Actions

Work Header

All That Had Once Been Embers

Work Text:

Her spirits in need of solitude and silence, Anne lingered behind the rest of the party as they set out across the meadowland. She had eavesdropped; she was entirely deserving of her own agitation; yet nothing could be plainer. Captain Frederick Wentworth and Louisa Musgrove must now be intended for each other. If the younger Anne had but owned the fortitude and strength of mind of which Captain Wentworth had spoken with such admiration, then events might have been otherwise, and she and he might have been walking together with the same abashed happiness of a Charles Hayter and his Henrietta, or the domestic familiarity of her brother and sister Charles and Mary. She had had, she thought, a momentary and long gone glance at such a future, and must learn anew to turn aside from regret, lest it consume her.

Such was the inward absorption of her thoughts; she failed to observe that the object of them had dropped behind the main party. Captain Wentworth had not so much slowed his pace, however, as adopted an erratic and meandering path across the meadow, stopping hither and thither to admire a particular wildflower, to assess the coppicing of a hazel thicket, and often to regard the cluster of hazelnuts in his hand, which he frequently raised to his nose, as if they possessed a curious and entrancing odour. It was not long, however, until Captain Wentworth espied Anne Elliot. A curious rigidity seized him, as if it were a surprize to him that she, unconscious of his regard, traversed the same meadowland on which he stood: there was about him something of the well-trained hunting dog, an eager, well-controlled quivering.

His direction was fixed, his gaze heated. It was clear he recognised her, and yet there was a distinctiveness about her figure which expressed to Captain Wentworth, who had inadvertently discovered the peculiar properties of that fruit known to local villagers as Love-in-an-instant, nothing more than that she seemed to him the most perfect of all women. His Anne! His beloved! How could he have ever left her? He discovered himself standing still, and marveled at himself: he must rush to her side immediately – must convey immediately that any wish of her would instantly become his greatest desire – must throw himself at her feet like some modern Walter Raleigh – why was she not on his arm already? Why were they not wedded – and bedded, her dark eyes and her sweet elegance his-! Only the embarrassment of realising himself, all unbidden – at the age of twenty-nine, no less! - rising to an urgent stand in his breeches delayed his race to her side.

Thus, they were no more than five minutes from the gate when Anne found herself joined by Captain Wentworth. To her exacting eye, he appeared flushed: he had shed his overcoat, and held it in his arms in awkward disarray, and the way in which he looked at her – his manners were all that was proper, his step restrained, but his eyes-!

His eyes were not merely bright, but afire with admiration.

Had Anne but known it, the lively breeze and spring sunshine lent her face the colour and sparkle of her youth. To Captain Wentworth, dazed and confused, it was if the eight years of their separation had been swept away. All seemed fresh and new to him – yet at the same time Anne’s clear dark eyes and the dear curves of her cheeks, the curl at the corner of her mouth – all were suffused with a deep and familiar joy. Could he but see her smile, there alone would lie his complete happiness.

“Oh, Anne. Oh, Anne,” Captain Wentworth murmured.

“Captain, I do not feel you are yourself,” Anne said urgently.

“On the contrary, I have never felt more so,” said Captain Wentworth, with a touch of his old confidence.

He was so close. She put her hand on his arm, which he had held for her; he was shaking and feverish, she could feel the heat and tremor of it under her hand. She hardly knew what to think, his demeanour was so changed, and yet so much of it her dearest and most hidden wish. His hand was over hers, now, detaining them both in an intimacy that would have been unthinkable not five minutes before. His dear eyes saw nothing but her: they were so close as to surely arise suspicion in the rest of the party.

“My feelings are -” the Captain swallowed. “I have wronged you. Tell me what I must do, Anne, to regain your regard. Nothing is closer to my heart.”

The honest distress in his voice nearly brought her to her knees, and yet the man she had met that morning had shown no such feelings. That man had been all cold courtesy; this one was all heat and feeling, and she could not but be exquisitely conscious of his attention. But it was wrong. Nothing had occurred to profess such a reversal, no exchange of explanation or confessed attraction. He must be ill. It was the only explanation which made any sense; he was ill, she must assist him to safe harbour, they must secure a surgeon.

“Anne!”

Her sister called for her, and never had she been more grateful for Mary’s sharp voice.

“Anne, hurry! I do declare, that is the Admiral and Mrs Croft!”

Indeed, a very pretty landau, with a pair of carriage horses Anne had once known well, was proceeding up the lane. The advent of sensible assistance was more than she could have wished; she set off immediately, so firmly retaining her place on the Captain’s arm that he could not but accompany her.

The admiral, and his wife, had taken a turn about the lanes in their new carriage, and were even now directed towards Uppercross to call upon their neighbours. It was with great pleasure, therefore, that the two parties met and exchanged compliments, Louisa and Henrietta’s new bonnets and the wheels and upholstery of the new landau being equally admired, the greetings of the day and enquiries after the health of all parties present and related being expressed, with much attention being paid to current and future plans. Half-way through this exchange, Miss Anne Elliot and Frederick, who had been lingering in the meadow, arrived at the gate. Both were flushed, although neither exceptionally so beyond the heat of the day, so that Mrs Croft was quite startled to find Anne beseeching her for a seat in the Landau.

“It would be better, perhaps, if he were at Kellynch,” Miss Elliot said.

“I am not ill!” exclaimed Frederick.

“Whereas I am perfectly exhausted!” said Mrs Charles Musgrove. “Anne, you know how weary I get! I swear, my poor feet! My ankles!”

“Well, if you were to wear a pair of sensible-”

Mr Charles Musgrove was quietened by no more than a glance from Miss Elliott, whose gentle good sense and fine humour Mrs Croft was coming to appreciate.

“Both of you would be very welcome,” Mrs Croft said. “What is a carriage for, after all, other than conveying people? Indeed, we have room for six – Miss Elliot, should we take you along, too?”

Frederick looked most gratified, but Miss Elliot positively paled. “Why, no,” she said, “It is no more than a mile to Uppercross, and I shall have Charles with me.”

Mary Musgrove gasped. “Oh, but Charles!” she cried out. “Would you leave me to suffer alone?”

Frederick had bent to Miss Elliot. Were they not so close, Mrs Croft would not have heard him, but hear him she did: “Please do not leave me, Anne,” her brother said.

Suddenly, a number of observations her brother Edward had made began to fall into place, yet Mrs Croft had no more begun to align her thoughts than the Admiral let out a quiet, “Oh, ho! You know, I believe I begin to see the cut of his jib.”

How gratifying it was to be married to a man whose thoughts aligned with her own on almost every point of importance. “Indeed so,” Mrs Croft whispered. Yet she would not abandon Miss Elliot to an unwanted association. She raised her voice. “Mrs Musgrove, do let the Admiral give you a hand inside. The driver can take your switch, Mr Musgrove, and Miss Elliot; you are welcome to squeeze in beside us. Mr Hayter, might we carry you anywhere?”

“Oh, no,” said Mr Charles Hayter, looking very young and pink, and swiftly disentangling his hand from that of Miss Henrietta Musgrove – was love in the air, today? “Thank you, but no, I must to my mother.”

“Of course,” said Mrs Croft, feeling remarkably maternal herself. “So, ladies, may we take you all to Uppercross?”

“Oh, but surely there is not space!” exclaimed Miss Elliott, unguardedly.

“Then I shall convey you home myself,” said Frederick, with the swift tactical sense for which he had been so well rewarded in the Navy.

Mrs Croft sat forward, willing to intervene, but Miss Elliot’s face – for a moment, she saw such yearning in it that she must reach unseeing for the Admiral’s hand, lest he not be by her side, where he belonged.

Anne had seen rescue arrive, and the prospect of medical intervention, and could not understand her own hesitation. Her feelings were all extremes, all doubt, all concern, and that bright moment of love rejoined that she knew to be untrue, and yet hope, that cruellest of emotions, beat at her heart.

Captain Wentworth turned to look at her with the most pathetic and beseeching gaze. “I would find my harbour in you, Anne,” he murmured.

She could not bear it. He was ill; he was overcome; it was clear that some foreign substance in the very air had deflected constraint and reason; and yet – and yet! – to hear such words set every nerve afire. She could not so abandon him. She had done so once; she would not do so now.

“Oh, please go,” she said, stepping back. “Please, take everyone, and go.”

There was no dignity in anything short of a whole heart: if she was to be compromised through love, then compromised she would be.

Mrs Croft took one look at her, and urged the Miss Musgroves into the landau. “Farewell! Do call, Miss Elliot, you are always welcome!” She ordered the driver to start the horses before Louisa and Henrietta were even fully seated.

Anne and Captain Wentworth watched them leave, her hand tight on his arm, his own gloved fingers covering hers. Her heart was aflutter; his was a fast, heavy beat she could feel in the marrow of her bones, as if she would forever now recognise it to be his. They were silent, but she could hear the retreating rattle of the landau, the whistle of a shepherd boy over the hill, and the rumble of carriage wheels from the post-road beyond the wood. They were not alone, and it was less than a mile along the lane to Uppercross. She had had time to think, and had brought herself to recall the conversation she had overheard earlier between Louisa and the Captain, when he had referred to picking hazel-nuts. Could it be such a fruit which had affected the Captain? She turned to ask him, and found him looking down at her with such warmth the words stopped in her throat.

“Anne,” he said. “My dearest Anne.”

There was no other person to whom she had ever been dearest. To be so named was a moment of exquisite gratification. She must remember – must cling to the knowledge that such naming was only borrowed – yet she was twenty-seven years old, unwed, and unlikely to be so. She had espoused prudence and duty once, and found both cold comfort.

“Frederick,” Anne said.

The shape of his name was familiar in her mouth, although the warmth it kindled in his eyes was not. He moved, he held both her hands in his, his mouth was soft warmth against her knuckles, against the palm of her hands, lingering, and then, a shock of heat where the fastening of her glove bared her skin to his touch.

“Do I dare hope?” he asked. His eyes were dark. “Might your heart...still be mine?”

The naked hope in his voice was laid bare to her alone. She could not but answer. “I would not play so wantonly with your affections,” Anne said. “My own heart – my heart cannot but be constant.” Such constancy had its price. He was in her arms – every part of him felt so alive, so warm, a manly vigor that enlivened her until she scarcely knew herself – her own small hands cradled his dear face against her breast – and yet she felt the unfit knife of deception in the heart of that constancy. He was not himself, and she knew it.

“My dearest Anne,” Captain Wentworth murmured. He looked up at her. “Mine own, true, harbour.”

Oh, how could she deny him, after such an affirmation? She knew not what she did. She held him, as he held her, his kisses could not but be returned: when he lifted her in his arms she only did nothing but cling closer.

There was a copse, not twenty paces up the lane, where stood a deserted doo-cot, a favourite spot for pic-nics in earlier, happier times. She knew it well; the roof was still entire, and the pierced walls allowed shafts of sunlight to illuminate the smooth, bricked floor, and the fragrant hay bales stacked upon it. He took her there, laid down the bales and covered them with his overcoat, and on that sweetly-scented bed she fell willingly into his arms. He had the handsomest of mouths, she had always thought, and it was handsomer yet under her own. He had such confidence and warmth, even overpowered by whatever illness held him in its power. His voice – his words - he looked at her with such a glowing and open countenance that she must assume such effusions normal and to be expected; she must put aside both her own failing timidity and, trembling, her wrap. Yet it seemed this was not enough; he must undo the fastenings of her gown, and then the lacings of her petticoats, with such resolute and gentle persuasion that she found herself as comfortable as if this unprecedented unrobing was a moment of domestic happiness. She thought such tenderness proof of his warm and amiable heart, but the force with which he cast off his own apparel proved instead the iron restraint he had enacted for her sake alone. His gloves, his coat, his boots, his shirt, his breeches – all were gone in an instant.

She had lived but little in the world, but so matter-of-fact was he that she found no embarrassment in his tender care. He was all flushed victory - she was all confused delight, feeling a hundred things - she gave herself up to his demands strung between misery and delight - not one single poet relieved her mind with apt quotation - all was feeling, not thought.

“Oh, my sweet Anne,” he said, over and over again. It was clear her body brought him delight, the curves and shapes of it, yet his gaze returned over and over to his, as if it was her mind as well as her body he craved.

Yet their bodies were as if fitted by nature to match each to each. His mouth – his mouth! In places she had never ventured herself-! And yet bringing her such sweet and wild delight-! Anne was overcome, wild, beyond anything she had ever experienced, and he was laughing with her. He was rising above her, and she was, as if she knew what she was doing, welcoming him home. There was no pain, a pinch, perhaps, and the wondrous feel of his body inside hers, a tightness, a solid warmth, an awareness of something greater than the sum of their two physical bodies. She gasped at the knowledge of it; he, in fever wholly trapped, still yet evinced such grace and care as if these qualities were fixed and hers alone, forever. He kissed her hand, her shoulder, her breast; he whispered into her skin such sweet words that would warm the barest hearth, his reined restraint so evident she felt that for her sake and hers alone he leashed a perfect storm. Yet he was not alone. The fever was hers as well as his; her body and heart roused, her heartbeat no fluttering dove but a fierce and unyielding phoenix. She clasped him tight and urged him onwards, up, up into the storm, and he nailed her favour to his mast, and flew alongside.

When the final climax came, as it must, it felt to her as if their two hearts were aligned in that one instant, as if all were known and loved, as joyous as if they stood bare in the sight of God and were beloved.

“Oh, Anne,” he sighed. “In you, I have my anchorage.”

Anne could say nothing. In a moment, he was asleep, her Frederick. She held him close with all the gentle care common to her sex, his dark head at rest, his limbs neatly arrayed, his body, which had been to her an engine of delight, in her keeping for this one brief moment. He slept, but she did not, for she knew this governance to be temporary.

Her rule was brief. She knew it when he stirred, for the awareness that returned to him was fully his own, and the blaze it brought was one of mortification. He woke, naked, in her embrace, knew not how such had occurred, and the evidence of their activities was beyond excuse.

“What did I do?”

“Nothing,” Anne said, “Nothing either of us did not wish, at the time. Frederick – Captain,” she reversed, “Captain, be at ease. No promises were made. Nothing here occurred. Nothing.”

She noted with some amusement his embarrassment, for she felt she had passed through the fires of discomposure and was beyond them, in some space of peace wrought by toil. His will and his hands had borne them so far: she must and would carry them over this last stretch.

“We are not children, to cast aside all prudence for a moment’s gratification. This was a moment of madness, Captain, and it shall be forgotten as such.”

His spend was still on her belly, sticky and thick, where at the last he had withdrawn from her. Anne could be both thankful and regretful; she would allow herself that; but it was folly to watch his face as he dampened his handkerchief and cleaned her skin, for there seemed to be such painful regret in his hands and his face her heart could not but still bleed for his.

She must put aside any childish dream of love or constancy, and put on again prudence, and duty. Yet it seemed to her, as he dressed her, as silent and careful as any lady’s maid, surely, as handy as all sailors were rumoured to be, that her clothes were far heavier now that when she had put them on herself that very morning, and the weight on her shoulders was far more than the cotton of her day dress.

“Anne-”

“With all my soul I wish you happiness,” she said, stumbling over the words. “I hope – I hope you might find it in your heart to forgive me, some time. And now – please take me home. Please.”

He took her home, in silence, although at the lynch-gate, at the very last moment before Mary would catch sight of them through the cottage window, he hesitated, and looked down at her with such a speaking gaze that she was afraid all over again that he might offer for her, without affection, without respect, without any chance of a true and loving partnership. In that moment, her courage failed her, and she fled into the cottage. There at least were all Mary’s ailments to buttress her against the windmills of her own mind, and the children, and then Charles’ hopes of a new gun, and then, finally, her own room, and space to think.

For that one, magical hour, she had been claimed – more than that, acclaimed! – as a good, as a true and proper partner, in such improper style that her mind even yet could not encompass that whole of it, and yet her heart was filled with such tender feelings as would – must - last her a lifetime. On this, she would allow no regret, but own the whole of it. She, Anne Elliot, had once been His. She could not ask for more; his sentiments were those of coercion alone, but hers – oh, but she had known what it was to be loved, and to have tasted that bittersweet draught was joy and agony both.

She had been right, to refuse him. To the outside world, to all others, she must be insensible. Yet within, within, all that had once been embers was now aflame.