Love Suffers Long and Is Kind, Volume II
Chapter 14, Part 2
The hired hack came to a stop in front of Agatha Wrenwyth's imposing stone residence at the far end of Chaucer Court. James Benwick climbed out of the vehicle awkwardly, still a little sore from his jolting ride in the mail coach during the early morning hours. He stood on the sidewalk and gazed up at the house as the driver and another man worked to remove his trunks. Benwick glanced back at them with a stab of guilt; those trunks contained everything he owned -- including many books -- and were uncommonly heavy!
He directed his attention to the house once again with a sigh. Everything about it was familiar to Benwick. On the wall beside the main entrance was a polished brass plate bearing the name which the Wrenwyths had chosen for this house: Chauntecleer. The trees which towered behind it were barren, the sky overhead was gray, and a chilly breeze was blowing -- a far cry from the warm weather of his usual summertime visits -- but otherwise Chauntecleer was as it had always been: beautiful and majestic, the pattern for all of the imaginary castles of his childhood adventures. This was to be his first visit since his great aunt's funeral in December; he found he was reluctant to go inside. He knew he would miss her presence in every room of that house; even as a frail and sickly old woman Agatha Wrenwyth had been a Personality. An Old Dragon, she had called herself, with a wide smile of simple pride. But Benwick and the rest of her staff knew otherwise, and missed her keenly.
A swag of black funerary cloth hung above the front entrance, as was fitting for a household in mourning. On either side of the door were two large stone pots; these were similarly adorned with wide black ribbons, which had wilted in the winter rains and hung down dejectedly. But here was an irony; against the dreary gray backdrop of the stone blocks and in spite of the black banners of mourning, a riot of brilliant yellow crocuses bloomed in each pot, bravely proclaiming the coming of spring. James smiled to himself; no doubt this was by his great aunt's design; she had always paid particular care to the plantings in these containers! And such a clever, unmistakable theological statement was something she would take much delight in!
"Cap-tin Yames. Wel-come, sir." His great aunt's elderly butler came out of the house to greet him with a respectful bow. He had resumed his duties on this day in order to welcome his beloved employer's favourite grand-nephew, whom he had known as a boy.
"Good ... morning, Yee. Er, please, do go on ahead; those are heavy!" Captain Benwick managed a greeting and stepped out of the way of the men who were carrying in his trunks. He and Yee followed them into the house. It was exactly as he had remembered it: the high ceilinged entry hall, with its resonant echoes, the ornately patterned carpet on the marble floor, the bright gray light filtering in through the tall windows on either side of the door...
Benwick set his bundle on the hall table and began to shrug off his greatcoat. "It is good to see you again, Yee. I would that it were under ... happier circumstances."
Yee assisted Benwick with the coat and held his hand out for the hat. "Madame is in better place, has no more pain, no more sick-ness, only happi-ness and peace in pre-sence of God." The old man raised both eyebrows, speaking in precise, clipped English. "I thought you better student of doc-trine than that!"
"I stand corrected, Yee. You are quite right." Benwick meekly handed the man his gloves. "I hope my early arrival does not inconvenience you." He took up his wrapped package from the table.
"No inconvenience. You are guest." He handed Benwick's coat and hat to another servant, a young boy whom Benwick had never met. "This way, if you please, sir."
"I am no such thing!" Benwick replied, as he walked into the formal drawing room. "I am family, and a big nuisance, as I seem to recall!"
Yee's somber face cracked into a smile at the reminder of an incident from nearly twenty years before. "I forgetting. You big nuisance and thief! Stay out my garden and eat no straw-berry and all go well this visit." The smile disappeared as quickly as it had come. The old butler assumed his customary impassive expression and informed Benwick of the arrangements. "We prepare your old room, as you ask. Bath water will be ready short-ly. At what time you desire lunch-eon? We can serve now, if you wish."
"Yes, thank you, I am rather famished," Benwick admitted, gratefully. As usual, Yee had thought of everything. "I would like to use the library while I am here, if I may."
"Yes, we prepare for that," Old Mr Yee said, as he led the way across the drawing room. "Like old times. We have fire for you there." He paused for a moment in the centre of the room and turned to face Benwick. "You may no-tice that we have few ..." Yee paused for a moment as he searched for the English word, "de-coration for mourn-ing in this house. It is not for lack of respect. It is partic-u-lar request of Madame's. She fear it upset Sir Robin to see such things."
"I see. Yes, that is probably best." Benwick's eyes searched the elderly butler's face. "Tell me, how is Cousin Robin getting along these days? Is he well?"
"He has not been sick at all this win-ter. He is as well as one expect, for an old man," Yee added, with an ironic look at Benwick. "I will show you library now," he said, and led the way across the room. But before he opened the shining mahogany door he hesitated. "It ... disorderly, Cap-tin. Not used for sev-ral years. It clean, but ... Madame want it left as was." His explanation finished, Yee opened the door, crossed the dim room, and began to draw back the heavy velvet draperies which covered the tall windows overlooking the back garden. As he did so, shafts of gray light filtered through the glass, lighting the dusty air.
"I understand perfectly ... and I have prepared myself for the worst," Benwick hastened to say, as he noticed Yee's slight grimace at the dust. "I would like to have my luncheon here, if it is not too much trouble."
"No trouble at all." Old Mr Yee bowed, and added, "I have butler bring it right away, sir."
"Thank you. Oh, and Yee!" Benwick called him back and held out his package with an apologetic smile. "Do you suppose you could see to this for me? I have tried very hard not to kill it." Old Mr Yee raised his eyebrows as he took the wrapped gardenia; he had a keen interest in horticulture.
"Very good, sir," he murmured, as he peered beneath the paper covering. He bowed and left, closing the door quietly behind him.
Benwick stood motionless in the middle of the room for a few moments, allowing the sensations of the jolting ride in the mail coach to slip away as he soaked in the atmosphere of the room. If ever there were a heaven on earth, to James Benwick's mind it was this place, his great uncle's library. From the richly patterned oriental carpet on the gleaming oaken floor, and the cushioned seats in the embrasures beneath the tall windows, to the delicious musty aroma of the leather bound books on the shelves lining the walls, this room was perfection itself. James moved to sit behind the massive desk; his weariness from the journey seemed to drop away in the heavy quiet of this wonderful room. "My library was a dukedom large enough." He murmured Shakespeare's words as he surveyed the familiar surroundings. On his most desperate, most lonely nights at sea, the home he longed for was here.
For it was in this library that he had spent the summers of his youth; reading, studying, preparing for his entrance to university. He never imagined that his future would turn out quite differently after the death of his parents and sister. But understanding and forgiveness had come, with the passing of time, and by the grace of God. It saddened him to think that this house and its contents would eventually have to be sold, as part of settling the estate.
Benwick sighed some more as he thought about the wearing task he had come to do. In addition to tracking down the missing will, he had all of the household accounts to settle, and from the look of things, there was at least a month's work here! Aunt Agatha's solicitor had sent the quarterly expense summaries for the past two years to his brother Milton, who had promptly lost them. The information would have to be recompiled (by himself) from the original documents, which were docketed and stacked on the desk. He eyed the piles warily. Loose papers made him nervous; in his years before the Navy he had been somewhat of a pack-rat, content to live amongst the happy disorder of randomly stacked books and piles of paper such as these. But no more! He decided to purchase a set of ledgers that very day ... and then he would begin to impose order upon chaos.
Dodson strode briskly down the gravel road, nearly out of breath in her effort to keep ahead of her companions. It had taken some doing to see Mrs Musgrove on this particular morning, but she had finally managed it. There were more delays while Coney and Rodgers were located and brought in for questioning, but the result of her morning's work had been most satisfactory. In fact, Dodson felt a little like the Pied Piper now, for she led a parade from the Great House back to Uppercross Cottage ... a parade of single-minded, grim-faced, terribly determined women, that is! For not only did she have Mr Charles' mother in tow, but also Alice, (the housekeeper), and Old Sarah!! Help was coming at last for dear Mr Charles!
Mrs Musgrove had a martial light in her eye as she marched along; clenched in one hand was a large bottle of her latest batch of elixir, and in the other, the dosing spoon. Alice lugged a heavy basket filled with a collection of various of herbs and medicinals, along with a quantity of garlics, onions, and supplies used in the making of poultices and compresses. Old Sarah, Mr Charles' devoted nurserymaid, clutched at an armload of woolens and wrappers.
And following slowly behind them, quite unnoticed, was Mr Musgrove. Every so often he would stoop to pick up a stray sock or muffler which Old Sarah had inadvertently dropped. Mr Musgrove was just as concerned for the health of his son, but he was also amused at all the clucking and fussing made by the womenfolk. No matter that it pained his gouty leg to walk so far, he decided this was a spectacle which was too good to miss!
"First it was poor Dick, and then (nearly) Louisa!" Mrs Musgrove muttered to herself, feelingly. "I cannot, I shall not lose my darling Charles!" When the procession reached the front entrance to the cottage, she stepped ahead of Dodson and opened the door herself.
"Why ... Mama Musgrove!" Mary jumped to her feet as the entourage entered her house without so much as a by-your-leave. "What a, er, pleasure!" She hastily put a smile on her face and rushed into the entry hall to greet her ╬guests'. "Won't you come in and join me... for, er, tea ... or something!?" she squeaked nervously. For an awkward moment, no one said anything else. But the silence was short-lived, as Mary had most unfortunately chosen to stand directly in front of the main staircase.
"Stand Aside, Mary!" Mrs Musgrove ordered, and swept majestically past her daughter-in-law to mount the stairs. "I am here to care for my son," she said, throbbingly, "who, by all accounts, is on his very deathbed!"
"Eh! His ... er ... what?!?" Mary was taken aback at this statement, which sounded very much like an accusation! What had she done wrong now? It was always something with these Musgroves! "Oh, Mama Musgrove," she called out, and she hurriedly mounted the stairs at the rear of the company and attempted (unsuccessfully) to edge her way past the others to the front. "He has a bad cold ... you know how he is ... Ouch! Sarah! Move out of the way! ... I do not know what you have heard ... Really, Alice! But I assure you, other than that, he is ... er ... just fine!"
The bedchamber door closed with a snap and Mary was left to stand alone in the upstairs hallway. "His ...deathbed? she repeated to herself. But Mary was not one to be discomfited for long. "Ridiculous!" she scoffed, speaking to the closed door before her. "He has a very healthy constitution! He simply has a cold!" Mary did not go in, however; despite her confidence she was a little afraid to face her mother-in-law at that particular moment. "He will not die," she muttered, speaking her thoughts aloud. "He is to inherit ... that is, if the right person would hurry up and die, instead ..."
A slight noise behind her caused Mary to glance back. "Why, Papa Musgrove!" she sputtered, horrified to see Charles' father standing within earshot. He had come up the stairs very slowly and quietly; she had no notion of his presence. "Er, hello!" she smiled brightly. "How ... kind of you to ... come to call!" Mary gestured awkwardly toward the door. "Have you come to see Charles? Please, do go in ... and join the ... er, others!"
The squire gave his daughter-in-law a tiny bow and a speaking look from beneath his bushy eyebrows. Mary had the grace to blush as he hobbled by, and then she beat a hasty retreat to the privacy of her own bedchamber!
At that same moment, Mary's sister Elizabeth was also very troubled, but her lovely reflection in the mirror showed no sign of it. She was seated at her dressing table, she had just finished carefully positioning a stylish hat atop her auburn hair. It was a woman's version of a man's top hat, with a curled brim and several graceful feathers. The colour exactly matched the kelly green gown she wore; the effect was stunning. But Elizabeth paid no mind to the beautiful image in the mirror. She had chosen to wear this particular dress for reasons quite different than those of fashion.
Before her on the marble-topped dressing table lay her emerald necklace. She had cozened it out of her father earlier that morning by saying that she wanted to wear it to the dinner at the Woodward's tonight. She would certainly do so, but she intended to wear it this morning, as well. The pendant was quite beautiful: an oval stone surrounded by tiny sparkling diamonds. The colour exactly matched her kelly green gown ... and to Elizabeth's discerning eye, this was all wrong.
Colour and style in dress had been Elizabeth's obsession for many years; she studied every aspect of her apparel and was intimately familiar with every nuance of the latest whim of fashion from year to year. She had forced herself to be, after those first disastrous seasons in London! Since that time, she was determined that no fault would ever be found with any detail of her appearance. She had studied her jewelry just as carefully, and that knowledge would serve her well today.
A sudden shaft of sunlight poured into the bedchamber window; Elizabeth threw down the hat pin she had been holding, snatched up the necklace, and rushed to the sill. Her fingers shook as she held the emerald in the square of bright sunlight; with her other hand she fumbled in her pocket and drew out a jeweler's loop. She fitted it to her eye and slowly brought the green gem closer to her face, until it was perfectly focused. Elizabeth set her jaw and willed her hand to stop trembling. Her heart sank at what she saw, but she forced herself to study the stone carefully. There it is, she thought grimly. Just as I thought. The larger one ... and ... here is the other. The sunlight faded as suddenly as it had come; Elizabeth removed the loop from her eye and sighed. Her shoulders sagged, and she looked at the emerald she held with new eyes.
"Paste!" she muttered in disgust, "and particularly bad paste at that!" She had not been mistaken, there were two tiny bubbles in the green stone. "So I was right ... and my diamonds, too, when they are returned." Sir Walter had begged off having Elizabeth's necklace and earrings retrieved from the jeweler's until after the beginning of the new quarter, in an effort to economise. Now there was no urgency; her gorgeous stones had been removed and sold; what would be returned to her would be nothing other than common glass. "Cleaning, indeed!" she scoffed, as she remembered the wizened old man and his battered black satchel.
Elizabeth returned to sit at her dressing table and laid the necklace on its marble surface. The real emerald had a bluish cast, and the change in colour is what had set Elizabeth on her guard in the first place. But she wanted a professional evaluation, and the entire shopping expedition this morning had been planned around getting it done. Elizabeth's long, slender fingers closed around the hat pin she had dropped on the tabletop a few moments ago. She had been ready to do the deed when the sun had come out; now it was time to go ahead with it.
In order to have the necklace seen by a jeweler, she knew that she would need to have a reason, and she had decided that a simple repair would be best. Elizabeth inserted the pin (her largest, strongest-looking hat pin) halfway into the link which held the clasp and twisted it, holding the pin as one would the handle of a corkscrew. It took several attempts, but the gold finally yielded and the link separated at its seam.
"Well ... that settles that!" Elizabeth looked with unhappy satisfaction at her handiwork. "Now my poor necklace is broken, and I simply must have it fixed without delay! For I must wear it tonight when we go to the Woodward's!" Her excuse sounded insincere, but she knew that by the time she reached the jeweler's, she would be able to say it with just the right inflection in her voice. Especially if they are unable to repair it right away; then I shall be truly desperate! she thought, with a twisted smile. The clock began to strike the hour and Elizabeth slipped the necklace into her reticule. It was time to meet her sister and Mrs Clay downstairs to begin their shopping expedition.
The library door opened as Captain Benwick was finishing the last of his meal; a man dressed in somber attire entered quietly and came up to the table. "I trust your luncheon was satisfactory, sir? Will there be anything else?"
"No, no, Yee, it was perfect. Thank you." This was the younger Mr Yee, the son of his great aunt's butler, a man who was Benwick's own age. He had returned a year ago to assist his father and had stayed on, gradually assuming all of the old butler's duties. Yee began to clear the luncheon dishes, placing them quietly on a silver tray with great precision.
Benwick had quite a history with Jonathan Yee, but he had not seen him for years, save at the funeral. During the first of his summer visits, he had discovered that the boy did not know how to read English, and so he took it upon himself to teach him. He had received a thundering scold from his great aunt, and a lecture on keeping to one's proper place in society. But later that day, James had discovered a brand new primer on his desk, along with three books which were suitable for a young reader ... and his first unspoken lesson as to the double-life his great aunt had led as the wife of a man in diplomatic service! Neither boy heard another word of rebuke or censure, provided they were circumspect and well-behaved when together. It did not take long for James to discover in the younger Yee the eager mind of a natural scholar, and the boys had become fast friends.
"So how are you these days, Jonathan?" he asked softly, and finished the last of his coffee. Yee looked up in surprise when he heard his Christian name.
"Very ... well, sir."
Captain Benwick blotted his lips with his napkin and folded it. "We were to be the great scholars, you and I! And set the world ablaze with our amazing intellect!" He handed the napkin to Yee with a little smile. "Now look at us. A couple of sorry laborers, humbled, and working for our daily bread."
"Yes ... sir." Yee had a little struggle to keep his features composed, but he accomplished it. He reached out and took the napkin with his gloved hand. As he did, his eyes met Benwick's.
"I thought you abominated the idea of being in service," Benwick murmured. "Why did you come back?"
Mr Yee looked down at the napkin, a little unsure of how he should answer such a question. He chose his words carefully, at first. "My parents needed my assistance, sir." He then occupied himself with clearing away the remains of the meal as he spoke. "And ... I had learned by then that working in my uncle's shop in London was not exactly the ... opportunity I had expected."
"Slave-labor, more like!" Benwick muttered, good-naturedly. "As was the Navy."
The aptness of this observation caused Yee to smile a little. "The position with your great aunt offered security and stability and I ... I wanted to marry, sir. It seemed a satisfactory exchange."
"Most satisfactory!" Benwick smiled broadly. "I had no idea you had a wife, Yee! I am very pleased to hear it!"
"Thank you, sir. Will there be anything else? Some fresh coffee, perhaps?"
"No, thank you, Yee. That is tempting but ... your father mentioned something about a bath being readied ... and a fresh set of clothes?" He handed Yee the empty coffee cup. "That would be much more to my liking, at the moment! I will be venturing out a little later on."
"I shall see to it right away, sir."
"Thank you. Oh, and Yee! There is one other thing. Your father tells me Cousin Robin is getting along fine. Is he ... truly?"
"He is very frail, sir, more so than previously," Yee replied softly. "He spends much of his time sleeping. But he is as cheerful as ever, when he is able to be up. Mother told him of your coming; he is looking forward to seeing you."
"And I, him. Bye the bye ..." Benwick raised an eyebrow. "Does he still think I'm ..."
"Little John? Yessir." Yee put in, with a smile. "And you are not alone in your distinction! His new doctor is Friar Tuck, I believe! The poor man looks the part! He is most gracious about it."
"And ... your father is the Sheriff of Nottingham."
"No sir, I am now the Sheriff," Yee grinned. "Father has become Prince John."
"Merciful Heaven!" Benwick chuckled softly. "What a houseful of Merry Men we shall be! I wonder ... does Robin still like Turkish Delight as much as ever? I'll be sure to get some while I'm out."
"As much as ever, sir, yes. That would be a great treat for him." Yee finished with the tray and quietly left the library.
James leaned back in his chair and stretched his limbs. Of all the nonsensical things! He had quite forgotten about Cousin Robin and his ... what would he call it? Delusion? And there would be the same cheerful disagreement (as always) about his identity! For sometimes Robin saw James as Alan-a-Dale, instead, and asked for a song! And as Aunt Agatha had always seconded the request, James would be trapped into singing! Yes, Benwick thought, with a shake of his head and a grin, a houseful of Merry Men, indeed!
Elizabeth peered into the front window of the jeweler's. It was unusually crowded this morning, but it could not be helped; she must transact her business now, while Anne and Mrs Clay were preoccupied in the shop next door. A liveried attendant opened the door as she approached it, with a look of silent admiration in his eyes.
Elizabeth paid him no mind; she was accustomed to causing a sensation wherever she went, and ignoring the admiring glances of strangers was simply a matter of course. With a calm assurance she did not precisely feel, she swept up to the counter and politely requested to speak to the proprietor. She was not kept waiting long, and soon was escorted to a more private area of the counter.
"Papa, you are not attending!" A red-haired young woman looked beseechingly up at the tall man who stood beside her chair. "Why may I not have a necklace like that one, there? It is much more grand than these!"
"Cleora, my love," he smiled indulgently down at her, "you may choose your gift from any on this tray. You are fifteen, dear, not fifty! There will be plenty time for the ╬grand' gems when you are older." The smile beneath his russet moustache widened and his green eyes began to twinkle mischievously. "But now that you mention it, I suppose you could wear that one ... but we'd have to rig you out in a get-up to match! And I don't think you'd look at all well in one of those feather-trimmed turbans! Like that dreadful one your mother's cousin Edna wore the last time she was here! With all those dangling spangles? And didn't it have a stuffed bird on it somewhere ..."
"Oh, Papa! Of course not!" She dimpled charmingly. "As if I would! You are such a teaze!" She smiled as she bent over the tray once again. And as she did so, the gentleman's eyes traveled back to the stunning woman in green at the opposite counter. Her back was to him; the matching fur-trimmed jacket she wore only served to accentuate her lovely figure. Her luxuriant auburn hair was twisted so elegantly; and that hat! The whole effect was wonderful, he thought. Not many women could wear that colour, (so dear to the heart of an Irishman), and with such confident assurance! She must be new to Bath; he had not remembered seeing her before.
"I cannot decide, Papa!" Cleora's gentle sigh brought him back from his musings. "I wish Miss Lytton had been allowed to come with us today! She is so helpful in that way!"
"But this is your birthday, dearest, and it is only fitting that we spend the day together, just we ourselves," he murmured gently. "I will allow you to choose a small gift for Miss Lytton, if you like."
"Oh thank you, Papa! I would! And I shall try to decide for myself this time," she promised.
"There you are," he murmured kindly. "I am sure you will make a fine choice." She was very like her mother had been; persuadable and indecisive ... but delightfully so, he reminded himself, as he resumed his study of the woman in green. She had turned her face to the side, he could see a little of her profile now ... a straight nose, high cheekbones, a flawless complexion, long, curling lashes ...
The door opened once more and a woman clad in blue entered; she went directly to the far end of the counter. "Miss Elliot," she whispered softly, "your sister has made her purchase and we are completely at your disposal. Shall we wait for you here?"
Elizabeth shook her head and spoke to the man behind the counter briefly before answering. "I am able to come with you now, Penelope. I shall call back later to finish my business here." Then she turned to leave.
As she did so, the tall gentleman caught his breath in surprise. Even with a frown, the woman was absolutely gorgeous! He wondered what she looked like when she smiled. As she passed by, he touched the brim of his hat in salute, and experienced a mild shock. Her beautiful amber eyes swept over him without so much as a flicker of acknowledgment, as if she had not even seen him! He had been completely ignored by her! Ignored! He raised his eyebrows in surprise; women (unmarried or otherwise) never responded to him in this way! For she was unmarried, of that he was certain. He had not been able to hear her name when her companion had addressed her, but he had caught that one magic syllable: "Miss." Well now! I wonder who she can be? he thought, as he watched the door swing shut. I have been too much a social recluse of late! It appears I must amend my ways!
"Papa?" His daughter laid her hand on his arm and looked up at him anxiously. "What do you think of this one, Papa? I do love it better than the others ... at least, I think I do ..."
"It is perfect, Cleora," he said with gentle decisiveness. "Pearls always are, as your mother would have said." He looked up and caught the eye of the proprietor; the man came over immediately. "We would like this one, please." He brought out his card and handed it to the man. "If you will send your bill to this address, to the attention of Mr Starkweather, it will be taken care of immediately."
The proprietor read the name on the card and made a very respectful bow. "Very good, Admiral. I will have this wrapped up for you right away."
"Well, Miss Elliot, perhaps we are ready to return home?" Mrs Clay asked hopefully, as soon as they emerged from the jeweler's. "It does look like rain!" And she sneezed into her handkerchief several times.
"No Penelope. There are some other things I need to do, and besides, I must call back here in one hour." Elizabeth looked at Mrs Clay with some irritation. "I told you that you were getting a cold! You should have stayed at home!" She frowned up at the clouded sky. "It will not rain yet, I think. Come along!" And Elizabeth led the way down the sidewalk, looking for the most advantageous way to spend the extra hour.
However, it was not long before an interesting opportunity for amusement presented itself. A familiar face appeared in the crowd on the sidewalk and a sudden smile of recognition lit Elizabeth's countenance. "Why, look, Anne! Here is our cousin!" She waved to him. "Perhaps he would like to join us!" And soon William Elliot was happily escorting his cousins and Mrs Clay as they made their way down Milsom Street.
"Would you care for some more cake, Papa Musgrove? I think your last piece was much too small!" Mary gave her father-in-law her most friendly smile. He and Mrs Musgrove had been persuaded to take a little refreshment before making the trek back to the Mansion. Mary had put on her very best company manners, and was working hard to keep the conversation moving in a light-hearted direction. There had been a few awkward silences and she wanted to avoid having any more! And as the elder Musgroves were rather incommunicative this morning, Mary talked on.
"I am very pleased that you brought a fresh supply of your most excellent tonic, Mama Musgrove," Mary said brightly, as she poured some more tea into her mother-in-law's cup. "After all, Charles did escape your dosing on Sunday last! Which is why he is ill, I believe. The naughty boy!"
Mrs Musgrove looked at Mary with an expression in her blue eyes that was hard to read. "Surely you remember, Ma'am? The dinner? With Captain Wentworth and Louisa?" Mary passed her mother-in-law another generous serving of cake. "Here you are. Isn't this the most delicious cake? I am sure you will be wanting more!" Mary poured out some more tea for herself and chatted on. "Yes, indeed! I hold Captain Wentworth completely responsible for all of this, as it was his cold that Charles caught! I mean, Really! The notion of keeping to one's social engagements is most admirable, but I do believe one may be held excused if one is violently ill! Instead of thrusting one's sickly presence upon the poor, innocent, and unsuspecting guests! Shockingly rude behavior! Er ... don't you agree, Ma'am?"
Mr Musgrove glanced at his wife, (who certainly did not agree, as Frederick Wentworth could do no wrong in her eyes!), and then back again at his daughter-in-law. He sighed. When Henrietta married at the end of April, Sadie and Mary would of necessity be thrown together more often, for companionship. He wondered what would come of it! And then, being a practical man, he decided that it was better not to wonder ... and he took another bite of cake!
Anne gave a small sigh, as she sat waiting for Elizabeth to complete her transaction in the jewelry shop. She was a little tired, but on the whole, it had been a most interesting morning. She had done a little shopping; nothing important, just some new skeins of coloured embroidery silk, but it had given her a feeling of accomplishment to make the purchase. After working on Captain Benwick's handkerchief, she had decided to begin another embroidery project to help pass the time while Lady Russell was gone.
And then Mr Elliot had joined them, and he had been most amusing. And as there had been that extra hour to spend waiting for Elizabeth's jewelry repair to be completed, they had visited some shops which they usually would not have. Anne looked down at the flat paper-wrapped package in her hands. At her cousin's insistence, she had selected some new sheet music. The pianoforte in the house on Camden Place was not an especially good one, but Mr Elliot had been eager to hear Anne play and had chosen some of the pieces himself! No, it was not unpleasant to be in her cousin's company today, now that she thought about it. Perhaps I was rather overly dramatic last night, she mused, as she watched him bearing his part in a conversation with Mrs Clay. He is an agreeable companion, and quite well mannered! She bit back a smile. It did not seem to her that he was at all interested in talking with Mrs Clay! Elizabeth came up to them just then; it was time to depart.
James Benwick peered up at the darkening sky with increasing disgust. It was looking like rain any minute, and the furled umbrella he held in his hand was worse than useless! He had taken what had looked to be the largest, most serviceable one from the umbrella stand, but he had not examined it closely. "So much for not being thorough, just this once," he grumbled to himself as he crossed the street. Upon closer examination, the umbrella was not what he had thought it to be at all! The primary colour of it was a deep green, but when he unfurled it, he found large bright pink roses printed on the silk fabric! And worse, the finished edge was cut in a darling scalloped design, similar to a ruffle! As he was wearing his Naval uniform, he didn't dare open it, no matter how hard the downpour!
Otherwise, his shopping expedition had gone quite well. He had ordered a set of new ledgers at the Stationer's and had arranged for them to be delivered that afternoon. And now he was in search of the Turkish Delight for his cousin. He could not remember the name of the shop he and Aunt Agatha had always visited, but he was reasonably confident that he could find it again. He crossed the street and walked down the block in what seemed like the right direction.
And then the rain began to fall; a small, fast rain which looked harmless but could wet one to the skin within a very short time. People on the street began scurrying for cover but Benwick kept a tight hold on his closed umbrella and tramped resolutely on. He rounded the corner, looked down the boulevard, and smiled in triumph. "Where is Harville when I do these things?" he muttered to himself, as he came up to the entrance. "I am not such a clod at intuitive navigation as he thinks! I knew I could find it!" The bell on the door tinkled as he opened it; emblazoned on the glass inset was the name ... Molland's.
Chapter 14, Part 3
Where Do I Begin?
Captain Benwick drummed his fingers on the shiny counter at Molland's as he waited for the Turkish Delight to be weighed and wrapped. His glance chanced to fall upon an order being readied for another customer: a beautifully wrapped box of assorted confections, complete with a pink satin bow. His fingers stilled; he sighed and looked away. He had once brought such things to Fanny . . . but she was not the one who came to his mind today, unfortunately.
Anne. He had worked very hard to keep her out of his thoughts all that morning, after his melancholy musings in the mail coach. This was proving to be more difficult than he had supposed. He had allowed her to live in his mind throughout his visit to London; but today he found himself to be facing some unhappy realities. It had all seemed so simple, when we were together at Uppercross, but now . . . He looked back at the beautiful box on the counter . . . and thought some more about Anne.
Benwick was coming to realise that it would be very difficult to find her, not without asking a myriad of prying questions and bringing undue attention to himself. And even if I did, would I be able to call on her? Not if her sister has anything to say about it! He winced a little as he remembered Mary Musgrove's behavior during the weeks she spent in Lyme. He had spoken a little of Anne to this woman -- and his friendly interest had not been encouraged. The son of a humble country rector was no fit acquaintance for the daughter of a baronet; Mary had made that abundantly clear!
Anne herself had no notion of his lowly origins, the dear girl -- or of the relative unimportance of his rank. At Uppercross she had spoken of Admiral and Mrs Croft as if they were his particular friends! He had said nothing, not knowing how to tell her that in the society of the Navy, a newly-made commander was far beneath the notice of a rear-admiral of the white!
James bit back a wry smile as he thought about Uppercross. His only ally in this ┬campaign' was Mary's husband Charles, of all people! The man who had laughingly threatened him with the altar! He would never resort to writing to Musgrove to learn of Anne's whereabouts in Bath . . . or would he? James studied the wooden handle of Aunt Agatha's horrible floral umbrella as he considered this. He had asked for help; should Providence direct him to the only available avenue, would he be too proud to take it?
"Sir? Sir?!" The girl behind the counter had to call twice before she caught his attention. Captain Benwick looked up with a start, sheepishly took his package, and turned to go. He glanced back down at the umbrella; the dilemma of what to do with it was still before him. He scanned the crowded room for any sign of a naval uniform; Bath was full of retired officers and he was a bit nervous about being caught in public with such a thing. He decided that if it were raining hard, he would simply abandon it inside the outer door and be done with it!
The change in the weather had brought in a little crowd seeking temporary shelter from the rain; fortunately, none were of the Navy. But James stopped dead in his tracks as his eyes fell on a group of ladies who now entered. Not the woman in green, but the one behind her, dressed in pale blue-gray . . . The one with the lovely face and the beautiful brown eyes . . .
It couldn't be! he thought incredulously. Not here . . .
William Elliot smiled as he politely held the inner door open for his cousins and Mrs Clay. The warm air of Molland's came out to greet them; the delicious aroma of freshly baked sweets was especially welcome on such a chilly, rainy day!
Elizabeth took no notice of this; her thoughts centered on the elegant barouche which was waiting down the street. "How very fortunate that Lady Dalrymple should be so obliging as to offer to take us home!" She put a smile on her face as she walked past her cousin into the shop. "And thank you, Mr Elliot," she added, over her shoulder, "for making the request on our behalf." He responded with a small, cordial bow.
Perhaps this day will not be a complete loss after all, Elizabeth thought to herself as she surveyed the crowd inside Molland's. She was irritable and weary after an hour spent walking through all of the most tiresome shops on Milsom Street. And after! To have heard that terrible report from the jeweler! Elizabeth brought her hand up to finger the emerald pendant which now hung about her neck. She had told the man a story of inheriting the necklace from a tightfisted relative -- and was the family rumor true, was the stone not truly genuine? She had expected to hear what she did, but it had been humiliating, nonetheless. Her consequence could do with a restorative -- and in the absence of anything truly substantial, to be seen in the company of Lady Dalrymple would do nicely!
The women waited as Mr Elliot found seats for them. "I would never have asked for myself, of course!" Elizabeth resumed her little speech as she allowed her cousin to lead her to a small table near the window. "But it is most preferable for you, my dear Mrs Clay." She gracefully smoothed her silk skirts and seated herself in the chair Mr Elliot held for her. "For I am certain you should not be out walking in the rain. It would be most uncomfortable, I am sure."
"Oh! I do not mind the rain, Miss Elliot, not in the least!" Mrs Clay protested earnestly, as she sat down beside Elizabeth. "I am sure Miss Anne would prefer to go with her ladyship! I shall be most comfortable with Mr Elliot, you know," she added helpfully.
But upon this point Anne would not agree. "The rain is a mere trifle to me," she replied, with complete sincerity. "I do not regard it. I . . . I quite prefer to walk with Mr Elliot, Mrs Clay."
"Nonsense, Penelope!" Elizabeth cast an appraising eye over her sister's apparel. "Anne has thick boots," she said, decidedly. "You had best ride in the barouche with me."
But Mrs Clay was quite as anxious to walk as Anne. "My dear Miss Anne, the rain is nothing to me!" said she, in her pleasant way. "I will hardly allow it even to drop at all! And my boots are much thicker than yours! I would so much like to have a little walk." And then, most unfortunately, she sneezed.
"Penelope, you have a cold!" Elizabeth turned to her cousin for help. "Mr Elliot, I implore you, come to my aid in this! Tell Mrs Clay that she must accompany me!"
William Elliot found himself to be cornered, with three pairs of feminine eyes fastened upon him, awaiting a decision. Not disconcerted in the least, he was happy to give his opinion, and said so. "I do believe, Cousin Anne, that your very attractive boots are rather the thickest," he said, in his easy way. "And Mrs Clay," he turned to her with a friendly smile, "I would not want you to do anything which might prevent you from coming with us to the Woodward's this evening. What do you say?" His eyes sparkled delightfully. "Won't you reconsider your decision?" he said softly. "Please? For me?"
And in the end, Mr Elliot won out. He most obligingly went off to Union Street on an errand for Mrs Clay, having promised to return in a few minutes' time for Anne.
James Benwick stood like stock, staring at Anne Elliot in stunned disbelief. Fortunately, the little crowd in the shop hid the intensity of his gaze. All at once he became aware of his rudeness and dropt his eyes to the package he held in his hand. Within him was waging a mighty battle: should he approach her? Or should he not? For he found he was a little reluctant to face her now; after his audacious behavior at the wedding, she had every reason to hate him!
And yet, against his will, his eyes returned to her. There were two other women and a man in her party, apparently. He watched as the women were seated; then there followed some discussion between them all. After this the man went off, and the two other women began conversing with one another. He stepped behind a stout, matronly lady (who most fortunately was wearing an enormous feathered hat!) and kept his eyes fixed on Anne.
Captain Benwick had no natural abilities to serve him in the Navy, besides his quick intelligence. But he had developed a knack for blending into a crowd and for making detailed, thoughtful observations while keeping himself unnoticed. He called this practice "becoming a fly on the wall." When he had mentioned it to Wentworth and Harville, as their newly-appointed second lieutenant, they had been hugely amused and had ribbed him mercilessly -- until they saw how effective it could be. And it was this very habit which led to poor James' undoing on this rainy Saturday afternoon at Molland's. For what he saw there tore at his heart: just as at Uppercross, Anne was ignored and left to be alone.
Home is not much better . . . have you ever met her father and elder sister, Benwick?"
He had puzzled over Charles Musgrove's words at the wedding. But their meaning was becoming all too clear, now! One of these must be the elder sister, then, he decided. His eyes narrowed as he continued to watch Anne carefully. She sighed and smoothed her gloves; she looked down at the flat package she held on her lap; she turned her head to stare out of the nearby window. Her face did not show displeasure, no, it held an expression of patient resignation. She is so alone, even here! She looks as though she expects it! He could not understand this; he knew Anne to be an intelligent, thoughtful companion, with a delightfully subtle sense of humor. Why does no one see this in her?
But he was jarred from his reflections by the entrance of a liveried servant who loudly announced the arrival of a carriage for the Miss Elliots. His heart sank; Anne would now be leaving, and he had wasted his only opportunity to speak to her! There was a little bustle as the woman in green stood up and made her way through the crowded shop, accompanied by the woman in blue. By the offhand comments made by the two, he was given to understand that the vehicle belonged to a Vicountess. Anne remained seated.
James watched and waited . . . but Anne stayed where she was, without making any move to rise. Hope rose in his heart . . . and with it, a renewed resolution to say something to her. He took a deep breath, brought his courage to the sticking place, and made his way over to her seat near the window.
"Good . . . afternoon, Miss Elliot," he said, a little awkwardly. He was grateful he had managed to say something coherent, at least! But all of his bravery fled as he saw the expression of shocked disbelief form on her face. It was followed by a look of pained embarrassment.
"Cap- Captain Ben-nick!" she stammered awkwardly. "Ah, what . . . ?" She swallowed and began again. "What . . . what are you . . . doing here? I mean . . . ah . . ."
Not knowing what else to do, James removed his hat and said the first thing that came into his head. "I am buying . . . uh, Turkish Delight for . . . my cousin, Robin Hoo-- A-hem! My cousin . . . is very fond of it! And, ah, Molland's . . . has the best, I'm told." And as Anne continued to stare at him with a stricken expression frozen on her face, he went on talking, without knowing what he was saying. "Although the best I've ever had was in Barcelona, but that is a little out of my way today, so I . . ."
Anne's eyes widened and her face went perfectly white. "Bar-ce -- Did you say Barcelona?!"
"Ha ha! And did ya see the look on the ol' man's face when Lt Partridge made that remark about Nelson? I thought he'd spring a yard!" the Admiral chuckled as he finished his breakfast of kedgeree. Taking the last bite, he motioned for the man to take his plate, "Tell your wife, Carlisle, that the fish was perfect. And she has the sauce about right!"
Though both Carlisle and his wife were mortally put off by the boiled fish gravy, rice and vegetable concoction with which the Admiral started each morning, they were pleased to try and make the dish exactly to his liking. "Yessir. She'll be gratified to know it. She's be'na workin' double tides tryin' to get it to yer taste."
Croft finished the last of his coffee and dropped his wadded napkin upon the table as he rose. "I appreciate the effort . . . I know that it's an awful brew, but I can't seem to start the day without it. Shall we move on, M'dear?" said the Admiral as he helped his wife from her chair.
"We shall have tea in the library, Carlisle," said Mrs Croft as she accepted her husband's arm.
"Yes ma'am," Carlisle bowed as the couple left the dining room.
At the stairs, Mrs Croft said, "I have to go up for a moment, dear. Shall I bring down that book for Lieutenant Partridge? We can just drop it by his house when we walk and I thought we could do that just after tea and the mail."
"Certainly, that fellow could definitely benefit from a little book work and I think that one to be just the thing. Oh! And bring my other Breuget . . . perhaps that jeweler on Milsom can get her keeping Greenwich time again." He had been meaning to take the prized watch to the jewelers for a Bristol cleaning and to replace the crystal. The watch had been a gift when he left his post in the East Indies. An unfortunate accident while hunting with Charles Musgrove had left it wet and muddy with a chipped crystal. Aside from the obvious damage, it had begun telling the time for another part of the world. Certainly not Bath, nor any part of the Continent, for that matter.
"All right. I was meaning to ask when you wanted that accomplished . . . I shall join you in a moment," she promised, as she mounted the stairs.
Seeing that Carlisle had recently tended the fire, he went to the desk, and taking up the morning post, the Admiral quickly glanced through it. Tucking the latest copy of the Gazette under his arm, he continued through the stack. After a few of what he knew to be invitations and thank you notes, he saw something of interest. Knowing that his wife was anxious to hear whether the Reverend Wentworths would be joining them sometime in the summer, he took a letter from Shropshire out of the pile and set it beside his wife's chair. From the neat, compact writing, he recognised it to be from their sister-in-law, Catherine.
In anticipation of a visit from her older brother and his wife, Mrs Croft had begun to redecorate one of the guest rooms immediately after taking possession of the house on Gay Street. The invitation had been issued weeks ago, but since given, the Crofts had seen Edward Wentworth when he had come for Frederick's wedding at Uppercross. However, with the haloo, the visit had not been mentioned on either side. The Admiral hoped that plans for a visit to Bath were contained in the letter, for there was the Crofts' own repairing to Kellynch Hall for the summer to be considered.
In her usual brisk fashion, Mrs Croft entered the library. "George . . . are you certain you didn't take the damaged watch by mistake this morning?" she questioned, as she turned the timepiece in her hands over and over, examining it closely. It was odd that the Admiral would have two watches exactly the same, but he had bought himself the one, and the other being a gift, such a coincidence was not to be helped. "See, this one is keeping precise time and there is not a speck of dirt or a chip anywhere on it." Handing the watch over to her husband, she went to her chair and immediately saw the letter. "Oh, good. Now we can make plans for Edward and Catherine to come," she enthused.
Taking out the watch in his pocket, the Admiral detached it from the fob and held them up side-by-side, comparing the two. Sure enough, he had taken out the wrong one. As he wondered how he might have done such a muttonheaded thing, his wife cried, "Oh, I was afraid this would be how things would go!"
Laying the broken watch on the desk that he would not mix them again, the Admiral snapped the working Breuget onto the fob and asked, "And how might that be?"
Glancing at him with a disappointed expression, she read:
My dearest sister and brother, I wish with all my heart we could accept your lovely invitation to visit you in Bath. But it would seem that your niece or nephew has other ideas. I am completely exhausted by afternoon and know that I could not bear riding in a coach several hours a day. Edward is a dear but if he were to travel with me, I feel certain that upon our arrival in Bath he would help me down, but then board again, hoping to get miles away."
Mrs Croft stopped reading aloud, but continued to herself. After finishing the letter, she chuckled, "Well, our Catherine has not lost her sense of humour at least." She did not tell the Admiral how Mrs Wentworth had described her alarming gain in weight, preferring to keep that between ladies.
"So, they shall not be coming to us." Checking the watch once more, he slid it into its pocket.
"No, it seems not. But she did say that, if we wished, we should come to them . . . in Shropshire." Sophy folded the letter neatly and placed it back on the table by her chair.
"Yes . . . in Shropshire. In the country." George sighed. He knew how his wife liked the country. She most certainly would want to spend the summer in the country.
"Yes . . . in the country," she said with a wistful tone.
The Admiral walked to the windows and looked over the street. The day was gray and a little rainy, and though it was a Saturday, there were not many people walking and only a few hacks and chairs making their way around that part of town. Turning back to his wife, he thought better of speaking his mind on the subject of the country.
"Are we engaged for tonight?"
Surprised that he made no mention of the invitation to Shropshire, she replied, "Yes, yes quite. Remember . . . we are to go to the Elliot's for a light supper and cards."
The Admiral frowned, "Sir Walter's?" He could not believe himself so balmy as to forget an evening promised to their landlord, Sir Walter Elliot. An evening with the inmates of Camden Place -- excepting Miss Anne -- was an occasion which he and his wife had, so far, happily avoided.
"No . . . no, Mr Harry Elliot. The fellow that has that notions shop on Pulteney Street . . . you know, he was on the Defender for a time . . . they took two huge prizes the first four months out and he was able to take his pay-off and open a shop . . . does extremely well from what I understand. He and the Partridges are great acquaintances. We are to dine and do cards later. You said you liked the fellow and so I accepted without hesitation." Mrs Croft was now in a fret not only over the Wentworths, but over the evening activities as well.
Seeing he had ruffled her feathers, the Admiral came and sat by her. "Surely, Harry Elliot is as fine fellow as one could want. He and I spoke just the other afternoon. We shall have a grand time. It is just that Ka'lynch has been on my mind lately and when you said Elliot . . . "
" . . . you were afraid I had engaged us with Sir Walter. I see. Understandable. The lease coming due and all. So . . . what should I say to Catherine? Shall I write and tell her that we will try and come, or no?"
"We have a bit of time to decide, don't ya think?" he asked distractedly.
"Well, very little. If we engage ourselves to go to Shropshire, we must leave time to spend at Kellynch. We must make an appearance in the summer, at least. We must spend some time there . . . a little time, at least." Mrs Croft knew how her husband felt about his home district of Somerset and that he would most likely want to spend the summer there.
"I suppose that Shropshire in the summer would not be much different than Somerset. Would it?" the Admiral wondered out loud.
"No, I suppose not." Mrs Croft replied.
"It would not be so bad, I suppose."
"No, not so bad."
"Barcelona?" Poor Anne could hardly believe her ears . . . or her eyes! For here was Captain Benwick! He was not in Lyme, he was in Molland's! He was standing before her, (fully dressed, fortunately!), acting as if it were nothing out of the ordinary to be speaking with her! About . . . Barcelona!
And he had removed his hat, and that made everything worse! For she so clearly recalled running her fingers through his curly hair that night . . . as he kissed her! Anne felt her cheeks grow hot; she lowered her eyes to keep from looking at his face, thinking that perhaps it would be easier to fix them on the buttons of his uniform, instead. But the memories of her vivid dream converged with her memories of what had happened at Uppercross and she realised that he had held her against his chest on that dreadful day! Anne gulped and transferred her gaze to his shoulder, but that was no better. For she had laid her head there, when she had wept over Frederick!
Meanwhile, Captain Benwick was talking on, saying something about coming to Bath on business for a relative, and something about a will. Anne managed to nod at all the appropriate places, but her mind was in such a state that she could not think of anything to say -- which compounded her embarrassment!
At last the conversation dwindled to nothing, and the silence hung awkwardly between them. Anne looked up to see a blush begin to form on Captain Benwick's cheeks; he took a small step backward and began to say something about needing to be on his way.
All at once Anne found her voice. "Captain . . . Benwick!" she sputtered, and managed a wobbly smile of apology. "I am . . . so sorry! But . . . I am so surprised! I never expected . . ."
"I . . . quite understand, Miss Elliot," he interrupted kindly. "I came upon you without any warning. It is . . . it is I who should be apologising to you!" He replaced his hat and made a little bow, as if he would depart. "It has been good to see you again. Perhaps we shall meet some other time . . ."
"Oh, no! Please don't . . ." Anne put out her hand impulsively, ashamed of her rudeness. "Won't you please . . . sit down for a moment?" She gestured toward the chair beside her. "I have been wondering . . . about you."
"You ha . . ." Benwick hesitated for a moment before answering. "A-hem! Thank you," he said bashfully. "I . . . I suppose I do have a few minutes to spare." He cautiously sat down at the very edge of the chair. "I . . . have been wondering about you, also, Miss Elliot. About . . . well . . ."
"Yes." Anne understood exactly what he meant. "Thank you for your concern." After her miserable attempt at writing the letter, she felt she owed him some sort of an explanation of how she did -- and to say it would be easier. She smoothed the wrapping on her package as she spoke. "I am better, now. Every day is a little less . . ." Anne bit her lip as she thought, and glanced up shyly. "A little less difficult. It helps to be in Bath, to be . . . home." She forced herself to say the word, although it sounded hollow to her ears. Bath could never be home, not ever. But it was certainly better than being at Uppercross, surrounded by memories of the wedding!
"I must say, you look very well, Miss Anne," he said, and then he began to study his own package. "Regardless of how you may feel, you appear to be well! And there is something to be said for that! He looked up to smile at her. "Er . . . you remember how poorly I was in Lyme. Crying into my soup . . ."
Anne could not help but smile in return. "You look very well, also, Captain Benwick. I am pleased to see you rally again."
"I am ┬rallying' a little, yes." He shifted in his chair, taking a more comfortable position, as he and Anne began to fall into their former easy way of conversation. "You know, I couldn't help but notice that you did not go with the rest of your friends. In the carriage, I mean."
"No, there was not enough room. I am going to walk."
"In the rain? Have you . . ." Captain Benwick frowned a little and his eyes searched the area around her chair. "You haven't . . . an umbrella?" His voice sounded hopeful.
"No, but it rains very little. It is nothing that I regard."
"Miss Elliot," he said earnestly, barely able to suppress a grin. "I am in the most pressing need of your assistance. Truly." He lowered his voice and glanced furtively around the room before he spoke. "It's about . . . this." And he brought out Aunt Agatha's awful umbrella and with it, the whole story of his morning. ". . . and so you see, I am a hung man, whatever I decide to do!" he finished, with a chuckle. "For you may not have noticed the edging, here," he pointed to the fabric. "These little flaps hang down when the umbrella is opened, rather like a ruffle!"
"A . . . ruffle, Captain Benwick?" Anne put her gloved hand over her mouth and choked back a laugh.
"Yes. And these pink roses . . . or perhaps they are peonies, or . . . chrysanthemums, I don't know . . . they're all over the centre of it and ..."
"P-pink . . . flowers?! Oh . . . dear!" Anne dissolved into giggles as she remembered what she had done to this man's handkerchief the day before!
"You can see my dilemma," he explained, with a failing attempt at seriousness. "For if I carry it closed, during a rainstorm, I appear to be a madman! And if I carry it open . . . while I am in uniform . . . Miss Elliot, you are most unkind to laugh at my poor plight!" He grinned and lowered his voice confidingly. "But I assure you, it is no laughing matter! You can see for yourself that Bath is fairly crawling with naval officers . . . and if I am seen to carry this, I am a disgrace to the fleet and my career is finished!"
"That is very bad, certainly." Anne replied, with a merry twinkle in her eye.
"In all seriousness, Miss Anne, I wish you would allow me present it to you, instead. Not from me," he hastened to add, as he saw the expression of denial on her face, " but as a gift from my Great Aunt Agatha -- that is to say, Mrs. Mortimer Wrenwyth. That name meant something in Bath, forty years ago . . . in certain circles. She would be most displeased if I were to abandon it at the door." He held it out to her with a smile of appeal. "Won't you take it off my hands? Please?"
"Oh, but I . . ." Anne reached out and took hold of it despite herself; it truly was a most beautiful umbrella. "No, I couldn't. It wouldn't be right."
"It isn't as if you would be stealing it, you know. I am co-executor of the estate . . . I will let it stand against my share . . ."
"No, Captain Benwick, that is not what I meant. It would not be proper, to receive it as a gift."
He considered this for a moment, then he brightened. "Could you borrow it, instead? And I will call to retrieve it . . . er, on a sunny day, that is!"
"Well, I . . ." Anne hesitated for a moment, caught between propriety and her desire to be helpful. She looked at the umbrella and then back at Captain Benwick's hopeful face.
All at once she decided. "Very well, Captain Benwick," she said, recklessly. "I'll do it!" Her hand closed tightly around its handle and she gave him a conspirator's smile. "You will find us at home Monday and Wednesday mornings. Let me give you the direction."
"But . . . only if the sun is shining!" Benwick amended, as he brought a small notebook from his pocket with a smile.
"Very well, only if the sun is shining!" she agreed and told him the address. The opening of the door caught her attention, she looked up to see Mr Elliot enter. Anne stood abruptly. Benwick did likewise, with an expression of surprise. "My cousin," she explained shortly. "He has come to see me home." For some reason she did not want Mr Elliot to see her talking to Captain Benwick. Anne hastily said her good-byes and made her way to the door.
"Hello!" Anne greeted her cousin with decided cheerfulness. " I am ready to go now, Mr Elliot. Does it still rain? I have the loan of an umbrella, as you can see."
Mr Elliot was a little taken aback by her friendly smile, but only for a moment. An expression of delight took the place of his surprise, as he gallantly offered Anne his arm and led her out of the shop. Even though it rained very little, Anne opened the umbrella and twirled it, watching as the "ruffle" flared out. It really was a most beautiful thing!
She and Mr Elliot made their way comfortably down Milsom Street together. They spoke of nothing in particular for the first few blocks, and then he introduced a new topic of conversation, in his usual easy way.
"So tell me, Cousin Anne. Who is the sailor I saw you with in Molland's? Hmmm?" He turned his head to wink at her. "Is he a suitor?"
"A suitor?" Anne gave him a blank look. "Oh. Do you mean Captain Benwick? Oh, no, certainly not," she smiled. "How can you say such a thing?"
"Come now, Miss Anne!" Mr Elliot returned the smile. "I am not one to be so fooled! It is quite the fashion for ladies to have these lowly fellows dangling about! Tell me the truth, now. Is he a secret love of yours?"
"A what?" Anne laughed outright at this remark. "No, no. Captain Benwick is a friend of mine, Mr Elliot. He was with our party at Lyme. Although . . . I don't suppose you saw him that morning on the Cobb."
"A ┬friend,' you say? Ah!" he teazed. "A woman cannot have too many gentleman friends, now can she? Or so Elizabeth was telling me, the other day. Ah, carefully here, Cousin! Watch your step!" he cautioned, as he helped her to cross another street. They walked a block further and then rounded the corner onto Camden Place.
"Mr Elliot, Captain Benwick is not that sort of a . . . a . . ." Much to her annoyance, Anne found she was blushing as she struggled to explain her connexion to James Benwick. "He is a . . . literary friend; we discuss poetry and such."
"Ah!" Mr Elliot nodded knowingly. "Poetry. The language of lovers! Yes, that is most appropriate!"
Anne now became exasperated. "He is in mourning, Mr Elliot! For his beloved fiancee, who tragically died while he was at sea! He does not have an interest in me! The literature we discuss is of the kind which is helpful to persons in that state! Nothing romantical!"
"Really?" Mr Elliot bent his head to smile at her under the umbrella. "Then perhaps I may benefit by these kinds of discussions, as well! Tell me about them."
"You? Oh, I do not think so," Anne faltered. "We discuss . . . er, essays . . . by moralists . . . and sermons, Mr Elliot! I hardly think you would be interested in those kinds of . . ."
"But you forget, Cousin," he interrupted; his eyes sparkled at her from under the brim of his hat, "I am a mourner, myself! I should be most delighted to be taught sermons at your knee, Miss Anne!"
Anne's steps slowed as she gazed incredulously up at Mr Elliot's smiling face. She could hardly believe what she had just heard . . . and for a full minute she did not trust herself to speak! From deep within her rose an overmastering desire to strike him! How dare you speak so! she raged inwardly. You, who have openly admitted to never having loved your wife! Anne's brow clouded as she remembered Captain Benwick's pain-filled eyes, when she had met him that first night in Lyme -- and here was her wretched cousin, looking at her with such a teazing look in his! ┬I am a mourner, myself,' indeed! You are nothing but a hypocrite! Anne felt her breath begin to come in short gasps; she looked up and saw that they were nearly at the door of her father's house.
"Well?" he asked, still continuing to smile in his charming way. "What do you say, Cousin? Where shall I begin my reading? I am entirely at your disposal." He rapped politely at the door of Sir Walter's house.
Anne said nothing as she collapsed her umbrella and waited for Burton to open the door. She was trembling with anger, but for once, her mind was perfectly clear.
Burton admitted them with a dignified bow and held out his hand for the umbrella. "No thank you, Burton," Anne said tartly. "I prefer to keep this with me." Once inside the house, she turned to face her cousin with a dangerous calm, such as she had never felt before. For once, she was going to speak her mind, come what may!
"Yes, Mr. Elliot, since you ask, I do have a suggestion for you." Anne was a little taken aback by the waspish tone in her voice, but she continued boldly on. "Have you ever read Goethe's Faust?
He blinked in surprise. "Why, yes . . . I suppose I have, Cousin Anne," he said pleasantly. "But not recently, of course."
"Good. Then you could do with a little refresher." Anne tilted her head back to look her cousin fully in the eyes. She spoke slowly and distinctly, making certain to enunciate every word. "I would like you to read the section where Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles . . . for youth . . . and power . . . and money! And tell me what you learn!"
Anne became a little frightened as she saw the expression in his eyes change to one of complete astonishment. But she was not about to give into her cowardly impulses now! She turned on her heel and stalked to the staircase. As she placed her free hand on the bannister, she thought of one more thing. Doing her best to imitate her sister Elizabeth's maddening air of unconcern, she looked at Mr Elliot over her shoulder and fired her parting shot. "Father is probably in the drawing room. He shall be glad to see you, I suppose . . . Good-bye, Cousin." And without another backward glance, she grandly mounted the stairs, leaving Mr Elliot to gaze after her in stunned surprise.
But by the time she reached the uppermost floor, Anne was trembling. She stood on the landing, weak-kneed and shaken, with her hands pressed to her flaming cheeks. Good G-d, what have I done?!! For she had never spoken this way to anyone in her entire life! But though frightened by her ferocious outburst, Anne was unrepentant. He deserved it! Dreadful man! He shall certainly hate me now . . . but I . . . I do not care! To her horror, she found tears to be streaming down her face, as sobs rose in her throat. She blindly made her way down the hall and hid herself in the privacy of her bedchamber.
But if Anne thought to alienate her cousin by her outrageous remark, she had another thing coming. As Mr Elliot watched her disappear up the staircase, a smile spread slowly over his face.
"May I take your hat, sir?" Burton asked politely.
"No, no." Mr Elliot replied cheerfully, and made his way toward the door. "I do not stay." He raised an eyebrow and spoke under his breath, as he took another look up at the stair. "It seems I have an errand at the bookseller's."
As the front door closed behind him, William Elliot chuckled softly to himself. What was that all about, I wonder? His little cousin Anne was absolutely furious with him! Well, well! So the sweet little mouse has claws! he mused to himself. But instead of being angry with her, he was rather pleased, for he had roused her to a passion! Perhaps my dear Anne is not so indifferent to me as she lets on!
Mr Elliot turned his steps in the direction of Milsom Street and walked slowly down Camden Place. She had such fire blazing in her eyes! he thought, admiringly. Wonderful! He had heard that this was the way it was sometimes, with these buttoned-up, prim maidens. Burning passion, lying dormant within! Waiting to be awakened ...
For passion, or a lack thereof, had been the sticking point in his choice between the sisters. Both were certainly beautiful enough. He knew Anne would surely make the better Lady Elliot. She would be a gentle hostess, a wonderful mother, a dutiful leader in the community, a sweet and biddable wife, and perhaps . . . a trifle dull.
But Elizabeth! With Elizabeth there was the added challenge of conquest, for she had spirit and fire within! But there had been a risk with Elizabeth; she had a hardness about her which was uneasily familiar to William Elliot. He was not sure if the benefits of spirit were worth enduring her outbursts of spite!
But now . . . William Elliot raised his eyes from his contemplation of the pavement and turned to look back at the Elliot house. He paid special attention to the curtains at the windows on the upper floor. Was Anne hidden behind them, watching him go? He smiled broadly and tipped his hat, just in case she was.
He had heard it said that when selecting a wife, a man had to decide which was most important to him: did he want a woman who was skilled in the drawing room . . . or in the bedroom? With what he had learned today, William Elliot supposed he just might be able to have both! Yes, he mused pleasantly, as he made his way down the street, I do believe that sweet little Anne may be brought to become quite a sprightly bed-partner! Happy thought, indeed! And with this intriguing notion, he kept himself well-entertained all the way to the bookseller's.
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