The Good Lady Russell...
The Lady Russell descended upon the sitting room in her usual manner. "Good day, Anne." She nodded kindly the young woman absently fingering the pianoforte in the corner. Anne smiled softly in greeting. The ladies took chairs near the window, and Anne rang for tea. After many moments of silence, which her hostess did not seem inclined to break, the Lady Russell inquired after her family. The Eliots, it seemed, were occupied by the Musgroves. Sir Eliot and Miss Eliot were currently condescending to pay a call on Mr. And Mrs. Musgrove, and Mary Eliot was out riding with Charles Musgrove and his two young sisters.
Lady Russell nodded expertly. "Mary Eliot and Charles Musgrove. It is a sound match, a very pleasing attachment. And the wedding next year?"
It would be the next Spring, Anne confirmed. Lady Russell politely hoped that it would not be too early in the Spring, as Mary might take ill if the air was damp. Anne hoped that was not the case either. Again the silence dropped. Anne's attention was absorbed by the apple orchard, visible in the distance through the window. The trees would be heavy in fruit now, but Anne hadn't ventured there in years. Lady Russell was swiftly losing patience with her young friend. "Anne Eliot," said she, "Whatever is the matter?"
Anne gaze flew from the window, and she stared at the Lady in surprise. She sighed finally, and the old sadness filled her eyes. Lady Russell was taken aback by those eyes, and a pang of guilt pervaded her conscience. As much as she was not given to the Bard, she had long felt that neither Ophelia, nor Juliet could have borne more grief in their eyes.
"I beg your pardon, madam, if I am not myself." Lady Russell moved to take Anne's hands comfortingly within her own. "Dear Anne, I understand you perfectly. It is no one's pleasure to see a younger daughter married first."
Anne shook her head emphatically. "I have no ill feelings of Mary, Lady Russell. I wish her only the best of things. I feel quite certain that Mr. Musgrove will make a very fine husband."
Lady Russell blinked from the rebuff, shocked by her misjudgement, and artfully retrenched. Did her Anne regret refusing Mr. Musgrove? "A very noble sentiment, Anne. Mr. Musgrove is an excellent man, though he may lack a certain spark to catch a lady's fancy. If your sister can keep her health about her, they will do very well. But it pleases me very much to see what a fine spirit you maintain about the whole affair. It is quite intolerable to find a young lady lamenting a gentleman whose proposal she refused. If there is anything that should not be accepted in good company, it is sympathy for the inconstant affections of a young lady."
If Lady Russell were not quite so composed and well-bred, something in Anne's countenance might have frightened her. The good Lady was quite fortunate that Anne's forgiving soul had reflected for a good few minutes that the Lady could not have an idea of what she said. As it was, when Anne began to speak, her voice was low and measured, tempered with emotion of such a violence that it was all Anne could do to maintain herself.
"Am I to understand," said she, "That only inconstant affection could inspire a woman to regret the man she refused? She who refuses, does so only to answer a lack of affection for the man, and then laments as she notices, too late, that she did care for him? Has she then, always the choice to refuse? Is the decision only ever for her pleasure or pain?" Anne arose, gaining energy, and continued. "Certainly not, madam. We know this cannot be true. Always there is a woman who loves very constantly, but must refuse, though it not be her choice. Do we begrudge her as well, though her lament is borne only of respect for a wiser counsel than her own heart?"
Lady Russell watched Anne pace the room. She was quite convinced that Anne was not reflecting on Mr. Musgrove, and as such, she was at a loss for reply. "Why, Anne..."
"Or does she deserve our condemnation, our lack of sympathy, for accepting advice that did not match her own inclinations? Perhaps she was inconstant for accepting the counsel and abandoning her love. Certainly he, the refused gentleman, must feel so. That must be the case, Lady Russell. There is her inconstancy. She must be inconstant for refusing a man that she truly loved."
Anne thus concluded her heartfelt speech, her cheeks flushed with long retained emotion, and her eyes fired with righteous anger. Her manner, though unnaturally spirited, had remained quite civil, and Lady Russell would have found no avenue for reproach, had she been so inclined. Reproach was not in her design. She had been loathe to pain her young friend some years ago, but she had acted as was necessary. The young man had not been worthy of her Anne. Quite true, however, she did not expect the affair to steal Anne's spirit as it had. The sad eyes of Anne Eliot had fairly haunted her, but while she bore a deep affection for the girl, she would never claim to understand her sensitive, passionate nature, nor condone her sentimental romanticism.
"My apologies, Anne dear," cried the good Lady. "Indeed, we do not condemn the young lady whose youth and inexperience lead her to form an imprudent attachment-an engagement which could not have been successfully. We can only counsel her to the best course, and recommend her for her excellent composure in the light of unhappy circumstances. We shall reassure her that she is young yet, and shall make a worthy match. We are kind, but we cannot allow her to harbor regret, or continue to affix her good affections on the young man who is obviously unacceptable."
"But we do not accuse her affections of inconstancy, yes?" Asked Anne softly.
"Constancy in misguided affection is not to be praised. Anne, it is a credit to her character if she does not mourn for a youthful mistake."
"Aye, Madam," cried Anne, fired by more passion than she could contain. "She has indeed erred, here we are agreed. The point upon which we seem so disparaged is the nature of her mistake."
Her heart thus expressed, marked by far more conviction at three and twenty than at nineteen, Anne was rendered helpless to the buried pain of her lifelong penance. Hot tears sprang to her eyes, and she dared not wipe them lest the Lady Russell catch her weeping. Time had not stifled the memory of that hated summer day, nor lessened its palpable impact. She could never forget his scorn, nor his very visible pain. Lady Russell fancied him a distant memory, a "youthful mistake," but he was still so very real to Anne. His hands, his eyes invaded her vision.
Lady Russell grew concerned when presented by Anne's trembling back and persistent silence. "Anne," cried she, "We would only ever counsel her with the very best of intentions, at the height of her interest."
Anne had heard these words before. She had even uttered them herself one time. It was in that moment she realized the great disparity between intent and action, and how very noble the former seemed in their owner's breast, but how wretched and self-serving they ring in the ear of the one made to suffer another's good will. She could not, did not blame Lady Russell. Her affectionate, open nature was not capable of maintaining an ill passion towards one who meant so well. Unlike one that departed her life so abruptly, so painfully and profoundly, she understood the power of recognizing a person's good will, regardless of the trouble that person's actions might have inspired. He had not been within her power long enough to gain such an important lesson from her steady, loving nature, and the omission had cost them both more than could be imagined. Nay, Lady Russell could not be made to understand, reflected Anne sadly, but that was easily forgiven. Anne herself, did not allow so easily for own her mistakes, for she possessed too perfect an understanding to have made such a youthful mistake forgiven.
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