The evening of February 14, 1840 fell crisp and cold. The London home of the Wentworths—Admiral Frederick and Anne Wentworth—glowed with candlelight and roaring fires against the chill. The host and hostess made ready to greet their guests when their eldest son, Edward, came to ask a favor.
Later, Anne took her husband’s arm as they descended the stairs. “Are we really so embarrassing as parents, Frederick?” she asked.
He patted her hand. “All parents are an embarrassment, I think. But, we shall see how the evening goes. The subject may never come up.”
Very soon, Edward’s request was forgotten in sitting down to dinner with many guests, some reliable favorites and others new to their circle.
They had progressed through several courses when the Admiral’s sister, Sophia, made a request. “Brother, do tell the story about your being marooned on that island for nearly two months.”
Frederick smiled as he paused in carving the joint of beef before him. He cleared his throat. “I have it on good authority, sister dear, that not everyone cares for that story.” He glanced at Edward, who did not look up but continued to bore a hole in his plate. “Some think it too embarrassing to tell openly. Particularly in the company of our new friends.” He looked down the table at his wife.
Anne touched her napkin to her lips and smiled back. “I have heard the same, Admiral. And I must say, I am astonished. Our being shipwrecked was an adventure that taught me many things. Mostly, that any husband and wife who can be marooned together, and still remain sane with no one else’s company, can survive all the storms of marriage.”
“If this is such a ripping good tale, Wentworth, you must tell it. A useful parable about marriage is always welcome.” Mr James Brewster said this. Brewster was a merchant in the City and the father of Amelia Brewster, a young woman young Edward wished to know very much better.
Wentworth handed the carving gear off to one of the footmen and took his seat. He smiled at Anne and began.
“…so, that last night we decided that we would dine on roasted beef, potatoes, and champagne.”
“And don’t forget those dreadful, sour little fruits we found. They were the closest thing to strawberries we could find,” Anne reminded. She laughed a little as she took a drink of a true champagne from that lovely region of France.
He nodded. “Ah yes. Those vile morsels were more seed than fruit, and left a shocking taste on the tongue. But what did it matter? It was, to our way of thinking, the last meal we would ever share.”
Anne raised her glass to him. That night was 25 years gone and she could still feel the hot, moist tropical air of the Indies. With complete clarity she could taste the fetid water they played was wine, and feel the grit in the one mouthful of ship’s biscuit she had allowed herself. They would have died had there not appeared, miraculously, rescuers the following day.
Now, it was their daughter, Elizabeth, who made a request that forced them from their memories of that night. “You must tell the Brewsters the rest of the story, Papa. It is no good without the true moral of the story.” She nudged Edward, who was looking miserable.
“Your turn, dear.” Frederick nodded to Anne.
It was their custom, when asked, to take turns retelling the various parts of the story. For Anne, each telling reminded her of new details. But never did any of those new details overtake the ending as her favorite part of their romantic adventure. “All right. It was the last of the food and drink. There would be no more biscuits and no water the next day.” She paused and looked into Frederick’s eyes. “And, for once, I did not protest my dear husband’s pretending to drink his share of the water. His generosity was a gift I could not refuse at that point.” She struggled to keep her voice steady. It broke a little, and she hoped only those closest could hear. Though she cleared her throat, she could not continue.
“We behaved like true Englishmen,” Frederick said, taking up for his wife. “She thought I was too gone with hunger to notice with every meal that I had one or two more ship’s biscuit than she. That night the wretched things stuck in my throat. But I ate them, determined to honour her sacrifice.” The dining room was quiet, holding its breath and waiting for the rest of their tale.
The party soon adjourned to their respective places. The evening went off very well. Both Frederick and Anne noticed Edward speaking with first the Brewsters, and then Amelia. He escorted them to their carriage and then excused himself for the night.
Later, after preparing for bed, Anne came to Frederick’s room, as was her choice most nights. They were sharing a little wine when a knock at the door interrupted them. It was Edward asking to speak with his father.
Frederick put him off for a moment, turned, and was relieved to find Anne was already out of sight.
He let Edward in and guided him to a chair with no view of the greater part of the room.
Edward did not sit, and before Frederick could speak, Edward blurted out, “I am sorry I asked you and mama not to tell your story about being shipwrecked. I had no right.”
Frederick looked at his son with pride. He stood straight, eye-to-eye with his father, and was contrite, but not bowed. Frederick had, on occasion, worried that Edward might have too much of his grandfather Elliot in him. This admission proved otherwise. Sir Walter Elliot would ever own such a mistake.
Taking his son by the shoulders, Frederick said, “Thank you for saying as much. But as you witnessed, it did no good. You mother and I are hopeless when it comes to keeping quiet. Especially on the anniversary of the event.” As he passed the boy, Wentworth slapped him on the back. Edward took a small step. It was just a tap to remind the boy who was still the head of the family.
“Aye, sir,” was all Edward said.
“I noticed you speaking with the Brewsters, and then with Amelia. Did we embarrass them as you feared?”
Edward straightened and moistened his lips. “No, sir, not embarrassed. Mr Brewster thinks you were foolish giving mother your water.” He turned to face his father. “In fact, he thinks it was your right and duty to take the major share of the provisions for yourself, as you were the captain and leader. He said that’s what he would do if ever they were in that situation.”
Frederick looked at Edward and shook his head. “Poor Mrs Brewster,” he said. “And what about Amelia? What did she have to say?” He pondered Brewster’s petty self-interest.
Edward cleared his throat took a deep breath. “That is the strangest thing, Father. She said she didn’t understand why mother was so upset by not having any ship’s biscuit left that last night. If you had roast beef, strawberries, and wine, what was the need for bad water and moldy bread? She didn’t understand a bit of it!” He looked away from Frederick and fiddled with the button on his waistcoat.
A noise in the corner drew Frederick’s attention and he could barely make out Anne standing in the shadows of the bed curtains. She had her hand over her lips. Frederick suspected she was smiling. It was not that Anne disliked Miss Brewster, but Frederick knew she disliked the idea of her son marrying a slow-witted girl. And Amelia was proving to be very slow-witted indeed.
“I was mistaken about her. She is not the girl for me, Father.” With these words, Frederick glanced at his wife. She was signalling her delight at their son’s confession.
He too was glad to know that his son was maturing and seeing life more clearly without their intervening. Frederick was also eager to speak with Anne about this new development. He guided Edward to the door. “Thank you for coming to tell me this, Edward. I am glad our story could be of help to you.”
Edward was about out when he turned. “I shall go to Mother and tell her as well.”
It was no secret the Wentworth’s lived quietly by their own standards of propriety, but there was no sense letting things get out of hand. “Not tonight, Edward. Your mother is likely already asleep. Tomorrow is soon enough.”
Edward submitted and went to bed.
Anne came out of the shadows. She handed Frederick his wine and lifted her glass. “I toast to our adventure, and its power to make others see truth.” She took a drink and kissed him. “Romance is seductive, love is lasting.”
They settled before the fire on a pile of soft cushions. “I am grateful we can tell some of our story in public.”
“Yes, but not any more of it than we do, please.” Frederick lifted his glass slightly.
“Of course not. I am happy there is so much we must keep to ourselves.”
“Like the tiny lean-to at night.” He put aside his glass and kissed her neck.
She shifted and exposed more flesh. “So cozy. And swimming in the our tiny inlet.”
“Ah, yes. Visions of you swimming in that tattered shift are the stuff of dreams, my dear. And your tanned shoulders.” He moved down her neck to include her shoulder.
“And your legs when tan are extremely attractive.”
“Thank you, my dear. You look beautiful in the moonlight.”
They kissed with the same sort of abandon they learnt on the island.
Fortunately, the cushions were soft and there was no sand with which to contend.