The sinking sun cast a long, animated shadow of Algie Stokes as he ambled that evening along the rutted road known as Moor Lane on his way to see Harriet Meese. To his right lay a rambling Georgian mansion, an island of prosperity set in a sea of stubble fields. The grand, symmetrical house seemed entirely at odds with the tile works, the slag heaps and the worked-out mines which it overlooked. No doubt it had existed long before its sooty neighbours had been dreamed of; a rural haven, set in bowers of peace and tranquillity. But no more. Yet it never occurred to Algie what the well-to-do occupants might think of the black, encroaching gloom of industry. He never noticed any of it, taking for granted these immovable, and probably eternal, man-made elements of the unromantic landscape.
The crimson glow from the sun at his back was augmenting the ruddiness of the red-brick terraced houses he was passing. He bid a polite good evening to a passer-by, and his thoughts returned to the golden sunshine of Marigold Bingham’s natural loveliness. Yet, strangely, he was finding that he could not ponder Marigold without Harriet Meese also trespassing unwanted into his thoughts. Mental comparison was therefore becoming inevitable. Maybe it was a guilty conscience playing tricks.
Harriet was twenty years old, the second of seven daughters belonging to Mary and Eli Meese. Eli was a respectable trader who described his business as ‘a drapery, mourning and mantles shop’, situated in Brierley Hill’s High Street, where the family also lived above the shop. Four of the seven daughters were sixteen or over – of marriageable age – but Harriet was blessed with the most beguiling figure of them all, wondrously endowed with feminine curves. She was slender and long-legged, her curves and bulges were in the appropriate places, and as delightful in proportion as Algie had ever had the pleasure to behold in or around Brierley Hill. However, to his eternal frustration he had never been privileged to know Harriet’s sublime body intimately. Nor was such a privilege likely as long as they remained unmarried. Chastity had been instilled into Harriet from an early age, both at home and at church. So, despite Algie’s most earnest endeavours, he had never so much as managed to unfasten one button of her blouse, nor lifted her skirt more than eight inches above her ankle without a vehement protest and an indignant thump. It was, of course, her figure which was the sole attraction, since her face was her least alluring feature.
After a twenty minute walk, Algie strolled up the entry that lay between Eli Meese’s drapery shop and his neighbour, and tapped on the door. Priscilla, Harriet’s older sister, a school teacher who was manifestly destined for eternal spinsterdom, answered it. Facially, she was unfortunate enough to resemble Harriet but, even more regrettably, not in figure. Her crooked lips stretched into a thin smile, yet her eyes, the most attractive feature in her face, creased into a welcoming warmth as she led him into the parlour.
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