Anne, to just about everybody but herself known as Lady Russell, wondered what she had done in inviting Admiral Croft's brother to make sketches of the interior of Kellynch Lodge. She hardly knew the man -- one conversation was certainly not enough to become acquainted with one as reserved as Mr. Henry Croft -- yet his interest in architecture and art had been so sincere that the invitation had passed her lips before she had realised it.
Being a model of good breeding and decorum, she chided herself for feeling so apprehensive this morning that she peered past her drawing room curtains another time. The invitation had been issued and could not be withdrawn. She would simply have to accept the fact that she would soon be visited by a single gentleman she barely knew.
That Sir Walter sometimes visited was incomparable; she had known him for years and he had been the husband of her dear friend. Besides, there was no harm in her neighbour. More specifically, he was predictable and Anne appreciated that quality very much. Sir Walter spoke of people's appearances, the weather, the influence of the weather on people's appearances, Kellynch -- he really did not have a wide variety of interests.
Of course just when she had sat down with a magazine, Mr. Croft and Mr. Rupert Croft were announced. Anne received them most kindly because there was safety in numbers.
She knew they would not impose on her time too much if drawing was their object. It was not something with which she could help them. She could provide some information on artistic styles and fashions, but Mr. Croft had appeared knowledgeable about that himself and as such her presence would not be required. His brother would provide conversation. She was glad for that, for she was no longer used to having to entertain somebody all day and in relief she ordered some tea. "Where would you like to begin sketching?" she asked, looking from one to the other.
"Er ... I hope to do as much as you would allow," said Mr. Croft. "Rupert does not sketch."
She wondered why he had come along then, but she refrained from asking. "I should not mind if you went through most rooms, my private apartments excepting."
"We should not want to disturb you there," Mr. Croft said hastily and Rupert nodded his assent. "Perhaps you could draw where they are?" He handed her a blank sheet and a pencil.
Anne felt unnaturally anxious as she tried to sketch a plan of Kellynch Lodge. She felt that someone as fond of drawing as Mr. Croft must be judging her efforts very severely. "I am sure I do this very badly," she apologised. "But this shows enough resemblance to the house. On this floor, these are my private rooms."
Mr. Croft very seriously marked 'private' in them in a very small and even hand. "We have no plans to create female apartments in our new house, so they are not of importance to me."
No female apartments. Anne felt she had best not inquire. Mr. Croft was already looking at the walls with great interest and concentration and she suspected he would not be needing her here. He had his brother for company, although it remained to be seen whether he would notice who was with him. "Well. I shall leave you to your work. I have a few calls to make and I shall instruct my staff to serve you some sustenance."
"You are very kind," said Mr. Croft vaguely.
She did as she had promised and she had a word with her staff, who she was sure must not be understanding a thing of this situation. Then she went out on a few charity calls. She was certainly extremely charitable today.
Anne returned a few hours later to find that Mr. Croft had been working so hard that he had not yet touched the refreshments that had been served to him in the meantime. Tea and a plate with biscuits stood untouched on the table in the hall. She stared at them.
"Should I take them away, my lady?" asked an uncertain maid who had apparently been keeping an eye on them and who now appeared to explain the presence of the tray in the hall. "I do not think he remembers. And I have refreshed the tea twice already. He has tea in there as well. And the other gentleman left."
"He seems rather..." But she should not say anything to a maid about the impression Mr. Croft made on her. "Yes, do take it away, Mary. I am sure you did your best to remind him. Where did the other gentleman go? Is there now only one left?"
"The one who did not draw went away."
That made some sense at least. She thanked Mary and proceeded into her drawing room after a sigh. Mr. Croft did not even notice her entrance. He was bent over his sketchbook, casting the occasional glance at the fireplace. Since it was nowhere near the door, he did not see her and he did not seem to have heard her either.
What a strange sensation it was, to feel like an intruder in one's own home! Anne did not quite know what to do. She stood still and observed him. Then she approached him quietly, glancing over his shoulder.
His work was good, but perhaps unnecessary. She did not think it truly needed to be so detailed and perfect, but she supposed he enjoyed what he was doing. From the hall he had moved into the drawing room, which made it easier for her to check up on his progress. At the rate he was going, he would be here all week. She had not counted on that, but she could not withdraw her offer. It would be impolite.
"Has your brother left you?" she asked after she had wondered for a while whether it would disturb him very much if she spoke.
Apparently it did not, although he did not look up. "He realised he had better things to do."
"And you do not really need him." He did not need anyone. He did not even notice anyone. He was completely engrossed in his drawing. She did not blame the brother for having left him. It must have been quite boring.
"Are you planning to do a complete reconstruction of the interior of Kellynch Lodge?" Anne inquired. That would be odd, although it was a fine house.
Startled, Mr. Croft reached for his tea. It was cold and he grimaced. "No."
She thought the tea might have been there for hours and rang the bell. She watched as he searched through a pile of sketches. She had to revise her opinion. He was detailed, but not extremely slow. All those sketches had been made here.
"This," he showed her, "is your staircase with modifications. And so is this. And this."
"Ah. I am not surprised it is taking you very long to draw everything if you make several drawings of every thing." He would indeed be here all week. What was she to do with him all week? He would be able to keep himself busy, certainly if he moved into other rooms of the house, but she would nevertheless have to remember that he was here. Politeness forbade her to send him away.
He looked astonished. "But...do you not understand?"
"I suppose I do, in a sense," she said hesitantly. She was not certain she understood it completely. "Do your father and brothers have any say in the matter?"
"Some. They may look at the drawings and give their opinions as to what they prefer."
Anne received the tea set and poured him another cup. "You should drink it before it gets cold," she advised him. "Or ask for new tea."
"I am never thirsty when I am working. Only afterwards." But his hand reached for the cup nonetheless.
A less than perfectly well-mannered remark escaped her. "But you do not seem to reach the afterwards stage very soon."
"When I am busy I may forget about the time. I shall not mind if you or your husband remind me of it, though."
Anne gave him a good stare, but he seemed utterly guileless. "Did you not notice there was no husband with me last night at the Hall?" She had more experience with gentlemen who did and who acted accordingly, but even the ones who did not act upon it ought to have noticed that she had attended the dinner at Kellynch Hall all by herself. Perhaps someone had even explained beforehand who she was.
He raised his eyes. "But I thought you were there to raise the number of women, which would not work if you brought more men."
This simple logic bemused her. "So...I left him at home?"
Mr. Croft was completely indifferent to what she might have done with her husband. "Er...yes?"
Perhaps this Mr. Croft would gladly be left at home if his wife was invited to make up the numbers, but that did not explain why he had not noticed the absence of a husband here in her own house. "And that you have not yet seen him today means..."
"That he is busy?"
"Dead," she corrected. "Quite dead."
"Dead?" Apparently this had never occurred to him and he winced. "I am sorry to hear that. I am sorry I did not give it any thought."
Although Anne did not understand how he could not have thought, she was not pained by his misapprehension. "It has been a long time."
She sat down in a corner of the drawing room with the magazine she had discarded earlier in the day. It lay open on her knees, but it could not yet hold her interest. Sir Henry Russell was quite dead indeed and he had been so for a long time. It had in fact been so long that she could not recall his face and if Mr. Croft had not mentioned him, she might not have thought of him for another long time. She could say he was quite dead with such detachment now, as if she did not care at all. Perhaps she did not. Anne supposed she had cared for Sir Henry once, but he seemed to have been terribly easy to forget.
"Mr. Croft," Anne said at eleven o'clock after she had waited in vain for Mr. Croft to grow tired and leave. She was too civil to order him out and she had to resort to hinting. He had been working all this while without any breaks and he had not gone to Kellynch Hall to eat dinner either. When asked, he had said he was not hungry, although he had absentmindedly eaten some of what had been placed beside him.
Anne had not dared to ask him to come to the dining room. That would make him look so much like a visitor and he was not. Besides, he would very likely bring his sketchbook and simply start drawing in the dining room.
She had been watching him since at least nine o'clock, but after two hours of hoping he would leave her and trying to imagine what she would do if he did not, fatigue had finally induced her to speak. He did not even look up at her words, so she felt at liberty to look exasperated. "Mr. Croft, I really do not have any objections to your work, but I beg you to excuse me now. I must retire. The footman will see you out if you give him a sign."
"Yes, of course. I am very nearly done," he replied without raising his eyes from his work for more than a second. "Good night."
She spoke to the footman, who looked as puzzled as he dared to look, and then retired. She shook her head at gentlemen who needed hints. Still, her hint had been so broad that it must have some results.
Anne had been too tired to think about Mr. Croft in bed, but she was reminded of him the next morning by her maid. She felt exceedingly glad she needed not be ashamed of having thought of him in bed, a most inappropriate place to be having thoughts of men.
"Good morning, madam," said her maid. "Christopher asked me to tell you that he waited until midnight for Mr. Croft to ask to be let out, but that he never came. Then Christopher looked all through the house and could not find him, so he assumed that Mr. Croft left all by himself and due to having to rise early, he went to bed. He says he looked very thoroughly downstairs, madam."
Anne still looked and felt a little sleepy. She needed some time to digest this speech and to hurry out of bed, but she supposed Christopher wished to be reassured he had acted correctly. "Well, if the man was very nearly done at eleven, I do not suppose he was still around at midnight. Christopher should not worry."
As Jenny was washing her hair, however, she began to have doubts. Mr. Croft was not the most alert of men. It was very possible that he had worked on and forgotten the time, although that did not explain why Christopher had not been able to find him.
Unless, Anne pondered this, Mr. Croft had somehow gone upstairs. It was not clear why he would do so if he had said he was very nearly done, but the man was unfathomable at best. She sighed. Once her hair was washed, she had better inspect some of the rooms on this floor. Christopher had not had a reason to check them and she did not think he had done so. It would perhaps not be so very surprising to find Mr. Croft still sketching away without having slept.
She never showed herself to the world after her hair had been washed, not until it was almost dry and neatly made up. This habit was forgotten now and she left her breakfast and newspapers in her room. Starting at the far end of the house, she checked all the rooms and closets, but she had not found anyone when she came to the apartments of the master of the house. They were admittedly the finest and she paused, shaking her head in incredulous anticipation. Why indeed would Mr. Croft hide in an ugly closet when there was so much to draw here? She had not declared these rooms forbidden territory. Why should he have stayed out?
The moment she opened the door it became clear that he had been here indeed. There were drawings and pencils on the table. Anne muttered something under her breath. He had said he was nearly done and then he had gone here!
It was still possible that he had gone here simply to leave his materials for today's work. She did not see the man himself. Inspecting the top drawing, she saw he had begun, however, but he had not finished. "Not finished!" she said, clicking her tongue. "Dereliction of duty? Distraction? How utterly out of character."
Her fingers tapped the table as she tried to work out at what time he must have left. The candles were all burnt up, she noticed. He had not even extinguished them when he left. She glanced towards the door to the master bedchamber and she felt a sudden concern. "It cannot be!" she exclaimed involuntarily.
But it was so. She fainted at the sight.
Mr. Henry Croft, who had fallen asleep over his work and then woken at two o'clock to find the house in complete darkness, not to mention completely locked up, had only seen one option. He had returned to the apartments in which he had been working and climbed into bed. This chilly room was vastly better than escaping this house and finding Kellynch Hall equally locked up. It was rather cold outside.
Now he awoke at the sound of a large thud and he discovered the parts of him that were no longer covered by the sheets were chilled. He did not instantly know what the thud had been, not until he sat up to see where he was. Slowly he remembered he was at Kellynch Lodge, in a pretty set of rooms upstairs, with a bed he had climbed into.
The one thing that had not been there when he went to bed was that dead woman on the floor. Although, if she had been responsible for the thud, she might not yet be dead. He watched her fearfully for a few seconds, but she did not move. Reluctantly he realised he would have to investigate.
As he glanced down at her, he supposed the dead woman might be Lady Russell. He would only recognise her in an upright position with her hair dry and tied up, not like this. To this end he dragged her towards the bed and propped her up against it, taking a handful of wet hair and holding it up. This indeed made her look a little more like Lady Russell, but why she was unconscious -- not dead, he realised -- he did not know. He dropped the hair again and waited.
Just when he was wondering whether he should call a servant, she stirred, moaned and opened her eyes. She took one look at him, closed her eyes again and leant her head back against the bed. "Oh no!"
"You do not appear to be well," Henry said cautiously, although he was relieved she could speak. "Are you Lady Russell?"
She moaned again. "Am I?"
"I have not looked at her well enough to know," he confessed. "Should I call for anybody who might know who you are?"
"No! Please, no!" Anne kept her eyes closed. She must not be found here with him. Everybody knew who she was, except this man here.
"What were you doing on the floor?"
Her senses were slowly returning to her and she had only questions about this unbelievable situation. "What were you doing in the bed?"
"I did not know where else to go at two in the morning. I woke to find myself locked into this house." It was not his fault and he had followed the most logical course of action.
"So you appropriated the master bedchamber."
He looked confused. "The master of the house is dead. Lady Russell told me so herself. This bed at least would not be used. And it was here."
Anne tried to keep her voice steady and her eyes closed. Lady Russell had told him indeed. It was odd how he remembered that, but not what she looked like. "Could you not also have appropriated one of his nightgowns?"
"Nightgowns are for women."
"Nightgowns are indeed to shield the eyes of women."
"I never see any women in bedchambers," Henry said a little testily at her lack of gratitude, because he had come to her aid as soon as he could. She should now not wish he had dressed for a grand occasion first. "And I never go to sleep thinking they might be there in the morning."
"This is my house!" she protested. Her eyes flew open again in indignation. In her own house she might enter any room she wished.
"Why should you be looking into a dead man's rooms?"
"Please, Mr. Croft," she said, trying to sound calm. He was calm enough, although his logic was extremely faulty. "Make yourself presentable and join me in the next room where we might discuss this scandalous attack on my respectability."
She was ashamed of fainting, but she did not see how it could be otherwise, because Mr. Croft had not exactly been dressed and she was not exactly used to the sight. Sir Henry had never shown himself to her like that. Never. It could only be very scandalous, because Sir Henry had never done so and he had been a very respectable man.
Perhaps, an evil voice whispered, he had also been a trifle boring. He had never made her faint. She suppressed that shocking thought very quickly. Who had put that into her mind? Not only was she having indecent thoughts about Mr. Croft, but to make it worse she had disrespectful thoughts about Sir Henry.
Since her indecent thoughts meant recalling what she had seen, she wished he would hurry up and appear before her in clothes, so that the last image of him would be decent. Mr. Croft was unfortunately not disgusting to behold, merely shocking, and the image was difficult to dispel.
"Well," Anne began when he appeared looking presentable. To banish certain images from her mind, she had done a little thinking in the meantime. Not all was lost if she acted quickly and efficiently. "You will understand that it cannot be known that you spent the night here. I think it wisest for you to stay in this room until sufficient time has passed for this household not to have noticed your return. The later the hour, the more opportunities there will have been for you to have arrived unnoticed."
Her staff would be busy. Sometimes they did not see her goddaughter Anne either. She could always try to make them believe they had neither seen this man leave, nor seen him return. Besides, they knew she was utterly respectable, so nothing else would occur to them. Would it?
He nodded. "I should not wish to appear so ... unlike myself."
She was glad he considered it appearing unlike himself, although his self had not been hidden by anything at all and he had not appeared as anything but himself. Such a thought could not be voiced.
"I considered it your own responsibility to inform your family that you were not coming to dinner, but perhaps I overestimated you there," she said reflectively, although she had not considered it at all until now. Her own household were not the only ones who needed to be kept in the dark. Everyone at the Hall would be wondering what had happened to Mr. Croft. "I am now not convinced you sent a note to Kellynch Hall to make your excuses. I can now not imagine what they must be thinking of your absence."
Henry stared. What with an unconscious woman on the floor he had not yet given any thought to his relatives. "Neither can I. I mean, I can." He looked afraid. They would think he had slept here -- and amazingly, he had.
"Were I not involved in this scandalous matter, I should not care, but unfortunately you chose to drag me into it."
"I did not choose that! You might never have known if you had not gone into a dead man's rooms." Thinking about it, he wondered why the bed was made if the man was dead, but as that would undermine his own position, he did not mention it.
"I think you should remain in here until it is all sorted," she decided. How useless some men were! And how useless it would be to explain why she had gone into that room. "By me or other people of sense."
"Can you not send a note to my brother James Frederick?" he asked. James would get him out of here and James would tell this woman he was entirely innocent. She had said this was her house. It might therefore be Lady Russell after all. How could it not be, really? No guest would come here to have her hair washed and no guest would order him about.
"Is that the admiral?" The last thing she wanted was for more of those odd brothers to come here. The admiral, however, might be tolerable.
"Yes. He should help me. I have always remained silent about his nightly excursions." That discretion deserved a favour in return. And James could not be afraid of Lady Russell; he had a wife. He knew what to say to women.
Anne gave him a distasteful look. "Do not tell me about the admiral's nightly excursions."
Henry would not have anybody think ill of his brother. "To his wife! They were married, but my father always forbade them to share a room at his house. He put James with me, but James --"
She held up her hand hurriedly. No matter to whom he had gone, it could only have been for one purpose and the old man sounded very sensible to have wanted none of that. "I still do not wish to hear it. Get back to drawing."
Those other people of sense were not long in arriving. Mrs. Croft had brought Mrs. Wentworth with her and a footman with a basket. Anne, seeing them approach from her window, had them brought upstairs to her rooms immediately, despite not yet having her hair up. It slipped her mind, given the distraction of a man in the house. She cared only for solving that problem.
"I am glad you came," she said, without yet telling them why.
"My husband's brother Henry," said Mrs. Croft. "He never returned from here yesterday."
Anne sighed. She decided she must be happy they knew. It spared her some of the mortification of explaining it, although plenty remained. "I discovered that this morning."
She coloured at the tone in which that was asked. Who indeed would go to bed while she still had a guest unless she wished him to stay? "Are you suggesting I voluntarily kept him here?"
"No, no," Mrs. Croft soothed. "I suspect he was a stowaway, for whatever reason."
This reassured Anne somewhat, although she was still very much aware of not having any excuse. "After waiting in vain from him to finish I went to bed at eleven. I assumed he would ask to be shown out shortly afterwards, as I told him to do, but he simply moved on to a new project."
Mrs. Croft now sighed too. "They are in some ways very stupid men. How many people know of the stowaway at this end?"
"Nobody except me. Fortunately the servants think he must have left on his own. I have ordered him to stay where I found him. Nobody will look for him there." As she spoke, she realised that was exactly what he had told her as well. It was a dead man's room. Why should anyone look there? Why had she?
"Good. Would you please let me speak to him?"
"He is three doors to the left, if you go through that door." Anne indicated a door on the left side of the room. She sighed again when Mrs. Croft had left and turned to her goddaughter. "Anne! I am so very glad Mrs. Croft and you appeared, because that Mr. Croft is an oaf."
Mrs. Wentworth looked confused, if a little amused. "I honestly have no idea what is going on. I thought he was ill. He did not come to dinner because he was ill."
"He was here. I should have sent him away, but I trusted he had some common sense. Apparently he has none. This morning he asked me if I was Lady Russell, because he had not looked at her well enough to recognise me." She looked incredulously at her younger friend. How could she not be Lady Russell in this house? They had also met at the Hall. Had he not looked at her there either?
Mrs. Wentworth picked up a brush and wriggled her left arm. Upon seeing the hairbrush, Anne suddenly remembered her hair and her hand flew up to touch it. She must be looking a fright and she would almost ask why they had not told her that she was not fit to be seen, but she did not recall any looks of surprise.
Her goddaughter began to brush her hair. "What was Mr. Croft doing here?"
Anne calmed down a little from the brushing strokes. One visitor was fixing her hair and the other was fixing Mr. Croft. It might all come right and she could speak with tolerable steadiness. "Making sketches of the interior. I never knew he would not leave, so I went to bed." She shook her head at her own stupidity. She would never make such an assumption again. Men could not be trusted to follow orders. They could not be trusted at all.
"Poor Mr. Croft must have been mortified."
"He mortified!" exclaimed Anne, who did not like that all the sympathy should be given to the other party. "I fainted!"
"But they are afraid of women. Oh dear," Mrs. Wentworth muttered compassionately as she twisted Anne's hair up.
Not many people would be able to withstand such compassion. Anne was not one of them. She gave in to her desire to complain and she revealed rather more than was good for her. "He was almost entirely undressed when I happened upon him and he was entirely unfazed by that."
Mrs. Wentworth appeared equally unfazed. "Well, he is the admiral's brother. They have no intentions and thus no awareness."
"That did not make the sight any less disturbing and I now have a headache. I think I fell on my head." She felt her head for bruises. There was a very thick carpet in that room, though, and there were probably no bruises. Her headache might be from all her worrying and from the apparently widespread belief that a man without intentions might appear before her in whatever state he wished.
"Did Mr. Croft not catch you?"
"He was in the bed, but I would rather not think about that." She shuddered. "Is there any hope of Mrs. Croft solving this discreetly?"
"She is a very good sister. To me."
"Does that mean she will not tell her brothers what happened here? Or their father? My reputation..."
"Your reputation is strong enough to withstand rumours of this sort," Mrs. Wentworth said serenely. "Unless there have been some of which I was never aware."
"My behaviour has never given rise to rumours. It still has not. It was all his doing."
"What was he doing in whose bed? You have not yet told me."
"Marriage has not done you good," Anne said with pursed lips. She had not expected such a question from Anne Elliot. Captain Wentworth must have changed her into an impertinent creature. "He had been sketching in Sir Henry's apartments and he was in Sir Henry's bed."
"Undressed because he had no reason to think you would come in."
Anne did not like to have pointed out again that she had not had a good reason to go in. "But it is my house! And I do not think being undressed is a particularly normal sort of thing."
"It would have been more scandalous had he brought his nightgown," was Mrs. Wentworth's calm opinion. "It would have spoken of premeditation."
"He would not have done that in any case, because he does not wear one."
"You have quizzed him on his bedtime habits?"
"Yes. No. He happened to inform me of this matter," Anne said with a blush. "I have no interest in them whatsoever."
"Henry," Sophia addressed him carefully. She had found him drawing and she had sat down beside him. "Please explain."
"I fell asleep," he said with a wary look, as if he did not know what to expect from her. How had she discovered he was here? "You must think I did so on purpose."
"No, you did so by accident. Lady Russell knows that too. Other people may not, so we should take care to keep it from them."
"How do you know?" She must have spoken to Lady Russell, but how had she known she should?
"I saw you did not come back with Rupert. Not to dinner, not to breakfast! I could imagine James, if he enjoyed drawing, not returning. You have more in common than your last name, you see. And you always helped us when we stayed with you." She sounded very helpful.
Henry was a little reassured by her tone. "Yes, Father never knew about it until you blurted out what you had been doing under his roof. I received a scolding for it."
"Now, Henry," Sophia spoke sternly. His self-pity was uncalled for. "You are forty-three and James and I are married. We have every right to be fond of each other. Your father's scolding anybody in this case is insane."
He looked displeased. Even if he might agree, he had still been the recipient of a scolding speech. "Tell him so. He was very unreasonable."
"I am frightfully sorry," she said with genuine regret. "If he scolded you for what James and I might have done on occasion, but I was so vexed with him."
"Yes, I know you were vexed. He has very strict notions. I did not believe or agree with him, although it was unpleasant." It would have been even more unpleasant if he had revealed that he did not agree. Therefore he had suffered the speech and kept quiet.
"Good. As far as they all know, you were in your room last night feeling unwell. I advise you to stick to that story when you return."
"Thank you." He was grateful. "You are not so bad."
"I never was, was I? Not until I started having babies. Why is being female or having babies prohibited or frowned upon in your family?"
Henry gave her a serious look. He was a little surprised she had discovered the precise problem. "Because it usually ends in death, I think."
"Not after you. There were four more sons after you."
"If he had curbed his selfish urges after that, he might still have had a wife." Henry would admit that the explanation was not entirely satisfactory.
Sophia's eyes opened wider. "Is that what you think? Or your father?"
"I think that is what he thinks," he said cautiously. "But he never says quite enough about it. I do not know what went on after Rupert. I was at school and I can only guess."
"He was too young, then he went to school, then he went to sea, then he got married. He did not catch as much of it as I did." Since they had never discussed it, that was only what he supposed.
"Hmm. But living by your father's rules and misconceptions is a horribly inadequate preparation for dealing with situations involving ladies."
He gave her a wry laugh. "You assume a man wishes to end up in those." He did not.
"No, I do not assume he wishes to, although most do, but considering that half of the population is in fact female, I cannot see it as anything but inevitable. The more you try to avoid it, the worse the situation will be."
"Sophia, I do not consider this a situation involving a lady," he said with a piqued look. It could have happened to him anywhere. He had not been more prone to forgetfulness because this was a woman's house. "I was drawing and I fell asleep."
"It is a lady's house. A widow's house. Which you forgot to leave. Most people have other plans with widows. Or the widows have other plans with them. I do not know. It is very dubious in any case to be discovered staying the night in a widow's house."
"I can only apologise and say it was never my intention to end up in a dubious situation. I only stayed because I was locked in and I thought I might find myself locked out of your house if I managed to escape. It is very cold outside, so I chose to stay here. Does that not make complete sense?" He did not see how she could disagree. It was completely logical.
She was nevertheless not impressed. "Henry, you should have left when Lady Russell went to bed."
That took him completely by surprise and he stared. "Why? She never said so."
Sophia made a small noise and began to pace the room. "That is something that is commonly understood. And it was impolite for her to throw you out. You should in fact have left this house well before she went to bed and do not blame other people or the weather for that oversight."
"I was distracted," Henry defended himself.
"I wish I was not so acquainted with distracted men. Why can the men in your family not think when they are distracted? It can be learnt. James learnt. And I have learnt not to believe him anymore when he looks at me like that."
He was not aware of anything and he followed her with his eyes as she walked around, interested in an explanation. "How?"
She gave him no answer and returned to where she had come from.
"It was not intentional," Mrs. Croft reported. "He was drawing and fell asleep and then he chose not to risk finding himself locked out of the Hall. I told him he should have left long before, but he seems to think you should have told him to go."
Anne rubbed her temples and did not answer. He had in fact said he would not mind if she told him, but she had not taken that to mean he would forget if she did not.
Mrs. Croft continued. "What should I tell him now? Would you want him to leave? If we leave him here, he will spend another night, I am sure."
"As it does not bother me during the day, I am not sure what to do." She supposed she was too kind to deprive him of his amusements. He appeared to enjoy drawing very much, but she was not looking forward to his spending another night here because of it. Of course she would not look into Sir Henry's apartments anymore, but he would be there. Or worse -- he might undress himself in the library or another public room. Who could really predict what he would do?
"But he should be evicted at nightfall?"
Anne had little faith in being heard by the man. She imagined herself telling him to leave. He would say yes and not go and she would feel powerless. More extreme measures were required. "Could you not send your husband over to remove him bodily?"
Mrs. Croft considered that. "I could, but it might not be a good idea if you cannot abide his comments. He is bound to make some, even if I tell him not to. We can depend on his morals, but not on his tongue. I am at least objective enough to realise his wit is not for everyone."
"A man with morals. Dare we hope they exist?" Anne said hopefully.
"I shall assume you are distraught," Mrs. Croft replied after a second. "Of course they exist. Precisely what did Henry do to you?"
"Nothing." That was the truth. He had done nothing.
"That makes two men with morals already then." Mrs. Wentworth let out a protesting sound and Mrs. Croft chuckled. "Three. I must not forget my brother."
"Sophia," said Mrs. Wentworth. "Did he say anything about his nightclothes?"
"His nightclothes?" Mrs. Croft looked from one to the other. "Did he bring his nightclothes with him with the intention to stay? Lady Russell, you did not mention nightclothes to me."
"Because there were none," Anne said sourly.
"Oh." Mrs. Croft was only temporarily nonplussed. "Well, that is because he is a Croft. It took me an age to get James into something decent. But," she smiled brightly. "If anyone must be unclothed, it had best be one of them, as they are not bad looking boys."
Anne opened and closed her mouth, fearing she was giving an impression of a fish. Mrs. Wentworth giggled, though not at her. That was a small comfort, although Mrs. Wentworth's moral decline was not. Anne had failed her dear friend. Captain Wentworth and his sister had undone every effort of her upbringing.
"But not everyone is equal to being surprised in such a manner," Mrs. Croft realised. "I was not equal to it when I was young either."
This rehabilitated her somewhat in Anne's eyes, although she would take exception to the implication that time and exposure would change her mind.
Mrs. Croft spoke on. "I see why you want him out by nightfall."
"I should go," Mrs. Wentworth said with an eye on the clock. "Frederick and I are going to Bath. He will be waiting for me. Will you be all right?" she asked Anne.
"I doubt it." She knew that was a pitiful comment, but she could not help herself.
Mrs. Wentworth pulled her arm through her godmother's and took her downstairs. "But what is so bad? You only had a forgetful stowaway somewhere in your house, not even in your private apartments and he did nothing to you. You merely found him."
Her private apartments! So it could have been worse? The thought of Mr. Croft climbing into her bed would nearly make her faint again. "Heaven forbid!"
Mrs. Croft slowly trotted after them, but she became anxious when a baby's crying could be heard. "Margaret is displeased," she said.
"Who is Margaret and why is she displeased?" Anne wondered, thinking nobody else could be as put out as she was, certainly not the unknown Margaret.
"Margaret is my daughter."
As far as Anne knew, the only daughters Mrs. Croft had were very little. "How did she come here?"
"We brought her along in case it would take very long here and she would become hungry again. It is not yet time for that, so she is probably bored. Margaret is always bored." She poked the two ladies in front of her in their backs, which made them turn around. She gestured at them to move aside.
"I must run off, Sophia," Mrs. Wentworth said hastily before Mrs. Croft would become too engrossed in relieving little Margaret's boredom. "Or Frederick will be displeased as well."
Anne willed herself to display an interest in the concerns of other people. Their worlds had not been shaken up by finding men in their houses and they would be travelling to Bath or looking at their babies as if nothing had happened. "Bath? What are you going to do in Bath?"
"We have to see my father."
First she could not connect a baby's crying to Mrs. Croft's babies and now she could not instantly connect Bath to Sir Walter. She was growing so stupid in her distress. "Oh. Yes. Do not tell him about this." Sir Walter would do very little with the information other than shudder in horror, but it should nevertheless be kept from him. Sadly, she trusted Elizabeth less than Sir Walter.
Mrs. Wentworth embraced her. "No, I shall not. You will be fine with Sophia."
Anne also willed herself to be understanding of Mrs. Croft's need to check on her babies, but it was difficult. Everyone was deserting her. "Where did she go?"
"The babies are in the parlour. Now I must run."
Anne proceeded into the parlour when Mrs. Wentworth was gone. She found Mrs. Croft just tucking a baby back into a basket, observed by a flushed-looking footman from the Hall who had evidently become distressed by the wailing.
"Should I have another word with Henry before I go?" Mrs. Croft inquired.
Anne glanced at the footman. He was admittedly more trustworthy than the ones Sir Walter had taken to Bath, being less handsome, but she should still not like him to hear anything about this situation. "That would be most kind." She sat down to look at the little girls.
"Have you nothing better to do?" Henry wondered when Sophia returned. He had not progressed much, feeling rather distressed by everything. One woman thinking he was a rogue was bad enough, but now there were two.
"I have settled that you must leave this house before nightfall," she reported. "But you may stay here during the day -- as long as you keep your clothes on, of course."
He groaned. "I told her it was her own fault for looking into a dead man's rooms. I had no reason to think she might see me."
"One does not expect widows to faint at such a sight," Sophia mused. "But perhaps the three doors between their rooms have something to do with that. Considering that she is our nearest neighbour, I beg you not to upset her again, Henry."
Why did the deuced women not realise he had not had any intentions? He looked extremely vexed. "I was equally upset. For a moment I thought she was dead."
"Yes, you poor thing," she said without any sympathy. "You have plenty of paper here. Hang a notice on the door when you feel like doing anything indecent. Wait, you would not know it was indecent. Anything that involves removing clothes, hang a notice on the door. Yes?"
"Yes, Sophia," he said meekly. He watched her leave and then shook his head at his drawing, as if that would dispel any distracting thoughts. He should get back to work, because he was far from finished.
"Could you take a tray up to Sir Henry's apartments, Mary?" Anne inquired when she was served some refreshments. "And remind Mr. Croft that he should eat?"
The maid curtseyed her assent, although she looked curious to hear he was here again.
Anne turned to her correspondence. She would not go upstairs. After debating whether it might be insolent of her, she wrote to Sir Walter to congratulate him on his daughter's marriage. The letter would very likely arrive after the Wentworths did. Praise of the young husband ought to be included, but it was difficult. He had a fortune, good looks and he cared for his wife. Such comments should prevail, not his dubious influence on her morals. There was no doubt that those had suffered greatly.
An hour before dinner at the Hall would be served, Admiral Croft came to collect his brother. Anne hid from his amused gaze. "Your brother is upstairs," she informed him and she indicated the room on the floor plan she had drawn herself. "You have my permission to go there. I hope you understand it. You will not use such plans at sea."
"Madam, if I can navigate my way around the globe, I can certainly navigate my way around a clumsily drawn floor plan. If all else fails, I can shout for him."
"He will not hear you."
"Oh, he will. But if you fear he will not, you are welcome to show me where he is."
"No, thank you. What did Mrs. Croft tell you?" Anne asked with a fearfulness that embarrassed her. She should not be so afraid, for she had done nothing wrong.
He laughed at her. "As is her duty as my wife, Mrs. Croft is always extremely good at acquainting me with everything she thinks and hears, but I derive more amusement from teasing you directly than from mentioning you to other people."
"Such a comfort," she muttered. She had never been one for sarcasm, but it was difficult to avoid the tone now. That the admiral knew everything was no comfort at all, even if -- if she understood him correctly -- he would not tell anyone about it.
"I shall get Henry," the admiral said with a smile.
"Time to go home, Henry."
Henry was startled by the voice. He raised his head and saw his brother, who must have appeared without making any sound. "What are you doing here? How did you know I was here?"
"Your gracious hostess indicated your location on a floor plan she was afraid I could not read. Time to go."
"But..." Slowly Henry resigned himself to leaving. He tidied up his pencils and noticed a tray with cakes he had not seen before. "Oh for -- we must eat the cakes first, or I shall be scolded again. Have a cake." He picked up the teapot and poured its contents into a chamber pot, which he then replaced in its cupboard.
His brother had observed this action with rising incredulity. "Surely the servants here will notice that is the wrong colour!"
Henry did not appreciate criticism. "Eat your cake."
"Plants are usually used to dispose of unwanted drinks."
"Not in here. This is a dead man's room. Will you eat the deuced cake?" The cake had to be gone before they left. For some reason the maid had insisted that he eat it, presumably at her mistress' orders.
"A dead man cannot have plants, but he can relieve himself in the chamber pot?" James looked bemused as he ate his cake. "The colour of tea? I do not believe that is a sign of good health."
"Well, he must not have had a good health, because he is dead," Henry replied as the took a bite of the other piece of cake.
"She said he was quite dead, not that he had been a healthy man whose healthy life was put an end to by external forces." He stuffed the remainder of the cake into his mouth. "There. I am done."
James was looking rather confused, but he seemed to pull himself together. "I suppose we can go then."
The descended the stairs and Henry gave a vague bow in the direction of a lady whose hair colour suggested she was Lady Russell. He murmured something nobody was supposed to understand and focused on being helped into his coat by the footman.
Anne suddenly realised that his coat had never left. It had been here all night. Had Christopher noticed? She clenched her fists and feared. The gentlemen departed speedily and she contemplated asking Christopher about the coat, but as long as he did not say anything perhaps she should not bring it to his attention.
"When do you think you might finish?" James inquired as Henry and he walked back to Kellynch Hall.
Henry had been thinking about something else entirely, although he no longer knew what now that his thoughts were interrupted. "When?"
"Oh. Er. I am not sure." He tried to think of which rooms he still had to cover. There were many. He had done the hall and the drawing room. Sir Something Russell's rooms were nearly finished. Had he heard the man's name? He could not remember.
"You seem well taken care of there. Cakes and everything. Even if you do not care for tea."
"I do care for tea. Hot tea. Not cold tea."
"Why do you not drink it when it is hot then? I do not suppose Lady Russell serves cold tea. She strikes me as too well-bred."
"Because I am busy when it is served," Henry defended himself. "It is never served when I have time to drink it."
"I am surprised she serves such an ungrateful person as you at all."
"Too well-bred, as you say." He was not ungrateful. He would say his thanks. In fact, he would have thanked the maid, but he had been too astonished at her order to eat the cakes. He had probably not said anything to her at all.
James was still musing on the topic. "She is a very charitable lady, I think, or bored out of her mind."
Henry had never imagined himself in Lady Russell's position yet and he did not know what motivated her. "Charitable, I say, because I do not relieve her boredom if I am drawing in another room."
"You might give her food for thought with your other actions."
Henry gave that remark a weak smile, although he did not think it amusing in the least. "Am I so frightful that a woman would faint?" But at that James began to snicker and his brother was suspicious. "What?"
"Sophia says you are not. How does Sophia know this, by the way? And so it might well be that the woman thought you a pleasing sight, but of course she is too well-bred to admit it, because ladies -- Sophia excepted -- do not admit these things. So she fainted."
"Hmm." He looked rather alarmed at being a pleasing sight. "Why does Sophia not faint when she admits those things?"
"If you must know," James said reluctantly. "She nearly fainted when she first saw me, but she is used to me now."
"So it was not my fault, but the upbringing of a female." This relieved Henry enormously. If even Sophia had exhibited such behaviour, he could not be to blame.
Thankfully Henry had brought a few sketches to discuss after dinner. He felt it justified his long absences. Most of his brothers were interested in giving their opinion -- for a few minutes. James grew bored first, but he would not have to live in the new house. The others displayed enough interest.
Henry nevertheless felt satisfied when he went to bed. He had a strange dream involving a redhead, but he had forgotten it as soon the moment he woke, still very satisfied.
At breakfast he thought of the drawing he had not been able to finish the day before and, more specifically, modifications to the wooden panelling that would suit him better. It was quite a task to design one's house exactly according to one's own tastes.
After eating -- he was the first at breakfast and thus quick -- he walked to the Lodge. As he approached the house, a white-clad figure disappeared behind a curtain upstairs. It had to be Lady Russell and she had to be seeing he had spent the night at the Hall this time. This satisfied him too.
"Good morning, sir," a maid greeted him as he ascended the steps towards the front door. She was polishing the doorknob.
"Good morning." He was satisfied enough with everything to dare to give her a reply. Then he would pass her, but he thought of something. "Did you bring me my tea yesterday?"
"No, sir. That would have been Mary."
"I forgot to thank Mary." See, he was not ungrateful.
"I do not think she minds."
"My brother does." He was not ungrateful and he was having a conversation with a female. It was astonishingly simple.
"The admiral, sir, or the young gentleman who was here?"
"By young gentleman do you mean our brother who is all of six years younger than the admiral?" Poor James to be thought so old, he thought, but he was surprised that the servants here knew everything.
"The admiral." Suddenly he caught sight of Lady Russell standing some distance back in the hall. "Er..."
Anne had had an easy night -- no man in the house and no danger of being surprised in the morning. Her servants had furthermore not revealed any knowledge of the secret. Although their first loyalty would be to her, they might well see some amusement in speaking to their peers elsewhere.
She had been keeping an eye on the lane and for that reason she could be at the foot of the staircase when Mr. Croft came to the door, where he was holding a most bewildering conversation with Clara. She could not hear them, but the fact itself was bewildering enough.
His being startled by seeing her called for action and she took a step forward. "Good morning, Mr. Croft."
"Good morning. L-L-Lady Russell?"
Her eyebrows went up slightly. How could he still not know who she was? "I am indeed still Lady Russell." Mr. Croft gave her a long glance, as if to familiarise himself with her appearance and Anne thought it was pure curiosity, unlike Sir Walter's critical scrutinies. Sir Walter never failed to spot something, although he was too well-bred to give her more than hints. Mr. Croft would not be concerned with her loss of beauty. It was quite agreeable and she gave an involuntary smile.
It was his turn to raise his eyebrows. "You seem happy that you are still Lady Russell."
"Mr. Croft," she said after a second to catch her breath. "I was merely rejoicing in the fact that you do not appear to be counting my wrinkles, not in the fact that I am still myself."
Henry did not understand that comment in the least. "Why should I count your wrinkles?"
"Perhaps you should ask Sir Walter."
"Why would he do such a thing?" He was mystified.
"Every man must have an obsession. You are obsessed with drawing, the admiral is obsessed with his wife and Sir Walter is obsessed with beauty. Or a lack thereof."
"I fail to see how wrinkles affect beauty," Henry said with a helpless look. He wished he would be allowed to go upstairs to his sketchbook. "You speak in riddles."
"I...I must be in your way." Anne stepped aside. She watched as Mr. Croft almost ran up the stairs. Then she walked towards Clara. "What did he say?"
"His brother had told him to thank Mary for bringing him his tea, but he does not remember what Mary looks like. He has a very pleasant smile, my lady."
Clara looked a little too impressed to Anne's tastes. Not only had she not yet seen Mr. Croft's smile herself, whatever else she had seen, but she also thought he was about thirty years the girl's senior and he was a gentleman to boot. "Work on, Clara."
She dwelled bemusedly on Mr. Croft's pleasant smile as she made her way to the offices. Pleasant or not, he had better be gone when her visitors arrived that evening. The Woods and the Coopers would not know what to think of him.
After her business with her cook was settled, she went upstairs. Perhaps it would be wisest to ask Mr. Croft to leave well before her guests arrived. For a moment she was afraid, but while Mr. Croft was in the master bedchamber, he was seated on the bed and not lying in it. He was arranging sketches all around him.
The bed looked quite ruffled. Anne was happy to notice it. It was easier to explain a ruffled bed that had been sat on than a bed that had been slept in and perhaps his sitting would obscure that it had been slept in as well. She had had the bed made in case Sir Walter -- what a foolish notion it now was -- would travel hither to visit his married daughter. Sir Walter could of course never stay at the Hall unless the admiral retreated to a guest chamber. Anne had thought that perhaps Sir Henry's apartments were all that was acceptable. But Sir Walter had never come.
He raised his head. "Yes?"
"I am expecting dinner guests this evening and I wonder if you would be so kind as to leave a little earlier today."
"They may not see me," Henry stated. "But will your guests come in here?"
"Would you stay here? Would you not suddenly appear in the dining room?" Anne refrained from voicing her deepest fear, which had something to do with his clothes.
"No. I do not like people I do not know."
Although he ought to be too old to feel that way, she believed him and she did not know what to do. It would be unkind to repeat her question. "But what if your brother comes to collect you?" She visualised the admiral coming into the dining room instead, asking for his brother. The effect on her neighbours would be almost the same.
"We are not out to make your life miserable," Henry said with a frown.
"I do not think you are, but --" They were making her life difficult indeed. "Never mind. Mr. Croft?"
"Henry. There are too many of us and Mr. Croft is my father."
They were not on so intimate a footing as to warrant such informality, especially not considering what she had seen. "I prefer Mr. Croft, even if your father should be present. Would you like to have something to eat with me? I ought to supervise your meals or you will not eat."
Henry stared at her. "But I am not starving."
Certainly he did not look as if he was in danger of starving. "But I should feel a bad hostess if I did not feed you properly." Anne was struck silent when he smiled. He did indeed have a pleasant smile.
"I shall eat with you," he said.
© 2007 Copyright held by the author.