Posted on 2008-12-31
It was a dark and stormy evening. The wind had been howling for hours, making progress difficult. It was a wretched time to travel, but what else could be done? Lady Russell had promised to bring Anne to her father's after Christmas, and Lady Russell never went back on her word.
Still, it was a dismal way for Anne to end the year, squeezed into the Musgrove's traveling coach between Mrs Musgrove and Old Sarah, the Musgrove's nurse. Young Master Harry, a robust boy of eight, slept across their laps. Indeed, it was because of Master Harry that Mrs Musgrove was traveling to Bath at all. Harry had a toothache, and with Mr Robinson away, Mrs Musgrove insisted on bringing Harry to Bath to have the tooth drawn.
"What are sixty miles of good road?" Mrs Musgrove had said to her husband, who was not in favor of the idea. "And what could be better than to follow Lady Russell's coach?" That had cinched it. If Lady Russell had reservations about this scheme, she kept them to herself. And so, slightly before dawn on New Year's Eve, the party had set out for Bath.
Unfortunately, at the bottom of Quantock Hill, the axle of Lady Russell's traveling coach splintered. And so the passengers were forced to combine. Anne found herself in an intolerable squeeze, with no relief in sight.
"Traveling coaches," said Mary, for perhaps the tenth time, "were not meant to accommodate seven persons. Or they would be, if the persons were of moderate size."
This remark, Anne knew, was aimed at Mrs Musgrove and Old Sarah.
"Hold your tongue, Mary," murmured Lady Russell. "Grumbling only makes things worse."
Mrs Musgrove bristled. "I'll have you know that my sweet Harry is no trouble at all," she said. "You would have done better to remain at home, Mary."
As if on cue, Harry stirred. "I'm hungry, Mama," he complained. "I really am."
Old Sarah wrenched a bag of horehound candy from her pocket. "Here you are, love," she murmured, and passed it to him.
Harry made a grab for the bag, planting an elbow into Anne's stomach. "Goodie!" he shouted, and thrust a fist into the bag. He stuffed a handful of candies into his mouth.
Mrs Musgrove reached over Anne and retrieved the bag. "Save some for later, dearie," she cooed. "Miss Anne, would you mind?"
Anne found herself the unwilling recipient of the crumpled, somewhat sticky paper bag. She held it as far from Harry as she could, but his beady eyes watched her every move. Soon enough, she knew, he would make another lunge for it.
And it was so wretchedly cold. The tan kid gloves she wore were woefully inadequate. Every muscle in her body ached.
"I do wish we could go faster," said Mary, speaking Anne's thought. "And so we would, if old Nigel wasn't a shirker."
"He is no such thing," said Mrs Musgrove. "None of my servants are shirkers. Whereas yours ..." She stopped herself, then said in a milder tone, "This is no time to brangle about Jemimah's slothful habits."
"My nurserymaid is not slothful!"
Lady Russell turned from the window. Her face was drawn. "That will be quite enough, Mary! I daresay we are traveling as fast as we are able. We must not risk another accident."
"Recollect, too, that the coachmen are traveling outside," added Anne. "They will welcome the warmth of the White Hart even more than you will."
Mary shrugged "I rather doubt that," she said, "as I am halfway to being frozen to death. Men such as Nigel always travel outside. They are used to the cold."
Lady Russell brought out a handkerchief and wiped the window glass. "Why," she said, "I believe it is snowing."
Harry sat up again; his knee knocked Anne in the chin. "Goodie!" he cried. "Let me out! I want to play in the snow!"
"Gently, dearest," said Mrs Musgrove. She patted his arm. "You lie down and enjoy your candy."
"What else can go wrong?" wailed Mary.
"We passed through Bristol some time ago," said Anne. "Surely we must be almost to Bath."
Mrs Musgrove gave her son's cheek a squeeze. "There now, do you hear? Soon you'll have a room of your own and a nice cup of chocolate."
Mentioning chocolate was a mistake. Harry made another grab for the bag of candies. Anne was weary of being pummeled by his flailing limbs. She let him have it, sighing heavily. Would this nightmare journey never end?
I suppose it is snowing in Lyme too, she thought. Although he is probably quite snug. Dining with the Harvilles, no doubt. Anne closed her eyes, thinking of the Harvilles and their warm, heartfelt hospitality. She could picture them tonight, laughing together, gathered before a cheerful fire. If only she and Frederick---
Anne caught herself. It would not do to think about Frederick Wentworth. Or how wonderful it would be to ring in the New Year by his side. He had made his opinion perfectly clear. They were parted forever.
Tears welled in Anne's eyes. She hastily brushed them away.
And besides, now that Louisa was better, Frederick had gone to Shropshire, hadn't he? At least, that's what she thought Mary had said. A glance at her sister's face told her that this was not the time to ask about Frederick.
Apparently Mary had been indulging in daydreams of her own. "A lovely warm bath and supper by the fire," she said. "Anne, do you recall how many bedchambers Father's house has?"
Anne found her voice. "Four, I believe. Dear me, I wonder what he will say when we arrive?"
"He will behave just as he ought and invite you to stay," said Lady Russell. "Good gracious, Anne, are you thinking he would turn you away? And on such a night as this?"
"No, but ..." Anne hesitated, then said softly, "I do not believe he was expecting us so soon after Christmas."
"Fiddlesticks!" said Lady Russell. "Your father will be delighted to see you!"
Anne knew better, but she could hardly say so to Lady Russell.
Sir Walter Elliot studied his reflection in the mirror above the dining room mantle. He felt his lips curve into a smile. He quickly mastered the impulse. He'd learned of late that it was not in the best of taste to smile at one's own image. And yet, what other response could he have? His new man, Roberts, had arranged his hair to perfection, and as for his wine-colored waistcoat...
Sir Walter's fingers moved to caress the fine, embossed silk. The smile threatened once again. This time Sir Walter allowed it.
"My dear," he called to his daughter, Elizabeth, "wasn't it fortunate that I chose this particular shade? Could anything be more perfect for the season? Festive, I call it. Just the thing for a party."
Elizabeth did not answer. She was staring out of the drawing room windows. "Two hours, with no sign of letting up!" she said at last. "It would snow tonight."
Penelope Clay, who was never at a loss, spoke up. "Why, my dear sir," she said, "your attire is so fine that ... that I believe even Father Christmas would be envious!"
Sir Walter's smile disappeared. "Father Christmas?" he cried. "I look nothing at all like Father Christmas!"
Mrs Clay's cheeks reddened. "I beg your pardon, sir! I meant only that the color of your fine waistcoat reminds me of Father Christmas."
Elizabeth turned from the window. "Don't be ridiculous, Penelope," she said. "Father Christmas wears green, not red."
Mrs Clay's hand crept to her breast. "Good gracious, you are quite right, Miss Elliot. Of what was I thinking? And Father Christmas wears a long, fur-trimmed cloak, does he not?"
"Rabbit fur, I daresay," said Sir Walter, with a sniff. "Paltry fellow. A gentleman of rank would wear ermine."
"Who said Father Christmas was a gentleman?" said Elizabeth. "Honestly, Father. Where do you get these ideas?" She resumed watching the snow. "There must be at least four inches now. Only a fool would venture out in this storm. Our card party is ruined."
Sir Walter said nothing. He was back at the mirror again, this time eyeing his midsection. "You don't think," he said to Mrs Clay, "that my figure resembles his?"
"Whose figure do you mean, dear sir?"
"Of course not! Why, Father Christmas is a podgy old fellow. Whereas you, Sir Walter, have the figure of a fine young man!"
Sir Walter's chest expanded. He puffed out his cheeks. "We Elliots pride ourselves on our figures."
"And," continued Mrs Clay, "although you haven't any whiskers, I daresay you would look very well wearing a crown of holly."
"In that case," snapped Elizabeth, "he'd look rather like Bacchus. Really, Penelope. Where do you get these ideas?" Elizabeth came away from the window scowling. "There, do you hear? The doorbell. And yet, there is no carriage below. You know what that means."
Sure enough, the butler came in with a card. Sir Walter studied it with a sinking heart. "Sir Clifton Farley sends his regrets," he said. He turned to Elizabeth. "How many guests have not responded?"
"Only three remain." Elizabeth's smile was forced. She took up a silver platter and held it out. "Here. Have a salmon canapé."
Sir Walter cast his gaze to the ceiling. "How can you think of food at a time like this?"
"Or," continued Elizabeth, "perhaps you would prefer to sample the gourmandise with one of these little crackers? Oh, I know. Have some caviar." She gestured to the dish on its bed of ice. "It will be quite spoiled by morning."
This brought Mrs Clay. "Oh, Miss Elliot!" she breathed. "Honest-to-goodness caviar. Served with a mother-of-pearl spoon! How ... spanking!"
Sir Walter's brows went up. "I should hope so. To give caviar is to honor the recipient. To serve caviar is to honor the guest," he quoted. "And as we intend to get on in Bath, it must be made known to all that at our card parties, we serve only the best."
Mrs Clay took up a plate, spread some caviar on a cracker, and brought it to Sir Walter. "On New Year's Eve at our house," she confided, "Mother serves a special treat: Angles on Horseback. Shall we be doing the same, sir?"
His brows went up. "Serve what?" he demanded.
"Angels on Horseback. You know, sir. Chicken livers and bacon, all wrapped up and served on little crackers, like these. They are most delicious."
"No," he said crushingly. "I do not know."
Her smile slipped. "I daresay it might not be the fashion in Bath."
Sir Walter put up his chin. "I should hope not."
The doorbell sounded again. Elizabeth ran to the window. "Oh ... blast!" she cried. "Another refusal!"
And so it was. Sir Walter sighed as he lifted the card from Burton's tray.
"Well?" Elizabeth's voice was laced with bitterness.
Sir Walter sighed again. "The Honorable Mr Sheadon and his wife send their regrets."
"So, one guest remains! And a fine fellow he is. Our cousin, Mr Elliot."
"Oh, Miss Elliot, how can you take that tone? Your cousin is so charming! So conversant! And," Mrs Clay added, "so very good-looking."
"But he is unknown in Bath society, Penelope, that is the point. So his presence here accomplishes nothing."
"Still, he is better than no one." Sir Walter hunted for his handkerchief. "And if Mr Elliot does not come, why, all this expensive food will go to waste!"
Mrs Clay reached for a plate. "In that case," she said helpfully, "I believe I'll have a bit of the caviar." And she took a generous spoonful.
Meanwhile, the Musgrove coach was traversing the streets on Bath in search of shelter. The manager of the White Hart had wrung his hands and apologized profusely---but there was nothing he could do. This wretched weather! The snowstorm had stranded so many! There simply was no room for the Musgroves.
And so, the travelers got back into the coach and went on. The situation was the same at every inn: No Room.
"This is preposterous!" cried Mary. "Surely there is a vacancy somewhere!"
"In a stable, perhaps?" Anne spoke quietly. She had been thinking of another family, out in the cold on a winter's night like this. She could not imagine what would it have been like to give birth to a child in such a circumstance.
"My tooth hurts," moaned Harry. "It really does."
"Well." Mary spoke over Mrs Musgrove's cooing. "The Musgroves will have to stay with you, Lady Russell. What a very good thing that Longwell and Ruth came yesterday."
Lady Russell drew a long breath. She let down the window told Nigel to drive to her house.
His response was not encouraging. He had been talking it over with her coachman, and they both agreed that there was no way the coach could make it up to Rivers Street. It would have to be Sir Walter's house on Camden Place. "But only if the sleet lets up," Nigel added.
"Sleet?" cried Lady Russell.
The travelers were struck to silence, even Harry. And then they heard it: Sleet was bouncing off the roof of the coach.
"The streets'll be icing over any minute now," Nigel remarked. "If they haven't already. Who knows what's been happening on those hills?"
Mrs Musgrove got up and pushed her way to the window. "Then we must hurry!" she cried. "What are you waiting for?"
She plumped down heavily. Anne slid out of the way just in time, smash against the window. As the coach lurched forward, she pressed her face to the glass. By the light of a streetlamp she could see the falling snow. A solitary figure strode along the street. Something about his gait looked familiar. Anne caught her breath.
No, surely not, she told herself. Her mind was playing tricks on her--a result of cold and exhaustion, no doubt. Any tall, well-built man would resemble Frederick. Again, the cozy scene at the Harville's fireside rose tauntingly in her imagination. A glass of punch in her hand; Frederick's arm comfortably around her waist; the music of his laughter as they conversed together ...
"Oh, Frederick," whispered Anne.
The coach rounded a corner, sliding on the slick, snow-covered cobbles. Mary whimpered, and so did Master Harry. There was a tug and a bump. Slowly it began to ascend the hill.
Mrs Musgrove's hand tugged at her sleeve. "Miss Anne," she said, gasping, "pray tell Nigel to be more careful! He'll overturn the coach!"
Anne's frozen fingers worked to unfasten the latch , but without success. She removed her gloves and tried again. This time the window glass came down with a shudder. She obediently leaned out. Sleet mixed with snow stung her face. "Nigel," she called out. Her voice was swallowed by the sharp wind.
"Must you let in all that snow, Anne?" cried Mary. "Have you no consideration?"
Frederick Wentworth crossed the street, dropped his sea bag and looked around. The trip to Bath from Shropshire had been a shambles. The weather had succeeded in working against him at every turn. Between the dreadful condition of the roads and the packed coaching inns, with their shortages of rooms and food, there had been very few moments of comfort during the journey. But it was the dreadful behaviour of his fellow passengers that had worn on him the most. Though it was one of the coldest winters on record, it was almost a pleasure to be standing alone on the street without any of his fellow men, or women, to keep him company.
He blinked to keep the tiny stones of sleet from his eyes as he wondered what it was about the holidays that brought out the worst in humankind. The wind swirled viciously around him and the street lamp under which he stood. All his efforts at warmth were useless. The cold had long ago found its way through the heavy wool of his boat cloak, his feet were numb, and he knew with certainty that his countenance had frozen into a deep scowl.
As he stood under the street lamp searching his pockets, he muttered, "Their address is here somewhere." He dug in the pockets of his blue and gold coat. He checked the watch pocket in his waistcoat. He even took off his woollen gloves thinking he may have slipped the scrap of paper there. Just as he was about to open the sea bag he carried, he remembered.
"Bloody Hades!" A couple was walking by, braced against the extraordinary storm. His outburst slowed them for an instant. When they seemed sure he was not going to do violence to them, they pulled their cloaks closer and hurried by faster.
When he'd gotten out of the carriage at the coaching station, the beastly behaviour of his coach-fellows was more raucous than before. He stood away from the melee and waited until the barbarians were served and departed the scene. It was then he gave the slip of paper with the address of his sister to the man so that his sea chest might be delivered. He now lamented not taking the driver's offer of a ride. Frederick had longed for quiet and a drink. He now had the former but was still without the latter.
Just as he was about to hoist the bag to his shoulder, he saw a carriage coming into the light of the lamp. Someone was leaning out the window. "It cannot be." He knew Anne was to be in Bath after Christmas, but was unprepared to see her just now.
The carriage passed without her seeing him.
Frederick snatched the bag and began to follow.
It was simple to follow the tracks of the carriage. The snow was fresh and there was little traffic to confuse the trail. This was fortunate as he had lost sight of the carriage itself in a series of sharp, narrow streets. For a moment he was disoriented and not able to see much.
It occurred to him that while the chase had warmed him considerable, and apparently lightened his mood---his jaw no longer felt as though it was a canvas sail pressed to the breaking in a hurricane---he was perhaps allowing himself to partake in a fool's errand. His trip to Bath had been precipitated by the news of his freedom from Louisa Musgrove, not by any news that Anne Elliot's feelings were any tenderer towards him now than they had been earlier in the year.
She might not care for me, he thought, but she is kindness itself and will surely take pity and give me directions to my sister's house.
He knelt and touched the frozen whiteness surrounding his feet. At times, the best view of stars was to be had by not looking directly at them. He glanced up and down the street. "Ah ha!" The trick of the eye worked and he was able to pick up the trail once more.
The tracks of the carriage merged with other tracks on what was obviously a main thoroughfare. He pushed on, hoping that they did not turn off onto a side street. Frederick looked ahead and saw the carriage, a seemingly endless line of passengers emerging and gathering at the door of a fine townhouse.
A small boy ran from the group and fell in the street. He howled and kicked his feet. Anne came away to help him up. He went limp and forced her to pick him up, almost causing her to fall.
Frederick stepped forward, but as quickly drew back when he saw Anne catch herself and put the boy right. The boy scampered off the join the others. She stood unmoving, watching the icy rain. He was again tempted to come out from hiding.
It was her sister, Mrs Charles. She said nothing and moved to join them. Frederick looked over the group and reconsidered revealing himself. There was Mrs Musgrove wrestling with the little tartar, which he could then identify as Master Harry. The boy yanked free and bumped into Lady Russell. Considering his behaviour of the past few weeks, and the ladies making up the group, he knew there would be no cheers if he were to make an appearance. At least he had gotten warmed up.
Sir Walter stood at the head of the stairs, staring in dismay at the group that filled his entrance hall. And ... what was this? Luggage was being brought in and deposited in the corner, bold as you please!
Sir Walter attempted to issue a reprimand, but could not find his voice. Who were these people? Was he being invaded by gypsies?
"Thank God!" someone said. "In another few minutes we would not have made it up that hill."
Sir Walter's head came up. He knew that voice. What was Lady Russell doing in Bath?
"Bless me, I am half dead with the cold!" Sir Walter's eyes went wide. The speaker was ... Mary! Incredible!
As Burton took the cloaks and mufflers, the guests became more recognizable. Sir Walter's dismay increased. Why, there was Mrs Musgrove. With her was a young boy. Surely it was not her son; Mrs Musgrove was far too old to have a child of that age! And who was the elderly woman in the ugly plaid cloak?
Lady Russell began speaking to Burton; Sir Walter leaned forward to listen. "Until this storm abates," she said, "we shall need accommodation. All of us. Miss Anne and Mrs Charles may sleep with me. Mrs Musgrove will care for her ailing son."
Ailing? Sir Walter's jaw dropped. He took a quick look at the boy. Sure enough, the lad's cheeks were flushed. Sir Walter again attempted to speak, but uttered only a squawk.
William Elliot joined him on the landing. "What have we here?" he said pleasantly. "It appears that your party is not a total loss after all. I congratulate you, Sir Walter."
Elizabeth came up on his other side, a smile frozen on her lips. "Father," she said, whispering into his ear, "what are we to do? We cannot turn them away."
Mrs Clay came to the railing. "What a very good thing that you have so much food," she said.
Mary, who was now halfway up the stairs, caught this. "Food!" she cried. She turned to her companions. "Oho, there is food! Let me tell you, we are famished! Oh," she added, "hello, Father. What a very fine house you have."
Meanwhile, Lady Russell continued with her instructions to Burton. "I do understand," she said, "but we are family. Mrs Clay will have to make up a bed in the servants' quarters. Yes, I realize that she is a guest, but she is, after all, a paid companion. You may put Mrs Musgrove and Master Harry in her bedchamber."
Sir Walter heard William Elliot laugh softly. "A paid companion, I like that," he murmured.
In the end, it was good breeding that came to Sir Walter's rescue. One by one he welcomed his guests, with as much graciousness as he could muster, and bade them to enter the drawing room -- with the exception of the woman in the plaid cloak. Assuming his most charming smile, Sir Walter told her to follow Burton to the kitchen.
A sharp sigh caught his attention. It was Anne, coming up the stairs at the tail of the group. A look of reproach was in her eyes.
"Hang it all, Anne," said Sir Walter, annoyed. "That woman will be more comfortable in the kitchen, among her own kind. You know that."
"Yes, Father," she said.
Sir Walter felt a movement at his side. Mr Elliot had moved nearer.
"Anne," he said slowly. "What a very lovely name. Please introduce me, Sir Walter. Formally, I mean. For your daughter and I have met before." He lowered his voice. "Along the causeway at Lyme, it was. And again in the corridor of the inn."
Anne looked as astonished as Sir Walter felt. Anne had met their cousin? After he performed the introduction, she said softly, "I do recall it, sir."
"As if I could ever forget. Permit me to say, Miss Anne, that you have the face of an angel."
Anne flushed becomingly. Which was very well, Sir Walter thought, for the gown she wore was a disaster.
William Elliot offered to escort her into the drawing room, tucking her hand gallantly into the crook of his arm. "And what is this?" he said, looking up. "Sir Walter, you are sly." He gestured. "What a handsome bouquet of mistletoe you have hanging there over the doorway. Convenient, no?" He winked at Anne.
Anne drew her hand away. "I beg your pardon," she said to him, "but I really ought to help the party settle in. The servants must be overwhelmed."
William Elliot could not conceal his surprise, but he made a quick recover. "But of course," he said smoothly. "You must be exhausted from your journey. But you must return to us promptly, Miss Anne. Promise me that. For we cannot ring in the New Year without you." Again he winked.
Sir Walter watched the exchange with narrowed eyes. What was wrong with Anne, to be suddenly so stricken and pale? Ill and weary she might be, but surely she had better manners than to show it!
"Away with you, then," said Sir Walter, waving her on. "We shall expect you ... presently."
"Yes, sir. Presently." Anne turned and fled up the stairs. Sir Walter shook his head and sighed. He'd forgotten what a trial it was to have Anne in the household.
"Captain Frederick Wentworth," the footman announced.
Standing in the cold and snow, Wentworth had considered and reconsidered his strategy. It would certainly be acceptable to insert himself into Bath society so that he might pursue Anne by all the customary means. It would be little trouble for him to attend parties and concerts where she would likely be invited. He might even take Sophia into his confidence and enlist her aid in bringing the two together. But, the longer he stood there looking at the house, the more he thought all such manoeuvrings a waste. It was then he decided he would go directly at the target.
The warmth of the house was welcome and his spirits were lifted by the comical expressions that greeted his announcement. Though, once he found Anne's lovely features, the others did not matter.
He endured the introduction to his astonished host. It was nothing to act as an emissary from Admiral Croft to Sir Walter's lord of the manor. This little twisting of the truth pleased the silly fellow no end. By the looks of the room, the whole house was prepared for a gala party. It was fortunate he had prepared for any contingency by outfitting himself in his dress uniform. Though he was worn to the bone, the splendid blue and gold of a naval uniform was more than equal to the room.
When he was free of the social niceties, he set a course to Anne. Unfortunately the hostess for the evening, Miss Elizabeth Elliot, waylaid him. She seemed determined to press delicacies from her table upon him. It was all perfectly presented, but he suspected it would be very much like the occupants of the house, beautiful to look at but tasteless and completely unable to satisfy any genuine appetites. He took something of each platter she offered. He even took some of the despised caviar she insisted on giving him. He thought it best not to tell her his opinion of the pearly black beads.
Finally, loaded down with food and drink, he made his way to the object of the evenings machinations.
As he approached, his stomach churned and became more unsure of himself than he could remember ever being. "Miss Anne." He was certain his voice cracked like a squeaker, and he hoped the room was merely growing warm and that he was not turning red in her presence.
She was studying some greenhouse plants. Her back was to him. She turned and immediately flushed. It took all she had to compose herself. "Captain Wentworth. You have chosen a bad night to arrive in Bath." She thought better of what she had said. "Not that you are not welcome, of course...."
He nodded and smiled. "I understand what you mean. I am just thankful your father took pity on me and has allowed me to join your family's party." As he finished, the younger, well-dressed gentleman came to Anne's side.
He handed her a cup of punch. "The rain has eased, but it now snows harder than earlier. You arrived just in time." There was no indication that he was interested in who Wentworth was, or what his interest in Miss Anne might be.
"Mr Elliot, this is Captain Frederick Wentworth. He is a friend of my family's. From Kellynch." Was it his imagination, or had she moved a touch closer to him?
"And this is our cousin, William Elliot. We saw him---"
"In Lyme. Yes, now I remember. Just as we left the beach. And then getting into his carriage outside the inn. You were the object of great interest that morning."
Elliot was suddenly pleased and chose to face the captain. "Was I? I believe I heard your group in the dining room the night before." He glanced at the captain. "It seemed to be a very merry party."
Wentworth glanced at Anne. The look she returned said she was amused that her cousin's observation was so wide of the mark. "It was memorable." He motioned for a footman to take the plate from him.
Mr Elliot was curious. "You must have a very scrupulous palate, sir. The refreshments provided are exquisite. Particularly the caviar." He took a drink and winked at Anne.
Frederick observed that Anne was not impressed with her cousin's intimacy. "Well, I have sailed to many lands and eaten many diverse, even repellent things. I have to say I would prefer to consume well boiled shoe leather above the eggs of a fish." Now he took a drink of punch.
Mr Elliot was about to reply when a young woman came around passing out small tin horns. "It is nearly midnight, everyone." She handed one particularly to the Captain. "We must make lots of noise to drive away any evil that might be lurking. Come, Mr Elliot." She insisted she join her and Miss Elliot nearer the fireplace.
He left, but reluctantly.
Wentworth took a step closer to Anne and indicated they should examine the plants again. He took her hand and waited. When she did not pull away, he tightened his grasp. "I must say, Miss ... Anne, I have been an idiot these past months. There, I've said it. Now what do you have to say?" He wanted to look at her but was afraid.
Her small fingers pressed his more tightly. "I agree with you, Captain." Her other hand lightly touched the sleeve of his coat.
So, a slow joust of words was to be her punishment. He deserved it. "And what must I do to make amends?" He covered her hand on his sleeve.
Anne turned to face him. "I think you must---" As she was about to finish, the others in the room began to count out the old year.
"Four, three, two, one. Happy New Year!" The horns went off in a discordant composition, punctuated by the boy's squeals of delight.
He said nothing, but took her in his arms and kissed her in the soft, slow and resolute way he'd always imagined. His heart soared when instead of pulling away as he feared, she sank more deeply into his arms.
The voice was unidentifiable, but that mattered not. Things between them were finally put right. The coming new year would be the most breathtaking either of them had ever lived.