A Little Contagion for Christmas

If you’ve read the stories in A Very Austen Christmas anthology (and if you haven’t, why NOT?) an accidental theme in three of them was illness and its ability to bring people together. Not to be outdone, I present to you a story I wrote years ago with the same theme: The Little Particulars of the Circumstance

In the course of the original Persuasion, Frederick Wentworth goes to Uppercross Cottage looking for Louisa and Henrietta.  Instead, he finds himself alone with Anne Elliot. He then rescues her from the naughty antics of little Walter. In this version, the apothecary, Mr Robinson, has come to check on the injured little Charles and in a twist of the story, declares a quarantine! When Anne and Frederick are forced to stay alone together in one room, with a sick child to care for, will they overcome their pride and anger? This story combines a little bit of “Outbreak!” with a lot of “It Happened One Night.” Happy ending included at no charge.

 

One morning, very soon after the dinner at the Musgroves, at which Anne had not been present, Captain Wentworth walked into the drawing room at the Cottage, where were herself, Mr Robinson the apothecary, and the little invalid, Charles, who was lying on the sofa.

The surprise of finding himself almost alone with Anne Elliot deprived of his manners of the usual composure: he started, and could only say, “I beg your pardon. I thought the Miss Musgroves had been here—Mrs Musgrove told me I could find them here,” before he walked to the window to recollect himself and feel how he ought to behave.

“They are upstairs with my sister—they will be down in a few moments, I dare say.”

He continued at the window; and after calmly and politely saying, “I hope the little boy is better,” was silent.

Anne turned back to Mr Robinson, the apothecary, who had come to check on the young patient.

The man glanced towards Captain Wentworth. “As I was saying before the interruption, the boy’s spine is undamaged and he is doing well enough in his recovery. I am heartened that my instructions have been carried out with such scrupulous attention.” He removed his glasses and put them in his breast pocket. “It is not always the case when I make recommendations here.”

Anne suspected her sister’s delicate health made it necessary for Mr Robinson to make rather a lot of calls to the Cottage, but she doubted Mary did more than enjoy the notice, with no intentions of following his orders. Mr Robinson once again looked over his little patient. He frowned and pulled up the boy’s shirt. “How long did you say this rash had been evident?”

She came closer. “As I said before, I saw it last evening. It is more acute this morning. I think it may be—”

Robinson grunted and sighed heavily. He put on his glasses and began to carelessly prod and turn the boy this way and that. Anne was appalled that he wholly disregarded Charles’s sharp cries. He touched a place or two, and then looked over the tops of the spectacles. “You say it is more intense?” Anne nodded. “Was this rash on him the other day?”

“No. I am not sure when it appeared, but I saw it yesterday evening, around seven.”

He opened a small notebook and flipped through a few pages. He sighed again. “There is a pocket of fever in Crewkherne. It became evident just a week or so ago. There is fear it is smallpox.”

“The place looked positively asleep when I came through.” Wentworth glanced towards the others.

Robinson turned and looked over his glasses at the Captain. “Come through Crewkherne did you? When did you arrive?”

Wentworth paused. “Yes I did, sir, under a week ago. But I did not leave the carriage.”

“But it did stop?”

“Yes, the driver delivered something to the apothecary. There were no other stops.”

Robinson’s brows rose markedly. “And you spoke with him after?”

“Yes, when I left the carriage. I had arranged especially to be dropped at Kellynch Hall. It was out of his way, and I paid him and gave him something extra for his men.” The Captain glanced at Anne. “I wasn’t in the town to speak of.”

Again Robinson breathed heavily. “Didn’t have to be. It’s the driver of that very line, William Denton, who’s got the fever. Pretty bad as I hear. A physician there thinks it may be small pox.” He stood, looking to Anne and then the Captain.

Wentworth moved towards them, then glanced at Anne and stopped. He spoke in low tones, glancing at Little Charles. “This is as close to the child as I have ever been, sir.”

Now Anne stepped closer. “He came to visit Little Charles the day before last.”

“I am no nearer to the boy now than I was the other morning. I barely came into this room.” He scowled at Anne and then Robinson.

“I am not trying to insinuate anything,” Anne said, “but I think that Mr Robinson should know all the particulars.” She looked away and then back to him.

Wentworth cast a stern look her way. “I can’t be held responsible for making him ill. It would seem reasonable that I should be ill myself if I am the cause of the boy’s sickness. And yet, I am in nowise ill.” He held out his arms for them to see.

Robinson did not acknowledge Wentworth, but turned immediately away. “Where did you say Mrs Musgrove is at?” Anne indicated the door opposite the double doors to the public part of the house, and said she was up the stairs. Robinson glowered, muttering to himself, and roughly moved between them. The door cracked when he slammed it shut. He then locked it and put the key in his own pocket.

Anne looked first at Charles and then to Wentworth. To the apothecary, she said, “But why have you done this? My sister and the Musgrove girls are upstairs.”

“I understand. I will use the back entrance and go up to tell them what I suspect. I don’t want you spreading anything to them if they are not already infected.” He passed by Wentworth without a glance. “Where is the younger boy and his father?”   He picked up his bag and moved towards the double doors.

“Charles took Walter and they are at the Mansion with his parents, I believe,” she said. Anne did not like the direction the circumstances were moving.

“Right, right.” He stepped out of the drawing room and turned to them. “I shall go up to tell the ladies, and then to the Mansion to see that Mr Charles stays put. I know many think me an old woman at times, and far too cautious, but there is no sense risking anyone else.” With that, he pulled the double doors closed with a bang. Anne could hear him speaking with someone. Wentworth moved closer to listen. Mr Robinson was giving instructions to the maid that no one was to go into the drawing room and those inside were not allowed out.

Anne and the Captain stared at one another as they listened to his footsteps fading away. “So, the maids are trapped as well. Though we must all remain apart.” He walked back to the window and held aside the lace curtain. “It will be an interesting few days.” He looked back at Anne and smiled.

In their previous meetings, he had been all politeness. The exchanges themselves were cool and distant, leaving her dejected and hurt by his inattention. Any perceived injury on her part was ridiculous considering their uneasy past. This comfortable smile directed at her made her light-headed. She did not reply but went to sit with little Charles.

The whole circumstance was shocking, and not just a little frightening. She needed some time and solitude in which to order her emotions. The Captain’s presence made calm and rational thought impossible. She buttoned Charles’s nightshirt, saw him comfortable, and urged him to turn over to sleep. After asking for a small toy, the boy obeyed, which left Anne with nothing to reasonably draw her attention away from the Captain. She stood but had no place to move that did not put her closer to him.

There was a long silence, and before either could speak, they heard the front door open. “Hello,” a man’s voice called.

“We are in the drawing room.” Wentworth held the door handles, which was sensible, as the unknown visitor of course would likely try to open them. “I can’t allow you in, I’m afraid.”

“Who is this?” The doors rattled violently. Wentworth looked surprised at the force the visitor used.

Anne then recognised the voice and joined Captain Wentworth at the door. “Mr Hayter,” she said, “I am afraid the apothecary thinks we may have small pox, and he has ordered little Charles and me to remain in here.” She glanced to Wentworth, and was about to continue when she was cut off.

“Who is with you? Is that you, Cousin Charles? I was told your sisters are here as well.”

She glanced at Wentworth and was shocked to see him grinning. He also spoke before she had a chance. “No, this is Captain Wentworth. Charles is at the Mansion. I would have thought you saw him there. Mrs Charles and both the Miss Musgroves are upstairs. Mr Robinson should be telling them just now about our predicament.” He chuckled quietly as he awaited an answer.

“You are enjoying Charles Hayter’s distress a little too much.” She raised an eyebrow as she whispered.

He looked down at her and the little smiled faded to nothing. “You are right. It is wicked of me. Especially when you consider how simple it is proving. Perhaps, I’m not as clever as I thought.” He released the door handles and leant against the jamb.

For a moment, Anne felt badly that she had put a halt to his merriment.  She moved closer to the door and spoke. “Mr Hayter, I am certain this will all be cleared up directly. I am sure the rash Mr Robinson thinks to be small pox is merely the product of the washerwoman’s ill rinsing of the clothes. It is the soap left in the garments, you see.”

Wentworth chuckled.

She turned. “Why do you laugh? You heard Mr Robinson say he is known for being overcautious.”

His eyes sparkled. His dear face was as appealing as it had ever been. “Why did you not tell the apothecary about the soap when he made his preposterous declaration?” Wentworth leant crossed his arms and waited. The handles were silent.

Anne felt he was challenging her, and ridiculing her conclusion. “I had no chance. You saw him. He said what he said, locked the door and left us. Do you imagine I wished for my nephew and me to be locked up in this little room together?” She touched her cheek. Her hand was cool.

Wentworth cocked his head to the side. “It is not as if the two of you are alone in here.”

The heat in Anne’s cheeks meant her cheeks must be scarlet by now. The implications of his statement were embarrassing to say the least. “Surely you are not insinuating that I am glad you and I are here together?” She had spoken rather louder than was prudent, considering all the members of their little fellowship. “I am no happier than you over this—this—.”

“Interesting state.” Wentworth stepped away from the door, returning to the window. “I have no idea now what motivates the feminine mind than I did in former days. No clue as to what might make you happy. Or not.” He lifted the lace curtain and looked out.

Anne was so angry that she could not trust her voice to reply to the Captain—not that she knew precisely what motivated the female mind either—but was determined to make Charles Hayter understand the circumstances were only temporary. She stayed by the door and listened. “I don’t hear him. Mr Hayter obviously has thought better of trying to enter a room the apothecary deemed bursting with small pox.” She called his name. There was no answer. “He must have given up.”

Wentworth cleared his throat. “A paragon of courage persistence, that one.”

He was still looking out the window. It hurt her to think that the dull landscape around the Cottage was preferable to her company.

“It would seem that the apothecary and the curate are going to have words.” Just then, Mr Robinson could be heard castigating Mr Hayter for attempting to use the back entrance to the house and then go upstairs. He went on to warn the curate of the dire consequences should he feel the urge to do so again.

Wentworth turned from the window and looked at Anne. He glanced over to the boy. She did as well. Little Charles was sound asleep and had heard nothing of the dreadful exchange. “If the child was awake, I might suggest you cover his tender ears.” The Captain came a little closer. “I am more inclined to believe you are correct in your theory of a careless washerwoman than I am to believe this is small pox. But if it is, you and I shall ride this out together.”

His sincere look touched her powerfully, making it difficult to breath. His authoritative tone was particularly comforting. She had no reply and whispered a prayer of thanks for a knock at the double doors.

Mr Robinson cleared his throat. “I have spoken to Mrs Charles. As soon as she is over her hysterics, she will be down to speak with you, Miss Anne. Remember, do not open that rear door to anyone.”

All hope of any more information ended with the sound of Robinson’s heavy steps and the outer door slamming shut.

Little Charles was still asleep. Anne still whispered, “I should have said something to him about the soap.” She was surprised to find the Captain stood next to her.

Wentworth raised his hand accidentally brushing her arm. He did not notice.

“…I doubt if Mr Robinson can be convinced that we are not dealing with a major outbreak of disease. His pride is involved now, anything short of a ripping good epidemic will be too humiliating to admit to.”

Her cheeks warmed from speaking so openly. The expression on his face was thoughtful. “Your thoughts are grim by your expression.”

“I have seen a few putrid fevers and how they run through a squadron. It is gruesome to be sure.”

Anne wished she could be of comfort to him, but she was not equipped in this case.

Wentworth walked over to the small table that was currently the very untidy resting place of the Musgrove’s breakfast dishes. Anne blushed to see his distaste. The dishes had been left for her to clear away, and she had not. He then asked for paper and pen.

There was nothing but little Charles’s box of pencils, and some discarded drawings of misshapen horses and distorted dogs. She offered the sad collection to him. “This is all we have. Perhaps later on I can ask the maid to bring us something more.” She cleared him a space and waited to gauge his response.

Wentworth picked through the offerings and chose the sharpest pencil and a piece of paper that had on it only a few little slash marks. He took a seat. “I must send a note to my sister and let her know about our latest adventure. She thinks me at the Mansion, and is expecting to meet me there for dinner later.” He began his note.

“We have been invited to dine tonight as well.”

Wentworth looked up. “And I assume you were going to use the boy’s condition to excuse yourself.” Pencil poised, he awaited her answer.

Without looking, she knew Charles was still sleeping and could say what she liked. He’d caught her. He still knew her little tricks. There was nothing to the contrary for her to say and so she too chose a pencil and some paper, and joined the Captain at the table.

Despite his impertinence, the writing materials were merely an excuse to sit with him. He would suspect nothing if she kept a cool head. Her anxiety was for nothing as she soon thought of Mary’s hysterics, and knew her cooler head and the task of making order of chaos would naturally fall to her. “I shall make a list of all the things we need.” Captain Wentworth nodded but said nothing more. As she wrote, she wondered what the others in the divided house might require to make their seclusion more bearable.

Wentworth rose and went to the double doors. He opened them just enough to see out. “Hello,” he called. “Is anyone here?” He stepped out for a brief moment and then returned. “No one is in the kitchen or this part of the house.”

“They must all be upstairs.” They were alone with no one but the sleeping boy. Though she and the Captain occupied the public rooms of the house, her sister would insist that all the activities of the house should centre on the bedrooms upstairs. Mary would monopolise everyone but the three of them.

He went to the rear door and pounded as he yelled. Charles woke and called for his aunt.  Wentworth’s voice boomed again. “Will someone come down and give us a hand, please?”

Soon Anne could hear the rush of footsteps moving around upstairs. The clattering of shoes on the stairs brought him back inside. “I seem to have rallied the crew.”

Before Wentworth could make his request again, Mary spoke. “Anne, Mr Robinson says the Captain may have brought this plague to us. Is that true?” Her sister spoke very loudly, and rather slowly. There was the murmur of Louisa and Henrietta in the background. The door was set back in a little hallway and she could imagine the three ladies squeezed together to come close as possible.

She glanced at the Captain. He was laughing quietly. When he noticed her looking at him, he ceased.

“Mr Robinson is merely being careful. I wonder if little Charles and I should go upstairs to wait this out. We can stay in the nursery—”

“No!” cried Mary. “No, Anne, you should not move from your place. We must do as the man said!”

It was clear her sister did not wish her son any closer than the ground floor.

Wentworth’s hand on her elbow, moving her aside, brought her out of her disappointment.

He stepped closer to the door and mimicked Mary’s loud, slow cadence. “I assure you, Mrs Musgrove, I have no plague, no pox, nothing that would bring harm to my friends.” Though it was wrong, this bit of parody brought a smile to Anne’s face. “I do have a note that must go to my sister Sophia. Might one of your servants take it for me?”

The female voices consulted one another. “Mr Robinson says the maids and Cook must stay as well. We are completely isolated from all of humanity! Because of you.”

Wentworth rolled his eyes at the exaggeration, but Anne suspected it was the maggot of truth in her assertion that frustrated him the most. She was not sure to whom he muttered: “Mr Robinson declares our sentence, and yet he roams free.” To the ladies, he said, “Somehow we must set up a system so that food and necessities can be brought in. I shall walk to the Mansion and see to it.” He put the letter in his pocket and went in search of his hat.

Anne followed him from the door. “But you don’t even believe there is real danger.” As she hurried to keep up, she was disgusted with herself. She more feared his leaving than the possibility of disease. Once he was out in the world again, there was always the chance he would deem it all ridiculous and never return. “Why not just walk to Kellynch and stay there?”

He looked at her as he put on his hat. “No, I don’t believe it. See,” he picked up an untouched bit of toast from one of the plates, and took a bite. Your Mr Robinson has made his declaration. In such a case, prudence demands that, regardless of any propensity to overstatement, we must consider that a broken clock is still correct twice a day.” He tossed the last bit of crust back onto the plate. “If he has got it right, I have no intention of leaving you alone with the boy to fend for yourself.” He reached out and touched her am very lightly. He breathed deeply and continued, “No matter what, some plan must be formulated so that stores may be brought, and that we will not starve.” He moved to exit the room, and then turned. “I’ll stand out in the drive and make such a squawk they can’t ignore me. We shall work something out. It won’t take me more than an hour.” He went out and closed the doors. Anne touched the crack between them, wondering if he would actually return.

She was startled when they slid open just a bit revealing one hazel coloured eye. “Remember, Miss Anne, let no one in, and let no one escape! When I return, the sign shall be three sharp raps, followed by the hooting of an owl.” The flesh around his eye crinkled from a smile, and he slid the door gently shut. His footsteps faded and ended with the closing of the front door.

Anne leant her head against the doors and began to laugh.

<><>

Later, Anne was again prisoner at the door, listening as her sister complained. “I would have thought Captain Wentworth would have had the decency to speak with me before he left. After all, I am the one who is being most deprived in this … deprivation!”

“And just how is that, Sister?” This was an interesting idea on Mary’s part and Anne wish to understand it better.

The Musgrove sisters laughed in the background. Mary silenced them. “It is me who is without her husband. He is at the Great House and I must remain here. How cruel it was that the Captain should go off without asking if I had any last messages for my dear, dear Charles.” Her voice quavered perfectly. Anne was dismayed that she seemed to have no worry for either of her sons.

She put aside her uncharitable thoughts and was about to offer what comfort she could when Henrietta spoke up. “I too wish the Captain had told us of his plan to walk to the house. I would have asked that he should bring me my harp. The soothing sounds of the harp would be a great comfort in this anxious time.”

Anne put her fingers to her lips to silence a laugh. Without any bidding, she pictured Captain Wentworth struggling under the burden of the instrument as he made his way across the broad field that separated the Cottage from the Mansion. “I am sure we can manage without—”

“I shall have to scold him upon his return.” Louisa interrupted her. “I am sure he tried to get word and there was so much noise up here that no one heard him.” The ladies’ voices now mingled together in a low chatter. From what Anne could determine from the verbal tangle, no one was satisfied with the Captain. And no one thought his idea was a very good one. No one except her.

In a sudden burst of optimism, Mary insisted they would find something useful with which to occupy their minds and hands. “Come, girls, I think I have just the thing to keep us happy.” Their feet clattered up the stairs. Anne almost envied them one another’s companionship.

There was little to do that would keep her happy, so she straightened the room and put the breakfast dishes outside the door. Little Charles insisted he needed to relieve himself and she sneaked him outside behind a wild hedge of roses.

As she waited, she breathed deeply and looked about. Every spring, Mary insisted she would tame the floral beast. Yearly it grew in stature and incivility. She took a last deep breath and shepherded her young charge inside.

The incident reminded Anne that she must ask the servants to arrange something downstairs, more convenient for their comfort. She wrote down such things on her list, saw Charles entertained, and waited.

She started at a noise. The front door opened and there was a great deal of thumping and banging. Enough that she thought several people had entered. She rose and went to the door. “You cannot come in—” Just then, the door slid open. Wentworth put down a huge basket that obviously weighed quite a lot, and struggled to manage another.

The second basket under control, he straightened and frowned. “You did not wait for the signal. Remember? Three knocks and hooting?” He sighed heavily, and shook his head as he placed the baskets on the table.

She realised she had opened the doors to him.

Charles shouted with excitement and climbed onto a chair to get a closer look at the baskets. Wentworth removed his hat and put it on the boy’s head. He thanked Anne for taking his coat. “Really, Miss Elliot, if we are to be fellow travellers in this farce, you must understand the importance of signs and countersigns.” His cheeks were vivid pink from the exertion of the walk, and his expression was bright and untroubled.

He did not look like a man condemned. His confidence was infectious.

The Captain’s propensity to tease made Anne smile. It was a little thing but it made her glad. “I am sorry. I shall try to do better next time.” He nodded and she went to the baskets. “What is all this?”

“This is the first of many loads of promised supplies. Mrs Musgrove is anxious that we are comfortable just before we—” he looked at Charles and lowered his voice. “Slip away.” He reached over, loosened the straps on both baskets, and opened them.

The appreciative sounds Charles made brought smiles to them both. One basket was solely for the use of the boy. It held toys and all sorts of coloured papers and decorations with which he might amuse himself. “His grandmother tried to think of things he could do quietly without much assistance.” He picked up a small ship, rigged with string for ropes and paper sails. “Shoddy and lubberly. Perhaps we can see to it later.” He looked at Anne, who was sorting through the other basket. Cakes, bread, cheese, ham, preserves, tins of tea, a kettle for their fireplace, and other common and choice bits were tucked into every nook and cranny of the treasure chest. “Mrs Musgrove figures this will keep all of us for a few days. They are sending much more when they get it all together. They will also be sending hot food twice a day.” Again, he looked at the boy. He touched Anne’s arm and guided her away from the table.

“I might as well tell you.  The loose jaws of Uppercross gossips have already got to them that Mr Robinson ordered you and me to stay down here. Together. Alone.”

Such a thing was most disturbing, but it was still more disturbing that he had not released her arm. And that she did not mind at all. “She must know that nothing untoward would ever happen. Particularly not in the presence of the child.” Anne took comfort in her nephew’s presence, and the safety his company insured.

He nodded. “I did all I could to assure her that the boy is very much present. She is quite bothered by it all, but did say that she would send some bedding.” He realised he still held her arm and released her. “You’re a bit flushed. Perhaps old Robinson was correct.”

Anne turned away to hide her own warm cheeks and frantically looked for some occupation in which to conceal her discomfort. She seized the kettle and what looked to be a small cake wrapped in a blue cloth. With great purpose and determination, she placed them side-by-side on the mantle. When she turned to him, she realised the burst of activity was a foolish diversion, and felt her face warm further still. “We will have no room to move if much more is sent.” She looked from the Captain to little Charles and fell back into an awkward silence.

For all his bravado, he seemed as shaken from a sudden awareness as she. Their self-consciousness eased when little Charles dumped the basket of playthings onto the floor. To Anne’s amusement, once they were both on their hands and knees beneath the table, they seemed determined to reach for all the same objects. There were several accidental brushes of their hands. “Excuse me, sir,” she said, pulling her hand away from a finger puppet they both reached for.

He too rose up as far as the tabletop would allow. “Quite all right.” He motioned for her to take it. She hesitated, and he went ahead to pick it up just as she too reached for it. Again their hands touched.

Wentworth went to the far side of the table. “Master Musgrove, come and help with this mess you made.” The boy responded and joined the Captain.

She sat back on her heels and fingered the small ship he earlier disdained. One of the spindly masts had broken loose in the fall. She held it in place then let it fall away again. Surely Frederick could mend it. Anne was very confident in his ability to mend things, particularly if she offered him some encouragement.

After the basket was set right again, Ann asked about the Captain’s note to his sister.

“Charles was quite kind, and said he would make certain it was taken to Kellynch.” He paused taking things from the basket. “No one noticed when I pointed out that Charles has been as close to the boy as anyone, and that he might very well be going about the countryside, merrily spreading small pox as he goes.” He made a face as he pulled out a small rooster, carved from a sort of brindle-coloured stone. He handed it to her.

Anne looked it over and recognised it as the very one which sat on one of the many small tables in the old-fashioned square parlour. She held it out and asked, “And how is this useful to us?”

Frederick laughed and took it. “I haven’t any idea.” He looked at the rooster, and then the boy. “To tell the truth, Mrs Musgrove is very sure none of us is going to survive. I was told she is already choosing the clothes in which to bury her son.” Again he glanced to Charles, who was blissfully cutting papers into nonsensical shapes. “She was also dreadfully embarrassed when I showed up to remind her that the rest of us even existed.” He handed her the rooster. “I imagine, in her agitated state, as the basket made its way to the door, everything began to look as though it might have some use. Even stone roosters.” They looked at it and then realised they both still held it.

Anne took it and walked to the mantle. She placed it next to the wrapped cake. “Then we shall not embarrass Mrs Musgrove further, and place it her to remind us of her kindness.”

Little Charles let out a delighted cry and they watched as he took his bits of paper, tossed them in the air and let them gently fall around him in a little blizzard of many colours. Wentworth continued to watch the child as he joined Anne at the mantle.

He looked serious for the first time since his return. “Does all this frighten you?” His expression was unreadable.

The honest question demanded an honest reply. However, to keep what she felt was his growing good opinion, she hoped that he did not notice her shoulders sag. He had thought for years that she was weak in breaking their engagement. If his opinion was indeed on the rise, she must keep some things to herself. This being the case, his honesty demanded that she answer in kind. “Mr Robinson is very reliable when it comes to scrapes and even broken bones. But, as you said earlier, if he is right this one time…we cannot take chances.”

There was no fear in his eyes. His mouth returned to the smile that was so natural to it. He moved closer. “That is not what I asked, but I understand you. I said earlier, we will weather this thing. Together we will come through it.”

The first basket and all of its contents, minus the whimsical additions, was soon put outside the door and a maid called for. Anne’s suspicions that all but themselves would be required upstairs proved to be true only to a point. The old woman who cooked for the Musgroves refused to dance attendance on Mary. She would stay in the kitchen or nowhere she said. “I am paid to cook. They’ll not let me go home, nor cook, so I got nothing requires me concern.”

She refused Wentworth’s offer to carry the foodstuffs to the kitchen. He parted the doors a bit and watched her wrestle the heavy basket out of the hallway. He closed the doors and joined Anne at the table. “There is a self-reliant woman that no bit of small pox would dare touch.”

He took a seat and began to reread the newspaper. His cool manner was infectious, and Anne longed to have something clever with which to engage him. But nothing witty came to mind, and she took refuge in thinking of ways to engage her nephew instead.

The day passed quickly, considering their restricted state of affairs. Anne titivated and made things orderly, several times. The Captain helped willingly when asked. Even little Charles cooperated by being easily entertained. That is, until dinnertime.

The problem for the poor lad was the stew. In the beginning, it was the wrong colour. “Too brown.” He made a face to indicate his sincerity.

“All stew made with gobs of beef is brown, Charles.” It was Anne’s hope that this logic would carry the day and the boy would eat peacefully.

Such hope was soon blighted.

The young man then wanted cake and some of the other treats he had seen in the basket from his grandmamma. At his aunt’s refusing, he began to twist and flail, struggling to get away from her, and the contemptible bowl of stew. There were only two chairs and the boy had been glad to sit on her lap when the meal began. Anne could not help but cry out when the boy kicked her hard.

“Silence, young man!” Little Charles and Anne were both startled by the Captain’s gruff command.

“Come here, Master Musgrove.”

The boy slid from his aunt’s lap and stood before the Captain. His shoulders drooped and he did not look up at the man. He picked at a brass button on his green little jacket.

Without warning, Wentworth picked the boy up and placed him on his own lap. The child’s demeanour did not change. He knew this was not for fun that he was being singled out for attention.

The Captain pulled Charles’s bowl of stew close and handed him his spoon. “You should be grateful for this good food.” The boy took the spoon in his fist and pushed the gravy about.

He then turned to the Captain. “Why, sir?”

Anne was at once shocked at the boy’s cheek, but was very interested in how this man, who was not in the least used to his orders or opinions being questioned, might answer.

Wentworth glanced at Anne. He looked confident. “Because, Master Charles, there may be times in your life when you have precious little to eat, and you would be grateful for this delicious stew.” Anne thought the Captain was overreaching when he called the stew delicious. And she knew her nephew well enough to know that he was not yet finished with his questions.

“But I don’t like it.”

“There are times you must eat things you do not like.”

“Do you eat things you do not like?”

“Yes, yes I do. For instance, there are times at sea I have no choice but to eat bread that has worms in it.”

Charles gaped, his eyes huge with shock, at such an admission. However, being a boy, such a bizarre and revolting disclosure was fascinating to him. Anne remembered the first time Frederick told her such a thing. After he had established to her satisfaction that he was not hoaxing her, she felt pity that such an amiable young man’s way of life was so hard. However, as she knew him better, her admiration grew, for he was equal to the challenges of life at sea, and did not in the least beg for anything. She could not help but wonder if Louisa was yet aware of this dreadful bit of shipboard life.

“There was even a time when I had had nothing to eat but my shoelaces. I once ate a good part of a leather belt as well.”

Charles eyes grew wider still. He had never heard of such an outlandish thing, and neither had his aunt.

“You doubt me. Here is the deal, for every bite of stew I shall tell you a bite of my story.” Charles answered by taking a rather large spoonful that dripped gravy down his chin.

“There you go. So, the five of us were sent off in a rickety little tub not much bigger than your fist.” He held up his own fist and Charles giggled. “And it was only later that I found out the compass onboard had not only been dropped repeatedly, but stepped on. Many times. And as always, it was with the boot of the biggest brute on the ship. Here, let me cut that.” Charles got hold of a piece of beef far too big for his mouth. Instead of leaving him to maul it, the Captain made short work of it and continued. “Anywise, we were under the cover of clouds so couldn’t take a reading by the stars. Eventually, we had to land on one of the tiny islands that dotted the area.”

“Were you afraid?” It was little Charles who asked, but it was Anne’s question as well.

The Captain looked over the boy at Anne. He seemed thoughtful and then said, “Yes, of course I was.” He looked to Charles. “I was only 19, the same age as your Aunt Louisa, and there I was, the midshipman in charge of my own little crew of four.”

“What did you do then, sir?”

Wentworth gave the boy a bit of bread and butter. “Well, the first thing we did was build a fire—.”

“I thought it was hot there. Sailors always go where it is hot.”

Wentworth smiled. Anne knew that was not true. Frederick had also regaled her with some of the dangers and the glories of cold-water sailing. “It was to signal anyone passing by that we were there. We had drifted well out of sight of our ship—which had been called to another location well away from us. The fire would also give us some comfort. Don’t you like a good fire, Charles?” The boy nodded and looked lovingly at the Captain.

Anne handed him a napkin and he cleaned more gravy from the boy’s face. There was no reason to fear anything for they were all warm and safe just now. For an instant, she could almost believe they were in their own little world, completely out of harm’s way.

Wentworth continued the story of the island with beautiful beaches, but very little food available. When it was finished, little Charles thought it the most hilarious thing when Wentworth told him what it was like to eat a shoelace. The boy laughed and laughed. Anne was amused to notice that the only bowl still filled with food was the Captain’s.

Little Charles was excused and just as she was about to pursue the story, a sharp knock at the doors brought the chill of the wider world into their cosy, homely little situation.

“There’s beddin’ out here.”

“Ah, it is good to know that Mrs Musgrove keeps her promises.” Wentworth went to the door. He opened it to find the cook, a scowl on her stony face.

She pushed a pillow at him. “I’ll not lift another finger to help you.” She looked at Anne. “I can’t approve of such mischief.” The cook muttered to herself as she retreated to the kitchen.

Wentworth studied the piles of sheets, blankets, pillows and mattresses. He turned and studied the room. After a few moments, he brought it all in and began to arrange it. “You and the boy will be here by the hearth, and I shall be back over here.” His bedclothes were tossed in a heap in a corner, while he began to carefully fix up the other bed.

She could see sense in his plan, but thought another arrangement would be better. “Should you not be next to the fire?”

He kept to his work. “Are you afraid I’ll be clumsy and tramp on you or the boy?” He did not look at her, but smiled.

She knelt to help him. “No, certainly not. But if you are closer to the hearth, it will be simpler for you to tend it through the night.”

He sat back on his heels. “But the nights are getting colder, and you and Charles need to be warm.” He tossed her a pillow.

She said nothing to disagree with him. “Was that story true? The one you told Charles? I never heard it before.” To refer to the past was a risk. To make it easier for him to answer, she turned away to straighten some blankets.

“Yes, it’s true. That summer I was here, I wished to present myself as a brave and eligible match to beautiful young woman. I thought there was little advantage in crowing about marooning my small crew on an uncharted island, and having to eat our belts. He stood. “And I still think I was correct in that.”

His mention of the past was heartening, and his calling her beautiful gave her more hope than anything thus far. As it stood, if they could not re-establish their past closeness, perhaps they could at least be friends. “I don’t know, I think a warm, uncharted island might be perfectly wonderful, if shared with the right people.” She looked directly into his eyes. “But you would tell it so that a little boy would eat his supper. That was very kind of you.” Her own boldness shocked her.

Wentworth looked genuinely nervous for the first time that day. He again knelt. “I wanted you to be impressed with me then.” He sat on his bed. “Now, I merely wish to do what is best for us all.”

Her remark was audacious, certainly. Was this his way of turning back such forwardness? Anne was about to say that she too wished nothing more than the best for them when little Charles jumped into the middle of the bedclothes she was laying out. His laughter was infectious and drew the Captain into it. Anne eventually joined them.

<><>

Anne rose and refreshed several of the candles. Everything was softened by the rosy glow of the pools of light around the room. The boy was tired. His aunt took him out and saw he had a wash, and changed into his nightshirt.

Charles finished drying his face and tossed the towel carelessly so that it fell into the basin of water. “May I go up and kiss Mother goodnight?” He started to the kitchen, intending to use a small, awkward stairway in the back of the house.

Anne grabbed the shoulder of his nightshirt. “No, Charles, you must remain down here. I can’t allow you to go up there.” His smile faded as the words took hold.

The boy said nothing, but took his aunt’s hand and followed her calmly back into the sitting room. Anne hated the sound of the doors as she closed them.

She did not mind their quarantine for herself. Certainly, being in such close quarters with the one person she had ever whole-heartedly loved was not such a terrible sacrifice. But for her nephew, if it went on much longer, it was very likely to become more confusing. And hurtful.

Wentworth looked up from the book he was reading and watched as Anne put Charles to bed. “What is wrong with our boy?”

“He is disappointed that he may not go up and bid his mother goodnight.” She joined the Captain at the table. “I had hoped she would come down of her own accord. But, you see how it is.” Anne looked over. He had turned his back to them.

Wentworth rose. “We shall see what we can do then.” He went to the locked door, and taking something from his pocket, rattled the door handle. It clicked and swung open. “I’ll let Mrs Musgrove know she’s wanted.” He disappeared.

Charles jumped up and headed to the door. Anne sprinted across the bedding and caught him. “No, no. Charles. The Captain will get your mother.” They stood near the door and listened as he spoke to them upstairs.

“There is someone down here who very much wishes to see you, Mrs Musgrove. He is very anxious to bid you good night.” There was the sound of heavy steps on the stairs as Wentworth retreated back to the sitting room. He closed the door, put his foot against it, and held the handle. The sound of the ladies pouring down the stairs quickly followed.

Wentworth held the door handle as Mary tried it. “Please, let me see my dear Charles. I must see him.”

“Mary, you know what Mr Robinson said. But you can speak through the door.” Anne gently brought Charles to his mother.

“Are you there, my dear?” Mary’s address again was methodical, and this time, a bit high-pitched.

“I have missed you Momma. I wanted to give you a kiss, but Aunt says I cannot.”

There was a little murmur on the other side of the door. “Oh, it is just you, Son. I thought—well, your Aunt always does what she deems best. Sleep well, Charles.” Only one person could be heard going up the stairs.

Anne looked at Wentworth.

“I must say I am astonished at your sister.” He turned away from her.

She thanked God the boy was too young to understand what had just happened. She swept him up in her arms and held him close. He yelped, and for an instant she worried she had damaged his shoulder, but it was immediately evident Charles was laughing. Anne rained kisses on him and took him to his bed.

She listened to his prayers then covered him up. She looked over to Wentworth and saw he was speaking with someone at the door. It was prudent to remain with Charles until he was asleep. It was immaterial that the location gave her an excellent vantage from which to listen.

“No, I cannot.” He kept hold of the door as he fished in his pocket. He withdrew the tool he had used earlier. He knelt and worked on the lock. “No, it is jammed, Louisa. There is no getting it open, I am afraid.” He stood and gave the handle a flip. It was locked once more.

The conversation was subdued, from his side at least. Anne had no doubt Miss Louisa was more than doing her part to engage his interest.

“Yes, it is. I quite agree.” He laughed. “It is very much like being on a ship.” He again touched the door handle. “Yes, there is no helping with whom you are stranded.”

After stretching, he said, “I think the best one can do is try and keep the peace. I find acting as friendly as possible answers best.”

Anne touched Charles’s hair. He was asleep now. She rose and went to the table. She picked up the book Wentworth had been reading earlier, and wondered if his cordiality was genuine.  Or was he merely keeping the peace? She glanced over and saw him kneeling to pick up a bit of folded paper. He read the note, smiled broadly, folded it, and put it in his pocket. He remained at the door a bit longer.

Before he rejoined her, he read the note again. She poured them each a small glass of wine and then noticed that he paused to toss the note in the hearth. This left her puzzled.

Wentworth took his seat. “Miss Louisa envies you not being forced to help remake Mrs Musgrove’s entire wardrobe.” He took a drink of the wine. “The make and mend party is in the interest of keeping them busy, so says your sister.” He did not look at her, but looked instead at the rear door.

It was clear that his exchange with Miss Louisa was more interesting than the one they were having now. She thought they had realised some progress earlier in the evening, but it would seem that she was mistaken. Though, she could be wrong in such a pessimistic assumption. She swatted aside her spinning thoughts. “I was thinking—”

“You look tired, Miss Anne.” He rose. “I put the kettle near the fire earlier. I will gladly carry it out and pour you some hot water.”

The offer of help confused her until she realised he was strongly suggesting that she retire for the night. This was timed perfectly to rid himself of any obligations of further polite conversation.

<><>

A cloud of steam gathered over the basin in the cool entryway. Wentworth stepped back. “What is this?” He touched some clothing hanging off the screen.

Anne took it down. “It is my robe and…one of the maids must have brought them down.” She busied herself by covering the plain cotton gown with the tapestry robe, and draped them over her arm. She glanced up at him, smiled, and then looked away. “There is nothing else I need, Captain.” He stepped aside so that she could take her place at the basin.

“Well, if there is, please give a call.” She heard him pick up a few sticks of wood delivered with the meal and the bedclothes. The door slid shut soon after.

She replaced the nightclothes, annoyed that his seeing them embarrassed her so. After removing several pins from her hair, she saw there was no place to put them. She pulled out the rest and dropped them in the pocket of her apron. There was also no brush for her hair. She’d rather the maid had remembered to bring those little things than the robe and gown.

As she ran her fingers through her hair, she glanced at her reflection. The dim light did her no favours. Were the current stresses to blame for her drawn appearance? Or was it the enforced closeness to Frederick? Or was her life as a whole causing her slow, but relentless fade? His reappearance made all of the alternatives so achingly possible.

It mattered not what the cause, she must rest for the day to come. It was then she realised she could not remove her dress without the help. The idea of walking through the kitchen and up the stairs to call for help was exhausting. For a moment, she considered the Captain’s offer of help. She longed for his touch, even if it was from this mundane need. But, such an impropriety could not be borne. All she could do for her own comfort was to wring out a cloth in the hot water and cover her face for a moment. It was a very small comfort.

Anne calmed her nerves and re-entered their room. He had doused all but two of the candles. He had also prepared for bed. His coat and waistcoat were gone, and his shirt was loose.

The play of the light was fascinating to her as he poked at the fire. His shoulders and chest were clearly outlined beneath the fine, thin lawn. She was helpless to do anything but watch him.

His care of Charles at dinner, seeing to their sleeping arrangements, and now his overseeing their comfort through the night made the room feel like home, and they were it’s family. The very thing she had wanted of him all those years ago was now here. And yet, not. She pulled the door shut hard, the sound alerting him of her return.

He turned and studied her for a moment. “You changed your mind, and are not retiring?” He replaced the poker, brushed his hands on his pants, and stood.

She went to the table and removed the hairpins from her pocket. Her trembling fingers caused her to drop several. She didn’t know how it happened, but he was suddenly before her, handing them to her. He took her cool hand in his warm one and pressed the pins to her palm. “I thought it best to remain dressed. There is my nephew to consider.”

“What’s to consider? He’s surely seen his mother in her morning dress. And you most likely as well.”

“True. But that is in a normal day. This is not normal at all.”

“No, no it is not.” He released her hand.

Anne turned away and placed the hairpins with the others.

“I see….” He paused. “It’s your dress. You need the maid.”

So, he understood this domestic confinement that all women endured. Had he relieved many of it in his day? Just leave it alone, please.

He moved to the door. “I shall call up and get one to come down for you.” He tried the door handle, then started to his coat—he had neatly folded his things and put them on an old upholstered chair in the corner—for the tool he used earlier.

“No,” she called. Little Charles murmured and they both ceased moving. “We cannot wake up the boy.”

Wentworth tossed down his coat. “No, I suppose not. Then let me help you.” He stepped over her bed to come to her.

She raised her hand. “No, you cannot do that.”

“Why not? You need me. I have no ulterior motives.”

The room went silent, as each understood the implications of what he had said. Anne turned back to the table and fiddled with the hairpins. She was pained that he too perceived the particular circumstance and that he took such pains to assure her that it meant nothing to him.

She turned and he was beside her. “I’m sorry. I did not mean that the way it sounded. It’s just that you are so very tired.” He touched her shoulder and she stiffened. It was a tedious chore that meant nothing and it seemed he would persist in performing it for her.

She looked at him, unsettled to find him mere inches away, and looking intently at her.

Anne was lost for a moment and could not breathe. She longed for the solitude of the cool hallway, but she could not move away from him.

He began to speak, though it did not break the spell completely. “You have selflessly taken care of him before all this nonsense, and now you are selfless in taking care not only of him, but me as well.” He paused, knelt, and picked up a stray pin. “As this grinds on, it will become harder to entertain the boy, and to keep things on an even keel. You need your rest, and it needs to be a comfortable rest.” He offered the hairpin in his open palm.

She took it, careful to touch his skin as little as possible. “Thank you for your concern. And I shall rest. This circumstance is awkward enough, and the gossips will feed on it for weeks. We will take our comfort in knowing that nothing worthy of such rumours has taken place.” Her stomach churned as she considered the results of doing what was right. When it came to ending their engagement, the right thing had been disastrous. To do right this time was perhaps to risk a second chance.

Wentworth smiled. “You always know what is correct, don’t you?” The fire popped and they both started.

She fingered the hairpin. “Keeping to my principles is one of the few things in my life over which I have sole charge.”

He took the hairpin from her and bent it back into shape. “I understand why you don’t wish me to help you, but I think, in this particular case, you are being far too prudish.” He handed back the pin.

His tone was light, almost bantering, but the words stung nonetheless. “I do not believe that prudence is ever excessive. It keeps us safe from harm.” His words had harmed her when they had parted. She could not survive if her own weakness allowed her a deeper, more lasting harm. “I am content to sleep as I am.”

Frederick’s eyes had studied every bit of her face and now returned to her eyes. “I understand that, but turn around, Anne.” His neck cloth was of course gone, and his shirt was open, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he spoke.

“Turn around.” He took her by the shoulders and turned her himself. She was powerless to stop him.

She could feel his fingers touching the first button at the neck of her dress. A sweet ache travelled along her shoulders and down her arms to her fingertips.

Little Charles shifted in his bed and Anne touched Frederick’s hands. “Please, stop.”

He did as she asked but not before he lightly touched her neck once more. In an instant, his fingers were at her waist. Before she could speak, his arms encircled her. “Take these,” he said in her ear.

She looked down and he held the strings to her apron.

“Please remove the apron. And the shoes. I can’t stand the thought of you trying to sleep in your shoes.”

She could not help but laugh. His easy jesting proved he cared for her in some fashion or other. “I will sleep neither in my shoes, nor in my apron.”

When she took the strings, he took her hands. “You are always right, and do what is right, Annie. That is a lot for a man to think on.”

The remark left her weak and confused.

“At least allow me to help you with that.” He stepped around before she could refuse.

The ordinary gesture broke her heart. If only they could help one another with all the little particulars of their lives.

“There.” He helped her slip the apron over her head.

She turned to face him. The hollow of his neck was all she could see. She thanked him, took the apron, and began to fold it.

“Your hands are cold.”

She went to the other side of the table and placed the folded apron on it. “Yes, and if you stoke the fire, they will be warm in no time.”

He smiled, nodded, and went to the fireplace.

Anne went to her bed and began to remove her shoes. Wentworth kept his back to her, for which she was grateful as she removed her stockings. After lying down, she smoothed the blankets. “I am comfortable now.”

He turned. She could barely see his face from this vantage. He did not move, and said nothing. She presumed he was looking at her. The silence lasted for an uncomfortably long moment. “Goodnight,” was eventually all he said.

<><>

“And this is the mainmast.” Frederick’s voice was the first sound she heard the next morning.

“Why not the middle mast?” She put out her hand to feel for Charles, but it was obvious he had made his way to the Captain.

“Because it is the main mast.” There was a pause. “It is the main one. The others are shorter and not as big in circumference—” She opened her eyes and turned gently so as not to draw his attention.

“What’s circumfern—that?”

“It means how big around it is. It carries the most weight, and lends support to the smaller ones. You see,” he pointed to the boat. “If this one, the fore mast, and this, the mizzenmast, were real, they would each be made from an entire, strong tree.” She smiled at Charles’s amazed expression as he let out a low, amazed whisper of admiration. “Now the mainmast is also one tree, but even bigger than the others, with parts of still more trees secured to it to make it the strongest of the masts.”

“It must be the captain mast!” Charles giggled.

Wentworth laughed. “Yes, I suppose it is.” His voice was deep from sleep, and the timbre of it was rich and mellow.

Charles was seated on the Captain’s stomach. Wentworth had his legs drawn up and the boy leant against them. The picture was utterly charming. The boy was likely never so free with his own father. While her brother-in-law would find nothing inappropriate in such behaviour between a father and son, Anne was certain her sister would never countenance it. Just then, little Charles bounced a little.

“Carefully there, mate. We’ve not had breakfast, there’s nothing to keep you from sinking clear to the floor.” Charles nodded, and they continued their lesson.

Frederick’s hair was tousled, and his beard was a pleasing shadow on his cheek and chin. She followed the pattern of the stubble down his neck to the white of his shirt. He reached up and pushed the hair from Charles’s forehead. Anne sighed.

It was then she noticed he was looking at her.

He smiled.

She turned onto her back, and was beginning to formulate a reasonable explanation for her close observation of the pair. It was unnecessary as a noise outside the door told her that breakfast was being delivered.

Wentworth brought in the large baskets that held their food. Anne was seeing to the removal of small pots and covered dishes when the Captain approached with Charles by his side. “Master Charles and I are going out to make ourselves presentable.” His voice was still, just slightly, mellow. His eyes were bright, as though he had slept very well. She was glad for his comfort, and scolded herself for being disappointed that he had not lain awake all night thinking of her.

He held his own coat and waistcoat, with his neck cloth draped over them. She stood, holding a small jug of cream. The coolness reminded her of her chore and drew her attention away from his open shirt. “There is really no need for such formality.” She cleared her throat. “We are just the three of us.” Charles was looking from one to the other, his clothes an untidy bundle in his arms. They had been neatly folded the evening before.

“True, we are a small party, but I think it would be a good example for our little charge here to see that regardless the circumstances, good manners and civility need not be thrown overboard.” He turned and guided the boy to the door.

Anne put down the cream and wiped her hands on her apron. “If you wish, you may go on, and I will see to Charles as soon as I finish with the table.” She moved more quickly to lay out the other vessels.

Wentworth reached for the door. “No need. How difficult is dressing a small boy?” He exited without pausing for an answer.

Anne paused and watched the door close. “Indeed. How difficult could it be?” She smiled and put down the cream. She searched through her pocket for the hairpins. Earlier, she had thought to put her hair up, but it seemed pointless considering she had no brush or mirror, excepting the one in the hallway. Her hope that he would find her hair down attractive was also embarrassing now that he was going to be tidy and proper and such a good example to her nephew. Her hair was up, but all she could do was pray the pins held.

<><>

The tea was steeping, and Anne was just putting some sugar on Charles’s porridge when the double doors opened. She turned to see the gentlemen dressed, hair combed, and neck clothes neatly tied. Charles’s waistcoat was buttoned perfectly, but the Captain’s was not.

“What charming companions I have for breakfast.” She held her hand out to Charles. He took it and they went to the table, where Captain Wentworth held her chair for her.

“Madam.” He dipped his head

Charles sat on her lap, and they commenced with the meal.

The boy was hungry and so ate with enthusiasm. Anne made certain his sausage was cut into manageable pieces, that his tea was cooled sufficiently that it not burn his mouth, and replenished each item as it disappeared. She glanced towards the Captain now and again, but he seemed to be capable of replenishing, cutting, and cooling for himself.

Anne finished her own food and once more helped Charles. When she turned her attention back to her plate, she was surprised to find that it had miraculously brought forth another piece of buttered toast, two rashers of bacon—neatly cut—and a bit of warm fruit compote. She thought to inquire of the Captain, but he was contemplating the bottom of his teacup. His expression was sombre and he did not look as if he was open to conversation.

Charles dropped his fork and the silver rang against the china plate. This brought everyone out of their silence.

Anne thought this an excellent opportunity to ask the Captain about his helping the boy dress. “I heard the two of you conversing as you prepared for breakfast. Was everything satisfactory?”

Wentworth looked at the boy and then at Anne. “Well, no, actually. I was surprised to find the boy is unable to dress himself properly.” He nodded, indicating, she assumed the waistcoat.

“Was that the cause of the … conversation I heard?” The “conversation” had actually been more like a sharp, but quickly amended rebuke.

Charles laughed. The Captain raised a brow and he quieted. “It seems this child has no love of stockings.”

“Ah, yes, he is a bit difficult when it comes to those.”

“And shoes.” Wentworth touched his elbow.

“Charles, you did not kick the Captain, surely. You must apologise.”

The apology was accepted, and Charles turned his attention back to his plate.

“You said you were surprised he cannot dress himself. Just how old do you think he is?”

“I would say … six. Seven … perhaps?” There was not a shred of confidence in Frederick’s voice.

“He just turned three in September.” She kissed the boy’s head.

Wentworth nodded. “It would seem I was wrong. He is a very sturdy fellow for his age.”

“I want to go to sea.” Charles arched his back a little and smiled at the Captain. He then slipped from Anne’s lap and left them alone.

“Why have you, in all likelihood, indentured yourself to take another Musgrove to sea?”

Wentworth’s expression changed as he considered her question. “I am sure the boy will forget long before he’s able. ”

She shook her head. “Oh, he will not forget. One day, years from now, you may very likely find yourself pressurised into taking him on.”

“If I have a ship and the means to help him, I shall give him a place. That is, if he has more brains than his uncle did. Though, with you as an influence, his parents likely won’t have to sell him off to be rid of him. However, if such a thing does come to pass—which I am not acquiescing at this point—I shall gladly turn to you and acknowledge your prediction.”

She watched as he pushed a bit of yellow against the last of his bread. He smiled, put the bite in his mouth, dabbed his lips. She could not help wondering if he realised that everything he said, having to do with Charles, had been couched in “ifs.” Did he realise that his reference to her indicated that she would be present, by his side in fact?

He turned, began to rise, and started to the doors. Before he could take the few steps, the doors opened. The sombre face of Mr Robinson was first seen and then came Charles Musgrove with little Walter in tow.

Mr Robinson walked briskly across the room, looking only briefly at the table. “It was all a mistake. The fellow in Crewkherne is up and around. No small pox to speak of.” Mr Robinson removed the key to the rear door from his pocket and was gone to the back of the house.

The elder Charles on the other hand was quite happy to stop and accept his son’s shouted greeting of, “Papa! Papa!”

He held the boy and smiled at Anne and the Captain. “I’m sorry to interrupt your breakfast, but Robinson came to the Mansion first and let us know how things stood. I wanted to come with him. Mother is understandably relieved and not just a little overjoyed.” His son, who had many tales to tell him, then drew his attention away.

Anne was still holding her fork. Frederick was standing in the midst of the room, close to Charles and little Charles. He looked relieved.

Their confinement was all over.

The sound of feet on the stairs was mixed with shrill female voices. “Charles! Charles, where are you?” There was laughter interspersed with Mary’s call.

She came through the door and went straight to her husband. “My dearest Charles. It has been a martyrdom! We have been—” She was drowned out by Louisa and Henrietta chattering. Without even an attempt to speak with their brother, the young ladies sought out the Captain.

Wentworth stood with the younger ladies, nodding and attentive. Anne was amused that he turned from one to the other, back and forth in hopes of giving each their due.

Her fork fell from her hand and she realised Mary was pulling her from her chair. “You must come and see what we were about.” Anne looked to Charles, and he was talking to his son. No one wanted her stories of their confinement and so she had no choice but to go with her sister.

The entire way up the stairs was a litany of her sister’s perceived slights at the hands of her sisters-in-law. The most egregious seemed to be that they were not utterly cheerful while altering her finest gown. “I honestly stood as still as I could. But what was I to do when they took so long? It is really too much to bear having relations who have no respect for such fine things.” Anne felt sympathy for the Musgroves.

The bed was awash with light and dark patches of colour. Anne was shown each and every dress. Most were done well enough, but none suited Mary. There were not-so-subtle hints that Anne was expected to help rework every dress to her sister’s satisfaction.

Mary was about to take one of the last dresses from the bed when Anne looked across the hallway. She left her sister to go into her own room.

One or both of the Musgrove sisters had slept in her chamber. There had been an attempt at making the bed, but it had not been a very strenuous effort. Anne wondered what the maids had been doing if not their work. She opened the door to the closet, and while she could not say that they had positively been inside, there was a feeling in the pit of her stomach that someone had been amongst her possessions. The books on the shelf remained undisturbed. With tremendous foreboding she went to her jewellery casket.

She took the small rosewood box to her bed. For a moment she studied it as it sat in her lap. When she opened it, she knew immediately someone had been in it.

Her mother’s mourning ring was moved. Though she never wore it, when Anne thought of her she would take it out and hold it. It was always replaced in the top tray, precisely placed next to a pair of pearl earrings. It now was carelessly mixed with a small gold chain given to her by Lady Russell the previous Christmas. She grew hot with fear as she took out the trays and looked in the bottom of the chest.

Resting inside were several letters her mother had written her when Lady Elliot had gone to Gloucester to bury Anne’s grandfather Stevenson. They looked to be untouched. She examined them and was satisfied that the worn navy list, dated the summer of 1806, was undiscovered. It was always carefully placed amidst the letters. She thanked God her most intimate connection with Frederick was still private.

Anne was just finished straightening up when Charles came partially up the stairs, and called for the ladies to join them. When Anne came alongside, he said, “I best rescue Wentworth before the girls talk him into the ground.” She slowed and he went on ahead.

The thought of being in his presence was suddenly daunting. When they were not much different than his little crew on the island, everything had been simple and comfortable. Now they were back to being themselves. She would return to being in the background while he and the Musgrove girls resumed centre stage.

She entered the sitting room to find it empty. She went to the entrance hall. His hat and coat were gone. Apparently bidding her farewell was not even a consideration. He had truly kept the peace.

There were voices in the parlour. Mary and Charles were seated on the sofa talking while both the boys played on the floor. Walter had the little boat and Charles seemed to be explaining to him the intricacies of the masts and sails. It was a lovely family scene, which needed no one extra. She remained at the door for a little while.

Though her sister and her husband had their frictions, they cared for one another. It was clear that while they had been separated for only one night, Charles had missed his wife and son. He touched her hand and held it. It put Anne in the mind of her little family time.

There was no sense in torturing herself. Anne went into the sitting room and began to gather things that would need to go back to the Mansion. She stacked the used plates and gathered the silver. No one had removed the teakettle from the fire. It was nearly full and still hot. The teapot now stood refreshed and steeping. It would not take long to tidy the room and by then the tea would be ready for her. She replaced the kettle and was inclined to take the stone rooster from its perch on the mantle.

“You are no longer useful, rooster.” She patted its cool, hard head. To be busy was much preferred to lamenting things that had been and things that could never be. To be alone gave her time to think and make order of all the strangeness of the past day. She set to folding blankets and sheets to bring some order to the bedding.

“May I come in?”

She looked up to see Wentworth at the double doors, just removing his hat. He came into the room and she ceased struggling to fold the last quilt. “I knocked and no one answered. I took the liberty of letting myself in.”

“Certainly, sir.” Anne was uncertain what to do for a moment. Her dilemma was answered as he joined her, picked up the trailing end of the quilt, and helped her finish folding. She took it to the table. “The upstairs is in quite a state and the maids are up trying to bring it some order.” It was close to the truth. They were clearing up Mary’s room at least. “I’m sorry, I did not hear your knock.” She sat.

He joined her. “Which leaves you to do the straightening down here. Alone.” He placed his hat on the table and removed his gloves.

Anne was grateful that she’d not cleared up the tea service. She set about pouring and then realised she had not asked if he cared to join her. This was likely her last opportunity to be alone with him, and she decided not to risk a refusal.

“Do you find you’ve forgotten something?” She pushed a steaming cup towards him.

He pulled it close. He did not drink, but his fingers did rest on the rim of the saucer. “I did not. But thank you. I wished to see the Musgrove sisters home safely. And it is a good thing that I went. I was able to talk to a few people and find out their impressions of this whole business.” He now took a drink.

“And what are the impressions of the public?” The idea of the neighbourhood discussing them made her feel suddenly ill. If news of this reached Bath… She wished she was not really interested, but that was not the case.

He looked at her and put down his cup. “Very ill, ma’am. Very ill indeed.” He raised an eyebrow and cocked his head ever so slightly.

This news made her nervous. The circumstances were highly improper. She wished she could count on the good sense of her neighbours, but it was all too out-of-the-ordinary. Unfortunately, Anne knew that human nature would forget that and only the impropriety would remain. “Surely they know this was not of our doing. If people could be fair and reasonable they must see we had no choice in this.”

He took a breath and shook his head slowly. “Miss Anne, I am afraid that they are the harshest of critics. There is not a speck of mercy in them.” He swirled the cup a little.

“When they know that my nephew was with us the entire time, surely that will make them see how foolish any assumptions might be.”

“Oh, I am afraid not. And it is particularly my reputation that is in tatters.”

It shocked her that people could be so unfair, and judge him so unsympathetically. And in judging the Captain, judge her as well. “I have lived here all my life. I know just the people to whom I must speak to make this right.” Anne determined that when she was finally alone, she would compose an account to include all the details in proper order. She also determined to put off being out of his presence for as long as possible.

“Miss Anne, there is no making this right. My good name is damaged almost beyond saving. I fear I shall be forever sullied in the eyes of the good people of this whole village.” He took another drink of his tea.

Before he put the cup to his lips, Anne was sure there was a hint of a smile. She examined him closer. There was no look of tension about his eyes. His jaw was relaxed, he was draped over his chair rather than sitting in it, and he seemed oddly at his ease as he drank his tea.

She well knew from the past this wry, self-possessed Frederick. When they were just becoming acquainted, he would casually throw out nonsensical propositions and outrageously ridiculous statements. At first she was quite startled by this, wondering if his reputation for being very intelligent was greatly exaggerated. It was only when she began to understand him, and his eccentric sense of humour, that she was able to comprehend the rules of his games. And to play along. As their friendship bloomed into love, they had entertained one another with many farcical stories, opinions and daydreams. Today his account had begun in all seriousness, but now she felt sure they were returning to their old ways.

Frederick Wentworth was the only person alive to whom she would ever reveal herself so completely.

“Do you pity me, Miss Elliot?” He cleared his throat.

He was indeed baiting her.

She would not disappoint him.

“I’m not certain. You do not believe that my speaking to the right people will clear up this odious matter?”

“Oh, no, Miss Anne. You know how people are. Their prejudices will not allow them to think anything but the worst of a sailor. I am afraid my reputation is utterly sunk.” He had improved over time. His expression was utter hopelessness.

She rose, brought the teapot around, and refilled his cup. “I am grieved that you must bear this burden alone. You returned to this place with such high hopes for a happy future, and now this.” She returned to her seat.

To prolong the game was one of the rules. To make it last and last so that they might have an excuse to be together was the point. She had now engaged him on his terms, but she must not yield too soon. She could not yet offer a solution to his troubles.

He studied her. She was sure he now understood that she was completely engaged. He took his time putting sugar in his tea, and then stirring carefully, making no noise at all. The house murmured with the activity of the other residents.

Frederick finally took a drink, replaced the cup, and leant back in his chair. “I am disappointed that you, one of the most intelligent women I know, cannot think of anything to save me from this unpleasantness. I am totally at your mercy.” He gestured in resignation.

She absolutely understood him, just as she had that summer long ago. He wanted her to be bold. He had often said she would be an extraordinarily dangerous woman if only she would be bolder. He was offering her an opening, and an opportunity to say whatever she would like.

“I am sorry you are disappointed, Frederick.” To speak his Christian name was exquisite, and his smile in response to it was a delight. “There is little I can do to redeem your reputation. Except, perhaps … ” She let her voice drift off as she turned her attention to getting the kettle from the fire so that she might refill the teapot. There should be a feeling of shame attached to this agonizing game, but she hoped that forcing him to wait and wonder would heighten the anticipation.

She poured the hot water. As she added more tea, she took great pleasure in the fresh, slightly acrid scent of it. She also took great pleasure in his finger tapping, throat clearing, and other little failed attempts at patience. The tea steeped thoroughly and she took her time to pour the milk.

He leant forward, jostling his chair closer to the table. “You said you have an idea.” He rested his chin against his fist, his elbow planted on the table.

She now took great care as she poured the tea, sugared it, and also silently stirred. “Well, yes,” she said, as she put down her spoon.

Wentworth was smiling broadly. She could hear his foot tapping the table leg. “And that idea would be?” His colour was high, with expectation she hoped.

She took a drink and as she put down her cup, she said, “You could leave the area.”

One brow went up as the other eye narrowed. He smiled. “But that would leave you to endure the mocking and embarrassment alone. I could not do that to you, my friend.” His smile disappeared behind the rim of the tea cup.

“I am grateful for such a noble opinion, sir. That leaves us only on course of action.”

“Yes.”

“Under these particular circumstances, I think it might only be right—the only justice to be done really—that I should marry you.”

They both sat silent for a moment. The relief in the air was palpable. She could not pick up the cup for her hands began to shake.

“I think that if I take your name for my own, after a long interval, perhaps everyone would see that you are not guilty of anything in the least untoward.” She kept her voice as steady as possible. “If I, the daughter of a baronet, am willing to take it as my own, you will no longer be looked upon as … sullied.” A sudden surge of heat flowed over her.

His smile did not fade, but, in fact, widened. He straightened his shoulders, and took his time in giving an answer to her suggestion.

“No, I don’t think that will do at all—” His smile remained as wide and bright as before.

“You horrible man!” Anne touched his arm and he grabbed her hand before she could pull it back.

He held it gently, but firmly as he moved his chair closer still. “Annie, dear, you are the loveliest, sweetest thing. I was a complete idiot for not acknowledging it the moment we met again. And to my consternation, you were right years ago, and you were right last night.” He kissed her fingertips.

Anne’s arm ached from the tingle that began when he had first touched her. Her heart beat as though she had run for miles, and her eyes stung with tears that she refused to allow to fall. “We neither of us did very well.”

“I returned still angry at you. I had no right, but there it is. I thank God for these past hours that made me see that we are meant to be together. Last night, when all of us were having supper, we were like a little family. That is how it should have been all these years—us, together. I almost deprived us of the most sublime happiness. I am sorry, dearest.”

The tears fell despite her attempts to keep them at bay. He tried to wipe them away, but even with a handkerchief, he failed. One thing led to another and they were standing, arms about one another. His neck cloth now her kerchief.

For once, Anne allowed herself to merely be. She would distinctly remember the warmth of his body against hers, his pleasant masculine scent, and the sound of his voice as he murmured in her ear. All of this would make for lovely thoughts when she was later alone.

“Are you free to come with me?” The question seemed an intrusion on this blissful moment. But, there was the promise of more now that they had settled things between them.

She reluctantly stepped away. “Yes, it seems that little Charles is cured and no longer needs me.” She straightened his crumpled neck cloth.

Frederick took her arm in his and picked up his hat as he guided her to the door. “Good. We must hurry to Kellynch Hall.” He held out her cloak and bonnet.

She glanced toward the back of the house where her family was. “I suppose it only right to tell your sister and the Admiral before anyone else.”

He led her to the door. “Yes, first things first, my dear. You must ask my sister for my hand. And I think it best if we hurry so that we might outrun the vicious gossips and their terrible stories which have brought me to ruin.” As they made their way to a path that led to the Hall, he took her arm securely under his.

She’d forgotten her gloves and he had shoved his in his pocket rather than wear them. The feel of his warm hand resting over hers was new, and distracting. To bring herself into good order, she returned to the safety of their nonsensical conversation. “You intend to keep up this silliness?”

He patted her hand. “Oh, my dear, it is not silliness. I take my reputation very seriously.” They were making their way by an overgrown hedgerow when he stepped off the path and pulled her gently to him. “I love you, Annie.” He looked about quickly, then kissed her with such passion, she forgot about everything outside their little greenery refuge.

She couldn’t look at him when it was finished. Anne knew her cheeks burned with excitement. The enjoyment of such immodesty embarrassed her. She’d forgotten how easily he could overcome her correct sensibilities.

“Come,” he whispered. “We need to be going.” He took her hand and moved to step back on the path. “If anyone saw that, I want us to have an engagement on the record before the story gets too far.” She did not move. “What is the matter?”

“Is this merely a little fever of excitement? Something that touches on the past, and has been intensified by our enforced confinement? Is it genuine, or merely a whim of the moment?”

His smile faded. He stood close to her. “No my dear. This is the remedy to a wrong done to you. Do you doubt my sincerity?”

She shook her head. “No, no I do not doubt you at all.” She looked into his eyes and rejoiced this was a sight that would be hers for the rest of her life. “Though, I do have another thought.”

Frederick held her hands more tightly.  “What is it, my dear?” He studied her face intently.

“I was just wondering….” She paused. His expression grew more serious. She must be open with him. “I was wondering if you had much of a dowry? The rumours are that you are quite rich, but you know that gossip is not always—.”

He began to laugh, but soon stopped her prattle with another kiss.

“I had forgotten you could so easily be my Little Jester.” He pulled her into his arms. They stood still for a moment. He drew away. “And in answer to your question, yes, I have a little dowry.” His eyes shone with merriment.

She sighed. They twined their arm, and began to walk. “Considering the particulars of this odd circumstance, sir, I suppose I must settle for a little one.”

“Well then, I think we should hurry and get the business with my sister accomplished, before you change your mind and leave me flat.”

Pride on both their parts had kept them separated for many years, and it had taken the threat of plague to bring them back together.

<><>

It only took a month for them to marry. Sir Walter was shocked. Miss Elizabeth Elliot was extraordinarily put out, that of all people, Anne should surpass her. Any thoughts that either of the Musgrove girls had harboured about the Captain were forgotten in the flurry of an unexpected wedding.

Frederick Wentworth was glad to accept the congratulations of his sister and her husband, and to accept the offer of a home with them for a time.

As for Anne, she was daily amazed that her life had taken such an unexpected turn. Each Sunday when she said her prayers before leaving Church, she was scrupulous to thank God for overzealous apothecaries, and slothful washerwomen.

 

The End

 

 

Advertisements

One thought on “A Little Contagion for Christmas

Why yes, we DO want a piece of your mind. ;-)

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s