As soon as Mr. Willmot was back at the lodge, he wrote to his eldest son and bade him return without delay. Then he went to make peace with his wife, of whom he could once again think kindly, now that he had satisfied himself through the exertion of his paternal authority.
As it happened, Ralph Willmot had by this same time grown bored with London—his “errand” there having consisted of no more than a chain of louche amusements, of which had was now feeling more than surfeited—and had written to Edgar as well, to propose himself in Oxford. He surmised that the soothing torpidity of an academic environment might help him recuperate from the effects of his many indulgences; but alas, Edgar wrote back to say that he had been summoned home.
Ralph was disappointed; he had intended to delay his own return to Willmot Lodge by visiting his brother. But since it was not to be, he thought they might as well make the last leg of the journey together. They arranged to meet at The Copper Fox, an inn in Surrey much frequented by travelers from Marlhurst and its environs, there to eat and drink together before continuing.
Ralph was the first to arrive, riding up in the pummeling heat of early afternoon. Once inside the cool, low-ceilinged common room, he took the opportunity to order a tankard of ale to quench his thirst. Indeed he might have time for another, before Edgar turned up; which thought so pleased him that he wished his brother in no hurry. For despite the vast differences in their characters, the two young men were close, and each had an improving effect on the other: Ralph was not quite so comfortable debauching himself with Edgar’s eye upon him, and Edgar was actually known to laugh in Ralph’s company—there were eyewitnesses to the phenomenon, who had reputably reported it.
After he had quaffed his first few mouthfuls, Ralph felt sufficiently recovered from the oppressive warmth to survey the other patrons in the room. He fully expected to discover a face familiar to him—but was surprised by the one which finally answered this expectation.
“Peake!” he exclaimed, after departing his own table and coming to where his old friend sat. “What a welcome thing, to find you here. You won’t mind my joining you?”
Tom, who had been very happily passing the time with a book, none the less closed it and smiled agreeably. “Not at all. Hello, Willmot.”
“So it’s true,” said Ralph, after sitting down and stealing another swallow of ale. “If you’re here at The Copper Fox, you must be headed north from Sussex; which can only mean the Marlows are again installed at Graftings.”
“I left them this morning,” Tom said. “You knew, then, of our coming?”
“The excellent Mrs. Curtis told me of it, before I departed for town—from whence I now return.”
“Ah, yes. She is not one to keep such a thing secret.”
“A secret of any kind would kill her,” Ralph agreed; “it would be a stone in her breast.”
Tom smiled; but he would not laugh at his aunt. It would be ungenerous.
Ralph, however, was not troubled by such scruples. “She is like my mother,” he continued, leaning back in his chair and seeming very happy to have an audience. “They are both of them so very voluble. My brother and I have an ongoing game, whenever those two ladies get together in one room: we observe to see which one dominates the conversation. The result is always the same: whichever manages to speak the first syllable. Because the other will have lost her chance, and there will never be sufficient pause thereafter for her to leap in and claim the field.”
Tom arched one eyebrow. “I can believe that is a game of yours; I am less persuaded that it is also your brother’s.”
“Oh, Edgar is more satirical than anybody knows. It just requires bringing out in him.”
Tom nodded, while thinking, “What he means is, it just requires a bad influence.”
“Perhaps I can demonstrate,” Ralph continued. “He is to meet me here forthwith. He comes down from Oxford, where he is engaged in some tiresome project involving Latin texts. He has described it to me, but I never listen on principle.”
“I will be sorry to miss him,” Tom said, while producing a few coins from his vest pocket and setting them on the table, “but alas, I must once again brave the heat of the day.”
“You are headed to London?”
“Yes; but only to pass through it.” He gave forth with another wry grin. “My destination is Cambridge. I am a university man myself these days, and Michaelmas term begins shortly.”
Ralph blanched. “I am sorry; I hope you will not mind my have spoken slightingly of academia.”
“Not at all. The scholar’s lot is not for every man.”
“Are you reading Classics, like Edgar?”
“No; Law, at Jesus College. I am in my second year.” He smiled more widely. “It seems Mrs. Curtis did not tell you that.”
“Indeed she did not. Damn the woman.”
At this unexpected irreverence, Tom himself laughed, as much from shock as from diversion; and suddenly he understood how Ralph’s roguish charm might indeed crack his brother’s virtuous veneer.
He recovered in an instant, and got to his feet. “I am glad we met, Willmot; I will not be back at Graftings for some months, and would have regretted missing you.”
“But you won’t regret missing Edgar?” Ralph asked, with a mocking glint in his eye. “Never mind, you cannot fool me: I know it is because you are a Cambridge man, and he an Oxfordian. You are rivals, and must soon come to blows.”
Tom laughed again. “I shouldn’t think either your brother or I had much to fear from any blows such meek souls as we might land on one another.”
Ralph walked him to the door. “There is something else Mrs. Curtis didn’t tell me,” he said, “and that is how the Misses Marlow do. I have not seen them since they were the merest girls. They are well?”
“Both very well indeed.”
“And…well-looking?” He gave Tom so pointed a look that Tom astonished himself by laughing a third time.
“My dear Willmot,” he said, “they are as sisters to me.”
“Very comely sisters, I expect.”
“Since you ask, I believe they are generally considered quite handsome.”
Ralph grinned in satisfaction, then clapped him on the back. “Safe travels to you, my friend. Be most attentive to your studies; graduate with honors, and take your place at the forefront of your profession. I do not wish this purely in a spirit of altruism, but from knowing that someday, I am very likely to require a good lawyer.”
As Tom rode north, he repented of the haste with which he had left Ralph’s company. It wasn’t due to Ralph’s infamous conversation that he had fled; he was long accustomed to that—and to the way Ralph’s charisma overrode any objection.
No, it had been because he really hadn’t wished to meet Edgar. Ralph had been more intuitive than he knew: indeed, Tom had no compelling desire to sit and compare notes with an Oxford alumnus.
Now, back under the punishing sun, his principles wilted in the unseasonable September calidity, and he felt increasingly silly that he had chose not to meet a friend of many years over so slight a thing as a school rivalry.
He felt particularly ashamed when he recalled Emma’s fondness for Edgar, which had been the cause of so much recent misery to her. Tom might have waited to meet him, if only to advise him to treat kindly with her. That this had not even occurred to him, he now viewed with great shame.
He resolved to redeem himself by stopping in town long enough to post a short letter to Emma, advising her that Edgar Willmot was in fact on his way back to Marlhurst.
Edgar reached The Copper Fox some twenty minutes later, and after embracing his brother sat down with him and feasted on cold meats with bread and butter. While they ate, Edgar explained the reason for his summons home: “Father wishes to groom me to take over for him when he is dead. I would that I were not the eldest son, because I have no feeling for such things; I am a scholar, not a farmer.”
“Well, don’t attempt to shift the burden of responsibility onto me,” Ralph said (he had by this time finished his second tankard of ale). “You may be ill-suited to the role of country squire, but I think I must be its very antithesis.”
Edgar smiled. “I had considered proposing such a thing, but abandoned it, for the very reason you cite. David, however, seems to possess the kind of character that would exult in overseeing of our estates.”
“David is not yet sixteen. You perhaps read too much into his avidity for nature.” He pronounced the word “nature” as though it burned his tongue to say it.
“No, I have watched him; he has a feeling for the animals, and the soil. It brings something out in him. He seems…in accord with it all.” He sighed. “I very nearly envy him that. It is a kind of gift.”
“Well, then. Are you going to nominate him to Father?”
“Not yet. As you say, he is very young. Let him see what other roads he might travel, and if he still finds as much felicity in land management as he does now, he and I will conspire to make it so. And then I will be free to pursue my own ambitions.”
“About which I pray you will not discourse at present,” Ralph said heavily. “I am already rather tired.”
As they rode south, Edgar said, “You ought to give your own future more deliberation, brother. As the second son, you have the luxury of choice; I cannot adequately convey to you how fortunate you are in that.”
Ralph rolled his eyes. “You speak as if my choices were legion; in reality, there is the church, there is the law, and there is government. Nothing else is entirely respectable for a gentleman. Alas, I find all three tiresome in the extreme. No, the thing for me is to wed some young lady sufficiently high in the social order to excuse her husband from any obligation of employment whatever.” He grinned. “That said, what an excellent time for the Marlow girls to re-enter our lives!”
Edgar shot him a startled glance. “The Marlows? In what sense do you mean ‘re-enter’?”
“They have moved back to Graftings. Hadn’t you heard? No, I suppose you wouldn't have; you must pluck your nose out of your books from time to time, brother, and listen to the word on the wind.”
“The entire family, you say? Sir Godfrey and Lady Marlow, and both daughters?” He had tried not to expose himself, but the way he pitched that word “both” would have revealed him to anyone more mindful than his self-regarding brother.
“The lot of them,” said Ralph. “And Tom Peake as well; though he’s now off to Cambridge. He was at the inn just before you. Did I not mention it?”
“Indeed you did not.”
They reached an expanse of road that was shaded by poplar trees, and slowed their mounts so that they might longer enjoy the comparative coolness.
“The Misses Marlow were pretty young girls, as you may recall,” Ralph continued. “Peake assures me that their charms have only increased.”
“Tom Peake said that?”
“Well…I asked, and he didn’t deny it.” He looked contemplative. “I suppose either one of them would do, for my purposes, each being the daughter of a baronet. Though I seem to recall the elder sister running wild with something resembling a small wolf pack.”
“I should’ve thought a thing like that would appeal to you,” quipped Edgar.
Ralph gave his brother an astonished look. “Was that a satirical remark? Was it? Did Mr. Edgar Willmot, Oxford scholar and latter-day Cato, just utter a word in jest?”
Edgar laughed; but his brother’s affectionate mockery was not the chief cause of his merriment. That, rather, was the certain knowledge that he would soon meet again a young girl who had frolicked at the periphery of his vision for years before he finally noticed her; a lovely, sylvan sprite whom he had once memorably—indeed unforgettably—carried in his arms.