Cousin Mary (1888)

The Prescotts of Horton were once a powerful clan; they have slowly decayed, and now can just struggle to retain an appearance of gentility. In spite of this fact they are a relatively happy family. They live with their two daughters, Anna and Sophie, their eldest son John, and their orphan niece Mary Burnet. They also have a rather prodigal son in the army, Percival, who turns up every now and then with requests for money. Mary is an unimportant member of the family, often overlooked by the Prescotts , though she is treated kindly and not begrudged her own share of affection.

Mary becomes engaged to Mr Asquith the curate, despite all family criticisms and references to the hardships attendant upon the wife of a poor curate. Mary is surprised and touched when her slow-witted cousin John draws a thousand pounds from his own legacy to settle upon her, in case she were ever to be left destitute.

As the years go by, Mary comes to understand fully the lot of a poor curate's wife. They have a large family, and as it grows larger they struggle to make ends meet, the husband by constantly searching for better paid positions, the wife by taking care of many menial tasks that would have been done by the servants they cannot afford to have. Such hardships do not prevent them from being a very happy family, proud of their offspring, especially of little Hetty, their good eldest daughter, who is her mother's main support.

The story now focuses on Hetty, aged sixteen, who accepts a great offer of employment - she is to act as companion to a little girl for a year, and during that time she will receive the same education as the girl receives from her governess. Furthermore Hetty will be paid a considerable sum during this period. The young girl, Rhoda, is the daughter of a rich American woman Mrs Rotherham, who has travelled back to America for a year. Rhoda's father is a British gentleman who, rumour has it, has been secluded in a mental asylum. The ten year old is sorely in need of a companion, as she lives alone with her governess Miss Hofland, the secretive housekeeper Mrs Mills, and a few servants. They are only visited by a clergyman and a young doctor, Mr Darrell. The grandiose mansion she lives in turns out to be no other than Horton, the childhood home of Hetty's mother. Mary has long lost all contact with the Prescotts , and so assumes they sold the estate long ago.

In hopes of being of some monetary help to her family, Hetty tries hard to overcome her fears about many odd occurrences she has witnessed in the large house. She becomes increasingly terrified and exhausted as she spends sleepless nights, after having seeing a figure lurking in the garden outside her bedroom window at night. She is further reinforced in her terror by the housekeeper's and the doctor's behaviour, who seem to share an important secret. The doctor appears to have some romantic interest in Hetty, and he begins to ponder the moral consequences of the secret he keeps under the absent lady's orders. In consequence he almost reveals the secret to Hetty, but is stopped by loyal, mysterious Mrs Mills.

At last one night a terrified scream from Hetty's bedroom awakens the whole household, who find her lying paralysed and in shock. She is not dead, but no one in the house can bring her out of her inanimate state. After some time Mr Darrell is so concerned that he decides to disregard his orders and to call for Hetty's mother, as he believes it might be their only chance of awakening the terrified girl. This is actually the case, and after Mary's arrival Hetty awakens and relates what happened on the day they found her motionless in her room. The lurking figure Hetty had feared for so long had finally dared to enter her room, and had touched her face while whispering in a passion that he had at last found his little girl. Hetty also tells of the lisp in the voice of her mysterious visitor. This is the clue Mary needs to solve the mystery: Rhoda's 'lunatic' father is no other than Mary's cousin John Prescott, who has obediently consented to remain secluded in a deserted wing of the house under his wife's commands (who had persuaded him to believe his nerves would be wrecked by the presence of strangers).

Unbeknownst to kind, slow Mr Prescott, Mrs 'Rotherham' (her maiden name) has gone to America to get a divorce from him, whom she can no longer stand in spite of his social rank. The poor man, though strictly guarded by Mr Darrell and Mrs Mills, had longed for his daughter and had been wandering around the house waiting for an opportunity to see her, whom he mistakenly took Hetty to be in the dark. He is by no means mad, and it is the doctor himself, Mr Darrell, who releases and backs him in resuming his position as master of Horton and father to Rhoda.

As the novel closes we learn that John has become poor again after the divorce, but happy in the company of his daughter. Not long after, the absent Rector of Horton dies, and John is able to offer the Rectory to his cousin Mary's husband. There is little doubt that Hetty will marry Mr Darrell, as soon as her parents consider her old enough.