“The Marlows are in residence at Graftings,” said Mrs. Willmot. “We will call on them tomorrow afternoon, to congratulate them on their return.”
“I can ride over in the morning,” her husband volunteered, “and ascertain from Sir Godfrey whether that would be welcome.”
“You are very kind, Mr. Willmot, but such exertion is unnecessary. Mrs. Curtis informs me that the family will be at home, Lady Marlow has sent a card confirming it, and Mrs. Grayson has already announced her plan to call at three o’clock; so I thought we might time our own arrival for half-past the hour.”
“I can see,” said Mr. Willmot, “that the ladies of Marlhurst are, as usual, several paces ahead of the men. Very well. I am at your service, my dear. Command me or no, as you will.”
“I will command you now, since you are so agreeable. I am uncertain as to how many of the children ought to accompany us. I pray you will advise me.”
Mr. Willmot sat back in his chair, and gave his wife a very satisfactory show of considering the matter with due gravity. It was ten o’clock, an hour at which the younger members of the household had gone to bed, leaving their elders free to take a glass of sherry or port wine, and enjoy, if fleetingly, the absence of riot and tumult. Mr. Willmot had already downed one glass of port, which had rendered him introspective; his second might render him inert. So he had better answer his wife now; and after a moment’s further thought he peered over his spectacles at her, and said, “Why may not they all come with us?”
“Graftings is a small house,” said Mrs. Willmot, “and the Marlows have but two daughters and a ward. I do not like to overwhelm them.”
“Surely we are not so many as to inconvenience a baronet and his lady.”
“They are not so grand as you remember; and you, sir, are accustomed to our company, and forget the sensational effect we can have on those whom we descend upon unawares.”
“But the Marlows will not be unawares; nor are they unfamiliar with the bounty of our progeny.”
“That is certainly true; but time may have blunted their memory of exactly how many they are. Mrs. Curtis, who is Sir Godfrey’s own sister, and an acquaintance I have often welcomed to this very house, often confuses the number. I have known her to say as little as eight and as many as thirteen.”
“Mrs. Curtis is not so fortunate as to have a child of her own,” observed Mr. Willmot, who did not greatly care for that lady, “or she would not have wished you so many as that.” In truth, although he loved his children, the idea of four more of them made him go rather pale.
“It must also be said,” his wife continued, “that when last we saw the Marlows, many of our offspring were very young. Now five years have passed, and they have grown large and strapping, with great, booming voices.”
Mr. Willmot did not like this characterization of his darlings. “Perhaps Graftings has sufficient hitching posts to which we can tether them,” he said sharply. “And for refreshment, we may pitch some hay their way.”
Mrs. Willmot frowned at him. “Come now; there is no need to be satirical. I only mean that our children fill much more of a room today, than they did when last the Marlows knew them.”
“You are too nice on the Marlows’ behalf, I think. Do I not recall that their eldest daughter is a famous lover of dogs? She kept two in the house with her, I believe. Great, rambunctious beasts. Now that she is older, I suspect she has graduated to a full…what is the word, for a multiplicity of canines? Horde? Pride? Crush? Cabal?”
“The term is ‘pack,’ ” came a voice from across the room. In her quiet corner, where she sat nursing her thimbleful of madeira, Patience—the sole adult child at home tonight, and thus permitted to share in the evening’s refreshment—now chose to interject herself into the discussion, before her father and mother could fall into contentiousness. She had served this function many times before, and knew how to head off incipient disputation.
“If I may remind you, Mama, Papa,” she continued, “Amy is with Aunt Clayton, and three of the boys are away as well. So we are at present five, not nine; a number much less to be feared.”
“By heaven, you’re right,” said her father. “Why is it, Mrs. Willmot, that neither you nor I happened to consider that?”
“We are not so clever as our children,” said his wife. “At least, I’m sure I am not. You, sir, I suspect are distracted by thoughts of industry and the affairs of the realm.”
“Indeed so,” he said; though in fact, before his wife had interrupted him with her proposition to call on the Marlows, his principal thought had been of when he might next slip away to visit an obliging young seamstress who lived with her mother on the village outskirts. Mr. Willmot had gone from taking pride in his wife’s extraordinary fecundity, when first they were wed, to now, many years later, living in abject fear of it; so that as a precaution, he enjoyed himself as much as prudence allowed, outside the dangerous terrain of her fertile embrace.
With the matter thus settled, each member of the trio fell into private thoughts. Indeed Mr. Willmot fell into private slumber, as he was wont to do, and his wife and daughter would risk no further conversation, lest it wake him. When they had finished their own dainty servings, they went upstairs, leaving Mr. Willmot to the care of his valet, Hastings, who never failed, by some means Mrs. Willmot never cared to inquire into, and her husband even less so, to arrange it so that when Mr. Willmot awoke the next morning, he would be in his nightshirt and cap, in his own bed, in his own room.
Alone in her bedchamber, Patience sat before her mirror and brushed out her hair before retiring for the night. She had very long hair, black and silken, and was immoderately proud of it—perhaps it was the only immoderate thing about her. Again, as every night, she lamented that no one would ever see her hair in its unpinned splendour, and admire it as much as she did herself; not even her sister Amy, who had shared this room before their Aunt Clayton—who had fixed on Amy as her favorite—persuaded the Willmots to allow her to take her on as a companion. With so many children already bulging at the rafters, the Willmots did not require too strenuous an argument before they submitted. And for a time, Patience was very glad to have a room to herself—a very wonderful luxury, for a girl her age, in her situation.
But it had seemed less wonderful once she had accepted that her situation would never alter. Then the luxury of having a room all her own, became instead the curse of that being all she would ever call her own. Yet she had not acted precipitously in making it so; for she had twice been disappointed in love, allowing herself to feel earnest affection for men who did not choose to return the favor, and she meant never again to risk such injury to her heart. Thus, pitying her mother (who felt the loss of Amy much more keenly than she had imagined she would), it had seemed right for Patience to close the door on all hope of matrimony, put on her cap, and take her place at her mother’s side, as her confidant and comfort.
But she had done this at six-and-twenty; at which point, her memory of Tom Peake had been of a boy of fifteen. An intelligent, somewhat grave boy of fifteen, to be sure; but a boy of fifteen all the same. When she next saw him—just the previous summer—the change in him was astonishing. He rode into Marlhurst one morning, bearing a communication from Sir Godfrey to his groundskeeper at Graftings, and stayed long enough to pay his respects to all the Marlows’ principal connections in the village.
This quite naturally brought him to Willmot Lodge—accompanied by his Aunt Curtis, who was effusive in her praise of him—and he was reintroduced to the family, who scarcely recognized him. He had grown the taller by several inches, and his jaw had attractively squared; his voice had deepened and his manner softened. He behaved with the utmost courtesy, though without much warmth; there was very much a sense of him withholding his private self from display. And in truth Patience, though impressed by the improvement in him, did not feel much drawn to him; she found him much too distant.
But then something happened that galvanized her in quite a different way. Mrs. Willmot said something mildly stupid, and Mrs. Curtis replied in such a way as to compound the original stupidity many times over; and Tom Peake turned to Patience, and gave her such a look—a look of utter sympathy and understanding; a look that said, “We must not laugh,” while acknowledging that there was something they both wished very much to laugh at—that had Patience not been seated, she might have been knocked back on her heels. It was the most intimate moment she had ever shared with a man, the only time one of that sex had looked at her, and her alone, and established—however briefly—a small space which they alone inhabited, in perfect concord.
She had not seen him since, but she had thought of him often; and the prospect of meeting him the very next day was tremendously exciting to her.
It was all foolishness, of course; she was a woman of twenty-eight, who had removed herself from the marriage market. He was a young man of twenty, the ward of a baronet, with a future ahead of him that comprised many dances, many dalliances, many courtships and kisses, before he settled on a wife. There was no reason that he should look at her; none at all.
And yet…she very much hoped he should look, all the same.