Today's Reading

As they walked through the zoo, Olive followed the boys. They kept their distance from the bears, tried to get the parrots to say rude words, and argued whether what looked to be a clump of rope was really the tufted end of a lion's tail, hiding away from the snow. The boys, in their thin flannel and caps, seemed utterly oblivious to the cold. But Olive could feel it. As always, the popular boys clumped together in laughing clusters of activity. The lonelier boys stood off alone and watched. She could see their faces. They saw apes, a pair of moose, and a finicky ostrich. They watched the sea lions sit on pedestals and bark. As they pushed their way across the paths, Olive even saw a stork, standing quietly in the background. The children did not have the time to see every animal, but they certainly tried. Olive liked the zoo well enough, but it was not her favorite thing. At least the snow had taken the edge off the zoo's distinctive odor. Olive had a dinner party that night and didn't want to have to make too many changes to her wardrobe.

At the end of their walk they met up with the other groups from the association at the zoo entrance. Olive's group, well known for its misbehavior, arrived last. Olive noticed that all the other children were very excited. She saw that they were waving around small picture postcards of the animals. Olive's heart sank. The other chaperones had bought these cards from the penny machines as souvenirs for their children. Olive quickly turned to her group. They watched as the other boys traded photos of yawning lions for lumbering elephants. Olive panicked. Why had the others not told her of this? She quickly eyed the machines and thrust her hands into her pockets. She had only folds of notes—not a penny among them. Olive looked around and grabbed the hand of one of her charges.

"Go," she said, stuffing some pound notes into his hand, "Get some coppers for the penny in the slot!" But the boy just stood there, staring down at the significant amount of money that she had just put into his hand.

"Go!" she said. The boy sped off to the ticket gate.

Olive turned back to her group. They had seen the money. They were all staring up at her.

"Please, Miss MacLeod, we don't want the cards," said one boy with shiny black hair. "They are only bits of paper." Olive smiled at his genuine sentiment, but she wanted them to have those postcards. The other boys who had them were beginning to brag.

There was another in her group who had worn the same wool cap all winter long. He came up to her and begged her to reconsider. This lad was younger and smaller, but the other boys liked him very much. He was also the son of a gentleman who had come down in the world to the level of the poor. As the boy urged his fellows to agree, Olive saw a hole in his darned trousers that revealed bare white skin. It was still snowing.

THE CRUMBS HAD HARDLY BEEN brushed off the white tablecloth when Olive watched her father, Sir Reginald MacLeod, leave the table with great, wobbling purpose, and make his way to the sitting room. He had a broad smile on his red face. He was the registrar general for Scotland and held a knighthood, but he certainly wasn't acting like it. Olive laughed, knowing full well what was coming next. Her father's tradition after their many dinner parties together at their country home in Vinters Park was well known. Everyone watched as he seemed to sway over the hearth rug as if it were some teetering boat, put his hand to his chest, took a deep breath, possibly burped, and made his familiar proclamation, in a very loud manner:

"And now," he said, "let us be merry!" rolling both rs to their fullest, most slippery potential.

Across the table, Violet Asquith, the daughter of the prime minister, with her curly dark hair and wearing a black dress, rolled her eyes almost imperceptibly. "Old Waxworks" was their nickname for Sir Reginald because of his pinkish complexion and cotton-white side-whiskers. Once again he had been too eager. The dinner table was still filled with scraps of food, not to mention seated people of sophistication and intellect, talking to one another about politics and religion. They weren't ready for games yet. Violet turned back to her conversation with a handsome man who was not her Archie. Not that it mattered.

From the head of the table, Olive stared at Violet's choice of confidant. Violet tried to change position to avoid Olive's glance, but it was impossible. She had a basilisk eye, that one, thought Violet. Some of the guests stood up, ready to give in and retire to the games. Olive rose herself, satisfied that Violet had noticed her attention. As she stood, people turned to look at Olive, as they always did. Olive was pale and lithe with sharp blue eyes, and though she was not very tall, her pulled-up red hair—wild and fiery—made it seem otherwise.

In the sitting room Olive became hostess, leading the party in games of epigrams, abstract conceits, and so forth. Theirs was always a bookish crowd, making the games a bit more competitive than the usual London party. Casual visitors who enjoyed dinner and conversation often vowed never to return after the singular experience of the games at Vinters. But for those who enjoyed the thrill of the clash, this portion of the party always went long into the night.

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