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COD, 5

September 14, 2017 09:30PM
Sometimes posting stories online feels like shouting into the void so thanks to KateR for the note.

The Churchills of Donwell

Chapter 5: A Clandestine Encounter

It was no difficulty for Frank to find the Campbells’ home with Miss Bates’ clearly written address, and by luck Mrs. Campbell and Jane were both at home when he rang.

He had not really hoped to see her, expecting her to be too ill to sit with company. To see her, and to see her looking well, was at first too overwhelming for him to feel that she might have been avoiding him. He stuttered a greeting to them both, and listened to her croak a response which satisfactorily explained why Miss Fairfax still wrote of her sore throat in letters to Highbury.

Frank repeated the story that had gotten him away from Donwell, that he had come to town for a haircut and some other errands, and that when he had mentioned this to some friends in Highbury, he had been pressed to carry something to Miss Fairfax. Here he presented the tincture from Mr. Perry, and the scones and letter from her aunt. Had he been daring, he would have tried to slip a letter of his own to her, but uncertainty had made him a coward. Had Miss Fairfax been truly unwell, and had Mrs. Campbell offered to read the letter to her, he would have exposed both of them to scandal.

He was nervous, but good natured as always. Mrs. Campbell extended an invitation to dinner the next night since he would still be in town, and he leapt at it. Concluding his visit, he had only to count down the hours until he could see her again.

The details of his errands and his haircut were lost on Frank. How could he focus on anything else when he would see her again in thirty hours? Instead, his thoughts were all focused on Miss Fairfax, the look in her eyes, the blush on her cheeks, the fluttering of her hands. Did it mean that she was excited or embarrassed to see him again? There were only twenty-eight hours more until he would know more.

When he arrived the next evening at the Campbells’, he tried hard not to be the first one to arrive. As a result, there were two other couples gathered already. These others were contemporaries of the Campbells, so he could naturally pair off with Jane and escort her to the table. The conversation over dinner ranged over a collection of topics, and Frank shone at table as he always did.

Being the novelty, Frank was always involved in one conversation or another. Everyone wanted to know about his hair although their reaction was uniformly to comment on young people and how fashions change.

Mrs. Campbell sat near him, and inquired after Donwell and his family. She had seen enough interest in him, and enough of what passed for encouragement in her ward, to have a more than passing interest in this young man's prospects the day before. That he was raised by his uncle and aunt upon the death of his mother, Mrs. Campbell remembered from Weymouth, but she now felt obliged to know when he would reach his independence, and what he could expect from the Churchills. As an accomplished London hostess, she mixed these questions in throughout the meal, dwelling on the topic just long enough to satisfy her current point before mentioning the Dixons and their estate in Ireland, or loosening the reins of the conversation for some other topic to take the lead.

The separation after dinner was interminable. All the other men were long married and could part with their wives for as long as it took to linger of port and a fine cigar.

Finally rejoining the ladies, Frank saw that Jane sat near Mrs. Campbell; the distance was not so small as to leave him completely discouraged, and she gave him a flicker of a smile when he walked in the room. Determined to augur some insight, he asked her in a voice loud enough to be general conversation if she would play for them tonight. "I would not dream of hearing you sing, given your throat, but I cannot forget your impromptu performances in Weymouth."

There was a general agreement at Miss Fairfax's skill and taste. No one would press her to sing, but she might play without any inconvenience. She blushed and bowed her head, but gave in with a nod.

Here the colonel proved useful. Miss Fairfax had performed admirably on holiday, but Frank Churchill had also sung to acclaim. Perhaps Mr. Churchill could be persuaded to sing while Miss Fairfax sat at the instrument? Nothing could please Frank more. He could not have planned it better if he had tried. He offered his arm to her and glowed with warmth when she took it.

As they walked across the room, he felt at ease to speak low to her, almost conspiratorially. What should they play? Duets were out of the question, but surely there was something she wished to play or hear. She did not respond or, rather, she did not speak but she blushed and did not draw her hand away.

He regarded her as intently as possible without attracting attention and what he saw must pass as encouragement from Miss Fairfax. She had not forgotten about him, or fallen out of love with him. She had merely been away from him, slightly ill and unable to initiate any contact with him. When they reached the instrument, they flipped through the music, looking for something that would suit the evening and their combined talents.

Still she had not said a word to him. Instead, she plucked a song from the stack and handed it to him. His first thought was to reject it. “Oh no, Miss Fairfax,” he said. “It is written for a soprano.” He started to set it aside, but she tightened her hold on the paper, and he gave it a second look. It was a lover’s lament, the song of a woman whose true love had disappeared yet still she remained loyal to him.

When he finally understood what Jane was tried to tell him, he nearly embraced her right there in front of the Campbells and their guests. He recollected himself, and looked around a little shaken. How could he respond to such a mute declaration? He turned to the stack with renewed vigor and found another song of a man who had fallen in love at first sight with such a superior woman that even the roses blushed to realize how lovely she was. The Campbells were quite fond of such songs, and Frank could have played this game all night, but the Colonel chose that moment to ask if they had decided upon something. All the goodwill Frank had accorded the older gentleman for his earlier act of bringing them together evaporated.

Miss Fairfax sat at the instrument, and Frank sat beside her to turn the pages. He sang and she played. It was not her best performance. Something about the proximity of her admirer distracted her. She kept forgetting the key, and while no one would complain, Jane could only berate herself silently and rejoice when Mrs. Campbell suggested that Mrs. Jarvis succeed her.

Frank walked her back to her seat and, finding Mrs. Jarvis needed no accompaniment, took a seat near Jane. He said but a few words to her at first, between her sore throat and the attention that must be paid to the woman at the instrument, but he soon felt obligated to make an observation on the music and received such a warm, glowing look in response as rendered him unable to continue the conversation. He sat quite stupidly for the next ten minutes until he recalled that he could not stay mutely by her side all night long. He was, after all, a man on a mission, and he needed to get on with it.

Having rehearsed the following bit, he knew just what he wanted to say. "Have you noticed any improvements attributable to Perry's tincture?" he began. "I know it will make your family happy to hear you say so. Indeed, all who care must be anxious for your recovery."

She quietly replied that while it was too soon to speak with confidence, she had every expectation of a quick amendment.

"Then let me hope..." He stopped. No, that was not how it was supposed to go. "May I give word to your aunt that you will be able to visit her soon?"

Jane looked about, finally settling her gaze on her guardians. "I believe the Campbells will be ready to part with me soon. I have written a letter that I would like to give to you, to take home to Highbury. Allow me to get it now." There was a pause, a hesitancy. “You may want to check the envelope before handing it to my aunt.”

Oh, clever, deceitful girl! He watched her get up and quietly steal from the room. She returned 10 minutes later and spoke briefly to Mrs. Campbell who, having nothing of her own to add to Jane’s letter to Highbury, personally handed the missive to Frank.

Jane did not sit near enough to him for any more private conversations, but he could find no fault with the evening, and spent the rest of the night reading and rereading a letter that Jane had hidden for him.

Col. and Mrs. Campbell had been justifiably preoccupied in Weymouth with Edith and Mr. Dixon. They did not notice Jane’s growing attachment to Frank Churchill. If they had thought about it, they would have recalled how their ward, who had never been outgoing, had played and sang with Mr. Churchill. She had also danced with him whenever the young people insisted on rolling back the carpets. And she was completely unsettled after the young man returned to his home.

To be fair, Mrs. Campbell had noticed these signs and had assumed that Jane was on the way to falling in love but had run out of time before losing her beau to familial obligations. Jane was much more reserved than Edith, and Mrs. Campbell expected that to translate into a much longer period of budding attachment before Jane’s heart could be won. Besides, who expected to marry two daughters in such rapid succession when one could barely cope with losing just one?

Thus Jane consoled herself into thinking that this secret was for the best. While Edith blossomed under the banner of a her engagement before the strangers of Weymouth, Jane knew that she herself would wilt under it. The Campbells, too, did not need the burden of a second wedding so soon after the first.

Frank had secretly sent her a letter before he left Weymouth. In it, he was much more articulate than he had been on the cruise, or perhaps she was much more attentive. He was in love with her, he wanted to marry her. He would keep their secret and wait for her to join him in Surrey where he could court her properly. She read it and reread it, committing it to memory, dwelling upon it during moments of solitude and even moments requiring more activity, but there was enough bustle and activity over the Campbell-Dixon nuptials that nobody wondered why Jane was distracted. Her best friend -- practically her sister -- was marrying and moving away: let that be her excuse.

It was significantly more than a wedding and breakfast. Following the service, the newly minted Dixons boarded a ship for Ireland, and the Campbells and Jane came with them. Edith bore the journey better than the disastrous cruise in Weymouth, but only barely. She really was not cut out to be a sailor. On land, however, she quickly recovered her ease and was eager to take on the responsibilities that came with the name Mrs. Dixon.

Edith leaned heavily on her mother and her housekeeper for the first few weeks. Between her father's connections to military men and her home in London, Edith had not expected to receive the role of landed gentry and, while her education had not been lacking, she had not spent the time devoted to those lessons wisely.

It was only in Ireland when a calm quotidian rhythm was established and Jane seemed eager to return home that one could wonder what drew her back to England. The girl was unaffected by any of the local men that Mr. Dixon introduced to her notice despite the fact that they were all unexceptionable landowners. Of course, it had not helped matters that she caught a chill at one of the ruined castles that seemed to litter the Irish countryside, and the chill blossomed into a cold which always made her miserable.

As a rule, Mrs. Campbell refused to let Jane travel when she was unwell. The trip back from Ireland was the exception that proved the soundness of her usual judgment. Jane’s recovery converted into a relapse that dragged on for weeks, putting a damper on Christmas.

Yet even as Jane pined openly for her grandmother Bates, she had stopped handing the letters from Highbury to Mrs. Campbell to read, preferring instead to recite the more interesting and unique passages aloud. Mrs. Campbell considered this an act of charity for while Mrs. Bates was a dear woman, Jane’s aunt would often pen a coda longer than the body of the letter and full of repetition.

When Frank Churchill turned up on her doorstep unannounced, Mrs. Campbell began to wonder if she had missed something important in Weymouth. His excuse of carrying a gift for Jane from her relatives in Highbury was unimpeachable, and Mrs. Campbell vaguely remembered that Frank lived somewhere in Surrey, but she had never heard of him mentioned in any of Mrs. Bates’s letters. Then she recalled that Jane had taken up the habit of not reading the letters in their entirety.

Jane’s reaction to Frank was subdued as always, but Mrs. Campbell thought that the interest she had detected in Weymouth had not waned.

She invited Mr. Churchill to dine with them on the next day and the happiness on his face when he accepted told her more than enough of his interest, and gave her leave to wonder about his prospects for, while she remembered he had an uncle with some property, it did not guarantee that Frank Churchill had any claim to it.

Mrs. Campbell made no overt interrogation of her ward. Jane’s confidence was too fragile to handle a direct assault. Instead, Mrs. Campbell voiced her opinion of Mr. Churchill and watched for signs from Jane. Jane forwarded no new opinion of the young man, but she gently agreed with any good thing Mrs. Campbell had noticed, and she stubbornly refused to second any unflattering idea of him. And when Mrs. Campbell compared him to the young men living in Edith’s new neighborhood, Jane would not admit that Frank had any deficiency. She did so with a mildness that would be unremarkable to a stranger, but to Mrs. Campbell’s ears, it was a bold declaration.

That night when she was alone with the colonel, she told him of her suspicions.

"You must be friendly with Mr. Churchill tomorrow, but not too friendly," she warned him. "I do not want to scare him off. And besides, Jane will not want us to know until she is ready to tell us."

"I can be subtle," Col. Campbell reminded her.

"Since when is the army subtle?" asked his wife.

"One cannot be blatant about being subtle. It ruins the effect!" he told her, but he was willing to listen to her strategies for sounding out Frank Churchill's interest in Jane and his ability to support her. They consisted mostly of letting her ask the questions while the colonel appeared innocent and encouraged Mr. Churchill to let his guard down. It was dull work but it allowed him to become more familiar with the young man who might one day take his Jane away from him.

At the dinner party the next night, Frank Churchill was closely observed. Mrs. Campbell used all of her skills as a London hostess to find out his prospects.

He was heir to his uncle's considerable property, but his uncle showed no sign of leaving it in Frank’s hands any time soon. Frank was on very good terms with his uncle, and with his father too although one expected him to inherit only from Mr. Churchill.

There was a Mrs. Churchill -- his aunt -- and while he confirmed she was now much recovered from the illness that had forced Frank to leave Weymouth so precipitously, he did not volunteer any additional information about her. Eventually, Mrs. Campbell was forced to conclude that the poor woman was either a recluse or an invalid, and she resolved not to pry out more details for fear that Frank would catch on.

Toward the end of the evening, Jane handed her a letter for her grandmother and aunt so that the dear girl might be spared the impropriety of handing the letter directly to Mr. Churchill in front of the other guests. Mrs. Campbell was only to happy to comply and, if the envelope seemed thicker than what one might have expected Jane to write to her relations, Mrs. Campbell saw no point in prying.

The next day, Jane was quite knocked up from her exertions. Mrs. Campbell planned a quiet day of calls and left Jane behind to recover in solitude. Frank Churchill was interested, that much Mrs. Campbell knew. And Jane was interested in him. But it would not do any good to tease or flatter her into thinking that her guardians knew of and approved that interest. The Campbells tiptoed around the subject of their young dinner guest. Mrs. Campbell sorely wanted to hear Jane’s opinion of him, but Miss Fairfax did not have a disposition that lent itself to being teased. The colonel was limited to stating that he thought Frank Churchill was “a very good sort of fellow” and wondering when he would call again.

After the first jaunt to London, Frank was able to return with ease. The barber -- or barbarian -- responsible for his haircut had asked so plaintively when Frank would return for a trim, "that I hadn't the heart to refuse him. And so I hope you don't mind, but I shall race back to town again in a month to see that fellow." There was no point mentioning that the Campbells had already invited him to dine while he was in town again.

His uncle merely frowned, saving the bulk of the arguing for Mrs. Churchill who found, despite the fact that Frank had received a wretched cut, that all her arguments were unable to dissuade him from doing it again.

Later, in a private moment between husband and wife, she brought up that it might be time for Frank to get his own valet, one younger than Barton and thus more suitable to their nephew and his modern ways, yet still able to curb certain excesses. And besides, this, along with his recent interest in the day-to-day running of Donwell, was another symbol of maturity that might remind him of other adult milestones he had yet to achieve. Miss Woodhouse was as firmly entrenched at Hartfield as ever -- her father had not so much as a cold this winter -- but a formal declaration could still be announced.

Mr. Churchill sighed quietly. He knew this moment had been coming with its added expense, and there seemed no avoiding it, but he would delay it a little longer through inaction if he could.

A few days later, he dutifully mentioned the topic to Frank. The young man, much to his uncle's relief, dismissed the idea.

"What would poor Barton think?" asked Frank. "How would he bear the defection? No, I couldn't do that to him."

Inwardly relieved, Mr. Churchill still followed the proper forms so as to make a satisfactory report later. "But would you not like your own man, if Barton raised no objection?" he asked. "You are no longer a child, Frank, and perhaps it is past time we treat you like an adult."

Frank's initial reaction was to deny anything that might inconvenience his uncle. But something stopped him. Perhaps it was as if he had internalized Emma's voice and could hear her coaching him. "How else do you mean, Uncle?"

Here Mr. Churchill sputtered. He and Frank had enjoyed such an easy, open relationship prior, that he knew Frank would have refused. Something was changed, and it was more important than a haircut.

Eventually he choked out that he and his wife looked forward to seeing Frank comfortably settled one day. It need not be immediate, but a public understanding would go far to ease their minds. After all, one could not expect Miss Woodhouse to --

Here Frank had to interrupt. "Uncle, please stop. I have told you before: Emma and I are friends and no more. I think of her as a sister. I could never marry her."

"Marriage is not all poetry and romance," said Mr. Churchill from experience. "To marry a good friend -- someone you trust -- is the surest guarantee of a happy life. Holding hands and passing love letters makes for a very good story, but it ignores the dull bits which make the majority of our time. Besides, that sort of thing doesn't go on indefinitely. Do you imagine passing love letters at my age?"

"I do," admitted Frank, thinking not of the present master and mistress of the Abbey but of himself and Jane. He could easily envision hiding notes under her napkin at breakfast, or holding her hand as they rode to church, or even caressing her cheek as he sat next to her at the piano-forte on chilly winter evenings.

Then he saw the look of shock on his uncle's face. "I mean, I do see what you mean," he amended, silently congratulating his own quick thinking. "But as I understand you, I ask that you understand me. I will not marry Emma Woodhouse. I will not ask, and she will not have me."

Mr. Churchill shook his head. His wife was not ready to hear this news.

COD, 5

NN SSeptember 14, 2017 09:30PM

Re: COD, 5

Tobe not logged inSeptember 17, 2017 10:25AM

Re: COD, 5

TinaSeptember 16, 2017 03:44AM


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