Today's Reading

Harry meanwhile spent Christmas at the big house in the hills above Bath where his elder sister, Camille, lived with Joel Cunningham, her husband, and their large family. He enjoyed their company and that of all the rest of his family on his mother's side—it included Mrs. Kingsley, his maternal grandmother, and the Reverend Michael Kingsley, his mother's brother, with his wife, Mary.
Truth to tell, Harry was glad of an excuse not to spend any part of Christmas at Brambledean with the Westcott side of the family. It was not that he was not fond of them all. He was. It was more that their obvious concern for him always made him decidedly uncomfortable. The guilt of what his father had done was something they had taken upon their own shoulders, especially his grandmother and the aunts, his father's sisters—Matilda, Louise, and Mildred. They felt somehow responsible for seeing to it that all turned out well for Harry, their brother's only son. They worried about him. He always felt compelled to be openly jolly in their company. But he could not live happily ever after just to please them. Contentedly ever after was not good enough for them, it seemed.

It was quite good enough for him.

He had lived alone at Hinsford Manor for four years now, at first recovering his health and strength—a frustratingly slow process—and then settling in to a life of quiet contentment as a country gentleman with a large home and farms to oversee and neighbors with whom to socialize. He really was quite contented there even though there were people, most notably his family, who could not believe it of a man who was still in his twenties. If restlessness crept in under his guard now and then, he simply ignored it until it went away, for he could think of no other way of life that would suit him better or even as well.

He enjoyed Christmas even more than he had expected to, considering the fact that it was busy and noisy with so many children. Abby and Gil had a new baby since last year, and Camille and Joel's family had expanded during the past summer to include the twin baby girls they had adopted because no one else would take them together.

Only three of their children were their own. The other six were adopted. It was a distinction that blurred into insignificance within the family, however. They were all equally Camille and Joel's children.

It ought to have been an impossibly chaotic Christmas. And in a sense it was, since Camille and Joel ran a rather informal household in which the children were rarely confined to the nursery with their nurse unless they were eating or sleeping or at their lessons—which they were not over the holiday. It did not help that both twin babies were teething and being a bit cross about it, or that Abby and Gil's Ben had recently learned to crawl and used his new mobility to disappear from everyone's sight and cause mass panic while he embarked upon unceasing explorations of his world, especially dark corners and narrow gaps between furniture. And the two dogs of the family were irrepressibly excited by the arrival of a third, Beauty, Gil's great lump of a canine, and chased and followed her wherever she went—when various children were not hanging all over her instead, that was, or sleeping with their heads pillowed on her back.

But it was also an unexpectedly good time for all of them, Harry included. An unencumbered uncle was communal property, he soon discovered, to be climbed upon without a by-your-leave and talked at and quarreled over and slept upon and, once, vomited over. He enjoyed himself so much, in fact, that he stayed to see in the New Year and then, in the middle of January, went to Gloucestershire with Abby and Gil and stayed with them a month.

He had not been away from Hinsford for so long at a stretch since before his return there from Paris. He would not have thought it possible. He would have expected to feel some panic. But he stayed away by choice and enjoyed every moment. Well, perhaps not the vomit moment.

When he set about analyzing what it was about this Christmas that had so warmed his heart, he realized that it was mainly the evidence all about him that life had worked out well for his mother and sisters. One could not know, of course, how it would have turned out for them if the Great Disaster had not happened. But Harry found it difficult to imagine that they would all be as happy as they actually were.

It was a strange realization. Did disasters sometimes happen to turn one away from a wrong course into the right one, the one that would bring the most happiness and the greatest fulfillment? Were some catastrophes not really catastrophic at all when one could look back and see the whole picture? His mother had married Marcel a few years ago and seemed younger now than Harry could ever recall her being. He remembered her as a quiet lady of unshakable dignity and marble demeanor. Life with his father, he had realized even at the time, could not have been easy, though she had certainly been unaware that it was not a legal marriage. Now she was warm, vibrant, ready with smiles for everyone and open arms for her many grandchildren—and she was never far away from Marcel, who did nothing much to hide the fact that he adored her.

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