The Christmas Cuckoo

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The Christmas Cuckoo Page 4

by Mary Jo Putney

  Jack guessed that the Lamberts did most of their living and laughing here. No formal drawing room would ever be the heart of a home the way this kitchen was the heart of Brook Farm.

  As he examined the room, he realized that Phoebe was not the only inhabitant. A tabby cat was curled on the girl's lap, a large black cat sprawled pantherlike on top of the cupboard, legs and long tail drooping over the edge, and a plump calico was tucked in on herself on a Windsor chair. Jack chuckled at the sight. Trust cats to find a snug spot. The kitchen made him want to curl up and purr too.

  Hearing his sound of amusement, Phoebe looked up and became quite still for a moment. Then she set aside both cat and mending and came across the room to greet him, her eyes bright as the copper pans that hung on the walls. "I hope you have taken no harm from the accident, Major Howard. Meg told me how you risked your life to save her."

  "I don't think the situation was quite that grave," Jack said uncomfortably. "While the water was over her head in that one spot, I think it likely that Miss Lambert would have been able to save herself if I hadn't been on the scene."

  "You are too modest, Major. Would you like a cup of tea? Meg is outside feeding the animals, but when she returns we will have luncheon."

  While Phoebe brewed the tea, Jack sat in a Windsor chair. The calico cat materialized at his feet with a speculative look, then sprang onto his lap. She landed with an impact that proved that she didn't miss any meals. Jack scratched her head, honored by her company.

  As they chatted over their tea, Jack could not escape the feeling that Phoebe was disappointed in him, though her manner was entirely gracious. He suspected that she, too, had had hopes of Jack Howard, and was reluctantly letting go of them now that she was confronted with a real man rather than the image created by her brother's letters. If so, Jack was glad, for it would be a nuisance to have her become enamored of him simply because he was a new face—particularly since he was an impostor. Perhaps the real Captain Howard would please her more.

  Jack had reached that point in his thinking when his hostess returned. She was accompanied by two miniature blond charmers and a shaggy dog of dubious breeding but noteworthy enthusiasm.

  "I'm glad to see you so restored from the rigors of travel, Major." Meg deftly removed cloak and bonnet from the smaller child. "You haven't met my goddaughters yet, have you?" She gestured to the taller girl. "This is Tizzie." Then to the smaller: "And this is Lizzie. Girls, this is Major Howard."

  Both girls curtsied gravely. While Tizzie shyly studied the stranger, Lizzie, a brazen little hussy, climbed into Jack's lap, which was vacated by the prudent calico.

  Lizzie regarded him soulfully. "I been feeding the chickens with Miss Meg. She has the fanciest chickens in the world."

  Not to be outdone, Tizzie piped up, " 'N I helped milk the cows."

  "How clever of you. Miss Meg is very fortunate to have such good helpers," Jack said admiringly, thinking that it was quite pleasant to have a warm, trusting armful of little girl on his lap. Glancing up, he said, "If I am to call you Meg and Phoebe, you must both call me Jack."

  "Fair enough. You'll have noticed that this is not a very formal household." Meg removed her bonnet and shook out bright chestnut curls. "The girls have been a wonderful help. They are going to help me with the Christmas baking."

  Visions of nuts and fruit in his head, Jack said hopefully, "Can I help too?"

  "Of course. The more the merrier. But I think I'll postpone the baking until this evening. There's a hint of snow in the air, so we had best take advantage of the good weather to gather the evergreens this afternoon."

  As the dog trotted over to the visitor and rested his jaw on Jack's knee, Meg added, "That's Rugger. He's a variety hound."

  Jack smiled at the description as he reached down to ruffle Rugger's ears. Snow? Surely that would delay Captain Howard. Perhaps it was safe to postpone his confession a bit longer.

  The door opened again, and fickle Rugger bolted off to greet the handsome youth who entered. Meg welcomed the newcomer with an affectionate hug. "What wonderful timing, Philip! We were just about to eat. I suppose you were dreadfully underfed in Gloucester."

  "Dreadfully," he agreed, laughing.

  Taking her brother by the arm, Meg brought him over to Jack. "As you see, our guest has arrived, though Jeremy has been delayed for several days. Jack, I'm sure you could pick Philip out of a crowd as Jeremy's brother. They're as like as peas in a pod."

  "A pleasure to meet you, Philip." Jack offered his hand without standing, since Lizzie showed no inclination to leave.

  "It's a real privilege to have you here, sir." Philip accepted Jack's hand enthusiastically. He was a handsome youth of fourteen or fifteen, with Phoebe's dark good looks.

  "It is I who am privileged. Your sisters have been making me feel very welcome."

  Meg was pleased to hear the sincerity in Jack Howard's voice. She had worried that her brother's friend might be disconcerted by the modest way they lived, for she knew that he had been raised in much grander circumstances. But the tall major seemed perfectly at home. In fact, she thought with amusement as Tizzie came to lean against his knee, he seemed to attract children and animals like blossoms attract bees.

  The major cleaned up exceedingly well. She hoped Phoebe was suitably impressed.

  BUNDLED and basketed, the greens-gathering expedition set out. The weather was clear and cold, with only the softness of the earth as a reminder of the previous day's rain. Jack inhaled crisp fresh air and decided that Meg was right about the possibility of snow.

  The party was passing the barn when another avian shriek rent the air. Jack jumped as a large, shimmeringly colorful bird, darted past. "Good Lord, is that a peacock?"

  "It is indeed—one of what Lizzie calls my fancy chickens. The silly beast has escaped again," Meg said with resignation. "Philip, will you catch Lord Feathers and return him to his pen?"

  "Yes, but it will take a few minutes," her brother replied. "Here, Phoebe, you carry my basket. I'll catch up with you once that imbecile bird is back where he belongs."

  Minus Philip, the party proceeded. Phoebe walked ahead with Tizzie, Lizzie, and Rugger, while the older members of the party followed. Jack cocked an eye at his hostess. "Peacocks?"

  "They came from Peacock Hill, of course," Meg explained. "Since they weren't technically part of the manor, we brought them with us. They're quite useless, but we thought that the least we could do was make Lord Mason buy his own peafowl." She glanced up at Jack, guilty amusement in her eyes. "The entrance to Peacock Hill has always been flanked by two magnificent topiary peacocks. The week after we removed to Brook Farm, someone cut off the tail feathers of both. I suspect that Jeremy and Philip did it, though I never dared ask."

  "It was a relatively harmless way of expressing some of their anger. Topiary tail feathers will grow back."

  "They have," Meg agreed. "It's more than Lord Mason deserves." They had been climbing steadily, and finally reached a summit that yielded a magnificent view of the rolling countryside. As the younger members of the party skipped ahead, Meg halted and pointed into the middle distance. "There is Peacock Hill. Since Lord Mason wanted only the land, the house is empty now. A pity, when it was always such a happy place."

  Through the leafless winter trees Jack was able to distinguish the outlines of a lovely Cotswold stone manor. In the pale solstice sunshine, it seemed magical, a dream kingdom from which the Lamberts had been banished.

  "I don't usually dwell on the past as I'm doing today," Meg said apologetically. "We're very fortunate we had Brook Farm to fall back on, and I'm proud of the way the younger ones adjusted to living in a farmhouse. After we moved in, there was never a complaint from any of them."

  "Perhaps it was because you set them a good example."

  As the major's gaze met hers, Meg found herself momentarily immobilized by the admiration in the dark blue depths of his eyes. He really shouldn't look at her like that, she thought weakly, as if she
were as young and attractive as Phoebe. It was enough to make even a sober spinster lose her head.

  Fortunately Philip chose that moment to catch up with them. As they resumed walking toward the clump of holly bushes, he said with shy eagerness, "Sir, Jeremy wrote us of what you did at the Battle of Vittoria—he said that he had never seen such courage in his life. If you don't mind speaking of it, we would greatly appreciate your describing the battle to us."

  Jack Howard looked disconcerted. "I do mind, actually."

  "Your modesty does you credit, sir, but I may never get another chance to meet a real hero," Philip said coaxingly. "I'd like to hear what happened in your own words."

  Meg opened her mouth to reprove her brother for pestering their guest, but Jack's answer cut her off.

  "War heroics are a sham, Philip," he said quietly. "Oh, sometimes soldiers act from great courage, but more often they do what they do because they have no choice—because it is safer to charge than to turn and run, or because they fear appearing cowardly, or because they are so tired of being afraid that death seems a welcome alternative. For real bravery, look at a widow struggling to raise her children alone or a doctor going into a plague-stricken city to treat the dying."

  "Of course there are many kinds of courage," Philip said, taken aback, "but there is something splendid and glorious about risking death for one's country."

  His voice edged, Jack replied, "Death may sometimes be necessary, but it is never glorious. For years my fondest ambition has been to die at home in my own bed."

  Philip stared at their guest, shock and disillusion clearly visible on his handsome young face. Too polite to criticize the major for his unheroic attitude, he said stiffly, "I'd best retrieve my basket from Phoebe—the holly is just over there." Turning, he bolted off to join the others.

  For several long moments there was silence between Meg and her guest. Then Jack said harshly, "Meg, I'm not the man you think I am."

  Far more than her brother, Meg could guess at the bleak experience that lay behind his words. "Who of us is what others think? Certainly I am not the strong, generous woman you think I am, for I too have done what I have because I had no choice," she said softly. "Don't condemn yourself for not living up to a boy's ideal. Philip is too young to understand that nothing is simple, least of all courage."

  "I know that, for I was no wiser at his age." The major drew a deep breath, his large frame rigid with tension. "But that is not all I meant— what I'm trying to say is that I am not Jeremy's heroic Jack Howard."

  "Please, don't say anything more—words are never adequate for the deepest truths." Wanting to remove the shadows from Jack's anguished blue eyes, she laid a gloved hand on his arm. "My trials have been different from yours, but I have learned that heroism lies beyond despair. And while it is certainly admirable, it is never glorious."

  "You say that words are inadequate, yet you have just said something vitally true far more clearly than I could have." He covered her hand with his, fingers gripping tightly. "But you are making confession very difficult."

  For an instant, as their gazes met, Meg felt disoriented. The farm, the crisp winter day, her nearby family, all fell away, no longer important. Reality was the man in front of her, and the feeling of profound intimacy between them.

  Shaken, she disengaged her hand. "Christmas is no time for confessions," she said, striving to keep her voice light. "This is the season for hope. Forget the past and your own imagined failings and simply enjoy the moment."

  Jack opened his mouth, then closed it again without speaking. His tension disappeared as clearly as milk flowing from a spilled jug. "You make it easy for me to yield to my less admirable impulses, Meg. Please don't judge me too harshly when you find out what a weak, deceitful fellow I am."

  "I'm sure that you are far too hard on yourself." She grinned remembering how he had barked at her after pulling her from the flooded brook. "You're under orders, soldier, to relax and enjoy the holiday."

  Their laughter was interrupted by a distressed wail, so they hastened down to the holly bushes, where Lizzie was sucking fingers pricked by the spiky holly leaves. Meg quickly soothed her wounds, and the rest of the afternoon passed in simple pleasures. Working with leather-gloved care, they collected basketfuls of bright-berried holly, then added glossy ivy. Philip, his earlier discomfiture forgotten, scrambled up an oak tree and cut a large handful of mistletoe.

  Lizzie tired on the walk home, so Jack transferred his evergreens to the others and carried her the rest of the way, her drowsy blond head nestled on his shoulder. He felt quite absurdly at peace. When Meg had commanded him to relax and enjoy the present, he had surrendered all common sense and scruples. Of course he was a fool to continue his pretense, for there would inevitably be a reckoning, but he refused to worry about it. For whatever reason, fate had sent him to this warm and welcoming place, and fate could jolly well help him cope with the inevitable explosion when the truth came out.

  In the meantime, he intended to savor every glowing moment.

  DUSK was falling fast when the party reached the house. Since it was unlucky to bring the evergreens inside before Christmas Eve, the prickly bounty was left in a shed before they proceeded into the kitchen.

  After everyone had shared tea and currant cakes, Meg said, "Come along, girls, it's time for a nap."

  "No!" her goddaughters said in chorus. Tizzie added, "We c'n help fix dinner, Miss Meg."

  "It is very good of you to offer," Meg said seriously, "but if you don't nap now, I'm afraid you'll be too tired to help with the baking later, and I need your assistance for that more than I do for dinner."

  The girls looked horrified, so Phoebe seized the moment and their hands and led them off to the small room they shared.

  Jack watched them go fondly. "Is her name really Tizzie?"

  "Actually it's Thomasina, but Lizzie couldn't pronounce that, and calling them Tizzie and Lizzie proved irresistible."

  Philip interjected, "I'm going out to feed the animals now, before it becomes dark."

  "Will you see if there are any fresh eggs?" Meg lifted an apron from a peg and tied it around her trim waist. "I'll be using a lot of them tonight, and we'll need more for breakfast."

  Philip nodded as he lit a lantern to take outside.

  Rather hesitantly Jack said, "Can I help with the chores?"

  "Of course, sir, if you wish to," Philip said, his face expressionless.

  Outside the temperature was dropping and a few errant flakes of snow drifted about aimlessly. As they crossed the yard, Jack said, "I'm sorry to prove such a disappointment, Philip."

  The youth turned his head quickly to the visitor. "Please, sir, it is I who should be apologizing. Ever since you spoke to me, I've been thinking. Jeremy used to talk like I did, but when I remembered the letters he's written, I realized that they changed after he had been in Spain for a few months. He stopped writing about the war and mentioned fighting in only the briefest way, usually just to assure us that he was all right. Instead, his letters are about his friends, like you, and about amusing things that happen. I didn't really notice at the time, but now I think I understand better how war changes a man."

  "That it does." Jack swung open the barn door and let his companion proceed in with the lantern. "Congratulations, Philip. You are learning wisdom much more quickly than I did. Is it your ambition to be a soldier?"

  Philip hung the lantern on a hook so it illuminated stalls containing three horses and four cows. "I'll leave that to Jeremy. One of my father's cousins is in the East India Company, and he said he'll get me an apprenticeship when I reach sixteen. Someone in this family needs to make money if my sisters are going to be taken care of."

  Clearly Meg wasn't the only practical Lambert, Jack thought, impressed by Philip's clear, unselfish thinking. "I imagine Phoebe will find a husband if she wants one. But why has Meg never married—have the men of Wiltshire no sense?"

  Philip lifted a pitchfork and began transferring hay
to the stalls. "An aunt offered to sponsor Meg for a London come-out. I was very small, but I remember how excited she was. Then my mother became ill and Meg canceled her plans. She's been taking care of us ever since, and now she's almost thirty." He shoved his pitchfork into the haystack with unnecessary force. "That's why I want to be in a position to look after her."

  "Is it so unthinkable that Meg might still marry? She is hardly ancient."

  There was nothing wrong with Philip's understanding. Resting the tines of the pitchfork on the plank floor, he regarded Jack with stern blue eyes. "Since Jeremy isn't here, it is my duty to ask if you have intentions toward my sister. And if so, whether they are honorable."

  Perhaps it should have been humorous to see a boy so young challenging a man over twice his age, but Jack was moved rather than amused. He envied the Lamberts the love that bound them together. "Perhaps it is early to declare intentions, but if I develop any, I assure you they will be honorable."

  Philip relaxed. "Good. I'd hate to have to put a pitchfork through you."

  Jack chuckled. "Being a devout coward, I assure you that I won't risk such a fate. Meg is lucky to have such defenders."

  "Even Tizzie and Lizzie would attack anyone who hurt Meg, and believe me, those two can bite when sufficiently provoked," Philip said with feeling. "Do you want to help me feed cabbage to the peafowl? Believe me, it's quite an experience."

  In perfect charity they finished the chores in the stables, then went off together to the poultry shed.

  MEG took the bubbling steak-and-kidney pie from the oven and set it on the wooden chopping block, regarding the crumbly golden crust with satisfaction. The pie was plain country food, but it did her no discredit. When Jeremy had first asked permission to bring his friend for Christmas, Meg had confronted the limitations of house and budget and decided that Jack Howard would have to take them as they were, or not at all. Fortunately, in spite of his privileged background, the major had accepted everything with cheerful goodwill. He looked like a man who would enjoy a good steak-and-kidney pie.


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