JA quotes and intro

"I should infinitely prefer a book." -- Chapter 39, Pride and Prejudice
"...I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit..." -- Chapter 8, Pride and Prejudice
"I shall be glad to have the library to myself as soon as may be." -- Chapter 20, Pride and Prejudice

Thanks for dropping by! Titles are below and to the right, under the following headings:
The Trouble of Practising | Longer fiction
The Result of Previous Study | Challenge entries and stories based on others' prompts (or simply others' prompting)
Impulse of the Moment | Short stories written on a whim
Drabbles | Snapshots, usually 100 words but occasionally more, and usually based on a prompt
The Alcove | Writings other than Jane Austen fanfictionNewest Post: All Six Senses (and All F
Note: Some stories include direct quotes from Austen's works, and there is the occasional nod to one or other of the adaptations.

Most Recent Posts:
A Great Coxcomb, Parts 1 - 5 (May-July 2017)
A Little Alteration: Mrs. Forster's Friend (October 2016)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Great Coxcomb, Part 5

Elinor would have to wait to sit alone and have a proper cry. She rang for more tea, pressed her sister to eat, and tried her hardest to convince Marianne that Edward was not a rogue.

“How could he have trifled with your feelings like that?”

“He was not acting by design,” Elinor insisted. “He has been imprudent, that is all. He could hardly have known what he would come to feel for me! Even so, he made me no promises, and there was something in his manner that convinced me he could not, long before I discovered the reason.”

“What was he thinking? There seems to be no love lost on either side.”

Elinor smirked because she could not help it. “People fall for a pretty face every day.” Lucy was not without her attractions, and Marianne had certainly fallen for Willoughby before discovering what that handsome exterior concealed.

Marianne's next words showed she had missed both the smirk and the implication. “He was wrong, Elinor. All men are! They are all evil.”

At that pronouncement, Elinor simply stared until Marianne looked away, the latter so caught up in her own thoughts as to be unaffected by the scrutiny.

“So the woman left him once she knew he would be poor? And he did nothing dishonourable himself in breaking off the engagement?”

“His brother witnessed the entire event. The lady was clearly at fault. She made it evident she had no affection for him and felt no obligation to him. She was, in fact, willing to form a second alliance without properly ending the first. Since her arrangement with Edward had not been announced or sanctioned, it was simple enough to dissolve in light of her behaviour.”

“Then Mrs. Ferrars ought to reverse what she has done.”

“She cannot, as I understand it. The estate is now Robert's to do with as he pleases.”

“She may not be able to give Edward the estate, but surely she has money enough to relieve his poverty!”

“Undoubtedly, but Edward would still refuse to marry Miss Morton, which was the cause of the breach.”

Marianne stayed quiet for so long that Elinor allowed her thoughts to drift into daydreams. She was startled out of them by her sister's voice.

“You must have been as shocked as I was to hear today that Edward was engaged! How can you be so calm?”

“Oh, this was not fresh news. That the engagement is over was—is—a shock to me, I own, but I have known of its existence for some months now.”

“Some months! How? Did Edward write to you? Did he tell you when he was at Barton? No wonder he was so low then!” She turned swiftly round and said angrily, “You have known for months, and you never said a word? To me? To Mama?” Her anger cooled as quickly as it had flared. “Another day, I would have said it was because it meant little to you. I would have said your affection for Edward was hardly a grand passion! But that was before I saw you in tears and watched Edward's brother fret over you! His voice was so strong that it woke me. I had to come down and see what was the matter. I had been so certain it was Edward himself! I suppose I ought not be surprised that they sound a little alike.” Marianne continued to look annoyed when she asked, “But how is it you knew of the engagement for so long?”

“I was told in confidence, and certainly not by Edward. He would have been kinder.” Elinor was unable to keep the bitterness from her tone. “The knowledge was forced upon me, rather cruelly, I thought. I would not have wished such knowledge, such misery, on myself.”

Bewilderment replaced the coolness in Marianne's expression and voice as she said, “Who did this to you?”

Elinor could no longer withhold the intelligence that Lucy Steele was the woman involved.

Marianne's indignation and astonishment burst forth in the most abusive language. She begged Elinor to speak in detail, and she listened to her account with rapt attention: of enduring that woman's attacks for months; of lamenting Edward's having been bound to Lucy before he had discovered her true character; of the way Robert had stumbled upon part of the truth and ferreted out the rest. All was revealed. Marianne could only wonder and exclaim that Edward had attached himself to such a thoroughly unamiable woman. She allowed the inexperience of youth and his blindness to Lucy's scheming nature to be some excuse, but she could not clear him of all blame in the matter.

“I do not know how I shall forgive him for injuring you,” Marianne said after they had sat in silence for a time. “Lucy is not worth bothering to forgive. Yet I must try to pardon Edward, for he has been made to suffer greatly in all this! If Lucy knew he was partial to you, she must have made him even more miserable and dissatisfied than he already was with her.” She grasped Elinor's hand. “But I do wish you had given up your scruples and confided in me. You would have done better to have let me share in your grief!”

“My own cares were hardly the only ones I bore then,” Elinor said, and she saw how strongly Marianne was still affected by what had passed between her and Willoughby in the deep flush that overspread the latter's cheeks. “How selfish would it have been for me to have sought your sympathy while you suffered as you did?”

“That only makes my selfishness more grievous. I left you to the kindness of a near stranger for the consolation you should have had from your own family. Oh, Elinor!” Marianne cried, and many tears and fervent expressions of apology followed.

“This brother, who has become the heir,” Marianne said many minutes later in a much subdued tone, “is inclined to help Edward?”

“He is,” said Elinor. She smiled despite her weariness. “I think when you know Mr. Robert Ferrars better,” she told Marianne, “you will like him very much.”

~*~

The following morning, rather earlier than Robert had called the previous day, Elinor once more heard the sure sounds of a visitor. Having readied herself before her sister and Mrs. Jennings, she had just poured her tea and taken a few sips when the door was opened by a servant. In the next instant, she found herself stood face to face with Edward.

Robert had accompanied him, and he stepped forward to greet her.

Elinor willed herself out of her sense of shock. “You might join us for breakfast,” she suggested. “The others will be down shortly.” She turned back to her place and gestured to the empty chairs.

“Miss Dashwood, may I have a word, please?” Edward said, not moving. “Please?” he repeated when Elinor stopped and looked at him.

Robert cheerfully said he would await them there while Edward, in uncharacteristic forwardness, placed Elinor's hand on his arm and escorted her out of the room.

Elinor directed him to the library, the place she thought most likely under normal circumstances to remain unoccupied the whole of the morning. Once there behind closed doors, she was too uneasy to sit. Edward did not even attempt it; for half a minute, he paced, stopping at intervals to stare at her.

Finally, he spoke. “Now that I have you to myself, there is so much to say that I know not where to begin.” His anxious smile quickly turned into a grimace. “You know all my secrets, do you not? I understand Robert has spared me the humiliation of relaying to you whatever things you had not already heard.”

“He told me quite a lot.” She frowned. “He said you witnessed that woman's falseness.”

“It was a welcome sight.” He sighed, and then a new light appeared in his eyes—a more determined, more penetrating look than she had seen from him before. “That is not exactly right. I should say that the only pain I felt was in knowing that at nineteen years old, I had been susceptible to such empty flattery. I ought to have exhibited more sense than that.

“Lucy's actions aside, I want you to know I had arrived at Fanny's determined to end the engagement. At first I meant only to offer Lucy the opportunity to cry off, but the more I considered the situation, the more convinced I was that it simply must end. Continuing as we were would have been fair to no one. Reflection had given me this conviction, and Robert's support had given me the courage to act on it.” His slight smile held a depth of gratitude and satisfaction. “My brother has done me a kindness I can never repay.”

“Your brother is kind.”

You are kind, so kind as to care for my feelings when I must have wounded yours. I could hardly believe it when Robert said you wished to be assured that I was well! I thought you would be very angry with me.”

“I did feel anger, but I could not sustain it while allowing that you had done your best to behave as a gentleman should.”

“You are entirely too good to me. You are everything good.”

“No,” she said. “That is impossible.”

“You are!” Edward said in a rare impassioned tone. “You must know I think you everything good, and I now know a little about real goodness and the mere appearance of it—not just from others' behaviour, but from my own. To agree to see me again after all that has passed! What does that say of your heart?”

He walked right up to her and stopped mere inches away, looking at her so intensely and so strangely that he did not seem like himself. “You say you are not angry, but you cannot deny I have been wrong. Can you forgive me, Elinor?” he asked.

Elinor nodded. She could not do otherwise. She almost felt as if he were embracing her. In another moment, he was, and she understood something of the vastness between almost and actually so.

“I am sorry,” Edward said in a rush, “for having met anyone before you, for having thought I loved anyone before you. I must have been mad.”

“How delightfully irrational.” She wanted to tease him further, to laugh even, but she said nothing else. His own words had taken her breath away, and when she regained it, his actions robbed her of it once more.

“Marry me,” he said in a voice steadier than it had a right to be, considering the tentative, innocent nature of his kiss. Edward was not a clumsy person, and he was too happy at the moment for awkwardness or nervousness to impede any effort of his. Elinor credited it to inexperience. Had being engaged not provided him that sort of education? Elinor was pleased to imagine it had not, that Lucy might have denied certain liberties in order to retain her allure or to protect her reputation during the secret engagement.

Perhaps Lucy simply had not been eager to share that particular intimacy with a man for whom she felt no real affection. Whatever the cause, Elinor could almost be grateful to her for it.

“Marry me,” Edward said again in that resonant, intelligible hum of a voice she had heard at times when he was most at his ease. His mouth slid from its place near her ear and meandered across her cheek. He kissed her once more, more confidently this time, before she could answer him.

Her reply was given as steadily as his question, though the “yes” was just above a whisper.

He is mine, she thought. He is mine.

They taught each other then, improving apace as the minutes passed and no one bothered to peek into the room where they were. Finally they heard Robert's voice, followed by Marianne's.

“I know they are here somewhere.”

“I have looked everywhere.”

Elinor and Edward broke apart as the door opened. Sister went at once to sister, and brother to brother, to deliver good news and receive good wishes in return. Elinor was relieved to see no hint of coolness from Marianne towards Edward.

They left the library smiling, talking and laughing together, and they all sat down to breakfast with their hostess. Mrs. Jennings herself seemed as giddy as the young people to welcome to her home not only Miss Dashwood's “Mr. F,” whom she recalled from his brief visit to Barton Cottage months ago, but his charming brother as well.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Great Coxcomb, Part 4

Elinor heard a guest enter the house. She believed it must be a guest and not Mrs. Jennings returning, for Mrs. Jennings was not particularly forgetful or one to turn back in a flurry for whatever trifling thing she might have unintentionally left behind her.

It was early for callers, however. Who, then, might be walking through the door? Lucy and her sister, fleeing Fanny's home? She dearly hoped not.

Edward? She dared not hope.

Unsettled at the thought of either prospect, she could sit no longer. She got up, walked to the door of the parlour just as it opened—and saw Robert Ferrars.

“My dear Miss Dashwood. Alone again!”

“Mrs. Jennings just left.”

“Yes,” he drawled. “I watched her out of the house.”

“You what?”

“Do you want her to hear what I came to tell you?”

Elinor frowned. “Probably not,” she conceded.

“Besides, I understand she is cousin to Miss Steele and her sister and therefore might not like what I have to say. Or what I have done, for that matter. But first, have you had any news from Harley Street?”

“Sir John Middleton said Miss Steele and Miss Lucy are decided favourites with Fanny.”

“I have seen Fanny's esteem for them myself.”

“And Lucy may have written once or twice.”

“Ah—now we come to it.”

“I suspect you have much to tell. Are congratulations in order?”

Robert looked at her sharply. “What do you mean?”

“I understand you have lately come into possession of an estate.”

“Ah. That. Yes, I now have a home in Norfolk. It is rather exciting, and though it is not a cottage, it will do nicely for my purposes.”

Elinor laughed despite everything and watched Robert relax. She rang for tea. As it was brought in, she was of two minds whether to call her sister down. Though she preferred to talk to Robert alone, she hated to risk an awkward interruption. In the end she went upstairs and was relieved to find Marianne, who had rested little each night since learning of Willoughby's betrayal, sleeping soundly. Elinor returned on light feet to the parlour and tea and Robert's news, which she was unabashedly eager to hear.

“I was pleased, in all my dealings with these Steele sisters,” Robert said with a warm smile and a look free from any affectation, “to find Nancy Steele such a friendly girl. Wonderful sense of fashion, makes much of the little she has to work with. Very useful, too. If she were a tad less vulgar—actually, a lot less vulgar—I might take a fancy to her, though she is several years my senior.”

Elinor stared. “Would you really?” she asked him.

“Oh, she is hardly the kind of girl you would seek for your particular friend, nor should you,” he said. “Entirely too inquisitive, does not know the meaning of delicacy, that sort of thing—but she notices every thing and remembers every thing, and I admire that. As for her person, she is as plain as her sister is pretty, but not being handsome myself, I can hardly hold it against her.” He smiled. “It matters not. According to Edward—according to the girl herself, I should almost say—she is in love with some doctor fellow.”

“Yes, one Doctor Davies.”

“I am of a mind to throw in his way some of my friends with invalids among their relations, especially the kind with too much money and too little imagination, that fancy themselves ill when they are merely discontented. I am certain I could find some for the purpose—to increase the man's income, give him that needed push to pluck Miss Steele from the pool of eligible ladies and save me from temptation.”

Elinor looked into Robert's eyes, which were alive with merriment. “So the fashionable, useful Miss Steele is a danger to your bachelorhood? Please continue. I am all curiosity.”

“Miss Steele's usefulness, in my recent endeavours, consisted mainly of her eagerness to engage in conversation with me. We talked so animatedly of fashion that her sister had a difficult time getting a word in.”

“And all the while, Lucy stared balefully at the two of you?”

He looked up and tilted his head. “Did she say that in her letters?”

“She did seem to feel the neglect.”

Robert's expression changed at once. “If that girl has any feelings, any proper feelings, that is, I will eat my hat. She is colder than Fanny. I am disgusted that she kept her claws in Edward for so many years. The poor boy thought she felt genuine affection for him. Without that misconception, he never would have let things go on as long as they did.”

Thought, you said?” she asked, holding onto the one word that had leapt out at her from his speech. “Do you mean he no longer thinks so?”

“Oh, yes.”

“What made him change his mind?”

“He saw the evidence himself.”

Elinor's mouth opened and closed again. Her own breathing suddenly sounded too loud to her; it was distracting. “I cannot imagine how he must have felt,” she said at last.

Robert smirked. “Do you wish to know how it came about?

“On my first call during the Steeles' visit, I sought to learn what I could in order to assist Edward. As you have learnt from your letters, I spoke a great deal with Nancy and very little with Lucy, who seemed to resent me for it. I also mentioned Edward's prospective match with Miss Morton. Fanny warmed to the subject immediately. Lucy did not like hearing her rival praised. She liked even less our claims that Edward's prospects would be blighted if he were to refuse the match.

“Later, I gave Edward my firm opinion that Lucy's interest reached only as far as his inheritance. He was reluctant to accept it. I insisted the matter must come to a head regardless, the sooner the better for all concerned. To this he agreed immediately. I recalled his ring, for he had shown it to me—you know the one of which I speak?”

Elinor nodded. “The one containing a lock of hair.”

“Yes. He never wears it in Mother's presence. I suggested he 'forget' to hide it and allow me to draw attention to it. He would have to do nothing but tell the truth while concealing only the name of his intended to protect her reputation. Oh, and withstand Mother's ire, of course. I would do the rest.”

Robert looked quite serious as he continued. “I warned him that he would lose his fortune, an unnecessary gesture because he knew very well it was true. My mother is not in the habit of brooking disappointment, and I could envision no way in which Edward might at once defy her and keep his position as heir. The threat of disinheriting him was not a new or idle one, and thus he was resigned to it.”

“What a choice!”

“It is hardly fair, I know. However, Edward decided to trust me, and I will honour that trust.” He looked steadily at her for several seconds.

Elinor began to feel uncomfortable, but she did not look away.

“I realise it looks as if I have used Edward's trouble for my advantage,” Robert said. “I have benefitted. It would be ridiculous to deny it. But I am determined that he will benefit as well.”

Elinor murmured something in acknowledgement.

“That ring. Let me see....Ah, yes. Edward wore it as we sat with Mother. I remarked on it and said the hair did not look like Miss Morton's, but it reminded me of the hair of some other woman I had lately made the acquaintance of. That was enough for Mother. She thought,” he began, and he hesitated.

Elinor said at once, “Mrs. Ferrars thought it was mine.” She recalled that day, months ago now, when she, too, had thought it was hers.

“Yes. The colour is very like.”

“It is,” she agreed and sipped her tea. How strange it was that they should sit together, drinking ordinary tea and eating ordinary cake while they talked of such extraordinary matters.

“Edward admitted,” continued Robert, “the lock of hair belonged to a woman to whom he had been betrothed for some years. 'Years!' I cried. 'Certainly not Miss Dashwood then. Do tell me this young lady at least has a larger fortune.' Forgive me; I only said such a thing to provoke my mother. 'She has a smaller one, actually,' Edward replied, 'for she has none at all.' Mother, having recovered from the initial shock enough for speech, offered him the Norfolk estate immediately, then two hundred more a year than it currently produces, then any and every thing she could think of—which was a very short list of purely financial incentives—to get him to forsake the wretched girl. Edward claimed as tempting as the offer was, he could not be persuaded to sever an engagement, not even a secret one, for money; and it would not answer Mother's purpose in any case, as he would never agree to marry Miss Morton.

“At that point, Mother was beside herself with fury, and nothing but a complete break from her wayward son and a revision of her will would suit her. We parted ways: Edward to an inn to wait out the dreadful business; Mother to her room, only to be summoned upon the arrival of her lawyer; and I?” He raised his brow and grinned devilishly. “I went to Fanny's.

“You would have thought I had rehearsed with Fanny, so well did she act her part! After having a chat with Nancy, I said to Fanny, 'Do you know Mother is determined to make me her heir to-day?' 'What!' Fanny cried. 'What ever has Edward done to displease her?' 'He has refused to marry Miss Morton,' I said. 'Is he out of his senses?' she wanted to know. 'He may well be,' I told her, all the while trying not to look too often at Lucy, who was growing white and red in the face by turns. I explained all about the ring. Fanny drew the same conclusion as Mother at first, until the length of the attachment convinced her it could not be the case. 'An easy mistake to make,' I said, 'for the hair is nearly the colour of Miss Dashwood's.' Then I looked at our dear girl with as surprised and admiring a glance as I could muster and added, 'It is a pretty shade and looks very like Miss Lucy's, I think.'”

“Did you?” said Elinor, rather surprised he would go so far. “How did Lucy behave? How in the world did she respond?”

“Lucy did not have the chance, for at that very moment, Fanny began to laugh.” Robert smiled as he recalled it. “She giggled, Miss Dashwood! My sister! 'Lucy!' she said. 'She would never presume!' Oh, my dear Miss Dashwood, Fanny went on and on! A girl with nothing to her name, from nowhere, daring to draw Edward in? What a tragedy it would be if it were not such a good joke!” Robert sat upright and pitched his voice to approximate his sister's. “'Lucy would not be so foolish for the world, not after all the attention my mother and I have condescended to pay her!'” he mimicked.

“Now here,” Robert said in his own voice, “is a part you may particularly like: Had it been you, it would be nothing to this, Fanny declared. She owned she would be disappointed but should hardly blush at the connection, what with your brother's being her husband, and you have some little fortune, though the whole would be but a tenth of Miss Morton's—she had to mention that. But a girl with nothing to recommend her, seeking to be the wife of Edward Ferrars! Fanny burst into laughter again and again. Poor Nancy was stupefied into silence, but Lucy...” Robert shook his head. “Lucy vacillated between laughing along with Fanny, as my sister clearly expected, and seething at Fanny because she could not help it.”

Elinor had placed her hand over her mouth at some point in the tale. She now moved it away. “No wonder Lucy was eager to escape Fanny's house. That is, until she had the idea to seek your...assistance, I suppose.”

“My assistance?” Robert's contorted face was almost comical, and his snort made Elinor start. “How did you know she wanted something from me? Lucky guess? Or was that in one of your letters too?”

“It was in the postscript of the one I received from her last evening.”

“Really? Perhaps yours was that note she was so anxious to have delivered when I last saw her. So you have heard all this before?”

“Very little of it. And your accounts differ considerably.”

“How?”

Elinor smiled. “For example, Lucy implied you might be well disposed towards her, in part because you paid particular attention to her hair.”

That made Robert laugh. “The girl has a positive talent for misrepresentation.” He looked at Elinor, shook his head, and laughed again. “It must have taken her some time to rearrange the truth into a happier fiction, for she certainly was in high dudgeon when I first left the house. I went back again that evening, as I had promised to do if Mother were to carry out her threat and make me her heir. But first I returned to Park Street, where there were papers to sign and assurances to avoid giving.” He leaned toward Elinor with a conspiratorial air. “I cannot marry Miss Morton either, for all her money. The lady has no sense of fashion!”

“Is Mrs. Ferrars never to gain Miss Morton for a daughter? What will she say when you tell her?”

“Quite a lot, I imagine, but there is nothing she can do about it. This cake,” he said, “looks delicious.”

“Mrs. Jennings employs a very good cook.”

Silence reigned as they both took a moment to appreciate the labours of Mrs. Jennings's kitchen staff.

“Where was I?” Robert asked when he had put down his fork.

“Signing papers?”

“Ah. Yes. Eventually, the lawyer left and Mother went to lie down. I took the opportunity to see Edward. I let slip to the coachman that I hoped to bring about a reconciliation with my brother, and he ought not to speak of it in the event that I failed. That done, he gave me no odd looks when I brought Edward out to the carriage with me, or when I ordered him to take us to Harley Street.

“I wanted Edward along, for I thought putting him in the same room with Fanny and Lucy might be more than one of them could bear—the secret would get out, and the disapproval would be too much for Lucy to withstand. Edward felt he ought to meet with Lucy and offer to release her now he had been disinherited. I did not care for Edward's idea, and he cared less for mine, but in the end we agreed to go to Fanny's together and see what would come of it.

“Our timing was fortunate. I went in first. The servant that admitted me went away again directly, and Edward entered the house unnoticed, which he wanted, for he hoped to stay out of Fanny's way until he had accomplished his goal. He disappeared into the back parlour—Fanny never sits there. I thought he would come right out again and ask me to send Lucy to him or some such nonsense, but he did not. I had just decided to follow him when I heard Lucy behind me. She had seen the carriage from her window and known what it meant. She held out her hand, and with a sad smile and a simpering voice, she offered her 'sincere congratulations' and asked to speak with me alone on a 'delicate subject,' as she called it.

“She had a letter with her—it must have been yours—and she had no trouble catching the attention of a passing footman and getting him to agree to deliver it immediately! Insinuating little—” He covered his next word with a cough.

“You need not guard your speech for my sake,” Elinor said.

Robert flashed a brief smile and rolled his eyes heavenward. “I imagine Lady Middleton was just as charmed by her as Fanny was?”

“Oh, yes.”

“The conceit of that girl—and I am hardly one to complain of another's conceit!”

Elinor tried to picture the scene: Robert standing in plain view; Edward somewhere in the shadows, perhaps hearing Lucy's attempts to charm the wrong brother. “I suppose,” she asked Robert, “when Lucy saw the carriage, she did not see Edward leave it?”

“I am quite certain she had no idea he was in the house.”

“And did she speak with you of this 'delicate subject'?”

“Ha! She spoke, but none too delicately in my opinion. I led the way to the dining room since the family were to dine out, and the room was sure to be empty. It had the added bonus of being very near the back parlour, and I could make certain we sat where Edward would hear us.

“I pulled out three chairs, for Nancy had come down too, but the third was not needed. There was a short, sharp exchange between the sisters, which Lucy won, and Nancy went off to the upper hall to watch for Fanny.”

“Lucy usually prevails over her sister,” Elinor said.

Robert stood up and began to pace. “Miss Dashwood, the moment Nancy left that room, I was subjected to some of the most ludicrous flirting I have ever witnessed. I tried to look any thing but disgusted, which was how I felt. I must have succeeded, for Lucy kept at it: leaning too close, touching too often, pouring out compliment after compliment and prodding me to do likewise (to no avail, of course). In short, she behaved in a way no girl attached to my brother ever would. Apparently, there can be no difference to her which man she marries, so long as he is in possession of the family fortune. Her little act might have fooled someone who did not know what she was about, but throughout it there was an air of self-satisfaction, of security, of triumph, that she could not suppress, or did not think to suppress. She had no doubt she would achieve her aim. Such was her presumption.

“She continued her performance until she was interrupted by a quiet cough. We turned to the door to see Edward stood there, eyes quite blank, expression devoid of feeling. Lucy squeaked like a mouse when she saw him.”

“Oh!” Elinor said in something like a squeak herself, trying to imagine the look on Edward's face, unable to bear the thought of standing in Lucy's stead and seeing him look at her without feeling, she who had grown so used to noting the smallest shift in his expression.

“Edward was masterful, Miss Dashwood! I wish you could had observed him yourself. 'You had better take this,' he said to Lucy, dropping the ring on the table, 'so you can bestow it on another.' He said it with just the right tone: utter boredom. Lucy sat with her mouth open, glancing between us and looking more frustrated and mortified by the second, until at last Edward walked away and quit the house.

“His leaving roused her to speak, but her words were nonsensical. She went on almost long enough for me to feel sorry for her, but then Nancy came down and spared me that, the dear girl. Fanny and John were ready to leave, which suited me, and I stayed only long enough to tell Fanny that Mother had indeed carried out her plans. Fanny's insincere congratulations were almost more than I could bear after the earlier scene. Miss Dashwood, I...I say, Miss Dashwood!”

Elinor heard Robert perfectly well, but she could not answer. Tears had begun flowing down her cheeks without her permission. It was odd, this feeling of satisfaction, almost elation, regarding Edward's freedom from Lucy, mixed as it was with fury and sadness for the humiliation and disrespect he endured in the accomplishment of it. Had Lucy one scrap of genuine affection for Edward, there might have been some excuse.

“Let me...Miss Dashwood, I apologise. I had not thought how shocking the news might be.”

Robert left her side, and she heard him summoning a servant. A minute or two later, he was back, pressing a glass of wine into her hand. She had taken only a sip when she heard footsteps and then Marianne's sleepy voice.

“I thought I heard Edward. Elinor? Elinor! Are you ill? What has happened?”

“Marianne,” Elinor said, composing herself, “permit me to introduce Mr. Robert Ferrars.”

“Edward's brother!” Marianne said before the courtesies were complete. “Has something happened to Edward?” she asked Robert, looking at him and her sister and back again. “Oh, dear Elinor!” She grasped her sister's hand.

Elinor managed to keep from spilling her wine. She put it down and convinced Marianne to sit. “It is nothing dreadful,” she assured her sister.

“The dreadful parts are over, in any case,” Robert amended with a wry smile. “Shall I tell her?” he asked.

Elinor nodded.

“How much does she know?”

“None of it, I would think.”

“I shall limit myself to essentials, then. Miss Marianne,” he said, turning to her, “my brother has suffered a great reversal of circumstances. My mother has disowned him. She discovered he had been engaged, secretly, for some years, and he would not dissolve the engagement in order to betroth himself to Miss Morton. As a result, Edward is no longer Mother's heir. As a result of having been disinherited, he is no longer engaged either.”

Marianne let out a shriek of a sound. “What! Has he thrown you over, Elinor? I thought you were not engaged to him!”

“I was not.”

“Then who?” She spun about to face Robert, and her face contorted in confusion. “Did you say years? To whom?”

Elinor looked at Robert and shook her head very slightly.

“It does not matter who the lady was,” Robert said, “for Edward's engagement ended with the loss of his prospects. The lady decided to try her luck elsewhere.”

Marianne was silent only for a moment. “Then Edward is free,” she said. “But he was engaged? Even while he was with us at Norland? I cannot believe it! Elinor,” she said, turning to her sister, “he cannot love her, whoever she is. How could he, when—”

Marianne paled and sank back into her chair. “Another Willoughby,” she whispered.

“No, not that!” Elinor said. Never that, she thought.

“Miss Marianne,” said Robert, “if you refer to Mr. John Willoughby, recently married, I can assure you my brother does not share that man's habits.”

Elinor looked at Marianne and knew she would very soon have to take on the role of comforter despite being in want of comfort herself. She wished the interview to end. Marianne was distraught, Robert was agitated, and she—she did not yet know what she was. One more thing, however, she must know. “What of Edward? Is he,” she began but did not know how to conclude. “Is he well?” she said, unsatisfied with her insipid question. If she even knew what to ask, would Robert know the answers?

“You want to know how Edward does.” Robert closed his eyes and shook his head, and then opened his eyes again and smiled at her. “My dear Miss Dashwood. You sit there, tears barely dry, having heard things no one wants to hear concerning a man you esteem, told you by his great coxcomb of a brother who is too caught up in his storytelling to see what a strain on you all this has been, and yet you want to know how Edward does.”

Robert approached Elinor. He took her hand in his and kissed it. Then he leaned in and said too quietly for Marianne to hear, “I believe no one could tell you better than Edward himself. He will come to you. It cannot be long now.”

Urging her to take heart, Robert bade Elinor an affectionate farewell, bowed to Marianne, and left.


Next

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Great Coxcomb, Part 3

The next day when Elinor informed Mrs. Jennings of her desire to remain at home, the latter baulked. “You can't mean to be shut up in this house alone! And what will Mary do without you to entertain her?”

“I will call on Lady Middleton again once her present company has left her, but for now, she and her guests have much to do. You may recall, ma'am, that Miss Steele and Miss Lucy are to go to my brother's house tomorrow, and they have had little time to prepare for their removal.”

“Aye,” she conceded. “There is something in that. Mary takes her time when organising her things, not to mention the children's, for any sort of journey, and Charlotte an't much better. Perhaps my cousins are more like my daughters than you Dashwood ladies—I declare I never saw such female efficiency in my life as when you and your sister made ready to leave Barton! How dull Mary will be when the girls have gone, and how happy to see you and Miss Marianne again!” She smiled, gathered the last of her things, and moved toward the door. “Well, it is good of you to give them time to be about their business, though I don't see how you would be any thing but a help to them. If I was you, I would go just the same, never mind the collecting of bandboxes and packing of trunks.”

A few more demurrals later, Elinor saw Mrs. Jennings on her way.

A convenient headache of Marianne's and a day or so of steady rain guaranteed the reprieve Eleanor was determined to have from Mrs. Jennings's relations. Not even Mrs. Jennings herself pressed the matter under such circumstances.

Elinor did not entirely escape the Steeles, however. Lucy, in defiance of the weather, sent word to Berkeley Street by way of the two-penny post before she had been with the Dashwoods two full days:

My Dear Miss Dashwood,

You will be delighted to know, I am sure, that me and Anne are happily settled with your dear brother and sister. Their welcome has been every thing charming! If only Edward was here, my happiness would be complete. I have only known a moment of uneasiness—I know I will have your sympathy when I tell you who did come to Harley Street today. Mr. Robert Ferrars called on your sister, having nothing else to do on a Sunday afternoon. He brought particular greetings from Mrs. Ferrars, which was prodigiously civil of him and her. Mrs. Ferrars is such a kind woman, and I am fortunate to have gained her notice! However, it was very hard to look upon the man who will get all Edward's fortune if Mrs. Ferrars is not pleased with his choice of wife. He does not look as if he could ever deserve it, or if he would care how unfair it would be. I am glad he spent the visit talking to Anne and not to me, or I might have said something uncivil. Again, I can only be vastly happy to have Mrs. Ferrars's favour.

Think of me, Miss Dashwood, and remember me to your sister and Mrs. Jennings and to Lady Middleton when you call on her next.

Yours, etc.,
Lucy Steele
A slow, rumbling laugh welled up in Elinor, and it was all she could do to subdue it and keep its sound from attracting the attention of Marianne and the servants. Never would she have believed there was such pleasure to be had from one of Lucy's letters!

Lucy's vanity, nurtured by Edward's reluctance to terminate the engagement, and recently fed to bursting by Mrs. Ferrars's unwarranted favour and Fanny's surprising invitation, would not now quietly bear being neglected, starved even, by the impudence of Robert Ferrars! Surely, having conquered every other member of the Ferrars family, Lucy would not rest until Robert was also in her power!

“Oh, you poor, unsuspecting girl, you have met your match indeed!” she mumbled through her muted laughter. “You could not have foreseen this!” Gathering paper and pen, she amused herself with the idea of directing her reply to Miss Anne Steele instead.

In the end, the letter that made its way to Harley Street (“I have received your last, and I do pity you more than you know,” etc.) was addressed to Miss Lucy Steele. While Elinor took much encouragement and even delight from what Robert Ferrars had done, she could not yet bring herself to make his behaviour a model for her own.

~*~

Elinor soon called on Lady Middleton. As uninteresting as that lady's society was, the prospect of half an hour in her company could only be improved by the absence of the Steeles; assured of that gain, Elinor felt equal to resuming the duties of civility.

Marianne refused to accompany her. “Go if you like,” Marianne told her, “but I shall not. We have spent enough tedious hours there. It is not as if Lady Middleton calls on us here.”

Elinor could not dispute the latter point.

Sir John was at home, He and Lady Middleton spoke of Miss Steele and Miss Lucy at length—or, rather, Sir John spoke at length and his wife nodded—and the former brought fresh news of them from his recent visits to Harley Street. “The girls are decided favourites with your sister,” he told Elinor. Then he turned to his wife. “Mrs. Dashwood says she will call on you soon, Mary, and bring the girls with her, and Harry as well, to play with William and Annamaria.”

“How delightful!” said Lady Middleton, who then fell silent for the next several minutes. Elinor took it upon herself to supply nods and gentle assents while Sir John expressed the hope that summer might see them all, along with a great many other young people in their part of Devonshire, often making merry at Barton Park.

Before long, Elinor received more news from Harley Street without being required to call there to procure it. Lucy spared her the trouble with the following letter, delivered one evening by one of the Dashwoods' servants:

Dear Miss Dashwood,

I hope that you will forgive any offence, but I must express my great surprise and disappointment that some of your family are not as amiable as I had first supposed. When we last met, you spoke of how well your sister and me would get on. I thought you was in earnest; I hope you was not trying to mislead me. I do not know how much longer Anne and me can be comfortable in Harley Street after the scene we have gone through here.

I will not bother with how we came to speak of the subject, but Mrs. Dashwood made it clear only a lady with Miss Morton's connections and fortune will do for her brother. There was something in her tone I did not like. I can only think some hint of my situation must have got out. At first I wondered if I was deceived in your friendship, but then I remembered that Mrs. Ferrars is not friendly toward you, and Mrs. Dashwood told me herself she is not at all close to you or your sister. Edward would not choose to betray our secret, but his brother's words must mean something has happened. That man called here again and talked as if he will be his mother's heir by the end of the day, and Edward will be completely cut off! I would not be shocked to find Mr. Robert Ferrars is behind the whole thing. I cannot ask Edward. I am afraid to so much as write while all is in uproar.

Perhaps you can speak to Mrs. Jennings about us visiting with her or returning to Lady Middleton's house, but do not put yourself to the trouble if you had rather not. I count myself fortunate even to be able to write to you of my difficulties. Anne and me are happy to find we still have some friends after this trying day.

Yours sincerely,
Lucy Steele
Beneath those words were several more lines, uneven and untidy, apparently scrawled in haste:
P.S. Do not speak to Mrs. Jennings yet. Mr. Robert Ferrars has returned to tell us Edward is nothing and he is the heir now, with an estate settled on him! I have decided to throw myself on his mercy. I must hope he will be kinder than his sister and mother. He looked at me and spoke to me more to-day than before. He even took particular notice of how I had done my hair. Perhaps only the women of the family have hard hearts, and I may yet have some influence over the men.
Elinor allowed her anger and disgust at so blatant a mercenary manoeuvre to wash over her for a moment. Lucy's obvious intent of injuring her she barely acknowledged, so inured to that woman's hostility had she become.

She directed her attention to the page again and stared down at this proof that Edward's disfavour had made Robert an independent man. Her hands shook a little. Would Robert be satisfied as things stood and leave Edward to shift for himself? Elinor felt some hope that Lucy's engagement might now come to an end—it seemed the girl was all too ready to throw Edward over for his wealthier brother—but how likely was Lucy to let go of one man before securing the other? In any case, Elinor could not be easy while she knew nothing of how Edward fared.

Her concern must have been apparent, for Mrs. Jennings, who had handed her the letter and knew it was from Lucy, asked what was the matter.

“I am not sure there is any thing truly wrong, Ma'am,” Elinor prevaricated carefully while looking at the letter again and choosing what to reveal. “It is certainly nothing urgent, though it seems Lucy and her sister may be leaving Harley street sooner than they expected.” It could not hurt to prepare Mrs. Jennings for change in that quarter; it did appear some sort of change was imminent. “I had believed them fixed there for several weeks.” She put the letter aside, away from her hostess's curious eyes. “But it is of no matter. I imagine Lucy will write and tell us where they will go next.”

“Oh! Will she and Nancy return to those cousins in Bartlett Buildings, then?” asked Mrs. Jennings. “And an't it right that they should! They have been flitting from place to place since they arrived in town, popular as they are. I suppose they ought to spend some time with the party that brought them here.” She laughed. “That Lucy has charm. She's a right pretty thing, and Nancy's a good girl.”

“I am sure you are right,” Elinor said, though had Mrs. Jennings called Lucy a good girl, neither the constraints of common civility nor any claim on Elinor's gratitude her hostess might have could have induced her to agree at that moment. Regarding where the Steeles would next reside, Elinor thought it very likely Mrs. Jennings was correct as well. Were Lucy no longer engaged to Edward, she would have little reason to stay in Harley Street. If she were discovered attempting to cling to Edward—or to attach Robert, as her postscript implied—Fanny would show her the door herself.

Elinor changed the subject and was relieved when Mrs. Jennings followed suit and did not mention her cousins again that evening.


Next

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Great Coxcomb, Part 2

While Elinor had thought at length about her conversation with Robert Ferrars, she certainly did not expect him to appear in Mrs. Jennings's home not twenty-four hours after they had been introduced.

“I called earlier, but you were out,” he said.

“Mrs. Jennings still is. She is with her daughter. My sister and I have just returned from Conduit Street. Marianne is in her room.”

“That is just as well,” he said, taking a seat near her. “It allows me to speak plainly. There has been a development in the matter we discussed last evening, Miss Dashwood!”

“Has there?”

“Fanny called. I heard her telling Mother she wrote just this morning to invite two young ladies to stay with her in Harley Street. When I asked who these young ladies were, imagine my surprise upon hearing they were not you and your sister, but a Miss Steele and a Miss Lucy Steele, relations of Edward's tutor! My first thought was that no good could come of further intimacy with them; you already know my opinions on private and public education. I asked why she had not thought to invite her husband's sisters, but I will not trouble you with what she had to say on that score. I left the ladies to their conversation and sought out Edward at once. I think you will be much more interested in what he had to say. Shall I enlighten you?”

Elinor did not trust herself to speak. She only nodded.

His smile was terribly impertinent as he began his recounting. This Ferrars, Elinor decided, would not allow himself to be brought low by an ill-formed engagement. He would relish every tiny deception required to keep their acquaintance in the dark, and no doubt he would ease himself out of his little difficulty the moment it bored him. He had a natural slyness that was absent in his brother.

Despite this and despite her decided preference for the elder gentleman, she could not deny the younger man's appeal. No small part of that appeal was the consequence of gratitude. By taking an active interest in her plight even against her recommendation and in the midst of what appeared to be hopeless circumstances, Mr. Robert Ferrars had behaved more like a brother to her than John had ever seemed inclined to do.

“He was hesitant to speak of them. Can you imagine why?” he said, pausing as if for her answer, though he continued without it. “He offered no intelligence until I asked him to describe their appearance. He said little of Miss Steele, but when he called Miss Lucy a pretty girl, he would not look at me. He refused to say more until I threatened to press pretty Miss Lucy and her sister for the truth of their acquaintance at the first opportunity. That got his attention.” He chuckled. “I should not laugh. Edward looked ashen when he begged me not to carry out my threat. With a bit of coaxing, he told me the whole of it.”

He gave her the details. Many of them matched Lucy's account, though some did not. He then leaned back and regarded her earnestly. “I suspect it is a story you have heard already.”

Elinor sighed. “A version of it,” she said. “I saw the invitation you spoke of,” she told him, thinking of the ease with which Lucy seemed to increase her intimacy with the Ferrars family.

“From Fanny? Did you indeed?”

“It was shown to me shortly after its arrival. My sister and I spend our days with the Middletons while Mrs. Jennings visits her other daughter and grandchild.”

Mr. Ferrars's confused expression cleared. “And the Steeles are staying with the Middletons at present.”

“As for the rest, Miss Lucy Steele told me of her precarious situation months ago without any pressing or threats on my part.”

“Ah. Guarding her territory?”

Elinor raised a brow.

“Edward was never any good at feigning contentment. He is too noble to drop her as bad business, which cannot be that difficult, as few are aware of the arrangement. She must have known for some time he had grown weary of her. Perhaps he even mentioned your name a dozen times or so.”

“She hinted at something like that.”

“Swore you to secrecy?”

Elinor smirked. “Of course.”

“Just as she persuaded Edward to keep their betrothal a secret so my mother would not disinherit him. The moment my mother finds out, Edward will be a pauper. She will cut him off without a penny if she can.”

“But,” Elinor could not help saying, “would not your mother be just as angry if...” She stopped and shook her head, unwilling to continue the thought aloud.

“If it were you? Angry enough to disinherit him, you mean? Certainly. But there are ways to compensate for that.” He looked very serious. “If it were you, you would have him regardless, would you not?”

Elinor, too taken aback to reply to his bald inquiry, was nonetheless certain her thoughts were laid bare on her face. His next words confirmed it.

“You love him,” he said just above a whisper, “and that makes all the difference.” He sat up straight in his seat.

“So,” he said in a cheerier tone, “Miss Lucy showed you that invitation, most certainly with triumph. She ought to have done it with gratitude, though she does not know it.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Fanny told my mother John wished to invite you and your sister to stay, but she got out of it by insisting she had already planned to ask the Steele girls instead. I did not want to say at first, for obvious reasons, but considering everything, knowing that might give you comfort.”

They shared a look of understanding, and Elinor knew any pretense was unnecessary; they were well beyond the need for it. “Poor Fanny,” she said. “I believe we have already strained the bounds of her hospitality by managing, however unintentionally, to be included in her friend's musical evening.”

“And now the Steeles have managed, regardless of intent, to be invited to my sister's home. I wonder how she and Miss Lucy will get on, two schemers living in the same house. I think I will be paying several calls in Harley Street in the next weeks.” He stood up. “Pretty little monster, this Miss Lucy.” He had a wicked gleam in his eye. “I cannot wait to meet her.”

He gave Elinor one of his ridiculous bows and a wink, and then he was gone.

~*~

The following morning, Elinor went with Marianne as usual to Conduit Street and began to take leave almost as soon as she had entered the place. Her motive was to achieve a little peace for herself, and Marianne may as well be listless in Mrs. Jennings's own house as in the home of her daughter. The Steeles' imminent removal to Harley Street provided the means she sought, and Elinor used it to great effect. She feared the ladies had little leisure to entertain with their departure so near; what spare moments they did have must by rights be made over to Lady Middleton; she and Marianne might call at any time in the next weeks to console Lady Middleton for the loss of their company, etc.. These along with a few other well-placed phrases earned an early escape for herself and her sister, to the satisfaction of all.

Lucy, apparently unwilling to forego the chance to launch her usual attacks on her rival, offered to walk them out. “I would be grateful,” Lucy said, “if you have any advice before I go to your sister and brother.”

Elinor affected a tone of surprise. “Advice? Surely you need none. Your warm welcome at my brother and sister's dinner must convince you of that.”

“That was one evening. This engagement,” Lucy said, looking more pleased than anxious, “will last so much longer!”

“Do you regret accepting the invitation?”

“Oh, no! Of course not.”

“Then why do you worry?” Elinor smiled as sweetly as she could. “You should get on splendidly. I am sure you will find you have many things in common. I might even say you and Fanny are two of a kind.”

Happily, they had reached the moment of parting. Elinor once more bade Lucy farewell, and she and Marianne hastened to the peace and quiet of Berkeley Street's empty rooms.

“That was brilliant, Elinor!” Marianne said as soon as they were some distance away. “Tiresome, tiresome creatures! Fanny is welcome to them!”

Elinor said something in reply, but her mind was not on Marianne's remarks. She was thinking of young Mr. Ferrars and wondering what he intended to do once Lucy had installed herself in John and Fanny's house.

Elinor had been used to sorting through difficulties on her own, forging ahead on the responsible path, and urging others towards prudence and moderation, even more so since her father's death. Now she felt like setting aside caution and giving way to fancy. What had she to lose, after all, but the melancholy that tested her composure every hour? Should circumstances fail to favour her, should hope be irredeemably lost, she could always go back to wearing her mantle of discontent.

All this was because there existed another person in the world who cared about her interests, who had ventured past her reserve to discover the source of her troubles. Had Marianne or her mother made as much of an effort, Elinor did not think she would have long been able to keep Lucy's secret. Their love for her was as deep and genuine as she could wish, but they were so often caught up in their own feelings; her feelings, so little displayed in comparison, could never compete for their attention. As for the rest of her family, dear Margaret was too young and indiscreet to be drawn into an adult's intrigues, and John's concerns were all for his pocketbook.

Robert Ferrars's concerns might mirror her brother's. Elinor had not failed to realise that any action by Mrs. Ferrars to disinherit Edward would likely enrich Robert. Perhaps Robert's true goal was to acquire all the trappings of birthright—money, property, and even, perhaps, the prospect of a very near connection to Miss Morton and her thirty thousand pounds. At least he, unlike his brother, was free to bestow both hand and heart.

It was true that Robert had brought Edward's story to her and not taken it to Mrs. Ferrars, when doing the opposite must have benefited him. Still, he could have expected a match between Edward and herself to achieve the same result in time. Robert might simply be a patient man with some filial affection, preferring to see his brother happy if he could not be rich.

But even the uncertainties surrounding Robert Ferrars's motivations could not spoil Elinor's buoyant mood, and she spent the majority of the day dwelling on the various possibilities in relative solitude.


Next

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Great Coxcomb


(2016-2017)
Sense and Sensibility
"Outrageously Out of Canon Characters"/"The Others"
Miss Elinor Dashwood finds sympathy for her plight in an unexpected place.

"Do you know Mr. Robert Ferrars?" asked Elinor.
"Not at all—I never saw him; but I fancy he is very unlike his brother—silly and a great coxcomb."
– Chapter 24, Sense and Sensibility


What a long day it had been for Miss Elinor Dashwood, and the evening was not proving any shorter. How relieved she would be to return to her room in Berkeley Street!

With Mrs. Palmer recently delivered of a son, Mrs. Jennings, the happy grandmother, had taken to spending the bulk of her time with her dear Charlotte and the child. As one daughter had deprived the Dashwood sisters of their London companion, the other sought to supply the lack by requesting their daily presence in Conduit Street. Therefore Elinor and Marianne called on Lady Middleton every morning to suffer through her well-mannered insipidity. Their tedium was augmented, and silences were kept to a minimum, by the efforts of Miss Steele and Miss Lucy Steele, who were currently staying with the Middletons. The elder Miss Steele rattled off a constant stream of inanities that drew sharp, graceless reprimands from her sister—that is, when Lucy was not directing the occasional barb at Elinor.

From that scene of irritation and noise Elinor had come directly to the home of Mrs. Dennison, one of Fanny's acquaintances, only to be immersed in noise of another sort, more melodic but no more interesting to her ears. Unlike Marianne, Elinor had never been able to lose herself in music when fatigued or troubled. Still, she preferred the strains of the violoncello to what passed for entertaining conversation in the mind of the young man stood next to her. He seemed to have an excess of silly opinions and an eagerness to impart them. Despite her initial curiosity upon perceiving him across the room, she was beginning to regret that John had introduced them.

Was it too much to ask that a day filled with so many wasted hours at least end rationally?

Elinor supposed it must be.

At last Mr. Robert Ferrars, for that was the gentleman's name, ceased holding forth on the virtues of the humble cottage, and Elinor had leisure to take note of something other than the length of his speeches. He was no handsomer than his brother, though he was as finely dressed as when she had first seen him in Sackville Street.

His silence did not last long. He noticed her consideration of him and asked, “Is something amiss?”

“No,” she said. “I was recalling the day I saw you in Gray's. You were giving very particular instructions as to the arrangement of a—”

“A toothpick-case. Yes! I can be quite regardless of time when it comes to toothpick-cases. It has been thus since I purchased my very first one.”

“You seemed completely preoccupied with the task.”

“Oh, I was. But I do recall diverting my attention long enough to get a glimpse of you and the lady with you. Your sister, I presume?”

“Yes.”

“You two presented such a study in contrasts, I could not help staring.”

She was surprised not that she and Marianne had appeared widely different, but that he had noticed and remembered it. All his talk to this point had persuaded her he paid little notice to any subject other than himself. “Do you mean your stares were in support of a character study?”

“Why not? Or did you think I looked at you merely to draw your attention rather than to bestow my own?”

That was exactly what Elinor had thought at the time.

“If you did think so, Miss Dashwood, I can hardly be offended. I was rather pleased with myself that day.” He laughed and added, “If I am vain, and I am, at least I am well aware of it.”

Elinor was astonished and delighted by his laugh. It was genuine and disarming.

“I can see why he likes you,” he said.

“Who?” she asked after the tiniest hesitation.

“Miss Dashwood, let us not pretend. There need be no secrets between us,” the gentleman said, whispering as if he were sharing one himself. “For if matters proceed the way I assume, we will be brother and sister, will we not? The last several minutes have shown your patience and politeness cannot be faulted. By the by, I did not literally cast Bonomi's plans into the fire, though I may have swept a sheet or two to the floor in my eagerness to make my point. Accidentally, of course.” He flashed a grin. “But, as I was saying, you know very well of whom I speak. You are perfect for him, not least because he adores you and Fanny does not.”

“Sir, please.” Elinor felt her composure failing at such an unexpected assault on it.

“Ah.” He kept his voice low. “You understand me.” He looked at her sympathetically. “If you believe my mother will not approve, you are correct. Both Mother and Fanny are determined to prevent the match, but they will not succeed.”

That is hardly—Oh!” Elinor, shocked and disappointed by her lack of command over the expression of her feelings, was grateful she had managed to prevent her cry from rivaling those of the soloist. It took all her powers to keep tears from forming. Never in a public setting had she wished to toss propriety to the wind and weep until her eyes were a hideous red more than at this moment. Not since Lucy had revealed her engagement to Edward had she felt so desperate and desolate at once.

Mr. Robert Ferrars shifted to the left. That this slight movement must shield her from curious onlookers was fortunate. Whether it also was intentional she had not considered until he looked into her eyes. “So there is more,” he said so tenderly Elinor thought her heart would break all over again and wondered that she was not openly sobbing. “By the time you and I had exchanged a dozen words, I found myself wondering at his hesitation. I should have realised Mother's disapproval would not have made him so melancholy. He has been used to resisting her demands since he came of age. Her opposition would pain him, of course, and cause unwanted delays, but it would not make him despondent.”

Elinor felt something being pressed into her hand. She looked down at the crisp square of cloth. Feeling a few tears escape despite her efforts to stop them, she quickly put the handkerchief to use.

I know!” Mr. Robert Ferrars said with a sudden air of purpose. “I will discover what the true obstacle is. Surely it can be overcome. I shall make him tell me.” He smiled. “And if he does not, I shall resort to tricks and stratagems to find it out.*”

The twinkle in his eye did much to transform Elinor's frown into what she hoped was an expression of complacency. She was not capable of more just yet. Nor was she ready to support Mr. Robert Ferrars in his quest or confirm the existence of any particular obstacles. “Please do not trouble your— I would not have you trouble him over this,” she urged.

“Do not worry, Miss Dashwood,” he said in reply, his bright grin telling Elinor her efforts to guard Edward's private concerns were futile. “It is the lot of the younger brother—nay, his positive duty!—to plague the elder.

“Now,” he said in a louder voice, one Elinor could almost believe calculated to draw the two or three censorious glances the nearest music devotees cast at his back, “if you will walk with me a few steps to this table, where the light is sufficient, I will show you that very toothpick case.” She did so, and he pulled the item from his pocket and laid it down for them both to admire. “There!”

As they lowered their heads to examine the intricate construction of the piece, he whispered, “Good girl. Your countenance is much improved. You shall be fully recovered in a moment.”

Elinor had barely seen his mouth move.

“Is it not a marvel?” he continued in normal tones and with a face that shone with more than feigned interest. Any person watching them could not doubt Mr. Robert Ferrars's passion for the little luxuries of the well-to-do. “I declare I should not be ashamed to recommend Gray's to any one!”

~*~

*from Chapter 51, Pride and Prejudice

Next

Monday, October 31, 2016

A Little Alteration: Mrs. Forster's Friend


(2016)
Pride and Prejudice
"Outrageously Out of Canon Characters"
An incident in a Meryton shop elicits the new Mrs. Forster's sympathy for one of the Bennet sisters and leads to a lasting friendship.


“They found Mary, as usual, deep in the study of thorough bass and human nature; and had some new extracts to admire, and some new observations of thread-bare morality to listen to. Catherine and Lydia had information for them of a different sort. Much had been done, and much had been said in the regiment since the preceding Wednesday; several of the officers had dined lately with their uncle, a private had been flogged, and it had actually been hinted that Colonel Forster was going to be married.”
– Chapter 12, Pride and Prejudice

~*~*~

“How nicely we are crammed in!” cried Lydia. “I am glad I bought my bonnet, if it is only for the fun of having another bandbox! Well, now let us be quite comfortable and snug, and talk and laugh all the way home. And in the first place, let us hear what has happened to you all, since you went away. Have you seen any pleasant men? Have you had any flirting? I was in great hopes that one of you would have got a husband before you came back. Jane will be quite an old maid soon, I declare. She is almost three and twenty! Lord, how ashamed I should be of not being married before three and twenty! My aunt Philips wants you so to get husbands, you can't think. She says Lizzy had better have taken Mr. Collins; but I do not think there would have been any fun in it. Lord! how I should like to be married before any of you; and then I would chaperon you about to all the balls. Dear me! we had such a good piece of fun the other day at Colonel Forster's. Kitty and me were to spend the day there, and Mrs. Forster promised to have a little dance in the evening; (by the bye, Mrs. Forster and me are such friends!) and so she asked the two Harringtons to come, but Harriet was ill, and so Pen was forced to come by herself; and then, what do you think we did? We dressed up Chamberlayne in woman's clothes, on purpose to pass for a lady,—only think what fun! Not a soul knew of it, but Col. and Mrs. Forster, and Kitty and me, except my aunt, for we were forced to borrow one of her gowns; and you cannot imagine how well he looked! When Denny, and Wickham, and Pratt, and two or three more of the men came in, they did not know him in the least. Lord! how I laughed! and so did Mrs. Forster. I thought I should have died. And that made the men suspect something, and then they soon found out what was the matter.”
– Chapter 39, Pride and Prejudice

Kitty added a detail here and there, but she did not bother to truly correct her sister's account. Pointing out those parts that were less than accurate would be breath wasted, for stubborn Lydia would only insist she had the right of it.

Instead, Kitty contented herself with counting the times Lizzy winced when Wickham's name was mentioned. Lizzy had not seemed excited to hear Wickham was not to marry. Had she lost interest in him during her travels, or had he fallen out of favour with her? Which was most likely? Kitty would have to discuss the matter with Harriet at the next opportunity.

Kitty laughed to herself, thinking of one particular thing Lydia did not have the right of. For Mrs. Forster and Lydia were acquaintances, but Kitty and Harriet were friends.

At least Lydia was not deliberately untruthful. It was no wonder she exaggerated the extent of her intimacy with Harriet: each time she was in Harriet's company, she monopolised the conversation. Harriet had little choice but to listen or be outright rude. Lydia had become convinced she and Mrs. Forster were equally fond of one another.

As for the escapade at Harriet's, that had gone nearly as Lydia had described, only “Miss” Chamberlayne's appearance in the drawing room had been a surprise to Colonel Forster. The colonel had been forbearing, and Kitty was sure she had even seen him smirk as he recognised his subordinate in unusual “dress” uniform. He had not approved, however. How Lydia could imagine he had, or that Harriet would have been fool enough to tell her husband ahead of time what Lydia had persuaded them to get up to, Kitty did not know. But Lydia always held to her unique view of things. Kitty had been perfectly happy to follow her lead until that day she and Harriet had met at the baker's, more than two months ago now.

Kitty and Lydia had walked into Meryton as they often did when there was no fun to be had at home. They kept watch for any one in a red coat, for to happen upon an officer was sure to increase the pleasure of their outing. Instead, they saw Mr. Norris and old Carpenter, Mrs. Llewellyn, the widow Jones, and that disagreeable cousin that sometimes visited the Harringtons – Pen detested his visits, and Kitty did not blame her, tiresome soul that he was. Lucky Harriet Forster! She actually had cousins near her age who were not horrid, while Pen and Kitty only had Mr. Franklin and Mr. Collins, for the Gardiner children, though pleasant, were too young to be fitting companions for a lady of seventeen.

Resigned to the lack of good company to be met on the main road, Kitty and Lydia decided to seek it in the form of their aunt Philips after a visit to the baker's. At the shop, they oohed and aahed at the sight of a most delicious-looking confection. The baker, eager to feed their interest, told them he had sampled the like at Gunter's and had been anxious to try his hand at it ever since. Unfortunately, only one remained. Kitty inquired as to the price, Lydia suggested they split it between them, and the baker happily traded Kitty's coins (Lydia had brought no money with her) for his wares. Before Kitty had a chance to divide her purchase into equal portions, Lydia took it from her hands and began to eat it herself.

“Lydia! Don't you dare— How could you?”

“Mmmm. Too tempting! And it tastes as good as it looks.”

“Wait! Before you take another bite, give me a piece.”

Lydia only laughed and, half running and half dancing, left the shop. The baker looked at Kitty with sympathy until she began to complain—rather loudly, she admitted to herself—of Lydia's poor treatment of her; then his expression turned to disgust. Kitty's shoulders sagged. She set off to follow her sister when a voice halted her.

“I have a younger sister, too.”

Kitty spun around. “Mrs. Forster? I had not seen you there.” They had been introduced recently at Lucas Lodge, but Kitty had said little beyond congratulating her on her marriage. “How did you know Lydia is younger? Most who do not know us well think she is older because she is taller.”

“As I said, I have a younger sister. She is terribly spoilt and might have done the same to me. Especially now I have married, she thinks I should forever be sending her presents. And you are Miss...Bennet?” Mrs. Forster laughed at Kitty's nod. “I am glad I did not say Goulding then. I almost did.” She looked at the shop's remaining offerings with interest. “I had turned aside to examine the contents of my purse,” she told Kitty. “That same confection tempted me as well.”

Kitty frowned. “So Lydia has stolen it from both of us.” Immediately Kitty realised she too would have 'stolen' it from Mrs. Forster had Lydia not been so greedy. Her frown deepened.

Mrs. Forster shook her head and laughed again, and Kitty's discomfort began to fade.

From that moment, Kitty's day improved. Mrs. Forster offered to buy a different item, not as novel as the first but tasty nonetheless, and shared it properly with Kitty. Kitty insisted she must return the favour some day or other. They made plans to meet later that week. Kitty thanked Mrs. Forster—Harriet, she had been given leave to call her—and proceeded to her aunt's house with a broad grin on her face.

~*~*~

The regiment's last week in Meryton was upon them. Kitty, much affected by this knowledge, moved sluggishly through her morning ritual. She would indeed be sorry to see the militia remove to Brighton, not only because Denny and Carter and Chamberlayne and the other officers would no longer be there, but also because Harriet was to go with them.

She would have spent every day of the last week in Meryton, but Maria might have felt neglected had she not made her usual calls at Lucas Lodge. The two had much to talk of since Maria's visit to Charlotte in Kent. Besides, Lydia lately had insisted on going with Kitty to the Forsters. With Lydia there, poor Harriet would get none of her daily tasks completed. One did not work on any thing other than trimming a bonnet while Lydia talked and expect to accomplish much.

How unlucky that she would be separated from her new friend just when they were getting to know each other so well! She would still have dear Maria, and she and Lydia remained close, but Harriet was unlike any friend she had had before, unlike any of her sisters.

Harriet listened to her, understood her, even cared to ask her opinion!

Maria and the Harrington girls gossiped with her and laughed about silly, unimportant things. At home, Jane cared for her in a motherly way but did not confide in her—she had Lizzy for that. Lizzy, when she was not teasing, would as soon lecture Kitty as listen, only her lectures were more sensible and easier to bear than anything Mary read to her (at her, really, or at least that was how it felt) from her many improving books.

And Lydia? Kitty sighed, and her eyes filled with tears. She had known for some time, perhaps years, that Lydia's sort of affection was not to be depended on, but she had not known what to do about it. Not being as close to her other sisters, Lydia was her best friend at Longbourn, but in the end, to Lydia she was merely a convenience. Lydia used her.

Not so with Harriet. Harriet saw her. Harriet saw her, Kitty, the unremarkable Bennet, who was not the most beautiful, the most quick-witted, the most accomplished, or the most adored by their mother. That was worth a dozen sisters!

That last thought cheered Kitty and supported her spirits as she went down to join her family.

Later that same day, all traces of melancholy were banished by the receipt of an unexpected missive.
My dear Kitty,

I hope you will be as overjoyed to receive this intelligence as I am to give it: I asked Colonel Forster if I might invite a friend to accompany us to Brighton, and he consented! He said I may invite whomever I like, as long as it be only one person, but I am certain he knew I could have had no one other than you in mind. I am in raptures, and you must increase them by agreeing to this scheme without delay! I recall that you, Mary and Lydia have travelled very little, and I hope your father will not be disinclined to allow you this treat, for a treat it shall be! Will not Mr. Bennet permit you to come for the sake of your health, if not for my company? Surely the sea air will do you good. I await your reply. Send it as soon as you can.

Your affectionate and hopeful friend,
Harriet Forster

Kitty barely finished the letter before she ran to the library to obtain her father's consent.

“Papa!”

Mr. Bennet looked up, and Kitty could see exasperation on his face. Before he could scold her for her poor manners or for interrupting his solitude, she spoke again, more decorously:

“Papa, I have been invited to accompany Mrs. Forster to Brighton. May I go?”

Mr. Bennet looked confused. “You have been invited?”

“Yes.” She bounced on the balls of her feet.

“I thought Mrs. Forster was Lydia's particular friend.”

Kitty felt annoyance at that comment, but her joy overcame it in the next moment, and she could not help smiling. “Lydia would agree with you, but I was invited.”

“Ah,” said Mr Bennet, though he appeared not to understand at all.

Seconds passed and Mr. Bennet remained silent, staring oddly at her.

“Please, may I go?” Kitty begged. “Here is Mrs. Forster's letter.” She spread the paper out in front of him.

Her actions seemed to animate her father, who took up the letter and gave it serious attention. He must have read it more than once, for it was not long enough to require all the time he devoted to it. At last he looked up at her in a speculative way.

“She sounds...sensible.”

“Of course Harriet is sensible!” Kitty said. Why would he think otherwise? she wondered. But as soon as the question arose, she recalled he had believed Harriet to be more Lydia's friend than hers. And how often had he declared her and her youngest sister two of the silliest girls in the country? He would expect any friend of hers to be just as silly. Kitty knew he did not think much of Maria or Pen or Harriet Harrington.

Mr. Bennet returned the letter. “I shall call on Colonel Forster and request the particulars, but yes, you may go. If you wish me to take your reply to Mrs. Forster, be quick in penning it. I plan to leave within the half hour.”

Kitty jumped up in her excitement before she could stop herself. “Thank you, Papa!”

As she exited the library, she collided with Lydia, who must have been listening at the door.

“Are we really going to Brighton?” Lydia asked. “Why did you not show me Harriet's invitation, since it is for both of us? She should have written me, but no matter! What fun we shall have!”

“The invitation is not for both of us.”

“La! You are joking!”

“Colonel Forster gave Harriet leave to invite one friend, and I am the one.”

“No!” Lydia tried to snatch the letter away.

Just then, Mr. Bennet entered the hall. “I read the letter myself, Lydia. What Kitty says is true.”

“It is not fair!” Lydia wailed, and her face screwed up into an ugly grimace. “Mama!” she yelled, rushing toward the parlour. “Tell them I should go to Brighton. Kitty cannot go unless I go too! Or I must go in her place!”

The next few days at Longbourn were unpleasant. Mrs. Bennet took Lydia's part as she always did. Jane tried her best to make Lydia resigned; Lizzy despaired of making her reasonable and simply endeavoured to get her to be quiet and stop giving them all the headache. Mary quoted preachers' and poets' admonitions against envy and covetousness to no avail. Papa ignored them all as usual.

There had been a time Kitty would not have hesitated to boast of her good fortune and lord it over Lydia for a change. Was that not Lydia's way? Would not she have done the same in her place? Either Kitty had insufficient taste for revenge, or she did not wish to add noisy demands for congratulations to the constant uproar Lydia had plunged them all into. She did not know which, only that the idea of mocking Lydia in her distress was strangely unsatisfying.

Lydia slept quite late one morning after a long, tedious tantrum the night before. Kitty used the occasion to escape the house. Lizzy stopped her before she had reached the front door and, correctly guessing her destination, offered to go along, claiming a wish to speak more with the lady who would have charge of her younger sister's care during the summer. At the colonel's lodgings Harriet welcomed them both graciously. They stayed several hours, helping Harriet prepare for her journey.

Kitty thought how lucky she was that she did not have to pack up everything she owned for this excursion; she was leaving for a holiday, not a new home. Harriet would have no permanent home until the colonel retired if she did not want to be separated from him. What a different sort of life the wife of an officer must lead! Kitty had not thought so prosaically before when pairing herself with this redcoat or that one in her head.

“Kitty, what are you thinking of?” Harriet asked with a laugh.

Seeing the happy officer's wife before her, Kitty could not bring herself to say directly. Instead, she said, “I was thinking of...of Pratt, and Denny, and Wickham.” Which she had been, in a way.

When she said Wickham's name, both Lizzy and Harriet frowned.

Harriet glanced at Lizzy and then looked back at Kitty. “Remember when you asked me about Wickham last week?”

“Certainly!”

“Well, I have news, and it is not good at all.” Harriet glanced at Lizzy again, looking uncertain.

“You will not mind, Lizzy, if Harriet tells us her news? Though you and Wickham are such good friends?”

“We were good friends, that is true.”

“Oh.” Kitty looked back at Harriet and raised an eyebrow.

“You must keep this to yourselves,” Harriet warned, which Kitty knew meant she must on no account tell Lydia.

“Of course,” she assured Harriet.

“Very well. You know Miss King has gone to Liverpool?”

Kitty nodded.

“Her uncle wrote an angry letter to my husband. I was sitting with him when he received it. The colonel was so disturbed by its contents, he got up and paced. Oh, how he paced! I was so worried and, frankly, curious that I picked up the letter and read it. At first Forster was not happy, but then he said perhaps it was for the best that I knew so I could be on my guard against such a man.” Harriet leaned in and spoke quietly. “It seems Wickham's courtship of Miss King was more of a seduction. He...compromised her in order to force her uncle to consent to a betrothal. She was taken away to...see if there were...consequences. There were none.”

All the girls breathed a sigh of relief.

“Mr. King said Wickham is a dangerous rake and fortune hunter who will not get a penny of his niece's money. He warned that if Wickham tries to contact her or dares to spread rumours about her, he will not be held responsible for his actions. My dear husband was distraught, knowing he has such a man under his command. He expects there will be misconduct and even scandalous behaviour among the men, but he himself is an honourable man, and such a scheme of infamy disgusted him.”

Kitty was horrified by what she had heard. To treat a gentlewoman so! Wickham had seemed so very good! No wonder Mr. Darcy had refused to give him the living in Derbyshire! Were Mr. Collins suspected of having such a dissolute character, Papa never would have allowed him to stay at Longbourn, heir or no!

Kitty noticed that Lizzy did not appear as surprised as she herself was.

“We will keep your confidence,” Lizzy told Harriet.

“Thank you. The colonel would be greatly displeased were it to get out, and I would hate to do Miss King's reputation any harm.”

Kitty spent the remainder of the week seeing to her own preparations. At last the time came for her to depart.

Sir William and Lady Lucas held a farewell dinner for the officers. All the Bennets except Lydia attended. Mrs. Bennet had wished to host a dinner herself to mark the occasion, but Lydia's unrestrained, undiminished caterwauling proved too much of a spectacle for even a solicitous and sympathetic mother to want to inflict upon her neighbours.

After dinner, the Forsters followed the Bennets to Longbourn to collect Kitty's luggage. Kitty would go with her friends to Meryton. The regiment was to depart early the following morning, well before the Bennets' usual breakfast hour.

“I do not see why you must be so selfish, Kitty,” Mrs. Bennet muttered in ungracious accents as all the family except Lydia saw her off. “You really ought to take Lydia. It can hardly matter to the Forsters if there is one more in their party.”

Kitty opened her mouth to protest, but Lizzy was quicker. “It is impossible, Mama.” Lizzy's embarrassment was clear as she offered Harriet an apologetic smile.

Mr. Bennet frowned at his wife, thanked the Forsters properly, and assisted Kitty into their carriage. “Do enjoy yourself, my dear,” he said. He then looked back toward the house, from which Lydia's wails could just be heard. “We shall have little pleasure at Longbourn while you are gone.”

~*~*~

Brighton was every thing Kitty had hoped. The sea air was invigorating, the dancing was plentiful, and the nearest baker's shop had several delectable delicacies to sample.

Soldiers were everywhere—some of them were very handsome, indeed!—though she did not feel the inclination to flirt as she once had. She knew an attractive face and an amiable manner were no guarantee of an honourable character.

Kitty wrote to all her family and to Maria Lucas within the first few days of her arrival. Her mother's reply was quick but unsatisfactory, full of lamentations and claims of ill usage on her own and her youngest daughter's behalf. Jane's letter was cheerful and newsy. Mary's was short, expressing surprise that Kitty had written her, inquiring whether there were any good libraries in Brighton, and ending with an extract in praise of sisterly affection. Maria's letter rambled on in a light-hearted fashion, just like her conversation, and made mention of her own trip to Hunsford. How fortunate that they both had been given opportunities to see more of the world!

Lizzy's letter made her laugh:
It is almost too bad Lydia does not have ten thousand pounds, for otherwise some fortune hunter, preferably one more principled than W, might offer to marry her and take her to Brighton for a wedding trip. We would have peace at Longbourn, and she would be happy.
Lydia would probably be just as happy with a trip to London, Kitty thought, smiling. That was where her youngest sister used to want to go before the militia arrived in Meryton.

From Lydia herself she heard nothing. She had neither received nor expected a reply from her father; they all knew what a poor correspondent he was. Lydia, however, would have written if not for their current discord, but as things stood, Kitty supposed Lydia might not even read a letter from her, much less consider writing one in response. It made her sad to think of it.

There was little else to depress Kitty's spirits and much to elevate them. She had come to Brighton to spend time with her friend, but to visit a watering place, to see so many men in regimentals, to have the sort of adventure only Jane and Lizzy had so far been allowed, to gain independence from Longbourn for a time—all these things had their appeal.

Yet every delight and benefit of her new surroundings, including the effects of the seaside environment on her delicate constitution, seemed of fleeting importance compared to continuing in Harriet's society. With Harriet as a daily companion, Kitty felt altered somehow, as if her less tolerable traits had diminished, and other, better qualities were supported.

Therefore when Harriet became ill one late June morning, Kitty was beside herself. They had been at their work when Harriet dropped her sewing and rushed from the room without a word. Kitty stared, called out, heard what might have been coughing or worse, and at last leapt from her chair and followed her friend. By the time Kitty reached her, Harriet was washing her face, which was alarmingly pale.

“Harriet,” Kitty fretted. “Harriet! What shall I do? Shall I have someone fetch the colonel? Should we get a doctor? An apothecary? Is there any thing I can get you?”

“Oh, no.”

“But you are ill!”

“Not in the way you think.”

“Whatever does that mean?”

“This is not the first time I.... It usually happens much earlier, just after I awaken.” Harriet dried her face and hands. “Do you know,” she asked, “why I sent Sally with you to the milliner's yesterday instead of going with you myself?”

“You said the colonel wanted—”

“The colonel had arranged for the doctor to examine me.”

“Then you are ill!”

“No.” Harriet smiled. “It is only that I am going to have a baby.”

“You...” Kitty said, incredulous. “You will be a mother.”

“Yes!” Harriet grasped her hands and giggled.

Slowly, Kitty's shock gave way to elation, and she giggled along with her friend. “You will be a wonderful mother!” she said, pictures filling her head of Harriet with a miniature colonel perched on her lap. “But when will your child be born? Will you still be in Brighton? Will your mother come to stay with you?”

“So many questions! Perhaps after Christmas, I have no idea whether I will still be in Brighton, and I hope my aunt Jameson will come to me then. She can more easily travel and stay away for weeks than my mother.”

“Oh!” Kitty believed she had never felt such joy for another person in her life. She wondered if it would be like this when Jane and Lizzy married and had children. She would be an aunt then, which might be even more exciting!

“Come,” Kitty said, leading her friend across the room where they could sit together. “The sewing can wait. Now, tell me everything you feel!”

Harriet burst out laughing and did just that.

~*~*~

By the second week of July, there was talk of extending Kitty's visit. Colonel Forster was grateful for her presence, as it provided his wife with comfort and companionship as she endured the less pleasant symptoms of her condition. It eased his mind to know Harriet was not left purely to the care of servants when he could not be with her.

Kitty's activities had lately been curtailed, for Harriet was still occasionally unwell in the mornings and often tired at random hours of the day. The ladies found it prudent to remain within a short walk of the house when they did venture out together. Harriet urged Kitty to take her maid and go out when she liked, but Kitty rarely went where Harriet could not accompany her.

She made an exception for the library, and Sally walked there with her at least once a week to get new material to read to Harriet when she felt too ill to sit up and read on her own. Though Kitty had never been a great reader, she anticipated these outings with pleasure. There were some lovely ornaments on display in the place—they would have made Lydia quite wild—and it was not an infrequent occurrence, while coming or going, to meet one of the officers she knew.

She met Pratt and Denny with some regularity in this way, and Chamberlayne never; Captain Carter she was more likely to see when he called on the colonel as he did most weeks. She had not encountered Wickham there until her latest visit. As she was leaving, she heard him talking with Sally, who waited for her just outside the door. Curious, Kitty stood a moment and listened before joining them.

Wickham asked some odd questions. What could it matter to him what trinkets she had bought or whether she could afford to stay much longer in Brighton? When his manner with Sally became a bit flirtatious, she decided to interrupt them. Wickham looked happy to see her and offered to accompany her to the Forsters', but she declined. On the walk back, Kitty asked Sally what else Wickham had said, but it appeared there was not much more to tell. She then warned the maid not to speak to him again unless it was unavoidable and said no more of the matter.

One day while Harriet was napping, callers were announced, and Denny and Wickham walked into the parlour.

“It is a pleasure to see you, Miss Bennet!” said the former.

“And may I say you are looking very well,” the latter added.

Kitty had received more than one compliment on 'the healthful glow her walks along the shore had given to her already-pretty face'. As she stood and curtsied, she felt herself blushing at Wickham's gallantry and had to remind herself of the horrid nature that lay behind it. “Thank you both!” she said to them, resuming her seat. “So tell me: have you any news? Are all our friends well? I saw Mr. Pratt last week, but I have not seen Mr. Chamberlayne this age. To be sure, I do not go out as often as when we first arrived.”

“Our friends are perfectly well. I will tell them you asked after them. As for news, there is not much. We were released early from exercises today. Colonel Forster is working on special manoeuvres with some of the men.”

“Denny is being modest, Miss Bennet. Colonel Forster has asked him to assist with the newest recruits tomorrow, and then I shall be left to my own devices.” He leaned toward Kitty. “He is becoming quite the favourite with our superior officers!”

Kitty did not like the look of Wickham's smile. It seemed not quite genuine, as if he wished he had been favoured instead of his friend.

“Now, Wickham, you will make Miss Bennet think she has to shore up your spirits, and we all know you have no need of that.”

“You wound me, Denny!” Wickham turned to Kitty. “How easily one's friends abandon one!” He looked about the room and then back at her. “I see you are on your own today. Are you often left alone? Poor Miss Bennet!”

Kitty liked this smile of Wickham's even less than the other.

Denny seemed bemused. “Wickham, you know I told you not half an hour ago that the colonel alluded to his wife's being indisposed. That was just before you suggested we call here.”

“True, I did,” Wickham admitted with a sly glance at Kitty.

“Mrs. Forster was only a little tired,” Kitty said, thinking she ought not to divulge more than that. “She is resting at present.”

“We should not stay longer if Mrs. Forster will not be joining us. Please convey to her our wishes for her health.” Denny stood. “Wickham?”

Wickham's reluctance was clear, but he also stood. They said their farewells, and Kitty was turning away from the door when Wickham walked back into the room.

“You and I have always been...” he said to her in a hushed voice, leaving Kitty to guess at the word he left unspoken. Friends? Something else? “I will tell you a secret,” he continued. “I know I can rely on you to keep it.”

Kitty stared but said nothing.

“I may soon have to move on from the regiment,” Wickham told her. “I am loath to leave such society, especially...” He stepped closer. “I fear I have been neglecting you, but that is at an end.” He took her hand and caressed it. “There is more I would say. Perhaps another time, when your hostess can spare you, we can talk again. Only let it be soon.”

Greatly agitated, Kitty drew back her hand.

Wickham looked at her in surprise. “Is Kitty Bennet being coy? I had thought you bolder.”

“Mr. Denny?” she cried in a loud voice, startling Wickham. Her breath came out in a whoosh when she heard footsteps, welcome confirmation that Denny had not yet quit the house.

“Miss Bennet? Are you well?” Denny asked as he came into view.

“I am...I am well.” Kitty stepped away from both men. “Forgive me for alarming you. I should not have made so much noise. I really must see to Harriet; I hope I have not disturbed her rest.”

“We will not keep you,” Denny said, guiding his fellow redcoat out of the room. “We hope Mrs. Forster is able to visit with us when next we call.”

“So do I.” Kitty forced herself to smile and followed them out, making sure they both left. As she ran up to Harriet's room, she wondered two things. First, had Wickham used his charms in a similar way to overcome Mary King's sense of propriety last spring? Second, why was he now using those charms on her?

~*~*~


The next day, after one whiff of breakfast, Harriet returned to her room feeling dreadful. Kitty felt dreadful for her. Kitty had never nursed anyone before coming to Brighton. A childhood of indifferent health had left her more in need of such a service than wont to provide it. However, in these last weeks she had found that affection and cheerfulness, and being alert to little things that might harm or help, approached near enough to proficiency to earn the gratitude of Mrs. Forster.

A new novel to read to her friend might be of small help, Kitty thought, and when Harriet agreed, Kitty went in search of her bonnet. She heard the door and then a familiar voice below that she could not immediately identify. The caller was being refused entry, no surprise with Mrs. Forster's being so unwell.

Colonel Forster's manservant, having several errands for his master, was just then about to walk into town. Kitty hurried to catch up with him so Sally could attend Harriet in her absence. When they stepped outside, she saw an officer down the street. She thought it was Wickham—something in his manner of walking. When he turned the corner, she knew for certain. Had he come back again so soon? “What—” she began to exclaim, and then she covered her mouth, hoping he had not heard.

Kitty adjusted her bonnet to hide her face should Wickham glance behind him. It made for an uncomfortable walk and was likely for naught, but she felt better for having tried to avoid his notice. Wickham was in a great hurry as he approached the library and would have passed it but for Denny, who came out at that moment. Their conversation—argument, more like—was brief, and Wickham continued on his way without looking back.

Kitty left the servant to his business, which was at a shop a few doors down, and approached Denny from behind.

“Mr. Denny!” she whispered.

Denny turned about. Kitty put her finger to her lips and slipped inside the library. Standing where they might converse privately, she waited for Denny to join her, which he presently did.

“What was that about?” Kitty wondered aloud.

“I told Wickham Colonel Forster has been looking for him this hour, and he had better—”

“How odd!” she interrupted. “If I am not mistaken, Wickham called at the Forsters just before I left, but he was not admitted.”

“He knows where the Colonel is, so why would he....Oh.”

That “oh” could have meant a number of things. She did not know what Denny was thinking, so she decided to tell him her own thoughts. “Did you know Wickham stood there by the door last week, asking Sally all sorts of questions about me? He sounded like Mrs. Long—you do remember her?—wondering where I shopped and what I bought and whether I had enough money to stay in Brighton through the whole summer!”

Denny looked at her sharply.

“And his behaviour yesterday!”

“Yes,” Denny said slowly. “Did he—we—make you very uncomfortable?”

“I was glad to see you, but...” She was not sure what to say. She remembered the day Denny introduced Wickham to her and her sisters. He had been pleased to make him known to them. Yesterday he had not seemed pleased with Wickham at all. Did he know what the man was? If so, did he care? “Are you...are you and Mr. Wickham still the best of friends?”

Denny stared at her a moment before responding. “Strange you should ask. We are not so very good friends these days, or rather I think Wickham does not always treat me as a friend ought.”

“Before that day last week, it had been a while since I had spent time in his company. I do not know why he seemed so sly yesterday before he left, as if he had something to say that you should not hear.” She rolled her eyes, and Denny smiled. “Oh!” she said, suddenly remembering the secret. “He did! He said he might have to leave the regiment, but he did not want me to tell anyone.” Kitty frowned. “I suppose it would not be fair to tell you not to tell him that I told you, would it?”

“No,” Denny said, laughing at her, “but perhaps I will be unfair and keep your secret since you were wise enough not to ask me to do it.”

She laughed with him. “I had better get the book I came for,” she told him.

Denny waited for her to make her selection. When she had finished and they stepped into the sunlight, Kitty peered down the street. Seeing no sign of either Wickham or the colonel's man, she asked Denny if they might walk while she waited. As soon as she thought they would not be overheard, she begged him, “Do tell me, Denny. Please. I am not clever enough to figure out what Wickham is up to. Why would he flirt with me if he intends to leave?”

Denny's smile froze. “I have a guess or two.”

“Will you not tell me?”

At first Kitty thought he would say no and storm off, so severe had his expression become. “Would it break some sort of manly code?” she asked. “Is it a matter of confidence?”

Denny's look softened at her words. “You shared a secret with me, so I will share with you what is not exactly a secret, though I doubt you know of it.” He looked around, and seeming satisfied no one was near, he continued. “He needs money, a great deal of it. He is in debt to who knows how many tradesmen, and I imagine his debts of honour have become pressing. I fear he means to desert rather than resign his commission.”

“That sounds serious. But what has it to do with me?”

“He may want your sympathy, which might lead to...more.”

Thinking of Mary King, Kitty said with indignation, “That will not happen.”

Denny had the grace to look away. “I do not mean just that, though it would be motive enough for him. However, I suspect he wants your money most of all.”

“How does he intend to get it? By stealing it?”

“By charming you out of it. Whether you hand him your purse or throw in your lot with him on a mad dash to the border, he would have what he wants—your money and perhaps you in the bargain.”

Kitty gasped. “An elopement? I would never!”

Denny raised an eyebrow at her.

Kitty was suddenly sad. She would never, but she could not swear that was the case six months ago. How lowering! Then, she might have fancied such a notion romantic in the extreme!

She was more puzzled than sad, however. Something about the matter still did not make sense to her. After all, Wickham's last courtship had been entered into for a prize of ten thousand pounds. “Why would a fortune hunter chase a girl without a fortune?” she asked Denny.

“I believe it is not so much a fortune he seeks at present as enough to leave Brighton and start over somewhere else. You see, once he has got you away from camp—”

“I told you I—”

“I know! I know you said you would not be persuaded, but had that not been the case, he would have access to your money and could do as he likes, continue on with you or...”

“Or not.” Kitty was furious now. “You mean he would elope and not marry?” she said through her teeth. She closed her eyes. There was no need to seek confirmation in Denny's looks. Surely George Wickham was the worst of men.

That evening, Kitty told Harriet all she now knew and suspected of her former friend. With Harriet supporting her, she related the whole to Colonel Forster as well.

She was glad Denny did not have the Forsters' anger for having brought Wickham to the corps. Denny himself was respectable and a gentleman in the strict sense. His father had holdings worth between five and six hundred per annum, nearly enough to have made the son eligible for a captaincy. More than once since arriving in Brighton, Colonel Forster had expressed aloud his wish that the elder Denny were fifty or so pounds richer a year, for he had come to depend upon young Denny quite as much as on Captain Carter.

Kitty felt she had done what she could. Now she lay in bed unable to sleep.

Unpleasant thoughts assailed her. What if she had fallen victim to Wickham's plotting? She was not in love with him, but she did not doubt his persuasive powers. Had she been ignorant of his dealings with Mary King, she might have been fooled by his pretended regard. He would never have married her. She knew he would not. Eventually she would have come to her senses, but by then, her family—all her sisters—would have been ruined.

Kitty shook her head vigourously, as if the action could rid her mind of troubling speculations.

She forced herself to think of happier things. Her birthday was fast approaching. She would be eighteen in less than a fortnight!

The littlest Bennet had been sixteen for weeks already. There were no more children living at Longbourn. Oh, Lydia had been out for months, but Kitty had never expected of her what she had of Jane and Lizzy and even Mary, not just because they were older, but because those three were women, Jane, and now Lizzy as well, being fully of age.

Kitty had not had high expectations of herself either. She had not thought much on serious subjects or developed any real accomplishments. She had been allowed an abundance of leisure at Longbourn. No one cared what she did there. Here, however, things were different.

With all the items she and Harriet were preparing for the baby, Kitty noticed a change in the quality of her sewing. To have her aunt Philips's guests see her middling efforts displayed on the mantle-piece in Meryton was one thing, but Kitty would be mortified to know the Forster infant wore inferior garments because she had not applied herself! Nor would she wish to force Harriet to repair her work. Harriet had enough to do.

Her singing had improved as well. She had not known it could. She had not considered herself to be musical. Lizzy's voice had always received the most notice at home, so she did not try to compete, and she had had no wish to be stuck, like Mary, at an instrument when she had rather dance, so she never learnt to play the piano. Harriet did not play either, but her singing voice was lovely. She could sing well unaccompanied and often did so at home, pressing Kitty to join her in this diversion with some frequency. By taking part in these informal displays, Kitty received the benefit of practice.

She wondered how Lydia had been spending her time. Lydia had actually written at last, a short, grudging note of thanks for the ribbons Kitty had sent for her birthday. She had not shared any news, however, and her other sisters made little mention of her in their own letters.

To think of all Lydia would be enjoying had she been the one Mrs. Forster had invited to Brighton!

She would have loved the seaside and the shops. She would have swooned at the sight of so many redcoats! But Kitty could not imagine Lydia would have been content to stay at home or take on extra tasks when Harriet was ill. There was a real chance poor Harriet might have been neglected.

Then there would have been Wickham to contend with. Kitty sighed, not wanting to think of Wickham again but not being able to help it. Harriet had not wanted Lydia to hear of Wickham's misdeeds for fear she would gossip, so Harriet might not have told Lydia herself even if the two had been close friends. Lydia would not have known to be on her guard, not that Kitty could swear knowing would have made any difference to her sister. Had Wickham targeted Lydia, she would have seen his flirting as her due. Add to that the possibility of eloping and being married before her sisters...

Just the thought of where it all could have led threatened to bring on a headache.

Enough! she decided, turning over and pounding her pillow in frustration. There would be no more thoughts of Wickham tonight! In the morning she would write them down in a letter to Lizzy. If any person could find a way to help her laugh at these circumstances rather than be vexed by them, Lizzy could.

Though Kitty was persuaded she had behaved better than Lydia would in her place, she did feel sorry for all her sister missed by not coming to Brighton. Perhaps she would buy an extra present to send to her, something particularly suited to a sixteen-year-old young lady rather than a girl. That idea gave her comfort.

~*~*~

Kitty felt older and even a little wiser as she navigated the now-familiar streets of Brighton on her birthday. Eighteen! She was now the age at which her own mother had married, at which her dear friend had married. Not that she felt ready for such a step herself! She would be content to remain single a while longer.

There was to be a ball that very evening, organised by some of the wives of colonels from other regiments. The weather was gorgeous: bright, clear, and not too hot. There would be no difficulty in getting the shoe roses, unlike in those miserable, dreary days leading up to the Netherfield Ball.

Kitty smiled to recall Netherfield and its inhabitants. This morning's post had brought the most interesting letter from Lizzy. Fancy her seeing Mr. Bingley on her travels! It was not entirely strange, as Lambton was not many miles from Mr. Darcy's estate, but Jane had spent the whole winter in town without one glimpse of her old beau. Lizzy arrived in Lambton and met him in mere days! Furthermore, Lizzy had spoken so well of Mr. Darcy that Kitty had to wonder...

Oh, my! Was she thinking like Mama?

“You look like you suddenly tasted something sour. Why?” Harriet asked with a grin, and Kitty told her. They were walking together to the shops. Harriet, who had begun to feel better at last, intended to make Kitty a gift of a few pretty trimmings for her gown and purchase some things for herself as well.

Dear, dear Harriet! How she would manage without her in Hertfordshire did not bear thinking of!

She would miss Colonel Forster as well when she left this place. He was becoming something like an elder sibling or cousin to her, an avuncular presence valued by a young lady with no brothers and an indifferent father. Having stayed in the same house with him for so many weeks, Kitty now had a better idea, even than her intimacy with the Lucases could give her, of ways in which life at Longbourn might differ had her mother borne a son, or had more than just the eldest two daughters been of some consequence to her father.

She allowed Harriet to draw her attention to the window displays and welcomed the distraction from her serious thoughts. Such pretty things there were! She must not dwell on what would sink her spirits, not with a ball to anticipate and a birthday to enjoy!

She had collected quite a few notes and presents. Jane sent Mama's and her own congratulations along with a lovely bit of embroidery that she must have worked on for ever, so perfect it was. Lizzy cleverly enclosed within her letter a flat, delicate silver pendant she purchased early in her northward journey; Kitty had just the chain for it. Even Lydia had sent felicitations in Mary's letter, of all things, probably to save herself the trouble of writing her own.

Unexpectedly, her best present had come from Mr. Bennet. He had exerted himself to write and send his permission for Kitty to remain another month complete with the Forsters. Kitty meant to savour every moment.

~*~*~

“Who, Kitty Bennet?”

Kitty looked around the glittering hall to see who had spoken her name. It had sounded like Denny. She saw him with his back to her and began walking toward him.

“Yes, she is a pretty girl,” he was telling the man next to him. “All the Bennet girls are. Even the plainest one is something to look at.”

She was very close now, and the stranger started to appear uncomfortable.

Denny was still talking. “It is odd, really. I thought she—Kitty, Miss Catherine, that is—was a silly little thing when we were in Hertfordshire, but now I—Oh!” he said, turning to face her. “I did not see you there, Miss Bennet!” It was clear he had realised someone was approaching but not who until that moment.

Kitty laughed. “No need to pretend that you were not just speaking of me, Mr. Denny. I came this way because I heard you say my name.”

“Oh.”

Kitty did not think she had ever seen Denny blush before. She liked that she had been the cause of it. “Besides,” she said to ease his discomfort, “my father would agree with you. I was rather a silly little thing when we were in Hertfordshire.” She was surprised she could admit as much without pain. It helped that she was becoming a useful young lady with some knowledge of the world.

“Well,” he said with a sheepish grin, “you are the youngest, you and Miss Lydia, which must be some excuse.”

“I am eighteen now, the same age as Mrs. Forster. She is not silly, so I do not think I have any excuse.”

“I have made a muddle of things, have I not?”

Kitty had compassion on him and laid her hand on his arm. “Mr. Denny,” she asked, “will you introduce me to your friend?”

“Of course!” Her actions seemed to relieve him, and he performed the honours. The young man, a Mr. Robins, haltingly requested Kitty's next dance.

Denny frowned. “And now I am sure Robins will behave in such a gentleman-like manner and dance so divinely that you will be enamoured with him and forget all about your old friends.”

Kitty smiled kindly at her bashful new acquaintance. Then she looked up at Denny with a serious expression. “I think I shall always value your friendship.” She still had reservations about the lot of an officer's wife, even though Harriet was happy with her colonel. She did not know what she wanted for her own future. And she had no idea where the regiment would be sent next or how long Denny would remain part of it. In any case, she could not stay with the Forsters for ever; in another month she would return to Longbourn. Who knew when they would all meet again after she left Brighton?

Yet, she knew what she had told Denny was true.

His gaze was just as serious as hers, but Kitty could detect that he was happier. “May I have the dance after next, Miss Bennet?” he asked.

Kitty smiled, and a warm feeling suffused her. “Mr. Denny, it would be my pleasure.”

The End