My dear Tabitha,
You may imagine my delight at finding your letter awaiting me at the post office upon our return from Ireland. Now that the Colonel and I are comfortably settled, I may indulge in the luxury of writing you a long reply. How very entertained I was by your description of life on Gibraltar. I once thought of British Army wives as the most traveled of Englishwomen. I now concede that honor to the wives of the Royal navy. Please give my regards to the Admiral, and thank him for bringing my dearest friend home to me. You are to visit us in London, dear Tabitha, and remain as long as you like.
When last we corresponded, my Liddy was on the point of marrying Mr. Thomas Dixon of County Kildare. That business proved so satisfactory that I am now the grandmother of two fine boys, the second just four months old. Since Liddy's marriage, the Colonel and I have been flying about the kingdom -- twice to Ireland and twice to Yorkshire to inspect Jane's happiness, for I have the pleasure of relating that she is now Jane Churchill, and is very grand indeed. Jane also has a fine boy of one year, and I do not think I am taking a liberty in calling young James my third grandson. Jane's husband is Frank Weston Churchill, the adopted heir of Mr. James Churchill of Enscombe -- they named the baby after him, you notice. My dear Colonel had hopes of the honor, but another time perhaps.
The Colonel is tired of traveling, and I have promised that we will stir no farther than Westminster this winter. Liddy promises to bring the boys to me next year, but I have my doubts. Her husband has strong opinions on the duty of landlords; indeed he has quite overthrown my prejudices against Irish landowners. You may recall that I was uneasy about Liddy's engagement, having read all sorts of rubbish in the newspapers about the Irish question. Now that I have twice visited that island, I can attest to its being a perfectly charming and peaceful place. Only a few of the peasantry appear wild and dirty, no worse than what I saw in Yorkshire, I assure you. My son-in-law is an active, concerned landlord, and his people are industrious and content. Irish question indeed!
Oh Tabitha, is it really so long ago that we walked together in P_____ Square while our little girls and boys played about us. Now I am a grandmother and your boys are grown into dashing young Lieutenants. The London house feels so empty, and I have too much time to sit alone and think mournful thoughts. Yet I am the most fortunate of women. No mother has better daughters, and all my little fears and apprehensions have been overthrown. Both my girls married very well indeed, despite their modest fortunes. Liddy will have 10,000 pounds one day, but I hope the colonel and I have a few good years left before that comes to pass. Jane, however, had barely 400 pounds from her father's estate. Despite our objections, she was determined to work as a governess; but Frank Churchill saved her from such a fate. I credit my skills as a matchmaker for my girls' good fortune, though the Colonel laughs at me. What a pity you have only boys, Tabitha. Had you a daughter, I could try my hand at making her a duchess.
You must visit me soon, my dear friend, I insist on it. If the Admiral cannot get away, come on your own, and bring your boys. There can never be too many dashing young naval lieutenants in London during the season.
How pleased I am that I left my letter open, for I may now write you of my happiness. I have just received a letter from Frank and Jane; they are to spend their winter in Surrey, not 16 miles from here. Uncle Churchill suffers greatly from rheumatism, and they fear that he cannot survive the bitter Yorkshire winter, so they have taken a house near Highbury. Is that not wonderful! I trust that Frank and Jane will be with us often, both being so fond of London. And my dear Colonel cannot object to traveling such a middling distance as 16 miles to visit them.
Highbury is a pretty, largish village. Jane's grandfather was once vicar there, and she went to live with him upon her parents' deaths in India. Rev. Bates died soon after Jane's arrival, leaving his widow and remaining daughter in very straitened circumstances: they were reduced to living above a shop. It was then that the Colonel and I offered Jane a home, although she always loved to visit her grandmamma and aunt. We were gratified to hear that, soon after their marriage, Frank and Jane provided those two worthy ladies with a comfortable cottage in Highbury and an annuity of 200 pounds. Jane writes that their house is everything to them, and they delight in offering hospitality to their neighbors. Dear Mrs. And Miss Bates. How I long to see them, though Miss Bates is such a talker that my head quite aches sometimes from listening to her. Yet she is the soul of kindness and charity. The very best of women.
Frank teases me about my matchmaking, and proposes in his letter that I unite his uncle and Miss Bates. Poor soul, I must not joke about her. In her youth she was engaged to her father's curate, but the young man died of a fever, taking her heart and hopes to the grave with him. Mr. Churchill, on the other hand, was wed to a woman who spent her married life lying on a sofa and complaining of illness. I wonder how he will take to Miss Bates as a neighbor? No, Tabitha, I will turn my matchmaking talents elsewhere. I propose a future match between young James and little Catherine Knightley, the daughter of a great landowning family near Highbury.
Oh my friend, how much power has a simple letter to change our lives. It seems that I will not be dull and melancholy this winter after all.
My dear Tabitha,
I am sorry to hear of the Admiral's cold. Certainly you cannot come to London if he feels poorly. I recall your saying that the Admiral is never sick a day at sea, but on land suffers from one complaint after another. I will not go so far as to recommend a war to cure his cold. A trip to Bath may suffice, however, for there are many Navy men there to distract his mind from the inconvenience of having land beneath his feet instead of a quarter deck.
Frank and Jane are in Surrey, and Frank has just left us, after spending a night in London. Jane could not accompany him, being occupied with her child, as well as with tending Uncle Churchill, who is peevish and will not do without her. Frank brought us her letters. They are very pleased with the house. The owner is in the south of France, on account of his wife's consumption. I feared contagion at first, but Jane assures me there is no danger. The house is on rising ground and very dry and airy, which they particularly wished on their Uncle's account. Poor man, he suffers severely and can walk only with the aid of two sticks, but they believe the fine weather will soon prove beneficial. He is under the care of the Highbury apothecary, a Mr. Perry, of whom Jane speaks highly. Fortunately, she has many old friends about the place. Frank's natural father, Mr. Weston, lives nearby with his wife and little daughter. Frank's mother, who was a Miss Churchill before her marriage, died when he was but two years old, poor woman. She did not live to see her son grow into an indulgent husband and father. Jane also has her grandmamma and aunt close by. Mrs. Bates is now stone deaf, Jane writes, and Miss Bates no longer shouts to make herself heard. Their cottage must be a pleasant and peaceful place these days.
There are few dinner parties and no balls in Highbury at present, as the village is in mourning for old Mr. Woodhouse, who was of great consequence. He was the father of Mrs. Knightley, whose infant daughter, you recall, I have made over to young James.
Poor Jane. I wish I could get her to London. She so enjoyed the theater and concerts. I fear that she has all but given up music, which I know is not unusual in a married woman. But Jane had achieved a rare excellence. It is just as I thought, nay feared, it would be. She is fondness itself, and only too happy to submit her will to the demands of husband, son and uncle. Jane urges us to visit her, assuring us of comfortable rooms and a spacious, pleasant park for walks. There is good shooting in the neighborhood, just the thing for a sportsman like the Colonel.
I have been working at him, and have only needed to tell him several times a day that if we are to see Jane, we must visit Highbury. I believe he is coming around to my way of thinking.
So Tabitha, send your next letter in care of Lea House, Highbury, Surrey.
Your determined friend,
As I recall, my last letter was full of trouble - Uncle Churchill's rheumatics, Jane's giving up her music and the passing of poor Mr. Woodhouse. I promise that this letter will be more cheerful.
The Colonel and I were right to come to Highbury. We arrived to find Jane tired and in low spirits, which concerned me greatly, until it was revealed that she is in expectation of a happy event in the spring. Frank announced the news to us yesterday and by now doubtless has told half the population of Highbury. I must convince the Colonel to travel to Enscombe in May.
Yesterday we went to tea at Donwell Abbey, the ancient mansion that is home to the George Knightley family. Mrs. Knightley met me with a cordial respect that soon put me at ease. Little James and Anna Weston were with us, so we mothers took tea in the nursery. I was curious to observe the boy's behavior toward his intended, Miss Kitty Knightley. The charming child proceeded to hit his future bride in the face with a rag doll, causing her to weep. Thankfully, the mothers remain friends despite the skirmish, but the nursemaids are at war, and all my plans for an engagement are off. So much for matchmaking.
As I mentioned before, Mrs. Knightly is in mourning for her father. She also expects to be confined in February, so her family will live quietly for some time to come. Confined in February, and her daughter scarcely eight months old! Thank goodness Jane waited a year, for she has not Mrs. Knightley's hardiness. That lady, I am told, favors her elder sister, who has six healthy children. This sister is married to Mr. Knightley's younger brother, and has inherited the Woodhouse family home. I predict that Highbury will soon be awash in little Knightleys.
I have persuaded Jane to take up her music again, with Frank's approval. He has engaged a master to come from Windsor once a week, and we shall have a musical evening at Lea House next month. We broached the subject to Mrs. Knightly and she was not offended, though it is too much to hope that she will attend.
A mild irritation to my tranquillity is the officious presence of the Highbury vicar's wife. This Mrs. Elton considers herself a fast friend of Jane's. Frank only tolerates her, and jokes that the Elton's visit to Enscombe last year was the longest month of his life. Jane is very kind to the woman; I think she pities her a little. Mrs. Elton has no child, and spends her time driving from one neighbor to the other. Occasionally she visits the poor, which she claims is her cross to bear as a vicar's wife. I've no doubt that the Highbury poor consider her their cross to bear. She is a blundering woman who, having spent a year at Bath, believes herself a leader of fashion and society. Somehow she heard of our musical evening, and now daily presents Jane with elaborate menus and lists of guests to be invited or uninvited. I suspect that her husband stopped listening to her long ago, though he regularly murmurs, "Quite right, my love." Frank advises laughing at her as a means of finding her tolerable. That will be my revenge, for of all things, Mrs. Elton would dislike being laughed at.
I have almost forgot to mention Mr. Churchill. He is much improved and can make his way around the shrubbery a little. It puts him out of temper, though, that he cannot join the men at shooting. He has struck up an odd friendship with Miss Bates. I think Jane feared he would find her chatter offensive, but quite the opposite. Yet Miss Bates is such a contrast to the late Mrs. Churchill, who I am told was an ill-humoured, complaining woman. Miss Bates has suffered, yet she is the kindest and most grateful of creatures. I catch Mr. Churchill watching her at times with a bewildered air. I imagine he cannot make her out. He is very gallant to her. It is diverting to watch him fuss over Miss Bates and Jane, as he doubtless fussed over his wife, while they, in turn, are so solicitous of him, putting cushions under his feet and pillows at his back. The three of them are in contest to see which can be the most scrupulous of the others.
Well, my dear Tabitha, I am again the happiest of women. My only wish is that Liddy could be with me, but her letters show her to be busy and content. The Colonel enjoys our stay in the country. Indeed it would be a fine thing to have a country house, but our income will not support it. We have left the London house open, and the Colonel and Frank go up from time to time on business. After Christmas we return to town and hope that Frank and Jane will accompany us to enjoy the season for a few months. But what shall we do with Uncle Churchill? He hates London. Frank worries that his uncle can no longer withstand the Yorkshire winters, yet the family must be at Enscombe by spring. And traveling south next autumn will prove difficult with an infant. I counsel Jane to trust in providence. These predicaments have a way of working themselves out.
You and the Admiral must join us in London after Christmas, Tabitha. We shall make a high-spirited party about town.
Your devoted friend,
My dearest Tabitha:
Old Mrs. Bates has been taken ill with a slight attack of apoplexy. Mr. Perry is hopeful of her recovery; indeed the old lady seems indestructible. Still, Miss Bates and Jane are anxious. Mrs. Weston and I have united to forbid Jane to nurse her grandmamma. She must not tire herself. The men, as usual, are useless.
Our musical evening was on Friday evening, and Mrs. Bates fell ill that Sunday. Jane frets that the party was too much for the poor lady. I don't see how, as she spent the night dozing comfortably by the fire.
The evening was a great success. The neighborhood is starved for a little fun as Christmas approaches, and there were quite 30 people in the music room. Little James was admired by all before Nurse bore him off to bed. Several young ladies in ribbons and lace were anxious to show off their accomplishments to the young men of the neighborhood. Even Mr. and Mrs. Knightly attended for a short time. She played and sang an old-fashioned air, but could not hold a candle to Jane's performance of several German and Italian pieces. I am determined to get Jane to London in January so that our friends might hear her play. It will be a daring scheme, as her condition will be noticeable. But these are modern times, and Jane is in glowing health. The Knightleys left early in consideration of the young people, who wanted to dance but held back on account of Mrs. Knightley's mourning. When they were gone, Mrs. Weston played country dances for above an hour. Jane and Frank danced along with the other young people. It was a pretty sight
The Colonel greatly enjoyed the evening. He has made friends with Mr. Cole, a very rich Highbury merchant. The Coles seem rough to me, but very obliging and eager to please. Mr. Cole has never been abroad though he deals in foreign goods, including wine. The Colonel talked of France and Germany to him and asked me how I would like to tour the Continent with the Coles next year. I answered I would like it very well, as long we visit Enscombe in May.
Mr. Churchill and Miss Bates sat side by side the whole evening. I was anxious at first as Miss Bates rattled away, but far from being irritated, Mr. Churchill chuckled often and looked benevolent. And I am sure that Miss Bates blushed more than once when he spoke to her. In fact, they seemed almost like a courting couple, as I told Jane, who laughed heartily at my fancy. I suppose she is right. Miss Bates' blushes might have been on account of the heat of the fire. Ah well, I am glad the dear lady had a pleasant evening, for she is now worn out with nursing her mother. Mrs. Weston and I help all we can. In fact, I have been useful and occupied every moment since coming to Highbury.
Your friend -- E.C.
Jane may laugh at me, but I am certain that something very odd is going on. The weather has turned cold as Christmas approaches, and Mr. Churchill is back to walking with two sticks. Yet whenever we visit the Bates' cottage, he insists on accompanying us in the carriage. I believe he misses Miss Bates. The old lady is now on the mend, and Mr. Churchill has ordered all sorts of expensive fruits and wines from London for her. He also talks of hiring a trained nurse to assist Miss Bates, who won't hear of it. Frank and Jane attribute it the solicitousness of friendship, but I cannot help thinking it is more than that. Could it be the concern of a lover? The young are arrogant, and think their elders are past forming attachments. But we know better, Tabitha. Yet perhaps I am wrong. Only time will tell.
Your friend - E.C.
My dearest Tabitha,
I am vindicated. Highbury is agog, while Jane and Frank alternate between delight and amazement. Miss Bates is to marry Mr. Churchill. Mr. Elton will publish the banns on Sunday. Is this not wonderful news?
How Uncle Churchill managed the business is beyond me, but lovers are cunning. He ordered the carriage one morning and went off by himself to the Bates cottage. Before we knew he was gone, indeed before we had buttered our toast, he was an engaged man. All the neighborhood has been calling on Miss Bates to wish her joy. We cannot make the mother understand much , but she knows that something of advantage to her daughter has occurred, so we leave it at that Miss Bates seems more bewildered than happy. Who can blame her. She must cope with all the business of wedding clothes, carriages and settlements at the age of 47.
Uncle Churchill grows as merry as a boy, despite his walking with two sticks. He even talks of getting a special license to marry his "Dear Hetty." all the sooner. He seems as randy as a young man. Forgive me Tabitha, I grow coarse, but I have been put in the role of confidante. Miss Bates, poor soul, came to me for advice. She fears that she will not be able to please her husband. "My dear," I told her, "Do not worry. Uncle Churchill's sole experience of marriage was a wife who always fancied herself ill. You will not have far to go to please him. " I spoke of several other things, as you may well imagine, and I hope I gave her ease. She calls him "James." Is that not sweet?
Frank has begun to tease. "There will soon be a senior Mrs. Churchill in the family," he tells Jane. "You will no longer be first to enter the dining parlor, but must content yourself to go lower." As if Jane could ever be vexed by such a trifling thing. Mr. Weston was carried away with the joy of the occasion and talked of giving a ball for the engaged couple, which set Miss Bates atrembling until Mrs. Weston talked her husband out of it. One elegant dinner for a small group of friends must do. Mrs. Knightley insists on doing the honours.
I fear that Mrs. Elton is not quite pleased. Try as she might to conceal it, she was always officious and condescending toward Miss Bates. Once she is Mrs. Churchill, the dear lady will be second only to Mrs. Knightley in the neighborhood. What a blow to Mrs. Elton. What's more, Mr. Churchill is to settle 500 pounds a year on her, so Miss Bates will be rich as well as happy for the rest of her days. If she is like her mother, that will be many days indeed.
Miss Bates and I will spend a few days at our London house to buy wedding clothes -- the gift of Frank and Jane. Some time away from Highbury will do her good, and if I say so myself, I do know the best warehouses. She worried at first on account of her mother, but Uncle Churchill has prevailed in hiring a nurse. It was struggle for Miss Bates to submit to her future husband's will. Indeed I felt for her, learning so late in life what we married women have practiced for years. But I have no doubt she will manage Uncle Churchill in time. She grew easy when a whole contingent of Highbury ladies promised to sit with her mother while she is in London - Mrs. Knightley, Mrs. Cole, Mrs. Elton, Mrs. Goddard, Mrs. Martin. A small village is decidedly more neighborly than the city, for all its fine shops.
There is yet more good news to report among all these wonders. Mr. Churchill has decided to remain in Surrey on account of his rheumatism, and has extended the lease on Lea House. Frank will be master of Enscombe at last. Is that not wonderful! Despite his strong sense of duty to his uncle, it has not been easy for the dear boy. Jane confides that Frank has all sorts of modern ideas for improving Enscombe, but Uncle Churchill cannot bear to hear of the smallest change. Now Frank and Jane will be on their own at last.
My Colonel has quite vexed me by claiming that Uncle Churchill marries Miss Bates to get himself a nurse. I insist that this is a love match. If Mr. Churchill wins a nurse in the bargain, so much the better. The nurse will receive a fine house, a respectable position and 500 pounds a year. Each of them gains by this marriage.
I must close now. Little James is crying for his grandmamma. I will write again soon.
Your devoted - E.C.
London, January 10, 18-
My Dear Tabitha:
May the New Year bring prosperity to you and the dear Admiral. I yearn to see you, and eagerly await February, when you come to London. The Admiral is quite sensible to rent a house, since all three boys will be with you. Frank, Jane and the baby are staying with us, so our house could not have held you all.
Miss Bates is no more. She is Mrs. Churchill now, to the satisfaction of Highbury. I will describe the wedding in detail when I see you, especially the rose-coloured satin wedding dress, which suited her beautifully. Can you imagine, she wanted to be married in gray, but I talked her out of it. It is enough to say that all went well. At the end of the day, the newly married pair remained at Lea House, and the Colonel and I carried Frank, Jane and little James off to London. Since then Jane has heard from Mrs. Knightley and Mrs. Elton, and I have had reports from Mrs. Weston and Mrs. Cole. The new Mrs. Churchill is blooming and happy, looking quite ten years younger. Married life most certainly agrees with her. Apparently she has no trouble pleasing her husband. In fact Uncle Churchill's health is so improved that he now walks without sticks. He is taking his wife to Bath in a few weeks to drink the waters and enjoy the town. She is eager for the trip, as she quite trusts her mother's nurse. The apoplexy left Mrs. Bates in her dotage, but she is content with her nurse and her visits from Mr. Perry, and is quite taken with her elegant new apartment at Lea House. I do not think she will miss her daughter much.
I look forward to the pleasure of your company in February. In March, of course, we must go to Enscombe. Liddy writes that she and Tom are coming to England with the boys. We will all meet at Enscombe in the Spring to await Jane's happy event. I cannot let myself grow too excited in case she changes her mind.
To think that only five months ago I wrote you in such low spirits. The ensuing months have brought only good to me and mine, and I trust that Providence will provide more good in the future.
Your devoted friend - E.C.
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