You can imagine that, after this conversation with my mother, I was not too keen on going to the assembly with the Kenningtons any more. Had it not been for my brothers, I would probably have thought of an excuse and staid at home.
I mentioned this to Frederick, but he told me to forget about the idea at once..
"The worst thing to do would be to show Mrs Kennington that you really care about what she said," he told me.
"Hold your head high and go on. Laugh right into her face. That will annoy her more than anything else." He grinned. "And this is what you want, is it not?"
I had to smile despite myself. Dear Frederick, he was worth his own weight in gold.
He still is, actually.
"You are right, Frederick, if I hide away now this will only be considered a proof to what has been told. I will go - but I will take good care to keep away from Colonel Kennington."
Frederick shook his head. "No, why should you? Treat the Colonel like you have always treated him. If people get the impression that you are suddenly avoiding him, they will only say that your plan of tricking him into marriage did not work, and that you are now looking for a new victim."
He laughed. "The mere idea of someone tricking the Colonel into marriage is absurd. You, of all girls. Others have tried this before you - none of them have ever succeeded, so why should you?"
"I never tried to, Frederick!"
"All right, I know that. I know that, but what about all the other people at the assembly? Listen, Sophia, the best thing you can do is to treat the Colonel in a friendly way, but not too friendly. Perhaps it would help if you flirted with someone else."
"Bad tactic, sister, if you come to think of it. If you pay too much attention to Mr Williams, he will believe you are violently in love with him. If you really want him to believe that, it is all right by me, but after all you have told me, this is not your object, so watch out."
I gave my brother an enquiring look. For someone so young, he knew remarkably much about matters of the heart.
"Why are you looking at me like that, Sophia," he asked.
"Oh, I was just wondering ... this sounds as if you have considerable knowledge of l'amour for someone your age." I grinned.
He laughed. "I was just trying to help, but if you do not want me to ... I'll keep out of it. As to l'amour, Sophia, I promise if I should ever marry, you will be one of the first people to know. Meanwhile, do not ask any questions, because I shall not answer them."
While getting dressed, I made my plans for the evening. Frederick had been right, the less attention I paid to Mrs Kennington and her vicious rumour, the better it was. We all knew that Mrs Kennington's main purpose in life was to be the centre of everybody's attention - she hated being ignored, and so this would be exactly what I would do.
I looked at myself in the mirror and sighed. As if anyone who looked like me could ever gain enough power over a man to manipulate him into marrying her - the mere thought was ridiculous.
Please, do not get me wrong, I was not bad looking, really, and of course I did not believe so. But I was far from being the seductive sort - the sort of woman who could get a man to do everything, even if it was not really what he wished for. I was sure that no man would ever defy his family and friends just to have me with him - and, to say the truth, this was not what I wanted anyway.
A knock at the door roused me from my thoughts. It was Edward, who wanted to know if I was finished with dressing.
"The Kenningtons will soon arrive to pick us up," he said, looking at me. "You look very pretty, Sophia."
"Thank you, Edward, you're very handsome, too," I said, smiling.
He blushed slightly, and gave me one of his doubting "who are you trying to fool" looks, but he seemed to be pleased nevertheless.
I remembered the last assembly we had attended together, and I wondered if I could find out tonight what his secret was. Perhaps I could let Frederick in on my plans, and he could keep a lookout if I could not? Frederick was, in many respects, much more perceptive than I was, and besides he had a way of making people tell him about their problems.
I knew that he would not betray Edward's confidence, of course, but if he found out anything by himself he would not hesitate to tell me.
The journey to Yarmouth was a rather frosty affair. I was in the carriage with Sir James, Mr and Mrs Kennington, so you can imagine my mood. I did not talk more than propriety required - and as Mrs Kennington was not inclined to favour me with her conversation, propriety did not oblige me to say much.
Sir James asked me a few questions about my parents' health, Frederick's stay at home, and Edward's progress in Oxford, and I answered his enquiries with all respect that was due to him, but I left Mrs Kennington aside as long as I could help it.
When we arrived in Yarmouth, I was glad to join "the set of young people", as Sir James called them, and I was eager to tell Sarah about the rumour Mrs Kennington had caused.
There was someone who, perhaps, had an even stronger claim to know about the gossip, but I could not talk to the Colonel about that matter, even if I wanted. Actually, I did not really want him to know, and I hoped that he did not know already. I felt that I would be greatly embarrassed if he did, even though I knew that I was not to blame and that not a bit of the rumour was true.
We entered the Assembly rooms and were at once surrounded by the crowd.
"Miss Wentworth!" I had hardly noticed that someone was calling out to me, when Mr Williams joined our company.
"Miss Wentworth," he said, "I was already worrying you would not come."
How had he found me so soon? Had he spent all evening next to the entrance so as not to miss me when I arrived? Or did he have spies who were on the lookout for him? I shuddered at the thought.
"Good evening, sir," I said with my politest, and coolest, voice. "Have you been waiting for long?"
"Oh, no, about a quarter of an hour, not more. You look very pretty tonight, Miss Wentworth. Is this a new gown you are wearing?"
"No, sir, it is exactly the same gown I wore at the last assembly."
Was he going to discuss my garments this evening? What a variety of topics! I sighed inwardly and gave Sarah a significant look. She got my meaning at once and engaged Mr Williams in some conversation.
Meanwhile, I had a look around the room to see if there were any acquaintances to be seen. I saw Mrs Benton and Mrs Hunt on the other side of the room. Mrs Hunt recognised me and waved to me. I waved back and was just preparing to walk over to her, when Colonel Kennington stopped me.
"Miss Wentworth, do you already have a partner for the first two dances or would you consider dancing them with me?"
I blushed. Dancing the first two dances with the Colonel was the very last thing I needed tonight, with all those rumours going on, but if I refused him he would notice that something was wrong, I would have to give him a reason, and I did not want to talk about that topic - not with him.
To hide my embarrassment, I said teasingly, "Does that mean your dancing days are starting again?"
He laughed. "I would like to give it a try, Miss Wentworth, and I thought, as I still owe you a dance..."
"Do you, sir? But, please, do not dance with me if it is a mere obligation to you."
"Does that mean you refuse to dance with me?"
"Not at all, sir. I just thought that it is not a great compliment for a lady if a gentleman only dances with her because he "owes" her a dance, do you not think so?"
"You are right, and I most humbly beg your forgiveness, Miss Wentworth. So, may I ask you to dance the first two dances with me? The evening would not be pleasant for me if you did not, in fact, I would be really hurt. Does that sound better?"
There was the old Colonel again. I laughed.
"Much better, Colonel. I would be very glad to dance the first two dances with you."
Mr Williams, meanwhile, had drawn closer to us and had heard my last sentence. He glared at the Colonel angrily, but did not say anything. Instead, he asked me for the next two dances, saying something like "not being lucky enough to secure my hand for the first two".
I assented, and thought that it would be fun to give all those gossips something to talk about. Not only that I was dancing the first two dances with the Colonel, I was also dancing with Mr Williams tonight.
Perhaps tomorrow there would be a war between those town gossips, one party who thought I was trying to trick the Colonel into marriage, and the other convinced that I was very nearly engaged with Mr Williams. I thought of what Frederick had said...he had been right. Whatever I did, it would only add some fuel to the gossip. The best thing for me and everyone else would be to do as I pleased, and to ignore the people.
Meanwhile, the Bells had arrived, and I could guess by Edward's yearning look at Miss Diana that I had been right with my suspicion. He was in love with Miss Diana Bell - and my heart ached for him. I knew Diana Bell slightly, and she was not the sort of woman who would ever consider him. Perhaps she did not even know he existed.
While Frederick and I were walking over to Mrs Benton and Mrs Hunt, I kept an eye on her. She went straight into Colonel Kennington's direction, and seemed to be flirting with him excessively - or at least she seemed to be inclined to do so, but the Colonel did not seem to feel the same.
Mrs Benton and Mrs Hunt were talking to Frederick, so I was left to my thoughts for a while. I watched Diana Bell, until I realised that this could also be misunderstood, and that people might think I was jealous of the Colonel...I therefore turned my eyes away from the scene and paid more attention to what Mrs Benton and Mrs Hunt were talking about.
Mrs Benton was better informed about her son-in-law's whereabouts than her daughter seemed to be. She told Frederick how very worried she was about him, and Frederick in turn assured her that there was nothing to be afraid of.
Mrs Hunt then mentioned Captain Croft's visit to Frederick, and asked him what he thought of his captain. This led to a warm praise of Captain Croft's good qualities, which I gladly listened to.
I wondered if Captain Croft was there, too. I had not seen him yet, but it was more than probable that he might turn up sooner or later. Then another thought struck me. What if he had heard about the rumours concerning me? What would his opinion of me be? Somehow the thought that he might have an ill impression of me made me feel miserable.
Not the best way to start one's evening, right? I was worried about myself, worried about my brother, and worried that Captain Croft would not come - or would pay no attention to me if he did come. As far as I was concerned, things could only get better.
Frederick and I joined our own group again shortly after that, and I was rather surprised to see Miss Diana Bell talking with Edward. However, I could not feel really happy for him, because I noticed her glancing furtively at Colonel Kennington every now and then.
She clearly only paid attention to my poor brother because she had not been able to succeed with the Colonel. Once he found out about it, he would be heartbroken, and I wondered what I could do about it.
The music commenced, and Colonel Kennington led me away to join the set. So did Sarah and Sir Alexander - and Edward and Diana Bell. He looked as if he had never been happier in his life, and I hated to see it - his disappointment would be terrible once he found out about Diana Bell's true reason for taking notice of him.
I did not notice Captain Croft anywhere in the room, he was neither dancing nor with any of the spectators, so I assumed he was either playing cards with the other gentlemen in the card room or had not arrived yet. I hoped for the latter.
Colonel Kennington did his best to cheer me up, his conversation was lively and his dancing superior, but somehow all his effort led to nothing. There was too much going on in my head, and I noticed more than one stare directed at us, people frowning at us, whispering...I was glad when the first two dances were over and wondered if the Colonel had really not noticed anything.
The next two dances with Mr Williams were not very pleasant, either. Mr Williams' conversation was boring, as usual, and as he seemed so very happy to hear himself talk, I was not required to say much. But then I saw something that cheered me up at once: Captain Croft had arrived, and was walking towards Frederick. I hoped that he would still be with our group when the dance had finished, so I would get the chance to talk to him. Perhaps he would even ask me to dance with him? Sophia, do not expect too much, I scolded myself. Why should Captain Croft pay more attention to you than to any other lady in the room?
When the music subsided, Mr Williams led me back to my seat, and offered to get me a drink. I was glad to get rid of him for a while, and accepted. While he was gone, however, I heard Mrs Kennington talk to Diana Bell, and what I heard was enough to make my blood boil.
"...you know, Miss Bell, the Wentworths may be worthy people, but so completely without good connections. I warned my sister-in-law not to be so very friendly with Miss Wentworth, who is, in my opinion, much too unconventional to be a real lady, but would Sarah listen? Not at all, and now we see the result. The Colonel is so taken in with her, he does not even notice what her plans are. Someone ought to tell him, really."
Diana Bell agreed. She assured Mrs Kennington of her deepest sympathy, and they both continued their conversation, perhaps not noticing that I understood every little bit, but more likely knowing that I heard and relishing their discussion even more because of this.
I remembered what Frederick had said. I was ready to laugh right into Mrs Kennington's face, only it was so hard...
Mr Williams returned with some punch for me, and for once I was happy to see him. He sat with me for a while, and attracted Mrs Kennington's attention.
"Oh, Mr Williams, we did not notice you before - and Miss Wentworth, too! I hope you are enjoying yourself, Miss Wentworth," she said with her sweetest voice.
Laugh right into her face, I thought, and answered with a forced smile, "I am, Mrs Kennington. I hope you are enjoying yourself, too."
Diana Bell, meanwhile, turned to Edward again, and seeing her talk with him I could not believe she had just agreed with Mrs Kennington about our being "not quite as good company as one might wish". It was simply getting too much.
I rose, and after saying something that it was "rather hot", I made my way to one of the French windows. I desperately needed to get out, before I strangled both Mrs Kennington and Diana Bell with my own hands. No one seemed to feel inclined to follow me - Edward was talking with Diana Bell, Frederick and Sarah were dancing, and Colonel Kennington and Sir Alexander were engaged in some conversation with a friend of the Colonel's.
Outside, the evening was lovely, it was rather cool, but I did not mind. For a few minutes, I just stood there, trying to fight my tears. No, I would not cry, I would not show my feelings.
The quiet around me was soothing me after a while, and I was able to think more clearly. Someone had to tell Edward about Diana Bell's true character. I did not want her to use him so ill. Still, I knew that Edward would not tolerate any interference in his matters. What was to do? And how could I stop Mrs Kennington's malicious gossip?
There was a cool breeze, and I drew my shawl closer around my shoulders.
"Are you cold, Miss Wentworth?" someone said behind me. I turned round and noticed Captain Croft.
"It is cool, but I do not mind, Captain Croft. I had to go outside into the fresh air, I could not stand it any more- all those people, and the heat was getting quite oppressive."
"True, it is cool and fresh out here. I could stay out here all night, and would enjoy it far more than being inside."
He gave me a searching look. "But you look harassed, Miss Wentworth, what has happened? I am afraid the heat was not the only reason to chase you out of the room."
I hesitated, what could I answer? I could not tell him what had happened, could I?
He noticed that I was reluctant, and said, "I know it is none of my business, of course, but if there is any way in which I can help you, you can count on me."
"There is no way in which you can help me, sir, but I thank you for your offer. You are very kind."
Somehow I liked the earnest Captain Croft even more than the playful one. He seemed to be really concerned about me.
"Are you sure you do not need anything, Miss Wentworth?"
That did the trick. There was something in his voice that made me speak, no matter what would happen. I told him about Mrs Kennington and her rumours (although I did not tell him the real purport of the rumours, I only told him that they existed). I told him about Edward and Diana Bell, and how I had overheard a conversation between her and Mrs Kennington that had convinced me that Miss Bell did not care twopence for my brother. I confessed to him that I wanted to help my brother, but did not know how...
Then I noticed that all this was rather inappropriate. I was talking about most intimate problems, problems I had not even shared with my best friend, with a man I had not yet known for a week. I blushed and turned away, afraid of what he might say. But Captain Croft was full of surprises. Whatever any other gentleman might have thought, he did not object to my frankness at all.
"How old is your brother, Miss Wentworth," he asked, thoughtfully.
"I would not worry about him too much, then. I know you want to spare him the disappointment, but the fact is that you cannot. Whatever you do, you cannot keep this experience away from him.
Believe me, a man has to go through some sort of disappointment sooner or later, in order to appreciate happiness more."
"Are you speaking out of experience, Captain Croft?"
He laughed. "Who knows? As for the other thing, Miss Wentworth, I do not think Mrs Kennington will really succeed in dragging your reputation into the dirt - unless she starts to praise you in the highest terms, in which case your reputation would be lost forever."
I could not help it, I had to laugh.
"And now, Miss Wentworth, if you do not mind, what do you think of causing some more havoc in the local salons by dancing the last two dances with me? I have not danced with any other lady tonight, and I am sure this will be sufficient to raise suspicion."
I gladly accepted his suggestion, and so the evening ended pleasantly after all. Perhaps some suspicion was raised that evening, but not on my part. I was only sure that Captain Croft was the most pleasant gentleman I had ever met - nothing more and nothing less - and I was glad to hear that Sarah had invited him to join us for a picnic the next day. It seemed as if the sun was shining on my life again.
I had no idea that our conversation that evening had such an effect on you, Sophy. Why did you never tell me? - Oh, a woman needs to have her secrets now and then. But now, for the picnic... - Ah, yes, the picnic...
The weather was not very promising the next day. Although it did not rain, it looked rather gloomy. We therefore sent a message to Kennington House, inquiring if the picnic would still take place. After half an hour we received Sarah's answer, telling us that the picnic would take place at all means, and if it started to rain, we would have our picnic in the conservatory. I had to laugh. This was so like Sarah - never to let anything interfere with her plans, not even the weather.
Captain Croft was to come to our house first, and we would take him with us to Kennington House. I was looking forward to seeing him again, although I have to confess I felt a bit awkward, too. After everything I had told him the day before, I was afraid he would not have a very good opinion of me any more. It was all right for a man to speak his thoughts so unreservedly, but it was not fit for a lady to do so, and I was sure that Captain Croft knew this just as well as I did.
Do you really think I cared? - Admiral, I did not know you that well then. - True, my dear, you did not.
But beforehand, I had to help my mother with some work for the church. She wanted my help in mending one of the altar cloths. While we were sitting there, doing our work, she asked me what the evening had been like. I told her all I dared to tell her, mentioning nothing of Mrs Kennington's behaviour. I knew my mother was of a rather nervous disposition, and it was no use upsetting her with such trifles.
"Was Mr Williams there, too," she asked.
"Yes, he was. Why do you ask, Mama?"
"Oh, I have not seen him so often, lately, that is all."
"Mama, you are not trying to persuade me in his favour again, are you? I told you it leads to nothing."
"I only want your best, child."
Suddenly I felt sorry for her. She was tiring herself with troubles that were not her own. It was not easy to be my mother, I was sure. If only I could persuade her to stop worrying.
"Mama, do you not think that, at the age of three-and-twenty, I am able to decide for myself?"
"Obviously you are not, Sophia, or you would see what is good for you."
It was useless. My mother was determined to be worried on my account. I did not reply to her statement but turned to my work instead. After a while, Frederick came into the parlour and sat down at the writing desk, asking me for some paper.
"A love letter, Frederick," I asked him, grinning.
I had not forgotten our discussion that had taken place the day before, and I was determined to tease him for a while. Perhaps he would give me some hint sooner or later?
Frederick laughed, shaking his head.
"This will not do, Sophia, even if it was, I wouldn't tell you. But it is not a love letter; I am going to write to Harville. He has gone to Portsmouth to visit his family."
"Have you heard from Mr Harville, then?"
"No, not yet, but I thought I'd write to him anyway. First, he wanted to stay in Yarmouth, but Captain Croft sent him to Portsmouth with a letter for Admiral Burke. Just like the Captain to think of this, do you not think so too? Harville would hardly have been able to afford a visit to his family if it had not been for Captain Croft's idea."
"It was very considerate of him to send Mr Harville, indeed," was my mother's answer.
I remained silent, not because I did not agree, but because I did not want to show how good my opinion of the Captain already was. After teasing her brother it is wiser for a girl not to give him a reason for teasing, also. Especially if he was so good at teasing as Frederick was.
"Have you seen Edward, by the way," he asked casually.
"At breakfast, yes, but I have not seen him since," I answered.
"Strange - he had asked me to take a letter with me if I went to the post office. Well, perhaps he's outside."
Perhaps...but it was indeed strange that no one in our house knew where Edward was. This was not his usual way.
Frederick went to the post office and was gone about half an hour. When he arrived back home, he came into the parlour with a triumphant smile.
"Look whom I found!"
"Edward?" I asked, frowning.
"Not quite. It's Captain Croft. Come in, Captain." Frederick said and opened the door for Captain Croft to come in.
"There I was, walking down the street, thinking nothing bad, and there he was. So I thought I'd bring him here, before he gets lost, you know."
Captain Croft laughed. "Mind your tongue, young man, I can find my way anywhere, and you know that."
Frederick nodded, seemingly repentant. "I am sorry, sir, just my spirits running away with me..."
"For once, I will tolerate it, but do not let it happen any more." His voice sounded stern, but one could see in his eyes that he was notquite as angry as he might sound.
He turned to my mother and me and greeted us politely.
"It is good to see you in such a good mood this morning, Miss Wentworth," he said, looking at me.
I glanced at my mother and shook my head.
"I mean, you must have arrived at home rather late yesterday," he added, with a wink. "I thought you might have been tired this morning."
"It was a bit late, but I was not very tired, sir," I answered, smiling gratefully. My mother had not noticed anything, but Frederick had. Well, I did not mind telling Frederick what had happened - at least some bits.
"That is rather interesting, though, because as far as I can tell, you did dance a lot."
I laughed. "Dancing does not fatigue me, Captain Croft."
"Indeed? This is a good thing to know, Miss Wentworth."
He gave me a cheerful smile, and I smiled back. He was in such excellent spirits, that he made me smile in spite of myself.
My father came in shortly afterwards, and on noticing the Captain he sat down to have some talk with him. I was keeping my eyes on my needlework - well, most of the time. Sometimes I cast a glance at my father and Captain Croft - it seemed they liked each other.
My father was friendly with most people, even if he did not like them, but one could still notice the difference if one knew him well enough. He obviously had a good opinion of Captain Croft.
"Did you see Edward, father," Frederick asked him after a few minutes.
"I tried to find him before I went to the post office, because I had promised to take a letter with me, but he was nowhere to be found."
Papa shook his head. "I have not seen him all morning, Frederick."
Frederick raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. It was obvious he suspected something, but of course he would not discuss it here and now. I would have to be patient until we were alone with each other. Frederick, like myself, took great care never to upset our mother, if he could help it, and it was not really advisable to discuss family problems in the presence of guests (well, I was not completely blameless on that point - Captain Croft was acquainted with some of our family matters because of me).
Finally, Edward came into the parlour, looking distressed. He greeted our guest politely, and apologised for his long absence, telling us that he had had "some important business in Yarmouth that had taken him longer than he had expected".
A weak excuse, I thought. Why had he not told us he had had business in Yarmouth? Why had he sneaked away like that? By his expression I could tell that, whatever it had been, it had not matched his expectations, and I had a strong suspicion that the whole "business" had to do with Diana Bell.
After I had finished my work, I retired to my room to get dressed for the picnic, and in my absence there was a discussion of how we were going to get to Kennington House.
Frederick pointed out that, although it was not very far, a walk might be a bit fatiguing after such a short night's sleep, "especially since Sophia is not a great walker". He suggested that he and Edward might go on horseback, while I was to take the gig.
"But who is going to drive," I heard my mother ask when I came back. I looked around, trying to figure out what they all were talking about.
"Captain Croft can drive, can't you, sir," Frederick said. "Or Edward could, and Captain Croft can go on horseback."
I wondered why on earth I could not drive myself, but then, of course, a gentleman could hardly be reconciled to the idea of a lady driving the carriage...it was not what we were supposed to do. Ah, well, if they wanted me to, I would play along.
After some time they agreed that Edward would drive me in the carriage, and the Captain would go on horseback with Frederick. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed, I had hoped it to be the other way round, but then I thought it would be interesting to go with Edward, as well. Perhaps he would tell me why he had been in Yarmouth?
We set off, and while Edward and I were getting on pretty fast (Edward was a fast driver), Frederick and the Captain stayed behind. I turned to Edward.
"It must have been important business to take you to Yarmouth so early, Edward."
"Well...yes, it was."
His face was like a mask, betraying nothing. This was not his usual way, and it made me suspect something.
"Is there anything I can do for you, Edward?"
"Are you sure?"
I hated it if people acted like this. I wanted to know what was wrong, and he did not tell me. I decided to let him have a full broadside and see how he reacted.
"Broadside", Sophy? - Admiral, please be serious. It was a most serious situation, you know.
"Did it have something to do with Miss Diana Bell?" I asked.
He started, but he did not answer.
"I am right then. I thought so. What is wrong?"
Of course I knew what was wrong with Diana Bell, but I was not sure if my brother knew it, too.
"Nothing. It is just...I have made an utter fool of myself."
"Why? Because you like her?"
"No, because I thought, and after yesterday evening I think I had a right to suppose so, that she liked me. But I was wrong."
I sighed. What could I say? Whatever I said, it would not help him.
"I went to Yarmouth this morning, hoping to meet her, of course, but pretending to have some business there. I knew that she would go for her morning walk, because she told me so yesterday evening. So I waited...I wanted to see her. When she came, however, she acted as if I was only some slight acquaintance. She was so cold - so distant. What have I done wrong, Sophia?"
He looked at me, and in his eyes I could see all the world's unhappiness.
"You have done nothing wrong, Edward. There is nothing wrong with falling in love. If Miss Bell cannot appreciate you, she is not the right woman for you, that is all."
"It is easy to say that, Sophia."
"I know, but one day you will see it that way as well."
He was silent for a few minutes, but when we were approaching Kennington House, he said, "Sophia, promise me you will never do such a thing to a man."
"Do what, Edward?"
He looked at me earnestly. "Do not encourage him if you do not really feel something for him. It is not the rejection that hurts most. It is being treated well one moment and cast off in the other. Promise me you will never do that."
"I promise, Edward."
However, Edward did recover from his first disappointment, and now he is married with a beautiful, charming woman who loves him dearly and is worthy of him. He is very happy, and I dare say he has no reason to resent what happened 25 years ago. As to Diana Bell - she got what she deserved.
At first, I was anxious that somebody might notice something unusual in Edward's behaviour, but I had underestimated his self-control. Once we were led into the Kenningtons' drawing room, no one could have spotted any difference to his usual conduct. The only thing I was aware of was a certain coolness in his manner with the Colonel, but that was nothing extraordinary. Edward had never really liked Colonel Kennington, although he had hardly ever said so, and the Colonel knew about this fact just as well as anybody else.
Frederick and Captain Croft arrived shortly afterwards, and, the polite greetings and introductions being accomplished, we all went out into the garden. The gardens of Kennington House were huge and beautiful, and a visit there was a treat to all of us.
I had not had the opportunity to talk to Sarah alone the evening before, and so I asked her to have a word with me now. Sarah agreed, and so we walked slowly, letting the rest of the party go ahead of us.
"Well, what is it, Sophy," Sarah asked, once they so far ahead they could not hear us any more.
I told her about my conversation with my mother two days ago, and the things I had overheard at the assembly. Sarah listened to me with an earnest expression at first, but the more she heard the angrier her face became.
"This is unbelievable," she burst out when I had finished my narrative. "Who would have thought that she'd stoop so low? Abominable woman! What did you do about it? Did you tell her to stop?"
"To cause a scandal? Sarah, this would only mean giving her more attention than she deserves."
"You are right, of course. She would rather have you slap her than ignore her."
"She did not try her poison on you yet, then?"
"No, this is the first time I have heard that tale. I would not have believed it, anyway. I know you're not interested in Thomas."
I sighed. "There is one thing that bothers me, Sarah. Why does Mrs Kennington do such a thing? It is true, our opinions have differed quite often, but I have never done anything to her to make her hate me so much."
Sarah laughed. "Ever since she has been engaged to James, she has envied us your friendship, Sophy. I am quite sure she does not approve of it. Perhaps she believed that this rumour would keep you away from me and Kennington House."
Sarah's reasoning made sense. I had - for a short time - considered avoiding Colonel Kennington for the remainder of his stay, and this would naturally have meant that I had had to keep away from Sarah as well. It was a good thing that Frederick had advised me to do nothing of that sort.
"I think you are right, Sarah," I said. "I could have thought of it myself, of course."
"There is one thing she may not have considered, though. Her Highness forgot that Thomas would only stay for a short time. Would she really think that you'd stay away after he had gone, or that this might make a great difference in our friendship? You would not have avoided me without informing me about your reasons for doing so, so the whole thing would have led to nothing."
"Perhaps in the meantime she would have contrived something else, Sarah."
"It is good you did not react the way she expected you to, Sophy." She laughed. "Just you wait until Thomas hears of it! He will put an end to that nonsense all right."
"Sarah, you are not going to tell him, are you? This would be so awkward!" I said, anxiously.
"Why, Sophy? Do you think he will believe what Her Highness says? He has more experience with women than any other gentleman in our acquaintance, do you not think he might be able to recognise the signs of any special attention if he sees them? Or, in your case, be able to see that there is no such thing as attachment on your side? Thomas is not a fool, you know, even if he acts like one now and then."
"Besides, would you rather have someone else tell him? Believe me, if there is one person in the world who can stop Her Highness, it is he. You may not believe it, but Thomas can be VERY unpleasant if something or someone really annoys him. It does not happen very often, but if it does, I'd rather not be there."
I sighed. It was true, if I did not allow Sarah to talk with her brother, someone else would tell him about the rumours. As it was, I was at least sure that Sarah would let him know my point of view.
"Very well, Sarah, do as you please. But I am still sure I will be terribly embarrassed by the whole thing."
Sarah laughed. "There is no reason for you to feel like that, believe me. Thomas knows you well enough to know that not a bit of this gossip is true."
The rest of the party were already waiting for us when we finally caught up with them.
"Ah, there you are," Captain Croft cried when he saw us. "We were growing quite desperate and were just negotiating to go in search of you, did we not, Colonel?"
Colonel Kennington laughed. "True, Captain, five more minutes and nothing could have held us back. Where have you been, Sarah?"
"We had something important to talk about, and I am afraid we forgot about the time. I am sorry," was Sarah's answer.
"So am I," I agreed. "I would not want anyone to be uneasy on my account if I can help it."
"Considerate as always", Mr Williams exclaimed in an admiring tone.
I saw Captain Croft's amused expression and had to hold back a smile. Oh yes, I was always so considerate of Mr Williams' feelings...
When I saw Mrs Kennington whispering something into her bosom-friend, Miss Barnaby's ear, every bit of my good mood was gone again. Miss Barnaby had always been Mrs Kennington's best friend, perhaps for no other reason than Miss Barnaby's plain looks. Mrs Kennington would not endure a friend who looked pretty. Being rather plain, Miss Barnaby had always taken particular pride in her good reputation.
After one of Miss Barnaby's lectures about virtue, Sarah had once remarked, "For some it is virtue, for others it is just lack of opportunity." A statement that had made Mrs Kennington furious, and had made it very hard for the Colonel to keep a straight face.
Sarah noticed my bad mood and gave me a cheering look. She suggested that we should go for another short walk and meet at the conservatory half an hour later.
"We are not really going to have our luncheon there," I asked Sarah.
She laughed. "When I wrote the letter to you this morning, Sir Alexander thought it was a good idea, and so I changed my plans. I thought it might be worth a try. You will like it there, I am sure."
I shook my head sceptically. "Sarah, your ideas are growing more eccentric every day," I said, and added, with a look at Sir Alexander, "I hope you know what that means, sir. You will never know what your wife will be up to next."
"I am already looking forward to it," he replied. "I am fond of surprises."
"Do you have a conservatory on your estate, in case the future Lady Baldwin wishes to have a picnic," I asked, grinning mischievously.
"A conservatory, and a very pretty summer house. And, if that is not enough, there is plenty of room in the park for more," Sir Alexander answered with a laugh.
I noticed with great satisfaction that Mrs Kennington had looked rather sour when the "future Lady Baldwin" was mentioned. The party split up in groups. Mr and Mrs Kennington and their guests were walking one way, the rest of us the other. Mr Williams honoured me with his entire attention, an honour which I had been very well able to do without. I only hoped for someone to interfere for a while. My prayers were answered by Frederick's coming up to me.
Ah yes, that was such a coincidence, was it not? Your brother has always been an obliging fellow.
"Sophia, there is just something I need to know. If you will just excuse us for a moment, Mr Williams..." He drew me aside.
Mr Williams could do nothing but to nod assent and to walk on, and he was soon engaged in a conversation with Colonel Kennington and Sir Alexander (I did not know where both of them got the patience to endure that man for more than five minutes).
"What is it, Frederick?" I said, frowning.
He laughed. "Nothing, you were just looking so incredibly bored, I thought you could do with some distraction. But, now that you mention it, there is one thing I want to know. Do you know what is the matter with Edward?"
"I have had my suspicions, and he confirmed them when we were on our way here. But I do not know if he would want me to tell you."
"Oh, too bad...I'm not in the best mood today, either."
I had not been able to see any signs of bad temper in Frederick, and so I looked at him in amazement.
"Why that, Frederick?"
"Just bad news from the Phoenix, that's all. It need not concern you," he said. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I'll just walk over to Edward."
"And leave me to the mercy of Mr Williams?"
Frederick laughed. "Not quite, Sophia." He pointed somewhere behind me, where Captain Croft was approaching us with Sir James and Sarah.
"I think you will like that company better than Mr Williams, right?" he said and darted away.
Captain Croft came over and offered me his arm.
"Looks like I need to teach that young man some manners," he said. "One does not leave a lady behind like that."
I laughed. "I think with sisters one does not have to be as polite as with other ladies."
"Oh, I'm afraid I have to disagree with you here. It is even more important to be polite with one's sister. Any lady one meets will look at the way a gentleman is behaving with his mother and sisters - or am I wrong?"
"Only if the lady has the opportunity to see the gentleman with his mother and sisters, sir. Do you think I will need to see you with your mother and sister to settle my opinion of you?"
"That would be a problem, Miss Wentworth. How am I to get my mother and sister here before I am to leave this place?"
Before I am to leave... I did not want to think about that.
"My brother mentioned he had bad news from the "Phoenix" today, sir. I hope it is nothing very disagreeable."
"Bad news?" He frowned. "There has been no bad news I know of."
Then his face brightened up. "Ah yes, I think I know what he meant. It is not exactly bad news if you ask me, but he may see it that way, of course. I just told him that his friend Harville will not be on the Phoenix with us on our next journey."
I knew that Frederick liked Mr Harville very much, and the prospect to have to set sail again without him was not too tempting for him, to be sure. This had to be the "bad news" he had referred to.
"Oh! Too bad! Why that, Captain Croft?"
"For the simple reason that there is no place for another lieutenant on the Phoenix, and I have had news from Admiral Burke that Harville is most likely to be made Lieutenant before the next trip. I thought your brother would be happy to hear it, but instead he seems to be a bit depressed."
"But it is for Mr Harville's best, is it not?"
Even if I understood that Frederick did not want to lose his friend's company so soon, I did not understand why he was so unhappy about Mr Harville's prospects.
"Yes, it is, and I hope that your brother will see that, too. I hardly ever bother Admiral Burke with any of my men, but in this case I thought it was justified. Harville is a good man, and his family are far from being rich. An increase in his income will be a blessing to them all. Perhaps I will get him back again one day, I would have no objection to it, but in the meantime we will just have to get along without him."
"Are you in the position to bother Admiral Burke?" I asked. That was a thing that interested me.
He laughed. "Good question, Miss Wentworth. Actually, Admiral Burke was a good friend of my father's, and it seems he still feels indebted to him. As I said before, I hardly ever approach him, but if I do, he nearly always grants me what I need."
Suddenly I remembered Mrs Hunt and smiled.
"What is the matter, Miss Wentworth," Captain Croft asked. "Are you laughing at me?"
I shook my head. "Of course not, I just recalled something that made me laugh. The situation the other day, with Mrs Hunt."
"What is so funny about that?"
"It just occurred to me that she was not quite as misinformed about you and your family matters as she appeared the other day. She knew that your father was a naval officer."
"Did she? But I suppose she is a bit too young to have made his acquaintance. I am nearly too young to have made his acquaintance. I only remember seeing him once - during his last leave. I was four years old then."
"I am very sorry, Captain Croft."
"What for? For referring to my father? That was too long ago to hurt me still, Miss Wentworth. But back to Mrs Hunt - how come she told you about my father?"
"I will not accept this answer, Miss Wentworth. Come on, tell me the ugly truth."
"If you insist, sir. I asked her if she knew you when Frederick told me he had a new captain. I was curious to find out what sort of person he was sailing with."
He grinned. "Now that you know what person your brother is sailing with, Miss Wentworth, do you think you will have to fear for his life and virtue?"
"I do not think I will have to fear for anyone who sails with you, sir."
"I am glad to hear it, Miss Wentworth."
"There is one thing that puzzles me still - not about my brother, but about Mrs Hunt. How did she come to the conclusion that you were married?"
"Do you think I am going to reveal all my dark secrets now, Miss Wentworth? Believe me, there are none. Mrs Hunt is a good soul, but gossip is as essential to her as her daily bread. She is extremely curious, that is all."
"Yes, but how...."
"How come she says I am married when I am not, you mean? Well, she simply wanted to know if I was married, but she did not want to ask me openly. Even though she is curious, she does not want to give people that impression. "Are you married, Captain Croft?" That is not her style, it is too obvious."
I laughed. "I get your point, Captain Croft. Making a statement and letting you either agree or disagree leads to the same effect as asking you."
"The point is, although Mrs Hunt thought she had avoided any suspicion on my part, I knew exactly what she was up to. She's a good soul, Mrs Hunt, and even in her little falsehoods there is something pleasing."
Meanwhile, we had arrived at the conservatory, and Sarah asked us all to go in. She had taken every effort to decorate the place and to make it cosy, and I had to congratulate her. Her efforts had been successful - even though I had not thought one could turn a conservatory into a nice place for a picnic with friends, I had to admit that one could.
Mrs Kennington looked angrier than ever, she was obviously resenting that Sarah got all the praise while she was only there as a guest, and no one except her own guests took much notice of her.
Then I saw that Colonel Kennington gave me a cheerful smile, and I felt awkward again. Would he still be the same after Sarah had talked to him? Life was getting more and more complicated.
The afternoon turned out to be nice after all. Mrs Kennington behaved herself, as far as I could see... - Except for one or two occasions, Sophy. - Well, you could not ask too much of her, could you? - No, I suppose not. - There! Now I don't know what I was going to say. Men! Always interfering!
Ah, after my husband has pointed out that forgetfulness is a sign of growing old (he ought to know, being older than me, and who always mislays his spectacles and wants me to look for them, anyway?), I will continue my story.
Mrs Kennington behaved herself, as far as I could see, at least at the beginning. She could not be unfriendly with me without raising suspicion, I suppose, and so she did her best to give people the impression that she liked me. It was amazing how she managed to fool so many people, but she could not fool me.
Mr Williams was seated next to me (or, to be more precise, had seated himself next to me), and was now giving me a very interesting account of how his mother had suffered a relapse two days ago and would now stay in Bath for three more weeks.
"You must be very upset by the news of your mother's ill health, sir," I said.
Hurry away to Bath, I thought.
"No, not really, Miss Wentworth, it is just the usual thing, nothing upsetting."
What a considerate son he was! I was sure Mrs Williams would be delighted to hear that her son was here, wasting his time with me when he ought to be in Bath with her.
Miss Barnaby, who was sitting to the left of Mr Williams, said, "Dear me, sir, I could not be easy if I knew my mother was suffering so. I would want to be with her."
"My mother does not need me in Bath, Miss Barnaby. She is taken care of very well, and she wrote to me that she did not want me to come."
Surprise! I wished I could be in Bath with Mrs Williams...or anywhere else, for that matter. Even the Sahara Desert sounded tempting, considering the fact that Mr Williams would be thousands of miles away. Why did he not, for once, get the hint and see that I was not at all interested in him?
I remembered what Edward had said to me that morning, and I really did not want to hurt Mr Williams, but on the other hand it seemed as if he wanted - needed - to be hurt before he would notice that his attentions were not sought after. How long would it take him to realise?
If he, at least, could make up his mind to propose to me, so I could refuse him and put an end to this affair. But no, there was no such hope.
The only thing that reconciled me to being in good old Norfolk still was the fact that Sarah lived here - and my family - and Captain Croft, at least for the time being...
I looked over to the other side of the table, where he was sitting with Sarah, the Colonel and Sir Alexander. He was, that moment, talking to Sir Alexander, and obviously they were discussing Sir Alexander's brother.
"I did not know Baldwin was your brother, Sir Alexander. Good Lord, I have been told very often that it is a small world, but I did not believe it was that small! Haven't seen him for ages, how is he?"
"He is doing very well. I suppose you have heard that he was made Captain last summer?"
"I heard of it, yes, and he blo..., I mean, he deserved it. He'll make his way all right, bright, courageous fellow that he is."
I suppressed a grin. Had the Captain really almost said that Captain Baldwin had "bl**dy well" deserved his promotion? I saw Mrs Kennington's shocked face and nearly burst out laughing. My malicious self that sometimes gets the better of me was revelling in the imagination of what might have happened if Captain Croft had not checked himself. Mrs Kennington having a hysterical fit, or even fainting?
A girl could hope, at least, could she not?
As Miss Barnaby had asked me something, I had not quite listened to the conversation for a while, but then I heard Sir Alexander say, "He got married last October, before he set sail again."
"That was very sensible of him."
"Getting married or setting sail afterwards," Colonel Kennington asked with a mischievous grin.
Why was I not surprised that the Colonel would joke about such a thing as marriage?
"Both. Well, setting sail in October is, perhaps, not so very sensible, but I suppose he did not have a choice there...did he take his wife along with him?"
"No, she does not want to live on board a ship," was Sir Alexander's answer. "They have a beautiful house in Hampshire, and that is where she has settled."
"Can't blame her, a ship is not a good place for a lady to live." Captain Croft took a sip of his wine.
The conversation on the other side of the table started to take an interesting turn, far more interesting than the discussion next to me. Mr Williams and Miss Barnaby were just engaged in a lively debate of Bath. I saw I was not needed - and decided to listen more closely to Captain Croft.
"I agree with you, Captain Croft," Mrs Kennington said. " I think everyone should stay where they are meant to be."
"Men at sea, and women on shore, you mean? It is not always as easy as that, Mrs Kennington. A woman who marries a sailor has to make a difficult choice - either following him around, or even going with him. Or spending most of her life alone. Not a very attractive choice, if one comes to think of it.
Many of my friends take their wives to sea with them, and I have never heard any of those ladies complain. Mrs Rigby, for example - you know her, too, Wentworth, do you not? Mrs Rigby has been on many journeys with her husband."
"If you were married, Captain Croft, would you want your wife to come with you," Colonel Kennington asked.
"Hard to say, because, as you pointed out, I am not married. I suppose I would leave the decision to her. Of course I would want her to come along, but I would not ask her to. She'd be welcome if she wanted, and I'd do everything to make life on board as comfortable for her as possible, but...I would not be angry, or disappointed, if she wanted to stay behind."
"I could not endure such a life," Mrs Kennington said, decidedly.
"Oh yes, I am sure you could not, Madam."
Mrs Kennington gave Captain Croft a sharp look, but could not discern any signs of insolence in his manner.
"Why are you not married, Captain Croft," she asked.
How could she ask him such a question? It was none of her business! Mrs Kennington, who prided herself so much on her good breeding! Even Mrs Hunt would have hesitated to ask him so openly. It was not her style, as Captain Croft had mentioned to me before. Although I was angry with Mrs Kennington for asking such an impertinent question, I was curious what sort of answer the Captain would give her.
Captain Croft laughed. "Perhaps I am too truthful, Mrs Kennington."
"You do not suppose that women want to be deceived, sir!"
"No," he said, looking at her pointedly, "I only think that there are different ways of telling the truth. Mine hits right between the eyes, and that is not to everybody's liking."
I looked at Mrs Kennington's flushed face. Mrs Kennington had never had to deal with a situation like this one before, and she did not know how to deal with it now.
She gave a short, embarrassed laugh and said, "This is a fault, indeed, sir!"
He laughed, too, and said, pleasantly, "A fault I can live with, Mrs Kennington."
Everyone laughed, and Mrs Kennington changed the topic.
After another walk in the park, we decided that it was time to leave. Clouds were gathering in the sky, the wind was rushing in from the sea, and it looked as if it would soon start raining. We wanted to be at home before this happened, and so Edward suggested that we should get ready to leave soon.
"Sophia, there is something I want to ask you," he said, while we were walking towards Kennington House.
"Would you be very angry if I rode with Frederick? I need to talk to him about this morning, I am afraid he suspects something, and I would rather tell him before we get home, and before he mentions anything when our mother is near, you know her...only, I need to be alone with him."
"Angry? Of course I would not be angry, Edward. Why should I?"
"Ah, well...this will mean that Captain Croft will drive you home."
I laughed. "You think I will be angry because of this? Do not worry, go ahead and tell Frederick - that is, if Captain Croft agrees to that scheme, too."
"Do not ask me why, but I think Captain Croft will agree," Edward said, nearly smiling.
What was that? Did Edward know something that had escaped my notice? I did not want to ask him, I was afraid I would only make a fool of myself if I did. Edward went over to the Captain to ask him, and Captain Croft readily complied.
"I feel honoured that you trust me so far as to take your sister home safely," he said.
Frederick looked a bit sceptical, but he did not say a thing.
Perhaps he was just remembering the drive we had had the other day in Antigua, and was wondering where I would upset the carriage this time.
The Captain assisted me in getting into the carriage, and took his seat next to me.
He looked up to the clouds and said, "We'd better hurry up, Miss Wentworth, that thundercloud over there looks rather threatening. I wouldn't be surprised if it started raining before we are back at your father's house."
"Are you sure, Captain?" I asked.
"Of course I'm sure, Miss Wentworth. So, what do you think, shall I go a bit faster than usual?"
Now, I was a pretty fast driver myself, and so I did not object.
"I am not easily frightened, Captain Croft."
Even though I had expected something like that, I was surprised what Captain Croft meant with "a bit faster than usual". In my opinion, it was top speed.
"Now, that was a delightful afternoon, was it not?" he asked, while the carriage was tearing along the road.
I laughed. "I envy you your way of dealing with Mrs Kennington. How can you tell her what you think of her so easily and without being rude?"
"Practice, I suppose." He grinned. "Besides, I do not care much about what Mrs Kennington might or might not think of me. I'll be gone next week, right? So why worry about people I may never see again?"
"You are right, of course," I answered, absentmindedly. I dreaded next week.
Meanwhile, a rumbling noise could be heard in the distance. Thunder, definitely.
"You see, Miss Wentworth, I was right. If we hurry up, we might just make it in time before it starts to pour down," Captain Croft said and tried to gain some speed.
I began to feel slightly worried, after all I knew this road as well as the contents of my own purse, and I knew we would soon reach a sharp turn in the road, followed by a rather narrow bridge. If one did not take care, one might end up headfirst in the river.
"Captain Croft..."I started cautiously. "I think it would be better if you slowed down a bit..."
"Are you scared, Miss Wentworth," he answered, with a smile, and at the same time slowing the carriage down.
Scared? Who, me? Scared? What did he think of me? "Not at all, Captain Croft, it is only..."
Now I noticed that the bridge was actually nearer than I had thought, and we were still going much too fast. There was no time to argue. Before I knew what I was doing, I held the reins in my hands and, somehow, mastered the tricky situation. I stopped the carriage on the other side of the river and gave a sigh of relief. Then I noticed what I had done - and looked at Captain Croft, shyly.
"Whew, that was a close shave, Miss Wentworth," he said, looking at me in astonishment.
"I am sorry, sir," I said, giving the reins back to him.
He began to laugh. "Miss Wentworth, after my driving like a maniac and nearly killing you all you do is say that you are sorry? I have to admit I expected anything but that, harsh words, perhaps a slap in the face, or, even worse, an outburst of tears. You know what? You're a treasure, Miss Wentworth. Any other lady would probably hit me on my head with her parasol."
His whole manner made me laugh, too, and I felt at ease again. I was glad that he did not take my interference as an affront.
After a few moments, he said, "What do you think, Miss Wentworth, shall we go on? I promise I will behave now, and shall keep my eyes on the road."
I laughed. "Very well, Captain Croft, go on, but I will stay on my guard if you do not mind."
"I can't say I don't deserve it. I am sorry, Miss Wentworth."
"Never mind. It was rather enjoyable, except for the prospect of bathing in the river, that is."
The rain started falling, and we heard another thunder. "We'll get wet anyhow," I went on.
"Will you do me a favour, Captain Croft?"
"Anything you want, Miss Wentworth."
"Do not mention anything about this drive to my mother, she is a bit nervous, you know, and would be very upset."
"I promise that, after nearly upsetting the carriage, I will refrain from upsetting your mother, Miss Wentworth. No one will ever know."
When we arrived at home, my mother was already waiting anxiously. Meanwhile it was raining hard, the sky was as dark as night, and thunder and lightning were doing their best to frighten every living thing on earth.
"Captain Croft, I cannot allow you to ride back to Yarmouth in such foul weather," my mother said. "Please, stay with us for the night."
"Oh, I do not want to be a nuisance, Mrs Wentworth. As soon as it clears up, I'll leave."
"I could not be at ease knowing you are on the road in such weather as this, sir. Please, you must stay." Mama could be very stubborn sometimes, but this time I was glad about it.
I gave Captain Croft a pleading look. My mother would really be worried all evening if he did not stay, and then there was me...
He hesitated for a moment, but then he gave in, still protesting that he would not want to inconvenience us in any way.
However, I think he could tell by my grateful look that I did not consider him a nuisance at all.
When Frederick and Edward arrived at home, drenched because of the rain, Frederick looked at me curiously, but he did not ask any questions. He knew that, if he started questioning me, so would my mother, and I was not the one to lie to her. I suppose he knew enough about Captain Croft's way of driving to know what sort of drive we had, because he said, "My, you were going pretty fast, were you not?"
Captain Croft answered, coolly,"We didn't want to get wet. Just look at yourself, lad, you look like a drowned dog. Would you want your sister to look like that, too?"
That matter was not discussed any further, and I was glad about it. Seeing Captain Croft and my brother together was interesting, but somehow I could not at all imagine what they would be like when they were both on duty. They seemed to be good friends, and still Captain Croft was Frederick's commanding officer. Certainly the Captain would not be as easygoing as far as duty was concerned. How was it possible that he could be like that when speaking to his men privately and still keep people's respect? To me, this seemed rather difficult, but then perhaps I did not know enough about such things to be a good judge.
Both Frederick and Mr Hunt had told me that Captain Croft was not the sort of man to be crossed - one could hardly believe, when one saw him sitting there, talking pleasantly with my father, that he could really be capable of harsh words. I had to admit that he fascinated me - and this fascination started to worry me. I remembered Sarah's warning very well, and I was aware that I took more interest in Captain Croft than was good for me. After all, what would become of me once he was gone? Still, I could not help it, and I was regarding the following week with a feeling of alarm.
A lot of things would change then. Frederick and Captain Croft would be at sea again, and Colonel Kennington would return to his regiment. Sir Alexander would go back to his home in Hampshire to prepare for the wedding, and Sarah would soon leave, too. She would go to London with Lady Reynolds to buy her "trousseau".
Poor me would be left all alone. I nearly started feeling sorry for myself, especially when I considered that Mr Williams and Mrs Kennington would be the only company I could expect. True, Edward would be still there, but as soon as the term started, he would be gone, too. Perhaps my mother would allow me to visit Mrs Hunt sometimes? We could sit together and talk about the Navy in general, and perhaps there might be a way to introduce Captain Croft as a conversation topic...
"Miss Wentworth, this will not do. You are looking even gloomier than the weather outside. What is the matter?"
I raised my eyes and saw that Captain Croft was looking at me curiously.
"There is nothing much, Captain Croft, I was just thinking of something." I could not tell him what I was thinking of, could I?
He smiled. "It must have been a serious topic you have been contemplating, you were looking as if you were going to cry in a minute. I shall therefore endeavour to cheer you up, Miss Wentworth, because I cannot endure seeing a lady like that if I can help it."
"Captain Croft, did anyone ever tell you that you are a flirt?"
I smiled. I did not know how, but somehow he always managed to make me smile, no matter what my mood had been before.
"No, you are the first lady who tells me so. But, if it makes you laugh, I shall be quite happy to be a flirt. Anything to make you more cheerful."
I grinned. Perhaps I should use this opportunity to find out what he had meant the other evening?
"There is one thing you could do, sir. What did you mean when you told my brother that he was right about me?"
He laughed. "I knew that would be nagging you, Miss Wentworth."
"If you knew it, sir, why torment me like that?"
"Torment you? Who is tormenting you, Miss Wentworth? Not I, certainly not I," he said, looking like innocence itself, but with mischievously sparkling eyes.
"Tell me, then. What was it?"
"You are determined to know, I see."
"And I suppose there is no way out for me now?"
"None at all, sir."
"What if I do not tell you?"
"Then my revenge will be terrible, sir."
"Oh, really...well, I'd better not challenge you then. I'll tell you, but promise me not to be shocked."
"It was a bad thing, then?"
"No, heaven forbid, it wasn't. Your brother only mentioned to me once that you were the prettiest girl in Norfolk, that is all. I did not believe him then, but once I saw you, I could only confirm it."
I blushed, and he said, "See? I knew why I did not tell you. Now you are shocked."
"I have to admit I do not quite believe you, and yet I thank you for the compliment, sir."
"You're welcome, Miss Wentworth. Now, what do you think of a game of cards? Your brothers desperately need to be taught a lesson, and I thought you would like to help me teaching them."
"Are you sure you will win?"
"With you as my partner? I have no doubt we will. We are a good team, are we not?"
He winked at me, and I had to laugh. Certainly he was referring to this afternoon's episode. Too good no one seemed to have overheard our conversation, or my family might have got a wrong impression.
The card game was fun. Captain Croft was playing with spirit, telling my brothers that they had no chance at all to win the game, boasting about his cards, no matter if they were good or bad, and blaming himself when we lost, even if everyone knew that it had been my fault. The evening passed quickly, much more quickly than I wanted it to go by. I knew that probably this was one of the last occasions at which I could meet Captain Croft, and I had no desire to imagine what would be after that.
I lay awake for a very long time that night, thinking and wondering, and feeling happy and utterly depressed at the same time.
I felt happy whenever I thought of some of the things Captain Croft had said that day.
He thought I was the prettiest girl in Norfolk...well, at least he had said so, which I thought was very nice, even if he had just said it to flatter me.
He had been very sincere in the afternoon, though, when he had said, "You are a treasure, Miss Wentworth". He had seemed to be sincere.
It was the loveliest compliment I had ever heard, and whenever I thought about him saying it, I felt...well, how can one describe that feeling? Anyone who has ever been in love knows what it is like. It seemed as if I was not able to think of anything else but Captain Croft. Henry. His name was Henry. Mrs Henry Croft. Sophia Croft. It did not sound that bad, did it?
I sat up in my bed. "Stop fooling around, Sophy Wentworth. He'll never ask you to marry him, and he'll be gone next week. Forget about him, for Heaven's sake."
Having scolded myself thus severely, I lay down again. Perhaps he would never ask me to marry him, but if he should happen to ask - and I hoped he would - I would definitely say yes. Perhaps it was foolish to think such a thing, but I was only human, and if a girl was not allowed to dream, now and then, what was she allowed to do? Henry...
When I got up the next day, I hoped to meet Captain Croft at the breakfast table, but I was disappointed to hear that he had already left at daybreak, having some important task to perform in Yarmouth. This was a sign. How could he have left without saying goodbye? He did not care for me.
The only reason was that you were not up yet, and that I had hardly been able to resist you, had I seen you in your night-dress. - Admiral! What will people think of us? - Nothing bad, I am sure, Sophy.
I decided to go out into the garden to enjoy a bit of sunshine and fresh air before it got too hot. I had not been out half an hour, when Jenny, our maidservant, came in search for me, telling me that Miss Kennington and her brother were here.
"And the other gentleman, too, you know, Miss Kennington's betrothed."
I wondered what they might want, and went inside the house. Sarah, the Colonel and Sir Alexander were waiting in the hallway, dressed for a walk.
"Sophy, there you are!" Sarah exclaimed, coming towards me. "We just dropped in to ask you if you wanted to come along with us. We wanted to go for a walk, and I thought you might have liked to join us."
Then she whispered in my ear, "Please, do."
I was wondering what this all meant, and, therefore, told Sarah to wait for a moment while I fetched my shawl and bonnet.
We went out, and Sarah asked, "Did you get home well yesterday? I was worried because I thought you might have got into the rain."
I laughed. "Oh no, we just made it in time, so there was no harm done. But Frederick and Edward got soaked, Captain Croft said they looked like drowned dogs."
Sarah grinned. "Captain Croft has all my sympathy, after the things he said to Her Highness yesterday. If I had not been obliged to play the hostess, I would have died laughing, I can tell you."
The mention of Mrs Kennington made me feel uneasy. I knew that Sarah had wanted to talk to the Colonel about that topic, and I was afraid she had already done so. However, he did not refer to it, he only looked at me with a smile. I cannot say this made me feel more comfortable.
For a while, all four of us were walking together, talking animatedly, but then the path became narrower, and we were forced to split up. I was walking ahead with the Colonel, and Sarah was walking behind us with Sir Alexander. I think she was quite happy to have some opportunity to be alone with him - well, not quite alone, but nearly alone - and so I did not object.
There was an awkward silence for a few minutes. Neither Colonel Kennington nor I seemed inclined to speak, and yet both of us knew that something had to be said concerning his sister-in-law.
Desperately trying to sound cheerful, I said, "Did you enjoy the picnic yesterday, Colonel?"
I knew it was not much of a question, but at least it made him talk.
"Oh yes, the picnic was all right." He was silent for a few moments, and then he said, "Listen, Miss Wentworth, there is something I want to let you know. Yesterday evening my sister gave me an account of what you had told her, concerning certain rumours."
So he knew. I was not surprised, but as I had already foreseen it, I felt terribly embarrassed. I do not think one can possibly blush more than I blushed that day. I must have looked like a tomato.
The Colonel realised that and went on calmly, "Please do not make yourself uneasy, Miss Wentworth. You are not to blame for anything my sister-in-law has said or done. I have to say I was pretty annoyed when I heard of it, and I went to talk to her at once. After that conversation, I do not think she will bother you any more. I made it very clear to her that I would not tolerate such a thing."
"I am so sorry, Colonel. I did not want to have you or your sister at odds with any member of your family just because of me."
The Colonel shook his head.
"Miss Wentworth, whatever may be wrong with our family is not your fault. It does you credit that you worry about us; it would not be you if you did not, I am afraid, but please do not. I do not know why my sister-in-law has been spreading that gossip, she tried to justify it by saying that she had had the impression...still, I wanted to tell you that the matter is resolved now. She will not dare speaking ill of you any more."
"Mrs Kennington said to you that her assumption had been the result of her watching my behaviour? Colonel Kennington, do you believe her?"
I looked at him worriedly. This could not be true! How could Mrs Kennington...well, I knew how she could do that, somehow she had to get out of that scrape, and the best thing to do was to say that she had said what she had believed to be true. But did the Colonel believe it? I hoped not.
He gave me a searching look and did not answer at once. It seemed as if he was trying to think of an appropriate reply.
After a short time that seemed like an eternity to me, he said, "No, I do not. It would need more than just Mrs Kennington's slander to make me think ill of you. Besides, I can usually trust my own judgement as far as these things are concerned."
I gave a sigh of relief. "I am so glad this matter is sorted out, Colonel Kennington. It really bothered me."
"I can imagine, Miss Wentworth. If my sister-in-law should not stop, please let me know. Such behaviour as hers will not do."
He stopped and looked back to Sarah and Sir Alexander.
"Will you two turtle-doves come and join us again," he called.
I had to laugh. He was the old Colonel Kennington, like I knew him, and I was glad about it. I was relieved that there was nothing to worry about any more. Except for Captain Croft.
Why had he not said goodbye to me that morning?
Eight days had passed between my meeting Captain Croft for the first time and the day he went off to Yarmouth without taking leave of me. One more week, and he would be gone altogether. The mere thought of it made my heart bleed. Even though I hated to admit it, I had to admit that I was utterly in love with him.
This confession, although I only made it to myself, of course, led to one consequence. Before I had met Captain Croft, I might have given in to my mother's pleading and might have been persuaded to accept Mr Williams, had he asked me to marry him. I might have accepted him, thinking that it was my duty to my family and myself.
I was lucky he did not ask you, then. - Oh yes, you were, Admiral, and so was I.
But now, such a thing was not to be thought of. I had experienced what real love was like, and that meant that I did not want to put up with a lack of it for the rest of my life. Even if Mr Williams was in love with me - which I doubted, or he would have considered my feelings more than he did - I did not want to be married with a man whose presence extracted no feelings from me but boredom and, in the best of cases, pity. Not now that I knew it could be otherwise.
Not after having met a man who could make me happy just by looking at me with those dark eyes of his, for whose good opinion I would have done anything, whose voice sent shivers down my spine, and whose touch...
Well, even though I was a pretty innocent young thing then, I had some notion of what these feelings indicated. I will not dwell on it any further, I will just say as much: I knew it would be wrong, even more, it would be an unpardonable sin to marry one man while yearning for another. Therefore I was determined to marry either the man I loved - Captain Croft - or not to marry at all. I knew very well that this decision would perhaps lead to trouble, and that I had to prepare for it.
The next day, Frederick received a short message from Captain Croft that sent me into raptures. The Captain had inspected the "Phoenix", and after having had a word with the carpenter, had delayed their departure. They would not set sail before everything was in the best order, which meant, in the Captain's own words "in ten days, according to Smith's estimation, or two weeks, according to mine. I know Smith better than he knows himself. Tell your family that, even though I want you on board at exactly the day and time I told you at first (and not a minute later, mind you), they can still depend on a visit now and then in the week following your leave."
Frederick laughed. "You will not be rid of me yet, or so it seems. I am sure I shall be able to come and see you now and then, the Captain would not mention it if I could not."
"One more week!" I exclaimed. "This is more than I had hoped for." I noticed Frederick's puzzled look and added, "I mean, who knows when we shall meet again after that?"
"Who knows, indeed? Sophia, I just had an idea. I thought...I thought that it would be nice if you came to visit me on the "Phoenix". In case I cannot come to visit you again, I mean. What do you think? Would you like to see her?"
I gasped. I had never thought of that possibility, but now that Frederick mentioned it....
Would I like to see her? Of course I would! That was...
"I would like to, very much, Frederick, that is...if there is no objection to it."
"Who do you think would object? Captain Croft or any other of the officers? Not likely. They all take their families on board with them if they can, especially if the ship's still in harbour. It would only be for an afternoon or so, anyway. I'll ask Captain Croft and see what he says."
Visiting Frederick on board his ship - the idea had something appealing. I would be able to answer some of my questions regarding Frederick and his friendship with his Captain during that visit. The most appealing part of it was, of course, meeting Captain Croft, even if he most likely would be too busy to take much notice of me.
Two more weeks it was, then...two more weeks for Captain Croft and Frederick to be here. Even if I would not see much of them in the week following the next, they would still be near.
That particular morning had another surprise in store for me. Sarah came to call on me all by herself, a thing that had not occurred since her engagement with Sir Alexander.
We went out into the garden, and after Sarah had admired my mother's beautiful roses, she said, "Sophy, I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am for not having had so much time for you lately. I really am the worst friend one can imagine."
I shook my head. "This is not true, Sarah, and you know it."
"But I let you down with all your problems. I ought to have done something to prevent that dreadful rumour - I feel terrible about the whole thing."
"There is no need for you to feel so, Sarah. I never doubted your friendship for me. I would be a simpleton if I did."
Sarah smiled. "I am glad you say that. But now for something else. You know that my brother and Sir Alexander will soon leave us, do you not?"
"I know. They will leave next Monday or Tuesday, will they not?"
"Yes, they will. I do not know what I will do without them, I can tell you. I will miss Thomas dreadfully - he is the only one who can keep Her Highness under control. And about Alexander..." She sighed. "I know we will be married soon, and then I will have enough time to spend in his company, but the thought of his leaving me now breaks my heart."
I put my arm around her shoulder.
"I can imagine, Sarah." If only she knew how well I could imagine.
She gave me a sad smile. "At least you will still be here, that is a comfort."
I laughed. "Not too much of a comfort, I am afraid. How am I to take Sir Alexander's place?"
Sarah laughed, too, and said, "Well, to keep my mind from worrying too much, I have planned an evening party for tomorrow evening. Nothing fancy, only a good dinner, some dancing, that sort of thing."
I nodded. When Sarah said that she had planned "nothing fancy", that meant she had planned a ball for at least fifteen couples.
"I thought it would also be a nice thing for your brother and Captain Croft, as they will leave us soon, as well. So, are you and your family going to come?"
"Of course we will, Sarah! As far as I know, my parents have no other engagement for tomorrow evening, and my father is so fond of Sir James he will certainly want to come."
"Good! It will be such fun, you will see." She gave me a sly look. "Do you think Captain Croft will come, too?"
"How am I supposed to know, Sarah?"
Sarah grinned. "Come on, Sophy, do not pretend you do not know what I mean."
"I do not know, Sarah, there is nothing to pretend."
Sarah just looked at me with a knowing smile.
"Stop it, Sarah!"
"Stop what, Sophy?"
"Stop looking at me like that!"
"Or what? Will you tell me everything?"
"There is nothing I could tell you, Sarah, except..."
"Except that Captain Croft is the most pleasant gentleman I have ever met, that is all."
"That is all, of course. Poor Mr Williams! All his hopes shattered to pieces, and the danger is coming from a completely different quarter than he expected it to come from! It is not the Army he has to worry about..."
I laughed. "Stop it, Sarah, please! There is no reason for you to presume..."
"I presume nothing, Sophy. I know you are in love with Captain Croft, and I know it because I am in love myself - not with the Captain, of course, but I am in love, and therefore I am entitled to spot symptoms of love in others."
"Oh, good. Would you please spot any symptoms in Captain Croft, while you are at it? I can see none. Well, not many."
"I will do my best tomorrow evening, Sophy. Provided he will come."
Provided he will come...
That sentence worried me. What if he did not come? He had some acquaintance in Yarmouth, as far as I knew, what if he was already engaged for tomorrow evening?
I was terribly nervous, and spent the rest of the morning with trying to make the best of my good gown. If he was there, he should see me at my best. My best of everything, looks, temper...
Mama disturbed my reverie by telling me that there was someone here to see me.
"Who is it, Mama?"
"Mr Williams, Sophia, and I think he has something important to say."
Good Lord! The moment had come, so it seemed, and although I already knew my answer, I was anxious. How could I tell him about my opinion of him without hurting him too much?
Before Mama led me into the parlour, she said, "Remember what I told you, child."
I took a deep breath, but did not answer. I would not quarrel with her now, I had a more important task before me, and I had to save up all my strength for that.
Mr Williams was already waiting impatiently, one could tell by his look when I entered the parlour. Mama came in with me, only to tell Mr Williams after a few minutes that she had forgotten about something or other, and that she would be back in a minute. Who was she trying to fool, I wondered. Perhaps I was lucky, and Mr Williams had by now forgotten what he had come for? It would be just like him. But, on the other hand, if he did ask me, I could settle this matter once for all.
"Miss Wentworth, may I tell you how pretty you look today? This dress becomes you exceedingly."
I tried to figure out how often Mr Williams had already seen me in that dress. I gave him my standard answer.
"Thank you sir, you are very kind."
What sort of marriage would that be?
He got up and walked up to me. "Miss Wentworth, in the past months I have come to see you very often, have I not?"
"You came to see my father, did you not, sir?"
Perhaps he would get the hint before he actually asked me. It would help him keep his face, and the affair would be done with.
"Miss Wentworth, you cannot have had a wrong impression of the purpose of my frequent visits here. I came to see you, not your father."
Ah well, I had to take the truth and knock him on his head with it, then.
"Did you, sir?" I asked, coolly. Any other man would have noticed that I did not want to hear the rest of his proposal, and would have stopped at this point. But Mr Williams went on.
"Miss Wentworth, will you marry me? You are the only woman I can imagine by my side as Mrs Williams."
There it was. He had asked the question, and now I had to answer it.
"I will not marry you, Mr Williams. I am sorry to tell you this, but I do not think I could be a good wife to you. We could never be happy with each other, and you deserve better than that."
He looked at me as if I had slapped his face. True, my answer had been short and cruel, but had it been really more merciful to keep him in suspense for some time and then say "No" altogether? A refusal was always painful, no matter how one put it.
"But why, Miss Wentworth? I think you have been most encouraging lately."
Had I? Was this man blind?
"Mr Williams, I will try to give you an explanation. I do have a high opinion of you as a friend, and I am well aware of your good qualities. No doubt you would make a good husband to any woman who is able to appreciate them properly. But I cannot think of you as my husband, no matter what you say, sir. I am sorry.
As to my behaviour, I do not think my conduct with you has exceeded the level of mere politeness and friendliness, which is the rule of my behaviour towards everyone. If you have drawn wrong conclusions from it, the fault is yours, not mine. It was not my intention to make you believe I felt more for you than I actually do."
"In that case, Miss Wentworth," he said coldly, "I have to apologise. It seems I have been completely mistaken as far as your opinion of me was concerned."
"It seems so, sir."
I really felt sorry for him, but what could I do? I could not possibly marry him. If it helped him to think I was a cruel, scheming woman, so much the better for him. It would enable him to be angry with me, and anger was a good thing to overcome disappointment.
He walked about in the room for a few minutes, as if he wanted to say something, but he gave up that plan rather abruptly.
Before I knew what was happening, he had wished me a good day and was gone.
I was left to myself for a few minutes, and I was glad about it. I had to recover from what I had just said and done before, and I had to get used to the thought that, finally, I had got rid of Mr Williams.
There was no turning back.
Continued in Part 4© 2001 Copyright held by author