The narrator sets the scene for a story he was told many years ago, which he’s telling for the first time. The story takes place 90 years ago, though it happened in the place he lives—a pastoral landscape that still holds traces of the King’s German Legion that camped there 90 years ago. This part of the countryside was virtually empty until the King decided to make yearly visits to a nearby seaside town. Now, in the time of the narrator’s tale, battalions have “descended in a cloud” upon the countryside.
The fact that the narrator has not told this story until now—90 years after it happened, and several years after he heard it himself—creates an air of mystery. The reader wonders why the story was kept secret for so long. This sense of anticipation is increased by the ominous idea that soldiers arriving in this part of a country is like a cloud, implying that what follows could be as chaotic and damaging as a storm.
Phyllis Grove, the narrator’s source for this tale, is a solitary young woman who lives with her even more solitary father, Dr. Grove, in this part of the countryside. Her father’s habit of secluded meditation means he no longer makes enough money to afford to live in a town, so they’ve relocated to a rundown country house. Phyllis, despite her debilitating shyness, receives a shocking proposal from Humphrey Gould. Humphrey is unremarkable in every way, yet he’s a remarkable match for Phyllis, given his respectable family. Their match is unequal by society’s rules, due to their differences of rank, but in reality, Humphrey is “as poor as a crow” and there is no practical difference in their financial situations.
Phyllis lives in the countryside not by choice but because of her father’s self-indulgence, signaling both that she lives under her father’s control, and that he tends to disregard her wants and needs. The fact that they have relocated here by necessity also means that Phyllis does not necessarily feel a great sense of belonging in the countryside. That others are shocked by Phyllis’s engagement to Humphrey reveals that their difference in rank is dramatic. But Phyllis’s lukewarm feelings about her betrothed, and the description of him as a dull man, foreshadow the unaffectionate and drawn-out engagement to come, and suggest that a respectable marriage is not necessarily a happy one. Humphrey’s comparison to a crow also implies that he is capable of cunning, and that he may have hidden intentions.
They delay their wedding, and Humphrey cites his lack of money as the reason. Winter approaches and he leaves the country for Bath, promising Phyllis he’ll return in a few weeks. But Humphrey postpones his return, claiming he needs to look after his father in Bath. He sends letters, but they are consistently formal. Summer arrives, and Humphrey still hasn’t returned. Given the absence of her betrothed, and the lack of passion she feels for him, Phyllis experiences “an indescribable dreariness.” Perhaps it will be interrupted by the presence of the York Hussars in the village.
Humphrey’s attitude towards the engagement is revealed by his actions. He promises that he will return, but does not do so with any urgency, instead providing excuses for staying away. He also sends letters, signaling his continued commitment to Phyllis, but the letters themselves lack warmth and tenderness. It’s possible that Humphrey feels as hesitant about the engagement as Phyllis does, but is unwilling to break it off formally, possibly because he does not want to create a scandal. The mention of the York Hussars at the very end of this section alerts the reader once again to the impending changes the soldiers will bring, both to the countryside and to the people within it.