On the morning of the day set aside for callers, Emma found herself in a state of nervous expectation. She took great care with her dress, so that she might be seen to best advantage when the visitors arrived; but had then the difficult task of maintaining that appearance of freshness as the hours wore on. This was not made easier by Frances, who, in high excitement at the prospect seeing so many old friends (especially Mr. Denham, who had promised to bring his Labrador retriever, Magnate), ran about the house in an attempt to groom the spaniels, who very much did not wish to be groomed. At one point Cannon, the male of the pair, tore past Emma with such brusqueness that Emma spun for a moment like a top, and was in peril of falling over; and though she steadied herself at the last, her hair had come out of curl, which called for immediate repair. This required the services of her lady’s maid, Jenny, who had just sat down to her own, long-deferred breakfast, and was loath to leave it; so that both mistress and maid were in sullen spirits as they gathered before the vanity mirror to re-set the drooping locks.
Emma’s next gauntlet was lunch, which was a humble enough affair—a brace of pheasants, a tierce of hares, poached oysters, plovers’ eggs in aspic, white soup, gooseberry cheese, tomato soufflé, cherry-water ice, and a nougat almond cake—but Sir Godfrey, perhaps from a heightened sense of occasion, proposed a glass of wine instead of the usual ale. The introduction of this novelty nearly proved disastrous, for while relating an anecdote from the previous day, Tom gestured in such a manner as to topple Emma’s wineglass. She was able to twist out of the way of the spill, though it was some minutes before she was certain none of the droplets had marred her dress (an investigation that again required the summoning of Jenny, who was now persuaded she was being tormented on purpose). Yet afterward, when she resumed her seat—or rather, when she took her place in the new, dry chair that was brought for her—she was sufficiently vexed to lose the governance of her tongue. “I am perfectly willing to go out and hurl myself into the trough,” she told her family, “if that is what will satisfy you all to leave me in peace.” She had no sooner made this offer than her father told her to mind her temper.
Her anxiety turned into open agony once the calls commenced, for at any moment she expected the Willmots to be introduced, and to see he whom she had so long yearned to meet again. He would walk through the door, taller, no doubt, and even more regal in bearing, but with perhaps—was it so very much to wish for?—a momentary softening of his look when his eyes first settled on her. Or instead of a softening, a slight perplexity, only resolved when Lady Marlow said, “And of course you recall my youngest daughter, Emma,” at which his eyes would widen in astonishment, and he would say, “Miss Emma Marlow! but I would not have known you. How very altered you are; you left us a girl, and you return to us a woman.”
Well…perhaps that was a bit much to wish for.
Every time the door to the parlor opened, her heart leapt in her breast; but when the footman entered and announced someone else entirely, she sank again into despondency. How those first few hours tried her—sitting quietly through the visits of the Heaths (he had grown fatter; she leaner), the Barrets (who had done the opposite), and Mrs. Buckley (who had acquired a new husband and become Mrs. Lynch).
Mr. Denham followed; and on his entry Emma took refuge behind the furniture, to be out of the way for Magnate’s introduction to Dash and Cannon. Alas, for all his size, the Labrador was affrighted by the yapping spaniels, and dove for safety behind the very divan Emma had chosen; upon which the two spaniels leapt to confront him from the other side, so that Emma found herself pinned between the awful, snarling beasts. Were that not amply exasperating in itself, she had also to contend with the laughter of all the others at her predicament.
“They have attempted the ruin of my hair,” she thought defiantly; “then my gown; and now my life and limb. But I will prevail; I must prevail…for him.”
By the time Mrs. Grayson departed—after having related a seemingly interminable story about how the glover’s shop on the high street had closed its doors, and why the bulk of Marlhurst society chose not to patronize the draper who had opened in its place—Emma felt herself in need of a moment’s quiet in which to collect herself. She begged her leave and stole upstairs to her dressing room, where her first thought was to gauge the toll the afternoon had taken on her appearance. She was amazed to find herself yet looking rather well. She felt as though she had been dragged five miles behind a galloping stallion; but there was no sign of weariness or abuse in her aspect. Even so, she did not know how much longer she could stave off the disfiguring effects of eroding hope.
She sat in the window seat overlooking the drive; and though she knew that no carriage would appear so long as she kept vigil—“A watched pot never boils,” she had often heard her mother say (though how her mother would know such a thing was uncertain)—she could not seem to look away.
It was unthinkable that the Willmots should not come today. They were particular friends of the Marlows—Mr. Willmot and Sir Godfrey had even been known to enjoy a day’s shooting—and despite living outside Marlhurst proper, they were indispensable to the village’s society. Where were they? Where was he?
She would have liked a confidant at this moment, to whom she might unburden her heart. But she had none. Frances was in many ways a dear sister to her—she had happy memories of their frolics and games when they were children, and even now they shared moments of merry fellowship—but Frances was entirely too self-contained to be in sympathy with another human being. Emma could not quite regard this as a defect; it was simply Frances. Impossible to imagine her any other way.
Her Aunt Curtis might have served; she was certainly sympathetic—indeed, earnestly sympathetic; she solicited confidences the way a beggar solicits coin—but she tended to talk as much as she listened. And also—there was no use attempting to deny it—her understanding was not quite all it should be. Emma could not be certain that she would sufficiently grasp the fullness of the regard in which she held Edgar.
But this was all beside the point, because Aunt Curtis was not at hand. She was to come later in the afternoon, and stay for dinner—by which time Emma would no longer require her compassion, because she would have seen Edgar. Would she not? She must. It defied all reason that the Willmots should stay away the entire day.
Her doleful thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. She said, “Come in,” and was surprised to see Tom enter.
“I did not like the way you fled us just now,” he said. “You seemed in distress. Is all not well?”
And she found herself, to her surprise, confessing all to him. She had so persuaded herself of the need of a confidant, that his mere appearance at this moment had elected him.
“So you see,” she said at the end of her oration, “what wretchedness it is to wait for him to arrive. All my hopes for the future are dependent on his coming today. I am suspended in agony until he does.”
She now looked up at Tom, ready for what advice he offered her; but in an instant she saw that she must be disappointed. He appeared utterly confounded; and really, she might have known it. He was like a brother to her; they had grown up together; and she had never known him to be easy with the vagaries of human feeling. He preferred the clearly defined precepts of the law. Were there a statute maintaining that the Willmots must come today or be fined for dereliction of duty, he would be able to reassure her; but as their arrival was a matter of simple caprice, he could not.
But then his face brightened, and she could not understand why; until she saw that he looked not at her, but past her—over her shoulder and out the window. And when she turned to see what had delighted him so, she espied—could it be?—a carriage in the drive, with the Willmot’s own driver (whose long, fishlike face she recognized at once) at the reins.
Oh, untrammeled happiness! She and Tom gathered at the casement to watch as the carriage disgorged its occupants.
First came Mr. Willmot, who after stepping out turned and extended his hand to his wife—who certainly required his aid, as she was so large that her balance on the step was not a thing anyone could depend on.
After she had been brought safely to ground, the eldest Willmot daughter, Patience, emerged; she looked much as she did when Emma had last seen her. Then came the two junior girls—the twins; very greatly changed indeed, but they had been the merest children when Emma had known them. Likewise Peter, the youngest Willmot, who now leapt out, bypassing the step altogether; he had gained a full six inches in the time the Marlows had been away. After which David issued forth, more handsome and broad-shouldered than Emma remembered him.
And then…no one.
Emma had been slowly apprehending, with each new Willmot who materialized, that the coach was not large enough to accommodate all of their number; for they were, she recalled, some dozen or so in total. But it had not yet occurred to her that Edgar would be among those not accounted for.
“Why does he not come out?” Emma said, concerned that he had perhaps suffered an injury that limited his ability to move without assistance.
It was not until the driver shut the door, climbed back into his seat, and with a flick of the reins drove the carriage out of sight, that she realized the full horror of the situation.
“He…he is not with them,” she muttered, feeling as though the floor might give way beneath her. “They have come…but they have come without him.” She looked up at Tom. “What…what shall I do?”
He appeared less uncertain than he had before. “You will do what custom dictates,” he said—but not unkindly. “You will do what you must.” And with a smile, he gave her his arm. He seemed to understand—as Emma was beginning to—that one could stave off private dismay by observing the mandates of public duty. Her heart was crushed, her future barren; but she owed it to her father and mother to behave otherwise. She must represent them and do them credit.
She took Tom’s arm, and let him lead her back downstairs.
“Ah! Here is Miss Emma Marlow at last,” cried Mrs. Willmot when Emma and Tom reentered the parlour. “I would know her anywhere. My dear, you have quite blossomed; like something from a painting. Is she not like something from a painting, Mr. Willmot?”
“I beg your pardon, my dear,” said her husband, who had been in private conference with Sir Godfrey near to the fire.
“I said, is not Miss Emma Marlow like something from a painting?”
Mr. Willmot gave Emma a cursory glance, then said, “Very like.” And with that he turned back to Sir Godfrey and continued speaking in a low voice.
“And Mister Tom!” cried Mrs. Willmot. “Look, children,” she said, turning to her brood, who sat ranged around her, “here is Miss Emma Marlow, whom many of you may be too young to remember; and with her is Mr. Tom, whom we had the pleasure of seeing just last summer.”
The children dutifully conveyed their how-d’you-do’s, and Mrs. Willmot smiled brightly at Tom. “I know you are soon to return to Cambridge. How long are we to have you to ourselves?”
“Not long, I’m afraid,” he said. “Three days hence I depart to resume my studies.”
“Ah! Well, then, we must make the most of what time we have. Sit, sit. I was just telling Lady Marlow the shocking history of our glover, Mr. Leonard. You will never guess—he inherited a fortune!”
As Emma took a place on the sofa, Lady Marlow gave her a very pointed look, which she understood to mean that she should not undermine Mrs. Willmot’s evident pleasure in relating this story, by revealing that they had just heard it from Mrs. Grayson.
“Thirty thousand pounds,” Mrs. Willmot continued, “from an elderly cousin he’d never even met. I fear it quite went to his head. He decided that he was above remaining in trade, so he closed his shop. Mr. Harris, the clothier on Drake Street, made him an offer for it, but he wouldn’t be bothered to consider it. He just shut his doors—left his inventory and fixtures and all, exactly as they were! And what do you think he did then, but take a house in town, and try to wriggle his way into London society! I declare I do not know who he had advising him; but whoever it was, he did him no service.
“You can perhaps guess the result. His wife, overawed by her change in fortune and silly by nature, was induced to run away with the son of an earl. Which I daresay is not the way Mr. Leonard had hoped for his family to integrate itself into the aristocracy. But I should not speak of such things in front of the children. Peter, girls—stop your ears.”
“Can we go and see the dogs?” pleaded Peter, who had much rather visit the spaniels (which Frances had removed to the kennel) than be privy to any tiresome grown-up scandal.
“We shan’t be here long enough to make it worth your while. Just sit still and mind your manners. And you, dear Tom—do sit down! There is more yet to tell.”
Tom had been performing a rather delicate maneuver—feigning interest in Mrs. Willmot’s narration while inching away from the group of women and children, and closer to Mr. Willmot and Sir Godfrey, whose conversation he must naturally prefer. But now Mrs. Willmot had fixed him in place—he could not without discourtesy refuse her—so with merely the slightest sigh of defeat, he lowered himself onto the settee next to Patience, who appeared only too happy to share it with him.
“After his disgrace,” Mrs. Willmot continued in a lower voice, as though to prevent the children from hearing—though they could not possibly have done otherwise than hear every word—“Mr. Leonard wrote to Mr. Harris again, offering him the shop for the same terms originally proposed; but by that time Mr. Harris had made an alternate arrangement, and so declined it. In the end Mr. Leonard sold out to a draper, a Frenchwoman named Mrs. Claude, except she insists that everyone call her Madame Claude, which is very difficult for English tongues you know.” It was certainly difficult for her English tongue, as each time she pronounced it, her jaw widened like that of an adder preparing to swallow an egg. “All was well for a time, until the day last Christmas when Madame Claude sold Mrs. Heath a bolt of muslin for two pounds-fourpence, but when the bill came it was for guineas, not pounds. Mrs. Heath brought the bill back to the shop and pointed out the discrepancy, but Madame Claude refused to admit any error, and said it was the price agreed. Now it is not a large difference, but Mrs. Heath resented that she should be ill-used for even a few shillings, and refused to pay more than the original price Madame Claude had quoted, but the obstinate woman would take nothing but the amount she had billed. And it was too late for Mrs. Heath to return the fabric, for she had already had it made into a very smart evening dress, plus a cravat for her husband got up from the leftovers. So it was quite a stalemate, and remains so to this day. But I daresay Madame Claude regrets her meanness over those two shillings, because we who are friends of Mrs. Heath—and who have never known her to tell an untruth in forty years—have refused to patronize her since. And let me tell you what is most interesting in all this …”
Emma, whose attention had been waning, now stopped listening entirely. She had only managed to pay heed up to now in the vain hope that somewhere, in some aside or digression, Mrs. Willmot might make mention of her eldest son; but it was clear that she was no more to be diverted from her chronicle than a bloodhound from a scent.
Emma cast her gaze from one Willmot child to the next, in the hope of seeing some reflection of Edgar in their faces; but she found very little. Possibly David resembled him most, because at fifteen he was on the cusp of manhood. But in truth—how dispiriting to realize it!—she had half-forgotten what Edgar looked like. The broad strokes of his features were still bright her memory; but the nuances—the curve of his nose, the precise set of his brow—eluded her.
She sat in glum silence, pondering this betrayal of her own recall, until at length she heard Mrs. Willmot say, “We have taken enough of your time, Lady Marlow; I daresay other friends will soon come to call, and they do not need to find us here as well. Lucy-Ann, ring the bell to fetch the carriage, there’s a good girl.”
Again on impulse, Emma leapt to her feet and took a position before the string, effectively blocking it from anyone’s reach. Lucy-Ann stood before her, perplexed; everyone else stared at her as well.
“Mrs. Willmot,” she said—again marveling at the sound of her own voice, so free was she of any power over it—“you do not stir from this house till you let me know how all the rest of your family do.”
Mrs. Willmot and Mr. Willmot shared a meaningful glance; Lady Marlow and Sir Godfrey did likewise; even Tom’s and Patience’s eyes met in mutual inquiry. But this was all in the space of a heartbeat; then Mrs. Willmot, in apparent good humor, undertook to answer her.
“Our children are all extremely well, my dear; but at present many of them are from home. Amy is with my sister Clayton; Richard is at Eton; Edgar at Oxford; and Ralph on an errand in town. I am very sensible to the honor you do me in asking after them. I hope to reacquaint you with them—or at least one of them—very soon.”
She had such a twinkling in her eye when she said this, that Emma must blush—had her secret been guessed? Was she found out?
Yet none of that truly mattered…Edgar was at Oxford. She had feared him married, but it was almost as bad; he was become an academic. She ought to have known, by the scholarly turn of his mind, that he would tend that way. He was perhaps by now a fellow, or even a don, with lodgings on campus from which he would never again stir to return to humble Marlhurst.
After the Willmots departed, Sir Godfrey sought out his errant daughter to rebuke her for her rudeness to Mrs. Willmot; but Emma had already fled in tears, back up to her room, with the intention—blurted to Tom, whom she passed on her way to the stairs—of remaining there the rest of her life.