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.

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