Summary: A comedy of manners. (With grateful thanks to Lillian and her inspiring lists.)
Word Count: 5328
Ben looked at the letter with a growing sense of disbelief, a shadow of fear and apprehension crossing his face as he tried to digest the unpalatable contents. Folding the paper in half, and then in half once again, he finally pushed it under the edge of his plate, as if trying to blot the contents from his mind. Placing both hands flat on the table, he exhaled loudly.
“Is it bad news?” Marie asked anxiously. Adam and Hoss exchanged surreptitious looks and then applied themselves to eating their meal as quickly and quietly as possible.
“Not exactly bad,” Ben allowed. “Just… a little surprising.”
Marie raised one eyebrow in a quizzical manner. “A pleasant surprise – or an unpleasant one?”
“A mixed bag,” Ben admitted. “The letter is from my Cousin Clarissa – announcing that she’s coming to pay us a visit.”
“Who is Cousin Clarissa?” Hoss enquired. Generally speaking, visitors tended to bring gifts with them, so the boy was disposed to view arrival this new relative with pleasure.
“She’s a rather distant relative, quite a bit older than me,” Ben explained. “To be perfectly honest, I’ve never quite worked out what our relationship is. It’s rather complicated and tangled.”
Picking up the bone from his pork chop, Hoss chewed on it reflectively and considered the situation. The family certainly seemed to specialize in being different and difficult to pin down! For a start, he and Adam had different mothers, but that didn’t mean they weren’t as close as brothers could be. He looked across at his very new baby brother and wondered if he would ever feel the same way about Joe. Things had been very different since Joe made an early but dramatic appearance into the world and Hoss still wasn’t sure if he liked the changes his arrival had brought. Had he the necessary vocabulary, Hoss would have described his feelings as ambivalent at best, possibly verging towards hostile. As it was, he just couldn’t understand why everyone made so much fuss over a small, noisy nuisance.
For one thing, Ma was always busy, fussing over the baby. Carefully fashioned cookies and long bedtime stories were now a distant memory for Hoss. In his childish mind he reasoned that the baby dominated life on the Ponderosa – why, even Pa got a soppy look on his face whenever he looked at Joe. He still urged Hoss to speak more clearly, while talking nonsense in a singsong voice to the baby. And Adam was always making cooing noises over the cradle and didn’t even seem to mind changing dirty diapers. Hoss made sure he was kept a safe-distance whenever it was time for that particular chore. “Is there any pudding?” he asked hopefully, switching to a more pleasant topic.
Marie looked flustered. “I did promise to make an apple charlotte, didn’t I? But then Joseph was fractious all afternoon and I simply couldn’t leave him. I am sorry, dear.”
Hoss heaved a long-suffering sigh, but it was not in his nature to sulk. Especially when Hop Sing arrived at the table with a pile of cinnamon twists.
Peace and harmony restored, Marie sipped her coffee and nibbled on a twist. “When is your cousin arriving?”
“Next Saturday,” Ben said, endeavoring to keep a cheerful note in his voice.
Marie tried very hard to ignore the despondent tones. “It will be lovely to welcome a member of your family to the Ponderosa – and we can introduce her to the boys and Joseph!”
Under different circumstances, Ben would have been only too proud to do just this. It was just that Cousin Clarissa was a very, very determined lady, with strong views on almost every subject, which she generously insisted on sharing with her relatives. But she was family and Ben felt a sense of dutiful obligation towards her.
Adam searched feverishly among his memories for some recollection of this cousin. Eventually, he was successful. “Was she the lady who sat up so straight, her back never touched the chair?”
“That sounds like Cousin Clarissa,” Ben agreed, secretly astonished Adam could remember his one meeting, so many years ago.
“She smelt like mothballs and peppermints,” Adam told Hoss. “And Pa told me I had to mind my Ps and Qs when we visited her.”
“I like peas, but I isn’t never had no Qs,” Hoss informed him and wondered why everyone burst out laughing. Families were very peculiar at times, he decided.
A small lady of indeterminate years stepped out of the stagecoach, looking as neat as a new pin, despite the long journey across dusty trail-roads. Quickly pulling off his hat, Ben bent down and gave her a courteous kiss.
“Not in public, Benjamin!” Cousin Clarissa chided. “This may be the back of beyond, but there are limits and it is important to keep up our standards!” She turned around and started haranguing the men unloading her possessions from the roof of the coach.
With a sinking heart, Ben saw a bulging carpetbag; large suitcase and a packing crate pile up in the street at his feet. Exactly how long is she going to stay for? Until Joseph starts work on the ranch? He forced himself to give his cousin a smile and gestured towards the buggy.
Holding her skirts clear of the dusty street and carrying nothing heavier than her reticule, Clarissa allowed Ben to help her into the buggy. “I did think Adam and young Eric might have had the good manners to be here to greet me. Not to mention that new wife of yours.”
“The boys are in school,” Ben wheezed, hefting the packing crate into the vehicle. It was extraordinarily heavy. He toyed with the idea of teasing Clarissa by asking if she’d held up a bank and escaped with gold bullion, but decided against it. His cousin was not exactly renowned for her sense of humor. “And Marie is waiting for you at home, with our baby, Joseph.” He climbed up beside Clarissa and flicked the reins. “There’s the Opera House, over there and the International Hotel.”
“Very nice, I’m sure,” Clarissa said coldly. “Your new wife is French, isn’t she?”
Ben nodded in agreement. “We met and fell in love in New Orleans.” His eyes grew soft with the memory. His reminiscences were cut short by a contemptuous sniff.
“I don’t approve of foreigners. No better than they ought to be.” Clarissa glared significantly at the saloon girls standing outside the Silver Dollar. “At least you had the sense to give the child a decent name, not one of those ridiculous foreign ones.”
Ben kept silent, wondering how Clarissa would react to the news that “Eric” was only ever called Hoss. He was sure she would not approve of that. Desperate to change the subject, he gestured at the towering pines and sweeping meadows ahead. “We’re on the Ponderosa now, cousin. Isn’t this a beautiful part of the world? It makes my heart sing with joy every time I come home.”
“It’s very nice,” Clarissa agreed in a flat tone. “If you like that sort of thing.” It was obvious that she was unmoved by the magnificent sight of Lake Tahoe shimmering below them, or the mountains sweeping up to azure-blue skies. “I hope it’s not too far now,” she continued, in a voice tinged nicely with tragic despair. “Too much fresh air isn’t good for me, you know.”
Long years of parenting had prepared Ben Cartwright for many things and he had thought the most perilous task currently looming was explaining the facts of life to thirteen year-old Adam. But now he would just be grateful to survive this journey, far less Cousin Clarissa’s visit.
Inside her home, Marie looked around anxiously. The previous days had been spent in a flurry of cleaning and polishing, so determined was she that everything should be just perfect for their visitor. A fire burned brightly in the grate, the windows sparkled in the sunlight and a vase of flowers added a cheerful splash of color. Patting her hair into place and straightening her clothes, she bent over the cradle where Joe lay asleep.
Normally, Marie treasured these brief daytime oases of peace and tranquility, and grabbed the opportunity to snatch a quick nap herself. But today, today of all days, she wanted her baby to be awake and smiling when Clarissa arrived. Joe had a tendency to be rather crotchety when he first woke up and an armful of fretful baby was definitely not the impression of domestic bliss Marie wished to project to her guest. Still, he looked adorable, decked out in a dress of white batiste, edged in lace and smocked in palest blue on the front, with a tiny pair of matching bootees peeking out from under the hem of the garment. For some reason, her baby chose to sleep with his arms flung above his head, giving him a casual and relaxed air. “Please be a good boy today,” she prayed. This was her first meeting with a member of Ben’s family and she wanted everything to go perfectly. It was desperately important that she should be accepted into the family.
“Here we are!” Ben announced proudly, driving sedately into the yard, having been warned that the rough roads were inconsistent with his cousin’s digestive system.
Clarissa looked at the large, solid house before her. “Well, you’ve made a start here, Benjamin. Rustic, but not entirely lacking in charm. I daresay it will be quite comfortable, once you’ve finished. And don’t worry about me, I can ‘rough it’ with you for a few weeks!” Her laugh rang out with hollow disbelief.
Choking down his frustration, Ben ushered her inside, where Marie came forward, eager smile lighting up her face. “Dear Cousin Clarissa! How lovely to meet you – and welcome to the Ponderosa! I do hope your journey wasn’t too tiring?”
“I am a trifle fatigued,” Clarissa allowed. “Of course, Benjamin hardly allowed me to catch my breath before bustling me into the buggy…”
“Oh Ben!” Marie shot him a reproving look. “Perhaps you would like to freshen up? Or would you prefer to have some coffee first?”
“That’s very kind of you, my dear.” Clarissa patted the younger woman’s hand in a patronizing way before turning to Ben. “I’m glad to see you’ve finally had the sense to pick a wife who thinks of others before herself. Elizabeth was such a flighty creature, wasn’t she? Not a thought in her little head about the important things in life.”
With a visible effort, Ben restrained himself, but his face darkened ominously. “Let me show to your room, cousin.” He gestured towards the downstairs bedroom. “We hope you’ll be very comfortable here.”
“I’ll do my best,” Clarissa replied, in suitably martyred tones. “How very novel to have a bedroom on the ground floor. You young people with your new-fangled ideas!” She shut the door firmly behind her, leaving Ben and Marie staring at one another in disbelief.
“She has had a very long journey,” Marie offered. Ben just grunted and went over to his desk, where he poured himself a large glass of brandy. In the cradle by the fireside, Joe slept the sweet, serene sleep of the innocent newborn, safely rocked in a gentle world full of love and totally unaware of how his small universe was about to be shaken.
“Wow! Adam, look at the size of that box on the porch! Cousin Clarissa sure must have brought some great gifts!” Hoss stared at the packing crate, his eyes wide with pleasure.
Naturally skeptical where Cousin Clarissa was concerned, Adam did not say a word, but merely smoothed down his own hair and tucked Hoss’ shirt firmly into his pants before leading his younger brother towards the house. As they drew closer, a familiar sound greeted them – angry roars, demanding immediate attention.
“Looks like Joe has woken up and is either wet or hungry!” Adam joked. The cries increased in ferocity and volume, making the boys wince. “Or maybe both,” he allowed.
“Sure does make an awful lot of noise and trouble,” Hoss grumbled. “That’s all he ever seems to do – scream the place down.”
“Babies are like that,” Adam soothed. He was a little concerned that Hoss was so cool towards Joe, but Pa had explained that this was a common reaction among children to the arrival of a new baby. No longer the petted and indulged youngest of the family, Hoss was struggling to cope with the reality of having a baby in the house. On the few occasions he had held the baby, Ma and Pa had hovered anxiously over his shoulder and Joe had sensed his unease, squirming vigorously, before bursting into disconsolate howls.
“Are your hands clean?” Adam demanded. Hoss held them out for inspection and was prodded in the direction of the horse trough, to wash off at least some of the accumulated dirt of the day. Finally satisfied, Adam marched him purposefully towards the house. “Now, be polite! Say hello and then don’t speak until you’re spoken to – okay?”
“Suppose no one says anything to me?” Hoss complained, screwing up his face in displeasure.
“Then stay quiet!” Standing up straight, Adam fixed a pleasant smile on his face and walked into the house. “Good afternoon, Cousin Clarissa!” he said, extending his hand out politely.
Clarissa took it gingerly, being well accustomed to the ways of boys, although this one looked cleaner than most, she had to admit. “He seems nicely brought up,” she informed Ben.
Adam stood awkwardly, unaccustomed to being discussed as if he weren’t there. “Did you have a pleasant journey?” he persisted.
“I though we wasn’t supposed to speak until we’re spoken too!” Hoss protested shrilly. Ben put a restraining hand on his shoulder.
“It could hardly be described as pleasant – rather more of an ordeal. But what is my discomfort compared with my cousin’s well-being?”
Correctly judging that no answer was expected, Adam stepped aside and pushed Hoss forward.
“Hi!” Hoss smiled brightly at the visitor. “I sure am pleased you’ve come to visit us!” His thoughts crept back to the box on the porch and the wonders it was sure to contain. Maybe a toy fort, with soldiers or even a Noah’s Ark!
Clarissa returned his guileless beam, delved into her reticule and popped a peppermint into his mouth. Hoss’ eyes bulged with pleasure.
“And this is my youngest son – Joseph!” Ben took the baby from Marie and beamed proudly into the small face. Clarissa took a critical look.
“He’s rather small, isn’t he?”
Hoss pushed the peppermint into his cheek. “That’s what I think too!” he confided.
Clarissa studied Joe’s face carefully and turned to Marie. “He’s very like you, my dear, isn’t he?”
Marie tried her best to take this as a compliment. “I think he has my eyes, but I can also see Ben’s chin.” She gently stroked the downy, golden-brown curls and a tender expression crept across her eyes. “Isn’t he just beautiful?”
It is a well-established fact that there is only one answer to this question. Just as all brides are radiantly lovely on their wedding day, each baby is the most beautiful creature on earth, to his or her besotted parents. Clarissa did not seem to be aware of this nicety. “My – what a head of hair!” Marie flushed with pleasure, but her happiness soon dissipated. “It really doesn’t seem right for a child that age to have so much hair, does it? And curly into the bargain! And I do hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but I can’t help wondering why you don’t keep a bonnet on him. His ears are a little distracting, aren’t they? A bonnet is the best solution.”
Marie looked as if she were about to burst into tears, while Ben bristled with righteous indignation. “There is nothing wrong with that child’s ears! A trifle large, perhaps, but he will grow into them!”
Hoss sidled closer to his cousin and slipped his hand into hers, receiving a surreptitious squeeze in return.
“I’m sure you are right, Benjamin,” Clarissa said soothingly, her whole demeanor implying that he was sadly deluded. With impeccable timing, Hop Sing announced that dinner was almost ready.
“I almost forgot!” Clarissa clapped her hands together with glee, just above Joe’s head, causing him to give a small twitch of distress. “I brought a little present for you! After all, I know how difficult it is to get truly tasteful things, when one is living in the wilderness.” She walked purposefully towards the door, her toes tapping on the polished wood floor, the Cartwrights following helplessly in her wake, Marie clutching her baby to her chest and regarding his ears mournfully.
Ben pried the boards from the top of the packing case and began to delve into the straw-filled interior, while Clarissa continued talking.
“I though you could probably do with some nice china, and I know that these patterned services are very popular…”
Marie could hardly restrain her excitement. “Oh, how wonderful! I’ve been longing for willow pattern china – it’s so stylish!”
The words were scarcely out of her mouth when Ben pulled out a plate. It did not bear the striking blue and white pattern, telling the story of the Chinese sweethearts. Rather, the plate bore a slightly smudged red transfer print. Ben squinted carefully at it but was unable to determine what the subject matter was, although it appeared to be some rural scene. More than that, it was impossible to say.
“Willow pattern is rather common, I always think,” Clarissa said smugly.
“How very thoughtful of you,” Ben began and then hesitated, not quite sure what to say.
“Most generous,” Marie added, trying not to let her disappointment show. The china looked very serviceable, after all, and would be ideal for everyday use. It was just that she had her heart set on willow pattern!
Hoss was entranced. “Red is my favorite color! You chose real good, Cousin Clarissa!”
Smiling contentedly, she allowed the little boy to lead her back into the house. Husband and wife exchanged rueful glances.
“Hoss seems to have made a friend,” Marie ventured, just as Joe decided it was time someone paid him some attention and started to whimper, kicking his little legs back and forth. Cuddling him close, she headed towards the kitchen to prepare his feed.
“How long is she staying for?” Adam asked, letting his worry show.
Ben draped his arm around the boy’s shoulders. “I don’t know, son. I just don’t know.” With a sigh that seemed to come from his boots, he escorted his son to the dining table, where Hop Sing was laying out a fine joint of roast beef. For once, Clarissa did not have a sour comment to make and Adam thought she might even have licked her lips as a delicious aroma wafted in the still air.
Ben had just finished serving everyone, when Marie slid back into her seat. Loud slurping noises indicated that Joe was devouring his dinner with as much pleasure as anyone else. Seeing that Marie was feeding Joe with a bottle, Clarissa voiced her approval. “Much the best thing! I have no truck with the other method – it simply isn’t natural!”
“I tried to feed Joseph myself,” Marie confessed miserably, for she still felt she had let her baby down. “But I just wasn’t able to.”
“He has to drink goat’s milk,” Adam volunteered. “Because when we tried him with cow’s milk, he…”
“ADAM!” Ben thundered. Joe hiccupped with fright at the sudden noise and blew a stream of bubbles into his bottle in protest. “Let’s just say it didn’t agree with him and leave it at that,” Ben continued, moderating his tones. Marie raised the baby to her shoulder and began rubbing his small back rhythmically. For a few moments there was silence, then Joe rewarded his mother’s efforts with an unmistakable burp.
Adam treasured the look of pure horror on Clarissa’s face for many years to come: outrage, shock, and abject horror – panoply of emotions in a spilt-second.
“That child has absolutely no sense of decorum!” she spluttered, half-choking on a carrot, while Hoss thumped her helpfully on her back.
“I allus gets a row if I do that at table,” Hoss whispered hoarsely.
“Now, Clarissa,” Ben began, holding on to the fraying ends of his temper. “Joe is just a baby, a tiny little baby, totally dependent on us! You can’t expect him to observe social niceties! And if he doesn’t bring up that wind, the poor little soul will be in agony.” Did this woman have no sense at all, Ben wondered.
Clarissa fixed him with a beady glare. “It is never too early to instill good manners into a child!” she said icily. “Still, I would hardly presume to impose my views upon your household, dear Benjamin. But mark my words, that child will lead you a merry dance!”
The next morning, Clarissa announced that she would be joining the family at church. “Religious education is so important for the young, isn’t it Hoss?”
Hoss nodded in agreement and took the peppermint handed to him underneath the tablecloth, stowing it carefully in the pocket of his pants for safekeeping.
Marie looked tired and drawn. “I think Joseph and I will stay at home,” she said hesitantly. “I had rather a disturbed night with him and didn’t get much sleep.” The culprit lay contentedly on his mother’s lap, gurgling happily, unaware of the trouble he had caused. His legs kicked out briefly and, intrigued by the action, Joe reached out, caught hold of a foot and dragged it to his mouth, where he sucked contentedly on his toes.
“Stop that child at once!” Clarissa shrieked in horror. “You’ve no idea where his foot has been!”
“At the bottom of his leg?” Adam suggested in a low voice. He exchanged an amused look with his father, punctuated only by a familiar wail as Joe reacted to the high, piercing voice of his cousin.
With a weary sigh, Marie started to pace up and down the living room, swaying back and forward as she soothed her baby. “You go on to church without me,” she advised and Ben nodded in agreement.
Peace and harmony descended as the buggy drove out of the yard. Marie sat down on the sofa and held Joe up high above her head. “You clever, clever boy! Mama’s clever Joe! We get to stay at home while poor Papa has to suffer Cousin Clarissa!” She lowered the baby and kissed his tiny nose, before bouncing him gently upwards, reveling in the squeaks of delight. After a short while, Joe’s eyes became heavy with sleep and Marie simply curled up on the sofa, cradling him gently to her chest. The sound of his snuffling breath and the feel of his heartbeat soothed her and in a short time, she too was asleep.
A gentle hand on her shoulder aroused Marie and she awoke to see Hop Sing’s smiling face. “Church nearly over. I take baby while you get tidy?” Hop Sing held out his hands, a certain pleading look on his face.
“Hop Sing – whatever would I do without you?” Marie transferred Joe into his arms and dashed upstairs to freshen up. She stopped on the first landing and quietly observed the man sitting down, looking at Joe with rapt absorption. Hop Sing reached out and gently stroked Joe’s cheek with one finger, smiling as the baby automatically opened his mouth and then let out a sleepy yawn, before opening bleary eyes and staring at up at him.
Everything was going perfectly: Sunday lunch was nearly ready, the mistress of the house was neat and composed and the youngest inhabitant of the Ponderosa had consumed a bottle of milk in record time. Marie was just congratulating herself when she noticed a look of intense concentration on her son’s face. “Oh no! Not now, Joseph – please!”
Joe resolutely ignored his mother and his face took on a reddish tinge, while his brow puckered ominously.
“HI Ma! We’re back!” Hoss ran forward and gave her an eager hug, then drew back. “Pooh! Something smells!”
“Hoss!” Marie scolded, trying to hide her chagrin.
Cousin Clarissa positioned her staunchly behind her ally. “Don’t scold the child for being truthful. Honesty should be praised and rewarded.” Hoss gave her an expectant smile and was duly rewarded with another peppermint.
“I’ll deal with this – you have a nice chat with Cousin Clarissa.” Ben gave his wife a sweet smile and picked up Joe, being careful to hold him at arm’s length. Seeing the necessary equipment was at hand, he simply plonked his son down on the coffee table and stripped off the offending diaper. Joe grinned beatifically at his father, just as a stream of liquid arched gracefully upwards.
Cousin Clarissa looked as if she were about to pass out, especially as Ben did not seem at all put out by this occurrence.
“Trying to soak your Papa, were you?” Ben chuckled, stemming the flow with a cloth and tickling Joe gently on his tummy. With an ease born of long practice, he cleaned the baby and tucked him securely into clean diaper. In the background, he could hear his cousin spluttering like pan of popcorn on the fire.
“Never in all my born days…! The shame of it… the indignity.”
It was very likely that Clarissa could continue in this vein for some considerable time, Ben thought. Getting a little damp seemed a mere nothing in comparison to what Marie was having to endure! Still it was a fair exchange for staying at home this morning – four hours with Clarissa was enough to test the patience of a saint. “I’ll just go and get changed,” he called over his shoulder, darting upstairs and congratulating himself on another lucky escape.
At lunch, Adam politely answered all Clarissa’s probing questions about schoolwork, even though this meant that his meal was half-cold before he could even take a mouthful. His knuckles still ached from the rapping Clarissa had inflicted the previous evening when she accused him of speaking with his mouth full. For an old lady, she sure packs a pretty mean wallop, he thought resentfully.
Clarissa was not impressed by the boy’s obvious interest in his lessons nor was she charmed by his serious and mature attitude. “He’s rather self-absorbed, isn’t he?” she informed Ben. “But I wouldn’t worry about it too much. You can see he takes after his poor mother, and she never had any staying power, did she?”
A horrified silence greeted this supremely tactless remark. Taking it as tacit agreement with her outrageous statement, Clarissa contentedly applied herself to her roast chicken. After a cup of coffee, she announced that she would rest in her room and read her bible.
Adam waited until the door was firmly closed. “Oh most pernicious woman!” he quoted softly.
Ben gave him a wry smile. “Quite right, son. Quite right!”
“Exactly how long is she staying for?” There was a plaintive tone to Marie’s voice, as she joggled Joe up and down, provoking small noises of joy. At least one member of the family was happy!
“She didn’t say,” Ben admitted. He looked at Hoss, who was still fiddling with his lunch. “Aren’t you hungry?”
Hoss shook his head slowly and Ben realized that the child had a bilious look about him. “Are you feeling alright?”
“I think I’m gonna be sick!” Hoss announced and rushed outside, Ben following close at his heels.
“I do hope he isn’t sickening for anything,” fretted Marie.
Adam snorted contemptuously. “More like sick of peppermints, I would say! He’s eaten over half a pound of them since Cousin Clarissa arrived.” He gave a start as Marie thrust Joe into his arms and stomped outside. “Well little brother, it’s just you and me, isn’t it?” Adam ran his finger up the tender sole of Joe’s foot and laughed at the bemused expression on the baby’s face as his foot jerked upwards. Then he looked directly at Adam and gave him a toothless grin.
“He smiled at me! His first smile!” Adam told his father proudly. Marie was tending to Hoss and Ben felt in need of another cup of coffee.
“A word of advice, Adam – babies always give their first smile to their mothers,” Ben replied. “It’s a fact. Indisputable. And life will be much more pleasant if you remember that, all right? After all, there’s no sense in upsetting anyone, is there?” He gave the boy a conspiratorial wink.
“Yeah, it was probably just gas!” Adam agreed. He hugged Joe close, treasuring the moment. A thought struck him. “Pa – you wouldn’t be too upset if Cousin Clarissa had to leave suddenly would you?”
“I expect I could live with the disappointment. Why?”
Adam’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “I might just be able to think of something…”
Recovering from his unpleasant ordeal, Hoss was given a dose of Gregory’s Powder and tucked up in bed, with firm instructions to stay put.
“Where is my young friend?” Clarissa asked.
Ben pulled a solemn face. “In bed, I’m afraid. He seems to be coming down with something. It could be measles or chickenpox or…”
“Or yellow fever!” Adam interjected; keen to play his part in this subterfuge.
Luckily, Clarissa wasn’t listening to him. “Children! More trouble than they are worth – that is what I always say! But does anyone listen to me? And I thought Hoss was such a considerate child – a little lacking in imagination perhaps, but with a good heart. How could he have done this to me?”
“I’m dreadfully sorry,” Ben said. “And we’ll quite understand if you want to leave tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Are you mad?” Clarissa stamped her foot. “You will drive me to the International Hotel immediately, Benjamin. I won’t stay another night in this hotbed of infection. And tomorrow I’ll get the first stage out of here!”
“I quite understand,” Marie said, just managing to disguise her glee. Beside her, Adam looked as if he were about to explode with restrained laughter. “Adam, why don’t you get the buggy ready?”
Incapable of speech, Adam just nodded and belted outside.
“Thank you so much for visiting,” Ben said politely.
“It has been an unforgettable experience,” Marie added, with considerable more honesty than her husband was able to muster.
Clarissa favored them with a sour smile. “I will return one day. After all, I feel I owe it to my relatives to impart a little of my wisdom and experience. That is what families are all about, is it not?”
They nodded, being totally incapable of speech. As the buggy disappeared, Marie turned to Adam. “Do you have many more relatives?”
Adam thought about this. “Well, there’s Uncle John and Cousin Will, and Uncle Matthew, of course. Then there’s Hoss’ Uncle Gunnar and my Grandpa Stoddart and…”
“Stop!” Marie burst out in laughter and pulled Adam to her in a hug. “I just hope none of them are anything like Cousin Clarissa, that’s all.”
Adam smiled at her. “I think she’s unique, don’t you?
Marie cradled Joe happily and then looked at her stepson with radiant happiness. “He smiled! Adam, Joe smiled at me!”
“Well, what do you know?” Adam said with a grin. “So he did. His first smile was just for his Mama.”
Sometimes, families were worth the trouble, even if you had to tell the occasional white lie, Adam decided.