Jane Austen's Persuasion--An interlude from Chapter 9, from a different perspective...
The whistle died on his lips as he stepped through the threshold of the drawing room, and found himself almost alone with Anne Eliot. Indeed, there was solitude enough to count, as the little boy on the sofa hardly measured as company. He supposed he would have been gratified a little by the discomposure that his advent had evidently caused Anne, if that same discomposure hadn't reduced him to a stuttering fool.
"I thought the Miss Musgroves had been here," he offered lamely. "Mrs. Musgrove told me I should find them here," he added, a bit too hastily, in the odd chance that Anne might believe he had sought her out.
"They are upstairs with my sister," she informed him, with a countenance still noticeably startled, but not bearing the merest hint of pain at his assertion of being expressly for the company of two young ladies. Nor, however was so complete the Captain's honesty with himself that he would admit to looking for such a mark of sentiment. Indeed, it could not signify to him. Such were his thoughts as he ventured to gaze purposefully out the window, when the lady interrupted. "They should be down any moment, I dare say," she remarked dismissively, and seemed very inclined to depart his unhappy company, had not little Charles Musgrove, moved perhaps by the Hand of Fate, demanded the attention of his dearest Auntie.
Frederick did not question that Anne would comply with the childish whimper, as such was her nature, he observed with both bitterness and begrudging admiration. She fulfilled requests from one and all without complaint; Mary, Lady Russell, even Elizabeth received deference if she did but ask. The lady was unmistakably selfless, though unhappily, to a fault. Nor was he as displeased with her continued presence as he ought to have been, though this concession also went unacknowledged. Instead he made polite by wishing the boy well. Though he did not turn from his determined vantage point at the window, his supposition about her character was gratified by the age-old concert of woman appeasing a child with a rhyme.
Mary, Mary, quite Contrary,
How does your Garden grow?
With Silver Bells,
And Cockle Shells,
And pretty Maids,
All in a row.
He permitted himself a smile when the boy piped up, "Mary, like Mama!" Anne replied with some amusement in her voice, "Not quite, dear. This Mary was a Queen, but of Scotland. A good deal of time ago, when Elizabeth was our Queen." Anne was perhaps the only lady of the Captain's acquaintance that would smuggle a bit of History into a nursery rhyme to a child of three years, yet she did it with a cunning that left no doubt in his mind of precisely the attentive kind of mother she would make.
It was precisely the immense danger of that thought that Mr. Hayter interrupted, and the Captain turned to the other gentleman with great gratitude, eager to have conversation. Mr. Hayter however, greeted him with no small gesture of contempt, resolutely taking a chair and paper at Anne's feeble entreaty, offered with the almost desperate promise that others would indeed be coming.
Displeased and confused by the young Hayter's studied snub, Frederick returned to his faithful window, and a new, hostile discomfort settled on the drawing room like the hot, damp air in the West Indies. Anne's promise of company did not disappoint them, as "others" came almost immediately. A stout toddler, identified as Master Walter Musgrove, ambled in with great pomp and prowess, leaving the Captain to wonder how he managed the door without assistance. The small gentleman deemed neither his cousin, nor this very tall stranger worth his precious time, but steered directly to his favorite Auntie and Brother.
He paused before them, and after great meditation, indicated with a chubby finger the ever promising tray upon which his Brother had received his breakfast. "Stwawby Taw!" He demanded with great vigor and furrowed brow, adding a more humble, "Plea!" when his Auntie Anne began to refuse him, shaking her head with disapproval. "My apologies, but there are no more tarts for you, Walter," she informed him firmly. Frederick did not doubt that it was Anne's influence that the child displayed niceness, and hoped sincerely for both boys' sakes that she continued to have a hand in their rearing. Though, indeed, it did not signify to him.
This Walter was apparently of a cheerful disposition, the depravation of a sweet after breakfast not deterring him from being entertained. He turned to his Brother with great energy. Little Charles was not in a state to be entertaining, and Walter was quite undone by this. Feet squared, finger once again extended imperiously, he made his displeasure quite known. "Chals!" He bellowed, with all the depth and volume his two year old frame could produce, the merit of which surprised both the Captain and Mr. Hayter.
"No, Walter," Auntie Anne admonished with a patience that impressed, though Frederick perceived from her tired frown that this scene had been played out before. "Charles isn't permitted to play now." Upon hearing these words denying his pleasures, Walter flung himself onto the back of his vulnerable Auntie with a squeal. Someone would play with him, that he would see to. Frederick was forced to stifle a smile at the child's determination. Anne, for her part, was ill-prepared for the assault, but she seemed determined to treat Walter good-naturedly. "Walter dear, I cannot play with you either: I must see to your Brother," she cajoled sweetly. "Don't you want to see him mend?" Here again, good nature seemed to be Anne's failing. Walter found ample vindication in the sweetness of her tone, if not the meaning of her words, and remained fastened to her back. Frederick caught her light sigh. "Oh," she asked the child, "you are an imp today, are you not? Please let go, Walter!" She managed to twist so that she could gently push him away, though he came back immediately with renewed interest. Now this was some play!
"Walter!" she cried with distress, "Get down this moment!" He took pleasure in paying her no heed-now that there was fun to be had, he would not be deterred. She looked into his little face with narrowed eyes. "You are being extremely troublesome." His inappropriate response involved pulling her hair, and this, her saintly patience snapped into righteous anger.
At her strained outcry, Mr. Hayter was compelled to leave his paper. "Walter," he tried to disengage the boy. "Why do you not do as you are bid? Do not you hear your aunt speak? Come to me, Walter, come to Cousin Charles." But Walter's pride could not allow such a pathetic effort to distract him from his new pleasure.
Frederick swiftly decided his course and strode to the struggling woman and child, in both admiration for her fortitude in caring for children that did not belong to her, and pity for his deprivation or a playmate. He leaned down to gently and firmly free Anne from Walter's surprisingly strong grip, when the notion struck him painfully that this willful, cheerful Walter ought to be their child, and that he ought to be serving his wife this kindness. She certainly deserved the kindness, just as she deserved children of her own. Frederick hesitated for barely a moment on this precious revelation before an old bitterness soured it. He, also, wanted children, and it was her weakness that prevented him the pleasure. There was no sympathy for Anne Eliot regarding the consequences of her own mistakes.
He successfully freed the little Musgrove from her, and addressed him loudly, unwilling to hear a word of thanks from the lady. "You are a very devil, boy!" he announced to the child with admiration, and tossed him judiciously into the air. This was a rare pleasure for Walter, whose Mama took fits every time she caught his Papa at it, and he bellowed with lusty joy at each toss.
As promised, Mary and the Miss Musgroves descended upon drawing room without much more delay, laughing and gadding as if no occurrence of greatness had visited upon Uppercross Cottage that day. Frederick allowed his gaze to settle on Miss Louisa's exuberant smile, her face so full of youthful glow and vitality, reflecting disinterestedly that he had not once yet witnessed a smile from Anne Eliot. A pity, he thought idly, not feeling the cruelty of the sentiment. Miss Henrietta and Mary were now attending to little Charles, and Mr. Hayter was announcing loudly that Walter ought to have minded him, and not teased his Aunt as he had. Frederick noticed that Anne had slipped from the room without detection before it occurred to him that he shouldn't have been looking for her. Indeed, it could not have signified less. Such was his conviction...
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