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)

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

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Excursion to Whitwell, Part 6

Mrs. Dashwood neither raised any objection to Marianne's replying to the colonel's note nor showed the least interest in reading that reply before it was sealed. Marianne had not expected it of her. It would go to the post; no express rider would be engaged, though the colonel had begged their use of the latter option. Marianne, however loath to draw the notice of their gossiping neighbours should someone from Barton Park see or hear anything of the matter, was prepared to follow the colonel's wishes in every particular. Elinor convinced her such a measure was unnecessary by pointing out that Colonel Brandon would surely spend several days in town, and he had only left Barton that very morning. A letter posted so soon after his own departure could not fail to catch up with him in good time.

The knowledge that she had done what she could bolstered Marianne's spirits for the rest of the day, but when several more days passed without word from the colonel, she began to grow anxious for news of him. The Middletons and and Mrs. Jennings, who could not be kept from them long and had soon revived the usual visits between Barton Cottage and Barton Park, had no news to give. “I have had nothing from him,” said Sir John one afternoon, “besides the briefest note: 'Dear Sir John, I am just arrived. London is as usual. Yours sincerely,' etc., along with another apology for ruining our outing.” Despite the brevity of the message, Mrs. Jennings had much to say regarding it, and much more to conjecture, and Marianne felt keenly her shame in having once found the colonel's company as wanting as that of his friends.

One morning, about a fortnight after Colonel Brandon had left the country, Marianne joined her sisters for their usual walk. They had been out half an hour or more when they saw a rider travelling in their direction.

“It is he!” Marianne cried. “It is...” But it was not! She soon saw her hopes had led her eyes astray, and she turned away, frustrated and disappointed almost to the point of tears. Elinor and Margaret looked at her, but she only shook her head.

“The colonel? No, I do not think it is,” Elinor said, her voice trailing away.

Marianne turned to watch Elinor—there had been something odd in the latter's tone—and she looked again at the approaching rider. Ah, that would explain it! Edward Ferrars, the only person Marianne could at all forgive for not being Colonel Brandon at that moment, was nearly upon them!

Marianne's sadness was swallowed up in the joy she felt at the imminent greeting. She was thrilled for Elinor! In such a state of happy expectation, she could not have been more astonished when that happiness was dashed by Edward's indifferent manner towards them all, not excepting even Elinor. So reserved he was, as if he wished he had not come, as if their company had been forced upon him! Marianne recalled how tepid their parting at Norland had been and felt this behaviour of their guest was of a piece with it—nay, worse! She stared and wondered, saying as little as necessary as they went back to the cottage. The beautiful views, the new prospect they had discovered on their walk, every delight was dimmed by the shroud of coldness Edward had so unkindly and inexplicably cast over them all.

When they entered the cottage, Mrs. Dashwood's surprise gave way to genuine and voluble pleasure. Edward's coldness could not long withstand such an affectionate welcome. Marianne was relieved to see it, and further relieved to note with each passing hour Elinor's charms wielding their natural influence on their guest, though Edward never fully set aside his reserve.

With no beau of her own present to distract her, Marianne paid more attention to her elder sister than was her wont. She noticed the smiles and blushes, the glances, the unguarded eagerness in listening to whatever Edward had to say, the slight hesitation in probing for more when silences threatened. Elinor's feelings were definitely warmer than esteem, Marianne thought with great satisfaction.

Not long after Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret had taken themselves off to another part of the house, Edward happened to wish for more tea, and Marianne happened to provide it. As he reached for the cup, she saw something that made any remaining concerns fade to nothingness: a ring on his finger, a ring containing a lock of hair of a very familiar shade!

“Edward,” Marianne said at once, interrupting the conversation between him and Elinor and pointing at the ring, “I would say that is Fanny’s hair, but I am certain hers is darker.”

Edward paled.

“Have you truly been so sly?” she asked him, glancing between him and her elder sister. “Why the secrecy?”

“You suspect me of keeping secrets?”

“How ever did you manage it? Elinor looks just as surprised as I am to see that ring on your finger,” she said.

“Marianne!” her sister reprimanded.

“It is true! Or are you not as surprised as you seem?”

“I knew nothing of it, Marianne. Do not press for details.”

“You cannot tell me you do not want to know!” Marianne thought Elinor did not look truly alarmed, only embarrassed, and she grinned at her.

But when Marianne turned to Edward, what she saw caused all playfulness to fade from her thoughts. Elinor's embarrassment turned to confusion and apprehension.

They all looked at one another in silence for several seconds, none of them comfortable.

Suddenly Edward rose to his feet. “What would you do,” he whispered, “if you had made a promise you were loath to keep?”

“The honourable thing,” Elinor said.

“There is so little honour in the world, as I have lately learnt,” Marianne added, wanting and yet not wanting to understand the cause of the tension.

“What if,” Edward said, his voice becoming agitated, “in keeping that promise, you would assure your own misery?”

“Surely you would not be miserable forever,” Elinor told him. Edward’s uneasiness seemed to deepen her own. “Who would extract a promise of that nature from you?”

Marianne could think of more than one person who might, and by the expression on Elinor’s face, she had similar ideas on the matter. Fanny would not hesitate to sink her brother if she would rise in doing so, and all that she had heard of Mrs. Ferrars suggested the matron would have no qualms discomfiting Edward in quest of her own comfort.

“I am not at liberty to say,” he said, looking at the ring. He shook his head and sighed. “Perhaps the more honest answer is that I have always been at liberty to say, but there are others with whom I ought to speak of it first. There is something I have kept to myself. If I reveal it, it will only cause grief and damage my prospects. I am less concerned with the material loss than with the loss of something much more valuable.”

Marianne did not miss his glance at Elinor, fleeting though it was. Pain and love were in it, but Edward’s face showed nothing but despair as he turned away.

“I imagine it cannot stay hidden forever,” Marianne said, thinking of Eliza’s letter and Willoughby and closing her eyes for a moment against the memory. “Some things have a way of getting out.”

“I think,” Elinor said, looking quite desirous of getting out of the conversation if not the room, “we have meddled too much in matters that are solely the business of Mr. Ferrars.”

“Your sister is right, Miss Dashwood,” Edward countered, and Marianne’s mouth opened in surprise; she certainly had not expected him to take her side over Elinor’s. “It cannot stay hidden. It must be revealed, or the promise must be dissolved. Since I have little hope of the latter right now, I must carefully consider how the former is to be accomplished.”

“What if the worst does happen?” Elinor asked him. Marianne was shocked to see how very much her sister struggled to maintain her composure—Elinor, who so rarely was anything but calm! “You will rally,” Elinor insisted. “You will still have your friends.”

“Ah, but which friends will I have, and which will I lose?” Edward's look grew even more intense. “I could not bear to lose the friendship of some.”

Marianne had once thought Edward devoid of passion. She had been wrong. She began to feel in the way. Edward was her friend, too, however, and concern and interest kept her where she was.

Elinor glanced at Marianne and then turned back to Edward. She still looked shaken, but her voice was quite steady when she spoke. “We will be your friends regardless of what happens,” she assured him.

“You are kinder than I deserve,” Edward replied, his voice breaking. He held his head down for a moment and then looked up at Marianne as if waiting for her to speak, as if he had not taken for granted that Elinor's sentiments applied to them both. She loved him for it.

“I hope...” Marianne began, looking from Edward to Elinor and back again. What did she wish? That Edward had never worn the ring to Barton? Not quite. That he had never had cause to? Of course, but there was nothing to be done for that now. “I hope you will do what is right,” she said, thinking again of the day when everything fell apart for her. She took heart, for Edward already was showing the fortitude and contrition that Willoughby lacked. “And I hope you will have no cause to regret it.”

“I hope so too,” Edward replied, looking as though he had no hope at all.

* * *


“Elinor,” Marianne called out quietly as she let herself into her sister's room that night.

Elinor sat on her bed, staring at the single lit candle. She mumbled a greeting but did not look up. Marianne sat next to her and took her sister's hand in her own.

“Elinor?”

“Who would have thought,” Elinor said, laughing a sad sort of laugh, “that the mere mention of a ring would have led to this?”

“Oh, why did I ever bring it up? If I had known...”

“We still do not know.” Elinor turned to face her, eyes brimming with tears. “Whatever tangle he has got himself into,” she said, and then she shook her head without finishing the thought. “He is such a kind man. I should not be surprised I was not the first woman to discover it.” She smiled through the tears that had begun to fall. “Considering Mrs. Ferrars's ambitions, it was always a hopeless business in any case.”

“It cannot be hopeless! Something has gone wrong, but not because Edward wished to do wrong.” Marianne threw her arms around Elinor's neck. “Do not give him up!”

They wept together for some moments before Elinor pulled away. “He is not mine to give up,” she said. “That much is clear.”

“He must be! He is not yet married, Elinor!”

“You would have him break his word?”

“It does not matter what I would have him do. He would not do it. He is no Willoughby,” she spat. “Whoever this person is, this woman, she does not have his mother's favour, or surely Edward would have married her already. And she no longer has his favour either. Something must change.”

“But she has his word, and he has her ring, even if it is not a wedding ring.”

“There must be a way out of it.” Marianne got up and walked about the room. “There can be nothing official, or Fanny would have crowed about it or lamented it at Norland.”

“I would have to agree. Fanny cannot know.”

“This person, whoever she is, must be horrid.”

Elinor looked up. “What makes you say that?”

“To have won the affections of a good woman would hardly make him so sad! He was positively morose when he arrived. I was furious with him for upwards of an hour!”

Elinor nodded. “He was awful.”

“And he grew warmer by the minute once he came into the house.” Marianne walked back to the bed. “Think about it! If he were truly loved, he would have that knowledge to support him, even if he might regret not having met you first. And if he truly loved this woman, could he even be vulnerable to your charms? Oh, he would admire you, but his heart would not have room for another. And do not try to tell me he does not love you, not after what he said today.”

Her sister just sighed.

“This woman has to know,” Marianne declared. “She has to see there is no love to preserve! Why would she force Edward to do what would make them both sorry? How could she wish on him such an evil? Did he not say keeping his promise would make him miserable? There is something terribly wrong with her.”

Elinor smiled and wiped her eyes. “You have cheered me considerably.”

“Oh, Elinor! Have I?” Marianne dropped onto the bed and lay back, staring at the ceiling. “You have had as many hours as I have to dwell on all these things. I cannot have said much that you had not already thought of yourself.”

“Yes, I own that many of the same ideas had occurred to me. And many more besides.” She looked down at Marianne. “But it does cheer me to have someone to share them with.”

“Truly?”

“Yes, truly.”

“It is not nearly enough.” Marianne huffed, unsatisfied in the extreme. She wondered how on earth Edward would get himself out of this fix with his honour intact. He simply must, for Elinor's sake! She thought of the hardships and reverses she had endured since the day she had learnt her father was ill, and it fired her temper. “Men! If they are not dying far too soon, they are busy doing things that make one want to kill them.”

Elinor stared, wide-eyed.

Several seconds of silence were followed by muffled shrieks of laughter from both girls, and that laughter continued, interspersed with more melancholy expressions, until Margaret peeked into the room to ask what ever could be the matter.