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.

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