Posted on Saturday, 13 October 2001
Author's Note: This story is dedicated to Michele S. who puts up with my crazy e-mails and provides me with endless encouragement. Thank you, Michele. ~Amy
I had not wanted to go to the party. I hadn't even given it the least bit of thought ever since we received the invitation several weeks ago. The cream colored envelope had one day mysteriously appeared in our mailbox. Elizabeth had cried out with glee upon finding it. And I had promptly dismissed it with disinterest as I usually did when it came to these sorts of things. But, now the hour had finally come around and Elizabeth was insisting on my attendance. She said that if we did not at least put in an appearance, it would reflect poorly on our social graces. Our "social graces?" There were times when I really loathed Elizabeth's insistence for social propriety. As a result of her relentless goading and not so subtle hints, I found myself, against better judgment, traveling the half hour it took to get from our rustic cottage in the countryside to our aunt's gracious townhouse in Bath on a cold, winter's night.
"I really don't know why Papa insisted on that dreadfully dingy, old cabin," Elizabeth grumbled from behind the wheel. I didn't respond. I didn't think our cottage dingy or old. In fact, I found it quite the opposite. I thought it kind of warm and cozy. There was also something undeniably romantic about it, something Kellynch had never possessed, much as I loved our old home.
"The cabin is so frightfully cold in the winter time and it's so out of the way that we'll never have any visitors," Elizabeth prattled on. "I knew Papa should've taken the flat I absolutely adored in Bath, but no, he had to listen to you and remove us to that rickety, wooden-slatted cabin of yours."
Rickety, wooden-slatted cabin? I scoffed at my sister's scorn. She definitely needed to have her eyes checked. Our rickety, wooden-slatted cabin was constructed out of red bricks! It was hardly a cabin. It was a cottage and no amounts of wind could have blown that house down.
"It was bad enough having to leave Kellynch as we did and now we have to live amongst the dead too."
Elizabeth took her eyes away from the road for the briefest of moments to give me the death stare, the stare that would've turned even Medusa into stone and not the other way around. Had I been looking back at her or even cared, I might have done something equally rude like stick my tongue out at her, but as it was, I was lost in my own world, staring out the window into the night's black sky.
"I am so looking forward to this evening though. How kind and generous it was of Aunt D to think of us and invite us to her little soiree. Although, knowing Aunt D, the event will be anything but little!" Elizabeth giggled. Her voice began to surge with excitement as she driveled on about what she was expecting to encounter.
"Imagine all those people, crushed into one townhouse."
The mental image of a ton of over-ebullient, sweaty, drunken bodies all meshed into one townhouse made me shudder. Or even worse, what if there was a fire? Would we all get stuck in the stairwell and burn to death as we tried to rush out in a mob? There were times when I had to wonder about my sister's sensibilities. There were times when I had to wonder about my overactive imagination.
"It is so nice to have one's relative living near, especially a wealthy one. I do look forward to entering civilization again and meeting people. I can't believe we've been stuck in that cabin of yours for the past three weeks now."
Interestingly, it was the sudden silence in the car that made me turn away from the window. Elizabeth looked at me and I realized that she was expecting some sort of a reaction from me. What in the world had she been talking about? Counting on the large possibility that she had been complaining about something as she often did, I quickly and assuredly agreed, "Absolutely. I'm definitely with you on this one, Elizabeth. It's simply terrible." For added effect, I nodded my head too.
My comment earned me a rare smile from my sister. I had guessed correctly after all. I sighed with relief once Elizabeth continued with her monologue. "It is too bad that father came down with a cold. I know he wanted to accompany us. He did rally until the end, but it was no use. It would not do to have him sneezing over all of Aunt D's guests and food."
Father, sneezing over all the guests and food? Now that was a mental image I found rather amusing. What a shame he was at home and in bed.
"But oh, if only we did not have to rely on this sort of once in a blue moon act of kindness to get back into society. How I long to go to parties and be invited to dinner engagements. It is so unfair that while the rest of the world is amusing themselves nightly in Bath, we have to live in the backwoods of the country."
I did not dare point out to my sister that half an hour from Bath was hardly the backwoods of the country. I knew that to do so would have been a futile endeavor. On and on Elizabeth went, but I did not pay her too much attention. I was used to Elizabeth's complaints and ceaseless chatter. From the moment our father had come to us six months ago apprising us of our financial straits, Elizabeth's life had become one non-stop tirade. I had to give her credit though; she never gave the same complaint twice. She was very good at varying them and for that I was thankful. Sometimes it really was the small things in life.
Six months ago, our father had come to us and informed us of the sad truth. He had gambled all our money away. Not at the green baize tables with cards and dice of course, but with poor investments in the financial market. My father had never been very good at playing the money market, so why he did was always a mystery to me. But it interested him and with my mother long deceased, there was no one to temper him in his wastrel ways. Usually, he was pretty good about reining himself in and not getting carried away. But this time, he went too far and invested an obscene amount of money in a venture that proved to be a little more than disappointing.
I was grateful that our youngest sister had already married and in that sense left the family. At least one of us was saved from ruin. Mary had married a man almost five years ago, who was according to Elizabeth, the eldest son of a respectable family and stood to inherit a tidy sum upon the death of his parents. This meant that Elizabeth could go about society with her head held up high and announce to them that her youngest sister was Mrs. Charles Musgrove. Had you asked me what my opinion of the young man was, I would say that Charlie was a very good sort of a person who suited Mary perfectly. Indeed, only an easy-going person like Charlie could put up with all of Mary's paranoia and hypochondria. But in spite of all my sister's seemingly selfish ways, I truly did love her and wished her well. She had a happy home with a husband she loved and two sons she adored and for that I could well envy her.
My other sister, Elizabeth, the eldest of us three Elliot sisters, was however an entirely different matter. You could not have had two people more different than Elizabeth and me. Elizabeth was the paragon of female virtue, prim and proper and everything feminine. Even at the tender age of ten, she had sat daintily in the sitting room chair and happily presided over the age-old English tradition of tea and much to the delight of the polite society ladies, Elizabeth took great joy in pouring out cup after cup of tea for her guests and encouraging them to sample Cook's finest refreshments. I, on the other hand, was the disappointment of the family, the thorn on the bush, you might say. Infinitely preferring to traipse around the surrounding woods of our family estate or hide myself in the book-lined walls of the library to the social niceties of something like taking tea, my father had long given up on me with a shaking head. After all, hope was not all lost. He still had Elizabeth. With such womanly virtues to recommend my sister, you might wonder why it was then that she remained unmarried and living at home with her father. It was because of her scathing, biting tongue. For all her beauty, not even Elizabeth's golden hair, crystal blue eyes, pouting pink lips and alabaster skin could erase the critical and often hurtful remarks that escaped every time she opened her mouth. Admittedly, the one good thing about being Elizabeth's sister was that having lived with her for my entire life, I became impervious to her digging comments.
And then, there was me - the middle Elliot sister and the odd man out - me with the mousy brown hair and outrageous glasses that made my older sister shudder with distaste. "Why," she would complain, "do you refuse to get contact lenses, Anne? Your glasses hide your eyes and contact lenses would do wonders for your looks and certainly allow one to see more than half your face." Such a comment would more than likely be followed by an imperious sniff. But if you had not already guessed, I did not give a fig about how I looked or what my sister thought for that matter. I was happy with my casual, rumpled state and with my affinity for the outdoors and languid state, it was infinitely more convenient. I did not have to worry about staying clean and wrinkle-free like Elizabeth. To me, it seemed more practical for me to be me. It was a shame that Elizabeth couldn't see that, but then, she had always been impractical like that. In general, I was of a much more practical nature than Elizabeth. I think I took after my mother in that respect. Like my father, Elizabeth tended to enjoy the finer things of life. Conversely, I was happiest when things were simpler. And in hard times like these, it was good that at least one of us was realistic to recognize that we could no longer afford to live as we once used to.
With the help and persuasive powers of my mother's oldest and dearest friends, Matilda Russell, we had convinced my father to rent out his ancestral home and take up residence in a smaller home. He had at first, like Elizabeth, wanted to move to Bath. But the living quarters there were terribly expensive. I knew that if we ever wanted to recoup our losses, there was no way we could afford to live there. In the end, with a stroke of luck I suppose, I had managed to get father to see things my way. So, a few months ago, we packed up our things and took only those that we thought necessary and moved into a tiny cottage that was too far away from Bath in Elizabeth's opinion and just far away enough for me.
I rather enjoyed our little home, set apart from all others. It offered me the seclusion and privacy that I had always preferred. But I knew that for a person like Elizabeth, the house was a bore. And because I loved her, in spite of all her faults, I found myself caving into her whims and accompanying her to a party that was being thrown by our Aunt Dalrymple. I do not know what her parents were thinking when they named her Dalrymple, such a horrid name as it was. But thankfully we had always been taught to call her Aunt D. This was a result of me one day accidentally calling her Aunt Dairy when I was only four years old. Being likened to something akin to a cow was not something my aunt had appreciated. And while my mother had been amused, my father had been properly horrified. Fortunately for me, my aunt had been in a good mood that day and thoughtfully pronounced that henceforth, she was to be Aunt D to all her young nieces and nephews.
Aunt D, who was frightfully rich, was not in actual fact the sister of either my father or my mother. She was actually the domineering widow of a second cousin of somebody or other on my father's side. I can never keep the family tree straight, so complex and convoluted it is. But somehow, probably through all her riches and social influence, Aunt D had managed to become the matriarch of the entire Elliot clan so when she said, "Come," we went hither and when she said, "Go," we went thither. Tonight, she had said, "Come."
By the time we got to Aunt D's, the house was already more than half-filled. We cruised up and down the street in search of a parking space, but none were to be had. In the end, the only thing we could find was almost a mile away from Aunt D's front door. Never had I been happier to be admitted into a house than I was that night. It was freezing cold outside and listening to Elizabeth complain and marvel at the number of cars outside of Aunt D's house all at the same time had done nothing to warm my cockles.
"Have you ever seen anything like this?" Elizabeth asked, her eyes all ablaze, mirroring the lighted house in front of us, as we climbed the doorstep. "It's spectacular!"
"More like a waste of energy," I muttered.
Elizabeth's eyes flicked briefly to one of the windows on the second floor. "Oh," she squealed. "I'm sure that was Henry Rushworth's head that I saw moving away from the window. How positively exciting to be in such company," she gushed. "I dare say we will have the time of our lives tonight."
I rolled my eyes. "Undoubtedly."
The only thing remotely attractive about Henry Rushworth was his sizable bank account. Other than that, I found him to be a middle-aged portly man who never had anything of interest to say. That he still had a full head of hair was his second point of recommendation, I grudgingly conceded. But whether or not his head was full of anything else was up for contention.
By this time Aunt D's staid and ancient butler had admitted us, taken our coats from us and ushered us towards a second flight of stairs, informing us in his characteristic droll, monotone voice that the Missus was greeting her guests upstairs. As if we couldn't have figured that one out for ourselves!
I was happy to rid myself of the woolen gloves, hat, and scarf and even happier to get my coat off my back. Free from the cumbersome load, I felt instantly lighter. Elizabeth of course had not stopped chattering during the entire course of this task. Instead of a continuation of the marveling of the dinner party though, she had taken to giving me a few last minute instructions. Trust Elizabeth to worry about me turning the Elliot sisters into a bunch of social pariahs.
"Try not to prattle on about your stupid books tonight, Anne. For once in your life, you might want to try turning on some of your feminine charms - if you have any, that is. No man wants a bookish woman for a wife and for heavens sakes," she snapped, "stop drawing attention to your glasses by shoving them up your nose in that distasteful manner. It's bad enough that you insist on wearing them! I don't know what father and I are going to do about your nasty habits. How you expect to ever get married is beyond me. Your such a hopeless case!" She finished by throwing her hands exasperatedly up in the air.
I did not bother pointing out that like me, she was unmarried too, and she was two years older than me. My hand stopped mid-way to my face and immediately dropped back down to my side. It was a bad habit of mine, I suppose. But how else was I going rearrange my glasses? They also had a bad habit of falling forward at the most inopportune moments. Trying another method, I scrunched my face to push my glasses back into place.
Elizabeth groaned. "And definitely do not do that," she hissed.
I don't know who was more frustrated - her or me. "Anything else, dearest sister?" I asked with false sincerity dripping from every intonation of my voice.
Elizabeth knew it too and so narrowed her eyes to look at me, measuring me inch by inch with her gaze. I knew she was dying to rattle off a list of things I should not do but would probably do anyways over the course of the evening. To my surprise, she kept it all inside and instead she said, "No. Just be sure to mind your manners around Aunt D and greet her properly. It would not do risk her censure, especially considering how we depend on her now."
I nodded meekly because I knew that out of all the senseless things Elizabeth had said over the course of the day, that was actually the one true thing she had said thus far.
Aunt D was, as we had been forewarned, standing near the top of the staircase greeting her guests, so she was naturally the first person we saw upon reaching the landing. Overdressed as usual in a gold-colored dress with her puffy white hair piled high atop of her head and jewels bedecked around her neck, I thought I would die of suffocation as she clenched Elizabeth and me to her bosom and clamored loudly, "Oh, my dear girls! It is so good to see you again! My how you've grown since the last time I saw the two of you!"
My how you've grown? I raised my eyebrows. The last time I saw Aunt D was approximately three weeks ago when my family and I had attended a concert in Bath. Aunt D should've remembered considering that it was she who had invited us to the event as her guests. Not to mention, I was pretty sure that I hadn't grown an inch ever since my sudden, but short-lived grown spurt at age twelve.
"And your poor father, how is he?" she continued. "I was so sorry to hear of his illness, which prevented his accompanying you hear tonight. But I am so glad that you have come nonetheless."
I spluttered as Aunt D released us and took a deep breath. Big mistake. My airways were instantaneously clogged with the overpowering whiffs of Aunt D's perfume. What did she do? Poor the entire bottle on her person?
Elizabeth cast me a disapproving glance before she began to turn on her charms and simper, "You are too, too kind, Aunt D. We are, as always, ever so grateful for your invitation here tonight. Indeed father was most upset to have to decline. He was so looking forward to being in your magnificent company once again. We hope however that you will grace us with your presence as soon as father is well enough to receive visitors again."
Aunt D pursed her lips together considering the thought. It was obvious that the thought of going anywhere out of a mile radius from her home had never been heard of before. Aunt D was a woman used to having people come to her and not the other way around.
Ouch! Had Elizabeth actually kicked me just now on the back of my leg? I sighed and swallowed my pride good and hard. Having hacked up half my lungs and finally recovering, I immediately stepped in to extend the invitation as well. "Oh do, Aunt D," I cooed. "Ever since we left all our friends behind in Kellynch, Papa, Elizabeth, and I have been so desolate. We don't get to Bath nearly enough. A visit from you to our humble abode would do just the trick and raise all of our spirits. I know that our little cottage is nothing to your sumptuous home here, but a visit from you would make it that much more livable."
Flattery worked like a charm on our aunt, as I knew it would, and the next moment saw Aunt D condescending to make a trip sometime next week - whenever it was convenient for her, of course.
"Why of course, girls. When you put it like that, how could I refuse you? I suppose I should inspect your new quarters, being the matriarch of our family such as I am. I shall be delighted to call upon your father sometime next week." Satisfied with her show of charity and magnanimity, she then ushered us along. "Enjoy yourselves tonight, dearies. There are plenty of young, single men in our midst tonight and several of them uncommonly attractive and well off." Aunt D winked at us before turning around to greet her next guests.
Elizabeth was fairly glowing with delight, undoubtedly pleased with the interview. I, however, was ready to do a little more hacking and retching after all the sucking up that I had just stooped to. Not even the rare, grateful smile that my sister had bestowed upon me could take away the disgust that I had felt at lowering myself to Elizabeth's standards. But I sighed again. Sometimes one had to forfeit one's principles in order to get ahead in life. Right?
When I lifted my head from my stewing thoughts, my eyes encountered something I had never dared to dream about. I gasped audibly and felt the heat rising up my neck and spreading to my face. The room was already warm with the number of bodies milling about, but now it felt unbearably hot and stifled. I picked at the neck of my turtleneck sweater and wished I had worn something different tonight. Its woolen yarn was already scratching at my skin. At the time of my dressing, it had seemed like a good idea. It was a sweater Elizabeth hated because she thought the cut and brown color unfashionable and I had worn it to spite her, to taunt her for dragging me to this event. Now I was left regretting my choice.
Elizabeth stepped back at the sound of my gasp. Turning around, she looked at my flushed face with dismay. "Good God, Anne. Whatever is the matter? Are you all right?" For a minute there I had to really wonder if she was asking out of genuine concern or was afraid I'd be sick and have to leave.
I grasped helplessly for something to say. "I'm fine, Elizabeth. Perfectly fine. Just a little hot in here, don't you think?"
There was no way I was going to tell her that he was here. She did not even know who he was.
Anne narrowed her eyes at me, as she was wont to do whenever my actions irked her. A waiter happened to pass by us at that moment and she reached out, taking two flutes of bubbly champagne and shoved one in my direction. "Here, drink this. You'll feel much better."
I took the proffered flute appreciatively and grasped its stem firmly in one hand as I tipped it back and swallowed the liquid in gulps. The alcohol went to my head immediately and I reached out for the nearest thing to steady myself. I could feel Elizabeth's arm stiffen under my hand. Clearly she did not like being used as a cane.
"Are you all right now?" she asked tersely.
I dropped her arm like hot coals. "Yes. Thank you, Elizabeth. The champagne made me a little fuzzy there."
"Good," Elizabeth smiled thinly. "Now if you will excuse me I think I see some old friends of mine across the room. Enjoy yourself tonight sister and mind what I said downstairs." I nodded my head mutely. "I'll see you at the end of the evening," she finished.
As I watched my sister stalk away with her ramrod straight back I wished devilishly that I could take a pin to her. Wouldn't it be fun to see prim and proper Elizabeth doubling over and howling with pain? I imagined it would be something akin to deflating an oversized balloon, which was what I often thought her head to be. What a scene that would create! I laughed sinisterly.
Turning my head around, I again encountered the face that had first caused me to be so unsteady. It was like a dream, seeing him here again after all these years. Only I did not know if this was supposed to be a delightful or perverse sort of fantasy. I took another sip of my champagne as I watched him from afar. He had not noticed me and of course he wouldn't. His attentions were focused on other, nearer things, like the bevy of young chits that surrounded him, barely out of the nursery they were. My hand tightened around the glass stem as I watched them sparkle their eyes, laugh coquettishly and toss their heads in feminine allure. Silly chits. What did they know? I hoped they choked on whatever hors devours it was that they held in their hands and turned away, unable to stomach anymore.
I spotted my good friend Charlotte Lucas who had taken up residence in the far corner of the room, hidden from all but with a clear view of everyone else. Good girl. Charlotte and I were old friends who shared the same dislike for social functions. It was good to have a friend who understood how you felt and it gave us much to laugh over when we were subjected to nights like tonight. I did not hesitate to join her company, but not before I had my champagne glass refilled. I had a feeling it was going to be a long, long night.
Getting to Charlotte proved not to be such an easy task as I had imagined it would be. There were always people standing in the way who wanted to stop and have a quick tête-à-tête. I bore it as well and as politely as I possibly could, playing nice and smiling broadly. By the time Charlotte had come into plain sight, I had already taken to doing facial stretches.
"You'd better not let Elizabeth see you doing that," my friend called out, her eyes all starred over with twinkles of mirth. "She would be appalled!"
"Elizabeth would be more than appalled! She'd die of mortification," I smirked. "But don't get me started, Charlotte. Am I glad to see you, though!" Charlotte shifted over to the right on her little bench and made some room for me to sit down, which I gladly did. "I thought I was going to have to endure the wrath of tonight alone." I shuddered at the notion.
Charlotte shook her head. "No such luck, my dear. Mama was bent on having me out of the house tonight and I knew that if I didn't accept the invitation she would berate me the entire evening. I can just hear her now, 'Charlotte Lucas, I don't know how I'm ever going to get rid of you if you insist on languishing about the house every night like you do. Put on a dress, perk yourself up, and go catch a man for goodness sakes! I don't know what I ever did to deserve such a fate as this,' and off Mama would go with her fit of vapors and nerves. I refuse to feel guilty though. I mean, as if I would want to put on a dress, perk myself up, and go catch a man!" I giggled at the image of my friend all dolled up, batting her eyelashes at the nearest male. "The prospect of coming here did nothing to excite me either," Charlotte continued, "but under the circumstances, I think I chose the lesser of two evils."
I nodded my head understandingly. Charlotte cocked her head to one side and looked at me askance. "What about you, Anne? I confess I was a bit surprised to see you and Elizabeth walking up the stairs and hugging Mrs. Dalrymple. I thought you had sworn off soirees such as this. Not that I was the least bit unhappy to see you," she hastened to add. "Indeed I was most pleased that my favorite party-mocking friend was here and that I would not have to sit alone all night."
"You and I, we're like two peas in a pod, Char," I chuckled. "Like you, I also chose the lesser of two evils and came. Elizabeth was bent on coming and normally Father would come in my stead and they would leave me at home in peace. Unlike your mother, I think my family has given up on me!"
Charlotte rolled her eyes. "Lucky duck."
"But wouldn't you know, Papa had to go and catch a cold last week!"
Charlotte patted my hand sympathetically. "Unlucky duck."
"Yes," I sighed. "So, for a week I listened to Elizabeth lament for she knew that Papa would never let her travel so far, alone, and at night. The only way she'd be able to come was if I came too and in the end I shelved my resolve and caved. You know Elizabeth and her relentless determination. I dare say she'd be worse than your mother right now if we were still sitting at home."
"You poor thing," Charlotte clucked.
I shrugged my shoulders. "It's our lots in lives, I suppose. In any case, I was able to come and do my duty by sucking up to Aunt D and now I get to sit here with you. It has been a long time since I've seen you, Char."
Charlotte was not about to let my comment go unmentioned. "Yes," she began archly. "I did witness that display of... sucking up... as you call it and I must say, Anne, you're beginning to take after Elizabeth quite well."
"That is hardly a compliment."
"I didn't mean for it to be one."
We laughingly called truce after I threatened to empty the contents of my champagne flute onto her new dress.
A waiter walking by with a tray of hors devours caught my attention. I waylaid the penguin-suited waiter and in a fit of indecision, took both a mushroom canapé and spring roll from his tray. Popping the mushroom canapé into my mouth first, I swooned with delight. "Charlotte, you have got to try the canapé. It's simply delicious and will melt in your mouth."
"I don't like mushrooms," she wrinkled her nose.
I looked at my friend aghast. "How can you not like mushrooms?"
Charlotte ignored me and instead commanded, "Look at her."
"Look at who?" I asked before taking a bite of my spring roll. Ack! The spring roll was hot, piping hot! I started to fan my mouth, not that it was doing any good. I could feel the roof of my mouth burning already.
Charlotte immediately turned around in concern. "Take a sip of your champagne," she suggested.
Right. The champagne. Of course. I held up my glass in brief acknowledgment and sipped it. I grimaced. The champagne provided a brief reprieve, but warm champagne really was nasty. I would have to get a new glass the next time the waiter passed by us.
"Better?" I nodded my head. "Good," Charlotte continued. "Now look at her."
Finally able to use my mouth again, I ventured to ask at the risk of sounding like an idiot, "Who are we looking at?"
"Why, your sister of course, Anne!"
I groaned. "What is Elizabeth doing now?" Did I dare risk the embarrassment of taking a peep at what my sister was doing?
"Making a spectacle of herself."
I breathed a sigh of relief. "That is nothing out of the ordinary, Charlotte. Elizabeth is always making a spectacle out of herself. I've come to expect it, haven't you?" I asked before finishing off my spring roll. Frankly, I found my spring roll to be infinitely more interesting than Elizabeth. My spring roll was certainly tastier than Elizabeth.
"Yes, but look at who she's making a spectacle over," Charlotte intimated.
I looked up and almost choked on the second bite of the spring roll that I had just taken. My sister had joined the circle of girls surrounding him. What was Elizabeth doing? I watched in horror as she pressed a hand first to her bosom and then laid it calculatingly on his arm all the while laughing gaily at something he had said. I stuffed a fist in my mouth as I watched him look down with interest at my sister. I wanted to grab my sister's finger and wrangle it apart from her hand as she swayed it back and forth at him as if she were calling him a naughty boy. And then I narrowed my eyes.
Charlotte watched my reactions with great interest.
"He's a handsome fellow," she finally said.
It wasn't until a few seconds later that her words finally registered in my head. I pulled myself away and turned back to Charlotte. "I'm sorry. What did you say?"
She smothered a smile and took a sip of her champagne knowingly. "He's a handsome fellow."
I refused to comment and turned my attention back to him. Twisting my glass flute around and around absently in my hand, I finally asked. "Do you know why he's here?"
"No," Charlotte shook her head with mild amusement. "You know your aunt would hardly share, let alone consult her guest list with the likes of me, Anne."
Something in Charlotte's voice made me look at her. "No, of course not. I..." I didn't know what to say, so I finally said, "It was a rhetorical question, I suppose."
After a few more minutes of uncomfortable silence, I ventured to say, "I wonder how Aunt D knows him and why would she invite him here tonight?"
Charlotte cocked her head thoughtfully to one side. "I haven't been introduced to him yet, but I've seen him a lot around town lately. He seems to be invited to every party that I've unfortunately had to attend in the past couple of weeks."
"Really?" I tried to sound as blasé as I possibly could.
"Mm-Hm. He's the toast of the town and I hear he's considered to be quite the catch amongst the young ladies."
"Yes, so I noticed," I nodded wryly towards the not-so-small circle surrounding the man. Why was it that every time I looked over there the circle seemed to grow? What was this - a chia circle? Oh dear. I groaned audibly. Elizabeth was still making a fool of herself with him. I shook my head and wondered what her reaction would be if she knew the truth.
"Anne? Anne? Did you hear what I just said?"
Charlotte's jostling shook me out of my reveries. I grinned guiltily. "Sorry, Char. I seem to be out of sorts tonight. What was it you just said?"
"I said that his name is Frederick Wentworth and he has apparently recently returned from a stint in the navy. Rumor also has it that he recently came into a well-proportioned inheritance. An eccentric uncle or something like that who had no son and so passed his estate onto Mr. Wentworth at his passing."
I raised my eyebrows. "Rumor, huh?"
"Well, you know how society's tongues waggle."
"Not that you participate in it or anything like that."
"Hey, I'm just the news bearer."
Once again I didn't bother commenting. I had other things to think about. Like this new discovery of him being an heir. Somehow the thought of him living in a large house while I was now living in a tiny cottage struck me as ironic and quite frankly, it was also rather entertaining. Life was certainly full of tiny surprises.
As the bench started rocking I slowly became aware of Charlotte swinging her legs back and forth. Turning to her, I blurted out, "What?"
Charlotte stopped. "Nothing."
"Fine." It was not my place to pry, but clearly Charlotte was agitated. Why else would she be throwing her legs around like that? I could all but see the wheels churning in that brunette head of hers. It was my turn to narrow my eyes.
A few seconds later, Charlotte began, "Didn't you..." Her voice trailed off.
After a moment of silence, she began again, "Wasn't..."
"For goodness sakes, Charlotte, just ask your question already!"
Right at that precipitous moment, Elizabeth walked by. "Good heavens, Anne! Lower your voice," she reprimanded. "Do you want the whole room to know that you're drunk? Such scandalous behavior!"
"But I'm not drunk," I protested. Had I done something wrong? I mentally went over everything that had just taken place in the last fifteen minutes but couldn't come up with anything.
"Well then stop acting like a drunken lout," she admonished. "It's not befitting behavior of a young lady." Charlotte and I were left gaping in her wake.
"Where in the world did that come from?" Charlotte exhaled.
I wasn't sure, but I wondered if she hadn't suffered a set down at his hands. Elizabeth had a way of projecting her peevishness off onto people, especially when she felt that she had been insulted or rejected. Two things I had learned early on in life was to one, never ever, ever, ever cross my sister and two, to stay out of her warpath whenever she was irritated. Clearly I had just failed my mission in the latter.
"Anyways, where was I?" I asked.
"I don't remember," Charlotte answered slyly.
"Oh yes, I remember." She was not about to get off that easily. "You were wanting to ask me a question but for some reason was having a difficult time spitting out the question. Now, Char. You know there's no need to get all tongue-twisted and bent out of shape around me."
"Okay, fine." Charlotte took a deep breath. "I thought I recalled a time when you were involved with a Frederick Wentworth... was he... did you... is he... are you acquainted with that man over there?" she finally finished.
I tried to flick my eyes lazily and disinterestedly in his direction. It was no use. I could no longer support the false pretense that I did not care because the fact of the matter was, I did care. I cared a lot. I dropped my gaze and stared intently at my folded hands in my lap. Charlotte needed no other answer and reached over to squeeze my hands. I was grateful for her comforting gesture and smiled shyly at her. "It was a long time ago," I finally answered in the softest of soft voices.
"What happened, Anne?"
I leaned over the railing, looked down over the balcony, and took a moment to marvel at the beauty of the perfectly lined street lamps shining brightly like beacons in the darkness of the winter's night sky. Save these bright lights, there was no other source of illumination. Not even a star. I breathed in the heavy air and watched it turn to curls of white wisps as I breathed out. The biting wind didn't even bother me. Behind me Charlotte stood patiently, waiting for me to begin.
As soon as Charlotte had uttered those three tiny, but momentous words, the room had begun to close in on me and I knew that immediate escape was imperative. Charlotte had helped me up and together we now sought refuge on the empty balcony. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Charlotte shiver. Poor thing. I had been so absorbed with my own needs that I had neglected to see that she would probably want a coat. Indeed, I had no use of one. My cheeks were still flushed from earlier.
Still looking out, I heard my voice begin the tale of my one and only love - the experience that had left me heart-broken, empty, and all alone. Amazingly my voice remained calm and steady throughout until the end.
"It happened a long time ago. I was only sixteen at the time. Some people say that at that age, to know love is to only know what you think is love. But they're wrong. For those three months of my life, I knew something I never imagined I would ever know. It's what some people dream about for a lifetime and still never reach. I may have been only sixteen, but I knew true love when I saw it.
"Frederick and I met by chance, but I'd like to think it was fate. From the moment I first looked into his eyes, I knew we were destined for one another. We met in the unlikeliest of all places, in an open field with nothing but the artless skies and distant mounds serving as chaperones. Oh, Charlotte, I'll never forget that day nor how I felt upon first beholding him with my frightened and pained eyes."
Charlotte looked kind of confused and I knew I had to start my story somewhere else. "Oh, but where am I going with this? I suppose I should start from the beginning. Perhaps that would help you understand my story better."
Charlotte cleared her voice and then I heard her say, "That would be nice, Anne. I should like that."
I turned around to face her and leaned back against the cold, metal railing. "Perhaps you should fetch your coat. It's a long one."
"I'm fine. Pray continue," Charlotte entreated, hugging herself tightly. I shrugged my shoulders. If Charlotte didn't care that she was trembling from the evening's chill I wouldn't either.
"It was a glorious spring that year and I was sixteen," I began cautiously. "By all rights, I should've been the happiest girl in the entire world. But that was the year my mother died."
Charlotte nodded her head sympathetically in remembrance of that difficult period in my life.
"I was miserable and wanted nothing more than to be home, with my family. I wrote letters to Elizabeth practically begging her to take me away from school. But she would have none of it. She wrote back insisting that I was better off where I was. Everything was a muddle at home, she wrote and having me at school was one less worry on her mind. In time, she promised, she would fetch me home and we would be together again."
I could see the disapproving lines etched deep within Charlotte's face and knew immediately what she was thinking. "How utterly heartless," she spat.
To my surprise, I found myself coming to my sister's defenses. "On paper and in my mind, I knew she spoke the truth. There was nothing I could do and had I gone home, I would've been one more person afoot. Elizabeth, herself, was only nineteen at the time. She was accustomed to living the life of a carefree maiden, but overnight the weight of an entire household had fallen upon her shoulders. Her life was no easier than mine. In fact, it could be argued that she had even more responsibilities than me after our mother died. She now had to take care of a house and a family."
"Still..." Charlotte began.
"Still, it was hard," I agreed. "Though my head wanted to follow reason, my heart did not. I was alone in a boardinghouse and I had no one to comfort me. All of the sudden, I found my fellow classmates to be insipid, flighty things. I didn't understand how they could possibly care about the newest fashions or their latest beau when I had just lost my beloved mother. And worse, my headmistress thought the best way for me to overcome my sorrow would be to bury myself in my studies. She would not tolerate even the slightest hint of grief in my attitude."
"You poor thing!" Charlotte gasped with horror.
"It was... very hard," I admitted in a whisper, tiny teardrops forming at the brim of my eyes and threatening to fall.
"I wrote to my father thinking that surely he would able to see how much it mattered to me that I come home and share in their grief. What I got instead was something that at the time seemed like a death sentence." I laughed bitterly at the memory. "I don't know why I ever thought my father would be able to understand and sympathize. Father never had much sympathy for anyone but himself and probably Elizabeth too since they're so like one another. Mother was the understanding parent. I could always go to her for anything." I suddenly realized that I was about to go off on a wistful tangent about the merits of my mother and reined myself in.
"The day I received my father's letter was like the final blow. He absolutely refused to send for me and told me that I should abide by my Elizabeth's words for she had in essence become the mistress of our household in my mother's stead. Like her, he promised that he would in time send for me. I lost it after I read his letter. I was so angry I had to get away from everything. So, I slipped out of the house when my housemother was busy somewhere else and stole down to the stables. I took Buttercup out for a ride. You remember Buttercup, don't you?" Charlotte nodded her head.
Buttercup had been my horse so named because her hair had been of a golden-honey color. She had also been a birthday present from my mother when I was twelve years old. Unfortunately when my family's situation began to take a turn for the worse, the expensive upkeep of a horse had rendered her to be one of the first of our possession's to go. It had been difficult to part with her, but I had the satisfaction of at least seeing her placed with a good family in a home where there would be plenty of green pastures to keep her happy.
"I don't know if it was because I was in a hurry or if was angry, but whatever the reason I was most certainly distracted. I was so distracted that I failed to see that I hadn't properly secured my saddle. When I took Buttercup out, I rode her hard. I took out all my pent up frustrations and let them loose in the wind. I was just about to take a leap when all of the sudden my saddle moved and I lost my seat. The next thing I knew, I was sent tumbling to the ground."
"Oh my goodness. And you weren't killed?" Charlotte asked concernedly.
"No," I snorted. "Though I thought I had for a split second as I laid there looking up at the sky. But when I heard Buttercup canter back to my side, paw the ground and neigh, I knew that I had survived. My ankle however had not. When I tried to get up, I went sprawling back to the ground. You may imagine how I must have felt when I realized that I was alone in a field, with no prospect of anyone crossing my path, my only company a non-English speaking horse, and a swollen ankle."
"Oh dear, that is quite a predicament," Charlotte murmured.
"It was. Which is why when Frederick happened upon me moments later on his black stallion he was like a Knight in Shining Armor."
"How romantic," Charlotte enthused.
"Hardly. While it may have seemed like that at first, as soon as Frederick opened his mouth, it was anything but. Oh sure, he was most obliging. He got down from his horse, asked me if he could touch my ankle to ascertain for any damages and then made sure that I wasn't hurt in any other way."
"But that is romantic," Charlotte protested. "How can you say that it was anything but? He sounds like the perfect gentleman. I'm surprised you didn't swoon right there in his arms."
I smiled sardonically. "You know perfectly well Charlotte Lucas that I am not a swooning member of our sex. Besides, you should've heard what he said after all of that. Once he made sure that I was actually all right, he then lashed out at me!"
Charlotte's eyes flickered and I could see the surprise registering there. "Oh yes, Frederick Wentworth, a man I didn't even know, without a moment's hesitation, lit into me. What was it that he called me? Oh yes, how could I ever forget? He called me a heedless, impulsive girl who ought to be ashamed of myself. And for good measure, he also added in that it was no surprised I had taken a tumble the way I was riding so recklessly and I think it took all his self-restraint from adding in, 'and it serves you right.' Yes, my Knight in Shining Armor had turned into a complete ogre. I don't know what was more distressing. My burning ankle or my disappointment in fantasy." Even now, amidst the pain of the past, I had to laugh at the memory.
"So, Frederick had seen you and come after you?"
"Oh yes. It was all by chance, really. He had also gone out for a ride that afternoon, seen me racing across the fields and then fall gracelessly to the ground. I suppose I never saw him because I was too caught up in my own thoughts. Anyhow, after he yelled at me until he could yell no more, I broke down into tears. It was too much, you see. First my mother's death, then my father's letter, and now a perfect stranger was scolding me as if I were no more than a child of six. My tears must've set off some twinge of remorse within the man for the next thing I knew, I was being encased within his arms. There were two things that struck me as odd right at that moment. The first was that since the night I learned of my mother's passing, I had not cried again up until that afternoon. The second was how comfortable and right I felt being held by Frederick." I sighed longingly.
"He carried me back to the stables, which was no easy feat considering the distance and after I received medical attention, he then saw me back to the boardinghouse. He was so kind and so attentive. He never once said another word against me. The next day he brought me flowers and checked up on me. The following day he brought me a book."
"Pride and Prejudice?" Charlotte guessed.
"Yes, it was my favorite novel, so Frederick bought me a copy. How did you know?" I asked surprised.
"I have seen that well-worn book of yours by your bedside many times. I also know that you never let it out of your sight, taking it with you everywhere you travel."
I nodded. "That book carries many fond memories with it. I have always loved the story, but now I love it even more. Frederick came everyday after his first visit and we often read from the book together."
"Oh, Anne," Charlotte breathed.
I looked down and picked at the imaginary lint caught on the hem of my sweater. "He was so sweet and kind. Generous and thoughtful. Patient and understanding. He was the man that every girl dreams of at night. One day, when I was feeling stronger, he carried me outside and we sat in the garden. I opened up my heart that day and told him all about Mother's death and Elizabeth and Father not letting me come home. I'll never forget the way he held my hand as I told him and the way he pulled me into his arms after I was finished, cradling me against his chest. I felt so much better after I told him everything. Frederick was wonderful though. He never brought the subject up again; instead we talked of other things. Our interests, our hopes and dreams. Frederick let me deal with my grief and mourning on my own time. After I was able to walk again, we'd go for long, long walks. Sometimes I'd talk about Mother and how much I missed her. He always looked at me with such warmth and compassion. It always made me feel so much better and one day, I finally realized why. For the first time since my mother's death, I didn't feel alone anymore."
"Three months later, it finally happened. Elizabeth wrote to my headmistress and informed her that I was being taken out of school to return home to be with my family. My bags were packed and a car was sent. Frederick came to say good-bye. I cried and cried. It was amazing how much could change in three months. I'd wanted to go home for so long, but now that the time had come, I wanted nothing more than to remain where I was. I wanted to be with someone who loved me and cared about me and not with a family who wouldn't even know the difference if I were sitting in the room or not. But I had been summoned and I had no choice. When Frederick handed me into the car, he leaned over to kiss my hand and then he promised that he'd come see me as soon as possible. I begged him to make it no more than a week. Frederick had never been able to deny me anything and he said, 'All right then, a week. In a week, Annie, you shall find me on your doorstep.' It was the only thing that had brought a smile to my face on that tearful day."
"Annie, huh?" Charlotte asked. I could see her trying to hide a smirk with little success. Even at a time like this, Charlotte couldn't help herself. The first and last time Charlotte had ever tried to call me "Annie," I had clobbered her and told her in no uncertain terms that my name was "Anne," and not, "Annie."
"It was his pet name for me," I shamefully admitted. At Charlotte's roll of the eyes, I protested. "It sounded different coming from him than it did from you. In fact, it sounded better... sweeter." The eyes rolled again and this time Charlotte didn't even try to hid her smirk.
"Anyways," I continued, "The last thing I saw as the car pulled away was not the milieu of friends that had gathered around to bid me farewell, nor my headmistress standing tall and erect as always. I didn't even take note of the house where I had lived for the past three years. The only thing I saw was Frederick, standing there with a forlorn face and a hand held up as if to stay good-bye."
"Wow? What happened then?" Charlotte was completely enthralled in my story by now and truth be told, so was I. I had never told anyone the whole of my history with Frederick up until tonight.
"It was the last time I ever saw him," I answered simply.
I nodded my head and then turned around to look back out into the bleak distance. "I went home and tried to be a dutiful daughter. I didn't really have a place in the family though. Elizabeth was preoccupied with running the house, my Father was busy with his business, and Mary was far more content to pore over medical books and drum up some newfound disease with which she might be afflicted than spending time with her older sister. There were times when it seemed as though I didn't exist. I doubted whether or not it really mattered if I was home. And one day, I foolishly aired my sentiments. Ever since I'd arrived home, I'd taken to sitting at the window by the upper landing every afternoon so that I would be the first to see Frederick coming down the driveway to call on us, on me. On my fourth afternoon home, Elizabeth happened upon me and asked me what I was doing, sitting idly there. I can still remember the disdain in her voice. 'Anne, haven't you anything better to do than loll about all afternoon? Surely you might make yourself useful. I can't do everything around here now that Mama is gone, you know.' I was so angry and hurt by her words and by the way I'd been treated ever since I had arrived home that I told her so. She reminded me that I had been the one fairly begging to return home. Defiantly, I told Elizabeth that I would rather be at school than be a stranger in my own home. She laughed cruelly at me and said that I'd be a stranger at school too. She told me that I was one of those people that no one ever noticed, but it was all right because the world needed people like me."
I interrupted Charlotte before she could complete her thought. "Haughtily, I told Elizabeth that she couldn't be more wrong. She demanded an explanation, so I naively told her. I told her about Frederick and how we loved one another. She looked skeptical, but I insisted and in doing so, told her everything. Everything included the fact that he and his siblings were essentially orphans, both parents having died in a car accident several years earlier. Elizabeth was practically horrified when she learned that I had fallen in love with a pauper. I tried to tell her that I didn't care, that it didn't matter whether he had a bank full of money or not, and that I wanted to be with him, but Elizabeth would have none of it. She went to Papa immediately. His furor was nothing in comparison to Elizabeth's."
"You poor thing," Charlotte murmured. "What happened next?"
I swallowed hard before continuing. "He made me write a letter. It was the hardest letter I've ever had to write, but I had no choice. Papa said that I could either write it or be an outcast. I didn't want to go against my family nor did I want to disappoint my father. I know I shouldn't have, but at the time, I didn't know what else to do."
"Of course you didn't," Charlotte soothed comfortingly. She came over and stood beside me, but my shame prevented me from turning and matching her gaze. "You were only sixteen, Anne," she reasoned. "You were young, you were placed in a difficult position, and you loved your family very much in spite of all their faults. No one could blame you for the choice you made."
"Frederick did," I whispered.
"What happened?" Charlotte encouraged.
"Papa stood over me and dictated every word. Tears kept rolling down my face, but every time one fell and made a blot on the paper, Papa would snatch it away and make me start all over again. Over and over I had to write, telling Frederick that the last three months had been one big mistake and that I didn't really love him. I was young and I had persuaded myself to think I was in love. Finally when the trashcan was practically overflowing, I could bear it no more and I swallowed every tear so that I could just be done with my task. In the end, I wrote that I no longer wanted to see him again and that he would never be welcome in my home. The letter. It was so cold, so impersonal, and so harsh. When he came exactly a week after I had left him. They wouldn't let me out of my room. I heard him enter my father's library and five minutes later I heard him storming out of the house. When I dared to peek out of my window, Frederick had already started his car and was revving up the engine. As his car pulled away and roared down the driveway, tiny scraps of paper billowed in the wind."
"You're letter?" Charlotte asked.
"Torn up in shreds," I confirmed. "I think I cried harder watching his car leave than I did when my mother died. This time, you see, I really was left all alone. My heart was broken, but I had cried the last of my tears. From that day on, I ceased caring about anything else in the world."
"How horrible. Surely Frederick couldn't have believed that you would write such a thing!"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Why ever not? He had no reason to believe that I hadn't. The letter was written in my own hand. My father told him that I was a fickle thing, too young to know my own mind. And he had his own pride too. He was hurt and he needed to blame someone. I don't blame him. Had I been stronger, I would've found a way to defy my father and sister. I would've run away with him or done something else. Instead, I let my father dictate my actions. I was weak."
"You were sixteen," Charlotte pointed out. "What other choice did you have?"
"What does it matter?" I asked glumly. "Frederick was mad at me and I never saw him again. Years later, I heard from an old schoolmate of mine that he had entered the navy soon after the incident." By this point, I was shaking so hard I could barely speak. Charlotte made a motion to come to me, but I waved her off. "I, I couldn't bear the thought of him leaving and thinking ill of me. So, I wrote him a letter, telling him the truth, explaining everything. I don't know what I was hoping for. I told myself that I just wanted him to know the truth. But I think that deep down, I was hoping he'd come running back to me or give me some sort of a sign that he still cared, that, at the very least, he'd forgiven me. I never heard from him though. I knew then that Frederick was still angry with me and would never forgive me. And the worst part about it all was there was nothing I could do about it."
I finished my story in an impassioned tone. However, it did not fool Charlotte for a minute and she came forward to touch my arms gently, but firmly. I turned around and in an impromptu gesture buried myself in her open embrace. The tears that I had never shed over my loss now came in a torrential downpour as I finally gave outlet to my bottled emotions.
Charlotte held me tightly until the shaking and the tears had finally subsided. Coughing and spluttering, I had to laugh at myself once more. "Look at me. I'm such a mess." I tried swiping at my eyes and my face, but nothing helped. My hands were as wet as my face.
Charlotte pulled a handkerchief from somewhere deep in her pocket and offered it to me. "Here, take this."
I blew hard and thanked her for it. "It was a shock you know. Coming here tonight and seeing him there, surrounded by all those gimlets. He's still as handsome as ever," I sighed and confessed.
"Those gimlets included your sister at one point," Charlotte observed.
"I know. And it was pretty amusing to watch her fawn over a man she had once denounced as not good enough for our family."
I shook my head. "No, Elizabeth never knew his name nor did she ever see his face. Only Father dealt with him that day. To her, Frederick Wentworth is the rich heir she has just met for the first time tonight."
"That's so despicable, so gross, so..." Charlotte searched for the right adjective but couldn't come up with it.
"So mercenary?" I finished for her. Charlotte nodded mutely. "What can you expect? This is Elizabeth we're talking about."
"What are you going to do Anne?"
"What can I do? You know my sister. Elizabeth's been like that ever since she was out of her diapers. There's no use trying to change her. Goodness knows Mother tried and might have succeeded had she lived a few years longer, but she didn't."
"No, Anne. I mean about... Frederick."
I knew Charlotte hadn't been talking about Elizabeth. But I had purposely misunderstood her question. I didn't know how to answer her question. What was I going to do about him? Was there anything I could do? I had tried once before, did I dare try again? But why would I want to do anything? That was a long time ago. Frederick was a long time ago. That was the past; it had nothing to do with me anymore. Right?
And then in a lightning's flash I figured it all out. It wasn't so much that Frederick was present at the same party I had attended. I just didn't want to know. I had spent all these years thinking about him, pondering over how things could've been or should've been. For years I would spend every night laying awake in bed wondering if he thought about me in the same way I still thought about him. And now, he was at the tip of my fingertips and if I poked hard enough, I could have my answer. But I was afraid. I was afraid to know the truth. I shook my head as the weight of the world came crashing down upon my shoulders and my chest. I began to panic. I could feel the air being squelched from my lungs. I had to get out of the party fast. Now. I could not be in this place anymore knowing that at any moment I could find out that Frederick no longer cared for me as I cared about him.
"I'm so sorry, Charlotte. Forgive me. I have to go."
I had startled her; my sudden eagerness to leave was unexpected. "Pray make my excuses for me and tell Elizabeth that I took the car home. You can give her a ride home can't you?" I didn't even bother waiting for an answer; I just kept on going. "You're the best, Char. Thanks!" I rushed back into the room before Charlotte could stop me, not that she didn't try.
"Wait! Anne, come back! You're not fit to be driving right now! Come back! If you want to leave I'll take you!" I could practically hear her jumping up and down with frustration and concern, trying to flag me down behind my back.
I was already halfway across the room by that point though. Everything was a blur at that moment and I wasn't about to stop for anything, so it was a good thing that all the guests had thoughtfully cleared a pathway for me. Imagine Elizabeth's horror if I had tripped over all of Aunt D's guests. And why in the world at a time like this was I thinking about my damned sister and what she thought?
I fled down the stairs, barely keeping myself from tripping over and making a complete fool out of myself. Having reached my destination at last, I reached for my coat. I was just about to whirl it around my shoulders when something caught at my arm. I twirled around, fully prepared to face Charlotte and tell her to go away when I came face to face with an expansive chest. Shocked and stunned, I took a step backwards and bit back the remark perched on the tip of my tongue.
I looked up. I found my eyes swimming in a pool of chocolate and stumbled. Only the strong hands that had not let my arm go kept me upright. Was it normal for my body to feel tingly all over? My mouth had become suddenly dry and I licked my lips unconsciously. Finally, I managed to stammer out a squeaking "Hello."
Dismayed, I realized that it had amounted to nothing more than a whisper though seconds later it ceased to matter. For right then, Frederick chose that moment to say the words I had waited ten years to hear.
In his clear, melodious voice - the voice I had never forgotten even in my dreams - he pleaded with me, "Please. Don't go, Annie."
Annie. Frederick Wentworth had just called me Annie. In that flash of a second, I suddenly saw my entire future ahead of me and when I looked up, I gave him a smile of my own.