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.