Friday, April 24, 2015

Emma and Edgar, chapter 5

“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 entirely 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 no one else, 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 eight-and-twenty, who had removed herself from the marriage market. He was a young man of just 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.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Edgar and Emma, chapter 4

Sir Godfrey’s confidence that any of his houses was ready to receive him, turned out to be misplaced; for when the family arrived at Graftings they found much in want. The garden and parkland were in excellent state, due to the ministrations of their exemplary groundskeeper, Carr; but the house itself was in some disarray. Three rooms were still beneath cloth, including the breakfast room, which was very inconvenient, and those that had been made ready were not scrupulously clean. Emma noted with dismay that her mother’s traveling coat, which was very long, left a visible trail on the dusty floor of one of the upstairs rooms.
The housekeeper, Mrs. Hicks, followed Lady Marlow on her inspection, but with what Emma thought was inadequate humility for the magnitude of her failings. Indeed, Hicks seemed instead to expect to draw Lady Marlow into sympathy with her, for the many frustrations and indignities she had suffered on the family’s behalf.
“It is the fault of young people today, my lady,” she said. “They none of them have the discipline, nor indeed the desire, to work. I have been through four laundry maids in total since last you resided here, which you will note is almost one for every year. And heaven knows I have lost count of the hall boys. One of them did not wait for the dignity of being dismissed, but departed of his own volition, and I am still not certain he did not take something with him to make the adventure worth his while, though I have been over the silver and plate several times since and can find nothing lacking. And I beg you will not ask me to begin to list the defects of the housemaid, but to note that she has got herself into a rather…unfortunate circumstance”—here she shot a quick glance at Emma and Frances, as if to gauge whether they took her meaning, which Emma certainly did—“and is unable to work to her fullest capacity…not that her fullest capacity is much to speak of. Perhaps I ought to have discharged her for it, but she is very popular in the village—I daresay too much so, given the evidence—and it would reflect badly on the family were we to cut loose a young girl in such obvious distress, and leave her with no other means of support.”
“Has she no parents?” asked Lady Marlow, leading the way into the adjoining sewing room.
“There is a mother. Such as she is,” said Hicks, following with brisk steps, and coming up behind Lady Marlow in time to see her run her gloved hand along the upper edge of a moulding. The result was not felicitous. Lady Marlow frowned, and Hicks hastened to continue her reply. “She has a reputation for light fingers; indeed Mr. Nichols the fruit seller will not allow her within six yards of his shop, and has been known to chase her from his premises while hurling overripe quinces.”
Lady Marlow sighed, and turned back to the doorway. “I think this maid had better remain below stairs. It won’t do for my daughters to be exposed to a girl in her condition.”
“My very thought, my lady,” said Hicks eagerly. “Indeed I was on the very point of suggesting exactly that.”
Lady Marlow cut short her inspection of the house and returned to the drawing room to report to her husband; who immediately set his valet, Samson, the task of aiding Mrs. Hicks in putting the house to order. Samson returned later, just as the family had gathered for tea, to assure them that all was well in hand, and to offer his private opinion that, “Had Mrs. Hicks devoted half the energy to her duties that she has committed to composing her defense of having failed in them, the latter endeavor would not have been necessary.”
This was not the homecoming they had anticipated; but despite their exalted rank, Sir Godfrey and Lady Marlow were very even-tempered people (how else had they managed to live in close lodgings in Chipping Norton?) and were soon quite at their ease. Indeed Sir Godfrey felt sufficiently pleased with his return to order the bells rung, and to distribute ninepence among the ringers.
After tea had concluded, Frances could be contained no longer, and tore from the house with Dash and Cannon loping after her, to assess the repair of the long-neglected kennels. Sir Godfrey retired to his library, there to reacquaint himself with his collection and pass an hour or two in quiet study. Lady Marlow went up to her room, claiming that the journey had tired her.
Tom had not yet arrived; there had been no room for him in the carriage, so it was decided he would follow on horseback, which allowed him to delay his own departure until it best suited him. He was not expected until dinner.
This left Emma on her own, with nothing very much to do. Her room was still being unpacked, so she could not retire to it; nor could she occupy herself with a book, for hers were in her trunks, and her father, when in his library, was to be disturbed for nothing less pressing than a French invasion—and not even that, depending on whether it were cavalry or only infantry.
It was by now a few hours since they had arrived at the house, so that Emma had recovered from the exhaustion of the journey, and could not only face the outdoors again, but found herself eager to do so. She settled on taking a walk. The exercise would clear her head of the dullness that had been lodged there by the endless jostling of the road, and the endless jangling of Hicks’s self-exoneration. It was growing rather late in the day, but she needn’t wander too far afield; perhaps she’d only go as far as the kennels, to see how Frances fared. 
She left the room to fetch her shawl from the closet, and was surprised to find herself not alone in the corridor. A girl stood at the end of it, silhouetted against the window; and even in profile it was clear that she was crying.
“I beg your pardon,” Emma said. “Are you all right?”
The girl started, and stepped away from the window; and Emma could now see that she was very young—as young as herself—and that the front of her skirt protruded due to a visible swelling underneath.
“The delinquent housemaid,” Emma told herself.
“Thank you, miss,” the girl said; “I am very well, miss; my apologies, miss.”
But it was plainly evident that she was not very well at all. In point of fact, her agitation quite shocked Emma, who was jarred into an unpleasant realization of just how sheltered her own life had been. She had come to think herself rather worldly, for all the varieties of human behavior she had witnessed on the streets of Chipping Norton; but she had never in her life encountered anything like this private anguish, which was pitched to so high a degree, and was so nakedly unabashed. Emma could not begin to imagine the degradation necessary to reduce someone to such utter unselfconsciousness.
She thought to offer a consoling world, but before she could compose one, Hicks appeared from around the corner, her face a paper-white mask of fury.
“Violet!” she exclaimed. “Was it not three-quarter-hour’s past that I bade you no more venture upstairs?”
“But I have not cleared the tea service,” the girl said, her voice unsteady and very pitiful to hear.
“I have come myself for that purpose,” said Hicks. “Now, off with you! Back downstairs where you belong!”
Violet scuttled past Emma, whimpering as she went; and when she was out of sight, the housekeeper smiled grimly at Emma.
“My apologies, miss,” she said. “You should not have had to suffer that; it was your mother’s sole admonition to me. I hope you will not think it necessary to tell her of it.”
Emma ignored this plea for secrecy. “She seems very much discomposed,” she said, looking in the direction the girl had just gone.
“As well she might, in her difficulty,” said Hicks indignantly. “I’m sure she ought to have considered the consequences before she gave herself over to folly.”
“Her name is Violet, you say?” asked Emma.
“Yes—but there is no need for you to learn it, miss. She will trouble you no further. I daresay she will henceforth be invisible to you. You need never know she is beneath the same roof.”
Emma did not find this as comforting as Hicks seemed to think she should.
“Is there anything else, miss?” the housekeeper asked, as though it had been Emma who had summoned her, and not she who had interposed herself. 
“No, thank you, Hicks,” she said. But when she turned to go, Emma said, “Wait—yes. I wonder—if you have a moment—whether you might satisfy my curiosity on a small matter.”
Hicks turned back, and looked at her with wary interest. “Curiosity, miss?”
“Yes.” It had occurred to her, during the long carriage ride, when she had been so interminably trapped with her own thoughts, that at twenty-five Edgar Willmot might well have married. She was determined to have it not be so, but could not shake a sense of dread all the same. “I wonder whether there have been many marriages made, in the time we have been gone,” she asked.
“Oh, bless me, yes, quite some number,” said Hicks, and she proceeded not only to cite them, but to provide the prevailing opinion of each match, as to whether he was worthy of her or vice-versa, or who had married solely for fortune, and who had taken to drink in regret, and so on—an oration that lasted until Frances came barging back in, her shoes caked in mud and her dogs no less so, flushed in the face and yet happy, and declaring that there was not so much rot as she feared, and that a carpenter would need no more than a few days to bring it all to order.
Mere moments later Tom arrived, and entered the house beaming quiet good cheer. Sir Godfrey, hearing him, came out to greet him; and with a sigh Emma gave up her project of a walk, re-hung her shawl, and rejoined her family.
But she was not dispirited. Because in the litany of names the housekeeper had related in her long marital chronicle, Edgar Willmot’s had not been mentioned.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Edgar and Emma, chapter 3

It was one of the features of the time, that everyone professed to be shocked by but which everyone accepted none the less, that the position of clergyman had been so thoroughly degraded that it had become a profession instead of a calling. In practice it was little more than a repository for second or third sons of the gentry, or for those gentlemen whose ambitions did not aspire to government or the law, but who required an occupation all the same. Everyone knew, or knew of, an ostensible man of the cloth who was transparently a man of the world, and many poor souls in parishes across the realm went from cradle to grave with the benefit of no divine guidance but that obtained from a minister whose spirituality was as easily put on, and taken off again, as his cassock. 
The Rev. Mr. Nesmith, who held the Marlhurst living, was not one such. He abided by the principles set down by the Church, and was resolute in his insistence that all who formed his congregation do likewise. He exhibited, however, little of the joy one might expect to find in a man who kept faith with the Gospels, and in fact seemed often quite openly vexed; and it was believed that the failings of his flock, rather than moving him to pity, prompted him to wroth. He was unwavering in his religious convictions, but lacked the corresponding sympathy for imperfect, imprecise, impenetrable human nature that might have made him of genuine service to his parishioners.
Despite this, they were proud of their firebrand of a parson, and admired the sternness of his aspect and swiftness of his judgment; but they could not help, at those moments when his fury blazed a little too uncomfortably near, and singed their self-regard, wishing instead for a bland, fat curate who would solemnize their weddings and baptize their babies, and spend the rest of his time in his garden, doting on his hollyhocks. For there was never a moment in which Mr. Nesmith appeared to ease his rectitude, or defer the pursuit of his duties to accommodate the pleasures of company. (It was this which made him so valued a dinner partner to Mr. Curtis: the parson showed up, spoke little, ate briskly, and then departed—for Mr. Curtis, a model guest in every respect.) If asked—and no one had dared—he would have replied that there was a war between good and evil that had been raging for two thousand years, in which they all served as foot soldiers, and thus must ever be vigilant against the next iniquitous sally. The romance of this vision could be stirring, but the reality of living with it day to day tended to wear.
There was but one person in all his flock on whom his energy and bombast fell utterly flat, and that was his daughter. He had been lucky in his wife—the late Mrs. Nesmith had been a meek, compliant soul, who took direction from him in all things, and submitted to his will with never a word of protest or reproach—but unlucky in his child, because Alice took entirely after him, and not at all after her mother. The girl was proud, willful, fearless, and persistent. 
This would not have been a problem were she not unlike him in one troubling respect: she was worldly. Or rather she aspired to worldliness; for she had seen little enough of the world yet to manage it. From her earliest days she was the despair of her father, with her attraction to all that was bright, and glittering, and gay. She begrudged every day she was forced to spend in the country, in the household of a dour, sober man, toiling like a dray horse on his behalf, while her beauty and charm were at their zenith.
But she was clever, and had devised a plan of escape. The Willmots were the richest of the families accessible to her, and they had a plenitude of sons; she intended to wed one of them. At first she had singled out Ralph, as he was the nearest to her in temperament. Her initial attentions to him were amply recompensed, and after a few weeks there was a general expectation of an attachment between them. But as their acquaintance deepened, she became increasingly aware of a streak of wildness in him. He was prodigal and profligate, burning through money as though it were tinder, and allowing his eye to rove wherever it would. Alice was canny enough to understand that if she could not control him now, when youth and novelty were to her advantage, she would be much less likely to do so after they had been married a span of years. Disaster lay at the end of their road together. Accordingly she behaved more coolly towards him. Without her encouragement, their flirtation ran its natural course, and so skillfully had she orchestrated it that they remained the best of friends. 
She then turned her mind to Edgar. He was neither so handsome nor so dashing as Ralph, but he was the heir to the Willmot fortune; and given his natural humility, she was certain she could exercise sufficient authority over him. Let him but show the slightest inclination, and before he knew it, she would have him draping her in jewels, housing her on a fashionable street in town, and traveling to and fro in their very own barouche. 
But alas, Edgar did not show the slightest inclination. Try as she might to dazzle him with her bountiful charms, he remained remote, indeed nearly oblivious. It was some time before she perceived that the means to fix his attention, were not the same as had fixed his brother’s; an entirely new strategy was called for. 
She subsequently learned, through interrogation of his sisters (expertly disguised as idle chatter), that Edgar’s passion was for history, and specifically the Classical period. And so she feigned a shared enthusiasm, as a result of which she had had to endure a number of very long evenings, cornered by him at some gathering or other, listening to him rhapsodize Pericles the Great or Scipio Africanus, when she would rather have engaged herself in livelier pursuits like gossiping, or dancing, or playing spillikins. Indeed, she would rather have sat quietly and done nothing at all. The boredom of her own blank thoughts was preferable to the clanging dullness of the Seven Against Thebes.
So very tiresome did she find these occasions, and so slowly did Edgar respond to them (his manner towards her had but warmed by the barest perceptible degree) that she had begun to consider abandoning him for the next Willmot brother down—Richard; but he was away at Eton—or the one after that—David; but he was not yet sixteen.
But now Mrs. Curtis had come and delivered the news that caused her to take up the reins she had dropped, and once more commit herself to the conquest of Edgar Willmot’s heart. The return of the Marlows to Graftings was not an event to be regarded blithely, because there were two daughters to that house, both unmarried, and of an age with herself. Even more alarmingly, during the entirety of their acquaintance, Alice had known Edgar to speak the name of only one other young lady in her presence—and that was Miss Emma Marlow.
Alice was a keen observer of her fellow man, and she had a long memory besides. She well recalled an event from five years prior, when this very Miss Emma Marlow, having injured herself on a walk far from home, had been carried back to Graftings by Edgar himself, who had heard her heard her cry out and gone to rescue her. The story had been briefly sensational in Marlhurst, and for almost a fortnight had been told and re-told at many gatherings, with many inevitable embellishments. (In the original accounting, the girl had been affrighted by a small snake; by the time the story reached its pinnacle, the offending creature had swelled into a ravenous wolf, which Edgar had warded off with a flaming fagot.) 
There was little doubt in Alice’s mind that Edgar had enjoyed his fleeting reputation as a romantic hero. He would never say so; but as the older, less dashing, more solemn brother of Ralph Willmot, he can only have relished having the sunny light of approbation cast on him for a change, in place of the usual glazed gaze of disregard. In his mind, Miss Emma Marlow must forever be associated with this phenomenon; and his pleasure in its memory would only be augmented by her presence—especially if she had grown up pretty. Which seemed likely; Alice remembered her as having been quite fetching at thirteen.
Her scheme for Edgar was not yet in certain peril; for while Mrs. Curtis had not mentioned a husband for either Marlow girl—and as their aunt, she would have been sure to know of any—it remained possible that Miss Emma Marlow had acquired a suitor sometime during her absence, and perhaps even come to an understanding with him. It was unlike Mrs. Curtis to neglect to mention such a thing, but it was not an impossibility. Alice must hope soon to learn of an attachment between Miss Emma Marlow and Mr. Somebody-or-other; the disappointment of which might make Edgar Willmot more amenable to her pity, and her comfort. 
Time alone would tell. In the interim, she must gird her loins and prepare to do battle. But even more pressingly, she must see to her father’s dinner. Both the cook and the housekeeper at the parsonage were very old, and neither sufficiently respected her authority. Perhaps her youth was to blame—although there were mistresses of greater households who were younger than she. More likely it was that both servants could see that Alice’s interest in the house was chiefly as a place to flee, and scaled down their industriousness accordingly. Why strive to excel in one’s duties, for a mistress whose eyes were always turned longingly out the window?
And yet if her father were unhappy with his dinner, it was Alice who would suffer a rebuke, not the staff. So she made certain that all was in order, and was rewarded, in mid-meal, with his thanks…though in truth the meal was no more than a cold consomm√©, French bread and cheese, and a joint of beef. The Reverend Mr. Nesmith embraced plain eating, declaring it consonant with his office. His one indulgence was a glass of dry sack before the meal—which, as it softened his mood as well as stimulated his appetite, Alice wholly approved.
Their mealtime conversations were never very scintillating; in fact Mr. Nesmith would sometimes carry a book to the table so that he might continue his researches uninterrupted. When he did not, he might catechize Alice on her own studies, in which she was invariably delinquent; but she had learned over the years how to frame a non-answer that appeased him. It took no special cleverness on her part, for he was usually willing to be deceived, it being the far better choice, than cornering her into confessing a half-truth, and thus prompting her into open rebellion.
Tonight, however, he felt more talkative than usual. “I believe you have had some company today, my dear,” he said as he carved himself a slice of beef. “I heard quite a chorus of voices from my study.”
“I am sorry if we disturbed you, Father,” she said.
“I was not in the least disturbed. Such was the steadiness of the din that after a quarter-hour I ceased to hear it at all. But your visitors were certainly a garrulous lot.”
“In point of fact, Father, I had but one caller today; Mrs. Curtis.”
He put down his knife and fork in amazement. “Indeed? But I distinctly heard competing voices. What a prodigious talker that women is; she can even overlap herself. Yet it was kind of her to call on you. Did she come for any special purpose?”
“She brought news, Father. It seems the Marlows are soon to return to Graftings.”
He nodded in approval as he chewed; and when he had swallowed, said, “I will welcome them. For a baronet, Sir Godfrey displays a very commendable humility. He will be an example for the strutting young men hereabouts. Does his family accompany him?”
“Yes, sir; that is, his wife and two daughters. I believe his ward will be here but briefly; he then returns to Cambridge.”
Mr. Nesmith looked contemplative. “Neither girl is married, then?”
“No, sir. Though Mrs. Curtis gives me to understand that both are out.”
This pointed reference was rather provocative of Alice, for she longed to be out herself; but in the absence of her mother, this would require a female relative coming to stay, to perform the necessary chaperoning. Mr. Nesmith, alas, was unlikely ever to assent to this, for he thought the practice of introducing young women to society—often making an elaborate business of formally presenting them to persons whom they had known their whole lives—a very silly one. Father and daughter had contended over the matter many times; but of late Alice had largely given it up. Because even were her father to consent to it, her only female relative was her mother’s sister, Mrs. Scope—a woman whose religious fervor burned even more fiercely than her brother-in-law’s. Indeed she made him seem by comparison a debauched idolator. Mr. Nesmith, who disapproved of excess in all things, including fidelity to heaven, had once or twice, when his guard was down, dropped a shocking hint that he suspected Mrs. Scope of having gone over to Methodism.
On this occasion, Alice’s confrontational remark on the matter sailed as cleanly over her father’s head as if she had pitched her words at the rafters, not at him. Something else had occurred to him that consumed his thoughts.
“Graftings,” he said. “I believe that is where the disgraced housemaid is employed.”
“Violet Cutler?” Alice said.
He frowned. “Is it necessary to clarify, my dear? Will you now tell me that our little village is host to more than one?”
“No indeed,” she said, and felt her face go red. “I’m sorry, Father.”
“I prefer that her name remain unspoken at my dinner table. That is all.”
She sensed an opportunity to vex him by pointing out an inconstancy in his manner. “But have you not said, Father, that as a daughter of Christ she is to be forgiven her transgression, and not ejected from the community?”
But he was not to be goaded. “Indeed I have, child; for what is Christ’s dictate to us, but that we forgive others as we ourselves would be forgiven?” He beamed condescension at her. “Yet for her part, the girl must show gratitude for her forgiveness, by forever going about with her head lowered in shame, and speaking only when spoken to, and even then never presuming to meet the eyes of those whom she addresses. It is simply a matter of showing contrition, and of not offending those who have managed, in the face of manifold temptations, to conduct themselves with greater propriety.”
“Of course, Father,” said Alice. But she could not remember such stipulations being set forth in the Gospels, and she had been made to read them many times through. It was very like her father, that he should endorse Violet Cutler’s absolution while concurrently seeing to it that she never forgot the crime of which she had been absolved. Alice sometimes wondered whether her father privately thought that Christ had been entirely too whimsical in his pronouncements, and would have liked the opportunity to amend one, or two, or all of them.
“And that is very much to my point,” he said now. “Such a person may not be the most suitable housemaid in an establishment boasting two maiden daughters. It lacks decorum.” He took up another mouthful of beef, and when he had consumed it he added, “I don’t like to presume to lecture a baronet on private matters. Doubtless he and his lady will settle the matter simply enough between them, when it is brought to their attention. If not so, I’ll very gently have a word.”
And with that, Mr. Nesmith felt that he had exposed his innocent young daughter to quite enough deliberation on so sordid a subject. The fate of Violet Cutler was a valuable object lesson for all the town’s young ladies, but there was a point beyond which consideration of it tended to prurience. Accordingly he changed the subject to an epidemic of loose bowels currently afflicting the parsonage sheep, which kept father and daughter pleasantly occupied until the end of the meal, when each retired to solitary pursuits.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Edgar and Emma, chapter 2

Lady Marlow wrote to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Curtis, who lived in Marlhurst, to tell her of their imminent arrival. Mrs. Curtis was delighted to have such interesting news to dispense, and strategized how best to parcel it out to the village.
“It would be simplest first to tell Mrs. Grayson,” she explained to her husband—who was not listening—“as she is our nearest neighbor and my dear friend. But she is also an active, interested woman, and would then undertake to relay the news herself, to others of our acquaintance. So that inevitably I should come to some household or other, and find that she had been there before me. Thus, though it may put her nose out of joint, I think I must bypass Mrs. Grayson in favor of Mrs. Stanley, who never ventures forth from her house due to her unfortunate terror of highwaymen. I know what you will say, my dear," she added, though her husband quite visibly meant to say nothing; “it is unreasonable to fear highwaymen in a place where there is no highway. But she will not be persuaded, and that is that, so I beg you say no more.” Mr. Curtis appeared readily compliant with this request. “Then after Mrs. Stanley, I may just scoot over two lanes and tell Mrs. Heath, and then I will not be so very far from the parsonage, and I may tell Miss Nesmith, who has no mother and so depends on the kindness of all the ladies in town to keep her up-to-date.”
Mr. Curtis, whose wife’s narrative had formed a kind of low, droning hum in his ears, like that of a hive of unusually industrious bees, had his consciousness snagged by that single word, “parsonage.” He looked up from his newspaper and said, “What, my dear? Did you say we have been invited to dine at the parsonage?”
“No, indeed,” said Mrs. Curtis with a frown. “You must endeavor to pay greater attention, Horatio. I said I was to go to the parsonage myself, to tell Miss Nesmith of my brother and sister returning to live at Graftings.”
By the time she had finished this clarification, her husband’s attention had already drifted back to his broadsheet. He cared only to know whether he might look forward to an evening with the parson, who was one of the very few persons in the village with whom he could agreeably pass an evening; as this was not to be, there was nothing further in his wife’s narration to interest him.
“And if I am at the parsonage,” continued Mrs. Curtis, applying the full potency of her intellect, and furrowing her brow to illustrate as much, “I may have time to dash over to Willmot Lodge and spread the news there. I need only be careful not to be drawn inside for a dish of tea, for such is the way of Willmot Lodge, that a dish of tea can easily turn into a commitment of several hours, involving drowning dogs, or collapsed walls, or children’s arms pulled out of joint.” She sighed in sympathy for a household whose juvenile members so vastly outnumbered those of a rational age.
Then she brightened and resumed her recital. “If I am sufficiently concise, I may arrive back with ample time yet to call on Mrs. Lerner, and then—well, there will only be Mrs. Grayson left, and I daresay no one else will have given her the word. For everyone knows she is my particular friend, and will quite naturally assume I have told her already. Do you see the beauty of my plan, husband? Do you not admire my cunning in conceiving of it?”
Mr. Curtis turned a page of his newspaper and said, “Your tone just now was interrogative, my dear, though I did not quite hear what you asked. Despite which, you may presume that my reply to it is whichever answer would please you best.”
Mrs. Curtis had been in this position frequently enough to have learned to set aside her pride, which she knew would never gain satisfaction from any protest she made, no matter how long she made it (as early in her marriage, she had been known to protest very long indeed), and instead to take her husband at his word. “I knew you would appreciate my particular genius," she said, and she blew him a kiss, took up her shawl, and raced out of the house, nearly knocking a parlourmaid off her heels as she passed.

Mrs. Curtis was more than twenty years younger than her husband, and had had to learn to dampen her own youthful spirits in order to match his sober, careful ways. But she was not so fully converted to the unhurried, deliberate pace of her wedded life, that she did not joy to shirk it whenever she could—as now, with a kernel of gleaming gossip jangling in her purse, and her small, tripping feet carrying her as fleetly around the village as she could wish, so that her errand was soon accomplished, and in better time than she had hoped.
She found herself at the parsonage, and a little out of breath; but the parson’s daughter very kindly invited her in for refreshment—as well she might. Alice Nesmith had few enough friends in the village, which was a thing very curious to Mrs. Curtis, for she was a pretty, witty, amiable creature, who loved news and never tired of hearing more of it. And Mrs. Curtis, who had no friends near to her own age—the other wives in the village being many years her senior—was happy to think her a kindred spirit.
“I do not suppose you will recall,” Mrs. Curtis began, after Miss Nesmith had poured her a cup of tea, “because you are very young, but until five years ago, my brother, Sir Godfrey Marlow, and his family, lived here in Marlhurst.”
“I remember them very well,” said Alice, over her own pleasantly steaming cup.
“They have since resided in Wiltshire,” Mrs. Curtis continued, “and for the past several months in a market-town, where they had lodgings. (I cannot think what put them in mind to do that.) When they lived here, it was at Graftings, which is the house hid by all the yew trees; I really think you must remember them.”
“Indeed I do,” Alice assured her, “as if it were yesterday.”
“The house has stood empty since they were last in residence, but what do you think: they are coming back! Indeed they are! I have had a letter…here it is…no, wait, I cannot find it. I had it tucked exactly here, in my reticule…where has it got to? Have I dropped it? Will you call your housekeeper, my dear?…Oh, here she is. What is her name? Green?—Green, would you do me the courtesy of seeing whether a stray letter is lying on the parsonage path? I thank you.—Anyway, my dear Alice, they are to come back, and very soon; I should imagine no later than Wednesday week. And I am sure when you see them, you will remember them all at once.”
“I remember them all now, Mrs. Curtis.”
“My brother is a baronet, and very stately, and his wife was once a renowned beauty, who still boasts a great dignity. They have three children. Their eldest is Frances, who I am sorry to say is rather a tom-boy. She does not play or sing or dance, or even sketch or do needlework; she is always out of doors, so that her skin has got quite brown, and we all despair of her ever marrying. She is devoted to her dogs, which she refuses to part from, though I cannot imagine how it must have been, to live in rented rooms in a market-town with two such beasts underfoot. I would not have allowed it; but my brother and his wife are very mild. You will see as much when you meet them.”
“But I have met them. Indeed I remember their mildness.”
“Their next child is Emma, who is my favourite, though you must not say I have said so. She is very pretty and accomplished, and has a satirical turn of mind—indeed she struggles to curb her tongue. I know not where she gets it, because, as I have said, her parents are both rather mild. My brother, I know, would not curse the storm that knocked his house down around his ankles. But Emma—well, she would have a thing to say about a far slighter inconvenience. She is exactly your age…it would be perplexing were you not to remember her.”
“But I do remember her, Mrs. Curtis. Of course I do.”
“And finally there is their ward, young Tom, whom they have raised as a son. He is a very curious youth; there is something about him…I suppose the most agreeable way to say it, would be to call him venerable. He reads Law at Cambridge, which I suppose must explain it; his is a cultivated solemnity.”
“I agree; I have met him. I see exactly in him what you describe.”
“Anyway, I—oh, Green; you say there is no letter? Very well, thank you for having looked.—I expect I must have left it at Mrs. Heath’s, which is very tiresome, as it means I will have to stop there on my way home. My dear Miss Nesmith,” she said rising from her chair, “I must go at once. I am yet to stop at Willmot Lodge, and now I have Mrs. Heath to see again as well. I wish I had not left my letter with her. She is such an inexhaustible talker. She will trap me again in one of her interminable stories. I wonder at such persons; they must be utterly lacking in self-awareness.”
“I will accept your authority on it,” said Alice.
“Please advise your dear father of my news,” Mrs. Curtis added as she donned her gloves. “He will remember the Marlows, no doubt. I daresay we will all meet very soon, and I can introduce you to them.”
“We are acquainted already,” said Alice as she showed Mrs. Curtis to the door. “But I shall be happy to see them again.”
As she bustled down the road to Willmot Lodge, Mrs. Curtis suddenly remembered one of her fancies from five years past: that clever, pretty, solitary young Alice Nesmith would make an ideal wife for steadfast, precise Tom Peake. In fact, she had made rather a project of it, although they had been very young at the time. She would have to take it up again, now that they were of an age at which her influence might yield results.
Even so, it was a singular thing that after all her efforts, Alice should not have remembered him. Well, that was the carelessness of youth, no doubt. Having wed so young herself, Mrs. Curtis had escaped such consequences. (Though she was not so certain she was entirely thankful for that.)
Introspection made her head ache, so she set aside such thoughts and focused instead on quickening her pace.

She had come very near to Willmot Lodge when she was approached by a gentleman on horseback; who was discovered, as he came nearer, to be Ralph Willmot, the family’s second son.
“Good day to you, ma’am,” he said when he drew closer, and he tipped his hat. “I take it that you are come to see my mother and father?”
“I am indeed, sir,” she said. “But as I have no invitation, I can but hope they are at home.”
“My mother is in,” he said, while curbing his horse’s restlessness. “I have just left her. She will be glad to see you, I am certain.”
“As am I,” she said gleefully, “for I come bearing news.”
He arched an eyebrow. It was a very attractive gesture; in fact Ralph Willmot was a very attractive man, with cornsilk-yellow hair and riveting blue eyes, and a roguish grin whose effect he clearly knew too well, and deployed without pity. “May I be privileged to hear it?” he asked.
She shook her head. “It is only right that I tell your mother first. But if you are headed into the village, you will hear it spoken of there.”
“I am headed to London for several days,” he said, smiling and patting his mount’s neck to calm her. “As you see, Virago is eager for the exercise; I have rested her well in anticipation of the journey. But consider: as a result of my sojourn in town, it will be many days before I hear your news—by which time indeed it may no longer be news. Have pity on a poor traveler.” He flashed her his incandescent grin. “I feel certain I am not the first gentleman to beg a favor of you. You must be as kind to me as to all the rest.”
Mrs. Curtis could not repress a startled laugh. “You are too shocking, Mr. Willmot; I will not have you speak to me so. My husband would object in the strongest possible terms, were he to hear of it.”
“Which he will not, because you will not tell him,” he said, with such merry confidence that it quite disarmed her reproof. “Though you will tell me the news you have brought for my mother. I insist upon it.”
By now, the currents of their conversation had gotten rather more turbulent than Mrs. Curtis was accustomed to; but Ralph Willmot had that effect. There was something about him that was very nearly disorienting. Because she had married at sixteen, she had never learned—had never had to learn—how to deflect, or even to resist, the flirtations of a handsome man.
Nor did she feel she needed to learn it now; her wedding ring was her protection. Doubtless Ralph Willmot considered it so as well, and felt safe in speaking so provocatively to her. Which meant that his blandishments were the merest flattery. And if they pleased her, and did no one else any harm, how could anyone object—even her husband? Could a man who never vouchsafed her a word of commendation, deny her the pleasure of hearing pretty, empty words from a trifling acquaintance?
And yet…all this conjecture had had the effect of throwing her much-vaunted news into a more humbling perspective. Compared to the way Ralph Willmot made her feel like she was thrillingly skirting the outer perimeter of scandal, the intelligence of a family moving back into the neighborhood was paltry stuff indeed.
“Of course I will pity you, sir,” she said with a smile. “It really is not so much to fuss about; merely that my sister and brother—the Marlows, you may remember them—are to come back to live at Graftings.”
A look passed over Ralph Willmot’s face—but it was a look she was unable to read. It did seem, on evidence, to be one of pleasure; but from what the pleasure derived, it was not possible to tell.
“That is happy news,” he said. “We want variety in the neighborhood, and they will be just the thing.”
“I feel the same.”
“I look forward to meeting them again. And I thank you, ma’am, for the gift of your confidence. I shall keep it unto death; or at least, until you give me leave to speak of it.”
Again she shrieked a laugh; it was embarrassing. She felt herself a silly schoolgirl.
He tipped his hat to her once more, and rode off.
She watched him go; then she turned and continued her trek to Willmot Lodge. But she could no longer enjoy the exercise; the very air about her was agitated by her encounter with Ralph. He was, she realized, entirely too free in his manner, too assured of the potency of his charm. Far better that he were married, with a wife to steady him and tame his exuberance.
As she plodded on, Mrs. Curtis remembered that in earlier days she had had an idea of matching him to her niece, Emma. They would make such a pretty pair, both so handsome and so flaxen, like they were carved from a single block of spruce. And now she recalled as well that towards the end of her last stay in Marlhurst, Emma had grown very interested in the Willmots, eager to know more of them and to see them whenever the opportunity arose.
Well then; Mrs. Curtis would put her mind to it, now that the girl was coming back to Graftings. It would give her two projects to which she might devote her copious energies: pairing Alice Nesmith to Tom Peake, and Emma Marlow to Ralph Willmot.

“This is good news indeed,” said Mrs. Willmot as they sat in her parlour. “The Marlows were always a welcome addition to our society. I am very glad to know they will soon resume a part in it.” It was just the two of them, and of course Patience, the Willmots’ eldest child—a plain young woman of twenty-eight who had abandoned all hope of finding a husband, donned her cap, and devoted herself to becoming her mother’s constant companion; in which capacity she now sat, just to her mother’s left, quietly working her needle. 
Mrs. Curtis, who was three years her junior, often wondered at Patience’s folly in giving up so soon; in her place, she would yet have been canvassing every eligible male in the eighty-three English counties, and a plain face would not have stopped her from securing one of them, though the Devil himself might bar the way. There were times when she thought Patience must have taken her Christian name too much to heart. Far better had the Willmots baptized her Charity. Or Hope. Or Delilah. 
“I knew you would be pleased,” said Mrs. Curtis to Mrs. Willmot, “and you must promise to pass the news to your good husband, and to attach my fond regards.” She clutched her reticule as if preparing to rise to her feet. Time had a habit of moving more slowly at Willmot Lodge, so that one might feel one had passed a pleasant half-hour therein, only to emerge and find the sun dipping below the horizon and owls hooting in the trees; and therefore one must be decisive in making an escape from it. 
But Mrs. Willmot seemed oblivious to Mrs. Curtis’s readiness to depart, and fixed her in place by posing more questions.
“And do you know," she asked, “whether Miss Emma Marlow will accompany the family?”
“Of course she will,” Mrs. Curtis said. “Why should she do otherwise?”
“It occurred to me that she might, in these past five years, have found herself a husband, and acquired an establishment of her own.”
“Oh! no. I assure you, Emma is yet unmarried. I would certainly have told you so, if it were otherwise.”
Mrs. Willmot—a very large woman, with rosy cheeks and an ample breast—visibly relaxed, which involved so much unbending of her anxiously constricted spine and shoulders, that the air in the room seemed to grow more compressed. “How happy I am to hear it!” she said. “For I have always thought there was some particular interest between her and my Edgar.”
Mrs. Curtis barked a laugh. “I think you are mistaken, ma’am! It is Emma and Ralph, rather, between whom there is an observable keenness.”
“Is it so?” asked Mrs. Willmot with a look of genuine surprise. “Ah! well, you are much nearer their age than I, Mrs. Curtis, so I must credit your judgment. And I confess I care not overmuch; with so many sons to find wives for, it is all the same to me whether Miss Emma Marlow settles on one or another.”
"She shall settle on one, certainly,” said Mrs. Curtis. “It would not surprise me, indeed, to learn that it was she who instigated this return to Graftings, for the specific purpose of renewing her childhood fancy.”
“I shall encourage it, then,” said Mrs. Willmot with a nod. “Anything to prompt the children to move on. Even with Richard away at Eton, and Amy with my sister Clayton, there are too many on hand to provide me a moment’s repose.”
As if to illustrate the veracity of this statement, the youngest Willmot daughters—a pair of twins, Mary-Anne and Lucy-Anne, both thirteen—burst into the room in full cry, and appealed to their mother to settle a dispute over a box of pencils, the possession of which was apparently so vital that each girl professed her willingness to die for the lack of it.
It was during the initial arguments in this suit that Mrs. Curtis quietly slipped away.