First Comes Marriage
WARREN Hall in Hampshire, principal country seat for generations past of the Earls of Merton, was surrounded by a large, well-landscaped park, in one secluded corner of which there was a small chapel, used nowadays almost exclusively for family weddings, christenings, and funerals since there was a sizable church in the village nearby for regular worship. It was generally a picturesque spot, especially during spring and summer, when the trees were laden with leaves and blossoms and the grass was green and flowers bloomed wild in the hedgerows and tame in the beds flanking the path leading to the church doors.
But this was early February, too early in the year even for the first of the snowdrops and primroses. And today it was raining. A chill wind tossed the bare branches of the trees against a leaden sky. It was the sort of day on which sensible folk remained indoors unless pressing business forced them out.
The man standing in the churchyard appeared to feel neither the cold nor the rain nor the call of the indoors. Nor was he admiring the scenery.
He was holding his tall hat in one hand, and his dark, longish hair was plastered to his head and forehead. Water ran in rivulets down his face and neck to be absorbed by the fabric of his long black riding coat.
Everything about him was black, in fact, except his face, and even that was dark-complexioned and quite un-English.
Given his surroundings, he looked somewhat sinister.
He was a young man, tall, long-limbed, lithe. His face was too rugged to be called handsome - it was long and narrow with high cheekbones and very dark eyes and a nose that had at some point in his life been broken and not set perfectly straight. The expression on his face was stern and forbidding. He was tapping a riding crop against his thigh.
If there had been any strangers close by, they would surely have given him a wide berth.
But there was no one, only his horse, which was grazing untethered nearby, apparently as oblivious to the cold and rain as its master.
He was standing at the foot of one particular grave - the newest, though a winter's frost and wind had ob-scoured the freshness of its turned soil and given it a look little different from the others around it. Except that the gray headstone still looked very new.
The man's eyes were fixed on the second to last line of the inscription - "Aged Sixteen Years." And then beneath it, "Rest in Peace." "He has found the man he was looking for, Jon," he said softly to the headstone. "And the odd thing is that you would have been delighted, would you not? You would have been happy and excited. You would have demanded to meet him, to befriend him, to love him. But no one thought to look for him until after you were dead." The headstone offered no reply, and the corners of the man's mouth lifted in an expression that was more grimace than smile. "You loved indiscriminately," he said. "You even loved me. /Especially /me." He looked broodingly at the slight mound of earth beneath the headstone and thought of his brother buried six feet under it.
They had celebrated Jon's sixteenth birthday, the two of them, with all his favorite foods, including custard tarts and fruitcake, and with his favorite card games and a vigorous game of hide-and-seek that had continued for two whole hours until Jon had been exhausted and helpless with laughter - a fact that had made him ridiculously easy to find when it was his turn to hide. An hour later he had beamed up happily from beneath the covers of his bed before his brother blew out the candle and withdrew to his own room. "Thank you for a lovely birthday party, Con," he had said in his newly deep voice, whose words and expression sounded incongruously childish. "It was the best ever." It was something he said every year. "I love you, Con," he had said as his brother bent over the candle. "I love you more than anyone else in the whole wide world. I love you forever and ever. Amen." He had giggled at the old joke. "Can we play again tomorrow?" But when his brother had gone into his room the following morning to tease him about sleeping late now that he was sixteen and almost an old man, he had found Jon cold. He had been dead for several hours.
It had been a devastating shock.
But not really a surprise.
Children like Jon, the physician had warned their father soon after his birth, did not usually live much beyond their twelfth year. The child had had a large head and features that were flat and looked strangely mongoloid. He had been plump and ungainly. He had been slow to learn all the basic skills most children absorbed easily in early infancy. He had been slow-minded, though not by any means stupid.
He had, of course, always been called an idiot by almost everyone who encountered him - including his father.
There was perhaps only one thing at which he had excelled, and in that he had excelled utterly. He had loved. Always and unconditionally.
Forever and ever.
Now he was dead.
And Con was going to be able to leave home - at last. He had left numerous times before, of course, though never for very long. There had always been the irresistible pull to return, especially as no one else at Warren Hall could be trusted to give Jon the time and the patience needed to keep him happy, though it had been an absurdly easy thing to do. Besides, Jon had always grieved and fretted if he was absent too long and had driven everyone to distraction with his incessant questions about the expected date of his return.
Now spring was coming and there was nothing to keep him here.
This time he would leave for good.
Why had he lingered even so long? Why had he not left the day after the funeral? Why had he come here every day of the winter since then? A dead boy did not need him.
Was it that /he /needed the dead?
His smile - or grimace - became more twisted.
He did not need anyone or anything. He had spent his whole life cultivating such a detachment. His instinct for survival had demanded it of him. He had lived here most of his life. His mother and father, who had raised him here, their firstborn son, were lying in their graves just beyond Jon's. He did not look in their direction. So were numerous brothers and sisters, none of whom had survived early infancy - only he, the eldest, and Jon, the youngest. Strange irony, that. The two undesirables had survived.
But now Jon too was gone.
Soon there would be another man here in his place. "You will be able to do without me, Jon?" he asked softly.
He leaned forward and touched the hand that held the riding crop to the top of the headstone. It was cold and wet and hard and unyielding.
He could hear the approach of another horse - his own whinnied in greeting. His jaw tightened. It would be /him/. He could not leave him alone even here. Con did not turn. He would not acknowledge the man's presence.
But it was another voice that hailed him. "/Here /you are, Con." The voice was cheerful. "I might have guessed it.
I have been searching everywhere. Am I intruding?" "No." Con straightened up and turned to squint up at Phillip Grainger, his neighbor and friend. "I came here to celebrate good news with Jon.
The search has been successful." "Ah." Phillip did not ask /which /search. He leaned forward to pat his horse's neck and stop it from prancing about. "Well, it was inevitable, I suppose. But this is devilish weather in which to be standing around in a churchyard. Come to the Three Feathers and I'll buy you a mug of ale. Maybe two. Or twenty. /You /can buy the twenty-first." "An offer not to be resisted." Con set his hat back on his head, whistled for his horse, and swung into the saddle when it came trotting up. "You will be leaving here, then?" Phillip asked. "I have already been given my marching orders," Con told him, grinning rather wolfishly. "I am to leave within the week." "Oh, I say." His friend grimaced. "I'll not, though," Con added. "I'll not give him the satisfaction. I'll leave in my own good time." He would stay against his own inclination and against a direct command in order to make a nuisance of himself. He had been doing that with considerable success for a whole year now.
He had done it all his life, in fact. It had been the surest way to draw his father's attention. Juvenile motive that, now that he came to think of it.
Phillip was chuckling. "Deuce take it," he said, "but I'll miss you, Con. Though I could have lived quite happily this morning without having to hunt all over the countryside for you after being told at the house that you were out." As they rode off, Con turned his head for one last look at his brother's grave.
Foolishly, he wondered if Jon would be lonely after he had gone.
And if /he /would be lonely.
EVERYONE within five miles of the village of Throckbridge in Shropshire had been in a spirit of heightened sensibilities for the week or so preceding February 14. Someone - the exact identity of the person was undecided though at least half a dozen laid claim to the distinction - had suggested that an assembly be held at the rooms above the village inn this year in celebration of St. Valentine's Day since it seemed like forever since Christmas, and summer - the occasion of the annual fete and ball at Rundle Park - was way off in the future.
The suggestion having been made - by Mrs. Waddle, the apothecary's wife, or Mr. Moffett, Sir Humphrey Dew's steward, or Miss Aylesford, spinster sister of the vicar, or by one of the other claimants - no one could quite explain why such an entertainment had never been thought of before. But since it /had /been thought of this year, no one was in any doubt that the Valentine's assembly would become an annual event in the village.