Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1746
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 that nothing is likely to come of Crosbie’s romance at Allington. She is right, for her campaign to secure the clerk for her own youngest daughter, Lady Alexandrina, is successful. Long before the end of his visit, Crosbie proposes and is accepted. He does not declare himself to Lady Alexandrina without severe twinges of conscience, it is true; after all, an earl’s daughter will offer a better position in fashionable London life than would the penniless niece of a country squire. Hearing what happened, Lady Julia denounces him as a deceiver and a miserable wretch. Crosbie recognizes in her scorn the voice of public opinion; he wishes that he could blot out his visit to Courcy Castle.
Meanwhile, Squire Dale, told of Bell’s refusal, goes to his sister-in-law to enlist her aid in furthering the match. He is greatly put out when she insists that Bell should be free to choose for herself. A short time later, the squire receives a letter from Lady Julia telling him of Crosbie’s engagement to Lady Alexandrina. Hearing that Crosbie returned to London, the squire follows him there and tries to see the clerk at his club. Crosbie is conscience-stricken and refuses to meet the old gentleman; instead, he sends a disapproving but obliging friend to talk with the squire. The next day, Crosbie writes to Mrs. Dale and confesses that he broke his engagement to her daughter.
Shortly before the end of his vacation, Eames saves Lord de Guest from being attacked by a bull on his estate. Gratefully, the earl decides to take an interest in the young man’s future, and he invites Eames to spend Christmas with him at Guestwick Manor.
The two months before Christmas pass with heavy slowness at Allington. Mrs. Dale can only hope that time will heal Lily’s hurt. The squire feels that there should be some redress for the insult to his niece. Lord de Guest meets Eames in London and realizes the true state of the young man’s feeling for Lily when Eames threatens physical punishment for Crosbie’s deed. Meanwhile, Crosbie is preoccupied with financial arrangements for his marriage. Under the fostering hand of Mortimer Gagebee, his future brother-in-law and guardian of the de Courcy interests, he is induced to settle most of his income on Lady Alexandrina.
Crosbie goes to Courcy Castle for Christmas. Still involved with Amelia, Eames goes to Guestwick Manor. At a dinner, the earl announces his intention of settling some money on Lily and Eames if they marry. He asks the squire to do the same, but Lily’s uncle refuses to commit himself. Returning to London on the same train with Crosbie, Eames is unable to restrain himself when they meet on the station platform. He thoroughly trounces Lily’s faithless suitor.
Bernard renews his proposals to Bell and argues their uncle’s wishes in the matter; but Bell tells him, as kindly as possible, that she can follow no wishes but her own. Stubborn in his desires, the squire becomes angry with his nephew and niece, and he decides to be angry with his sister-in-law as well if she refuses to reason with her daughter. After the exchange of heated words, Mrs. Dale decides that it might be better for all concerned if she and her daughters move away from the Small House.
A short time later, Lily becomes ill with scarlatina, and Dr. Crofts is called in. He comes daily, ostensibly to see his patient but actually to be near Bell. In the meantime, Mrs. Dale is preparing to move into a small cottage in Guestwick. During Lily’s illness, Dr. Crofts declares his love to Bell. Taking her evasive answer for a refusal, he drives away in dejection. Lily, aware of Bell’s true feelings, urges him to ask her sister again. Crosbie and Lady Alexandrina are married in London in February.
After Lily’s illness, Lady Julia invites Mrs. Dale and her daughters to spend a week at Guestwick Manor. Eames is asked at the same time. Lily, however, sees through the scheme for bringing her and Eames together, especially after she learns that Squire Dale is to make another of the party, and she declines the invitation. The squire is so kind in his concern for Lily that Mrs. Dale begins to regret her decision to move into the village. In the midst of her perplexities, Dr. Crofts comes to tell her that Bell accepted him. While the doctor sits with the Dales beside the fire that night as if they are already one family, the anxious mother is almost able to believe that happiness returns to the Small House.
Eames, manfully escaping from the toils of Amelia, arrives at Guestwick Manor. He was recently made private secretary to the great Sir Raffle Buffle, largely through the earl’s influence, and he is grateful. Since Lily did not come to the manor, it was decided that the squire and Bell should dine with the de Guests. On the next day, Eames is to call at Allington and declare himself to Lily. To his dismay, however, she will not have him. After his departure, Mrs. Dale adds her entreaties to his, but Lily remains firm. She is, she declares, like her mother, widowed; and so matters stand.
Mrs. Dale does not leave the Small House after all, for their family troubles bring her and the squire closer together, and he announces his intention of settling three thousand pounds on each of his nieces. When Bell marries Dr. Crofts in June, the squire throws open the Great House for the wedding. Bernard and Eames do not attend.
Crosbie’s wedded life lasts only a few months. Lady Alexandrina becomes bored with the humdrum of a government clerk’s life and goes off to join her mother at Baden Baden. Crosbie discovers too late that the settlements he made on his wife leave him a poor man, and he goes into cheap lodgings—happy at any price, however, to be free both of her nagging and her aristocratic relatives.
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