Love Suffers Long and Is Kind, Volume IV
Chapter 4, Part 4
Anne Elliot could only look forward to her afternoon engagement with a sense of dread, for she had made a most awkward mistake. While readying herself for tea with Sir Robin, she happened to notice a slip of paper wedged in the frame of the mirror above her dressing table. The brief notation, written in her own hand, said:
Anne now held it tightly, as she paced the length of the empty drawing room. How could I be so addle-brained! she winced. I made the appointment myself, only two days ago! How could I have forgotten it? The truth was, she had accepted Captain BenwickĖs invitation without a thought for anything else.
The thought of him brought a tightening in her stomach. He and his friend would be arriving any moment; whatever would she say to them? Over and over she rehearsed an apology, but though the reasons were sound, the words sounded hollow.
Presently she heard the sounds of a carriage; a quick look out the window confirmed that they had come. Anne pressed her hands to her cheeks and waited. She longed to run down to the street, to pour out her tale to Benwick, to beg his forgiveness -- in short, to create a scene -- but of course, she did nothing of the kind. Instead, she stole another look at the street, in time to see a tall, unknown man climb out the carriage. He was probably the doctor Benwick spoke of.
After the two men had been shown into the drawing room, Anne explained her dilemma. The fault was entirely hers, but whatever could she do? Mrs Smith was a poor window, an invalid just like Sir Robin, and she had faithfully promised to visit her this afternoon! The blame could be laid nowhere but at the feet of her own wretched memory, but she had no choice; she must refuse their invitation. Mrs Smith had so few callers, she simply could not disappoint her.
A slight frown came into Captain BenwickĖs eyes as he listened, but it was swiftly replaced by an expression Anne could not name. A glance to his companion came next, and then a question.
"How many persons does your carriage hold, Minthorne?"
"Ah! Very good!" Doctor Minthorne turned to Anne with a smile. "Your friend is not a large person, is she, Miss Elliot? And is she able to sit? She is not confined to her bed?" After receiving AnneĖs answers, he said, "I do not believe transportation will be any trouble, Benwick. And the staff can easily accommodate another invalid."
And before Anne knew what was happening, she was bustled into the entry hall, where Burton held out her cloak and hat. She could scarcely tie the ribbons on her bonnet, so great was her excitement. For these two men had decided to pursue the very best course of action: to disappoint no one! They would simply drive to the Westgate Buildings, collect Mrs Smith, and bring her with them!
As the carriage clattered toward the lodging house, Dr Minthorne peppered Anne with questions about her widowed friend. Anne could not help herself; with many smiles, she told him everything she knew about Mrs Smith, her bout with rheumatic fever, and the resulting lameness. But as they neared their destination, caution began to replace giddiness. If Mrs Smith was not feeling well enough to join them, could she bear the disappointment? And how in the world should such an outrageous invitation be presented?
But if Anne was hesitant about such a scheme, the doctor was not. She had barely finished introducing her companions when he stepped out from behind her, removed his hat, and extended his hand.
"Mrs Smith," said he, in his fine, deep voice, "I am Richard Minthorne, and though you may not know it ... er ... " He broke off speaking and turned to Anne in mock consternation.
"Miss Elliot, you told me that your friend was a poor widow. Here before me is a very nice-looking woman, who does not seem at all miserable or depressed!"
Anne dimpled. "I did not say she was miserable or depressed, Doctor."
"No? Then I have been gravely mistaken in my ideas! I was thinking of her as quite an old lady!" The doctor grinned at Mrs Smith and bowed over her hand.
"You must forgive me, Mrs Smith. In the course of my medical practice, I see many widows -- and being a widower myself, I unfortunately think of all by that designation as being at least as old as I am. Ahem! Now, where was I? Ah yes. The invitation."
"You, Mrs Smith," he announced grandly, "are our prisoner. We are, in fact, here to kidnap you from your own dwelling in broad daylight! Although, Benwick, I see you forgot your sword. Anywise, you are our captive, Mrs Smith; I hope you will not feel inclined to scream. You will be taken with Miss Elliot, here, to have tea with a patient of mine, a fine old gentlemen whom neither of you have ever met. And you will not be released and brought home until you have laughed at least three times and sung at least once! What say you to that?"
"Nothing at all! How can I?" said Mrs Smith, who was laughing now. "If I am a prisoner, my words of entreaty are useless! I must submit to the will of my captors." She gripped the arms of her chair and bravely struggled to her feet. "Where did you say you are taking me, sir?"
"You can stand! Excellent!" Dr Minthorne exclaimed, and he offered his arm for support. "I did not say; it is to be a surprise."
And when Anne had assisted Mrs Smith with her cloak and hat, he admonished that lady to "hold tightly, now " and promptly lifted her into his arms. "Open the door, Benwick," he commanded, "for I have taken the prisoner into custody!"
Mrs Smith was absolutely astonished, but she was mindful to heed the tall doctorĖs instruction and held on for dear life. As they went out the door, she cast a single look at her friend. "Oh, Miss Elliot!" was all she could manage to whisper, but her eyes were shining.
"So, I am to 'sing for my supperĖ in the 'prison,Ė Doctor?" Mrs Smith said cheerfully, as soon as all were settled in the carriage.
"Actually, I believe it is Benwick who will sing for us," he replied, as the vehicle began to move forward.
Anne looked at Benwick in surprise. "I did not know you sang, sir."
James folded his arms across his chest. "Only when I must, to please Sir Robin," he grumbled. "It was my motherĖs doing, and he remembers it, unfortunately." He went on to explain. "With four sons and a daughter so close in age, we became her choir -- and we performed at every opportunity."
"With little robes and all that?" Dr Minthorne chuckled.
"Yes," James grimaced. "Quite. We were the darlings of the parish. Mother played and we sang. Er, which brings to mind something I meant to ask you this morning, Miss Anne."
And while he and Anne discussed a simple hymn she might play, Dr Minthorne turned to Mrs Smith. "Before we arrive, I must tell you a little about my patient, Sir Robin. This is no ordinary party today; we will be venturing into ... Sherwood Forest."
"Sherwood For ...?" Mrs Smith caught the expression on his face and her eyes began to dance. "Ah-ha! To see Sir ... Robin!"
"Er, Robin Hood, to be precise. Please do use the proper name; it is more important than you might think. The old gentleman becomes confused when we do not comply. It is a harmless delusion; otherwise he is quite lucid."
Captain Benwick looked up. "I donĖt know about that, Minthorne. Is it a delusion? I saw a book today with his name listed in it: Sir Robert Locksley, plain as day. Related to the Earl of Huntingdon, if you please. Although," he frowned, "according to the legends, Robin Hood was the earl of Huntingdon, wasnĖt he?"
"You donĖt suppose ..."
"I have no idea.
"Well, what do you know!" The doctor raised his eyebrows, then continued with his speech. "At any rate, when I exit this carriage, ladies, I will cease to be myself and will become Friar Tuck; you will please call me by that name. You will not have difficulty remembering for I do look the part, unfortunately." He removed his hat and pointed to his balding pate. "And Benwick here -- who will you be today, Benwick?"
"It depends. I used to be Little John, Mrs Smith, as Robin would forget that the man by that name was a giant, not a short fellow like me. However, more lately I have become Alan a Dale, the wandering minstrel. The Navy does cause a fellow to wander and I do sing. I suppose my absences were explained by using that name."
"But," he cast a comical look at Anne, "I told Robin that my balalaika or whatever it is IĖm supposed to play got ..." He stopped, then frowned. "You know, I canĖt for the life of me recall what DaleĖs musical instrument is called."
"A lyre?" Mrs Smith suggested.
"Zither? Mandolin?" supplied the doctor.
"Perhaps you might play a lute, sir," Anne offered.
"A lute. Thank you, yes. He thinks my lute got washed overboard during a storm! So, alas, I can play it no more. In other words," he grinned, "donĖt ask!"
Anne hid a smile with her gloved hand and looked away.
"What are you thinking?" James muttered. "Yes, out with it, Miss Anne. I saw that look."
Anne lowered her hand and whispered, unsteadily, "Such a number of things you donĖt like just happen to wash overboard, Captain Benwick! Tino TurnerĖs book and now, the musical instrument! It is most ... convenient!"
"IsnĖt it? One of the benefits to being a sailor. There arenĖt many," he chuckled. "But our friends seem to be getting on very well." He nodded at the doctor and Mrs Smith.
"I most admire that you are in good spirits, Mrs Smith, despite that hole you are living in," Dr Minthorne was now saying.
"Oh, never call my precious room a 'holeĖ, sir," she cried. "Unless you mean to imply that I am a fox, for 'foxes have holes,Ė as you know. And in my former life, I suppose I was a bit of a sly one! But I am so grateful to have such a nice dwelling; my fellow-lodgers are so very good to me."
"I am glad to hear it. But one would suppose it is impossible to find happiness in such conditions."
"But happiness does not depend on circumstances!" Mrs SmithĖs expression became more serious. "I have learned much from my misfortunes, doctor," she said earnestly. "At one time I lived very much in the world; pleasure and frivolity were my chief pursuits. But chasing after happiness is rather like trying to catch your shadow; no matter how hard you try, it always runs away. But I have found that when I fix my attention on something else, on helping others in my small way and on being thankful that in the grace of God I have what I do, happiness, like my shadow, follows after me. IsnĖt it a paradox?"
Dr Minthorne was silent for a moment. "It is, indeed," he said softly. The carriage made a sharp turn and began an ascent, which steadily grew steeper. "Ah. The hill. We have not much further to go," he said, with a glance out the window.
"How can you tell? It is so dreary out; everythingĖs hidden in the mist."
"And it is growing colder," Benwick spoke up. "But the house will be warm. They have been working to heat 'SherwoodĖ since early this morning, IĖm told.
The carriage made several more turns and at last came to a stop. "Here we are," Benwick said, as the door was opened by Dr MinthorneĖs coachman. "IĖll see if Yee can locate the wheeled chair for us," he remarked, as he climbed out.
"Benwick, no, wait!" Dr Minthorne called. "Dash it, heĖs gone. Would you ladies mind waiting here until I return? I think it will be better if I carried Mrs Smith into the house." And he nimbly exited the carriage in pursuit of Captain Benwick.
Anne and Mrs Smith stared through the fog at the large stone house. "I have heard of places like this." Mrs SmithĖs whisper reflected her wonder. "Very comfortable, very elegant lodging houses for the well-to-do, who have no family to care for them. With an excellent cook and a large staff of attendants to meet every need. After all, the doctor did tell me that 'one more invalidĖ would be no trouble."
"I have no idea where we are," Anne whispered back. "Captain Benwick only said we were going to tea 'at Sir RobinĖs.Ė "
The main doors of the house were open now; light spilled out onto the fog-shrouded walk and cobbled street; it was a most welcoming sight. In no time at all Dr Minthorne was back. As before, he deftly lifted Mrs Smith into his arms.
"Here we go," he said cheerfully. "IĖll just take you directly to the table, if you donĖt mind, Mrs Smith. Miss Elliot, if you would be so good as to follow. I cannot figure where Benwick has got to, but you two mustnĖt be left out in the cold any longer."
Anne came behind the pair, but slowly, for she was quite taken by the house and its environs. There were the most enormous trees behind it; their bare limbs were just visible through the mist, against the darkening sky. And she was certain she could hear the cries of water fowl in the distance.
"Where are we?" she whispered.
An elderly attendant stood at attention just inside the open door, ready to receive her outer garments. A Chinaman! Anne wondered to see such a sight. She quickly removed her cloak and hat and hastened to follow the others. They had gone beyond her sight, but Anne did not wait to inquire the direction. She listened carefully for the resonating sound of their voices and began to make her way through the house.
"Miss Anne!" Captain Benwick came upon her as she was entering the large, well-lit drawing room. "I am so sorry; MinthorneĖs quite the man of action! He decided not to wait for the chair and barged on ahead! Please, come this way."
"Where are we, Captain Benwick? What is this place?"
James Benwick suddenly became bashful. "I welcome you to the Wrenwyth residence, Miss Elliot," he said quietly. "This is ... Chauntecleer."
"Chantecleer," Anne repeated. "It is a very beautiful house. Such interesting furnishings ... from all sorts of foreign places."
"My great uncle was in the diplomatic service," he answered. "IĖd be happy to show you through it later. But perhaps we should join the others?"
Anne agreed. As they drew near to the conservatory, they saw Dr Minthorne standing at the doorway. He was still holding Mrs Smith.
"Perhaps youĖd best go in first, Benwick," he murmured. "Sir RobinĖs at table; heĖs been asking for you."
Anne took Captain BenwickĖs arm and they entered 'SherwoodĖ together. Her eyes widened in surprise. They were to take tea in a glassed-in room filled with beautiful palms and greenery. What was more, it had been decorated to resemble the outlawĖs famous encampment! A large green cloth was suspended from the ceiling to resemble a canopy; beneath it was a round mahogany table with places laid for six.
The glossy tabletop had no cloth covering; it was set in the style of a huntsman, with shining pewter goblets and chargers. The chinaware plates and tea cups were in an ivy vine pattern, green against white. And scattered about on the table, among the candelabrums, were items Robin Hood might like to keep close at hand: a huntsmanĖs horn, several feathered arrows, and a sheathed dagger.
Seated at table, in a location closest to the fire, was a white haired old gentleman in a Lincoln green frock coat. Perched jauntily on his head was a replica of the outlawĖs famous cap, complete with red feather. Sir RobinĖs head nodded forward on his chest; he appeared to be dozing. But as Captain Benwick brought Anne nearer to the table, his blue eyes opened.
"Why Alan," RobinĖs voice faltered as he beheld the pair; a smile of wonderment then came to his lips. "You ... you have brought her! At last! Your lady love, rescued from that despicable Norman lord!" He extended a trembling hand to Anne. "My dear, welcome! Welcome to Sherwood!"
"Thank you, sir," Anne replied. She curtseyed gracefully.
RobinĖs childlike eyes clouded for a moment as he thought of something else. "Now where is that friar?" he muttered. "We need him to perform the wedding, donĖt we? Such a delightful way to begin a party, with a wedding!"
"Er, Cousin Robin, er, just a minute now ..." James BenwickĖs face turned an alarming shade of red as he stammered. "First of all, I, er, think ...
"Why, whatĖs wrong, Alan? DonĖt you wish to marry this girl? After all, you rescued her, did you not?"
"Er, yes, I did, after a manner of speaking, but ..."
James could say no more. But the poor fellow was spared further agony by the entry of the doctor and Mrs Smith. As the pair came forward, Robin gave a gasp of recognition.
"Why, Will Scarlett!" he exclaimed. "My dear old friend! I have not seen you this age! And ... my gracious! You have brought one, too!"
"Huh?" Dr Minthorne blinked, and did his best to deal with the change of his identity. "Er, yes, Robin. I have brought with me Mrs ..."
"Missus ... Scarlett!" Robin was absolutely radiant with joy. "You have a wife, Will? Yes, of course, of course you do; I had forgotten! I saw the Sheriff lay another place at table just now -- he is put to forced labor for us, you know. And it was for your wife! Please, my dear, sit here beside me! But ... Mrs Scarlett, you are ... wounded!" RobinĖs voice showed sincere concern.
"It is nothing, sir," Mrs Smith answered cheerfully, as she settled herself in the chair. "And as you are such good friends with my, er, Will Scarlett, I wish you would use my Christian name. WonĖt you please call me Jennifer?"
Anne looked at her friend in amazement, for she had cleverly found a way around a very awkward circumstance. She was presented next, and the old man was captivated. In that instant she became 'Annie Laurie,' the Scottish lass from the ballad. Anne could only smile, for her mother had called her by this name now and again.
And so began an afternoon Anne would long remember, filled with laughter, wry comments, and clever sallies as the guests struggled to stay within their roles. Only the doctorĖs cousin Winnie Owen, who was a frequent visitor, was allowed to keep her proper name.
"Perhaps next time we can come in costume," the doctor remarked to Mrs Smith in a low voice. "What do you know about this Will Scarlett fellow, Jennifer? WasnĖt he supposed to wear a red tunic? I havenĖt anything of that colour ... except ... I say! I do have a burgandy-coloured bathing robe! Do you think I should run home to fetch it?"
And with comments like these, all were kept in a continual chuckle throughout the afternoon. When the last of the tea things were cleared away, Anne was surprised to see Sir Robin draw a deck of playing cards from his pocket and hand them to Alan a Dale.
"We are to play ... cards?" she asked.
Benwick noticed her hesitation and murmured, "DonĖt you like cards, Annie Laurie?"
"Not very well," she whispered back.
"Ah! WhatĖs wrong? Hate to lose, do you?"
"Captain Benwick!" Anne sputtered. "How can you say such a thing! I do not ... I do not hate to ... to looo... " She clenched her teeth, but to no avail. A bubble of laughter gurgled up from deep within her.
"The members of my family have a tendency to gloat so! You have no idea what it is like," she confessed, when the giggle had subsided. "And when we play in pairs, every mistake, every loss is laid at my feet. It is dreadful."
"Poor Annie," he grinned, and competently shuffled the deck. "We shall play in pairs today but have no fear; I do not intend to let us lose. And I know exactly what you mean; I have all those brothers and I was forced to play with them. Eventually, I learned how to win. And it is a good thing I did, " he added, as he passed the deck to Winnie Owen to cut. "For that is how I earned spending money as a midshipman. Oh, and when meat was scarce on board, I hunted and sold raa ... er, A-hem! Miss Owen," he said more loudly, "have you brought the money?"
Anne looked speculatively at Benwick as Miss Owen brought out a small canvas bag and emptied its contents on the table. It was filled with foreign coins which Mortimer Wrenwyth had collected in his travels. According to Benwick, this pile would become their gaming money.
But the card game did not progress very far that afternoon, for the players first had to determine the relative value of the coins. This was accompanied by much laughter and good-natured haggling. They had just begun to play when it became apparent that Sir Robin was tiring.
"Perhaps we should have the music now," Anne suggested gently.
And she played while James Benwick sang, and Robin Hood quietly fell asleep in his chair. Jennifer Smith sang the hymn too, very softly. When it was finished she had tears in her eyes.
"One of the things I miss very much, since I am now confined, is church," she confided to Dr Minthorne. "IsnĖt that the oddest thing? I used to loathe it; I could think of only how boring the rector was, and wasnĖt he such a hypocrite to be admonishing me! Can you imagine? Ah," her smile brightened, "and you may only guess what a day like this has meant. Thank you so much, Doctor, for taking me as prisoner."
Anne played several more songs and then it was time to depart. She and Mrs Smith sat in the entry hall while they waited for the men to bring the carriage. In their laps they each held a small potted violet, a gift from Sherwood Forest and Sir Robin. Mrs Smith stroked the delicate purple-blue flowers with trembling fingers.
"Oh, Miss Elliot," she whispered. "I am tired, but I am so happy!" She looked at her companion thoughtfully before adding, shyly, "He asked if he could call on me."
"Richard Minthorne. And, oh, Miss Elliot, I do not think he meant it as a doctor! For when I said I could pay him nothing, he looked so surprised! As if the thought of payment never entered his head!" Mrs Smith frowned at the dark green leaves of the plant. "I am a goose to think this way, I know I am! But he is the kindest man! And so gallant and ... strong!"
"He is a little older than you are," Anne ventured to suggest.
"My goodness, Miss Elliot," Mrs Smith smiled. "He cannot be much above forty! That is not so old! He is ... perfectly wonderful! Er, as a friend, of course."
Anne reached over and squeezed her friendĖs gloved hand. "I quite agree, he is a wonderful friend," she said, with complete sincerely. "And alas for us, I think I hear his carriage."
The trip home was a merry one, though each hated to see the afternoon come to an end. Anne smiled the entire way. She smiled when she said good-bye to Captain Benwick, and she smiled at Burton when she handed him her bonnet. Even when climbing the stairs to reach her bedchamber, she smiled and hummed the hymn she had played for Sir Robin.
The room was dark, so Anne went in search of a candle. Presently she returned with one. The potted violet was placed on her desk, along with an old book Captain Benwick had given her to read. One by one she lit the other candles in the room, watching as the golden light spread to dispel the darkness. She had felt this way in 'Sherwood,Ė as though brightness and warmth had flooded her being in the happiness, laughter, and music.
Still smiling, Anne sat at the desk and carefully opened the book. She found the place her friend had marked and began to read the selection he had chosen.
'There were twa sisters sat in a bour ...'
Anne frowned at the page. It was an odd way to end a pleasant afternoon, with this peculiar old ballad. She shook her head and sighed. There was sometimes no comprehending the mind of Captain Benwick.
The morning had dawned warm and sunny for mid-March. When he had come on deck for the morning inspection, Wentworth could not help but hear the jolly babel of voices from other ships, even those anchored a good distance away. The busy harbour of Plymouth reflected the abundant cheer the clear weather naturally inspired.
With breakfast behind them, and the day beginning in earnest, the voices of the men on deck, particularly those directly above Wentworth's head, were boisterous and happy. While it did him good to hear, he would make an appearance in an hour or so, just to keep the skylarking down to a tolerable level. Good cheer might come with the first of the good weather, but it would not do to lose any men to foolish accidents.
As Frederick mechanically made entries in the Captain's log, he looked forward to the time when they were at sea and the excess energies of the crew would be harnessed keeping the ship in the tightest possible trim as she sailed or in exercising the great guns in the evening. It reminded him that he must speak to Harville about powder and where to stow it until such time as the Laconia's magazine could be filled. All the ruminating on the future and tasks he could not yet complete, made him glad for the interruption of a knock at his door.
"Sir," said Hemmings. "May I speak with you?"
The Captain stiffened. "Certainly. Come in." Closing the Log book, he carefully replaced his pen and straightened several piles of papers and receipts. He took great care with each pile. These chores absorbed a little time. Not that the doctor took any notice. He took a somewhat negligent stance before the desk. This man in nowise resembled the frightened inferior officer who, several years earlier, during his first commission aboard the Laconia, had quailed before Wentworth. The Captain did not keep the doctor waiting so much from spite, but from a desire that the surgeon be reminded with whom the ship's authority rest. Finishing his little tasks, the Captain sat back in his chair, looked up and asked, "How might I help you?"
Hemmings glanced towards a chair. "This will take some time ... might I sit, sir?"
Captain Wentworth felt little fondness for Dr Hemmings, after their fractious first sail together, and he took the Doctor's desire to sit, rather than stand before him as a blatant snubbing of his authority. Though piqued, the captain did not wish to disturb the peace of the morning with an ugly dressing down and so, motioned for the man to sit.
The doctor took his time to arrange his suit coat, which was of the latest cut, and when finished, he looked directly at the Captain and said, "I have come to explain myself. While you said nothing at dinner last evening, I know you must be curious as to why I, of all men, would sign on to the Laconia."
The Captain had not forgotten Hemmings, most generally, possessed a direct manner. It could be plainly seen the evening before, as he had watched the surgeon interact with the other officers who had been invited to dine at the captain's table. Hemmings was gentlemanly; courteous and deferential to those with which he conversed, but, he was also opinionated and not prone to keeping his ideas to himself. The man was ready in speech and able to defend himself and his opinions with flair and humor. All together, the surgeon was a likeable man -- to most.
"I have been curious," Frederick said. "I was very astonished when Harville presented me with your warrant."
The doctor shifted in his seat. "Yes, Captain Harville mentioned your surprise. He asked me to explain your comment on 'flaying.' I told him that while I could offer a comprehensive description of the proceedure, I could not comment on any particulars regarding you." He watched the Captain intently.
The very thought would have put Timothy back on his heels, thought Frederick. "Captain Harville is not aware of your entire history in regards to the Laconia and I chose not to inform him of such."
"Thank you for that. I have no wish to poison his opinion of me. I merely wish to do my duty and perhaps enrich myself in the process."
As Hemmings spoke, the Captain searched through a pile of papers, drawing out a sheet. "Yes, I see that you are married now." Turning the sheet that Hemmings might see it, he continued, "and that you have designated Mrs Ambrose Hemmings, as the recipient. Many men of your rank appoint a male relation to take care of these matters."
"I see no reason to do so. My wife is more than trustworthy, and when at sea, I have few needs that pocket money will not satisfy." The man's expression grew troubled. It was obvious that the conversation's direction was not to his liking.
"I see that your wife's name is ... Janet," he said. "That is a coincidence. Was not Janet the name of that young woman who travelled with Miss Susan Locke?"
The men exchanged looks of acknowledgment. There was no need to ignore the obvious.
"Yes, Janet -- my wife -- is Miss Locke's cousin." He paused and then asked if the Captain would like to know how the marriage came about.
"I will always be grateful that you did not punish me to the full measure possible. The verbal lashing was more than enough. What you said about a man who accepted the attentions of a naive young woman -- his being not much better than a thief -- cut me to the quick. I am a man of science though, and at the time, I felt above all such conventionalities. I had lived my life, to that point, enthusiastically embracing my ... enlightenment." He looked at the Captain. Seeing that he had been understood, Hemmings continued. "I recall telling you that it had been Miss Janet who had been the aggressor and you laughed at me."
The Captain smiled. The lecture given Hemmings, upon finding his surgeon and the female passenger in the cable tier, had been one of his brother's favourites and while Edward had never aimed it directly Frederick's way, it had been heard at various times with various 'gentlemen' caught in difficult and embarrassing situations. While the words had been neither original nor delivered with the curate's moral imperative, it had proven effective.
"I am glad to see that you recall. Anywise, I determined that I should make amends somehow. I learnt into whose keeping she was given and where she had gone. The charitable soul turned out to be an Aunt Mary, the Admiral's maiden aunt on his father's side. -- "
As he was about to go on, the Captain interrupted and asked, "If you do not mind, how does one broach such a topic -- considering the, uh ... circumstances?"
"I wrote a very broad letter," he said matter-of-factly, "ostensibly, to enquire as to the health of Miss Janet -- I had treated her for sea sickness -- and the aunt being very clever, understood that either I had an active interest in her niece or an obligation. Her solution was to invite me to Cornwall and have a visit with the patient."
Rather like inviting the fox to throughly examine the chickens, Frederick thought to himself.
"I visited and found that Janet, when taken out of the company of Miss Susan," he cocked his head, "was quite a nice young woman. And the girls' Aunt Mary was not in the least dull; she knew that the finest thing for Janet would be a situation away from her brother's family in general and Miss Susan in particular." The two gentlemen took a moment to reflect upon the infamous Admiral's daughter. The doctor continued, "Captain, my wife is not brilliant, I would not be happy with the thrust and parry of an equal match, but she is kind and gentle. I like to think that we have amended one another for the betterment of each." In a more subtle tone, he admitted, "Janet is a wonderful companion to me, and a loving mother to my children."
The tone in Hemmings voice led the Captain to suspect the man held deeper and more tender feelings towards his wife than his unsentimental words betrayed. He felt he understood the doctor more than ever, but was not certain as to why. As he was about to bring the meeting to a close, a knock at the door brought him Mr Martin.
"I am sorry to bother you sirs, but the doctor's loblolly has arrived and is waiting in the sick-bay." The boy cast a nervous look from the doctor to the captain.
Hemmings stood. "Thank you, Mr Martin. Be so good as to tell her I am coming direct -- "
"Her?" Frederick cried, as he rose from his chair. "Your loblolly is a girl?"
Any burgeoning affability between the Captain and his surgeon had vanished. Hemmings countenance betrayed nothing as he turned to face his captain. "No sir. To be precise, she is a woman -- my widowed sister. And she is my Surgeon's Mate, not a loblolly. Mrs Partridge too is warranted. I explained all this to Captain Harville when I signed on. There seemed to be no objection on his part."
That morning, Louisa had wakened to the same sinking feeling that had greeted her each morning since her husband had left her. Wanting to put off rising for as long as possible, she studied the weave of the linen pillow slips and mused that her appearance downstairs was unnecessary. Her miserable performance in the kitchen the day before had proven to be a humiliation she feared would only worsen as the days passed.
As she had done each morning since Frederick's departure, she drew his pillow to her and breathed in his scent. Since he was not present, the scent was fading and was even growing somewhat fetid. She resisted the need to wash the case, but knew, in the end, that it was necessary and would be accomplished. But, as it was Thursday, and not the day for laundry, the pillow was safe for yet a while longer.
A knock at the door brought her out of her reverie and back to the present.
"Louisa? Louisa, are you awake?" Catherine asked.
"Yes," she called as she sat up, "come in."
Catherine came in slowly, and looked about the room. "I am sorry, I did not mean to wake you, but I have an errand for you ... if you would."
Louisa rose, and walked to the wardrobe. "Certainly I will do an errand." She was glad for any occupation, even the simplest of errands to town would be welcome. "What might I do?" She opened the wardrobe and selected a dress.
Catherine came fully into the room and closed the door. She took a seat on the bed. Taking a scrap of paper from her sleeve, she said, "I need you to order the bed for the nursery. I know that the Captain said he would buy a new one, as the old one was ... broken." She smiled a little at that. "Anywise, it will take some time for it to come from Ludlow I expect, and I wish the room to be ready."
Louisa turned and looked at Catherine for a moment. She came and sat next to her. "Are you having the baby soon, do you think?" she asked.
Catherine shrugged her shoulders. "I do not know. I have never had a baby and all my sisters are different in this. But I do want to be ready ... one never knows." She absently touched her stomach, but soon came back to herself. "And there are some other things that I will need." She handed the list to Louisa. "But I hesitate to have the Rector buy them ... many of them are feminine and you know how men can be."
Taking the list, she nodded as she read. Louisa did not know how men could be about feminine things, but agreed to make the purchases nonetheless.
After breakfast, she and the Rector set out for town. "The sun is certainly a welcome sight, I must say," said the Rector.
"Yes, sir, it certainly is," Louisa replied. She thought her brother-in-law was uncomfortable, alone with only her. To relieve the situation, she was quite willing to make any conversation possible. Though, she herself was not completely at ease. But after the weak attempt at sociability, the two satisfied themselves with continuing their walk in quiet union.
"I will go in and get the post. Wait here and then we will go over to Fulton's. Catherine's things can be gotten there," Edward said as he entered the small storefront.
Louisa stood by the door, out of the way of others who entered and exited with their post. She hoped there was a letter from her husband. The letter she had written must surely have reached Plym --
"Mrs Wentworth! I am so happy to see you!" The high, jarring voice startled Louisa and she turned awkwardly to see it's owner.
"Oh, heavens! Mustn't fall. There now," a sturdy little woman, the owner of the voice, said. "I did not mean to frighten you ... though I have noticed that many people in this town are very jittery ... I wonder if it might not be the water ... anywise, I am nearly overwhelmed at the sight of you ... I was just saying to Mr Cooper over breakfast that we must have you to dinner ... oh, and the Rector and Mrs Wentworth also ... but he was all for having you to dinner ... and your husband too -- if he weren't gone all ready -- "
Before Louisa could even respond to Mrs Cooper's bombardment, "Good morning, Mrs Cooper," was heard as the Rector's voice came from behind them.
"Oh, Rector! I was just telling your sister-in-law that the Curate and I so enjoyed your sermon Sunday. I did not have an opportunity to say as much after the service, but I was truly inspired by your words ... the Bishop of Shrewsbury could not have done better ... though never tell him I said that, I would not wish to offend him -- "
"No, Mrs Cooper. I am certain that you would not." Edward seized the opportunity to take Louisa by the arm and bid Mrs Cooper a good morning. When out of hearing, he said quietly, "I am not certain that Mr Copper might better use his wife's talents in a political career. She is quite a campaigner."
Louisa laughed. "Will we be invited to dinner?"
Edward groaned. "Most likely, yes. But not very soon. Catherine's condition will save us from social obligations for a good while." He glanced at Louisa, "Unless, of course, you wish to dine with the Coopers, I could escort you."
She glanced back. "Oh, I think it impossible. I am quite certain that once the baby arrives, Mrs Wentworth will need the both of us -- more than ever," she added.
"I must say, it is all ready an eventful day. Meeting up with Mrs Cooper and ... " the Rector reached into his pocket and drew out several letters, "a letter from each of my siblings. That has never happened before."
Louisa looked at the packets he held. There were not two, but three. "Yes it is a very eventful day."
"You know, I do believe that there is also a letter for you." He handed her one of the letters.
It was necessary to read the inscription, as she was not all that familiar with Frederick's hand. It was indeed from him. "It is," she beamed, "a very eventful day." Eager fingers began to open it.
Approaching Fulton's, the Rector said quickly, "I am sorry, sister, you must put that away for now. We have chores to do before pleasure." He touched his hat to a passing couple and ushered Louisa into the store.
The store had become crowded as the Rector and Louisa had made their purchases. When she was finished, Louisa stepped out to stand in the sun and wait for him. She felt satisfied that all her errands were complete. Everything on Mrs Wentworth's list was bundled in several parcels, the nursery bed had been ordered -- less than a fortnight from Shrewsbury she had been assured. The Rector had assisted her i setting up an account in her own name -- her husband's name actually, but she took delight in knowing it waited at the ready for her exclusive use. She brushed off the seat on a little bench outside the door, sat and waited.
Had Louisa been in Uppercross, where she was widely known and accepted, she would have removed her bonnet as she took the sun. But here, she decided a good impression was more important that enjoyment. She did, however, loosen the strings. As the door to Fulton's opened, she turned to see if it might be the Rector. It was not and she settled herself back on the bench. You goose! she suddenly thought. She took out Frederick's letter, broke the final seal and opened it.
For a moment, all she did was study the writing. It was bold and forthright. The lines were straight and even, no sags or curves. There were few splotches of ink and no words crossed out. It very much reflected the writer.
It would be impossible to say what drew her attention away from the treasured letter, but something had. Louisa looked up and around for a moment. She saw nothing. She turned her attention back to the letter, but before she could even begin, she looked around again. Then she saw something.
Across the roadway, down a few doors, stood Pollard Levant. He stared at her. But this was not the same amiable look he had given her on those occasions when they had spoken, but a pointed look she could not comprehend. He did not acknowledge her in any way. When he suddenly turned and walked away, she wondered if she might have offended him.
She jumped at the Rector's voice and soft touch to her shoulder.
"I am sorry." He looked at the letter. "Your thoughts are many miles away, I imagine. Let us go home and you may read in private."
He helped gather the parcels as she folded the letter. As they began home, Louisa turned and looked down the way Levant had gone. What had she done?
"Sir," Martin, officer of the Watch, said. His voice cracked as he gave Captain Harville the greeting due the First Officer. "The Captain is below deck, sir."
Timothy smiled to himself as he recalled those awkward days. The Navy saw this young man old enough to be in command of a Division of men, but his body would not allow him even to control his own voice. Harville nodded to Martin and asked, "Is Lieutenant Hunston aboard?"
Before Martin could answer, the man himself called out, "Yessir. Just taking a bit of air."
Lt Matthew Hunston was as fine an officer one could wish for. He was sturdy and well-looking. He haled from a naval family; his brother a newly-made captain, his uncle an admiral of the red and very well respected. The fact that he was mulishly closed-mouthed and devilishly close to being considered unsociable was not to be held against him -- as long as he knew his duties and performed them well.
Harville greeted the man in his usual warm manner, though he knew it was useless. Hunston would not reciprocate in kind. "Have you been able to strike a deal about the powder? I am meeting with the Captain now and I would like a bit of good news to give." His hope was, that news of powder would cushion the Captain's shock. On this small ship, Timothy knew that the presence of a female loblolly would all ready be the talk.
"Yessir. I spoke with the fellow just this morning. Twenty barrels of number one powder. He can hold it for thirty days himself and then, either we take it at the price agreed, or, he keeps it along with a healthy penalty."
Harville did not like to hear about the penalty. He would be glad to get the powder, but there was no guarantee when, or where, they might be able to store it. "That will have to do. We have thirty days to find a place. Perhaps I could take it home and let the wife store it," he quipped.
Hunston remained unmoved.
"No matter. Thank you for striking the bargain. I shall do what I can to complete it." He dismissed the lieutenant and stood for a moment studying the bowsprit.
"Sir, the Captain knows you're aboard and wishes to see you," said Martin.
"D*mn," Harville muttered, "there is not anything kept quiet on a man-of-war." He reluctantly made his way to the captain's cabin.
"Have a seat, Timothy," Frederick said as he motioned to a chair. Taking his own seat, behind his desk, the Captain did his best to look official.
"I have some good news, sir." Harville sat forward a bit and said, "We have twenty barrels of number one powder. It can be held for thirty days, but no longer."
"And a deposit is required, with forfeiture if we can not take the order."
Wentworth sighed. "Typical. They hoist their flagons to Crown and Country at the bar, but pilfer her blind in the necessities. Go on and pay it. I intend that the Laconia will be rigged and fitted very soon." This was his intention, but he had no idea how it might be accomplished.
After calling for coffee, the Captain settled himself back in his chair and gazed at Harville. He took a bit of perverse pleasure as his First began to fidget under his scrutiny. The two officers were not so different from a long-married couple; they often would finish one another's sentences, they easily predicted one another's reactions and even, in this unnerving case, read one another's thoughts.
"About Hemmings," Harville began.
"You mean, about Mrs Partridge, do you not?"
"Yes ... about her ... let me explain."
"Believe me Harville, I am in rapt anticipation of your explanation."
Michaelson entered bearing the coffee. He poured quickly and quit the room, but only to the shadows of the corridor.
Harville placed his cup back on the desk. It rattled when held in his lap. Wentworth held his cup steady and waited.
"About Mrs Partridge," Harville began. "Her credentials are impeccable, as are the Doctor's. He was quite firm that she be his Mate."
"I have no quarrel with her credentials. As you say, they are impeccable." Frederick slowly took another drink. He had no intentions of making this easy for his friend. Timothy knew his feelings concerning women on ships. He also knew the horrific situation which had brought Wentworth to such a conclusion.
Harville shifted. "The doctor also told me that his late brother-in-law -- Mr Partridge -- was the captain of a merchantman and that Mrs Partridge was very often with him abroad. She is very capable on board a ship and very understanding of the ways of the sea."
Wentworth remained unmoved. He put down the cup and folded his arms.
"I see I am making no progress with you," Harville said, as he stood and went to the stern windows. "You know, Frederick, these are not the Dark Ages. Women have sailed for quite some time and in many capacities. What we saw on the Thistle was barbaric and as uncivilised as one could imagine, but it was only once! Most women captured are not -- "
"I am not concerned with most women," Wentworth said as he stood. He came around the desk and continued, "I am only concerned with any woman under my protection. What happened to that woman was disgusting and I was ashamed to be of the male sex."
"I know. I myself will never forget the look in her eyes, but the men responsible were hanged."
"They were hanged for killing her husband -- the captain of the ship -- the mutiny. What was done to her was never mentioned in the trial. Had it been a court-martial, things might have been different. Though I doubt it."
"No matter what, those men paid with their lives. And that was a private ship, not a King's ship, things are not the same."
"Those men did pay, but I wonder if she might not rather be the one dead than to live with those sorts of memories." Wentworth was silent for a moment. He again wondered that he might enquire about the woman. But he dreaded an answer. Pulling himself from the morbid remembrance, he said, "Times are changing and it seems that my attempts to stay in the Dark Ages, as you called them, are futile. I have no choice but to honour the commissions of both the doctor and his Mate." He took his seat at the desk. "If there is a whiff of trouble owing to that woman, you will be held accountable, is that clear?"
"Yessir. Clear as crystal. I did not mean to go around you, Frederick. I did not realise that the Thistle was still so fresh in your mind."
Pouring them both another cup, the Captain said, "Not so much, really. But when something like that has formed your opinions, it is nearly impossible to change. Look at my own family. Sophia has sailed for years with the Admiral and never a speck of trouble. Though, I am certain that she is more than capable of protecting herself ... I would hope."
A more relaxed Harville said, "I am sure that there will be no trouble. And besides, a woman's touch is always welcome."
Frederick thought for a moment on a woman's touch. "Yes, a woman's touch is generally welcome, no matter where one might be."
"Here are all the things you asked for, Catherine." Louisa panted as she pressed the bundles into her sister's arms. One fell to the floor and was quickly scooped up. "I am sorry," she said. "I have a letter -- from Frederick," she added as she fled up the stairs.
Catherine watched her pelt away and envied the ease with which she moved.
"May I help you, dear?" Edward asked.
"Oh, yes. He has sent her a letter?
"Yes, and we have one also. And we have a letter from my sister." They moved in unison towards the stairs. "I can not remember when last we were so popular!" He tucked the largest bundle beneath his arm and broke the seal on his sister's letter. Before he began to read, he whispered, "Thank you for asking Louisa to do your shopping. I would have been mortified to ask for some of those things."
After a kiss on the cheek, she said, "That is why, most times, I say nothing, but hand the list to Mrs Fulton. It makes things so much simpler."
"Ah, I will have to remember that." He began to read.
As they entered their room, Catherine took the parcel from Edward. "What does your sister say? Anything interesting?"
"Oh yes. They will be quitting Somerset all together! They find that Bath is more to their liking and that the Admiral's gout is eased by the waters and walking." He paused and read some more. "Oh, I wish she had not said that!"
"What," Catherine asked as she put things away.
"Oh some piffle about accepting Louisa as a sister, but having harboured a fancy that Frederick was attracted to Miss Anne."
"Oh no." She came to his side and read the words for herself. "At least it is not blatant. Even if Louisa were to see this, she would not know exactly what it meant."
"She is intelligent enough to understand Sophie's comment about," he quoted, "'reconciling herself to the girl,' not terribly welcoming -- and the part about Miss Anne would sting, don't you think?" He looked at Catherine who could do no more than nod in agreement. "We are fortunate, were Sophia ever to know about the two of them and what they once meant to one another, poor Louisa would never stand a chance of being accepted into the family."
"Mark my words, Louisa will never hear anything of it from my lips," Catherine said as she gathered brown paper and string. "The engagement between your brother and Miss Elliot is from the Dark Ages as far as I am concerned. A history not worth the repeating."
Edward folded the letter and tossed it on Catherine's dressing table. "I wonder what the boy has to say," he murmured as he opened Frederick's letter. "Not much. The Laconia is being refitted and in the meantime, they are stuck on a hulk called the Moonshine. That is rich, the dashing captain is quartered in cabin with a low ceiling again -- like on the Asp, and he has knocked himself nearly unconscious more than once. He wishes you well, Catherine and enquires after Louisa and how she is truly doing. Nothing alarming." Folding this letter, it joined Sophia's on the table. "I have things to do in the study."
"Yes, and I must see to dinner." She caught his hand before he could get out the door. "Thank you again for helping me with my parcels, Rector." She kissed him.
"You are most welcome. I am at your service, anytime." As he turned to go, he kicked a small, square parcel that had been in front of the door. Both stepped out into the hallway as the Rector stooped to pick it up. Handing it to Catherine, he said, "I don't remember dropping this."
Catherine took it and turned it over in her hands. You do not think," she said, looking at Louisa's door, "that she left it here -- and might have heard us?"
Looking to the closed door, he said, "No, I think we would have heard footsteps had she left it. Besides, she is not the type to listen at doors, is she?"
"No, but we were speaking in normal tones -- and the walls are thin." Catherine sighed. "I suppose we will know soon enough. She was in raptures over her letter. If that mood has changed..."
He took her by the arms, "If that mood has changed it could be for a thousand other reason. The girl is nineteen and at the mercy of youth. Let us not worry until things prove warranted." The Rector kissed her and headed to the study.
As she watched him disappear down the stairs, Catherine could not help but wonder if, by her own lips, Louisa had not heard something of the pitiful history of Frederick and Anne Elliot.
"I think it will do you good. You are always closeted away, keeping to yourself far more than is healthy."
Frederick glanced at his friend. "Yes, well, I am a man with responsibilities. Shall I leave the paperwork to you -- as do most captains of my rank?"
Harville cleared his throat. "Ah, well you know that I am allergic to ink, my friend. Causes me to loose all sense of propriety and I become fractious." The Captain's point was well-made.
Wentworth took stock of the neighbourhood in which the coach had let them off. It was literally, and figuratively, miles away from the tiny house, under the pier, in Lyme.
"You have done well for Elsa. I am certain she enjoys living here. And, entertaining unexpected guests."
"Oh that," Harville replied, a little winded. "She will not mind. She told me to bring you for dinner one night."
"Knowing Elsa, she meant after a properly issued invitation." He stood back and watched his friend.
Timothy mounted and climbed the stairs with more easily than Frederick had seen in weeks. The plan to work his weak leg was being rewarded handsomely.
After entering the home, Wentworth was assured by Mrs Harville's warm welcome that he was as much a part of the family as anyone, and that there was never a need to await an invitation. He was given the best seat at the table and dinner was enjoyed with all the good-spirits of a domestic celebration.
As the gentlemen took refreshment and the ladies saw to their duties, Frederick fell into a deep study. After a quarter hour of silence, Harville had had enough and asked, "Was dinner to your liking? Solveig is a deft hand when it comes to fish."
The Captain looked up. "Yes, it was excellent. I had forgotten how fine a table Elsa set. You are most fortunate of men." He resumed staring out a front-facing window, as he sat, he absently fingered the stem of his glass.
"She indeed does me proud." He was about to continue when the doors opened and the lady herself entered, followed by her cousin, Solveig.
The gentlemen stood and the ladies took their seats. Solveig went directly to her needlework. This she found to be the most polite way to avoid conversation in English. Elsa also took up a needle, but was more than ready for conversation. "So, Captain Wentworth, how is Mrs Wentworth? I have been very remiss and have not yet written her in -- Shropshire is it?"
"Yes, Shropshire. She will like very much to hear from you. Though I have not received any post as yet. Knowing the Navy, I could return before the first letter arrives." He took a drink and repeated the jest to himself. He had expected something by then.
Harville brought the ladies each a glass of sweet wine and said, "I think we should toast the post. For no matter how late, it is always welcome when one is at sea." He raised his glass and the toast was made.
The afternoon continued on in the same tone; pleasant, comfortable and familial. When Frederick left, he told Timothy to stay home and report in the morning, that he would stand his watch that evening. As he returned to the Moonshine, Wentworth pondered a question. By the time he reached the ship, he had his answer.
The sun, so welcome earlier, now seemed a cold mockery to Louisa. The brilliant warmth of the day was a stark contrast to the dark, turbulent feelings that now governed her heart. Her reward for eavesdropping had been exactly what was deserved -- she had heard unkind things about herself and things about her husband, that were best left unknown.
After she had gone to her room and read Frederick's letter three times, she had decided to walk by the apple trees. When she had risen, something had fallen from her pocket. She then realised she was still in possession of one of Mrs Wentworth's parcels. She had intended to simply leave it by Catherine's door and continue out to enjoy the sun and her husband's letter. (At the moment, she had felt certain she would never tire of reading it.) As she had knelt to place the package, she had heard her own name and curiosity had gotten the better of her. She had listened at the door and by the Rector's own words, she had heard that Mrs Croft was none too fond of her and was unenthusiastic about her becoming a part of the Wentworth family.
If such a revelation had been the half of it, the situation would have been heart-breaking enough, but by that same faithless act, Louisa now knew more about her husband, a woman she considered a good friend, and perhaps even her own brother, than she had ever dared to think.
"I hate you Frederick! I -- hate -- you!" she cried as she brutally tore up his letter. A breeze picked up smaller pieces of it and sent them sailing along the stone fence. Other, larger pieces she snatched back and tore again. "All the while -- it was her --
She laid her head down on her arms and wept.
After a time, she became aware of a presence and as she raised her head, she was startled to find a fine cambric handkerchief being offered to her. The cloth was held by a very attractive, yet very manly hand. The hand was attached to Pollard Levant.
He held up a piece of the torn letter and said, "Disappointment in a loved one is the bitterest of pills, is it not Mrs Wentworth?"
Louisa looked around and did not see a horse or a rig of any kind. How had he come? Had he materialised out of the sunshine itself? She drew back. It was as though the cloth and the man offering it was poisoned.
Levant laid the cloth on the wall. "Don't be afraid -- merely a simple act of kindness between friends -- nothing more."
Louisa reached out and took the handkerchief. As she did, Levant dropped the bit of Frederick's letter that he had held. "He is not worth all of this fuss you know. No man is."
She turned and made herself as presentable as she could under the circumstances. She turned back and placed the folded cloth back on the wall. "Keep it," he said. "I do not think you are finished crying over his betrayal."
"There is no betrayal," she said. She knelt and began to gather what shreds of the letter were in her reach.
"Then why do you hate him?" Levant asked. He stretched to lean over the wall, to keep her in view.
"I do not," she said. Standing, she looked his way. Her eyes were drawn to his and she stammered, "I was upset, I often say things I do not mean when I am upset."
"Ah, I see. I never say anything I do not mean. I always act." He took hold of a limb of a nearby apple tree. "Just as the next occupant of the Rectory will have to act quickly to save this years crop. Poor old trees." The last he said to himself.
Wanting, with all her soul, to look away, Louisa continued in his gaze. "Always?"
He nodded. "Always."
There was an odd feel to their words. It was almost as if for every word spoken, a hundred were being communicated by their eyes. While she was not the most clever in conversation, Louisa felt she knew precisely what he meant with every reply, and the news was not good for the Rector.
"Then you never delay," she asked.
Again he shook his head. "Never. I find that boring. Better to act, and deal with the consequences as they manifest themselves."
She stepped closer to the wall. "But what if the consequences are dire ... injurious to someone?" Louisa had worn no bonnet, and the heat of the sun made her feel flush, nearly nauseous.
Letting the branch go, he considered. "I suppose an action of that nature would be sad, but hardly my concern." He took out his watch and looked at it.
"But there are people's lives -- " she cried.
He snapped the watch shut and interrupted. "This has been an interesting discussion, Mrs Wentworth. But I must go. We will talk again I am sure." With that he strode along the wall, to a wild hedge that bordered the Rectory. He reached into the hedge and lead a horse from behind. She watched as he mounted and rode away.
There was nowhere Louisa could rest her eyes, there was no thought that could give her comfort, so strong was her agitation. She had nothing except fragments of the letter she had destroyed. Slumping down in a corner of the wall, she cradled the bits in her hands, and helplessly remembered all that had gone wrong that day.
Anne closed her eyes and groaned as another peal of womanish giggling sounded from inside the drawing room.
The Assembly, no doubt, she grumbled. Again. She stood for some moments before the door, reluctant to enter.
TomorrowĖs ball, with all its delightful social opportunities, intruded into every conversation in the house on Camden Place. Mary was positively frenzied with anticipation over it; she could speak of nothing else. Unfortunately, Elizabeth and Mrs Clay had been happy to oblige her -- and from the sounds of the voices inside, so too were Miss Carteret and their father.
Anne sighed as she thought about Mary and her intense concern over appearance. Mrs Clay was not at all helpful in this regard; by her continual admiration, she only encouraged this unbecoming self-preoccupation. And it was quite clever of her adopt such a strategy, for MaryĖs opinion had undergone quite a change. Just this morning, she had pulled Anne aside to insist that Penelope Clay was the most excellent of companions, and hadnĖt she noticed how her taste in fashion had grown in sophistication since she had come to Bath?
I wonder how Mary will like calling such an excellent companion, 'MamaĖ? Anne grumbled to herself, as she signed for Burton to open the door.
For Penelope Clay was growing bolder in her attentions toward their father, or so it seemed to Anne. The woman had issued an invitation and Sir Walter had responded; to please her, he would be joining their Poetry Group today. Anne kept silent about this, but she was mindful to watch Mrs ClayĖs every move.
And she was not the only careful observer in the group that afternoon. James Benwick kept a watchful eye on Anne, for today he intended to address the duplicity of William Elliot -- if only he could speak to her alone. He was very pleased to notice that Mr Elliot was not present.
"Mrs Clay," said he, as he began the discussion. "I believe our selection today is of your choosing. If you will please give us the title and the number of the page, we shall follow as you read."
"Oh yes, Captain Benwick, certainly." Penelope ClayĖs fingers fluttered through the pages of her book. "I have chosen this one because of the wonderful Assembly tomorrow night! This poem is, oh, I donĖt know if I can put my feelings about it into words ..." She broke off speaking and smiled shyly to her companion on the settee.
"I learnt this poem as a girl, Sir Walter. It is so thrillingly romantic! Now that I am older, even after a life of heart-break and disappointment, it still speaks to me. Oh, to be loved with such pure adoration!"
Mrs Clay turned back to the group to see Sir WalterĖs second daughter regarding her with a fixed look. She quickly dropped her eyes to the book and began to read.
'Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup
And IĖll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of JoveĖs nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.Ė
As she read the last line, Mrs ClayĖs voice trembled with emotion. Unable to continue, she sought refuge behind her handkerchief.
"A-hem! We are looking at Mr JonsonĖs 'To Celia,Ė on page thirty-two," Captain Benwick said, in an attempt to make up for Mrs ClayĖs omissions. "And, Sir Walter, we have extra copies of the book on the table beside you, if you would prefer to have your own."
"I donĖt mind sharing," Mrs Clay was quick to say, from behind the handkerchief. "Truly, it is no trouble."
Anne noticed that her father made no move to procure his own book. Her lips compressed into a line; she directed her attention to finding the proper page.
"Very well," she heard Captain Benwick say. "Since Mrs Clay has paused here, has anyone a comment to make about the first stanza?"
No one said a word. At last Elizabeth spoke.
"Why is it so wonderful, Penelope? I do not see it as particularly romantic."
The ladies gave a collective gasp.
"Why, Miss Elliot! Of course it is!" Miss Carteret objected. "This is true love!"
"Eternal adoration! Sincere devotion!" Mrs Clay added.
"Oh, I see. True Love." Elizabeth raised an eyebrow and smiled. "True Love must be very odd, indeed. Contrary to nature, it drinks with its eyes."
The ladies exclaimed in protest, while Sir Walter chuckled at his daughterĖs witticism.
"They say," he quipped, "that love is better than wine, although I say, maybe not! It all depends upon the vintage!
"Oh dear," Mary groaned to Miss Carteret. "Men are all alike. Wine, indeed! ThatĖs just the kind of thing my husband would say!"
"But a man wrote this poem, Mrs Musgrove," Captain Benwick pointed out.
"Then a man should explain it," snipped Elizabeth.
"What a pity that Mr Turner is not present," Miss Carteret sighed. "He would explain it splendidly. In his absence, I suppose we must appeal to you, sir."
All eyes turned to James Benwick. An uncomfortable silence followed, but Anne had no fear for him. He always took a few moments to collect his thoughts.
"A deep and abiding love between a man and a woman does not need words to make itself known, Miss Elliot," he said at last. "Propriety often separates such a couple, yet even in a crowded room, they communicate without uttering a sound. Here we see the poetĖs desire for this, that his eyes would meet his beloved CeliaĖs above the rim of a wine glass, in a silent toast to one another across the table." He raised his hand, his fingers held the stem of an imaginary glass.
"They share a look, and this meeting of the eyes is all that is needed to say, 'Although this room is filled with people who demand my attention, I care for none of it. You alone are my one true love, and your love is worth more than anything I could ever desire.Ė "
The ladies sighed in unison and smiled at one another, except for Anne. She lowered her eyes and studied the cover of her book. As if this day was not bad enough, she was now forced to recall the loving glances of long ago!
But Elizabeth was not convinced. "And love makes a wilted wreath come alive?" She pointed to the final stanza, the one Mrs Clay had been unable to read. "Come, now. That is impossible."
Anne looked at her sister and wondered, not for the first time, how one who was so lovely could understand so little of love. Her eyes then shifted to the sofa. Her father and Mrs Clay were now examining her book; their heads were very close together. An angry flush mounted to AnneĖs cheeks; she willed it down and did her best to attend to what Captain Benwick was saying.
"You must look beyond the words, Miss Elliot, if you are to discover the meaning of the poem. Yes, it seems foolish that the man would send 'a rosy wreathĖ to his lady love and her breath upon it would make it live. What is meant by that?"
No one said anything, so Captain Benwick finished his thought. "Here we see illustrated a wondrous truth: love renews even the most withered of lives. One may spend years in secret pain, in loneliness, with such an empty dryness inside that oneĖs heart feels as barren as a desert wasteland. Then love comes ... and all is made new. The desert blooms ... and the wreath of cut flowers, which is dead, lives and grows."
There was silence as the group absorbed these words. Mrs Clay looked meaningfully to Sir Walter, or so it seemed to Anne.
"Speaking of Love, I have something to share with the group, if I may." Mozelle CarteretĖs eyes were bright with excitement as she brought out a rolled a sheaf of papers: a musical score. Her fingers trembled as she unfastened it.
"This song is about the passions of True Love," she said feelingly. "Since Miss Anne translated it for me at the Concert, I have been unable to think of anything else! Mother had the Concert Master bring me a copy. May I play it for you now?"
Amid the nods and murmurs of approval, James Benwick asked, "Er, which song is that, Miss Carteret?"
"Per Favori, Amore Mio," she sighed happily.
"Ah ... are you going to sing it? I mean, the Italian pronunciation is a little tricky, as I recall."
"No, I have not yet learned the words but I am working diligently to do so," she replied, as she seated herself at the pianoforte. "The melody is enchanting." And with a flourish, she began to play.
Meanwhile, several blocks away a young man was peering out of the window of his fatherĖs travelling coach as it rumbled along. He hated being shut up like this, but he had kept his promise to his mother and had remained inside for the entire journey. They were now within the city, probably not far from his destination.
Charles Musgrove sat up straighter and adjusted his cuffs and the tilt of his hat. No doubt his father-in-law would find fault with his appearance, as he always did. He hoped his wife would not be quite so critical.
Despite these apprehensions, Charles was quite pleased to arrive in Bath. He had made the journey in easy stages, taking two days to travel the fifty miles. And he was feeling better, more so than any time since leaving his sick bed. His original intention was to fetch his wife and sons home as soon as possible, but now he was changing his mind.
Perhaps Mary would enjoy an evening out, say, to the theatre, he mused, as he surveyed the crowded boulevard. That would please her. This last thought brought an expression of concern to his pleasant face. Mary had not been at all happy with him just before he had fallen ill.
At last the vehicle turned the corner onto Camden Place and CharlesĖ heart sank. This neighborhood was extremely fashionable; Mary would not be eager to leave. He eyed the elegant residences resentfully. This was exactly the sort of house his wife would like for herself -- a far cry from the cottage they shared at Uppercross.
Anne blinked to hear Captain BenwickĖs voice so nearby. She had paid no attention to him, being occupied with listening to the song -- and with watching Mrs Clay. While the eyes of the group were focused on the pianoforte, he had exchanged his seat for one near hers.
"I see you have brought my fatherĖs book with you," he said, in a low voice. "Have you had read the selection I marked?"
Anne lifted the volume from the table beside her and brought it to her lap. "Binnorie? I have, yes."
"And what do you think of it?"
Anne met his questioning look evenly. His choice had puzzled and annoyed her. Why should he deliberately give her such a piece? Since he was the only person in the room with whom she could speak frankly, she decided to tell him so.
"It is a perfectly dreadful story, Captain Benwick," she replied. "And the worst of it is, after the elder sister drowned the younger in the river, that wretched musician made a harp out of the dead girlĖs breast bone! Which is completely barbaric!"
Benwick grinned in sympathy. "I suppose that part about the harp was included as a dramatic element, to allow the murderess to be publicly exposed -- the harp crying out her name and all."
"Such a practice is utterly disgusting, regardless of artistic value! And ... you are laughing at me, Captain Benwick! What is so amusing?"
Benwick held up a hand. "No, no, forgive me, please. ItĖs simply that hearing this song again ... er, some of the Italian expressions in it are a little ... unusual. But, to continue with our discussion, may I say that I agree completely about the barbaric harpist."
"I should hope so! That certainly wouldnĖt be what any reasonable person would do if he were to find a dead, eh ..."
"Mmmm. And I have been in such an unfortunate position. But in those instances we sailors seek only to give our fallen comrade a decent burial at sea, with as much honour as possible. Never would we want to make a musical instrument out of him! Although, we did have one instance ..."
Anne lowered the book; her eyes narrowed in amusement. "Was this before or after you hunted and sold the rats?"
"Oh, er, after, long after," he chuckled. "I didnĖt mean to let that slip out yesterday! I do apologise. It seems I am always telling you things I shouldnĖt."
"Yes, you are! You have always done so, even from the beginning of our acquaintance!" Anne felt her lips twist into a smile. "But, please continue. You were going to tell me about a dead body?"
"It is not a proper story for a lady," he murmured.
"By that standard, neither was this horrid ballad!"
"True. Er, very well, Miss Anne. It so happened that several years ago we were called upon to transport an elderly statesman, who had the misfortune to die during the middle of the cruise. We werenĖt at all sure what to do with the body. Should we bury it at sea or bring it back to England? Our surgeon suggested we could preserve it in a keg of rum ..."
"Good heavens!" Anne choked back a laugh.
"Harville, who was First Officer at the time, thought it was a good idea, but he wanted the keg towed behind the Laconia in a skiff. Corpses are rotten luck on board and you know how superstitious Harville is! But Wentworth disagreed, he thought it was a waste of perfectly ... er ..." Benwick coughed self-consciously. "IĖm sorry. I didnĖt mean to ..."
Anne raised an eyebrow. "Let me guess. Frederick thought it was a waste of perfectly good rum!"
"That he did. But ..."
"And what happened to the statesman?"
"The situation resolved itself, much to Went, er, to the CaptainĖs relief," he said awkwardly. "A French frigate was spotted on the horizon; we were forced to give chase . So the gentleman was laid to rest at sea, er, quickly. Miss Anne," he added, "I am the most complete clod. I did not mean to ..."
The expression on his face caught at AnneĖs heart. Without thinking she put out her hand, then caught it back quickly. Her face become warm with embarrassment, for she had been about to touch his arm! Nevertheless, she felt she must speak.
"Captain Benwick," she whispered. "Please do not feel badly for mentioning him. Frederick Wentworth is my sisterĖs brother-in-law and your particular friend. Sooner or later, I must hear his name. Mrs Croft speaks of him nearly every time we meet."
Benwick was about to reply, but just then the drawing room doors opened and a voice called out a greeting. To everyoneĖs surprise, who should saunter in but Tino Turner. His skin was pale and his face had obviously been painted, but he was in some degree of health. Regardless of his appearance, his spirits were excellent.
Of course, the others were delighted. Miss Carteret could not rest until she had played her song again, and all repeated their exclamations of rapture over it, even more enthusiastically than the first time. Anne shook her head over this, but she was pleased to see that her father no longer sat on the settee with Mrs Clay. But for some reason, Captain Benwick was intent upon Binnorie; at the first opportunity, he brought the conversation back to it.
"So, tell me," said he, when the others of the party were busy discussing Miss CarteretĖs song. "Who is the villain in this ballad, Miss Anne?"
Anne frowned at the page and then at Captain Benwick. This was an absurdly simple question.
"Can there be any doubt? It is 'the false Hel`enĖ! She murdered her sister in order to steal the man she loved!"
"Are you certain?"
Anne looked at him with growing irritation. Was he laughing at her? She had asked this of him once before, though his answer then had satisfied her. His mood today was very strange, an odd combination of gravity and amusement. No, she decided, he is being deliberately provoking!
"Are you?" she shot back.
"You would so readily accuse one of your own sex?"
"If she is guilty, yes!"
"Ah! This question lies before us, then. Who is the most guilty?" He looked at her intently, then brought his chair closely alongside hers. "And I do agree, the villain is named. Let us go back to the beginning." He took the book from AnneĖs resistless grasp and pointed to the text. "Would you read this section again, please."
Anne swallowed a retort and complied as graciously as she could, which she knew was not very well.
There were twa sisters sat in a bour;
Binnorie, O Binnorie!
There cam a knight to be their wooer,
By the bonnie mill-dams oĖ Binnorie.
He courted the eldest with glove and ring,
But he loĖed the youngest abune a thing.
The eldest she was vex`ed sair,
And sair env`ied her sister fair.
Upon a morning fair and clear,
She cried upon her sister dear:
"O sister, sister, tak my hand,
And letĖs go down to the river-strand."
SheĖs taĖen her by the lily hand,
And led her down to the river-strand.
The youngest stood upon a stane,
The eldest cam and pushĖd her in.
"There, do you see?" Anne cried, unwilling to read further. "And the poor girl drowned! And the millerĖs son found her, dead, and then that harpist happened by! It is too horrible!"
"Anne, look again. Hel`en murdered her sister, but what brought that about?"
"Envy, yes, but envy caused by whom?"
"Hel`en herself, obviously. She was jealous of her sister." Anne returned his fixed look. James Benwick sighed heavily and made another attempt.
"Perhaps you see this differently because you are a woman. But look here." He reached over and pointed to the text.
"He courted the eldest with glove and ring,
But he loĖed the youngest abune a thing."
"He courted the eldest; he gave her a ring. Why? Must he marry this one in order to obtain favour and position with her parents, who are the king and queen?" BenwickĖs eyes looked into hers with an earnestness Anne did not understand.
"And I ask myself, Anne, what sort of man courts one sister while he loves the other? Not an honest man, certainly."
Anne leaned closer to him in order to read the words again. So great was her concentration that she heard nothing else in the room, save the soft opening of a nearby door.
"Did the youngest sister see the flaw in his character?" he continued gravely. "I doubt it, though she knew of her sisterĖs jealous feelings. When she begs for help, here is what she says:
"O sister, reach me but your glove!
And sweet William shall be your love."
"And Hel`en would not," Anne murmured. "She allowed her poor sister to die in the water."
"What a pity. Hel`en became a murderess, for sake of his love. I wonder if 'sweet WilliamĖ was worth it."
Anne looked at the page for a long while. "I see what you are saying," she said at last. "He does share some of the blame in this. Or ... it may be that William simply mistook his heart." Her voice sank to a whisper. "He courted one woman and then discovered he loved another. An innocent mistake." She raised her eyes to his. "Like Frederick."
"Like Frederick," Anne repeated, as tears began to well up in her eyes. Through them she saw a stricken expression form on his face, and that was even worse.
"Please excuse me, Captain Benwick," she whispered brokenly, as she struggled to rise from her seat. "I am not myself today ..."
"No, Anne, wait! That is not who I meant! Not Frederick! William!"
Anne heard none of this, or if she did, she could not comprehend his meaning. She brushed away her tears with a shaking hand.
"Please give my regrets to the others. I must ... this has been ... the most wretched day!" And with that, she blindly headed for the door, nearly colliding with the man who was standing just inside it.
"Hello, Charles," she said blankly, and then she was gone.
The man moved quietly to stand beside James Benwick, who was rooted to the spot.
"Hullo, Benwick," he said softly. "Hit a little rough water, eh?"
"Musgrove." James greeted him with a strained smile. There was no use pretending; it was obvious the man had seen his last exchange with Anne.
"You are better, I see." It was difficult to converse normally but James made a brave attempt. "That is good. Then perhaps ... you may be able to tell me ... " His voice cracked, but he gained control. "Who can comprehend the mind of a woman?" he said at last.
"Lord, I donĖt know!" Charles grimaced, in his good-natured way. "Not me, IĖm in the same boat! IĖve got sisters; I thought I knew all about women, until I married!"
"Everything I said, she misunderstood. Everything. I tried to be so precise, but ... I failed miserably."
"Oh, thatĖs nothing to my fatal flaws!" Charles replied, in a cheerful whisper. "Nowadays, IĖm like that fellow in the Bible, the one who saw the hand write on his wall ... whatever his name was ..."
"ThatĖs it! Belshazzar. You know, youĖre a handy fellow to have around, Benwick. Anywise," Charles said, more seriously, "IĖm like that Belshazzar fellow: IĖve been 'weighed in the balances and found wantingĖ ... by my own dear wife. Speaking of Mary," he nodded at the group clustered around the pianoforte and asked in a low voice;
"WhoĖs that fellow sheĖs been flirting with for the past five minutes? The blighter in the ... what colour is that coat heĖs got? Purple?
"Puce," James muttered. "Its all the fashion, according to your father-in-law. His name is Turner. HeĖs the author of this." He passed Charles a copy of the green volume.
"Lord," Charles breathed, as he opened it and flipped through the pages. "A writer? Mary ainĖt bookish, not at all!"
"She is now. HeĖs a poet, Musgrove. The darling of Bath society."
"You donĖt say." Charles gave the book another glance and then tossed it onto the cushioned seat of a chair. "MaryĖs been having a fine time, hasnĖt she? Chasing after some foppish poet while her husband lies abed with the fever!" He and James exchanged a look.
"HeĖs harmless, Musgrove, truly. He hasnĖt singled her out in any way. SheĖs been nothing other than silly." James bit his lip, and added, "I, on the other hand, have been a thoroughgoing clod. Everything I say or do is wrong ... and hurtful."
"Ah! Understand the feeling, Benwick, all too well." He looked once more to Mary; his expression became more melancholy. "Do you suppose sheĖll be pleased to see IĖve come for her?" he murmured. "WouldnĖt let that top-lofty butler announce me, after he mentioned this group. Thought IĖd slip in quiet, take in the lay of the land. Good thing I did. You have any advice, Benwick?"
"Advice from me? About a woman? ThatĖs rich." James smiled sadly. He looked at Mary Musgrove thoughtfully for a moment, then said, "YouĖve brought your evening gear?"
"Of course," Charles grinned. "CouldnĖt visit The Great Man without it."
"Ah. Well, sooner or later youĖre bound to hear. ThereĖs a grand and glorious Assembly tomorrow night. My advice is this: be there."
And with a nod of farewell, James Benwick collected his books and quietly left the room.
As Charles watched him go, a wary expression crept into his eyes. He stood alone for some minutes, watching and listening until he was satisfied that none of the others were aware of his presence. Then he too exited the drawing room, and waited. After the butler had closed the main door behind Benwick, Charles took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and approached the man.
"You may announce me now," he said.
Quotations are from To Celia by Ben Jonson and Binnorie or The Twa Sisters, a Scottish ballad.
Continued in Part 5
© 2001 Copyright held by author