"That was a lovely drive, Mrs. Meacham," the vicar's wife said. She put aside her well-worn pelisse and headed automatically for her favorite seat. It was one of two comfortably upholstered armchairs strategically placed in the bay window of Mrs. Meacham's saloon, to give the ladies a view of the High Street beyond.
"So enjoyable to get into the countryside, especially in spring, with all the lovely greenery," she added, glancing at an indifferent chestnut tree on the corner. It would not do for the vicar's wife to admit her real interest in the view was to monitor the comings and goings of her neighbors.
"Lovely," Mrs. Meacham agreed, but with a noticeable lack of conviction. Chalk downs and sheep and trees were well enough in their way. She had had enough of them when Henry was alive, and made no bones about preferring the bustling High Street of Laycombe. The downward pull of her lips did not indicate regret at having sold one of the finest sheep farms in East Sussex and buying in its stead a mansion in the village. What did a widow, with two daughters to find husbands for, want with a great, drafty hall in the country that required a bailiff and gardeners and grooms and rafts of servants? Here she and the girls were snug as fleas in a rug, at a quarter of the expense and none of the inconvenience.
"Especially in spring, with the skylarks singing," Mrs. Daugherty added, and smiled her quiet, sad smile. No matter how heavy her heart, the wife of the vicar must be patient and try to spread good will.
"Aye, but I hoped we would have more to do this spring than drive in the country." A piercing eye dared the vicar's wife to find consolation in the present situation.
Tea was brought in, and while she accepted her cup, Mrs. Daugherty gamely took up the challenge. "Perhaps he will go to London for the Season," she suggested hopefully.
"I wish he would go back to Turkey, or Greece, or wherever it is he has been racketing about the past three years."
"His influence has not been what we hoped, but surely it is better for him to be amongst Christians," Mrs. Daugherty suggested, but in no certain way. It was hard to denigrate a noble parishioner, even if he never showed his nose in church.
Mrs. Meacham sniffed and stirred three spoonfuls of sugar into her tea. She was an outspoken lady; large, dark complexioned, in a gown decorated with many embellishments. Mrs. Daugherty would look inconspicuous in any room. Next to her companion, she fairly faded away.
"The pity of it is that he is turning all our Christian young gentlemen into heathens," Mrs. Meacham declared angrily. "Henley Dallan was certainly on the verge of offering for Martha before he came along. She might have had him for the taking last year, except for her papa's passing away. Her papa favored the match. Dallan's carcass was in our saloon seven nights a week I promise you. I made sure he would make an offer on her twentieth birthday. He is no great prize, but he has that farm his uncle left him, with a very fine red brick house on it, and with Martha's dowry ... But no, her birthday came and went without so much as a call from him. She will not look at anyone else, so it is whistling into the wind to discuss it." This was by no means an invitation to change the subject, nor did her companion take it for one.
"If my Kate ever brings her young man up to scratch, it will be a wonder, for he has been completely neglecting her lately, too," Mrs. Daugherty admitted.
The ladies exchanged a look of mutual understanding and angry sympathy at the sad plight of their daughters. "Alice is in the same boat," Mrs. Meacham declared, though Alice was only eighteen, and her case was not yet desperate. "Laycombe used to be a very good place to find a husband. Just the right balance between eligible gentlemen and ladies, and with no hesitation at all in coming to the sticking point. We might as well live in a desert for all the chance the girls have now."
Mrs. Daugherty considered the matter a moment in silence and then said, "Do you know, there has not been a single marriage in the parish for twelve months, except for Lady Faith Lowrey, and she had to escape to London for the Season to capture her baronet."
"The cause of it all is not hard to find," Mrs. Meacham said grimly. It didn't take a Solomon to know that deterioration had set into the community hard on the heels of Lord Wickham's return to St. Martin's Abbey.
The disappointment had been compounded in that he was extremely eligible himself, since his young wife's demise. Conjecture had been rampant as to which young lady would nab him, but it was now quite clear he was interested in none of the local belles. No, his goal was to turn the thoughts of every bachelor in the neighborhood away from wedded bliss. One could be forgiven for wishing he had put on a turban and stayed amongst the heathens, for he only meant to turn the Abbey into a den of iniquity and Laycombe into a marital desert.
It was grossly unfair, but it was the situation. Lord Wickham had no use for ladies ever since his wife had run off on him with a banker from London. His disgust for marriage, allied to his reputation as the leading buck of the area, had influenced the others. A distinct change had come over the appearance, habits, and pursuits of all the bachelors from the first day Lord Wickham drove his dashing high-perch phaeton, harnessed tandem, into Laycombe; with his face as brown as a blackamoor's, his curled beaver cocked over his eye at a jaunty angle, a natty Belcher kerchief at his neck, and wearing a jacket of a cut never before seen in the village.
Before a week was up, there wasn't a decent white cravat to be seen, not a man of them but had dashed off to London to have his hair cropped au naturel and a new jacket made up by Stultz. They none of them quite dared yet to harness three horses to their carriage. Indeed, the ultimate compliment of buying themselves a phaeton and painting it blue had been denied them for financial reasons, but in all other matters they had become Wickham's slaves.
It was Mrs. Meacham's opinion that if Lord Wickham took to wearing bonnets and gowns, the silly nodcocks of Laycombe would dash out to buy up an ell of muslin and a batch of feathers. The pleasant custom of morning calls had been one of the first things to fall by the wayside. Mornings were now taken up in hunting, riding, and other pursuits more suited to wealthy aristocrats than to young men trying to establish themselves in life. Afternoons were given over to horse races, cock-fighting, boxing matches or gathering at the Abbey to view some foreign novelty brought home by Lord Wickham. The social life of Laycombe was all to pieces.
Wickham had spent the three years between his wife's decamping on him and her untimely death, in traveling abroad. According to gossip, for no decent person--certainly no lady--had seen the trophies with her own eyes, he had filled the Abbey with all manner of foreign novelties. There were alleged to be daggers from the Levantine, a strange apparatus for smoking a pipe through a bowl of water, statues and pictures--everyone of them of naked women, and sometimes women and men disporting themselves together without a stitch to their backs. There were samovars (whatever they might be), a whole box of pieces of broken marble from Greece, which someone said, though it must surely be a taradiddle, that Lord Wickham was having pasted back together in his stable.
The way the young gentlemen passed their days was provoking, but their nights were a disgrace and a scandal. Five miles north of Laycombe there was a satanic tavern where, till a year ago, no gentleman would admit he had ever set foot. It was known to hold a gambling hell and purvey blue ruin, and worse, it was a den where fast women lurked. If the local bucks ever did enter the place, very likely they might have nipped over once in a while, for boys would be boys and wild oats had to be sown, after all; but if they did, they had the decency not to brag about it to anyone but their male friends.
Now Jack Duck's Tavern formed a regular part of their conversation, on those rare occasions when they deigned to call. They thought no more of turning down an invitation to a rout because they had promised Wickham they would go to Jack Duck's Tavern than they thought of combing their hair into their eyes. There was no saying where it would all end, but it was a safe bet it would not end at the altar, and there was the problem.
All this ground had been covered thoroughly by the desperate mothers over the past months, and it was the subject of conversation again that day. "It seems the more their gentlemen disregard and insult the girls, the more eager the goosecaps are to have them," Mrs. Daugherty admitted sadly.
"Worse, the gels think the fault is in themselves," her companion added. "Dallan and Wideman come just often enough to impress Martha and Alice with their new jackets and cropped hair and tales of doings at Jack Duck's place. Martha, like a regular peagoose, quite humbly submitted to Dallan's informing her she was becoming a quiz. I wanted to take the girl and shake some sense into her, but I felt too sorry for her. She had her hair cut and frizzed, burned to pieces actually, by using some new curling iron that Dallan put her onto."
The unfortunate state of Martha's hair received a sympathetic nod from the vicar's wife. She raised her hand to conceal her words from any passing spies and said, "I am quite sure Kate is using rouge. If her papa ever found out, he would have her locked up in a convent."
"That might be enough to get Andy interested in her again. Clambering up walls and kidnapping a woman would suit the lads down to the heels. Any decent attempt to win them is in vain. When Wickham does let the lads off the collar long enough to call, they sit lounging with their legs stretched before them like a pack of Gypsies and ask brazenly for brandy, instead of wine or tea. I am as bad as the girls. I let Martha bully me into buying a bottle of brandy. Wouldn't my Henry turn in his grave to see that! Dallan was so ill-bred as to describe a cockfight in horrid detail." She gave a genteel shudder. "And when I asked him to stay and take his mutton with us, he said he was dining at Jack Duck's, if you please. Lord Wickham had hired some Spanish dancer to come and put on a show."
"Not a lewd one, I hope!" the vicar's wife inquired eagerly.
"A female dancer--no doubt it was a lecherous performance. If he said 'famous good sport' once, he must have said it a dozen times. Dallan is cultivating a set of brown stains on his fingers from taking snuff, and Wideman admitted--or boasted--to Alice that he was now smoking cheroots."
Mrs. Daugherty had ill news to report of Kate's young man as well. "Andy Sproule is contemplating a trip to Turkey, and with this project in mind, he is trying to get his hands on a hogshead of opium and a book on the Muslim religion. You may imagine how the vicar would like that if he ever found out! 'Famous good sport,' he calls this plan as well."
"I think the whole lot of them have run mad," her friend declared.
The effects of Lord Wickham's reign were obvious and malign, but of Wickham himself, the ladies saw little. His blue high-perch phaeton was spotted occasionally, darting through the countryside at a reckless pace, frightening children and endangering other drivers. He had been seen in the village on an Arab stallion, usually on Saturday morning. On these rare forays into Laycombe, he scarcely nodded to his erstwhile friends and ignored the young ladies entirely. He attended no balls or assemblies, certainly never darkened the door of the church. He was known to be on calling terms with the Lowreys, connections of his mama, and the same family who had successfully launched Lady Faith. That and ruining all the local sons were the extent of his civility. His coming home, that had promised so much in the way of sociability, had turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, and the question recurred, what was to be done about it?
"All one's relatives' girls being tidily married off at seventeen and eighteen, and one's own daughters left to twiddle their thumbs, and ruin their hair and sigh over as ramshackle a set of young fellows as ever darkened a person's door," Mrs. Meacham scolded.
Her eye fell on a letter on the chair-side table and she took it up to relate its contents to Mrs. Daugherty. It was from her late husband's sister, Mrs. Dorman, bragging about the clever match her youngest had made. Cousin Cecilia Cummings, she mentioned, was to be the bridesmaid. Cousin Cecilia had been visiting them for three months and had apparently been instrumental in bringing about the match.
When the letter had been discussed, Mrs. Daugherty finished her tea and left. Mrs. Meacham sat on alone, brooding. Cousin Cecilia--the name rang a familiar bell. Had not Cousin Cecilia also been instrumental in arranging the match for Cousin Kilgour's daughter last year? With nothing better to do, she instituted a search for the old letter. She was of that class of lady who never discarded anything, and the letter was surely still about the house. Her eye roved from marble mantelpiece to mahogany table, but of course the letter would not be in the saloon. She bustled off to the Queen Anne desk in her study and after five minutes' rooting amidst a welter of bills, letters, and receipts, she found it and perused the relevant passage.
"Dear Cousin Cecilia must take credit for the whole affair. She is a wonderful matchmaker. If ever you run into difficulty in getting your girls popped off, you cannot do better than invite Cecilia Cummings for a visit. She knows just how to manage these affairs--a regular little wizard."
Her eyes rested on the paper. It seemed almost an omen, that she had remembered the letter and found it, for in the usual way, one could never find anything when she wanted it.
She returned to the saloon and reread the letter from Mrs. Dorman, pausing over the name Cecilia. "They had had a falling out you must know," she read, "but Cousin Cecilia patched the whole thing up in jig time. She is such a dab in that line. She is not the sort to be sponsoring foolish and romantical love matches where there is inequality of position or fortune. She is very nice in all her requirements." Confirmation, if confirmation were needed, of the efficacy of Cousin Cecilia in arranging matches.
How she could use a Cecilia Cummings to patch the dissolving matches together here in Laycombe! But really, she hardly knew the lady. She was no more than a connection. After ten minutes, she had figured out that Cecilia Cummings was her husband's second cousin once removed. Reference to the Dorman letter told her that Miss Cummings would be returning to Hampshire from Kent in a week's time, to prepare for the London Season. She would be passing within a few miles of Laycombe. What was more natural than that she should be invited to stop in en route? The Season was two weeks away.
Mrs. Meacham went to her study and dashed off a letter in care of Mrs. Dorman, earnestly begging Miss Cummings to spare them a few days. She was uncertain whether or not to mention her own girls' desperate plight and decided to do so in a joking manner. It might be just the thing to tip the scales if Miss Cummings were undecided whether or not to stop. The letter was sent off at once, before she changed her mind. Her next job was to speak to Cook about Sunday dinner. "A nice joint of mutton, but not too big," she said gloomily. The days when she was likely to have two strapping young gentlemen at her Sunday table were long gone.