Letters from Armorica: Chance Meetings (10 June 37 AF)

First Letter

The Elms, Wickshire, Cumbria

8 April 1015

My dearest cousin Armand,

Now I am for it, and no mistake. I wish to relate to you three social events that happened this week, from which you may draw your own conclusions—in addition to the ones I shall of course provide for you.

This past Wednesday, Edward and I were invited to tea at the Grimsbys. This was unusual: they do invite me to tea, though less frequently now that it is clear that I am not in an interesting situation, but they have never before included Edward in the invitation.

By now, you should have some idea of what tea with the Grimsbys is like—just on the edge of insulting, at least for me—but I could hardly imagine they would treat me so in my brother's presence, nor did they. Indeed, they treated me to tea and then ignored me. Instead, Agatha and Matilda devoted themselves to Edward while their mother smiled and said pretty things to him.

Edward said little on his return to The Elms, though distress painted his face, and fled into Blightwell's cubby and his new work as another man might head for the decanter. I found the event instructive, for I learned many things in a short time: how to use a sharp elbow, and how to step on a sister's hem so that she cannot arise, and things of this nature, and not least, to my great surprise, that I really am quite fond of Edward.

It was no new discovery that I do not want a Grimsby for a sister.

Thursday was Market Day in Stourton, and a fine spring day, so I had Tom Coachman drive me and my abigail into town. I won't bore you with a list of my purchases…but as I passed the library I happened to encounter Lieutenant Archer. Miss Derby dropped back a few steps, as a well-trained abigail should, so that the lieutenant might take my arm.

"I won't ask what brings you to Stourton, Miss Montjoy," he said, waving at the crowd, "for the reason is everywhere plain."

"Indeed," I said, as we continued down the square. "Though I am grateful to have met you here, lieutenant, for there is a question I should like to ask you."

"Is there?" He seemed puzzled, and not sure whether to be pleased or worried.

"Yes. I have been doing some reading about wizardry—", I began, and felt his arm jerk just a trifle, "—and I beg you to explain—"


The air of worry was stronger, now. I at once inferred that Miss Willoughby had been asking him questions he found difficult to answer…or, perhaps, he found the answers impossible to explain.

"What, pray tell, is it good for? From the books I have looked into it seems to be solely an intellectual and speculative endeavor, with no practical uses of any kind. It might as well be a branch of mathematics."

"Well, it—"

"I mean to say, your great-uncle was the Royal Wizard. Surely His Majesty got some use out of him? Surely he was more than an ornament, a court functionary of the sort intended to add color to the court and allow His Majesty to boast to the other monarchs?"

Whatever he had feared I would ask, this was not it, for he smiled at me; but before he could answer we were accosted by a stormy Edward Hargreaves.

"Miss Montjoy," he said, tipping his hat. Then, in darker tones, "Lieutenant."

By the standards of Market Day, Lieutenant Archer should have relinquished my arm and bid me good day, but the greeting was a challenge that the lieutenant could not readily ignore. He retained my arm and said, mildly but with a barely perceptible edge, "Is there something you wish to say to me, Mr. Hargreaves?" he replied

"No, sir, nothing at all," said Mr. Hargreaves, but as he said it in the same tones his meaning was perfectly clear: he wished for the lieutenant to vanish into the distance and never reappear.

Lieutenant Archer regarded him coolly for a moment, then released my arm and said, "Another time, Miss Montjoy," bowed slightly, and left us. Mr. Hargreaves watched him go with a surly satisfaction.

I made haste to speak, for it was all too plain what sort of gallantries were likely to ensue, and I had no patience for them. "Why so stormy, Mr. Hargreaves?" I began, feigning not to know, which took him aback; and then, before he could navigate his confusion I continued, "And is it you who has been filling my brother's head with mangelwurzels?"

My strong nudge to his hobby horse succeeded in diverting him. He took my arm, and as we proceeded, he said, "Mangelwurzels, Miss Montjoy? I may have done. Great things are being done with them down south, you know."

"Were you aware that Edward proposed to plant them here?" I did not mention Edward's plan about the apple orchard, for as I say I have a newfound fondness for him and did not wish to expose him to ridicule.

"But he mustn't do that!" he cried in true horror, which I admit raised him slightly in my esteem. He enumerated the reasons why around two sides of the square, where we were met by Mrs. Willoughby.

"Just the young lady I was wanting to see," she said with a smile. Hargreaves bid me good day with an air of disappointment; Mrs. Willoughby continued to smile as she watched him walk away. "He might do for you," she said. "Easy to manage, that type."

"I think I should prefer Lieutenant Pertwee, on the main," I said lightly. "Having no thoughts of his own, he would have no thought but for me, and I wouldn't have to come second to mangelwurzels and irrigation."

"Not Lieutenant Archer?"

"He's penniless, poor lad," I said. "Of good family, my father assures me, but he's a younger son."

"Ah. A pity, I may say. He is quite a fine figure of a man."

"So is Edward Hargreaves," I said drily.

"Yes, but it is about Lieutenant Archer I wish to speak."

I looked at her in some surprise. "How so?"

"Come now, my dear, you cannot have failed to note my dear Jane's interest. Indeed, I know you have not, for you put them together at dinner last week."

"Why, yes, I did. She had been angry with me, and I wished to make her happy."

"Over the good lieutenant?"

"As you say."

"But you have just said that you have no interest in that direction."

I stopped and looked at her. "I—" I began, and stopped in confusion.

She nodded, and squeezed my arm. "And what of him? What are his feelings?"

I shook my head. "I don't know, truly. He is warm, and polite, but I have never known him to be otherwise to anyone. Well, except to Mr. Hargreaves, just now."

"And to Jane?"

"The same. In my sight, at least."

"And in mine," she said. "Miss Montjoy, we should have tea." And so saying she steered me into the tea shop where we were soon seated with tea and buns. Miss Derby, that treasure, took herself to another table some distance away.

"Now, Miss Montjoy," said Mrs. Willoughby, "I shall open my thoughts to you."

I nodded, wondering what was coming.

"It has perhaps escaped you that my dear Jane is our only child."

"Oh! And so her husband must be the next squire."

"That is right. So let me be plain. The Willoughbys have been squires in this manor for centuries. It is essential that Jane's husband be a man of the district, and willing to carry on that tradition."

"And Lieutenant Archer is not only not of the district, but might be sent anywhere at all."

Mrs. Willoughby nodded grimly. "And even if he were the eldest, his family's station is far more lofty than that of the Squires of Stourness. He would not settle her, nor would he ever be happy here."

"I think you do him a disservice, Mrs. Willoughby; but it is true that I cannot see him in your husband's place. Squire Willoughby is all that a country squire should be, if I may be so bold. But a man of the district—you cannot wish her wed to Edward Hargreaves!"

"Certainly not."

"But then who? Not Thomas Porter, my dear Jane would go mad. Nor Wallace Hampton. And Sir Roger de Montfort is surely far too old!"

"There is one other."

I must have looked a complete blank, for she laughed.

"Your brother Edward is an estimable man," she said. "And it does appear that he intends to remain in Wickshire, does it not? He is in training with your man of business, is he not?"

I studied her face. Her ever-present good humor remained, but I could tell she was in earnest. I finished my bun as I pondered, and she waited patiently.

"I suppose I needn't tell you that there is some attachment on his side," I said. She nodded, as well she might. "And if he could be brought to study Jane's happiness as he is currently studying farming, why, I suppose he should succeed at making her happy. But what of Lieutenant Archer?"

"Ah!" she said, and there was a world of meaning in that simple utterance.

It is beginning to seem to me that there is quite as much complexity in social as in arcane geometry, my dear Armand; perhaps more so.

Your embattled cousin,


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photo credit: Free Public Domain Illustrations by rawpixel Oranges, Bananas, and Teacup (Oranges, bananes et tasse de thé) (1908) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Original from Barnes Foundation. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. via photopin (license)

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