As happened often with the Campbells' evening parties, the crowd had grown beyond the original design. Jane had been more looking forward to the evening than not, an unusual state for her. She had a high regard for Mr. Dixon, and rather thought he was a good match for her friend, and the inclusion of the Coopers in the invitation was welcome, as Colonel Campbell always enjoyed military reminiscence with Major Cooper, and Mrs. Cooper was a woman of good sense and education.
In the course of morning visits, however, Mrs. and Miss Campbell had extended invitations to over a half-dozen others, swelling the numbers for the evening beyond anything Jane could consider with pleasure. Her place in the household was less to be pleased and more to be pleasing, however, so she met news of each new invitation with a polite smile and a word of praise for the addition.
One name interested her more than most. Frank Churchill was in town. She had heard Miss Campbell speak of him before; the Churchill family had some connection with the Campbells, and Miss Campbell had met him while the family was in town for the season. She had spoken so warmly of him that Jane could not help a certain curiosity, heightened by knowing of his connections in Highbury, so near her own set. Miss Campbell's taste was not very discerning, but Jane could always amuse herself by measuring how near the truth her friend had come in her assessment.
Jane stayed by Miss Campbell's side, giving polite smiles to the Campbells' guests as they arrived and greeted the ladies. Mr. Dixon was polite and pleasant, as always. Jane knew, when she was most honest with herself, that her friend did not deserve a man such as Mr. Dixon, who was her superior in wealth, reason, and character. There was little of jealousy in it for Jane, however; Jane was too much inured against the temptations of Miss Campbell's situation, too aware of the manner in which she was elevated only by her association with her friend, to aspire to such a connection on her own merits.
Most of the other guests gave only polite acknowledgment to Miss Fairfax, saving their real civilities for Miss Campbell, who was their natural recipient.
"Jane, look!" Miss Campbell's arm closed on Jane's arm, and she looked meaningfully over towards the door. "There, the gentleman in the green coat. That is Mr. Frank Churchill. I am sure I have told you of Frank Churchill before."
"You have," Jane allowed. With her friend's interest to shield her own, she indulged herself in a moment of inspection of the young man.
He was very young, she thought, much younger than she had supposed from Miss Campbell's description of him. She did not think he could be more than a few years her senior, hardly the experienced man of the world she had been expecting from Miss Campbell's account. He was a well-looking man, she supposed, tall enough and with manners that tended only slightly toward affectation.
"He is to inherit from Mr. Churchill, you know," Miss Campbell confided to her, "though only a nephew of his. Mr. Campbell's sister married rather beneath herself, from what I understand, to a half-gentleman in Highbury. Do you know Mr. Weston? Have you met him when you visited there?"
"I have," said Jane. "He is not very like his son." Indeed, she had never seen any of the affectation she could discern in Mr. Frank Churchill on her encounters with Mr. Weston, and while there was a similarity of air, it was nothing but what might be reasonably shared by two pleasant gentlemen of no real connection.
"Indeed? I had imagined Mr. Weston to be very like his son. I suppose there is a great deal that good upbringing and education may do for a man."
"No doubt there is."
All further discussion was made impossible by the approach of the gentleman himself, who bowed a cordial greeting. "Miss Campbell," he said. "It is always such a pleasure to see you. You look in fine health; I hope you have been enjoying the country air?"
"I have, sir," Miss Campbell replied with a smile of greeting. If Jane had not been convinced of her friend's regard and affection for Mr. Dixon, she would have been alarmed by the warmth of their welcome for one another; she saw in Mr. Frank Churchill all the signs of a fortune hunter, too charming for her comfort by half. "It has been some months since we last met. I hope that your uncle and aunt are well?"
"My uncle is quite well, though my aunt's health is uncertain. They are at Enscombe for the summer, and I trust the air will do her good. I was pleased to be able to get away; they are not entertaining visitors there."
"I am very sorry for her, though pleased that we will gain from it. You are a most welcome addition to the circle here, I assure you."
Jane had the uncomfortable feeling that Mr. Frank Churchill was watching her despite his overt attentions to her friend, and the awkwardness of her situation in not being formally introduced was becoming more difficult to bear by the moment. She had just resolved to rise and seek out Mrs. Campbell when the gentleman asked Miss Campbell if he might be presented to her friend, thwarting Jane's hopes of a retreat.
"Oh, dear! I have been terribly remiss, I fear. Mr. Frank Churchill, may I present Miss Jane Fairfax? Miss Fairfax is a particular friend of my family."
"Miss Fairfax," said he with a bow. "Any friend of the Campbells must be also a friend of mine."
"Mr. Frank Churchill," answered Jane. "It is a pleasure to meet you, sir."
"Likewise, I am sure," said Frank Churchill. "Ah! If you ladies will excuse me, I believe I see a friend in need."
The ladies gave cordial assent, and watched as he crossed the room to speak to Mr. Bellamy.
"Is he not very handsome?" whispered Miss Campbell. "He was very popular in town."
"Very," said Jane, but was spared the need to comment further by the approach of Mr. Dixon.
"Miss Fairfax," he addressed her with a slight bow, "I hope that we may have the chance to hear you play this evening?"
"You tease me terribly, Mr. Dixon," cried Miss Campbell, "by inviting Jane and not me in this! But then, I am no great talent on the pianoforte; it is my particular tragedy."
"You play marvelously, Miss Campbell, as you know well," Mr. Dixon answered her, "and I should be happy to listen to you all the evening long. However, a talent such as Miss Fairfax's is not to be lightly discounted, and an opportunity to hear her play should never be neglected."
Jane assented graciously, and was exhorted to begin at once. She was soon seated at the grand pianoforte in the parlor, and selected an Irish love song, as particularly suited Mr. Dixon's tastes. She knew her taste and application to be fine, and her voice was well-suited to the subject. She saw, to her pleasure, that Mr. Dixon was seating himself by Miss Campbell to listen, their heads bent to one another.
An unfamiliar voice took the male part in the second verse, joining with her in song. Startled, Jane looked up to see who might be accompanying her, and saw Frank Churchill approach the instrument. His voice was good, the accompaniment correct and well-executed. His voice was a fine complement to hers, rich and full of the emotion which the song ought to compel, balancing rather than overpowering her performance.
He moved around the pianoforte to share the music with her, standing almost too close behind her as she sat and played. At the close of the song, he offered her a smile and disclaimed any share of the praise that came, saying, "I presumed terribly on Miss Fairfax, I am afraid, to have intruded on her performance. Robin Adair has long been a favorite of mine, and when I heard it so beautifully rendered, I longed to have a share in it."
Their eyes met, and she could not help answering the smile he gave her, though there was a light in his eyes she might otherwise have considered presuming. He seemed to say too much in a single look, to want too much, and she was surely not the woman to give it. Jane felt sure he thought of her either too high or too low, as an heiress or a woman of too little virtue; she recognized the dangers of such a man.
For that reason, when the company implored them to play again, she chose not a love song but a lullaby, an Italian mother's song well-suited to her voice. Mr. Frank Churchill looked down at her with laughing eyes and sang the accompaniment.
"You don't seriously intend on leaving with them!" Frank Churchill cried.
"I must," Jane replied, her voice low but firm. "I have no business in this place without the patronage of the Campbells to elevate me. We will have a few months yet, but then I must leave. What would I do here?"
"I cannot stand to see you go," said he. "It is too far -- all the way to Ireland. There would be nothing for you in Ireland, I am certain of it. It would be all stuffy rooms and Mr. Dixon praising you with nothing to offer but empty words."
"If not to Ireland, I must be preparing to go out into the world. I have waited longer than I ought to seek a position for myself."
"A position! What, as governess? You are too good for that, Miss Fairfax, surely you must see that you are."
"I thank you for the compliment, sir, but I cannot agree. My position in society is such that even this must seem an elevation for me. What else can I look forward to?" She spoke more plainly than discretion might otherwise allow, but in truth, she ached at the thought of leaving him. Their little flirtations and the deeper intercourse they had found as friends was precious to her. She thought, at times, that there might have been more there, but they were both too much victims of their circumstance. She had nothing to offer, and his aunt would never consent to an attachment between the pair of them. The pleasure must be fleeting; it were best to end it now, before it grew any harder.
"I do not know that I could ever look forward to anything, without you there to brighten it for me," he said, and there was a quietness and a sincerity in his tone that she had not expected. She looked from the water to meet his eye, and he caught up her hand, holding it in both of his.
"Mr. Churchill," she began, but he interrupted her.
"I beg you, Miss Fairfax, do not stop me; I have just enough courage to get through this once. I cannot suppose you do not know the depths of my admiration for you. You are all that is goodness and joy in my life, and I could never love another half so dear as I do love you. I cannot bear to see you go away from me. Stay, Miss Fairfax. Stay, and say that you will be my wife."
Jane felt herself tumbling into his words, caught up in the rhythm of this dance. She sat very, very still in her seat, as though a shift in position might send her body careening after her mind into the same mad spiral. She could not indulge this fantasy, could not fall into this fairy tale he painted for her.
"Mr. Frank Churchill," she said after a moment, her voice very careful, "I am honored by your request, honored and moved. I think that you know I am… not without strong affection for you. But you must know, as I do, that an alliance of that sort would be impossible for you. Your situation is such – that is to say, I am certain that your aunt would not approve the match."
"My aunt!" he cried. "Oh, my aunt, my aunt and her abominable pride. Will you let that sway you from me, dear Miss Fairfax? Will you let her be the arbiter of our happiness? Is it impossible that we might find joy in spite of my aunt?"
"I think, sir, that it may be impossible, yes. Could I love you and yet consent to you destroying all your hopes of a good life for me, when we have known each other only a few months? You are of a happy disposition, and will surely find contentment regardless of my company."
"And you, Miss Fairfax? Can you truly find contentment where you go? Will you not grant me such concern for your future joy as you show for me?"
"I should surely find none, sir, were I resented for destroying your hopes of security, which I must believe I would be, someday."
He sat in silence for a moment. "Is this to be how it ends, then? All our familiarity, our contentment, our happiness to end now because of the ill temper of one woman?"
"I think it is often so with such things. Circumstances intrude where we would not wish them. I hope, sir, that you will find some comfort in the company of friends."
"No," said he, so decidedly that she nearly drew back in surprise. "No," he said again, "I cannot let it end this way. If you are to go to Ireland, I will follow you."
"But you must know that to be impossible."
"Is it? Well, and I suppose it is. Then you must not go. I cannot stand it. If you cannot marry me openly, then you must allow me to court you privately. My aunt need not know – no one need know of it. With time, who can say what may change? We can find a way."
Jane was silent. She did not know where to begin to unwind her thoughts. The idea had a dizzying allure, but the actions were surely not those of a gentlewoman. After a moment, she felt mistress enough of herself to speak. "Can a union," she said softly, "formed under such dishonest conditions, ever prosper in the end?"
"Yes," said Frank Churchill, voice low and urgent. His hand closed around hers, and she could not keep from clasping his in return. "Yes. I do not think you could do less than render it good, Miss Fairfax. You make me a better man. Say you will not leave me."
And how was she to argue with that?
It had not taken long for Jane to fall back into the rhythm of events in Highbury. She missed the Campbells terribly, and Frank Churchill more, but there was old acquaintance to be renewed, and a comfort and familiarity with her aunt and grandmama to raise her spirits.
It seemed half the town found the opportunity to visit the day after her return, stopping by for a word with her. Aunt Hetty carried the conversations, never pausing long enough for their guests to say more than a, "I hope you are well, Miss Fairfax," or, "It does not seem Weymouth agreed with you, Miss Fairfax."
She felt the ill health they spoke of as a strain on her spirits. Here, in her childhood home, she could feel all the evils of her situation. Placed in the context of her family in Highbury, Jane Fairfax felt the presumption she had shown in mixing with the wider world of society in Weymouth. She sat quietly while Aunt Hetty spoke of her pleasure, her native air, her brilliance and her accomplishment. She smiled for Mr. Cole and Mr. Cox and Mr. Perry, accepting her role as a novelty in the community. She trusted it would wear out soon.
She most missed the pianoforte at the Campbell's. It was a beautiful instrument, and Jane had always found comfort in seating herself at it. The fine wood gleamed in the light, showing a softened reflection of her, blurred and distant: a memory in dark colors. There was a life to the instrument, a life she could call out. She would likely never have children of her own, but at the piano, she was mother to all music.
Miss Woodhouse called, as she must for courtesy's sake, but Jane thought she could see a reluctance in the other woman's manner. Miss Woodhouse had long been the woman to whom all others looked in Highbury, and Jane could not help feeling out of place in her presence. It would be less awkward, she felt, if her aunt were not always imagining a greater intimacy than had ever existed between the two.
"And dear Miss Woodhouse! – So fond of our dear Jane. But then, who could be otherwise? Mr. Cox was telling me – He feels that any family would be quite fortunate to have Jane with them – I dare say the Campbells are feeling the loss of her. Such good people, the Campbells. I am sure we are most indebted – But then, Jane is so very clever, one imagines it must have been a pleasure to attend to her education – such a good student! Not that I mean to say Miss Campbell was not – that is to say, Miss Campbell must have been well served by a friend such as Jane. Just as was Miss Woodhouse! Though of course, we do not presume to say – Jane was very much the gainer by the acquaintance. We are so much indebted to Mr. and Miss Woodhouse."
Jane did not presume to feel slighted by the lack of affection between Miss Woodhouse and herself. Their stations were so very different, and she had been away so much of the time, that a true intimacy must have been impossible. Her understanding of her own situation did not, however, protect her from an unjust sense of resentment when she heard that Miss Woodhouse had formed a close acquaintance with Miss Smith, a parlor-boarder at Mrs. Goddard's school. If such a girl was worthy to be so elevated by Miss Woodhouse, was Jane so inferior?
All the things she must not say sat heavily on Jane's tongue, dropping her into silence much of the time. It was particularly difficult in one evening at the Woodhouse's, where Jane could not help feeling Miss Woodhouse had somehow divined her feelings about Frank Churchill. She knew, it seemed, of the acquaintance, and was eager for Jane to speak on the subject.
"Did you know Mr. Frank Churchill?"--"A little, yes." "Is he handsome?"--"I believe he is reckoned a very fine young man." "Is he agreeable?"--"He is generally thought so." "Does he appear a sensible young man; a young man of information?"--"At a watering-place, or in a common London acquaintance, it is difficult to decide on such points. Manners are all that can be safely judged of, under a much longer knowledge than we have yet had of Mr. Churchill. I believe every body finds his manners pleasing."
Jane hardly knew how else to answer. The questions were painful, the need for deception in the answers more so. Miss Woodhouse, she could tell, wanted personal insight, the intelligence of a person who had met with Mr. Frank Churchill. But that was just what Jane was most unwilling to give. Jane could not trust herself to speak as she ought, to know what a disinterested observer might say. She feared she would praise too much, or too little, to betray their commitment by her warmth or by its absence.
She thought Emma Woodhouse not very pleased with her by the end of the evening. To own the truth, Jane was not much more pleased with herself.
When she had been in Highbury three weeks, word arrived that Mr. Frank Churchill was expected to visit soon. He had been expected for some time, it was explained to her, but had always been detained by some thing or another. She did not expect he would be delayed this time.
He came to call on her the very morning of his arrival, in spite of the reports which said he would not arrive until nearly four o'clock. She had not expected him to call until the next day, but when she heard a male voice in the downstairs hall, she knew it instantly for his. She did not know how to look or how to act when he arrived.
"Miss Fairfax," he said, his smile lighting his face with all the animation she recalled from their time at Weymouth. He bowed, and she rose from her seat. He pressed her hand briefly. "I am very glad to see you looking so well. Who should have thought, when I took my leave of you at Weymouth, we should be meeting again so soon?"
Embarrassed, Jane looked to her aunt, but saw no deep perception there. She did not know what to say, and managed only, "I have been here some weeks now, sir. We did not expect you arrived until later today."
"I was impatient to meet with certain people," he said. "I found I could not sleep well on the road, from my haste."
"I – it is good to see you arrived safely, sir."
The whole scene was much more painful than she had imagined. His eyes laughed as he watched her, but she could only feel the distance separating them, a distance built of more than feet and inches. "I am not the person I ought to be with him," she reflected, and it was a cold thought. How very odd it seemed to her that his presence should make her feel so much more alone than his absence did. With him before her, the deception that cloaked her seemed to stand in sharp relief, walling her off from friends and family.
But then he smiled at her, and she saw the laughter in his eyes, and her heart warmed to it. Who could say what might change, with time?
Aunt Hetty was carrying the conversation for her, one blessing she was sure to never want. When Frank Churchill at length excused himself, Jane felt her heart lightened. He would stay only two weeks, he had said, but perhaps two weeks would be enough. She could warm herself by the fire of his nearness; that could sustain her through the winter.
"He seems a fine young man!" said her aunt later, as they sat together. "It is a shame that you did not know him better in Weymouth, Jane."
The delivery caught them all unprepared. Jane had been dressing for dinner, though it was to be only her grandmama, her aunt, and herself that evening. When the knock came at the door, she paused, her hair half-done, and listened.
She could hear Aunt Hetty at the door, speaking with a breathless air that seemed to mark her as surprised or upset. Grandmama would be in the parlor, but could not be expected to go assist in greeting visitors. Jane could not imagine who might be calling at this time of day.
She went to the window and drew the curtain slightly aside. The delivery wagon in the street bore no livery, and the contents were hidden beneath a tarp. Two men were busy at the back of it, preparing to unload. The family was expecting no delivery.
"Jane! Jane! Oh my goodness, Jane! Come and see! What do you suppose?"
Jane let the curtain fall back and turned towards the door.
One could not walk into the room without noticing it. The pianoforte, though a small one, was still too large for the space; Grandmama's chair had to be moved aside, and two small tables had been removed to other rooms. It was a beautiful instrument, new and gleaming and exquisite.
It had arrived from Broadwood's, and Jane had no doubt at all who had chosen it for her. She could close her eyes and imagine him, riding to London with her in his mind, examining the instruments. He would have rested his hand on the wood, here -- She trailed her hand along the back. He would have tested the tone. His fingers would have touched the keys.-- here. Would he have imagined her fingers, tracing the paths his had followed?
He should not have done it.
Aunt Hetty could not stop speaking about the piano. "But whoever could it be from, Jane? I cannot imagine who it might be from! You must have some idea, surely. I certainly did not send it. It must be someone we know. It could not be anyone here, I am sure. Unless, perhaps, Mr. Woodhouse? Mr. Woodhouse is very fond of you, you know, and was so very pleased to hear you play the other day. Mr. Woodhouse might have wished -- but no, I cannot imagine him going to such an expense. He is always so very kind, sending us bits of pork or ham when they have it to spare, and is so generous a host when we go to call, but he would have no call for such a thing when he might have you over to play. It is always such a treat for Miss Woodhouse, I expect, to have you over. She was so kind in her comments when she found you were coming, you know, Jane -- but truly, who might have sent it? It is such a grand gift. Surely you must have some idea, Jane. Perhaps it is a case where discretion would be best, indeed. You do very right by your silence. If the sender wished to be unknown -- yes, indeed. You are quite right -- do you suppose it might have been the Campbells? Oh, yes, I daresay -- Oh, Jane, it must have come from Colonel Campbell, do you not think it must? Such a fine gift, and so particularly suited to you. I cannot imagine it was from anyone else. Colonel Campbell has always been so kind to you, and of course, so delighted that you have learned so well -- you are a credit to his efforts, and of course, to your own dear, good parents. But he must have feared you would fall out of practice. Not that he need have feared any such thing, of course, not from you -- you are always so particular about such things. Oh, Jane! How very fortunate you are to have such good friends!"
Jane was not obliged to answer, as her aunt was capable of providing both sides of the conversation with little difficulty. She was grateful for it; she thought it impossible that she might speak sense at such a time. She lowered herself to sit at the instrument, her fingers caressing the ivory of the keys. She had no music, but gazed at the dark wood, her heart too full for words or action.
"You should play something, Jane!" her aunt exhorted. "Such a beautiful instrument should be played."
"It will need to be tuned," Jane said at last, her tone meditative. "It has been out in the winter air; it will need to warm and be tuned."
"Oh! Well, of course it will; of course." Her aunt, Jane knew, had no understanding of instruments. "But there is no reason you cannot play a bit now, is there? You can play a bit now, so that we may hear the sound of it, and then again later. I am sure it will sound quite fine; you play so wonderfully."
"I have no music," Jane said.
"Oh! But the Colonel included music! Did you not see? There are several pages of music! How strange that I should have forgotten to say -- oh, where did I put them? I was showing them to your grandmama, you know -- Mother, I said, did you see this music? She is so looking forward to hearing you play. You will have to play loudly, of course, for she will have trouble hearing if you do not. Where can I have placed them? I thought I must have put them on the little table, but we had to move that to my bedroom, for there was no room for the piano with it here. Oh! Here they are. I had placed them on the little mantle, you see, and then forgotten. How strange of me. Here, Jane, you must play one! We must hear the instrument."
She placed the pages before Jane as she spoke, and Jane gazed at the sheet without speaking. The song which had been placed first was Robin Adair.
What's this dull town to me? Robin's not near…
To have him so close, and yet not near at all -- how had she allowed herself to consent to this state of affairs?
Donwell Lane was dry and clean, giving Jane no difficulty as she walked down it, leaving behind her the interfering insolence of the crowd she had escaped at the Abbey. How so many talkers could be in one party she could not understand, but there they were -- her aunt, with her cheerful chatter; Mrs. Elton, with such exact solicitude arranging Jane's life for her; even Miss Woodhouse, so urgent for the carriage to be called.
Jane had been rude, she was certain, to Miss Woodhouse, in her abrupt insistence on a departure, but she could not bear it a moment longer. To stay, in that house and in that company, with the secrets of her life bearing down on her? It was impossible. Her head had ached as if it might burst from the pressure of those secrets.
In her rational heart, she knew Miss Woodhouse had probably been right. The heat was high, and a walk of over a mile, with no companion, had been foolish to contemplate. But she felt so free, here on the road, with no one to pretend for, no illusions to maintain. Mrs. Elton's plans for her life were so difficult to evade. Every visit became an exercise in endurance, remaining calm as she was attacked with schemes, her motives airily dismissed as frivolous or foolish.
In truth, Jane knew Mrs. Elton to be correct. If she wished to obtain a good position, she ought to be seeking soon. It was the grand lie that overshadowed her life in Highbury that made her hesitate, that made her refrain from action, not any sanguine expectations about her future as a governess. Jane was barred from explaining her true motivations, which trapped her in a pattern of misdirection and coy demurrals. It was almost too much to bear, and Frank Churchill had not even attended, despite his promises.
The day was hotter than was comfortable for walking, and she felt the heat and light increasing the headache with which she had departed Donwell Abbey. When she was safely home, she thought she would find a dark room and sit for half an hour or so with her eyes closed, enjoying the stillness and placing herself again at its center. It was so good to be herself here, without the need for performance or deflection.
When the black mare rounded the curve of the road, coming visible around the trees, Jane knew it immediately for Mr. Frank Churchill's. She let her eyes fall away, to the fence along the road. She had expected pleasure or relief at the sight of him, but what she felt was a startling jolt of irritation. To have spent the day with such companions, always with the hope of seeing him, and now to have him arrive just as she was leaving the company? It seemed a cruelty on the part of Fate, but it was Mr. Frank Churchill who had made it possible, by placing them both in such an untenable situation.
"Miss Fairfax!" Frank Churchill dismounted almost before his horse had stopped, landing on the ground and turning. "I was afraid I was going to miss you altogether. I was so late getting underway -- my aunt was in a state." He reached his hand out to her, but she kept hers resolutely clasped in front of her.
"I'm afraid I was just leaving," she told him.
"But I've only just arrived! You could come back in."
"And what excuse for such a return should I give?"
He saw the sense of this and grimaced, turning to look back up at the house. "In that case," he said, "I shall give up the prospect of strawberry picking, and instead escort you home." He offered her his arm.
She did not take it. "I appreciate the offer, but you must know that to be impossible, sir."
Jane felt anger swelling in her. "Because, sir, caution and secrecy are our only defense against suspicion! If we were seen walking on the street together, people would surely begin to suspect."
"Nonsense! We have played our roles too well, Miss Fairfax. No one could suspect."
Nonsense! Her heart clenched at the word. "Clearly," she said, her tone rather cold, "I am incapable of being a sensible companion today, if all I say is such nonsense. You had best go in to the party and allow me to go on my way." She turned and began to walk again down the road.
"Hang the party!" He caught her arm, halting her, she turned to look directly at him. "I didn't come for the party, Miss Fairfax. I came for you."
"Then you should have arrived sooner, sir."
"You say that as if there were no obstacles!" His voice was growing heated.
"I am full aware of the obstacles, sir! I assure you, I have had little else on my mind these several months."
"Then will you not take pity on me?"
"Pity you!" she cried. "Pity me, sir! I am the one who has had to live such a lie, in the company of those who love me, pretending indifference and watching you. Watching you tease me, pretend indifference and scorn. Watching you seeming to pay court to another! Pity you, sir? Indeed, no."
He colored, his expression showing the flare of his temper. "Well, I will walk with you now, then. None shall pity you today."
"You will not, sir."
"You will not!" Her voice was too loud, Jane knew, her own temper snapping out. "This concealment was your idea, and I have paid the price for it every day. I have been living in the misery of deception to all my friends. I have betrayed their kindness and their good will, and abused their desire to assist me. I have borne abuse and scorn from you yourself in pursuit of this deception. And now, rather than suffer a single afternoon of disappointment, will you throw it all away? I can see how my needs and feelings rank with you!"
"That is unjust!"
"Is it?" She glared at him, he at her. After a moment, he turned from her, swinging smoothly back up onto his mare. "Fine," he said down at her. "Walk alone." He spurred his mount on, cantering up to the house.
Jane did not watch him ride, but turned and walked on down the road. Her mind stayed at Donwell Abbey until she closed the front door behind her, in the comfort of her own home. There was no sign of her grandmama, who must have been in her rooms. The weight of her own isolation closed in around Jane. She shut her eyes for a moment, then crossed to sit at the pianoforte. Her fingers rested on the keys, but she did not play. As if they were her music, tears welled instead, quite defeating her efforts to hold them back. She wept her anger and frustration into the solitude of the parlor.
By the time her aunt returned, full of talk about the party, Jane had cried herself to dry eyes, a raw spirit, and a new clarity.
Mr. F. C. --
In light of the sentiments with which we parted the other evening, I cannot imagine that you will have any objections upon receiving the message of this letter. While our arrangement was entered into in good faith on both sides, I cannot say in truth that it is now anything other than a source of deepest repentance to me. As I am certain that it is equally a misery to you, I release you from your promises and dissolve the engagement. There should be no occasion for further contact, though I hope for the sake of Mr. and Mrs. W. that you shall not break off all contact with them upon receiving this letter; they deserve better than an absent and negligent son.
- J. F.
He never replied.
Jane waited a few days, each day expecting word. She did not expect an easy assent from him. He would write to protest, or come himself. The letter from Mrs. Smallridge arrived, expressing her delight at Jane's acceptance of their generous offer. Jane answered it cordially, and preparations began for her departure. Jane's frequent tears upset her aunt and grandmama, she knew, but she could not seem to prevent them. She could not even look at the pianoforte without seeing the fracture of her hopes.
Word came that Mrs. Churchill had died, but Jane had it only from Mr. Weston, not from Frank Churchill himself. Surely, she told herself, this would be the change they needed? He would reply to her letter, or come himself.
Finally, she could wait no more. Her darker thoughts had been correct this time, not her wishes for happiness. Free of the constraints of his aunt's whims, Mr. Frank Churchill would be gratified to be released from an obligation to her, an obligation formed in a moment and of late grown so burdensome to him. Jane would begin her life without him.
She gathered up all of Frank Churchill's letters and bound them with a ribbon and penned a brief note to him, gently remonstrating with him for not giving her the courtesy of a reply, but showing that she understood the meaning of his silence. She gave him the Smallridge's address, that he might direct her letters there.
She sent the letters. When she returned home, and saw the pianoforte gleaming against the wall, she felt the unsteadiness of her knees. She sat suddenly in a chair and began to weep. Once started, she could not seem to stop, and her aunt, flustered and anxious over the unexplained tears, fluttered about her and finally decided there was nothing for it but to put her to bed.
Jane hardly cared. She was miserable, truly miserable, and sick at heart. Aunt Hetty called for Mr. Perry, against Jane's protests that she had no need of the apothecary's services. Mr. Perry spoke to her in low tones, and stayed a little while, and Jane later overheard him in the next room telling her aunt, "There are no great problems that I can detect, Miss Bates, but I am nonetheless concerned for her. Her color is very ill, her appetite poor, and she displays a listlessness not congruent with good health. I am uneasy, Miss Bates, and urge you to give her peace and rest and whatever foods she will take."
Aunt Hetty would do her best, but could not allow Jane the solitude to regain herself: it was not in that woman's nature. Jane lay, wrapped around her own despair, looking into the bleakness of a future without prospects of liberty, of comfort, of independence, or of love.
The days dragged by. Jane endured visits from several ladies of the village, and tried not to listen to the constant conversation of her aunt. Any she could turn away, she did. When she thought she could stand it no longer, she insisted on the liberty of a walk, and took herself out to a meadow some distance from the town, where she stood wrapped in the summer winds. She thought she gained a little strength then, but when she returned and saw the pianoforte again, sitting in the parlor like an accusation, she found she still could not face company.
The sound of visitors had become familiar, and Jane did not heed her aunt's nervous, "I am sorry, but Jane is quite unwell, too unwell to receive visitors, I am afraid. She will be sorry to miss you, I am sure, sir, but we really -- we must not --"
"No, no!" the reply came, and Jane sat up in bed. It was Frank Churchill. No. No, she was mistaken, she must have been --
But then she heard footsteps clattering across the room, and a hand at her door. "Miss Fairfax? Miss Fairfax, I beg you, you must come out and speak with me!" His voice was breathless, and there was real anguish in his voice.
"Mr. Churchill!" said her aunt, aghast. "Sir, you should not -- that is to say, it is hardly proper -- Jane is not well --"
"I will be out in a minute, sir," Jane said softly to the closed door.
There was no time for elaborate dressing. She took a simple dress and pulled her hair back with a ribbon, hoping she managed to appear neat, if not elegant. Then she opened the door and stepped out.
Mr. Frank Churchill was pacing the room, hands clasped behind him. When she appeared, he turned and stopped, staring at her. He looked appalled. Jane colored.
"Miss Fairfax," he said after a minute. "I apologize for intruding, but -- you look very pale."
"I have been ill, sir," she said quietly. Seeing him, here, it was as if no time had passed. He was agitated, and she felt her heart beating in her breast with a rapidity that alarmed her.
Her aunt was fluttering around the room, trying to find a course of action. "Perhaps some tea? Yes, tea would be the very thing. I will go and get some tea. Mother, do you not think that tea would be the very thing? Jane, you could manage some tea, I am sure, and --"
"No, thank you, Miss Bates," said Frank Churchill. "I cannot stay long, I am afraid. I am just here for -- Oh, it is no use." He stepped forward suddenly, catching Jane's hands in his. "Miss Fairfax, it is done, it is done. I have spoken with my uncle, I have laid the entire thing before him, and he has agreed to it all. I never meant to leave you in suspense, or to use you ill, but I have done both, and I repent me of it deeply. I beg you, Miss Fairfax, do not make me pay for it as I deserve; do not say that I have lost you."
Jane could not speak for a moment, and even her aunt was silenced for a moment by the outburst, so fervently was it delivered.
Aunt Hetty was the first to find her voice. "Jane!" she cried. "What can be the meaning of this? You do not mean to say -- you and Mr. Frank Churchill -- are you --"
"We are," replied Jane, looking up into his eyes. "We were, and we are." She saw the smile light them again, felt the warmth of his hands around hers and knew, suddenly, that all would be well. She smiled back.
He stayed perhaps another ten minutes, laying the story before her aunt and grandmama, focusing on his own evils and saying nothing of her own. She found she had to make an effort to be allotted her fair portion of the blame, though she did make the exertion where she felt it necessary. Then he was gone, to ride to Randalls and explain the matter to Mr. and Mrs. Weston. He would be gone, he said, some few days. Jane thought she could bear the separation well enough now.
Her aunt spoke at length of her astonishment. Grandmama kissed her cheek and told her he seemed a very fine man indeed. Jane smiled at them both. There were letters to be written, she knew, to Mrs. Smallridge, to Colonel Campbell and to Mrs. Dixon, but they could wait. For now, she sat down at the pianoforte.
And she sang.