In a small Meridellian town, a girl of fourteen sat crying her eyes out at her bedroom window. Her conduct was perhaps excusable, for her father had died that very day, and moreover she had not shed a tear until this moment; but she felt nevertheless rather wretched, and anticipated that her mother would be unimpressed by her state. It was not so much that she was sad for her own sake, as she was for his – and though he had never troubled himself to be particularly kind to her during his lifetime, she was a gentle and forgiving soul who was willing to overlook a great deal in his death.
Her name was Cecilia Lockwood; she was a white Ixi, slender and dark-eyed and rather pretty. She was neither shy nor unintelligent (quite, in fact, to the contrary), but the habit of many long years, combined with a natural desire to please, had rendered her deferential and submissive nearly to a fault, averted only by the fact that of course no young lady can ever be too deferential or submissive. She was generally of a contented disposition, and not apt to be unbecomingly emotional; – at the moment, however, she found herself quite miserable.
Her misery was compounded by the fact that she was certain she would soon be called upon to do a variety of things and talk to a variety of people, and she did not feel up to the task at all. She knew quite well that it was feeble of her, and yet the knowledge did nothing to increase her composure.
The door opened; she tensed, dreading her mother. But it was only her brother, from whom she could be reasonably certain of a little careless sympathy – she heaved a teary sigh of relief.
“Is something the matter?” he inquired. He was a shadow Gelert, tall and beautifully dressed and some four years her senior. There was a reasonable degree of familial resemblance between the two; but he was possessing of his sister’s good looks in far greater measure, and had an air of absolute self-assuredness which she entirely lacked.
Impulsively Cecilia went to him, wrapping her arms around him and burying her face in his elegant waistcoat. “Oh, Harlan,” she sobbed, “I cannot help it – only I – I do wish...”
“Don’t cry,” he said, smiling affectionately. “You are all sweetness; but you must not worry.”
He waited patiently as she regained control over her emotion, her tears subsiding to shaky calm as she found comfort in his cool solidity.
“I know it is silly of me to be so weak,” she said, wiping her eyes with her lacy white handkerchief. “There is really no use in crying like this, and I must go downstairs and talk to everybody...”
“I am sure nobody can condemn your being a little upset; it has after all been a very trying few days. But really,” he added, taking her to the sofa, “there is nothing to worry about. The whole unpleasant business is done with; he is quite safely out of the way now, and I am the sole inheritor of the estate. Does that not cheer you, dear sister?”
“I – I suppose so, but... but is it not a shame that he is...”
“Oh, dear! yes, I suppose it is rather a shame. I had nothing in the least against him. You are right; it really was almost a shame. Though you must admit,” he went on with cheerful thoughtfulness, “that it was also a most convenient occurrence.”
Cecilia remained silent, twisting her handkerchief in her hands. She loved Harlan very much – indeed he had more claim to that sentiment than anybody else in her family – and she looked up to him a great deal; but even she was occasionally obliged to admit that he could be disturbingly, almost horrifyingly cold. Here, now, something about his absolute unconcern sent a slight chill down her spine.
“I wonder,” he remarked with a yawn, opening the day’s newspaper, “whether a stroke of luck might be induced to bring the same sudden illness upon our mother.”
“But you know that she – she is really very fond of you, Harlan. And so was Father.”
“All the worse! There is nothing quite so vexing, you know, as being liked by somebody you despise. In any case, if Father had been genuinely fond of me he would not have caused me half so much suspense. I hope that when I die I may take as long as possible about it, for the joy of causing as much general inconvenience as I can...” Harlan paused, looking closely at Cecilia. “You really are upset, aren’t you?”
“I... I do not know what to answer.” She swallowed, fighting back tears once again. “Sometimes I really... don’t know what to say.”
Harlan set aside the newspaper to put his arm around her, with his kindest and most reassuring smile. “You must say whatever you like; you know that I will not think any the worse of you for doing it. It is, after all, what I always do. And I will also tell you that you are the sweetest, most affectionate of sisters; does that not console you a little?”
“It does,” she said, returning his smile rather waveringly. “However undeserved your praise may be, it is certainly consoling.”
“Undeserved!” he exclaimed. “No, you must certainly allow me the use of my judgment in determining what praise is and is not deserved. But I have an idea – I know what will make you happy. I believe I will turn Mother out of the house immediately upon turning twenty-one. That will please you, will it not?”
His first offer of consolation was perhaps more pleasing to her than his second; but she was deeply touched by his kindness and so she agreed. Yes – he was kind to her now, and he had been kind to her as of late; any transgressions of his younger days had been long forgiven and forgotten. Cecilia, who had not really a very high estimation of her own worth, and yet a rather good understanding of her brother’s character, appreciated this in full. And yet occasionally, as she did now, Cecilia censured herself as wretchedly ungrateful: for there were times when she felt very alone.
From her mother, much as it pained her to admit it, she had never met with anything approaching kindness, and even from her father there had been little evidence of any great affection. Harlan, she was persuaded, did love her dearly, at least as far as his nature allowed; but she knew – she could not deceive herself – that there were places her emotions might venture, where his could not follow. There would always be certain things, for all his undisputed superiority in mind and manners, which he was incapable of understanding. Cecilia considered it rather her weakness, than his shortcoming. She was perfectly ready to believe every virtue to be on his side rather than hers. Still, however, the difference existed, and there was no denying it.
Without giving way to jealousy, or wishing any increase of pleasure at the expense of her brother’s, Cecilia had always envied Harlan. He was always so composed – so witty – and so staggeringly, perfectly handsome. She envied him his peace of mind; he appeared to have mastered the art of living without a single unnecessary or unpleasant thought or feeling. And it would have taken all the restraint of an angel – which Cecilia was not – to avoid envying him for the preference and, she thought, the genuine affection with which their parents had always regarded him.
To have been given the chance – but no; no. She admonished herself sternly and closed her eyes, basking in the rare comfort of his familial embrace. It was comfort enough for her.
After a moment, however, having regained her self-control, Cecilia contrived to return Harlan’s smile. “You are very right – you are always right, you know. I am allowing myself to become far too upset; it is as unbecoming as it is useless. All the same, do you think that perhaps you could make my excuses? – I know that I must speak with the guests eventually, but I confess I do not yet feel entirely equal to it.”
“I do not blame you at all,” he said cheerfully, “they are most heartily tiresome. I will make your excuses as you request, and I hope that in the meantime you will find yourself happier, and reflect upon the very desirable results of the situation. You shall always have as much money as you wish, you know, and there is perhaps nothing so likely to produce happiness as a very large sum of money.”
Cecilia, though doubting it to some degree, allowed it to be generally true. Harlan quitted the room; she dried her tears, and composed herself, and resolved that she had been most silly, and did not display such untoward weakness again.
Cecilia’s absence was in fact very little missed by those gathered downstairs, who came chiefly to eat a great deal and enjoy the society, while occasionally lamenting the dear departed, and exclaiming that they would by no means be able to live without him. The first inquiry, indeed, that Harlan received on his sister’s account, was from his cousin Reynard, the newly succeeded Earl of Harcourt. He gave hopes that Miss Cecilia was well, and that her spirits had not suffered too greatly from the shock of her father’s death.
Harlan answered for her being perfectly well, only a little disordered; and the Earl went on to more interesting matters.
“So you are now in possession of the estate,” the brown Lupe remarked. “And a very handsome one it is. I congratulate you.”
“Thank you – I am sure I display great merit, of course, in inheriting it.”
“But I am most excessively sorry for the loss of your father, which will no doubt be felt very deeply. Such a sad bereavement!”
“Oh! yes, I am sure I feel it very deeply,” Lockwood replied, his eyes on a rather pretty pink Acara at the other end of the room. “Nothing is more likely.”
“I am glad to hear it,” said his cousin.
“And why is that?”
Lord Harcourt smiled thinly. “I heard the most peculiar and unfounded rumor that you murdered him yourself.”
The ice chinked in the glass as Lockwood poured himself another drink, returning his cousin’s smile with perfect good humor. “As if you could ever suspect me of such a remarkably shocking thing. And – as it so happens – it would have been entirely unnecessary. Funny how these things work out, isn’t it?”