Emma, dismayed that she had not been able to catch Edgar's attention before leaving the churchyard—and even more distraught that the impediment to doing so was his apparent fascination with Alice Nesmith—again took to her room, with the stated intention of remaining there the rest of her days. This time, however, her family were less solicitous of her; no doubt they expected her to relent at any time, as she had done before. And she could not quite resent them for it, because she fully expected it as well.
Self-incarceration had not suited her; she had grown bored with herself, and weary of her grief, and maintained her isolation only out of dread of the embarrassment she should face if she ended it so soon. But when Tom’s letter had arrived, alerting her of Edgar’s imminent arrival, she joyed at her deliverance; for the reason for her seclusion no longer applied.
But there was little chance of that now. After she had wept out the initial ravages of her disappointment, she lay on her pillow and rationally examined the possibility of another face-saving miracle. It was slight. She could scarcely expect providence to come to her aid a second time; and even if she could, what might that aid consist of? A letter advising her that Alice Nesmith had been struck by lightning? She could not in good conscience wish for it, little as she cared for Alice—and the two had never been on good terms; not since they were very young, when, having grown tired and irritable over a game they had been playing for far too long, they had fallen out over the rules. Each one invented a regulation that favored her over her competitor; each then accused the other of trickery, and neither admitted the deceit; with the result that Alice had pulled Emma’s hair, and Emma had pushed Alice into a cow-pat. They had been forced by their fathers to make it up; but each was strong-willed, and nurtured a secret strain of rebellion in her breast, that kept them at arm’s length from that day to this. They might be coerced into civility, but they would never again choose to be friends.
It sometimes seemed absurd that the effects of a petty childhood falling-out should yet be felt in full adulthood; but Emma could think of no possible amendment of it now. Except, in her less guarded moments…Alice Nesmith being struck by lightning.
But until this eventuality, Emma found herself self-exiled to her room…again.
Her salvation came in the form of Mrs. Curtis, who came to Graftings one morning to beg her company on a series of errands which it would be excessively tedious to have to attend to on her own. Emma put up a show of resistance, but allowed herself to be persuaded to end her tragic confinement; and thus when at last she came downstairs, she sacrificed no dignity, for she was doing her aunt a favor.
Still, she scolded herself for having got herself into the same predicament twice, and vowed to better suppress her more operatic impulses, that she should not do so a third time. Since the first two had been prompted by extremes of grief having to do with Edgar Willmot, she felt it might be best to avoid him entirely; for should she happen again to espy him doting on Alice, she could not depend on her reason.
Alas, she might conceivably evade him in the flesh; but the idea of Edgar was not so easily skirted. She learned as much within her first five minutes out-of-doors. She had known, of course, that the reason Mrs. Curtis sought her company was that she wished to talk—there being no circumstance in all of Creation in which Mrs. Curtis did not wish to talk—but she had not suspected that today, what she wished principally to talk of was the male Willmots.
“You turned the heads of both brothers on Sunday,” she said, as they headed toward the high street, arm in arm. “Mr. Curtis and I could not but notice it. That is to say, I noticed it and I pointed it out to him, and he did not contradict me. But I think I can guess which of the two pleased you better.”
“I hope you will not make the attempt,” said Emma, with no small dread.
“In fairness, I do think their finer qualities are evenly distributed; do not you? Edgar is very much the responsible one; his is the cooler head, his the sounder judgment. He possesses a very comforting gravity, and an endearing trustworthiness.” Mrs. Curtis recited all this as if describing a very well-made suit of clothes which she never wished to wear.
“Whereas Ralph,” she continued, “is the more suave, the more charming, the more conversationally adept. He is also more certain to be delightful company, and to notice everything, and to frame it in such a way as to make one laugh. Do you not agree?”
“I cannot disagree,” said Emma reluctantly.
“But while their characters are thus balanced, I think there is, alas, less equivalence in their aspects. Edgar is very self-contained and very graceful; but he has not the same advantage of countenance as does Ralph. Surely you will agree with me. Ralph is by any measure the handsomer of the brothers.”
Again, Emma could not argue the point; but she would not give her aunt the satisfaction of saying so. Mrs. Curtis placed far more importance on appearance than she did; and Emma would not encourage her by confirming a judgment based on such superficial terms…though she knew her aunt would press the matter. If only something would occur to divert her attention.
And at that moment, such a thing did occur; but not in a manner which Emma would have wished. For at the juncture where the high street met the road to the parsonage, they were intercepted by Alice Nesmith.
Mrs. Curtis was delighted. “Come and join us, dear Alice!” she exclaimed. “We are headed for the shops, as I deduce, by the basket on your arm, you are as well.”
Alice looked for a moment like she might turn and flee; but then she steeled herself, came forth, and fell into step with them.
“Good day to you, Miss Nesmith,” said Emma.
“And to you, Miss Emma Marlow,” said Alice crisply. “I congratulate you on your return to Marlhurst.”
“Oh, have you not yet renewed your acquaintance?” Mrs. Curtis asked. “What luck to have run into you then, Alice; for we are just now having a very illuminating tête-a-tête. What do you think Emma has just been telling me of?”
“I am sorry to confess,” replied Alice with perhaps too much satisfaction, “that I have not heard Miss Emma Marlow speak sufficiently often to guess at what she might say.”
“Why, she has only been saying which of the Willmot brothers she finds the most handsome. I think you may surmise which she chose.”
“I beg your pardon, Aunt,” said Emma, feeling color come to her face. “I have said not one word on the subject. The discourse has been entirely your own.”
“But there are so many Willmots,” said Alice, ignoring Emma’s protest; “I don’t like to venture a guess as to which one you mean.” But her eyes—which she now turned on Emma—betrayed that she had indeed ventured a guess.
“Difficult creature,” said Mrs. Curtis, and she playfully tweaked Alice’s arm—a familiarity that made Emma feel quite faint. “Why will you never guess when I ask it of you?”
“I am sorry, but I am very stupid at it.”
“I will have to tell you, then,” said the older woman, and she drew Alice closer that she might lower her voice. “It is of course Ralph whom Emma favors.”
“Aunt,” Emma cried, “forgive me, but I never said such a thing! It was yourself who named him.”
By this time they had reached the shops, and joined with other villagers who were out with their baskets, running their errands in the relative cool of morning, before the inevitable heat of midday.
“Ralph is very fair,” said Alice with a nod of approval. “Though I confess I prefer a darker complexion. No doubt Miss Emma Marlow and I have not the same taste in men.”
Emma, who did not like to consider that she and Alice Nesmith might have the same taste in anything, stilled the protest that was poised to leap from her tongue; in which interval her aunt renewed her discourse on the male Willmots.
“That is the benefit, you see,” she said, taking Alice in one arm and Emma in the other and leading them up the street, “of having so very many brothers in a single family. There is certain to be one to fit every fancy. Think of it, girls: Ralph is light, Edgar is dark; Richard is slender, David is burly; and Peter—well, Peter is too young yet to say what he will be. I suppose we must be content to wait.”
“I think he will be tall,” said Alice. “He is very high already, for just twelve years.”
“Then the Willmots must be persuaded to have another son,” quipped Mrs. Curtis, “that there may also be one who is short.”
“But what if he should instead be round? Then the Willmots must have two more sons: one who is short, and another who is gaunt.”
“Mrs. Willmot will not thank you for that, my dear,” said Mrs. Curtis, and the two laughed very wildly. Emma, whose elbow was securely interlocked with that of her aunt, could think of no greater mortification than to be seen with them behaving thusly, and indeed several heads turned in response to the noise they were making. But alas, she was to learn that greater mortification always awaits those helpless to defend against it.
“Why, bless me,” cried Aunt Curtis, “are those not two of the gentlemen we have only just named?”
Emma looked up, and to her horror saw that indeed Edgar and Ralph Willmot were a short distance ahead, very near to the milliner’s shop.
“Emma, my dear,” said Mrs. Curtis with telling deliberation, “was not our principle destination this morning the milliner’s?”
“No, indeed, Aunt,” said Emma, pretending not to take her meaning, “we have no business to transact there.”
Mrs. Curtis gave her arm a little shake. “Silly creature! You understand me, I am sure. I mean to say, what a chance this is to speak extemporaneously to your lover, Mr. Ralph Willmot!”
Emma felt her face burn again. “I have no such lover,” she insisted.
“Ah, but here is an opportunity to make it so!”
“The mere fact that an opportunity presents itself,” Emma said desperately, “does not signify that it is advisable to take it.”
Mrs. Curtis cawed out a laugh. “How clever you are! Ever ready with a turn of phrase. I suppose you think that gentlemen find cleverness an attractive quality in a lady. They do not. You may trust me on this, my dear; I know it for a certainty.”
“I am sure no one knows it better,” snapped Emma; and as soon as she had said it, she regretted that provocation had rendered her pert.
Fortunately her aunt was oblivious to her meaning, and merrily pulled her in the direction of the milliner’s shop.
“I declare,” said Mrs. Curtis when they came within hailing distance of the brothers, “here are friends of ours! Look, girls; it is the Misters Willmot.”
The brothers, who had been conferring together, raised their heads at this, and a momentary look passed between Emma and Edgar—a look of such candid, unaffected interest that each was embarrassed by it, certain that it was misconstrued—after which they turned their glances quickly away, and did not risk allowing their eyes to meet a second time.
“How do you do, ladies,” Ralph said as he and Edgar tipped their hats.
“Very well, thank you,” said Mrs. Curtis. “We are just come to visit the milliner’s. And what,” she added with unconcealed glee, “do you think we have all been talking about?”
Emma, whose skin was so recently reddened by shame, now felt it go pale with anxiety. “Aunt, no,” she whispered.
“You must not ask us to guess,” said Ralph. “For we might scandalize you by deducing quite wrongly.”
“Then I will have to tell you,” said Mrs. Curtis, and as Emma felt herself begin to sink into the ground, she declared: “We have been singing the praises of this lovely springtime weather.”
“Indeed it is very clement,” murmured Edgar, whose gaze remained downcast, as though in search of coins from Roman Britain that might be easily unearthed by the toe of his shoe.
“Such a wonderful moistness in the air,” said Mrs. Curtis with a quick glance at Emma; and the spark in her eye revealed how much she enjoyed causing her niece trepidation, then relieving it at the last possible moment. “So beneficial for the skin. Does not Emma’s visage have a particular glow this morning, Mr. Willmot?”
“Indeed it does,” said Ralph, at whom she had quite pointedly directed the question; for Edgar seemed to drift ever further to the outskirts of the group. “And yet she looks no less fine than Miss Nesmith—or I daresay yourself, ma’am.”
Mrs. Curtis laughed wildly again. “You must not say such things, Mr. Willmot! I am an old married lady.”
He flashed her a dazzling grin. “Then this moist air is more efficacious than any I have yet known; for you look no less a maiden than your two companions.”
Again she shrieked with laughter; up and down the street heads turned in curiosity at such stridency, and Emma longed to be gone. But she knew she was fixed in place for the time being. It was unlike her aunt to hurry away from a place where compliments were aplenty.
“To be sure,” Mrs. Curtis said, “there is but a difference of seven years between my niece and myself. My brother Marlow is fully a dozen years my senior, you know; so that I was but a child myself when Emma was born.”
“That explains it,” said Ralph with another bow. “I congratulate your husband, ma’am, on his good fortune in securing so young and comely a bride.”
“As well you might,” she said with a little smirk of pride. “For Mr. Curtis was nearly forty when I married him and might have done much worse, as I often tell him. But I daresay I have made him happy. He will not say so; but as he has not got rid of me in all these years, I must conclude he is not unsatisfied.”
“He is the happiest of men, I am certain,” said Ralph.
She crowed again. “Oh! if Mr. Curtis is the happiest of men, then what dour creatures all the rest of you must be!” She turned again to Emma. “I shall wish better for my niece, sir; that I shall. For her, I shall wish a husband who is always gallant, always gay, always ready with a compliment.” She took another quick look at Ralph, as if requiring further inspiration, then added, “A well-looking fellow, who is always considerate and obliging. That is my ideal. That is what I wish for Emma.”
“Such a paragon as that!” said Ralph, shaking his head and feigning a dubious look. “I wonder whether he exists in the world.”
“I am certain he does, and in quantity. In fact, you may be sure there is one to be found wherever you go.” She gave him a very sly look, as if daring him to take her meaning.
“Aunt,” Emma whispered frantically; “you grow too bold.”
“And Miss Nesmith,” Ralph said, nodding his head at Alice; “is she not included in your marital good wishes?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t like a cheerful husband,” protested Alice. “I should be much more contented with a sober-minded man—a scholarly man of great, mindful silences.” She did not look at Edgar as she said this; but Emma saw Edgar color and turn further away, as though he felt Alice’s eyes on him all the same.
“Then at least,” said Ralph, “you ladies will never be rivals for the same suitor. I congratulate you on the safety of your friendship.” He turned his head, as if to say something to Edgar, then appeared momentarily confounded at finding him so far off. “It appears my brother is impatient to depart,” he said, “and indeed we have lingered here longer than we had ought. But with such company as this, none would dare to blame us.”
“Such gallant words have bought you your release,” said Mrs. Curtis, waving him away. “Go, then; we will detain you no longer.”
As soon as the brothers were beyond the range of hearing, she turned to Emma and squeezed her forearm. “Did that not go well? How attentive he was! How rhapsodic in praise of your fine skin!”
“I believe,” said Emma, “he meant to praise each of our complexions in equal measure.”
“Oh, foolish girl; that was but a blind! He included Alice and me, the better to mask his compliment to you.”
Emma looked at her with incredulity. Was it possible Mrs. Curtis really believed what she had said? When Emma had last known her, she had admired her aunt very much, and thought her the pinnacle of all womanly achievement: a beautiful young wife with a fine house, and a liberal husband who allowed her to do what she pleased. Now that Emma had reached womanhood herself, Mrs. Curtis appeared very different to her; she seemed to be rather the younger of the two, as if her early marriage had frozen her in a perpetual state of juvenile giddiness. Were her aunt now to pick up her skirts and turn a somersault in the high street, Emma would be embarrassed, but not surprised.
“I must bid you good morning as well,” said Alice. “I begin my rounds just ahead, at the tobacconist’s shop, as my father has once again let his pouch go empty.”
Emma was surprised to her a daughter speak so sardonically of a parent; she kept her counsel, but the incident did nothing to inspire her to think better of her childhood friend.
Thus Alice left them, buffeted by Mrs. Curtis’s regretful effusions; after which aunt and niece went on alone. Emma had to endure another four minutes’ dissection of their encounter with Ralph, until by chance they passed the draper’s shop, and Mrs. Curtis must abandon all talk of the Willmots and tell Emma the shocking history of Madame Claude. Emma, grateful to be quit of the earlier subject, listened to the narrative with great equanimity, though she had already heard it twice before.
Thus at the end of the morning, each of its principal participants returned home secure in an entirely erroneous conviction.
Ralph was certain, by the way Mrs. Curtis had spoken, and by the way Emma had blushed at it, that his way to the latter’s heart was clear.
Edgar was equally certain of his brother’s success with Emma; and was additionally persuaded, having now seen both girls together, that Alice suited him much the worse of the two—but that she was, all the same, the best for which he could hope.
Emma was surer than ever that she could not be in the presence of Edgar and Alice without suffering great unhappiness. Never mind that he had behaved diffidently towards Alice; it was clear Alice had not minded—which, to Emma, meant that she had accustomed herself to such behavior from him, and did not find it an impediment to love.
Mrs. Curtis was confident that she would soon triumph on two separate fronts. Her campaign to match Emma with Ralph Willmot gave every indication of success; and by the way Alice spoke of preferring “a scholarly man of great, mindful silences,” it was clear she was indeed an ideal match for Tom Peake, did she but know it—and Mrs. Curtis would see that she did know it.
As for Alice herself…she was the least deluded of those here enumerated. For she was certain that Emma was less immediate a danger to her than she had feared, and that she had somehow gained an advantage with Edgar—an advantage she meant to press.
And let the consequences be what they may.