It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single girl without possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a husband.
Emily Fitch, however, had other ideas. Never had she been terribly interested when the topic of husbands had come up at home, which was often, given that it was of such interest to her mother and sister both that they scarcely talked of anything else.
The pursuit of husbands for the Fitch twins was more than simply Mrs Fitch's heart's greatest desire; it was a necessity, for the house was entailed to a male heir upon the death of Mr Fitch, and Mr and Mrs Fitch sadly had none. Mrs Fitch had produced a son, several years ago, to much rejoicing, but young James was a sickly child and the poor boy had been taken by influenza one night in the bitter winter of 1799. Emily thought the entailment was the grossest injustice, but despite her protests, there was no earthly way to change the situation.
The potential loss of the house need not have weighed so heavily on the hearts of the Fitch women, given that Mr Fitch was full of health and in the prime of his life—as he was so fond of telling them—were it not for his unfortunate habit of getting into duels at the slightest provocation. Just last week young Frederick McLair had narrowly escaped with his life—and absent his dignity—after he had the ill-judgement to proposition Emily's sister, Katharine.
Katie, for her part, had seemed just as happy to receive McLair's affections as he had been to bestow them, but McLair was not a gentleman of equal standing to the Fitches and Katie knew better than to hope that her father would allow her to marry a man of a mere five hundred a year. For days Katie was confined to bed, so heartbroken was she, and nothing would lift her spirits until Emily casually mentioned, in the middle of reading The Mystery of Udolpho to her invalid sister, that a new gentleman had settled in the village of L—, having taken the Woodbine house.
"A gentleman?" said Katie, her eyes wide. "Is he rich? Handsome? Pray tell, what is his name?"
Emily privately felt that such information was not of very great import at all, and she would much rather continue reading, but this was the most animated Katie had appeared in days. Emily felt inclined to indulge her sister's curiosity.
"His name is Campbell," she said. "According to the wild speculation in town, he has some fifteen thousand a year. As to his looks, I have yet to see for myself, but they are much remarked upon."
Hearing this news Katie was much cheered at once, and immediately got out of bed in order to begin preparations for the ball that night, in the hope that she would make an impression upon Mr Campbell, should he make an appearance.
Mr Campbell did indeed attend the ball that evening, although he arrived so late and with so few in his party as to be intolerably rude, and the mood was soured against him almost immediately.
The gentleman did not have a great deal of height, and his features, partially obscured by a fashionable swoop of blond hair, were so delicate that he appeared more a boy than a man. Katharine glanced at him once before losing all interest, apparently uninterested in a large fortune if the man to whom it was attached was not equally as tempting.
Emily, however, found him rather handsome in his own way. While everybody else in the ballroom was put off by his haughty air and disagreeable mien, Emily found there was something appealing in the disdainful way he surveyed the room, even as his glance passed over her and his expression registered nothing but indifference. Usually Emily did not mind that her sister had all the beauty while she herself had all the brains, but in that moment it pained her. She had never experienced such feelings for a gentleman before, and the quickening of her heart quite shocked her.
There were no ladies present in Mr Campbell's party, which was some small consolation, and only one other gentleman, who Emily soon discovered was one Mr James Cook, grandson of the late explorer after whom he had been named. Mr Cook looked barely a gentleman, having instead the air and general appearance of a raffish ne'er-do-well, but when Emily and Katharine were introduced to him he was perfectly civil and charming, much more so than his friend, who paid them no greater attention than was obligated. Katie in particular seemed quite taken with Mr Cook, and he with her, and they shared two dances in a row. Mr Campbell, meanwhile, did not ask a soul to dance and only exchanged a few terse words with others when directly addressed, spending the majority of his time strolling around the ballroom in solitude and acting for all the world as though he were not at a ball at all. He seemed singularly determined not to have fun.
"Most rude," Mrs Fitch declared him later, on the carriage ride back home. "Refusing to dance at a ball! Such behaviour will not be borne."
"Perhaps he did not feel quite well," Emily said quietly, and her mother and sister gave her looks of such astonishment that Emily spoke not another word all the way home, of Mr Campbell or any other subject.
So displeased was Mrs Fitch with Mr Campbell that she was loath to spend a single second more in his company, but the acquaintance had already been made and so such things could not be helped. When Mr Campbell extended an invitation to the Fitch ladies—surely out of propriety alone, and not genuine interest on his part—there was nothing to be done but accept, and pay the gentleman a visit.
Sitting in Mr Campbell's parlour was not only awkward, due to the stilted conversation and obvious indifference on all sides, but strange as well; for the house Mr Campbell had let—his second home, it transpired, proving his considerable wealth—used to belong to the Stonem family, who had been acquaintances of the Fitches for many years until they had left the village under their daughter's disgrace. When Emily glanced at Katie it was clear the same thoughts were preoccupying her. What she didn't expect, however, was that Katie would actually have the temerity to mention it.
"Of course," Katie said, "we all hope you have better fortune here at Woodbine than its previous occupants. They left under a great scandal."
Emily was shocked that Katie would be so indecent as to bring such topics into conversation with a gentleman they seldom knew, but Katie had always disliked Miss Stonem and Emily was sure she considered this some sort of revenge.
"Enough, please," Mr Campbell said. "I quite despise scandals."
"As do we all, I am sure," Mrs Fitch said with a nervous laugh, shooting a disapproving look at her eldest daughter.
"On the contrary, Mama," Emily said, "the people of this town quite thrive on scandals, provided they are sufficiently distant that they feel none of the shame of the scandal and all the enjoyment of gossip." She glanced at Mr Campbell and almost fancied he smiled.
"I am sure that is not true at all, Emily," said her mother. "We value a quiet life in the country and nothing more."
Emily was far too composed to snort in disbelief, but she had half a mind to do so.
"As do I," Mr Campbell said. "It was my prime directive in settling here." Such a proclamation seemed strange coming from a young gentleman with the means to take in all of life's enjoyments, especially in comparison to the rowdy young men of the militia who were currently stationed in L—, but it had the effect of recommending him to Mrs Fitch, who seemed less inclined to dislike him now she had met him and found him to be thoroughly sensible at least. If only he would dance at the next ball, Mrs Fitch might change her mind entirely.
It came as a great surprise to all the Fitches when, two weeks later, they received an invitation to a ball hosted by none other than Mr Campbell himself. They had seen him on three more occasions in the intervening time, twice on visits and once by chance outside the milliner's, and although each meeting was more cordial than the last, and during the most recent one Mr Campbell had smiled at Emily no less than twice, he nevertheless did not appear the sort of man who could bear the frivolity of such an occasion, let alone host one. Emily suspected it was the influence of his friend Mr Cook, who had already intimated his intention to share the first dance with Katharine.
Woodbine looked most charming bedecked in finery for the ball, and Mr Campbell, who greeted the Fitches as they entered, was most handsome dressed in a fine suit of the highest fashion from London. Emily felt her breath catch in her throat as he offered her a smile, and she fumbled through her curtsey, silently cursing her lack of balance. She had never excelled at deportment, much to her mother's chagrin.
It was a night of great surprises, the first coming when Mr Campbell, who had appeared to pay Emily only perfunctory attention before this day, approached her shortly before the third dance was to begin.
"My dear Miss Fitch," said he, "would you do me the honour of sharing the next dance?"
So taken aback was Emily, both that he danced at all, and that he would ask her, that she was silent for several moments.
"Miss Fitch? Are you well?" Mr Campbell said, his face lined with concern.
"Quite," she said at last. "Although I must confess myself surprised to discover that you dance."
"It is a ball," Mr Campbell said. "I find such things are expected of the host. Would you do me the honour?"
Mr Campbell, Emily soon discovered, was a perfectly capable dancer, and so his previous reluctance could not have been due to inability or embarrassment. He seemed also to enjoy it, and although they talked little, Emily decided halfway through the dance that she had never encountered a man so amiable to dance with. Across the course of the evening he danced with several ladies, but Emily noted with an inward flush of pleasure that she was the only lady with whom he stood up twice. That alone was perhaps not sufficient to discern any peculiar attachment on his part, but it pleased Emily nonetheless. Katie, meanwhile, danced almost every dance with Mr Cook, and that was enough to prompt Mrs Fitch to start speculating on their impending union, which she felt was all but guaranteed.
Several other gentleman asked Emily to dance, and while she was not so rude as to refuse, she found herself walking through the steps without much enthusiasm. As the night was drawing to a close and Mr Miles asked her to accompany him for the penultimate dance, she made her excuses and stepped outside to get some air. There were several other people scattered around the grounds, enjoying the balmy summer night, but it was only when Emily spotted Mr Campbell amongst their number that she brightened. He was a little way off from the crowd, looking pensive as he strolled by himself, and Emily approached him with a warm smile.
"Mr Campbell," she said, "I must congratulate you on hosting such an excellent ball. I had a wonderful time."
He gave a curt nod in return and said, "Thank you." After hesitating for a moment, he spoke again, somewhat awkwardly. "Forgive me, Miss Fitch. I fear my attentions to you this evening might have created a misleading impression, and for that I must apologise. It was not my intention to lead you on."
Flabbergasted, Emily struggled to keep the disappointment from showing on her face. "Not at all," she said. "It was most delightful, but I am under no misapprehension as to where we stand. It is a pleasure simply to be acquainted with you."
Mr Campbell smiled slightly, and said, "I am glad. Excuse me, I must return to the ball."
With that he left, disappearing into the lights of the house and leaving Emily standing outside, quite alone.
Two days later, Mr Campbell was gone.
Rumours about his departure swirled around town like a fog, but nobody was privy to any genuine intelligence on the subject. Mr Campbell, along with his friend Mr Cook, had simply left at first light for pastures unknown, leaving no word behind. Many suspected that Cook was embroiled in trouble, and dark speculation about his nefarious deeds ran rife. Others were more charitable, and guessed that Mr Campbell had received word that a relative was gravely ill, and had gone to tend his or her bedside.
Emily felt the loss curiously hard; it was only upon his disappearance that she realised how deep her attachment to him had become in so short a time. She said nothing of her disappointment, however, because Katie was so distraught about the absence of Mr Cook that she shed quite enough tears for the both of them. Emily preferred to cultivate her reputation as the sensible twin.
So melancholy was the Fitch household at the loss of two prospective husbands that when Mrs Fitch's sister heard the news, she invited Katharine and Emily to accompany her husband and herself on their tour of the West Country, hoping it would provide sufficient diversion that their hearts would be mended. Both of her nieces accepted at once with great enthusiasm, but the trip unhappily coincided with Katie falling ill to a slight cold, so when they left Emily was their sole companion.
The sights of the West Country were many and varied, and anyone with less discernment than Emily Fitch would have declared them all equally delightful. Nevertheless, she was charmed by the scenery and the people they encountered enough to almost forget about Mr Campbell entirely. Only in the occasional moment of silent contemplation did the memory of him spring into her mind, accompanied by a pain in her chest that only dissipated with the greatest concentration on her part.
On their way to Bath, Emily and her aunt and uncle had cause to stop for two nights in the small village of C—, while some small fault of their carriage was fixed. They inquired at the inn as to what they might do there to pass the time, and were pointed towards the grounds of Bunderbury Hall, which were famous in these parts for their beauty.
The stroll through the grounds would have been quite remarkable anyway, such was their splendour, but it was made even more so when Emily turned down a path and who should approach but Mr Campbell!
"Oh!" said Emily, so taken aback that she stumbled, and when Mr Campbell reached out a hand to steady her he did not let go straight away. "I did not expect to see you here."
"Nor I you," Mr Campbell said. "What brings you to Somerset?"
It was then that Emily's aunt and uncle caught up with them, and their conversation had to be halted as introductions were made. Mr Campbell, after greeting Emily's relatives most cordially, invited them to dine that evening at Bunderbury Hall, which was, he explained, his other property. It was far more grand than Woodbine, and Emily wondered why he had left Bunderbury in the first place, but it would have been impolite to ask.
As they continued their perambulations, Mr Campbell having altered his course to join them, Emily and Mr Campbell found themselves drawing ahead, both being younger and more healthful than Emily's aunt and uncle.
"I do hope you do not consider this an intrusion," Emily said, aware of the conclusions he might have drawn upon discovering her in the grounds of his house. "It was quite by accident that we chanced upon you. I had not the slightest idea that you lived in the area, and would not have disturbed you had I known."
"I consider it neither a disturbance nor an intrusion," he replied with all the civility one would expect of a gentleman. "It is my pleasure to see you here at Bunderbury."
Emily gave him a tight smile, painfully conscious of their last conversation. "Still," she said, "you have been quite clear about the limits of your affections, and I know they do not match mine." She blushed. "Forgive me, I should not be so frank."
"Please, do not apologise," Mr Campbell said, his voice strained, and he stopped walking. "Miss Fitch, I am... not indifferent to you. In fact, I admire you very greatly. But I cannot... My life is very complicated in ways you could not understand."
"I should like to try," Emily said, looking up at him and noticing, not for the first time, how very blue his eyes were.
"My life would be infinitely more complicated with you in it."
Emily began to reply, but her relatives chose that moment to round the bend. The topic was dropped, and Emily and Mr Campbell both slowed their pace and fell into step with Emily's aunt and uncle.
Dinner that evening was a fine meal, but Emily found it difficult to enjoy the food when her earlier conversation with Mr Campbell weighed so heavily on her mind. How wonderful to be assured of his affection, but how cruel that nothing could be done! He too seemed troubled, and conversation would no doubt have been stilted were it not for Emily's uncle's ability to talk endlessly, whether he had a captive audience or not.
It came as a relief when the time came for Emily's aunt to suggest they leave the gentlemen. Usually Emily hated being shut out of the gentlemen's after-dinner conversation, being eager to learn more about world affairs or whatever it was they discussed—there were only so many times one could talk about bonnets with the other ladies before being bored to tears—but today was different. She settled with her aunt in the parlour, perfectly happy to talk about haberdashery, so it came as rather a disappointment when the first topic her aunt raised was Mr Campbell.
"You and he seem rather attached, Emily," she said. "Should we hope...?"
"No," Emily said flatly. "I do not think there is any hope at all."
And, indeed, for a long time there was none. Throughout the rest of the holiday, Emily did her very best to enjoy herself, and indeed had a splendid time in Bath, making many an amiable acquaintance at the Assembly Rooms and dancing with several admirable gentlemen. None of the gentlemen, however, quite held her interest like a certain Mr Campbell, and it was he she thought of at night before she drifted off to sleep. The remainder of the holiday was pleasant, but Emily found she was not as entertained as she ought to have been, so preoccupied was she. She felt a sudden sympathy for Katie, who had been lovesick many times before. Emily had always dismissed such feelings as fanciful, but she resolved to be kinder to Katie from now on.
Upon returning home, Emily was disappointed, although not terribly surprised, to discover that Mr Campbell had not returned to Woodbine, and nobody here had heard any news of him at all. The only consolation was that he had yet to put the house up for sale, which meant he perhaps had intentions to return.
Emily had not disclosed the news of her meeting Mr Campbell during the trip, and had hoped to keep it private to avoid questions and speculation. However, she had failed to consider her aunt, who had, it transpired, shared the news in a letter to Mrs Fitch. Emily was barely home when her sister accosted her with questions of the gentleman—most of them disapproving in tone, for Katharine had never favoured Mr Campbell, despite his wealth and greatness, and believed that Emily could find a much better husband than he.
"He is entirely disinterested," Emily said, which was not quite the whole truth. "He was civil, but detached."
"There is no chance of him proposing?"
"None at all," Emily said, trying in vain to be unmoved by Katie's expression of relief. "Though I wish there was. He is twice the man your Mr Cook is."
Katie's expression clouded over, and Emily felt a stab of guilt for causing her sister more pain so shortly after she had resolved to cease quarrelling with her sister.
"He is not mine, as well you know," Katie said, and the subject was dropped. Emily suspected that Katie would move on from her disappointment twice as quickly as she herself would, supposing her own feelings for Mr Campbell to be far deeper than Katie's for Mr Cook.
The seasons began to change, and as the gold of autumn began to sweep over the trees, something occurred to cause one of the Fitch twins to rejoice: to the surprise of the whole town, Mr Campbell returned to Woodbine.
When Mrs Fitch informed her daughters, their shock was apparent for anyone to behold: Emily dropped the book she was reading, while Katie, distracted from her sewing, pricked her fingertip, which prompted a most unladylike exclamation to leave her lips.
"Is it really so?" Emily asked. "I can scarcely believe it. I felt quite certain he would stay away forever."
"Perhaps he discovered a good reason to return," Mrs Fitch said, and she smiled knowingly at Emily.
"Surely not," Emily said. "He was quite resolved not to love me."
"He might have had a change of heart," Mrs Fitch said. "Oh, I would so love to see one of my daughters married before the year's end. Your youth and beauty will not last forever." She directed this last remark at Katie. Such comments used always to be aimed at Emily, who had always had fewer suitors than her sister, and Emily knew that Katie would not appreciate the reversal of fortune.
The fact of Mr Campbell's arrival in town was confirmed beyond a doubt when, the very next day, he unexpectedly called on the Fitches at mid-morning. Emily found herself thrown into disarray when he arrived, and found she could hardly make eye contact with him while he made his initial enquiries into the Fitches' health. Although Emily's gaze was turned towards the floor, she could hear the excitement in her mother's voice when she answered them, and knew her mother would be smiling to the point of embarrassment.
The fluttering in Emily's stomach increased tenfold when Mr Campbell asked Mrs Fitch if he might have an audience with Emily alone. Naturally, Mrs Fitch acquiesced, and she and Katie left the room, leaving Emily standing alone with Mr Campbell. Only then did she meet his eyes.
For a long, excruciating moment they stood in silence, facing each other, until Mr Campbell looked away and walked over to the fireplace, standing there with his back to Emily. When still he showed no signs of speaking, she broke the silence.
"Is Mr Cook not with you?" she asked.
"Indeed he is not," replied Mr Campbell. "He is presently in Yorkshire, visiting relatives, but he has designs to return ere long. I believe he wishes to see your sister."
Smiling, Emily said, "I am glad. She is rather fond of him."
They lapsed into silence once again, Emily waiting for the question that she felt must be imminent. When said question did not leave Mr Campbell's lips, Emily opened her mouth to make another effort at small talk, but before she could say anything, Mr Campbell spoke.
"Miss Fitch," he said, "I must apologise."
This was not how she had anticipated this conversation beginning. "Why?"
He turned to look at her. "I fear I have made a mistake by returning here. I will be frank, Miss Fitch: my intention was to settle some orders of business in the area before selling Woodbine, never to return again. I came to see you only to reassure myself that you are not so very special, and I could live perfectly well without you."
"I see," Emily said, and she swallowed hard. "I appreciate your being so candid, Mr Campbell."
He strode over to where she was standing. "But you see, Miss Fitch, in that last regard I have been quite useless. I have not been able to persuade myself at all."
Emily smiled, her heart suddenly so light she felt she might float away. Mr Campbell, however, remained grave.
"You do not understand. This leaves me with a terrible dilemma."
"Why?" Emily said. "It ought to be simple. Why do you not simply ask me?"
"I have something to confess," he said, taking her hands in his, "and I will have to hope that with your good nature, you will be discreet with the secret I am about to impart."
"Of course," Emily said, wondering what this secret could possibly be. It would have to be a very great obstacle to stand in their way.
Taking a deep breath, Mr Campbell said, "I am not a gentleman at all."
"You mean, your background—?"
"No," he said, looking pained. "I mean, I am as much a lady as you are." He smiled ruefully. "So you see, we have an insurmountable problem."
Emily felt the initial shock engulf her, but it vanished with surprising speed, and once she processed the news she realised she was still holding on to Mr—Miss—Campbell's hands. She studied the delicate lines of Miss Campbell's face and found it was not so very difficult to discern a woman's features, and nor did it displease her.
"I care not," she said, the words tumbling out of her mouth entirely of their own accord, and she smiled. "I always knew there was something that separated you from all the other gentlemen."
Miss Campbell looked just as shocked as Emily had felt moments before. "Excuse me?"
"My feelings remain unchanged," Emily said, smiling up at Miss Campbell. "And yours?"
"Are as constant as ever," Miss Campbell said. "But surely—"
"Then make me your wife," Emily implored. "Continue to live as you are, enjoy your freedom as a man, and we can be married."
Miss Campbell shook her head in disbelief. "It is against all laws of God or man. Dear Emily, if we are found out, it will ruin us both—and you more than I, for you have a family upon which to deliver shame."
But Emily was not to be deterred. "A small wedding, then," she said, "and soon, before news can spread far. And then—we could go to Europe, and live on the continent where no one knows us. France, or Italy perhaps."
After a pause, Miss Campbell said, "I hear Cyprus is lovely."
"Cyprus, then. It would be perfect." She smiled. "Not least because when my mother wishes to complain about my not having produced a child, she will have to do so by letter and not in person."
Miss Campbell smiled. "Am I to gather that you are proposing to me, Miss Fitch?"
Emily blushed, laughing a little. "I believe I am."
Miss Campbell bent down and kissed Emily's hand. "In that case, it would be my honour to accept," she said, before boldly drawing Emily towards her and kissing her on the mouth. "And now I must ask for your father's blessing and pretend this was all my idea."
When she disentangled their fingers and stepped towards the door, Emily found she instantly missed the contact.
"Wait," Emily said, just as Miss Campbell's hand was on the door. "You have yet to tell me your real name."
"Naomi," Miss Campbell replied with a smile, and she left to room to find Mr Fitch.
Naomi. She was not at all who Emily had expected Mr Campbell to be, but she found she liked the idea of Naomi rather better. Emily repeated the name silently to herself, over and over, joy spreading within her with each iteration.