"Your sister," sneered Miriam Golddieb, "has invited herself for Christmas." She peered down her nose at her husband, who was reading his newspaper. "Are you listening Martin?"
Martin folded his paper carefully, keeping the rustling to a minimum and his face impassive. He was well aware that in this mood his wife could – and would – take just about anything the wrong way.
"I don't think that's a good idea," he said. His voice was calm and low, which is how he always addressed his wife. "I think we should tell her that we'll be indisposed at Christmas."
"Well of course we will be! How could you think otherwise? It's Christmas, and there will be people arriving expecting to be entertained, Martin, and who will entertain them? Not your sister, that's for absolutely certain! She's only entertained things that paid for it. Expensively paid for it."
Martin allowed himself a tiny sigh. He didn't much care for his sister, and he felt that her approach to life was a little too mercenary and a lot too unfocused, but nonetheless she was his sister and Miriam seemed altogether too keen to put her down. It was similar with his brother, Johann; Miriam never missed an opportunity to be catty.
"Miriam," he said, gathering his thoughts. "Miriam, Nickie is quite probably a whore, and she is more masculine than Johannn when she puts her mind to it, and she definitely killed both Aunt Tilly and Cousin Julia. Nonetheless, that she can call these people these things, or rather that she could, means that she is family. She is blood, Miriam, and you must remember that. Be nicer to her."
Miriam sniffed. "That is far easier to say than to do," she said stiffly. "Especially since it is too late to tell her to return."
"We received the letter only three days ago, and it should have arrived last week. Unfortunately, the latest outbreak of hostilities between house numbers 19 and 25 mean that the postman's corpse lay untouched in the gutters for a week before they sent a postboy through to salvage the letters and complete the deliveries. Your sister will be arriving this afternoon."
"Nickie will be here this afternoon?"
"I've told you that, Martin. You sound ridiculous repeating it over and over again."
Martin stood, and with a sudden, sharp movement slapped Miriam in the face with his newspaper. She recoiled, stumbling over her long purple dress, and then toppled to the floor, unable to break her fall without appearing inelegant.
"Be careful what you say, Miriam," he said. "I will not tolerate your constant dismissal of my family like this. I watch my tongue when discussing your family."
Miriam didn't reply, instead thrashing around on the carpet. Her dress, a long thin purple tube with whale-bone reinforcements made it hard for her to right herself because she couldn't bend at the waist to sit up. Instead she had to try to turn herself onto her front, press herself up and then use the furniture to pull herself back to standing. Martin watched her struggle for a few minutes, his grey eyes wintery and his newspaper held loosely by his side, and then he walked out. As he walked along the hall he passed the butler, a muscular middle-aged man who could carry a sow under each arm.
"Barnard," he said, his voice peremptory. "Miriam is in the Blue Drawing Room. Get a maid to help her up please." Barnard nodded, but Martin had already turned away and didn't see it.