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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The Trouble of Practising | Longer fiction
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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.

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

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.”


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.