I will never forget that journey, and the pain and worry I felt all the time. What if it was too late? What if Mama was already dead when I arrived? There were so many things I wanted to tell her before... and it was so soon! She was too young! Why should a woman, forty-seven years of age, who had never done any harm to anyone, have to die? Good Lord, I am older now than she was then, and I do not feel old at all - it was much too soon!
- Even if she had been ninety-seven, Sophy, you would still have thought it was too soon. Nothing can replace a mother, and it is too soon whenever she has to go. I only wish I had been with you then.
It had taken me much time to think of a way to inform Frederick. If our mother died, the blow would be hard enough for him, even if he had been prepared for the news. However, it was difficult, if not impossible, to convey the message to him, unless someone who knew the right people, who had the right connections, took interest and assisted me...Mrs MacLean! If there was one person in the world who could do this, it was she.
So I had written a letter to Mrs MacLean, describing my present situation to her and asking for her help, and had enclosed another letter for Frederick that contained the terrible news and prepared him for worse to follow.
I knew that, even with Mrs MacLean's connections, she might not be able to be of assistance, but I hoped and prayed that my letter would reach Frederick before his return in spring.
But I am digressing again. I did all that before I left London, of course. I think I stopped my narrative with the Colonel helping me into the carriage...
I did not feel very comfortable about him at first, but that soon stopped. I have to say that Colonel Kennington was very helpful and considerate during our journey.
I bet he was, Sophy! - Be assured, my dear, he behaved like a perfect gentleman all the time.
The first two or three hours, he was going on horseback, but then it started to rain - the sort of rain one gets so often in winter, cold and stinging like needles. I did not want him to catch his death of cold, and so I invited him into the carriage.
He did his best to cheer me up, or at least to make me feel less miserable. Colonel Kennington was a man who had been to many different places and who had seen a lot, and he was good at telling amusing stories. At one point, however, he broke off, and looked at me intently.
"You must feel terribly miserable at the moment, Mrs Croft. I know you must," he said.
"Do you," I answered, cautiously.
"Of course I do, Mrs Croft. It is always hard to lose someone. Practice does not make it easier, it hurts every time."
Then he smiled at me cheerfully. "But instead of cheering you up, I make you feel even worse. I am sure Mrs Wentworth will be all right, Mrs Croft."
"I hope so, Colonel," I answered, and for a while we both remained silent.
I had noticed how often he had used my name, "Mrs Croft", as if to remind himself of the fact that I was married. I could not help but feel sorry for him.
We spent the night at Ipswich, and arrived at my father's house the following evening.
The Colonel handed me out of the carriage and took leave with the words, "I sincerely hope that Mrs Wentworth's health has improved, Mrs Croft. I have to leave you here, but if there is any thing I can do for you, anything you need, Madam, do not hesitate to let me know."
I thanked him for his help and support and told him how good it was to have friends like him and his family. He gave me a sad smile.
"I cannot answer for my family, Mrs Croft, but do not think better of me than I deserve."
He rang the doorbell of the parsonage, and left me there when the maid opened.
My father and Edward were in the parlour, talking to each other in a low and earnest voice. Papa had aged twenty years since I had last seen him in June. They were both so solemn; I could not help thinking...
"Am I too late," I asked anxiously, with a trembling voice. Edward shook his head, and Papa got up to give me a hug.
"It is good to have you here, Sophy," he said.
"How is Mama," I asked, preparing for bad news.
"Better," Papa replied with a faint smile. "She woke up yesterday, and I think she is recovering."
I gave a sigh of relief. "Thank God!"
"However, we must not have too high hopes, Sophy. Mr Shaw has told me your mother has been ill for the last two years, without any of us knowing it. He says it is just a matter of time, that she is more likely to die in the next few days than not."
This could not be true. My mother having been ill for two years? Why had we not noticed, if it was so?
Now that my father had said it, I started remembering signs of sickness in her countenance, she had lost weight, and her fits of bad temper had become more frequent in the past few months, but why had I not seen it then?
My mother was fatally ill, and I had not noticed. How could this have happened? What sort of daughter was I? I ought to have seen it, had I not? Why had Mama not told us? Why had she kept it to herself? Well, I was sure that something could be done about it. Mr Shaw was wrong, this could just not be! I would stay here, and nurse her, and I was sure...if only Mr Avery could see her. I trusted him much more than Mr Shaw.
"He must be wrong, Papa." I said with a determined voice. "Mama will recover, there can be no doubt! She has always been strong, she has never been in poor health, she did not know what sickness was!"
"This is what I thought, too, Sophy," my father answered with a sigh.
"But I have to reconcile myself to the fact that I was wrong, and that I did not realise how ill my own wife was, all the time. Makes me think, it really does. Was I really such an unfeeling husband that my wife did not trust me enough to tell me the truth?"
He sounded bitter, and I noted that this troubled him a great deal. I could not blame him for it; after all, I had just had the same thought about myself.
"You must not say such a thing, Papa. I am sure Mama had reasons of her own," I said. "Perhaps she did not want us to worry about her. You know her."
"I know her, indeed. But why? I cannot go and demand an explanation now, can I? Yet there is so much that I need to know. She should have given me - us - the chance to prepare ourselves."
"You said she is getting better, Papa. I am sure there is still plenty of time to prepare yourself, and to ask Mama about her motives for keeping silent. Right now is not a good moment, I admit that, but I am sure she will improve every day. I can nurse her, Papa, and I will take good care of her."
Papa gave me another hug. "I knew everything would get better once you were here," he said.
Then he went off to his study, telling us that he had still some work to do. Edward and I were left to ourselves.
"So, how are you doing, Sophy," he asked me.
I told him about my visit with Sarah, and about my journey here, and Edward listened intently.
"How are Frederick and your husband," he asked then.
"They are both well, as far as I know." I told Edward what I had done to let Frederick know about Mama's state.
"Do you think he will be back before Mama..." None of us seemed to be able to mention what was going to happen.
"That depends, Edward. But if she is really in such a bad state, I am afraid not. What happened?"
Edward gave me a description of the events on the previous Sunday.
"I did have the impression that she was in pain quite often lately, Sophy, but whenever I asked her she told me that there was nothing wrong. However, last Sunday when we were in church, she suddenly gave a moan and fainted - just like that. No one knew what had happened. We took her back home, and Father called for Mr Shaw, and all Mr Shaw said when he arrived was, "Well, that was to be expected sooner or later, was it not?" "
"I can tell you, Sophy, we were shocked. Our father asked him what that meant, and Mr Shaw told him then that our mother had already consulted him two years ago, about some sort of women's complaint, apparently."
"That might explain her secrecy, though," I said thoughtfully.
"I beg your pardon?" Edward gave me an inquiring look.
"I mean, if it was "some sort of women's complaint", as you put it, I can quite understand that she did not tell us. I think this is the reason why she did not tell Papa, either. It is not a thing a woman discusses with...anyone."
"Not even with her husband, you mean?"
"Quite right. Not even with her husband, if she can help it, and definitely not with her children."
"But she could have told us that there was something wrong with her, at least. As it is...we were shattered, I can tell you. The last few days were...just awful, Sophy. Our father is taking this harshly, although he does not show it. It grieves him more than he can say."
"I can imagine," I answered. "Do you think I can go and see Mama?"
"You can try, Sophy, but I think she is asleep now. We should not disturb her, she needs her rest."
Edward had been right, Mama was asleep, and so I did not get to see her until the next morning.
When I visited her in her room after breakfast, I was horrified to see how poorly she was looking.
She was pale and haggard. Her hair, which had always been her one vanity, was without the former shine, and her air was so...resigned. Now that I saw her, I knew why Papa and Edward did not believe she would ever recover.
But she was still trying to keep up appearances.
"Sophia, my dear, come here and let me look at you," she said, nearly with her usual voice.
I went over to her bed and sat down next to her, taking her hand in mine. She looked so fragile...still the same woman, and yet not the same.
"You look very well, my dear. It seems your husband is taking good care of you," she continued, making an effort to smile.
"Did you ever doubt he would, Mama," I asked, stifling a sob.
She shook her head. "No, but it is good to see that I was not mistaken."
"You look...very well, too, Mama," I lied.
"No, I do not, Sophia. A dying woman will never look well."
"Mama, you must not say such a thing! I will stay here with you until you are better."
"You will not stay very long then," she answered, dryly. "But let us not quarrel now. Tell me, has your brother Frederick come as well?"
I told her that Frederick was at sea at the moment.
"Too bad, I would have loved to see him...well, it cannot be helped."
"You will see him when he comes back in spring, Mama."
"If you say so, Sophia." She leant back and closed her eyes. The visit had taken much of her strength, and I left her to give her some time to rest.
She was sure she would die soon, it seemed. But I was not going to reconcile myself to the fact so easily. I was certain that with good care, my mother's health could be restored, partially, at least.
In the days to follow, I took turns with my father, Edward and Mary, our maid. Someone always stayed with Mama, to keep her company when she was awake, and to watch over her when she was asleep.
Sometimes she was fully awake, was able to think and speak clearly. At these times, we were certain she would soon recover.
At other occasions, however, she was different. It was obvious that she was in pain, and it seemed that her body, to prevent her feeling too much of it, just sent her to sleep - unconsciousness, in her case.
It is a terrible thing to say, but I think I never felt closer to my mother than in those last days of her existence. We spent more time together than ever, and in her clear moments, my mother told me much about her life. I got to know her better than I had ever known before.
You know, I have often thought that, if she had chosen to be so open earlier, we would have been spared so much trouble and misunderstanding. We had more in common than I had ever thought. As it was, I spent the last two years of her life quarrelling and being angry with her. I still feel guilty about it.
The year 1799 was about to end. I think everyone starts to think back on New Year's Eve, reflecting what had happened that year. I was sitting with my mother after dinner, and together we reflected the past.
"So much has taken place this year," I said to her. "I never thought so much could really happen in one year, and then, it went by so fast."
Mama smiled. "The older you get, the faster time goes by," she answered. "Once you are my age, you will wonder where all those years have gone...it seems like yesterday when I married your father, but it was five-and-twenty years ago."
So true...it seems like yesterday. I am her age now, and I do wonder where all those years have gone, sometimes...
We were both silent for a while, and then she said, "I am sorry, Sophia."
I frowned. "What for, Mama? There is nothing you need to apologise for."
"Oh yes, there is. I should never have tried to persuade you to marry Mr Williams. I made life unnecessarily hard for you. The only thing I can say in my defence is that I wanted you to be happy. I thought that being married with a wealthy man would provide you with everything you needed. I mistook wealth for happiness, and I am glad that you did not listen to me."
I embraced her. "Mama, do not be uneasy because of that. I always knew you wanted the best for me, and I do not feel angry about it."
She smiled. "Of all my children, I always felt most concerned about you. Perhaps it is because you were my eldest...a mother is always more anxious about her first child than her younger ones. There are so many things one does not know at first...you will notice that, too, once you have children of your own."
"And then, you are my only daughter. A woman loves all her children more than herself, but daughters will always be something special. A father will always want a son, and a mother will always want a daughter. Someone like her, you know...I wanted to see you settled in life, well settled, provided with everything you needed. I am glad to see that your husband is able to give you all you need, I really am. I know you need to be loved, but I nearly forgot that a loving person like you needs someone to love as well...forgive me."
"Mama, I have already forgiven you long ago. Do not dwell on it any more."
She smiled and leaned back in her pillows.
"I never thought ... I would live to see the New Year," she said.
I gave her an encouraging smile. "Well, you are already feeling better, aren't you? Perhaps you will be able to get out of bed in a day or two."
"Perhaps." She sighed. "I wonder what will become of my roses."
"You will be able to take good care of them in spring, Mama."
"You are right," she said, and after a short pause, "You know what I would really fancy at the moment?"
"What do you want, Mama? I'll be glad to get it for you."
"An apple...it is quite some time since I had one, and I am so fond of them.... Could you get me one from the larder?...There must be some apples...I am sure..."
"I'll ask Mary to bring one."
"No, do not trouble her.... She will be busy enough ..."
I got up. "I will go myself then. I'll only be gone a minute. Do you think you can manage?"
She nodded. "I am tired, I'll just close my eyes for a moment, until you are back..."
I ran downstairs to the kitchen, fetched an apple from the larder and cut it up in neat little pieces to make it easier for Mama to eat it. I do not think it took me longer than five minutes. When I came back to Mama's room, I saw that she was asleep.
Putting the plate on her dressing table for a moment, I went to the bed to arrange her bedclothes. Then I noticed that something was wrong - my mother was not sleeping.
"Mama..." I started, suppressing a sob. Why had she sent me away? Why had I gone? I should have stayed with her.
I touched her hands, her wrists, trying to feel her pulse. There was none. She had been right. She had not lived long enough to see the New Year.
I will not dwell too much on the following days. It still hurts me to think of them, even now, five-and-twenty years later. Anyone who has lost a beloved person once knows what it is like, and those who have not, lucky as they are, can imagine what we all felt. We were seriously concerned about my father. Even though he had been prepared for my mother's death, the moment he heard the news a part of him died, as well. He was never the same after that, and I do believe that his grief played an important part in his illness that resulted in his death three years later...
Edward, too, was greatly afflicted, but tried to get over it by doing something. He was an invaluable help for me. We had a lot to do, to prepare for the funeral, and my father was not of much use. He shut himself up in his study, reading, I suppose, and drinking a great deal. No one was able to talk to him, at least none of us. He did not let us; he did not want to hear a thing. Edward and I were left to ourselves to organise the funeral, to receive visitors, to listen to the consolations, empty, meaningless words, most of them. I was so busy, there was no time for me to mourn.
Sarah arrived three days after Mama's death, and her presence was a real consolation. In my few spare moments I could spend with her alone, I could let myself go. I cried, leaning on her shoulder, and she was wise enough not to say anything.
It was Sarah's father, Sir James, who finally got my father to hear reason. He refused to be sent away, until my father allowed him to come into the study, and there he stayed for about two hours.
Perhaps it was the fact that Sir James shared the same experience with Papa that made Papa listen to him and take him seriously. Lady Kennington had died when her children had still been young, and Sir James had been exceedingly fond of her. It was, perhaps, easier for him to imagine what my father was going through at the moment, and it was also easier for my father to accept Sir James's advice than anyone else's. Be it as it may, Sir James succeeded, and my father left his study, after staying there by himself for two days, and tried to go on with his life, somehow.
The funeral took place on a clear, chilly winter day. All our friends had come to pay their last respects to Mama. The Bentons from Yarmouth and Mrs Hunt, the Kenningtons, Sarah and Sir Alexander....everyone was there.
After the funeral, our friends assembled at our house, and soon everyone seemed to be quite at their ease.
I sat down, enjoying one rare moment of peace, when Mrs Hunt joined me. I was glad to see her; after all, seeing Mrs Hunt meant some juicy bit of gossip or other.
After exchanging the usual words fitting the occasion ("But who would have thought it would happen so soon, Mrs Croft? I am so shocked, really!..."), we remained silent, but not for long. I knew Mrs Hunt desperately wanted to tell me something, her look betrayed that she was in possession of some interesting bit of news she wanted to get rid of. So it was, but it was a bit of news I would never have expected.
Looking across the room to Colonel Kennington, who was standing there talking to my father, she said, "Have you heard the latest news about Colonel Kennington, Mrs Croft?"
I gave an inward sigh and said, "No, Mrs Hunt, I have not."
"The most extraordinary thing has happened. He is going to get married."
Going to get married? Colonel Kennington? This called for further inquiry...
"Is he, indeed? He did not mention a word to us. Perhaps he did not want to, considering..." I said, vaguely, taking a sip of tea.
"I was quite amazed myself. After all, Colonel Kennington always was...you know..."
"A ladies' man, you want to say?"
"Quite so! There has always been some woman or other in his life, but nothing serious, really, as far as I know. I remember there were rumours at Plymouth, but one could never be really sure. He was very discreet about his love affairs."
"So I have heard," I answered. Come on, Mrs Hunt; tell me, I know you want to...
"But who would have thought that he'd marry Miss Diana Bell, of all people?"
Who, indeed? I had never seen him pay any particular attention to her, although her attentions to the Colonel had always been obvious.
Jealous, Sophy? - Don't be ridiculous, Admiral!
Still, I did not know what to make of that piece of news. Considering the friendship between our families, I would have expected to hear such news from the Colonel himself, or at least from his sister. Strange...
I decided to ask Sarah.
I got the chance to ask her the next day, when she called on me by herself. By her troubled look I could tell at once that there was some truth in the rumour.
"Who told you," she asked anxiously.
"Mrs Hunt did," I answered.
"Mrs Hunt. Of course, I should have known," Sarah said thoughtfully. "All right, I might as well tell you, although I have promised Thomas to keep the news from you until he can tell you himself...but since you already know...only don't let him know I told you, will you?"
I promised to keep silent as to that matter, and Sarah proceeded.
"Well, if you ask me, there is something dubious about that whole affair, but anyway, the rumour is true. Thomas is going to marry Diana Bell, but do not ask me how that engagement came about. I really do not know, I never thought Thomas was particularly attached to her. But he must have been, apparently."
"I do not know how long this has been going on, though. One thing is sure, however. They want to marry as soon as possible. Believe me, something is not quite right."
I reminded Sarah that my marriage had also been somewhat hasty, and that there had been nothing wrong in my case. Sarah laughed.
"We are talking about Diana Bell, Sophy. Let us face the truth, Diana is pretty, and Thomas is, after all, only human. She has been after him for some time; she was bound to succeed sooner or later. Whatever has happened, Thomas seems to feel that the only honourable thing to do is to marry her. Even if he is engaged to her now, I cannot discern any sign of love in him when he is with her. Trust me, I've watched them."
"So, when are they going to marry?"
"In two weeks, as far as I know." She grinned. "It seems I am going to have two delightful sisters-in-law, Sophy. Don't look forward to your brothers' weddings. Sisters-in-law are a disappointment altogether."
In the case of my sisters-in-law, I have to consider myself lucky. My brothers have both made an excellent choice, and Susan, the Admiral's sister, is so much like her brother I could hardly dislike her. - I always knew the two of you got on splendidly. So you think Susan is like me? You know she would deny it?
That day, the Colonel came for a short visit and, finally, announced his engagement officially. He seemed to be embarrassed, and kept looking at me, as if he wanted to know my opinion. However, I tried to look as unconcerned as possible, although I still wondered what his reasons for his choice of wife were.
Edward took the news surprisingly well. Perhaps he had already found out that his feelings for Miss Bell had been nothing serious.
As soon as the Colonel had left, I looked at him. "Well," I asked, "what do you think?"
Edward shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing, really. The Colonel will suit her, I suppose. They will be the perfect couple. At least I hope so."
I hoped so, too, but I had serious doubts.
Those doubts were justified, I know that now. The marriage was not a happy one. Seven months after the wedding, their first child was born. "A surprisingly well-developed boy it is," Sarah wrote to me on this occasion, thus indicating that the reason for the hasty marriage was now revealed.
The son was called Charles, and there was another child, a daughter, two years later. The Colonel was a devoted father, so Sarah has told me, but as for his wife, I do not think he felt much affection for her. He treated her with proper civility, but that was it. We did not meet him again for some time, but by some accident we all ended up in the East Indies together, some years later. I think the Colonel was quite happy there, being by himself, with his family far away, back home in England...he really was not made for marriage, what do you think, Admiral? - Definitely not, Sophy. He would have been far better off without a wife, and his wife would have been better off without him, if you ask me. You know what the saying is? Be careful what you wish...
It was about one week after the funeral when my father announced that he was not going to stay in this house.
"I simply cannot," he said. "It pains me too much. Every bit reminds me of your mother."
"But where do you want to go," I asked.
He smiled sadly. "I thought I could join Edward and go to Oxford with him. I shall spend some time there with him, until the worst is over."
By Edward's look I could tell that he was just as surprised as I was.
"To Oxford?" I tried to see reason in my father's wish, but I could not. What could be the good in his going to Oxford? As soon as he would come back, it would be the same, no doubt.
"Yes, I have always liked the town," he answered. "It is where I have studied, after all. Brings back fond memories, I am sure...and, what's more important, it brings back memories that do not hurt."
This did sound reasonable, after all, but then I had another idea. Why not take him to a place where he had no memories at all, neither fond nor otherwise?
"Why do you not come to Deal with me, Papa? I would love to have you there," I suggested. "My house is big enough to accommodate you, we will be perfectly comfortable, and it would prevent me from being alone all winter. If you to Oxford with Edward, that would mean that I would have to go back to Deal all by myself, and I do not really like that notion."
My father shook his head. "Thank you for your offer, Sophy, but I do not think this is a good idea. You remind me too much of your dear mother, you know."
I tried to persuade him, but to no avail. He insisted on going to Oxford with Edward, and he wanted to go as soon as possible.
So I was forced to begin the journey back to Deal all by myself, fearing what might await me there.
When I arrived in my house (I could not get myself to call the cottage my "home", strangely), Mrs Ellis welcomed me happily and Sally grudgingly. She had rather liked working in a household where no one but the cook was looking after her, and so she was not too happy about my return.
Since I was now in mourning for my mother, I hardly went into company, and felt lonelier than ever. I spent most of the time thinking, pondering, and feeling sorry for myself.
The bad weather did nothing to improve my spirits. Soon after my return, the winter started to show its nastiest face, and one storm after the other hit the coast - which made me think of Henry and Frederick even more often, and dreading what might happen to them. I had had no news whatsoever from them, and I did not know if this was a good or a bad omen.
"Bad news travel fast," Henry had once said, and I clung to that bit of hope as well as I could. It did not prevent my nightmares, though. I had them nearly every night, and they were always the same.
I dreamt of Henry drowning in the sea, and me being unable to save him...my hand was just one inch away from his, and I could not reach him, I had to watch him sink...and then I woke up, shuddering, and crying, and desperately lonely.
You can imagine that those dreams troubled me a great deal. I became nervous, starting whenever I heard a knock at the door, expecting someone bringing me bad news.
After some time, I do not know when exactly, I started fancying myself ill. There was this pain in my stomach all the time, and I started to lose weight. I could hardly eat, and when I did I had a hard time trying to keep it in my stomach, where it belonged.
Considering that my mother had just died, one cannot blame me for believing that something was seriously wrong with me, I suppose. Mrs Ellis was greatly concerned on my account, and I went to see an apothecary to oblige her.
The apothecary, however, said that there was nothing wrong with me, and attributed my pain to "some sort of women's complaint". He gave me some tea, told me to drink it three times a day, and besides told me that "pain is there to be endured, Mrs Croft".
Now that I think of it, I think I had been better off had I gone to see the vet.
Time passed slowly. However, it did pass, and March was coming on. Now, it would only last a few more weeks until I was to see my husband again...hopefully.
It was now the end of March, and I still had not had any news from Henry or Frederick. I did not even know if my letter had reached Frederick. I had seen Mrs MacLean several times, and she had assured me that she had done her best to have my letter conveyed to my brother, but she had had no news if the letter had actually reached its recipient. I hoped so - it broke my heart to think that he might not know what dreadful news was waiting for him on his return.
One evening, the thing I had been dreading for some time happened. There was a knock at the door that made me start, as usual, and then Sally came in.
"There's a Navy gentleman to see you, Madam," she announced.
"A Navy gentleman? Someone of our acquaintance, Sally," I managed to ask, trying desperately to look calm and collected.
"No, I don't know him, Madam. He's handsome."
That was just the sort of remark I had expected from someone like Sally. It did not matter who the man was, or what his purpose was, all she needed to know was if he was handsome.
"Well, what are you waiting for, Sally? Show the gentleman in," I said, rising to receive my visitor, whoever it might be.
Sally curtsied and went out, only to return with a young lieutenant in tow.
"There you are, sir," she said, breathlessly, and I did not fail to perceive his amused grin. Surely he had noticed that Sally thought well of him, although I think he also knew that girls like Sally would think well of anyone wearing trousers.
He was handsome, to be sure, although not as handsome as Frederick (but, being Frederick's sister, I may have been biased). He was older than Frederick, though. Not much, but certainly older. He had to be, being a lieutenant. There was something pleasant about him, something reassuring, as well.
Sophy, believe me, if there is one thing a man does not want to be, at least at that age, it is to be reassuring.
"Good evening, Mrs Croft," he said, with a polite bow. "Please forgive me my intrusion at this late hour, but I have an important message for you."
"An important message, Mr..." I repeated, suddenly remembering that I still did not know the gentleman's name.
He gave me a pleasant smile. "George Harville, at your service, Madam. I am sorry, I thought your maid had already told you, or I would have introduced myself, of course."
Of course, such minor information as a visitor's name was not a thing Sally would give me.
I was sure now that, whatever the message was, it could not be bad. Mr Harville's manner would be quite different if it were.
"Do take a seat, Mr Harville," I said. "I am delighted to meet you, finally. Both my husband and my brother have always thought highly of you."
Was I imagining things or could I discern a slight blush on his cheeks?
"Thank you, madam. It is good to have friends like them, to be sure," he replied.
I rang for Sally, who, I suppose, was already waiting at the door to be allowed inside the parlour and cast another look at Mr Harville, and ordered her to bring some tea for us. Sally curtsied, and went out, not without giving Mr Harville another longing look.
"You said you had an important message for me, Mr Harville," I reminded him of the reason for his visit.
"True, Mrs Croft," he answered, taking out two letters of his pocket. "Two messages, to be precise. I met your husband and your brother lately, that is about two weeks ago, and they have asked me to deliver these letters to you."
"You met them? Tell me, Mr Harville, are they both in good health?" I asked him anxiously.
He gave me a reassuring smile. "Could not be better, both of them," he answered.
He must have noticed my relieved look, and said, sympathetically; "It must have been very distressing for you, Mrs Croft."
I sighed. "You have no idea how distressing, Mr Harville."
"Perhaps I have not, but I can imagine."
I asked him to tell me more, and he gave me an eager description of what the journey had been like and how and when he had met Henry and Frederick.
After about half an hour, he rose and took his leave.
"I am sure you are impatient to read your letters, Mrs Croft," he said pleasantly. "So I will not dwell on your patience any more."
I assured him that, after weeks without a message from "my two men", it did not really make any difference to me if I had to wait for another half hour, but he smiled and said, "I bet it does, Mrs Croft."
Mr Harville had been right, of course. I had hardly been able to hide my anxiety to read my letters at once.
Well, actually, I think I was not able to hide it at all.
I looked at the two letters on the table, trying to decide which one to read first. Finally, I decided to read Frederick's letter first, and to keep Henry's letter for later, so that I could reflect on it.
The Phoenix, March
I hope this note finds you in good health. I am sorry I cannot write you a longer letter than this, but I have not got much time to write. The Captain only just let me know that Harville is going to Deal and that he is going to take our letters with him. I hope you will like Harville; he is one of the few people for whom I would do everything - apart from my own family, that is.
I am glad to tell you that I am fine, which is, I believe, the most important thing for you to know. So is your husband, but I am sure he can give you a much better account of that than I can.
I hope everyone at home is fine, too, and cannot wait to get home again soon.
Meanwhile I send you my best wishes, and may the Lord take good care of you.
Although I was glad to read that Frederick was fine, one thing troubled me. There was no allusion to my mother's state of health - so I had to assume that Frederick had not yet had my letter informing him of Mama's illness, and therefore had not the least idea what would await him...I had to prepare myself to break the news to him somehow, and wished that, by some means, my letter would still reach him before his return. I would rather have him prepared for the worst...
Henry's letter was longer than Frederick's, and it was a true comfort to read it.
The Phoenix, March
My dearest Sophy,
I hope you have not been too uneasy on my account, but I am afraid you have. I know you too well already, my love.
Everything is at its best on board the Phoenix, or at least as usual. We have had rough weather lately, and Simmons has been more of a nuisance than ever, but what would I do if I had nothing to do all day, nothing to vex me? I'd only hang around thinking of you, I suppose, and what good would come of that? It is better to have no time to be melancholy.
I do think of you a great deal, my dear, with the result that I am getting quite insufferable, at least this is the impression I get from the men's way of looking at me whenever I turn up. I admit I have never been in a worse temper in all my life.
I would not have thought that being without you would be so bad - I have spent thirty years of my life without you, and yet, now I know that I cannot possibly be without you any longer. I wonder how I managed before I met you.
Frederick and I pass a lot of time talking about you, and I am afraid I am already getting on his nerves. I cannot help laughing at myself. A year ago, I used to make fun of Frederick and good old Harville when they were speaking of their sisters, not knowing that at least one of them would soon mean more to me than anything in the world.
I have some good news to relate. If everything works out the way I have calculated, we shall be back at Deal in the second week of April - perhaps just in time for Easter, who knows? I cannot wait to see you again, my dear, and I hope I will be able to make up for the long time I had to leave you all by yourself.
I have to finish now, or Harville will not be able to take my letter with him.
Until April, then, my love.
Your loving husband
I read the letter over and over again, three or four times at least. How could I possibly express how I felt at that moment? I was relieved, of course, the letter showed me that Henry was alive and well, and had Mr Harville still been there, I suppose I would have hugged him simply for bringing the letter to me.
Hugging strangers? I hope you're not making a habit of that, Sophy. - Well, you were too far away to be hugged, were you not?
April...he was going to come back in April. Two more weeks, perhaps, and he'd be home. I had to prepare everything for his arrival, and I had to be quick about it. Something to do, finally...spring-cleaning!
I think I need not mention that, from that moment on, my illness was quite forgotten. I was able to eat again, and the nightmares grew less frequent. One great cause for happiness was the fact that I could now dispense with that dreadful tea the apothecary had told me to drink. My appetite was back - well, nearly.
In the following weeks, I went to the harbour every day, hoping that I might hear any news of the "Phoenix" there. But every day I went back home disappointed. No one seemed to know if the Phoenix would arrive these days or not.
I still had a lot to do; I had to keep an eye on Sally doing her cleaning work, for example. That was a bit of a job, I can tell you, she was scared stiff of work, it seemed. Perhaps it would have been easier for me to get her to work if I had invited Mr Harville along to help her?
Sophy! You are bad, do you know that? - Am I? I'm just stating a fact. She was quite smitten with him, believe me.
One evening, I had just settled down in my armchair after dinner, doing some embroidery, I heard the front door open and close, and I noticed someone walk swiftly across the hallway towards the parlour. I had heard these steps often enough to know what that meant, even without my husband's voice calling my name.
The door flew open, and he came into the parlour, and the next thing I know is that I was in his arms, resting my head against his shoulder, and crying...happy tears, of course.
Henry was too moved to say anything that moment; he just held me tight and patted my back, trying to calm me.
After a while, he took out his handkerchief and gave it to me to dry my tears.
I smiled at him sheepishly. "I am sorry, dear," I said.
He drew me near him again, with a happy smile, and said, "Whatever for?"
"For crying when I ought to show you how happy I am to have you back...I ought to laugh, not cry."
He laughed and kissed me. "Nonsense, Sophy."
We sat down, and Henry took both my hands in his.
"You do look pale, love," he said, examining my face anxiously. "Have you been ill? Are you all right?"
"I am now," I answered. "Nothing could ever ail me when you are with me."
Finally he seemed to notice the clothes I was wearing - a dark dress, suitable for a person in mourning.
"What has happened, Sophy? Something wrong with your family?"
I sighed. "Frederick did not get my letter then?"
"I wrote him a letter around Christmas. It was about our mother...she was very ill."
"I do not think he ever got such a letter, no. I am sure he would have told me."
"I am sure, too. Well...Mama died..." I started to cry again, and Henry did his best to comfort me.
I admit it was a comfort, sitting there with him, cuddling, and hearing his soothing voice...
"Poor lad," Henry said, after a few minutes. "What a homecoming! And you being here all by yourself...now I understand why you are looking so pale. This must have been awful! I wish I could have been here with you..."
He broke off, and seemed to be deep in thought for a while.
"Do you want me to tell him, Sophy? You have been through a terrible time, and if there is anything I can do to spare you further grief, I will do it gladly."
I shook my head. "I would rather tell him myself. He deserves to know everything he wants to know at once, and I am the only one who can tell him at the moment. Where is Frederick?"
Henry sighed. "He should get here any minute now. He just let me go ahead of him to give us some privacy."
I had to laugh despite myself. "Frederick is considerate, indeed! What did he think we were going to do?"
Henry laughed. "You will have to ask him about that, not me," he said with a mischievous grin, and then became earnest again.
"Do you want to be alone with your brother or do you want me to stay with you?"
"Of course I want you to stay here. What makes you think that I would not?"
"I thought you might want to tell him without any strangers listening."
"Henry! You are family too, did you forget that?"
He shook his head. "No, I did not. Only, I do not really know how much I really belong to the family as far as Frederick is concerned."
I looked into his eyes pleadingly, and said, "Please stay. I need you with me."
Henry nodded, and took my hands again. While we were sitting there, waiting for Frederick, I told my husband what the winter had been like (not the whole truth, but enough to show him how much I had missed him), and described the events leading up to my mother's death. At last, I could let myself go. I had been strong for long enough, it was good to be weak for a change.
Finally, we heard Frederick arrive, and I tried to prepare myself.
Frederick grasped the situation the moment he entered the parlour. He saw me standing there, wearing those mourning clothes, and said only one word.
"It's Mama, Frederick."
His face was motionless, like marble. Only his eyes betrayed his real feelings.
"Sit down, Frederick, and I shall tell you everything."
He did not seem to hear me, so I walked over to him, took his hand and led him to a seat. He gave me a desperate look.
"Why did no one tell me before? Why did you not write to me?"
"I did, Frederick, but the letter did not reach you. I even asked Mrs MacLean to help me."
He sighed. "Well, tell me now, then."
I sat down next to him, and told him the story I had just related to my husband. Henry was standing behind me, and I could feel his hand on my shoulder, giving me a reassuring squeeze now and then.
When I had finished my tale, Frederick nodded, but he did not speak for a few minutes. I could see he was desperately trying to fight back his tears, and did not press him. After a while, he rose from his seat, cleared his throat, and said in a wavering tone, "I am sorry...I just need a few minutes..."
He left the room, and I wanted to follow him when Henry held me back.
"Leave him be, Sophy," he said. "He will be all right, considering the circumstances, that is."
I looked at him doubtingly. "Are you sure?"
"Absolutely." He drew me near, and once again I rested my head against his shoulder.
"You did very well, Sophy. Nothing could have spared him the pain, you know."
"I know, but I wish he had had that letter...then at least the truth would not have struck him out of the blue. As it was..."
Frederick returned after half an hour.
I still do not know what he had been doing during that time, but I suppose he just needed to be alone for a while to realise the full impact of the news.
He told us that he wanted to see Papa and Edward, and asked Henry if he could have leave of absence.
"Of course. Take your time, Frederick, and never mind about us," was Henry's answer.
So Frederick left us the next morning to go to Oxford, while Henry and I remained in Deal.
The first days of Henry's stay in Deal went by quietly. We spent most of the time together, of course, and since I did not go into company, being in mourning for my mother, we spent most of the time alone, too. There were some visitors, of course, some of Henry's friends who came to see him, but on the whole we led a rather secluded life.
Henry had been promoted; he had been transferred to another ship. He was to command the "Leander", a fourth-rate ship of the line. Her former Captain, a certain Mr Fletcher, had been badly wounded in a battle and now had to retire from active service. Do you remember the "Leander", Admiral? -
I certainly do. Splendid ship, though I must say I preferred the "Phoenix", even if she was smaller. It was a good thing I could take most of my men with me, at least. We had some trouble in the beginning, do you remember? That new lieutenant I got, instead of Simmons. Simmons was nuisance enough, but Baines was much worse. They should have sent me Harville instead of that idiot Baines. But there was no getting him back, it was Brand's fault. - Admiral Brand, Henry? -
Admiral Brand, then Captain Brand. He played me that trick more than once, always snatching the best men away from me.
But, since the "Leander" was still being repaired, Henry had to stay ashore for another two months. It was all right the first two weeks, I think, but then he became restless and desperately wanted to do something. I realised it very soon, and one evening I decided to say something about it.
He was fidgeting about in the parlour, walking from one window to the next, then sitting down, taking a newspaper, reading for about five minutes, and then getting up to start the whole procedure all over again.
I watched him for a while, and then I said, "Is something the matter, dear? You seem a bit restless lately."
He sighed, and sat back down. "There is nothing, it is only..." He broke off.
"Only I want to be doing something, instead of being at home and waiting to be useful again. This is not my way, Sophy. What am I doing here?"
"Walking around like an animal in a cage and driving me mad, Henry."
He looked at me warily. "Excuse me, but am I getting on your nerves?"
I smiled. "Only if you keep acting that way, love. It gets a bit tiresome after a while."
"Thank you very much," he said sulkily, sat down, and hid himself once more behind his newspaper.
I sighed, got up and walked over to him.
"Listen, I am sorry. I did not mean it that way."
"You told me I am tiresome. I do not think there is any other way of interpreting it."
"I only said the way you act at the moment is getting tiresome. I did not say anything about you. Now be good and stop sulking, my dear, it does not suit you."
"Who is sulking?" he asked, lowering his newspaper.
"I am not."
"Oh yes, you are."
"I am not," he repeated with a playful smile, grabbed me and made me sit down on his knee.
I laughed. "So this was what you were up to?"
"Why did you not ask me to come over?"
He laughed. "It is much more fun that way, Sophy. I think I have your entire attention now, have I not?"
"Stop captaining me, if you please. I have an idea, Sophy. What would you think if we just left this town behind us and went somewhere else for a while?"
"Where do you want to go?"
"I had a letter from my sister this morning, and she has invited us to come. What do you think? Shall we venture the long journey to Taunton?"
"I think we have already ventured longer journeys than that, so why not to Taunton? Somersetshire is a delightful place, as far as I have heard. I know a gentleman from Somerset I am particularly fond of."
"Do I know him?"
"Perhaps you do. A gentleman by the name of Croft."
He laughed and kissed me. "When shall we start, then?"
I grinned. "As soon as possible, before you leave tracks in the carpet."
We set off to Taunton two days later. Henry had sent his sister an express to inform her of our intended arrival. On our way, Henry told me much about his family and his childhood he had spent in a village halfway between Bridgwater and Taunton.
"We lived in Bridgwater until my father's death, and then we moved to Searingham, my uncle's estate. He was so kind as to let us stay in a cottage there."
"Did you like it there?"
"I did. It is a beautiful place, and I got on very well with my cousins - except Francis, the eldest. He thought it was important to show me how inferior I was. Completely unimportant. Poor. He was the heir of Searingham, not the grandest of estates, true, but an estate nevertheless. Very proud of himself, although I cannot understand why."
He grinned. "We had several rows, Francis and I. I used to beat him up quite often. He lived in mortal fear of me for a while. Even though he was five years older, he had no chance. I think he was quite happy when I went to sea."
I had to laugh. It was hard to imagine my husband as a little boy...although sometimes there was something boyish in his manner still.
"What did your uncle say about all this? I mean, I cannot help but thinking that he was not pleased with your behaviour towards his eldest."
Henry laughed. "Uncle Charles is the kindest of men, and he knows his son well enough to realise that I was provoked most of the time. Francis knew that he'd better not go and complain, it would have been no use. Perhaps one more reason for him to have a grudge against me."
"The point was that my uncle was so fond of my father...and after my father's death he just passed his fondness on to us - Susan and me. As I said before, he is the kindest of men, but you will soon see so yourself. I intend to go to Searingham to call on him."
"Of course we will. Even if your cousin Francis will, maybe, not approve of it."
"Never mind Francis." Henry grinned. "I never did."
"You never told me anything about your father, Henry."
He sighed. "What do you want me to tell you? I hardly knew him. I can remember meeting him once. I was four years old then, and he was on leave. He looked like a stranger to me, I can remember that. It was like having a friend for a short visit. He was kind...true, and I guess he was fond of me. Used to play with me, and laughed a lot. That's about it. He left us, and four months later we got the message that he had died."
I shivered; trying to imagine what this had been like for the family.
"What did he look like? Did he look like you?"
Henry shook his head. "No. He was completely different. My mother has a portrait, I am sure she will be glad to show it to you. I am also sure that she will be ready to tell you anything you want to know about him."
"I will ask her. If it does not pain her too much, that is."
He shook his head. "It has been a long time, Sophy."
"I do not think that would make a difference to me."
"What about your sister and brother-in-law?"
"Susan is five years older than me. She has been married for ten years now. Her husband, Edgar Delaney, is an attorney in Taunton. He is a very sober sort of person, I'd even go as far as to call him boring, but then I am not the one who has to live with him, so I do not really care. He's a good sort of man, and Susan is happy with him, that is all I need to know. They have three children, Edgar, Henry, and Mary."
When we arrived in Taunton it was already late in the evening, and so we deferred our first visit with the Delaneys to the next day. We took a room in an inn.
I could hardly sleep that night, I was so anxious about seeing Henry's family. What if they did not like me? Henry assured me and told me that they would love me.
"How do you know," I asked him.
He smiled, and embraced me. "Because I love you, Sophy. They will love you simply because of that."
When I got ready the next morning, I did everything to appear at my best. It was one of the few occasions that Henry got impatient with me because it took me so long to get dressed.
"I want to look good, my dear," I protested.
"You do look good, Sophy," he replied. "Now hurry up, or they will start wondering where we got to."
I was still very anxious when we walked to Mr Delaney's house, but I tried not to show it. Henry, however, must have noticed it, because before he rang the doorbell he gave my hand a reassuring squeeze.
"No reason to be nervous, you'll see," he whispered to me.
A servant opened the door, and we were led into a pretty drawing room, where Mrs Delaney and Mrs Croft were waiting for us.
Once I saw them, I was not anxious any more. They greeted me so warmly that my heart went out to them at once.
"Mrs Delaney," Susan exclaimed when I addressed her thus. "I am Susan to you, my dear. Let that be absolutely clear from the beginning. We are sisters, are we not?"
I laughed and agreed.
We were seated in the most comfortable chairs in their drawing room and my mother and sister-in-law kept asking me all sorts of questions, which I readily answered.
"So you have been at sea with my son?" Mrs Croft asked.
"I have, and I must say I enjoyed it," I answered. "I cannot wait to go with him again."
Mrs Croft nodded. "This is the right thing to do," she said. "Do not look at me like that, young man, I know what I am talking about. I used to be at sea with your father as well, before I had my children. Just keep it up as long as you can, my dear child."
"I will," I said, smiling.
If Henry had at all a likeness to one of his parents, it was his mother. He had her eyes, and her dark complexion. It was Susan who looked more like her father, as I could discern when I looked at the portrait of Henry's father.
Suddenly the door burst open, and three little whirlwinds (that was my first impression) ran in, one of them shouting "Uncle Henry!!!" at the top of his voice.
After a serious rebuke from their mother, the three Delaney children lined up to meet me.
Edgar, the eldest, was about eight years old, a fair-haired boy with blue eyes and, as his mother said to me, "very well behaved - usually". During the following weeks I had enough opportunity to find out that this was true. He was the calmest of the three.
Henry, the younger brother, was the sort of boy whose mischief could be seen in his eyes at once. One could never be really angry with him, though, he had this irresistible charm...and a way of looking at his mother, grandmother, aunt or whoever that made their hearts melt instantly.
Why are you laughing, Admiral? - He is still like that, that is why. Ever seen him with a woman? I have.
Mary, the only girl, was the youngest. She was four years old, and extremely shy. After a curtsey, she hid herself behind her mother's back.
"She will get over it soon," Susan said to me. "She usually does."
While Susan, Mrs Croft and I kept conversing with each other, Henry devoted himself to the children, telling them stories, and handing out the sweets he had bought for them. I could not help smiling whenever I looked at him. He was so fond of them, and they seemed to adore him. I wondered if he would be the same with children of his own.
I suppose he would have been.
Our visit passed very quickly, and before we left, Susan invited us to dine with them.
"Edgar will be delighted to make your acquaintance, Sophia," she said.
We accepted the invitation, and I was looking forward to it. I liked my mother-in-law, and I had also grown very fond of Susan. Now I was curious what Susan's husband would be like.
Edgar Delaney was a tall, skinny man in his early forties. As Henry had already told me, he was a rather cool character. His main interest was his work, it seemed, and after being introduced to me and exchanging the usual pleasantries with me, he seated himself with Henry and started talking about the hard time he had in his profession at the moment. Henry listened to him politely, but I could see that it did not really interest him.
I spent most of the evening with Susan and my mother-in-law. They seemed to have a lively interest in informing me about my husband's mischief as a boy - and there were many stories to amuse me. Not that I had not expected it, but some stories did surprise me.
What did they tell you? I demand to know! - You DEMAND to know, sir? Well, I'll just mention your cousin Elizabeth and bats. - Good heavens! They told you THAT story? - Among others.
After a pleasant evening, we left the Delaneys and walked back to the inn.
"So, how do you like them," Henry asked.
"I like them all very much, dear," I answered. "Although I had no doubt I would - I knew that I would love them, if they were anything like you. I was only afraid they might not like me."
Henry laughed. "Now the only ones that are left for you to meet are my uncle and cousins in Searingham. We shall go there tomorrow."
"I cannot wait," I replied. Susan had told me so much of Searingham that I was extremely curious to see the place.
When I think back now, remembering that first visit in Somersetshire, I cannot help but laugh at myself. Would I have known then that I would spend ten years of my life here? I did not have the slightest idea. Had anyone told me I would not only live in Somerset, but also in an estate like Kellynch Hall, I would have laughed at them.
We started our journey to Searingham the next morning. Searingham was only a two-hours-drive away from Taunton, and so Henry had hired a gig to take us there.
Meanwhile I had got used to his way of driving and had learned that it was better to keep my eyes to the road just as well as the driver was supposed to.
Do I discern some sort of censure in your voice, my dear? - Far be it from me, Admiral. You took me anywhere I wanted, did you not? Besides, I was too fond of the driver to want to be with anybody else.
Henry told me that he had not seen his uncle for ten years, since his sister had got married.
"He was present at the wedding, and I was there, too. After that, I never had the chance to meet him, and I do not think Francis would have wanted me to come, either."
Henry's uncle gave us the warmest welcome imaginable. One could see that he was happy to see his nephew again, and that all those years of estrangement had not done any harm to his affection for him. He kept telling us how glad he was to see us, and he treated me like a favourite daughter of his.
Henry inquired after his younger cousins, William, Charles and Elizabeth.
"Oh, they are all prospering," his uncle answered with a smile. "William is going to take the living in Searingham village soon, he has taken orders last Christmas. Charles is in Gibraltar with his regiment at the moment."
"Gibraltar? How come I did not see him there? I was in Gibraltar last summer." Henry exclaimed.
"He only went there in March, Henry."
"What a pity." Henry turned to me. "It would have been fun to have Cousin Charles with us. We always got on very well."
Mr Croft laughed. "Too well sometimes, when you teamed up against Francis."
"What about Elizabeth? Last thing I heard of her was that she got married. That was three years ago."
"She lives in the North with her husband now. I do not hear from her very often, unfortunately."
Mr Croft turned to me. "What do you think of going inside, my dear child? I am sure your husband and I can finish our family business in the drawing room just as well as at the front door."
He led us into an elegantly furnished drawing room and we sat down there.
"How is Francis," Henry asked, with no real interest in his voice.
"He is very well. They are living in the cottage, you see. Viola, his wife, wanted to have a house of her own. But I sent them a message when you arrived. They should be here shortly."
It took some time until Mr and Mrs Francis Croft arrived. Obviously, Mr Francis was not in a hurry to meet his cousin again.
When he did arrive, he greeted Henry like he would greet a minor acquaintance of his. No one who had not known about their real relation would have suspected it.
"How do you do, Henry?" He looked at Henry and me as if to estimate how much money we had spent on our attire. What he saw did not please him, apparently.
Usually I do not develop an aversion to people instantly, but with Francis it was different. Perhaps it was because Henry had told me so much about him, I do not know, but from the moment I first saw Francis Croft I despised him.
"So, you are from Norfolk, I gather," he said to me, indicating in his tone that this was a sufficient reason to banish me from good society forever.
"I am. A small place near Yarmouth. My father is the vicar there," I answered.
"A vicar? Indeed..."
Had I told him that my father was the most notorious highwayman in the kingdom, he could hardly have looked less appalled.
I have met such people more often in the meantime, of course, and I have learned to treat them with the indifference they deserve. But I was young then, and though I tried hard not to show how angry I was, I am afraid people did notice it. - I did. - I know you did, Admiral.
Henry turned to his cousin and said, "And how have you been doing lately, Francis?"
Francis looked at him suspiciously. "What do you mean?"
"I am merely asking a question, Francis. How are you doing? Is there anything you are doing with your life?"
"I have started my own library. Collecting books."
"I see. A fine thing, books." Henry grinned. "You read them, too, I suppose. Not just collecting."
I had to use all my determination to stop myself from laughing out loud. Francis reddened.
"Of course I do. I have time to do so, not like other people."
"Right, other people are too busy doing something useful - like making their own living. You live in Searingham Cottage, your father has told me. How do you like it? I remember you were not always inclined to live there."
"I have made some improvements there, indeed."
"Have you? I should be happy to see them, if you do not mind, cousin."
This was the first time I heard Viola say something, except exchanging compliments at the beginning.
"Oh, we should be honoured to see you there at dinner tonight."
Francis gave her an angry look, but Henry had already accepted the invitation without paying any attention to him.
"We shall be most happy to come, shall we not, Sophy? You see, I am rather fond of the place."
"Are you? My husband has never told me..."
"He did not? Ah, well, such unimportant things may escape one's attention."
Francis looked as if he was going to explode in a moment, but Henry just looked at him to make him remain silent. He knew that, whatever he said or did, Henry would get the better of him - as he had always done.
In a way I ought to pity him, perhaps. - Why, for Heaven's sake, Sophy? - Well, he was not too happy...and I think he was afraid of you. - Had he behaved like a gentleman that day, I would have been different, and you know that, Sophy. The way he treated you...had I been alone with him, I would have made him feel sorry.
The dinner was not a really cheerful affair, as one can imagine. Francis was still too angry with Henry, and Mr Croft was uneasy on account of their mutual dislike. I am sure he had pictured this evening to be different.
When the meal was over, Viola and I retired into the drawing room. I had expected that we might get to talk with each other then, but I was disappointed. Viola did not talk more to me than to answer my questions. She sat there, embroidering a cushion, listening to me trying to keep up a conversation, and only saying something if she had to. It was not as if I did not like her. She seemed a nice enough person, really, but I had the impression that she was afraid her husband would disapprove of her liking me.
Finally, I was fed up with being the only one to contribute to the entertainment. I would make her talk, no matter what.
"How long have you been acquainted with the Croft family, Madam?" I asked her.
"Oh, about ten years," she answered.
I waited a few moments, and since she was not inclined to go on, I asked her, "Indeed! And how did you get acquainted then?"
"I met Mr Croft at his cousin's wedding in Taunton," she said.
"His cousin's wedding? Do you mean Mrs Delaney?"
"Yes, Mrs Delaney."
Again, I hoped that she might continue, but I hoped in vain. I sincerely wished that the gentlemen would soon join us soon, before I ran out of questions I could ask her.
"Are you a friend of Mrs Delaney's then?"
"No, I am acquainted with Mr Delaney's sister."
"Then you have met my husband before, I guess. He told me he had last met his uncle at his sister's wedding. That means he must have met you, too."
She went pale. Her voice trembled when she said, "Oh, yes, I met your husband at the wedding..."
This was strange. Why had such an ordinary question been able to make her so uneasy?
She must have noticed my surprise, because, for the first time that evening, she continued her story.
"Perhaps I ought to tell you that...Captain Croft and I... liked each other very much...at that time."
Liked each other very much? What did that mean, liked each other very much?
"But then, Mr Croft... Francis...made me an offer of marriage, and I accepted him. I am afraid..." She paused, probably trying to determine if she should go on with her story or not.
"I am afraid that my husband and Captain Croft are at odds with each other because of me, Madam. That is why I invited you here tonight. I wanted them to ... I wanted to give them an opportunity to set their quarrel aside," she said, finally.
Why had Henry not told me about this? Why had he left me to find out about it by myself?
Now I remembered that evening in Yarmouth, when he had told me that a man needed to be disappointed at least once to appreciate happiness.
Are you speaking out of experience, Captain Croft? - Who knows?
I had never before been jealous, simply because Henry had not given me any reason for it. But now things were different. True, it had happened long before he had met me, but why had he not told me about it? If the matter was over for him, he could have given me a hint, at least, could he not? And if the matter was not over, what was my place in his life? What about me?
It is unbelievable, is it not? An absolutely sane and sober person turns into a... nervous wreck, from one moment to the next. My husband had never given me a reason to suspect him...and here I was, wondering... - It really is unbelievable, Sophy. Though you were still young then....
On our way back to Taunton, I decided to ask him. I wanted to know the truth, wanted to hear his excuse for leaving me uninformed about such an important thing (I thought) concerning his past.
"Why did you not tell me that you knew your cousin's wife before," I asked him.
Henry gave me a puzzled look. "Should I have, Sophy?"
"Should I have, Sophy? Of course you should! You were in love with her, and you did not bother to tell me about it!" I cried.
Henry stopped the carriage and looked at me earnestly.
"Who said I was in love with Viola Fitzgerald? That was her name, before she married."
"You are on first-name terms with her?"
Ridiculous, was I not? - Oh, I would not say so. At least, I did not feel like laughing at that moment, Sophy.
"Good Lord, Sophy! Will you tell me what all this is about?"
"She said that you used to be very fond of her, and that she thought you and your cousin were quarrelling because of her."
Henry sighed. "And you believed her."
"I had no reason to doubt it. So, were you in love with her?"
"You just said you have no doubt that what Viola said is true, so why do you ask me?"
"I want to hear you say it."
"Sophy, I never was in love with her. Never."
"You are lying!"
Henry did not bother to answer my charge. Instead, he shouted at the horse to "get going", and concentrated on his driving...or so it seemed.
"Do you have nothing to say, Henry," I asked him, after five painful minutes of silence.
"You just told me what you think of me, Sophy. Ask me again when you are disposed to believe me. Until then, I have nothing to say."
He was angry, and, on looking back, I cannot blame him for it. I had accused him of lying. There is hardly a man who would endure this, especially a man like Henry, who had never uttered a falsehood in his life.
I could have saved the situation by saying that I was sorry, by admitting that I had been wrong, and I was very near doing so. However, being young and stupid as I was - Don't be so hard on yourself, Sophy. - being young and stupid as I was, I thought it was a weakness to admit a mistake, especially since I believed myself to be right in one point. I still believed that he should have told me about Viola before.
The carriage went on, and Henry was staring at the road, not taking notice of me sitting beside him, it seemed. His face was bitter; I had really managed to hurt him.
It was this look in his face that made me cry...and for the first time in our acquaintance, he did not attempt to comfort me. He was sitting next to me, like a stranger, driving the carriage, and let me cry.
This was our worst quarrel ever. It lasted for a few days. Although, thinking back, I cannot really call it a quarrel, because there were no arguments. There was - nothing. We did not talk to each other any more, unless we had to. Henry spent most of his time with Edgar Delaney, so as to be away from me. And I ... well, I spent most of my time with Susan, her children and my mother-in-law. I do not know what would have happened, had I not made the first move, at last. - I do not know either. I was determined not to give in.
Every evening when we were alone, there was silence. Not just silence - freezing silence. It was terrible - I loved Henry, and being treated like this broke my heart. The worst thing was that I knew I had been wrong, but I did not want to admit it. Had I done that, perhaps everything would have been different - but perhaps not. I do not think we were ready for reconciliation so soon - we had both been hurt so badly that we needed some time to recover.
It was my mother-in-law who started the subject, four days after our visit in Searingham. We were in Susan's garden, where she was tending to the roses (ROSES, of all flowers!). I helped her with her gardening, and so did little Mary, who had by now become quite fond of me. Henry had gone off to visit some acquaintance or other, he had not told me where he was going.
Suddenly, my mother-in-law said, "Mary, dear, can you do Grandmama a favour? Go to the kitchen and get Auntie Sophia and me a cup of tea, will you? But stay with Millie to make sure the tea is made the way I like it. I know you can do that."
Mary was always ready to be of assistance, and ran towards the house.
"And do not run," Mother shouted. "A lady should never run!"
Then she turned to me. "I know I am not supposed to interfere with your affairs, my dear, and I promise I am not going to. I was only wondering what has happened between Henry and you in Searingham."
I looked at her, all astonishment. She had noticed?
"You seem surprised that I noticed, Sophia," she went on, guessing my thoughts. "But I could hardly fail to perceive that you were both extremely unhappy."
"Oh, Mother," I sobbed, and started to cry. She put an arm round my shoulder, and led me to a garden bench to sit down. There, she waited until I had recovered some of my composure, and then said, "Come now, my dear. Tell me. I know you need to talk about it."
She listened to my narrative patiently, nodding now and then, but not uttering a single word. I was glad she did not interrupt me with her advice, that she did not want to make me listen to her before I had finished talking.
"What shall I do? I have a feeling as if ... I do not know how to express myself, but it feels as if Henry is growing more distant every day. I am afraid of losing him..."
I started to cry again.
Mother sighed, and said, soothingly, "There, there, my dear. I am sure everything will be fine again."
"But how? He refuses to talk to me."
"I did not say it would be easy, Sophia. I know my son. But you will be able to solve your problems if you keep your mind to it. He loves you, and he suffers just as much as you do. I know that. All you need is time and patience."
"But I cannot go on like that."
"Of course you cannot, and I did not say you should." She smiled.
"But you said that with time and patience..."
"I know what I said. Listen, my dear, what you need to do first is talk to Henry. Do not say he does not speak to you, you already told me. Knowing my son as well as I do, I think he is just waiting for you to apologise."
"Yes. Henry is not usually a proud man, not in the negative sense of the word. He does not think himself superior to others in any way. But he does have pride in one respect. He is proud of his integrity - and you hurt his pride by doubting it. If you want your quarrel to end, you will have to apologise."
"That will be all?"
She laughed. "No, it is not that easy, my dear. As I said before, you will need time and patience, too. But with your apology, you can make a start. Go for a walk with him, my dear. Somewhere out of town, where you can be by yourself. Of course you cannot discuss such matters at an inn."
Now Mary appeared in the garden, carefully carrying a tray. Millie was walking behind her to make sure she did not spill the tea.
"I think we will need that now, Sophia. Dry your tears, and have some tea."
I do not know if my mother-in-law talked with Henry about that matter. - She did not. She knew that I would have been too ... proud to accept her help, Sophy.
That evening, after dinner, I went over to Henry and put my hand on his shoulder. It cost me a lot of strength to do that - it is hard to admit that one has been wrong, even if one knows it.
"Henry," I asked, with a faltering voice. I hoped he would answer...but what if he did not?
He folded his newspaper and sighed. "Yes?"
"Henry...we need to talk."
He was not going to make it easy for me, that was sure. I could not blame him; I had hurt him too much.
"Do you not think so, too?" I asked him, quietly.
"What is the use in talking, Sophy?" He did not sound angry, or bitter, just sad.
"Shall we go for a walk, Henry? I do not want to discuss the matter here."
He looked at me doubtingly. "You are in earnest?"
"What did you think, Henry? I do not want to go on like this."
He put his newspaper on the table and got up. "Fine. Let us walk, then."
It took us some time until we had left the town behind us. I did not know how to start the topic...it was so difficult, and Henry did nothing to make the situation easier for me. He silently walked next to me, and kept his eyes to the surrounding scenery. There was only one object all around him he did not look at - and that was me.
I was such a brute then, was I not? - Come on, Admiral, you know you were not. You were suffering...
Finally, we reached a low wall and I sat down. For a moment, Henry seemed to be uncertain if he should sit down next to me, but then he did.
"Henry..." I started, looking at him. He looked into my eyes, and although he did not say a word, I knew that he still loved me. Somewhere behind the sadness and disappointment, there was this spark I knew so well. Suddenly, it all became very easy.
"Henry, I am sorry for treating you the way I did the other day. I never had any reason to doubt you, and I should not have doubted you then. Can you forgive me?"
"Can I forgive you? Of course I can," he answered. "There are worse things I could forgive you, I suppose, only..." He stopped.
"Will you forgive me, Henry?"
He did not answer my question. Instead, he said, "You know, Sophy, it is very hard for a man to find out that his wife does not trust him. Especially if he does not know what he has done to deserve mistrust. Have I ever before given you the impression that you could not rely on me?"
"No, Henry. Never."
"Well then... how did that happen? What made you suddenly believe that I was lying to you? What reason did you think I had for lying?"
"I do not know, Henry, honestly, I do not."
"That was what hurt me most, Sophy. I could not understand you - I did not know what had hit me. That accusation struck me out of the blue."
"I am sorry."
He looked at me earnestly. "There are some things I have to apologise for, as well, Sophy. The way I treated you the last few days was abominable, and there is no excuse for it. I can only try to explain my reasons, and hope that you will be able to forgive me, too. If I did not speak to you, or stayed away from you, it was for no other reason than that I did not trust myself to... talk to you about what has happened. I knew that if I said something, you would have picked up the topic, and I was...mortally afraid of it. Afraid of hearing your opinion of me, which seemed to be so bad. There is no excuse for acting the way I did, Sophy."
"There is no excuse for acting the way I did, either, Henry."
For the first time in days, there was something like a smile in his face, even if it only lasted one instant.
"It is getting cooler, Sophy. We should walk back, or you will catch a cold."
...or you will catch a cold... He was worried about me? There was still hope, then.
I got up, and we went back into the direction of the town.
"Are you going to tell me your story now, Henry," I asked.
"Are you going to believe it, Sophy? Because if you are not, it is better for me not to tell you."
"I am going to believe it."
"All right then. I met Viola Fitzgerald for the first time a week before Susan's wedding. There was an assembly here in Taunton, and I danced with her. I also danced with other young ladies as well, of course, but we are not talking about them. She was a friend of Edgar's sister Mary. Now, for some reason or other, Mary Delaney had set her mind on matchmaking. She wanted Viola and me to fall in love with each other."
He paused, trying to recollect those past events, it seemed.
"I need not tell you that such schemes hardly ever work, Sophy. If they did, you would be Mrs Andrew Williams by now."
"Oh, please, Henry, do not mention him!"
"Why not? Why should I not be jealous, too, Sophy?"
"Jealous of Mr Williams?"
"Is there anyone I should be jealous of, Sophy?" He gave me a searching look.
"No, there is no one!"
"You see? And there is no one you need to be jealous of in my case. Well, let me go on with my tale. Somehow Mary Delaney convinced her friend that I was violently in love with her - which was not true. I did not even like her very much - but this is not a thing a gentleman would usually tell a lady, would he?
Now, as soon as a girl at that age is convinced that a man is in love with her, he will not be able to convince her of the opposite - he may do whatever he likes. And I was not even aware of the fact that I was supposed to be in love with her. I treated her in the manner I treated every woman - with due respect and civility. When we met, I talked to her - no more than was proper, but it was sufficient to establish her firm belief that I would soon ask her to marry me."
"But certainly you must have noticed some signs of affection in her, Henry."
"None at all, Sophy. Even though I was only twenty, and rather inexperienced with women, I think I would have noticed if a girl had doted on me."
"Well, what happened?"
"The wedding. At the wedding, she met my cousin Francis and determined that he was a better catch than me. Two weeks after Susan's wedding, they were engaged. I remember how she tried to break the bad news to me. It was as if she was announcing her own funeral. That was the first time I had a suspicion that she might think I was fond of her. Well, all I did was wish her and Francis all the best, and the matter was resolved, as far as I was concerned. My cousin was going to marry Viola Fitzgerald - fine with me.
I was at sea when they married, and I suppose that my not being present at her wedding made her feel even more certain of my feelings for her. Probably she thought my broken heart had made me leave England forever - instead I was going to Jamaica with Captain Burke. That was a trip that would have cured a broken heart, anyway. You do not know Admiral Burke yet, do you? He is an absolutely no-nonsense man, so on board his ship there is no time for heartache."
I laughed. "Henry, really..."
"Well, I do not know what Viola thought. Probably she did not think at all, or she would not have told you that ... story about us being in love with each other, and me harbouring some grudge for Francis on her account. This is complete and utter ... no, I am not going to say it."
"It is not true, you mean."
"You could translate it that way, yes."
"Henry, I was completely stupid to believe that story."
"Oh, I am sure Viola believes that it was so. I do not think she lied to you on purpose. She is not clever enough to do something like that. And, of course, the story sounded convincing. She believed it herself, so why should you not? I only wish you had given me the chance to explain my point of view."
"I wish so, too, Henry. How much pain I could have spared myself...and you."
He sighed. "That evening, when we were going back to Taunton and you were sitting next to me, crying...I so much wanted to comfort you, Sophy, but I could not bring myself to do it."
By now, it was getting dark, and a cool wind was blowing across the fields. I drew my shawl closer around my shoulders.
"One more thing, Henry. How do you know that Mary Delaney tried to match you with Viola Fitzgerald?"
"Oh, Susan mentioned it one day. But that was years after the whole thing had happened. So, the reason why I did not tell you about Viola before was that I did not believe it was important, Sophy."
I nodded. "Now that I know the story, Henry, I know it was not important. But I hope you will not blame me for being jealous...the thought of some woman falling in love with you is not so absurd, is it?"
"You are flattering me, Madam. But the thought of me falling in love with some woman is absurd, and I blame you for that."
"I am silly, am I not?" I asked, abashed.
"You are still young," Henry answered, with a smile. "You'll learn. And so will I."
Well, what more can I say? There is nothing left I could tell you...
We left Taunton a few days after that, to go aboard the Leander. I still feel infinitely obliged to my mother-in-law; I do not know what might have become of our marriage without her. Though no one can take the place of one's real mother, she did her best to do so for me. She helped me, encouraged me, in many things. Elizabeth Croft was an exceptional woman - just as much as her son is an exceptional man.
Looking back now, after five-and-twenty years of marriage, I have to say that I have been very lucky, and I have many things to be thankful for.
I am thankful for my husband ... a man who has always, ALWAYS tried to do everything to make me happy. He did not promise too much the day he asked me to marry him... I could be the right man for you if you'd just let me try...
So he said, and he was right. I am glad I let him try.
I am also thankful that misfortune has, so far, kept away from us. We have never had any children, which is sad, but it would have been worse - INFINITELY worse - to have children and to lose them. I know many people who have lost children, through sickness, or accidents... I could not have borne such a thing, I am sure.
We can afford a comfortable life now - although I suspect that the Admiral wishes it to be less comfortable, sometimes. I know he longs to go back to sea, and if he does, I shall be with him. As elegant and luxurious Kellynch Hall may be, living here alone would not make it better for me than that cottage we had in Deal.
I do not mind going to sea again...I still have not seen the West Indies, you know.
Another thing I am thankful for. When I was young, I would never have believed that I would ever see so much of the world. I would have loved to travel around, and to see things - Colonel Kennington was right about that - but I could not imagine the places I would really see. At that time, going to London would have been a journey far beyond my expectations and means. It was my marriage with the Admiral that made it possible for me, and I can only recommend travelling to every couple in my acquaintance. Do so, if you get the chance! There is nothing more pleasant than sitting together, on a dark winter evening, years later, and starting a conversation like, "Do you remember that evening in Lisbon?"
It is important to have many memories to share, believe me.
I am also happy and thankful on my brothers' account. Both of them have found happiness - Edward is still settled in Shropshire, with his wife and children, and they are all enjoying perfect health. He is very content in his profession, and well respected and liked by everyone. As for Frederick - I never had any doubt that he would make his way in the world. His career ran smoothly all the time. The only thing I was ever worried about ... but no, this is another story, and I shall tell it some other time, perhaps. Everything has turned out fine, that is all you need to know at the moment.
I thank you for being so patient with me, for listening to me telling my story. We shall meet again some time, I hope...in the meantime, good-bye.
© 2001 Copyright held by author