“Today I speak to you of selflessness. Of all the virtues impressed on us by our Creator, none is so great as Christian charity. The early practitioners of our faith were not renowned for their forbearance, or for their chastity, or for their rectitude, although these were essential to them; no, what set them apart was their duty to others. The first Christians distinguished themselves by their attentions to those in want; even they who were in want themselves, put aside their own needs and sought instead to comfort and serve the sick and indigent among their communities and countrymen.”
Mr. Nesmith paused; he would not have called it a theatrical moment—indeed he would have been shocked to hear it called such—but this was its effect. He looked down from his lectern at his visibly awed congregation, and continued: “But we latter-day unworthies, in our pomp and finery, congratulate ourselves on our righteousness based solely on the achievement of every seventh day coming to fill these pews, and tamping down for a single hour the rampant greed and self-interest that drive us like stallions the remainder of the week. We feast at the poison trough of gossip; we prey on the weaknesses of others as vultures feast on carrion; we gorge ourselves on sweetmeats while others starve, and slake our thirsts with wine and spirits that dull our moral senses and unleash our basest demons. We cloy ourselves with ourselves, sicken our souls with our animal cravings, debase our flesh by giving free rein to our appetites, and in all ways reduce ourselves to cringing, chattering avatars of darkness. We serve no one—ourselves least of all—none but he for whom the fall of human honor is the tireless labor of many millennia. Even now he laughs at our self-delusions and hypocrisies, as we mire ourselves ever deeper in the black tar-pit of sin.”
He lowered his head for a moment; then looked up and continued. “As a final note, let us welcome back to our flock Sir Godfrey and Lady Marlow, and their many fine children. May they prosper among us, and add to our share of blessings. Now rise, and lift your voices in Hymn number two-hundred-and-forty, ‘O perfect love, all human thought transcending’.”
The Willmots, by reason of their being the most ancient family in the neighborhood, were the first to exit the church, and to pay their compliments to Mr. Nesmith. Ralph in particular shook his hand and said, “What a stirring sermon! One finds one cannot wait to curtail one’s gorging and slaking.”
Mr. Nesmith—perhaps alone of all who lived—was not beguiled by Ralph’s impudent charm. “Enjoy your levity while you may, sir,” he said. “Rakehells never profit.”
“Do you not think so?” said Ralph before moving on. “You have been speaking to the wrong rakehells.”
The Marlows, because of their exalted rank, next emerged, and Lady Marlow especially commended the parson on his oration. “I am glad to see you have not lost your fervor.”
“Nor never shall,” he reassured her.
Mrs. Curtis skirted behind Lady Marlow during this exchange, averting her eyes from Mr. Nesmith, and once outside, summoned her husband to follow her to their chaise—a summons he was only to pleased to answer, as he had no use for the social talk on the churchyard green that followed every service. On an average Sunday his wife would have been in the thick of it; but today she was strangely uneasy, and felt it imperative that she avoid the parson’s notice. Were she a woman capable of even the simplest feat of reflection, she might have determined that this was because she feared his censure of those who fed at the “poison trough of gossip” had been aimed squarely at her. As it was, the vague inkling of having somehow put a foot wrong was enough to pull her from company; though she was not so chastened as to drive away entirely, and instead sat with her husband inside the chaise, observing through its window what transpired on the lawn, for later analysis.
Had she but known it, she was safe from Mr. Nesmith’s scrutiny. Indeed she might have come right up under his chin and stood on his shoes, and still not managed to engage his attention. For he was preoccupied with watching, from the corner of his eye, the progress of Ralph Willmot. He could still not rest easy that his daughter’s dalliance with that young rascal had indeed concluded; for the term of their flirtation had forced father and daughter into their most steadfast opposition yet. He had insisted that she give him up; she had outright refused, and threatened elopement if he pressed his paternal authority. So fierce was she in her defense of the attachment, that he could not but be mystified by how easily she then set Ralph Willmot aside, mere weeks later. He had never dared to question her about it, lest he provoke her into renewing the connection; but he watched her—he watched them both—for any signs that such a thing might be in the works.
Yet today Ralph did no more than bow to Alice, before moving on to speak with the Lynches, who stood some distance from her. Even more gratifyingly, Mr. Nesmith espied another young man approach and engage Alice in conversation—that being his verger, Mr. Redmond; a humble young man, but of excellent character and a cheerful disposition. He could not fathom what Redmond saw in his restless, unpredictable daughter, but whatever it was, he meant to promote it in any way he could.
As it happened, he was not the only one who at that moment regarded Alice and Mr. Redmond; for Edgar, too, caught sight of the couple just as they struck up their conversation. They seemed very friendly, which came as a surprise, because until very recently Alice had been rather obvious about her interest in Edgar himself. But then, she had also once been equally forthright in her attentions to Ralph. Edgar found her agreeable enough, but suspected she did not quite know who—or what—she wanted, and was loath to become enmeshed in her experiments to find out.
Alice had been rather cooler toward Edgar just before he departed for Oxford; could it be that her father’s verger had by then engaged her interest? He dared to hope so; for he could not in good conscience give her any encouragement on his own behalf.
She must have sensed his eyes on her, because she turned and met them with her own; and by the smile that lit her face, Edgar knew at once that she had not replaced him with the verger—or with anyone else. He was still the principal focus of her attraction. In fact she now dismissed the verger so curtly, leaving him almost in mid-sentence to come and speak to Edgar instead, that the poor young man was visibly startled; his jaw hung so low and so long on his chest, a bird might have made a nest among his molars.
Edgar cursed himself for his stupidity in spying on Alice, for now he had drawn her to him, and she was very much not the young lady to whom he wished at this moment to speak. But he could not turn and flee her, as she had done to the verger; his own manners were too correct for such discourtesy, and so he held his ground.
But before Alice could reach him, he felt a presence at his side, and turned—
—and there she was: the very person in all the world he most wished for.
“I beg your pardon,” Emma said with pleasing demureness, “but I wonder if you remember me, Mr. Willmot.”
“Indeed I do,” he said. “And I hope you have had the good sense, these past several years, to steer clear of vipers.”
She laughed, very prettily. “Oh! it was not a viper; you said so yourself. Only a grass snake. I think you must mean to aggrandize your heroism, Mr. Willmot, by putting me in greater danger than I actually was.”
He feigned an expression of great pain. “I am found out!” he exclaimed. But then he smiled and added, “I see that you have grown in wit, as you have in beauty.”
She blushed. “You are too kind, sir.”
“Not at all. I saw you within, you know; and had you not been seated with your mother and father, it would have taken me more than a moment to place you. The five years since last we met have done you many kindnesses.”
She laughed again. “Was I as much to be pitied as that?”
“Not at all; you were quite bonny. Yet…a bud, as opposed to a blossom.”
Her face flushed anew; and he could sense that, behind him, Alice had halted in her progress toward him, no doubt having seen him otherwise engaged. He felt free to suggest a stroll about the churchyard, and Emma, to his delight, agreed to the scheme.
“My father’s ward, Tom Peake, writes to me that you are newly returned from Oxford,” she said as they ambled away from the others.
He raised an eyebrow. “I was not aware that I was of such interest to him.”
She colored again; Edgar enjoyed the sight. He wondered how often he might induce her to do so.
“You are no longer enrolled there, I think?” she asked.
He shook his head; and—as the morning was proving rather warm for a walk—they stopped as if by mutual consent beneath a willow tree, to rest for a moment in its deep pool of shade.
“I am not,” he confirmed. “But there is a lecturer there—Professor Bridge—who has become a mentor to me, and who is guiding me through a literary project I have undertaken.”
“Indeed?” she said, and she looked at him with what seemed unfeigned interest. “What is the nature of this project?”
“I’m afraid you would find it very dull,” he said—remembering the glaze that had come over Alice’s eyes when he expounded upon it to her.
“You think me a silly creature, then? Lacking in understanding?” There was an accusatory note in her voice that made him suddenly wary.
“Not at all,” he said, gently taking her elbow and leading her back out onto the green. “Merely that it is a ponderous subject for so light a morning.” She seemed to be considering this, and so to distract her he said, “Your sister looks uncommonly fine as well; for that was her, I believe, in your family's pew.” She nodded, and he asked, “Does she still have her dogs?”
“Oh, Frances will never abandon her spaniels.” She gave him a hopeful look. “And what of your own loyal friend? How fares my second rescuer, Baron?”
Edgar softened his features so as not to appear too harsh. “He lived to a venerable old age and died in his sleep. I would wish no better for any of us.”
Despite his efforts, Emma seemed distressed by the news. “Oh, but I remember him being so full of life, leaping in the air! Surely five years are insufficient to see such a vital creature into his dotage.”
“Their lives are set to a different tempo than our own.”
This seemed to sadden her; perhaps she was thinking of her sister’s dogs, and what just a few more years might bring. But then she surprised him by rounding on him and saying, “You have yet to answer my question.”
He was quite confounded. “What question was that?”
“The nature of your literary project.”
There was something about her manner…she was a delicate, slender thing, but there was iron in her; it showed in her carriage. She would not back down. He surprised himself by finding this enchanting; and so, he relented.
“I have undertaken a new translation of Plutarch’s Lives,” he explained. “You are perhaps familiar with the work?”
She shook her head in the negative, but did not seem abashed.
“It is a series of parallel biographies, written in Greek, by the ancient historian Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus—or Plutarch, as he is known to us.” He appraised her look for any sign of regret that she had introduced the subject; but her eyes were bright and avid. “Each set of biographies pairs a noble Greek hero or statesman with a Roman who is his rough equivalent.”
“Ah,” she said, but with no languor in her tone; rather, she seemed to be urging him to go on. Which he took haste to do, as they had now made the circuit of the churchyard, and were again approaching the other congregants—or rather, those who had not yet dispersed.
“For example,” he said, “Plutarch, pairs his biography of Alexander with that of Julius Caesar; and by this means, he allows the similarities and differences between them to illuminate their characters in a way treating them singly would not.”
“How very clever,” she said; and though he listened for mockery in the words, he found none.
Thus emboldened, he felt sufficient courage to confess to her something he had told no one else—excepting of course Professor Bridge. “The reason I have chosen to make an English translation of my own,” he said breathlessly, “is that I have a plan to enlarge the work; and that is by—”
He was interrupted by the sudden appearance of his mother. Given her girth, Mrs. Willmot not known for sprinting across churchyard lawns, so her sudden arrival by his side rather startled him; indeed, he lost his hat.
As he stooped to retrieve it, his mother said, “My dear Miss Emma, I am so glad to see you have reacquainted yourself with my Edgar. Did he know you, I wonder? I would not be surprised if at first he did not know you. But I have another son just returned, as well; and I think you must not play favorites. That would never do. You will of course remember Ralph?…He is just there, under the window of the nave, speaking to Mr. Grayson. Will you just do me the courtesy of saying hello to him? I will be happy to lead the way.”
Emma could not but agree; and as she turned to go she gave Edgar a guileless smile that almost made up for her being taken from him.
Except that, while Emma went on ahead, Mrs. Willmot hung briefly back, and said, “I am sorry to be so brusque, Edgar; but you will forgive me when you understand me better. It seems that Miss Emma Marlow is very taken with our Ralph, and being a young lady of excellent breeding, is too shy to approach him. So as his mother I take it upon myself to bring the two lovers together. There! now I hope I am forgiven.” She happily turned away from him and made after Emma, who had paused to look back, in apparent curiosity at her delay.
Edgar watched his mother lead Emma to where Ralph—now alerted to their coming—had stepped away from Mr. Grayson; and watched as Ralph bowed to Emma, and even kissed her hand, as was his wont, while Mrs. Willmot gabbled happily on.
It was only a few moments before Edgar became aware that he now stood in no less stupefied a state than the verger had, when abandoned by Alice. He shook his head, and with a great summoning of self-command, pulled himself back to order.
And yet he was still astounded. Emma Marlow…in love with Ralph?
But then, why not? All the world was in love with Ralph. Edgar himself adored him, for all his faults. Ralph had the means to make it so; he boasted good looks, and courtliness, and an uncanny charisma that could draw the birds down from the trees. In love with Ralph?…When the alternative was dour, scholarly Edgar, and his tiresome Greeks and Romans, who would be otherwise?
As if in answer to his question, Alice drew up beside him. Had she been following him at a distance, while he and Emma walked the entire churchyard ’round? Perhaps so; and while five minutes before, the idea would have alarmed him, now he found a measure of solace in it. Alice, at least—who knew Ralph as well as anybody—seemed to prefer Edgar’s company.
Alice, and Alice alone.
Well, then, he ought not to punish her for such partiality. He offered her a smile, and said, “I have just been speaking to Miss Emma Marlow.”
“I have seen as much,” she said; and if there was a serrated edge of jealousy to her words, what of it? In his present state, Edgar could not but see it as a tribute.
“She is much changed,” he said. “You are of an age, I think.”
“We are neither of us yet nineteen,” she said, as if affirming that Emma had not that advantage over her, and daring him to try another.
He was happy at this evidence that she cared enough to campaign for him. He extended his elbow. “You must not stand beneath the cruel sun,” he said. “I would not have you wilt; I would have you flourish.”
She beamed at him, and took his arm, and he led her under the roof of the porch, where they stood and talked until Mrs. Willmot called him to come to the carriage. When he looked up, he saw that all the other families had since gone, and he had not been aware of it.
He had not even noticed Emma Marlow depart.