Thursday, November 6, 2014

Chapter 2 of "the mysterious Mr. Willis"

I need to think a bit on making the characters more well-rounded, but this is a complete draft of chapter 2.

Trouble in Pangbourne.

The next morning Marianne awoke late, but hurried to break her morning fast and check that the house was ready to receive her brother and his new wife. Her maid, Katie, from London, was decidedly jumpy and told her, “Miss Milton, if there are any more of those explosions I'm giving you my notice.” By reassuring her that she would personally find out the story behind these interruptions, Marianne convinced her maid that, maybe, perhaps, she would not run for cover at the next one.
She added, “Although they're upsetting, they don't seem to do any damage. If the Pangbourne servants won't say anything, I'll find that Mr. Willis. He seemed to know more than a little about them yesterday.”
Marianne's questions to her servants did not help to clarify the issue. Their responses ranged from “What explosions,” through to “That was just thunder, Miss,” and finally, “Tis best that you not question them.” These were not exactly helpful responses, so she grabbed her maid and started for the Cross Keys Inn in the village.
“Miss,” Katie said, “Can you slow down? My feet hurt.”
“Come on. It's not that far, and we need to catch that Mr. Willis.” Marianne strode ahead with poor Katie following as best she could.
The early morning rush over and the mid-day rush not yet begun found Mr. Ellis, the innkeeper at the Cross Keys, at loose ends. He was slowly reading a broadsheet left by one of the travelers when he looked up and noticed that he had a visitor. Not just any visitor, but apparently a young woman of some distinction. It took him a few moments, but he recognized her. “You're Miss Milton, aren't you? Mr. Willis' visitor from last night.”
Noticing her bright eyes and intense expression he asked, “And how was your repast last night? Nothing to complain about was there?”
“Only my host's absence. Have you seen him?”
“Mr. Willis.”
“Ah. Well, as a matter of fact yes.”
Marianne was not to be diverted by digression, “Where?”
“He was here for breakfast, then said he was going for a walk along the river.”
“You don't happen to know which way by any chance?”
“Now there you've got me. I didn't ask him and he didn't volunteer it. Very private man Mr. Willis is. Like all them up at the park. Private and discrete. They mind their own business, like you should.”
Marianne sighed in frustration, then turned to her maid. “Katie, shall we try upstream first?”
“Miss Milton, can I just go home? My feet hurt, my legs are tired, and I have my work to attend to.”
Marianne thought for a few moments, then said, “I suppose if you must. Tell them that I've gone for a walk upstream.”
“Alone and without an escort?”
“If you're not willing to accompany me, then yes. I used to do this at home all the time.”
Katie wondered whether she should walk with her mistress after all, but decided that she really was too tired and too busy to do so. She curtsied and said, “I'll tell them where you are going. Should we expect you for supper?”
“I should hope so. My brother and his new wife Ruth are due this afternoon. It would never do to miss them.”
“Yes miss.”
Mr. Ellis inserted himself into the conversation. “The Oxford road goes that way Miss. All sorts of characters take that road. You should not go along there unaccompanied. I'll send Millie with you.”
“If you must, but I will be safe. I'm sure.”
“She did say last night after you left, that she'd enjoy the chance to converse with the new vicar's sister.”
Marianne, agreed, saying, “Then it would be rude of me to deny her that chance.”
Millie, being country bred, was a much better walking companion than Katie and they made good time upstream. Of course, being in the company of the new vicar's sister left her tongue-tied so it was not a completely fair exchange. The river soon swung away from the Oxford road and they followed the footpath along the bank.
They approached a sign in the path which warned them not to proceed any farther. It implied that it could be dangerous to walk along the riverbank. The path was blocked with a short piece of rope. Millie immediately said, “Miss Milton, we had best turn back. If your friend, Mr. Willis has gone past this we won't see him.”
“Those people up at the park. They mean what they say when the post a sign like this. One that says not to go any farther.”
“Nonsense. They're just worried that you'll catch their fish. Are you coming with me?”
“No Miss Milton. I'll wait for you, but I won't cross that line.”
“If you're scared, that's fine. I'm going on anyway.”
“Miss Milton, please don't. It could be dangerous.”
Marianne stepped over the rope and proceeded down the path. She hadn't gone far when she looked up through the trees and saw a tethered balloon rising above her. While she stood in awe and watched her first ascension, she heard a crack and rustle in the brush behind. Before she could turn to see who was there, someone forcedly grabbed her and thrust a rag over her mouth. A sweet chemical smell that was almost, but not quite, like the smell of cheap gin filled her nose and mouth. Despite her struggles, she quickly lost consciousness.
She awoke to the pleasant jostling sensation of being carried in someone's arms. When she opened her eyes to see who was carrying her, the shock of finding that it was Mr. Morgan startled her. She demanded, “Sir! Please put me down. You are taking a liberty.”
While she still felt distant, she heard another familiar voice, that of Mr. Willis, say, “Michael, I think your fair cargo is awakening. Should we see if she can walk?”
Michael smiled, which given his beaten visage, was more of a leer than a smile. He said, “If you insist, Mr. Willis, but I was enjoying carrying my burden.”
Still, despite his bulk and rough exterior, he gently placed Marianne's feet on the ground and steadied her. The blood rushed from her head and she began to faint, again, in earnest, but he steadied her and she recovered her poise.
Looking around she saw Mr. Willis and Millie as well as Mr. Morgan.
“What is the meaning of this? I was assaulted as I was walking along the river.”
“You were? We found you asleep on the bank and thought that was an untenable situation. Neither Mr. Morgan nor I felt it would be good for you to catch a cold or a fever sleeping on the damp riverbank. I'd have carried you myself, but as you can see”, here Mr. Willis pointed to his cane, and “I'm still recovering my strength. Though something tells me that Mr. Morgan did not object to his burden.”
“But there was this balloon and I had a rag with something on it thrust over my mouth.”
“I think you were dreaming. You must be reading too many Gothic romances. I mean that's right out of the 'Mysteries of Udolpho'.”
Marianne was not convinced, partially because she'd just read that book and there was nothing like that in it, but mostly because she knew she wasn’t prone to day-dreaming and flights of fantasy. Still, she didn't want to start an argument. So she kept silent. Mr. Willis continued, “If you would, I'll steady you back to the Cross Keys in Pangbourne. I must take my leave of you then, but surely you can get home from there.”
The four of them chatted comfortably as they walked the mile back to the village. Marianne appreciated Mr. Willis' steadying arm far more than she thought she would. Even when she was steadying him more than he was steadying her. It wasn't until after Mr. Willis and Mr. Morgan had graciously taken their leaves that Millie turned to Marianne and said, “Miss Milton, I told you not to go past that sign.”
“What happened?”
“I didn't see the balloon, this time, but there was a muffled explosion and waves in the river. Then a few minutes later Mr. Morgan and Mr. Willis came down the river bank with you.”
“What do you mean about a balloon and, more importantly, this time?”
“Them at the park often launch a balloon. It's to watch their tests.”
“Miss Milton, I dare not say more. I've said too much already.”
Marianne would have inquired further, but Millie's father came out and said, “Miss Milton. I am so glad to see you are safe. Your brother and his wife have arrived. They were asking after you.”
She said, “Oh my, I really must hurry. Miss Ellis, thank you so much for your company. Perhaps we could go for a longer ramble some other time?”
“Say downstream, to Reading?”
“It would be my pleasure.”
Marianne hurried home to find her brother and new sister-in-law anxiously waiting for her. Her brother Henry immediately demanded, “Marianne. Where have you been?”
“I went for a walk on the river. Apparently I lost track of time.”
Ruth said, “You never did have much of a sense of time, did you?”
“No. How was your drive and how is married life?”
“It was pleasant, but something’s about marriage you'll have to find out for yourself.”
Marianne blushed, but said, “I didn't mean that, just was it agreeing with you.”
“Eminently. We have great news, Henry met an old friend in Basingstoke and we've invited him to visit.”
Henry continued, already filling in his wife's sentences like an old married man, “It's one of my old college friends, George Hogan, He's a major now. Major Hogan of the 62nd foot. They're raising a new division and it's to be his to command.”
“I'm glad for him,” Marianne said, “but what's this to do with me?”
Ruth replied, “He's unmarried. Rich and unmarried.”
“You interest me strangely. I've not be inactive myself. There's this strange man I've met. He's a Mr. Willis.”
Henry stiffened. He remembered a Mr. Willis from University, and his memories of his natural philosophy tutor were not fond ones. There had been an imperfect 'understanding of each other’ between a young man studying for the ministry and a young man studying the hard realities of science. He said, “This Mr. Willis. Is he a small man, with thick glasses and shockingly unkempt hair?”
“Sounds like him. He had an accident at 'the park', wherever or whatever that is. He has a bright red face and his hair streams out behind him. He uses a cane, but I think that's only because he's still hurt.”
“If he's my Mr. Willis, he's bad news Marianne. You should keep away from him.”
“Then he can't be your Mr. Willis. He's a sweet young man and good company. He goes everywhere with this attendant. He says it's his valet, but the man does not look the part.”
“I wouldn't know anything about that. Maybe you're right Marianne. In any case, Major Hogan should be here in a few days and I'd like you to favor him with your company.”
Just then the explosions started. Four explosions followed each other in short intervals. The house rocked from the ground wave while the rumble from the blast filled the surrounding air. When they were finished, Ruth said, “What was that?”
Marianne replied, “I don't know. No one here will say anything about them. That's why I was late. I was exploring upriver to see what I could find out.”
Henry asked, “Is that all?”
“Yesterday there was a much bigger explosion. Something unusual.”
Ruth gave her husband a serious look, and he replied, “Now I know why this living was vacant. Think of it as hazard pay.”
Marianne laughed at that, then said, “It only happens now and again. I'll nose around and find out why soon enough. I had the servants make up the big bedroom for you. I hope you like it.”

A few days later, the rectory was extremely busy Sunday morning as Reverend Milton prepared for his first service as a vicar. The simple act of holding a church service was not in itself unusual to him, but so much in his, and his sister's life had changed since he had been a mere curate only a few months ago.
Marianne waited impatiently by the door and shouted up to her brother, “Come on Henry, they're almost ready to toll the bell.”
“In a minute. Oh where is my collar?”
Ruth, similarly, was having wardrobe issues.
Marianne loudly said, “I'll head up to the church and have them hold the bells until you arrive.”
“Please do.”
She strode out and quickly covered the distance to the parish church, that of St. James the lesser. When she arrived, she was surprised to see Miss Ellis conversing with Mr. Willis. Even more surprising was her dress. For someone purporting to be a bar maid, Miss Ellis was dressed in fashionable clothes.
Marianne asked, “Millie?”
“Miss Milton, is your brother on his way?”
“He'll be late. Everything is disorder at the rectory.”
Mr. Willis smiled, then said, “I'm not surprised, I'll warn the bell ringers to hold off.” After he left, Marianne commented, “He seems healthier. His face was less red than a few days ago.”
“Did you think so? I'm glad. I've seen him every day at the inn and so did not notice the changes.”
“Oh. Are you and he good friends?”
Millie gave her a smirk, and then said, “Not very observant, are you. Didn't you see?”
“See what?”
“Never mind.”
“That's not an answer to my question.”
“You were impertinent, and that's all the answer you'll get.”
Marianne thought for a moment, then said, “Your clothes, where did you get them? I only ask, because if there is such a good mantua maker in Pangbourne, I'd want to use her too.”
“Miss Milton, you really are being nosy, aren't you? These are from Madame Antoinette’s on the strand in London. My last mistress gave them to me.”
Mr. Willis returned, his mission to delay the bells accomplished, and stood beside them. “Miss Milton,” he said as he offered her his arm, “I would love to have your company during the service. I'm sure Miss Ellis won't mind if you accompany us.”
“Where's your friend Mr. Morgan?”
“I think he prefers the evening service, he had a late night. I'll be safe enough with two fine young women to keep me out of trouble.”
Miss Ellis gave him a coquettish grin, which did not escape Marianne's notice. Then she said, “I wouldn't be too sure about that.” They entered the church and sat together near the back. The service was much like any other service, with Henry's inaugural sermon just long enough to give his flock serious misgivings.
The only sour note was when the collection plate was passed. Miss Ellis reached into her reticle for her coin and Marianne noticed that the reticle contained something unusual. Something that looked like the handle of a small pistol. She stared at it in disbelief. Miss Ellis noticed her gaze and hurriedly shut her bag.
After the service as the congregation was lining up to wish their new vicar well and compliment him on his service, Miss Ellis quickly said to Mr. Willis and Marianne, “I'm sorry, but I have to get back to the inn for the mid-day rush. Please give my respect to your brother.”
Marianne replied, “If you must.”
“Indeed I must.” She left the queue and headed back to the inn. Marianne turned to Mr. Willis and said, in a hushed tone, “Did you see. She had a pistol in her reticle.”
“Did she?”
“I saw it, or at least something that looked like the handle of one.”
“I suppose she might have, but it does seem unlikely. You weren't imagining things were you?”
“No I wasn't. She most definitely was carrying a pistol in her ridicule.”
“To be honest, Miss Milton, I'm not surprised. Keeping an inn can be a rough trade. Especially in these dangerous and upset times.”
“I don't carry one.”
“I shouldn't if I were you. Unpleasant things pistols. Bulky, heavy and prone to go off at the moments' notice. On a more cheery note, would you care to go for a walk with me this afternoon? Or is your time already spoken for.”
“Yes, but why would she have one.”
“Yes you'll walk with me or yes your time is accounted for?”
“I'd love to take a walk. Will Mr. Morgan come with us?”
“Either him or Miss Ellis, if not both.”
Marianne carefully studied Mr. Willis' face. Since the red had faded it was more animated, but he was holding as calm and unreadable an expression as he could. Finally, she said, “Miss Ellis isn't another of your bodyguards, is she?”
By then the line had reached the vicar and Mr. Willis greeted her brother enthusiastically. “I say, Henry Milton, it has been a long time since we met. The ranting trade suits you, you know.”
Henry was taken aback. This was his Mr. Willis, the tutor he disliked at Cambridge. “Mr. Willis, I don't have many fond memories of your tuition.”
“Ah, well. I do my best to explain things, but natural philosophy isn't for everyone. For that matter, I'd be a terrible vicar, and it sounded to me like you've got the patter down.” He bowed to Henry, then to Marianne and took his leave. “Until this afternoon. I'll come by the rectory on my way.”
Henry turned to his sister and asked her, “What was that about?”
“Mr. Willis invited me to walk with him,” she paused, “and a chaperon, this afternoon.”
“Major Hogan is planning to arrive this evening.”
“That's fine. I'll make sure I'm back in time”