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Sample Chapter

Chapter I

In the county of Warwickshire, just near enough to Stratford to take a proprietary interest in its immortal Bard, lies the principal seat of the Earls of Meravon. Before the first Earl’s creation it was the seat of various barons and viscounts of the ascending house, and initially, it must be confessed, it was merely a property acquired by an unembellished Mr. Merrion. But Mr. Merrion, while he may have lacked honors, was not wanting in resource: his fortune, obtained during the reign of Elizabeth, was of his own contrivance, though it would perhaps be wisest not to inquire too deeply into its origins. If one cannot spread the cloak of patriotism over such things by vague references to Drake and Hawkins–which I fear cannot be done in this case–it is best to leave a man’s methods to welter in the obscurity which they no doubt required.

Mr. Merrion, for all his wealth, was not in particular favor with the crown until Elizabeth’s successor tottered across the border to clasp it to his brow. James I was only too pleased to swell the privy purse with Merrion bounty–or booty, as some sticklers persisted in sneering behind their fans–and as the royal gratitude took the form of a barony, Lord Merrion had no complaints to make either. Thereafter he retired to his Warwickshire property, feeling that he had done well by his family name, and that it would be for posterity to build upon the foundation he had laid, preferably in the form of a castle fraught with turrets. Posterity, however, was negligent: it also had entirely different notions of what was desirable in a residence. King Jamie’s grandson had been efficiently swept from the throne by his ill-favored son-in-law before a house worthy of the Merrion name was erected, and the first Earl’s notion of what was seemly in such a house would most certainly have pained his great-grandfather. The Hall, completed in 1692, was a severely geometrical structure, designed by Hooke, and without so much as a portico to redeem its austerity. Its owner, overcome by a somewhat self-conscious whimsicality otherwise foreign to him, rejected the logical designation of “Merrion Hall,” and insisted that it be known as Merriweather.

The Merrions were in general a handsome family, with a tendency toward dark hair and light eyes, which, when one studies the portraits of the various spouses selected over the generations, seems almost to have been deliberately cultivated–though descendants decry this as a base suspicion. Be that as it may, by the time of the fourth Earl, dark eyes were confined to distant cousins, and one may be tolerably sure that a Merrion mother, presented with a fair-haired infant, must have struggled with the sensation of having somehow failed either her ancestors, or her in-laws.

It is this fourth Earl with whom we have to deal, though even as I begin my tale his dark hair has long since turned gray, and his blue eyes are frequently obscured by brows which, always marked and ominous, had of late years been inclined to sprout impetuously in all directions. Julian Merrion was perhaps best described in the words of one who loved and endured him for years, his eldest granddaughter, Julia–who, as it happens, is also the heroine of this instructive little chronicle:

“Grandfather’s rages are legendary,” she once told a friend. “That is to say, stories of their depth, length and volume have been passed down from generation to generation, but to his grandchildren, they are no more than historical incidents: we have no verifiable knowledge of them. I understand that as a boy he was remarkably sweet-tempered, until his brother died, making him the heir, and some officious individual convinced him that an earl had to possess a distinguishing characteristic, or be forever neglected in the annals of history. Grandfather chose unreasonableness.”

Many have discovered the tedium of maintaining active unreasonableness for long periods of time, and his lordship was no exception. With the help of his wife–a lady possessed of an excellent understanding, and a spirit of implacable peacefulness–he was eventually able to exchange loud and senseless recalcitrance, for a more subdued willfulness, without loss of face. But correcting a fault without ever admitting its existence is a slow process at best, and most of his eight surviving children had ceased, very early on in their lives, to expect anything approaching rational thought from their father. Seven of them had scattered to the four winds of marriage, army, law and clergy, and returned home only occasionally, and never without ready access to a carriage. Lady Frances, alone of all his daughters, did not fling herself into matrimony at the first combination of a good-natured smile and a handsome competence to meet her eye. She dwelt, instead, with seeming complacency at Merriweather, snipping roses and being gracious, until a certain Mr. Arthur Parry arrived with letters from one of his lordship’s brothers, living in India.

Mr. Parry was the youngest son of a reclusive Somersetshire knight, whose life was apparently distinguished by its lack of significant incident. At seventeen Mr. Parry accompanied Lord Clive to India, upon that decisive gentleman’s return to it in ’65 to disentangle Bengal affairs, which had been properly muddled by assorted Nawabs and politicians, and a disputatious Council. But whilst Lord Clive hastened back to his native coast within a year or two, there to meet the suspicions of Parliament and the fatal effects of opium and melancholy, Mr. Parry stayed behind in the service of the Honorable Company. His abilities, or perhaps his ambition, were not such as to gain for him a peerage or even a governorship; nor did he acquire such wealth as must inevitably catch the eye of a jealous Board; but his labors were faithful and unremitting, and who is to say that it is not the clerks and secretaries of the world who, quietly and without fanfare, do the most good? Or at any rate the least amount of harm.

Mr. Parry did not see England again for nearly twenty years, by which time a persistent eye-complaint had left him with but an imperfect ability to do so. He was able to perceive the many excellencies of Lady Frances Merrion without difficulty, however; and having done so, and having somewhat incredulously received her acceptance of his proposals, he abandoned his intention of returning to the spicy shores, solacing himself with the delights of domesticity, and the intermittent satisfaction of harassing the Court of Directors with unpleasant truths which few of its members cared to hear. Parliament had little interest in such fortunes as Mr. Parry had amassed, the very modesty of which attested to the unexceptionable nature of its procurement, and left him to live out his years unimpeached.

I need hardly mention, that Mr. Parry did not suit Lord Meravon’s notions of what was desirable in a son-in-law. He had nothing to say against his character, of which he knew little. At first there had been no reason for the Earl to interest himself in one who was, when all was said, only a sort of superior post-boy; and Mr. Parry’s subsequent efforts to impinge upon the status quo, had at once determined him to be a reprehensible being, all question of character aside. He was too old, too yellow–his complexion, that is–too near-sighted, too lacking in fortune, and altogether too irrelevant to attach himself to the house of Merrion. That he sought to do so was impertinent; that Lady Frances encouraged him in his presumption was horrifying.

The Earl carefully nurtured his disappointment and resentment until the thought of the match, once disagreeable, became wholly intolerable. Lady Meravon, wise in the ways of her husband, began to suspect that ultimatums were forming in his head, and that he was giving himself over to the contemplation of sentences in which the terms “forbid” and “disown” predominated. She spoke cautious words of moderation, and, being a woman of singular piety, gave herself to prayer. She also took great pains to see that a continual procession of his favorite dishes came to the table, and that whenever Lady Frances played the pianoforte, she avoided any pieces that might tend to melancholy, or sound an heroic strain. One of Lady Frances’s first samplers proclaimed the truth that “Music can noble hints impart, engender fury, kindle love, with unsuspected eloquence can move and manage all the man with secret art”; and Lady Meravon, having had, one must assume, good reason for choosing such a passage for perpetuation, did not now hesitate to mildly advised her daughter, on the unwisdom of providing a musical climate, in which his lordship might find it easy to persuade himself that there was something grand and meritorious in clinging to his prejudices in the face of certain misery, merely because they were his very own prejudices, and he had lived with them for years.

Lady Frances entered eagerly into her mother’s gentle scheme, and together they kept the Earl so pleasantly occupied, that the thought of disturbing his comfort by a rash prohibition became increasingly unappealing. In due time Mr. Parry applied to him; one may imagine the scene: The Earl, once more irritated by the composure of the applicant–a composure which seems to him merely self-conceit–is about to refuse his consent. His choler rises–and with it his color—his brows twitch and bristle with aggression–blasting phrases jostle one another in his brain for the privilege of being chosen to strike down such unwarranted calm. But he is also filled with an excellent meal, enjoying a particularly fine Madeira, and just happens to be standing opposite his favorite miniature of Lady Frances at the moment of application; and after an ominous hesitation, in which he realizes, with a pang, that never again will he be given an occasion to express his displeasure as perfect as this, he allows the Forelock of Opportunity to slip from his grasp, and begins to mutter about settlements.

Thus you observe the impressive alchemy of an author, who can produce credible scenes of history, from nothing but pure conjecture. It is a fact, however, that Mr. Parry emerged that evening from the library, with thankfulness in his heart, and the name and direction of the Earl’s solicitor in his notebook; and that Lord Meravon later tersely informed his wife, that he had just been speaking with Parry, and between them he fancied they had contracted pretty well for Fanny’s future unhappiness: “He flattered himself than he had come out ahead, for Parry had all the trouble of securing it; while he had only to give his consent to the business.”

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