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

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Note: Some stories include direct quotes from Austen's works, and there is the occasional nod to one or other of the adaptations.

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

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.


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