Mr. George Graham was a man of opportunity, or so the advertisement in the Times claimed. He was neither of high birth nor good family, but he was wealthy, which, in the redeeming eyes of society, lent him the power and distinction of an earl. A self-made merchant, he had increased his fleet of ships ten-fold in only a matter of years, and, owing in part to this remarkable achievement, had gained control of most of the principle ports of the world, from the East Indies to the Americas.
He had gained notoriety throughout London for his shrewd sense, clear head for business, and ethical conduct-a rarity- at the time -among the merchant class. A genuine man, decent and honest, he conducted his business affairs with laudable decency. Perhaps it was this, in part, which owed to his great success as a merchant and the continued growth of his fleet, or his charismatic combination of wit and diligence.
Throughout London, his name became associated with fair trade and excellent benefits, attracting the attention of wealthy sponsors, who came flocking to his offices in Cheapside by the droves. Men of all classes and postions, ranging from the very poorest of deck-hands to the very wealthiest of nobility visited him in earnest endeavor, and, as time passed, he was able to gain a certain amount of power and influence in his field. Indeed, he became very wealthy, and, likewise, gained many friends.
He was not a particularly greedy man, though his situation in life did afford him the luxuries of wealth and good society. What he did want for was of little consequence, and never consumed his thoughts or actions. So long as he had his supper every evening and a copy of the Times, he was quite satisfied.
He had married a genteel woman of good family, with a pretty face and handsome dowry, despite objections raised by her family. The same charisma that so charmed his business cohorts and succeeded also in persuading them of the suitability of the match-though, at the time, he had been an inexperienced schoolboy of juvenile age, with not a penny to his name. Nevertheless, despite the circumstances, their marriage had been a happy one, though the Graham household had had its share of trials and tribulations. As for difference in both of their temperaments-Mr. Graham was inclined to be jovial, reckless, and light-hearted, whilst Mrs. Graham more cautious and thoughtful-they had struggled throughout the years to reach a happy medium through which to delegate all of the menial household tasks which often caused strife between them. Mr. Graham requested his dinner at approximately seven; Mrs. Graham, realizing the unrealistic qualities of such an early hour, docilely intervened to arrange it at half-past seven, for the benefit of Cook, naturally. Mr. Graham was determined that not a soul was to enter his library; Mrs. Graham merely insisted upon allowing the maid be allowed in to dust every other week. Trivial matters, indeed; but still of great importance to maintaining felicity between both parties.
Nathanial, their oldest son, had been brought up well, or so was the rather biased view of both parents. He had never displayed a great interest in "book learning", as he was often wont to refer to it with a shudder, but he was quite athletic and charming-inherent characteristics of his father. Though he was not scholastically inclined, he still possessed a great deal of sense, which had assisted him throughout his schooldays and earned him the respect of his teachers. At eighteen, he had joined the Navy, bid his parents a rather tearful farewell, and set out, in great ambition, to conquer the world. This view was, naturally, quite unrealistic, but Nathanial enjoyed his days sea-bound-or so he wrote in exuberant letters home to his mother-and was promoted every so often to more and more prodigious ranks.
Emily, their daughter, was the pampered child of the family. She was considerably younger than Nathanial, and had been brought up to enjoy the privilege of having the sole attention of both her parents. However, she was not a spoiled child; she showed no inclination towards propriety or grace-her father's influence had contributed to a rather wild streak. She read anything she could get a hold of, poetry, philosophy, plays, novels-much to the chagrin of her mother-, ballads, lyrics-they were necessary to her very existence. Her stubbornness she had inherited from her father; her romantic tendencies from her mother; she was a dreamer and a thinker, and she often acted rashly and insensibly, due either to age or disposition or both.
The Graham household, however, was a happy one. With the guidance of such matrons as Mildred and Cook, the family enjoyed every domestic comfort necessary for their happiness. Mr. Graham was a generous and doting father, and his wife was sensible and good-tempered, despite her sudden bouts of illness. They had lived in relative peace and prosperity for many years in London, and nothing seemed likely to challenge their comfortable position…
Emily had not breached the subject of the afternoon visitor. Her father had returned home in a foul mood and locked himself within his library, refusing both supper and companionship. Hardly daring to intrude, Emily spent a half-hour in her mother's company, read a little more of Byron, set Mildred to secrecy about the visitor, and spent the rest of the evening in contemplative thought. Determined to be reasonable and not romantic, she set to writing a small account of the afternoon's events, so as to give an accurate report to her father the following morning, where she hoped to catch him at his breakfast.
However, he did not emerge from his library the next morning, and, instead, slipped away to work through the back entrance. This avoidance vexed Emily greatly, and she could hardly explain his reluctance to speak with her. They had always been great friends and confidants, and the loss of their evening conversation depressed her greatly. However, Mildred was in such a quandary of indignation over the afternoon visitor, that Emily had little time for thought of her father. She spent the remainder of the day coaxing the maid into cogitative reason, tending to her mother, who was still in poor spirits, and coolly dismissing an interview with her Aunt Graham, who had come quite unannounced to bereave Emily on refusing a certain dinner engagement. Such mundane occupations did little to mollify her own muddled thoughts or solve any problems that had come to light, but they did keep her mind from romantic wanderings, and, for that, she was grateful.
That evening, she was quick in greeting her father, and followed him into his library before he could barricade himself within.
"I must speak with you father," she announced, quite calmly, "and you cannot turn me away, as it is important." She noticed, with some dismay, that he looked quite wild in appearance; his skin was sallow and his eyes sunken and tired, and regretted her cavalier manner. "Perhaps first, though, I should fetch you some supper?"
The creases in his forehead denoted his chagrin at being thus sabotaged. "Emily, dear, now his hardly the time for conversation. I am very busy…"
"Father, you cannot turn me away. I have been waiting to speak with you all day!" Emily attempted to check a petulant tone, but failed in her efforts.
Again, he hesitated. "Surely whatever it is can wait until tomorrow?"
"This is not a matter of ribbons or lace, Father! It is a rather unusual episode that occurred in the parlor yesterday afternoon, concerning you!" Emily did not mean to sound forceful, but could hardly restrain a certain dramatic tone.
However, her father did not appear surprised. "I already know what took place, little one," he replied, and his voice was broken, "I had a first-hand account from a Mr. Andrew Reed myself."
Emily was taken aback. "Whatever do you mean?"
"I mean, my dear, that I received a letter this morning from a Mr. Andrew Reed, followed shortly by a call from the gentleman himself."
"At your office?"
"Yes, Emily. And he informed me of the entire conversation which transpired between you."
"How can you be sure what he told you was the truth?" argued Emily.
Mr. Graham managed a weak smile. "I can assure you, my dear, that he did not injustice to you in his account. He was rather hard upon himself, I believe, but quite adamant in his efforts to have an interview with me." Again, his face fell.
"Would it be too bold to ask why he was so adamant to see you, Father?" inquired Emily, hoping she did not seem overly impertinent.
"Yes," he answered, "it would. The business does not concern you." His tone was final, but Emily was not prepared to give up quite so easily.
"That is what he said. Yet, I must argue that it does, in some way, concern me. After all, I was the unwitting recipient of a rather stern lecture yesterday afternoon, as well as a tempest of emotions that I do not believe I should have been privy to."
"But you were a good sport, Emily, and no harm was done, save, perhaps, your vanity."
"And self-respect!" declared the poor girl, "and that is not to light a matter to so carelessly brush by the wayside!"
Mr. Graham sighed. "My dear, curiosity will get you nowhere. I have made a promise that I intend to keep, and, therefore, I shall say no more upon the matter." And before Emily could further detain him, he had slipped within his library and firmly closed the door. It would be futile to knock, as Emily knew from past experience. She had been snubbed, in a manner of speaking, and would glean no more information from her father.
The following weeks yielded nothing save continued mystery. Mr. Graham spent an increasing amount of time within his library, and refused meals. His reluctance to canvas any subjects save the weather upset Emily, who, after such a trying episode, only desired the repeated reassurance of a friend. Furthermore, she was tired of the secrecy that now pervaded the household, and the continued reticence of her father. However, she had little time for self-pity, as her mother's health was deteriorating rapidly. What had begun as a harmless headache had spiraled into a high fever, and Emily and Mildred were left to nurse her. Mr. Graham was left to go about his own business, and Emily was, much to her own chagrin, unable to meddle.
The following weeks brought more tension to the household, as Mr. Graham traveled, without prior warning, to the English countryside "on business". He left in such haste that his poor family had little idea where he had gone-save an almost illegible letter upon the dining table offering only the beginnings of a vague explanation. The household was plunged into chaos as the entire schedule was interrupted and more than one tongue wagged below the stairs. Mildred and Emily were left alone, minds riddled with questions and hearts filled with concern over the sad state of affairs the household had been so suddenly plunged into.
Mr. Graham never related the nature of his visit to the countryside; he told them nothing of where he had been or whom he had seen. He was gone for a fortnight and returned home gray and solemn, with hardly a word to spare in defense of his journey. Rarely did he retreat from his library-only to visit his wife-whose condition had stabilized-and, occasionally, to join Emily for dinner. Their conversation, however, was no longer open, it was strained. This hurt Emily more than anything, as she felt cast aside from the very thoughts and feelings that were once so well known to her.
Gradually, the household returned to some degree of normalcy. Mrs. Graham recovered her health and triumphed over illness, but Mr. Graham remained forever changed; his face lined and eyes somber-his health greatly effected. Both Mildred and Emily had learned to tread lightly about his affairs and mention nothing that would be considered a slight upon his preoccupation with business; he had become quite hostile upon any questions of such tendency and so, stifling their curiosity, they silenced themselves for the benefit of maintaining some form of peace in the household.
And all over the interview in the sitting room!
The entire affair haunted Emily's thoughts. The hasty and bitter words of the stranger, of whom she knew nothing but his name-Andrew Reed, were a constant reminder of her lapse of judgment in the drawing room. She wished she had never set eyes upon him, or been subjected to his impassioned thoughts! Furthermore, she wished that he had never flung himself into her father's affairs. She firmly believed that he had a hand in her father's change.
What was the mystery? What was the secret? Why was her father so changed? Why did he appear so saddened and miserable? Emily's questions crowded her thoughts and left her no time for the ordinary pursuits of young women of the time. She became consumed with the enigma of the young man and what connection she had with her father. Research, however, hailed no results. She discovered nothing.
And so months passed quickly. Her father was like a ghost, rarely seen. He spent sleepless nights in his library, compiling hundreds of letters that were never sent; compiling extensive lists that made no sense whatsoever to any person but himself. And all for what?
As the tension in the household mounted, Emily knew eventually some climatic event would occur and shatter the entire foundation of their family. It was inevitable. Her father could not barricade himself in his library forever. Eventually, he would have to come out. And when he did, he would have to confess. Everything. Only time would tell…