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But Never Inconstant

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Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. - Persuasion, Jane Austen

 

 

 

Frederick almost expected, on his arrival at Lyme, to be greeted by the news that Louisa had died in the night; but though Harville looked grim enough when he met Frederick, riding beside the Musgroves’ unwieldy coach, he immediately told Frederick that the patient was going on a little better. Not yet fully conscious of her surroundings, Louisa slept a great deal, opening her eyes on occasion and responding to her name and questions put to her. Initially she had spoken very little, and when she first began to speak it seemed she didn’t remember the Cobb, but the last time she had woken she remembered the explanation Mrs Harville had given her of her accident, and repeated it when asked if she recalled what had happened.

 

“Phoebe says there’s little to be done but wait,” Harville said, “she’ll need time to heal - and quiet.”

 

Frederick took this to mean that Mrs Harville, though in general the most welcoming of hostesses and hospitable of women, had had quite enough of Mrs Mary Musgrove. Frederick sympathised. “Perhaps with her mother here she’ll do better.” 

 

“How are they taking the news?” Harville jerked his head discreetly at the coach, which had come to a rolling stop. Mr and Mrs Musgrove were hastening out of it.

 

“As well as could reasonably be expected,” Frederick said grimly, “far better than I merit.” He would have richly deserved it if the Musgroves had expelled him into the night, leaving him to ride cross-country to Kellynch Hall for safe harbour.

 

Harville gave him a searching look. “You didn’t tell her to jump, Wentworth. James says you told her not to do so several times.”

 

“I should never have allowed it in the first place,” Frederick said curtly.

 

“If she hadn’t the sense to take good advice -” Harville began, with asperity, and then immediately cut himself off at the sight of the Musgroves. “My dear ma’am - Sir.”

 

Frederick made hasty introductions, which John cut off almost immediately, saying Mr and Mrs Musgrove should see their afflicted daughter at once. The invitation was taken up, but the visit was not entirely successful; the Musgroves were too loud and bustling for Louisa’s aching head, Mary Musgrove had near-hysterics describing the entirely imaginary tribulations she had undergone, and the children ran about getting underfoot. In the end the only service Frederick, Benwick or Harville could do for Mrs Harville, who was rapidly growing distracted, was to remove the children from the house and take them walking on the beach. Mary Musgrove’s temperament was improved by Mrs Harville announcing that she must take care not to come down with one of her sick headaches, and declaring that she should lie down on Mrs Harville’s bed with a vinaigrette, and the Musgroves were soothed by taking them into the small parlour and pouring tea down their throats while carefully explaining the quiet and calm that their daughter required. The menfolk, escaping this onerous task, occupied themselves by ensuring none of the children drowned.

 

In practice, this meant that Benwick - the youngest, the fastest, and the best swimmer - chased them up and down the shore, while Harville gave vent to his opinions.

 

“I was never more vexed than when Mrs Mary insisted on staying,” he said, having cast a glance ahead to check the children were out of earshot. “She’s been a torment to Phoebe - an additional charge the likes of which you would not believe. If she’s not fancying herself in a draught and fearing a chill, she’s coming over all light-headed. How she comes to be Miss Elliot’s sister has me at a loss.”

 

Frederick found he could no more explain the differences between Anne Elliot and Mary Musgrove than he could fly to the moon. He opened his mouth, closed it again, and said more stiffly than he meant to: “Miss Elliot is a most capable person.”

 

“You hardly need to tell me that.” Harville turned over a stone with his bad foot, and nudged it towards the water. Practice, Mrs Harville had said; regular and measured movement. Nothing could be more injurious than to rest the leg so constantly that the sinews lost their habit of healthy movement, but equally, Harville was not to take off running for the least little thing. 

 

Phoebe had liked Anne, Frederick thought. They all liked Anne on sight, as everyone did; she was soft-spoken, more so now than she had been eight years ago, but her gentle ways and good sense won her friends wherever she went, except in the bosom of her wretched family. Even the Musgroves saw it, and wished she had been their daughter-in-law instead of the younger sister, whose weaker character and lesser powers of reflection made her pettish whenever she was not given the consequence she felt to be her due - either as an invalid, or as the daughter of Sir Walter Elliot.

 

"Cool head on her shoulders," John was saying. "None of Mrs Mary's die-away airs. She knew just what to do and she did it!" He cast Frederick a sidelong glance, and Frederick mumbled something in response, he hardly knew what. "According to James at least. James is very much struck by her, I think. She has succeeded in drawing him out of himself as none of us have been able to since my poor sister died."

 

"Indeed," Frederick said distantly. "She has - a great kindness with those who are suffering, and very gentle manners."

 

"You’ve only to add that she’s a pretty woman with extensive knowledge of James's favourite poets and you’ll have completed a list of her attractions," Harville said with asperity. "I'm sure she is a capital sick-nurse - Charles Musgrove told us all about her care for his son, when the poor lad broke his collarbone - but she isn't only a sick-nurse, Frederick."

 

"No," he said mechanically. "Of course not. I only meant -" He stopped and looked out to sea, not at all sure what he meant.

 

The sunshine of their brief sojourn in Lyme had melted away; remained only lowering grey clouds, and a rough, heavy sea that crashed hard onto the beach. Benwick was playing tag with the children, and drawing them by insensible degrees away from the shoreline, just in case. 

 

"I seem to remember," Harville said, "some story - some years ago now -"

 

"Eight," Frederick said immediately. There was a disconcerted pause.

 

"- eight years ago, now. A disappointment. I never knew what exactly, but you were in a fury for months afterwards."

 

Frederick said nothing. There was a mist in the far distance; he squinted at it, and tried not to think of Anne's bright face on the Cobb, the colour in her cheeks, how eagerly she had joined in the Harvilles' society, how smilingly she had indulged Henrietta Musgrove's hopes and dreams of an engagement.

 

So much altered I would not have known her again - the unkindness of his own words fell heavily on his head. How could he not have known Anne?

 

"I daresay Mrs Mary comes by her pride honestly," Harville said, watching him closely. "The Elliot pride, Mrs Musgrove called it. And if the other sister and the father are as unpleasant as Mrs Mary - and then there's this Lady Russell Charles mentioned, that stands in the place of a mother to her… She can hardly have been more than twenty, can she, Miss Anne?"

 

Frederick shut his eyes for a second. "Nineteen," he corrected, in a voice that sounded like it did not belong to him. "There's a storm coming in; we should take the children off the beach."

 

"Nineteen," Harville echoed, his eyes still on Frederick's face. Then he sighed. "Well, a fine mess this is. You're still in love with Miss Anne, heaven alone knows if she still loves you, the same authority maybe can tell whether Miss Louisa is really in love with you or just fancies herself so, all the Musgroves expect you to make her an offer directly she's well -"

 

"What?" Frederick said, head jerking round so quickly the sinews burned.

 

For the first time Harville looked truly taken aback. "Did you not realise what your conduct was tending to?"

 

"No," Frederick said, turning his eyes back out to sea as the first spitting drops of rain were blown onto the beach. "No, I had no idea."

 

There was a pause.

 

"Frederick," Harville said carefully. "You know I think you are the very best of men and the greatest of friends -"

 

"You needn't tell me I'm a fool."

 

"I am going to do it anyway," said Harville.

 

 

***

 

 

"I received a letter from Phoebe Harville," Sophy said, when he came to visit her in Bath. Admiral Croft had greeted him with all the warmth in the world before going off to take the waters - or at least, Frederick thought, to enjoy a comfortable coze with some of his naval acquaintance and pretend he'd taken the waters, which he very obviously detested.

 

"Oh yes?" Frederick said. He had been telling her about their brother's living and family, and was slightly surprised by this abrupt change of subject. He met Sophy's eyes properly for the first time since he'd walked in, and saw that they were by no means full of approval. He hoped Phoebe Harville hadn't seen fit to tell Sophy he'd jilted Louisa Musgrove.

 

"In fact, I received several letters from Phoebe." Sophy sighed, and sat back in her chair. "Oh, Frederick, no wonder you ran away to Shropshire." 

 

The idea rankled, and he wanted to protest, but he held his tongue: it was true enough. He had taken the only option left to him, other than declaring an affection he could not feel, and removed himself from Lyme, telling Mr and Mrs Musgrove in confidence that he could not be easy in his mind, thinking Louisa's recovery might be overset by the sight of him and the memory of those last minutes on the Cobb. They had tried to reassure him, but there was no denying that Louisa was not at ease, or that she might never be entirely well again.

 

"How fortunate for you," Sophy said, with the sharp irony they shared but that she usually hid, "that Miss Louisa fell in love with James Benwick!"

 

"Harville wrote to me about that," Frederick admitted, his eyes on his knees. He still had the letter, which had reached him in Shropshire the day before he set off, tucked into an inside pocket. Harville had not written it in his customary steady frame of mind, and as fond as he was of Louisa - who was a very sweet girl, after all - and as much as James was a brother to him, he could not help feeling the injury to Fanny Harville, cold and gone.

 

She would not have forgotten him so easily, Harville had written, heavily underlined and with so much sputtering of the pen that Frederick, accustomed to Harville's neat and even hand, was shocked. She would have mourned him as - 

 

Then there was a large inkblot that Frederick thought had not leapt spontaneously from the pen. Harville had not gone to the trouble or waste of writing out a fresh page, though, and in among the blotching and crossing Frederick detected the name Elliot. Impossible to read any more, however. He would have to ask Harville what he had meant - privately, and when they were both at least three-parts drunk.

 

"I daresay," Sophy said, turning over the letters on her writing desk. She had the same deep blue eyes as Frederick, but hers were more expressive; Frederick knew he tended to become blank and stone-faced in moments of difficulty. Right now Sophy's expressed a sort of tired pity. "Phoebe is neither so upset nor so surprised as her husband, I think." 

 

"She could scarcely be more so."  

 

Sophy sighed. A maid appeared with a pot of tea, and Sophy provided them both with refreshments and dismissed the girl.

 

"The Elliots are very well known in Bath," Sophy said.

 

"And liked?" Frederick could not help asking.

 

Sophy grimaced in a very unladylike manner. "As to that, Sir Walter is generally acknowledged to be a man of consequence, though he remains the same as ever. The Admiral called him a popinjay, but with great tolerance. You know his way."

 

Frederick snorted. 

 

"Miss Elizabeth, the elder sister, is the beauty of the family - as you know - and much admired, though not by the ladies. Mrs Clay, her companion, is commonly rumoured to have an interest in Sir Walter - the gossips look for a new Lady Elliot."

 

Frederick thought fleetingly of Anne, obliged to welcome another into her mother's place at Kellynch Hall, and such of his heart as did not already lie in her hands went out to her.

 

"They have some very high-flown relations," Sophy said, sipping at her tea. "The Dalrymples. Far too consequential to pay any heed to the navy." She hid a smile behind her teacup; Frederick doubted that the navy paid any heed to the Dalrymples in return. "There is also a cousin, the heir to Sir Walter's dignities -" her voice danced lightly over the word, and Frederick hid his own smile - "William Elliot. Formerly considered estranged, and now possibly making up to one of the two unmarried sisters."

 

Frederick's heart missed a beat. "Which one? Miss Elliot?"

 

"That depends on the gossip you listen to," Sophy said thoughtfully. "Miss Elliot conducts herself like a woman who expects to receive an offer, and treats him with great graciousness. It would certainly be very apt, for the heir to marry the oldest daughter of the present baronet."

 

"Sophy," Frederick said.

 

"Miss Anne is much more generally liked, however," Sophy said loftily, "for her pleasant manners and sweet disposition, and she is also a very pretty woman. She seems much healthier and happier to me than she was at Kellynch - there is a brightness in her eyes. Mind you, if I had to live under the same roof as Miss Elliot and Sir Walter, I too would be worn to a thread."

 

"Not for a moment do I believe that of you. I think it was the sea air, Sophy - she was quite a different creature, after a change of scene." Frederick caught Sophy watching him too shrewdly, and added with more pain than he would have liked: "So the wind lies in that direction, does it? Mr Elliot pays her his addresses?"

 

"So I'm told," Sophy said. Frederick's heart sank. "Whether she receives them with complaisance or not, I couldn't tell you. She has a very deep reserve which prevents her from confiding in me."

 

Reserve - yes. Reserve, and delicacy, and steadfastness. Anne might hear persuasion, but she would never be dissuaded from a course she knew to be right. Keeping strict silence over her broken engagement might be just such a course.

 

"I think you may have to prepare yourself," Sophy said very gently, "for a disappointment."

 

"I know," Frederick said, and swallowed hard. "But I shall not despair. Not yet."

 

Sophy watched him for a long moment. "You were never as indifferent to her as you pretended, were you?"

 

Frederick shook his head. His throat had gone tight and hard.

 

Sophy was silent. 

 

"Well, at all events," she said at last, "I like her very much better than Louisa Musgrove."

 

Sophy returned to her letters. Frederick stared out of the window, and wondered if it was entirely useless to hope.