Love Suffers Long and Is Kind, Volume IV
Chapter 7, Part One
Her note was short, formal, and to the point. It brought a look of concern to James Benwick's face when he read it, for his darling's little letters to him were invariably sweet and smiling. But this one, which simply requested that he grant her an interview at the soonest opportunity, caught his attention. Even the closing was wrong; it was signed A Elliot.
Leaving Charles Musgrove to sleep the morning away, James lost no time in setting out for Camden Place. She is likely worried over something to do with the wedding, and dashed off this note in haste, he reasoned, as he hurried along.
But once he arrived at his destination, he was no longer sure this was the case, for Burton did not bring him into the drawing room as before. This time, the man escorted him to the baronet's office and closed the door as he left. After what seemed like an eternity, Anne entered the room, but not alone. She held tightly to the arm of her cousin, William Elliot. Her face was drawn and pale.
She had no smile for him, no welcoming sparkle lit her eyes. Instead, she kept her gaze fixed on the carpet, until Mr Elliot prompted her to speak. She lifted her eyes only briefly then; her stricken, fearful look tore at James' heart. But even this did not prepare him for what came next.
"I find I have ... made a mistake, sir," she said quietly. "I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me."
At a murmur from her companion, she extended her free hand. "Here is your ring," she said, unsteadily. "Please believe me when I say I am sorry for the pain I have caused you."
James was struck speechless; he could hardly believe what he was hearing. Was Anne actually breaking their engagement? His eyes searched her face for clues, but she turned away, as if to hide from his gaze.
"Anne," he said at last, though his voice could not be trusted. "Anne, may I speak to you privately? For if there has been a misunderstand..."
"No!" she cried, in genuine alarm. "No, that I cannot. Please. Here is your ring."
Not knowing what else to do, James held out his palm. Her fingers brushed it lightly as she placed the ring there. "Anne, what has happened?" he whispered urgently. "You must tell me!"
Anne bowed her head. "I have come to believe that we shall not suit," she said, in a small voice. "You have done nothing wrong, nothing at all. It is just that I am ... I am not fit to be your wife. Please accept my best wishes for your health and happiness, sir."
"Anne, wait!" James could not help himself; he could not bear to let her go like this. He reached out and grasped her wrist. She cried out and pulled away.
"I believe this interview is now over, sir," Mr Elliot broke in, smoothly. " Your presence is painful to this lady." He allowed Anne's hand to slide from his arm as he moved to open the door. "Anne, dear, have you left the box of this man's gifts with Burton?"
Anne nodded mutely and turned to face the window. Though overcome by shock and disbelief, James realised he had been dismissed.
"God bless you, my dear Anne," was all he could think to say. After a final, searching look at her averted face, he turned and walked out of the room.
When he reached the main door, the butler handed him his hat and a wrapped parcel. And then James found himself ushered across the threshold, and onto the pavement. The door was closed with a snap behind him. He was shut out, out of the baronet's house, and out of Anne's life. Their brief engagement was ended.
"There now," said William softly, as he closed the door. He crossed the room and took hold of Anne's hand. Very gently, he kissed it. "That was not so hard; the worst is over. You were splendid, my dear."
"The worst is far from over," she whispered, and pulled her hand free.
"But you have followed the path of highest honour, dear Anne" he murmured. "I salute you."
"I would that you had done the same!" she shot back.
"My dear," said he, in a voice of great patience. "We have been through all this before, have we not? If you hadn't tempted me so, perhaps -- but, no. It is useless to go over this territory again. Far be it from me to accuse you. We shall make amends for our little indiscretion, and all will be well. Now," he said, more cheerfully, "shall I call your father? We may tell him our news together."
"No!" cried Anne. With her bare hand, she wiped at her eyes. "You agreed that I would tell him -- and everyone else -- in my own time, and in my own way!"
"I did, yes. But perhaps it would be easier if ..."
"You promised, William!"
"But my dear, time is something we simply do not have. For if you are even now with chi..."
"You gave me your word!" said Anne, through clenched teeth. "I expect you to keep it! And do not worry, I shall not delay overlong. I, too, want no scandal attached to our family name.
"Very well, my dear."
"And another thing. I would like you to purchase a special license."
"A special license?" he frowned. "That is rather expensive, Anne."
"Nevertheless, I want it done," she retorted. "The banns have already been read, announcing my intention to wed another. I can not and will not have the ceremony here!"
"As you wish, dearest," he murmured, and reached out to caress her tear-stained cheek. "I live only to serve you."
Anne pulled away. "Please excuse me, sir. I am not feeling at all well." And with that, she wisked herself from the room.
"The h-ll she did!" exclaimed Charles, as soon as he could find his voice. "Anne would never do such a thing!"
"I know, I know. It makes no sense." James groaned as he sank into one of the chairs in the library. "But she said the words, Charles. And she returned the ring. I've been over it again and again in my mind: every sigh, every look, every word. Unfortunately, that does not alter the end result."
Charles dropped into the chair beside his. "But I don't understand, James. She loves you. I know it!" he insisted. "D-mnation, she was willing to wear that blasted dress of Mary's simply because you said you liked the colour!"
James smiled weakly. "She was, wasn't she? Dear girl."
"Well," said Charles bracingly, and he heaved himself out the chair, "you deserve a little consolation, my friend. Where do you keep your liquor?"
James held up a hand. "No, no. Sit down, Charles. I need you to help me to think."
"You need me to do what? Gad, you're the first person ever to want me for that!" grumbled Charles. He obediently slumped into the chair.
"You're not as stupid as you wish to appear," James said softly, "so spare me the playacting, please." He bowed his head and lapsed into abstraction. Just when Charles was beginning to wonder whether he had fallen asleep, James opened his eyes.
"Playacting," he repeated. "That may be the ticket. Stand up, Charles," he ordered. "I need to go through this once again." James got up and motioned Charles over to the window.
"Now," he said, "Anne stood like this, with the window to her right." He moved Charles into position. "She held Elliot's arm with her left hand; she returned the ring to me with her right. Thank you, hold it out just like that."
"And when she turned to the window, her face was so," continued James, and he tilted Charles' jaw to the proper angle. "And I thought I saw there -- but it was her wrist which caught my attention first, wasn't it?"
"Wrist? What's Anne's wrist got to do with anything?" demanded Charles.
James paid him no mind. "When I realised that she had said farewell," he continued, "and that I might never see her again, I did a foolish, impulsive thing. I grabbed her, Charles, I grabbed her wrist, like this." James demonstrated. "Does this hurt you?" he asked; his eyes searched Charles' face for a reaction.
"Of course not! What are you getting at?"
"When my hand closed on her wrist, Anne cried out. Not in annoyance, not in anger, but in pain. Very well do I know the cry of pain," he added ruefully. "This has troubled me nearly as much as the rest. For I could hardly have hurt her this morning, unless ..." James let go of Charles' wrist and sighed deeply.
"Go on," urged Charles. "Unless, what?"
"... unless she had been injured previously. And I, in my foolishness, compressed her wrist at just that point." James' face hardened. "Which brings me to my first observation," he said. "I could swear that when she turned her face away, there were what looked like bruises along her jaw and on her neck."
"Bruises?" Charles dropped his hand; his fingers closed into a fist. "Someone has hurt her, then," he said grimly. "And you say Elliot stood by her side the entire time?"
"He never left us alone, not for a moment."
Charles' eyes widened in comprehension. "Good G-d, James!" he cried. "That man slept in the house last night! And today, out of the blue, Anne tells you she no longer loves you! And breaks the engagement! Bloody h-ll!
"Keep your voice down, please. I'll not have Yee barging in here, asking questions. Now, let me think."
James' eyes narrowed in concentration; he took a turn about the library. "Anne never said she did not love me, Charles," he said at last. "She never said she no longer wanted to marry me, either. What she did say, and this is most important, is that she was not fit to be my wife. Those were her very words."
"You don't think that Elliot ..."
"I don't know anything for certain, not yet."
"He is a very devil from hell!" Charles spat. "A smooth-talking, lying, smiling devil!"
"Naturally," grumbled James. "Lucifer is not ugly and coarse, as most suppose. He comes as an angel of light: handsome, well-mannered, and erudite."
"That's my wife's charming cousin, to a hair!" agreed Charles. "And her father, too, come to think of it. Well, except for being eru-whatever-you-said."
"So, I'm not deceiving myself when I conclude that Anne's hand has been forced," James said slowly. "I must say, I never expected such a direct move. Elliot's a clever, cautious sort; keeps his tracks well covered ..." James took a deep breath. "Get over to that house, Charles, now," he ordered suddenly. "I want you to learn everything you can about what happened this morning."
"Yes, yes, of course, right away," stammered Charles eagerly, and he immediately made for the door. When he reached it, he turned. "I may not know anything about espionage," he quipped, "but there's a first time for everything, isn't there?"
"Espionage? Who said anything about espionage," muttered James. "You need only to look stupid, ask questions, and listen carefully. And report back to me, post-haste."
"Hah!" Charles grinned. "I can manage the looking stupid part, can't I? That's me, the country clod! Never thought I'd put that to good use, eh?" And with a wave, Charles took himself off.
At that moment, Anne was lying full-length on her bed. She had wept until there were no more tears left; only misery remained. Presently she sat up and pressed her hands to her temples.
"It is over," she repeated again and again. "It is over. I have done it. I cannot go back."
Anne squeezed her eyes shut and tried to forget the look on James' face when she had returned his ring; his dark eyes had showed such bewilderment and hurt. "Oh, James," she whispered, "if there was any other way ..."
But she knew there was not. She could not marry him in good conscience, not anymore. And she would never betray the trust of such a dear and honest man. All that was left to her now was William Elliot.
Father shall be pleased by the news, she thought sadly. After all, she would be marrying his heir, and in his beloved London, of all places. The entire family would then reside in her husband's wretchedly fashionable townhouse for the remainder of the Season. He would have no choice in the matter, for Anne planned to invite them herself. And after that ...
Anne took a deep breath. She knew exactly what she would do after that, for she had made some rather cold-hearted plans during those agonizing hours before dawn. In September, she would make him take up the lease for Kellynch Hall. It would be expensive, but her father would have an income for his retrenchment. She would have a home, a beloved retreat, a safe haven. And her husband? He would return to London alone, of this Anne was adamant.
"And James will be alone, too, poor lamb," she whispered. It broke her heart to think of her precious love, a man so surprised to find romance again, living as a solitary inmate in that lonely house. He had loved her so sincerely; his letters (now returned) had been so heartfelt and adoring.
"And I was too shy of him to reply in kind," Anne murmured miserably. "How is it that I never realise how much I love a man until he is gone?"
Charles Musgrove returned to Chauntecleer much sooner than James expected and burst into the library, full of news. James struggled to make sense of his report, which was given willy-nilly, without regard to any order.
"I talked and asked questions and made jokes until I was blue in the face, James, but no one said anything about a broken engagement," he announced; his words tumbled over one another in his excitement. "Not Sir Walter, not Mrs. Clay, not even Elizabeth, and yes, I did go so far as to actually begin a conversation with her royal highness, thank you very much. I can't ever recall doing that before, for any reason."
"No one said anything about Anne?"
"Oh, they had plenty to say about The Wedding and how it is such an Inconvenience, being held upon such Short Notice! Gad, you'd think Anne had saddled them with hosting one of my mother's slap-up galas instead of a simple family reception!" Charles' pleasant face knit in a frown as he struggled to remember every detail. "But do you know, in all that time, I never once saw Anne. Or Mr Elliot. Mrs. Clay told me later that she was keeping to her room with a head-ache, and that he had gone out with Colonel Wallis."
Charles shrugged his shoulders elaborately. "So, there you have it. It appears to me that if your engagement is off, no one of the family knows a thing about it!"
"Thank God!" James bowed his head in relief. "We have a chance," he murmured. "It is a slim one, and we'll need to act quickly, but there is hope."
James then pulled himself together; indeed, he began to look downright cheerful. From his pocket, he removed a wad of bills, which he stuffed into Charles' palm. "Are you ready for another assignment?" he asked. "I've had time to make some plans while you were out. We must now take the next step."
"But what about luncheon?" wailed Charles. "The baronet refused to feed me; lord, you should have heard the hints he laid down to get me to shove off! They were beyond anything! I suppose his grub's only for those he deems worthy." He then noticed the notes in his hand. "You needn't pay me, you know," said he, softly.
"I haven't. What I want you to do next is to purchase a gun. Several of them, in fact. Harville and Wentworth both told me you're a crack shot; I'm counting on that. And we'll need your carriage, provisioned and ready to leave at first light tomorrow morning. Can you do this?" James stood and began to pull on his frock coat.
"Can I?" repeated Charles, with shining eyes. "Surely! I'll eat after I buy the guns. But, where are you going?"
"To call on Lady Russell," replied James, "and I pray to God that she is at home. And that she knows how to insinuate a dinner invitation for herself. I need to enlist her help if I'm to see Anne privately. If not," he shrugged his shoulders.
"You're going to challenge Elliot to a duel?"
"Certainly not! I'm no marksman, and even if I was, that's a fine way to begin with one's in-laws, by breaking the law and killing the heir!"
"Then what are you going to do?"
"That depends upon Lady Russell," said James, as he made his way to the library door.
Charles watched him go with a grin; there was certainly more to this fellow than one would expect. He wandered about the library for a bit, considering which sort of gun he should purchase. Would pistols do? Quite by accident, he stumbled upon an open chest in the corner. Charles knelt down beside it.
He guessed it was Benwick's sea locker, for his brother had had a chest of this same type years ago. Laid out to one side of it were supplies: a large coil of rope, an iron piece with hooks which Charles thought was called a grapnel, a bundle of dark clothing, and a small sack of tools which was emblazoned Lt. Benwick. There was also some sort of long knife. Charles drew it from its sheath and blinked as the bright gleam of metal met his curious eyes. He whistled in surprise. It was a particularly wicked-looking dagger; the blade was cruelly sharp.
"What in the world is he planning?" Charles wondered, as he carefully replaced the blade. And then he remembered the guns and made haste to be about his business.
It was shortly after three, and the night watchman had just finished his rounds on Camden Place, when a figure in black scrambled over the wall and dropped into Sir Walter's rear courtyard. The man immediately flattened himself against the stone bricks and waited until he caught his breath. Presently he began to make his way toward the house, mindful to keep himself hidden in the shadows.
At last James Benwick was near enough to see. He pulled his knit cap clear of his brows, shielded his eyes against the glare of the moon, and studied the row of windows on the uppermost floor. A long sigh left his lips. For there could be no mistake; wedged in the frame of one window hung a small, white flag: Lady Russell's handkerchief. James stared at it in wonder, for here was confirmation indeed. Lady Russell had seen Anne, and there was enough doubt in her mind that she had left this prearranged signal. Anne's window would be open.
As James looked more particularly at the back of the house, a smile spread over his grimy face. There were handholds everywhere; the veriest child could climb it! That is, a boy child, who has been at sea a year or two, he amended. He lowered a sack from his back, removed his ditty bag, the grapnel, and the rope, and hid them beneath some leafy bushes. For this time, he thought wryly, Rapunzel's rescuer isn't a knight, but a man of the sea, who won't have need of a rope!
Without these things, his bag was lighter; James slung it easily onto his back. As he began to mount the wall of the house, his spirits did likewise. The years spent boarding enemy ships by night, his nearly overmastering dread of discovery and capture, his sickening fear of pain -- these horrible memories melted away in the light of a generous Providence. For this task was not impossible, nor was he unprepared! He had done it many times before, and under conditions far worse than these, for Sir Walter's house was neither wet nor was it moving! James' heart nearly burst with gratitude; just in time he caught himself from singing aloud the first lines of the Doxology.
Î... and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?' On this night, in such a situation, James could not help but recall Mordecai's bracing words to Esther. But his smile appeared only for a moment. He quickly willed down his sensation of triumph, and reached for another handhold.
Chapter 8, Part One
"If so much did not depend upon it, I should certainly repair to an inn! Immediately!" muttered William Elliot, as he made his way downstairs late that morning. Under his breath, he swore softly. He had now spent two nights at Camden Place and was heartily sick of the uncomfortable accommodations. He made a mental note not to stay at this house whenever he and Anne would next visit Bath. "Which wonĖt be soon, or often, I thank God!" he sniffed.
As he came into the dining room, William nearly collided with Penelope Clay, who was in the process of bringing a glass of water to the baronet. She smiled pleasantly, as always, and begged his pardon. He made his way to the table, signed to the footman to serve a cup of tea, and glanced about the room. What he saw brought a scowl to his face, for Sir WalterĖs daughters were nowhere to be seen.
"Good morning, sir," he murmured, with a polite nod to his host. "And, er, Mrs. Clay, of course." William was so revolted by the cozy tryst he had interrupted that he did not offer to assist the woman with her chair. Instead, he sat, shook out his napkin and said, with a frown, "I do not see Miss Elliot this morning. I trust she is not unwell?"
Sir Walter shared an amused look with Mrs. Clay before he replied. "Elizabeth has a distinct aversion to breakfast, Cousin. She shall be here presently, I expect."
"But you must make certain not to speak to her at table, Mr Elliot, as you did yesterday morning," put in Mrs. Clay, with a knowing smile. "None of the rest of us dares to do so. Elizabeth abominates conversation at this time of day and is best left to herself."
William Elliot could only stare at what he considered a most ill-bred, unbecoming familiarity. "Surely Miss Anne does not share a similar disinclination," he said severely, as he selected a sweetbread from the proffered tray. "Perhaps she is sleeping late this morning?"
"Anne? No, no, Anne was up hours ago," replied Sir Walter absently. "She went off somewhere with Lady Russell."
"I see," said William, as he helped himself to a generous slice of ham. "Yes, I now recall it; the requisite morning drive. It has been her habit to accompany her ladyship most mornings, has it not?"
"Why, yes, Mr Elliot," Mrs. Clay replied, though her smile wavered just a bit. "I believe Miss Anne has done just that."
Edward picked at a stray bit of sealing wax left from his brother's letter. He and Abernathy continued to laugh over some nonsense. As the two quieted, he looked about and realised the Captain had left them. He caught sight of boots under a tree some feet away. The Rector squatted and studied the scene. Unable to resolve the peculiarity, he murmured to Abernathy, "What is he doing?" The doctor dropped down with him, but had no answer. "Are you all right, brother?" Edward called.
"Aye, Papa," the Captain called. He had not even tried to keep the sarcasm from his voice. A distant shout caught his attention. He looked up and watched a carriage making for Crown Hill. The turn off the infamous Glencoe Road was marked by a deceptively sharp corner. The vehicle, though moving at the double, managed to make it without incident. Coming to the straight-away, its pace freshened. He mused that the cargo must be vital, or very expensive as the horses were lathered under their harnesses. His eyes moved from the team to the box. "Good G-d," he breathed. It could not be -- but what if it were? He ducked under a branch, though not low enough. He scraped his forehead as the branch yanked off his hat and sent it tumbling to the grass. He thought he heard his brother call out to him. Or perhaps it was Abernathy. He paid no mind. Nothing mattered just then. Not his brother, his lost hat or the pain of the scrape. Frederick kept his eyes on the carriage and began to run towards the road.
The Rector and the Doctor looked at one another, then at the approaching carriage.
"Lor, I hope his mind has not snapped with the pressure." the doctor said.
"I haven't the faintest idea where he might be off to," said the Rector, heading in the same direction as his brother. He struggled to open a gate which moments earlier the Captain had taken in one stride. Holding it open for the Doctor, he said, "It looks as though we have visitors."
The Captain slowed along side the carriage. His hand was on the door handle even before the carriage came to a full stop. In one motion he had the door opened and the steps down. He was rewarded by the sight of his wife coming to him from the shadows. The hood of her cape shadowed her face, but he knew her frame. "You are here," was all she said. She came into his arms.
"Where have you been, my girl? Where have you been?" he asked, his voice ragged. There were no answers, only her sobs. It did not matter, in time the answers would come, for now he would glory in her return. From somewhere nearby a voice interrupted their joyful reunion.
"Please be careful, Captain. Your wife is not in the best of health and she is not the most obedient patient either." He opened his eyes to see the sober, angular face of his ship's surgeon. Hemmings was his usual unsmiling self and continued in his typical brusque manner. "Did you know you've cut yourself, Captain?" He dismissed the wound and returned to the matter of Mrs. Wentworth. "In light of your wife's resistance, might you see her to the house? She has fought sleep the entire journey, and has only just begun to eat to my satisfaction, I suspect her to be very weak. Though, by her stubbornness, you would never know it."
The Doctor's words brought Frederick out of his reverie and he became aware that others, his brother and Abernathy, had joined them. He also became aware that his wife's sobs seemed to be a peculiar mixture of joy and something else. He put her on her feet. He pulled back the hood and gently raised her face that he might examine her. "What is the matter, Loua? Good G-d, your face," he cried. "What has happened Hemmings? I demand to know what has happened to her."
As he spoke, his eyes never left her face. She was deathly pale, her eyes at first glance were mere dark smudges. On closer examination, the left was darkly ringed while the right was cruelly blacked. Had this been all, Louisa would have presented a shocking sight, but it was not. Her blackened eye continued down and ended with a ferocious wound, the severity of which could not be gauged as it was covered with a sticking plaster.
She turned from his gaze and pulled up the hood of the cape. He held her by the waist and could feel her tremble under his hands. The joy he had felt upon seeing her was washing quickly away.
"I shall explain what I know, Captain," Hemmings said. He indicated the house, "Might we get her inside? She is very weak."
Louisa stepped away and began towards the house.
"Mrs. Wentworth, please allow someone to assist you."
She ignore Hemmings and continued on.
"Cousin," Abernathy called. He started towards her. The Captain held him back. In two steps he had come even with her.
She stopped and turned. Before she could say anything he swept her into his arms.
"Ugh," she groaned, and bit her lip. "Please put me down, I do not wish -- " she began.
"Mrs. Wentworth, please," interrupted the doctor. To the Captain he said, "Her ribs are bound. None are broken that I can tell, but she is very bruised." He turned back to the carriage and helped Mrs. Partridge dismount, but added over his shoulder, "She is a stubborn one, your wife."
As he strode to the Rectory, the Captain's thoughts were in a shambles. Her unexpected arrival, the warmth of her initial embrace, her now clouded expression, the vicious marks on her face all clambered for his full attention. To add to the tumult, he now realised she had lost a significant amount of weight. What abominations had befallen her he did not know. Explanations would come. He dreaded them, but come they must.
"Have a care, Abbey," said Hemmings to his sister. He was aware that two other man had joined them. One of them was a religious man. He seemed to remember that the Captain had a brother that was a cleric of some stripe. On the other he could not speculate. As his sister alighted and turned back for her bag, he asked, under his breath, "You are very certain about your examination? It would not due to keep this quiet and then be proved wrong later."
She turned and opened her mouth to answer, but before she could the two unknown men moved closer, obviously bent upon introductions. Hemmings glanced at Partridge. She nodded and kept her counsel. The cleric introduced himself as Rector Wentworth and the other as a Doctor Abernathy. They got very little in the way of response. "Good to meet you. I am Doctor Ambrose Hemmings and this is my mate, Mrs. Abigail Partridge. Please excuse us, we have a patient to see settled." The man and woman hurried to the house.
Neither Wentworth nor Abernathy wished to condemn the man was insufferably rude; he was only saved by the obvious good-breeding of his female companion; the woman had given them a kindly smile with her curtsey. It was Abernathy who broke the silence.
"So, he is a doctor. I wonder where he came from."
They made their way to the house as the pondered the arrival. "He was very familiar with my brother. I suspect," said Edward, "that he is the surgeon assigned to the Laconia. The name seems ring a bell.
"Ah, I see. But," he said, with a puzzled tone, "what of the introduction of his wife? 'My mate' he calls her. But she is Mrs. Partridge and he is Hemmings. That is queer."
Wentworth examined his friend as he opened the door. He was certain the Doctor was having a joke at his expense. Seeing no humour in Abernathy's face he realised the man knew nothing of the sea, her ways or the titles given those who sail on her. He laughed. "No, Michael, she is not his mate -- I mean she's not his wife. Let me explain," he said as they entered the house.
After a brief explanation to Graham about the train which had just passed through her kitchen, Wentworth and Abernathy entered the study to find Dr Hemmings warming himself by the fire. He looked up at them and then back to the flames. "I hope you do not mind, the sun is bright, but has not much warmth."
"Uh, no. Not at all, Doctor. Will you have some sherry?" The Rector went to the table to pour out the glasses." Or perhaps you would care for tea instead."
"Yes, a sherry would be quite welcome. Thank you. All the rest have gone upstairs to see Mrs. Wentworth settled." He accepted the sherry.
The Rector handed Abernathy a glass. He began to pour for himself and stopped suddenly. "They are upstairs." He abandoned the sherry and hurried to the door. "Catherine will hear all the ruckus in the hall and wonder at it. I had best tell her of this happy news." He left the doctors to themselves.
"His wife just had a baby -- twins actually. It was a difficult birth and she is abed." Abernathy explained.
Hemmings nodded and took a sip, but made no reply.
"So, Doctor," Abernathy tried again to converse. "How do you come to be involved in bringing Mrs. Wentworth back to the bosom of her family?"
Hemmings looked from the fire and made a quick appraisal of Abernathy. "I do not mean to be rude, sir, but I would prefer to discuss the particulars with the woman's husband."
"Oh, sure you would." He would not be daunted. "I am ignorant of the finer points of sailing and the sea, but I am very interested." Hemmings stared at the fire. "The Rector says that a 'mate' is your assistant. That you have a female assistant is remarkable."
Hemmings relented. It was not his lot to have any quiet. He took a seat next to Abernathy. "It is not so remarkable at sea. Mrs. Partridge is my assistant, but also my sister. She has sailed with me before and has the finest pair of hands I have ever seen at work."
"I suppose she would have great skill with poultices and such. And all the womanly skills of nursing."
Hemmings looked over the glass. He sighed and said, "She is of course all that, but I was referring to her skills with a scalpel." He raised his glass and drained it.
Abernathy sputtered his sherry and came forward in his chair. "You mean she has surgical training? She is a surgeon -- that she operates?"
"Oh yes," said Hemmings. The reactions of his male colleagues always amused him. "When there is a battle, no man cares whether is a woman or a man who wields the saw that removes the mangles limb. The men on board all have great respect for my sister." His tone made clear his own pride.
While the doctors began an in-depth discussion of the intricacies and paradoxes of naval medicine, Mrs. Wentworth was being settled upstairs.
"One moment sir while I prepare things." Partridge began to bustle about the room. She seemed to know her duty even in a strange place. He nodded. Holding her longer would not be difficult, she seemed like nothing in his arms. Her hands were folded before her. They were bandaged. Another mystery. Her eyes were closed. Tears had spilled down her cheeks.
"Sir?" The voice was that of Partridge. "Might I put this satchel aside? So that I may put your wife to bed."
"Uh, yes. I suppose that might make putting you to bed a bit easier." He looked at Louisa. Her eyes came open suddenly.
"Put me down, please."
She watched the satchel being whisked away and said, "You were leaving here?"
"Yes, I was. My plans now will have to be altered."
She did not face him, but said, "Yes, I suppose my homecoming has interrupted many things."
"I did not -- "
"Sir, I mean neither rudeness, nor insubordination, but I must ask you to leave us. I have a patient to care for. It is my duty, sir." The small woman folded her hands and looked squarely at her captain.
Louisa's back was to him. She made no attempt at conversation, or even to look his way. Had she somehow been forced home by Hemmings? Was that the reason for her defiance? Was coming back to him such a torture? "I will be back after you are settled. We can talk then." He turned and walked out the door.
"Thank you, sir," Partridge said as she ushered him out the door. He was about to move on when he felt the ring in his pocket. Perhaps this will soften her feelings. The door clicked shut just as he turned to re-enter the room. Again, in just a few weeks, he was nose to nose with the same door; separated from his wife by illness and a woman bent on nursing her.
"I can give it to her later, I suppose. I should just be grateful she is home and safe," he muttered as he pushed the ring back in its pocket. As he walked down the hall, to the stairs, his brother exited from his own room.
"I have told Catherine the good news. She is overjoyed, I may have to tie her to the bed to keep her from creeping across the hall for a visit."
Frederick stopped and stared at Edward.
Edward took his arm. "Are you all right, Frederick? You have gone quite pale."
"I don't know." His eyes stung and his throat suddenly ached. "I have seen extraordinary things in my life -- miracles really -- but this -- she has been returned to me -- I -- "
Edward took his brother's arm and propelled him towards the stairs. "Her return is a wondrous gift from the All Mighty, Frederick. Embrace it, revel in it. Never forget it."
"A gift it is, I must say."
"Aye, and so is healthy glass of brandy. You look as though you need one, Brother."
The Rector and the Captain entered the study to find Doctors Abernathy and Hemmings debating the merits of opium,or other depressants, to be used in the course of surgery. As surgeons each was interested in the others opinion. Hemmings thought them to be a waste of precious time. He declared that a decently sharp saw would have the job finished and the patient on the road to recovery before even a heroic dose of laudanum had a chance to take affect. Abernathy countered with that strapping a man down, and giving him a leather bit to chew, was hardly to be considered civilised medicine. As the other gentlemen found seats, the men of medicine agreed to disagree and refilled their sherry.
Taking his glass back to his seat, Hemmings asked the Captain, "Is there a place that we might speak privately."
Still in a bit of a fog from the sudden events of the day, the Captain said, "You may speak freely, Hemmings. The Rector is my brother and Abernathy is my wife's cousin. They have been privy to everything that has occurred."
Hemmings kept his feet. "Sir, I do not mean to be contradictory, but I must really speak with you in private."
Frederick looked hastily at Abernathy. He was taking a long drink of his sherry. "Use the sitting-room, by all means," offered the Rector.
"What is it, Hemmings?" Wentworth asked, having closed the doors to the hallway.
"May we stipulate, sir," said Hemmings, "that I am speaking as your wife's doctor, and not as a member of the Laconia's crew?"
Inherent in such a suggestion was that his surgeon bore bad news and was aiming to protect himself from any formal punishment. "Yes, Mr Hemmings, I stipulate this. Now, tell me about my wife." A sudden flush and creeping chill were struggling to take control of Wentworth's taut frame.
"First, sir, I understand that your family is anxious to know of Mrs. Wentworth's condition and I will be happy to relate what information I have in their company -- with your permission, of course."
"Thank you, now will you please tell me about my wife." His mind swirled with the possibilities if Randwick were involved. "Where was she? Who was she with?"
"She was in Plymouth, sir. All this time. She was being held by a fellow named Randwick, he is from this area I believe she said. He held her in a house somewhere in the midst of town. It was close to the Hill, sir. It must have been fairly close to the Harville's neighbourhood, as it was yesterday morning Mrs. Harville found -- "
"Elsa Harville found my wife?" The Captain was not certain whether he should laugh or cry at such a revelation. "She had been in Plymouth?" He was disgusted, as though he should have known.
"Yes sir, all this time. She has no idea where the house is located. It was dark, the middle of the night when she escaped. That accounts for -- " He stopped mid sentence. "Sir, these are facts that I will gladly relate in the company of your relations. There are other matters to do with your wife that I wish to discuss."
"Go on, Hemmings."
"Captain, it is a practice of mine keep a log of my patients and a pictorial of the location of wounds and the severity of them. It helps me when the are so many."
"She is wounded badly?"
"For a young woman of her station, I would say yes. She has told me that the wounds were all gotten in falls and such. But I know that is not completely true. There is much about this affair that she chose not to tell me."
"Captain, I think she told me enough so that I would not press her too sorely, that I would be pacified with certain information and not question further."
As the day waned toward evening and the MusgroveĖs carriage lurched its way down the road to Kellynch Lodge, Anne was at last lulled to sleep. Lady Russell looked over at her goddaughter and sighed. It had been an agonizingly eventful twenty-four hours; she was hard-pressed to say which of them had been the greater sufferer.
Dear me, of course, it has been Anne, she scolded herself, as she reached over to tuck the lap robe more securely about the girl. Even in her sleep, Anne continued to clutch the handkerchief Captain Benwick had given to her, as she had done for the entire journey. It was a childish behaviour; Lady Russell fought her impulse to remove it. My darling has had a dreadful time, she told herself, but things are going to be just fine now.
Amanda Russell leaned back against the squabs and thought about the part she had played in this little drama. Against all her better judgment, she had agreed to call at Camden Place. And though every fibre of her being rebelled against such conduct, what she saw in Anne's eyes propelled her to follow Captain BenwickĖs suggestion: she had "weaseled an invitation" to dinner and had found an opportunity to speak apart with Anne.
She did it mostly to disprove the monstrous accusation which Captain Benwick had brought against Mr Elliot. But the pieces of the puzzle fit too exactly. Had not the man himself freely confessed his preference for Anne several weeks ago? And when that fact was coupled with Captain BenwickĖs account, and the girlĖs changed countenance, and the mark under her chin ...
Still, putting her handkerchief in AnneĖs unlocked window had been the hardest thing Amanda Russell had done in a long, long time. For by that act, she had allowed a man not AnneĖs husband to enter her bedchamber. What a mercy it was that Captain Benwick had proven himself trustworthy!
Lady Russell closed her eyes with a sigh. Nothing could have prepared her for the sight which met her eyes before dawn today, as she was confronted by Anne upon her doorstep. Anne, so ill-clad in her nightdress and cloak, clutching at an ugly hat. Anne, who collapsed into her arms and poured out a such a tale of heartless coercion!
"Dear Walter must be appraised of Mr Elliot's poor character, somehow," she murmured, as she opened her eyes to take in the passing scenery. But what could be said, and when? Of course, she could never condemn the baronet, for he had simply been following the generous impulses of his heart. After all, he had so freely forgiven the young manĖs social solecisims of years ago! And surely no one could be blamed for trusting his own heir, could he? But, it was a thorny situation all the same, and long did Amanda Russell wonder how she might protect her friend and neighbour.
"And then, there is that Mrs. Clay," she murmured, as she smoothed her gloves. Amanda RussellĖs lips pursed together in disgust. Her disapproval of the woman had never been a secret; the divorced daughter of a tradesman was altogether unfit to be the hired companion to anyone, let alone the Elliot sisters. Elizabeth was to blame for turning her fatherĖs head on that score!
And last night! The good ladyĖs jaw tightened as she recalled Penelope ClayĖs daring gown and smiling, forward behaviour. She begins to see herself as the next Lady Elliot, that much is clear, Lady Russell sniffed. Far better women had longed to step into her dear Elizabeth's shoes, and been denied it! But she knew something would have to be done about this situation, and soon. Not for nothing had she kept watch over the baronet for so many years! She did not intend to lose him to such an one as Mrs. Clay!
Perhaps, Amanda Russell thought, with a gleam in her eye, perhaps I should Îweasel an invitationĖ to dine in that house more often!
"So," he said, "she threw the dog a bone."
"Yes, she did. But the dog would not be satisfied." He took a breath and continued. "Normally information of this nature would be for my personal benefit, but I think that you should hear it. I took it upon myself to have her examined ... " The Captain's countenance stiffened. "I can assure you that Mrs. Partridge is very knowledgeable on these sorts of matters. When I took her on it was not necessary to tell you, considering the crew, that she is a skilled mid-wife and understands female function very well."
He nearly choked saying, "And she found ... "
"There was no violence to your wife. None intimately that is."
Frederick wished for a chair. The relief nearly took him down. He locked his knees and set his face. "What of her other injuries? Her face?"
"Her account of her escape includes two falls. One from a high wall surrounding the house where she was held. She fell into a stack of crates and barrels, she thinks she might have bruised her ribs at that time. The other fall was down a few stairs in the stairwell of Mrs. Harville's church. She had hidden for two men following her -- they assumed her to be a prostitute, as did the church's rector. She said -- "
"This is becoming very confused, Doctor," he held up his hand to interrupt. "I will hear of this later, from her own lips hopefully. I am assuming that you do not believe that she was injured in the falls. How then?"
"When I first cleaned and examined the wound, I was not in the least suspicious of her explanation, but upon further scrutinisation I found that the bruising pattern is consistent with that of a a human hand."
The Captain frowned. "Certainly not an open hand. Not with so much damage."
"No, certainly not." He held up his closed fist. "No, closed. The knuckles here were perfectly visible. The definition has since faded." He dropped his hands. "I naturally believe it to be a man, not a terribly big man, but one wearing a ring. That accounts for the wounding of the flesh of her cheek."
The Captain said nothing. That his wife had been taken from her home was outrage enough. For her to be brutalized at the hands of a man such a Daniel Randwick turned him cold with rage. He walked away from the doctor and stood rooted before the window.
Hemmings watched his captain for a time. The silence was more than he could bear. "Captain Wentworth. Again I remind you that I am your wife's physician. You and I both know that an evil against the body is not always violent; that the mind can be used first to circumvent a struggle. I do not know that to be the case here, but I do know that when Captain Harville arrived, and not you, your wife was grossly disappointed. No one had thought to tell her you had been summoned to Shropshire. As I say, she was severely disappointed, she was looking very much forward to seeing you. So much so that when I advised bed-rest for a few days, she was ... " He chose his words carefully. "Let me just say that she threw a tantrum, the likes of which I have never seen. The point is, she would brooke nothing which kept her from being reunited with you, her husband. The only way to pacify her was arrange for a carriage and to leave that day. But even as we were being waved off her mood changed dramatically. She became depressed and fractious. As I said when we arrived, she would not eat, nor sleep. She became a very trying patient. To a small extent Partridge was able to introduce the small end of the wedge into her gloom, but not very often." As an aside he added, "Which is a surprise as she was a master of it when we were children."
"And so you think what? The idea of returning to me suddenly became repugnant to her?"
"No, sir. I believe that she genuinely wanted to see you, be with you, but there may be ... things." His words failed for the first time. "The idea of seeing you was vital to her. She fought for it, but then when the time came, as coming home to you became a reality, perhaps fear of what has transpired ... and your reaction -- " he paused. "You know that my wife is also young. Not as young as Mrs. Wentworth, but I do understand some things. The desire to protect, not just because she is your wife, but because she is young, and vulnerable. I advise you go slowly down this path with her, Captain. Very slowly. For both your sakes."
"Good G-d!! Kellynch Lodge?!" William Elliot nearly choked on a swallow of wine. He set down his glass with a snap. "Anne went with Lady Russell to Kellynch Lodge??" he demanded.
Sir Walter blinked at his cousin, who was seated at the left side of the long dining table. "Oh, yes, I suppose so," he replied vaguely. "What did Lady RussellĖs note say?" He frowned in an effort to remember. "Something to do with the wedding, I know it was ..."
"The wedding?" sputtered William. "For your information, sir, the wedding is --"
"Lady Russell wishes Miss Anne to wear a necklace which belonged to a relation of hers," Mrs. Clay interrupted helpfully, speaking to Mr Elliot around the large spay of flowers which decorated the dining table. "And as Mrs. Charles has given her a blue gown, her ladyship wants to be certain that it will look exactly right." PenelopeĖs face reddened as she noticed the darkening expression on Mr ElliotĖs face. "Or, so she said," Penelope faltered. "Er, in her letter, that is."
"What letter? Why was I not told of this before?" demanded William. "Could not the woman have sent a servant to fetch the da-, er, necklace?" Instead of dragging Anne on a fifty-mile goose-chase?"
Sir Walter brightened. "To send a man after it, instead? What an excellent notion, Mr Elliot! Though, perhaps weĖd best not mention it to Lady Russell." The baronet lowered his voice conspiratorially. "She is not the most intelligent of women, you know," he whispered loudly, with a wink. "Which is a pity, for in most other respects, she shows excellent sense."
"The whole thing sounds perfectly beastly to me," declared Elizabeth, from her place at the foot of the table. "And I say it serves them right. Lady RussellĖs carriage is dreadfully ill-sprung. If Anne chooses to go gadding about in it, bumping over every rill and dip in those horrid country roads, she is most welcome!"
William ground his teeth and addressed the baronet. "Anne's absence does not distress you, sir?"
"Not when you are here to make a fourth at dinner," replied Sir Walter genially. "Do have some more wine, Mr Elliot."
The Captain finished stoking the fire. The firebox was packed tight and the flames burned high and hot. He pulled off his neckcloth, having earlier divested himself of his coat and waistcoat. Not long after he had taken up his post, Louisa had begun to shiver. From that time on he had kept the fire roaring like a furnace. He unbuttoned his collar and fanned himself. Looking over to the bed, she was still nestled under the blankets. As long as she was snug, he would keep to his post as fire tender. Stretching his back and shoulders, he returned to his seat by the bed. From under the blankets she moaned again and began to struggle. He leant forward and watched. There was nothing for him to do. He had no weapons with which to fight the demons invading her sleep. She threw a hand in the air, then settled into peace. He leant back and began to wait.
"Captain." A voice whispered his name.
His eyes opened to see Abernathy leaning over him. "Ah, Michael," he said, rubbing his face. A glance out the window told him it was after dark. Rather than take out his watch, he asked the time.
"It's going on seven. Graham has laid the table. I have come for the roast." he asked.
"What? What roast?" His neck ached and the Doctor's question confused him.
Michael straightened. "Well surely you have been roasting meat up here. It is certainly hot enough." He poked the Captain's shoulder. "I would judge you fully cooked."
Frederick scowled at the joke and rubbed his neck. "For your information, she has been cold, I purposely banked the fire high to keep her warm."
"It would seem you have succeeded." He nodded towards Louisa.
Looking at his wife he was gratified to see her finally warm. She had emerged from under the covering, they were pushed to her waist, and one arm was casually flung above her head.
"How is she?" Michael asked. "Has she wakened?"
He stood. "No. She's not awakened, but she does moan, deeply at times. And she seems to wrestle with herself. But she does not wake."
Abernathy bent and began to unbutton her nightdress.
He took the doctor's arm. "What do you think you're doing?"
He stopped and said, "I am going to check the binding on her ribs. If it has come loose that might explain the moaning. They must remain tightly wrapped,or she will be in a great deal more pain." He continued with the buttons, then laid open the gown.
Knowing the Doctor's feelings he wondered how detached the man could remain. He murmured an embarrassed apology. The light was low, nonetheless he studied a bedraggled ribbon decorating the shift she wore. The bones around her chest and shoulders were more pronounced than normal. He felt somehow that he should look away, but he could not. He stared at the ribbon. All her shifts were embroidered with simple blue flowers. This is a garment Mrs. Harville has loaned her, there would have been no time to launder her own.
Abernathy tested various places, trying to find any loose spots. "Quite all right. No, the binding is fine," he declared. "Mrs. Partridge certainly knows how to bind the ribs." He refastened the lower buttons but having felt of her face, and finding it warm, left the upper open. "Well, I think she is fine for now. You should go down and have supper."
"I think I shall stay," the Captain said. He took his seat again.
"I insist Frederick." He did not look as he spoke. "It will do her no good to let yourself get worn down. I shall stay with her."
"I think not -- "
"Captain," he said sharply. He turned. "She needs you to be strong for her. Go and eat. She is asleep. I hardly think she will notice me." His voice was suddenly tired, thoughtful.
"All right, Michael. Thank you."
Abernathy lit another candle and took the seat left by the Captain. He thought about the diagrams of his cousin's injuries. He also thought about the conversation with Hemmings. It was impossible not to wonder at the private conversation in which Hemmings and the Captain had engaged. As the time passed, he could not help but draw his own conclusions. After ruminating for longer than was healthy he decided there was nothing for him to do, but to sit, to watch, and to pray.
"Mm. Uh. Mm," Louisa moaned. They were soft and, he thought, not related to pain, but a natural response to her dreams. Occasionally her head moved from side to side, but there was no other movement. He eased to the edge of the chair and slowly, gently took her hand. The bandages covered most of her hands, up to the middle knuckle. Hemmings had said they were infected, but not so badly that he thought she would lose either hand, or even any fingers for that matter. He caressed the little bit of the tips.
"Oh, Loua. Victoria always said I had a genius for bad timing. She was right, I never could be taught to dance." He heaved a sigh. "Why have I done this to myself? The Captain is my friend." Suddenly, her hand pulled violently out of his and she vainly tried to push something away from her face.
"What do you see? What was done to you, Loua?" She settled back into the pillow and lay perfectly still. He leant closer and stroked her forehead lightly. "No matter what," he said, "he will care for you. Don't ever be afraid on that score." Slowly he bent his head to hers and kissed her cheek. "I love you, Loua." With one last stroke of her face, he leant back in the chair and settled in to wait for the Captain to return.
Part/Chapter 1234567890 Chapter 8, Part Two
Captain Frederick Wentworth was a man of many talents, not the least of which was the ability to sleep, quite comfortably, in a straight-backed chair. As a midshipman, once he had mastered the "standing doze," sleeping while seated was not so difficult a task. Legs planted precisely apart, arms crossed just so and chin resting upon the breast, a man could rest comfortably for hours. This particular night he had been asleep for well over two. When he awoke his shoulders were stiff and his neck ached. These minor inconveniences were a small price to pay for the peace of mind afforded him by sitting with his wife.
Prior to the Doctor and Mrs. Partridge retiring for a much needed rest, each of the doctors had taken a last look at Mrs. Wentworth. While both medicos had poked and prodded, excessively in the Captain's opinion, Louisa had not stirred.
Hemmings had offered to stay. When the offer was refused, he offered Mrs. Partridge as a nurse. Again he was refused. Wentworth had the good of the Laconia and her crew to think about. While it was true that she was under the watchful eye of the royal hospital sitting just a few miles from the docks, and he suspected nothing worse than an outbreak of the gleet might occur while they were anchored, he felt his men needed to have their surgeon and his mate back on board.
"I think it would be prudent to leave Mrs. Abigail here, to sit with with your wife, just in the event anything unforeseen should occur."
To occupy the hours the Captain had sat watch, his mind had spared no expense in contemplating every evil that might have befallen his wife. While some were perfectly reasonable, most others were unimaginable except to the mind of an exhausted man in love. Therefore, to his way of thinking, it was not unreasonable to suspect Hemmings of knowing more than he had told earlier. "You are concerned that she may not recover?"
Hemmings scowled. "No, nothing so dire, sir. Her injuries are shocking, but nothing fatal. I merely wish to cover every contingency." Mrs. Partridge pulled at his sleeve and they conferred. His look softened only a little and he said, "I understand your worry, sir, but she is not in mortal danger. I was only thinking of your comfort in this." He glanced at his sister and she nodded.
"If that is merely a case of my comfort, Hemmings," said Wentworth, "a nurse will not be necessary."
Abernathy, having ended his examination, closed his bag and added, "If you wish, I could sent my own Mrs. Dalton over to sit. Tomorrow I can find another woman."
Wentworth raised his hands for silence. "Gentlemen, please. I can not ask that my brother stuff one more person into this house. It is at the bursting now. Abernathy, you are coming daily as it stands, if she needs care you will provide it." As he spoke, he coolly herded all concerned towards the open door. "Hemmings, there is an inn just a quarter mile down the road. Tell the keep, a friendly sort called Pultney, I believe, that I shall personally cover the cost of your lodgings, stabling, whatever might be required." Barring their re-entry into the room, he added, "While all your concerns are understandable, I have spent a goodly portion of my time at sea standing a watch. If the navy can trust me with the lives of hundreds of men, valuable cargo and weapons galore, I think I am well-able to keep watch over one ill, bed-ridden young woman." With this he nodded his farewell, re-entered the room and closed the door.
A satisfied smile came over him as he listened to the mumble of their voices fade down the hallway. The Captain chided himself for feeling even a dram's worth of delight. One might have thought he had exercised omnipotent authority over a first-rate ship of the line rather than an over-small, country bedchamber. After a short time he heard the carriage rumble away and moments later the jingle of Abernathy's curricle. After a dealing with a short query on Louisa's condition from his brother, the house grew wonderfully quiet. Now, he alone stood watch; hearing only the occasional bumps and thumps of the nurse tending her charges in the next room.
Settling back into his chair, he hunched his shoulders in a stretch, Frederick's eyes fell on his wife's form. A glimpse of her hands resting on the bedclothes arrested his attention. Only the tips of her fingers were visible, the palms and all the thumb were hidden. Hemmings had said, in trying to escape, she had used an ancient knife to dig at the frame of a window. The crude wooden handle had eventually disintegrated. This had left her hands a mass of cuts and slivers. Leaning closer he could not help notice her jagged and torn nails. More evidence of struggle.
It took some time, and grunts of effort, but she turned on to her side. He was surprised she did not awaken. For this he was glad. Her appearance, her exhaustion and injuries had unsettled him enough. Were she to awaken just then, he would be dumbstruck.
From her hands his eyes journeyed to the worn ribbon on the borrowed shift. He thought about the first night he had helped her prepare for bed. The thought of tiny blue flowers moved naturally to pink silk and on to the broken nursery bed. Memories of their last night together, the sweet, passionate tangle, provoked feelings equal to the night itself. Just then, Louisa's hand wriggled its way from under the sheet. He took the wrapped hand in his and held it. Even as she lay injured and bone-weary he could not help thinking how her soft touch could both soothe and delight him. There was no denying her hold on him. Even so, the demon Randwick had ruined the peace of Crown Hill village and Wentworth was dreading to know how much ruin the scoundrel had brought to his own domestic peace.
As an act of his will, Frederick took command of his thoughts. He refused to give over to such lowness of spirit. As he watched his wife sleep, the words of his brother came back to him. Her return was a gift and propriety required him to thank the Giver. Hours earlier, out of deep fear and frustration, he had been mutilating an innocent and helpless tree; completely overmastered by the fact that he, the heroic, dashing, blue-coated Captain Wentworth was incapable of affecting the return of his wife. Now, she lay sleeping as peacefully as a child in their bed. It was not lost on him that the bearer of the gift was his ship's surgeon. A man with whom he had a barely passable relationship. Providence showed a sense of humour in choosing such a one for the distinction of delivering Louisa back into the Wentworth fold.
He closed his eyes for a moment. Thinking back a few short months, he realised his last appearing before the Throne of Grace had also been to make an offering of thanks for Louisa's safety. The occasion had been the announcement by the surgeon in Lyme that the girl would live. The whole group from Uppercross had been fervent in their gratitude, but he in particular had been most deeply touched. While his thankfulness had been quite genuine, there had been an underlying double-mindedness. In Louisa being allowed to live, the Captain's personal liability had been somewhat mitigated. But now, he bore the whole responsibility of her, and of the bitter cup she had been forced to drink.
He covered his face. Dear God, will I always bring her to such misery? He leant forward and rested his forehead in his hands. "You tidy my messes and I continue in my sloth. I ruin and you repair," he murmured. "Yours is either the greatest of loves or foolishness beyond comprehension." The hero was subdued and lay prostrate before his Conqueror.
Elizabeth's brows knit together in a frown, as she paced the length of the drawing room. She cast a fulminating look at the closed door. "Dinner is over, where are they?" she grumbled. This sort of rudeness was not to be borne! Had everyone in her family gone mad?
But what could she expect, after such a disgraceful dinner? The food had been tolerable enough, but the company! Elizabeth tossed her head. She was out of patience with everyone, and most especially with William Elliot, who hadn't bothered to exert himself to converse at table, once he discovered Anne was gone into the country.
"Hateful man!" she muttered, as she continued to pace. How could she have ever thought his company desirable? Her gaze fell on one of the elegantly upholstered chairs. She paused, remembering a tender scene from not so long ago.
'I wish you will call me William when we are speaking privately like this ...'
"Call him 'William?' " sniffed Elizabeth. "As if I would ever want to! Odious creature!"
The door remained closed and Miss Elliot remained alone. Her cousin had gone to the courtyard to have a cigar, she recalled, but where could her father be? Surely he had not taken up smoking! And where was Penelope?
"Probably off on another errand for him," she decided. Her father had come to rely upon Penelope very much of late, and this too was irksome. Was she not supposed to be Elizabeth's own companion? The gentlemen might be as rude as they pleased, but Penelope Clay's duty was to her!
Elizabeth sighed in vexation and continued to wander about the room. She came to a stop before the pianoforte in the corner. Anne's music lay open upon it.
"Stupid, careless girl!" grumbled Elizabeth, as she folded the sheets. What a hoyden Anne had become, and inconsiderate, too! To go tripping off on a pleasure outing to the country, leaving herself to arrange the details for that horrid Wedding Tea! It was beyond all bearing!
"And such a man I must have for my brother!" Elizabeth's thoughts now veered toward Benwick, who was surely the most cloddish officer in all of the Royal Navy. "But he has the uniform, so Anne must be pleased," she said lightly, though no one was in the room to hear. "Though, it doesn't make him look any more slender, now does it?" she added waspishly.
Elizabeth continued to pace. The clock on the mantelpiece chimed the quarter-hour, then the half-hour, but still Miss Elliot remained alone.
How long he prayed he could not tell. Eventually he sat up, rubbed his eyes and looked about. The candles had burned quite low. He was exhausted and made no move to replace them. His eyes rested on Louisa's face. Particularly her wounded cheek. After some time, he realised her eyes were open and she watched him.
"There you are." He cringed at his inanity, but he could think of nothing more brilliant.
She moistened her lips. "Here I am." Her voice was stronger than he had expected.
He felt himself break into a smile.
"I missed you while I was -- " she said, looking about, as if to find the proper word floating in the air. She chose, "away."
He thought it an odd description. "Yes, well, we all missed you. I in particular missed you." An image of Abernathy flitted through his mind.
"You are really here." Her eyes watched him carefully.
"Yes I am. You keep saying that, as if I should be elsewhere. Surely Harville told you I had been sent for."
She nodded. "But -- might I have some water?"
"Yes, of course." He reached for the glass. He had filled it earlier in anticipation of her waking. And for something to do. "Here you go."
Louisa held up her bandaged hands. "They hurt dreadfully."
He looked at the hands and then the glass. "Here," he said, helping her to sit upright. "I shall hold the glass and you guide my hand when you want a drink."
"All right," she smiled. "It seems silly." She took a long drink and lowered the glass. "I seem to be quite a trial to you. I am always needing your special care."
"I seem to recall something about in sickness and in health in the vows we shared. Besides, I will count on you to reciprocate when I am old and decrepit. Which considering I am so much older ... "
"You are not so much older and you will never be old, nor decrepit," she declared.
"Is that so?" he said, refilling the glass. "I will take that as a promise. Is your word good?"
She bit her lip. "I can not believe that you are really here."
He raised the glass and she drank deeply again. "You keep saying that. Where else would I be expected to be?"
After lowering the glass she touched her lips with the back of her bandaged hand. She did not look him in the eye. "I missed you dreadfully and, when Captain Harville told me you had come here, I was so anxious to be home -- "
"So anxious that, Hemmings said you threw a magnificent fit. Finest tantrum he's ever seen."
Scowling, she again bit her lip. She said slowly, "I am sorry. I repaid all your friends kindnesses with bad temper. But worse I have embarrassed you -- and myself."
He smiled, then noticed that she still held his hand. Stroked it in fact. "No, no embarrassment for my part," he said, "I am vain enough to be quite flattered by such a thing. To my knowledge, no one has ever pitched a fit just to be in my presence."
She looked up quickly and asked, "Are you sure?" She lifted the glass to drink.
"Yes, I am quite sure. Go on, tell me more about how you longed to see me." He looked perfectly serious.
She released his hand and traced the creases in her bandages. "Once my wishes were known," she glanced up, "the Doctor volunteered himself and Mrs. Partridge to escort me and Captain Harville arranged for the carriage. We were all ready to leave when the Captain brought a packet and gave it to the Doctor. He said it was urgent. That it was personal correspondence -- from Bath. Did you get it?"
"Get what?" The mention of Bath made him suspect she had someone definite in mind, but rather than rush, he would wait for her to reveal who that might or might not be.
"The packet. The letters from Bath."
Her face was pinched, her mouth grim. "He said they were important. That you had been corresponding since your arrival."
"Yes," he said, "I got the letters. Though I have no idea how important they are, I've not read them." He refilled the glass.
She looked confused. "You've not read them? Why?" She looked away and picked at the knot on her right hand.
She waved the glass away. "To be honest, I have had other things on my mind." He leant close. "There is no one in Bath who is more important than you. Letters can wait."
Louisa glanced at him and a shadow crossed her lips, but she said nothing. She began to lay back. He rose to help ease her down onto the pillow.
As calmly as he could, William drew a cigarillo from its case, but he was too preoccupied with his thoughts to light it. Anne had gone to Kellynch Lodge! And with her ladyship! William set his teeth. How he hated unexpected developments like this! His carefully-constructed plan had gone awry, but how?
He began to pace about the courtyard, as he applied himself to the situation. What did Anne's absence mean? It had every appearance of an escape, but was that right? William moved into the shadows at the rear of the garden and thought some more. Presently his musings took an unexpected turn.
Could it be that nothing was amiss? Anne's countenance last night had betrayed no secret hope. And her father knew absolutely nothing. Thank God she has not blurted out some untruthful, exaggerated tale to Sir Walter, he thought wryly.
William took a deep breath and went on with his pacing. Above all, he knew he must not over-react, for all could be spoiled by an emotional, ill-drawn conclusion. At length he decided to pursue the less hasty line of reasoning.
What if Anne told Lady Russell of her change in plans last night? he wondered. Perhaps that good woman had suggested an holiday, a respite before Sir Walter was appraised of the new situation? The more he thought on it, the more reasonable this course of action became. In fact, Lady Russell had done him a great favour, for she had removed Anne from that Benwick's reach!
William's heart began to beat more normally. Surely that was it! After all, Anne was willing enough to marry him; hadn't she broken her engagement? She simply needed time to herself. And had she not asked for such just yesterday? William bit his lip as he considered this, then crossed the courtyard to light his cigarillo from a lantern beside the door.
Yes, her ladyship obviously thought it wise that Anne be away from Bath until the wedding day is past, he mused, as he blew out a puff of smoke. It was not the most satisfactory of explanations, but he was content with it. He would bide his time and watch.
The nighttime air was delightfully cool and refreshing after the stifling atmosphere of the dining room; William was reluctant to go in. He decided to take another turn about the courtyard. But as he entered the more shadowy part of the garden, he brushed against some shurbbery and his boot most unfortunately struck against something. William frowned and went down on one knee to investigate, for he had heard the curious clank of metal against metal.
William's eyes narrowed as he groped beneath the shrub. From that leafy hiding place, he pulled a businesslike iron hook, attached to a hefty coil of rope, and a small canvas sack filled with metal tools. Obviously, his boot had struck the sack. There was something written on it; William held it up to see better.
"H-ll and d-mnation!" he sputtered, as the words Lt J Benwick met his unbelieving eyes. William's face paled as he realised the meaning of the rope and grappling hook. His eyes were drawn to the rear of the house. Anne had not traipsed off on an impromptu holiday, she had been taken! By Benwick!
"That d-mmed, interfering bast --" Rage and newborn impotence now collided disastrously; William Elliot could do nothing but curse under his breath. So preoccupied was he with this, that he did not hear the opening of the house door.
At length, with his profane vocabulary spent, William began to consider his predicament. There was no telling what sort of gothic tale Anne had poured out to Benwick. And he, being a fool, would believe every word! William then became aware that he still held Benwick's bag of tools; he hurled it angrily against the wall of the courtyard.
"My dear sir, did you hear something?" Penelope Clay's musical voice carried clearly in the night air.
William Elliot froze. Obviously, he was no longer alone.
"Perchance we have surprised a cat, my dear," came the reply. It was the baronet.
"Oh!" The woman gave a trilling laugh. "Of course, you are right, sir, as always. I am a goose to be so frightened! Dear me, how tightly I am holding to your arm! Do you mind?"
"Not at all, my dear, for this is not my satin coat. I shall protect you from the cat. Shall we continue with our little stroll?"
William Elliot remained kneeling in the shadows, and quickly extinguished the cigarillo. Why did I ever embroil myself with this d-mned family in the first place? he fumed. How many months had he wasted in Bath, dancing attendance on the pompous baronet? He had even planned to marry one of the man's undowered daughters, for G-d's sake!
The couple continued with their perambulation about the courtyard, walking very close together now. William's jaw tightened. Here was the heart of the problem: Penelope Clay. Had he not seen it from the very beginning? The Kellynch estate and his title stood in peril because of this scheming woman! He had not come this far to be cheated out of it at the very end!
So, it must be Elizabeth after all, he decided grimly. This was not a happy thought. How he was to ingratiate himself with her he knew not, for she now held him in complete contempt. He had once thought this to be vastly amusing, but it was not so amusing any more.
Presently the baronet and Mrs. Clay made their way to the door of the house. William decided to risk standing up, for he had been kneeling in the dirt. As quietly as he could, he brushed at his snowy breeches, listening and watching.
The couple now stood near the lantern at the door; he could clearly see their silhouettes. And then, perhaps because of the stillness of the night air, or the echo of the courtyard walls, William heard Mrs. Clay give a delicious little giggle. The gap of light between them closed.
Gad! He is kissing her! William Elliot thought he had experienced every emotion possible this night, but he found he was wrong. Incredulity, horror, and a wave of nausea were now added to the rest.
Their kiss completed, the pair went indoors and William was left outside to fume and fret. Things had become far more serious than he supposed! Time was of the essence; he now knew that he could no longer afford the weeks needed to repair his suit with Elizabeth.
In that instant, William Elliot's heartbreak and dreams of marital happiness were all forgotten. Anne, be d-mned! he raged. I'll not lose my title because of a blasted woman! No matter who she is!
The fire had been refreshed. The water pitcher refilled. Pillows had been plumped and bedclothes straightened. She remained quiet as he had gone about his housekeeping duties. His offer to bring her something from the pantry had been quietly refused. He finally took his seat.
"You could," she said, "go and read your letters."
It was obvious she had not forgotten them as her silence had made him hope. He took her hand. "Do you mind if I not? I would rather stay with you."
She grasped his hand as tight as she was able. "But, perhaps they are important." Her voice did not betray any emotion, but her eyes blinked long and often.
"Louisa, I know you are concerned about my past engagement -- " Her hand tightened and she looked at him then away. "Edward told me he suspected you had overheard -- "
"I was not snooping, I swear it."
"No, of course you were not. It was an accident. I did not think it important, especially -- "
"It is none of my business. It was so long ago. You needn't say more."
"You are correct," he said, "that it is none of you concern. But it obviously worries you -- "
She pulled herself up a bit. "Why? Neither of you acted as if you lov -- cared a wit for the other. Why were the two of you so indifferent? Why keep it secret?"
Laying her back, he sat on the bed and took both her hands. "It began and ended so quickly -- and badly. That summer, in the year '06, I was ashore, we met and I asked her to marry me. I applied to the Baronet and he was ... difficult. He made it clear that he would do nothing for us. He never refused me outright, but his contempt was clear enough. I took this very badly. Who was he to be looking down at me? He had no right to demean me and my aspirations. I am afraid she was caught between us. She is an obedient daughter. When she would not come away with me, I was angry. I was hurt and made my opinions known and she had to endure them. Our parting was not pleasant. I hurt her deeply. I left soon after and was given the Asp."
"So," Louisa said, "It was your all your doing."
"Yeah. The fault was mine and any awkwardness should be laid at my door. When I returned to Somerset, seeing her was a cruel blow. I was shocked to see her so reduced. She was as polite and kind as I deserved."
"I do not know what to say. I am sorry for you both."
"Do not be sorry on my account. I was stupid and every bit as proud as the Baronet."
Touching his face, she said, "But you are not the same man."
It was not clear to him whether she was stating her belief in him or posing him a question. "If I am, I thank God. My younger self was too arrogant to bear." He let go her hand and leant over her, close to her face. "I care about her. As I do many in my acquaintance. Including my particular friend in Bath --Admiral Patrick McGillvary -- with whom I correspond regularly. I care about her, but I don't care for her. I put that aside in marrying you. Do you trust me?"
"I had much time to think on this. I had decided that no matter what, I would not give you up."
"Yes," she sighed, "I was determined that I make you the best wife possible. My resolve was shaken when I heard about the letters. My mind ran wild with possibilities. All of them ridiculous."
"And when you saw me, you were surprised. Had you thought that I would be in Bath?"
"To my shame, yes. I even worried that once you saw this," she waved over her cheek, "I was certain you would be put off."
"You think me awfully shallow."
"No. I think me shallow compared to her."
He ignored her comment. "Your looks are not what makes me like you. Someday, will you tell me what happened?"
She studied his face and asked for another drink. After she finished and he settled back into his chair, she said, "You have told me a great -- and difficult confidence. I think I must requite."
Frederick cleared his throat. He was reminded what Hemmings had said about this road. "I will not force you. This can wait."
Pushing aside a stray strand of hair, she cleared her throat and began.
"Most of the days were the same. I saw no one. No one but a little man came. He brought me meals. Two a day. There was no one to talk with, the old man was foreign and said nothing that was not gibberish. But the last day was different. An old woman, I think the old man's wife. brought a basin with water and a towel. She made gestures that I was to bathe. Of that I was glad. I had no idea how long I had been in that room, but I felt so unclean. She left for a few moments and than returned with a dress and some fresh linens. They were old and plain. Probably left from a maid long gone. I was so glad to be clean. And she brought a brush and though I had no mirror, I was able to brush out and somewhat dress my hair for the first time in days. After I had finished, she took me up the stairs and we made our way through some narrow passages. In the closeness, I could smell wonderful smells of food. I had not eaten for several days."
"Why is that?"
"It took some time, but I realise that every time they gave me food, I fell directly to sleep. I suspect that they were putting something in the food or drink. They had given me laudanum to keep me quiet during our journey. I recognised the taste. Anywise, I stopped eating, save the bread and butter that accompanied most of the meals. And I did not drink the wine or water."
"One can survive for quite some time without food, but water is vital."
"I was thirsty very quickly, I was tempted with each meal, but I did not wish to take the risk. There was a small window in the room. It looked out into a window-well covered with bushes. It let in practically no light. But, one day I was trying to see out, through the bushes and all when I noticed a small bird drinking from a pot that had found its way there. I had no choice so I broke out a pane and pulled it in. The water in it was horrible. And there were things floating in it. But I remembered you telling me about having to drink the fetid water aboard ship. I was determined that if you could drink something so despicable, then so could I." She shivered. "I can still feel the things sliding down my throat." Her face was contorted in disgust.
"You were well and truly a prisoner then -- nothing but bread and water to keep you alive." His tone was matter-of-fact, in hopes of lightening the desperately heavy story, but she was not moved.
"Anyway, my stomach had been empty for days, and the smell of food caused it to nearly be sick. It seemed as if I could taste everything all at once." She paused, looked away and smiled. "For an instant I had the silly notion that perhaps everything had been an atrocious joke and that all my family and friends would be gathered at a feast." Looking back she asked, "No human being could be so cruel, could they?" He said he thought not. "The old woman opened a small door. She took my arm and guided me to the table. I was shocked to see Mr Randwick and the woman from the carriage all ready at the table. They were dressed as if for a party and conversing about a dinner they had attended the evening before. They did not even take notice of me as I was seated. The woman loaded my plate with every good thing within reach. I was so tempted, you don't know how hard it was not to eat it all."
"Why not eat?"
"What if it had been poisoned as the other? I could not take that chance. But my stomach roiled so. To distract my thoughts I listened to their conversation. They began to talk about leaving that place, that his brother had gotten them a ship for Madeira. A very fast ship he said. The conversation then shifted and began to include me. I suddenly realised that they meant to take me with them. "
"They told you this?"
"No, they talked about me as though I weren't there. But he said that I would like the sun after such a depressing winter. It was so strange, only to be referred to when you are present. Just as suddenly Mr Randwick stood and came to my chair. He greeted me as though I were an invited guest. He then asked why I did not eat, and then said I was very rude for not doing so. That all the food had been 'specially prepared for company." Her words were coming faster and her gaze was far away.
"I did not know what to say and he became angry. The woman said his name, rather sharply, and he smiled. He seemed calmer after that. He put his hand on my shoulder and began to talk about how much I would like Madeira and how he had many friends there and that they would all come to like me." She stopped and took a breath. His hand had been laying nearby and she shifted away from it. "He spoke about things that I did not understand. And things I did." she closed her eyes and pressed her lips tightly closed. He thought to stop her from telling him any more --
"He bent down and kissed my neck. And his hands were ... "
"Shhh ... you needn't say any more about this. I understand -- "
" ... he would not let me go. I pushed him but he kept at me -- "
"Louisa, stop -- "
"... he began to stroke my cheek as he kissed the other. I -- I did not know what to do. I -- I was so frightened and the woman just watched. I -- I could feel his hand -- "
"Please stop this, Loua. There is no reason to torture us both -- "
"His hand so close to my mouth and I knew nothing more to do ... " she sobbed. "I pushed his hand in my mouth and bit him as hard as I could."
When she said this, he nearly laughed. The picture that came to Frederick's mind, the picture of her biting her seducer was ludicrous. But as she continued, he knew there was nothing the least bit funny in the act.
"... I bit him so hard. I could taste ... "
He moved from the chair to the edge of the bed. He took her hand. There was no stopping the monologue. The best he could hope to do was make her know she was no longer in that dining room; no longer fighting Randwick.
" ... I could not turn lose. I tried, even when he pulled my hair and screamed at me." Her voice trembled. She was not in hysterics, but deep in the memory. "I held his arm and bit harder. I was sick to my stomach and thought I would faint. And then he hit me."
Every bit of life and movement in the room stopped. Louisa stared away towards the ceiling. Her hands lay quietly upon her breast as though she awaited burial. There was a hideous peace that settled over the room. After a long silence he could again hear the clock ticking again and the fire crackling. Louisa's chest began to rise and fall again. He waited.
"I fell to the floor," she began quietly, "and he was on me. He touched me again and said I must be taught to -- " she would not finish. "I was dazed by the blow, I could barely understand what he was talking about. He pulled at the dress. I was so afraid of him. When I thought he would do the unspeakable, the woman said there would be time -- later. He stopped. He got up and as though nothing unusual had transpired, offered her his arm. They began to chat and laugh, and they left me there."
Her hands reached out for him and he took her gently in his arms. She cried in great heaving sobs and moaned with pain as he sat her up. At intervals she tried to speak but the words were never able to take form and were lost in her tears.
As he held her, Frederick could not help but picture her lying on the floor of that Plymouth dining room, frightened for her life, dazed from her injury, and once the beasts had departed, alone.
Had the account been read to him from a newspaper or a novel there would have had no difficulty proclaiming his contempt. His critical nature would have pointed out that the impassioned, emotional tone of the piece, though understandable under such trying circumstances, was bordering on the ludicrous. As were the circumstances themselves: mysterious abduction, hostage taking and near starvation. All these dramatics taking place in the midst of the bustling civility of Plymouth Proper were circumstances too implausible to be given any credence at all. Certainly he would think this and more, were this fiction. But this was not fiction, as her body was testament. This was not his reaction as he held his wife.
Holding her as gently as possible, but firmly enough to assure her, his own body absorbed the shaking of her battered one. Her bandaged hands groped in their darkness, trying desperately to hold onto him. His hands felt the ridges of the binding that kept her ribs in place, but the worst was the feeling her tears wet the shoulder of his shirt. All this exertion on her part made it tangible that this was no overblown drama. The account had all the markings of such, yet in truth, it was the result of pure evil visited on an innocent young woman.
"I want to lie down, please." Her voice was strangled and so low, he barely heard her.
"Please," she said again.
Without a word he laid her down. He saw that her plait was laid to the side so as not to pull. He straightened the sheets and the coverlet. He placed her hands under the blankets so the tips of her fingers would stay warm in the now cool room. She lay quietly as he put more wood on the fire and saw it catch. Leaning on the dresser, he reached down and pulled off his boots, opened the blanket chest and pulled out another coverlet. Laying beside her, he eased his arm under her and rested her on his shoulder. Pulling the coverlet over them he kissed her forehead and settled down to rest.
Her breathing settled into a steady cadence along with his own. A hand eventually crept up and touched his chin. A low murmur let him know that she found his ministrations agreeable. Just as he thought her asleep and he on the verge, she said, "There were times I thought I would never have this again."
He kissed her forehead again. "Well, you do. And always will." There were still a multitude of questions, but they would wait. Everything could wait as this was a moment he would sacrifice for nothing.
"I came to love you so much in that little room."
What did one say to such a statement?
"I had not loved you very well before that."
"Shh." He whispered. "Go to sleep. You need rest." He would hear no more. Both had endured more than enough for one day.
Continued in Part 4
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