This is another What-if written for the new year.
Pride or Possibility, Frederick’s Dilemma
Persuasion meets String Theory Lite. One New Year’s Eve, Frederick Wentworth has a chance to see his life from in a new and unsettling way. Do all roads lead to Rome, or in this case, Anne Elliot? Of course they do! Many thanks to Laura Hile for her remarkable editing skills.
The professor rose and pushed the tiny bottle towards Wentworth. “Remember, sir, ‘time between time’ is accessible only one night a year.” He lifted his glass in a little salute and finished his port. He turned at the door. “I encourage you to think on these things we’ve spoken of.” He smiled and left them.
Harville picked at the blood-red wax seal on the cork, then held up the bottle to the candlelight and looked at the brackish liquid it contained. “Pardon me, sir, but what rubbish.” He put the bottle down in front of Wentworth. “Though I must say I agree with him about you having the ambition and brains to be First Lord of the Navy.” He rose in preparation to leave the Great Cabin.
Wentworth took the bottle. It was warm, warmer than could be expected from Harville’s handling of it. “Are you flattering me for any particular reason, Timothy?” He closed his hand around it. The bottle also had a curious heft to it.
Harville smiled and went to the door. “Why, yes, Frederick, I am. The First Lord will need a second, and I fancy having the job.” He touched his forehead, and bid the captain good evening. Before he left, he asked, “As it is the eve of the new year, shall I send for you near midnight?”
Wentworth rose and pocketed the bottle. “No, Tim, I shall hear the ruction and come up to oversee the festivities.”
“I’ll try to keep the men in line until you appear.”
“Just watch the older boys. It will not due to have Basington’s pants set afire again.”
“Aye, sir.” Harville disappeared.
Wentworth stood before the bank of stern windows, his thoughts churning and fading as did the ship’s wake in the black water of the sea. The stars were so thick, the night sky looked dusty with them. If he were in England, the last night of the year would be freezing cold. In some ways, he missed the winter weather over the holidays, but being in the Mediterranean was pleasant enough. No fresh air and open windows this time of year, he thought.
It looked to be the sort of night that made Professor White’s assertions about time a possibility. “By my calculations, there are many strands of time that run concurrently with our own,” he had said. “Believing in this possibility is the first step, and then, accessing other strands is the next.” It was then the older man took the bottle from his breast pocket and placed it carefully on the table before Wentworth. “The choice of another time is also predicated on desire, my good captain. What we desire most in life determines which of those strands we pursue.”
At this point in the conversation, Harville was boggled and merely acting attentive. Wentworth listened with great interest, but was not certain why. It was then he threw out the comment on becoming First Lord of the Navy. “Sir, I have every confidence you are able to accomplish such a thing on your own talent and drive. No, Captain, this tincture opens what I like to refer to as ‘time between time.’ It is in that fissure we can reach for and touch those desires we cannot achieve ourselves. You know, aspirations completely beyond our abilities, fancies a bit silly to our way of thinking—” Here, the old man had paused and studied him closely. “Or our deepest hopes, blighted by others.”
Shortly after that, Professor White left them.
Wentworth reached into his waistcoat and took out the bottle. It was now freezing cold in his warm palm. “What devilry is this?” he murmured.
He went to the light and looked at the flask again. The liquid had transformed and was now amber, and so thick it coated the inside of the bottle. He set it down on the table and went back to the windows.
Wentworth industriously put his mind to thoughts of duty rosters and unwritten log entries to overturn thoughts of aspirations and fancies. He avoided any thoughts of blighted hope.
Later, he found himself, feet up on the table, leaned back in his chair, passing the bottle and its ever-changing liquid from one hand to the other. It was apparent the professor intended that he should take this potion. Wentworth’s pride assured him the tincture, and the accompanying palaver about time and accessing desires, was all a hoax. He was certain that if the professor found out he had indeed taken it, the man would have a hearty laugh at the captain’s expense. His curiosity, on the other hand, goaded him to explore the man’s claims.
He cracked the wax seal on the cork. The wax flaked away easily and seemed to disappear in the cracks of the table. The tiny cork slid out of the bottle’s neck easily. Wentworth removed it and put it aside. As he looked away, there was movement. He looked back in time to see it crumble into a pile of powder. The clock ringing the eleventh hour gave his nerves a good shake. He stared for an instant at the clock face, but then was distracted when the liquid quickly began to warm yet again. With the warming, a scent wreathed him and caught his nose. It was not botanical in any way, and it was not of spices. It brought to mind the scent of a woman fresh from the bath. He put the bottle down, leant back in the chair, and weighed his alternatives.
His pride pointed out that to continue with the bewitching proposition of touching the untouchable was foolhardy. The unknown consequences of putting what was left of the bottle to his lips and then swallowing the baffling concoction would prove him an idiot in every way. It was embarrassing merely thinking of Harville finding him unconscious, or worse, after having taken the stuff.
Frederick had made the decision to throw the bottle out the window, and had even gone so far as to open one of them, when the seductive scent stopped him cold. As he looked at the bottle in his hand, tendrils of curiosity began to caress his mind. He had a few fanciful dreams he kept tucked away, but they all involved money and success in his career and they evaporated quickly. It was the allure of blighted hope restored that he was helpless against.
He turned from the window. After taking his seat at the table, he wondered if lying on the bed would be better. He concluded it did not matter and downed the potion in one short gulp.
The taste was wretched, but before he could gag, dizziness hit him full force. Luckily, this was overborne by a falling sensation.
The falling and spinning stopped eventually and he felt himself sprawled on a piece of very comfortable furniture. He could hear gay voices punctuated with laughter nearby. A party, he thought. It was then he realised he was not wearing the baize working uniform he’d put on that morning. He opened his eyes—thankful to find the very elegantly appointed room quite still—and found himself rigged out in a fine wool dress uniform layered with thick gold braid on the snowy lapels and cuffs. He fingered the pommel of a brilliant gold presentation sword at his side.
“The footman said you are unwell.”
He looked up to see Timothy Harville just closing the door. His friend’s look of concern was at odds with the impressive dress uniform he too wore. Upon closer look, Harville was looking plumper in body and more healthy than Wentworth had ever seen him. His cheeks were in fact quite pink. This is a party, after all, Wentworth thought.
Harville brought him a glass of water. “Perhaps it is too soon after your illness for you to be out in society.” He handed him the water. “You’ll never hear the end of this.” He laughed lightly.
Wentworth sat up and took the water. The heavy cut glass reiterated the elegance of his surroundings. He stood, drank the water, and handed the glass to Harville. “I was feeling a bit off, but I feel well enough now.” He started to the door. “Shall we return to the guests?” This was the result of his choice to take the potion and he was eager to discover what that choice would bring.
The room shone golden and glittered with candlelight from a huge chandelier over a teeming dance floor. The outskirts of the dance floor were crowded with blue and gold uniforms, some more elaborately embellished than his own. The women with the officers were infinitely more embellished than the men were.
He had no idea where he was and could not help wonder if this was his own home. If dreaming, why not make them as outrageous and otherwise unreachable as possible?
Harville was soon called away, leaving Wentworth free to walk about the room, studying his surroundings more closely. He recognised the faces of old friends and colleagues. He wondered if he had aged any, as a few seemed older than he remembered. Perhaps it was merely a trick of the eyes, or perhaps it was –
A dark-haired woman stood a few feet away, speaking with a well-dressed civilian. He glanced about the room and saw that while all the other women were wearing light, rather insipid colours, she was wearing a brilliant, deep blue. The man with whom she spoke glanced his way. The light, friendly expression faded to a stony glare. The fellow quickly bowed to the woman and left her. Wentworth willed her to turn to him. Before this could happen, Harville appeared at the woman’s side. He bent to speak to her over the noise of the music and voices. He straightened and looked about, pointing at Wentworth. Frederick made his way to them.
The woman turned. It was Anne.
When she caught sight of him, she smiled and moved towards him. She took his hands in hers. They were warm and soft. “Captain Harville said you had to rest for a moment.” She touched his cheek. “You are pale.” She took his arm in hers. “We shall go upstairs to bed.” There was no opportunity to study her face as she guided them out of the ballroom.
He paused, enjoying the feel of her hold on him. “What of the party? And the guests.”
She turned, laughing. Her eyes were perfect reflections of the candlelight and her smile was as wonderful as he remembered. She wore a thin stole shot through with golden threads. It had slipped to reveal one perfect, pale shoulder. And resting on that bare shoulder was a dark tendril of hair. It had escaped its comb and was quietly tormenting him. “I suppose the host will have to take care of them. What are the other guests to us? The Admiral asked us here so you might rest and recover.” She again started out of the ballroom.
His thoughts raced and tumbled as they passed through the cool marble hallway to the stairway. The jumble in his brain came to a full stop when he saw the massive stairway. This was the home of his friend and superior, Admiral Patrick McGillvary. He had been a guest at Belsom Park twice before, but only for a night, and not in the company of so many others. And certainly not in the company of a woman.
They mounted the steps and Anne paused. She leant against him, pressing him against the banister. She smiled as she touched his cheek again and rested her head against his chest. “I am glad to have an excuse to retire. All evening I have wanted nothing more than to have you to myself.” As if by magic, she opened his coat and put her arms about him. The thick brocade of the fine waistcoat lessened the pleasure greatly. It occurred to him it would seem strange if he did not reciprocate the gesture.
He could not help notice the material of her dress was undoubtedly very fine, but thin. In all the oddities and surprises of the circumstance, this was most unexpected. If the Frederick Wentworth of this strand of time had been unwell, certainly this sort of affectionate ministration of his wife was the perfect treatment.
He closed his eyes and only half listened as she talked of the party and its guests. The luxury of her resting against him was one in which he intended to take great pleasure. The warmth of her body against his, the feel of her hair on his cheek, and the scent— It took a little time, but soon he recognised the scent from the bottle. It was Anne all along.
Wentworth assumed it was because of the captain’s illness that their room was on the far side of the house, away from any household activity that might cause a disturbance. This isolation suited him. When they got to the room, Anne disappeared. Wentworth walked about in anticipation of her return. He suddenly felt exhausted. He took off the coat and studied the ornate gold braid. It was clear his counterpart Frederick was very successful. He folded the coat carefully, and then tossed it on the sofa. He took a seat and looked into the dark out a nearby window.
He wondered if Frederick’s recent illness was beginning to affect him, or if the potion was to blame. Being fatigued in the presence of the woman he desired most in life was not to be borne. Pull yourself together, Freddy boy, he thought. His head became heavy and he leant back, savouring the quiet of the room and the agreeableness of the situation. Soon he was pondering the lives of these Wentworths. Was this Anne the one he loved so long ago? If so, who was the man she called Frederick? Who was he for that matter, and how did his presence affect their marriage? As he was the one here, and not the other fellow, was he married to this woman or—
“I have sent the maid and your man off for the evening.” Anne was taking a place next to him; the room was nearly dark now. She lifted a brow as she took the pin from his neck cloth. She took her time leaning across him to place it on a side table. “Surely we can manage to help one another prepare for bed.” With graceful and studied moves, she removed the cloth. Her fingers lightly brushed his chin as she unbuttoned his shirt. She looked up from her task, smiling. “You are quiet tonight.”
It was obvious what was on her mind. Wentworth was mortified to find himself paralysed. Expectancy caused his heartbeat to quicken, and the room was growing hotter by the moment. Any other time, he’d have seized such an invitation without hesitation. However, he was acutely aware that this was not another time…
As her expression faded to a frown, Anne looked away. She rose and moved off. “I see you are too tired tonight. I shall sleep on the chaise in my dressing room again.”
Without any thought to weariness, he was up and reaching for her. “No, no, no, Annie. No, please, listen to me.” He took her maybe more roughly than she expected, but she settled into his arms soon enough. “I was preoccupied and you caught me off my guard. I was thinking about us in the past. About our separation—” This was an odd thing to say for it was strictly not the truth. However, this situation invited oddness at every turn.
Her cheeks flushed and her eyes flashed. She bloomed to full anger and turned away. “Will you never forgive me for that?” She was heading to the dressing room and he feared once the door closed, any chance for their happiness would be lost.
He took her by the arm. She halted. He turned her and again took her in his arms. She began to cry. “I was only nineteen. I was frightened.” She looked away.
“Shh. I know. You loved me, but you were persuaded to put me aside.” He touched her hair and kissed the top of her head. Though he had put it aside years earlier, it touched him to see that their past was as painful to her as it was to him.
“Will you never understand? I was alone in London for over a month. I had no word from you all that time. I was nearly out of money and when my godmother found me. Yes, she persuaded me to come with her.” Anne pulled away and looked into his eyes. “I left my family for you. I left everything for you, and yet you never fail to accuse me of this one blunder.”
This was not the Anne from his past. This Anne had done just what he wanted. If only he’d had been the man she’d sacrificed for! He would never have accused her, and certainly never carried a grudge. He hoped. “I shall never accuse you again.” She started to look away. He stopped her. He could say volumes, but words were useless. He pulled her close and kissed her deeply.
She moulded herself to him as only a familiar lover would. All things of the past and even a certain amount of his present, questions were moot. Anne was his wife in the here and now.
“Come.” She took his hand and they went to bed.
He woke later, relieved when he felt Anne beside him. He turned to her and kissed her shoulder. She murmured something unintelligible, cleared her throat, and then pressed herself against him. “It must be the new year by now.” Her voice was low and raspy from sleep. It was appealing in every way.
“Yes, I think I heard the clock strike twelve a while ago.”
Her small hand slipped into his and she put it to her lips. “How do you feel?” He realised he had a headache and said as much. She began to rise. “I shall call for something to be brought.”
He pulled her back down. “No, you stay here. I need a drink of water anyway. I shall call.” He kissed her as he buried his face in her neck and breathed deeply. The headache was growing steadily worse.
He left her reluctantly.
Wentworth turned. She leant on her elbow, pulling at the tumble of sheets to cover her. Her hair was mussed and again resting on her shoulders. Anne would always be the most beautiful woman in his life.
“Return to me as soon as you can.”
He knew it was ending, and she knew something to that effect as well.
“You know I cannot stay away for long.”
He turned and stumbled on the leg of a chair. The falling sensation lasted a very long time.
“Captain.” A hand touched his shoulder and shook it. “Frederick. Wake up.”
Wentworth’s head was pounding, and Harville’s voice only worsened matters. He reached up and pushed Harville away. “I hear you.” He leaned forward and dropped his head into his hands. He could hear a fiddle and pipes playing on deck and the sound of the men dancing to the lively tune. Every muscle in his body ached along with his head.
Harville poured him something and placed the glass on the table. “It’s been fairly peaceful, sir. Basington is, as of yet, unflamed.” He called for Wentworth’s steward and then ordered a meal be brought. “You look wretched, sir.”
Wentworth glanced at him. “Thank you, Timothy.” He looked at the rough tabletop and saw the dust left from the bottle’s cork. He saw the bottle itself just as Harville picked it up. “You drank this? The gunner’s cabbage squeezings would be more preferable to this.”
Wentworth snatched the bottle from him. He held it between his fingers and examined it. There was nothing remarkable about the bottle now that it was empty. He placed it gently on the table. He remembered opening the bottle and smelling of it. He had drunk the contents but could not remember how it tasted.
“So, were you able to find one of these complementary strands of time the professor is so hot on? Bring the tray on in,” he said, to the steward.
A plate of beef and a generous slice of pudding with gravy were placed before him. The smell of it and the thought of its taste turned his stomach. He rose and went to the windows. “Beat to quarters, Harville.”
He heard Harville cough. “Excuse me, sir?”
“Beat to quarters, Commander.” He didn’t need to look at Harville to know the man was mystified at the order.
There was another slight pause. “Beat to quarters, aye, sir.” The door slammed and Wentworth was alone.
The wake of the ship was a grey slice through the black water. He opened the window and breathed in the fresh air. He wondered what the weather was for his brother in Shropshire. Suddenly he saw not the dark Mediterranean Sea but Anne Elliot. She was smiling at him. Her hair down and she was dressed in a deep blue dress. He could feel her caress his cheek and then move to kiss him.
Something dropped and rolled on the deck above, breaking the spell.
He’d not thought of Anne Elliot for months, perhaps years.
Voices above grew louder and the door behind him opened.
Anne disappeared into the mist as she always had before. “Are the men ready, Harville?” he said roughly.
“Aye, they are nearly formed up.”
“I suppose they are not happy having their celebration cut short.”
Harville chuckled. “They are calling you everything but ‘sir,’ sir.”
“The French know our holidays as well as we do, and will not hesitate to attack during a party.”
“I shall be up in a moment.”
“What year is it now?”
“Yes, what year is it?”
“Ah, yes. 1814. Dismissed, Harville.”
“Sir.” The door closed.
In August, it would be eight long years since he’d seen Anne Elliot. He had meant to forget her. It was clear to him now that she was unforgettable.
It was time to go up. Wentworth put on his overcoat and scraper and mounted the steps in the gangway. As he made his way above, he took comfort that he would likely never see Anne Elliot again.