Love Suffers Long and Is Kind, Volume IV
Her first sensation that morning was the knot in her stomach. From her first moments of consciousness it had been with her. And to open her eyes would bring about the same cruel disappointment that had greeted her every morning since the ordeal had begun. Lying still she awaited the sound of the church bells. They were her only unfailing hope; the only thing which did not carry a taint of evil. While the dull ache behind her eyes was usual, there were new sensations of pain with which to contend. Fear gripped her. What had happened to bring on these new tribulations? And what would happen today? Randwick. She squeezed her eyes tighter, trying to think of anything but him. She waited for the bells, but there was nothing.
She shifted and realised there was a difference in her circumstances. She had not had to catch herself from falling off the narrow couch which normally made her bed. This morning there was not the unyielding metal spring which ordinarily dug into her side. And there was not the familiar dank smell assailing. But there was the homey smell of soap, and was that sausage? -- to tantalize her senses. Suddenly, there was movement close by her. She lay still, dreading who she would find were she to look.
Finally, she opened her eyes. She found herself indeed in a small room, but this one was most familiar and wonderfully welcome to her. It was bright with sun light. There was fresh air and not the still fug of her cave-like cellar. The only similarity was that her previous abode and this one were uncomfortably cool. But this room could be warmed with a good fire, the other had not even a place for such a luxury. And the movement she felt brought her the most joy. It was her husband by her side.
Louisa began to face him, but her ribs protested and she remained on her back. She studied him as best she could. He was very much how she had remembered him while she was "away." It was also shocking to realise that, in tiny, almost insignificant ways, her memory had failed.
"You-will-tell-me-where ... ╬ he muttered. His voice was slow and deliberate. His hands flexed open and shut as he continued his growling threat. She wondered against whom he fought.
"Frederick," she whispered. His hearing, even close up, was not acute; years of cannon fire he had said; but with the quiet of the room she thought he would hear her. He did not.
"I-will-flay-you-where-you-stand ... " The muttering had gone deeper and lower in his throat. The shocking statement frightened her and she shook his shoulder as she spoke.
"Frederick, you must wake up." She gave his arm a last shove and he quieted. He lay silent for a moment and then turned towards her. In one fluid motion, he rested his head upon her breast, brought his arm accrost waist and threw a leg gently over hers. Louisa waited for the pain in her ribs to bite. There was none. It would seem that even in his sleep, the gentleman in Frederick had been mindful of her injuries.
In his somnific shift, he had trapped her arm beneath him. Slowly, gently, she freed it, then cradled his head and lay her cheek against his hair. The scent of him was strongly masculine, more than was anticipated, but it did not matter. Anything of him was most welcome to her. She had missed him dreadfully and would now gladly lay with him no matter the besetment.
She could not clearly see his face, but the rest of him was available to her. Beginning with his not-quite elegant fingers, she caressed his arm through the thin cambric of his shirt. The neck stood open and invited her to handle rather than see the scar nearest his neck. The tips of her fingers took pleasure in his bristly, unshaven cheek. How long she studied him, freely touching his person and enjoying the warmth of of his sleeping self, she did not know. All too quickly he began to awaken.
A "mmm," and a yawn drew his hand from around her so that he might rub his face. He came up on his elbow the instant he realised how he lay. Grimacing, as he had lain for sometime on the poor arm, he said, "I am sorry. You should have pulled my hair and told me move my lumpish self off." He yawned again, then looked at her. She smiled at the raffish, wayward hair, his sleepy brown eyes and the rumpled shirt hanging wide open.
"You were bothered in your sleep. I thought only to awaken you by calling out, but was surprised that you came to me instead. I liked it. It made me feel of use to you."
He thought about the words. She took joy in feeling useful to him. He would set that notion to right immediately. "To be used as a pillow?"
"If that is what you like."
"That sort of thing is not really of much use to me, you know."
The smile disappeared and her eyes, bright in the morning sun, dropped away from his. "Oh," she said. The cheerfulness was gone. "I thought ... "
"Ah, ah, ah," Frederick╠s hand moved from her waist; where it had returned; and he reacquainted himself with her sweet frame. A finger stroked her neck and his thumb on her chin lifted her face and brought her eyes back to his. "What I meant was," he raised himself and now lay face-to-face with her on the pillow, "You are my wife, not a convenient piece of furniture. Allowing me to drape this indolent frame about you -- considering your condition -- is not useful. But very kind." He kissed her now smiling lips. "And most loving on your part." He studied her with the same intensity with which she studied him. Just as her memory had failed her in small ways, his vision conspired with his mind to see neither blackened eye nor blighted cheek. All he saw was the face of the wife he had come to love.
From the moment of her return, one or the other of them had been harassed with anxieties, doubts, fears and personal demons bent on separating them. Now, in the bright light of a new morning, a proper welcome home could be savoured.
Finally, remembering what he was about, Frederick said, "Thank you for coming back to me Louisa." He leant in to kiss her and was gratified to feel her pulling him closer. Her fingertips had searched out and caught the folds of his shirt.
"I am glad to be home, Husband." she said softly into his lips.
Their passion progressed as far as was possible. He was mindful of Louisa╠s injured ribs. While he took care, he also cursed the infirmity which would, for some time, keep them from consummating her homecoming.
When each acknowledged that there was nothing more to be gained by their affection, they parted and he examined her again. Unlike earlier, with her eyes bright and eager to see him, her head now rested upon her pillow. Her eyes were closed and a dozy smile touched her lips. "Heavens," he exclaimed, "I had no idea of my own seductive prowess. She is enraptured, totally gone in a swoon." He stroked her cheek and smirked.
The smile broadened. "Very nearly," she said simply. Her eyes opened and she examined him. A serious look came over her. Serious, but not at all clouded. Her fingertips explored his face. She finally said, "When everything is all at once taken from you, there is nothing to describe the pain. The fear. When it is just as unexpectedly returned, again, there are no words. There were times I despaired of ever seeing this face again. Of ever lying with you again. But here we are ... "
"Yes, here we are." Another deeply frustrating kiss. "Ahem, something you said last night puzzles me."
"What was that?" Her tone and look grew cautious.
"You said something to the affect that you learnt to love me better while you were ... away. What did you mean by that?"
Her face opened. "While I was in that little room, I had so much time to think. I thought about what I had learnt." She glanced at him, then away. "I was angry, then hurt, then quite ashamed."
"Why ashamed? It was noting to do with you."
"No," she said, "but I was angry with you for having been in love with someone other than me. Which was ridiculous when I suddenly realised that I too had loved before." She grimaced, grasped his arm and turned slightly towards him.
He watched her settle back and suspected that she would now tell him everything about her cousin. "Abernathy?"
Louisa's eyes widened and a startled look came over her. "I suppose so," she said. "I had not thought of him. I certainly was smitten." Her fingers sought to straighten his hair. "No, I meant the Captain."
Captain? He vainly tried to remember any conversations in which there had been mention of a captain, any captain, but could think of none.
Enjoying his confusion, she tugged gently at the placket of his shirt and whispered, "You, silly. Captain Wentworth."
Tapping her forehead, he said, "Everything you have said has made perfect sense, up to this point. You have a fever perhaps?" He touched his lips to her cheek.
"No. No fever. I meant that when I saw you the first time," she paused and nestled close. He could no longer see her face. "The first time I saw you, you fairly -- glowed. Your uniform in the candlelight. I was hopelessly in love." She raised her face. "He was so charming and full of wonderful adventuresome stories." She kissed his neck and continued, "He was most kind to a woman grieving her unworthy son. I heard a little of what you said to Mama. You were very generous to Dick. And, you were a true gentleman and saw to the comfort of a young woman grown too weary to make her way home."
"Shh -- " He wiped a tear that spilled down her cheek.
"Captain Wentworth is a wonderful man I suppose, but it is Frederick that I love now."
"The two are not the same man?"
"Somewhat. Frederick brought me to his people and made me a part of them. The man who worships his brother and looks forward to being an uncle -- "
"I am an uncle. And you are an aunt."
She smiled and bit her lip. "You see? I am a part of this wonderful family. You could have left me in Uppercross and I would never know how much you love your family and friends -- and how much they love you. I came to see that the Captain is pretty, but you are a man worth loving."
He pulled her close. Wishing her closer, he regretted not getting under the coverlet rather than laying upon it. "We have both travelled a long distance in a short period of time." For a moment he held his breath. His words had been too careless.
She rested her forehead upon his chin. "We have each taken much the same path?" she asked.
He would tell her the truth and of his hope. "I think so. And now these paths are blended into one. From now on, we travel together."
"But not really so. When must you leave?" She did not look at him, but gazed past him and out the window.
"I have no plans for the day. I will of course change and shave, but I'm not planning on leaving the house."
A smile came and went quickly. "I did not mean today. I meant, when will you go back to ... "
He knew where. "Say it. It can not hurt you."
"Soon." He moved closer yet and held her tighter. "Very soon. But I shall not stay long."
"I suppose not. The ship will be sailing for the Indies soon."
"Yes, as soon as her repairs are complete. But I shall not be sailing with her."
She frowned. "Then where will you be? What will you do?"
"I intend to resign this commission and take another posting that I have been offered. In Portsmouth."
"Portsmouth. Where will you go from there? Not France."
"No, I could not be so lucky. From what I have read this war will be to the Army. No I will be posted to the Academy there. A sailing Master. And I want you to come and live with me."
She opened her mouth but no words came.
"You do not wish to come?"
As best she could she threw her arms around his neck and cried, "Of course I will come live with you." She drew back. "We will have a real home -- of our own." She settled into the pillow. "I shall learn all your favourite foods and see them served regularly. And you shall have a comfortable chair -- Papa says there is nothing so delightful as a comfortable chair after dinner. And we shall have -- "
Her enthusiasm again touched him. His lips brushed hers and he said, "We shall have one another. That is enough. Though, after a day of schooling block-headed boys, the comfortable chair does sound quite inviting." He drew her close and just as he was about to engage in a most frustrating delight --
A knock at the door and a quiet voice called. "Captain Wentworth, sir." It was Graham.
Breakfast at Sir Walter's house should have been a quiet affair, for both Mr Elliot and the baronet had chosen to sleep late. But when Elizabeth entered the dining room, uncharacteristically early, she found quite an interesting scene. Penelope Clay sat alone at table, with the most enormous bouquet of roses before her. In her hand was a single sheet of paper. She looked up with a blushing face, at once uncomfortable, yet obviously very pleased.
Elizabeth raised her brows in surprise. "What is this?" said she, as she came fully into the room
"A gentleman has sent them," stammered Penelope, very ill at ease. "For me."
Miss Elliot's brows arched higher. "Indeed? Is there a card?"
"No," she replied slowly. "I mean, yes! Not a card, but a letter. But it is ... unsigned." She reluctantly put the paper into Elizabeth's outstretched hand. "I don't think I've ever seen such a lovely bouquet of roses." Penelope hesitated, but as Elizabeth appeared to be in a pleasant frame of mind, she inquired shyly, "They are hothouse roses, are they not?"
"Indeed, they are," replied Elizabeth smilingly. "So. You have a Secret Admirer. And what does he say to you?" She unfolded the sheet and began to read:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate ...
"Isn't it wonderful?" Penelope sighed.
Miss Elliot smiled archly. "I know these words. Mr Rushworth attempted to recite this piece one afternoon, do you remember? Captain Benwick helped him. He told us it was a line from one of Mr Shakespeare's sonnets. The complete poem is in a book of Father's; I marked the page. Shall I fetch it for you?"
"Oh, goodness!" Penelope's blushes increased. "In one of your father's books?"
Elizabeth was back in a thrice. Breakfast was all but forgotten, as she flipped through the pages of the book. "There," she announced triumphantly. "Do you see? I marked the page with a slip of paper."
Penelope hung eagerly over the open volume with many a fluttering sigh. Presently she read aloud:
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimm'd:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade ...
"Oh, my!" she exclaimed, with a nervous giggle. "Such words he has chosen! Can he mean that mine is an unfading beauty?"
"That is a very generous sentiment," agreed Elizabeth, as she poured out a cup of tea for each of them. "How kind, to apply it to you."
Penelope continued to study her letter between sips of tea, with numerous shy glances at her fair companion. "Miss Elliot," she ventured at last, "I hesitate to ask this, but do you happen to recognize the handwriting? I cannot help thinking it looks familiar, somehow."
Elizabeth gave the page a quick glance. "No, that I do not," she replied decidedly. "I cannot recall ever seeing this hand before. Would you care for a piece of toast?"
As Penelope looked quite crestfallen, Elizabeth examined the plate more closely. The toast looked well enough to her; why should Penelope be so cast down by it? With a shrug of her shoulders, Miss Elliot helped herself to some.
His lips poised, he sighed deeply and asked, "Yes, what is it?"
"Sir, there is a man in a red uniform downstairs. He has a letter that he'll not give to anyone but you."
He frowned. "Harville most likely," he said to Louisa. To Graham he called, "Put him in the sitting room and I shall meet him directly." He smiled at his wife and added to the housekeeper, "If he causes you any trouble, toss him some food, that will quieten him." He pecked her lips and rose, endeavoured to make himself somewhat presentable. "I shall be back in just a moment. I promise," he said as he pulled on the second boot.
He entered the sitting room to find that he recognised the Marine. "Sergeant Dillow."
"Aye, sir," the man said along with a smart salute. "Captain Harville ordered this was to be brought double quick, sir." He handed the Captain the letter.
Opening it and scanning the contents, Wentworth swore under his breath. Glancing at the Marine, he said, "Take yourself off to the kitchen and have the lady give you something to eat. I will compose a response for you to take." He went into his brother's study. Taking out paper and pen, he murmured, "Why am I not surprised? But, with a bit of manoeuvring I shall make this work to my advantage." He began to write with energy.
Summoning the Marine, he handed him two letters. The man looked at each and awaited instructions. "Both are to go to the addressees post haste. Both are official, so waste not a moment." The Marine nodded and was off.
The Captain sought out Graham and left instructions concerning breakfast for his wife and a message to be given her. He then took his hat and overcoat and left the house.
Meanwhile, at Kellynch Lodge, Lady Russell sat alone at the dining table. She was not at all surprised that Anne had slept through breakfast. In fact, her darling deserved to sleep the day away, if she was so inclined.
Her ladyship had longed to do the same, but found she could not stay in bed one moment past sun-up. There were so many plans to be made; so many potential problems to be worried over! Fortunately, Longwell and the rest of the staff had arrived from Bath late the night before, so the household was running smoothly. And Charles Musgrove had come by that morning, to assure her that a man would be guarding the Lodge at all times.
Still, Lady Russell could not be at peace. Before she had finished her tea, she was on her feet again, roaming through the house. "So little time and so much to think about," she muttered. "Our safety, the wedding, and gracious! Anne must have a suitable gown! And then, of course, there is the matter of Mrs. Clay ..."
At length she climbed the stairs, tiptoed past the chamber where Anne lay sleeping, and opened the door to her own rooms. The dressing room was her object; she had a sudden, inexplicable longing to examine its contents.
"This is ridiculous," she fretted, as her fingers fluttered restlessly over the gowns which hung there. "Anne is able wear none of my things, nor would she wish to. Then why am I ..."
Her hands stilled, then moved to pull away the covering from the dresses which hung at the very rear. These she never wore, but for some reason could not bear to part with. Amanda's heart beat more rapidly as she drew one particular gown from the rest. It was a rich wine red; even now, its heavy silken skirts rustled pleasantly. She gave a tiny sigh and held it up before the tall looking glass.
A pang of sadness accompanied this gown, for it had been made up twelve years before for a specific purpose. "A very foolish purpose," amended her ladyship, as she surveyed her reflection, "for a very foolish woman."
Amanda held the garment more closely against her breast and gazed into the mirror with misty eyes. The neckline of this beautiful dress was every bit as daring as the one worn by Mrs. Clay. But if he had ever noticed it, he had said nothing.
"Of course he did not notice, why should he?" she whispered, as she allowed the dress to hang limply in her arms. She had never been beautiful, it was useless to pretend otherwise. But the years had been kind. Her complexion was yet soft and creamy; her thick, brown hair showed only the tiniest bit of frost. Indeed, when her maid brushed it out at night, it was easy to forget that she would soon celebrate her fiftieth birthday.
Amanda Russell looked into the mirror with a thoughtful expression in her gray eyes. "If I should wear another such as this," she wondered aloud, "would he take notice now?"
Sir Walter came in to breakfast and stopped abruptly in the doorway. Astonishment was writ large on his handsome face.
"They are Penelope's, sir," supplied Elizabeth, in response to his unasked question. "A gentleman sent them to her just this morning."
"Penelope?" he said blankly, and turned to face the blushing, smiling Mrs. Clay. "Why would a gentleman send flowers to Penelope?"
"Why," smiled Elizabeth, "because he thinks she is lovely, Father! What other reason is there?"
Sir Walter puffed out his cheeks as he considered this. "I admit, they are a magnificent display. But I don't see what one has to do with the other." He very kindly made a bow to each lady and took his seat at table.
"Penelope has a Secret Admirer, Father," explained Elizabeth, as she passed him the tea things. "I think that's adorable. I cannot help wondering who he may be."
"Oh, surely no one we know," he replied pleasantly. "Would you ring for a fresh pot of tea, daughter?"
Fortunately for Mrs. Clay, the baronet's attention was diverted by the morning's post, which lay on a silver tray beside his plate. He sorted the letters absently, until a large one caught his attention. "Great heaven, what have we here?" he exclaimed. He quickly tore open the seal. "Kindersley!"
Both ladies looked up in interest as Sir Walter's smile grew wider.
"Daughter!" he crowed, "You and I have been invited to a house party at Lord Kindersley's estate in Richmond!"
Elizabeth was on her feet instantly, and hung over his shoulder to examine the elegant, hot-pressed invitation. "What amazing good fortune," she declared.
"It is a Triumph, that is what it is!" beamed Sir Walter, "and I know whom we have to thank for it!" His smile became more sly. "Our noble cousin's hand is in this, I'll wager my life on it!"
"When is the party to be held?" Elizabeth inquired. But just as she began to discuss the particulars of the journey with her father, Mrs. Clay spoke up.
"I have never been to Richmond," she observed pleasantly. "Shall I like it, sir?"
"Shall you, what?" Sir Walter's smile fell a little at the corners. "Er, of course. I believe everyone likes Richmond." he said, as the footman served his breakfast. Sir Walter frowned at the plate.
"But, I must say," he continued, after a moment's abstraction, "perhaps this would be the proper time for you to visit your family in Crewkherne, Mrs. Clay."
"To visit Crewkherne?" she faltered. "Oh, sir, do you think so?"
"Surely you must miss seeing your children, Penelope, dear?" added Elizabeth, properly interpreting her father's lead. "And after your holiday, you must return to Bath so that we may enjoy the remainder of the Season together."
"Oh. Yes. That would be well, I suppose," said Penelope slowly. She then lapsed into silence, as the baronet and his daughter continued with their plans.
Mr Elliot came in to breakfast soon after this, and in a very good humour. He was certain that his rooms must be ready by now, he declared, so he would no longer importune his cousins. The invitation and flowers were displayed and duly praised, and then he very deliberately chose a chair beside Mrs. Clay.
"Sir Walter, for shame," he said laughingly, in response to a remark about the roses. "Of course it is not unusual for Mrs. Clay to have an admirer! In fact, I am surprised that there is only one of them!
Graham wiped her hands after giving the caudle a stir. It was easily curdled and an inconvenience to her. But, both the misses would be drinking it regularly for some time. Taking a look under a cloth, she glanced at the door and gave a wonder when the Captain might be returning. His breakfast was still to be made. All the ingredients for the collops were ready and waiting. Now to bring down the young Mrs. Wentworth's breakfast tray.
"Madam?" Graham entered the room and was met with the sight of the young woman struggling to step into her corset. "The Captain said you was to be fed your breakfast, but nothing about dressin' you." She hurried to the woman's side. Louisa's face was flushed and her breathing heavy.
"He said nothing?" She stopped a moment, bit her lip and continued, "I am surprised at that."
"No Ma'am. Nothing about you getting' dressed." Out of habit, Graham saw the garment well-placed and began tying.
Louisa's ribs rejoiced in the help. "More tightly, please." The bindings had loosened during the night and the pressure the corset afforded her was wonderful. "And I will need help with my stockings too. I can not bend very well."
"No, Ma'am, I expect not," the housekeeper replied as she bustled about the room. The tray had been forgotten.
After completing the task of dressing and tying shoes, Graham made for the door. Before she left Mrs. Wentworth, she asked, "Might I do anything else, Ma'am?"
"No, Graham. Thank you. Oh, where is the Rector?"
"He is at the Junkins's, Ma'am. Had breakfast early and was off long ago."
Before she pulled the door closed, Louisa called out, "Graham, might you take the tray down?"
The woman harumphed. "One thing, then another," she muttered as she left the room.
"Now then, I shall make a morning call on my sister-in-law," she said. As Louisa raised her arms to drape her shawl over her shoulders, she gasped. Catching her breath, she said softly, "I hope the babe is not too heavy." She went to the door and looked up and down the hallway.
Catherine leant back on the pillow and closed her Bible. "Oh Lord, please forgive me, but if I am not able to leave this bed very soon, I shall become a full-blown, raging lunatic." A soft knock at the door made her glance at the clock. It was not time for the babies nor Graham bearing a meal. "Come," she called.
"I hope I am not disturbing you, Sister." Louisa came in and closed the door quietly. Her movements had the feel of a clandestine mission.
"Oh, come here," Catherine cried, her arms wide. "I was told you were too ill to be seen yet. No, no chair. Sit next to me on the bed."
Louisa sat, keeping her hands out of sight. She watched the woman's face.
Catherine said nothing, but reached up and touched her cheek. "Edward said you were hurt." She pulled the girl close.
"I fell," Louisa lied. The truth would stay a secret between she and her husband. "I am afraid I injured my ribs. They hurt dreadfully."
She drew back. "And here I am, holding you so tightly." Catherine blinked. "We were so worried." She took the girl's hands. She said nothing as she looked at the bandages. A few specks of red caught her eye. "You must have the doctor change these when he comes. He comes every day, you know."
"I will, I promise." Louisa brightened. "I have come to see the baby."
"Baby." Catherine said.
"Yes," she smiled, "Frederick said I was an aunt. Is it a boy or a girl. He forgot to tell."
"Yes, well there is quit a lot he did not tell. There is a bit of a problem though." She motioned for Louisa to stand and explained her Tartar of a nurse and how hiding seemed to be a requisite to seeing the newest Wentworth. "Perhaps if you were to crouch on the other side of the bed."
Louisa looked over the space and considered the contortions necessary to accomplish such a feat. She looked a Catherine and said, "You call the Tartar, I have an idea."
The nurse entered with a black look and lips tightened to white. She handed Rose to her mother.
"I understand the Rector's sister-in-law has come home." The woman surveyed the room.
"Yes," said Catherine, "and we are very grateful indeed. But she is resting." The nurse sighed heavily, her disapproval evident as always. She did not believe in unswaddled babies and had told her mistress so.
"You may go down and have tea with your sister. I can more than manage." The nurse's displeasure was annoying and Catherine knew confrontation with the woman to be unpleasant. No, best to send her away completely. "No more than half an hour though, please." Mrs. Wentworth put on her most artless face.
The Nurse nodded and laid Phillip close to his sister. At the same time she shuffled her foot under the edge of the bed. Determining there was no one lurking, she left the children to their mother.
Patting a fussy Phillip, Catherine hissed, "She has gone."
The door to the wardrobe opened and Louisa disengaged herself from the Rector's black suit coats. "I think it might have been simpler to hide under the bed after all."
"Oh no," Catherine said, holding Rose up to her aunt. "She checked."
Louisa did not hear. She was was too taken with her niece. "What a beauty you are." A cooing from the bed drew her attention. "Another one? Oh, Catherine." With ease born of joy she tucked Rose close and rounded the bed to examine Phillip.
After proper introductions were made she lay down next to the twins. With Catherine on one side and she on the other the babies were as safe as could be and she and her sister and her niece and her nephew settled down to talk.
Later that morning, Penelope Clay sat in a chair in Miss Elliot's bedchamber and watched as she and Elise discussed ball gowns. But Penelope was occupied with her thoughts and heard very little of the exchange. There was to be another Assembly this week, for the Season was beginning in earnest, but she could not muster up any enthusiasm for it.
Pinned to the front of her own dress was one of the roses from the bouquet; Penelope stroked its petals thoughtfully. It was all so curious, and so disappointing. If Sir Walter did not send the flowers, she wondered, who did?
Penelope clasped her hands tightly together and sighed. He is probably no one of any consequence, she told herself firmly. Whenever the subject of an eligible suitor came up, Miss Elliot invariably suggested men who were quite lowly, and not at all to Penelope Clay's taste.
There was a pause in the conversation; Penelope glanced up to see both women looking directly at her. Obviously, some sort of a remark was called for. She thought quickly and forced a smile. "I think each is very lovely," she said pleasantly. "But haven't you a new silver gown, Miss Elliot? I recall you showing it to me when it was delivered."
"Penelope, dear, you are brilliant!"
Elizabeth snatched the idea willingly, and Penelope gave a sigh of relief. Ordinarily, she would have basked in such a compliment, but not today. Disappointment and frustration had driven happy thoughts far from her. Even this evening's party at the Willingdons had no appeal.
Frederick was sharp-set and his stomach growled as he drew near the Rectory. The village had the faint smell of breakfast hanging over it and this aggravated its emptiness. Fool, he muttered. He'd had every opportunity in the world to eat while discussing his plans and theories. Greatly relieved, he had found his compatriot eating a hearty departure breakfast, once his news had been told, both men had set aside plates, called for a map and begun to devise a stratem. For a moment, the rumbling of his stomach distracted him from his plans. Soon though, he was back to their scheme.
"The letters have all ready been sent." His words fell into the cadence of his steps. "A carriage must be ordered. It will take no time to repack my satchel. Then the good byes." The rest of it was cake, it would be the good byes that would be his undoing.
As he rounded the house, Frederick was stopped in his tracks. There, sitting together near the shed, was his wife, in tears, with Dr Abernathy holding -- no, stroking her hands. He watched for only a moment, then walked over to the couple.
"There. I think the olive oil will be better than the ointment. While I admire Hemmings's skill as a doctor very much, I think a less aggressive treatment may prove more effectual in the long run." He turned her hands, backs up, and looked them over. Pouring a bit more of the oil, he massaged it in. "And I have brought these." He leant over and poked through his bag. Lifting a wade of white, he said, "When I thought of the treatment, I went through Victoria's things and found these. You can keep them, they are very old. Can't imagine why she kept them." He shook out a glove and slid it on Louisa's hand. "There -- "
"Might I know what you are doing outside, Louisa?" the Captain asked.
Neither had heard him approach and were startled at his question.
Abernathy stood. "Ah, Captain. Take my seat, I'm nearly through here." He dumped a basin of water: it puddled and steamed in the cool morning air; and gathered discarded linen. Jamming it along with a large, cruel-looking pair of tweezers into his black bag, he said, "I came to visit Mrs. Wentworth -- uh, the other one, and found things in a bit of confusion and brought Loua out here to treat her hands. I must say, you have done wonders, Doctor Wentworth, I did not think she would be up and about for days." Snapping the bag closed he smiled at Louisa and took her hand. "Now, oil them every few hours, and," he said, stooping to her, "I doubt you are at fault here. The Rector was not in the least bit angry with you."
She smiled faintly and nodded.
He bussed her forehead. "She will explain everything. Good morning to you both."
They watched him mount his curricle, leave the yard and travel down the road. He turned to her and said, "Confusion? And why are you dressed and outside? I left no word with Graham to dress you."
"Do not blame poor Graham," she said. "I tricked her. And then I sneaked across the hall to see Catherine. I was wild to see the baby -- " She suddenly frowned and scolded, "Why did you not tell me that there were twins?"
His first thought was a rather sharp reply, but thought better of it. "My mind was not on babies at that moment. Anywise, tell me what has gone on while I was out."
"And, you said you were not going out today. Where have you been?"
Frederick sat back, crossed his arms and looked at his wife. She shifted under his scrutiny; the gloves that now covered her hands became fascinating.
He leant forward and took her hands again. "I will tell you all about where and whom I was with later, but now I am asking the questions and I would like an answer. What has gone on in the house?"
"The nurse has been sent away and I am afraid it is all my fault."
"Who sent her away and why might you be at fault?"
"I told you, I sneaked in. Catherine says that the nurse did not like the schedule interrupted, and that included visitors. I hid so that she would leave the babies. They are beautiful are they not? I was shocked to see two of them. And Catherine says that Rose is the image of your mother. Is that true?"
Exasperated with her circuitous thoughts, he put his hands gently on her shoulders, pulled her close, kissed her forehead and said, "I know the nurse is a brute, the babes are the most beautiful I ever laid my eyes upon and yes, Rose is the image of my mother. Now, Louisa, you must tell me what happened and do it as economically as possibly, please."
Her gloved hands held his face and she kissed him quickly. "I sneaked in and Catherine called for the babies. I hid in the wardrobe until she had gone. I came out and we played with them on the bed. They are precious and I -- " she saw his impatience rising, " -- we talked, Catherine and I, and the babies wiggled and coo'd. It was lovely. We knew the nurse was to return soon, but we delayed too long -- and fell asleep. Both Catherine and I."
"So, the odious Nurse Nasty caught the two of you. What did she do?"
"She was ever so cruel," cried Louisa. Her color matched her niece. "She picked up Phillip so roughly that he cried out. She also said that Catherine was not a fit mother and that, if not for her, the babies would go quite uncared for."
"I can not imagine that Mrs. Wentworth would endure such treatment. Especially when she was not overly fond of the nurse to begin."
"No, she did not. She ordered her away immediately."
"What had my brother to say?"
"When he heard the noise coming from the nursery -- she was slamming things about and muttering so -- he came up and inquired of her." She looked away and bit her lip. It was clear she had no wish to tell him more. He urged her on.
"The door closed," she said quietly, "and there was a low exchange ... then suddenly the Rector's voice ... he was shouting. I had never heard that before."
Frederick had to give it considerable thought, but finally remembered when he had last heard his brother raise his voice. It had been more years than he cared to count.
"She made no reply and then I heard the door slam again. It was her leaving."
"Where were you during all this?"
"Still lying on the bed with Catherine. We were shocked by what the woman said and then the Rector ... it was chaos."
Her face was grey and her eyes frightened. "And you think you are the cause of all this?"
"My sneaking in certainly did not help matters, I think. And I have caused a great deal of upheaval over the past days."
"No," he said, "surely not. But I think another's hand lit the fuse on this particular bomb and you had the bad luck to be in the area when it exploded. As for the other, unless you are telling me that you wished to be taken away by Randwick, I can't see that it is your fault either."
"I always seem to be doing the wrong thing, or trusting the wrong person."
She gave an abbreviated account of her dealings with Levant and how Randwick had offered her sympathy and then, seemingly, outright help. "When I got in the carriage, I thought he was my salvation. I soon realised he was nothing of the sort."
Frederick had listened quietly, saying nothing, asking no questions.
"You are angry. I can't blame you, but I thought there was no other choice. Mr Levant was very plain about the Rector."
"So you were going to give him fifty pounds."
She straightened, as though she were preparing to defend herself. "I will not lie to you. I would have given him the whole of the account, if your Mr Putnam had not been so stinting. You said that I should have it all if I liked."
The Captain held up his hands. "Putnam acted on his own. I left no restrictions. He most likely thought he was saving me from the whimsy of a young and silly woman." He leant forward and brushed her lips with his own. "He did not realise what you were trying to do for my family."
"No, not your family," she said, shaking her head. "My family. I am a Wentworth and they are my family now."
He nodded. "Yes, you are a Wentworth. Stubborn, intractable, and very brave."
"I shan't argue the point. And the rest of the tale about Nurse Nasty Face will have to wait." It was time for him to talk. "I am afraid we have had some bad news." He gently took one of her gloved hands in his own. "That letter this morning. It was about the posting in Portsmouth. It has been set aside."
Louisa grasped his hand with both hers. She blinked. "So, we shall have no home together." With a weak smile she looked at him and continued. "After all is said and done we are no worse off than we were to begin with. I will stay here and be happy about it." Sitting up she leant against the wall of the shed.
He stood and offered her a hand. "I hope you are not counting on that."
She looked up, took his hand and slowly got to her feet. Taking his arm, she said, "You have spoken to the Rector, he wants me gone."
"You are a goose today," he said, stopping. "Nothing of the sort." He continued to the house. "I shall explain it all to you after we get you back in bed." He took her hand and kissed it. "I must say, the gloves add an air of elegance to your injuries."
She held on hand up and played at examining it. "Yes, I think you are right."
"Shows real breeding and quality, I think. How many are able to take something so ordinary as shredded palms and make it so refined. Only the French I think."
"The French?" she cried. "Please, explain how I am like the French."
"All you must do is look at their aristocracy. Ordinary. Plain. Some of them viciously ugly, in fact. But with a little paint and guilt, voila, elegance personified. Just like your gloves."
"Oh stop it, Frederick," she laughed. "You are making my sides hurt."
"Oh, perhaps you could do something to make bruised ribs all the rage," he said. "Jewel encrusted binding?"
"Stop. You are being ridiculous."
"Bindings to compliment the occasion. Muslin for the country, silk for the city -- "
"Stop, you are doing this deliberately -- "
Holding open the door, he helped her up the stairs and as she passed into the house he asked, "Would feathers be over the top, do you think?"
Penelope sighed unhappily. In spite of the roses, it had been an utterly wretched day. Sir Walter and Elizabeth had each retired to take a nap in preparation for the evening ahead, but Penelope could not sleep. What she wanted to do was cry, but she was too angry for that. She could only stand at the drawing room windows and stare out at the street below.
It was now painfully obvious that the baronet had not sent the flowers. Quite the contrary, he had suggested that she leave them, and just when he had begun to soften in his manner! Could it be that he cared nothing for her, even after all this time? This was difficult to believe, for last night he had been so attentive and affectionate!
That horrid house party in Richmond was to blame! It was set to begin only days after Anne's wedding. Penelope knew that unless she could change Sir Walter's mind, her life was about to take a sudden, drastic turn -- one which had nothing to do with any Secret Admirer!
Once I am gone back to Crewkherne (hateful place!), shall he truly invite me to return? she wondered. Or have I lost my only opportunity to attach him? Her eyes narrowed. She simply must find a way to change his mind, and soon! But her train of thought was interrupted by the opening of the drawing room door. Penelope gave a tiny snort of vexation; it was Mr Elliot.
"Good afternoon, sir," she said dully. "The baronet and Miss Elliot are not here." She then turned back to the window, hoping that he would take the hint and go away.
But William Elliot was all politeness. "Then perhaps I may keep you company in their stead," he replied genially, and came fully into the room. "How have you been enjoying your afternoon, Mrs. Clay? Have there been any callers?"
"Only Captain Benwick," she answered, as she lowered herself into a chair. "He came to inquire for news about Anne but did not stay."
There was a pause. "I see. And ... has the baronet had any letter from her yet?" he asked lightly.
Penelope pursed her lips. "Oh, surely not so soon, sir," she replied. "Lady Russell is not the sort of person to send letters by express. I have heard her say so several times." Feeling she had done her conversational duty, Penelope lapsed into silence.
But William Elliot seemed determined to converse. "I see you have your roses here," he said, in a decidedly friendly way. "They are even more lovely than they were this morning."
"Thank you." Penelope turned to watch him from beneath half-lowered lids. What was the man about? Why must he take a seat so close beside hers?
"Have you any idea who the sender might be?"
"None whatsoever, sir."
"Ah." He gave her a knowing smile. "Perhaps that may be best, after all," he said sagely. "For would not knowing the man's identity spoil the romance of it?"
"I do not know; how should I?" she replied crisply. "There has been very little romance in my sad life, Mr Elliot."
William did not reply to this right away. At last, he leaned forward. "I happen to know that these roses were sent to you as an apology," he confided, very softly, "from someone who has been abominably rude to you of late." He hesitated. "I believe he is sorry and would like to make amends."
Penelope could not conceal her astonishment, but said nothing.
"But I wonder whether you will enjoy these poor flowers any more after I tell you his name?"
Naturally, Penelope was extremely curious, but she was too proud to ask. Instead, she quipped, "The only one who has been extremely rude to me, sir, is you!"
Then William Elliot did an odd thing. He rose from his chair and made her a very pretty bow. "It is as you say," he said softly. "How may anything be hidden from one as perceptive as you?" He looked deeply into her eyes. "Please remember," he murmured, "he is sorry and would like to make amends."
Mr Elliot then turned and made for the drawing room door. As he opened it, he gave her a final look and a wistful smile. Then he was gone, leaving Penelope Clay to stare after him in wonder.
Quotation: Sonnet XVIII by William Shakespeare
Lady Russell had just finished arranging the tea things to her satisfaction, when Longwell came into the Lodge parlour and shut the door behind him. He looked a bit harried.
"Two, er, gentlemen of the Navy have just arrived, my lady," he said, with awful irony. "They are insisting on an, er, audience with yourself."
"An audience?" Lady Russell set the teapot down. "Good heavens. What do I want with two sailors?" She inclined her head. "I am not at home, Longwell, to them or to anyone. Send them away."
"Very good, my lady."
"But! Pardon me," Anne intervened, "if these are men of the Navy, ma'am, perhaps they come from Captain Benwick."
"From Captain ...? Oh!" Lady Russell's brow cleared. "Yes, yes, of course, to assist Mr Charles! Though it is curious that they should wish to speak to me. Very well, show them in, Longwell."
As the man departed, Lady Russell took a bracing sip of tea. "Bless me, this is a fine turn of events!" she complained. "Imagine, utter strangers, admitted into my parlour upon demand!" She gave Anne a look over the rim of her teacup. "I hope they are not hideously uncouth, my dear! Or, dangerous."
"If James has sent them to guard us from Mr Elliot," Anne replied, "I rather hope they are."
The sailors' appearance was not precisely hideous, though their attire could never be called fashionable. Nor were they ill-mannered. Quite the contrary, they were painfully respectful, and gazed upon the two women with undisguised admiration. Nevertheless, the older of the two, whose vast shoulders were squeezed tightly into an ancient frock coat, did look as rustic and 'sailorish' as Lady Russell could wish. The other, an angular man who was obviously mindful to be on his best behaviour, did the talking.
"I am Lieutenant Gale, your honorable ladyship," he said, with a formal bow. "And this is Blunt, er, Harry Blunt, I should say. Our helmsman." Blunt likewise bowed, though rather awkwardly, as his hefty frame did not seem to lend itself to bending at the middle. Lieutenant Gale observed this manoeuvre and, satisfied with his companion's performance, continued on with his speech. "We come by order of Captain James Benwick to offer assistance to a Mr Charles Musgrove. If you could kindly tell us of that gentleman's whereabouts, my lady, we╠ll be off."
Lady Russell blinked. "I see," she said politely. "I am afraid I have no idea where he might be, unfortunately. Perhaps you should search the shrubbery at the rear of the Lodge."
Mr Gale considered this, and then said, uncomfortably, "Begging your ladyship's pardon, that's just the trouble. We thought it best to apply to you first, open-like, so as not to be mistook for the enemy. If you know what I mean, ma'am."
"A wise precaution, Lieutenant," said Anne, gracefully rising from her chair. She turned to face her godmother. "If you've no objection, ma'am, I'll take these men to Charles right away. It shouldn't be too difficult to locate him." She gave the officer a sunny smile. "And I trust I won't be mistaken for the enemy, sir."
"You, Miss? N-no," the lieutenant stammered. "Not ever!"
"I say! That there's a nacky notion, Mister Gale, ain't it?" Blunt said, as soon as the threesome was out of doors. "Dressin' like wimmen to get past the guard!"
"Dressing like, what?" Mr Gale winced. "Blunt," he said with weary patience, "no self-respecting man would don a petticoat for any reason! Especially that one!" He eyed Anne and added impressively, "It's excessively ... infra dig!"*
"Guess that's so," mumbled Blunt, abashed. "But the Cap'n, he sed to be watchful, as that Elliot fella's wonderous clever. 'Up for 'most anything,' he sed. 'An I was thinkin' he might even try ..."
"You are quite right, Mister Blunt, and I thank you," Anne broke in. "Mr Elliot is a thoroughgoing scoundrel. He would indeed be 'up for almost anything.' You do well to trust no one."
Blunt's round, sunburnt face now turned an even deeper shade of red. He muttered something inarticulate and scuffed his shoes, now and again casting shy, grateful looks at Anne as they walked along. At last, the shrubbery was gained. Anne called out for Charles and was answered, and the men were introduced. Charles and Lieutenant Gale were soon deep in conversation about firearms and the particulars for standing watch.
Anne was left apart with Blunt; she cast about for something to say to him, but was at a loss. How should one converse with an ordinary seaman? She was about to offer a comment on the fine weather, but the words died on her lips, for Blunt was watching her carefully. He shot a look at his commanding officer, and then back at her. A sly look crossed his homely face as he cautiously pulled a flat, square packet from his coat pocket.
"A-hem! Miss, er, Elliot," he began bashfully, turning the package over and over in his hands, "We ain't exactly strangers to the Cap'n, y'know. Mister Gale, he was fust mate when we was on the Grappler," he explained. "Now, the Cap╠n, he giv╠d me very ╬splicit orders, Miss. ╬Blunt,╠ ses he, an╠ he was smiling all over his face as he sed it, ╬This here╠s a letter for Miss Anne Elliot. But you must take care t'give it to the right lady.╠ An╠ by how he ╬ascribed you, miss, I know╠d you was the one."
"I know'd it was you," continued Blunt shyly, " 'acos the Cap'n sed you 'ad eyes that was the kindest in all the world. It was beau-tiful what he sed; I aint able to recall all of it. Somethin' about a-comin' in out o'the cold to sit afore a warm fire. That's what he sed your smile was like." Blunt became suddenly tongue-tied; he handed her the packet and took himself off to join Charles and the lieutenant.
"Good-bye ... Mr Blunt," called Anne in a faraway voice; her eyes were fixed on the flat parcel in her hands. Her name was written on the face of it in James' flowing script. She quickly ducked into the Lodge garden and with a hammering heart, untied the string. Inside was a small wrapped package and a letter, which she opened first. After reading his beginning paragraph, she did not know whether to laugh or cry.
My Dearest Annie,
I know how it is to long for news from home, so I took the liberty of sending this with Blunt. He's a good man, but a trifle forgetful. I trust this reaches you in a timely manner. About my news, I hope you won't mind if I run on somewhat. It would take more time to compile a condensed account of the past two days; may I simply tell all and leave it to you to sort out the details of interest, instead?
"Will I mind if he runs on somewhat?" Anne exclaimed happily, as she counted the four pages of his letter. She stumbled blindly toward a circular bench beneath a budding tree.
"Dear James! 'The ... Cap'n,' " she murmured smilingly, as she sat down. It was odd to hear her gentle, bookish sweetheart called that by a man like Blunt, but so he was. Anne sighed and caressed the pages of his letter. And her darling, The Captain, had described her so sweetly to Blunt! Anne pressed James' letter to her heart; she nearly laughed out loud as she recalled what the bashful helmsman had said of him: 'he was smilin' all over his face ...'
Anne did much the same, as she lost herself in reading his letter.
But Anne was not the only one to receive a letter that afternoon. At Sir Walter's house in Bath, another lady was given a note, though it lay unnoticed in her bedchamber for quite some time. At length Penelope Clay discovered it; with a cry of surprise she snatched it from her pillow and broke the seal. The unexpected message was short and to the point:
My Dear Penelope,
I know you are engaged to dine with my cousins at the Willingdons tonight. Stay behind. Join me for dinner, instead.
I'll have my carriage waiting near the corner, at eight.
Penelope's mouth fell open. She blinked and read the words again. "Such a dreadful, presuming man," she complained softly. "He does not ask my leave, he simply commands! Well!" Penelope raised her chin. "I do not bow to his every whim and fancy! Dinner, indeed!"
She was about to crumple the page and feed it to the fire, but then thought better of it. A cunning smile twisted her lips. Had he truly sent the roses? She would soon find out. But when the note was held alongside the other, there could be no doubt. The handwriting matched exactly. Penelope frowned at it. "Dinner, indeed," she repeated.
Penelope pursed her lips as she remembered the scene in the drawing room that afternoon. "So, he is sorry and would like to make amends?" she sniffed. "Very well, he shall soon find out how sorry he can be made to feel! Not for the world I accept such an infamous invitation!"
Again, she approached the fireplace -- and pulled back. Again, she examined the note. This time, something caught her eye and gave her pause to consider. Whereas the Secret Admirer's message had been written on a plain sheet of paper, the dinner invitation was not. The top of the page was emblazoned with the Elliot family crest. Penelope bit a fingernail as she stared at it.
What do I have to lose by accepting? she wondered, with an unexpected change of face. She would spend the evening with a very charming man, a man who knew how to converse with a lady. And this was not just any man; he was Sir Walter's heir. Penelope's heart began to race along with her thoughts. Would William Elliot be offended if she refused? Dare she risk that?
Her thoughts veered toward Sir Walter. What risk did she face with him? Penelope gave a snort of derision. He had certainly shown that their affectionate exchange in the courtyard meant nothing, hadn't he? Perhaps I would do well to deprive him of my company tonight, she sniffed. Over the months, he had come to quite rely on her. Would he miss her constant, devoted attention? After all, she reminded herself shrewdly, absence does make the heart grow fonder.
Again Penelope read William Elliot's words; this time she felt the blood rise to her cheeks. No one needed to tell her that it was improper to dine alone with him. He was a man of the world, as Mr Clay had been, of that she was very sure. Such men were dangerous, yet so very enticing.
If I do accept, who will know? she wondered. And besides, what will it matter if anyone does find out? For if Sir Walter had his way, in a week she would be packed off to Crewkherne, probably forever! Penelope ground her teeth at the baronet's high-handedness.
And with finances the way they are, I shall probably be forced travel in an horrible mail coach! Penelope shuddered; she had now become accustomed to a finer style of living. The mail coach and all it represented could be nothing other than undignified and disgusting.
With surprising quickness, Penelope made up her mind. She pulled the bell to summon a servant, taking care to wet her handkerchief first. She sat before the mirror and squeezed droplets of water onto her flushed cheeks and forehead; by the time the girl knocked on the door, the effect was quite perfect.
"Sarah," she said, in a weak yet pleasant voice, "I hate to impose on you, my dear, but would you please tell Miss Elliot that I am feeling rather poorly? She needn't come, for I know she will be busy with her toilette just now, but would you say that it may be best if I do not attend Mrs. Willingdon's dinner tonight?"
At Kellynch Lodge, Anne gazed out the parlour window and daydreamed, as the afternoon deepened into evening. She was home. Charles had promised to take her on a stroll through the groves of the estate tomorrow, yet such a thing no longer held much appeal. With all her heart, she longed to be in Bath. Wasn't that curious?
Tenderly, she stroked the new silver necklace which hung about her neck. James had sent it with the letter; the chain was adorned with a pendant in the shape of a small sailing ship.
It isn't anything like the 'Grappler', he had written, as it was probably made up to be worn by Admiral Nelson's admirers, but perhaps it will remind you of me all the same.
Lady Russell had admired the chain and the silver ship, and had asked any number of questions about the contents of her letter. Anne had become suddenly shy, and had given only the most general of replies. Lady Russell had at last given up and had abandoned the conversation.
Anne now leaned closer to the glass and peered out. Though it was dark, she could see men standing in the road before the Lodge. They held lanterns and were talking; obviously this was the changing of the guard. Anne sat back and smiled. Even if Mr Elliot were to pursue her to this lonely place, he would certainly have a fight on his hands!
Penelope made a brave show of it; to please Miss Elliot she had put on her most elegant evening gown and had attempted to attend the dinner. But after one look at her wan face, as she stood trembling in the entry hall, and Sir Walter was all solicitation. Of course, Mrs. Clay should stay home, he declared. What was Elizabeth thinking? The Willingdons would certainly understand; he would make her excuses to the hostess, himself. Mrs. Clay must rest; perhaps she would feel better in the morning. That is, if she were not infectious!
And so, as the baronet and his daughter left the house, Penelope climbed the stairs to her room and lay carefully on her bed. She congratulated herself for a very clever strategy; she was now properly dressed to dine with Mr Elliot.
All too soon it was time to leave. Penelope cracked open her door and listened. The house was utterly silent; she supposed the servants were now belowstairs for the evening. Although she did not know it, she tiptoed down the hallway and stairs in much the same manner as Anne had done several nights before, dreading discovery. Upon reaching the entry hall, Penelope swiftly wrapped her cloak about her, drew back the bolt of the main door, and slipped out into the night.
There, at the far end of Camden Place, stood a carriage. Its lamps cast a glow onto the street. Penelope walked toward it as calmly as she could. In the dim light she could see the Elliot crest emblazoned on the door; its significance was not lost on her. An attendant bowed and opened it, and with meticulous care assisted her to enter.
Penelope sank back against the cushioned seat and drew the fur lap robe more closely about her. As the vehicle moved forward, her sharp eyes took in its interior. From previous outings, she knew this to be a much more elegant vehicle than anything the baronet had ever used. William Elliot was a man of taste, sophistication, and substance.
Penelope Clay smiled into the darkness. An adventure was before her tonight.
*infra dig., that is, beneath one's dignity (short for Latin infra dignitatem)
Penelope Clay peered out of the carriage window. Obviously, this place was on the outskirts of Bath, quite out-of-the-way. Was I wise to come? she wondered anxiously. As she waited for someone to open the carriage door, Penelope again went over her carefully-laid plans. Coward! she scolded herself. Thus far, everything had come off without a hitch. What was there to worry about? By the time Sir Walter and Elizabeth would arrive home, she would be in her bed, fast asleep.
Her impressions of the inn were fleeting, for she was swiftly escorted into the building by one of Mr Elliot's liveried servants. She looked curiously at the entrance to the taproom as she passed by. Where on earth has he brought me? she wondered, as the servant opened a door.
However, the private salon at The Swallowtail was completely unlike the rest of the inn. Penelope drew in her breath as she entered the room. It was beautifully arranged. Rose-coloured linens adorned the table and were complimented by an exquisite floral arrangement. The light from silver candelabrum caused the flatware and glasses to sparkle. The table was set for two, promising an evening of intimate conversation. And standing before the fire was William Elliot.
Penelope swallowed down the sarcastic greeting she had prepared. Had all this been arranged especially for her? After months of being treated in such an off-hand manner, this special attention was delightful. She felt her lips curve into a coy smile.
"My dear Penelope," murmured Mr Elliot; he came forward to lift the cloak from her shoulders with his own hands. "Words cannot express my delight. I feared that I had overstepped myself in issuing such an unconventional invitation. Thank you for coming." He bowed over her hand, kissed it, and then gestured to the table. "Shall we sit down, my dear?"
"And so, there I was, in the wee hours of the morning, ma'am," Charles recounted merrily, as he sat before a cheerful fire at the Lodge, "stranded on the streets of Bath with my father's coach and horses, looking as suspicious as could be. I was doing the hero's bit to distract the night watchman, you know. And then, what does Benwick do but walk by with Anne on his arm. Right by, as easy as you please! And such a look he gives me, Lady Russell! As if I was one of his wretched seafaring drudges in need of a dressing-down!" He paused in his narrative to snatch another sugared plum from the plate.
"Good heavens, Charles," Anne said with a smile. "That is not how it was at all!" She turned to Lady Russell. "Charles makes it sound like a romp! You may only imagine how frightened we were, ma'am."
"Not Benwick," objected Charles, between swallows of hot negus. "He wasn't frightened, not one bit. You didn't see his face, Sister-dear! I did! And he, well, er, as I said, he looked like he wanted to throttle me! Not that I blame him," he added, with a grin. "As I did make off with a whole box of his best cigars ..."
"I see. Cigars." Lady Russell eyed Charles Musgrove and sighed heavily. She did not approve of outlandish, embroidered stories, even if they were about her own Anne. "My dear Mr Charles," said she, briskly, "may I impose upon you to add another log to the fire? It is quite chilly in this room." She shifted in her chair and added, "Good gracious, it is nearly ten o'clock."
"Ten?" Charles slewed around to see the clock for himself. His pleasant smile fled away. "Confound it! I must be off, then," he muttered, as he complied with Lady Russell's request about the log. "It's getting to be dashed difficult to keep Anne's presence here a secret, you know? I mean, if Elliot shows up, the men and I are ready. But if Mary gets wind of this ..."
"If you go straight home, I doubt she will notice anything unusual," said Lady Russell firmly.
"Humph." Charles brushed wood shavings from his hands and considered this. "I've made out that I've been hunting badgers these nights," he explained, as he rose from his knees. "Only thing is, to be convincing, I must actually shoot a few of them to show her. So far, I've not had much luck."
Lady Russell's horrified expression showed exactly what she thought of such an excuse. She was about to speak when Anne intervened by offering to walk with him to the parlour door.
"Good night, Charles," she said softly. "And, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I hope you find a badger or two to kill on the way home for Mary."
After the door was closed, Anne realised what it was that she had said, and her lips twisted into a smile.
Penelope watched dreamily as William Elliot brought out a second bottle. The deep red colour of the wine, which sparkled as it rose to fill the crystal glass, was so very pleasing in the soft candlelight. So too had been the conversation over dinner; she had not been so well entertained for a very long time. What surprised her most was Mr Elliot's openness: he did not hesitate to voice his opinion of the baronet's shabby treatment of her. This was so unlike his usual, careful self that Penelope did not know what to think. Indeed, she could scarcely believe what he was now saying:
"... for Sir Walter not only insulted you, but me, as well," he said wrathfully, as he finished filling the second glass. "Wondering why you should have an admirer, indeed! Good lord! A man would be an idiot if he did not admire you, my dear!"
"Is that so?" Penelope raised her chin as she accepted the glass he held out to her. The wine had loosened her reserve just enough for her to say, "I had thought you admired Miss Anne, sir, above all others."
He responded with a disarming smile. "Alas, it is true," he admitted. "Anne is a dear girl. But my affection for her arose out of a desire to rescue her from a life of poverty."
"How noble!" remarked Penelope.
"Yes, it was, wasn't it?" William Elliot rotated the stem of his wine glass between his fingers; his smile hardened. "But you must not think I am cast down, my dear. Fate intervened and kept me from a disastrous mistake! It just so happened that Anne bestowed her affections elsewhere at the very moment I learned some unhappy news about the baronet. Of course, once I knew the truth, I lost all interest in assisting my cousins."
Penelope's attention was caught by this remark, but she knew she dared not inquire about the particulars -- yet.
"Besides," he continued, "once Anne became engaged, what could I do?" William leaned forward; his eyes glittered as he said deliberately, "Not for anything would I wed Elizabeth!"
Penelope had to smile. "You are not a true philanthropist, then?"
"A desire to assist a woman of one's family is one thing. Self-immolation is quite another," he retorted. "Now that I know her better, I cannot imagine marriage to Elizabeth as being anything other than a continual cat fight!"
"Good gracious," Penelope gurgled. Her eyes danced to hear such talk, for it was deliciously true, though she could hardly say so. "But you must admit," she objected, "Elizabeth is very beautiful".
"Beautiful and d-mned opinionated!" he snapped. "One must agree with her upon every point -- or be annihilated!" His voice softened. "I don't see how you have borne it, my dear."
William dropped his eyes for a moment. "But then, I am forgetting," he said gently, "you must work for your living; you have no choice but to bear with the whims and tempers of a fashionable woman." He raised his eyes to meet Penelope's and asked, very causally, "By the bye, has Sir Walter been prompt in paying your salary, my dear?"
"My salary," she faltered. "Why, I ..."
"For I have heard from a reliable source that he is in serious difficulty, more so than he suspects. I suggest you approach him at the soonest opportunity."
"Oh, but, I ..." Penelope swallowed. "I couldn't, for such an action appears to be so callous and grasping, sir." The truth was, she did not wish to remind Sir Walter of her inferior status by asking, but she could hardly say so to Mr Elliot. "The baronet and Elizabeth have been quite generous to me," she said loyally. "That is, they have given me gifts, and ..."
"Elizabeth's cast-offs, do you mean?" he interrupted, with an awful smile. "I do not call such things gifts, my dear. Do you?"
Penelope winced at the truth of this. She lowered her eyes.
"You really should ask for your salary, before it is too late." William paused to study the play of the candlelight on the silver buttons of his coat sleeve. "Sir Walter is ruined," he said calmly. "Surely you have seen the signs."
"I have seen no such thing," whispered Penelope fiercely, though she knew this was not true. She glanced up; her eyes met his. She tried to turn her gaze away, but found she could not. His eyes held the most compassionate expression; why had she never noticed this before?
"It is as I have told you from the beginning, my dear Penelope," he said softly. "Yours was an admirable attempt, but it would never have worked. Sir Walter cannot love anyone but himself. And even if you could convince him to wed you, what would you have? Only the title. Your husband would be a foolish old man. In addition, there is no longer any provision for a widow's pension in his will. As the man's heir, I am in a position to know this." He paused. "Upon his demise, you would be left penniless, as well as homeless.
The word 'homeless' could only conjure up the dreaded return to her father's house in Crewkherne. Penelope groped for her wine glass and took a bracing swallow. "You would call Sir Walter's financial situation desperate, then?"
"Absolutely and completely," replied William, with disastrous promptness. "Your father is his man of business, is he not? I suggest you apply to him for the facts."
"Nevertheless," he continued, "I do pity the baronet, somewhat. He is nearly a comic figure in Bath, now. All pretend respect, while they laugh at him behind his back. Poor old fellow." William's lips twisted into a smile as he reached for a silver serving dish. "Have a sweetmeat, my dear," he offered.
Elizabeth glanced about the room and sighed wearily. At dinner, she had been seated between two of the most odious gentlemen imaginable. And now that the ladies were gathered alone in the drawing room, she discovered that her situation was no better; there simply was no one to converse with. Very sorely did she miss Penelope Clay tonight. Nevertheless, Elizabeth knew her duty. She smiled prettily at her hostess, arranged her hands becomingly on her lap, and listened with feigned interest to the babble around her.
As these were elderly women, ailments and the doings of grown children were the topics discussed. Elizabeth stifled a yawn, and studied the arrangement of the furniture. When she looked back at her lap, she was surprised to see a gloved hand holding out a cup of tea to her. Elizabeth took the it from the footman automatically, and then noticed that every women held such a cup.
"Drink up, ladies," she heard Mrs Willingdon announce gaily. "This is the most amusing concoction imaginable! It is tea made from the flowers of St. John's something-or-other. Wort, I think it is called. But no matter. It is wonderfully restorative! Since ingesting it daily, I feel ten years younger!"
"That would make me nineteen years old," muttered Elizabeth beneath her breath, amid the coos of surprise and delight. "No, thank you." That had been the year of her come-out in London, one of the most hideously awkward experiences of her life. Elizabeth studied the contents of her cup and struggled to disguise her revulsion. The beverage looked particularly nasty and smelled even worse!
However, the subject of tea brought her thoughts to the Wedding Tea she was to host for Anne. Resentfully, she eyed Mrs Willingdon's elegant silver tea service. How was she to entertain properly if the finest tableware was left behind at Kellynch? It did not matter that Anne was marrying such a lowly man; she was an Elliot and things like this must be done correctly! Elizabeth frowned into her teacup as she thought over her dilemma.
At last a thought came which made her raise an amused eyebrow. Captain Benwick had offered his services to her father, though she suspected he had servants and kitchen staff in mind. Elizabeth bit back a mischievous smile. Did not a man in love delight in doing heroic deeds? Although Benwick was far from her ideal of heroic, perhaps she could make him drive the fifty miles to Kellynch Hall to retrieve the items she needed!
Presently the gentlemen came into the room. One of the first was her father, arm-in-arm with Sir Clifton Farley. Elizabeth's smile widened. This was quite a victory for him, for Sir Clifton was known as a Presence in Bath. However, her smile slipped a bit as she observed him more closely. Had her father been drinking, or whatever was the matter? His eyes were bloodshot and watery, and although he was bravely attempting to maintain a jovial countenance, she could see that he was fatigued.
She was not the only one to notice this. With fluttering concern, Mrs Willingdon was soon headed his way; a footman bearing a cup of her precious 'Wort' tea followed in her wake.
I am a fool, Penelope thought ruefully. That's just what I am, a fool, to be charmed by a man such as this. For Mr Elliot not only looked deeply into her eyes now, but his hand lay over one of hers. Why must he be so attractive? she groaned, as she returned his smile.
"I am so glad you accepted my invitation, Penelope," he said seriously. "We have had a lovely evening together, have we not? It is important to me that we part as friends." He pressed her hand meaningfully before he removed his.
Penelope's eyes widened. Has he learned of my forced return to Crewkherne? she worried. How can that be? She was certain he had not spoken to either Sir Walter or Elizabeth all that afternoon!
Both fell silent. At last, he said, "You may not know that I must return to the Metropolis soon."
Penelope swallowed her surprise at this unexpected news. "You are ... leaving us, sir?"
"I am. By the end of the week, in fact. I have business there that can no longer be delayed. Did I mention that I have lately purchased a house in Town? And, of course, the Season is beginning." His eyes held a smile of wry amusement. "As you know, I shall be officially out of mourning in June. You cannot be unaware of what that means."
"I see." Penelope raised her glass in a mock salute. "So, it appears that Miss Anne will not be the only Elliot to marry this spring," she replied crisply. "We shall see you for the last time at the wedding on Sunday, then?"
"Wedding?" he frowned. "Ah, Anne's wedding! No, no. I shall be gone away by that time. We must bid one another adieu tonight." William paused. "I wish Anne well," he said, rather stiffly. "She shall make a good wife. Dull, but good. One must always admire Anne's goodness."
"Yes, of course," she agreed.
"But to be honest, Penelope, I vastly prefer a different sort of woman. A more spirited, intelligent woman; a woman who enjoys amusing conversation and entertainments -- the fashionable world of Society." William reached for his wine glass. Over the rim of it, his eyes met hers.
"Yes, I can understand how that," she answered slowly.
"After so many months in my cousins' wretched household, I am sure you do." William leaned back in his chair. "Tell me," he said pleasantly, "when do Sir Walter and Elizabeth make their pilgrimage to Town? Perhaps you and I may meet in some ballroom or other."
"They travel only so far as Richmond this year," replied Penelope, with a tinge of bitterness.
"Oh? And you do not like this arrangement?"
"The two of them have been invited to join a select house party there," she sniffed. "And so, at that time, I shall make a brief visit to my family in the country." Penelope bit her lip at the unpleasant, Elizabeth-like tone which had crept into her voice. She determined to correct it. "I suppose it will not be not so very bad for a week or two," she amended, more pleasantly. "And, it will be lovely to see my ch--"
Penelope caught herself just in time. She had been careful to avoid mentioning the existence of her two children in Polite Society; even with the Elliots she had refrained from discussing them. She looked carefully at Mr Elliot; he knew nothing about them, of this she was certain. Perhaps it would be best if his ignorance is allowed to continue -- for the time being, she thought shrewdly.
"Er, it will be lovely to see my church," she finished artfully. "We have the loveliest church in Crewkherne. But, enough of me. Please, tell me more about your house in London."
"My house? Well. There is not much to tell," he confessed. "Bare walls and empty rooms; all needing paint and paper, carpets and furniture, an efficient staff ... and those special touches necessary to make it a home."
William shook his head regretfully. "It is the latter which presents the greatest difficulty, I find," he said quietly. "I suppose my dilemma is shared by all men who live alone. It is simply too quiet."
"Oh." Penelope did not know what else to say, so she smiled sweetly and took another sip of wine.
"Father, please. Allow me to assist you," Elizabeth said, as she climbed from the carriage. They had left the Willingdons early on account of his poor health. Sir Walter grumbled something inarticulate and resisted.
"Have a care! You'll fall!" she warned, but Sir Walter did not heed her. "Stubborn man," she muttered under her breath. She set her teeth and firmly took hold of his arm. As the pair made their way to the main door, she said, "Burton will help you up the stairs and see you into bed."
"I am not ill," Sir Walter repeated, for perhaps the twentieth time. "I am never ill, it is just that ..." But as Burton opened the door and ushered him inside, a new thought struck him.
"Mrs Clay!" he exclaimed forcefully. He turned to face Elizabeth. "It is her doing!" He paused to shrug off his coat. "She was taken ill this very afternoon! Surely, I have caught her sickness!"
"What does Mrs Clay have to do with anything," grumbled Elizabeth, as she removed her cloak and handed it to a servant. "Just because one person has a cold does not mean another will catch it."
"It was that treacherous night air," the baronet fretted. "I told her it was unhealthful! But she would take a walk in the courtyard! And like a fool, I allowed her to persuade me to accompany her!"
"Father, what are you talking about," Elizabeth said wearily. "Sleep is what you need now. I'm sure you will feel just fine in the morning." She bid him good night and watched as he was practically carried up the stairs by two footmen. After a time, she followed.
Slowly she mounted the staircase and made her way to her bedchamber. Her silken shirts rustled pleasantly as she walked, but tonight even this soft sound was irksome, for she had the beginnings of a head-ache. It had been an exhausting, wearisome evening. Elizabeth sighed at the unfairness of it all. The only bright spot in the entire week would be the Assembly at the end of it.
When she reached Mrs Clay's door, Elizabeth hesitated. Was she awake? No light showed beneath the door, so she decided Penelope must be asleep. Elizabeth gave another weary sigh and continued on her way.
"No, no, not so near to the house," Penelope insisted. "Leave me at the corner, sir. Please."
Mr Elliot pursed his lips. "Very well, but I do not like it," he replied crossly, and pulled the check string. "It is not as if you have committed a crime by joining me for dinner, my dear."
"Of course not," she assured him, as the carriage came to a stop. "But what would Sir Walter say? For I spurned the Willingdon's invitation in order to accept yours. He would not understand."
"You're right," he agreed. "I imagine he would be extremely irate."
All too soon it was time to say good-bye. Penelope stood on the dark street with her hands clasped in his. She struggled for the proper words.
"Farewell, Mr Elliot," she whispered, at last.
"Mister?" She could just see the flash of his smile. "Such formality!"
"Farewell, William, then, if you prefer." Penelope could feel the colour rise to her cheeks. "Please, do visit us when you are next in Bath," she murmured.
His brows rose. "You shall remain with my cousins, then? In spite of everything?"
Penelope lifted her chin and thrust the uncertain future aside. "Of course, sir," she said firmly.
"Faithful, long-suffering creature! Your loyalty is touching, my dear. Forgive me for misjudging you." He leaned forward and gently kissed her cheek. "Good-bye, Penelope."
"Good-bye, sir." She gave his hands a parting squeeze and quickly turned away. This farewell had cost her more than she expected; she did not wish him to see her tears. She walked toward Sir Walter's house with a brisk, determined stride. However, as she drew nearer, her steps slowed. She blinked and studied the house more carefully. Every window was dark.
Sudden panic rose in her breast; her breath began to come in tiny gasps. It is late, very late! Surely Sir Walter is due to arrive at any moment -- isn't he? Then, why aren't the lamps lit? Penelope bit her lip and forced herself to remain calm as she stepped up to the door. She reached for the knob and turned it. Nothing happened. The door was locked.
With eager eyes, Mr Elliot watched as his fair dinner guest approached the door. This was the moment for which he had waited all evening, for she was about to discover the fatal flaw in her plan. Escape without detection was simple; it was the return which posed the most daunting challenge.
He observed her with a curious, detached pity. She was now clearly in distress; even at this distance he could see it in her face. William closed the carriage window and sat back against the squabs, thinking. It was really too bad, for they had enjoyed a delightful dinner together. She is quite an engaging companion, really, he mused. And so delicious to look upon in that gown!
His original plan had been to leave Penelope standing on the street, an object of disgrace. He knew that eventually she would be forced to seek entry at the service door, and her precious secrecy would be destroyed. The gossip would compel Sir Walter to send her from his house. Thus, Penelope Clay's threat to his inheritance would be ended.
But William now began to have second thoughts. A sly smile crept over his face as a new, more provocative course of action formed in his mind. Why had he never thought of this before? Quickly, he lowered the window and instructed the driver to pull forward.
Mr Elliot did not wait for the carriage to come to a stop before he opened the door. He moved swiftly to her side and laid his hand on her shoulder. Through the fabric of her cloak he could feel the tremours of her distress.
"Penelope!" he whispered urgently. "My dearest, whatever is the matter?" She opened her mouth to reply, but he stopped her. "No, no, do not speak, dear one. Not here. In my carriage." His eyes glittered as he held out a hand to her.
"Come," he whispered tenderly.
Continued in Part 5© 2001 Copyright held by author