue that Eppy’s son, Cecil, was just as distinguished, in his own way. Actually, Cecil was very ordinary looking, but one did not say such things, for Cecil and Creighton were good friends. Occasionally Ernest Halversgate tagged along with them, half disapproving most of the time but reluctant to say so in case he found himself excluded.

Claudine took a deep breath. “Very handsome, in a certain way,” she agreed. “But there are others perhaps a little more . . . interesting to look at, don’t you think?” She smiled as she said it, allowing her implication to be understood.

Eppy was satisfied. “I do so agree. Have you heard that Lady Lyall is to be married . . . again? The woman is quite . . .” She searched for a word.

“Extraordinary,” Claudine supplied. It was the perfect cover- all word for disapproval that could never be quoted against you. Its entire meaning depended upon the expression with which you said it, the degree of uplift in the voice.

And so the early part of the evening progressed: a series of encounters with people Claudine had met on scores of other such occasions, from a world she used to be part of. But since her work in the clinic and her introduction to a different reality, it felt more alien than ever. Did she look as strange and lost as she felt? The thought occurred to her that perhaps everyone felt the same, in their own way; as if each of them were trapped in his or her own little bubble, jostling and bumping with others but never breaking through.

No, that was complete nonsense. There was Tolly Halversgate, elegant in the extreme of fashion, wearing a shade of purple- pink no one else would get away with. She was imparting some confidence to an elderly woman Claudine knew had a title of some sort, but she could not remember what. Countess or marchioness of somewhere. Tolly was a great royalist, always looking upward.

Lambert Foxley was talking business with a couple of hearty men at least ten years older than he. Both of them nodded to emphasize a point.

A couple of girls laughed just a shade too loudly, attracting the disapproval of their mothers, and the interest of several young men.

It was all colored silk, chatter, the glitter of lights from chandeliers, and lots of laughter.

Instead of mingling her way through the crowd again, as Wallace would have expected of her, Claudine turned away and walked through a garden room. At the far side she opened the French doors onto the terrace and stepped out. It was extraordinarily pleasant: a wide paved area extending all the way to the wall bordering the street. There were fl ower beds— bare now, of course, but no doubt full of daffodils or hyacinths come spring. There were also ornamental stone tubs at different heights, giving a most agreeable variety, and several attractive holly bushes. The terrace was overlooked by the windows of at least two of the neighboring houses, but they were all dark, leaving Claudine with an agreeable sense of solitude.

It was at that exact moment she realized with a jolt that she was not actually alone. Half in the shadows between the soft glow from the Giffords’ lighted windows, there was a man standing watching her. For an instant she was frightened. Then, when she realized he could only have come from the party, since there was no other way to reach the terrace, she was merely annoyed.

“Good evening, sir,” she said coldly. “I apologize if I am interrupting you. I did not see you in the shadows.”

“I didn’t greatly wish to be seen,” he replied. His voice was very deep and a little slurred, and yet there was a music in it, a lilt even in those few words. “Then I should have to make polite, inane conversation,” he added.

She herself was not in the mood to be polite, or inane. Her eyes were becoming accustomed to the half- light now, and she could see him more clearly. He was of average height, which meant only an inch or two taller than she. It was hard to tell his age. His heavy hair was dense black, with not a touch of gray, even at the temples, but his face was ravaged by some inner wasting. His dark eyes were ringed with what looked like bruises, and his cheeks were blotched and sunken. His features were strong, his mouth generous, but already either disease or drink had marred him.

“That is what parties are for,” she said, still coolly. “Polite conversation. What were you expecting?”

“Just one person who can see the stars,” he replied, apparently not stung by her tone. “And you never know where you’ll find them.”

She recognized the music in his voice now. He was a Welshman, probably long left the valleys but never quite forgotten them. Surprising herself, she answered him honestly.

“No, you don’t, but they are more likely to be found among those who are searching than those who would get a crick in their necks if they looked upward.” She wished at once she had not said it. It sounded more judgmental than she had intended.

He laughed. It was a sound of pure pleasure.

“Well spoken, Mrs. . . . never mind, it doesn’t matter. You will tell me your name and I’ll think it doesn’t suit. I shall call you Olwen . . .”

She was about to object, then she realized that she liked the name better than her own. She wanted to ask him why he had chosen it, and perhaps what it meant, but that would have betrayed far too much interest.

“Indeed,” she said quietly. “And what shall I call you?”

“Dai Tregarron,” he replied. “I would say ‘at your service,’ but I do little of use. Poet, philosopher, and deep drinker of life . . . and of a good deal of fi ne whiskey, when I can find it. And I should add, a lover of beauty, whether it be in a note of music, a sunset spilling its blood across the sky, or a beautiful woman. I am regarded as something of a blasphemer by society, and they enjoy the frisson of horror they indulge in when mentioning my name. Of course, I disagree, violently. To me, the one true blasphemy is ingratitude, calling God’s great, rich world a thing of no value. It is of infinite value, so precious it breaks your heart, so fleeting that eternity is merely a beginning.” His bold stare demanded she answer.

“Wild words, Mr. Tregarron,” she said, but there was no disapproval in her voice. She recognized his name. He was a poet of some acclaim; she was familiar with several of his works. They all had the same lovely, untamed feeling as the words he had just spoken.

“I’m a wild man,” he said with a grin, and she found herself wanting to smile back. “Did you let them tame you, Olwen, put the fi res out so you are never burned by them? Do you sit in the dark and the cold and wonder why you were born?”

“You’re drunk,” she said, trying to ignore the truth in his observation.

“Surely, I am,” he replied. “Most of the time. Sober, I’m terrified. The world is too big, and I’m too small and too alone. Drunk, I can see only what I choose to. Can’t walk a straight line— but what’s so good about straight lines? Nature abhors a straight line. Haven’t you noticed that?”

“The horizon is a straight line, at sea,” she answered, wondering why she was even bothering with this ridiculous conversation.

“Ah!” He held up his hand to stop her. “Olwen—the world is round. Did they not tell you that? And there are flowers in the grass where you have passed; you’re just so busy looking ahead at your straight horizon that you didn’t see them.”

Suddenly she felt she must escape. She wanted to think of some appropriate riposte, but nothing came to her mind. She mumbled something about needing to find someone and turned away.

Inside, it was all exactly as she had left it: the laughter, the half- heard music, the glittering lights and the swirls of colors, all the faces she knew, and the others that were so alike she might as well have known them.

Almost at once Wallace found her. His expression was sharp with irritation.

“Where have you been?” he demanded. “I have some most important people for you to meet. I wish you would pay attention. We are not here simply for fun, Claudine.”

“Just as well,” she said quietly.

“I beg your pardon?” It was a demand that she repeat herself, if she dared.

A Christmas Hope
by by Anne Perry