His Second Must Show Him
There isn't any interesting tale of adventure in this little town of Highbury, No damsels in distress, no knights in shining armor, Ann Taylor sighed slightly. It was a cloudy day, she should have been more stubborn with Emma, when she asked if they could walk to Broadway Lane. But somehow she had never been able to say no to her and here they were stuck in a shop. It was raining. Not very harsh. Just a steady shower. Ann sat watching, wishing she could run her fingers across the window, trailing the droplets chasing one another or perhaps dash outside in the rain and let those little drops fall on her face, let it plant a hard kiss on her nose. How alarmed Mr.Woodhouse would be, she smiled to herself, while looking indulgently at Emma, walking here and there asking the shopkeeper some questions. The musical jingle of the bells caught her attention and she turned to watch Mr. Weston come in, fold his umbrella, and shrug off the rain.
"Ah, Miss Woodhouse", he beamed at Emma and then he turned towards the side where she was sitting and greeted her, "Miss Taylor, how nice to see you".
Ann watched him as he fell into an easy conversation with Emma. She had seen him a few times in the past years. He was mostly out of town on his business, but from time to time, she had had the opportunity to observe him and as always admired his gentle and pleasant disposition. He must be at the least forty but did not look like it. His head full of thick hair and the spring to his step must be the reason. Miss Cole is said to have become more and more determined to catch him. Mr. Woodhouse had just told her the other day that he now had enough competence to buy Randalls. That made him an eligible match indeed.
"Surely, you did not come here on a rainy day without arming yourself with an umbrella Miss.Woodhouse", he asked smiling, when Emma related their predicament. "Let us see what we can do", he said and proceeded to ask the shopkeeper if he had any spare umbrellas. When the answer was no, much to her surprise, instead of leaving them after expressing his token regrets to their unfortunate situation, with remarkable agility, he ventured outside into the rain and in no time, brought back two umbrellas for them.
They left, after their thanks were brushed away by him, into the now weakened drizzle. Emma declared very importantly that she had realized who would be a perfect match for Mr.Weston. She seemed to be much more aware and interested in such things since Isabella's marriage to Mr.Knightley. Ann remembered how annoyed Emma was then, that she had absolutely no inkling about their love for each other. Perhaps she ought to chide Emma for listening to gossip. She wouldn't call Miss Cole a perfect match for Mr. Weston, Ann told herself. He was much more nicer than her. She wondered idly why he hadn't proposed to her yet, and if there was any truth to the rumor about his promise to his first wife. As they walked back home, Ann's mind strangely lingered on his smile and how his eyes crinkled so endearingly.
Charles Weston was close to being annoyed. It took a lot to make him loose his even temper but Miss Cole seemed to be bent on achieving the unlikely. She was chattering something about how wonderful a place Randalls was. She seemed to become more and more forward with him and seemed to simper in an all too familiar fashion that was beginning to grate on his nerves. He knew the reports circulating through Highbury for almost a year and a half now. God knows he had done his best to quash it. But if a confirmed old bachelor like him cannot take a morning stroll peacefully without being besieged by such coy women, what has the world come to.
He looked left and right trying to find some means of escape, when he caught sight of someone, someone with a purposeful yet most elegant stride, someone whose mind was far more superior to the other women of his acquaintance. His eyes softened as he watched Ann walk towards them, actually it must have been Ford's she was walking towards. He saw her only occasionally, it was at the least three or four months since he saw her last, but her intense expressions belying her quiet ways, always caught his attention. He remembered watching her through the window that rainy day, a few months ago, sitting with dream in her eyes.
They were almost in front of the shop and Mr.Weston paused slightly trying to come up with an excuse to go into Fords when the door opened and out came an entourage of young girls, the ones staying at Mrs. Goddard's, chattering noisily. One of them, giggling mindlessly tripped and fell down, causing two other girls to tumble. Quite a commotion, ensued. Amidst exclamations of pain and horror, emitted in the quick and high pitched voices that only young girls can manage, he noticed with horror that one of them had got a nasty cut with blood oozing out of it. Someone called for Mrs. Goddard, two girls ran in some direction and before he could step towards them Miss Cole swayed gracefully at the sight of blood as if to swoon and caught his arm. Ann took charge without flinching a moment, held the girl, barked orders at him even better than his late Admiral and Mr. Weston, handing her his handkerchief, rushed inside and brought the things that she asked for. She washed and cleaned the girl's wound, such tender young girl, a Harriet Smith. By the time Mrs. Goddard came bustling, Ann had pretty much everything under control. Mr. Weston consoled the poor girl promising her to bring her favourite sweet the next day, in the most gentle voice. After Mrs. Goddard left with the girls, Ann looked up and smiled at him, thanking him in her soft voice. He almost stared at her, captivated by her bright and intelligent face, before he remembered his manners. They left, and while Miss Cole explained the reactions of her tender heart, he simply nodded, suppressing the urge to turn back and look at the direction where Ann was walking.
After the incident at Ford's, Ann decided to pay a visit to Mrs. Goddard and see how Miss. Smith was doing. She wasn't particularly fond of visiting Mrs. Goddard. Ann knew that the matron often talked to Mr. Knightly about the superiority of her school and the wholesomeness of her method of teaching. Mr. Knightley in turn quarreled so much with her about Emma's education or the lack of it.
He had become more and more serious, over the years. Of course, he was never a puppy, but he seemed very stern these days. He was hardly three or four years older than Ann. She sincerely hoped by the time Mr. Woodhouse and Emma decided to get rid of her, Isabella's daughter would need a governess. That horrible man would never give her a reference, she thought shaking her head. Of course, she did understand it was because of his concern for Emma, but he did not seem to understand that Emma was a spirited girl and that it was neither her duty nor her intention to curb this spirit. She had been encouraging her general goodwill and generosity to assist the poor, but today dear Emma was in no mood to visit Mrs. Goddard, and thus with such thoughts Ann walked on alone.
Some distance from the house coming out of it, surely, was Mr. Weston. He greeted her as always with a smile. She learnt much to her delight that he had just been visiting Harriet, keeping his promise to give her the sweet. His tenderness was heart warming. He looked very handsome and he was so well mannered. He must have had quite a way with the ladies when he was young. He probably had a mistress in town. She ought not think such things.
"And how is Miss. Woodhouse?", he was asking.
"Oh, she is the picture of health, as always, she is coming up with yet another list of books to read, she is assessing my suggestions", she smiled.
"Ah, yes, I can see. Miss Woodhouse can be a willful child", he said his smile implying his affection for her. "So, what have you come up with?"
"Just the regular ones - some Shakespeare - a tragedy and a comedy, some poetry - Lord Byron, Wordsworth, some history.. Emma gets very enthusiastic drawing up the list but soon looses interest. Everything comes to her naturally. I am often criticized for not making her more diligent", she sighed slightly.
Mr. Weston laughed a bit. "She has a very strong and unspoilt mind", he said and then after a short pause added, "As long as she doesn't marry a penniless Captain against the wishes of her family she will do just fine".
Ann looked up at him, surprised. Who..? He was talking about himself she realized in a flash. In all these years she had never heard him mention anything even remotely connected to his wife. She struggled, trying to say something, but how do you say anything sensible to a man who had lost his wife seventeen years ago. She had heard that she was very beautiful. That would hardly be the appropriate thing to say. An uncomfortable silence ensued. He must have loved her very much. He looked distinctly uneasy. With the warm sun upon their faces, a gentle breeze and the rustle of the big chestnut tree setting the scene, they walked along in silence till they reached the gate. Before he left, he regained his composure enough to compliment her on the way she had handled things somewhat stiffly yet sincerely, that she felt oddly flustered. For a common thing as that. And then he parted with a bow. She watched him leave with a twinge of disappointment and turned back to go over to Mrs. Goddard's and listen to her talk with politeness masking her smug countenance.
Mr. Weston smiled at the gathered party. There was Miss Bates of course, her voice arriving before herself. She was thanking Mr.Woodhouse's kindness - chattering something about hind quarters, and Mr. Woodhouse was replying - something about frying not roasting. He had never been able to look at Miss Bates without remembering the matchmaking, some well meaning busybodies had tried years ago. By retaining his comfortable and in every way convenient position, he knew he had outfoxed the best of them. Even Miss Cole seemed to be getting the message, finally. And there was Mr.Knightley looking serious as always. He himself was never half so serious, took things as he found them, and made enjoyment of them somehow or other. Everybody liked him, he was quite pleased with himself.
Then he saw Ann. His smile faded slightly. He had been trying to avoid her. Something he had thought would be very easy, after all he spent little of his leisure time at Highbury, was somehow becoming more and more difficult. He found himself in situations where he was often in the same room as Miss Taylor. Now that he was getting more and more friendly with Miss Woodhouse. He wondered if she noticed that he was avoiding her.
She was a dangerous creature he had decided, when a few months ago he had almost blurted out things about his late wife. There was something about her amiable countenance, her tender smile, her soft affectionate heart.. Twenty years must have softened all the memories. Nothing good came out off his last marriage, except maybe the first few weeks and Frank. And he had vowed he would close those memories firmly away. But he had surprised himself and maybe her too by remembering about that.
He saw Emma and greeted her. "Doesn't Miss Taylor look well?", she asked.
Unable to avoid any longer, he smiled and greeted her. "Yes indeed". If he were a few years younger and inexperienced he would have stammered.
He asked Emma about her reading list and found that it had considerably changed but no actual reading had been done.
"Yes, I believe rather than Emma learning how to follow her teacher's dictates, I think Miss Taylor is learning how to cope up with two stubborn people", Mr. Knightley interjected.
Ann smiled. Weston was amazed at her ability to accept a criticism with such ease. And he knew that Mr.Kightley can be quite constant in his critique. He looked thoughtfully at Mr. Knightley. Perhaps his relationship as the brother in law caused him so much concern.
"Do you not think it will come in handy when she marries?", queried Emma.
Mr.Weston was startled. He did not know of anyone.., his eyes sought Ann's and was consoled that she looked equally surprised at Emma's words. Why did Emma talk about Ann's marriage. Before he could wonder about that, there was some talk of music and perhaps dancing, and since Miss. Taylor was very musical, it was decided that she would play. There were really not many to dance, they managed only four pairs and Mr.Weston was obliged to dance with Mrs. Cox, atleast he escaped Miss. Cole on that one. She was talking to her sister-in-law Mrs. Cole, probably conspiring something that moment. Mr. Knightley went over to stand by the window. Emma stood at the top of the set with Mr. Hastings.
Ann played wonderfully as always. Mr. Weston almost missed a step when a turn gave him a good view of her fingers gliding tenderly over the keys. She played with involvement, a slight smile playing in her lips, a gentle nod now and then to the dancers, her feet tapping unobtrusively, the curls framing her face.. She was beautiful. Not the dazzling type of beauty his wife Kitty was, but more of a majestic beauty. In fact there was a natural kindness to Ann's eyes that Katie.. What the devil was he doing? Comparing his wife to her. He should stay away from this woman. Weston averted his eyes.
Emma would look quite fashionable in the new bonnet and the gown that Ann had just finished working on. They were all seated in the parlor and Ann smiled as she heard her convince Mr. Woodhouse about Isabella's well being.
"It is very vexing Emma", he was saying. "They should come here for Christmas". Though Mr. Knightley often mentioned somewhat derisively that Emma was ruling the household since she was twelve, Ann was actually quite proud of the way she took care of her father and was happy the way she had turned out at eighteen that she did not feel that she had failed in any way. She endeavored everyday to make her excel as an accomplished woman but still did not agree that Emma was inadequate in anyway. She could not understand Mr. Knightley.
For that matter she could not understand men at all. Mr. Weston for instance. She had begun to like him more and more. The way he had visited Harriet from time to time, the way he talked, his behavior. Now that he was planning to settle down, he was spending more and more time in Highbury. She had heard that he was doing some final negotiations to buy Randalls. That and some parish business or the other brought him often in their company now. Emma also seemed to like him and she found herself in his company more often these days. But strangely even though they were together more, she felt they talked less than before. He was hardly talking to her, he was well mannered surely but there was something that she could not quite put her finger on, something he was holding back.
After much thought Ann had concluded it must be Miss. Cole. She must have interfered in some way.. But why would she consider Ann as competition, perhaps she ought to be more careful, not let her admiration for him show. She was perplexed.
"Oh I cannot wait to go to this party, Miss Taylor", Emma exclaimed. "I heard that the new parson will be there. Mr. Elton. They told me he came in yesterday"
"Yes", she smiled. "A young man I believe"
"Oh", Emma smiled conspiratorially. "Miss Taylor, perhaps he can perform the ceremony".
"What ceremony?", Ann asked, surprised.
"In case someone decided to marry", Emma smiled pointedly.
"Emma", Ann exclaimed. "Whatever do you mean?"
"Miss Taylor, do not pretend that you don't know Mr. Weston's attention towards you", Emma giggled. "I have been noticing it. And I think it is the most wonderful thing in the world"
Ann looked in stunned silence. She had not the least thought that Emma would fancy such things.
"Emma, No..", she tried to speak.
"Miss Taylor, do not deny it. I know it. He told me himself"
"He did?", Ann almost whispered.
"Yes, when I asked him why he did not marry again, he told me, let me see if I can recall his exact words, 'it was because he never found a woman who could mend his heart as well as rekindle the emotions', and he looked at you in a particular way, I have no doubt", she concluded happily.
Ann was horrified. She had to put a stop to it, before it burnt everyone concerned. No wonder the poor man was not talking to her anymore. He must have understood Emma's intentions. "Emma, Please listen to me and do not indulge yourself in such, forgive me, foolish inclinations. I am nine and twenty, penniless and do not even have any relations except for my poor sister and hardly any connections worthwhile.", she spoke with much feeling. "I am a simple governess. Mr. Weston, I am sure does not intend to marry after all these years and even if he did, it will not be to me", she finished in a voice that was stern and did not show the pain somehow Emma's childish dreams had evoked in her. It hurt. She must like Mr. Weston more than she had realized and facing it was hard.
"But 'someone that would mend his heart', do you not see Miss. Taylor, he was playing with your name"
"Do not be ridiculous Emma, that means, rekindle his emotions could very well mean a play on Miss Cole."
But despite all her words, she had a feeling Emma was not convinced. Though she moved on to talk about the party, Ann knew, how stubborn Emma can be.
But of course, Ann did not have any such illusions. She knew her place, and if she did like Mr. Weston, it was also with the awareness that it would go nowhere farther.
When Weston entered the Woodhouse residence, his disposition was not very sunny. He had been feeling down all week since Christmas and it was just his general pleasant nature, his indomitable spirit that drove him today to pick up and arrive here. Yet, his spirits were not fully recovered. He had counted so much on Frank's arrival for Christmas and the fact that he had not, had been a blow too hard. He was at the mercy of a woman he loathed to even spend time with his own flesh and blood.
He arrived inside the room, exchanged the usual how do you does and tried his level best to participate cheerfully. It was a rather large party considering, with all of the usual crowd present. Mr. Elton, the new parson was also there. Mr. Weston and Mr. Knightley had not been very impressed with him, but somehow Mr. Cole had convinced them about him. He seemed well mannered enough, paying the right amount of respect and attention to Miss. Woodhouse.
He searched for Ann, suddenly he felt a strong need to see her gentle eyes. She was standing next to Mr. Knightley discussing something very seriously with him. Part of him wanted to go over and talk to her while the other part warned him not to. His desire triumphed over caution and he walked over to their side. His eyes saw Emma smiling in a particular fashion at him which his mind did not quite register.
They greeted him and he joined their conversation about Isabella and John and their daughter. His heart was not completely in it. He saw Mr. Elton and Mr. Coxe and his mind went back to Frank. That woman! When would she be satisfied of her revenge against him. No, she would never forget what he had done and would make sure he suffered the rest of his life.
Mr. Cole joined in and he and Mr. Knightley fell into a conversation about the farm and he found himself standing next to Ann. She gave him a strained smile and then saying that Mr. Woodhouse was calling for her, left him. Weston stood for a few moments, and then slowly walked out of a door nearby, stood out in the cold night, overlooking the garden, his face despondent. Oh Frank why did you not come? Did you not think of your father at all?
He knew not how many minutes he stood there, when he heard Ann. "Mr. Weston, is something the matter?"
"Miss Taylor, no.. of course not. Why would you think so? I was just admiring the stars", he said with a contrived smile.
She smiled in return, a certain sensitivity shining in her eyes. "It is not often we find Mr. Weston walking away from a party to stand looking at stars", she said.
His smile was genuine though shadowed with sadness. How well she knew him. They stood in silence. She did not say anything further, did not pry for more information but something in the way she stood near him, gazing simply at the stars, invoked a feeling of belonging - that she understood his feelings, that she sympathized with him. He cleared his throat,
"Miss Taylor, I have just had a disappointment of not meeting my son past Christmas and I have been wanting, waiting to see him so much, that I..", he stopped realizing that he was getting emotional.
He wondered how much of his past she knew. It was not particularly a secret. Many in Highbury knew that he had given up Frank to his uncle and aunt. But many did not knew that he was a poor man then, and that he could not have afforded the good life style that Frank was leading now, if he had insisted on exercising his affection upon him. He had found himself in a poorer state than he was when he was a bachelor with one more young mouth to feed. He had been so young and a three years old child without his mother, he sighed deeply.
"His aunt had refused to let him. He would have definitely come otherwise but her pretense of getting sick got to his heart, other wise he would have definitely come", he repeated, his voice endeavoring to convince himself than her. He had had plans to take him to Randalls, to show him the place they could both call home. He would be the owner of Randalls after next week. And he had wanted Frank to share that moment with him.
Ann turned to look at him, with infinite empathy in her eyes, then slowly put her hand on his hand resting on the pillar for the tiniest moment, with a feather light touch and then retrieved it hastily away. It shook him. That simple gesture went to the core of his heart and he looked at her, as though for the first time. Her gown was inadequate against the cold weather and instead of staying next to the warm fire, she had come out seeking him because he was feeling down. But without a word, she was standing there, consoling him. Her presence that moment, eased all the pain and heartache and in profound gratitude for her support, he took her both hands and pressed it against his lips in a gentle kiss. She quivered slightly, she must be feeling very cold and so he turned to guide her inside, his one hand raised close to her shoulders, the other still holding her hands when he caught sight of Emma and Mr. Elton, quickly retreating back into the room from the door, with what looked like a triumphant smile on Emma's face and unmistakable surprise on Mr. Elton's.
Ann stopped briefly before entering the parlor, hearing her name featuring in the conversation between Emma and Mr.Knightley. She dreaded what she was about to hear. Little had she expected the recent developments when she had accompanied Mr.Weston back into the room that cold night, "If things go awful one month, they will surely mend the next", he had said, with a smile and they had walked back.
The first inclination of things to portend was when Emma had come to her and smiled with little concealed excitement after the party was over.
"Oh, Miss Taylor", she had cried with feeling, "how can I do without you?"
"Do without me? Whatever do you mean?"
"I see, that is the way it is going to be? ", she had smiled, "You are not even going to tell me? Ah, I know, he wants to announce it after he purchases Randalls"
"Dear God, whatever.. ", Ann had stopped realizing Emma's fertile mind must have done some extra work after seeing them both coming into the room together.
"I saw you both. You were embracing were you not?", she had asked with the glee and curiosity of an eighteen year old, talking without reserve to her best friend.
Ann had understood the impending doom only at that point. She had soon found out that Mr. Elton was with Emma too. And then it got worse and worse, since convinced of their engagement herself, Emma had found no reason to not drop some helpful hints to Mr.Elton. She had wondered how it must have looked to Mr. Elton, the ill-lit path to the garden and their closeness, added to that Emma's comments. She soon found out how, when the good people of Highbury started hinting that they had got wind of the good news. Her pointed denials were greeted with all knowing smiles. For the first time in her life, she woke up every morning, not convinced that today would be better than yesterday.
"Emma, did Miss Taylor tell you anything, or is it all your imagination?", Mr.Knightley was asking.
"Mr. Knightley must you find fault with me even in this? Ofcourse, I know for sure"
"How? Did she tell you?", he persisted.
"Not in so many words, but the way she looks at him and he at her and the way they.."
"This will not do Emma", Mr. Knightley sounded abrupt. "This whole thing has exposed her to some very impertinent remarks. That fellow Elton is acting all important and blabbering of some improper behaviour and I think they should get married soon or atleast announce their understanding. It is more than two months since such reports are circulating and Weston has even moved to Randalls last week", he sighed deeply. "I hope she knows what she is doing. If they are not engaged.. She has given us no cause to worry and her behaviour so far has been faultless that despite her youth we did not think twice about allowing her to continue taking care of you both after your mother died. But this whole business with Weston.."
"Mr. Knightley", Emma exclaimed hotly. "Do you not know Miss Taylor? How can you question her conduct. You will see, they will soon announce their engagement and they will have a wonderful wedding"
Ann stood immobile for a few seconds, then fled to the sanctuary of her room and flung onto the bed. Dear God. Please let this be not happening to me, she thought again and again as hot tears spilled on to her cheeks. She had been so very cautious, despite the love and affection Isabella and Emma showered upon her and she upon them, she always knew that she was just a governess and also that Emma would look at her as an example and thus had been always very cautious of her behaviour. But one misstep and her whole reputation was now in question. Why did she follow him, oh why did she let her heart rule her head, what was it her business if he was despondent or was jumping up in joy? She could not blame Emma or anyone else. She blamed herself repeatedly. And what did he think of all this? Probably that she was a fortune hunter. Ann wiped her tears and looked out the window, utter perplexity and despondancy written all over her face.
Mr.Weston was astounded. His name linked with a woman was not a novelty to him. Time and time again, the good folks of Highbury would discover someone who would be the perfect match for him and try their hand at matchmaking only to fail inevitably, and retreat by putting the blame on a promise that he is supposed to have made to his dead wife.
But never had things gone this far and this way before. He had never been exposed to such snide remarks, and improper or ungentleman like behaviour had never been attributed to him. And never, never had Mr.Knightley asked pointed questions about whether his intentions were honorable. The men of Highbury would always shake their head and feel sorry for him.
It was not a direct question and he was saved from answering it by the arrival of Mr.Cox and Mr.Cole, and they soon started talking about some business, but he could see the displeasure in Mr.Knightley's face about not receiving an answer yet. He left early, thus escaping further interrogation.
He wandered about in the grounds of Randalls. Oh, what stupidity. Whatever was he thinking talking to her like that. Surely he cannot simply walk away from this. If she said he behaved improperly, the whole town would demand that he offered for her hand. Perhaps he could run away to London and then tour the continent and arrive after a year. But what about Ann? She had no right expecting him to marry her. It was a harmless gesture. Oh, the inconvenience of staying in a small town. How did this get so out of proportion? Perhaps Miss. Woodhouse asked Ann she.. Why did she not say that there was nothing to it? And what of Mr.Elton? He knew that man was upto no good.
No he cannot escape it. He sighed. Here he was finally in his own estate, his own home, something he had longed all his life and he had to loose his freedom. The memories of his few years of married life came thundering back to him. The constant complaints, the bickering in front of the servants. They had lived beyond their means. He had incurred debts all over London. But still, nothing had been good enough for Kitty. Nothing could be as good as Enscombe. And whatever he did, whatever love he showered upon her would never compensate the fact that he was the cause of her dear brother's wrath. Sometimes he even doubted she ever loved him. His brothers would not even visit him for the fear of a scene. Everyday, he had felt like being in the middle of a Cheltenham tragedy.
Ann would probably complain Randalls was not half as good as Hartfield, he thought bitingly and then was promptly ashamed of himself. No, he could not let these thoughts sway him form doing whatever was right. He must sacrifice himself, for it was his mistake. He should have never walked out that door that night.
The next morning found him at the parlor in Hartfield and when Ann came down to receive him, immediately after greeting, he wasted no time and asked her resolutely to marry him.
She looked at him with infinite sadness in her eyes, shook her head and said, "I thank you Mr. Weston, but I am afraid I can not".
Weston surveyed the arrangements again. Everything seemed to be in place. He wished he had someone to advice him, after all it was the first picnic he was hosting in Randalls. The invitees were all his good friends, Miss Woodhouse, Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley, Mr. Knightley and Miss Taylor. His mind and his eyes lingered uneasily on Ann, he had seen her for the first time after the proposal. It had been two weeks. He had been more surprised than relieved when she had turned down his rigid offer. She had said candidly that she did not believe in marriage without love and that she would not dream of subjecting him to one. When they had met again a few minutes ago, they had both hastily done away with the greeting not meeting each other's eyes.
There was Emma showing her talent in archery, Mr.Knightley no doubt teasing while standing next to her. Mr.John Knightley had the look of a man who wanted to go home and rest. Weston smiled as he listened to Isabella chatting about the latest trick that little Bella did. Unable to contain his curiosity, he turned to see what Ann was doing and his breath caught in his throat. Since no one was paying attention to her, without a care, she was twirling little Henry, lifting him up, laughing with such delight, her hair and her billowing gown dancing about her. His heart conjured up an image of her playing with their child. She looked so right in his grounds. He shook his head in the hope of shaking out of such thoughts and saw Mr. Knightley and Emma approaching him.
"The grounds are delightful Mr. Weston, allow me to congratulate you on this marvelous estate", Emma said warmly. Weston beamed at her, yes he was proud of his home. He had come a long way from those penniless days he spent dreading the arrival of debtors. He had toiled with sweat and blood and had crawled his way out to this life of liberation.
"Mr. Weston, all you need is a mistress now, is it not? With everything else taken care of?", Emma suggested with a smile. Mr. Knightley's eyes narrowed. A strange silence fell for a second or two. Weston was in a quandary as to how to answer the question. Try he might, he could not bring himself to say that he has had enough with marriage to last a lifetime, he was happy to be a bachelor. Something stopped him, he knew not what.
Instead he said lamely, "I have some important affairs pending. I am to away to London to close down my business and it will take me a few months and I also have plans to go and visit my son".
Only when he saw the triumphant look Emma gave Knightley, he realized with horror that he had given more fodder in the form of a reason to wait, for the already existing gossip.
Mulling over what he had done, as he accompanied her, he did not realize that Emma was walking over to where Ann was playing and as soon as they reached her, within a few moments he found himself alone with Ann, while Emma walked away with little Henry, under some pretext.
He shifted uncomfortably. "The house and the grounds are wonderful Mr. Weston", she said in a low voice, a gentle smile on her face. He was amazed at her ability to be so calm, to talk to him without any bitterness, even at that point when they were no doubt the cynosure of all eyes.
"I am sorry, Miss Taylor, for all the discomfort I have caused you", he said inadequately.
She looked up and met his eyes for a brief moment and then said, "Mr. Weston, please do not blame yourself. It was not your mistake", and then with an inaudible sigh she left under the pretext of helping Isabella with little Bella. Weston walked over to where Henry was flying his kite and spent the rest of the afternoon playing with him, all the while thinking of how unlike Kitty, Ann really was. She was a governess, most likely portion less, without any connections to speak of. Her whole life was dependent on the mercy of people like Mr. Woodhouse and a rumor such as this could very well ruin her life. But yet she did not blame him or jump at the opportunity to become the mistress of Randalls. In such adverse circumstance does one show one's true colors. How wrong of him to have compared her to his wife. No, Ann had a strength of character far more superior to that of his late wife. Ann would have never complained of the lack jewelry or visits to Bath and Brighton. Without any help from his wife, solely because of his own nature and disposition had he survived to be never completely unhappy. But Ann would have shown him what matrimonial happiness really was. His thoughts circled Ann again and again just like the kite that soared into the sky.
"Miss Taylor, Mr. Weston is walking towards us", Emma exclaimed much to Ann's dismay. Things had quieted down in the past four months. She had not seen him after the picnic at Randalls. Shortly he had quitted to go to London. The good people of Highbury, without anything to feed their curiosity had somewhat ceased to speculate except for an occasional odd comment or two.
She dreaded meeting him again. That day at Randalls had been hard enough. What deserving pride he had shown over his possession. Yet, what care he had shown to their comforts, even to little Henry. Randalls must have been a prize for him, something he must have longed for all those years. He was now capable of attracting and acquiring a wife far more superior to her. Yet he had not hesitated one bit when he had perceived her hardship. He had done the honorable thing despite the unsuitability of her connection. She loved him for that, for the man he was and the man he had become. She slowly turned bracing herself for the meeting.
As soon as he came near them, he greeted them with utmost civility, his eyes seemed to linger on her face, full of emotion, for a few moments. Beyond that she could not perceive anything out of ordinary. Emma supplied him with all the latest development in Highbury and he in turn talked of Isabella and John Knightley. Ann sat listening to his steady voice, not participating much.
Emma, during a pause in the conversation, suddenly exclaiming that she had forgotten to give specific instructions to Serle about the gruel for Mr.Woodhouse, brushing away all of her words, almost ran out of the room. Ann looked at him and smiled apologetically trying hard to search for something to say.
Charles Weston gazed at her with wonder, very grateful to Emma for her exit. He was finally here, near his dear Ann. He had spent the last months away from her, mistaking his love for the same emotion that he had felt, perhaps a folly of youth, all those years ago. But no, this was not the same. Ann's influence on him was not that of the blinding, tyrannical influence he had felt then, this was a steady, mature, sustaining, growing influence. He must have loved her unconsciously even before he realized. He wondered if he would have proposed to someone like Miss. Cole if the situation were different.
He cleared his throat, it suddenly felt dry.
"Did you meet your son while in London?", she asked.
"No, I did not have a chance to meet Frank", he replied and seizing the opportunity continued, steadying himself.
"Miss Taylor, no doubt you know the circumstance under which I had to give up Frank. Life had dealt me some incidents that I no longer wish to remember, I only want to go forward and make the most out of whatever I am fortunate to receive. And for that, I must ask you something, Miss Taylor..", he paused struggling a little.
"Mr. Weston, you need not explain..", she cried in dismay. "I fully understand and as I told you earlier, you are not obligated to me for anything. I am grateful for all your efforts to spare me from the discomforts caused. Oh, how hard it must be to hear of some woman's name bandied about in the place of your dear wife", she stopped unable to understand the expression in his eyes.
What was she saying. Is it her way of asking him not to pester her again and again? He swallowed. No, he cannot afford to stop now, he must ask her. Undaunted he started again. "Miss Taylor, please bear with me. I married Kitty when I was very young. I was hardly twenty years old and the vanity of youth, being a captain and the attentions of a young girl of fortune went to my head. I did not see how completely unsuitable the connection was for both of us. I loved her in a way I suppose, but my married life caused me anguish and pain and nothing else. If she had lived, I would have stood by her, whatever ruin it caused me. But, I made a promise to myself after giving up Frank, after Kitty's death that I will not let anyone influence my life like that anymore. I foolishly thought that all I wanted was the freedom to be wherever I wanted to, to do whatever I wanted to. When I found myself thinking more and more about you, I fought it, reliving every past memory. I spent the past few months in London, believing that if I stayed away from you, I would be rid of your influence. Then one morning I realized I did not want to be rid of you. I no longer want to be alone and you are my salvation. I want you near me, sharing the little that I have with me. I want you near me every night and every morning. I want a daughter just like you and want to grow older with you and my children, near me"
"What are you saying", Ann asked slowly, realization and dream dawning on her starry eyes.
"Oh, Ann please, I am not just asking, I am begging you, do me the honor of marrying me", he asked coarsely, crossing the distance between them and kneeling down in front of her.
"Oh my love", was all she could manage before she was pulled into his arms.
Later after everyone had congratulated them, Emma asked Mr. Weston, "Tell me Mr. Weston. Am I not instrumental in making this match?"
Weston replied in the affirmative with a twinkle in his eyes and then after she left with a gleeful look, turned to Ann to say, "I want a daughter just like you born to us my dear, but perhaps when Frank comes to visit us, I can have Emma too as my daughter in a way?"
Thank you for reading
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