There are two houses at Allington. The Great House is the residence of Squire Christopher Dale, an unmarried, plain, seemingly dour man whose ancestors were squires at Allington for generations. In the Small House nearby lives his sister-in-law, Mrs. Dale, and her two daughters, Bell and Lily. Mrs. Dale is the widow of the squire’s youngest brother, who died young and left his family in modest circumstances. When the squire offered his brother’s widow the Small House rent free, she immediately accepted his offer, not so much for her own sake as for that of her daughters.
The Dales are not the chief family of the neighborhood. Near the town of Guestwick stands Guestwick Manor, the home of Lord de Guest and his sister, Lady Julia. Although not intimate, the families have a tie by marriage. Years before, another of the squire’s brothers, Colonel Orlando Dale, eloped with the earl’s sister, Lady Fanny. The colonel did not make a career for himself and now lives with his wife in semiretirement at Torquay. Bernard Dale, their only son and a captain in the Engineers, is the squire’s heir.
Mrs. Dale is a woman whose pride is as great as her means are small, and her brother-in-law’s gruff manners did little to retain cordial relations between them during her ten years in the Small House. The uncle is kind to his nieces in his rather ungracious manner, however, so that they enjoy the social advantages if not the income of wealth. Bell is her uncle’s favorite. It is his secret wish that she become Bernard’s wife and thus mistress of the Great House. At one time, Mrs. Dale believed that Dr. Crofts, the Guestwick physician, would declare himself; but he did not speak, and now there seems little likelihood of that becoming a match.
One summer, Bernard arrives to visit his uncle, bringing with him his friend Adolphus Crosbie, a handsome, agreeable fellow who is a senior clerk in the General Committee Office at Whitehall. At first Crosbie makes the deeper impression on Bell, and Lily likes to tease her sister by calling him a swell because he is received in the drawing rooms of countesses and cabinet ministers. Crosbie himself is attracted to Lily. When the squire, more gracious than usual to his nephew’s friend, invites him to return in September for the shooting, Crosbie gladly accepts the invitation.
Lily has another suitor in young John Eames of Guestwick, a clerk in the Income Tax office in London. Although he was hopelessly in love with Lily since boyhood, his meager income of a hundred pounds a year gives him no immediate prospect of marriage. Eames is awkward, callow, and susceptible. While professing adoration for Lily, he against his better judgment becomes entangled with Amelia Roper, the scheming daughter of Mrs. Lupex, his London landlady.
Crosbie returns to Allington in September; before long, neighborhood gossip is confirmed—a marriage is arranged between Lily and Crosbie. This is the news that greets Eames when he arrives in Guestwick to visit his mother in October. He is made even more wretched by the half-languishing, half-threatening letters he receives from Amelia during his stay. Lily’s engagement makes Squire Dale more anxious than ever to see his own plans fulfilled for Bernard and Bell. Encouraged by his uncle, the young officer proposes but in such unconvincing terms that Bell refuses him immediately. Not even the settlement of eight hundred pounds a year promised by the squire tempts her to change her mind.
Crosbie made his choice, and he hopes that the squire would make a financial settlement on Lily, but when he brings up the matter, the squire declares that he feels under no obligation to provide for his niece’s future. Crosbie is disappointed, but he consoles himself with the reflection that he is marrying for love and not for worldly advancement. That is the way matters stand when he receives from the Countess de Courcy an invitation to join a house party at Courcy Castle before returning to London.
The de Courcys entertain lavishly. One party guest is Lady Julia de Guest, a well-meaning busybody who spreads the news of Crosbie’s engagement. The countess, who has some experience in getting daughters engaged and then seeing their engagements broken, says...
(The entire section is 1746 words.)