It was that evening, over dinner, when finally I was introduced to Great Uncle Halbert. My new-found family had been uncannily reticent in relating him to me: the cousins only giggled and smirked, Rudolph and Emilia demurred to comment, and Aunt Christine unfailingly changed the topic whenever I inquired as to his character. Neither bribes nor threats could extract a useful kernel of information from the servants, further, though their furrowed brows and the occasional eye-roll did not escape my attention.
In any event, I was greeted with a round and jolly man of advanced years. Great Uncle Halbert fairly exploded from his greatcoat, which a servant rushed to snatch before it collapsed to the hall floor. He stamped the snow from his boots before entering the foyer proper, and he appeared to me quite well attired, if a little askew at certain points. A droll little grin shone between plump and florid cheeks, and from behind his cut spectacles his dark eyes glistened and wondered at every moving shape in the room. I was immediately disposed to like him, a lively, good-natured engine with infectious energy: indeed, conversation seemed to brighten and heighten around him as he moved about the room, greeting each relation with genuine warmth.
The table chatter, when we had been seated, roved about many topics. Rudolph was called upon to demonstrate what calculus he'd mastered; Aunt Christine expounded upon a touring musical troupe from Paris, lodging for a week not three houses away from us; Uncle Donald and his children related a particularly ill-fated fishing trip of their recent experience. Great Uncle Halbert took it all in, entreating to be kept abreast of each family member's life for the past year.
"Does it happen that he only visits around Christmas?" I whispered to Emilia.
She nodded, finishing her soup. "It's quite strange that he should spend the main of the calendar in warmer climes, yet insists on making his way up to our estate when it's at its coldest." Emilia shrugged slightly and tucked her mouth in a curious way as her bowl and spoon were spirited away.
It seemed I had attracted Great Uncle Halbert's attention by incommoding his great-niece ever so slightly. "And you," he called from the far end of the table in a jolly voice, then faltered to recall my name. "I'm afraid that, were I to ask your rendition of the hitherto unrevealed dimensions of your previous life, we should lose the rest of the evening to its doubtlessly voluminous oration!" He chuckled quite heartily at his own comment, the hemisphere of his well-nurtured belly bouncing in mirth, but I wasn't sure I grasped what he intended to express nor what was expected of me here. In place of asking me about my history, he offered to regale me with his current favorite joke:
"What wedding is it that no woman wishes to be late for?"
I was sure I didn't know.
Hereupon erupted such a blizzard of laughter from his own gullet, I was sure we would witness seams and fissures break out all down his double-chin as he shredded his throat with hilarity. Once again at sea, I looked about the room to absorb or ascertain cues as to how I should react. Emilia was staring intently at the trout, steaming before her, and Rudolph had found some interesting thing in the egg-and-dart molding to scrutinize at length. Uncle Donald made a soundless whistle and reached for his wine glass; Aunt Christine began to grin gently at her boisterous guest but instead averted her eyes and fussed with her serviette in her lap. The cousins goggled at each other for a moment, then clapped their hands to their mouths to stifle their laughter, crouching beneath the table's edge. I noted the brow of one butler, momentarily furrowed, before he excused himself on a sudden errand; the maid at his elbow permitted a slight eye-roll before following him out of the room.
Undeterred and oblivious, Great Uncle Halbert roared until he wheezed, dabbing at his eyes with his serviette, still shuddering in his jocular state. When no one was willing to make eye-contact with me, I nodded politely in my Great Uncle's direction and tucked into the steaming and tender trout just set before me. I should misrepresent myself to express any distaste for this merry and round gentleman of my relation, certainly, but I would be remiss to not intimate that perhaps I was not now quite as charmed with him as prior.