“I cannot imagine,” said Sir Godfrey to his lady, “why we continue in such deplorable lodgings as these, in a paltry market-town, while we have three good houses of our own situated in some of the finest parts of England, and perfectly ready to receive us!”
“I'm sure, Sir Godfrey,” replied Lady Marlow, “it has been much against my inclination that we have stayed here so long; or why we should ever have come at all indeed, has been to me a wonder, as none of our houses have been in the least want of repair.”
“Nay, my dear,” answered Sir Godfrey, “you are the last person who ought to be displeased with what was always meant as a compliment to you; for you cannot but be sensible of the very great inconvenience your daughters and I have been put to during the seven months we have remained crowded in these lodgings in order to give you pleasure.”
“My dear,” replied Lady Marlow, “how can you stand and tell such lies, when you very well know that it was merely to oblige the girls and you, that I left a most commodious house situated in a most delightful country and surrounded by a most agreeable neighborhood, to live cramped up in lodgings three pair of stairs high, in a smoky and unwholesome town, which has given me a continual fever and almost thrown me into a consumption.”
This Sir Godfrey could not let pass. He set down his newspaper and looked across the table at his wife, which was not something he did often; so that on this occasion he was momentarily diverted from his impatience by a tremor of surprise at what she looked like—which was, several years older than the last time he had bothered. But this he put aside and in great indignation said, “And what ever did I hear from you, when we were happily housed in the country, but how you missed society, and the theatre, and shops? So that eventually I was compelled to find us lodgings here in Chipping Norton, where I have presumed you were perfectly contented.”
Lady Marlow regarded him with as much surprise as if he had climbed atop the table and mewed like a cat. “What can you mean by such nonsense?” she asked. “We see no one here, for there is no one worth seeing; the shops, while more numerous, are inferior to those in the country; and never once in seven months have we been to the theatre. Indeed I am entirely uncertain whether there is a playhouse in town. No, no, husband,” she said, setting down the tambour on which she was embroidering a floral scene, “we came to Chipping Norton solely that you might be closer to your business interests.”
Sir Godfrey was all astonishment. He had perhaps forgotten he had any such thing as business interests. “My dear,” he said when he had recollected himself, “I employ agents to act on my behalf specifically that I might live far afield from the world of commerce. It is distasteful to me; surely that much has been made plain to you, over the long period of our marriage.”
But Lady Marlow was no more accustomed to looking at her husband than he at her, so that it was a surprise to both to be seeing each other, after so many years of wedlock, as if for the first time. Yet each was possessed of a congenial, imperturbable character, and thus found in the discovery of their mutual misunderstanding no cause for vexation or regret. Indeed, once they had concluded that the only persons to benefit from their seven-month sojourn in Chipping Norton were Sir Godfrey’s agents, who had needed to travel so much shorter a distance to report their activities to their employer, they could not withhold their laughter.
“Well,” said Sir Godfrey once he had recovered from this attack of mirth, “I see no reason for staying any longer in these cramped rooms than we already have. I will this very day begin arrangements to leave them.”
“I will certainly not hinder you,” said his wife. “But we ought first to determine where we will go.”
“For my part, I would be content with any of our houses,” said Sir Godfrey.
“As would I,” agreed Lady Marlow.
This was the disadvantage to the congeniality of their characters; it often rendered them helpless in the face of a decision.
“Let us apply to the children,” said Lady Marlow at last. “They are far more particular than we.”
These children were three in number. Sir Godfrey and Lady Marlow had two grown daughters, Frances and Emma, the former of whom had nineteen years, the latter, eighteen. They also counted as their own a boy, Thomas Peake, who was the son of one of Sir Godfrey’s cousins; the Marlows had taken him in after his parents perished at sea. This was not entirely a philanthropic arrangement, for they had assumed the lad would grow up to marry one of their daughters.
But with every passing year it became increasingly evident that Tom was the kind of man who would never marry at all. At twenty, he possessed all the settled, unvarying qualities of a man thrice his age, and a steadfast disinclination ever to alter them. He had accepted Sir Godfrey’s offer to finance his training for the law, and had undertaken his studies at Cambridge, so that his immediate future was as thoroughly charted as he could wish it. In the meantime, he made himself valuable to his guardians in an hundred different ways, which ameliorated their disappointment that he would be taking neither of their girls off their hands.
Alas, in this present difficulty he was of no use whatsoever. “I feel I have already prevailed too much on your good natures,” he said with genuine humility when asked where he thought the family ought next to move. “And as I am soon to return to university, and will thus spend little time at whichever house is eventually chosen, I feel my own preference—if I had one—which I do not—must be disregarded.”
Emma was applied to next. She was very glad to hear that the family was to depart Chipping Norton, as she had not thrived here; she was a delicate and sensitive creature, and the hustle-and-bustle of the market town’s streets buffeted her like a bit of flotsam on a rough sea. She was also afflicted with a short temper, so that there had been occasions on which her treatment at the hands of the town’s populace had been unusually brusque, when she had very sharply made her displeasure known; this had not increased her popularity.
But in general she was a sweet girl, and strove to be kind, and to be fair. To which end she now gave the question her parents had put to her, her most impartial consideration.
The Marlows’ three houses were Graftings in Sussex; Dunfosters in Wiltshire; and Penwether in Cornwall. The latter was the least to be desired, simply because of its distance—its sole appeal being its connection to the family of Lady Marlow, whose grandfather had inherited it from a distant relation.
Dunfoster’s was a very fine house in very fine neighborhood, situated amidst nearly five-and-twenty families of quality, which made for a rich, invigorating society. Dunfosters was also the house in which the family had traditionally spent Christmas, so that it afforded many happy memories of that kind. And finally, Dunfosters was the house from which they had repaired, seven months before, to their lodgings in Chipping Norton; so a return to its doors would be akin to picking up a thread that had been but momentarily dropped. Their Wiltshire friends and acquaintances were a mere seven months the older, and could be counted on to be still in sympathy and accord with the Marlows’ manners, habits, and tastes.
Graftings, by comparison, was a smaller house, located in a village—Marlhurst—whose society was restricted to a mere thirteen families, and not all of unimpeachable reputation. (One household numbered among its progeny a daughter who had made a profession of the London stage; another, a son who had married an American.) And as the Marlows had not stayed there for nearly five years, most of those families would, encountered anew, seem akin to strangers. In addition, the countryside was the hilliest in all Sussex, which made walking more effortful than Emma generally liked. And the house itself was enclosed by a large copse, which tended to render its rooms chilly even in high summer. Lady Marlow had asked to have the trees cut down, but Sir Godfrey refused her, on the principle that they were “fine old yews” and afforded them such a cloak of privacy. At which point Emma had suffered one of her fits of temper, and asked for what reason the family of Sir Godfrey Marlow required privacy, adding that she supposed they were too far inland to make smuggling at all practical.
Sir Godfrey had not appreciated her wit; and the memory of this moment’s disgrace, along with all the other inconveniences, ought to have stricken Graftings from consideration. And yet the property boasted one other feature that, for Emma, overrode all the rest; which was its proximity to Willmot Lodge.
This was a villa on the outskirts of Marlhurst which served as the residence of Mr. Erasmus Willmot, his wife, and their nine children. One might be forgiven for thinking that in so large a family, it would be difficult to distinguish any individual; but for Emma, there was one inhabitant of Willmot Lodge who outshone all the others.
Edgar, the eldest son, was seven years her senior, and had been a romantic figure in her impressionable girlhood. This had required a good deal of imagination, for he was a quiet, aloof, serious-minded young man, with dark hair and dark eyes, whose conversation ran from little to none at all. Indeed there was nothing about him that might charitably be called attractive—especially with a brother, a year younger, who was everything he was not: fair-haired, jovial, and eager to please. Yet Edgar had the aura of The Heir about him; and as his father had a considerable share in a lead mine and ticket in the lottery, there was, as sometimes in society there was not, a substantial inheritance for The Heir to be heir to.
This initial fancy might have faded over time, as Emma grew to young womanhood and gained a deeper understanding of the wider world and her family’s place in it. But such was not to be. For one day when she was just thirteen, she had gone out for a walk—her youthful determination not in the least thwarted by the unruliness of the hills or the briskness of a late October morning—and badly turned her ankle while descending a slope too quickly. Unable to carry herself farther, she sat herself upon a stone and examined her injury, and attempted to gauge whether she risked greater impairment if she forced herself to walk on it, or whether she would be obliged to hop on one foot all the way back to Graftings, (which seemed to be an ideal plan for similarly disabling the other ankle).
She was considering this dilemma—and, being a merry, agreeable girl, was not at all insensible to the humor in it—when a rustling in the fallen leaves very near to her drew her eye; and therein she saw a long, brown snake.
She screamed; and as if considering that this single emission did insufficient justice to the full horror of her situation, she paused but briefly, then screamed again.
The snake—which was perhaps deaf—did not flee or retreat, or bury itself more deeply in its cover of leaves, but slithered closer to where Emma sat, and coiled itself around her heel.
She was up in a heartbeat and began to run away; but on her second step, when her injured ankle bore the full measure of her weight, she flinched in pain and folded like a rag doll; and while she managed to hop a few more paces in blind panic, it was inevitable that her lurching and flailing should end in a fall.
She lay for a moment in the dirt, panting in fear, then propped herself up on her elbow to see whether the snake had given pursuit.
And what she saw instead was Edgar Willmot. He came over the rise, his bearing stately and his manner phlegmatic, and accompanied by one of the family’s Irish setters, which he then gestured into a sit. Upon which he turned to Emma, clicked his heels and tipped his hat, and said, “I heard you cry out. May I be of assistance?”
“Oh, yes, please,” Emma burbled. “I’ve hurt my ankle—I cannot walk—” And at this, Edgar began to approach her, so that she must exclaim, “—Be careful, there is a snake!”
He stopped and cast his glance at the ground, though appearing to be more curious than fearful.
“I see none,” he said calmly.
“It was just there,” she whimpered, indicating the stone from which she had recently propelled herself.
Edgar turned his scrutiny in the direction she had pointed out. Then a sudden movement galvanized his searching eyes, and he stepped forward very decisively, reached down, and plucked something up.
It was the snake.
Emma could not but feel somewhat foolish on seeing the creature dangle between Edgar’s thumb and forefinger, for it was rather slight. It had seemed so much longer when oscillating between the leaves.
“This is a mere grass snake,” he explained; “it is not venomous. It poses no threat of any kind, to you or to anybody.”
Her face burned, and she felt her angry wit well up. “I daresay I should not be lying here, if that were so.”
He took no offense; in fact, he smiled. “In your predicament, it was fear of the creature that harmed you, not the creature itself,” he said, and he masterfully flung the thing many yards away.
She lowered her eyes. “How stupid you must think me!”
“Not at all. I can perfectly understand how its discovery must have startled you.” He approached her anew. “I often think there is nothing quite so disconcerting as stumbling upon life against one’s expectation.” He crouched down next to her. “Several weeks past I opened a drawer in my room, and reached into it for a pocket handkerchief; but what my hand closed about, was a mouse.”
“Oh!” Emma squealed. “How dreadful! Were you quite alarmed?”
“No less so than the mouse,” he said with a grin. “Though that was considerably. Shall I lift you?”
She felt her face flush. “You needn’t put yourself to such trouble; if you but lend me your arm, I can hop alongside you.”
“That ill suits your dignity as the daughter of a baronet,” he said. And with that, he scooped her into his arms and raised himself to his feet. Emma felt the sensation of the earth moving away from her, and without thinking sought to steady herself by throwing her arms around his neck.
He was unfazed by this sudden intimacy. He quarter-turned his head and said, “Come, Baron,” and his dog happily leapt to his side.
Twelve minutes later—during which not a single word passed between them (she being unwilling to add to his exertions by forcing him to talk)—he delivered her to the front door at Graftings, and into the care of her mother. He tipped his hat again and bade them both good day, before turning and departing, Baron bounding at his heels.
Since that day, for Emma, there had been no other hero in all of Britain, but Edgar Willmot.
Alas, there had been little chance for further encounters between them. Autumn swiftly gave way to winter, and within two months the Marlows relocated to Dunfosters for Christmas; and at Dunfosters they remained for four additional years, until they moved to Chipping Norton.
There was nothing in the world that Emma wished more dearly than to return to Marlhurst, and to see Edgar Willmot once more. She wondered what changes five years might have wrought in him; he would now be twenty-five! A vast age. But no change in him could compare with the alteration in her; for she had been a mere child when last they met. Now she was a grown woman of eighteen; would he even know her? Would he care to know her? She yearned to find out.
And yet she was a conscientious girl, and meant to do her duty by her father and mother; and it was so seldom that they asked her opinion on anything, she felt she must honor their request by responding as selflessly as possible. Which, all things considered, must mean Dunfosters.
And so she said as much.
They thanked her for her deliberation, and behaved in such a manner as to suggest that Emma’s word had settled the matter. This was a compliment to her, which she did her best to enjoy; it might be the only reward her integrity would afford her.
But no; for here came her sister, Frances, into the room—and since she was the elder of their daughters, Sir Godfrey and Lady Marlow did her the courtesy of asking her opinion as well.
Frances did not hesitate in her reply. “If it’s all the same to you, dear Papa, dearest Mama, I should very much like to return to Graftings. It has been entirely too long since we have settled there.”
“By that token,” said Lady Marlow, “we ought to make for Penwether, from which we have been even longer away.”
Frances waved the point aside. “Penwether has waited this long; it can wait longer yet. But I must tell you, Papa, what I miss most keenly about Graftings is Uncle Baldwin’s kennels. You know it has been my desire since childhood to take them over. You promised me that I should, someday. Why may not that someday be today?”
Sir Godfrey, reminded of his pledge, was forced to submit to it; though it seemed clear he had made it only because its object had seemed, at the time, no more than a young child’s fleeting fancy. He would scarcely have agreed otherwise to allow his fair young daughter sovereignty over the kennels which his late brother, ever prodigal, had had affixed to the property some quarter-century earlier. A baronet’s daughter belonged in a drawing room, not a dog run.
Yet the ensuing years had done nothing to dim Frances’s love for all things canine. She scorned society, disdained distaff pursuits, neglected young men, and turned her back on all accomplishments. Her world revolved around her two King Charles spaniels, Dash and Cannon, and she longed for the day when she might make them the progenitors of a great spaniel dynasty.
Thus, as she was the only member of the family whose preference was cast in iron, she carried the day.
The Marlows would return to Graftings.