Edith is sitting in Cousin Isobel's parlour taking tea, when Cousin Isobel says something about it being a second wedding for Sir Anthony. Grandmamma stares at Cousin Isobel as if she expects Cousin Isobel to explain at any moment that in Manchester it is customary to marry by jumping over a broom. When Grandmamma feels she has her prey paralysed into submission, she speaks.
"What a peculiar notion," sniffs Grandmamma. "What can it matter to him if it's his second wedding, or his twenty-second? All he must do is stand up creditably in church and not fidget."
"It's not like he never talks about his first wife," says Edith, getting the embroidery on her lap confused with her thimble. "We talk about her often."
Cousin Isobel looks at her. Edith can't read her expression, but she thinks it's pity. Edith blushes, and doesn't say anything at all for the remainder of the visit. Grandmamma discusses the prospect of Edith requiring a lady's maid, in a manner which makes it clear that she expects no contradiction from Cousin Isobel and no contribution to the discussion at all from Edith.
Cousin Isobel does contradict her, twice.
Edith is about to put on her hat in front of the mirror in the cramped little entrance-hall when Cousin Isobel comes hurrying out of the kitchen passage. Edith stops, paralysed, and hopes that Cousin Isobel doesn't intend to press Mrs Bird's preserves on Grandmamma again: there had very nearly been a new front in the War declared when Cousin Isobel tried to give Grandmamma a pot of marmalade at Michaelmas.
But it isn't preserves. "Edith," Cousin Isobel says, with that managing look in her eyes, "has your mother spoken to you?"
At first Edith doesn't know what she means, and then she does, and she blushes even harder. Cousin Isobel looks as if she is about to say something mortifyingly brisk and hygienic, probably involving carbolic soap. Edith holds the feathered hat in front of her thin chest like a shield.
Cousin Isobel takes a step backwards into the passage. "After all, you did grow up in the country," she says at last. "But if you ever need to speak to anyone –"
"Grandmamma doesn't like to keep the pony waiting," says Edith, taking a half-step towards the door.
"No, of course not." Cousin Isobel gathers her self-possession about her, folding her hands in front of her belt like a nurse. "My husband was a little older than I was, and we were very content together. I wish you every happiness I've had, Edith dear."
Every happiness I've had. Edith is suddenly convinced that she knows exactly what Cousin Isobel means by that. She means a son.
The blush scalds her cheeks as hot as the side of a kettle as she hurries out into the cold wind. Grandmamma is sitting very upright in the pony-cart with her lavender-gloved hands folded around her walking-stick. She turns and looks at Edith. "What has that woman been filling your head with?" she says, but she doesn't seem to require an answer.
Edith sits in the pony-cart as it jolts its way back to the Dower House. The wheels on the cobbles clatter out a rhythm.
A son. A son. A son.
The wedding goes by in a whirl like a carousel. Papa, looking on with pleasure and something that Edith hopes is pride but secretly knows is astonishment. Aunt Rosamund, uninvitedly up from London, and finding fault with everything in that honey-on-glass tone of voice. A frightening tweed-clad sister of Sir Anthony's down from Scotland. Cousin Matthew, congratulating her; Edith wishes he didn't sound so relieved.
She wishes she hadn't had to have Mary for a bridesmaid, but somehow the forces of other people's expectations had crashed over Edith like a wave taking her breath away, and her own wishes didn't matter. And anyway, Mary is standing behind her for once, along with Sybil, so Edith can't tell whether her eldest sister is looking sour-faced or irritatingly radiant over her bouquet of orange-blossom.
Then she catches Cousin Matthew's eye, and knows how Mary looks after all.
The nightdress laid out on the bed is new. The lady's-maid bobbing a nervous curtsey beside the cheval-glass is new. The bedroom itself is Queen Anne, but that doesn't help much. The only thing of Edith's own in the room is her suitcase, chestnut-coloured leather stamped with her maiden initials, and even that is unpacked and on top of an enormous oak wardrobe and looking as if it might as well stay there forever.
The maid brushes Edith's hair. Edith looks into the mirror. She's a married woman now, but she doesn't look or feel any different. She would almost rather have O'Brien pulling her hair and stealing her combs than this silence. Almost.
The maid closes the door softly behind her. The other door opens. It is all ridiculously like a stage farce, Edith thinks, or a corridor of rooms opening onto each other on a ship.
She had expected Sir Anthony. Of course she had. She wasn't entirely an innocent, or so she firmly told herself. It was just she hadn't expected Sir Anthony to be wearing a red flannel nightshirt.
She can see his bare feet. She fights a hideous giggle, rising up inside her like the warmth from brandy. Whatever happens next, she thinks, she isn't prepared.
The jolly-looking expression drains out of his face. "You're tired, of course," he says, putting his candle down. "I won't come in to say good night to you."
"I don't know what to do," Edith says, in a stiff little voice, and with an effort like pulling a drowning man from a river she holds out her hand to him.
He shuts the door behind him and pinches the candle out, and she hears his footsteps pad towards her in the dark.
Edith doesn't take precedence over Mary at dinner, even though she's Lady Strallan now. Daughters of earls who marry men below the rank of baron retain the rank they were born with, and her husband is only a baronet. So there are rustling dresses made of silk that feels as thick as cream when she presses it between her fingers, and unfamiliar heavy jewellery (though some has gone to be re-set, and the sister in Scotland is being dilatory about sending the rest) and a rose-gold ring on her finger, but she still follows Mary in to dinner.
It feels like that will be her place forever more: behind Mary, in front of Sybil, a long way behind Mamma and with what feels like the length of half a county between her and Grandmamma.
The candles are lit on the dining room table. Anna is standing up straight in a very clean uniform beside the door, eyes downcast, hands folded in her starched apron. Papa wouldn't let a woman serve his dinner when there was company in the house, but that was before the war came. Sybil treads on Edith's train and claps a hand to her mouth and grimaces with laughter in her eyes by way of apology, and Mary looks back at both of them with a distant, underwatery disgust.
In America, Mamma says, a bride takes precedence over everybody for the whole first year that she's married.
But this isn't America. And it seems like there will always be Mary, with her cold porcelain face, floating half a step in front of Edith from now until the grave.
Edith makes conversation over the soup and fish, and makes angry plans to go somewhere that Mary is not. Not Europe: not while there's a war on. Somewhere far away.
She can hear Anthony talking about tarpon fishing on the other side of the table. Edith isn't sure where tarpons originate: her governess didn't know much about geography and had kept to the Rivers of Europe and their Tributaries, and Sybil was always quicker than Edith was, anyway. But she thinks about it all the same, and she makes plans.
Mamma is delighted to hear that her first grandchild was born on American soil. Edith can feel the amusement and the joy in every word she reads of her mother's letter. Papa is more restrained, of course, though he says in a nicely turned paragraph that now that he has two Americans in his family he will be a friend to that nation ever more.
The future Sir Peregrine Strallan waves his small red fists and blinks milkily at the high ceiling. The ceiling belongs to a hotel with electrical air-conditioning, a luxury neither Peregrine's mother nor his father had ever encountered before. The baby has Edith's undecided chin and his father's heavy jaw, but both of those may mend themselves in time, babies being mutable creatures. And besides, while any baby of Mary's would be well advised to look as much like Mary's husband as possible, no one thinks Edith interesting enough for that kind of scandal.
Edith sits up in bed and pares an apple with a small ivory-handled knife. All of the fruit here is enormous and lush and tastes of nothing. And she really is very bored with hearing about tarpon-fishing. But better here than in Mary's shadow. And very much better that Anthony should be here, treating small Peregrine with much the same mixture of self-conscious jollity and inarticulate awe that he might have expressed if confronted with the Second Coming, than volunteering in France among the poor dead horses and the machine-guns and the mud.
Edith smiles to herself, and folds up her mother's letter between her fingers.
But none of it happens. Because of what Mary did, and what Edith wrote, and what happened the day the war began.
None of it happens at all.