Actions

Work Header

Miss Elliot at Home

Work Text:

Sir Walter Elliot and Miss Elliot greeted those attending their evening card party with all the hospitality, flattery and condescension they felt befitted their own situation in life, and the varying situations of their guests. Miss Anne Elliot was also present to greet each new arrival, but after her elder sister abandoned her post upon the advent of Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret, Anne allowed herself to be swept into the drawing rooms with the happy confusion which accompanied the entrance of the Musgroves.

Mrs Musgrove, Henrietta, Charles and Mary were welcomed by Sir Walter, and were soon talking all at once, admiring the arrangement of the rooms; asking kindly after Anne’s health; explaining that Captain Harville was to be brought by Captain Wentworth, that they might all be comfortable in the carriages; enquiring whether those two gentleman were there already; and returning to the footman in the vestibule to surrender a forgotten cloak. Anne, who had been awaiting the arrival of Captain Wentworth with considerable suspense herself, was reliably able to inform them that theirs was the more punctual party, and she soon afterwards found her arm tucked into Mrs Musgrove’s, whilst Henrietta walked beside them, exclaiming over the elegance of Anne’s gown. Once in the front drawing room, Mrs Musgrove declared that Anne was ‘surely one of the bonniest belles in all of Bath,’ and even Mary acknowledged that her sister looked ‘well’ – with the added reproach that Mary had been obliged to worry about her ever since Anne had felt indisposed that morning.

Mary’s complaints notwithstanding, there was much that was warm and sincere in all this, and Anne, full of the generosity arising from her natural disposition and from an extraordinary, new-found sense of good fortune, was very happy to find herself in the midst of the Musgrove family. Indeed, her feelings of friendship and gratitude were so strong that she did not look above ten times towards the drawing room doors in the hope that Captain Wentworth would soon be added to the present company. She was rewarded instead by the sight of Lady Russell, whose presence caused in Anne the embarrassed consciousness which comes from keeping secrets from our friends, and which could only be increased by her bringing with her Mr Elliot to be introduced to the Musgroves.

Mary was highly gratified by the connection, and this left Anne free of her cousin while he conversed agreeably with her sister and Charles. Anne had exchanged only a few words with him thus far during the evening, his arrival having coincided with that of Lady Dalrymple and her daughter, who required more notice than any other guests. These grand ladies were in need of attention again now, for Lady Dalrymple could be heard telling Elizabeth that she wanted for nothing at all, save for a seat in one of the tall chairs beside the fireplace away from drafts. Elizabeth at once pronounced that she was happy and ready to see to everything, and thereupon summoned Anne, who with genteel tact and discretion succeeded in rearranging other guests, so that her illustrious relation might sit where she chose.

Anne was glad of the excuse to be removed from Mr Elliot’s presence, though in truth not even his duplicity and wickedness had the power to greatly distress her at that moment. She knew that in days to come she would need to make Lady Russell acquainted with his real character and determine how best to weaken the ties, and appearance of intimacy, which her cousin had so carefully contrived between himself and the family at Camden Place. But at present, she was determined only that Mr Elliot should not intrude on the happiness of the evening, either for herself or for Captain Wentworth.

Being soon required to oversee the distribution of refreshments, and thereafter the arrangement of the card tables, Anne began to wonder whether Elizabeth’s neglect of most guests in favour of the important few, might lead to her own employment all evening. Although she did not know it, her exertions became her well, for her private joy that evening added lively animation to her usual kindness, and for many of the Elliots’ guests, the evening was much more congenial than the family’s customary gatherings, which were often marked as cold, unwelcoming and insincere. Thus whilst Elizabeth might speak loudly of ‘our little card party,’ and the fine prospect from ‘our front drawing room, the largest, you know, in the entire street,’ it was to Anne that many credited the success of the evening.

For Lady Russell, this was Anne as she had always wished to see her – unmoved by the careless tyranny of her elder sister, surrounded by company who appreciated her worth, and admired by a gentleman of apparent good breeding and sense, who had seemingly taught Anne to enjoy the kind of elegant society Lady Russell prized so highly herself. Full as she was of such wrong-headed assumptions, Lady Russell began to be eager to see Anne and Mr Elliot together, and to do them the good deed of bringing them together, so that at length she drew Anne to sit beside her on one of the long sofas beside the windows, with Mr Elliot seated in a chair next to them. By now Anne was in a delightful agitation of suspense, for she had heard Captain Wentworth’s name announced some time before, but had been so much occupied with the evening’s arrangements, so that Elizabeth might bask in its distinction, that she had yet to set eyes on him.

Instead Mr Elliot now sat before her, and he immediately expressed his pleasure at seeing her again, and his regret at having had to leave Bath, even for the duration of one night, ‘For I am never so happily situated, you know, than when I am in the company of those I find here.’

Anne, determined to quell the tide of his sycophantic compliments, remarked that at least Mr Elliot’s absence from the town had been shorter than he originally anticipated. She then gave him to understand that his delayed departure had been discovered by Mary from her vantage point at the window of the White Hart yesterday, though she said nothing about the identity of his companion. Mr Elliot, she noted, was disconcerted, and was still framing his explanation when Anne, with real pleasure, spied Admiral and Mrs Croft entering the drawing room, the Admiral supporting his wife. Her interest in Mr Elliot’s motives and secrecy could not compete with the warmth of feeling she felt towards Captain Wentworth’s closest kin, particularly now that they were soon to be her own. Captain Wentworth himself she still could not see, but she rose to meet the Crofts, inviting Mrs Croft to be seated in a high-backed chair with a low footstool before her, and summoning a servant to furnish her guests with an abundance of refreshments.

The Crofts, she found, were late because of a near accident with their carriage, and her ministrations, exclamations and commiserations with them were enough to forestall further conversation with Mr Elliot for some time. She was at length recalled to it by Lady Russell, who – perhaps feeling that Anne had ignored her admirer long enough – invited her to take up her former seat and remarked, with just a touch of rebuke, that she had seen nothing of her since the night of the concert.

“Indeed, I am sorry for it, for it was my intention to call yesterday, but Mary and the Musgrove party arrived so unexpectedly. And, you know, there was much to talk of with Mrs Musgrove, for both her daughters are to be married shortly and she and Henrietta were in need of guidance as to shops. Henrietta is to buy wedding clothes for herself and for Louisa here.”

“I see how it was,” exclaimed Mr Elliot. “Miss Anne Elliot was needed, and when she is needed she thinks only of others. Is it not always so, Lady Russell?”

But here Lady Russell’s reply was interrupted by Elizabeth, who cried out across the room that Mr Elliot’s presence was requested at the card tables. She required advice on her hand of cards, Miss Carteret required advice on her  hand of cards, and in short all the ladies playing at cards would be guided only by Mr Elliot. Mr Elliot, ever obliging, rose, bowed to Anne and Lady Russell, and declared himself perfectly ready to assist whoever might desire his help. Anne could not but be secretly amused that Elizabeth’s selfishness should prove so useful, as well as irksome.

And then suddenly Captain Wentworth was before her, placing himself with alacrity in the seat vacated by Mr Elliot. It was an action so rapidly and purposefully executed that it threw Anne into happy confusion, and drew the attention of both Mrs Croft and Lady Russell.

“Why, Frederick, here you are!” exclaimed his sister happily, “And it is very good of you to come and sit by your sadly fatigued sister, and not to be drawn to all the excitement of the young people and the card tables.”

Lady Russell acknowledged Captain Wentworth’s presence with a small bow of the head, which the gentleman returned, after a moment, with a deliberate air. He cast a swift smile and murmur of “Miss Elliot,” towards Anne, who blushed deeply and found herself entirely unequal to offering a reply.

“It is no sacrifice to sit here, I assure you,” said Captain Wentworth cheerfully to his sister. “And your feet are sore and tired only because you and the Admiral insist on walking everywhere, and meeting and talking with everyone. As for cards and card tables,” here he glanced again at Anne, “I have never really cared for them, as you well know, Sophy dear.”

Anne could not help but smile at how his words echoed her own assurances only the day before, that she was still the same Anne Elliot as formerly, and would happily trade a card party at Camden Place for an evening at the theatre with their mutual friends (and with Captain Wentworth himself).

Lady Russell examined Captain Wentworth’s countenance thoughtfully, and cast a searching glance towards Anne, before venturing, “Indeed, you surprise me. Are not cards often played amongst naval officers, to while away the evenings on long voyages to distant shores?”

These were the first words Lady Russell had spoken to Captain Wentworth in eight years, and Anne now blushed at the discourtesy of her friend, that she should bring so little ceremony to her acknowledgement of past acquaintance. Captain Wentworth, however, chose not to acknowledge any breach in good manners, and instead replied carefully to the question she had put to him. “It is true, ma’am, that gambling does take place aboard ship, though as a Captain I severely discourage it. It does not promote the discipline needed in the navy, and a crew must always remain united, you know, and certainly not at odds with one another over losses incurred the night before  a battle.”

“But do you yourself not enjoy games of chance?” Lady Russell persisted. “I should think a sea captain must take some pleasure in risk and impulse, in order to discharge his duty.”

Anne saw at once that this was how Lady Russell understood his character, and that here were the same suppositions which had led to so much unhappiness eight years before. What for Anne was openness and energy, captivating for being so unlike her own gentle character, was for Lady Russell an impetuosity and carelessness that could only lead a young wife towards misery and disaster.

Anne spoke up. “Perhaps, Lady Russell, we who have lived always on land, should not presume to imagine life aboard ship, when we have so little experience on which to base our conjectures.” Lady Russell regarded Anne penetratingly for a moment, and Anne wondered how much of her own present feelings and situation were suspected by her friend.

Captain Wentworth once again answered with a purposeful air, almost as if he were glad of the opportunity to discuss the topic at hand. “I can assure you, that once one has been an officer for only a short time, one learns the value of a careful decision. It is true that I have an adventurous spirit, but not, I think, a reckless one, for I take the safety of those who serve under me very seriously, and would not risk their necks unnecessarily for anything.” Captain Wentworth paused to look meaningfully at Anne. “And you may be sure that what I value most in my fellow shipmates is a steady, attentive hand upon the wheel.”

At this point it became clear that Admiral Croft had been attending their conversation, and here he felt moved to join in, for his own happiness, both maritime and domestic, made the subject irresistible to him.

“Aye, certainly, certainly. We sailors know the value of a good helpmate. And poor Sophy here knows only too well that I would have had us over many a time even in our own carriage, were it not for her attentive eye. A captain, nor yet an Admiral, cannot steer without the very best of mates, is it not so?” Here he seemed struck by a sudden thought, and he looked around the room, then lowered his voice. “And bye the bye, Frederick, I think you might consider yourself fortunate in time, that the young lady, whose name I never recall, did choose the other fellow. For we sailors must seek out a wife who will look before leaping, and who is not so flighty that she will regret the life of the sea once the deed is done. And I’m afraid we can have little use for ladies who jump about and break their heads – however pretty their faces may be!”

Captain Wentworth had the grace to look ashamed, and he cast his eyes so beseechingly at Anne, that she could not help laughing at him a little, even as she blushed. Yet the Admiral’s plain speaking had afforded his brother-in-law opportunity as well as embarrassment, and when Captain Wentworth spoke again it was to say this:

“I shall take on board your counsel, sir. In a shipmate, and in a helpmate, I shall seek out one who, like my sister, is adept at preventing capsize, and who knows how to act with sense and fortitude should a crisis occur.”

Anne was for a moment too overcome to know how to look or what to say, and she was acutely aware of Lady Russell’s eyes upon her, though she did not lift her own gaze beyond the floor. Mercifully a commotion in the second drawing room now drew her friend’s attention, and Anne heard her own name mentioned in the throng.

“We need Anne. Anne must play!” Henrietta Musgrove hastened across the room to join them, catching Anne’s hand eagerly in her own. “The gentlemen are asking for music, but I cannot play in company such as this. Why, even Louisa might not dare, for you know we do not have such grand ladies visiting at Uppercross. I told them I would fetch you – I cannot imagine even the finest of tastes would not be pleased by your  playing.”

Anne, who had not foreseen that escape from Lady Russell’s scrutiny would involve performing before an entire room, immediately disclaimed any right to Henrietta’s extravagant praise. However, she soon found herself pressed just as spiritedly by Mrs Musgrove, who reminded Anne how happy she had made them with her playing the previous autumn, when they were all “so snug together at Uppercross.”

Touched by the affectionate entreaties of mother and daughter, and anxious to escape whatever Lady Russell might choose to say next, Anne thought it best to consent to play. Henrietta sat beside her, so that she might turn the pages of Anne’s music when needed, and Captain Wentworth also immediately took up a seat close to the pianoforte. At length, when permitted by her familiarity and ease with a piece requested by Captain Harville, Anne glanced around the room, so that she might judge the extent and satisfaction of her audience. She soon saw that a number of guests previously playing at cards had been drawn away from the tables and towards her instrument, that Captains Wentworth and Harville were amongst her most appreciative listeners, and that Lady Russell was engaged in observing one of these two gentlemen just as closely as he was engaged in attending to Anne.

“That last was one of my sister’s favourites,” Captain Harville came forward to tell her, after unexpectedly warm applause met Anne’s ear at the end of her melody.

“Indeed, it is a favourite of mine also,” owned Anne, much affected by the Captain’s revelation. “I hope, since you asked to hear it, that the air gave you some pleasure, though I fear it must have also caused you sadness.”

“Certainly I cannot but think of Fanny when it is played,” Captain Harville agreed. “Yet I confess I asked you to play it in the certainty that you would do it justice, such as I have not heard since dear Fanny last played it herself.” Here Captain Harville gently pressed her hand.

This exchange, full of sincerity and gratitude on both sides, had left the instrument for a time unattended, and Miss Carteret now took Anne’s place, this fine, young lady producing an accompaniment so simple and hesitant to a voice so quiet and listless, that both melody and words were all but impossible to determine. Anne’s audience began to drift back towards the other drawing room and the card tables, as well as into polite conversation, leaving Anne to reflect that the interruption had not come too soon: not only were both Lady Russell and Mrs Croft now regarding herself and Captain Wentworth with something very like suspicion, but there were also servants in need of instructions, and guests in need of attention, both of which were being neglected by Elizabeth, in her enthusiasm for cards, and for the company of Mr Elliot.

Anne spent the remainder of the evening once again fulfilling her sister’s role of lady of the house. She did so in the happy consciousness that Captain Wentworth was always close by, and always availing himself of quiet opportunities to speak with her whenever they arose. He assured her of his desire to be on good terms with Lady Russell, berated himself for the stubborn pride which had prevented their reconciliation earlier than today, thanked her with heartfelt warmth for her compassion towards Captain Harville, and eagerly anticipated the joy Mrs Croft would feel at having Anne for a sister. All this brought such a warmth of sensibility to Anne’s heart, and such generous delight to her countenance, that she could not fail to captivate the evening’s guests, and when Henrietta exclaimed in an awed, carrying whisper that Anne’s playing was far superior to the grand ladies in Bath (who were nothing at all, when one came to think of it), there were several listeners who smiled in amused appreciation of this sagacity.

The evening drew on and Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret were amongst the first to take their leave, since they never condescended to stay anywhere long, despite always declaring themselves very well pleased. Tonight they offered customary praise, and were customarily careless in depth and detail; indeed as Lady Dalrymple told Sir Walter, “Your daughter plays well,” she glanced insipidly at all three of her young cousins, having failed in actuality to take note of which Miss Elliot had been seated at the pianoforte during the evening.

“My daughter?” replied Sir Walter, apparently at a loss, despite the fact that he was the father of three. “Oh, you mean Anne! Well, certainly she spends enough time practicing, for she is often by herself.”

This was hardly a response that acknowledged even the small compliment paid, and after their cousins’ carriage had been brought round, and the ladies handed into it, Elizabeth added to the rebuff by exclaiming, “Fancy Lady Dalrymple taking notice of Anne!”

“Upon my word, why should she not, Miss Elliot?”demanded Mrs Musgrove suddenly, and far more sharply than was her habit. An awful silence followed, for Sir Walter and Elizabeth were taken aback and very much offended.

In truth, even Mrs Musgrove’s own family was surprised, for that good lady was renowned for being always in kind humour with her fellow creatures, and had certainly never before been anything less than courteous towards the Elliots. However, her generous, untroubled disposition had recently known trials likely to excite strong feelings, and whilst Anne had brought real comfort to Uppercross during this time of crisis, Elizabeth had not even featured in the neighbourhood recently as its principal lady-in-residence. These circumstances had lessened the impressive grandeur of one Miss Elliot in Mrs Musgrove’s mind, and elevated the importance the other, and her parental indignation was also stirred by Sir Walter’s slight to one of his own children.

Anne, though acutely embarrassed to find herself the cause of ill-feeling, was nevertheless trying hard to think of a way to heal the breech. She was prevented by Charles, whose patience was too habitually tried by Mary’s family to pass up such rare, remarkable encouragement of impertinence, particularly when it came from his own mother. He laughed, before observing, “I should scarcely call it ‘taking notice,’ Anne, for your cousin didn’t even address you in person, and I’m sure she had no idea whether it was you, or Mary, who was playing. I’m afraid, when we want others to acknowledge our worth, we cannot look to noble Lords and Ladies to do it, for what do they know of worth, besides their own?”

This was an insult well beyond anything ever uttered by Mrs Musgrove, and it perhaps also contained truths that went beyond Charles’s understanding. Anne saw that in present company it was liable to give offence to Lady Russell, as well as to her father and sister. She also saw that if she refuted her brother’s words too strongly, she risked offending not only Charles himself, bur perhaps also Captain Wentworth, who had good reason to feel that Lords and Ladies did not always value him as they ought.

“You are right, Charles,” said Anne, “to think that those of elevated rank do not always recognise what is good and right in those whose situation does not match their own. But I believe that if we put our minds to it, we are all  capable of seeing the best in others, and of revising first impressions which may indeed prove faulty on closer, more attentive, acquaintance.”

Charles was disarmed, and replied, smiling, “Well, I have no quarrel with you,  dear sister.”

Captain Wentworth smiled at her also. “I think you have the advantage of us all, Miss Anne,” he said, “for you are goodness itself to everyone, regardless of anyone’s behaviour towards you.”

“Charles, what can  you have been thinking?” rebuked Mary, who was deeply mortified by her husband’s comment, but she was briskly cut off by Lady Russell’s interposing herself into the conversation: “It is certainly true, Mr Musgrove, that Anne has all too often played before an inattentive audience in the past. But not tonight, I think,” and quite unexpectedly Lady Russell gave Captain Wentworth her hand. “I shall call on you early tomorrow, my dear,” she said to Anne, before requesting that her carriage also be summoned.

Mrs. Musgrove now took the opportunity to recover from her previous slip, by assuring Sir Walter and Miss Elliot that the evening’s entertainment had been of a most superior kind, whilst Anne hastily distracted and mollified Mary by speaking of shopping and the wedding trousseaux, and by deferring to her sister the question of whether long sleeves were once again in fashion.

Other guests began to depart – Colonel and Mrs Wallis were next, for Mrs Wallis was still easily fatigued – and soon the evening was really drawing to a close. The Musgroves, who were never quick to leave, took even longer than usual in their anxiety to make amends, and they were still conversing in the vestibule when the Crofts, Captain Harville and Mr Elliot all joined them.

Mr Elliot came forward with his own amends to make, for he had chosen, with less than perfect gallantry, to remain at the table when Elizabeth and Miss Carteret had risen, being just then in possession of a very favourable hand of cards. Accordingly, when Mrs Musgrove declared, “There is nothing better for the spirits when the days are short and dark than to have the house full of young people and music!” he added eagerly that parties at Camden Place were always his greatest pleasure.

“Certainly tonight was a special occasion,” agreed Mrs Croft, and she smiled so expressively at Anne, that Anne was left in little doubt that something of her present situation must be suspected by her future sister.

This showering of compliments, intentional and otherwise, succeeded in soothing the wounded feelings of Sir Walter and Elizabeth, and after all the guests had left, Anne found herself in the unusual position of agreeing with her father and sister that the evening had been, on the whole, a very pleasant one.

Tomorrow Lady Russell would call, and there would be a need to offer explanations – some happy, some distressing, all of them difficult to communicate. But the way ahead was clear to Anne, and though the passage might not always be perfectly smooth, she was filled with certainty that the voyage was her most ardent wish, and that its destination would truly bring her joy.

The card party, she concurred, had been a very great success.