Friday, June 12, 2015
What would brusque, decisive Mr. Knightley make of chatty, epicene Mr. Tilney? Would Mary Bennet and Catherine Morland bond over their love of books, or despise each other’s taste? Would Aunt Norris and Mr. Collins meet in mutual obsequiousness, or clash over mutual ambition? Would Lucy Steele just flat-out eat Harriet Smith alive, then spit out the splintered bones?...These are among the questions that can be answered by our NEW Kickstarter reward level: For $225, you'll get signed copies of all my Austen books, PLUS your very own customized story (2,500 words+), featuring any two Austen characters you choose—and the story is yours to share, sell, or stash away, however you see fit. For more details, see our Edgar and Emma Kickstarter page.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
I've posted the first ten chapters of Edgar & Emma below; if you'd like to see more, this link is the way to make it happen.
Please share it with your fellow Austenphiles, Janeites, Rege-freaks, and bitches-in-or-out-of-bonnets. I'd love for us all to go on this journey together.
And as I say in the video, this could be just the beginning: the juvenile Jane wrote a lot of short fiction, and I'd love to spend the next decade or ish, turning all those stories into full-length novels in my best approximation of her mature style.
But it starts here; this is the gate through which we must first pass.
Until that time, I remain your loyal and most obedient servant.
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Emma, dismayed that she had not been able to catch Edgar's attention before leaving the churchyard—and even more distraught that the impediment to doing so was his apparent fascination with Alice Nesmith—again took to her room, with the stated intention of remaining there the rest of her days. This time, however, her family were less solicitous of her; no doubt they expected her to relent at any time, as she had done before. And she could not quite resent them for it, because she fully expected it as well.
Self-incarceration had not suited her; she had grown bored with herself, and weary of her grief, and maintained her isolation only out of dread of the embarrassment she should face if she ended it so soon. But when Tom’s letter had arrived, alerting her of Edgar’s imminent arrival, she joyed at her deliverance; for the reason for her seclusion no longer applied.
But there was little chance of that now. After she had wept out the initial ravages of her disappointment, she lay on her pillow and rationally examined the possibility of another face-saving miracle. It was slight. She could scarcely expect providence to come to her aid a second time; and even if she could, what might that aid consist of? A letter advising her that Alice Nesmith had been struck by lightning? She could not in good conscience wish for it, little as she cared for Alice—and the two had never been on good terms; not since they were very young, when, having grown tired and irritable over a game they had been playing for far too long, they had fallen out over the rules. Each one invented a regulation that favored her over her competitor; each then accused the other of trickery, and neither admitted the deceit; with the result that Alice had pulled Emma’s hair, and Emma had pushed Alice into a cow-pat. They had been forced by their fathers to make it up; but each was strong-willed, and nurtured a secret strain of rebellion in her breast, that kept them at arm’s length from that day to this. They might be coerced into civility, but they would never again choose to be friends.
It sometimes seemed absurd that the effects of a petty childhood falling-out should yet be felt in full adulthood; but Emma could think of no possible amendment of it now. Except, in her less guarded moments…Alice Nesmith being struck by lightning.
But until this eventuality, Emma found herself self-exiled to her room…again.
Her salvation came in the form of Mrs. Curtis, who came to Graftings one morning to beg her company on a series of errands which it would be excessively tedious to have to attend to on her own. Emma put up a show of resistance, but allowed herself to be persuaded to end her tragic confinement; and thus when at last she came downstairs, she sacrificed no dignity, for she was doing her aunt a favor.
Still, she scolded herself for having got herself into the same predicament twice, and vowed to better suppress her more operatic impulses, that she should not do so a third time. Since the first two had been prompted by extremes of grief having to do with Edgar Willmot, she felt it might be best to avoid him entirely; for should she happen again to espy him doting on Alice, she could not depend on her reason.
Alas, she might conceivably evade him in the flesh; but the idea of Edgar was not so easily skirted. She learned as much within her first five minutes out-of-doors. She had known, of course, that the reason Mrs. Curtis sought her company was that she wished to talk—there being no circumstance in all of Creation in which Mrs. Curtis did not wish to talk—but she had not suspected that today, what she wished principally to talk of was the male Willmots.
“You turned the heads of both brothers on Sunday,” she said, as they headed toward the high street, arm in arm. “Mr. Curtis and I could not but notice it. That is to say, I noticed it and I pointed it out to him, and he did not contradict me. But I think I can guess which of the two pleased you better.”
“I hope you will not make the attempt,” said Emma, with no small dread.
“In fairness, I do think their finer qualities are evenly distributed; do not you? Edgar is very much the responsible one; his is the cooler head, his the sounder judgment. He possesses a very comforting gravity, and an endearing trustworthiness.” Mrs. Curtis recited all this as if describing a very well-made suit of clothes which she never wished to wear.
“Whereas Ralph,” she continued, “is the more suave, the more charming, the more conversationally adept. He is also more certain to be delightful company, and to notice everything, and to frame it in such a way as to make one laugh. Do you not agree?”
“I cannot disagree,” said Emma reluctantly.
“But while their characters are thus balanced, I think there is, alas, less equivalence in their aspects. Edgar is very self-contained and very graceful; but he has not the same advantage of countenance as does Ralph. Surely you will agree with me. Ralph is by any measure the handsomer of the brothers.”
Again, Emma could not argue the point; but she would not give her aunt the satisfaction of saying so. Mrs. Curtis placed far more importance on appearance than she did; and Emma would not encourage her by confirming a judgment based on such superficial terms…though she knew her aunt would press the matter. If only something would occur to divert her attention.
And at that moment, such a thing did occur; but not in a manner which Emma would have wished. For at the juncture where the high street met the road to the parsonage, they were intercepted by Alice Nesmith.
Mrs. Curtis was delighted. “Come and join us, dear Alice!” she exclaimed. “We are headed for the shops, as I deduce, by the basket on your arm, you are as well.”
Alice looked for a moment like she might turn and flee; but then she steeled herself, came forth, and fell into step with them.
“Good day to you, Miss Nesmith,” said Emma.
“And to you, Miss Emma Marlow,” said Alice crisply. “I congratulate you on your return to Marlhurst.”
“Oh, have you not yet renewed your acquaintance?” Mrs. Curtis asked. “What luck to have run into you then, Alice; for we are just now having a very illuminating tête-a-tête. What do you think Emma has just been telling me of?”
“I am sorry to confess,” replied Alice with perhaps too much satisfaction, “that I have not heard Miss Emma Marlow speak sufficiently often to guess at what she might say.”
“Why, she has only been saying which of the Willmot brothers she finds the most handsome. I think you may surmise which she chose.”
“I beg your pardon, Aunt,” said Emma, feeling color come to her face. “I have said not one word on the subject. The discourse has been entirely your own.”
“But there are so many Willmots,” said Alice, ignoring Emma’s protest; “I don’t like to venture a guess as to which one you mean.” But her eyes—which she now turned on Emma—betrayed that she had indeed ventured a guess.
“Difficult creature,” said Mrs. Curtis, and she playfully tweaked Alice’s arm—a familiarity that made Emma feel quite faint. “Why will you never guess when I ask it of you?”
“I am sorry, but I am very stupid at it.”
“I will have to tell you, then,” said the older woman, and she drew Alice closer that she might lower her voice. “It is of course Ralph whom Emma favors.”
“Aunt,” Emma cried, “forgive me, but I never said such a thing! It was yourself who named him.”
By this time they had reached the shops, and joined with other villagers who were out with their baskets, running their errands in the relative cool of morning, before the inevitable heat of midday.
“Ralph is very fair,” said Alice with a nod of approval. “Though I confess I prefer a darker complexion. No doubt Miss Emma Marlow and I have not the same taste in men.”
Emma, who did not like to consider that she and Alice Nesmith might have the same taste in anything, stilled the protest that was poised to leap from her tongue; in which interval her aunt renewed her discourse on the male Willmots.
“That is the benefit, you see,” she said, taking Alice in one arm and Emma in the other and leading them up the street, “of having so very many brothers in a single family. There is certain to be one to fit every fancy. Think of it, girls: Ralph is light, Edgar is dark; Richard is slender, David is burly; and Peter—well, Peter is too young yet to say what he will be. I suppose we must be content to wait.”
“I think he will be tall,” said Alice. “He is very high already, for just twelve years.”
“Then the Willmots must be persuaded to have another son,” quipped Mrs. Curtis, “that there may also be one who is short.”
“But what if he should instead be round? Then the Willmots must have two more sons: one who is short, and another who is gaunt.”
“Mrs. Willmot will not thank you for that, my dear,” said Mrs. Curtis, and the two laughed very wildly. Emma, whose elbow was securely interlocked with that of her aunt, could think of no greater mortification than to be seen with them behaving thusly, and indeed several heads turned in response to the noise they were making. But alas, she was to learn that greater mortification always awaits those helpless to defend against it.
“Why, bless me,” cried Aunt Curtis, “are those not two of the gentlemen we have only just named?”
Emma looked up, and to her horror saw that indeed Edgar and Ralph Willmot were a short distance ahead, very near to the milliner’s shop.
“Emma, my dear,” said Mrs. Curtis with telling deliberation, “was not our principle destination this morning the milliner’s?”
“No, indeed, Aunt,” said Emma, pretending not to take her meaning, “we have no business to transact there.”
Mrs. Curtis gave her arm a little shake. “Silly creature! You understand me, I am sure. I mean to say, what a chance this is to speak extemporaneously to your lover, Mr. Ralph Willmot!”
Emma felt her face burn again. “I have no such lover,” she insisted.
“Ah, but here is an opportunity to make it so!”
“The mere fact that an opportunity presents itself,” Emma said desperately, “does not signify that it is advisable to take it.”
Mrs. Curtis cawed out a laugh. “How clever you are! Ever ready with a turn of phrase. I suppose you think that gentlemen find cleverness an attractive quality in a lady. They do not. You may trust me on this, my dear; I know it for a certainty.”
“I am sure no one knows it better,” snapped Emma; and as soon as she had said it, she regretted that provocation had rendered her pert.
Fortunately her aunt was oblivious to her meaning, and merrily pulled her in the direction of the milliner’s shop.
“I declare,” said Mrs. Curtis when they came within hailing distance of the brothers, “here are friends of ours! Look, girls; it is the Misters Willmot.”
The brothers, who had been conferring together, raised their heads at this, and a momentary look passed between Emma and Edgar—a look of such candid, unaffected interest that each was embarrassed by it, certain that it was misconstrued—after which they turned their glances quickly away, and did not risk allowing their eyes to meet a second time.
“How do you do, ladies,” Ralph said as he and Edgar tipped their hats.
“Very well, thank you,” said Mrs. Curtis. “We are just come to visit the milliner’s. And what,” she added with unconcealed glee, “do you think we have all been talking about?”
Emma, whose skin was so recently reddened by shame, now felt it go pale with anxiety. “Aunt, no,” she whispered.
“You must not ask us to guess,” said Ralph. “For we might scandalize you by deducing quite wrongly.”
“Then I will have to tell you,” said Mrs. Curtis, and as Emma felt herself begin to sink into the ground, she declared: “We have been singing the praises of this lovely springtime weather.”
“Indeed it is very clement,” murmured Edgar, whose gaze remained downcast, as though in search of coins from Roman Britain that might be easily unearthed by the toe of his shoe.
“Such a wonderful moistness in the air,” said Mrs. Curtis with a quick glance at Emma; and the spark in her eye revealed how much she enjoyed causing her niece trepidation, then relieving it at the last possible moment. “So beneficial for the skin. Does not Emma’s visage have a particular glow this morning, Mr. Willmot?”
“Indeed it does,” said Ralph, at whom she had quite pointedly directed the question; for Edgar seemed to drift ever further to the outskirts of the group. “And yet she looks no less fine than Miss Nesmith—or I daresay yourself, ma’am.”
Mrs. Curtis laughed wildly again. “You must not say such things, Mr. Willmot! I am an old married lady.”
He flashed her a dazzling grin. “Then this moist air is more efficacious than any I have yet known; for you look no less a maiden than your two companions.”
Again she shrieked with laughter; up and down the street heads turned in curiosity at such stridency, and Emma longed to be gone. But she knew she was fixed in place for the time being. It was unlike her aunt to hurry away from a place where compliments were aplenty.
“To be sure,” Mrs. Curtis said, “there is but a difference of seven years between my niece and myself. My brother Marlow is fully a dozen years my senior, you know; so that I was but a child myself when Emma was born.”
“That explains it,” said Ralph with another bow. “I congratulate your husband, ma’am, on his good fortune in securing so young and comely a bride.”
“As well you might,” she said with a little smirk of pride. “For Mr. Curtis was nearly forty when I married him and might have done much worse, as I often tell him. But I daresay I have made him happy. He will not say so; but as he has not got rid of me in all these years, I must conclude he is not unsatisfied.”
“He is the happiest of men, I am certain,” said Ralph.
She crowed again. “Oh! if Mr. Curtis is the happiest of men, then what dour creatures all the rest of you must be!” She turned again to Emma. “I shall wish better for my niece, sir; that I shall. For her, I shall wish a husband who is always gallant, always gay, always ready with a compliment.” She took another quick look at Ralph, as if requiring further inspiration, then added, “A well-looking fellow, who is always considerate and obliging. That is my ideal. That is what I wish for Emma.”
“Such a paragon as that!” said Ralph, shaking his head and feigning a dubious look. “I wonder whether he exists in the world.”
“I am certain he does, and in quantity. In fact, you may be sure there is one to be found wherever you go.” She gave him a very sly look, as if daring him to take her meaning.
“Aunt,” Emma whispered frantically; “you grow too bold.”
“And Miss Nesmith,” Ralph said, nodding his head at Alice; “is she not included in your marital good wishes?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t like a cheerful husband,” protested Alice. “I should be much more contented with a sober-minded man—a scholarly man of great, mindful silences.” She did not look at Edgar as she said this; but Emma saw Edgar color and turn further away, as though he felt Alice’s eyes on him all the same.
“Then at least,” said Ralph, “you ladies will never be rivals for the same suitor. I congratulate you on the safety of your friendship.” He turned his head, as if to say something to Edgar, then appeared momentarily confounded at finding him so far off. “It appears my brother is impatient to depart,” he said, “and indeed we have lingered here longer than we had ought. But with such company as this, none would dare to blame us.”
“Such gallant words have bought you your release,” said Mrs. Curtis, waving him away. “Go, then; we will detain you no longer.”
As soon as the brothers were beyond the range of hearing, she turned to Emma and squeezed her forearm. “Did that not go well? How attentive he was! How rhapsodic in praise of your fine skin!”
“I believe,” said Emma, “he meant to praise each of our complexions in equal measure.”
“Oh, foolish girl; that was but a blind! He included Alice and me, the better to mask his compliment to you.”
Emma looked at her with incredulity. Was it possible Mrs. Curtis really believed what she had said? When Emma had last known her, she had admired her aunt very much, and thought her the pinnacle of all womanly achievement: a beautiful young wife with a fine house, and a liberal husband who allowed her to do what she pleased. Now that Emma had reached womanhood herself, Mrs. Curtis appeared very different to her; she seemed to be rather the younger of the two, as if her early marriage had frozen her in a perpetual state of juvenile giddiness. Were her aunt now to pick up her skirts and turn a somersault in the high street, Emma would be embarrassed, but not surprised.
“I must bid you good morning as well,” said Alice. “I begin my rounds just ahead, at the tobacconist’s shop, as my father has once again let his pouch go empty.”
Emma was surprised to her a daughter speak so sardonically of a parent; she kept her counsel, but the incident did nothing to inspire her to think better of her childhood friend.
Thus Alice left them, buffeted by Mrs. Curtis’s regretful effusions; after which aunt and niece went on alone. Emma had to endure another four minutes’ dissection of their encounter with Ralph, until by chance they passed the draper’s shop, and Mrs. Curtis must abandon all talk of the Willmots and tell Emma the shocking history of Madame Claude. Emma, grateful to be quit of the earlier subject, listened to the narrative with great equanimity, though she had already heard it twice before.
Thus at the end of the morning, each of its principal participants returned home secure in an entirely erroneous conviction.
Ralph was certain, by the way Mrs. Curtis had spoken, and by the way Emma had blushed at it, that his way to the latter’s heart was clear.
Edgar was equally certain of his brother’s success with Emma; and was additionally persuaded, having now seen both girls together, that Alice suited him much the worse of the two—but that she was, all the same, the best for which he could hope.
Emma was surer than ever that she could not be in the presence of Edgar and Alice without suffering great unhappiness. Never mind that he had behaved diffidently towards Alice; it was clear Alice had not minded—which, to Emma, meant that she had accustomed herself to such behavior from him, and did not find it an impediment to love.
Mrs. Curtis was confident that she would soon triumph on two separate fronts. Her campaign to match Emma with Ralph Willmot gave every indication of success; and by the way Alice spoke of preferring “a scholarly man of great, mindful silences,” it was clear she was indeed an ideal match for Tom Peake, did she but know it—and Mrs. Curtis would see that she did know it.
As for Alice herself…she was the least deluded of those here enumerated. For she was certain that Emma was less immediate a danger to her than she had feared, and that she had somehow gained an advantage with Edgar—an advantage she meant to press.
And let the consequences be what they may.
“Today I speak to you of selflessness. Of all the virtues impressed on us by our Creator, none is so great as Christian charity. The early practitioners of our faith were not renowned for their forbearance, or for their chastity, or for their rectitude, although these were essential to them; no, what set them apart was their duty to others. The first Christians distinguished themselves by their attentions to those in want; even they who were in want themselves, put aside their own needs and sought instead to comfort and serve the sick and indigent among their communities and countrymen.”
Mr. Nesmith paused; he would not have called it a theatrical moment—indeed he would have been shocked to hear it called such—but this was its effect. He looked down from his lectern at his visibly awed congregation, and continued: “But we latter-day unworthies, in our pomp and finery, congratulate ourselves on our righteousness based solely on the achievement of every seventh day coming to fill these pews, and tamping down for a single hour the rampant greed and self-interest that drive us like stallions the remainder of the week. We feast at the poison trough of gossip; we prey on the weaknesses of others as vultures feast on carrion; we gorge ourselves on sweetmeats while others starve, and slake our thirsts with wine and spirits that dull our moral senses and unleash our basest demons. We cloy ourselves with ourselves, sicken our souls with our animal cravings, debase our flesh by giving free rein to our appetites, and in all ways reduce ourselves to cringing, chattering avatars of darkness. We serve no one—ourselves least of all—none but he for whom the fall of human honor is the tireless labor of many millennia. Even now he laughs at our self-delusions and hypocrisies, as we mire ourselves ever deeper in the black tar-pit of sin.”
He lowered his head for a moment; then looked up and continued. “As a final note, let us welcome back to our flock Sir Godfrey and Lady Marlow, and their many fine children. May they prosper among us, and add to our share of blessings. Now rise, and lift your voices in Hymn number two-hundred-and-forty, ‘O perfect love, all human thought transcending’.”
The Willmots, by reason of their being the most ancient family in the neighborhood, were the first to exit the church, and to pay their compliments to Mr. Nesmith. Ralph in particular shook his hand and said, “What a stirring sermon! One finds one cannot wait to curtail one’s gorging and slaking.”
Mr. Nesmith—perhaps alone of all who lived—was not beguiled by Ralph’s impudent charm. “Enjoy your levity while you may, sir,” he said. “Rakehells never profit.”
“Do you not think so?” said Ralph before moving on. “You have been speaking to the wrong rakehells.”
The Marlows, because of their exalted rank, next emerged, and Lady Marlow especially commended the parson on his oration. “I am glad to see you have not lost your fervor.”
“Nor never shall,” he reassured her.
Mrs. Curtis skirted behind Lady Marlow during this exchange, averting her eyes from Mr. Nesmith, and once outside, summoned her husband to follow her to their chaise—a summons he was only to pleased to answer, as he had no use for the social talk on the churchyard green that followed every service. On an average Sunday his wife would have been in the thick of it; but today she was strangely uneasy, and felt it imperative that she avoid the parson’s notice. Were she a woman capable of even the simplest feat of reflection, she might have determined that this was because she feared his censure of those who fed at the “poison trough of gossip” had been aimed squarely at her. As it was, the vague inkling of having somehow put a foot wrong was enough to pull her from company; though she was not so chastened as to drive away entirely, and instead sat with her husband inside the chaise, observing through its window what transpired on the lawn, for later analysis.
Had she but known it, she was safe from Mr. Nesmith’s scrutiny. Indeed she might have come right up under his chin and stood on his shoes, and still not managed to engage his attention. For he was preoccupied with watching, from the corner of his eye, the progress of Ralph Willmot. He could still not rest easy that his daughter’s dalliance with that young rascal had indeed concluded; for the term of their flirtation had forced father and daughter into their most steadfast opposition yet. He had insisted that she give him up; she had outright refused, and threatened elopement if he pressed his paternal authority. So fierce was she in her defense of the attachment, that he could not but be mystified by how easily she then set Ralph Willmot aside, mere weeks later. He had never dared to question her about it, lest he provoke her into renewing the connection; but he watched her—he watched them both—for any signs that such a thing might be in the works.
Yet today Ralph did no more than bow to Alice, before moving on to speak with the Lynches, who stood some distance from her. Even more gratifyingly, Mr. Nesmith espied another young man approach and engage Alice in conversation—that being his verger, Mr. Redmond; a humble young man, but of excellent character and a cheerful disposition. He could not fathom what Redmond saw in his restless, unpredictable daughter, but whatever it was, he meant to promote it in any way he could.
As it happened, he was not the only one who at that moment regarded Alice and Mr. Redmond; for Edgar, too, caught sight of the couple just as they struck up their conversation. They seemed very friendly, which came as a surprise, because until very recently Alice had been rather obvious about her interest in Edgar himself. But then, she had also once been equally forthright in her attentions to Ralph. Edgar found her agreeable enough, but suspected she did not quite know who—or what—she wanted, and was loath to become enmeshed in her experiments to find out.
Alice had been rather cooler toward Edgar just before he departed for Oxford; could it be that her father’s verger had by then engaged her interest? He dared to hope so; for he could not in good conscience give her any encouragement on his own behalf.
She must have sensed his eyes on her, because she turned and met them with her own; and by the smile that lit her face, Edgar knew at once that she had not replaced him with the verger—or with anyone else. He was still the principal focus of her attraction. In fact she now dismissed the verger so curtly, leaving him almost in mid-sentence to come and speak to Edgar instead, that the poor young man was visibly startled; his jaw hung so low and so long on his chest, a bird might have made a nest among his molars.
Edgar cursed himself for his stupidity in spying on Alice, for now he had drawn her to him, and she was very much not the young lady to whom he wished at this moment to speak. But he could not turn and flee her, as she had done to the verger; his own manners were too correct for such discourtesy, and so he held his ground.
But before Alice could reach him, he felt a presence at his side, and turned—
—and there she was: the very person in all the world he most wished for.
“I beg your pardon,” Emma said with pleasing demureness, “but I wonder if you remember me, Mr. Willmot.”
“Indeed I do,” he said. “And I hope you have had the good sense, these past several years, to steer clear of vipers.”
She laughed, very prettily. “Oh! it was not a viper; you said so yourself. Only a grass snake. I think you must mean to aggrandize your heroism, Mr. Willmot, by putting me in greater danger than I actually was.”
He feigned an expression of great pain. “I am found out!” he exclaimed. But then he smiled and added, “I see that you have grown in wit, as you have in beauty.”
She blushed. “You are too kind, sir.”
“Not at all. I saw you within, you know; and had you not been seated with your mother and father, it would have taken me more than a moment to place you. The five years since last we met have done you many kindnesses.”
She laughed again. “Was I as much to be pitied as that?”
“Not at all; you were quite bonny. Yet…a bud, as opposed to a blossom.”
Her face flushed anew; and he could sense that, behind him, Alice had halted in her progress toward him, no doubt having seen him otherwise engaged. He felt free to suggest a stroll about the churchyard, and Emma, to his delight, agreed to the scheme.
“My father’s ward, Tom Peake, writes to me that you are newly returned from Oxford,” she said as they ambled away from the others.
He raised an eyebrow. “I was not aware that I was of such interest to him.”
She colored again; Edgar enjoyed the sight. He wondered how often he might induce her to do so.
“You are no longer enrolled there, I think?” she asked.
He shook his head; and—as the morning was proving rather warm for a walk—they stopped as if by mutual consent beneath a willow tree, to rest for a moment in its deep pool of shade.
“I am not,” he confirmed. “But there is a lecturer there—Professor Bridge—who has become a mentor to me, and who is guiding me through a literary project I have undertaken.”
“Indeed?” she said, and she looked at him with what seemed unfeigned interest. “What is the nature of this project?”
“I’m afraid you would find it very dull,” he said—remembering the glaze that had come over Alice’s eyes when he expounded upon it to her.
“You think me a silly creature, then? Lacking in understanding?” There was an accusatory note in her voice that made him suddenly wary.
“Not at all,” he said, gently taking her elbow and leading her back out onto the green. “Merely that it is a ponderous subject for so light a morning.” She seemed to be considering this, and so to distract her he said, “Your sister looks uncommonly fine as well; for that was her, I believe, in your family's pew.” She nodded, and he asked, “Does she still have her dogs?”
“Oh, Frances will never abandon her spaniels.” She gave him a hopeful look. “And what of your own loyal friend? How fares my second rescuer, Baron?”
Edgar softened his features so as not to appear too harsh. “He lived to a venerable old age and died in his sleep. I would wish no better for any of us.”
Despite his efforts, Emma seemed distressed by the news. “Oh, but I remember him being so full of life, leaping in the air! Surely five years are insufficient to see such a vital creature into his dotage.”
“Their lives are set to a different tempo than our own.”
This seemed to sadden her; perhaps she was thinking of her sister’s dogs, and what just a few more years might bring. But then she surprised him by rounding on him and saying, “You have yet to answer my question.”
He was quite confounded. “What question was that?”
“The nature of your literary project.”
There was something about her manner…she was a delicate, slender thing, but there was iron in her; it showed in her carriage. She would not back down. He surprised himself by finding this enchanting; and so, he relented.
“I have undertaken a new translation of Plutarch’s Lives,” he explained. “You are perhaps familiar with the work?”
She shook her head in the negative, but did not seem abashed.
“It is a series of parallel biographies, written in Greek, by the ancient historian Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus—or Plutarch, as he is known to us.” He appraised her look for any sign of regret that she had introduced the subject; but her eyes were bright and avid. “Each set of biographies pairs a noble Greek hero or statesman with a Roman who is his rough equivalent.”
“Ah,” she said, but with no languor in her tone; rather, she seemed to be urging him to go on. Which he took haste to do, as they had now made the circuit of the churchyard, and were again approaching the other congregants—or rather, those who had not yet dispersed.
“For example,” he said, “Plutarch, pairs his biography of Alexander with that of Julius Caesar; and by this means, he allows the similarities and differences between them to illuminate their characters in a way treating them singly would not.”
“How very clever,” she said; and though he listened for mockery in the words, he found none.
Thus emboldened, he felt sufficient courage to confess to her something he had told no one else—excepting of course Professor Bridge. “The reason I have chosen to make an English translation of my own,” he said breathlessly, “is that I have a plan to enlarge the work; and that is by—”
He was interrupted by the sudden appearance of his mother. Given her girth, Mrs. Willmot not known for sprinting across churchyard lawns, so her sudden arrival by his side rather startled him; indeed, he lost his hat.
As he stooped to retrieve it, his mother said, “My dear Miss Emma, I am so glad to see you have reacquainted yourself with my Edgar. Did he know you, I wonder? I would not be surprised if at first he did not know you. But I have another son just returned, as well; and I think you must not play favorites. That would never do. You will of course remember Ralph?…He is just there, under the window of the nave, speaking to Mr. Grayson. Will you just do me the courtesy of saying hello to him? I will be happy to lead the way.”
Emma could not but agree; and as she turned to go she gave Edgar a guileless smile that almost made up for her being taken from him.
Except that, while Emma went on ahead, Mrs. Willmot hung briefly back, and said, “I am sorry to be so brusque, Edgar; but you will forgive me when you understand me better. It seems that Miss Emma Marlow is very taken with our Ralph, and being a young lady of excellent breeding, is too shy to approach him. So as his mother I take it upon myself to bring the two lovers together. There! now I hope I am forgiven.” She happily turned away from him and made after Emma, who had paused to look back, in apparent curiosity at her delay.
Edgar watched his mother lead Emma to where Ralph—now alerted to their coming—had stepped away from Mr. Grayson; and watched as Ralph bowed to Emma, and even kissed her hand, as was his wont, while Mrs. Willmot gabbled happily on.
It was only a few moments before Edgar became aware that he now stood in no less stupefied a state than the verger had, when abandoned by Alice. He shook his head, and with a great summoning of self-command, pulled himself back to order.
And yet he was still astounded. Emma Marlow…in love with Ralph?
But then, why not? All the world was in love with Ralph. Edgar himself adored him, for all his faults. Ralph had the means to make it so; he boasted good looks, and courtliness, and an uncanny charisma that could draw the birds down from the trees. In love with Ralph?…When the alternative was dour, scholarly Edgar, and his tiresome Greeks and Romans, who would be otherwise?
As if in answer to his question, Alice drew up beside him. Had she been following him at a distance, while he and Emma walked the entire churchyard ’round? Perhaps so; and while five minutes before, the idea would have alarmed him, now he found a measure of solace in it. Alice, at least—who knew Ralph as well as anybody—seemed to prefer Edgar’s company.
Alice, and Alice alone.
Well, then, he ought not to punish her for such partiality. He offered her a smile, and said, “I have just been speaking to Miss Emma Marlow.”
“I have seen as much,” she said; and if there was a serrated edge of jealousy to her words, what of it? In his present state, Edgar could not but see it as a tribute.
“She is much changed,” he said. “You are of an age, I think.”
“We are neither of us yet nineteen,” she said, as if affirming that Emma had not that advantage over her, and daring him to try another.
He was happy at this evidence that she cared enough to campaign for him. He extended his elbow. “You must not stand beneath the cruel sun,” he said. “I would not have you wilt; I would have you flourish.”
She beamed at him, and took his arm, and he led her under the roof of the porch, where they stood and talked until Mrs. Willmot called him to come to the carriage. When he looked up, he saw that all the other families had since gone, and he had not been aware of it.
He had not even noticed Emma Marlow depart.
As soon as Mr. Willmot was back at the lodge, he wrote to his eldest son and bade him return without delay. Then he went to make peace with his wife, of whom he could once again think kindly, now that he had satisfied himself through the exertion of his paternal authority.
As it happened, Ralph Willmot had by this same time grown bored with London—his “errand” there having consisted of no more than a chain of louche amusements, of which had was now feeling more than surfeited—and had written to Edgar as well, to propose himself in Oxford. He surmised that the soothing torpidity of an academic environment might help him recuperate from the effects of his many indulgences; but alas, Edgar wrote back to say that he had been summoned home.
Ralph was disappointed; he had intended to delay his own return to Willmot Lodge by visiting his brother. But since it was not to be, he thought they might as well make the last leg of the journey together. They arranged to meet at The Copper Fox, an inn in Surrey much frequented by travelers from Marlhurst and its environs, there to eat and drink together before continuing.
Ralph was the first to arrive, riding up in the pummeling heat of early afternoon. Once inside the cool, low-ceilinged common room, he took the opportunity to order a tankard of ale to quench his thirst. Indeed he might have time for another, before Edgar turned up; which thought so pleased him that he wished his brother in no hurry. For despite the vast differences in their characters, the two young men were close, and each had an improving effect on the other: Ralph was not quite so comfortable debauching himself with Edgar’s eye upon him, and Edgar was actually known to laugh in Ralph’s company—there were eyewitnesses to the phenomenon, who had reputably reported it.
After he had quaffed his first few mouthfuls, Ralph felt sufficiently recovered from the oppressive warmth to survey the other patrons in the room. He fully expected to discover a face familiar to him—but was surprised by the one which finally answered this expectation.
“Peake!” he exclaimed, after departing his own table and coming to where his old friend sat. “What a welcome thing, to find you here. You won’t mind my joining you?”
Tom, who had been very happily passing the time with a book, none the less closed it and smiled agreeably. “Not at all. Hello, Willmot.”
“So it’s true,” said Ralph, after sitting down and stealing another swallow of ale. “If you’re here at The Copper Fox, you must be headed north from Sussex; which can only mean the Marlows are again installed at Graftings.”
“I left them this morning,” Tom said. “You knew, then, of our coming?”
“The excellent Mrs. Curtis told me of it, before I departed for town—from whence I now return.”
“Ah, yes. She is not one to keep such a thing secret.”
“A secret of any kind would kill her,” Ralph agreed; “it would be a stone in her breast.”
Tom smiled; but he would not laugh at his aunt. It would be ungenerous.
Ralph, however, was not troubled by such scruples. “She is like my mother,” he continued, leaning back in his chair and seeming very happy to have an audience. “They are both of them so very voluble. My brother and I have an ongoing game, whenever those two ladies get together in one room: we observe to see which one dominates the conversation. The result is always the same: whichever manages to speak the first syllable. Because the other will have lost her chance, and there will never be sufficient pause thereafter for her to leap in and claim the field.”
Tom arched one eyebrow. “I can believe that is a game of yours; I am less persuaded that it is also your brother’s.”
“Oh, Edgar is more satirical than anybody knows. It just requires bringing out in him.”
Tom nodded, while thinking, “What he means is, it just requires a bad influence.”
“Perhaps I can demonstrate,” Ralph continued. “He is to meet me here forthwith. He comes down from Oxford, where he is engaged in some tiresome project involving Latin texts. He has described it to me, but I never listen on principle.”
“I will be sorry to miss him,” Tom said, while producing a few coins from his vest pocket and setting them on the table, “but alas, I must once again brave the heat of the day.”
“You are headed to London?”
“Yes; but only to pass through it.” He gave forth with another wry grin. “My destination is Cambridge. I am a university man myself these days, and Michaelmas term begins shortly.”
Ralph blanched. “I am sorry; I hope you will not mind my have spoken slightingly of academia.”
“Not at all. The scholar’s lot is not for every man.”
“Are you reading Classics, like Edgar?”
“No; Law, at Jesus College. I am in my second year.” He smiled more widely. “It seems Mrs. Curtis did not tell you that.”
“Indeed she did not. Damn the woman.”
At this unexpected irreverence, Tom himself laughed, as much from shock as from diversion; and suddenly he understood how Ralph’s roguish charm might indeed crack his brother’s virtuous veneer.
He recovered in an instant, and got to his feet. “I am glad we met, Willmot; I will not be back at Graftings for some months, and would have regretted missing you.”
“But you won’t regret missing Edgar?” Ralph asked, with a mocking glint in his eye. “Never mind, you cannot fool me: I know it is because you are a Cambridge man, and he an Oxfordian. You are rivals, and must soon come to blows.”
Tom laughed again. “I shouldn’t think either your brother or I had much to fear from any blows such meek souls as we might land on one another.”
Ralph walked him to the door. “There is something else Mrs. Curtis didn’t tell me,” he said, “and that is how the Misses Marlow do. I have not seen them since they were the merest girls. They are well?”
“Both very well indeed.”
“And…well-looking?” He gave Tom so pointed a look that Tom astonished himself by laughing a third time.
“My dear Willmot,” he said, “they are as sisters to me.”
“Very comely sisters, I expect.”
“Since you ask, I believe they are generally considered quite handsome.”
Ralph grinned in satisfaction, then clapped him on the back. “Safe travels to you, my friend. Be most attentive to your studies; graduate with honors, and take your place at the forefront of your profession. I do not wish this purely in a spirit of altruism, but from knowing that someday, I am very likely to require a good lawyer.”
As Tom rode north, he repented of the haste with which he had left Ralph’s company. It wasn’t due to Ralph’s infamous conversation that he had fled; he was long accustomed to that—and to the way Ralph’s charisma overrode any objection.
No, it had been because he really hadn’t wished to meet Edgar. Ralph had been more intuitive than he knew: indeed, Tom had no compelling desire to sit and compare notes with an Oxford alumnus.
Now, back under the punishing sun, his principles wilted in the unseasonable September calidity, and he felt increasingly silly that he had chose not to meet a friend of many years over so slight a thing as a school rivalry.
He felt particularly ashamed when he recalled Emma’s fondness for Edgar, which had been the cause of so much recent misery to her. Tom might have waited to meet him, if only to advise him to treat kindly with her. That this had not even occurred to him, he now viewed with great shame.
He resolved to redeem himself by stopping in town long enough to post a short letter to Emma, advising her that Edgar Willmot was in fact on his way back to Marlhurst.
Edgar reached The Copper Fox some twenty minutes later, and after embracing his brother sat down with him and feasted on cold meats with bread and butter. While they ate, Edgar explained the reason for his summons home: “Father wishes to groom me to take over for him when he is dead. I would that I were not the eldest son, because I have no feeling for such things; I am a scholar, not a farmer.”
“Well, don’t attempt to shift the burden of responsibility onto me,” Ralph said (he had by this time finished his second tankard of ale). “You may be ill-suited to the role of country squire, but I think I must be its very antithesis.”
Edgar smiled. “I had considered proposing such a thing, but abandoned it, for the very reason you cite. David, however, seems to possess the kind of character that would exult in overseeing of our estates.”
“David is not yet sixteen. You perhaps read too much into his avidity for nature.” He pronounced the word “nature” as though it burned his tongue to say it.
“No, I have watched him; he has a feeling for the animals, and the soil. It brings something out in him. He seems…in accord with it all.” He sighed. “I very nearly envy him that. It is a kind of gift.”
“Well, then. Are you going to nominate him to Father?”
“Not yet. As you say, he is very young. Let him see what other roads he might travel, and if he still finds as much felicity in land management as he does now, he and I will conspire to make it so. And then I will be free to pursue my own ambitions.”
“About which I pray you will not discourse at present,” Ralph said heavily. “I am already rather tired.”
As they rode south, Edgar said, “You ought to give your own future more deliberation, brother. As the second son, you have the luxury of choice; I cannot adequately convey to you how fortunate you are in that.”
Ralph rolled his eyes. “You speak as if my choices were legion; in reality, there is the church, there is the law, and there is government. Nothing else is entirely respectable for a gentleman. Alas, I find all three tiresome in the extreme. No, the thing for me is to wed some young lady sufficiently high in the social order to excuse her husband from any obligation of employment whatever.” He grinned. “That said, what an excellent time for the Marlow girls to re-enter our lives!”
Edgar shot him a startled glance. “The Marlows? In what sense do you mean ‘re-enter’?”
“They have moved back to Graftings. Hadn’t you heard? No, I suppose you wouldn't have; you must pluck your nose out of your books from time to time, brother, and listen to the word on the wind.”
“The entire family, you say? Sir Godfrey and Lady Marlow, and both daughters?” He had tried not to expose himself, but the way he pitched that word “both” would have revealed him to anyone more mindful than his self-regarding brother.
“The lot of them,” said Ralph. “And Tom Peake as well; though he’s now off to Cambridge. He was at the inn just before you. Did I not mention it?”
“Indeed you did not.”
They reached an expanse of road that was shaded by poplar trees, and slowed their mounts so that they might longer enjoy the comparative coolness.
“The Misses Marlow were pretty young girls, as you may recall,” Ralph continued. “Peake assures me that their charms have only increased.”
“Tom Peake said that?”
“Well…I asked, and he didn’t deny it.” He looked contemplative. “I suppose either one of them would do, for my purposes, each being the daughter of a baronet. Though I seem to recall the elder sister running wild with something resembling a small wolf pack.”
“I should’ve thought a thing like that would appeal to you,” quipped Edgar.
Ralph gave his brother an astonished look. “Was that a satirical remark? Was it? Did Mr. Edgar Willmot, Oxford scholar and latter-day Cato, just utter a word in jest?”
Edgar laughed; but his brother’s affectionate mockery was not the chief cause of his merriment. That, rather, was the certain knowledge that he would soon meet again a young girl who had frolicked at the periphery of his vision for years before he finally noticed her; a lovely, sylvan sprite whom he had once memorably—indeed unforgettably—carried in his arms.
“Well, there’s a good thing,” said Mrs. Willmot as the family rode home. “All of them looking so well, and such hospitality! No one more welcoming than the Marlows; have I not always said so, Mr. Wilmott? You’d never know five years had gone by. Except, of course, the girls so grown up.”
“And Tom,” said Patience. “Tom, too; very much grown up.”
“Yes, my pet; but we saw him not a year ago, so we knew that already, didn’t we?” Mrs. Willmot shifted her weight to make herself more comfortable; she had Peter on her lap, the better to accommodate all seven of them in the carriage; but Peter was no longer of a size to fit any lap anywhere—a fact both he and he mother were loath to admit, though she less so every time the carriage trundled awkwardly over a rise or gully, and his sharp hip bone bit into her midsection. “Though I must say,” she continued, once she had readjusted herself into an easier pose, “that was an extraordinary outburst by Miss Emma Marlow, near the end. I don’t mind saying, I felt myself quite challenged, indeed I did.”
“Headstrong girl,” said her husband with a harrumph. “I remember her well enough. That sister, too. Never forget the time they accosted me on the high street and all but extorted sixpence from me to buy sweets. Brazen, is what I call them.” Too late, he remembered what had enabled the extortion in question—Frances and Emma having caught him sharing a furtive kiss with a shop girl behind the stationer’s—but fortunately his wife was congenitally incurious, and did not interrogate him on the subject.
“I don’t think Emma meant any discourtesy,” said Patience. “It’s just that she wanted news of Edgar, and hadn’t had any; she had been patient, but wasn’t willing to let you depart without any word of him.”
“I daresay you’re right, my dear,” said Mrs. Willmot, as she again rearranged herself beneath Peter’s weight. “Except that is it Ralph, not Edgar, of whom she craved news.”
Patience shook her head. “No; I am certain it is Edgar. She has quite doted on him ever since he rescued her from that viper.”
“It was a mere grass snake, not a viper,” said her mother; “he told me so himself. And yes, she was grateful to him, I recall it now. But I have it on the very best authority that Miss Emma Marlow pines only for our Ralph. Not,” she added, with a smile of maternal pride, “that she would be the first.”
Patience looked perplexed. “Are you certain? I suppose I may be misremembering. But I could have sworn her heart belonged only to Edgar.”
“Never mind, my dear. A young girl’s fancy is a fickle thing; it alters with the wind…unless the gentleman in question chooses to fix it in place.” She gave her husband a meaningful glance. “And that is our Ralph’s specialty.”
“A bit too much so, from all I hear,” grumbled Mr. Willmot. “What the devil is the matter with this road? I don’t recall it ever being quite so bad as this. Did we just run over a body?”
“You were very attentive to young Tom,” said Mrs. Willmot, turning back to her eldest daughter. “That was very kind. He must want kindness, poor orphan, having lost his first family, and now divided from his second by university.”
“I expect he will return for Christmas,” said Patience with a hitch of desperation in her voice.
“No doubt, my pet; but remember, the Marlows always pass the Yuletide in Wiltshire. So we shan’t benefit from his rejoining them.”
Patience looked suddenly stricken, and turned her face to the window.
“Damnable thing, a university education,” said Mr. Willmot. “Glad I never had one. Gives a young man all sorts of airs and fancies…Say, what was that about Edgar being at Oxford? Didn’t you say he’d gone to Boars Hill, to see Amy and your sister Clayton?”
“Yes, my love,” said Mrs. Willmot. “But that was just a stop on his way; his principal object was his old college, and his former mentor, Professor Bridge.”
“But the boy’s been graduated two years now! Why on earth would he want to run back to see any of those old black crows?”
“He’s explained it often enough,” said Mrs. Willmot, an edge of crossness creasing her voice. “Why do you never listen, husband? Edgar has it in mind to be a scholar, and his old professor is helping him to do it.”
Mr. Willmot looked as though someone had struck him in the face with a day-old trout. “A ‘scholar,’ you say?…And what exactly would that entail?”
“Why, he’s only told us a dozen times,” said Mrs. Willmot with a great show of indignation, to cover the fact that she couldn’t quite remember herself.
“I’m sure I’d have heard him, if ever he’d said something so damnably foolish,” Mr. Willmot insisted, and his wife covered Peter’s ears against any further strong language. “The idea! Edgar is my eldest son, my heir. His place is at Willmot Lodge, learning to be a country squire, so that he may run our estates and manage our properties as I have done, and my father before me, and my father’s father, and all the fathers before that, back six hundred years to when my ancestor Sir Kennard Willmot was granted title to our lands from King John.”
“That’s as may be,” said Mrs. Willmot, cautiously unstopping Peter’s ears (to the boy’s immense relief). “But Edgar has a quickness of mind greater than any our family has yet produced, and we owe it to him to allow it free rein. There is no telling how he may distinguish himself—and us.”
“There is no telling,” said Mr. Willmot sharply, “who will administer our affairs after I am gone, if he is off somewhere lying on a couch in a dressing gown, writing poetry in Greek.”
Mrs. Willmot felt her face burn. “There is always Ralph. Ralph wants an occupation; you have said so yourself.”
He waved his hand in dismissal. “Ralph could not administer a pot to boil.”
Mrs. Willmot briefly reddened, for Ralph was her favourite, and she disliked any word said against him. “How would you know it, Mr. Willmot, as you have not tried him?”
“I know it,” replied her husband, “as he has tried me.”
And so the argument gained in amplitude and acrimony; and Patience, who under ordinary circumstances would by now have interposed some calming word to assuage her parents’ tempers and lead them gently back to accord, did no such thing, because she was consumed by her own private grief, and insensible to anyone else’s. Not her mother’s; not her father’s…
…and not Peter’s, even when the boy muttered audibly, during one of the frostier intervals of silence that punctuated his parents’ quarrel, “We really might have gone to see the kennel. It wasn’t so very far from the house as all that.”