“Well, there’s a good thing,” said Mrs. Willmot as the family rode home. “All of them looking so well, and such hospitality! No one more welcoming than the Marlows; have I not always said so, Mr. Wilmott? You’d never know five years had gone by. Except, of course, the girls so grown up.”
“And Tom,” said Patience. “Tom, too; very much grown up.”
“Yes, my pet; but we saw him not a year ago, so we knew that already, didn’t we?” Mrs. Willmot shifted her weight to make herself more comfortable; she had Peter on her lap, the better to accommodate all seven of them in the carriage; but Peter was no longer of a size to fit any lap anywhere—a fact both he and he mother were loath to admit, though she less so every time the carriage trundled awkwardly over a rise or gully, and his sharp hip bone bit into her midsection. “Though I must say,” she continued, once she had readjusted herself into an easier pose, “that was an extraordinary outburst by Miss Emma Marlow, near the end. I don’t mind saying, I felt myself quite challenged, indeed I did.”
“Headstrong girl,” said her husband with a harrumph. “I remember her well enough. That sister, too. Never forget the time they accosted me on the high street and all but extorted sixpence from me to buy sweets. Brazen, is what I call them.” Too late, he remembered what had enabled the extortion in question—Frances and Emma having caught him sharing a furtive kiss with a shop girl behind the stationer’s—but fortunately his wife was congenitally incurious, and did not interrogate him on the subject.
“I don’t think Emma meant any discourtesy,” said Patience. “It’s just that she wanted news of Edgar, and hadn’t had any; she had been patient, but wasn’t willing to let you depart without any word of him.”
“I daresay you’re right, my dear,” said Mrs. Willmot, as she again rearranged herself beneath Peter’s weight. “Except that is it Ralph, not Edgar, of whom she craved news.”
Patience shook her head. “No; I am certain it is Edgar. She has quite doted on him ever since he rescued her from that viper.”
“It was a mere grass snake, not a viper,” said her mother; “he told me so himself. And yes, she was grateful to him, I recall it now. But I have it on the very best authority that Miss Emma Marlow pines only for our Ralph. Not,” she added, with a smile of maternal pride, “that she would be the first.”
Patience looked perplexed. “Are you certain? I suppose I may be misremembering. But I could have sworn her heart belonged only to Edgar.”
“Never mind, my dear. A young girl’s fancy is a fickle thing; it alters with the wind…unless the gentleman in question chooses to fix it in place.” She gave her husband a meaningful glance. “And that is our Ralph’s specialty.”
“A bit too much so, from all I hear,” grumbled Mr. Willmot. “What the devil is the matter with this road? I don’t recall it ever being quite so bad as this. Did we just run over a body?”
“You were very attentive to young Tom,” said Mrs. Willmot, turning back to her eldest daughter. “That was very kind. He must want kindness, poor orphan, having lost his first family, and now divided from his second by university.”
“I expect he will return for Christmas,” said Patience with a hitch of desperation in her voice.
“No doubt, my pet; but remember, the Marlows always pass the Yuletide in Wiltshire. So we shan’t benefit from his rejoining them.”
Patience looked suddenly stricken, and turned her face to the window.
“Damnable thing, a university education,” said Mr. Willmot. “Glad I never had one. Gives a young man all sorts of airs and fancies…Say, what was that about Edgar being at Oxford? Didn’t you say he’d gone to Boars Hill, to see Amy and your sister Clayton?”
“Yes, my love,” said Mrs. Willmot. “But that was just a stop on his way; his principal object was his old college, and his former mentor, Professor Bridge.”
“But the boy’s been graduated two years now! Why on earth would he want to run back to see any of those old black crows?”
“He’s explained it often enough,” said Mrs. Willmot, an edge of crossness creasing her voice. “Why do you never listen, husband? Edgar has it in mind to be a scholar, and his old professor is helping him to do it.”
Mr. Willmot looked as though someone had struck him in the face with a day-old trout. “A ‘scholar,’ you say?…And what exactly would that entail?”
“Why, he’s only told us a dozen times,” said Mrs. Willmot with a great show of indignation, to cover the fact that she couldn’t quite remember herself.
“I’m sure I’d have heard him, if ever he’d said something so damnably foolish,” Mr. Willmot insisted, and his wife covered Peter’s ears against any further strong language. “The idea! Edgar is my eldest son, my heir. His place is at Willmot Lodge, learning to be a country squire, so that he may run our estates and manage our properties as I have done, and my father before me, and my father’s father, and all the fathers before that, back six hundred years to when my ancestor Sir Kennard Willmot was granted title to our lands from King John.”
“That’s as may be,” said Mrs. Willmot, cautiously unstopping Peter’s ears (to the boy’s immense relief). “But Edgar has a quickness of mind greater than any our family has yet produced, and we owe it to him to allow it free rein. There is no telling how he may distinguish himself—and us.”
“There is no telling,” said Mr. Willmot sharply, “who will administer our affairs after I am gone, if he is off somewhere lying on a couch in a dressing gown, writing poetry in Greek.”
Mrs. Willmot felt her face burn. “There is always Ralph. Ralph wants an occupation; you have said so yourself.”
He waved his hand in dismissal. “Ralph could not administer a pot to boil.”
Mrs. Willmot briefly reddened, for Ralph was her favourite, and she disliked any word said against him. “How would you know it, Mr. Willmot, as you have not tried him?”
“I know it,” replied her husband, “as he has tried me.”
And so the argument gained in amplitude and acrimony; and Patience, who under ordinary circumstances would by now have interposed some calming word to assuage her parents’ tempers and lead them gently back to accord, did no such thing, because she was consumed by her own private grief, and insensible to anyone else’s. Not her mother’s; not her father’s…
…and not Peter’s, even when the boy muttered audibly, during one of the frostier intervals of silence that punctuated his parents’ quarrel, “We really might have gone to see the kennel. It wasn’t so very far from the house as all that.”