Early December, 1910
Arlayna Louise Rachel Sharonn McGee Dexter, Arley to everyone who knew herher insistence that she be called that was the one time she'd really stood up to her grandmotherstared at the boxes of nutcrackers stacked third shelf to the ceiling in the closet. Her great-grandmother had begun the collection and the family continued it to this day.
If she didn't start now, Christmas decorating would be late. And the nutcrackers were always put out first. She counted. Ten on the bottom shelf. As she pulled them down she carefully removed each carved distinctive soldier from its box and set it on the dining room table. She moved to the next shelf and did the same, and then the next, until she was reaching as high as she could. At last she pulled over a needlepointed footstool, intending to stand on it.
"Oh, miss, let me go get the proper stool." Henny, the assistant housekeeper, stood behind her, wringing her hands, something she was often wont to do, around Arley at least.
"I'll be fine." Arley stepped onto the stool. "Oh, no!" As she grabbed for the shelf, one of the boxes went spinning over her shoulder.
Then, as if in slow motion, her fingers slipped off the shelf edge and she tumbled backward to land on top of the box, crushing it. The pain of her fall nearly made her cry out words her grandmother had washed out of her mouth years earlier. "Uff da!" had to suffice.
"Are you all right, miss?" Henny fluttered around Arley, living up to her namesake with little peeps of worry and flapping hands.
Arley sat up and craned her neck to see how badly the box was smashed. "There's no blood, so calm down." She crossed her legs Indian fashion and stood upright, the way one of her male cohorts had taught her years ago, back before her grandmother insisted she don the accoutrements of womanhood and cease running through the woods in childish games. "The nutcracker is what I'm concerned about." She flinched as she bent over to pick up the box. She'd have bruises for sure. Opening the box, she closed her eyes for a moment. Wouldn't you know this nutcracker happened to be her grandmother's favorite in the entire collection? Each year she told Arley the stories of the origins of each of the treasures. Except for this one. She always managed to divert the conversation when Arley asked about it. But it was always stationed in the center of the display.
"It's broken." She stared into Henny's horrified eyes. Now what do I do?
"Do you think it can be fixed?"
I most certainly hope so. Arley lifted the carved wooden nutcracker soldier from the boxin three pieces. "I don't know."
"There's the wood-carver who lives on the north side of Willow Creek. I've heard he can repair anything made of wood." Henny stared at the lower jaw, which was no longer connected to the face, then at Arley's eyes. "Do you want me take it there for you?"
"No, I caused the problem, so I'll have to fix it." Maxims like that had been drilled into Arley's brain ever since she'd come to live with her paternal grandmother twenty years ago. Her parents had been killed in a train wreck on the way home from Minneapolis, and the accident had taken more than her family; Arley had lost love and laughter. Her grandmother Louise believed children should be seen and not heard, and a young woman's life mission should be to take care of aging relatives. The huge house had seen more jollity in the years before her grandfather had died. But his grieving wife had never put away her widow's weeds.
Arley eyed the boxes of nutcrackers still on the shelves. While it was too early to put up the Christmas tree, the nutcrackers were always the first of the decorations to be put up and the last taken down. And here she'd been trying to be helpful.
She dusted off her hands and her posterior, which fared better than she'd feared due to her padded wool petticoat and wool knickers under her wool serge skirt. Her grandmother disliked spending undue monies on coal for the furnace and wood for the fireplaces. But perhaps if she'd not been wearing fingerless wool gloves, she might not have lost her hold and fallen on the box.
"Grandmother will return soon and I want all the nutcrackers lined up on the dining room table and buffet. If we put them close together, surely she won't notice that one is missing."
"And if she asks?" Henny's pale eyebrows tickled her starched mobcap.
"I shall think of something." Please, God, give me inspired thoughts before then.
Soon, nutcrackers of all shapes and sizes filled both table and buffet, a colorful guard and testament to generations of gifts given first to her great-grandfather as a boy and handed down to Grandmother Louise. Being as there were no boys to inherit now, the collection would pass to Arley. The love of nutcrackers must be a male thing, she'd decided years earlier, as she would have much preferred angels and nativity scenes. Not that there weren't plenty of those, also. Decorating the mansion took an amazing amount of time and material. Her grandmother had put her in charge of the preparations when she turned fifteen, nearly ten years ago, as if conferring a title of great respect. Arley secretly thought her grandmother hoped such a job would help settle her down.
Arley forced herself not to limp as she made her way to the kitchen, where a taller stool could be found in the butler's pantry. If only she'd fetched it, instead of standing on the needlepointed footstool. That was what being in a hurry did for one, and added one more errand to time that was already passing in a whirlwind.
"Will you be wanting lunch soon?" asked Mrs. Hanson, the cook.
"Grandmother will expect us to wait." Arley paused a moment to tuck strands of her mouse-brown hair back into the snood she usually wore to keep the curly mass under control. She thought of herself as exceedingly ordinary, not comely at all, as her grandmother so often reminded her. Yet she had a slightly turned-up nose and long eyelashes that framed sky-blue eyes. Her lithe figure would never need a corset, and she moved with a natural grace, inherited, along with her slender hands, from her mother.
"No, she sent word that she will be home later," Cook said.
"Oh." Then perhaps I can run to the wood-carver's house and be back before she returns. "Did she say why she was going to be late?"
"Something about the meeting taking longer than she had planned."
Arley knew her grandmother had a meeting with the lawyer and the banker who, under her careful supervision, managed her assets. While they thought they were her advisers, Louise Carlson Dexter kept up on all the business affairs and told them what to do, more often than not. She was known to be astute in all matters financial and did not suffer fools gladly. Since Arley was frequently called in to assist with her grandmother's prodigious correspondence, she had a fairly good idea of the scope of her grandmother's business acumen and knowledge.
The fact that she'd not been asked to accompany her grandmother today had made her wonder what was in the offing. But instead of stewing about it, she'd set about getting the house decorations out and as much up as possible to forestall any hints of dalliance. Sometimes no matter how hard she tried to be ladylike, disaster followed like the smashed box and now an almost lie. "I'll have lunch later."
Ignoring Cook's questioning look, she tucked the badly bent box with the broken nutcracker into a crocheted bag and, dressing in her warmest cloak, long scarf, gloves, sapphire wool felt hat that tied in a bow under her chin, set out for the wood-carver's. Since her grandmother had the carriage, she resolved to take a shortcut through a copse of oak and maple trees that raised bent black arms and fingers to the vivid blue sky. When she kept sinking through the crust on the snow, she changed her mind and returned to follow the road that had been plowed by a team and scraper. Skis would have been the best mode of travel today, but she'd not worn the proper boots for the binding.
Plan ahead. Another of her grandmother's admonitions echoed in her mind. So true and proving her grandmother right again. But then, how could one plan for an accident?
On her way through the village, Arley paused at the window to the bookstore. The proprietress, who often invited her in for tea and a lively discussion on whatever book they were reading, waved from behind the display she was arranging for Christmas. When she held up a new book, Arley leaned closer to the glass to see the cover graced by two little blond girls and an enchanting Victorian dollhouse. She motioned to her friend, signaling she'd be right in. This would be a perfect book to read on the morrow at her weekly read-aloud to the children at the local orphanage. Charmed with her purchase, she continued on her errand. How she had dreamed of a dollhouse as a little girl, but that was another one of those dreams that ceased with the death of her parents. Her grandmother thought toys like that were frivolous.
Arley crossed the stone bridge that arched over rushing Willow Creek, the namesake of their little village in southern Minnesota. She saw a log house with a carved-wood sign suspended on a bracket above the door. Lawrence Gunderson, Woodworker. While the house seemed to invite her to come closer, she hesitated a moment, knowing that the wood-carver had a reputation as a recluse and curmudgeon. How had she lived in Willow Creek all these years without knowing more about him?
She took her courage in both hands, pretended she was her grandmother and strode to the door. Should she rap or go right on in? Since this was by signage a place of business, she pressed down on the levered door opener and entered a room, dim in contrast to the bright white snow outside. Blinking, she stamped the snow off her boots on the rug provided and shut the door behind her.
She stared around the room, which was heated by an arched stone fireplace on one wall and decorated with shelves of carved clocks, ornate boxes and beautifully turned bowls and platters behind a well-worn counter. A gra...