Actions

Work Header

A Step Not Taken

Work Text:

Louisa would always remember that day at Lyme.

She had lived less than twenty miles from the sea all her life, and somehow never gone to see it; and here, with the green chasms of Pinny rising above, and the vastness of blue-grey-green spreading before, and the windy gusts blowing through her, and the great bulk of the Cobb stretching out into the sea, the arms of stone making a sheltered space for all those who sailed here against the ravening rages of nature… It filled her up with excitement, with wild delight, and when, as all young people knew it must be, their journey home had been delayed by a quarter hour (or perhaps a full hour as it might play out) she had been the first to seek out another walk along that great sea wall.

She had enjoyed her habit of jumping down stiles into Captain Wentworth’s arms, had enjoyed that sense of excitement, of wildness being contained within someone else’s strength, and the wind, that glorious wind drew her on to more and higher jumps from the stone stairs until suddenly, her foot turned on a loose pebble and she threw out her arms, seeking an arm or a stone to grip, desperate for a hold to keep her from ruin.  And failed.

For, quiet as a breath, Anne had slipped from the steps and landed face down on the stone path.  Her small form was spread-eagled on the cobbles, unnaturally splayed until Captain Wentworth took her up in his arms and cried one gut wrenchingly desperate word: “Anne!”

***

Someone had a dreadful headache.

It was really quite unsupportable—they were groaning fit to fill the room, and how could a body get a wink of sleep with such a racket going on about her?  Anne forced her eyes open, intent on asking the noisy person to cease, when she realised it was herself.

She was in a dark room, in some narrow bed, the few candles infuriating points of light burning into her eyes.  There were people clustered about her bed, crowding her: Louisa, whose face was streaked with tears, and her sister Mary snapping about some aspect of sisterly precedence—in the doorframe, Captain Wentworth stood, his dark hair dishevelled, his black eyes wild.  “She lives!  She lives, quick, she wakes,” he called.

“What happened?” Anne asked.  “Frederick—?” and she tried to reach out her hand before sleep, death’s little sister, engulfed her again.

***

When Anne awoke again it was day, and she was lying in a little whitewashed room in a little hard bed, with sunlight streaming in the square panes of the window, and the harsh call of seagulls besetting her ears.  She turned her head from side to side a little, and raised her hand to feel cloth where hair should be.

“Never mind my darling, a cushla, a cushla, never mind, my dear.”  Strong hands caught her own away from her aching head and clasped them gently but firmly.  Anne blinked up at the brown friendly face of Sophia Croft smiling down at her.

“You gave us an awful fright, my dear,” Mrs Croft said kindly, “but all will be well.  You will stay here a little while with the Harvilles, who have been so terribly good in nursing you, and then when you are stronger, you will come home with me and rest in your very own bed in your very own house.”

“Anne is my sister,” another voice said sharply.  “I should be the one to have care of her, in Uppercross.  Oh, why are you all trying to send me off when I am needed in my own family.”

Mrs Croft paused a moment to help Anne sit up a little and drink some sips of water before answering.  When she did, there were almost tears in her eyes.  “You are too good, Mrs Musgrove,” she said, her voice full with emotion.  “For I know how your heart is breaking at being so long away from your own dear boys.  You have borne it, I know, for Anne, but now that we know she is out of danger I know how torn you are.  Please,” she settled Anne against some propped-up pillows and reached out a hand across the sickbed to clasp Mary’s briefly, “let me help you in this.  I cannot replace a mother’s love, but I can supply a small mite and nurse your sister so that you can be reunited with your sons.”

Mary blinked, as if she had expected to be challenged and, thwarted of criticism, was at a loss as to how to behave.  Restless, she picked up a brush then put it down, lacking a fit subject to use it on.  Not for nothing, Anne thought, had Mrs Croft been the wife of an admiral and lived as senior female on a ship of the line.  She had excellently well learned the knack of arranging people in the most convenient way to suit her own needs.  Anne would surely need to ask her how somed— and sleep took her again.

***

Anne stayed in Lyme until Christmas, which the Harvilles practiced in a way common to many of the simpler folk: Harville and Benwick took the children out into the hills on Christmas Eve and returned with great boughs of yew and holly with which they decorated their lodgings.  Anne, who was sitting up by then, sat with Mrs Harville and Mrs Croft and helped prepare great dishes of snap dragons and syllabub, and peeled fruit and ground precious spices for the family punch bowl, and on Christmas Day there was a great fat roast goose collected from the bakers on the way back from church.

The Crofts took Anne back to Kellynch in easy stages, on roads that were frozen hard in crystal clear weather.  Captain Benwick had offered to accompany the party in case an extra hand was needed to right the chaise on winter roads, and he took it in turns with Admiral Croft to sit on the jump seat regaling the ladies with tales of derring do from their days in active service.

At Kellynch-hall, Anne had expected a return to the chilly splendour of her father’s ways, but found indeed that Twelfth Night was an even merrier celebration, for the Crofts had a vast and genial acquaintance and the Peace united with the clear weather meant that the formerly busy naval families were out and about in droves visiting each other.  Captain Benwick and the Harvilles made the journey to stay a few days, and the Musgroves with their children released from the durance of school came over to meet them: the house resounded with the cheerful shouts of children, the creaking of a well-laden table, and an excess of what the senior Mrs Musgrove liked to call ‘a little quiet cheerfulness.’

As much as she liked to see the Christmas cheer, Anne was still very prone to the headache and made a habit of retreating to the conservatory when the noise grew too great.  It was here that Louisa found her out: she crept in and shut the door quietly, as if afraid of being found out.

“Oh, Anne,” Louisa sad.  “I am so dreadfully sorry.  And you are so pale.  I have been living that day over and over in my head thinking about how it all might have gone differently.  If only— if only— if only I hadn’t pulled at you, when I lost my balance.  I wish I had fallen instead,” she said quietly.

Anne could only shake her head.  “It was an accident, Louisa, anyone could see it was an accident,” and was relieved when Captain Benwick crept in in the same quest for quiet.  He spared one glance at Louisa’s hands wringing her handkerchief and Anne’s desperate eyes, and quickly changed the subject.

“Do you feel ready for some more Shakespeare, Miss Elliot?  We have been reading,” he nodded conspiratorially at Louisa, “Twelfth Night together, to celebrate the season.  Would you join us?  We are almost at the speech about the willow cabin.”

“I don’t know that one,” Louisa said soggily.

“It’s about a girl who is shipwrecked and goes in disguise as a boy, to keep herself safe in a strange land.  And then she falls in love,” Anne said, “but there are difficulties.  Please, Captain Benwick, you read so beautifully that I am sure Louisa will enjoy it as much as I.”

***

February brought bleak black frosts and the return of Lady Russell from Bath.  Anne’s good friend was graciously civil when they called to welcome her back to Kellynch, and elegantly bemused at the active good cheer that greeted her at the Hall when she returned the visit.  She progressed through the great house noting the subtle changes made in the reign of the Crofts with small intakes of breath over things that in truth Anne had not minded.  “Your mother’s portrait,” she said, with a shake of her head, drawing her fine brocade shawl around her shoulders—

“Is moved to my own room,” Anne said with a smile.  “This painting over the fire was taken of Sophia—Mrs Croft, that is, when she was in Bermuda, and they are very fond of it.”

“Of course, dear,” Lady Russell drew Anne inside her embrace.  “You have had a dreadful time of it, my dear girl, but now that my own health is better, I can take proper care of you again.  I have already told the maids to air out your room.”

As she spoke, they turned into the drawing room and the tall raw-boned woman who hosted them glanced up with a frank and friendly smile.  “Are you talking of visiting Lady Russell?” she asked.  “You must do as you think best, of course, but (to Lady Russell) Anne has been sleeping so much better since she returned to her own room that I am loath to move her.  And it has been such a delight to have her here with me—she has been teaching me all the ways to get on with the country folk.  I am sure you will do Anne a world of good now that you are here and can see her so easily.”

Anne sat down to her armchair, full of languor.  The right thing to do, the courteous and gentle thing, was to transfer to the hospitality of her mother’s friend, but sinking back into the comfort of the cushions, all she could think about was how vexed and tiring it would be to pack her things again.  “Perhaps,” she said quietly, “if you don’t mind, Mrs Croft, might I stay a few more weeks?”  And that was that.

“You have grown altogether too persuadable, good Anne,” Lady Russell said at the chaise door as she took her leave.  Anne smiled weakly and said nothing.

Because in truth it was easier to be persuaded, easier to sleep in the room she had grown up in, easier to take her small space in the gig and put Mrs Croft in the way of visiting tenants; easier to sit back and keep the company of a woman who treated her as a beloved younger sister.  In her lethargy she felt as if she lived in fairyland, or perhaps Tir Na Nog, and a reconciliation would come and yet… and yet, for this hidden moment in time, she was content, as a seed might be content deep beneath the ground letting the storms of winter pass as they will.

***

Somehow Anne never quite did move back to Lady Russell.  March brought her a return of strength and the news that Napoleon Buonaparte had escaped from his little island.  Admiral Croft slapped his newspaper down on the table and said with disgust that he had known how it would be, and half the officers on half-pay to boot and the rest shipping troops to America, then departed for London in a dudgeon to see what was to be done by the Admiralty.  Anne thereby became very occupied with Mrs Croft on the necessary preparations to enable him and his wife to set to sea.

The Admiral returned in a high temper and cursing his brother-in-law.  “That d—d Frederick,” he said roundly, though with a ‘by your leave’ to Anne, “has wangled himself command of one of the few ships the Admiralty has ready and absconded out to deep water while the rest of us are kicking our heels.  The sheer cheek of the boy!”

“When do we sail?” Mrs Croft asked alertly.

“Not for a few months yet,” her husband rumbled, “at the snail’s pace the Admiralty is moving.  ‘Tis to be a land war, most like, and the ships are needed for moving troops and crowding nose on tail in another d—ble blockade.  (Your pardon, Miss Anne.)  Oh, I knew how it would be.”

The heat of summer brought forth wild flowers, a lot of news about the doings of the Duke of Wellington and—just when Admiral Croft was beginning to speak hopefully of putting up his sails—the sudden defeat (again) of the French forces.  “One month this way, another month that way—this Buonaparte cannot make up his mind!” the Admiral roared—but he toasted the victory all the same. 

It was a good summer for Anne, a wonderful one.  When the Admiral was away in London, she drove about in the gig with Mrs Croft, or walked with Lady Russell.  The splendid separation that three miles of distance had once maintained between Kellynch and Uppercross seemed suddenly collapsed, for Charles, who was really a very affectionate brother, would often trot over with Louisa, and perhaps Henrietta or even Mary, and the solemnity of Kellynch-hall was often broke by the peals of laughter of merry spirited women.  Before one day had fallen from the next, suddenly it was autumn again.

***

“May I ask you something, Anne?  Something impertinent?”

They were strolling through the hedgerows, the nuts fattening on the hazelnuts, the leaves starting to crinkle and brown into the thoughtfulness of autumn.  Anne glanced at Louisa in surprise.  “Of course, if you wish.”  Her eyes flicked and she smiled and nudged the younger girl with her elbow.  “If it is too impertinent, I shan’t answer.”  It was about a year, Anne thought, since I saw him again.  And for so few days, she should have cherished them more.

Louisa glanced at her sidelong.  “Do you—?  That is—that is, I was wondering—is it that you have an attachment to Captain Benwick?  You seem such great friends.”

“We are great friends, yes,” Anne said, her voice low.  In their wanderings they had meandered their way to the hill near Winthrop.  She thought it no accident, though it was likely Louisa had not realised the direction her feet took her.  She let fondness brighten her eyes.  “But friendship of the mind, if that makes sense.  We are close, so far as men and women may be, who are not relatives, but if I heard that some woman had claimed his heart, I should be happy for them both, for he has been so sad about his poor Fanny—”  Walking a few feet ahead, Louisa was staring fixedly into the distance, her face scarlet.  “Louisa!  Oh, you like him, you really do.”

The younger woman twisted her mouth and nodded sharply.  Anne took a firmer hold of her walking stick and stumped to catch up.  She looped her arm companionably through Louisa’s.  “You have a merry heart, sister of mine, and it keeps you on the windy side of care.  I think you will be good for him.”  She chuckled, thinking of the summer evenings in which Louisa had settled to her sewing while Captain Benwick, paying his respects to his Admiral’s Lady had read to them all.  Those quiet questions on meaning and sense had not been solely a friendly girl’s kindness to a shy gentleman, but a precursor to love.  And it wasn’t, Anne thought, trying to suppress the twist to her mouth, exactly a hindrance to affection to be humbly asked for one’s insight by a girl of sense.

But Louisa stiffened, and her blush held.  “I think—I think—Anne.”  She turned and faced the older woman straightly.  “I think a year ago I was not very kind to you, and I was too childish to know it.  We are sisters, you and I.  I do not want to take something that is yours.  Not twice.”

Anne shook her head and looked down in confusion.  It was her turn to blush.  “The things that happened when you were a child—you were a child then.  Certain things…were kept discreet to salve the feelings of all parties.  What happens now, well, all the principals are older and wiser and choose for themselves.”  And Captain Wentworth had not set foot in Kellynch-hall since she had returned there, she thought sadly.  No, it were best not to lay that burden on Louisa’s slight shoulders.

Louisa gave her a great hug, holding tightly for long moments.  “You have changed so much, Anne, since you fell.  I am sorry for it and for my part in it, but I like the new Anne and her taste for plain speaking.”

“Well now, well now,” Anne said.  “All I did was cut my hair.  It gives me all kinds of strange thoughts.  Now then,” she drew a handkerchief from her cloak and dried Louisa’s eyes.  “Shall we pay a visit to your aunt Hayter?”

Stray threads of hair stuck out from the girl’s tightly pinned bun, backlit by the gleam of the autumn sun westering behind her.  “It was such a dreadful day, what happened at Lyme.  Everyone in such a pother—Henrietta fainted and Captain—And all I could think was ‘if only Anne were here, she would tell me what to do.’  So I tried to pretend you were there, calmly standing behind my shoulder telling me who to send for a surgeon and where to have them carry you… Did I do well enough?”

“You did excellently well,” Anne said, and they linked arms and walked down the hill together.

***

It was a few weeks later that the Admiral opened his morning letters with a resigned Tchah! Of disgust.  Anne looked up quickly: “Is there bad news?  Has the war restarted?  Is Captain Went—?”

He shook his head, looking grim.  “My dear,” he said, looking dourly at his wife, “I hear now from our esteemed landlord asking if he might ever expect the company of his daughter again, for (in a singsong voice) she was not listed in the chattels of the lease...  Well, Miss Anne, it is not in me to give up a prize once I’ve taken her, but we shall have to bring you into Bath to pay some proper respects.”

Croft,” Mrs Croft said chidingly, “you talk of Anne as you would a ship you had captured in battle.”

“I sail better in convoy, my dear,” Admiral Croft said to his wife cheerfully.  “If one woman on my arm is a fine thing, then two is even better.  Well, there’s nothing for it—I’ll have to take you along to Bath in November when I go to see Crowley and come back for you in the spring, if Sophia hasn’t managed to winkle you away beforetimes.  You shall drink foul tasting waters and get some flesh on your bones and colour in your cheeks, and then we shall have you back again.”

“My dearest Anne,” Mrs Croft said, reaching out to her over the breakfast table.  “Please consider your home always to be with us, wherever we may be, for I have always wanted a sister and you have been such a comfort to us.”

Anne ducked her head, blinking back sudden tears, and made a hurried excuse about needing to pack.

***

In Bath it rained as it ever did.

Her sister Elizabeth had taken one look at her at the house in Camden-place, announced “Oh, you are horribly fashionable now,” and departed for her room, leaving her well-groomed parent to show her through the two drawing rooms and the other elegancies of her new home.

It took Anne two weeks to discover the secret of Mrs Clay’s disappearance.  There had been some odd looks and whispered comments when the Elliots formed a concert party, which Elizabeth had met with tight lipped silence—but then a visit to an old school friend who lived an invalid’s life had put Anne straight.  Mrs Smith was well acquainted with the town gossip and no love for one of the principals in any case: it transpired that Anne’s cousin, Mr Elliot, who had been living almost as one of the Elliot family so often he had been seen at Camden-place, had whisked her sister’s companion out of the household and provided Mrs Clay with an establishment under his protection in London.  Anne knew that she really ought to feel grave and disturbed, for it was a terrible burden on Mr Shephard and his grandchildren—and a disgrace to Elizabeth—but in truth all she could do in the moment was to choke herself with giggles until Mrs Smith burst into sympathetic laughter and they collapsed into each other until the landlady came to see what was amiss.

That was the secret then, of her father’s sudden desire for her presence: she was needed to be a respectable companion for her sharp-nosed older sister. 

It was hard to be serious in Bath, not any more, although there was a hard core of memory she dared not touch of those dreadful years of school after her mother had died.  But Anne felt in disguise, a creature out of her own time and place, a fey; and so she celebrated the departure of the befreckled Mrs Clay with the purchase of a new turban and redingote in cut and colours that were, while on the whole unexceptionable, also worthy to the claim ‘smart.’

***

When she saw Captain Wentworth it was a complete surprise for, as excellent a correspondent as Sophia Croft was, she had sent no word of his coming, or even that he had returned to England.

It had begun to rain again, not much, but enough to make shelter desirable for Anne and her sister; and more, to make the possibility of a ride home in Lady Dalrymple’s carriage, seen down the street, a desirable goal for Elizabeth.  The Lieutenant escorting them had established the two ladies in Mollands and stepped down the street to request assistance, and Anne picked at her marzipan, a little tired of the dreariness of Elizabeth’s observations about the weather.  Then, out of the window, through the spattered glass she saw—most decidedly and distinctly—him; Captain Wentworth walking down the street.

Her start was perceptible only to herself, but she instantly felt herself the greatest simpleton, her face hot and cold, and though her escort had not yet returned from his commission she was beset by a sudden determination to see if it still rained.  Yes, she would see if it rained and started for the door only to be set back by Captain Wentworth in a mixed party of gentlemen and ladies entering at that same moment.  He turned very red, and she felt that she must be very white, and she stumbled to make the few words that civility demanded before Lieutenant Nugent returned to them.  “It is quite alright,” Nugent said cheerfully, “Lady Dalrymple has room for you both and leaves in but a few minutes.”  He tipped his hat at his superior officer.

Anne bowed as well.  “Captain Wentworth, I think you may already be acquainted with Lieutenant Nugent?  He served under your brother-in-law’s command.”

“Of course,” Captain Wentworth said in a stuffed voice, and bid them both good day, leaving even before Elizabeth could make a choice as to whether she would cut him or not.

***

It was difficult meeting the Captain in Bath, and yet it occurred with great frequency.

Anne had been subsumed, courtesy of her year with the Crofts, into the cheery casual acquaintanceship of the naval families now settling in Bath, and Anne was often invited to things—to dinner, to the theatre, to some outing or other with a genial officer’s wife—in which Captain Wentworth was also of the party.  In Uppercross, they had by dint of being so much together, learned the pattern of speaking to each other with a considerable portion of apparent indifference.  But here in Bath, that barrier of reserve had been stripped away, and every nerve of Anne's seemed raw in his presence.  Time had changed him, as it had changed her, and there was a consciousness, an embarrassment, that seemed never to be broken through.

A day came when they happened to have fallen behind the others of the party on their walk to a sheltered landmark, and Captain Wentworth suddenly coughed awkwardly and spoke to her.  “I have hardly seen you since that day at Lyme.”  He turned his head abruptly and picked up a switch to hit at the leafless trees.  “You must have suffered so.”

“It was a year ago,” Anne said seriously.  “There are many hurts that may be healed in that time.”  She thought back to some words of the Admiral’s, who had the habit of making important revelations in the same cheerful tone with which he might ask her to pass the salt.  “Young Frederick looked fair to doing himself a harm,” he had told her once, “the night that you fell.  There he was breaking down our door at midnight, and nothing for it but Sophy must go to Lyme immediately to nurse you—and, oh, when the surgeon declared that a hole must be drilled into your pretty little skull, nobody would do to assist but himself for—Frederick claimed—he had helped his ship’s surgeon before and knew what he was about—” “And so have I,” his wife said drily.  “Aye,” the Admiral agreed, “and isn’t this a fine mess of custard that Cook has made for us this e’en.”

The subject changed abruptly.  “I supposed you have heard the news about Captain Benwick and Louisa Musgrove.”

“Indeed,” Anne said.  “I wish them very happy.”

Swish went the stick, the Captain’s mouth set and unhappy.

“Excuse me for asking,” Anne ventured, “for it is impertinent, but for a little while I wondered if you had formed an attachment with Louisa…”

He made a noncommittal, throwaway kind of noise.  Then, steeling himself, he turned and faced Anne for the first time.  “Benwick should not have treated you so, Anne, it is insupportable that such a friend of mine should behave thus.  To have used you so, to have flattered you and given you hopes—Sophia has told me how it was between you, how close—it is abominable of the blackguard!”

Anne tightened her mouth with anger.  “Oh, why does everyone assume I must be in love with Captain Benwick because we like the same books!  Even my old school friend in Bath has an opinion.  Ah!” 

For there had been a stir made when Louisa’s engagement was announced.  Her father and sister had made snide remarks to each other not quite out of her hearing.  Lady Russell had been kind.  The Musgroves had been awkward.  Admiral Croft in his broad round way had said it was a d—ble shame, but not to worry, for there were many fine officers she might have her pick from.  Only Sophia had smiled and said nothing.

“I have no claim on Benwick, nor he on me.  It is insupportable!” she cried.  “Men.”  And with that she gathered up her muddy skirts and strode forth quickly to the steady patronage of her hostess.

***

“Bath suits you, Miss Anne,” Captain Benwick said with a smile.  They were sitting in the window of the White Hart, where the Musgrove wedding party had assembled itself.

“Does it?  I feel like I am in disguise, like one of the heroines from your plays who has been shipwrecked and lost in a magic wood.  With my hair cut and a pair of breeches to my name, why anything might happen.”

“You would make a very elegant boy, Miss Anne.  Wentworth!” he called.  “Do you remember Lieutenant Olliver from the Asp?  We always used to wonder about his antecedents…”

“I do.  He” Wentworth stressed, “is doing very well on the Serpentine.”  He glowered at Benwick, and Anne took the moment to smile encouragingly at him.

“In truth,” Benwick said, “Shakespeare gives me a sense of unease.  He knew us men too well, one foot on sand and one on shore, always falling in love and swearing that this time, this time is forever.  You women he was kinder to: for you did not know my Fanny but she was as faithful as any Juliet or Hero or Hermione; as you are yourself, I think.  Here,” and he showed Anne a small miniature.  “This likeness was taken on the Cape by a clever German we met there.  I meant it for a wedding gift—but not for Louisa, good soul that she is.  And here I am, having it set for another woman.  Are you not impressed by my faithlessness?  I do not even have the courage to write the instructions to the framer for myself, I must ask my friend Wentworth to do it for me.”

Anne shook her head.  “No, Benwick, do not fret so, for you have an affectionate heart and must love somebody.  It is the privilege of my sex that we love longest when all hope is gone—but it is not an enviable one, and you need not covet it.  If your situations had been reversed, would you have held Fanny to sitting like Patience on a monument?”

“I would not,” he said at last, “but nor would she have ceased to smile at grief so easily.  Nor would you, Anne.”

They looked up at the sound of a pen dropping, and Benwick asked his friend if he was ready to leave on their errand. “Just a few lines more,” Captain Wentworth answered, and Anne and Benwick returned to their low-voiced conversation.

“I would rather be shipwrecked for love,” Anne said, “then be left all my days to pine.  You and Captain Harville have spoken so eloquently of the privations of the sea, and of how much you gallant sailors of the Navy long to see your families when you return to land again.  Such a glow in your souls when you see them again… But I know from Mrs Croft and Mrs Harville they do not want to be kept in still waters, and nor would they allow it.  Mrs Croft was in the Trafalgar action—does she ever speak of it to you?—and I have never heard one word of regret from her lips.”  Benwick glanced at Frederick in understanding and touched one finger to his mouth.  He patted her hand kindly and took his leave.

In the bustle of Benwick and Wentworth’s departure, and the arrival of Charles Musgrove proudly bearing theatre tickets, she was struck by the sudden return of Captain Wentworth, who muttered an apology about his gloves, but even so pulled a piece of paper from beneath the blotter and looked at Anne with meaning.  She opened it after he had gone, and Frederick’s words burned into her heart.

I can listen no longer in silence—you pierce my soul, I am half agony, half love—I have burned, I cannot forgive myself for the harm I brought to you, but yet, for you alone have I come to Bath… I am weak, I am inconstant, but I am yours if you shall have me.  You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others—Too good, too excellent creature!  You show the fortitude of your sex, and I must show the courage of mine.

                                                                        FW

I must go, uncertain of my fate: but I shall return hither, as soon as possible.  A word, a look will be enough to decide whether I stay in Bath, or leave England for ever.

Anne dashed to her feet.  She started, uncertain, reached her hand to her mantua, then put it aside, knocked the ink and pens off the table and stooped to gather them.

“Oh, you are all done in, my dear,” Mrs Musgrove who had just entered said.  “Here, let me help you—is it one of your headaches again, Anne?”  Anne shook her head mutely, but nothing would do for Mrs Musgrove but to send her home in a chair.

“No, Charles, no,” she cried as they went down the stairs, “a walk will do me good.”

And as they turned the corner, Frederick was there, sober in his uniform, his hat tucked beneath his arm, looking as if he sought promotion or feared a flogging.  She barely heard Charles’ excuses about gun-smiths, so intent she was on Frederick’s face.  When at last they were alone, he could say only: “I broke your head, Anne,” his voice cracking.  “I hurt you, my Anne, my love, I almost killed you.  I was too—” and he looked at his hands in horror.

She held them to her in the bustle of Union-street.  “Oh, Frederick.  What was broken is healed, better than it ever was.  Like a piece of fine porcelain that has been mended with gold.  Would—” and she hesitated, her own voice breaking.  “Would you walk me home?”

“Even if home should be as far as the West Indies or the great palace of Kublai Khan,” he said, and he took her arm as around them the strollers of a carnival swept around them: fire eaters, stilt walkers, the merry tunes of hurdy gurdy and drum, girls dressed as boys and boys dressed as girls walking about on their hands; the whole world topsy turvy, turned into the magic wood of the fairies, everything profoundly, inexplicably set completely right.