As it was raining outdoors, and a brittle Northern wind seemed determined to wreck havoc upon the weather, Emily Graham and her mama decided against their afternoon walk in favor of an early tea near the warmth of the parlor hearth. They were arranged quite comfortably before the fire until Mrs. Graham, who detested wretched weather altogether, complained of the onslaught of a rather severe headache, incurring the concern of her daughter, who offered to send Prescott out to fetch a doctor. However, the suffering lady protested against sending a servant out in such weather and insisted merely upon the solace of her room, a compress for her head, and "a box of those delicious chocolate bon-bons Nathanial sent us from Paris".
That left poor Emily quite alone in the parlor save for sour Mildred, the maid, who seemed quite determined to complete her knitting in silence, diminishing any chance of conversation. Fortunately, being a resourceful girl, Miss. Graham soon found Byron's latest ample amusement for the remainder of the afternoon, and so curled up Turkish style on the divan in pursuit of the volume.
They were situated in a small sitting room, adjacent the larger and draftier drawing room, often engaged during the warmer months for its size and convenience. Decorated by a feminine hand, with walls papered in the fashionable style, dainty French chairs, delicate mahogany furniture, and an abundance of other small luxuries, the sitting room was the retreat of Mrs. Graham, who was wont to consider it a sanctuary. It was not Emily's particularly favorite room-she considered the library infinitely preferable-but, to appease her mother, she spent a majority of her afternoons there. A large window-with a rather prettish view of a nearby park-was her sole amusement on sunny afternoons, and it was in the little window-seat she would perch herself, cheek pressed against the pane, to gaze dreamily out at the landscape.
That afternoon, however, the weather was far too bleak for admiration. Even faithful Emily had retreated from her customary post, to situate herself near the security of the fire. The window had been shut firmly against the rain and wind and the thin, silk curtains drawn tightly against the dreary landscape. Transformed from its usual cheery self, the sitting room had been cast in long shadows and dark corners; formidable and somber save the fire, which burned cheerfully in the hearth.
Emily, fully engaged by her volume, had settled herself childishly in the chair, hand supporting her face, mouth slightly agape. She was barely sixteen, recently returned from a term at finishing school; a bright and eager child with fair hair and the inquisitive expression that seemed to accompany every fresh-faced youth of her age. How greatly did she compare to Mildred- sallow Mildred with her bony figure and graying hair, held starkly back in uncompromising resolution! Faithful dear she was, though, however strict and upright and sour; her eyes betrayed a hint of affection for her young mistress, as she occasionally glanced over to survey her.
As the rain lashed onward against the window, and the wind howled, both settled themselves for an afternoon of companionable silence, each occupied by her own differing amusement. It was, however, no sooner than Mildred had settled down with her knitting and Emily had become engrossed in her poems, then there was a sharp knock upon the front door, startling both.
"Why it is too early for Father!" Emily cried aloud, closing her book and straightening on the divan. "And who would call in such weather?"
"Who indeed!" grumbled Mildred angrily, as she was forced to lay aside her handiwork. "Calling in this weather! I've quite a mind to give them the sharp side of my tongue, Miss. Emily. And so close to the supper hour, too! It's not decent at all! Highly improper!" She rose, unsteadily, setting her precious handiwork carefully upon a mahogany table. "But, never you mind my interference; I'll send them off right proper and polite, just for your sake." She hobbled out of the room, leaving Emily alone once more.
Curious, but entirely too comfortable to go and peek through the parlor curtains, Emily resumed her book and position before the fire. Several minutes passed, and, though there were raised voices in the vestibule, young Emily believed it due only to Mildred's strict codes of conduct and the stern lecture the unfortunate late caller was no doubt receiving; it was not uncommon. And the fire was so delightfully warm and Bryon so beautiful and enrapturing, that poor Emily was quite unprepared when the parlor doors flung open, admitting a tall, imposing, and somewhat desperate looking man.
Why, Emily was so entirely astonished at this severe breach of societal propriety (after all, no gentleman strides into the parlor of an unaccompanied lady without being properly announced) and furthermore by the man's wild-looking appearance, she hardly noticed a furious Mildred storming in behind him, a sauce-pan raised above her iron curls.
"I said you weren't to bother the mistress, you filthy vagrant!" she thundered, brandishing the sauce-pan. "Leave at once, or I'll alert the authorities!"
It is not an everyday occurrence, one must note, to be threatened by a sauce-pan; however, it is also not at all ordinary for a harassed stranger to stride into a gentleman's parlor without permission. Though, as the man towered a good two feet above Mildred, the sauce-pan in question could not have done much harm.
So, perhaps judging that Emily would be a bit more diplomatic than Mildred-who, admittedly, looked a fright with her hair springing from underneath a haphazard cap, he addressed himself to her. "Please," he began, and his tone was quite firm, "I know my entrance is beyond convention and no doubt beyond propriety, but I have urgent and pressing business with a Mr. George Graham of this residence. Business that cannot be delayed."
Emily noted the simple elegance of his dress, the educated tone of his voice, and the distinct manner in which he carried himself. Though his air was anxious, concerned, and fraught with anxiety, there could be no doubt that he was a gentleman, and warm Emily, who possessed a noble little heart, and the occasional lapse into romantic tendencies, not uncommon for a young girl of sixteen, could not help but feel sympathy for his unknown plight.
"George Graham is my father," she replied, with a short glance to Mildred to lower the offending sauce-pan, "but he is not home at this hour, nor will he be, I'm afraid, for quite some time."
The man's face drained of color, and, without invitation, he took a chair near Emily. "Dreadful, dreadful news! Hope destroyed! Answers unattainable!" This, muttered violently under his breath, was not directed at Emily, and she lowered her eyes docilely, to avoid the appearance of eavesdropping.
Mildred, however, was quite aghast at the stranger's informality, the wildness of his countenance, and violence of his words, and was about to fetch Prescott to bodily remove the offending man (though, in actuality, the stranger was a head taller and several years younger than the poor, aged butler) but was stopped by Emily's imploring gaze.
"He is in need of my father's council," Emily informed the maid firmly, for she sincerely felt sympathy for the man's distress and sensed the urgency of his business, "therefore, we cannot turn him away. Go, instead, and fetch him some refreshment."
There was little Mildred could do; she was only a servant, after all, however many airs and graces she had adopted throughout the years of faithful service. And though she sulked and seethed with indignation, she also highly valued and respected her young mistress's opinion and uttered no protest. The parlor door shut loudly behind her, leaving Emily quite alone with the man before the fire, a fact she realized with flaming cheeks only after Mildred had exited the room.
He did not speak for quite some time, choosing, instead, to wearily survey his surroundings. Emily, respecting his silence, chose instead to observe him. She noticed a curious sadness in his eyes; the lackluster paleness of his countenance; the determined tilt of his chin, as though he were accustomed to hardship. And though he could only be a few years her senior, Emily sensed that here was a boy who had become a man at too young an age.
The fire blazed merrily in the grate; crackling as though decidedly attempting to lighten the melancholy mood that had accompanied the stranger into the parlor. Outside, dusk was breaking, and the usual humdrum that accompanied such a late hour could be readily distinguished from the streets. It was close to the supper hour, and hurried footsteps resounded down the prim and proper residential district, as businessmen traveled towards the warmth of hearth and home. Indeed, it had been a decidedly dismal day, and many were eager to return home.
A letter to an old friend lay upon the rosewood writing desk not inches from the man. It had not been completed as of yet, and Emily had been attempting to revise it all morning. Katherine Harrison was not particular, surely, but Emily had been determined to send her a well-written and humorous note depicting life in London. As she glanced at it now, she knew it would have to be revised even further to detail the entrance of the strange man and his repeated demands to see her father. At that point, however, she hardly believed it could be classified as a humorous occurrence.
A noise startled the man from the streets, startling him also from his thoughts. For the first time, he seemed to take notice of Emily and the current situation he had stubbornly thrown himself into. He fidgeted uncomfortably under her scrutiny. "I suppose I owe you some form of explanation," he offered.
"Your visit would not necessarily be referred to as an everyday occurrence," she replied, rather impertinently.
He scowled slightly. "No doubt, if you understood the reason, you would not be so hasty to mock me."
"I do not mock you, sir," argued Emily plaintively, anxious not to upset him, for-clever girl-she had sense enough to realize it would get her nowhere. "But surely, even the simplest of persons would wish to know why their afternoon tea was so invaded?"
"Invaded!" His laugh was bitter. "And what else shall you accuse me of?"
Emily lowered her eyes. "I accuse you of nothing, sir. I only wish to know your business with my father."
"Yes, well," he said, in a manner clipped, short, and almost rude, to a certain degree, "I am not at liberty to discuss any matters pertaining to my visit." His tone was final.
Emily, however, was not about to drop the investigation. Her curiosity had been aroused, and she was determined to discover exactly why this strange, dark man so urgently required an appointment with her father. "I do not believe, sir," she began, in an innocent, sweet tone, "that you are quite at liberty to refuse my request. After all, I could have you thrown from this room immediately if I so desired."
"I beg you would not do that," he answered, "as much as I beg you would not demand information not at all related to yourself."
It was a rebuke! Emily felt her cheeks flame crimson and her ears turn scarlet. To be so chastised, and by a strange man! It was not to be born, especially underneath her own roof. "You, sir, have not the right to inform me what information I should be concerned with." Her voice was raised slightly. "You tread lightly upon my hospitality!"
"Hospitality, indeed!" he scoffed, "I would not consider this any form of the sort, unless it is considered hospitable to subject guests to interrogations."
Emily's temper was ignited. "You forget your place, sir!"
It was a pointed question; a sarcastic jest, made only to infuriate Emily all the more. And, as it was intended, it succeeded. Emily was quite enraged, though also bewildered at her anger. Why did she feel such animosity towards this stranger, when they had not even been in the same room for more than five minutes? Yet, there could be no mistaking the apparent unfriendliness that radiated between the pair, for the dark man was glaring at Emily with barely concealed hostility.
She silenced herself for several moments, anxious to compose her thoughts, so to prevent hasty and unkind words. No one had ever addressed her before in such a bold and criticizing manner, or looked at her with such a hard glare. She was not a pampered child at all, but this interview had already greatly upset her! She did not feel that such a strange man was entitled to rebuke her so personally. However, at least she had some notion of decorum, and, thus, was quite determined to behave with propriety, despite such barbaric manners.
At last collecting her thoughts, she posed herself for diplomatic and polite conversation." I am sorry," she apologized shortly, "for any inconsistencies in my duties as hostess." It was extremely difficult to conceal a derisive snort, "but, I repeat, sir, you have no right to rebuke me!"
He did not respond immediately, merely surveyed her with an impartial, almost indifferent expression. It was quite different from his earlier retaliatory manner. "You speak with great clarity for a girl of your age." He spoke with some admiration, but his eyes were still hard.
She turned her head to avoid his gaze. "My father has been an excellent instructor," she replied, with a steely tone. "The very best, as a matter of fact."
He shifted slightly in his position. "Indeed, I am sure." The words were spoken spitefully. Even Emily could detect the sarcasm implied. She held her chin higher, and surveyed him frigidly. "If no polite conversation can be had, I beg you remain silent."
He did not respond, merely, again fell into deep thought. Emily, rather agitated at the unusual turns of their conversation, scrupulously maintained a prim expression, pursing her lips in a spinster fashion and tucking aside stray hairs that had wandered from her neat chignon.
Seconds stretched into minutes, but still the man did not speak. Emily's patience was beginning to wear thin. With nothing better to do, Emily turned her attention to the strange man again; and, she noticed for the first time his eyes, which held such a tempest of sorrow and remorse that she was taken quite aback. She sensed great sadness within them, and, again, with stirrings of pity, she was unable to refrain from remarking boldly, "I do hope that you are alright, sir."
The man started suddenly. Observing Emily's compassionate face, he scowled deeply. "It is kind of you to show me hospitality, but I do not need your charity or your pity." This, flung at Emily like ice, surprised her immensely, for he spoke with great bitterness.
"I do not pity you, sir." Emily knew she had a fierce temper, and she struggled vainly to keep it in check, "but treat you with the courtesy and respect owed to a guest of my father. How could I pity anyone who barged into my home, demanded to see my father, and then rebuked me in such a cold manner for the slightest of kindnesses?" She bowed her head to avoid his glare. "That, sir, is hardly the way of a gentleman."
"You do not understand," he returned, and his voice grew, as did his anger, "what your father has done. How ruthlessly he has ruined the lives of so many! So many I care deeply for!" Hastily spoken words, but how they pierced the heart of Emily, who loved her father deeply. It pained her beyond anything to hear him so abused. And by a strange man who she had never even met before!
"How can you utter such words about a man within his own home? How can you say something, so entirely condemning and cruel, to his only child?" Tears stung her eyes. "I have allowed you into my home, despite your manners, when any sensible person would have turned you away. I have vainly attempted civility and hospitality, only to be informed, in such a harsh manner, that it is neither desired nor welcomed! And now, sir, you have the audacity to insult my father, who is a decent, honest, upright man? How dare you!"
He appeared quite taken aback, not only by her outburst, but by the conviction of her words. Emily's loyalty was unyielding, yes, and she defended those she cared for with all her heart. She would never dare to hear any family member so criticized before her! Why, only yesterday, Mildred had been particularly cheeky to Mrs. Bancroft over the patterned curtains, and Emily had very diplomatically-but very firmly-put her in her place. Indeed, this was hardly similar, one must admit, but it did illustrate Emily's unyielding sense of fairness. And this, she mused, was hardly a fair insult!
However, the man, angered beyond any expression of apology, said instead, quite spitefully, "Love blinds all faults."
Emily could not believe the coldness of his words; she was still reeling from the sudden change in his manner. "You, sir, underestimate my judgment. I would not praise him without just reason. Furthermore, I, his daughter, would claim to know more about his character than you, a strange man!"
A deafening silence pervaded the room, broken only by the arrival of Mildred with the tea tray. As if sensing the hostile atmosphere, the maid looked suspiciously from Emily's ashen face to the stranger's dark and melancholy expression, forming her own opinions. "It will not do to upset the mistress, sir," she seethed, dropping the tea-tray with a loud clatter upon the table before him. "You've no right!"
"It is my fault, Mildred," Emily reprimanded softly; "I fear I have unintentionally insulted our guest by hospitable measures." Her words were spoken in a broken, hurt manner that made the stranger glance away, to avoid her pained expression.
Mildred, practical woman that she was, intensely hated to see her young mistress in so vulnerable a manner and so turned, eyes flashing daggers, to face the young man whom she supposed had caused Emily pain. "I presume, sir, that our hospitality is not good enough for you?" A poor, misguided guess, but what would one expect from unromantic Mildred?
He did not look up. "I am merely here on urgent business to see a Mr. George Graham. I have no need for refreshment, nor do I welcome it!"
"Ah!" scoffed Mildred indignantly, "there's gratitude for you! We let you in off the streets, you vulgar ruffian! And allowed you to drip rain-water all over Madam's fine Persian rug. And now you're too good to take tea with Miss. Emily! Humph!"
"It is not for that reason. I hope you do not think me rude."
Mildred snorted. "Rude? Oh, no! Shouldn't think barging in upon innocent young ladies, upsetting them with harsh words, and then refusing to take tea with them rude at all! Quite proper and civil, I'd say!" Her voice dripped with sarcasm.
Emily was quite tired now. She wished the stranger would leave, but she did not know how to be rid of him. After their brutal exchange of words, it would seem quite awkward to say anything more to him. But why allow such a monster an appointment with her father? Someone who would abuse him so readily; and to his own daughter! It was insufferable to the last degree! "Mildred," she told the maid, in as steady a tone as she could manage, "I think it would be best if you took away the tea tray. I fear our guest has lost appetite."
It was an order. Mildred was stunned. She could think of no other retort other than to tote the tea tray from the room, back towards the kitchens.
The clock ticked loudly; pervading the silence of the room. Eventually, however, the stranger looked up. His face showed lines of remorse. "I am sorry for my outburst, Miss. Graham," he informed her, "it was uncalled for. Months of anxiety have taken their toll, I am afraid."
Emily did not speak. Tears pooled in her eyes; his words still stung with raw zeal. "You have made it very clear, sir," she replied coldly, after a few moments, "that you do not desire hospitality or companionship. Therefore, with greatest respect, I shall withdraw myself from this room and allow Mildred to show you to my father's study. He should be home shortly, and I shall no longer burden you with my presence." She rose, unsteadily. "Good day."
But he stopped her imploringly. "I do not wish to make an enemy of you, Miss. Graham," he began, in as apologetic a tone as he could muster. "Perhaps I do owe you an explanation." He cringed as he uttered the words, but said them with resolution.
Emily, posed for the door, paused momentarily. "I have no desire to intrude upon your personal matters, sir," she informed him coldly.
"I am sure you do not," he replied curtly, "still, my behavior moments ago was uncalled for. It is only fit that you understand my situation!"
"You have made that very clear," scoffed Emily, unable to refrain from sarcasm.
His expression was pained. "My circumstances are not so very light and frivolous," he remarked with sobriety, "you do me injustice to laugh at them."
"As you did me an injustice with your scalding earlier remarks!" argued Emily, with the petulant air of a hurt child.
He glanced away. "My words were unjust and unkind," he informed her, "but they were true. That, I will not deny." He did not look at her.
"That is nothing in the way of an apology," Emily informed coldly. "You contradict yourself."
He looked up. "And if I do? You seem in no way prepared to accept my apology!"
"I am always prepared, so long as the apology is sincere."
Again, he glanced down. "I can offer you nothing, Miss. Graham," he replied, after a few moments of contemplation. "Only attempt to convince you that my intentions are not wholly malicious. I did not visit you today to cause any unwarranted grief. I daresay whatever judgment you pass upon me-however false-is most assuredly deserved." He paused, glancing out the window. "If only I could fully explain the circumstances. If only you understood how great a disservice your father has done my family! How he has ruined the well-being of a most beloved…" But he stopped himself abruptly and, collecting his hat, stood quickly. "I shall go into no further details, madam. It is not your business to know. It is not even my business to know, yet I must! I must, for the sake of my father…my mother…" There was a wild, pained expression in his eyes. "I shall burden you no longer with my company, and I apologize for any offensive actions or comments. I beg that you keep our interview to yourself."
"I shall tell no one, if that is what you wish," Emily replied shortly, "I am no more proud of what I said than you."
He nodded. "It is kind of you, I am sure. Please be kinder still, and inform your father when he returns that I shall call upon him soon." He started towards the door, but paused before exiting-his hand upon the doorknob-to glance back at Emily. For several moments, he simply stared at her, as though memorizing her face and features, before uttering a low good-bye and disappearing through the door.
Stricken at his hasty departure and farewell, as well his extraordinary attempt at an apology, Emily remained rooted in place, ultimately bemused at the entire afternoon. A rush of emotions overwhelmed her, yet she could do nothing but stand dumbly in place. Anger surged through her, yet it was mingled with pity, a deep, subconscious pity for the desperate young man and his family, whatever terrible situation they were involved in. Questions too- how her mind was riddled with questions! -what on earth did her dear father have anything to do with it? Why had the young man stared at her with such tremendous hostility? Was she the unwitting culprit of some terrible act?
She had never done anything that had merited such a rebuke before; even through finishing school, where she had been involved in countless of pranks and scrapes, had she ever been so chastised! And the man…Emily hardly knew what to think of him. He was so very young, yet so very old in manner! She would have thought him an aged crone of eighty had she heard only his words! Yet, there was no mistaking his age in appearance; he was quite handsome, which Emily realized with a blush, yet undeniably set apart from other men of his age.
Mildred returned again, sporting a broom, which she apparently had intended upon using as some form of defensive weapon. Finding him gone; she gave Emily a curious glance. "So, how were we so easily relieved of that vagrant?" Hands upon hips, she was the very picture of a gnarled spinster; all skin and bones, with a sharp face and crooked nose. "Did you do something, Miss. Emily?"
Emily was not about to reveal their sharp exchange. She placated her expression and demurely folded her hands in her lap. "Nothing, Mildred. He left on his own accord."
"No message for your father, eh?" she inquired, leaning upon the handle of the broom. "Not a word?"
Emily swallowed. "He begged that I mention him to Father."
"And will you?"
Again, Emily showed hesitation. Although she did not want to expose her father to such an individual, she essentially had no choice. The young man would depend upon her to mention him, and it would be terrible to go against any promise, however extraordinary. No doubt, such a determined young man would discover her father through any means, so it would only be fair to give him warning. She nodded tiredly. "Yes, Mildred, I will."
The maid clucked disapprovingly, but made no action to persuade Emily otherwise. Her sharp eyes had already detected the dejected demeanor of her mistress, and, with some degree of concern, she bustled off to fetch some smelling salts and other sundry means of medication. If only she had known the extent of the interview; she would have been enraged beyond all thought!
Emily, however, remained fixed in her position, watching the flickering flames of the fire. Her father would be home soon; she realized this with a mixture of trepidation and relief. The entire afternoon had been so entirely surreal! Emily could hardly believe that such an outlandish incident had ever occurred under her own roof! And when she thought of the mysterious stranger…
It was only then that she realized she had never even learnt his name.