Frederick told himself he was enjoying the party. There were young Misses to escort, old matrons to charm and hearty gentlemen to clap him on the back. There were a couple of small white boats in the lake, too, and there was Elliot--though always speaking to someone else.
'And these clouds! Are you not you afraid, Captain Wentworth, that it might rain?'
Frederick smiled at little Miss Jones, who was not, in all truth, that freckled. 'There is nothing to be afraid of, I assure you. Those are not rain clouds; they are too flat.'
'Oh! Is it not astounding that he can tell the difference, Lady Russell?'
'A matter of mere observation, I daresay,' answered the lady in question, smiling too tightly to give any satisfaction to Frederick, who always preferred to be liked by everyone. 'And in any case, my dear, Miss Elliot has surely arranged to entertain the party inside if it becomes necessary.'
Frederick had been sorry Lady Russell did not see fit to like him, but only barely, because he had long ago decided that he would never admire those who did not approve of him. Therefore, he had just come to the conclusion that he did not care for Lady Russell. It was regrettable for both of them that he had agreed to oversee with Elliot the moving of her living-room furniture, or something to that effect. He would certainly keep his word, and he knew she would keep hers and offer them tea afterwards. But he would not take pity on her and let her know that he had no intention to bewitch Elliot into joining the Navy or sailing off to make his fortune in New Zealand.
'At sea, observation is sometimes a matter of life or death,' he said, with a slow smile. That finally made Lady Russell spring into action and drag away little Miss Jones, who longingly gazed back at him from under her eyelashes. He felt a pang of guilt--was it true what Elliot had said, about love at sixteen? But was it not a bit dull for a young lady to attend a garden party and have no-one try to impress her, at all?
A dozen of yards away, Elliot, his back to him, was being polite to other people. Frederick could tell, by the set of his shoulders, that Elliot was growing impatient; he was talking to a couple of young dandies, probably friends of his sister. Frederick's casual promenade towards him was interrupted, however, by Miss Elliot herself. 'Captain, are you enjoying yourself? Papa, this is Captain Wentworth, dear James' friend.'
'We met at church, I think,' Sir Walter said, examining him from head to toe as he had done by the church's front door.
'I am pleased to see you again, sir. I find this party to be quite agreeable, Miss Elliot; allow me to congratulate you on your success.'
'We planned to invite only the best in the county,' she answered, not quite matching his tone. Despite the malice, he had not meant to put any venom in his comment. Miss Elliot, on the other hand, appeared rather vexed.
'It is a lovely garden,' he added, not wanting to anger Elliot's sister. He knew it put his friend in a difficult position, and it was probably bad enough that Lady Russell did not think well of him. 'Possibly the loveliest I have seen.'
Though Miss Elliot seemed slightly appeased, she eyed him as if doubting he had had many chances to see beautiful gardens. He had, but of course she would not want to hear about the charms of things abroad, in countries she deemed inferior to her own. The problem might also be be that Frederick had praised the garden, and not her person. Her father, on the other hand, seemed to puff up and lose some of his haughtiness at the same time.
'You are a fortunate man, Captain, if I say so myself. We--'
'Indeed you shall, dear uncle, for it is true.' A rather good-looking gentleman had approached them and put a hand on Sir Walter's shoulder. 'Very rarely have I seen an officer whose constitution suits his uniform so well.' Then he proceeded to shake Frederick's hand, clasping it more tightly than was necessary. Frederick knew at once who the gentleman was, but was so taken aback by his smooth maneuvering into the conversation that forgot to grip his hand back.
Elliot's sister smiled placidly at her cousin and forgot to introduce them. ‘But you, dear Elliot, look even more handsome in blue.'
Her coy look and his gratified smile were stopped short by Sir Walter saying, 'Nonsense, dear. Captain Elliot here is fair but his skin is rather brown, I am sorry to say, whereas a man with such an excellent complexion as our Elliot would be well-advised never to set foot in a ship. It would ruin his good looks and his health. No, no, Elliot. Dark brown or even red would suit you better. I always tell this to my son, and I hope that you, at least, will listen to me.'
Frederick saw, out of the corner of his eye, the unfashionable son disappear in the direction of the path to the lake. Unfortunately, he could not follow, as Sir Walter was eloquently admiring Mr Elliot's new waistcoat and there was no lull in the conversation in which to excuse himself. Fashion was of no consequence to him, and he was of no consequence to the Elliots; except perhaps to Mr Elliot, who finally introduced himself and took some pains to cordially hint that he would like him better if he were not standing next to his cousin Elizabeth.
He took the opportunity and excused himself, obtaining little more than nods of acquiescence. By then, though, he could not see his friend anymore. He wandered around the garden, telling himself that he was strolling, rather than looking for anyone, and that he was content to be there. There were flowers and birdsong and pastries, and even a handful of children frolicking a few yards away. He smiled at more ladies in their finery and to a young footman that offered him wine and eyed his uniform, but dared not ask about it. In none of this he managed to rejoice, and so he was merely standing alone in the shadow of a rather idyllic elm tree when Elliot finally found him.
'Wentworth, there you are! I have been looking all over for you. I have barely seen you since you arrived.'
Despite himself, Frederick could not help but frown at his friend's candidly admitted unawareness of him through the afternoon. 'Et in Arcadia ego, my friend. Is anything the matter?'
'No, no, I just need a sailor, someone accustomed to the dangers of the water, with experience in a ship.' James was trying to stifle a smile, but he was not very successful. 'I need you to follow me in the most dangerous of adventures.'
Frederick's frown disappeared; Elliot was dragging him away by the elbow, and he was too happy to stay offended. 'Oh?'
'We are to row a group of ladies to the opposite shore, leave them there, and then maybe come back to get them in an hour.'
'I see.' He stopped walking, smirk in place. 'We could stay with them if you wish, Elliot. I cannot but notice at least one of them is fair and tall.'
'You are incorrigible,' Elliot said, apparently unbothered by the teasing, and tugged him again towards the aspen-lined path that led to the pond. The tree leaves were yellow, Elliot seemed happier than he had been at the party, and Frederick did feel quite incorrigible. 'You will like them--not one is taller than you, I am glad to say.'
Frederick behaved very gentlemanly to the three misses under his care, even if Miss Shepherd was fair and not short enough for him to like her, and he was satisfied that the expedition turned out merrily for everyone. He had felt a bit uneasy at first, upon helping his share of ladies into the boat--he was glad Elliot was having fun, but he was not; that is, he had been disappointed that Elliot and he were each to row a boat full of ladies, as he had expected they would go together. He wondered if it was selfish of him, to want to enjoy himself only with people he cared about. It was, probably. Elliot would not approve, and so he exerted himself and made his crew smile and giggle, all the time straining to hear how Elliot and his party were faring. They did not laugh as often, but they did talk a great deal.
The ladies changed their minds and wanted to be left on the artificial island at the heart of the pond. Frederick understood the appeal of it, as it had willow trees, a miniature castle folly and the promise of a rescue by boat by any two young gentlemen. Elliot reached the tiny pier first; Frederick moored his boat alongside his and waited for all the ladies to disembark safely. As Elliot untied his boat and returned aboard, Frederick assailed it by jumping in, and they nearly toppled over. The ladies tittered, Elliot fell to his seat and Frederick retained his balance just long enough to bow his goodbye in a flippant gesture that nearly cost him his hat.
'I demand that you surrender the oars,' he told Elliot. He was, after all, in the best seat to row, and he wanted to take charge. He was a proficient oarsman, much better than Elliot, truth to be told, even if he had never been to Oxford.
Elliot smiled and did surrender, and Frederick rowed steadily. Elliot let his hand touch the water and his gaze became distant and somewhat melancholy, as it was wont to do when his surroundings became quiet. To Frederick it looked like he always had important things to ponder, and thus seized every opportunity to do so.
He did not ask about his thoughts; Elliot never gave a straight answer. Frederick was usually bothered by these silences, and would try to distract him from his musings. But now he would not. Instead, he reveled in his sight--the genuinely windswept hair and the pensive air made him look like the hero of a Romantic tale. Only when he stopped rowing did Elliot blink and rouse.
'Wherever did you take us?' he said, not unpleasantly surprised. He had to know they had merely strayed to the other side of the island, but still he gazed around as if Frederick had rowed them to the West Indies. Sadly, they were only as far from the picnic as the pond would permit.
'I have abducted you, of course.'
'Of course. What will the ransom amount to, may I ask?'
'Two trays of those delightful cream pastries, I daresay.'
'Oh, you cruel man!'
'Merely hungry,' Fredrick protested.
‘Then you should ask for four trays. You would not want me to starve, would you?’ Elliot squinted at him in the sunlight, grinning, and Frederick rowed them a bit further so they would be in the shade.
‘You obviously have no experience in kidnappings, Elliot. When I got my ransom, I would have to return you.’
‘What! No, that will not do. I refuse. That would be boring.’
‘You realize--oh, alright. Four trays is it, then.’
‘And cucumber sandwiches,’ Elliot amended with an earnest nod.
‘By all means, let us embark in a life of crime. We could become pirates, I imagine.’
‘Must we? I would rather be a highwayman.’
‘I cannot shoot. I would make a terrible highwayman.’
‘No, I have it all planned. I will shoot for both of us, and all you have to do is look menacing in your black coat. I am too mild.’
Frederick laughed. ‘We are settled, then. We are running away.’
‘Yes,’ Elliot said, and met Frederick’s eyes.
Their smiles faltered.
They looked up, and around, and at each other's boots, and off into the distance. There was a couple of swans there, as they surely needed a little more peace than the party afforded them at the other side. Frederick watched them as they glided away from the shore. He could feel his heartbeat in his ears.
'It is very agreeable,' Elliot said at last.
'You looked tired, and I thought... Besides, you had not paid any attention to me so far,' Frederick mock-protested, moving his leg to kick Elliot's boot amiably.
There was no answer for a while except for a faint chuckle, and at last Fredrick brought himself to look up. Elliot's dark eyes were fixed on him, enough to make him blush for the light-hearted complaint. Then his eyebrows arched in a manner Frederick knew announced a confession. 'What do you think of my cousin?
'He has particularly good manners.'
'And what?' Elliot's shin was hot against the inside of Frederick’s leg, trousers and all, and the breeze made the trees' shadow dance on his temple and cheek. Silly as it was, Frederick caught himself trying to not hear the sounds of the party at all.
'Do you like him?'
'I have just met him. He seemed eager to please your sister, but we cannot hold that against him. Your sister is very handsome, after all,' he amended. Elliot was listening, face slightly turned to the side, patient eyes on him. 'I think he does want to marry her. Your father likes him and his new waistcoat, too, which must be evidence of Mr Elliot’s taste. Especially since they both agreed that navy suits my complexion very well.'
Elliot finally smiled. His expressions did not tend to mean one thing at a time, Frederick had noticed. This one smile was private, and amused, and also definitely discontent. 'My cousin does have a tendency to agree with everyone,' he said.
'With you, too?' Elliot was, after all, the heir.
'Oh, yes. The uniform does suit you, Captain.'
The sudden, sly remark made Frederick laugh out loud, and flush with silliness. 'Oh, good. Then I shall like the entirety of the Elliot family.' He shifted his grip on the oars; Elliot was watching him with an expression he could not read. He cleared his throat. 'I do not know if I like him. Do you?'
'Not much,' Elliot muttered, his lower lip bitten, then released.
'Neither do I, then.'
'Why? It is--it is not that he is not a fine fellow, I...'
'You do not, and that is enough for me.' He was acutely aware of Elliot's bewilderment, and dared not look at him. He realized now that Elliot was not used to being trusted so blindly; Frederick had seen him coax and negotiate and try to talk sense into his family, and had seen his friends advice him and praise his good sense, but such faith was--he thought--new. If he knew the true extent of it... Frederick could not complete the thought, too disturbed by the notion that Elliot might guess. He started to row anew, rather slowly, but the rhythmic splattering seemed to draw attention to unsaid things rather than from them. After a while, he tried to speak again, attempting to recapture the flippancy of their earlier conversation. 'I find you an excellent judge of character, Elliot. Moreso as you seem to like me well enough.'
'Why yes. Of course, you happen to be fair and tall,' Elliot said lightly. Frederick was startled into meeting his eyes, and felt his trepidation turn to dread as he watched Elliot's smile freeze in place a second later.
Frederick averted his eyes, his heart pounding in his ears. Why Elliot had said that, and why Frederick had not laughed, and why Elliot seemed petrified all of sudden, none of this could be addressed now, if ever. The silence stretched over birdsong and lapping water and distant laughter, until at last Elliot said, 'We should return, do you think? There might be some tea left.'
And Frederick rowed them back.