Read A Christmas Grace Online

Authors: Anne Perry

A Christmas Grace

Dedicated to all those
who long for a second chance

         

E
MILY
R
ADLEY STOOD IN THE CENTER OF HER
magnificent drawing room and considered where she should have the Christmas tree placed so that it would show to the best advantage. The decorations were already planned: the bows, the colored balls, the tinsel, the little glass icicles, and the red and green shiny birds. At the foot would be the brightly wrapped presents for her husband and children.

All through the house there would be candles, wreaths and garlands of holly and ivy. There would be bowls of crystallized fruit and porcelain dishes of nuts, jugs of mulled wine, plates of mince pies, roasted chestnuts, and, of course, great fires in the hearths with apple logs to burn with a sweet smell.

The year of 1895 had not been an easy one, and she was happy enough to see it come to a close. Because they were staying in London, rather than going to the country, there would be parties, and dinners, including the Duchess of Warwick's; everyone she knew would be at that dinner. And there would be balls where they would dance all night. She had her gown chosen: the palest possible green, embroidered with gold. And, of course, there was the theater. It would not be the same without anything of Oscar Wilde's, but there would be Goldsmith's
She Stoops to Conquer,
and that was fun.

She was still thinking about it when Jack came in. He looked a little tired, but he had the same easy grace of manner as always. He was holding a letter in his hand.

“Post?” she asked in surprise. “At this time in the evening?” Her heart sank. “It's not some government matter, is it? They can't want you now. It's less than three weeks till Christmas.”

“It's for you,” he replied, holding it out for her. “It was just delivered. I think it's Thomas's handwriting.”

Thomas Pitt was Emily's brother-in-law, a policeman. Her sister, Charlotte, had married considerably beneath her. She had not regretted it for a day, even if it had cost her the social and financial comforts she had been accustomed to. On the contrary, it was Emily who envied Charlotte the opportunities she had been given to involve herself in some of his cases. It seemed like far too long since Emily had shared an adventure, the danger, the emotion, the anger, and the pity. Somehow she felt less alive for it.

She tore open the envelope and read the paper inside.

Dear Emily,

I am very sorry to tell you that Charlotte received a letter today from a Roman Catholic priest, Father Tyndale, who lives in a small village in the Connemara region of Western Ireland. He is the pastor to Susannah Ross, your father's younger sister. She is now widowed again, and Father Tyndale says she is very ill. In fact this will certainly be her last Christmas.

I know she parted from the family in less than happy circumstances, but we should not allow her to be alone at such a time. Your mother is in Italy, and unfortunately Charlotte has a bad case of bronchitis, which is why I am writing to ask you if you will go to Ireland to be with Susannah. I realize it is a great sacrifice, but there is no one else.

Father Tyndale says it cannot be for long, and you would be most welcome in Susannah's home. If you write back to him at the enclosed address, he will meet you at the Galway station from whichever train you say. Please make it within a day or two. There is little time to hesitate.

I thank you in advance, and Charlotte sends her love. She will write to you when she is well enough.

Yours with gratitude,
Thomas

Emily looked up and met Jack's eyes. “It's preposterous!” she exclaimed. “He's lost his wits.”

Jack blinked. “Really. What does he say?”

Wordlessly she passed the letter to him.

He read it, frowning, and then offered it back to her. “I'm sorry. I know you were looking forward to Christmas at home, but there'll be another one next year.”

“I'm not going!” she said incredulously.

He said nothing, just looked at her steadily.

“It's ridiculous,” she protested. “I can't go to Connemara, for heaven's sake. Especially not at Christmas. It'll be like the end of the world. In fact it is the end of the world. Jack, it's nothing but freezing bog.”

“Actually I believe the west coast of Ireland is quite temperate,” he corrected her. “But wet, of course,” he added with a smile.

She breathed out a sigh of relief. His smile could still charm her more than she wished him to know. If he did, he might be impossible to manage at all. She turned away to put the letter on the table. “I'll write to Thomas tomorrow and explain to him.”

“What will you say?” he asked.

She was surprised. “That it's out of the question, of course. But I'll put it nicely.”

“How nicely can you say that you'll let your aunt die alone at Christmas because you don't fancy the Irish climate?” he asked, his voice surprisingly gentle, considering the words.

Emily froze. She turned back to look at him, and knew that in spite of the smile, he meant exactly what he had said. “Do you really want me to go away to Ireland for the entire Christmas?” she asked. “Susannah's only fifty. She might live for ages. He doesn't even say what's wrong with her.”

“One can die at any age,” Jack pointed out. “And what I would like has nothing to do with what is right.”

“What about the children?” Emily played the trump card. “What will they think if I leave them for Christmas? It is a time when families should be together.” She smiled back at him.

“Then write and tell your aunt to die alone because you want to be with your family,” he replied. “On second thoughts, you'll have to tell the priest, and he can tell her.”

The appalling realization hit her. “You want me to go!” she accused him.

“No, I don't,” he denied. “But neither do I want to live with you all the years afterwards when Susannah is dead, and you wish you had done. Guilt can destroy even the dearest things. In fact, especially the dearest.” He reached out and touched her cheek gently. “I don't want to lose you.”

“You won't!” she said quickly. “You'll never lose me.”

“Lots of people lose each other.” He shook his head. “Some people even lose themselves.”

She looked down at the carpet. “But it's Christmas!”

He did not answer.

The seconds ticked by. The fire crackled in the hearth.

“Do you suppose they have telegrams in Ireland?” she asked finally.

“I've no idea. What can you possibly say in a telegram that would answer this?”

She took a deep breath. “What time my train gets into Galway. And on what day, I suppose.”

He leaned forward and kissed her very gently, and she found she was crying, for all that she would miss over the next weeks, and all that she thought Christmas ought to be.

B
ut two days later, when the train finally pulled into Galway a little before noon and Emily stepped out onto the platform in the fine rain, she was in an entirely different frame of mind. She was stiff, and extremely tired after a rough crossing of the Irish Sea and a night in a Dublin hotel. If Jack had had the remotest idea what he was asking of her, he wouldn't have been nearly so cavalier about it. This was a sacrifice no one should ask. It was Susannah's choice to have turned her back on her family, married a Roman Catholic no one knew, and decided to live out here in the bog and the rain. She had not come home when Emily's father was dying! Of course, no one had asked her to. In fact, Emily admitted to herself reluctantly, it was quite possible no one had even told her he was ill.

The porter unloaded her luggage and put it on the platform. She had not asked him to—it was quite unnecessary. This was the end of the line, in every possible sense.

She paid him to take it out to the street, and followed him along the platform, getting wetter every minute. She was in the roadway when she saw a pony and trap, a priest standing very conspicuously talking to the animal. He turned as he heard the porter's trolley on the cobbles. He saw Emily and his face lit with a broad smile. He was a plain man, his features unremarkable, a little lumpy, and yet in that moment he was beautiful.

“Ah,”—he came forward with his hand out—“Mrs. Radley. Surely it is very good of you to come all this way, and at this time of the year. Was your crossing very bad? God put a rough sea between you and me, to make us all the more grateful to arrive safely on the farther shore. A bit like life.” He shrugged ruefully, his eyes for a moment filled with sadness. “How are you, then? Tired and cold? And it's a long journey we have yet, but there's no help for it.” He looked her up and down with sympathy. “Unless you're not well enough to make it today?”

“Thank you, Father Tyndale, but I'm quite well enough,” Emily replied. She was about to ask how long it could be, then changed her mind. He might take it for faintheartedness.

“Ah, I'm delighted,” he said quickly. “Now let's get your cases up here into the back, and we'll set off then. We'll make most of the way in daylight, so we will.” He turned and picked up one of the cases, and with a mighty heave set it on the back of the cart. The porter was barely quick enough to get the lighter one up by himself.

Emily drew in her breath to say something, then changed her mind. What was there to say? It was midday, and he did not think he would reach Susannah's house before nightfall! What benighted end of the world were they going to?

Father Tyndale helped her up into the cart on the seat beside him, tucked a rug around her, and a waterproof cloth after that, then went briskly around and climbed in the other side. After a word of encouragement the pony set off at a steady walk. Emily had a hideous feeling that the animal knew a lot more about it than she did, and was pacing itself for a long journey.

As they left the town, the rain eased a little and Emily started to look around at the rolling land. There were sudden vistas of hills in the distance to the west as the clouds parted and occasional shreds of blue sky appeared. Shafts of light gleamed on wet grasslands, which seemed to have layers of color, wind-bleached on top but with a depth of sullen reds and scorched greens below. There was a lot of shadow on the lee side of the hills, peat-dark streams, and the occasional ruin of an old stone shelter, now almost black except where the sun glistened on the wet surfaces.

“In a few minutes you'll see the lake,” Father Tyndale said suddenly. “Very beautiful, it is, and lots of fish in it, and birds. You'll like it. Quite different from the sea, of course.”

“Yes, of course,” Emily agreed, huddling closer into her blanket. She felt as if she should say more. He was looking resolutely ahead, concentrating on his driving, although she wondered why. There was nowhere else to go but the winding road ahead, and the pony seemed to know its way perfectly well. If Father Tyndale had tied the reins to the iron hold provided, and fallen asleep, he would no doubt have got home just as safely. Still, the silence required something.

“You said that my aunt is very ill,” she began tentatively. “I have no experience in nursing. What will I be able to do for her?”

“Don't let it worry you, Mrs. Radley,” Father Tyndale replied with a softness in his voice. “For sure Mrs. O'Bannion will be there to help. Death will come when it will. There's nothing to do to change that, simply a little care in the meantime.”

“Is…is she in a lot of pain?”

“No, not so much, at least of body. And the doctor comes when he can. It's more a heaviness of the spirit, a remembrance of things past…” He gave a long sigh and there was a slight shadow in his face, not a change in the light so much as something from within. “There are regrets, things that need doing before it's too late,” he added. “That's so for all of us, it's just that the knowledge that you have little time makes it more pressing, you understand?”

“Yes,” Emily said bleakly, thinking back to the ugly parting when Susannah had informed the family that she was going to marry again, not to anyone they approved of, but to an Irishman who lived in Connemara. That in itself was not serious. The offense was that Hugo Ross was Roman Catholic.

Emily had asked at the time why on earth that mattered so much, but her father had been too angry and too hurt over what he saw as his sister's defection to pursue the subject of history and the disloyalties of the past.

Now Emily stared at the bleak landscape. The wind rippled through the long grasses, bending them so the shadows made them look like water. Wild birds flew overhead, she counted at least a dozen different kinds. There were hardly any trees, just wet land glistening in the occasional shafts of sun, a view now and then of the lake that Father Tyndale had spoken of, long reeds growing at the edges like black knifemarks. There was little sound but the pony's hoofs on the road, and the sighing of the wind.

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